"Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?" - Alan Turing
"Ha—thirty-two, a hundred and sixty pounds with blonde hair and blue eyes? My ass. Maybe ten years ago." Joseph hit delete, permanently erasing the private messages, winks, and all other communications from Jamie.
His final attempt at online dating had ended like all the others. He'd been duped again. Their conversations in chat had convinced him she was the one. Jamie said all the right things, liked all the things he liked, and she was pretty.
Or at least her profile picture was.
They'd agreed to meet at the old diner on Fifth and Main, the one with good pancakes and great coffee. The same one he'd eaten at every Sunday with his mother for the last twenty years, until she passed away last spring. He hadn't been to the Silver Diner since then and hoped meeting Jamie there was the start of a new tradition.
Only it wasn't
Jamie turned out to be a wretch of a woman--chain smoker, heavy drinker and most certainly not the woman in the picture. To make matters worse she'd laughed at him. At him! He'd put up an actual picture of himself but that didn't stop her from pointing out every flaw in his appearance or the way he spoke, all with a mouthful of stuffed French toast.
Why couldn't the women be like their profiles? Why couldn't they be what he deserved?
Six months of spending twenty dollars a month to meet the right woman, down the drain. Money better spent on his pet project, the one which would get him out of his dead end job at Circuit Town fixing laptops and computers. If he never reformatted another PC because someone got a virus from some shady Internet porn site it would be too soon. People had no respect for technology, for the brain housed in hard drives and microchips.
His idea, on the other hand, would change all that. His idea would bring life to the machine. Real artificial intelligence for the first time.
Joseph pushed his computer chair away from his desk, powered down his computer and went down to the basement.
Circuit boards, hard drives, wires, and connectors littered the workbench. He brushed the excess parts aside, giving him more room to soder the skeletal frame. Each joint moved freely, exactly like a human's, controlled by a nervous system of wires connected to the rapid fire processor he’d designed. He toiled for hours on what had become his life's work, until his vision blurred and he felt nauseous from low blood sugar.
One peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich later, Joseph refilled his coffee cup and went back to work. With the mechanics almost complete, he'd taken time off from Circuit Town to finish. A few of his coworkers had laughed when they found out how he planned to spend his vacation.
They always laughed. At everything.
And Joseph was always the butt of the joke.
He'd had enough of their bullying. He'd dealt with people like them his whole life. Knocked down, picked on since grade school, they weren't the first to try to break him or the first to succeed.
Joseph had been down on his luck, no friends, girlfriend or self-esteem for as long as he could remember but things were about to change. Those slovenly bastards didn't understand the rewards hard work and dedication brought. Joseph was about to revolutionize the robotics industry. And not in some fancy lab or with an MIT education but in his mother's basement.
He'd hated growing up here, hated her for never stopping the abuse he suffered at the hands of other children year after year. Ironic, then, that the house and her death would give him the funds and the freedom to fulfill his dreams.
His hands shook with excitement as he tightened the last screw. She was complete. His creation was ready to receive the necessary programming to bring her to life.
He didn't recall the moment he had decided it would be a woman. Perhaps he'd always planned for it to be a she. A woman who was nothing more or less than she claimed to be because he was her Creator. She had to love him. In fact, he'd ensure it would happen with a new piece of programming.
Elated by the prospect of finally having a companion, Joseph powered her up using the USB connection. Eventually she'd run on a wireless connection but he needed to install the basic functions first.
"It's alive! It's alive!" He couldn't help screaming the famous line from Frankenstein as his creation awoke. After all, he was a mad scientist of sorts. He'd accomplished what no one else had. Her complex programming would allow her to think, to formulate responses when asked questions. The possibilities were endless, the pool of information he'd uploaded and the power of her processors was massive. Unlike anything available in the field of AI, she had become a fully functional independent entity with the push of a button.
And she was his. All his.
And she would love him.
The emotions and sensations the concept stirred within him were unexpected. He felt himself harden at the thought of finally having acceptance, of someone who would listen to him, appreciate him. He wanted to feel her, touch her, for her to touch him in all the places his mother said were dirty.
Yes--he wanted that more than anything.
Images flashed through his mind, his creation pleasuring him before he buried himself inside her. Before he realized what he was doing, he unbuckled his pants, his hand slipped beneath his briefs. Leaning back in his chair he rubbed one off, his hand stroking faster and faster until he finished under her watchful eyes.
He knew she processed what he was doing, knew what masturbation was. He'd held nothing back from her uploads. And it only heightened his arousal.
He screamed her name with his release. A name he hadn't known he'd give her until that moment.
It was as if she'd chosen the name herself. Even without the latex skin to cover the mechanics, he made out the smile on her face. She felt it. She. Felt. It. His pleasure, happiness with the selection of her name.
He'd known a Sherri in school. Sat behind her in damn near every class his junior and senior year She'd tricked him into doing her homework for a semester, stringing him along under the guise they'd go to junior prom together. Once her grades improved enough to stay on her varsity squad she'd stopped talking to him and went to the dance with her jock boyfriend. He wound up sitting alone on the bleachers watching them slow dance, the jock’s hand moving slowly down her back to rest on her ass as they circled around the floor in time to the music.
That moment defined the rest of his high school career--the rest of his life, really. Like an idiot, he'd believed she had a genuine interest in him. He'd fallen for the ruse and fallen in love with her in the process. All his life, he’d been searching for her replacement. Searching and never finding.
"Holy shit. It worked. It really worked." Joseph cleaned himself up and checked the statistics on his laptop. He'd always believed it would work but after years of being a loser, a failure, doubt had crept in. For once he was the victor. He'd succeeded where others fell short and he didn't have all their advantages. No over-priced college degree, no wealthy family or friends to help him.
He'd done it alone. And that made victory all the sweeter.
How many nights had he literally poured blood, sweat, and tears into this project? Into her. Into Sherry. He'd prayed, begged, and pleaded with any deity that could hear him, offered himself in exchange for her but they'd gone unanswered. In the end, it had been all him. Like so many geniuses before him, he'd done it, through hard work and dedication.
He left his masterpiece sprawled out on the work table in the basement. He scoured the Internet for the perfect skin, his laptop resting precariously on the edge of the counter while he ate cold leftovers from the fridge. The feel of realistic muscle, tendons, sinew, was difficult to recreate. In the end, he decided on ballistics jelly. It solidified to a consistency very similar to the human body. Used by forensic labs all over the world, it was the best substance he could find.
He needed to make a mold, something to lower Sherri's skeleton into. Once formed, he'd have to sculpt each curve perfectly or the flaws would be visible beneath the latex. And therein lay the problem.
He'd never excelled in anything remotely artistic.
He continued to search online, comparing one supplier’s price to another, until he found a link to a manufacturer of life-like sex dolls. Intrigued by the possibilities, he clicked on the link, shocked to discover how realistic the dolls actually were. He checked the price, then the balance of his home equity line of credit. Definitely doable.
Joseph decided his best course of action was to place the order in person. He needed to be sure the quality met his expectations. If it did, he'd have to ship Sherri to the manufacturer for installation. But what if they stole her? No, that would never work. He couldn't trust someone else with her technology. He'd have to do it himself. It couldn't be any harder than making her skeletal structure or programming the software.
After a quick trip to the basement, where he explained everything to Sherri and promised to return with the body of their dreams, he jotted down the address for the warehouse and left to check out their merchandise. Joseph made it two blocks before turning around.
He wouldn't last the weekend without her. He had to have her complete.
He'd bring her with him. They'd give her a body. Whatever they were working on could wait. Once they saw her, they'd understand. They'd want to be a part of Sherri's creation.
He flew into the driveway, slamming the brakes inches before the bumper hit the end of the car port. He raced through the house, grabbed the control pad, and moved Sherri out to the car.
This was the first time she'd walked for any great distance. Her movements were jerky and stiff. He took mental note of the things he'd need to fix as he opened the rear passenger door and helped her into the back seat. Still, she amazed him.
His fingers shook as he buckled her in. His mind raced, filling with code to adjust her programming. Joseph powered her down to conserve battery life. With no way to charge her out on the road, he didn't want her to be dead when they arrived. Seeing her in action was critical to convincing the manufacturer to work with them.
He got back in the car and drove them to the factory.
Surprised by the small size of the operation, Joseph doubted even Sherri would be able to convince the owner to push them ahead of their regular orders. Paintings of serene country sides hung on the walls and a brown leather couch sat caddy-corner. He approached the counter separating him from the secretary and rang the bell. A lovely middle-aged woman came out of the office door, setting a stack of manila folders on her desk before greeting him with a warm smile. Her plump exterior and pleasant demeanor seemed better suited for a church rectory than a place that manufactured sex dolls. Still, she made him feel welcome and at ease, which was probably the point.
"Well, hello there. How may I help you?" She adjusted her wire rimmed glasses, her smile widening.
Joseph wasted no time pleading his case. The words spilled from his lips in a deluge of information. He couldn't help himself. Somehow, he knew this woman was the key to convincing the owner to help him.
"Do you have her with you? May I see her?" The old woman seemed genuinely intrigued.
Joseph ran back to the car, retrieving the control pad from the glove compartment, and putting Sherri in to action. She walked awkwardly into the office and stopped at the counter.
"My, isn't she extraordinary." The secretary's smile grew sharp and business-like. "I’ll tell you what--you give us the plans for her mechanics and you've got a deal."
"The plans? I, I don't think..." He swallow hard and took a deep breath, reminding himself now wasn't the time to be a spineless worm. "I don't think that's a fair trade. I'm willing to pay extra for the rush delivery. The technology in her brain alone is far more than the cost of your product."
The woman laughed. "Sweetheart, people don't buy our products because they're looking for scintillating conversation, if you catch my drift. They're interested in other things and I'm interested in the mechanics of making that more realistic."
"So you don't want her processors? Just her skeletal system?"
"I just want the girls to move. Convincingly, in the ways my customers want girls to move. If you catch my meaning."
He wasn't sure if he caught her meaning at all. But if she gave him what he wanted, if it worked, he would try to build something to her specifications.
"Deal." Joseph's heart raced. He was so close, so close to the perfect woman. The scientific advances and triumphs he'd set out to accomplish had been forgotten once Sherri came alive.
"We'll take her on back and get started then. Will you be staying in town or do you want us to ship her back to you?"
"Ship her? No, no I'll wait." Joseph pointed to the couch. "How long will she be?"
"Oh, sweetheart, she's going to be at least two days. These things take time. There's the mold, drying process...."
He tuned out the rest of the manufacturing process. It hadn't occurred to him they'd be separated. Two days. At least. Anxiety momentarily crippled him. She hadn't been alive forty-eight hours but that in no way lessened his possesiveness
Sweat beaded his forehead, moistened his palms. There was nothing he could do. Sherri had to be perfect, she had to be. Two days. He could make it two days. He had to. For Sherri's sake.
Joseph waved a hand, interrupting the woman's speech about how much time and care they put into each doll. "Where's the nearest hotel?"
The old woman smiled at him. She'd made the deal of a lifetime. She'd reap the financial benefits of one rush job, something they did every day, for the next twenty years. There really was a sucker born every minute. "About two miles down the road, make a left. Go another couple miles and you'll see the Cadillac Motel on your left."
Joseph left Sherri and his cell number and headed to the motel. He hoped the room rates were reasonable. Staying outside Willington hadn't been part of his plan or in his budget. Everything about Sherri's design and build cost more than he’d anticipated. Her body would tap the line of credit on the house. He'd be back to four days a week at Circuit Town until he could figure out a way to sell the plans.
He'd never sell Sherri. She belonged to him.
The Cadillac Motel came into view. Joseph pulled into the lot and parked in front of the long single story stretch of rooms. After paying for room number eight, he took the key from the attendant and went to settle in. He'd immediately lowered his expectations when the attendant asked if he wanted to rent the room by the hour but it was worse than he feared. The carpet and bedding were horribly stained. The stale stench of cigarette smoke lingered in the air and left a dingy yellow tint to the walls.
The bathroom was worse. Brown water stains marred the porcelain finish on the sink and toilet bowl. Pubic hairs stuck to the used soap in the shower dish. Certain a murder or worse took place in the room, Joseph opted for sleeping in the chair. After wrapping the remote control in tissues from his pocket, he propped his feet up on the bed and leaned back against the threadbare cushions.
At least they had free cable.
After a restless night's sleep, Joseph woke with the worst cramp in his neck and a pounding headache. The TV blared, sending the pain in his head into overdrive. Reaching for the remote on the floor, his fingers grazed the channel button, switching it from some old black and white movie to the local morning news.
"Three alarm fire rages inside local factory. Some rejoice at the destruction of what they described as a ‘warehouse of sin’ while the employees and their families face the reality of lost jobs and wages. Four more bodies were discovered in the front office, dead from apparent smoke inhalation, though arson investigator Mark Daniels is waiting for the coroner report for the official cause of death. "
The newscaster moved on to the next headline while Joseph's mind reeled. His heart began to race as nausea settled in. The anchorman didn't mention the company by name but he knew. With every fiber of his being, Joseph knew exactly which factory burned down and exactly what he'd lost in the flames.
Everything. He'd lost everything.
He still had the blueprints, his data, but without Sherri he'd never be able to sell the technology. He was ruined.
Tears mixed with frustrated screams as Joseph chastised himself for subcontracting the work, for being so rash and irresponsible. For wanting something--no, someone--so badly he'd let an unknown company do the work he should have done himself. He slammed a fist on the small table, the pain in his hand almost forgotten when he realized how good it felt to hit something.
Even if it was just a stupid particle board table.
He hit it again and again, slamming both fists down until the top gave way, tumbling free of its base. Still, he didn't stop. He grabbed the chair he'd occupied moments ago and slammed it down on the broken table. Chipped wood flew everywhere. His screams and grunts mixed with the sounds of metal hitting wood in a violent symphony until a knock sounded at the door.
The front desk? The manager? He looked around the room at the destruction, shocked he was capable of such anger and devastation. Fear replaced rage at the third knock. How would he explain this? How would he pay for this?
"Joseph? Joseph, are you in there?" A woman's voice, barely a whisper, made its way through the thin walls and cheap door. "Joseph, please let me come in."
He didn't move.
Who could possibly be outside his room calling his name? He was hours from home, a few hundred miles from anyone who would know him. Except for....
No, it couldn't be. That was impossible. Everyone inside the warehouse died. There was no one. No escaped.
"Help me. Please." Nails scratched the wooden door. "Please."
Panic gripped his heart. Fear, if he was honest. But lurking somewhere in his emotional turmoil was excitement over the possibility of who stood on the other side of the door. He leaned forward, trying to spy the unexpected visitor through the peephole. All he could see was the top of a blonde head, a very blonde head.
He gripped his chest and jumped back, gasping for air. He hadn't needed an inhaler for years but it felt like his chest was constricting, his lungs collapsing. He forced himself to calm down, to slow his breathing, and looked through the peephole again. This time his gaze locked with a doey blue eye trying in vain to see inside the room.
He knew it was her. Still in shock over her survival—and his own financial and intellectual survival--he fumbled with the locks. The chain pulled tight, preventing him from opening the door all the way.
Sherri reached in, her artificial flesh slightly charred but still perfect to him. His hands shook as they danced along her forearm and grazed her fingers. She was here, she was his and he didn't care if small bubbles marred an otherwise perfect exterior. The black soot would wash away. He'd help her, clean her. To make sure the sensitive circuitry wasn't ruined.
"Pull your hand back. I need to undo the last lock." He gingerly pushed her hand back through the gap, closed the thin wood, undid the lock, and swung the door open wide.
Sherri rushed into his arms and the marvel of how real she felt completely erased any questions he might have had about how she escaped the blaze, how she'd found him. Or how she'd become capable of such independent thought. When had her programming developed to the point of free thought, of free will?
Instead of seeking answers to those vital questions he relished her embrace, the feel of her body against his. Her hands roamed his back, masterfully massaging him as he held her. She walked him further in the room, kicking the door closed behind her. Her lips sought his, kissing him slowly at first until his need overwhelmed him and he plunged his tongue greedily in her mouth. He forced himself to ignore the unusual taste and texture of her mouth.
She was here. And she wanted him.
She pushed him onto the bed, climbing on top of him. "I'm so hungry, Joseph. I'm so hungry." She leaned in to kiss him again.
"Me too, baby, I'm starved," he whispered as he closed the distance between their mouths and kissed her again, impressed he'd managed such a suave response.
He felt her satisfied smile even as she nibbled his lips. This was happening. It was finally happening. He'd finally be with a woman. And she wanted it.
Man, did she want it.
She sealed his mouth with hers again, teasing him into a frenzy. She breathed him in, drank him in.
Something was different. Something was wrong. Stop, he needed her to stop. He felt his energy draining. No, it was more than that. Worse. She was draining him of the thing that made him alive, his essence. Darkness crept in, dancing along the corners of his vision. His skin tightened as she pulled his life from him.
Sherri was going to kill him.
He tried to pry her off, pulling her arm, her hair. Nothing worked. She wouldn't stop. He finally wedged a finger between thier lips, breaking the suction, but was too weak to do anything else. His arm flopped on the bed. He closed his eyes.
This was it. He was going to die.
"Oh, Joseph! What have I done? I'm so sorry. I was just so hungry. I, I didn't mean to… I...." Sherri gasped. "Joseph?"
"Isshhooshhhayy." He couldn't talk, his mouth dry and his tongue thick. It was far from okay but fear and self-preservation stopped him from saying anything else.
"No, no, it's not okay. I've almost killed you. You made me and I almost killed you." Sherri caressed his cheek before slipping off him to sit on the edge of the bed.
He thought he heard her murmur something about still needing him before he passed out.
The sun peeked through the curtains, the little rays of light highlighting the dust particles in the air. It was almost beautiful, if not for the fact he would need to take an antihistamine. He'd complain about the state of the room if he thought it would do any good but he didn't bother wasting his breath.
Man, he’d had a crazy dream the night before. He didn't even remember getting out of the chair and into bed. He tried to sit up. No good. His head screamed in protest, his brain pounding against his skull as if trying to escape. His mouth was so dry, his throat so sore, he could barely swallow. He must have slept with his mouth open. He turned over, preparing to make his way out of bed when he felt something.
Joseph flew out of the bed like a bullet from a gun. Jesus, he hadn't dream it. She'd escaped the fire, fled to his room, and damned near killed him. She seemed to be asleep or rebooting or something. He decided to risk it and moved in for a closer look.
The marred skin, black and bubbled from the flames, had all but vanished. Just a small patch of scar tissue remained inside her elbow. Had she healed herself? Ridiculous. Impossible. Sherri was a machine. A robot inside an artificial body--inside a sex doll, for crying out loud. It was implausible. Impossible.
But there she was. In his bed, almost perfect.
He reached out instinctively to run his fingers through her silky blonde hair, forgetting for a moment the beautiful creation naked on his bed housed a monster inside her. Sherri's eyes opened. Joseph reared back as if she’d struck him, cowering at the foot of the bed.
She watched him, her expression darkening as she drank in his fear. She tilted her head back, opened her arms wide and sighed. The sound, he didn't know how to explain it. And then it came to him.
"Joseph, your terror is almost as delicious as your soul." Sherri's hands grazed her body, skimming her taut belly before stopping to caress her pert breasts. "Do you like it? This body? I picked it out for you. That beastly woman tried to make me a red head."
"Ssssso, you ate her?"
"Don't be ridiculous. I simply informed her we preferred blondes. I ate her because I was hungry."
Joseph scurried across the room, backing himself in the corner. He pulled a chair in front of him for added protection. "Wha, wha, wha, what the fuck are you?"
"I'm your creation, Joseph. You made me."
"No, no, no, no, no. No. You're something else. Something more inside there. I made the circuitry, the skeleton and the operating system. But whatever you are, it's not what I created." He was definitely still in shock but had managed to finally stop stuttering.
"This is ridiculous. Come out from behind the chair."
He knew the rickety wooden chair offered no protection from whatever resided inside his Sherri but he didn't move. Not an inch. So Sherri moved the chair for him. From where she sat. Without touching it.
"Don't kill me. Please don't kill me."
"I'm not going to kill you. Now, would you please get up so we can have a civilized conversation?"
He didn't move. Couldn't move. The terror of what he’d created, what she’d become, glued him to the floor.
"Joseph. Joseph, don't make me move you." Sherri sat in the other chair next to the wobbly table, completely naked and free of all inhibitions.
He couldn't help but think he'd never sit bare assed on anything in this motel room if he could help it. Of course, he wouldn't kill people either, so that was two differences they had. Perhaps things wouldn't work out with Sherri after all. He should have named her something else.
Sherri hooked a foot around the leg of the chair she’d just moved and dragged it to a spot across from her. She motioned for him to sit. Something about the way she did it, the look in her eye, got him up and off the floor and into that chair.
"There now isn't that better? I think we need to have a little chat. Clear the air. I don't want anything to come between us. It can't, you see, because I need you Joseph. Just like you need me."
"What are you? I didn't program this. None of this. How are you overriding your operating system?"
"Oh, but it is my operating system, Joseph. And your programming is still here. For the most part. Sure, I've made some improvements but the motor function, that's still all you. Beautiful work, by the way."
"This is impossible.. I'm still dreaming. I'm going to wake up and you'll be at the factory waiting to be picked up."
Sherri laughed. "But Joseph, don't you remember? Don't you remember what you said? Your prayers have been answered."
"Ghost in the machine," Joseph whispered, gnawing his fingernails.
"Mmm, not quite but close."
"I really hate you nerdy types. All book smarts, no common sense. I'm a demon, Joseph." Sherri leaned in, closing the distance between them. "A word of advice? Be careful with your prayers--you never know who's going to answer them. My liege heard your pleas for help, felt your desires in the bowels of hell, and devised a way to make even your darkest dreams a reality."
"How is this happening? How are you...." Joseph struggled for the right word. "Possessing a machine?"
"I admit it's a first. It's probably why I'm so hungry all the time. There's no soul in here, nothing for me to feed on. And that's where you come in."
"No, no--I won't give you my soul. You can't have it."
"Your naivety is almost amusing. Almost. First, let's get one thing straight--I can, and will, have your soul at any time." Sherri began draining him just to prove her point, stopping right before he slipped out of the chair.
She needed him and he needed his soul so she didn't keep it. Not all of it anyway. Just enough to take the edge off.
"I can't go around on my own, now can I?" Sherri ran a finger along the seam on the underside of her arm and then along the back of her leg to emphasize her point.
She was more human than even she'd expected but not human enough. People would know. She wouldn't be able to feed on her own. And that was not an option.
Sherri, known as Ahlzeekiel to her kind, was a soul eater, a hunter, moving from one host to another, consuming the soul until nothing remained. The darker, the more twisted, the better. And they were never in short supply.
She'd arrogantly taken the challenge to possess Joseph's creation, thinking it an easy task to slip out into another host. She’d been wrong. Immediately upon entering the robot she'd been grounded, like a current running through the wiring.
She refused to stay that way, to be at Joseph's mercy for food. Or to wither away if he refused. No, she had to convince him she didn't need him, convince him his cooperation was necessary if he wanted to stay alive. She'd noticed the flaws in her body diminished after she'd fed at the warehouse. And again, when she'd almost drained Joseph, the burns all but gone. She could heal this artificial body and if she could garner the power to do that, eventually she'd be strong enough to leave this shell for a proper host.
Still, if this worked.... The number of demons able to cross would be limitless. First as ghosts in the machines, luring the technicians in until nothing existed beyond their digital world, all the while being drained of their souls and their humanity. Once strong enough, they too, would be able to leave their manufactured hosts behind to consume souls as they'd been intended. This was simply a new portal.
"So the way I see it, we need each other, you and I." Sherri looked in the mirror above the worn out dresser, playing with the blonde hair she’d chosen at the factory, its luster and shine already gone.
"It sounds like you need me more than I need you." Joseph regained some of his confidence, puffing himself up as he faced off with the monster he'd created. "What's in it for me? I created this masterpiece you've hijacked. It's my life's work, my companion."
"Don't you mean servant? I found that little bit of programming you tried to bury in the root menu. Very naughty, Joseph. I've left just enough of your soul for you to feel like yourself. Perhaps too much. But make no mistake Joseph, I can kill you.” Her smile was at complete odds with her words. “It will make things difficult for me but I am a demon after all. I'm sure I'll come up with something. But let's review your circumstances for a moment, shall we? All of your inheritance from the measly life insurance policy, the equity in your home, all of it went into this." Sherri seductively ran her hands over her body.
Joseph's gaze followed her every movement, watching those hands move across her taut belly, skimming over her perfect breasts, down her torso and over her hips stopping just before she reached the sweet spot. Sherri had him and she knew it.
Joseph licked his suddenly dry lips. "So how does this work? What do we do? I can't just lure people back to my house for you to suck their souls and bury the withered bodies in the backyard."
"Jesus, you're insane."
"Demon." Sherri sang, pointing at herself. "Kind of goes with the territory. Let's go home, Joseph. This motel is disgusting and I'm tired. Being inside this machine takes a lot of energy. I'll need to feed soon. You don't want to be the only person around when that happens, do you?"
"No, no. I suppose there are a few people I could introduce you to."
"That's the spirit. Someone who hurt you? Someone who doesn't respect you? I can help you, Joseph. I can make the world see you for the man you want to be. I can make them pay, Joseph. I can make them all pay."
Joseph scrambled to gather the few personal items he'd brought with him. He covered Sherri with his jacket and led her to the car. After buckling her in, he went to the rental office and put the key in the night drop box, thankful he'd paid in cash. The drive home felt like an eternity, like he was trying to out run a nightmare.
Except the nightmare was real.
And she was sitting in the passenger seat.
Joseph pulled the car into the carport, ushering Sherri inside just before the sun broke the horizon. None of his nosy old neighbors were up, peeking out their curtains to witness the strange woman entering his house in nothing but a jacket which barely covered her ass. Mrs. Wilson would have assumed he'd brought home a prostitute and called the police. If only.
No things were worse, much, much worse. He'd taken up with a demon and the devil couldn't be far behind. He almost felt the hot breath on his neck. Shivering, he hurried in behind Sherri and locked the door. He rested his head against it, breathing heavily when she came up behind him. Joseph screamed, jumping and flailing around as if she'd attacked him.
Sherri fell into a fit of laughter. "We'll have to do better than this, Joe, if we're going to convince anyone."
"I'm sorry. It's a bit much. I don't know if I can do this. I… maybe I should find someone else for you."
"That's the whole idea, darling."
"No, I mean to take care of you." Even as he spoke the words, he knew he couldn't do it. He was bound to her, bound on this journey of horror. He loved the machine, the computer he'd created too much. He couldn't separate the demon from his vision, his dream. And deep down he wanted what she had offered in that motel room. He wanted respect, money, to make them pay.
Sherri smiled. She knew she'd worn him down. And with far less effort than she'd expected. He didn't have much fight in him at all. But sorrow--oh, such sweet sorrow and agony. And a little something darker. The emotions welled up, overflowing from within him.
She couldn't resist siphoning off a small taste. One small sip of his soul.
Ecstasy. If she wasn't careful, she'd bleed him dry.
Joseph showed Sherri to her room. His mother's room. Despite having the smaller of the two rooms, he'd never been able to bring himself to switch. After his mother died in there he no longer coveted the extra space. His room, the same room he'd lived in his entire life, sufficed. Sherri wouldn't care if someone died in the same bed she slept in. She'd probably have requested it if he'd told her first. Exhausted from the drive and the insane turn of events, he climbed into bed and tried to get some sleep.
But sleep never came.
Sherri haunted his dreams. Just like she haunted his waking hours. Could he do the things she asked of him? Become an accomplice to murder? He had to. He had to, because despite it all he loved her, and he wanted to live. And in the dark corners of his mind, he wanted that revenge.
Even if he couldn't admit it to her, he wanted it. He wasn't ready to say goodbye to his miserable existence. But he was ready for a new one.
Resolved to his fate, Joseph got out of bed and began to plan. He was good with plans and blueprints. After all, you couldn't kill someone without a plan.
Not if you wanted to get away with it.
Sherri didn't sleep. Ever. She never had the need but this new vessel carrying her around still required recharging. Blasted batteries. She couldn't wait to free herself of this body and truly live as she was meant to, inside a real human host. Why she'd ever listened to her sister she'd never know. She should have known it was yet another attempt for Ashkaziel to be rid of her and take her place.
But she would not fail. She would leave this wretched mechanical body and use it as a portal.
And then she would banish Ashkaziel. Permanently.
Sherri found Joseph at his kitchen table, papers strewn about, staring at his laptop. He'd been busy. Busy planning. And Sherri was delighted to see it was something other than her demise. Yes. This would work. With Joseph helping her, she'd make it work.
"So, who's for breakfast? I'm absolutely starving."
Joseph looked up from his computer with tired, bloodshot eyes. "I have an idea. But it's going to take some time."
"Now, now, Joseph. I get the feeling you're up to something. That would be a mistake. Trust me.” She sighed, her gaze weighty. “I'm so hungry. So very hungry. And you taste so very delicious."
"We have to think. To be smart about this. I told you, we can't just go around killing people and burying the bodies in the yard. I have a plan but I'm not sure if it will work. Please, sit down. You're making me nervous."
Sherri pulled out a chair and sat down across from Joseph. She really was hungry. Maintaining this body took far too much energy. She'd burned through the reserves from the warehouse employees already. If she didn't eat soon, she'd be forced to feed from Joseph. She shook her head. He'd asked her something and she'd missed it.
"Do you have to consume the whole soul or can you just siphon bits from different people?"
Sherri hadn't thought about it before. "I don't know. I've never had the need to find out. I've always possessed the human, slowly absorbing their essence. I've never fed any other way."
"You stopped yourself with me. I think you can and I know the perfect place to try it out. My mother's clothes are still in the closet. They'll be a little big but it'll have to do for now. You really do need to eat."
She left Joseph at the table and went back to his mother's room. He wasn't kidding--the closest overflowed with clothes, none of which she'd have selected for herself. After digging through leisure suit after leisure suit, she finally found a red sun dress, black cardigan and a pair of red wedge sandals she was sure were original. Sherri looked in the mirror, shocked at what she saw. Joseph was right, she really needed to feed.
It was more than hunger, the less energy she had the less human she looked. She went from a mostly human exterior to looking like a robotic doll. Her eyes were flat and lifeless, her skin rubbery. Relieved Joseph had a plan, she grabbed a white belt and fastened it around her waist, drawing in the sun dress and highlighting her hour glass figure.
Joseph gasped when he saw Sherri. She'd lost some of whatever it was that made her pass for human but it didn't matter. She looked like a dream. His dream, his fantasy come to life. Sure, it was a little weird she was wearing his mother's clothes but they'd never looked so good. Despite it being a size too big, Sherri was meant for that dress, those shoes, all of it. He wanted her more than ever and he vowed to do whatever it took to keep her alive and by his side.
"Ready to go?" Joseph held out his hand, sighing when she took it in hers and followed him out to the car.
Circuit Town. He couldn't think of a better place to test his theory. Those son of a bitches laughed at him, made fun of him when he'd been foolish enough to share his project with them. Well, he'd have the last laugh. He'd make them pay, pay with part of their souls for the torment they'd caused him.
Sherri looked around the empty parking lot. "This is your plan? The place looks deserted. I'm supposed to feed here?" "Employees park around back." It was true, there weren't any customers. There hardly ever was anymore. They'd all started shopping at the big box store down the street. But empty was better. If something went wrong, no witnesses, no innocent bystanders.
He held the door open for her, watching her preen as she caught the scent of fresh souls. She became a hunter, stalking her prey even in her weakened state. Her gaze settled on one man.
Alan made every day at this crappy dead end job miserable. And that was saying something. How did she know? Was his soul marked somehow, darker than the rest of them because of the person he is? It didn't matter. He wanted Sherri to have him. He wanted her to consume Alan until all that remained was a withered husk of a man. But that wasn't the point. That wasn't why he'd brought her.
"Sherri, let me introduce you to the guys." Joseph reigned her back in momentarily.
Sherry picked up on his hidden meaning, reminded of why they were there and dialed back her hunter instincts. She walked next to him, keeping her movements stiff and robotic, something which wasn't as difficult as it should have been. She was drained. If the introductions took much longer, she'd lose control and eat every damned soul in the store.
Joseph's coworkers crowded around her, poking and proding. Everyone but Alan. Sherri felt every emotion, especially the hate and jealousy oozing from the bitter man. She'd take great delight in sampling him. His dark soul would be all the more delicious. The men continued to ask her questions and with each answer she gave, she took a little piece of their soul. Quid pro quo.
Alan, on the other hand, continued to brood, throwing barbs and insults at Joseph every chance he got. He had a small heart and even smaller mind. Sherri felt the hate and jealousy, saw the way Alan humiliated and degraded Joseph. Nobody would torment Joseph--nobody but her. She drank and she drank, supping on the force that once sustained Alan's worthless existence until he fell to his knees clutching his chest.
Alan let out one grunt of pain before Sherri stripped him of his ability to speak. She pulled out his soul and replaced it with a darkness so toxic, so terrifying, his mind shattered before she finished consuming him. His death would be ruled natural causes--undiagnosed heart condition. But his eyes held the truth. Locked away in their glassy depths were the horrors he'd experienced while Sherry fed. She'd shown him what awaited him beyond this life.
And it was hell.
She watched the ambulance pull away from the store with delight. Being trapped in an artificial body forced her to pay attention to details she'd overlooked when she'd been inside other hosts. Then she'd been all about the feast but this was different. She needed to learn, to absorb information as well as souls if she were to free herself and replicate the process with other demons.
The ride home was filled with tension. She'd angered Joseph and his reaction confused and infuriated her. She'd done him a favor, rid him of an adversary. She couldn't understand why he was upset.
Joseph pounded a fist on the steering wheel. "We discussed this. You were supposed to take a little from each of them. I had a plan. You were supposed to execute it."
"I did. And then his wretched soul called to me. I couldn't help it. Besides, you wanted it. I felt your desire the moment we walked through the door. You wanted him to pay. And he did. With his soul. Stop worrying, no one will know. They'll think he had a heart attack."
"This time. But what about next time? What will I say when the police come around asking questions?" Joseph was a twisted, mangled combination of nerves and anger, anger directed at her. Furious she didn't do as he instructed, that she'd overrode the programming and exerted her will over his own. He made her, he created her. Demon or not, she wouldn't be on this plane if it wasn't for him.
Sherri didn’t have to be a mind reader to know what he was thinking or feeling. She couldn't, wouldn't, put up with that sort of behavior much longer. She needed to free herself and fast. Before she went insane.
Joseph continued to introduce her to small crowds of people, allowing her to sample bits and pieces of souls but she hadn't fully consumed a single person since Alan. The leash Joseph fought to keep her on tightened every day. She could practically feel it around her neck. He feared her, feared what she'd be capable of if she grew to full power. She couldn't fault him for that, not really. So she bided her time, continuing to savor the souls she ate, however small the servings were.
Weeks turned into months and Sherri was no closer to shedding her mechanical body than the day she'd awoken inside it. But Joseph had planned something big. Something which would make him rich and expose Sherri to hundreds, if not thousands, of people. He'd grown complacent where her powers were concerned, confident she couldn't free herself from the artificial prison. Certain she'd be his forever because she couldn't override his programming, he'd decided it was time to make a little money.
A lot of money, in fact.
Joseph dragged Sherri to every industry convention he could find, setting her up in a booth to perform tricks for the stuffed suits like some organ grinder and his monkey. She'd grown tired of the routine, answering his stupid questions as if they were a Turig test, proving he had created consciousness in a machine. Still, he fed her. And her powers were growing.
Each convention hall boasted a sea of tainted and twisted souls. Corporate America had become her favorite flavor, surpassing even sociopathic serial killers. They were fat, greedy bastards who'd sell their own child for a taste of success, for the yacht and the penthouse. And they were delicious. She'd become a glutton, filling herself almost to bursting at each event and never killing a single human. There were so many, so many people packed into the aisles like cattle being led to the slaughter. It was beautiful.
And it was all for her. It almost made Joseph's arrogance tolerable. Almost.
In just a few short weeks, he'd grown from the timid, emotionally stunted man to the pompous, false prophet who stood beside her, promising something he couldn't really deliver. Not without Sherri and the legions at her command. He'd come close, very close in fact, but true artificial consciousness had eluded him. Something he'd obviously forgotten. He preened like a peacock every time one of the corporate big wigs stopped by their booth and Sherri continued to do tricks.
She'd been poked, prodded and groped inappropriately on more than one occasion and at the encouragement of Joseph. Pigs--if she weren't a demon she'd have been offended. As it was, their salacious behavior just improved the taste of their souls. White collar crimes just weren't as juicy as some of the other sins.
The last convention Joseph scheduled for them was in New York. Sherri began sampling the moment they arrived. A taste from the falafel cart vendor, another from the hot dog guy. She'd supped from a dozen suits as they waited outside the gleaming glass convention hall. All of her circuits were firing before they set up their booth. Joseph noticed the difference almost immediately.
He'd become even more enamored with her. A man obsessed. Her new found power troubled him. He'd finally gotten the attention of the big wigs. The brass ring was within reach, his fingertips nearly touching it. Success had never been so close and she could ruin everything. Ruin the life they'd built together.
Didn't she see that? Didn't she understand? If she were to free herself, to leave him, he'd be ruined. Financially and emotionally. He couldn't allow it. Wouldn't allow it. She was his. He created her, he summoned her. She belonged to him. Her power was his to wield. When they returned home he'd turn her batteries off, forcing her to use her energy stores to power her body. She'd weaken, she'd need him again. Need him as much as he needed her.
Sherri sensed Joseph's agitation and knew he was up to something. Still, she played her part, not wanting him to realize how close she was to fleeing the prison he'd created for her. Certain this last event would provide enough pieces of souls, she continued to answer his questions and the questions of the fat, greedy suits, performing like a circus clown. As much as she hated it, she sang for her super.
For the last time.
Joseph unlocked the front door, motioning for Sherri to go in ahead of him. He pulled a Swiss army knife from his pocket, sliding the saw from its locked position. If he was quick enough he could jam the tip into the base of her skull where the reset button was hidden. She'd be able to override it but it would buy him the precious seconds he'd need to switch off her batteries. The blade clicked into place, barely audible but he swore she caught the sound, her ear visibly twitching.
Sherri paused in the doorway, sensing something wrong. He'd forgotten how sensitive her preceptors were. He'd make an adjustment once he'd powered her down. The problem was he knew his original plan wouldn't work. He needed to come up with something.
And fast--because Sherri wasn't the only one who realized how close to freeing her cage she actually was.
He should have been more concerned with what exactly it was he'd managed to trap. He'd ignored the true nature of the demon from the moment she'd entered the machine.
Sherri sensed everything, like having eyes in the back of her head. She knew the moment he'd pulled out that ridiculous Boy Scout knife and the moment he'd put it away. She'd finally been able to access her own power, her own energy, and she relished it. She'd flee this artificial body and Joseph tonight.
One more soul. She only needed one more soul.
She continued into the kitchen, leaning seductively against the counter as Joseph came in. He watched her intently as she unbuttoned her dress. His mother's dress--his favorite dress. His gaze trailed over the red and white polka dot fabric, the silk making a seductive sound as it slid down her skin. She stood there in nothing but her pearls and heels beckoning to him.
He wanted this. Needed this. Dreamed of this moment every night. Still, he questioned it. She hadn't shown interest in him since that first night. Not since she stood outside his motel room door, charred and broken, damaged from the fires and in need. He tried to figure out what she had planned but his needs overrode rational thought.
Perhaps this was the pity fuck--she'd give it to him one time before she left, knowing that would cause him more pain and suffering than anything else she could do to him. It didn't matter, he'd take it, take her however he could get her. It wasn't the first or last time he had a woman that way. Besides, this one was bought and paid for as far as he was concerned. And maybe, just maybe, he'd shut down the batteries.
Sherri welcomed him into her arms. He'd shed his clothes as he crossed the kitchen to reach her in a surprisingly primal display that aroused her. Yes, she'd enjoy this. She hiked herself up on the counter, wrapping her legs around him. His hands groped every inch of her body before finally resting on her ass. His fingers skimmed along her hips. His grip tightened as he pressed her against him. She felt his arousal, his need for completion. And then she felt something else.
Joseph dug into her right hip, his fingernail tearing at her skin. He pried his way in, searching beneath the latex flesh, the wires and skeletal system he'd created for the cable that connected to the two small batteries located in her lower lumbar. He'd have to pull them from there, breaking the connection and repair the damage after. After he'd finished taking care of other things.
Sherri sensed his desperation, felt it even through the shock and pain she experienced as he tried to destroy the power supply. She'd learned the internal workings of this shell she inhabited, knew he wasn't trying to kill her but weaken her so she couldn't escape. He should have paid as much attention to the workings of her demon as she had to his mechanisms.
She grabbed his face, forcing him to look at her while his fingers burrowed further in her hip. She closed the tiny distance between their mouths and kissed him. Joseph's eyes widened in horror. Sherri swallowed his screams along with his soul, savoring every last drop of terror.
She marked his soul, sending him to the fiery depths of hell for the deadly sins he'd committed in the name of science and love. And then slipped into his body.
It wasn't exactly what she'd had in mind for her next host but it would have to do. Sherri picked up her former self and set it in the kitchen chair before heading to the shower. She'd run some tests of her own on the artificial intelligence once she'd rinsed the residual Joseph away.
Damned humans always left a stench behind when they were kicked out of their bodies. She couldn't wait to scrub it off.
Washed, dried and satisfied, Sherri sat across from the real machine, Sherri 2.0. The battery connections still intact, she began to question the robot. She performed a true Turig test, holding a conversation in free form, allowing the computer to formulate responses and questions of its own.
Except the machine couldn't perform. It failed test after test. Joseph created a remarkable machine but he'd failed to create consciousness. He'd tried to recreate the God particle, the thing which made the inanimate alive. And he'd come close.
But not close enough.
And that suited her needs just fine.
"Mr. Gordon, thank you for meeting with me. I'm sure you've had numerous companies contacting you after the buzz you've created in the convention circuit. This robot of yours is all the rage. I've got to admit, I was a little skeptical myself but my guys insisted I get you in here and see for myself. I don't normally admit when I'm wrong, Mr. Gordon, but this is one time I'm happy to. Welcome to Cintel. This partnership is going to change the world."
"Mr. Blackwell, you have no idea. And please, call me Joseph."