Anna," Lynch said, his breath suddenly short, "are you coming on to me?"
Behind him, he felt her fingers pause, still twined in his hair. "Well, if you're not sure, I must not be doing it right." He felt her lips brush the back of his neck, her breath warm. "Or am I?"
The evening at home had started normally enough: another late night arrival, followed by a short report from Anna on the family's day at home while he took a light meal in the kitchen. If his day had been rough enough to make sleep difficult, he'd spend an hour or so sitting on the couch in the living room, sorting things out - rather than stare at the ceiling above his bed, sometimes with a glass of bourbon for company. A couple of months ago, Anna had begun massaging his neck and shoulders when she found him sitting slumped on the couch. Like anything she set out to learn, she had soon become expert at it. Lately, those massages were a lot more appealing than bourbon.
Tonight, though, after ten minutes of kneading, unlocking muscles he hadn't known were tense, leaving him ready to groan with release, the pressure in her fingers on his neck had slacked way off, becoming more like caresses than massage. Then one hand had slipped gently around, resting on his collarbone, and the other had drifted up as her fingers combed slowly through his hair.
"Anna, uh, you know, sometimes when you try out one of your little experiments, you should run it by the rest of us first, or at least give us a heads-up." He struggled to keep his voice even. "I know you're just trying to stretch your mimicry program, trying out different human behaviors and such. But what you're doing now isn't like that week you "came down" with all those diseases, or that day you spent singing to the radio off-key. I really don't feel comfortable playing along with this."
"This isn't an exercise, Jack." Her other hand slid off his head and around his neck. Every hair on his neck stood up as her lips brushed his ear. "I've been thinking a lot about our relationship."
He tried a different tack. "It's generally a bad idea to get … involved with someone you work for-"
Her hand covered his mouth, the fingers pressing gently but firmly. He was very aware of her arms around his neck, the tiny hands that could twist his head off his shoulders like he was a cheap doll.
"Oh, just shut up a minute, will you? Just for a minute. I'm not really your employee, Jack. I never was. I hung up that maid's outfit as soon as the kids found out about me. I have my own reasons for what I do. Is it really a surprise to learn that the first among those reasons is you? Tell me, what's the proper term for a woman who shares a man's roof, keeps his house, raises his kids, keeps his secrets, and helps him further his career?" Her fingertips brushed his lips as she drew her hand away. "Really, isn't it time to take our relationship to the next level?"
He swallowed, and tried to control his breathing. "Anna, maybe I'm taking my life in my hands here, but I really think you ought to run a diagnostic check or something. This whole conversation is straight out of the Twilight Zone. You have to know that the whole man-woman thing is, well, complicated, too complicated to reduce to logical analysis. And there are … physical … biological … impediments …" He looked down at her arms, crossed at the wrists, forming an X over his heart.
Her arms were bare to the shoulder.
Pushing down a frantic suspicion, he took a mental inventory of Anna's wardrobe: her uniform, of course, her housecoat, a useful variety of sturdy work clothes, a couple of dresses that looked perfectly natural under an apron … he couldn't remember anything that didn't have sleeves.
"Jack, you should feel your heartbeat, it's like you've run a mile. What are you thinking?"
"What are you wearing?"
"Heh. Well, I've had strangers call the house asking that, but I never expected it of you." She removed her arms from his neck and stepped around the couch. The first sight of her stopped his breath. She wasn't naked, as his runaway imagination had pictured her; she was wearing a simple dress in pale lavender, sleeveless, with a scoop neckline and a hem that ended four or five inches above the knee. It was made of some slightly stretchy material that fitted her closely without looking sprayed on, a perfect outfit for a party. It was far and away the most feminine thing he'd ever seen her wear. She placed a hand on her hip and turned around, looking over her shoulder at him. "How do I look?"
"Like a girl going on a date."
"A hot date?"
"Perfect." The stereo came on, seemingly by itself, playing some Sarah Maclaclan tune. She sat down sideways on the couch beside him, gracefully tucking her legs under her. "Chick rock, right?"
"Right." He diplomatically refrained from telling her that most males barely tolerated "chick rock," enduring it to make their girlfriends happy.
Or did she already know that? Was she subtly manipulating him, drawing him into playing the boyfriend role? What would happen if he continued to play along? How far would this go before she had to abandon her role as a flesh-and-blood woman? And then what? Would she flip her chips? Go catatonic? Go berserk?
"Jack, please don't be so worried. Try to relax, okay?" She smiled. "I know you think I'm buggy. Maybe so obsessed with becoming a human replica that I've forgotten what I am?' The smile she had been wearing fell off her face; she looked very intent. "I'm not going crazy. Smoke isn't going to start pouring out my ears if we have a frank discussion about this." She slid her hand under his, palm up, smoothly breaking his unconscious death grip on his thigh, lacing her fingers in his. "First, we have to agree on our assumptions. Then, maybe, we can apply some logic and reach some reasonable conclusions."
"Okay," he said cautiously. A computer can arrive at insane answers with perfect logic, if the given assumptions are flawed.
"Okay. First: would you stipulate that my emotions are real, not just some kind of simulation employed as window dressing? I mean, does it really matter that mine start out as electrons whizzing down circuit paths, rather than … sparking synapses swimming in a stew of chemicals? We both smile at puppies and bridle at stupidity. It's true that I learned a lot of my behaviors by observing other people: so do babies. You've known me for two years, Jack. You've seen me worried, amused, peeved, outraged, and determined. Has it all been playacting, or is it real?" She was so close that he could feel her breath on his face as she spoke. It struck him that she had absolutely no odor. What did you expect, he asked himself, hot oil and ozone?
"Well, you're as entitled to your feelings as anybody else. At least, I always thought I respected them. Where are we going with this?"
"What you've just described is tolerance. That's not the same as acceptance. So here's the second question: if my feelings are as real to me as yours are to you, are my feelings as valid as yours? How much 'respect' are you willing to give them? This is the big one, Jack – take all the time you need to answer."
"Anna, I thought we settled this issue weeks ago, that night in the kitchen when we … talked about alternatives. I respected your decision, didn't I?"
"That was a special case. Are you willing to expand it into a general statement? Are my thoughts and emotions, my desires and ambitions, the decisions I make and the responsibilities I shoulder… Come on, Jack, just say it: am I real or not?"
He shifted in the seat. "Dammit, yes! You're as real as anybody I know. I think most people go through their whole lives without being as alive as you. You're a real, honest-to-God person, and I refuse to believe you don't know that I feel this way about you. Now what?"
"I love you, Jack."
"Oh, no, please -"
"Yes. I started falling in love with you the first day I met you, while I was still struggling with the definition. I want to make you happy. I want to give you everything I've got and take all you can give me. I want …" her voice dropped so low it was almost a whisper "…I want to make love with you … but I don't know if I can."
How can she not know that it's impossible? What's wrong with her?
"Anna, please stop. Just for a minute, please, listen to me. I think I understand what you want, I do. You're. … Anna, you're the best friend I've got, and I've had a lot of good friends. What you think and feel is important to me, and I don't know what I'd do without you. I don't want to say or do anything that would make you want to leave. But you said you wanted plain talk. So … bear with me here; I've got a feeling I'm only going to get one chance to say this, so I want it to come out right.
"I'm not made of stone, Anna. We've been sharing a house for two years. We've been sharing each others' lives and we're closer than most friends, probably closer than a lot of married couples. What you're offering me … no righteous man could be cold to that, not from someone he cares about and respects and trusts absolutely. And, more times than I can count, when we're doing something together, or just talking … I've wished you were flesh-and-blood.
"And there's the rock where this boat runs aground. How far could you expect this to go? Do you want to go to the movies and hold hands?" He lifted their joined hands slightly. "You got it. A husbandly kiss when I leave the house and come home? Gladly. Maybe you want to crawl into bed and cuddle?" He swallowed. "That would be hard, maybe just at first, but I'd be willing to do it. But, sooner or later, we're going to run headfirst into the hard fact that you're a marvel of engineering, not a female human. You're a real person, Anna … but you're not a real woman. You understand where I'm going with this, don't you?" He couldn't bear to look her in the eye as he spoke: he found himself staring down at their clasped hands, studying them. He noted the exquisite detail of her fingers as they lay curled over his knuckles, the nails, short but perfectly manicured with the sheen of clear polish. The subtle skin shadings along their length.
The loops and whorls on the pads of her fingers …
From far away, he heard her say, "That is so weird, the way you can make the hair on your arms rise up like that."
"You've got fingerprints," he said, suddenly feeling very stupid.
"Doesn't everyone? Jack, I think you've been making assumptions. Have you ever heard that old saying about 'if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck'…" She gently unlaced her fingers from his and laid her hand, still palm-up, on his leg. "You know how to take a pulse, right?"
Using his freed hand, he took her wrist in his second and third fingers and immediately felt a steady beat under her skin. How can she be doing this, she doesn't have a circulatory system! He looked up at her; she stared back, eyes heavy-lidded and cool. He tried to imagine camera lenses behind those gray-blue irises. Hell, the human eye is a camera lens, that's where the idea came from.
"There's one at the neck that you can try, too, isn't there?"
"I think you know damn well there is." Nevertheless, he reached up and touched his fingers to her neck. He wasn't surprised to feel a beat there, in time with the one on her wrist; what made his hand twitch was hearing her tiny intake of breath, and seeing her softly close her eyes and moisten her lips. Through his fingers on her neck, he felt her swallow.
"What was that all about?"
"I just enjoy the feel of your hand on my bare skin." Eyes still closed, she reached up and laid her hand over his, guiding it upwards to rest on her cheek. "In two years, you've touched me eleven times, almost always on my hands or elbow."
He took a deep, slow breath. "Okay, but that's not what I meant. How the hell are you doing this?"
"You said it yourself, Jack: I'm a marvel of engineering." She reached up her other hand, clasping his hand between hers, bringing all three to rest in her lap. "We both know I was designed for something more than warehouse security. I'm carrying some pretty heavy ordnance for a night watchman, wouldn't you say? But, whatever else they had in mind, they intended me to be able to move among people undetected."
She turned his hand over, tracing a vein on the back of his hand, then turning it to touch the calluses on his fingers and the palm reader's lines. "They couldn't make me a perfect replica, but they did the best they could, and their best was pretty good. I can't fool an MRI or X-ray machine. Not even an airport metal detector without spoofing it. A cotton swab in my mouth won't yield any DNA. Anybody wanting to do a drug screen on me is going to be frustrated: anything I drink comes out the way it went in, you can't cut my nails with a pair of bolt cutters, and God knows where my hair comes from. A doctor examining me with an ophthalmoscope might not believe what he sees, but I can pass an exam with more basic diagnostic tools: penlight, stethoscope, BP cuff, and thermometer. And," she said, her eyes boring into his, "I wouldn't raise any suspicion undergoing a strip search … even a cavity search conducted by some grinning letch. So, to answer the question we seem to have been dancing around … yes, I most definitely can." She leaned forward until their heads were touching. "Poor Jack. You must have thought I had gears grinding up here, or something."
Her breath, soft and warm, caressed his face. Leaning forward had shifted her weight; he was acutely aware of his hand being pressed between her thighs. Then why don't you move it, asshole? Try not looking at her. Maybe that'll help.
Suddenly, she leaned back and looked at his face. Then she smiled, looking down at his hand in her lap.
"What?" How long has she had those dimples when she smiles? They're cute as hell. And why am I noticing them now?
"Tell you later, maybe." She gave his hand a quick squeeze.
He took a deep breath and blew it out. "Huh. I thought I was confused before. I can't even figure out if I owe you an apology. Anna, didn't you just say you can, not five minutes after you said you didn't know if you could?"
"Sorry, Jack. I'm having my own problems with this." She squeezed his hand, almost painfully hard. "All the plumbing is there. No uterus, but everything else I need. I even lubricate. The other gross physical reactions you'd expect are dialed in too. I don't produce pheromones, and the experts don't agree on how important they are to sexual satisfaction, but I know I can ... go through the motions." She caught her lower lip between her teeth. "What I don't – can't – know, is whether you'd find the experience … satisfactory. Jack, I'm not stupid; I have a basic grasp of the human sexual experience. From my viewpoint, sex with a partner is like a chain reaction: each partner stimulates the other, producing a response that stimulates the first partner, increasing in intensity until one or both reach a climax."
"I've never heard anyone compare sex to nuclear physics before."
"Nuclear physics is easier to learn."
"Oh, come on."
"Man that I love, nuclear physics is much easier. It's easier because you can approach the subject with absolutely no prior knowledge, and still learn all about it through systematic study. If you have to, you start with simple arithmetic and basic science. You progress into more and more advanced studies until you can split atoms with your teeth.
"But how would you learn the math you needed for nuclear physics, if everyone but you had an intuitive grasp of algebra from birth? If there were no arithmetic primers because nobody but you needed to learn it? How could you possibly make the jump from counting on your fingers to solving differentials? That's where all my uncertainty and frustration are coming from. That interplay of stimulus and response is hardwired into bios at birth; there are no 'primers' I can use to create a solid starting point for my research. I've tried every avenue I can think of, but I can't find a source of information that I can trust."
He said slowly, "There are books on the subject…"
"There are libraries on the subject."
"But no 'primers'."
"No. There are decades of research by professionals all over the world, mountains of data. It's easy to find catalogues of sexual positions, even illustrated ones; they don't tell you anything about triggering love or desire. If you want to know the average age for a first sexual encounter, grouped by gender and ethnicity, or a bell graph showing frequency of intercourse by income, you can find it. You can learn anything you can want about human sexuality – so long as you know half the answer to begin with." She touched her head to his again. "So I abandoned scholarly research and considered popular media."
"Uhuh. This is about to become a horror story, isn't it?"
"Well, I expected difficulties. There are bound to be cultural assumptions in books and magazines and such; you just pay close attention, never draw a conclusion from a single datum, and mostly you're all right.
"I started with the materials at hand: Roxanne has a big collection of 'women's interest' magazines and some of them featured articles with some pretty promising titles. 'One Hundred and One Ways to Drive Him Crazy in Bed'; 'Sex Secrets Guys Won't Tell You'; 'What Every Man Wishes Women Knew About Sex'-"
"These are Roxy's?"
"I think she's doing research, too." The corner of her mouth twitched. "I may have picked up some valid information, but most of the 'tips' in those magazines are so vague or contradictory, so much the product of circular analysis, that I know I should discard ninety per cent of them; but which tenth should I keep? So, I turned to the 'magazines for men' that the boys keep on hand, thinking I might learn what men look for in a woman."
"What did you think of those?"
"Not what I was looking for. Well, they do devote a lot of effort to comparative studies of the female form, apparently trying to define the look of an ideal partner, but the 'sex tips' focus on seducing, then arousing, the woman - and seem just as prone to supposition as Roxy's magazines. I decided to examine any fiction I could find that dealt with the subject, looking for clues, and I discovered a whole genre of literature devoted to intimate relationships, from the woman's point of view."
"Yes. At first, it seemed like I'd hit pay dirt, the mother lode, even: many of those books are filled with explicit detail on how men and women respond to each other's advances, with almost universal success. But then…" She looked bemused.
It doesn't matter where she looks. She'll never find what she's looking for. It doesn't exist.
"Jack, the men in those books aren't anything like the men I know! They tend to fall into two broad categories: either they're overgrown children, moody, obtuse, infuriating and impulsive; or they're gods of seduction, able to sweep a woman off her feet with a glance, and straight into sexual rapture and eternal love."
"Heh. Ever happen that one guy is both types?"
"Pretty common plot device, actually. Often, the female lead starts out despising the guy destined to become her lover. As the story progresses, the woman unmasks the man's alternate, more desirable personality or, if he's promiscuous, binds him to her exclusively. But her methods are so vague and undefined it just seems to happen by itself. I began to lose confidence in the data. Maybe that stuff works with real people, maybe not. Once again, I can't know what I know - and don't know - until I put it into practice.
"Pretty close to despair, I decided to see if guys have a 'romance' equivalent genre. Apparently they do, but in visual media rather than print. I noticed that a small section of the video store is almost exclusively used by men; I rented several of the titles and studied them."
An image leaped into his mind: Anna sitting through hours of porn flicks, scribbling notes.
"All right, mister, what are you chuckling about?"
He got himself in hand. "Sorry, I know you're dead serious about all this. I'm just trying to imagine anyone trying to teach themselves about the birds and the bees reading 'Heaving Bosoms of Desire,' then watching 'The Cheerleaders Take Five'. There's got to be a better way …" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew what was coming.
"You're right. The performers in those pictures – I can't call them actors – they didn't even bother to feign passion; half of them seemed to be thinking about getting their tires rotated or something. Jack, I've only mentioned the high points of my research; I looked in lots more places. But I came up short every time." She looked him in the eyes from eight inches away. "This isn't how I wanted it to be, Jack. I feel like I've got just one chance to do this. You know, when you build a nuke, there are about a zillion ways to do it wrong. Minute impurities in the fissionable material will cause a result far below the nominal yield; a little higher percentage of 'dirt' and the reaction can't support itself – it fizzles out. And if there's some mistake in the engineering or something basic missing in the design … the reaction doesn't even start. A dud."
She looked away. "I really, really didn't want to risk a flawed performance. I wanted to come to you with some expertise, confident that I could drive you mad with desire for me. I wanted you to wake up certain that I was a real woman, the only woman for you." She smiled ruefully, still not looking at him. "Like the heroine in a romance novel. Instead, here I am, trying out my pathetic little seduction techniques, not knowing whether you'll like me any better than masturbating with a blowup doll."
He stifled an automatic protest. She's right, she knows she's right, and she can spot bullshit in about a millisecond.
"So, what do you say, Jack? Got a nice little ride right here, plenty of options, no miles on her; all that's missing is the new-car smell. Comes with a money-back guarantee. How about taking her out for a spin and seeing how she handles?" Her voice turned low and earnest. "Just once. Introduce me to the Mysteries, Jack. If it's just a matter of inexperience, well, maybe you could bring me along? A guy like you must have handled clumsy virgins before. You know I'm a quick study."
You couldn't be more wrong, Anna. I'm not like Caitlin's dad. As far as I know, I've never had a virgin in my life.
"And if you decide there's something wrong, something that can't be made right between us … I'll take that as the final word. I won't make any trouble about it. I won't mention it again. I won't pout or make cow eyes at you. I won't leave, unless you send me away. I'll stay right here and keep taking care of things the best I can. I'll even put on the little maid outfit and go back to being Anna the housekeeper, if that's what I have to do …"
He had never heard a woman's voice so full of tears. He looked, but her eyes were dry. Of course her tear ducts are props. What use would IO have for an assassin android that cries? But his free hand had a mind of its own, it seemed; it reached up to touch her cheek.
"What? Are you …"
"Just looking for something that really ought to be there."
Instantly, her eyes filled with tears that dripped down her face and onto his hand. He wiped at her cheek with his thumb.
"Thank you, Jack. Tears are tricky, you know? I'm never sure when they're appropriate. People cry when they're hurt or sad or scared or even happy. I saw Roxanne cry once when she was mad enough to tear the house down …" She blinked, dewing her lashes.
He said gently, "Tears are for when your emotions get out of hand. The threshold's different from one person to the next. Almost any emotion will do. Except hate. I never saw anyone cry from feeling too much hate." He brought his tear-jeweled finger to his lips.
He paused. "Toxic?"
"Course not. But they won't taste right."
He touched her tear to his lips. No salt; something else, sweet almost. Different but not unpleasant. No matter; he'd tasted enough tears to know what they were, and what they weren't.
I can't believe I'm about to do this. No matter what she says, things would never be the same between us.
In the firmest voice he could manage, he said, "Anna, let go of my hand."
Her grip on his hand relaxed a tiny fraction, loosening further as he pulled it away. When it was free, he slid away from her … for about eight inches, which gave him enough room to slide his hand between her and the back of the couch and circle her waist. He pulled, hard, and with a quick little gasp she was in his arms, knees straddling him with her skirt hiked up around her hips, her hands resting on his shoulders. Her chin was level with his lips; he gave it a quick kiss.
"I have some conditions."
"I haven't told you what they are yet."
"It doesn't matter. Yes."
"No, we're going to talk about them, and you're going to agree to them – one at a time. First: if we're going to do this, we're going to give it a fair chance. That means we spend all the time we can on it - even if it doesn't look promising at first - and especially, no judgments until morning, after we've both had a little time to think it over. It's going to be a short night anyway; I have to leave early - I have an appointment I've got to keep. Sorry. Or we could postpone –"
"No! I really don't think I could bear to wait, Jack. We've got, what, four hours? It'll have to do." She slid her arms around his neck. "Jack, you're so strong."
He snorted. "What are you talking about? You could bench press me with one thumb."
"It's got nothing to do with your muscles. It's coming off you in waves. As soon as you put your arms around me, I felt safe from any threat. I feel as if you can accomplish things that are beyond normal men." She sighed and laid her chin on his shoulder. "Maybe my judgment of romance novels was a little hasty."
"Well, if you start feeling that way about the porn flicks, give me some warning. Two more conditions, Anna. Are you still with me?"
She said into the side of his neck, "Oh, yes. I am sooo with you." Then she said something else, so softly that he would have missed it if he hadn't felt her lips move against his neck. "I've missed you."
He decided to ignore the last cryptic remark; no doubt there would come a more appropriate time to discuss it. He ran his hands up her sides, then under her arms and gently pulled her away until he could look into her eyes. "Second: no matter how this turns out, it stays between us. Don't let the kids know."
"Jack, we might do this once and get away with it forever, but I don't think much of our chances of… keeping an intimate relationship secret from five people sharing our house."
"Well … We'll burn that bridge when we cross it. Believe me, Anna, having the kids find out would complicate things around here beyond all imagination."
She nodded. "Okay. We'll burn that bridge when we cross it. I'll do a probability analysis; we may need to weigh options – I hope. Third?"
"Third: also regardless of how this turns out. Tomorrow, I want you to take those maid's outfits out of your closet. Give them to a costume shop or throw them away; just get rid of them, because you're never going to wear them again."
"Thank you, Jack." Her arms circled his neck again. "Okay, the deal is done, so when do we start?"
His arms were already around her waist; his hands traveled up her spine, her shoulders, the back of her slender neck; then, with his forearms behind her shoulders, he pulled her hard against him, bringing his hands forward to hold her head between them. "We already did," he said as he brought their faces an inch apart.