Daniel's pulse keeps rhythm with last night's hangover, knifing through my skull. But I endure it. His cardiac cycle is as familiar as the topography of my palms, reassuring as the nest of controls harnessing me to the geminoid. It's a connection, an auditory life line.
He dabs at the jaw with an embroidered handkerchief, eyes roaming for a place to roost. I move a control stick in tandem, and my avatar's gaze keeps pace.
"Yes." A pinprick of hesitation. "It's just a little bit warm."
"I can't see how that'd be the case." I scratch at the coarse tissue of my right cheek.
We're in his favorite restaurant, celebrating the end of my physiotherapy. A converted bungalow in the belly of Kuala Lumpur, it sits at a discreet address, devoid of traditional signage and tawdry decor, a favorite among incognito celebrities and the Malaysian elite.
Everything is natural here, from the swarthy foreign chefs and the leather wingtips worn by the men to the caramel-cream legs of the women, elegant as Birman kittens. All human, all meat and marrow, all flown in at ludicrous expense. If there are implants or polymers in the room, they're top-of-the-line, real enough to be invisible to my ocular modules.
"Nothing you need to worry about." The stitching of his smile frays a little around the corners. "I just haven't had the chance to acclimate to the local weather yet. Give it a few days, darling. It'll be fine."
I inflate my geminoid's lungs with a touch of a button, then let the air escape in an exasperated hiss. Daniel averts his gaze, turning his attention to a forkful of angel hair spaghetti, coils of carbohydrates spiced with whiskey-soaked bacon.
For a little while, we say nothing of importance, batting inane remarks across the table, each volley shaving my patience a little thinner.
Eventually, I give up. The frustration comes out with a crunching thump. I hear wooden fibers rupture under my metal fist, a thin sound like the death of mice. The cutlery wobbles from the impact, as does his diplomatic grin.
Conversation used to be so easy.
I want him to admit that he's appalled with what he sees, that what I am contradicts his aesthetic sense. But he's too polite, too strangled in his own niceties to discuss the crisp-crackle-growl of boiling flesh and the meandering, mumbling weeks at the psychiatrist.
"Daniel," I drum my fingers. The microphone relays a hymn of creaks and clicks. "I know something's wrong."
His smile is clumsy, awkward as a rich man in a bargain suit.
"Excuse me?" he says, around a too-quick slurp of Chardonnay.
"My surveillance equipment tells me your resting heart rate is rocking 110 bpm. Your epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol levels are through the roof, and—"
He raises his hands gracefully. "Guilty as charged."
The honesty nets him a rueful grin. "It's the arm, isn't it?"
"You know I love you, and that I have no prejudices against cutting-edge technology," He taps his temple, at the faint bulge of a high-priced implant. A vanity item, more than anything else, meant to expedite long-distance communication in an utterly cost-ineffective way. "But, I just— I need you as a person. Not as a machine."
"I am a person," I reply stiffly. "Tele-operated androids are recognized by the FDA."
"I know," He cards fingers through oiled, immaculate hair. "I remember. We've talked about this. You don't have to tell me again. It's just—"
"You can't do this to yourself. To us. I need you, not this…thing. I want to hold you again. Don't you miss—? "
I press fingers to my chest, where actuators parrot the thrum of my heartbeat. "You know this body is equipped to handle that. If you hold me, the interface will translate the pressure and—"
"I know," The sound is thick with meaning. He licks his lips. "I know."
We go back to the tapas arranged haphazardly between us.
"I suppose I'll just have to get used to it," he says.
Walnut-encrusted beef, steeped in peppercorn and motes of java. Crepes thin as paper, lined with pureed lingonberry and topped with melting bacon gelato. Char-grilled haloumi shipped from Cyprus. Soft-shelled crabs roasted in saffron and salted egg yolk, rich enough to make you choke.
It's such an extravagance; we both know that latency and my rig's limited palette of esters make it difficult to conceive the subtler nuances, the play of spice and salt that defines this kind of culinary excess.
Still, it's the thought.
"Is there anything else you want to tell me?"
"No," Daniel says, glibly. His pulse hastens. "Unless you'd like to hear about work in the hotel."
"If you'd like to tell me, I'd like to hear."
Whatever his other faults, Daniel is an excellent conversationalist, attuned to the natural dips and lulls in human interaction. I feel a tickle of love as he sweeps me into a narrative that would seem banal composed by anyone else. Unbidden, my fingers snake toward his, eager to transmit affection.
But then I catch a glimpse of myself in the darkened window, a ghost-image of iron, not skin.
I jerk away, coiling my grasp instead around the stem of my wine glass.
He doesn't say anything, his eyes unreadable as they graze over my knuckles, his chemical readings stabilizing at a genial neutral.
Midway through an anecdote about a Middle-Eastern man and his bickering harem, Daniel's phone rings.
His smile doesn't waver but his pulse misses a contraction, a suspicious irregularity. "I'm afraid so. Excuse me, lovely."
He leaves, pressing a cool kiss to my cheek before he goes. I watch him in silence. The geminoid records his departure with a mild, unblinking stare.
With only the tiniest throb of guilt, I sift through NFC fields and cellular frequencies, filtering through conversations, until I catch Daniel's voice, pitched low and sweet. He is apologizing to someone, to—Ah.
She is young, this woman on the other side of the phone, her diction sparrow-quick, her words a breathless flutter that you could crush in a palm. His infidelity doesn't surprise me. The months after my surgery have been marked by sudden excursions, new personal accounts, and timid phone calls conducted from the sanctuary of the bathroom.
What surprises me is how their affection inspires no jealousy at all. Only a faint melancholy.
I listen for a while, to Daniel gently reminding her how I still sit forefront in his heart, that he would decide when he's achieved his own self-imposed ultimatum. She doesn't beg him to exorcise me from his life. Instead, she blesses him. With love, with happiness, with her friendship if they find themselves divorced from this clandestine union.
I break the connection, strangely embarrassed.
Daniel returns, facade unruffled, while I'm still musing over my lack of rage. The only indicator of his guilt is a subtle pensiveness in his smile.
"I hope you weren't bored," Another feather-light kiss, this one finding my lower lip and tongue.
"No," I reply, pulling away, twisting locks of hair around my fingers. As always, the contact feels strange, obtrusive. My mouthpiece doesn't translate kisses well. "I had the food to keep me company."
He sits again, elbow on the table, cupping a tilted cheek on his open palm. "So, where were we?"
The words are crumbs catching in the machinery of my throat. "We were going to talk about our future together."
"We were?" His eyes stained with questions. No caution, only a gentle wonder, tantalizing in its innocence.
"Yes." Because I am sad for the other woman in your life, who sounds so exhausted of waiting. "I have a good thing here, and, well, you've been so patient."
Confusion surrenders to joy, a golden sunburst that scorches his melancholy to ash. "Ah, well. I wasn't—"
"We've been together for 7 years. I think we should talk about, you know."
"Yes." His happiness fizzes like champagne under plastic. "Yes, um. We should. I was thinking…"
In the end, it is exactly what I expected. He wants me, not this simulacrum. To hold, to kiss, to love.
"But, I'm not…"
"It's okay," He tells me. "We can fix you."
His remark makes me flinch. Fix me. Like a broken toy, a bicycle with a missing wheel. Fix me, not the situation, or the way he shuddered whenever his fingers glided over the scars on my back. Fix this shambling, shattered tether to an earlier time.
"You?" His face is radiant, fingers warm.
"I—" Release is easier than I thought it'd be, easier than relearning the structure of your face. Easier than piloting a ghost of yourself. "—I think you should call Jennifer, and let her know you both have my blessing."
His eyes brim with contradiction, with panic and wonder in equal measure. For the first time in a long time, I find myself yearning for touch, for the reassuring intimacy of skin on skin.
I pat his hand, not unkindly.
"Eat. Your food is getting cold."
This dispatch is from Terraform, our new online home for future fiction.