"Take that thing out of my house this instant!" Caroline Hobby hissed. She wanted to yell, but didn't want the thing to hear her in the next room.
Alexa Hobby sighed; she hadn't expected her sister-in-law to be so irrational about this. Her brother, famed professor Allen Hobby, had left a week ago for a one-year mission to Mars--the first of its kind to include mechas in the actual crew. She had thought Caroline would appreciate her gift more. Sure, Joe was a little standoffish, but the imprinting process would temper that. It usually did.
"It could be dangerous," Caroline added for lack of anything better to say. She saw Alex open her mouth and then quickly shut it. Caroline couldn't listen to reason. All she knew was that a state of the art lover mecha was standing in her drawing room and that her friend, her family, had bought it for her. Caroline knew Alex meant well, thinking a pretty diversion would keep her sister-in-law from the issue at hand while Allen was away for a whole year, a diversion that was something as opposed to someone. But Caroline would leave Allen without him here, sexual satisfaction or not.
"He is not dangerous. He was made new a month ago," Alex replied. She didn't want to say much more of the mecha because she knew little else of Joe.
Alex had stumbled across Joe last week while in London--or what was left of it--on business. A wild night on the town had found her and her boss, Dan Tagawa who was the number one maker of lover robots in the world, in the red light district of London. A woman with too much tequila and money to spend could find herself in quite a bit of gorgeous peril in that place.
"Alex, I have something to tell you!" Dan sputtered out between fits of giggles. "I'm getting out of the whoring business. Alex just laughed. He was even drunker and more doped up than she. The two just laughed harder as they stumbled past casinos and strip clubs, the harsh neon lights casting a weirdly beautiful illumination on their debauchery.
"No, really Alex. I mean, I made something that will love and people can love in return." Dan sobered temporarily, but only just. "I have someone I think you should meet!"
Alex laughed. "I promised myself, I'd get laid tonight! Would you oblige a lady tonight?" One part of her brain was functioning and knew she was talking to her boss, but the rest of her didn't care. Alex started to wrap her arms around Dan, but instead of returning the embrace, he dragged her along, leaving the cat calls and peep shows behind for a more discreet, but no less lascivious scene. At one of the more upscale clubs, Dan introduced her to someone he thought she would be interested in meeting…of course not before dunking her head in an ice water bath to sober her up.
"Joe is amazing," said Dan as he led Alex through the ostentatious corridors of Merchant Ivory Club. "I mean a real step up from the painted whores you saw. He's a real charmer, speaks twelve languages, dances, sings, writes poetry…Alex he can learn. I don't mean pain-memory nonsense, but really learn and increase his capability. His kind of versatility in thinking, not programming, but thinking, is unheard of." Then Dan lowered his voice a notch, not out of fear of someone hearing him, but to make a point. "Joe has a form of self-awareness, a view of himself in a larger context, and not just his duties."
Alex just stood, looking unimpressed. What he has just described to her sounded like minor program tweaks. Dan grabbed Alex's shoulders; his face was so close to hers that he could kiss her. She wished he would.
"Damn it Alex, we've missed the boat! The holier-than-thou bourgeoisie wouldn't be caught dead in places like Rouge City. What our company needs is a real companion. Not a sex toy, but one who can fulfill emotional needs, be romantic, not just seductive. They will be perfect in every way, who will love unconditionally, who won't be some sleazy fly by night.
"Tagawa, I think that is the stupidest thing I have ever heard." Dan just laughed at that. Alex could smell the martini on his guffaw. "So you program attachment and loyalty, haven't we been doing that all along?" Alex continued. "That's not love."
Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, Alex saw what Dan was talking about. There, sitting, or draped across, rather, was the most striking mecha Alex had ever seen. Joe stood and sized up his visitor with a detached boredom that told Alex this one wouldn't play by the rules--the Asimovian ones at any rate. Joe walked across the room with a free flowing arrogance that must have been inspired by a model on a catwalk. Alex offered her hand for Joe to shake, but instead he took it and kissed it lightly in one grand, sweeping movement.
"Charmed to meet you…Ms. Hobby, isn't it?"
Alex giggled slightly. She'd forgotten where she was for a moment and Joe's icy British accent had caught her off guard. In fact everything about him struck Alex as icy, from the blank eyes that weren't quite green or blue, to the porcelain perfect synthetic skin. After an uncomfortable pause, Alex was able to speak.
"The pleasure is all mine," she said, a little uncertainly. She turned to Dan. "He looks like a spoiled brat." Joe frowned but Alex didn't care, it wasn't like he had feelings.
"Ms. Hobby, I really must ask you to mind your manners," Joe said firmly. Oh this was simply too precious for Alex: a mecha who demanded to be treated the same as an orga.
The next morning, sobered and a bit sheepish, Dan and Alex discussed the implications of what Joe and others like him, could do for the company.
"So will you sell them to some place hoity-toity like Tails Club?" asked Alex.
"No, they'll be programmed for a specific owner and that's it."
"And if the owner gets tired of them?"
Dan didn't answer; both of them knew the answer.
"I need someone to…test run him," Dan said softly.
And that was how Alex got the idea. Flippant, sarcastic, difficult Joe was going to save Caroline Hobby from herself. It would be more than some sordid experiment; it was a possible catalyst for the beginning or the end of the Hobby family. Caroline was desperately lonely due to a husband who'd rather talk to robots than his wife and a son who was nothing but a drugged out disappointment. Their son David needed his father, but Allen needed his work more. Caroline had secretly confided in Alex that she was going to leave Allen while he was away, so his prerequisite guilt trip couldn't dissuade her. She needed to make a clean break while she could and set up her own life, and not just play shadow to her husband and son.
Alex reasoned that if Caroline were happy, even if only on the most superficial level, there'd be no need to run from Allen. That was where Joe came in. All he had to do was keep her happy for a year, so dissatisfaction wouldn't cloud Caroline's judgement. This was what she told Joe. He didn't think Alex's plan made any sense, in fact no one did, but it seemed as clear as day to Alex.
By noon that day, Alex had cut through mountains of red tape to transport Joe across international lines and by one o'clock, they were on a flight bound for New Jersey.
For most of the three-hour flight, Joe behaved himself, but during the last hour, he started asking questions. He wanted to talk about Caroline as he'd taken the liberty of rifling through Alex's wallet to find a picture of her. Joe stared at the picture of Alex, her brother, and Caroline. He thought Allen and Caroline looked mismatched: Allen with his plain, earnest face, and Caroline, effortlessly pretty, but purposefully unsatisfied. Really it was a good picture; the lighting was just right and the maple leaves in the background brought out the highlights in Caroline's hair. Joe wondered if Alex would let him keep the picture.
"She doesn't seem very happy," Joe commented while gently tracing his finger across the image of Caroline.
Alex cringed, but remained silent. She concentrated on the low buzz of the engine, and wished he would start talking about painting during the late Ming dynasty again. She didn't want to think about the unhappy Caroline, as she was starting to have doubts, but there was no turning back now.
"Her smile is strained," he continued. Encountering more silence, he sighed. That made Alex smile, it struck her as a very human thing to do. Little things like this would disarm Caroline.
"So what does she like to do?"
"Ask her yourself."
"Is there anything I should know?"
"You mean anything personal?"
"No I mean any allergies to any medications…Yes something personal!"
Alex shut her eyes. "She paints and wants to leave her husband. Happy?"
"Ha! Now we're getting somewhere."
They continued like that, round and round for the duration of the flight and the drive to the Hobby's estate. Actually, it was Caroline's and had been in her family for years. During that time, Alex learned that Joe was standoffish with most men and was at his best in the company of women. He was always content in the presence of their musical laughter and basked in their convoluted, yet honest sense of emotion. Joe thought he was a very sensitive being himself. He told that to Alex, who simply laughed.
Alex pulled the car up to the large iron gate and parked it. She knew if she pulled up to the house, Caroline would hear the salutary crunch of tires on gravel. That few moments warning would destroy the kamikaze barrage that Alex had in mind: the sister-in-law and surrogate lover showing up unannounced. Every society woman's worst nightmare, Alex thought to herself. The element of surprise would render Caroline's song and dance routine null and void.
"Nice gate, do I get to see the house?" Joe quipped. He was being sarcastic again. Alex silently prayed he wouldn't pull this in front of Caroline. Alex tucked Joe's imprinting instructions securely under her right arm and threaded her left arm through his. Together, they briskly walked the quarter mile up to the large house.
"What do you think?'' she asked.
"Very neoclassic." That was Joe, programmed to know everything about anything that was beautiful in the world. He took in the marble fountain, the weeping willows, and artful ivy and roses in an appreciative glance. It wasn't exactly fung-shui, but it worked for Caroline's alternately orderly and spontaneous personality.
Alex pulled her key out of her purse and struggled to open the door.
"Anthony is usually Johnny on the spot with this," she said between breaths.
"Who is Anthony?" Joe demanded immediately.
"Relax, he's just the serving man…he's mecha in case you were wondering."
Joe wanted to ask why orgas always used mechas to fill positions of servitude, but thought better of it. He wasn't belligerent and was for the most part fond of orgas--the female ones anyway. Alex left Joe in the drawing room with instructions not to move an inch under penalty of torture and death.
Caroline was painting outside. The air was heavy and the smell of the pain clung to it, making her a little dizzy. Alex watched her from behind for a moment, hoping the real Caroline, the one who was her roommate in college, would come out for a moment, completely unweighed down by all the other masks she wore. No chance of that. Caroline's posture tensed and her brush strokes became more deliberate. She knew someone was there, had sensed, rather than heard the footsteps. Caroline forgot to breathe, all she could do was concentrate on the charade at hand.
"Hey, happy birthday," said Alex. Thank God she remembered about Caroline's birthday. Caroline relaxed a little at her best friend's voice. Finally, in a clear, pleasant voice she spoke.
"God, I'm thirty-five--officially old." She turned to flash a smile so dazzling it could not be sincere.
"Nope, you've got another five years. Listen we need to talk," Alex replied. There was no tactful way to do this. "Will you be here when Allen gets back?"
"I don't know." She didn't even put her brush down, but Alex could see a tear snake its way down Caroline's cheek.
"I know you're lonely, and that Allen and David are never home," Alex went one, "But what if there was something to ease the…loneliness…Would you consider waiting for Allen then? Desperate people do desperate things, stupid things."
Caroline raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?" She grinned at Alex.
"Honey there is someone I'd like you to meet." With that, Alex took Caroline's hand and dragged her inside.
Joe had wandered from his cue for his grand entrance and into a small antechamber filled with paintings. Caroline's family must be rich, very rich, if she had originals from Kadinsky and Pollock. He studied the floor, it looked vaguely familiar, it must have been a copy of a mosaic found in Cologne in Roman times. Caroline knew her art history and wasn't afraid to show. In fact the whole décor didn't come off as showy or pretentious. It was Caroline: clean and cool, the essence of old money.
Alex gave Caroline a gentle shove forward. At first Caroline thought it was Anthony standing there. At first she was a little confused. Why was Anthony standing there, just daydreaming? He was supposed to be directing the gardener robots. But on a second glance, she realized, that was not Anthony. In fact she wasn't even sure if it was man or machine. She stole another glance for good measure. It was machine; everything about it was a little too precise to be human. Caroline looked from the figure to Alex, and suddenly, her mind caught up with her eyes. Suddenly, in one horrified instant, she understood everything.
Alex knew it. "Uh, happy birthday?" she offered the screaming silence.
"Take that thing out of my house this instant."
Alex wondered if Joe heard her.