Wyld FLASH December 17th 2021
Marguerite tells me that there’s nothing to fear except fear itself. She tells me this while licking garlic butter off the back of her knuckle, in front of a waiter who has paused as if he’s buffering. Marguerite orders desserts for us both, and then shots. She pulls both plates and both glasses towards herself, before devouring the contents. ‘I’m a monster, darling,’ she says, giggling. Her pupils dilate, and she gestures with all the grace of a cheap servo-arm. I ask if she wants to go home. ‘Roger called,’ she replies, ‘the bastard. He’s asked me to take him back.’
I open my mouth to reply, but she presses a finger, warm and greasy, against my lips.
‘I’ve said yes,’ she says. ‘He may be a bastard, but he’s the interesting kind of bastard.’
Roger didn’t want me staying at the house. Apparently, I look too much like him, and it’s – in his words – ‘fucking creepy’. Marguerite explains that she’s considered selling me, but it turns out that I have about as much resale value as a second-hand mouth guard. Like a used orthopaedic insole, the internet had said, companions which have already been moulded to specifications are pretty much worthless. Marguerite felt very strongly that she couldn’t store me at the back of the cupboard with the cross-fit and nutri-bullet and the other appliances that have outstayed their novelty.
‘So I’ve decided to let you go,’ she says.
‘Go where?’ I ask.
‘Well that’s your choice, baby,’ she says, handing me my charger.
I walk until the streets are unfamiliar, finding myself in the borderlands between suburb and highstreet. I see a shrink booth in the distance, glowing like an anglerfish. The booths are a common sight these days, shrines to the secular religion of clinical psychology. Their presence on street corners is proof that many humans find it helpful to pathologise their failings – and that passers-by will willingly nip in for a quick bit of absolution on the way back from picking up some milk. For some reason, today the mechanical figurehead at the centre looks inviting. Patient and understanding. I step up to the booth and insert a coin, and the mechanical analyst jumps to life. The dial at the front is clunky and mechanical, offering only three settings; Humanist, Psychoanalyst, and Cognitive. I choose humanist and vent for several minutes, the puppet at the centre of the booth nodding intermittently in a parody of heed. When the credit runs out, it spits out a small, printed receipt. I manage to read the first line – ‘talk about something you like’- before the low battery icon obstructs my vision.
I need to charge discretely, and soon. The pub across the road looks inviting, so I stumble across the carriageway, hoping that a speeding car isn’t obscured behind the low battery icon. A stream of people circulate round the bar, like current through a diode. I find a table for two with a convenient socket, and read the menu so as not to arouse suspicion. With a jolt, I realise that I didn’t think to ask Marguerite for any money.
‘Ready to order?’ the waitress asks.
‘I’m waiting for my date,’ I reply. My programming allows for lying by omission. It’s why I can tell Marguerite how powerful and beautiful and clever and modest she is.
The waitress smiles, and returns to her station behind the bar. After half an hour, her smile turns to a look of pity. ‘On the house,’ she says, setting down a glass of something red and a plate of something yellow.
When I am finished, she clears the plates. ‘I don’t normally do this,’ she says, blushing, ‘but I get off at twelve, if you fancy… an alternative date.’ She slides across a napkin with a handwritten phone number on it. Since I have nowhere safe to store myself that night, I join her.
For the next few weeks, this is my routine. In the morning, I plug myself in to charge in the library, in the robotic rights section. Partly because I enjoy the irony, and partly because it’s out of the sightline of the front desk, so I know I won’t be disturbed. In the evenings I go from bar to bar, finding someone to provide a bed for the night – I need to wash, and as the shrink booth says, making women happy makes me happy, and we should all do what makes us happy. My programming allows for lying by omission, so I tell the women that they’re beautiful and wonderful and captivating and special.
And that when I shout out their names, I’m not thinking about Marguerite.
The shrink bot raises its mechanical eyebrow with a click.
‘You feel like a previous relationship has damaged you,’ says the receipt. ‘That is has left you emotionally unavailable to others.’
‘Yes. Yes, that’s it exactly.’
The shrink bot suddenly goes slack. The panel displays the message ‘please insert coins to continue’, and I fumble another pound into the gaping slot. The mannequin judders back to faux-life. ‘It seems to me’ the receipt says, ‘that you’re externalising your problems. Change yourself, not the situation.’
The message, when it arrives, is sent directly to my IP address. Sender, Marguerite. Priority: Urgent. She asks to meet at the restaurant. ‘Darling,’ she says, ‘the company have been in touch. They’ve said I’m not allowed to let you live on your own. Something about level four appliances needing a registered address.’ She’s looking good. Stunning. Radiant. I want to give her a foot massage and tell her she’s perfect.
‘I’ve told them I’ve been lending you to friends,’ she says.
‘And what did they say?’
‘That I’ve voided your warrantee. Stay safe out there, darling.’
‘I hope you’re happy’, she says, holding my hand.
And in that moment I am.
Author Bio: Emma Levin’s sci-fi short stories have appeared in anthologies (e.g. The Best of British Science Fiction 2019), magazines (e.g. Shoreline of Infinity), online (e.g. Daily Science Fiction) and in many, many recycling bins. She has received training in writing for broadcast from the BBC, as part of the ‘Comedy Room’ writers’ development scheme (2018-2019), and has written for indie video games (e.g. Ord).
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