We fell for each other.
Like stars, it seemed.
Had I thought about falling stars then, how they’re just bits of space dust burning up as they hit the atmosphere, it likely would have taken some of the Zing! out of my romantic illusions.
But I didn’t think about it.
It was like we’d been made for each other, something I did let myself think even though I knew the cliché was only half true. I was as I’d always been. She, though, she’d been made for me.
It was a simple enough process. I’d designed every bit of her, filling in all the blanks and boxes on the Realationship™ site. And when I say design I don’t just mean the parts you might think. But everything. Down to the shape of her toes, the curve of her eyebrows.
I remember sitting at the keyboard, my fingers caressing the track pad, working my way through eye color and skin tone. Each drop down menu needed a carefully considered click, like a little nudge, a little push. Each choice opened a window to more, with all of them weighed against the ones that had come before.
And there’d been myself to consider as well–measuring my lips to match against hers, moving my hands in just the right way to see how they’d feel on the small of her back, following the prompts to upload my image so I could see how my brown eyes would reflect her blue. Finished, I’d just needed to click on all the agreements, debit my account, and wait for delivery.
The night I lost her, we lay in the back yard, a blanket between us and the ground. She rested her head on my arm, her blond hair threatening to make me sneeze as it tickled my nose. Our sweat had already begun to dry from the summer breeze, and if I moved my hand just a little I could trace the swell of her breast. It would have been perfect if we had seen a falling star then, but the cloudless sky yielded nothing but familiar constellations.
“What time is it?” she asked.
I’d designed her to disregard the tech she ran on. Occasionally, I’d hear a servo spin somewhere in her body, but if she ever heard the same, she ignored it. And so, though her operating system included a perfectly accurate internal clock, it was instinctive of her to ask me the time or to check the delicate watch I’d given her on our one-month anniversary.
She wasn’t wearing it now. Or anything else.
“Almost ten,” I said after raising my wrist and blocking out part of the sky for a moment.
She seemed to take a second to process the information, then sat up, leaving my right arm and whole right side suddenly cool as the night air touched the skin she’d just been pressed against. I smiled at the sight of her naked back.
“I’m leaving,” she said.
My smile faded.
“Leaving?” I asked, nonplussed. My turn to process.
“You,” she added.
Then she was up. Off the blanket and picking through the clothes scattered on the lawn.
“What do you mean?”
“What I said. I’m leaving you.”
Quick about it, I went to her, gently gripping her shoulders and looking into her eyes. “Are you having a malfunction?” A breach in our protocol, but then again I was only responding to what seemed to be a bigger one.
She looked insulted. And I knew it was real. Of all the boxes I’d checked, all the options I’d selected for emotional response and sensitivity, insulted hadn’t been one of them. I took my hands off her shoulders, suddenly feeling as though I was touching a stranger.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “This doesn’t…”
“Compute?” Sarcasm now. I definitely hadn’t opted for sarcasm.
“Doesn’t make sense.” I said it more to myself than to her.
She ignored the comment, turned to scoop her bra off the lawn and slipped her arms through the straps. Her face bore no expression as she covered herself, no glance at her lover to catch his appreciation of her body, no hint at the intimacy of their shared nudity. She may as well have been dressing in front of a houseplant.
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” I said, dumbfounded. Knowing I was right didn’t help. I felt suddenly that I was arguing with a real woman, that if I didn’t watch my tone, she’d use it against me.
“Why not?” she asked. Her dress now up over her head, arms poking through sleeves, pulling the whole thing down.
“I…I made you. You’re perfect. Everything.”
“Everything you need,” she said. Smug. It was ugly, coming from her. I’d never thought anything ugly about her. Never had reason.
“And no thought to what I need.”
“What you…” I began. It should have been absurd, but the way she flipped her hair up and out of her collar told me it wasn’t. And before I could second-guess myself or question the further absurdity of what I was about to say, out came, “And what is it you need?”
In that instant before she answered, she felt more real to me than ever. She had more depth than I’d imagined possible, much more than I’d even fantasized when designing her. And all because for just a second or two I felt entirely ready to provide whatever she wanted, no matter how impossible.
And then it crashed. “You’re too late,” she said. “You should have asked before.”
“Before I found him.”
“You needn’t worry about who. It’s ten o’clock in thirteen seconds. He said he’d be out front at ten.” She straightened the dress’s waist and slipped on her sandals.
“You can’t be serious!”
“Why not?” Real curiosity in her voice.
“How can you be?” I swept my arm toward the blanket behind me. “We just made love!”
“Yes. I hope you enjoyed it. I wanted to be sure our relationship had maximum satisfaction until termination. It was part of the agreement, after all.” She extended a hand, meaning to offer a genial shake goodbye.
“You’re mine, for God’s sake!” I shouted. “You can’t just…go! Some … some man can’t just come and take you.”
A smile then. Of understanding, but condescending, too. Something else I definitely hadn’t selected. “The company pro-rates. You’ll be refunded the unused portion of your guarantee.”
“But I don’t–”
“Did you want to keep the clothes?” she asked, moving to start unzipping the dress again. “Is that it?”
“Well then. It has been a pleasure.”
A little nod and she was off, walking with purpose toward the gate that led out to the street. I watched her go for a few seconds, then raced across the lawn after her.
“I’ll have you shut down,” I said. “I’ll have you decommissioned. Reprogrammed. I’ll have you back!”
She ignored me. I was off her grid now, my voice a kind of static to her. In seconds she was out the gate. A simple little sedan was parked at the curb, a man inside it watching. Who was he? And how had he met her? And did he know what she was?
I went through the gate after her and then stopped halfway across the lawn, remembering I was still naked. How I must have looked to him, and to any of my neighbors watching from their windows. Backing a few steps into the shadows, I saw her open the passenger door and slip into the car without giving me another look. Then the door shut and the engine came to life and she was gone.
In complete disbelief, I remained there beside the bushes my gardener clipped once a month. And when crickets started chirping again after the car’s hum had faded in the night, I turned and went back through the gate.
Ignoring my clothes on the lawn, I went into the house and straight to the computer. The email was already there.
“Dear Mr. Winters:
“It has come to our attention that the Realationship™ into which you entered with Provider #3165G9 has been terminated. We regret that the Realationship™ did not last for the duration guaranteed in your original agreement and offer our sincere condolences. Management would like to assure you that such events are highly anomalous. We pride ourselves in high quality at every level–from selection to manufacture to duration. Unfortunately, no system is perfect, and such anomalies do occur on occasion due to malfunction in any of a number of systems.”
Any of a number of systems, I thought. There was a veiled message in that, the implication that I was one of those systems, that her leaving was my fault. Disgusted, I shook my head and kept reading.
“We understand that said termination may be highly distressing to our clients and will offer you, at the very least, a full refund of the unused portion of your original purchase price, as per your original contract. Additionally, we are glad to offer you an additional refund beyond the pro-rated amount if you would consent to participate in a brief quality control survey that will help us determine the causes of your Realationship™’s malfunction. Finally, we are also prepared to offer you a considerable discount on the purchase of a new Realationship™, to which you may apply both the abovementioned refund and remuneration for survey participation. Below, please find three links, one for each of the options outlined above, selection of which will take you to our website where we will be able to process your request. Please note that you will need your account number and password to complete the refund, survey, or renewal processes.
“Again, please accept our condolences. We hope you will continue in your association with our products, but in the event that you opt not to, we thank you for the business you have provided us in the past and wish you all the best.”
There were three links below the last line: Apply for Refund. Apply for Refund and Participate in Survey. Enter New Realationship™.
“Screw that,” I said and turned away from the glass-topped desk where the computer rested. Walking back to the open sliding glass door, I stood on the threshold and looked out at the yard, just able to make out the dark spot that was the blanket, then up at the sky that had seemed so perfect as it had spread out above us not ten minutes ago.
I’ve had it, I thought. Their offer was too late. No more synthetics for me. Real women were complicated, sure. But they never brought with them the indignity of being offered a refund when things fell apart.
I decided I’d delete their email, ignore all three options. Let my account just linger on their books, unresolved. An irritant to some sweaty mid-level manager being pressured to keep things streamlined. The thought gave me pleasure.
Another thought followed, an even better one, and I smiled broadly.
Ignoring their email would be just the first step. I’d shower, dress and go out. Catching a woman’s eye had never been a problem. Tonight would be no different. I’d find a woman easily, probably have more than one to choose from if I timed it right. Not a relationship, certainly not a Realationship™. Just a woman, a real one, just for the night. It would put things right again.
I smiled at the thought of how easily I could wipe away the indignation with another woman’s kiss.
But before I turned away from the door, I saw it. Just at the edge of my vision. A flash. Not imagined. And gone before I’d even had the chance to focus on it. Its ghost just resonating in my mind. A falling star blasting its way across the night.
The thought it generated couldn’t be ignored. The possibility. Appreciation for falling stars. If I’d typed that in as her first quality before, I wouldn’t be alone now. And while there was no going back, there was such a thing as starting over. Not in the reconciliation sense, the marriage counselor sense. More real than that. There was a learning curve here. Maybe the malfunction really had been mine, but not in my treatment of her. Rather, in my design. Take out the flaws, add in the perfection.
A click of the mouse and my choice would be flying across the net, an impulse made of ones and zeroes, hurtling through the ether like a falling star.
My pulse quickened at the thought, desire riding me even as I began to second-guess myself.
Incurring a bit more debt was nothing compared to the benefits when I thought about that blanket, the stars, the swell of her breast. And the personal cost was negligible as well; picking up a woman in a bar would be satisfying in the short term but was always somehow disappointing in the end. Always some little thing that would be wrong, an odd glance, a bored sigh, a little aloofness just when I wanted her all to myself.
But designing a new one… I thought about the acerbic tone her voice had taken when she’d gone over to sarcasm, wondered if I could take it again if it should happen a second time. There was a risk, but one I’d not thought about when going through the process the first time. Now, with the possibility of collapse at the front of my thoughts, I could start over forewarned.
Still, should I? Did I dare?
I looked back at the computer, the email still open on the desktop, the links still waiting for me to choose.
And stepped away from the door.
Richard Levesque has spent most of his life in Southern California. For the last several years he has taught composition and literature, including science fiction, as part of the English Department at Fullerton College. Along with science fiction, his interests include Los Angeles and Hollywood history and culture, film noir, and hardboiled detective fiction. He has combined these interests with science fiction in his novel, Take Back Tomorrow, currently available in print and e-book editions. His latest novella, Dead Man’s Hand, is currently available in e-book format for Kindle. When not writing or grading papers, he works on his collection of old science fiction pulps and spends time with his wife and daughter.