With the new Flinch&Wince™ integrated tech, the Aesthesian2040i reacts just like a real person! With over 1000 screams, cries, moans and groans in the sound library, you can fully customize your Aesthesian’s responses to any and all sensation. Our standard model now also cries tears at only the touch of a button. Want them to bruise? Want them to bleed? For only a little bit extra…
“Bleeding? Sounds a bit messy doesn’t it,” Wilmien said, cutting her gaze toward her husband. He was the anal one when it came to cleanliness, applying the same meticulousness to the sanitation of his house as he did to his court cases. Hannes glanced back at her, his brows puckered in their customary frown. Twenty years ago she hadn’t been able to look away from his wide and easy smile and the divots it left in his cheeks. Now she couldn’t bear to make more than a few seconds of eye contact. It wasn’t the beginnings of the beer-boep straining the buttons of his shirt, the bald patch no amount of comb-over could hide, or the fact turning forty had instantly transformed him into his father. None of those were the reason Wilmien cursed herself for not getting out sooner, for not having the courage to be honest with herself before she invested soul and emotion in a relationship to make others happy.
“Our compounds are all vegan and organic.” The salesdroid flashed a set of even, if too-small, teeth. The name on its badge read ‘Max-4,’ the generic moniker for all such bots. “The excretions wash out of most fabrics and off most surfaces with warm, soapy water.”
“And the rate of regeneration?” Hannes asked.
“That depends on the extent of the damage,” Max-4 said with annoyingly perfect diction. “All our models come with an extensive breakdown of recovery times.” The droid produced a glossy pamphlet and passed it to Hannes. “Basic fist-induced damage, for example the equivalent of a heavy session with a traditional punching bag, will take less than three hours to fully heal.”
“What about bullets?” Hannes asked and Wilmien stiffened.
Max-4’s eyes quivered for a moment as it processed the request. Wilmien tensed, half-expecting even a droid to stand in judgment, but Max-4’s face remained inscrutable. No, she was projecting again. Droids like this weren’t capable of expressing emotion.
“Getting hit with a round of twenty-two at about a hundred meters would take approximately an hour,” Max-4 said, words delivered matter-of-factly yet still landing like a fist in Wilmien’s gut. “A nine-mil slug to the head point blank could take anywhere between twelve and twenty-four hours to fully regenerate. Not that we recommend shooting your Aesthesian in the head,” Max-4 added, lips twitching in an ersatz grin. Wilmien might’ve missed it if she hadn’t been staring at the droid’s lips, if she hadn’t been imagining what it would feel like being kissed by smooth silicon. Would those lips taste of plastic? High-end Aesthesian mouths could be flavored.
“The standard warranty doesn’t cover deliberately induced head trauma,” Max-4 continued. “And should you wish to terminate your contract with Aesthesis Inc. pick-up can be arranged at no extra cost. All parts of the Aesthesian are recyclable.”
Wilmien narrowed her gaze at the droid and Max-4 seemed to notice, pale eyes flicking between her and Hannes. Whatever Max-4 parsed from her expression it caused the droid to correct its own. Its quirked lips smoothed into blank docility. Wilmien wondered how sharp Max’s teeth were. Would they nibble; would they bite and leave her bloody?
She coughed and turned away, letting her gaze rove over the rows of racked Aesthesians. They came in an array of skin tones with various hairstyles. Some were dressed in company-standard gray jumpsuits while others were garbed like fashion house mannequins. Most stood with their heads bowed and eyes closed. A few stared straight ahead, unblinking. Awake, but seemingly unaware.
Gender expression ranged from the traditional binary to complete androgyny, and biological attributes were fully customizable. For quite a bit extra, Wilmien could even have the android custom-sculpted. Previously, it’d been possible to have an Aesthesian modeled after celebrities, but that caused one too many social media fiascoes and expensive lawsuits. Options had since become more limited and ethical. At the moment, the trend—in certain circles—involved replacing a dead partner with an Aesthesian facsimile.
Tantamount to taxidermy. Wilmien glanced at Hannes, imagining having a droid in his stead. Didn’t she deserve an upgrade in the spousal department? In the dark and quiet of 4am, forced awake by Hannes’s whiskey-induced snoring and her own squirming thoughts, in those moments she plucked the truth from her heart and held it in the gentle cage of her fingers, letting its fragile wings flutter against her palms.
She never should’ve married a man—let alone this one. But he was safe and came with the stamp of family approval.
While Hannes continued to discuss various specifications with the salesdroid, Wilmien wandered closer to the inert Aesthesians. One caught her attention, beautiful even in standby. Something in the face, the bow of the sultry lips and the wide-set eyes reminded her of the girl she’d known when she was sixteen, the girl she’d spent two years dreaming of undressing; the girl who’d gone with Wilmien’s older brother to his Matric dance.
Shevani. The name was a thorn catching at the fraying tapestry of her memory, a soul-scouring what if.
She reached out a tentative hand and touched the arm hanging slack in its socket. It was oddly warm, soft to the touch and dusted with fine, dark hairs. She squeezed a little harder, digging her purple nails into the synthetic flesh. Its eyes opened, pupils constricting. It tilted its head to focus on her. The eyes were a shade too light, the hair chestnut instead of mahogany, but the rest was uncanny. Some people sold their faces to companies like Aesthesis Inc. especially young students always desperate for cash.
Tingles laced up Wilmien’s spine and a welcome if unfamiliar ache began between her legs. The crescent marks her nails had made were slowly fading. She swallowed and licked her lips. As much as she might want to deny it, her daughter’s proclivities certainly hadn’t been inherited from Hannes.
This is for Crystal, she reminded herself, trying to ignore the bayonet of jealousy skewering her ribs. For the child she’d never really wanted but felt obliged to beget. For the little girl that had torn screaming into Wilmien’s world and demanded love she didn’t even know she had to give, needed to give. Motherhood had been all-consuming, suffocating at times, and yet a welcome reprieve from the marriage she already regretted.
Was Crystal’s disposition Wilmien’s fault? Didn’t every parent blame themselves for the failings of their children. Not Hannes, he refused to believe his child might harbour darker tendencies. Sullen, withdrawn, and prone to violent outbursts, that’s how Crystal had been described by the doctor Wilmien had taken her to—before Hannes put a stop to the visits. Wilmien understood only too well. Crystal was a mirror, the reflection cracked and tarnished. It was one Wilmien didn’t like looking at now that the corners of Crystal’s cupid-bow mouth were snagged with a familiar cruelty. All the “I hate yous” and “leave me alones” punctuated by slamming doors left Wilmien bruised and exhausted. At least with this purchase, Crystal would have a more resilient target for what Hannes had decided was teenage angst.
But there was no reason the Aesthesian couldn’t provide catharsis for more than one family member, surely? The thought eased the envy prodding at Wilmien’s heart.All our models are sex-capable. The words from the brochure scorched a trail through her mind before Hannes’s grumbling drew her attention.
“…for a little bit extra, no doubt,” Hannes said with a harrumph.
“You get what you pay for, sir,” the droid said. “The Aesthesian range is state-of-the-art synthetic tech. Of course, if finances are a concern we do offer payment plans for—”
“That won’t be necessary.” Hannes puffed out his chest, oblivious to how easily he was falling for the sale’s pitch.
Wilmien glanced back at the Shevani lookalike. It was still looking at her; the marks she’d left on its arm mere memory. Her heart hammered a little faster in her chest as she imagined the patterns her teeth could make on a canvas so easily renewed.
“I’ll give you a moment to decide,” Max-4 said.
“We’ll take one like that.” Wilmien pointed to the droid. Its eyes had closed again. “But with darker hair and eyes to match, please. I think Crystal would prefer it,” she added when Hannes squinted at her with eyes like a highveld winter sky. His hair—what was left of it—was a near translucent blond. When they had sex—not for months now—it was long, black hair Wilmien imagined knotted in her fingers.
“An excellent choice,” Max-4 said after a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll have one customized and delivered within three work days. Now, if you’ll come this way, we can discuss the details of your package.” Max-4 gestured toward a private cubicle. There were several others sat at similar partitions with their Maxes, all identical and smiling while the humans signed contracts and even wiped an occasional tear from leaking eyes.
Wilmien held her breath while Hannes scoured the fine print in the contract with his attorney’s gaze. She exhaled only when the delivery date had been secured.
The car started for home on autopilot—easier to let the AI navigate five ‘o clock Joburg traffic—as she scanned the papers Hannes handed her. He seemed content to stare across the vehicles trundling bumper to bumper toward the northern suburbs. Wilmien searched the manual until she found what she was looking for. She crossed her legs, tight, grateful for the rigid seams of her jeans, and memorized the requisite code.