The first I knew about the sex doll was when I walked in the door and found Max canoodling with it on the sofa. He jerked away from the thing like a guilty schoolboy who’d been caught spanking one out by his mother. The doll just sat there blinking at me with a glazed expression. I thought it might start to drool.
It didn’t seem like I’d be getting an introduction. “Max,” I said. “Why the fuck does this sex doll look like me?”
Max got a panicked look on his face. “It…it’s not a sex doll, Mei.”
“Yes it is.”
“It’s not just a sex doll, I mean. You can talk to her and everything.”
While this was going on the doll lowered its gaze and stared at its right hand. Then it stared at its left. Then it looked up at me and grinned, a lopsided effort that looked nothing, I hoped, like any facial expression I would ever have produced. I had to admit, though, that apart from the weird smile it did look very much like me.
Too much like me.
It sat on the edge of the sofa, hands primly on its knees, its miniskirt – scratch that, my miniskirt that Max had dressed it in – riding up over its thighs. It fitted right in with the sanitised, comes-with-the-lease furniture and blandly tasteful decoration of our apartment. I could see the work that had gone into it. Every angle of my face, every curve of my body, even the way one of my eyebrows was ever-so-slightly higher than the other – it was an outstanding job. The trouble was that it was so good it made me wonder if I was the real me any more.
Max, meanwhile, was trying to make amends. “Nathan wanted to work on the algorithms. Train the dolls up, get them to behave more naturally. Seems the best way, huh, Mei?” His voice had taken on a pleading edge. Kind of pathetic, if truth be told. He risked a glance at the doll, saw that I’d seen him do it and started guiltily.
What a dickhead.
Him and Nathan both. Max Maxwell – yes, he called himself that – and Nathan Blue, the guy I left him for, who just so happened to be Max’s boss. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The dolls, or companions, or robots, or whatever they were manufactured for, were turning up everywhere now. Widow’s houses, brothels, drive-thru burger joints; anywhere they were supposedly needed you could see their blank, gormless faces gazing out on the world like cows on their way to a slaughterhouse.
We’d moved into a new-build apartment block some property company had shoved up in one of the up-and-coming districts of the city. I was already regretting the decision even then. Max worked out of a tiny cubicle in a cheap workshop unit, slaving away sixty hours a week or more for Nathan’s company Air Babes Inc. They, as you can imagine, made pleasure models, glorified inflatable dolls for people who couldn’t handle the real thing.
Of which there seemed to be vast numbers. I hated the things. And now I’d be living with one.
“So Nathan put you up to this?” I poked him in the chest. “Mr Nathan fucking Blue? I’m playing second fiddle to a fuck-droid because of that guy?”
“He’s got some new ideas.” Max started to say it to the doll before correcting himself. “We’re training them to respond to their environment. The back-end team have knocked up a new program, seems it’s a major advance on what’s gone before. A new paradigm, Mei, that’s what Nathan called her.”
‘Her’. That word again. The doll followed our conversation with a series of responses that almost, but not quite, resembled interest. “So this is what all those photos and measurements were for? You were bullshitting me about the modelling thing?” Nod. “Max, you really have no clue about how people work, do you? Does she give some speech about how she’s your Chinese dream-girl as well?”
“Hey, I thought I’d surprise you with her. She should be able to hold down a conversation soon. She’s, er, fully functioning, too.” He licked his lips and cleared his throat.
The doll, at that moment, decided to join in.
“Hey! My names Mei! What’s yours?”
We both jumped. The doll gave us a beneficent smile, opening its mouth just a little too wide to look comfortable. Even its voice sounded just like mine, although the inflections gave it a curious, just-off edge. Almost fascinating. Max gave me a sheepish grin. He snapped it off when I didn’t return the favour.
Make the most of its smiles, buddy, I nearly said out loud. Because you won’t be seeing too many of mine from now on.
Passage of time. Fast-forward through the boring bits – the disgust, the curiosity, the seduction, the first time, the second and the third and all the other times.
The look on the doll’s face was innocence itself. Max, on the other hand, had given up on scrambling around in search of his clothes and was sitting on the rumpled sheets, head in hands, one sock dangling from his foot like a flag at half-mast. I was almost sorry I’d interrupted them.
He gave me a defiant look. “So how about you? You think I don’t know what you’ve been doing with her? It, I mean.”
“I’m not the one who’d brought the thing home, asshole.” He could hardly deny it. I could do what I wanted with it. He, on the other hand, was supposed to be making observations, not banging it. A thought occurred to me. “What does Nathan think about you doing this? Does he know?”
He shrugged. Hey, for all I knew the guy had ordered Max to carry out a field test. Max, being the passive type, would do anything he was told. It would figure. Nathan never seemed to have got over me dumping him for one of his employees, and my guess was the whole situation was some kind of twisted revenge scenario. All of which reminded me of why I’d left that clown in the first place.
Max was whining again. “Hey, Mei, don’t tell him, huh? You know what he’s like, he’d never let me…”
Bored of him, I phased his voice out and turned my attention to the doll. It was brushing itself down, cleaning Max’s sweat off its unblemished, porcelain skin in a series of smooth, feline movements. In the three weeks it had been living with us its demeanour had become more and more lifelike. Or was it just me getting used to it?
Right then, all I wanted to do was take it, rough.
And I knew Max wanted me to do it too. Which was why I managed, somehow, to restrain myself.
After he’d showered we settled down for a tense evening. Our relationship was clearly history. If it hadn’t been for the doll I’d have left in a second. I suspected Max felt exactly the same way. What we were going to do if the thing developed a personality I had no idea; we’d turned into one of those couples who only stay together for the sake of the children, and right then the doll was, in its own way, beginning to test the boundaries.
We’d just picked up again from where we’d left off when the doll cut through our argument in its too-loud voice. “Hey, Mei?”
I froze. This was the first time it had instigated a verbal exchange beyond basic greetings or its programmed sex responses: fuck me, ooh yeah, suck my tits etc etc; I swear whoever programmed it had never had any sexual experience beyond watching porn. I wasn’t too sure how to reply. “Yes?” was the best I could think of.
“You wanna go out?”
Max and I exchanged a worried glance, in the way you might when your daughter tells you she’s getting her nose pierced. “It’s been out?” I asked.
“Once or twice, just to get her acclimatised,” he replied, airily. “Don’t worry about it.”
“So what if someone thinks it’s me?!” And we were off again, uninterrupted this time by the doll, which merely sat on the sofa flicking through silent TV channels as we tore each other to shreds.
That night, Max slept on the sofa. Fortunately, I was off to Jiangxi the next day to visit the family. Two weeks away from this crap, I said to myself as I tried to sleep, and I’ll reassess the whole thing. Two weeks away from Max – it almost made me weep with joy, until I realised with a shudder that it’d be two weeks away from the doll too.
The thought crept around the corners of my mind until I fell into a fitful slumber. I swear that I woke up at one point to find the doll standing over me in the darkness, that vague smile still on its face.
But maybe I was just dreaming.
I hadn’t been back longer than a day before I got a message.
– hey mei? thought u wuz in china babes? howzabout saturday again?
It was from a long-past fuck buddy by the name of Ryle Scoat. I messaged him back.
– Hey Ryle. What are you talking about? m
– hehe yeh babes
…was all I got in reply. I showed our exchange to Max. He, of course, held his hands up in complete innocence. The doll, in my absence, had continued its development towards lifelike perfection. The accuracy of the construction continued to astound me. I mean, I was aware the things grew themselves from a template somehow, but clearly the algorithms were modelling themselves into forms more advanced than anyone could have foreseen.
I suppose, though I hated to admit it, I had Nathan Blue to thank. Not that he did any of the work himself, bar the selling. He had a knack, though, for getting talented people around him – like Max – or, failing that, outsourcing it somewhere very, very cheap.
We carried on from where we’d left our relationship off, the doll and I. It’s an interesting experience, having sex with yourself. Kind of predictable in some ways, illuminating in others. It left me with an unpleasant narcissistic feeling, a sense of vague disquiet at the thought of the person that I maybe really was. I tried asking the doll what she thought about it. I was thinking of it as ‘she’ by then, loath as I was to admit it.
“It’s funny,” she replied, in my voice, “but I’ve been thinking too, Mei.”
The blood drained from my face. Was the thing actually alive now? “Oh…yes?” I said, in the most neutral tone I could muster. But she didn’t speak again that day. I thought about telling Max what she’d done, but decided against it. It wasn’t my research. What do I care if Air Babes Inc. turns a profit or not?
Speaking of which, Nathan himself messaged me the following day, as I was sat on the bed watching the doll combing her hair. I’d had a haircut while I was away, by the way. Max, naturally, went out and got the same cut for the doll pretty much as soon as I walked in from the airport.
– yo Mei how’s it goin with yr pal?
I didn’t bother replying. That night, Max squirmed around the apartment, trying to avoid speaking to me. I was heading out to spend the evening in better company, and thought I should warn him.
“Max. If you take this doll out with you again that’s it. I’m off. Out of here. And I’m taking her with me.”
“Oh yeah?” He smirked. “Strictly speaking that’d be theft, hon. Have a nice time, okay?” He leaned forward to give me a peck on the cheek. I grabbed his hand and twisted the thumb back.
“Don’t forget,” I smiled. He tried not to squeal. “She’s a homebody, Max. A house cat.”
I got five minutes’ walk down the road and ground to a halt. I messaged my friends to tell them I wasn’t feeling up to it, hailed a cab and rode it back to the apartment. We sat outside for a while. Sure enough, fifteen minutes later another cab pulled up across the street. Max scurried out with his arm around the doll.
“Hey, that’s your sister?” the driver said. I told her to follow them. As we headed downtown I thought about the future. Was there really anything to stop me doing a runner with the doll? Max wouldn’t go to the police. But Nathan? That was one wild card I wasn’t sure how to play.
As I pondered on the conundrum Max’s cab stopped outside the gaudiest, shittiest-looking bar I’d ever seen. The cobalt-blue neon sign above the door said:
52 PICK-UP. Pick ‘Em Up Here!
Max and the doll got out and disappeared inside. I paid the driver and sidled into the place through a different door. The interior was much as I had expected. I resolved to endure it. Glass and mirrors and neon and black light spilled into my eyeballs from every angle. The people around me, yammering into each other’s ears about who-cares-what, looked like the type of drone-droids I’d normally run screaming from.
I skulked into the shadows by the wall and resolved to endure them, too.
The doll was sat at the bar, an umbrella-laden cocktail before her, a veritable queue of suitors trying to look surreptitious as they milled around in her vicinity. Max, sat at a table some metres away looking awkward and out of place, had clad her in one of my party dresses, a plunging green number that even I usually thought twice about wearing.
It didn’t take long. Some suit-at-half-mast type who looked like he probably turned over a seven-figure salary sat down beside Max. They exchanged words. Suit Guy pulled something out of his pocket and passed it under the table. Max, pale in the garish neon, nodded his head towards the doll. The guy got up and swaggered across to her. He leaned in, stroking her back, and before I knew it they were heading for the door.
I almost sprinted after them, weaving through the crowd and past an astonished Max. I caught up with them by the entrance and grabbed the doll’s elbow. Her companion started in surprise. “Wow! Hey, am I seeing double? Yeah, double trouble, huh? Baby, you and your sis here have got somethin’ good…”
I stamped my heel down onto his instep. He yelped in shock and fell over. As he was writhing in agony on the floor I pulled the doll outside and hailed a cab. One stopped for us almost immediately. It must have been the twins thing.
I was starting to see the possibilities already.
I gave the driver the address of a place I knew, somewhere more in keeping with my idea of fun. Once we were safely ensconced in the back seat the doll turned to me, a serious look on her face.
“Mei?” she said. Her vocal inflections were getting all too human now.
“Hi!” She placed a hand on my thigh.
“Hi, sis.” I squeezed her hand. “Let’s have some fun, huh?”
She gave me a smile of such radiant beauty it almost broke my heart.
After that, Max and I came to an agreement. The only difficulty lay in figuring out a rota for who got her when. We were sleeping together again now, in a manner of speaking. The threesomes, while interesting, lost their pall quickly enough though. You would have thought Max would be in seventh heaven, but he just concentrated on the doll and left me to my own devices.
I was fine with that.
Max loved to tell me how much I was beginning to act the same as her. “Honest, Mei. You’re using her speech patterns more than your own. Talking to you nowadays is like talking to one of the algorithms I wrote, it’s just weird.”
“Yeah? So which version of me do you prefer, Max baby?”
He just shrugged, as usual, and we went back to working out our timeshare scheme for the week. Going clubbing with the doll was proving itself to be the real area of interest. We’d moved on from that first night to take in every type of establishment I could think of. Strip clubs, tech-dungeons, retro flapper floorshows, you name it. They loved the two of us. Who wouldn’t? No-one, as far as I could tell, even realised she wasn’t human. Or if they did, they probably thought I was a sex doll too.
The only place I hadn’t taken her yet was any of the live show joints that flanked the clubbing areas like barnacles clinging to a whale. You’d find them in the basements of falafel shops, behind near-hidden doors at the end of dead-end alleys, above otherwise respectable office premises in the centre of town. The composition of the queues outside would tell the tale: muscle-boys for the gay clubs, middle-aged couples for the fetish ones, nervous adventurers for the trans. Going into any of those places with her, I had to admit, would have been crossing a line.
A line that was getting so near I could almost smell what was on the other side of it.
Which is why I found myself, some weeks after that night in the bar, waiting in an unlit alleyway that stank of dead fish, excrement and the merest hint of human pheromones. The sign above the door said Moby Dick. Good name. The doll held my hand, as she had begun to do whenever we left the apartment, and turned her depthless smile onto the couple standing in line behind us.
“Hi!” she said to them.
The female-leaning half peered at her uncertainly. “Hi there,” she said in return. “First time?”
“That,” her companion said, “is a doll. Isn’t it?” He said this last to me.
“Oh?” Interest from his partner, suddenly. “How sweet. A pair of fuck dolls, heading for the sex ark. How much do you charge, just out of interest?” She reached out and stroked my chest. The line began to move. “And they went in two by two by two by two by…”
Her song faded into giggles as we ascended the stairs, hand-in-hand, the doll perking up at the bass-saturated thrum of music that penetrated through the concrete. The doorman waved us past with little more than a faint nod. Inside, stark brickwork and chrome stretched away into the shadows. By my side, I could feel the doll tremble with anticipation.
Or was the trembling coming from me?
Doubts, doubts. Was I just projecting my own longings onto her? Her responses increasingly resembled those of a sentient creature. Smiles, frowns, an arched eyebrow, an elegant clutch of the throat: she echoed them back to me tenfold, her purity of expression just too perfect, too sympathetic.
But wasn’t that what we all wanted? Max, his dream girl fantasies realised at last; me with a narcissus mirror shadowing my every step, an interactive screen, a bulwark against the demands of the world.
Yeah, probably it was, so long as we’re waxing philosophical. Just then, though, with the music taking hold of me, my synapses aligning with the little something I’d taken half an hour earlier to enhance the experience, the crowds of pleasure-seekers jostling us as we wended our way across the dancefloor, it didn’t seem to matter. All that mattered was the doll, and the club, and the corridors that led away from the bar areas towards the private rooms, the secret chambers where avarice, that most illuminating sin, was in plentiful supply.
The doll looked past me and smiled at someone. I felt a light touch to my elbow, warm breath on my neck. I turned to see if the interloper met our requirements for the evening.
Fast-forward past the boring bits – the next-day regret, the guilt, the guilt’s slow fade into insignificance, another club, another back room, another club, another back room…
I was strolling home from work, squinting into the lowering sun that haloed out from behind our apartment block. Ever since that night at the Moby Dick I’d been wandering through the days like I was nothing more than a script consultant for the story of my life, peering out from deep within myself at the frenzied, meaningless activities of humanity. I had, in short, turned into the doll.
The question was, had she turned into me in return?
Inside the building, the sound of my footsteps echoing across the entrance lobby sounded like they were coming from another universe. What, I wondered, did the doll make of us? She was some performer, I’ll say that. When you let her off the leash she really showed her true colours – no-one, least of all me, could keep up. All that the people we’d been with wanted to do was mould her, mould both of us, into an exaggerated, sublimated version of their unconscious drives, a tabula rasa defaced with a child’s scribbles. Even the couple we’d met in the queue that first night didn’t realise I was human and not a doll. I didn’t mind; in fact, I relished the opportunity. The secret rooms became film sets, programming cubicles, factory production lines to hard-wire my brain into its new, true shape.
The lift arrived. I pressed the button for the twentieth floor, dying a little inside all the way up at the thought of having to share her with Max again. We’d figured out a modus operandi for when we went out by then. I let the doll do all the talking; it worked out better that way, less challenging for our admirers, easier for her. The main difficulty was keeping up the pretence of being a fuck doll myself.
I was learning fast, though.
The doors swished open. I approached the apartment with a heaviness settling over me. As I began to punch in the door code, though, I heard noises from within. I stopped, one hand raised, an insect shiver crawling over my skin. I knew that voice. Taking a deep breath, I hit the last number and pushed the door open.
Nathan Blue craned his neck round and grinned. “Oh. Hi, Mei,” he said, and turned back to Max and the doll, perched beside each other on the sofa as if they were a pair of young lovers meeting their wedding planner for the first time.
My old self, my real self, surged to the forefront of my consciousness like a camera zoom towards a plate glass window.
The window shattered, and I was back.
“Nathan,” I said, “what the fuck are you doing in my apartment?”
He waggled an admonishing finger at me. “Now, now, Mei, it’s Max’s apartment too. I’ve just popped over to take the doll back to Air Babes. Not a problem, is it?”
He looked just the same as he always had. A squishy, pudgy face, a flabby, shapeless body and the look of someone trying, and failing, to be the coolest kid in class. As I was mentally running through my stock of insults I noticed that the wall screen was on. Then I saw, with a rising sense of horror, what they had been watching.
They were watching me. At the Moby Dick. Naked, blindfolded, pinned to a leather-covered table and surrounded by a writhing, undulating mass of humanity. They had set it to ultra-slow frame-by-frame view; as I stood there, mouth agape, a new figure swam into the picture and headed straight for the camera. It was Max, divested of clothing and with eyeballs so wide I wondered how he was even still conscious. Clearly whatever recording device the doll had been fitted with still worked even when she was blindfolded.
“Oh, look. It’s Max!” Nathan chuckled and turned to me, gesturing towards the scene. The doll tinkled out a laugh in response.
“It’s Max!” she said. “Look, Mei. It’s Max!” Her head crooked to one side.
Nathan raised an eyebrow at her in interest. Max, looking anywhere but at me, sank down into the cushions and kept silent. No-one said anything for a moment. Nathan, eventually, stood up and cleared his throat. “Well, nice to see you again, Mei, but maybe I’ll be –”
“You knew she was recording?” I could feel the spittle flying out from between my lips. “Max? You knew about this shit?”
Max glanced toward Nathan for support. “Hey, come on, Mei. She’s not yours. We were just…borrowing her for a while.” His tone belied the words; he looked as distraught as I must have done. The doll giggled again.
“That’s right.” Nathan fiddled with an interface pad he’d pulled out of somewhere and the doll rose to her feet. “We’ve got some really great raw material to work with, Mei, so thanks for that. I’ll get Max and the gang on it by next week.”
I slapped his face, hard. “You never got over it, did you? Me dumping you and taking up with Max.” The doll looked on with detached interest. “This whole thing is a cover, Nathan. Isn’t it? ‘Developing the algorithms’, are you kidding me? The people that buy your blow-up sex toys want a warm pussy and that’s it. Right, Max?” Max squirmed and stayed silent.
“I’ve got it, Mei. All of it.” Nathan had turned white. He rubbed at his cheek, wincing. “The first time you sucked her pussy, Mei my love. That time she fingered you and the other girl in the toilet stalls. The charming little three-ways you guys were getting into, everything.” He tried to smirk, but only got as far as a pained scowl before giving up. “She was recording all the time, you stupid bitch.”
The only sound in the room was his panting and a low, repetitive snigger from the doll. I didn’t know who I felt more betrayed by. Just then, I didn’t care. I only wanted her to stay. I swallowed my pride and said the words I knew would haunt me forever.
“Nathan, don’t take her, okay? She…she can stay here with us.” I turned to Max. “Can’t she?”
He did little more than shrug, the coward. I expected no more. Nathan shook his head. “Oh, Mei, Mei.” He looked happier now he’d made me say what I really thought. He lifted the doll’s chin. “Ah, look at her.” He sighed. “Perfect in every detail. Better than the actual Mei, I’d say. At least she’s honest.” He appraised her with an expert’s eye. She smiled back at him, the same smile that had melted my heart.
Just a preset. I tried to memorise it.
“Never mind, guys. I’ll make it up to you somehow.” And with that he ran his fingertips over the interface, turned on his heels and swept from the room. The doll blew a kiss at me as she followed. She very politely closed the apartment door behind her, and they were gone.
Leaving me with Max, and the image of Max that was still ghosting its way across the screen. I killed the picture. Max stirred from his supine position on the sofa. He scratched his head, stretched his legs and then, finally, met my eyes.
Neither of us could think of anything to say.
We hung on, the two of us, hoping Nathan might change his mind. Max spent most of his spare time at home obsessively watching and re-watching the doll’s footage he’d managed to download: her and him, her and me, the three of us together, the guys he’d whored her out to, our clubbing nights…
I did, too. All sorts of fascinating stuff turned up. It seemed she’d spent her time while we were sleeping padding around the apartment as if she were measuring it for demolition, criss-crossing back on herself over and over. She would watch us while we slept, too. You could tell what her attention was focused on at any time, of course; apparently she was interested in me the most of all. Her cold appraisal would take in the length of my body: breasts, earlobes, crotch, hair, all of it, drinking in the sight like she was memorising architectural blueprints.
It was hard for me to deny that she seemed to have developed something approaching intelligence, or at the very least a working simulacrum of it.
I missed her.
Max missed her.
Nathan, no doubt, was enjoying the fruits of our labour at his leisure. We contemplated pooling our resources and purchasing a new doll ourselves – plenty of places built them now, and Nathan need never know. But it wouldn’t have been the same. How can you replace your own flesh and blood, after all?
So when the knock came at the door one day we both jumped to our feet in excitement. Then we pretended to each other we weren’t actually that needy. We’d been getting used to doing that a lot lately. I went to the door and opened it.
On the threshold stood a sex doll.
“Hi!” it said, hand raised in greeting. “Nathan sent me over.” And it brushed past me into the apartment. We locked eyes, Max and I, an unsaid question hanging in the air between us.
After a while I closed the door, and we went to see how the Max doll was settling in.