By "Matrix Refugee"
It's been a long time since I posted a new Joe fic, and I wrote this trying to exorcise my imagination of the splatterpunk "Road to Perdition" fics I've gotten myself roped into. This is arguably alternate universe: Joe is on the run for his life, but he seems not to have gotten snagged by the Flesh Fair, or have encountered David. I got this idea somewhat from Rumer Godden's novel "Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy", but it was also inspired by Laurie E. Smith's Graham Greene-like fic "Confession". I'm Catholic, as some of you may know, and I once considered going into a convent, but I think there's little hope for that, now that—like Sister Madalaine in this story—I've crossed paths with a certain green-eyed beauty.
I do not own "A.I., Artificial Intelligence", its characters, settings, concepts or other indicia, which are the property of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, of DreamWorks SKG, Steven Spielberg, Warner Brothers, et al. I also do not intend this to be an indictment of religious celibacy/chastity, nor do I intend this to make religious Sisters seem weak-willed, so don't go reading things into this that aren't intended! "Constructive criticism charitably expressed is gladly accepted. Flames will be used to roast marshmallows. And troll posts can just stay under the bridge."
Sister Madalaine carefully tightened the last tiny bolt holding a miniscule pulley to the frame. "There, that should do it," she said. She pressed the release switch and closed the dermis. She reached under the supine Mecha's head and pressed the power switch in and back.
The female figure on the worktable sat up and rolled down her sleeve. "Merci beaucoup, Soeur Madalaine," she said.
"You're very welcome, Jacqueline," Sister Madalaine replied.
"Do you speak French, Soeur?" the nanny-Mecha asked as the young nun helped her down from the table.
"I know a few words, but not enough to carry on a conversation," Sister Madalaine replied, leading her out of St. Aquin's Guest House to the main house of the convent, into the parlor.
A young man holding a child on his arm got up from the worn couch where he had been seated. "Sister, thank God! was she badly damaged?"
"She just had a few conductors knocked around and some of her pulleys had come loose," Sister Madalaine replied.
The child giggled and reached out to the nanny-Mecha.
"Andres, did you miss your Jacqueline?" the nanny asked. The young man put the child in her arms. Andres hugged the nanny about her neck as she stroked him tenderly.
"What can I do to repay you for this?" the young man said. "I was lost without Jacqueline, what with Angelina's illness and everything else. You may have saved my sanity."
"We don't do this for pay," Sister Madalaine said, reminding him.
"But your order must need some recompense."
"We only accept donations."
He reached inside his jacket, drew out a checkbook and wrote out a check. "Here," he said, tearing out the slip and handing it to her. "This isn't nearly enough, but it should help. Give this to your superior to help with your upkeep."
"Thank you. We'll use it wisely," she said. "Take care of yourself and your family. God be with you."
"I will, and I can keep taking care of them thanks to your help," he said, leading the little Mecha-woman out into the sunlight of the outer courtyard.
Sister Madalaine brought the check up to Sister Superior's office, where she was at work managing the convent's bookkeeping.
"Mr. Ralston gave me this after Jacqueline was repaired," she said, handing the check across the desk.
Sister Superior endorsed it. "Was it difficult?"
"No, thank heavens. Just some simple mechanical quirks."
Sister Superior handed the check back to her. "Take this, go into the town with Sister Consolata and have it cashed. You told me this morning you needed to buy some supplies for the St. Aquin House: now would be a good time to buy them."
"Yes, Sister," Sister Madalaine said, hiding the joy at the privilege of going out.
"So you got the nanny-Mecha back to the Ralston family," Sister Consolata said as they walked down the path to the road into town.
"Yes, Mr. Ralston was almost beside himself with relief when I brought Jacqueline back to him," Sister Madalaine replied.
"He's blessed to be able to have a Mecha to look after his son and his wife, with her ill and the wee one just walking."
"And he's blessed to live this close to the convent, what with the prices the corporations charge for models as old as Jacqueline, whose warranties expired years ago."
"That's why Father Vestor founded this order, because he wanted better treatment for Mechas, treatment the corporations wouldn't even think of." She smiled. "And it also gives talented young folks like you a place to work for the best kind of wages."
"Are you referring to me?" Sister Madalaine asked, innocent.
"I was referring to how well you've progressed in the four years since that black-clad girl with the chip on her shoulder came to the convent."
"With her hair cropped down almost to nothing," Sister Madalaine added, adjusting the black kerchief she wore.
"It made it easier when you made your first temporary vows: Sister Superior didn't have to cut it."
They went first to the bank, then to the hardware store, just as the morning sun started to turn hot and the noonday glare off the street and the glass windows of the storefronts grew thick with haze.
A half hour later, after Sister Madalaine had picked up the
coils of conductor fiber and the boxes of titanium bolts they needed in the St.
Aquin House, she and Sister Consolata stepped out of the cool of the store, onto
the warm street.
Almost as soon as they emerged, they heard it: a clamor of voices and footsteps clattering at a near distance, echoing off the storefronts and resounding on the quiet street.
From around a street corner sped a tall, dark figure, a young man in a long black jacket whose skirts flowed like water on the draft behind him. He ran with the precision of a long-distance runner, but with the grace of an antelope. He glanced back only once.
A mob of men clattered him, shouting and brandishing sticks and stones and other things wielded as weapons. Someone hurled a stone at the young man. It caught a glancing blow off the side of his neck. The young man let out a scream of pain, a high, short, shrill sound. He changed direction, heading straight for the shade under the overhang of the hardware store, where Sister Madalaine and Sister Consolata stood.
Another stone struck the young man in the back of the knee. He stumbled and fell to the ground on his knees before them.
Sister Consolata stepped out of the shadows, putting her stocky form between the mob and the young man as they came up short behind their prey.
"What are you doing to this young man?!" Sister Consolata demanded.
A heavy-set man armed with a stick stepped forward. "Give him back to us, nun. He's ours!"
"Why? What has he done that makes you go after him like this, all of you at once, armed, and he doesn't have anything."
Another man with a sallow face, holding two chunks of rock in each hand, stepped up alongside the first man. "I just caught this thing with my daughter, trying to seduce her," he cried, one hand cocked, ready to throw the stone at the young man.
Sister Madalaine studied the young man. He wasn't panting and on a warm day like this, with his long jacket and the long sleeved shirt and long black trousers he wore under it, he would surely have broken out in a sweat, at least from the exertion. But his emerald-green eyes bore an unblinking look of blank resignation and something like dignity in spite of it. Something too perfect, too pretty about the face, the features were too well molded to be a mere mortal's. An almost faunlike or even elfin lingered about it.
"Are any of you any less sinful?" Sister Madalaine replied, looking up.
"The Good Book says, 'The woman that shall lie under a beast shall be stoned to death along with the same', and something like that silicon pr--- is lower than a beast!" the sallow-faced man snapped.
"The Bible also says, 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone'. If he is what you say he is, then he has no more knowledge of his actions than a simpleton," Sister Consolata replied.
"Now you nuns are sticking up for sex machines!" the stocky man shouted.
"I bet you 'ud love something like him: no more slipping out at midnight to meet up with the monks!" someone else yelled from the back of the crowd. The crowd started to move in on them, grumbling.
"We intend only to repair him and give him back to his owner," Sister Madalaine said, speaking up on the young Mecha's behalf.
"So he can go on seducing our daughters and our wives?" someone else in the crowd retorted.
Sister Madalaine stood up to her full height. "No, so that please God, his owners will find a better use for him."
The crowd rumbled irritably and shuffled their feet. One by one, they went away, still carrying their weapons.
"You'll wish you'd never taken that creature in!" the sallow-face man shouted over his shoulder.
Sister Madalaine stooped down to the young man-Mecha; she slipped her hands under his arms and helped him to his feet. He stood slightly taller than he was: they had built him so slender he appeared taller than he really was. He looked into her face, his face losing its look of resignation and taking on a look of curiosity, even a flirtatious look she ignored.
"Well, you're safe now, as long as you're with us, boy," Sister Consolata said. "Better for us to get you out of here before they change their minds."
"Who are you? Where then do you intend to take me?" he asked, trying to grasp what was going on.
"I'm Sister Consolata of the Order of St. Maximilian," the shorter nun said. "The girl who helped you up is Sister Madalaine."
"And you are?" Sister Madalaine asked.
He bowed to them with the grace of an actor. "Gigolo Joe at your service," he said. His eye took in their black veils and long gray tunics over baggy pants, curious. "But you may call me just Joe."
"Do you have an owner?" Sister Madalaine asked.
A blank look passed over his face. "I had one, but since I have been implicated in such bad trouble, she doubtlessly has no more use for the likes of me."
"Well, let's take you back to the guest house, get you cleaned up and fixed up if need be," Sister Consolata said, leading the two young folk back to the convent. Sister Madalaine put a hand on his shoulder, just steering him in the right direction.
As they walked back, Sister Madalaine kept her eyes discreetly averted from Joe. His perfectly contoured face reminded her oddly of the face of a Greek statue she had had a crush on as a teenager. If that statue had been clothed in gleaming black garments and brought to life by a bolt of lightning, it might have looked much like the young Mecha at her side.
She recognized his model, a Belladerma J-12291972. She might have welded the aluminum alloy armatures of his ribcage back when she had still lived in the world, but she doubted it. Or maybe she only wanted to dismiss the thought. Or remind herself of what she was.
Sister Consolata brought Joe to the St. Aquin House, where the Mechas they took in were kept. Sister Madalaine stowed the supplies in the workroom of the same house, careful to keep away from Joe, and thanking God for a reprieve. She could get away from those calm, relentlessly beautiful eyes, like living jewels.
Father Marcus, the chaplain, stuck his head in. "Oh, there you are, Sister Madalaine," he said.
"Is it true what Sister Abigail is talking about, you and Sister Consolata standing up to Bo Bainbridge and his clan?"
"We had to. They were going to stone a late-generation lover model to pieces then and there if we hadn't intervened," she said, closing a cabinet door.
"She made it sound like a recreation of Christ protecting the woman caught in adultery."
"It probably looked that way, and it's arguably the modern day version," she said. "But God knows I'm a pretty poor stand-in for His Son."
"You do all right," Father Marcus said, heading out.
Sister Madalaine caught herself inwardly cursing the gossipy Sister Abigail, then she realized her own faux pas. She was no better or worse than Sister Abigail.
"Is it true what Sister Abigail's chattering about?" asked Sister Jeromeia, the novice mistress, a middle-sized woman with a soft face and cool gray eyes, as Sister Madalaine cleared the refectory table
"That we kept the Bainbridge brothers from destroying a male lover model? Yes, he's in the guest house," Sister Madalaine replied.
"But what are you going to do with…that?" Sister Jeromeia demanded. "We can't keep him here, we have impressionable young Sisters."
"We'll take it one day at a time. I doubt he'll do much harm, if any. Besides, he could have a fatal system failure tonight."
"But he could linger here for days and tempt the young Sisters."
"That might not happen either. We'll just keep an eye on him. His owner might come for him in a day or two."
"But that will give him license to keep seducing young women."
"At least he won't be pursuing the impressionable young Sisters," Sister Madalaine pointed out and she went into the kitchen with a stack of dishes.
They housed the Orgas and Mechas in separate houses, respectively the Good Samaritan House and the St. Aquin House, named in honor of a Mecha that had learned theology better than many Orga theologians. They did this not out of prejudice, but to respect the concerns of the Orgas who were often nervous at being housed with Mechas. Their founder, Father Kolbe Vestor had recognized the robot as a subcreation of man and quite possibly a new form of man, a pale reflection of the chief of God's creations upon this planet.
Because of the skills she had learned before she entered the convent, Sister Madalaine had quite naturally become the chief caretaker at the St. Aquin House. Even though there were plenty of jobs to be had in that field out in the world, she had chosen this because she wanted to help take care of the Mechas already in existence, instead of helping make more of them.
After the evening meal, Sister Madalaine went to the St. Aquin House, now sparsely tenanted with a shutdown gardener Mecha she was trying to find a new locomotion actuator for, and Joe, who sat poised on one of the deep, wide windowsills, overlooking the garden outside. As she entered, he turned toward her, interest showing in his luminous eyes.
"Are you ready, Joe?" she asked. "Time I took a good look at you." She realized too late she'd put that the worst way possible, given the kind of Mecha she had addressed.
He stood up, offering her his arm, but she dropped her gaze as she steered him toward one of the workrooms.
She reached for a hand-held scanner to check his license, but he held up one hand. "I have no license," he said.
"What happened to it?" she asked.
"It was removed," he said, matter of factly.
"All right," she said, puzzled.
She had him unseal his right wrist; she plugged the sensor of a small diagnostic computer into a dock under his dermis. He took this with a wary calm, or what would have looked like it on an Orga. He was not a flesh and blood human, but that didn't bar him from being treated with charity. He regarded her robes with innocent curiosity, as if he thought, 'these are strange garments for such a young woman.' But he did not regard her with disdain the way many people did, but of course Mechas did not judge unless they had been given misinformation about the different classes of people.
She watched the display, but she realized he was watching her. Her discipline was to keep her eye on the display on the computer, but her eyes wanted to obey the impulse to rise and meet his gaze.
"You are very intent at your work, Sister Madalaine," he observed. "Were you ever a technician before you came to this house of the one who made you?"
She glanced at him, avoiding his eyes. "As a matter of fact I was. Still am really, I just don't work for earthly wages any more."
"Yours then is a generous soul," he said.
"I certainly hope so, please God," she said, feeling her cheeks warm. She tried not to let his compliments get to her, but she felt her heart warming despite her efforts otherwise.
Nothing came up on the scan, no viruses, no malfunctions. He was clean mechanically. Sister Superior would run a visual scan of his cube, something Sister Madalaine had freely renounced: the images would remind her too much of her old life, something she calmly put behind her as an earlier phase of her life, especially with her second temporary vows coming up.
"Will this be all you wish to do with me?" Joe asked.
"For now, yes," she said, not looking him in the face.
"You avoid my eyes," he asked. "Is there a reason for this?"
"Well, I'm promised to another," she said.
"But to whom? Is it not so that you Catholic nuns renounce the pleasures afforded by a man's company?"
"We pledge ourselves to a heavenly lover, to the One Who made us."
"Ah," he said, but she couldn't know how much he really understood it.
"Sister Superior may run a visual scan of your cube later," she said, unhooking him from the scanner. "But this will be all for now.
"Indeed," he said, with something like relief.
She turned to go out, but as she did so, her gaze happened to take in his profile. She looked away before he could turn to look at her. Feeling her cheeks warm she went out a little quicker than she had intended.
She met Sister Superior in the hallway. "He's effective, isn't he?" the elder Sister asked.
"I'm afraid so," Madalaine admitted.
"Don't give in to the feelings, but don't give in either," Sister Superior said, in the door to the room. "I know that's easier said than done when your young, but it will make it easier all around.
"I will, Sister," Madalaine replied.
Next morning at the daily assembly of the community after Mass and breakfast, Sister Superior shared the news about the newcomer.
"Joe is the Mecha that was falsely accused of murdering a girl in Haddonfield, New Jersey," she announced. A rustle passed through the gathering. "But he is absolutely innocent of the charges, according to the images on his cube."
"But how did he get this far?" Sister Jeromeia asked. "What brings him here?"
"He is simply wandering now, seeking a place where he can be safe," Sister Superior said. "This, Sister Madalaine tells me, is somewhat unusual among Mechas, but there have been anomalies in his line. Their emotion emulators and personality chips have caused unusually human-like manifestations. Some have even suspected Bella derma of experimenting with proto-emotions."
"Which makes him problematic," said Sister Irene, the portress. "We can't keep him, but we can't let him go either."
"Why not simply send him back to his owner?" Sister Jeromeia said, hands raised with annoyance.
"They cancelled his registration; they're counting him as lost," sister superior said. "I researched that this morning."
"Is there any way he can be reprogrammed for monogamy?" Sister Jeromeia said, beginning to splutter.
"That would require a massive overhaul of his programming," Sister Madalaine said.
"And it still wouldn't be real love anyway," Sister Jeromeia said, defeated.
"It's all he knows," Sister Superior said. "Let him know some peace here for a while."
After the meeting, Sister Madalaine went to the St. Aquin House to run a few repairs on Joe, seal up the cracks she'd seen on his dermis and check the spots where the stones had hit him.
She found Joe perched on the other windowsill, looking out over the garden. He turned toward her and rose as she approached. He started to bow to her, but she stopped him.
"I'm just an ordinary Orga, consecration or not," she said.
"But you are a lover, albeit of a different order," he said.
"Thanks," she said, flattered, but not letting it penetrate. She led him to a worktable and helped him onto it. "Take off your jacket and shirt, please. There's a few cracks in your dermis I have to seal."
"As you wish," he said. He let his jacket slide down from his shoulders and tossed it aside dramatically. Then running his thumb down the front of his shirt, he unsealed it and slid out of it. She tried not to look at him too intently, but she could hardly help noticing his figure and the graceful, molded musculature of his chest. He looked almost like a Michelangelo ignudo from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, one of the graceful, naked wingless male angels poised about the panels. She set to work with a tube of silicon sealant.
She worked quickly, taking care not to linger, so she wouldn't set his pursuit centers into gear. But as she worked on one spot under his shoulder blade, where it looked like a rock had struck him, he shifted position and looked her in the eye. She almost dropped the tube of silicon.
She felt his gaze meet hers, green as the sea, but as warm as the summer sunlight, growing so warm she had to drop her own gaze or he would have defeated her resolve by just looking at her.
"I only wished to know the color of the eyes that belong to the woman who is tending my wounds," he said.
"They're blue," she said.
"But what shade?" he asked.
"Ultramarine," she said.
"Ah," he said. "The color of the sky at midnight."
"That's a nice way to describe it, but could you hold off on the poetry" she asked.
"As you insist," he said, looking away, closing his eyes to slits, his chin lifted primly as if to say, you know not what you deny yourself.
That night, Sister Madalaine lay alone on her stiff cot, unable to sleep. Joe's eyes still seemed to look into hers, as if his penetrating gaze had burned into her corneas and she could not banish the image.
It wasn't as if she hadn't ever known a man. She'd even once had a muscular, blonde Mecha, an aggressive lover, an older model than the graceful Joe. Sister Jeromeia had been especially hard on her when she learned of this part of Madalaine's checkered past, but Sister Superior had restrained her.
She and Joe, so similar: saved from a violent tongue-lashing, saved from a stoning. Perhaps this was why she had readily extended a helping hand to Joe, because she was paying forward the favor that had been granted her.
'Dear Lord, he is your creature even if men built him for sensual and impure purposes. But shelter us both and find healing for us,' her heart prayed as she slid off the sleep.
Yet even there, she could not escape. She seemed to walk at twilight among ruinous classical buildings, stone pavilions with Corinthian columns, a colonnade with flowers growing out of the cracks between the stones, vines twining up the columns, all but mending the ruined roof overhead.
But everywhere she turned, she saw Joe, kneeling in the shadows, peering at her from behind a column, darting like a dark gazelle across her path, but vanishing just as she glimpsed him.
At length, she came to stone pavilion shading a raised dais reached by three steps. Something in her compelled her to approach, climb the steps, draw aside the gossamer violet curtain that shielded the interior of the pavilion.
A heap of large pillows, covered in red and black silk and velvet covered the top of the dais, in the midst of which lay a young figure wrapped completely in a long red silken cloth.
The form stirred and turned over toward her, the sheet unwinding from the figure it covered. Joe's head and shoulders emerged, rising as he propped himself up gracefully on one elbow. A soft breeze stirred the sheet that covered the rest of his naked form.
Before she saw him as man had made him, she bolted awake, trembling, sweating, fearful, not of him, but of herself. He knew nothing better than his programming. She was supposed to be the one with full volition, but her flesh seemed just as ruled by impulse as his being was.
To be continued…
Literary Easter Eggs:
The chase scene—based partly on the Gospel story of Christ saving the woman caught in adultery, partly on the opening scene of C.M. Kornbluth's space age vampire story "Shambleau".
Sister Jeromeia—I'll admit she's a female version of Father Jerome, the cranky, disapproving prior in Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael mystery novels
St. Aquin—a shameless thievery from a short story by Anthony Boucher, "The Quest for St. Aquin"