WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ODIA COATES?: A TRAGEDY IN SIX ACTS (PART IV)

By David Gionfriddo

Photos © Claudia Murari

What was it that sounded so nostalgic, so familiar?  As the notes came together in his head, Passmore realized Sandor was dazedly humming a rendition of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” quite appropriate for the time and place.  Fatigue had loosened Passmore’s tongue and given his tale a weightless, careering momentum.  He had come so far, but he could feel the end of it all approaching, and it seemed to pull him at accelerating speed through the advancing minutes and hours.  He moved along to the next booth in Sandor’s monument to mechanized desire, groping for the switch that backlit a naked woman, facing forward, arm across a swollen belly in the pose of an old magazine cover from the previous century.  Her expression was gentle, unashamed.

“Good shape, but she’s not…”

“Oh no,” Sandor said.  “We just keep her full of water, for the visual impact.”

“Can’t make her too popular, I should think…”

Sandor hung his head and chuckled a little.  “Kandi doesn’t see much trade.  Kids like the Gabis.  She’s mostly a conversation piece.  She’s there for the sake of…historical completeness…”

Passmore aimlessly traced some figures on the plump white belly with a quivering finger.

“Hmmm, yes,” he measured.  “She was the only model we ever made that represented a decline in customer satisfaction.   Had to move too many things around.  Should have done some more prototype work.  But the whole baby thing…Really moved the needle, if you get me.”

Sandor was subdued.  “Oh, I get you,” he said.  “I had two nieces who went abroad when these came out.”

“Ah,” Passmore sighed.  “Sorry, kid.”

“Don’t mention it.  The Gaians were paying a bundle for nurses and hydroponic engineers.  They made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.”

Passmore had picked up the tune.  He turned thoughtful for a few seconds, then switched back into storyteller mode.

“There are times I wonder,” he said, “what might have happened, if a few more women had.  Refused, I mean…”

                        5.  2061: Alia, Life on the Installment Plan

An Act to constitute the Nation of New Gaia [enacted July 4, 2051]

Whereas the human women, natural or transgendered, of the Nation of New Gaia, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God and the precepts of Her justice; and the people’s innate intellect, morality, benevolence and striving toward freedom and equality; and the vote of this Provisional Congress; have agreed to unite in one indissoluble union under the eternal principles of love, fairness, unity, and dignity, and under the Constitution hereby established; and

Whereas the people so agreed have sought refuge from those corrupting laws, customs, attitudes and institutions that erode the integrity of the feminine spirit and intellect in the creation of a female society that honors the feminine in all its forms and expressions, and embraces all manner of exchange — economic, cultural, diplomatic, scientific and ideological — with the other free and sovereign nations and territories of the world; and

Whereas the Nation wishes to accord to its citizens all the fundamental and inalienable rights necessary for its citizens’ happiness and prosperity, including those enumerated in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, as amended by Declaration of March 8, 2024:

Be it therefore enacted by the Provisional Congress herein assembled, as follows:–

1. This Act may be cited as the Constitution of the Nation of New Gaia.

2. The Nation shall be established, and the Constitution of the Nation shall take effect, on and after the day so appointed.

3. This Act, and all laws made by the Nation’s Assembly under this Constitution, shall be binding on the courts, judges, and people of the Nation; and shall be in force on all ships whose first port of clearance and whose port of destination are in the Nation.

4. “The Nation” shall mean the Nation of New Gaia as established under this Act.

5. The Constitution of the Nation shall be as follows:–

******

CM2Just as its creators had predicted, the Arielle, with its thirsty, agile brain and its uncannily lifelike movements, created a sensation when it hit the market.  Among existing synthelle users, it made their prize possessions instantly obsolete.  Noone who was exposed to the new generation, who looked into the Arielle’s bright, darting eyes, felt his hand squeezed by hers, listened to the peal of her voice, which seemed instantly responsive to slight variations in mood and temper, could ever again derive the same thrill from a Cara.  Those on the cusp, who had resisted the urge to buy, were almost universally enticed to take the plunge.  And, with the help of Klarion Druwe and the eager young marketers at ILTD, the Arielle did what every revolutionary product had done:  it created an aspirational vacuum that pulled in friends and neighbors, everyone who saw it.  A well turned-out Arielle was like the first television on the block; it endowed its owner with a special status and left everyone else grasping at some vapor trail of envy.  Even men with modest, domesticated libidos found themselves skimping on luxuries, inventing platonic pretexts, for the purchase they plotted to make, while wives resigned themselves to making room for a new face at home.

Almost all the major consumer electronics magazines, sites and holocasts fell in line, showering the Arielle with honors.  In the first full year of availability, the number of domestic synthelle households grew by nearly half, while more and more families in the burgeoning economies of Asia and Eastern Europe added synthetic members.  Within eight years, the number of synthelles being operated in the United States had risen nearly twelvefold.

But the Arielle’s impact was not merely economic.  Perhaps the surest indication of its success, Passmore found, was the evaporation of the milestones that had always marked ILTD’s progress:  the first synthetic runway model, the first film cameo, the first political synthsex scandal.  By the time the first international consumer robotics exposition was mounted in Rome 2055, the synthelle had lost its ability to shock.  They were found everywhere, from the bedchambers of world elites to the sidelines of high school playing fields to military brothels in far-flung outposts, everywhere that humans needed sex without complication or recrimination.  Even public schools had been forced – in no small part due to the lobbying and pressure of ILTD’s state-level advocacy groups – to allow boys to attend class with their synthelles, who whispered test answers while traditionalist teachers fumed.  At times, Passmore found it almost disappointing how readily the world seemed to surrender to ILTD’s creations.  He almost missed the jeremaiads of his feminist critics, many of whom had pulled up stakes after a pair of female software magnates bought a vast tract of land in cash-poor Western Australia and founded New Gaia, sending out a call for women accomplished in agriculture, the sciences and government.  Throughout the 2050s, over 300,000 accepted their challenge, many of them Americans displaced from research and service positions by synthetic workers.

Although random altercations between synthetics and brutish end users continued to crop up, the net of organized protest and radicalized identity politics they had all feared proved to be only a fantasy.  Synth consciousness was real enough, but the collective impulse was only a paranoid mirage.  And things were good at the Egg.  Senior management, led by Passmore, were able to take the firm private during the spring 2048 market break and public again four years later, at nearly double the going-private price.  By the time of the Rome exposition, the shares had split, pushing Passmore’s holdings into the high eight figures, excluding the value of the options he would be granted on Carragher’s retirement and his ascension to the presidency.

But Carragher’s sense of timing proved infuriatingly keen.  Like all edgetech businesses, ILTD was enslaved by its own success.  The innovations of the 2040s, impressive as they were, created an atmosphere of diminishing returns.  The designers had begun to bump against the “silicon ceiling,” the encroaching limits of the possible.  There was simply less and less room for improvement as the Arielle series became more and more refined and lifelike, and with each model year, the marketers had to be more hyperbolic, while the consumers’ indices of excitement and enthusiasm waned.  As with the Cara owners before them, Arielle enthusiasts began to hunger for the next quantum leap that would make their sex toys sexy again.  Marketers called it “brand fatigue” and begged for a new series, while analysts struggled to explain a stock price that had quietly begun to plateau.

Inevitably, competitors’ business models matured.  Rather than throwing R&D cash into a high-tech arms race, Koln’s Heiss and the new Asian entries, Sae-Wan and Natoya (who lured away Muldaur and two junior designers with incentive-laden contracts), had opted to press ahead with cheaply-made, low-cost synthetics for the low-to-mid price ranges.  It was an effective strategy; ILTD conditioned public demand with high-profile events and glossy advertising while the foreign models, with their low production costs, put a ceiling on ILTD’s market share, picking off the low-hanging consumer fruit.  Sae-Wan’s popular Hana model was even programmed to poke fun at ILTD’s “posh ladies.”   ILTD, by the mid 2050’s, was spending more ad dollars year on year for fewer and fewer new buyers.  And the company’s position at the top of the market meant ILTD was still the target of choice for industrial terrorists like the Valascans and the newer, less prominent Hedwig’s Hands faction.  In the first five years of the decade, bombings, espionage and boycotts cost ILTD $16 million in direct damages and untold millions in negative press.  The company Passmore took over in 2056 was faltering, in need of a new wrinkle that would shock consumers awake and spark another quantum expansion of interest in premium synthelles.

Endino and the fabricators had done wonders in recreating the female body from the outside and Lessig’s AI techs had made the ladies supercomputers capable of astounding feats.  The early years of Passmore’s tenure saw the most research money poured into the physiometrics, particularly the iintegration of denser sensor clusters in the body’s erogenous zones – neck, shoulder, breasts, vagina, anus, and, improbably, the feet, which sparked a mini-boom among reflexology fetishists.  More conservative Board members were glad to see funds going toward “the business” and not esoteric intelligence enhancements, but still, the firm’s share price lagged and investor unrest mounted.

It was now May 2059, a good afternoon for an exasperated chief executive to get away with the family.

Lunch trade was brisk at Rocky Raccoon’s on 12th and Pierce, mostly due to the extended families trickling in from the commencement ceremonies just down the road at Francis Crick Preparatory.  Passmore chose the place, full of historical memorabilia, as a special treat for his little valedictorian (whose address, “On the Cusp of Tomorrow,” had brought the old couple in the neighboring seats to the verge of tears), but he could already feel the sighs welling up in her throat as she rolled her eyes and slid into a booth under a large acrylic mural of the Traveling Wilburys.  It was tough to interest kids in the classics, but he knew he ought to try.

Her rump, tucked into a formless peasant skirt, had hardly squeaked to a landing on the vinyl upholstery when she spoke up.

“There’s a party tonight at Addison Kolodny’s,” she said.  “Mom confirmed it’s okay.”  Landra gave her a silent nod.  Grae already had the Elsewhere Look.  Passmore knew she was full of that impatience shared by the gifted from whom all was expected, so he was careful not to insist on false manners, even as a server whose “ALL YOU NEED IS US” button blasted “Rain” hurriedly filled their water glasses.

Landra opened a menu the size of a manhole cover.  “Now that we’ve heard the darn weather…”

What a scene it had been over at Crick.  Passmore was still a bit taken aback by the new realities of high school; even a school for the gifted was not immune.  The auditorium had a crystalline Zeitling sound system, but it was still a bitch to focus on Grae’s speech with all the commotion in the boy’s section, the “penalty box” walled off by shatterproof plexiglass.  Inside, the rambunctious male half of the graduating class joked, jostled and sent messages while their synthelles watched, recorded, made afterparty reservations.  He knew all the bare numbers, how boys’ test scores had been plunging since synthelles made their debut in  the nation’s schools, but seeing the nonchalance, the disregard, in person was a real slap in the face.  Luckily, he had brought along a Series 5 Anya whose Korematsus recorded it all, and who now, at Landra’s insistence, sat mutely in the parked-and-locked Eleutheria, waiting for them to finish.

“Hey, folks,” their server Mr. Kite said, “what can I get you?”

“We’ll start with a golden slenders and a glass onion,” Passmore crowed, “and to drink, two apple juices and a Hippy Hippy Shake.  For entrees, a couple of Maxwell’s Silver Ham sandwiches and a rotelli with savoy truffle, and a side of the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogurt…”

Mr. Kite typed furiously into his PDA.  “And you can get 10% off if you can get our daily trivia answer…”

Passmore grabbed the napkin from his hand.  “Name the Beatles’ original drummer,” he read.  “Take your ‘Best’ guess.”  Neither Landra nor Grae were listening.  “Why don’t you tell your boss to ease up on the brain busters,  Kite?  We’re not musicologists, for Pete’s sake.”

As Kite rumbled off toward the noisy kitchen, Passmore turned to his restless daughter, who was scratching the eyes out of Sonny Liston on the menu’s laminated cover.

“So, has our genius figured out how she will spend her last summer before heading off to Cal Poly to trace her old man’s footsteps?  Best Robotics program in the states…”  She turned to her mother as if throwing her a theatrical cue.

Landra softly cleared her throat.  “I was hoping there would be a better time to discuss this.”

Discuss?

“I was hoping we could let Grae enjoy her big moment.”

“Let me, Mom,” Grae said.  “Dad, I am leaning away from Robotics.”

Passmore sat frozen.  “Were we, were we going to talk about this…?”

“Dad, I know what you wanted, but I found something else.  They have a really ultra major in…Weapons Design.”

Passmore’s mind was a tangle of conflicting emotions.  As Landra’s reproving expression seemed to emphasize, he should have exulted in Grae’s achievements.  Crick was famously competitive, the city’s most influential magnet school for the sciences, and Grae had not only come first in her class, she had graduated at 16 with a dozen full scholarship offers.  Yet, discovering this seed of violence in her was wrenching; it told him how deeply out of touch he had become, how far she had drifted from him.  Landra was surely part of this, and that fact, too, nagged at him.  On his last trip west, he had raved about Grae to Shinji Mihara, the school’s Robotics chairman, and Shin would no doubt find Grae’s about-face curious and insulting.  Maybe the whole thing was a harmless exercise in teenage rebellion, a flirtation that would fade in the face of the opportunities his industry could ultimately offer.  Passmore found himself mumbling:  I just thought the chance to create something useful, beautiful…The hologram above the bar was the Fab Four in full Let It Be drag, singing “Helter Skelter.”  Landra broke the conversational lull.

“Oh, please let’s not have that conversation again, shall we?  It really is a wonderful program.  Instructors from DARPA, 98% job placement…”

“Oh, oh, I’m sure it’s…I just thought…I mean, it’s hard to picture my little…”

It was a comfort to see Grae could still blush.  “Oh, Daddy…,” she chided.

Kite returned with the appetizers, two mountainous plates that could have served a family of eight.

“Weapons,” Passmore droned.  “Where did you ever…?  And what about your inner ear thing?  The military can’t take you on.  What will I tell my friends when they ask what you’re learning to do?”

Grae was on the verge of a major sulk, tracing the outline of her rattlesnake tattoo with a blade of fried onion.

“To serve, to matter.  To destroy, I suppose,” she said.

The second bomb had less impact, Landra’s plan to bring Grae with her to Taos for two weeks of “girl time” — spas, shopping and hiking.  She had cleverly planned it for the second week of June, knowing a Board meeting would keep Passmore from tagging along.  But even she could not have known it was such a critical time at ILTD, when major strategic options would be considered, the kind of technological advances that could catapult ILTD’s ladies into the centrifuge of public debate once again.  The meal devoured, Grae and Landra slipped out of their side of the booth and headed for the ladies’ room.  Passmore reached up and caught the sleeve of Landra’s jersey.

“Well done,” he whispered.  “You must have really been working on that kid…”

She pulled away.  “Oh, absolutely.  My life’s work.  That’s why we need to be replaced, isn’t it?”  She hustled to catch up to her daughter, not looking back, trotting to the tinny strains of “She’s Leaving Home.”  And with that unerring sense of the inappropriate shared by all restaurant servers, Mr. Kite was there at Passmore’s shoulder.

“Will we be having dessert today?  I can recommend the wild honey pie.”

******

The Board, grown uncharacteristically impatient, had received coolly Passmore’s sales forecast and research update.  The message was clear:  failure to shake things up could result in changes at the top, and the end of what had been a lifetime’s journey.  Passmore’s black mood was only aggravated by the cavernous emptiness of his house, devoid of even the lively, conspiratorial chatter that had become the common language of Grae and Landra.  He was developing the distinct impression that the world he had created was inexorably pulling away from him.

Back at work, it was a Thursday, and he was feeling the ripples from the communiqué he had sent, through Endino, to the entire international production staff – designers, fabricators, costumers and AI:

          Over the next few weeks, we will be reviewing ideas to revitalize the Arielle brand.

          The importance of your research cannot be overstated.

Everyone was flustered, trying to turn their odds and ends into something presentable.  In Passmore’s office, Endino leaned back, tie undone, stocking feet propped on Passmore’s desk.  On the gray divan, Dunkely, the new auditor in charge of cost reduction, tapped on his tablet, shaking his head in nervous disbelief.

“Sell short,” he said.  “Madame LaFarge is hiding here somewhere.  We’re all in line for the chop.  Thank God for non-recurring earnings items.”  It had been common knowledge among the execs that only a play in jaguar extinction futures had kept the previous fiscal quarter in the black, and nobody could count on species to keep dropping out every 90 days.

Passmore liked the kid.  He was brainy, with a nice gallows humor.  He might have even done his own work at B school, with no synthetic help.  “No matter how bad things get,” Passmore laughed, “a good coffee shit makes it all a bit better.”

Endino rubbed his feet.  “The secret of his success.  From the state of these proposals, you better brew a fresh pot.”

“Two pots,” Dunkely said.

CM1It was true.  They had spent most of the morning reviewing reports, holodiscs, flat 2D discs and in-person pitches from ILTD’s best and brightest, looking for the lifeline that would pull them above the slow-rising floodwaters.  There were the usual infinitesimal improvements to hair texture, iris color, skin elasticity, a quieter cooling system, longer-lasting batteries and the like.  Art Grundy, a sci-fi fan from the Mobile plant, showed off sketches for a line of alien women, strange mutant creatures based on the female characters from film and holovision.  Wanda Nichols, who worked under Gillian St. Cyr in the Egg, envisioned a line of shemale drag queens for the gay market, and Tinsley and Karmazin, a pair of voice techs from the UK, seriously suggested they develop a line of fetish dolls with a range of unsavory physical irregularities.

“If one more person, just one more, tells me we are victims of our own success…,” Endino moaned.

Dunkeley leaned back.  “Martians, amputees, famous ladies of filmland.  The Fatties don’t sound so bad now, do they?”  Bob Lefebvre from AI had proposed a line of “full-figured” synths for the chubby-chaser niche market.  It was easy for men committed to, surrounded by, perfection to laugh such things away, but after the onslaught of strange, fruitless and borderline-cruel ideas they had seen, it now seemed sane and feasible.

“Do we have a recipe for synthetic flab?”

“Lord,” Passmore said, retaking his seat.  “You guys could coax tears from a gargoyle.  What now?”

Endino poked at a laptop.  “Oof.  Sylvian Muroskco.  One of mine.  The Mad Ukrainian.  This might be interesting.”

Muroskco was a mess.  Although he had obviously spent time spooning himself into an outdated three-piece PVC ensemble and pasting long strands of hair artfully across his deforested skull, he seemed about to come undone at any moment.  In his arms, he held a synthetic hand with long, elegant fingers, trailing a nest of wires to which was joined a palm-sized control panel.  He spilled the works onto the conference table and hastily assembled his presentation.  Passmore thought he looked like the comic relief, the waiter who spills all over the love interest in the old black-and-white movies.

“Gentlemens,” he announced, “my contribution…the Muroskco Hand.”  As he pressed the buttons and rotated a central knob on his controller, the lanky piece of synthetic skin crawled to a sort of reptilian life.  Sylvian began to shed his nerves and when he stood the hand on a small metallic base, the men could see the intricacy and delicacy of the fingers’ movements.  The thumb touched the end of each finger in turn, then flipped, palm up, as if to direct their gaze to the awkward showman.

“Look here,” he said, commanding the graceful paw to snap its fingers once, twice, three times.  It was something to see.  The hand, nature’s most complex machine, had been the one feature that had confounded them, that had never been perfectly replicated.  Synthelles had been able to point, to grip, to slap, but the fine, intricate functions – typing, sign language, writing – had eluded them.  Muroskco’s hand picked up stickpins one after another, took a tissue from a Kleenex box and gently tore it into thirds.  It rolled an egg on its fingers, leaving nary a crack.  It was a marvel.

“How long have you been working on this?” Dunkeley asked.  Endino intercepted the question.

“Must be six months now, eh, Syl?”  Passmore suspected it was more like a year.  Dunkeley was fishing.  The hand was an expensive proposition, each one using platinum wiring and 62 independent nanomotors set with industrial diamond casings.  It would be Dunkeley’s job to cost the thing.  Fitting the Arielle with two Muroskcos would jack up the price 15-20%, a big mark-up for a snap of the fingers.

“Well, I don’t want to be the turd in the punchbowl, kids, but has it been, um, road-tested or what-have-you?”

Muroskco stared silently at Dunkeley, awaiting elaboration.

“I mean, can it do the things?  The business?  Can it perform the…?”

Nothing.

Passmore cleared his throat.  “Can it give a hand job?” he asked.  “Can it row the boat?”  If it couldn’t enhance the sexual experience, the Board would consider it a waste of resources, even if a synth could use it to conduct the Philharmonic.  Sylvian’s dome had turned traffic-light red.

“We believe it will ultimately be able to execute those tasks,” Endino said.  “Once we are able to create a sufficiently detailed knowledge base to cover the methodology and protocols.  It can be a somewhat delicate operation.”  Muroskco looked mortified, like an artist who had just seen his canvas used for a tablecloth.

Dunkeley smiled.  “One slip could ruin your whole day.”

And so it went, all week and into the next.  Had they really reached such a point of diminishing returns?  Each new inch on the road to perfection could only be bought at exorbitant price.  Was imperfection, intentional defacement, the only way forward?   And would it lead anywhere but collapse?  Passmore was honestly unsure.

It was well past 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday when they had digested the last unsatisfactory idea.  Passmore slid out the elevator, nodded a silent good evening to Jan the security guard, tapping at a game on her tablet, and walked out into the moist summer breeze.  Maybe a long walk would clear his head, as it used to when superb ideas had never seemed beyond arm’s reach.  The midtown blocks around the Egg were full of majestic glass and steel constructions that pulled the eye upward, toward sparkling towers and light-infected skies that choked the stars.  He had always found the business district, manicured, devoid of human drama, stifling.  It was farther into the 30s, where the corporate citadels gave way to shopfronts and restaurants and apartment houses, that he usually found his inspirations in the gasp of adrenaline that accompanied a swerving headlight or an unfamiliar shadow.

It had been a long time between wanders.  Great chunks of time –months, years – had been devoured by inspection trips, negotiations, seminars, and mental health emergencies disguised as vacations, and now he was dismayed to see how unfamiliar the city looked, how fungible and remote he felt from the inner lives of the faces he saw.  He had the nagging delusion that he could be crushed at any crosswalk, that he could feel the city breathing an anticipatory sigh of relief.

Through the great Ulrich Glauss carbon-steel arch that bracketed 6th Avenue at 38th Street, he could hear the buzz of the Asgard cafes, trance jazz mixing with designer conversations and the thrum of the engine of the Mobile Emergency van that idled in front of the all-night card room to save the make-believe gamblers from their good fortune.  It had been over a year since he had come this way, and he could not help noticing a sense of absence.  Between the little galleries, like broken teeth in a boxer’s smile, were empty bodegas, family businesses whose sons had perhaps lost interest and refused to carry on.  At the next corner, he locked eyes with a girl — human, he knew, from the awkwardly confrontational stance, the clumsily-daubed makeup and heavy haunches – and tacitly declined an invitation, even as he picked out the tears in her gently filigreed carmine stockings. Her eyes were holding back stories. A misfortune of drunken men, unable to face home, argued over a synthetic gamine on the sidewalk in front of The Budding Grove.  Next door, Passmore sadly reflected on the torn awning and peeling paint of the Krementz, once a fine co-op, now a short-stay hotel into which pale, dazzled- looking boys drifted with girls whose telltale grace he could trace to Endino’s laboratory workbenches.  The sight filled him with a peculiar regret, but he ignored it, ignored the ammonia tang of the tranq pipes and the stifling sweat-stink of spilled malt liquor, and pressed on toward the relative quiet of the Hotel District.

Outside the Van Der Kierk, Passmore fast-walked across the path of a slowing autocab and wrapped an arm around the shoulder of a veiled lady in black.  He had arranged to meet up with a Hedy Lamarr from Endino’s custom shop, a beautiful ivory creation he had christened Consuelo, for the sympathy he hoped she might provide.

“Been waiting long?” he asked.

“Not too,” she said quietly.  “Not too long.”

“Why don’t you check in and I’ll see you upstairs in a bit, okay?”

Consuelo reminded Passmore of his accomplishments, of the perfection and beauty they had brought to the world.  But she also made him think of Protolandra, that incredible simulacrum who was Landra free and unencumbered and pure, and who could coax from him a rainbow of potent and unexpected emotions, feelings no machine should have ever aroused.  Perhaps he had imagined P., filled with Landra’s thoughts and ideas, was clawing together a mind, a personality, a yearning for place. Even scheming, maybe.  Who knew?  But to him, all the little pauses, the sighs, the rehearsed gestures retrieved from digital pools of hoarded experience, added up to a very human question:  When will you love me?  And this had thrilled and frightened him to the point where he betrayed her, turned her over to Lessig for deconstruction and decommissioning.  Passmore did not know where P. was and did not want to know.  She was over and done with.  He had asked Lessig to equip Consuelo with as little programming as possible, just the basic language and etiquette and general knowledge uploads.  He wanted to keep her a stranger, new in town, without history or demands.  He needed this to be easier.

How upsetting, then, to realize, as he sat on the plush paisley bedspread and looked into the blank, motiveless eyes, that he could not make himself comfortable with this unformed creature.  It was as though he had stripped away something essential with drugs or hypnosis or fear.  He really felt like a trick, and for this he was utterly unprepared.

“Is everything okay for you?” he muttered stupidly.

“Sure.  Why not?”

“Would you like to rent a movie?”

“No.  I don’t know.”  She looked right at him.  “What do I like?”

He regretted every thought he had about preparing The Empty Girl, and in the conversational dead spots, he imagined he could almost hear the electronic sizzle and flutter of data retrieval.  To him, it felt like torture, and he wanted to embrace her perfect angel shoulders and apologize in a hundred ways she could never understand for bringing her there, to that room, that bed.

Passmore pulled himself together, skipped the soul-baring and confessions, and got down to the lovemaking.  With no thought of quiet intimacies to monitor, he concentrated on assaying the regions of new sensitivity and sensation, noting strange, repetitive reflexes triggered by the skin beneath the jaw and under the arms.  He made a note to have this checked out by Physiometrics in the morning.  It was all work, in the end.  How had it come to this? he wondered.  If anything, he was even farther from his answer than he had been that afternoon.

In the morning at the office, which had become more and more his world, Passmore was greeted by a green plastic envelope tossed haphazardly on his desk chair.  Where, he thought, he couldn’t ignore it.  It was the kind of envelope, hastily resealed, that professional photo labs used for high-quality prints.  He opened it and spilled out a dozen glossy photos and a handwritten note:

          regret to be bearer of tough tidings, etc.  knew you would want to see these first.

          older lady is circe kenset of vals.  Call me and we can dscss, pb

He recognized the microscopic, psychopathically neat script of Phoebus Beech, the 30-ish prodigy who had become the chief security guru after Pathfinder Forte had retired to a life of deep sea fishing and houseboy sex in the Liberated Cuba.  The pix showed Grae and Landra, sitting around a café table with a stern-looking woman in her 50s wearing blue jeans and a Washington State Cougars Rose Bowl shirt.  At the center of the table, amidst the jumble of plates and glasses was a brown bag, bound in rubber bands, that they seemed to be struggling to ignore.

He looked closer.  Money? he wondered.  The Maginot database had some information on Kenset.  Valascan lieutenant, former Navy colonel and freelance guerilla training officer with specialties in munitions, naval strategy, marksmanship.  Chechnya.  Timor.  Malaysia.  Argentine currency riots.  Sudanese grain conflict.  G5 Climate Summit crowd suppression.  A busy little bee, he thought.  A killer bee.  The pictures filled him with a concern that Barnes’ offhand tone could not allay.  Barnes was the kind of guy who could cap off a dirty limerick with the click of handcuffs.

“You look like your synthetic dog just crashed.”

Much as he embraced an open-door policy with the staff, it had its downside.  There, in the doorway, stood Dunkely, behind Harbison, EVP of development, spinning a holodisc presentation case on his index finger the way the old players used to spin a basketball.  Harbison’s smarminess was always proportionate to his sense of style.  The shine on his eelskin boots and the frilly cuffs shooting from the sleeves of his Little Delhi Nehru told Passmore he was in for a full portion of his rival’s corporate intriguing.

“Might we enter?”

“Believe it or don’t, you’re actually a relief from what I was dealing with.”  Harbison always triggered an unwell sloshing in Passmore’s stomach and a shooting pain in the knuckles of his right hand, like a punch asking to be delivered.  He had a feeling he knew what this visit was about.  Moments of internal strife and shareholder discontent were the best time for maneuverers to pass on the company oval.  Harbison had been working behind the scenes to gather Board support for his budget line, and he hoped to ride it straight into the corner office.  Over Passmore’s remains, if necessary.

Harbison held out an orange candy cane.  “Truce,  tovarich?”

Passmore took it with a smile.  “I’ll save it for Grae.”

Harbison winked at Dunkely.  “All grown up, from what I hear tell.  But it’s nice to hang on to some little kid things, eh?”

An Arielle/Cisse in a gold and red African print blouse and turban cruised past the doorway with a coffee tray, but the facial recog program in her eyecams caught the subtle crook in Passmore’s eyebrow, and she swerved off toward reception, offering nothing.

“I want only for all to be harmonious,” Harbison said.  “If this operation presented a united front, we would be a juggernaut.  Noone could challenge us.”

“You know my mind.  What if I still disagree?”

Harbison slid his disc into a slot in the conference table’s control pod.  “Oh, Mr. Passmore,” he purred.  “All I ask is for an open mind.”

A 3D image of the ILTD logo danced above the table, faded, and was replaced by a shapely woman’s body, which revolved to the slow, torrid accompaniment of Ravel’s Bolero.  It was such a blindingly obvious choice.  But Passmore held his tongue and watched.

Da daaaaaaaaa!  I give you VIOLA!  Whose very name will reinforce ILTD’s new message for a new decade.  Value Is Our Lasting Assurance!

He had to admit the construction looked sound, the lines pleasing.

“Too formal,” he said.  “Value Is Our Latest Answer.  You asked and we answered.”

Harbison smacked the table with the flat of his hand.  “THAT is why you are the granddaddy of the synth business.  Didn’t I always say it?”

The body evaporated in a volley of multicolored raindrops and the air was full of portrait heads that spun and faded in succession:  a brown-eyed blonde like a middle-American Catherine Deneuve, something like a less-memorable Jean Shrimpton type with a large mouth like the girl from the BioStrong vitamin spray ads, a pleasant but forgettable Mexican girl.  All fine, just fine, but an instant after they faded, Passmore realized he could not recall them.  They were bland, and none had the knowing spark of mischief or confidence he loved.  An African-American with close-cropped natural hair smiled lazily.

“Who is that one?”

Harbison seemed to brush off the question.  “Some cage dancer in one of those 1970s cop flicks.  I mean, land sakes, this is a budget item.  We don’t have that licensing money to throw around.  She’s just anyone.”

Dunkely watched eagerly as Passmore paced.

The VIOLAE began to recite:  state capitals, the presidents, Best Picture winners, the planets and the simple machines.  Their voices were flat, expressionless, and obviously cobbled together with ill-fitting units of sound.  Passmore could hardly listen for another second.  He reached down and stopped the disc.

“Y’see, with the Arielle, all the cost is right here,” Dunkely said, gently tapping his temple.  “We replace the biochips with good old copper and tungsten, load ‘em up with just the basics – etiquette, ABCs, in fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue – and keep the A+ sensation and physiometrics, because nobody can touch us on that.  And $8,250-$12,500.  With financing, the Krauts and the Japs will be screaming ‘Uncle’ or whatever they scream inside of 18 months.  Done fucking deal.”

Same old pitch Harby had made two summers ago in Split.  And Passmore was no more convinced.  He sat and leaned back in his chair.

“Fellas, fellas.  I appreciate what you’re trying to do.  At the end of the day, we’re all businessmen, not artistes.  But I just…I had a most enlightening assignation last night with an Empty Ari.”

“How empty?” Dunkely asked.

Passmore reflected.  “Oh, I dunno…6%…8%….Edgar fixed her up for me.  I thought it would be…easier somehow.  Met her down at the Church for a nice little bit of stress relief.  I must tell you, it was awful.  Excruciating.”

“But that’s you.  That’s not every user.  Everybody doesn’t need a race car to drive to the cleaners or the pharmacy.  There are millions who don’t want to talk at all.  They don’t need Madame F. Curie.”

“You guys will never understand what this business is about.  You’re not just packing in data.  You’re filling her with life.  It’s the way she reacts.  The speed.  The range of possibilities.  The subtleties.  The things known and not expressed.  The silences.”

“Not this speech again…”

“It’s the richness of the experience, the texture.  That Empty, she had dead eyes.  It was like screwing someone…missing pieces.  Like someone brainwashed or lobotomized.  It felt like, like, crime…”

The room got quiet.  Harbison spoke.

“Oh, you poor man.  You poor, sensitive soul.”

“This all makes me uncomfortable.”

Harbison had changed, dropped the pretense of collegiality.

“You know what makes me real uncomfortable?” he asked.  “Judgment.  Having to play moral referee.  People want what they want and we can give it to them.  That’s the whole deal.”  They were left in the quiet, all the raw edges exposed.

“So what now?  What if I don’t come along on this one?”

Harbison gathered up his materials.

“A corporate office is like a small city,” he said.  “Everybody knows everything.  Somebody is going to push this, even if I don’t.”

“So you might as well take the heat.  What a guy.  What nobility.”

“Do you really think that’s going to help?  Can’t we just…?”

And just like that, they were done.  The two men began to file out.

“People are going to remember you,” Harbison said, “as the man who built angels for garbageman’s beds.”

He was going to have to fight it out with the Board.  It would get messy.  They would have to redefine the company.  But he knew he was right.  In New California, two men had applied for marriage licenses.  In Thailand and Singapore, Arielles-3 and above could inherit property.  Things were changing.  What they had bestowed could not be taken back.  Not without cost, real cost.  He was making a mental tally of his votes on the Board when his phone rang.

“Algy, it’s me.  Can we see you at lunch?  We may have a way out…”

******

Passmore was no kind of a drinker, but he was glad Endino had chosen the seedy, clandestine basement they called Rat’s Alley for their meeting.  He felt beaten down and treading water, and, yes, he would have a whiskey or several.  He asked after his crew and the bartender, a stocky, hostile-looking girl with a spider web on her neck and elaborate auburn braids wrapped in an asymmetrical bun, pointed him to a flimsy door in the back.  He guessed it led to what passed for a private room.

Inside, there was a bare lightbulb that dimly lit a few old concert posters.  At the vintage chrome-and-formica table sat Endino and Dismas Puryear, a kid Passmore had scouted from the Robotics Lab at Rensselaer Poly.  He had largely lost track of him, but what he had heard of his progress was encouraging, unlikely to spoil his reputation for spotting talent.  So this was it.  A fabricator and a physio, both looking like gamblers down to their last chips.  He could hardly wait.

“I ordered in a triple scotch,” Passmore said.  “Your face is making me think I did right.  That’s a triple-scotch face.”  Puryear smiled, until he saw it was not yet time to smile.

“I don’t mean to cast a pall,” Endino said.  “I just know you’ve been taking a pounding lately.  And I hear Harbison is still pushing his Basement Berthas.  Well, we may have some kind of solution.”

“If it’s not a barrel with a knothole, lay it on me.  You can’t imagine how badly I’m in need of good news.  And this damn adrenobeat shit is giving me a headache.”

The bartender brought his Chivas.  On second glance, he liked the cut of her leather micro, and found himself staring too long at the brightly-segmented coral snake tat that wound down her leg.

“Careful,” she snapped.  “Might bite.”

They got chilly receptions in the bars these days.  The live ones knew who they were.  They knew who was responsible for the synths that were squeezing them out.  It made it hard to shop or go out to eat.  The imperfect-looking ones almost always had bugs up their asses.

Endino sighed and spoke.  “For the last couple months, the physiotechs and the fabros have been brainstorming to see what we can do to jazz up the Arielle.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen.  Aliens and amputees and…”

“No,” Endino interrupted.  “Not that horseshit.  High-end stuff.  Big stuff.  Here.  You know Diz, right?”

Puryear picked out a drawing from his pile of papers and slid it across the table.  Passmore read the bold heading above the industrial diagram.

“ALIA,” he said.  “Artificial Life Incubation Apparatus.”  He let it sink in for a moment.  “Tell me you aren’t fucking with me.”

The technical drawings looked less like something from a Robotics Lab drawing board than something from a Da Vinci Codex.  The beautifully-proportioned shell was familiar enough, but the abdomen was cut away, in multiple views, to show a nearly full-term fetus encased in plastic and sustained by a network of polymer hoses and drains.  It looked frighteningly doable.

Passmore sipped his drink, then took something between a sip and a slug.

“Jesus, man, what’re you guys trying to…?  Listen, with all the shit I’m taking for giving our girls brains, now you want to…”

“Yes, yes we do.”  Puryear finally spoke.  “We’ve always given people what no one else could.  Why?  Because only we can.  This is it.  The last frontier.  And best of all, it’s eminently practical.”

“And we can do it fast,” Endino added.  “This isn’t new tech.  The fertility people have been using it for years.  And safely.”

“For us, Puryear said, “it’s been about miniaturization.  Getting the design compact, shrinking it down, making room.  Keeping it from spoiling the body profile.  And it’s an option.  Buyers can take it or leave it.”

Passmore just looked into their faces until he was sure he was reading total commitment.

“You realize what a Force Five fuckstorm this is going to cause? The Amazons are going to go nuclear.”

“Don’t make so much out of this,” Endino said.  “Think of it as an appliance.  Like a home IV incubator.”

“Shaped like a showgirl,” Passmore said.  “Sure.  Okay.”

“Think of it.  It’s the last major functionality.  It’s the essence.  And it’s ready now, Algy.  It’s ready.  The technology is proven.”

“A simple, nutrient-rich, quasi-amniotic fluid.  Can be replaced orally, and excreta drains through a simple outflow system.  Just like using the ladies’ lounge.”

“Imagine the boon to infertile women.  And over time, even fertile women can opt for…painless pregnancies.  No discomfort or inconvenience.  No time off from work.”

“No labor,” Endino purred.  “Imagine the campaign…ILTD GIVES YOU LIFE…And these units will add maybe $2,500 to the MSRP.”

Puryear leaned back and lightly pounded the table with the flat of his hand.  “We could easily refit a couple of production lines to kick these mini-incubators out.  Alia goes into production…8-10 months at the outside.”

“And we,” Endino leaned in, “redefine the synthelle again.  Leave the Koreans and the Nips holding a bunch of scrap iron.  A bunch of fucking oversize Barbies.  And the Man is back on top.”

Passmore immediately sensed the inevitability of their arguments.  Something had to be done, and quickly.  The stockholders’ meeting was four weeks away and the outcry over sagging stock price would be raised anew.  The company’s stratagem would have to be audacious, exciting and prompt.  It would have to catch the public imagination,  make the product indispensable and fascinating again.  Nothing else he had heard fit the bill.  Nothing else was close.

But Endino and Puryear and whoever else had contributed were naïve.  They had no sense of the infighting they would engender.  And they certainly had not considered the turbulence that would flow from Alia’s public debut.  Through Landra, Passmore had sensed the cool distrust that women had come to feel toward these household intruders.  He had seen the research, read the articles and letters.  While he had charged the PR people and the marketers to advance the gospel of Synthelle as Domestic Godsend, as Friend, Companion and Confidante, a large percentage of American women had never accepted the liturgy or, over time, had lost the faith.  Marriage rates were down, fewer women participated in the workforce every year, and now, an increasing number – 18,000 by last count — had begun to emigrate each month.  After all this, ILTD was endowing its latest iteration with the last and most elemental power of natural woman:  the ability to give the world offspring.  To expect anything less than simmering, pervasive outrage would be foolish.  It would take great cunning and greater luck to make this subterranean fire an engine of growth and not an auto da fé.  Through the bottom of his glass, Passmore could see his friends’ faces, waiting, waiting, for his reaction.

******

In the following weeks, events flowed with an eerie momentum.  The surprise Alia presentation stunned the Board, shifting discussion suddenly and permanently away from Harbison’s bargain-basement proposals.  The more conservative voices, particularly The Rt. Rev. Asher Congreve, voiced the predictable objections relating to the sanctity of procreation, but these were rendered quaint and unpersuasive by the addition to the Alia team of Dr. Piers Sorenson, a noted fertility specialist, who quoted endless figures supporting the safety of the extra-corporeal uterus.  So soothing and matter-of-fact was his presentation, he even persuaded a number of directors that modern incubator design, with its possibilities for around-the-clock monitoring and fetal stabilization, could offer safety benefits not present in the belly of a birth mother.  And directly on cue, Dunkely expounded on the ready availability and cost-effectiveness of the technology and the attractive profit margins the Alia might offer.  A hastily-prepared video featuring an artificial birth awash in melodious strings, attended by the happy synthetic family, left certain female board members dabbing at their eyes, and when noted actor Carlton Ruggles intoned “ILTD presents its latest and most wonderful feature:  life…,” it was all over save the shouting.  By a 12-3 vote, the Board authorized the preparation of three prototypes, to be tested under rigorous and secret conditions.

The first Alias, Eves 1-3, came together in six weeks, with only minor tweaks to the cooling and electrical systems required to make room for the acrylic uterine units.  An ad hoc committee was quietly formed, including ILTD engineers, several of Puryear’s RPI colleagues (gifted, of course, with modest honoraria) and agents of several state consumer agencies and the Federal Trade Commission.   Embryos were thoughtfully provided by ILTD fabricator Catriona Bauer, who had been actively working with a local IVF clinic and consented to the use of two “extras” being held in the clinical deep freeze.  By varying the nutrient composition of the lactated Ringer’s solution in which the embryos were raised, the fetuses (christened Elizabeth and Jane, for the bartered daughter in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge) were brought to term in seven months – a timeframe that would permit publication of positive results in spring issues of the major technical journals.  Several months of focus group testing and creative brainstorming refined the Alia’s “Beyond Real” campaign, smoothing the predictable objections and attacking the vulnerabilities of target audiences – unmarried men, childless couples and female businesswomen of prime mothering age.  All told, by the autumn of 2060, the Alia was ready to make the holiday season a most auspicious one for Intimatron and its executives.  All was calm.  All was bright.

******

No matter how many interviews he recorded looking for ways to become more telegenic, Passmore had always hated watching himself on television, 3D or two.  He looked haggard and puffy, and the amateurish production values of a Congressional hearing room did nothing to help the situation.  It was hard enough to look earnest playing it straight; these show hearings were a real chore.  No matter how inane the question, how superficial the “concern,” he had been forced to suppress even the slightest twinge of a smile, to hold what P. used to call his “Rushmore face.”  The last few months had been one of those high-stress sprints, what with getting the Alia squared away and ready for market, making the publicity rounds, and comforting nervous institutional shareholders.  Moving Grae off to school had been harder than anyone had expected, and empty-nest syndrome hit Landra like a case of the Balkan Raptor Flu.  Uncomfortable silences, crying jags, long sessions in front of the mirror, and now the holidays were nearly unbearable in their silent, cavernous manse.  The subpoena was just the icing on the cake.  Bobby Dee Lipscomb, the Georgia Originalist who chaired the House Committee on Commerce and Trade, was getting static from his born-again constituents over the Alia’s abilities and he figured there could be no better time to air these concerns than the season of Jesus’ birth.  He and Lipscomb had enjoyed a good laugh in private, but Passmore still had to put on a good show for the cameras.  It was costing ILTD to make things go away.  Not enough to cause concern, but enough to make an explanation embarrassing.  And it was bad TV, bad enough that he and Lipscomb’s aide Elijah Crumb were the only ones in Forbidden Fruit even paying attention to the holoscreen.

          As I’ve always said, Congressman, the synthelle exists only to augment the always awesome and miraculous strength and abilities of American Woman, to enable her to do more, be more, reach farther…

Perhaps the worst thing was that Passmore had once believed what the nervous little man on the screen was saying.  Now, he seemed like a parody of the young, idealist Passmore.  It made his stomach roll to see him engaging in this charade and to think that people might actually be buying it.

“It wasn’t just our people,” Crumb said.  “Torgeson was getting some heat as well.”

“Refresh me.”

“Third-term Dem from 5th Maryland.  He’s got some really loud church people, as well.  Women’s mission in Uppsala.  The American Family Ark.  Even money says they’ll be part of this news report.  Oh, they hate them some ILTD…”  He laughed and sucked the koala meat from a skewer.

“If I had known free enterprise was going to make me this hated,” Passmore said, “I would have gone into politics.  The hours are better.”

“Damn straight,” Crumb laughed, wiping his beard with a napkin.  “And better perqs, if you stick around long enough.”

Passmore reached across the table and handed Crumb a small jewel box.

“Which reminds me,” he said.  Crumb took the box, shook it with a smile, and placed it in his open briefcase.

“All the account info is there.  SWIFT code.  Account number.”

“And deposit confirmation?”

“But of course.  And you’re sure this covers everything?”

“Old son, none of that bad juju gets out of committee.  Not the export restrictions.  Not the NSF study.  Not the ban for federal contractors.  You’re golden.”  He could see Passmore was still reading the menu.  “They do nice things with wolf.  Anyway, from what I hear, we’re not the only troubles you got…”

The waitress, an Arielle-2, chose that instant to take Passmore’s order and he was glad for the interruption.  He couldn’t help noticing some small skin tears on the arm and that the left eye, lovely as it was, looked just a degree or two out of phase.  This was the District’s most exclusive and pricey restaurant, semi-legal, known to only a few, and, he thought, they could afford to better care for their girls.

“You are one odd duck,” Crumb laughed.  “Tiger, whale and eagle on the menu, and you order Chicken Cordon Bleu.”

“So what did you mean before, about my troubles?”  Passmore was getting hungry and Crumb’s offhand manner was starting to bother him.

“I mean, some things we hear about the missus and her friends out west.  That stuff gets around.”

Passmore rubbed his forehead.  “Well,” he said, “that’s a very tricky situation.  She’s an independent spirit.  You can’t give her orders.  Believe me, the federales are on top of it.  Just to make sure it doesn’t go too far.  She just throws some money at the cause because those academy types, the WomensHearth types, get her all worked up.”  He forced up a laugh that made him a little sick.  “She’s not exactly Susie Homemaker.”

“Not to worry, Mr. Passmore,” Crumb said.  “Nothing but mumblings at the moment, but just be advised that this payment does not include…covert acts.  We can reach out to our friends to help with those issues.  Y’know, keep our friends off the radar – within reason.  But that would be another negotiation, for another day.  Now, try some of my sea turtle.  Savory….”

******

It made Passmore sad to see how empty the sidewalks of Connecticut Avenue were as he neared Dupont Circle.  Once, they would have been brightly decorated and filled with holiday shoppers taking advantage of the last full weekend before Christmas.  Now, most of the shopping was done remotely, and court cases had taken the fun out of caroling by barring sectarian gatherings on public property.  A few people still stumbled from store to store, restaurant to restaurant, begging patrons for coins or credits.  A handful of punters drifted in and out of the ILTD BeautyShop™  at the corner of the Circle and New Hampshire.  In the window, a brace of Series 5s dressed as elves were making a fuss over a synthetic Santa, who was unwrapping a regal-looking African Alia (a Jasira, he guessed, from the elaborate braids).  He made some mental notes for Kym the manager:  softer lighting, more relaxed composition.

“Happy Holidays, sir,” said the clerk, a short redhead with a grating chirp and the habit of elevating on her toes to emphasize her words.  “What can I show you?  Blonde?  Redhead?  Business or pleasure?”

Was it possible, he wondered, that this girl did not recognize the CEO of her own employer?  Did she not watch the feeds?  But he realized that perhaps this would give him a chance to see how the DC store really worked.  He crossed his arms and tried to look impatient.

“I’m the kind of guy who looks to have the new thing.  What is this new model I see popping up on the dayscreen ads?”

The girl’s eyes got wide and she rocked so far up onto her toes that Passmore believed she might tip over.  She directed his eyes toward the Jasira in Santa’s lap, flicking snowflakes from his beard.

“Oh, yes, isn’t she lovely?  Programmable to be expert in any discipline, including, of course, the most ancient.  And the brand new Alia-1 class is fitted with,” she said, patting her stomach, “a professional grade oven for raising your own very handsome and distinguished-looking little buns!  And only the most reasonable downpayment required.”

Passmore wanted to be angry at the bad training they were giving the holiday help, but he just couldn’t.  Instead, he punched up some pictures of the Alia designs on the store portascreen, humming along in foolish merriment.

“That’s a lovely song,” the girl said.  “What is it?”

Passmore looked up and realized even he had been unconscious of the tune he had chosen.  Then, he remembered.

“Oh, it’s an old, old one I heard on the Sing!Memory program a couple weeks ago.  You’re having my baby…From the 1970s.  A bandleader named Paul Anka and a lady named Coates, Odia Coates.”  He stopped on an image of the Swedish Alia, clapping her mittened hands around a snowball.  He was amazed at how real her delight appeared.

“So, what happened to her?”

He came up short.  “What?  Who?”

“What happened to her after she had his baby?”

“Well, I don’t know.  They didn’t say.  History seems to have lost track.”

The girl smiled.  “That’s when the real work starts.  The stuff women never got credit for.”

From the corner of his eye, Passmore could see Kym coming out of the backroom.  It would be a good joke when the kid found out who she had been talking to.

“And it’s not an ‘oven’,” he smiled.  “It’s a Samuelson 880V with Sanilar shell, Octium high-speed processor, six-point thermal monitoring and portable remote imaging capability.”  Kym was heading toward them, on the double-quick.  “Ho ho ho…”  

******

CM3Pre-orders for the new Alia had been brisker than even the most optimistic projections, resulting in a revival of ILTD’s long-dormant holiday bonus program and long-awaited gains for the company’s shareholders.  The holocasts and industry-specific sites had been restrained in their praise, giving, as always, high marks for craftsmanship, features and aesthetics, but sounding subtle warnings over the lack of independent testing of the synthetic womb.  But the public was hungry for novelty, and the synthelle had moved so far beyond the cult of sexual hobbyists that the flood of couples seeking family support, those happy couples Passmore had always (at first, only half-seriously) predicted had actually begun to materialize.  During the Arielle era, U.S. marriage rates had fallen as low as 4.6 per 1,000.  Most states, following the more progressive Scandinavian countries, had enacted Marriage Protection Laws designed to discourage divorce and separation.  In a funny way, the presence of these unhappy couples had spurred Alia sales.  Many thought a synthelle might ease sexual tensions in their statutorily-mandated relationships, while offering the chance for unhappy couples to raise relationship-saving children without the discomfort of lengthy pregnancies.  ILTD could claim to alleviate a social problem it had inadvertently helped to create.  Governments, seeing a possible solution to declining birthrates, even offered tax credits for Alia purchase and lease payments.  Passmore, it seemed, could not lose.  And the highly-publicized purchase of “nanny” Alias by several successful female actors and corporate executives gave credence to the company’s longstanding rhetoric of female empowerment.  By mid-December, the first production Alias were ready to ship and the ILTD brass hopefully watched and waited to see how they would perform in the field.

By early February, Passmore had been named Sortie magazine’s “Comeback Businessman of the Year,” complete with a cover story, and was keynote speaker at its Presidents’ Week Leaders Dinner.

And so it was that he found himself at the dais of the Bacchante Room at the Mirador Hotel, trying to pick out faces in the awkward lemon glare.  As his eyes adjusted, he could see, first, shadows, then lines, then the shine from silk and skin and hair finisher.  In particular, the blue Korematsu lights from the party synthetics he had brought to dress up the Intimatron table drew his gaze and focused him on the job at hand:  polishing the brand and spreading the message.  Over his left shoulder, he watched the corporate logo dissolve into a montage of fashion magazine covers featuring an array of stunning synths.

          These are amazing times. What began as a whimsy, a toy, a plaything, has become something indispensable, something that has changed our very parameters for human beauty and human endeavor.

(It was harder for girls, even those blessed ones with the finely-formed faces and wispy bodies to find modeling work.  The designers and photographers could literally have their girls made to order at BeautyByDesign™.  The way the clothes fell, the way the light fell across skin, was dictated by what came out of Intimatron’s labs and workrooms.  ILTD called the tune.)

Dissolve:  Synthelles, smiling, cuddling, posed in a bright field of sunflowers

          The synthelle has become so much more than an appliance.  It represents bounty, contentment, the promise of life we had forgotten during the Wars of Faith.  They have repaid our faith with promise.

(Nowadays, only about 16-18% of men polled expressed a preference for living women.  Pockets of marriage still cropped up in the poorer counties, where people couldn’t afford the high-end goods.  But generally, marriage had fallen out of favor with traditionally marriage-age men.)

Dissolve:  Smiling synthelle lying across the laps of beaming peace officer, territorial militiaman, firefighter, football player, lifeguard.

          The synthelle is working its way into the fabric of society, becoming an indispensable part of daily experience, like a brilliant new class of child, born of technology, artistry, history, philosophy:  the very highest human disciplines.

(They were moving toward a special form of citizenship, decades ahead of Passmore’s own projections.  In Northern California, a probate court permitted a synthelle to receive income from real property held in a testamentary trust.  A pair of Arielle-4s in Pennsylvania were allowed to file petitions in equity to be emancipated from abusive owners.  There was no robot uprising, but there didn’t need to be.  Little by little, humans were offering rights, opening their arms to accept their synthetic sisters.)

Dissolve:  Husband and wife beam as they hug their Alia who is clutching a freshly-birthed baby girl.

          And now, the Alia supplements the immeasurable psychic, aesthetic and practical benefits to the family by offering to all the gift of new life.

(30-40% of advance Alia orders had come from single, divorced or widowed men, or homosexual couples.  Within a generation, the Alia would reconfigure the family, removing the need for long, contentious and fragile heterosexual relationships.  There would be no broken homes; homes would become unbreakable.  Or at least have industrial-strength durability.  There were already some 6,500 synthetic pregnancies and, in a few months, they would begin to see the birth of a new generation that would owe its very existence to Passmore’s company. Talk about brand loyalty.)

Dissolve:  Smiling, prosperous, accomplished officers in the shadow of the Egg.

          And we here at ILTD believe in doing well by doing good, reflecting the gratitude of the world’s families in the robust fortunes of our employees and shareholders.

(86% rise in share price.  Pending secondary equity offering of 62,000,000 preferred shares.  New Operations Centers in Belarus, Macedonia and Eastern Brazil.  8% increase in European market share; 6% in Asia.)

As he folded up his handheld and slyly acknowledged the crowd’s applause, Passmore could see the slender form of Phoebus Beech, weaving his way through the audience, pulling out Passmore’s chair and slipping a microdisc into his open valise.

“Great speech, Algernon,” said Hunt Richards, the web edition EIC, as Passmore slid by.  “It sounded like you nearly believed some of it.”

Later, in the autocab on the way to the Hotel District with his companion for the evening, a pink-tressed Emilya  not unlike the very first Arielle he had unveiled (but with a complete knowledge of the life and works of Andrei Rublev), Passmore plugged Beech’s disc into the drive slot of his handheld.

It was another of Beech’s little offerings, the occasional fragments of information and data he would leave, unannounced, like gifts.  The style was raw, all Beech:  a burned-out salesfloor in St. Louis, a twist of solenoid rail at the Saranac Interchange of the new transcontinental smartroad, an overturned delivery van, all the targets of terror or espionage.  Surveillance footage showed a group of 18-20 women on the unguarded (why? Passmore wondered) construction site of ILTD’s Rome, NY service center.  Leading the impromptu mob, older, slower, but still imposing and magnetic as she directed the bombing party, was his old friend Ligeia, in her way magnificent in camouflage paint and assault gear.  Things were askance, but just the right amount to keep him interested.

And to keep him distracted from the quiet anomie at home.  Even a man in Passmore’s position couldn’t get himself a separation license without evidence of serious malfeasance, but he and Landra had agreed to list the Reaches house for sale, so he had gotten a 60-day permit top keep an Alternative Residence while the house was being shown.  Now Passmore could shack at the Arlesienne for a while without so much sneaking around.   Landra would not wait up, he thought, Emilya leaning in for a soft kiss, as she had been taught to do.  She would keep up appearances, do the odd corporate event, even move into the new place at Saviour’s Gate once The DeSailley Firm had done the renovation.  But she would not wait up.

Emilya reached into a hidden pocket in her civetskin purse and plucked out a capsule of DragonFly, then leaned slowly across Passmore’s body, in the practiced manner, so he could smell her Oceanwind perfume, tucking the pill onto his waiting tongue.  In just a few seconds, the apartment lights, with their suggestions of shadowy life, were making snakey snailtrails of chemical lightning inside his shuttered lids and his thoughts were arraying themselves like notes on a musical staff.

He was wondering at how all the elements in his life had fallen into balance at once perfect and precarious.  Landra was going nowhere, thanks to the law and her feelings toward status and scandal.  She kept Ligeia out of Hydra’s reach, and Ligeia, in turn, at some expense, kept ILTD a corporate white-hat, free from more damaging regulation.  And his little company, all he had ever wanted, kept one step ahead of greedy shareholders and copycat competitors.  And it repaid his endless efforts by saving him from death by reflection.  Everything was just right, and now he had to keep it just right.  He was like the old comedian who built a makeshift edifice around  himself  with pipes and wires, only to find he could not escape.  Not without a pratfall, anyway.

God, he thought.  Emilya.  Emilya, my love.

******

American Family Ark had no parishioners.  It had “sailors” – seamen, ensigns, captains and admirals – and on the appointed day, Thekla and Awan Immerflek rallied them all, a human armada of righteous rage, at St. Simeon’s Hospital to protest the Lascaux extraction.  Even though they were less than 300, what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in zeal, volume and imagination, and on this searing August Sunday, the holocasts, websites and magazines were reveling in the kind of news event that had something for everyone.  From behind the street-level barricades and the windows of the neighboring buildings, thousands of curious bystanders peered, hundreds shooting footage on telephones, cameras and every other type of handheld device.

Surrounding the hospital on all sides was a pageant of moral dissent:  dozens of bare-chested penitents circled the block, striking themselves with angry-looking flagella; white-robed sailors distributed pamphlets, gesturing and shouting “Abomination!” and “Reject the Arrogance of Man!”; an admiral dressed as Moses, tablets in hand, led a procession of Christian saints who showered onlookers with incense and devotional trinkets.

“Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’” screeched Thekla, slyly chic in iridescent rose fish-scale chemise.

“Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it?” asked Awan, taller, sharper-featured, the sun glinting from her aquamarine hair, her silver liturgical stole.

 At the Emergency Entrance, the sisters led a choir in scarlet robes, faces covered in ash, in a seemingly endless version of “He Has a Plan For Man,” stripped of its speed-metal tempo and transformed into a credible hymn:

                    When the Lord created man

                    He looked upon the land

                    And molded Adam from the dust

                    With grace’s mighty hand

                    So overcome with love was He

                    For what his hands did raise

                    He took a rib and made a mate

                    To help him all his days

                    To Eve he gave the lonely task

                    Of bringing forth our kin

                    In long and bloody labor

                    In payment for her sin

                    No arrogant invention

                    No science wrought by man

                    Can alter His intention

                    Or change His holy plan

Even without the shattering volume and amplified bagpipes of Ezekiel’s Wheel’s original tunestream, it remained a stirring anthem, and even the peace agents minding the barricades found it hard to keep from tearing up.

Inside, a handful of news crews set up microphones at the press-room lecturn and arranged cables in anticipation of the big announcement.  Reporters, hair glued down with jellies, faces dressed in camera-ready rouge and eyeliner, rehearsed the bemused expressions they would wear for the evening factstreams, while an assortment of ILTD chieftans readied to explain the finer points of mechanical birth.  Landra, who had surrendered Passmore to an impromptu men’s room strategy session, peered out the Daigle Street window with Rey Lochinvar’s synthelle, an Arielle-5 Anya loaded with the latest on somatic systems design and Russian chess gambits.

Along the street, a parade of Old Testament saints exhorted the crowd:  St. Theodora, a lanky brunette holding hands with a pot-bellied devil; a grizzled St. Felix, wilting beneath the weight of an iron anchor; a sandaled, long-legged St. Cecilia lazily, randomly plucking at a miniature harp; St. Stephen, displaying a pair of flat, gray stones; on the back of a gaunt brown horse, handing a shred of mint-green cloak to a trailing beggar, St. Martin; St. Genesius with a mask of tragedy; a young St. Patrick adorned in a thick golden python; close-shorn and defiant, in cardboard armor, a teenage Joan of Arc with a tin shield; an older St. Monica, walking with unsure step and brandishing a girdle; St. Veronica, weeping theatrically, displaying a rag with a crude, lithographed image of a stern black Jesus; St. Blaise with his crossed candles; nursing some special-effect boils, a middle-aged St. Roch, his Great Dane nipping at his heel; St. Francis, clad in crisp, brown robes, offering dripping stigmata to laughing partygoers chanting and punching the air.

“Tongs.  Like old-style ice tongs,” Landra said quietly to Anya.  “I got this.  Helena.”

“Credible guess,” Anya said.  “Agatha.  Agatha of Sicily.”

“Ah.  Brilliant.”

CM4She patted Anya’s shoulder and, through the silk of her SangAnge jacket, felt the strength of her titanium skeleton.  Anya gave the appropriate smile as Landra slipstreamed a pair of doctors and set off to find her man.  She found him with Lory Garside from PR, fine-tuning language in the statement he would deliver when Sadia Lascaux’s child was safely delivered.  She whispered some soft words in Passmore’s ear, locked her arm in his, and directed him away from the commotion, into a vacant conference room.  Somehow, the excitement had forced her courage to the surface and made this seem like the time to force a showdown.  Perhaps she could catch him off-guard, elicit some honest emotion.

“Why are we together?” she asked.  “Remind me.  Please.”

“Because…it’s right,” he said.  “For us, for now.”

Landra fumbled with the nozzle on a coriander smokeless and took a drag.  “So say you.  At this point, there needs to be more.  I need more.”

Passmore calmly closed the door to screen out the hum of the crowd in the press room.  One of ILTD’s flacks pressed his face against the narrow window and he offhandedly whisked him away with a flick of his wrist.

“I feel shortchanged in this,” Passmore said, wheeling and focusing on the imitation Tabriz carpet pockmarked with cigarette burns.  “ I’m the same man you married, inside and out.  The same.  But you’ve changed and you blame me for it.”

“That’s so unfair.  I’m the one clinging to the wreckage.”  She leaned on a window sill, averting her eyes toward a courtyard hemmed by ragged shrubs.  The stance really reminded him how well her figure had held up, the still-graceful legs, the elegant shoulders.

“Meaning?”

You haven’t changed…  The whole world has changed.  You and your creations changed it, knocked it right off its fucking axis.  And you’re right.  You haven’t changed.  You’re still the enterprising 4-H kid with the lemonade stand, looking for a pat on the head.  God.  You’re not as oblivious as…”

He cut her off.

“God damn.  I really made it.  A huge success.  For us.  For all of us.  How do you think it feels to have to battle my own wife?”

Landra calmly turned to face him, hands tented on her lap.  “I think I’ve played by the Marquess of Queensbury Rules, Algy.  Nothing behind the head or below the belt.  The gloves stay on.”

“Well, thanks for that…”

“I could have done worse.  A whole lot worse.  I’ve seen what synthetics can do from inside and outside.  I never told what they did to us.”

“Oh, please.”

In the hallway, the passing of a handful of obstetric nurses prompted a wave of murmur that rose and fell.

“How you went from lover to tester.  How you treat a mood like a malfunction.  How every little thing became a chore for you.  How it sent you running to your corporate fuck pad.  I think you’d have replaced me if you could.”

“No…”  He caught himself.  “So what do we do?”

“What can we do?  Nothing.  I won’t do anything to hurt Grae.  Not until her school is through and she’s established somewhere.  She deserves that.  You know what price the state wants for a divorce.”

“A separation, then.”

“And have to register like a goddamn criminal?  Fill out those asset reports?  Another one of those fucked-up changes you helped cause.”

Wha…?”  Her arguments were beginning to snowball in a way that made Passmore uncomfortable, that forced him to play the man.  No matter what the occasion, Landra always came off as cornered and threatening.

“States didn’t force people to stay together,” she said, “until men stopped marrying, Algy.  Don’t try to deny it.  Well fucking done.  Let’s just try to stay out of each other’s way and not be assholes to each other.”

“And not fuck each other’s careers.”

“Oh, heavens, no.  Jerk.  Your knot’s all fucked up.”  She roughly tightened his necktie on her way out the door.  Passmore sat and closed his eyes, listening to the sound of his breathing and refocusing on the historic moment that surrounded him.

A young resident, Dr. Neal Parvinder, humorlessly delivered the news of the successful delivery of the Lascaux’s six-pound, seven-ounce baby girl.  Mother and daughter were doing well, and photographers were arranging the official family portrait – mother, father, baby and a sleek, brown-skinned Alia (serial no. JH8346KX-12) they nicknamed “Primera” – in a private room on the third floor.  The press would want an immediate statement, and Passmore rose to the podium to deliver it:

          I have been assured that Sadia and James will be making themselves available soon to address the media.  For now, it gives me ultimate pleasure to inform you that their little one has been safely delivered.  Delivered by the Intimatron Alia synthelle, without issues or complications.  This is truly a grand day for American technology.  We are a nation of firsts, and this one is especially sweet because it shows our commitment to supporting and strengthening the loving family unit.  Shoring up the family with healthy, happy children is the very least we can do to repay the world for the success we’ve enjoyed and hope to continue to enjoy for many years to come.

And so, at 4:46 p.m. on Sunday, August 21, 2061, Virginiadare Louise Lascaux became the very first of the synthelle babies.

Algernon Passmore was not yet prepared  to process any emotion beyond a kind of gladiatorial triumph.

He did not even look for Landra.  He was sure she would head back to the house; all Passmore wanted was a single malt, a blast of cool air, and maybe a drop-around from his Emilya.  To reach the vehicles headed downtown, he had to step over a hungry-looking fellow in a theatrical robe and miter, crozier laid across his lap.  Sweat beads raced down the back of his neck and his lap was full of the red-headed borer beetles that seemed to appear out of nowhere during times of unseasonable heat.  Passmore pitied him.

“Don’t tell me,”Passmore said.  “Augustine?  Anselm?”

The man’s head did not even swivel.

“Ambrose,” he said.  “I had to sit out.  Told me we had too many clerics.  Ain’t that a kick in the ass?”

“For what it’s worth,” Passmore said.  “Their Augustine was no great shakes.”  He peeled off enough currency for a cold beer and pressed it into the pantomime saint’s wet palm.  “Kind of bummy.”

“Politics,” he wheezed.  “He does Awan’s taxes.”

Passmore took out his clicker to call a cab for the Arlesienne and started to rough out the evening’s seduction play.  Maybe, in the dance of information requested and retrieved, of call and response, they might hit upon something new.  There was always a chance.

The autocab that slowed and opened its door was already full.  Passmore squinted and liberated a familiar ace and figure from the shadows inside.

“Lessig?”

“Going my way?” he laughed, as Passmore stepped in.  “Is that the glow of success on you, or 112°F and 93% humidity?”

“Little of both, I’d imagine.  Pardon my moisture.”

Lessig snapped open his briefcase, reached inside, and produced a plastic model the size of a tennis ball, a shiny tetrahedron glistening midnight blue, criss-crossed with intricate patterns of silver thread.  It could have been an art object.  He poked it and watched it roll around on the leather surface.

Passmore blotted his forehead with a silk cloth.  “And that is…?” he asked.

Lessig gave a fatalistic smile.

“The Dreidel of Doom,” he said.  “Everything.  All of it.  The future…”

 

David Gionfriddo

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Claudia Murari

http://claudiamurariphotography.blogspot.com
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