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Chapter 8: Welcome to the Dollhouse

Mmm. Come on, faster, baby, my boyfriend’s on his way home. Ooh, yeah, give it to me. You’re holding back on me. Come on, I’m won’t break. Cross my heart. Ooh, right there, aahhh.

She’s using her out of breath voice and biting her lip a lot. Arching her back and tossing her shimmering blond locks in all directions. Hard to believe people actually pay good credits for these virtual intimacy programs. I wish they didn’t. Then I wouldn’t be standing here in the corner of the VR production studio watching my sister Darien straddle a mannequin in front of a green screen in underwear and high heels, the half dozen techs around recording her every sensation.

Dominique checks the reading on the kinesthesia gauge and points up at the ceiling. The frequency of Darien’s groaning gets faster, the pitch higher. She must be hitting the sweet spot, because Dominique is giving her a thumps-up now.

“Look at her, she’s like a warrior goddess,” Desiree says, gazing wistfully at Darien, who runs her hands along the mannequin’s chest. “It’s so empowering.”

“A spoiled genetic beauty queen selling a desire she doesn’t understand to millions of first draft guys who feel more emotions than she ever will in her long predictable life. Atherton gets richer while they get poorer by the day buying artificial experiences we convince them they need to be happy.” I turn my back on the nauseating scene. “Which part is empowering?”

“Ugh, you don’t get it. Here’s a free lesson, Tessa: sex should be wielded like a shotgun. You don’t have to blow everyone out of their socks, you just have to make them believe you could. What do you know about it anyway? A guy wouldn’t pop your virtual cherry if you paid him.”

“Gaffer, can we get the gaffer over here,” Dominique shouts. Guess that’s my cue. I’ve known Dom my whole life. She knows my name but insists on calling me by my new title. I miss the gene lab. The beautiful ritual of creating a new species. The poetry of the sequences. But this is the price of my sins, banishment to the dollhouse.

I trudge across the set, reattaching the fallen sensors to Darien’s skin.

“Eww, lust much?” Darien asks, as I stick one of the leads just below her neck. “Stop ogling me, you old lecher, and grease down my abs. I’m not sparkly enough.”

I swipe the body oil from a supply cart and squeeze a few drops into my hand. I’d like very much to sow her lips shuts, but it would take quite an effort. The G-13s were bred to have extra full lips, a biological cue that indicates to potential mates they have a high estrogen level and would therefore be capable of producing an ample amount of offspring, which, ironically, coders never will. Not in the traditional way.

“Um, aren’t you forgetting something?” Darien asks.

Nothing I can think of, my dignity perhaps. I shrug my shoulders at her.

“Make sure those mitts of yours are warm before you go and put them all over me. Dom, make sure they’re warm.”

Dominique feels both my palms, then gives her the thumbs up.

“Alright, Tessa, go on. I know this is how you get your creepy thrills.”

As quickly as I can manage, I rub the oil across her vile skin. Maybe if she swallowed some of that makeup, she’d be pretty on the inside, too.

“I’m sorry I called you an old lecher,” Darien says, with an expression on her face that could be interpreted by someone who didn’t know her as actual sympathy. “It’s not your fault you’re old.”

I finish and wheel the supply cart out of the studio, waiting till I’m safely out of ear shot to overturn the cart, littering the hallway with lingerie, set props, and bottles. Ever since my return to the house, the prison within has gotten smaller and smaller, forcing my retreat into ever smaller rooms of myself. Now I’m just an outside observer in my own skin, an automation of muscle and bone. I kneel down to clean up the mess, but someone’s already doing it for me.

“These old carts, they reach their tipping point so easily,” Camilla says, turning the cart upright again. She looks exactly as I remember her. The long brown hair. The rich lines in her face, each of them telling a clever story. Her eyes radiate an ample spectrum at the ultraviolet end. The kind of light you feel, but can’t see. I haven’t spoken to her in almost a year, not since the night of the merger party. We’ve passed each other in the courtyard and the dining hall, but this is the first time since my return that she’s acknowledged me. “You really have to be mindful.”

“You, um, shouldn’t be talking to me,” I whisper, touching the mark on the side of my neck, not unlike the tattoo Atherton forced me to remove. Only this one is an image of the Tearcatcher family crest. It’s a mark reserved for those who betrayed the family. “You could get in a lot of trouble.”

“I’ve been around a long time, dear, I know the mark of separation. It always fades. I know what’s in your heart, Tessa, you didn’t betray your family. You saw a chance to lead another life, and you took it. I admire you for it.”

“Atherton doesn’t see it that way. He’ll never trust me again.”

“I’m eighty-three years old, I’ve seen more CEOs come and go than I can count on all my fingers and toes,” she says, brushing her hand over the mark on my neck. “Atherton will have his time at the head of the table. When it’s over, someone else will take his seat, and you’ll still be here. So you keep that smile straight, dear, keep your shoulders back, and your eyes as cool as an autumn breeze. When you think the stone they just stacked on your shoulders is about to crush you, just say thank you and ask for another. What you’re feeling inside, keep it locked in a box of iron and bury it ten feet deep, because you can’t use it right now. When it’s time to dig it up, you’ll know.”

Footsteps echo across the hallway behind us. Camilla squeezes my shoulders and smiles. “We’ll talk again, dear, I promise.”

I turn to see a security tech hovering over my shoulder. “Don’t you have work to do, traitor?” is the question he asks me. Camilla has already disappeared through the doorway.

I smile and give the tech an obedient nod. Perhaps there is work to be done.

The remainder of the day goes quickly. Filling tubs with skin-rejuvenating ticks so the D sisters can have their daily bug baths. Keeping the amplitude right for their electromagnetic massages, strong enough to unspool the tension but not so intense as to stir them from their slumber. Preparing comebacks for Darien to post to Coexist in her ongoing feud with a model from the Easterbank family who mimicked a pose Darien once posted in which she wore only thin strands of police tape wrapped strategically around her body.

The Easterbank girl then accused Darien of copying the way she sickles her feet on runway walks. Darien fired back by posting an image of the Easterbank girl carrying a handbag she had always believed to be legit, but turned out to be a counterfeit, a move the Easterbank girl responded to by revealing how Darien’s weight had ballooned so much that she now wears a size one. Talking too much and saying too little, fame’s unavoidable byproduct.

In the dining hall, Victor, a coworker I once called a friend, bumps my shoulder, knocking the tray out of my hand. I kneel down, sweeping my sea buckthorn back into its bowl. A half-dozen insults are welling up in Victor’s throat right now. Maybe he’ll choke on them. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway, but he just smirks and trudges away. The mark on my neck prevents anyone from talking to me outside of work functions, but the D sisters have discovered a loophole. They wait till I’m in range and talk loudly about me as if I weren’t in the room. I can hear them now, from three tables away.

“Ugh, look at what she’s wearing,” Dominique says loudly. “If I were Tessa’s mirror, I would throw myself out the window.”

“Shh, it’s wrong to make fun of homely people,” Darien notes. “Without them, there would be no word to describe people like us who are pretty.”

“Oh, you mean like those before and after pictures you see in advertisements,” Desiree adds, inhaling a mist of zero calorie chocolate particles. “Now I get it.”

I plant my tray over an empty table in the corner of the room. I chew my food and slurp my nutrient water, sucking on the straw long after the bottom of the cup is dry just to let people know I’m still here. I miss first draft food. Coders call them contaminants, but the first drafts give them charming names like cinnamon, sugar, and butter. Candies wrapped in neat little packages, soft and hard. Mounds of dough fried and shaped into circles or baked and twisted into salt-covered figure eights. Milk and sugar and eggs frozen, churned, and stuffed into attractively-shaped wafers. Their fearless devotion to flavor above all else is quite inspiring. Everything comes dripping with syrup or jelly or dipped in sprinkles. The textures keep your incisors off guard, never knowing when whether they’ll be called upon to grind thick meet or crunch chips as light as air. And there’s the ritual of it. A pre-meal and post-meal to bookend the main event. You can’t wait to get started, yet it’s over far too soon.

“Is this seat taken?” asks someone who clearly can’t see the mark from their angle. I twist my neck and point to it with my fork. “Does that mean yes or no?”

I look up and see a first draft in a wrinkled suit holding a tray. He has a hard face with severe angles, the kind you’d see in one of Greymore’s old crime films, but there’s a sincerity to his voice you wouldn’t expect.

“It means there’s a penalty for socializing with me.”

“I guess that makes two of us,” he says, dropping his tray and sliding into the seat across from me. “Don’t worry, I answer to no one in this house, I’m not a Tearcatcher, but you already knew that, didn’t you?”

My eyes roam the dining hall. Everyone’s watching us. Conrad, in particular, seems worried by our conversation.

“So what did you do?” he asks, tilting his cup at my neck.

“I ran away.”

“A teenage girl runs away from home, that seems harmless enough.”

“Things are different here.”

“So I gather. You’ve been to the city recently. You must know what’s going on out there.”

I study his eyes, then go back to my meal, dragging my fork through a pile of giant swamp taro.

“The outbreak, I mean, people are dying all over the city,” he says. “Nearly eighty, and rising. I’m investigating the possibility that it’s a reaction to a strand of black market DNA leaked by one of the major families.”

I drop my fork, nearly choking on the taro. A DNA leak? It couldn’t be mine, could it? Greymore said he destroyed the blood sample those scavengers took from me in the club. I swallow hard and dab my mouth with a napkin.

“Oh, forgive me,” he says. “I have a bad habit of neglecting to introduce myself. I’m Detective Fallkirk with the genetic crimes division. I’ve been stuck here all day, having meetings with your family attorneys, but not one of them will give me a straight answer.”

“Wish I could help, but I’m just an assistant. I grease down my sisters’ abs and make sure their hair doesn’t fall flat.”

“Sounds dull.”

“Dull doesn’t begin to describe it,” I say, standing and collecting my tray. “Have a pleasant evening, Detective.”

Conrad stares at me the whole way as I rush out of the dining hall. Eighty first drafts dead. Fallkirk’s words scratch at my brain the rest of the night. Even during hypnoflex. It’s this trendy induced sleep meditation class I’ve been taking. You’re sort of dreaming, but you’re sort of awake, too, following the motions and breathing of the instructor in a state where brain stimulation and oxygen consumption are at their peak. I’m not officially registered, yet no one’s allowed to object to me being there either. It’s actually sort of nice. I attach the leads to my head and stand in the back of the studio doing what everyone else does, only the instructor doesn’t correct me like she does the rest of them.

That’s one good thing about the mark. You can get into overbooked classes, cut in the cafeteria line, swerve outside your lane in the swimming pool, and orbit parties you weren’t invited to, while no one says a word.

I ditch the class early and go back to my cell, I mean room, wrapping myself in Greymore’s faded hoodie and crashing face first into my oversized pillow made of anabolic foam, which, I hope, is way too big for my head. My thoughts drift to Greymore. I’ve tried to sweep him into a bin at the farthest corners of my brain, and though I empty it over and over, he always seems to find me again in moments like these.

Right now, life couldn’t be more different than in those fleeting days when the world was on fire, everything in it bright and unfiltered. Take this room, for example. The bioart was created from the rarest fluorescent bacteria on the planet. The double helix sculpture in the corner was customized with my DNA fingerprint. The rhythmic sound pulsing between the walls, and the flashes of light, were crafted to maximize brainwave activity. The scents preselected to optimize learning and cooperation. Everything has a precise rhythm and function. That’s how coders see the world. They knock out the parts they don’t like and promote the ones they do, creating a more perfect subset. The result is pleasing, but sterile. It’s real enough, but it doesn’t feel or taste or sound the way life should. Not like the first drafts know it. It’s just a clever forgery.

I sink my fingers into the sweatshirt pockets. There’s one piece left in Greymore’s pack of gum. I’m not certain why I’ve been saving it, or why I’m choosing now to unwrap it. The label on the front says Carmel Popcorn. I grind it between my teeth to soften it, then try to inflate a bubble using focused breath, but I can’t do it the way Greymore does. I miss him, but at the same time, I’m angry with him for showing me how life should be.

I miss the gravity of his skin. The way his body temperature changes a dozen times in a single conversation, depending on how he reads your emotions. The way he comes alive after the sun goes down, like the photocells in a street lamp. Every avatar in my virtual game library has been modified to look like him, but it’s been a chore. When I see him in my head, he never looks the same twice. His hair always seems to part in a slightly different way. His mouth always creases at a new angle, the few times he smiles. His eyes are never quite the same shade of blue they were the day before.

I miss the shape we make when I’m cradled in his arms. I wish I were there right now, watching the way he reacts to some boring old movie. I would tell him I’m sorry for leaving him. I close my eyes and ride the delta waves.

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