by Marcus Speh

“Sometimes, as Eve was born from one of Adam’s ribs, a woman was born during my sleep from a cramped position of my thigh.”     – Proust, A Way of Swann’s

Just to take time out to create another woman seems difficult these days. The demands on a designer of females are horrendous: suddenly everyone wants them made to special order – no more “I am so happy that I have one at all!” The standard C cup sized brunette with enough cleavage to put your stubbly, worry-rutted face between soft hills and still feel contained enough but not smothered…how much thought and design went into that simple notion!

Now they want them fully able to argue their way out of parking tickets right from birth. What’s the pride in that: instead of an formless being that grows with you and that grows to like you as you grow to like her by way of neural nets as finely spun as whispering fairy tales, these new models have to come pre-charged with a pungent personality and a twangy vocabulary. Apparently, modern men cannot abide having a sexy female moron hang around the house for months before they stop feeling like paedophiles when taking her to bed.

My generation wasn’t that picky. When their numbers went down after the disaster too painful to regurgitate, after an initial global sigh of relief on the side of the male population, panic set in as it became clear that there would be a serious shortage of women possibly forever. Then there was the period of insensible lawmaking and frenzied research to guarantee the survival of the species resulting, over time, in less and less of them being available for fun, talk, partnership and, of course, sex.

Finally, real women had disappeared entirely. Some say that was the day when we stopped being one species and started being another. For us AI engineers, this was the beginning of big business, Cherry 2000 type days if you know your flicks. Suddenly, us artists of artificiality could get any amount of dough.

Did I miss women – sure I did. Everyone did. Then, one day, and this is actually what I’ve wanted to tell ya, a man came into my store – the place isn’t much to show for, just a high-tech hole in the wall really – and he brings with him one of my models, or at least I thought it was one of mine at first. He was a large guy, at least a foot taller than I and I ain’t small. Wore a grey suit and a fresh white shirt or perhaps he didn’t  perspire, and if he smelled of anything it was money. The broad behind  him looked expensive, too, and something else but I couldn’t put my finger on it at first but I got cautious and suspicious, old caged animal that I was, you know. Odd comparison that. I suppose there’s a truth in it: I feel lonely saying it.

The man said “Hey there.” I merely nodded. I was more interested in her now than in him. “That an early Eve model?” I asked pointing at his companion. “Ah – you got a good eye, Mr. Proust, a very good eye. But this is not an Eve model.” The woman giggled and I didn’t recognise the giggle either.

I was getting very confused. I’ve been in this business from the start. Voices are my specialty, if you like. I’ve always believed that the character of a woman comes across in her voice more than in how she sways or how she throws her weight around. Don’t even talk to me about looks: you can do anything with skin. But to make an artificial voice sound so that the small hair on the back of your neck stands up and your knees sense the presence of someone so special that it feels as if your ears were made to hear her alone – that is no small feat.

But I digress, again. I suddenly noticed what had put me off initially about the female: she was looking around, not just at the big guy who’d brought her. She actually turned away and showed an interest in something else. I tried to push him aside to get a better look, but he wouldn’t let me.

“Talk to me,” I said and looked him in the eye. “What type is she then.” I didn’t really ask and he knew it. He didn’t have to say anything because I suddenly realised she wasn’t a robot at all.

“I’m not a robot,” Mr. Proust, she said herself and edged her way around the man so that she now stood right in front of me, “but you’ve already realised that, haven’t you.” She had a husky voice, a voice of a quality that I hadn’t heard in half a century.

“Darling, you shouldn’t have,” said the man and his own voice sounded clunky like mine, like the voice of a man whose head is buried in a mole hill: he’s looking down seeing nothing and his behind is sticking up like a sore thumb. She nodded at him. The nod shut him up, I knew why. You couldn’t say no to this girl.

“We don’t have much time,” she said. “See, there is something we need from you, my dear man.” That she called me her ‘dear man’ went through and through. I had to throw many of my habits and responses overboard with this one, it seemed to me.

“And what would that be,” I said, suddenly feeling gruff and superfluous.  I was so impressed by the uniqueness of the moment that I began to freeze up: below the belt, I was all heat, above, cold as a card player. Here I was, quite possibly the only man besides her hunky sidekick who knew that … before I could finish the thought, she reached behind her companion’s right ear. His head promptly slumped and he closed his eyes.

“He was a robot!” I cried.

“That’s right,” she said. “And a good and clever one. How could I trust a real man, Mr. Proust. Until now, of course.” She looked me straight in the eye and I felt surveyed and my soul, the part I was aware of anyways, felt as if made ready to be shipped out to a place far away. And the hair at the back of my neck tingled. Nice. I looked back at her trying to make out what eye color she had, but it was the same with the eye as with the voice: you could see how nature wasn’t screwing around with homogeneity or symmetry. Her eyes were a temple of blue with little brown and green dots splashed about as if on a spherical canvas. It was beautiful. Not her eyes, I wasn’t thinking of her eyes, I was thinking of the miracle of creation, you see.

“I need you to focus, Mr. Proust, because we might not have too much time. Bob here,” she pointed at the bot next to her, “and I have been working for a while on something new and exciting – on a way to turn any of your brainless compliant sex machines into something true – into a personality very close to what I am – a real woman.” She waved her hand at me as I was lifting my eyes to the ceiling – evidently, she must’ve  anticipated that I would react with disbelief and arrogance.

“I know what you’re going to say. Save your breath. I am aware of the latest research by Weisslinger, Ngo and Mack and their failed experiments. But they were working from tapes and, how can I put it … an idea of women not only outmoded but dangerously simplistic. I can see it in your eyes, Mr. Proust, you’ve given up on the possibility of cyborgs. You’ve settled on life support systems for artificial vaginas and ovaries. On preset personalities, on skin coloring options…it’s all on the billboards…but the brain, the real brain of a woman must grow, you understand …”

I had enough. “What’s with the brain, Miss,” I said. “Do you really think I am interested in academic research? Or in making anything real or true? I run a business. There’s only one way to keep my attention for another thirty seconds: if you come up with a proposition that will sell.”

I was bluffing, of course. I hadn’t spend this many years on the subject because I wanted to get rich. I was an engineer and, what nobody knew, I carried a photo of my mother with me everywhere – the last real woman that I remembered well. In that picture, mom was eating pea soup and she was laughing at the camera, her forehead wrinkled a little as if she wanted to say ‘what are you doing that for’, and only I, her son, knew how to decipher the entire complex of gestures surrounding the soup, the scene and the situation without having been able to say how and why and what, let alone put all of it into a robot.

“I don’t know if my cyborgs will sell. But they will give any man something he doesn’t even know he can get or experience,” she said.

“And what would that be?” I said, too loud. Memories came flashing back to me, very old memories, and plenty of old hopes that I had long-ago forgotten.

“Fights for one thing, Mr. Proust,” she said smiling. “My female cyborg will scream at you and you can make a joke and get her to laugh and then you could make up and have sex without knowing beforehand if you might have it. And when you have sex, you will not know if it is good for her or not. You won’t even know if it will be good for you because whatever happens between you, you must create in that moment. That is the magic of my creatures. Hear the humanity in her step as she approaches.”

I shook my head. I didn’t want her to know how deeply what she said affected me. “I need to see a prototype,” I said. “You know how it is. You probably have formulae and blueprints, but I’m a pragmatist, a maker. I build, I repair, I sell. I have no use for dreams. I need to see this woman before I can believe she can exist.”

She didn’t say anything but put my hand into hers instead. It was warm and pleasant to the touch. And it was plastic.