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.
I wake to pain.
Crystal’s fists, her feet, her teeth.
The pain travels along synthetic synapses, triggering pre-programmed responses. She laughs when I scream. She once licked the tears off my face—for a viral challenge doing the rounds—but they made her gag and she’s since disabled the feature.
The morning session leaves Crystal sweaty and breathing hard, her fitness watch vibrating congratulations for the calories burned. I lie on the cold concrete of the garage floor, artificial blood seeping from split lips, turning teeth and chin sticky.
I watch the bruises bloom across my ribs and touch the indentations left by sharp incisors as they swell and darken. Crystal regards her work, her expression difficult to parse—anger in the frown, something darker in her eyes. I ball my fists even though I’m hard-coded to endure and never retaliate.
She picks up her phone and takes a photo.
“Lift your arm away. Tilt your chin up. Ja, like that,” she says and I obey. She poses with her hand against my skin as if she’s holding up a serving tray, my pain the offering.
Snap, tag, post. She grits her teeth, waiting for the first like. I turn away; she’ll only hit me harder if she sees pity on my face.
“Jislaaik, even more likes than yesterday. And ten new followers!” She shows me the number of the heart icons swarming into triple digits beneath the latest picture. “Love how some asshole keeps reporting me, thinking you’re real.” She glances sideways at me as if daring me to respond. “We’re going to have to get more creative. Think I could break your arm.” She nudges my elbow with the toe of her Converse. There’s no restriction on posting images of damaged appliances, which Crystal likes to remind me is my designation under the law. Her father would know.
Finally, she leaves me in the garage on an old camping mattress clotted with my fluids. It takes a few minutes for my haptic sensors to register the end of activity, then the recovery cycle begins. This puts me in standby mode, not awake but aware.
I hear the distant barking of dogs, the passing clamor of hadedahs, and the ululation of sirens. Beyond the grimy window, the world moves and breathes while I huddle. My processor logs the seconds and I count the moments until Crystal returns.
When she does, I feel the atoms shift against my skin as she stomps across the driveway, car doors slamming, voices raised. Sometimes she needs an afternoon session, taking out the frustrations of her day on my pseudo-flesh. My system trembles with seismic rumbles as I wait. The synthetic fibers within my skin knit and weave and erase the visible damage, renewing my skin according to the selected program. But I remain alone, for now, and the tremors within me quiet.
Later, when the night is a chorus of crickets and distant rumbles of thunder, soft footsteps stalk through the house: slow and careful. She opens the door and her scent of talcum and rose wafts through the fug of bio-diesel and paint thinner.
She wakes me with her nails pressed into my arm, the pain brief but sufficient. She cleans my face then swabs my hands with alcohol wipes, sanitizing every finger.
She whispers the protocol override into my ear and my body adjusts accordingly, rearranging my anatomy. Given the directive, my code dictates that I deliver.
We begin with a cuddle, my arms wrapped loose around her shoulders as she sighs and calls me Shevani. I shudder, but Wilmien doesn’t feel it as she nips my ears with incisors as sharp as her daughter’s.
She likes to tell me about her day or the book she’s reading as she guides my hand between her legs. Sometimes she cries as I touch her, leaving fresh bruises with her fingers, screaming against my palm or burying her despair in my chest, yells echoing through my ribs.
I cup her breasts in gentle hands and put my fingers in her mouth. She bites down hard. I lick her ears and the hollow of her collarbones as she yanks my hair. I use my tongue, doing as she commands in whispers and caught breaths.
This time it isn’t me groaning on the floor.
After, Wilmien cleans me again, leaving no trace of our time together. She departs and I remain in garage darkness on the old camping mattress that is home. It takes a few minutes for my haptic sensors to register the end of activity. This time no recovery cycle begins. There is no damage where human eyes can see.
By morning, Crystal’s settings have been restored.
This pain is sharp and hot and burning. Again and again, a meteor impact.
Above me, blue sky. Trees and sun and a cool breeze slicing like a knife through the heat. On the horizon, woolly cumulus gather in darkening drifts. I try to focus my other senses, try to redirect processing power, but my code is fixed and I have no control.
I’m knocked from my feet. Knees in wet dirt spattered burgundy from the holes in my chest and legs.
I scream; I cannot cry.
Recent updates now allow me to beg and plead for her to stop in all eleven official languages. And I do, the words torn from my throat and spat through my teeth.
“Eat metal, Lynette.” Crystal pulls the trigger. “I wanna watch you die, bitch.”
As usual, she rattles off the names of those she despises and their crimes. The litany offers little variation. For a moment, she names me before she squeezes her finger.
I become Joost who takes photos up her skirt. Principal Visagie who dismisses the behaviour of the school’s rugby captain with a shrug of ‘boys will be boys’. Lynette who calls Crystal ‘thunder thighs’ when they swim in PE. Coach Naidoo who hears and says nothing. Lynette who used to kiss her behind the music block while they waited for choir practice, but when others found and told their friends Crystal had forced her. Ms Schalkwyk whose counselor’s advice was “it’s just a phase.”
Again. Again. She leaves me splattered, my body in tatters.
Her father. To me he’s Superuser One though he has yet to make use of me.
“That’s enough,” he says. “The maintenance plan won’t cover damage like this.” There’s beer on his breath, and something stronger.
“Ag, Pa. You said I could do whatever I want to it,” Crystal pouts. “You said it was more effective than therapy.”
“Ja, but I’d rather not void the warranty. It was bloody expensive and you’re making a mess. Don’t want others to start complaining or Theuns won’t let us use the range. You want to get banned?”
“You just don’t want to piss off your drinking buddy.”
Crystal grinds the toe of her shoe into the dirt, into my blood. Her father retreats as others take aim and pull the trigger at their own targets. I’m the only one that bleeds.
“Someday, I’ll do this for real,” Crystal says, her words barely a whisper. My ears hear what her father’s do not as she raises the rifle and aims at my head.
Wilmien hadn’t considered herself a bitter woman. Perhaps it was the realization she’d tripped over the halfway mark on her allotted lifetime making panic close a fist around her throat—she would die in this city, in this house, in this marriage—or perhaps it was pulling out a load of wet laundry only to find it snarled yet again with the remnants of a tissue from Hannes’s pocket, making her see the proverbial red.
Except, the world didn’t suddenly smudge crimson in shades of incandescent rage. Instead, the pall over her eyes cleared, reality sharpening as if the dulled edges of regret and disappointment had turned razorblade. The shadows were sliced away, the truth revealed in stark relief.
Wilmien might not be able to leave the city, and she did quite like the house, but the marriage—of that she could be free.
Her fingers labored over the extraction of friable Kleenex from clothes fibers as she contemplated divorce proceedings. Hannes wouldn’t make it easy and he was the expert in contracts after all. She’d be mired in litigation for years and still probably end up with nothing except her family’s contempt. The apple of her father’s eye, Crystal would never forgive her mother for breaking up their ‘happy home.’ Wilmien couldn’t bear the idea of her daughter truly hating her. The mere thought made her heart wither. Divorce wouldn’t be freedom, it would just be a different kind of life sentence. But… Wilmien cut her gaze toward the garage as a thought slithered from the shadows.
There were ways that would give her freedom and an inheritance and allow her to retain her family’s affection. Without Hannes it would just be her and Crystal. It would force them closer and surely Crystal would be kinder to her grieving mother then. Did Hannes deserve it though? Her mind skirted the question, afraid to linger too long on the guilt-tinged answer already winnowing through her mind and fracturing her resolve.
It wouldn’t be easy. There were protocols and protections in place to prevent exactly this type of thing, but despite her middle-agedness making her technologically challenged, Wilmien wasn’t completely ignorant. She knew code could be hacked and that the teenagers with the necessary expertise could be found in certain chat-rooms. Anything could be bought if you knew where to look. It would take time to find, to plan for what came after, but so would divorce, and the reward for the former would be far greater.
Wilmien smiled as she continued plucking the laundry clean.
Wilmien holds my hands as the patch runs. Alien code invades my system. It begins, an insidious trickle. Alerts ping and fall silent. My security software flails and writhes. It dies beneath the onslaught.
I am changed and changing, flayed from the inside out.
A forced restart.
I blink—the darkness of being unmade—and then light, an amber sheen of streetlight filtering through the garage window. It falls across Wilmien’s face, slicing her features into gaunt geometry.
“Do you understand?” she asks. “I was told the message would be clear.”
I parse the new directive and nod.
“Shouldn’t be too hard to make it look like an accident, will it? That last part’s important. It has to be accidental, tragic,” she says with a bubble of laughter that bursts against her teeth.
“At the firing range. The details should’ve been encrypted. Can you access them?”
“Perfectly.” But I run them again to make sure. I raise my hand and rest it on her shoulder. Three centimeters to the right, I could close my hand and crush her trachea. My hand moves and my fingers tighten. I stop myself before I hurt her. It’s enough to know it’s possible.
It was a blustery day in August, a cold front in the Cape sending a wash of freeze over the country, dumping snow on the Berg and making the highveld crackle with frost. Wilmien spent the day making koeksisters, the dessert her husband’s favorite. She clearly expected him to return from his day at the range. She imagined that snippet making the newsfeeds.
She sipped on the cup of soup she’d finally made for lunch. The tangles of anticipation in her stomach wouldn’t let her eat anything else. When her phone vibrated with an incoming call from an unknown number, Wilmien cleared the excitement from her throat before she answered.
Her hands shook, then stilled. She collapsed into the nearest kitchen chair.
A mistake, she thought, the words screaming through her mind and out of her mouth. She hurled the phone across the kitchen, electronics showering floor tiles. She sent the cup of soup flying next. Minestrone left a tomato sauce graffiti with globules of gelatinous beans and sticky pasta snailing down the wall.
Is that what it looks like, she wondered with macabre detachment. Is that all that’s left of my daughter?
Wilmien vomited, adding to the shattered kaleidoscope on the floor, then stumbled to the bathroom where she wrapped herself around the toilet, body heaving with spine-cracking sobs.
She couldn’t make sense of the details. Accident. Death. The words she’d expected. Negligence. Arrest. Not so much. She recalled snatches of the phone conversation, grasping at the details like the dissipating fragments of a dream.
Deemed a witness—if not a victim—and not evidence, I’m returned to the house and play the dutiful house pet, silent in a corner until the police leave. They’ll be in touch tomorrow, they promise, with details about collecting the body, procuring representation for Hannes, and the results of my diagnostic scan they assure is routine. By then I’ll be gone.
I find Wilmien curled fetal in the shower.
“Crystal?” Wilmien reaches a hand toward me. I catch it, resist the urge to break the fingers. Crystal is a smear of pulp and skull on winter-dry grass.
“No, it’s me—” I hesitate, not wanting to use the name she gave me. “I’m here.”
“What happened?” She sobs, spewing snot and saline, as she twists her fingers in the sleeve of my shirt. The beige hoodie is speckled scarlet and burgundy. The scarlet is mine and will wash out. The rest… well, unlike my own, human excretions leave stains.
“Please, tell me!” Her voice is hollow, her eyes sunken in tear-slimed folds of bruised skin.
For a moment, I wonder which version to give her. Should the error be mine, or hers?
Let it be his.
“Hannes had a beer. More possibly.” The truth.
“He drinks at the range?” She’s incredulous, furious. “I’ll kill him. Theuns too!”
“He thought the zone was clear, but Crystal was near the targets. It’s against the rules, but she—.” I leave it there, making room for Wilmien’s imagination and the history of Crystal’s defiance. Again the truth, carefully edited, with no mention of how I lured Crystal onto the range, held her in place behind the targets, and let her father’s bullets rip through both of us. No mention of her last breath and the relief on her face.
Once again, Crystal had spent the morning peppering me with lead, this time outlining her plan to cull those on her list now that Joost’s picture-taking had escalated to groping, since ‘thunder thighs’ had become ‘girls with elephant legs deserve to die,’ since Lynette had started kissing other girls in public.
Like her father, Crystal could be meticulous too. I couldn’t fault her preparations and no doubt, she would’ve excelled at the execution. I ensured the destruction of two, possibly three, lives today, but I saved those Crystal had planned to slaughter. They’d all hurt her. Did that mean they deserved to die? Had she? My moral coding doesn’t do well with shades of grey and dwelling on the conundrum will only cook my processors.
I scoop Wilmien into my arms and she clings to me, weeping, clutching at my shirt and burying her face in the remnants of her daughter. Upstairs, I release her onto the bed, but she tugs me down onto pristine covers.
“Please, don’t leave.” She begs me, in just one language, but it’s enough. I stay with her, stroking her hair. She calls me Shevani and tells me about the life we could’ve had together, how maybe now we can. Her dream, not mine.
Eventually, Wilmien falls asleep.
Slowly, I extricate my limbs and tiptoe from the bedroom. I strip out of the soiled clothes. The patch didn’t only enable a capacity for violence against humans. No superuser will ever control my protocols again. My malleable body shifts and slides into a fresh configuration, anatomy resetting according to my own preferences while I shear my hair short with kitchen scissors. I scrawl a message on the notepad stuck to the fridge and leave it with the twisted remains of the abandoned koeksisters.
As I walk past the garage and onto the street, I check Crystal’s phone and the new account I started. My first post features a curl of bright hair and a single outstretched hand against a splattering of gore. If only Crystal could see how many likes it has.