Sex with Ghosts
By Sarah Kanning
18 August 2008
It was a typical Friday at work; my day started with a first-timer interview. He sank into the black leather and chrome armchair, one hand gripping the other nervously as if to remind himself to touch nothing.
"Tell me about your firm's sanitary procedures."
Great. A germophobe. "Nothing's safer, Mr. Smith. The flesh of the bot itself is made of antimicrobial material, prepared before each session the way surgical instruments are cleaned."
They were all Mr. Smith; the only difference was the account number on the billing information. He'd given us that over the phone, a requirement to get in the door. A large enough credit line guarantees privacy at a place like the Boutique.
"Autoclaved?" A dew of perspiration anointed his upper lip.
"Cleaned ultrasonically, then treated with a combination of chemicals, UV light, and heat, and finally rinsed in distilled water."
He seemed to relax marginally.
"Would you like to review the templates now?"
Design a date: that was everybody's favorite part—or at least, everybody's favorite of the parts of the process that I saw.
You'd think there would be infinite variety in a place like this, where you can have sex with whomever or whatever you want, and there are a few truly strange requests that come in, but mostly it's the same sad old kinks.
Sex with famous people, living and dead. The star fuckers are the easiest to deal with, because they mostly have no idea what sex would actually be like with that particular famous person.
Sex with the ex. Sex with several of the exes. Sex with Catherine and her horse. Sex with the dearly departed—that always gets me down; people leave looking so bleak. Sex between two sex bots while the paying customer watches. Sex with a hermaphrodite. Sex with a famous person while the ex watches. Revenge sex. Greed sex. Closeted sex. Lots and lots of illicit and morally questionable sex.
Lots of nervous practice sex, trying out the moves before the big prom date or wedding night. Lots of sad and lonely sex. None of it real, all of it sex with ghosts.
I shepherded Mr. Smith through the design process, then sent him off with an appointment card and a dazed expression.
Jones must have thought it the height of wit to hire me, but it worked out well; to have anyone but an asexual in a job like "bot sex parlor interviewer/order-taker" would be inviting trouble in and putting it on the payroll. And a youngish woman with better than average looks and a deep well of patience and tolerance is a good fit for a job that entails asking paying customers to reveal their deepest sexual fantasies. Or at least the fantasies they would like fulfilled at this particular time.
For me, the choice was simple; it's expensive to live in Chicago, and glorified receptionist work anyplace else in the metro area would have paid about a third of what Jones offered. "Some girls aren't comfortable with this type of business," he had explained, shrugging. "But all I want from you is what's on the job description."
So it mostly worked out. My utter lack of interest in sex does seem to bring out the puckishness in some of the techs, however—especially Bill, the principal programmer. He's continually sending out new bots to try to tempt my nonexistent libido. His latest angle was literary figures, since he found out I majored in British literature in college.
"Miss Bingham, how delightful to see you!" His green carnation was a dead giveaway, even if I hadn't recognized the swoopy hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and general air of dissipation.
"Mr. Wilde, what an unexpected pleasure." I let him kiss my hand, and he lingered over it an extra moment, stroking my skin with his thumb. I suppose it's silly to try to be polite to a bot, since they preserve no memories after being repurposed, and wouldn't take offense even if they did, but still. Oscar Wilde.
"Fancy a shag, my dear?"
"A shag, Mr. Wilde? Isn't that a bit anachronistic of you? And aren't I bit out of your line?"
"Well, a man must keep up with the times. And be open to new possibilities. Constance never complained, at any rate." He perched next to me on my desk chair, leaning in. I could feel the warmth of his body, his ribcage expanding as he breathed. The bots are quite realistic. "How about it? You know, the best way to get rid of temptation is to give in to it."
"Yes, I seem to recall you saying that before." I rolled the chair a bit, throwing his weight off balance and causing him to rise. "But I'm afraid I could only give my heart—or anything else," I hastily amended, "to someone with strong moral character. And of course he'd have to be an early riser."
He recoiled in mock horror. "An early riser! Might as well ask someone to be brilliant at breakfast, and"—I helped him finish the phrase—"only tiresome people are brilliant at breakfast."
Unabashed, he tried a few more chestnuts out on me and trotted off again. Is that the best you can do today? I messaged to Bill. Not even that amusing.
Be nice, Carla, he sent back, or I'll send out an Anthony Trollope clone with enormous white muttonchop whiskers.
I didn't think there could be much demand for Trollope, but I've certainly been proven wrong before. Bill was good; his Shakespeare was downright convivial, and could make you a proper cup of tea after a tumble. (I've sampled the former, not the latter.) I'm not sure how historically accurate that is, but it's a skill I can get behind. All the bots have built-in chess engines, but how sexy is that? I mean, how many people want to boff Bobby Fischer? (Answer: two, within the last seventeen months, in the Boutique's North American franchises.)
The next guy to come in seemed more nervous than the first guy, and got more nervous the minute he saw me. Strange.
I pulled up this new Mr. Smith's financials. Wow. Our services aren't cheap, but if he wanted to play Caligula at a Roman orgy, or quarterback of the football team getting it on with the cheerleading squad, he had enough flash to make it happen. Once or twice a month. There was a flag on his file, too: he was a frequent customer. He seemed vaguely familiar, but I didn't recall working with him directly before.
I started to feel him out—metaphorically speaking, of course—and he got shy. Not unusual.
"I want to talk to someone else." His gaze slid off me and fell to the floor. I felt like it had left a trail of slime on me.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Smith, are you unhappy with me for some reason?" I keyed in the code for a switchout.
"No, heavens no." He stammered a bit and wouldn't meet my eyes. His scalp glistened under thinning hair. "I just—I'm not comfortable talking about this particular, uh, order with you."
"Don't worry, Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones will be happy to continue your consultation." Consultation was the agreed-upon neutral term. Vaguely medical, or businesslike. Jones appeared, grinning like a shark, and cut in smoothly.
"Mr. Smith! A pleasure to see you again." He threw me a get lost look and I lost no time getting. Time for my lunch break, anyway.
Long past lunch and four or five consultations later (a couple of star fuckers, a re-creation of prom night, a widower looking for one last snuggle—poor bastard—with his wife, and a twosome looking to become a three- or foursome), I was ready to get home and hit the shower.
Sex. All those complications, all that messiness. It's like watching a group of enthusiasts really get into a hobby that you don't share. I mean, I don't understand the attraction of online gaming, either, but people spend their lives in that pursuit, too. I realize there's the whole propagation of the species angle to consider, but apparently I experience the phenomenon differently from most.
I was putting on my coat in the employee break room when I felt a presence. Not a human one. Bots must make some high-pitched whine, servomotors or something, that doesn't register consciously, but it prickles the hair on my nape.
"Bill, what did you send me now?" I asked wearily.
"Bill didn't send me." A woman's voice.
The voice was . . . I knew that voice. "He would of course program you to say that."
"Oh, don't ruin the mood. Come on."
I turned around, got a good look at her—it. Me. My own face. Then I stormed past her to the programmers' cubicles.
"Bill, I am going to kick your ass from here to Cleveland!" I was shouting and running into things, knocking over the delicate fabrication instruments, the programming rigs. Techs scrambled to get out of my way.
He was cowering when I got there, cornered in his beige work area, eyeing the five-foot cube walls as if he might try some impromptu high jumping.
"It wasn't my idea to make her," he said, stammering a bit under my white-hot glare. "Jones signed the work order."
"And you just nodded and started scrolling through my security footage?"
"Listen, she wasn't even built here. We shipped the specs to Baltimore, and—"
"Baltimore? My sex stunt double has been screwed by the Baltimore office?"
Realizing he was just digging himself deeper, he fell silent. The beginning of wisdom.
"Clarkson, I am going to ask one question, and you are going to answer it. Truthfully." I glared at him and he managed to meet my eye for a fraction of a second. "Why did Jones want to make a sex bot with my face on it?"
Bill fidgeted and licked his lips. "He said, uh, he said, there were requests."
"We don't have to honor every request, do we?"
A mellow baritone cut through the tension in the cubicle. "C'mon, Carla. You know we'd double-bill Elvis and Mother Teresa gettin' it on for these jokers. And have."
"Jones." My employer. I whirled, rage searing through me. "This is different. I have to work here. Elvis and Mother Teresa don't. I don't want these creeps coming in here, thinking they'll get a piece of me, leering at me—"
"They do that now." His seamed, suntanned face was serene as a Buddha's.
"But there's a line, damn it! A line they shouldn't be able to cross."
"Carla. Our business is crossing lines." He gave me a cool, evaluating look. "Come on."
I knew where the playrooms were, but hadn't set foot in one since my orientation—despite the generous employee discounts. At the moment, one was set up like a locker room, another as a shoe store. Jones led me to a third door and opened it, waving me inside. I stepped through the door.
I was looking at the reception area where I meet with clients. No, not an exact replica. The chair was much more padded, and the desk was as large as a twin bed.
"You're actually fairly popular at the moment." Jones gave a small shrug. "Among a certain set of our clientele."
"The switchout with Mr. Smith?"
Jones inclined his head. "Although I don't know what possessed him to send that bot out to you. I assure you it wouldn't have been Bill's idea—he's been against this from the start."
"Well, that's just fucking great." I fought with my gorge and won, temporarily at least.
"I had hoped you would understand, Carla."
"No, you didn't, or you would have told me first." My vision blurred and went red around the edges. "You would have asked me."
"Just save it, Jones. Save it for the paying customers."
I was out the door. Jones didn't follow me. Bill was hiding somewhere, which was fine. I didn't need to see him, either.
I didn't think too much about what I was going to do until I saw her again, standing in the corridor by the back door. She was wearing a wool skirt, black tights, a black tank top, and a cardigan—what I would wear, only shorter, smaller, tighter, and sluttier. I threw my coat at her. It.
"Put that on. We're going out."
"I'm sorry, I'm not allowed out, but we could go back to one of the rooms and—"
Shit. Built-in security protocols. Anti-theft insurance. I returned to Bill's cubicle (he had already fled), grabbed a programming rig, turned it on, and switched it to Simple Voice Command.
"Open the door and get out."
She—it—obeyed, and I followed, clipping the rig to my belt. What is it with programmers and little plastic boxes with belt clips?
"The white car. Get in the passenger side."
I drove five miles to a convenience store parking lot.
"Lean forward and pull your hair away from your neck."
"Glad to." The two words in her mouth somehow held infinite erotic promise.
"Shut up. We're just going to do a bit of minor surgery here. It won't hurt a bit."
I didn't actually care if it did. The GPS unit was in a port under the hairline at the nape of her neck—hard to find unless you knew what to look for. Luckily, Boutique designers firmly believe in plug-and-play. I dumped the chip in the back of a pickup with Tennessee plates. With any luck, it would buy me time to get away.
Get away. Where to, and for how long? To do what? I could barely look the thing in the face, and I was taking it on a vacation? I knew I didn't want it in my apartment. That was the first place they'd look, and besides, I didn't want it touching anything I owned. Having it in the car was bad enough.
I could get out of town, head south, find a little motel off the beaten path. I could spend a couple days away, get my head together. But if I was going to lie low for the weekend, I'd need some supplies. And cash.
When I came out of the convenience store, she was chatting up a middle-aged guy in the parking lot, standing next to his Subaru and giggling. He gave me a quick glance, and I heard him say something insinuating about "a me sandwich on you bread." Shit.
"Time to go, Sis."
She gave him a parting smile, but dutifully got back in the car. The guy watched her go, looking like a million dollars had fallen out of the sky into his lap and then vaporized. "Your sister says she likes to party," he ventured hopefully. "Do you like to party?"
"No." I left some rubber in the parking lot.
It's an existential problem. It's as if one soul had been split off at the libido and placed in two bodies. It's like—I have no idea what it's like. I have no idea what it's like to exist only for purely physical, sexual pleasure.
Taking a stolen bot across state lines, I thought as the "Indiana Welcomes You" billboard appeared ahead. Got to be some kind of felony. But then, I wasn't sure it was entirely legal to create an automated sex worker who was the spitting image of one of your employees, either. Especially without that employee's knowledge and consent. So Jones might not even have called the cops. Anyway, if I were looking for a disgruntled employee with a stolen bot, I wouldn't look for them in La Porte.
If I were looking for anything other than fishing lures and maybe used truck parts, I wouldn't look for it in La Porte, but they did have motels. It was full dark by the time I pulled into the La Porte Country Inn and Cabins.
"I'm such a light sleeper," I told the bored innkeeper. She barely looked up from her game show. "Could you give me whatever's farthest from the road?" Off season there were plenty of rooms, even on Friday night. I got the keys to a cabin with a kitchenette in exchange for most of the cash I had with me.
I parked the car out of sight of the road, and ushered my doppelganger inside. Then I carried in the supplies and shut the door. It was a beige room with beige carpet, beige curtains, and a beige bedspread on the king-sized bed.
"What do they call you?" I asked.
"Narcisse," she said.
"And what should I call you?" She made even this innocent question sound like an invitation to unimagined delights.
"Ma'am," I said flatly.
"Yes, ma'am," she said, her voice instantly rising half an octave to make her sound like an uncertain schoolgirl. I sighed.
She kicked off her shoes and lolled on the bed. Its presence seemed to embolden her to kick up the charm a notch; she was practically purring. Time for a distraction.
"What can you do besides play chess?" I asked the bot.
"Besides the obvious?" My double arched her eyebrow.
"Do you have any idea how tiresome the sexual banter gets after awhile?"
"Is that a rhetorical question?"
"Yes. So stop it. Now, what else. Besides that."
"I can do an initial psychiatric intake—"
"A counseling bot?"
"Just enough to sound like a shrink."
"The white coat fantasy?"
"Precisely. I also have extensive knowledge of eighteenth and nineteenth century English literature."
"And I can do Swedish and shiatsu massage. You look like you could use some."
I stretched my neck, tilting my head from side to side. Tight as piano wire. "Grand theft sex bot is tense work."
The bot came and sat behind me on the bed and began to knead my taut shoulder muscles. It was the touch of a stranger, and I felt relieved—but would I have recognized my own touch anyway? Can't give yourself a back rub.
"Narcisse," I said, "do you notice anything funny about you and me? Any similarities?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean get up. Look." The closet doors were mirrored; I pointed at our reflection in them. It was a lot easier to look at her reflection in a mirror; somehow she looked less uncanny.
"Oh," she said, her voice a bit uncertain. "We're very similar."
"Try fucking identical." We couldn't actually be identical—unless Jones had done more than scan security footage. I wouldn't have put it past him. "Narcisse. Take off your clothes. Everything."
"Sure." She giggled as if glad to be on more familiar ground, and was naked in a few seconds.
I breathed out air I didn't know I'd been holding in. Her moles and dimples and imperfections, though skillfully done, didn't match mine. So I would probably let Jones keep his balls. Probably.
"Do you like the way I look?" She spun and faced me, artfully jiggling things I have no idea how to jiggle. "You could take off your clothes, too, you know."
I felt suddenly exhausted by the psychic weight of all this weirdness. I flopped down on the bed.
"Or I could just give you a foot rub." Her naked thigh brushed my toes and raised gooseflesh all over me.
"Can you make me some tea? Oh, and how about putting some clothes back on?" She took the minimalist approach to following my last order, donning a pair of panties that resembled an eye patch, and then began to rattle things in the kitchenette.
"Fine." I had a ridiculous thought. "Why don't you quote me some Yeats while you're at it?"
"I made my song a coat," she replied, and I grinned. "Covered with embroideries, out of old mythologies, from heel to throat." Ding of a microwave. "But the fools caught it, wore it in the world's eyes as though they'd wrought it. Song, let them take it, for there's more enterprise"—sound of water pouring into a mug—"in walking naked."
"Bill, you high-class bugger, you surprise me," I said under my breath. Louder, I said, "Do your other clients like you to recite poetry to them?"
"I couldn't kiss and tell."
Right. Deactivated between sessions, she actually couldn't—her short-term memory was wiped clean each time. "Well," I asked, "what else have you got?"
"Whatever you want," she said. I rolled my eyes. She was made for sex, so I was just going to have to get used to everything coming out like a double entendre. Or a single entendre. Or just a dirty limerick.
"Here's your tea."
It was hot and steeped perfectly. I propped myself up with pillows to drink it, and Narcisse sat primly in a chair—primly except for her lack of attire, which made a mockery of the primness. They'd given her more than a smattering of my postures and tics, all gleaned from three years' worth of front office security tapes. I do sit primly.
No taping was allowed in the playrooms, a necessary precaution against blackmail. Small comfort; at least there weren't any sex tapes featuring my silicone twin floating around.
"You're tired and tense," Narcisse said. "A hot shower might perk you up."
"Are all sex bots this pushy?" I asked. But it did sound good. "You stay out of the bathroom. Understood?"
"Yes, ma'am." Her tone was mocking, but I knew she would obey. I mean, I was pretty sure she'd obey. Damn these later, more complicated models. The first-generation models were limited to the basic commands: faster, slower, harder, softer, and more.
She did obey while I let the near-scalding water pummel me for almost twenty minutes. I heard noises as I turned off the water. Instantly suspicious, I wrapped a towel around me and opened the bathroom door a crack.
Narcisse had opted to start the party by herself. Enthusiastically. My stomach lurched. It wasn't disgust I felt, but a kind of vertigo, a queasy sense of dislocation, and in back of that, loss.
Bots have acute hearing and sight, so I knew she'd heard the water shut off, had noticed the door open half an inch. The show was entirely for my benefit.
"You aren't Narcisse," I muttered, "just the reflection."
I could deactivate her, leaving her a dead marionette. I could melt off her face over the burner of the stove, revealing the titanium alloy substructure underneath. I could even instruct her to wade out to the middle of the lake, thirty feet deep, and stay there.
Instead, I crawled into the bed with that bit of my lost self. "Show me what makes you feel good," I said.
She did. Categorically. Encyclopedically. Even limited by the number and type of bodies we had, and with no special equipment, it was fairly exhaustive. And exhausting. Outside it got dark, then got light again, a couple times. When I thought of it, I ate; when I needed to, I slept.
I wasn't horny or hot, but I was very, very curious. I did feel a shimmer of faint heat once or twice, but it was fleeting. That's just how it is with me. Narcisse, however, was like a fine-tuned instrument of sensation. A light breath on her skin subtly affected her body in half a dozen ways.
Finally I said, "Enough," and curled up to sleep. That was Sunday afternoon.
On Monday morning, my first stop was Bill's cubicle. Narcisse, blank and obedient, was right behind me.
"Clarkson, that was bullshit about Baltimore. She's your work." It wasn't a question, so he didn't answer it.
"She was fabricated and tested in Baltimore," he said carefully, probably hoping I wouldn't shake him again.
"Any chance you can wipe her template?"
He looked at me mournfully. "Not if I want to keep my job." Right. Jones would have the final say.
It was as if Bill had read my thoughts. "Don't bother asking him. He's pissed enough that you took her off-site, unauthorized—"
"Look, it stinks. I know it does. But it's his call."
"You see, that is a weasel," I told Narcisse as I left the cubicle and she fell into step behind me. "Now we go and meet the asshole."
"Weasel," she said, in a careful, neutral voice. "Asshole."
"Carla." Jones was waiting placidly in his office. "So glad you came back with my property. Saves me the trouble of having you arrested."
"Your property is wearing my face, Frank," I said. His genial slickness was already getting to me. How had I managed to work here for three years?
"I refer you to the waiver you signed during your first day on the job," he said calmly.
"You said that was for publicity photos, not sex bot templates!"
He just smiled his sharklike smile. "It's fair use, according to the terms of our agreement."
"Fair use to have those sweaty yokels drooling over me?"
"Carla. If a client treats you with anything less than perfect respect, I'll be happy to remove them personally from the premises."
"What about the ones diddling my evil twin in one of the back rooms?"
"You can't stop them from fantasizing about you. You and I both know that. It's fantasy we provide here, whether it's a fantasy about the latest movie star or the front office help. The great 'what if.'"
"Jones, you're full of it." I pulled my security card off my lapel and threw it on his desk. "This should make it simple. If she doesn't go, I'll be happy to."
Even after three years, the personal items I'd accumulated in my desk fit into one box with room to spare. Bill and Jones both stayed away. It was Narcisse who strolled in as I was putting on my coat, and I got a near-paralyzing sense of déjà vu.
"Get lost, kid, you bother me."
I had reset her myself, so the events of the weekend were my memories only, recorded and preserved in my own head and no place else.
"Bill says he's sorry."
"Yeah, okay." Coward. "Tell him I'm leaving, so I'm expecting the demand to fall off quite a bit for the newest product."
She nodded, either not understanding or not caring that the message was about her.
"And tell Jones that he should model for the next one, so he can go and fuck himself."
I picked up the box and walked out the front door, the one the clients used after slaking whatever desire they imagined they'd brought in with them.
If I hadn't glanced back one last time just as I stepped onto the pavement outside, I would have missed Narcisse taking her place at the front desk, a bright and welcoming smile on her face.