Volume 27, Number 2

A Million Lights to Dance On

Stacey Bell

Peter did as the nurse had suggested and arrived around 10 in the morning instead of 7 as he had originally planned. Pine Manor was one of the higher-end nursing facilities right outside of Ridgefield. Lots of acreage and trees. Allergies alone would have kept him far away, but he was hopped up on as many antihistamines as he could without falling asleep behind the wheel. As he walked up the long cobblestones pathway, Peter checked and rechecked his satchel and fiddled with his tie. Kelly had laughed at the fuss he was making.

You’re not meeting the president, Pete.

If I was, I wouldn’t be wasting my good suit.

The receptionist signed him in. A nurse called for him just as he was headed to the waiting area. Her name was Tamera. Tall, short dark hair, early forties, maybe, took care of herself, good firm handshake and direct eye contact. The walk to Room 71b was slow. Tamera was the kind of person who could sounded happy as she was picking someone apart. Peter made a mental note: Head nurse is protective like a daughter looking out for her mother. Tamara knocked on the open door to 71b.

“You’ve got company,” Tamera said affectionately to the figure fluffing pillows. The pillows were huge and handmade, vigorously patted and placed in the two large wicker chairs that dwarfed the small table between them. Peter didn’t notice Tamera leave. He knew he was just standing there in the doorway, over-dressed and clumsy, but he couldn’t move. He’d seen all the pictures and still he was not prepared. Her dark gold chrome and steel casing still shone. Not the brand-new luster from the assembly line, but from years of dedicated polish and upkeep. The plated sheen of her head caught in the overhead light, framing the permanent tender expression molded to her face. Her body was slender and delicate, even graceful. Abigail M435 was an incomparably beautiful relic.

“You may come in, Mr. Marsharin,” she said as brightly as her now-somewhat-worn voice box would allow. “I have never bitten a person, I promise you.”

Peter relaxed, laughing. “Forgive me, Abigail, and please call me Peter.”

“Nothing to forgive, and it’s Abby from here on out.” When she tilted her head Peter could hear a ‘whirr’ sound. “You should sit and have some coffee, Peter, to counteract those antihistamines you’ve taken.”

“How did you know…?”

“Most of my programing is intact.” There was no umbrage in her statement. Only when his cup was served did she take her seat in the chair on the other side of the table, legs crossed at the ankles, hands resting on her knee. Peter was glad he wore his good suit.

“You have come a long way,” she said, “to talk to an old has-been like me. You work at KeyLife?”

“Yes. Seven years now.”

“You don’t look more than twenty-five.”

Peter laughed.

“I will be thirty in a few months.”

“Ah, well happy early birthday to you.… Marsharin… tell me, would you happen to be any relation to a Keith Marsharin?”

Peter laughed again. She was full of surprises.

“That was my grandfather.”

Her voice box tinkled and crackled but the laugh was delightful.

“Keith was a lovely student. Darling boy. Very dear.”

“I remembered his stories about you.”

She tilted her head again. The ‘whirr’ was not as pronounced this time.

“Then this would be what one would call a ‘full circle,’” she smiled. “I suppose we should get started.”

Peter pulled out the recorder from his coat pocket.

“I know I am old, but you didn’t need to bring such a dated tool,” she said.

“I like not having to use my hands, and besides, I wanted to capture your voice. If that’s all right. If not, I can use…” Abby waved her hand impatiently. With a smile, Peter stated his name, the date, then placed the recorder on the table between them.

“If you could state your name,” he said to her. She nodded. Leaning forward she said clearly,

“I am Abigail Maternoid Model 435 of the CareTouch Series.”

“And what did you do as a Maternoid?”

“I would take the reproductive samples of two people and then conceive and incubate their specimen to full term according to their specifications.”

“How old are you?”

“Four hundred thirteen years and eight months.”

“You are the last of that line.”

“I am, yes.”

“What is your earliest memory?”

“Hmmm, I have to think on that.…”

* * *

That I cannot tell you, I’m afraid. But I can tell you a bit of the history of how the line came to be. Now, when they first tried to introduce Maternoids to the public, the manufactures had been too eager to make the machines lifelike. They made them up in artificial skin and wigs and tried to program them to mimic human movement. And no matter what trimester they were in, they always looked like they were in the latter stages of the third trimester. They were mannequins, robotic things, and they just terrified the clients no end. The manufactures had no choice but to go back to the drawing board. The “clean” casings like my own were a hit with the test groups. They implemented a program where the prospective mother could tell the surrogate what she wanted the baby to hear. But what really interested the clients was the incubation compartment. The metal allowed my abdomen to swell just as a natural mother with the growth of a specimen, and the compartment let the clients see their child. Simply genius. They couldn’t keep up with the demand for years.

* * *

“May I see the incubation compartment?” Peter asked.

“But of course.” Abby slid the shutter open and, after fiddling with a small switch on her chest, was able to get the interior light to come alive. The soft partition was no longer as clear as it once was. Inside the sac, old wires and tubing remained attached but were dry and brittle. Peter took a few pictures, apologizing in spite of her chuckles.

“When I was in rotation, I was always opening and closing the shutter for the clients and their relatives and doctors.” Abby switched off the interior light and slid the shutter closed.

“How long were you in rotation?”

“Thirteen years.” She tilted her head. “I know. Not long at all.”

“Do you have any memories that stick out during that time?

Abby put her hands together and went still. Peter hoped he hadn’t said something to upset her.

“Only memories you feel comfortable discussing with me,” he said slowly.

Abby replied, “I have a few.”

* * *

We were programed to use a certain language. It made the clients more comfortable if we were seen as devices and not surrogates. So we didn’t have pregnancies, we had assignments. We incubated specimens. So on and so forth. I was first based in Brooklyn, New York, in the Fort Greene neighborhood. The Abigails always had the option to stay with their clients. During my time in rotation, there were only five that chose not to take that option. As a Maternoid I was required to have checkups and system tests. At my assigned base there was just one person who was trained as an OB-GYN and a Maternoid technician. His name was Dr. Frederick Luntz. All the Abigails of that area went to him, and we were all very lucky to have him. He was a young, excellent doctor, a skilled technician, and just treated us with such respect and kindness. I would meet with the other Abigails at Fort Green Park, and we would talk to each other about how our assignments were going, catch up, you know, just chatting. There was one Abigail who was on her very first assignment, and she’d already been to Dr. Luntz four times. I confided in her that during my first assignment, I went to Dr. Luntz every week until the specimen’s release. That specimen turned out to be exemplary. I then put my hand on hers and told her she was going to be just fine. Everyone else was quiet for a short time, but then started sharing stories about their first assignments to let her know she was going to be okay. And she was. But conversations like that were frowned upon. Sitting together, commiserating, that was not how things were done. It made people very uneasy.

* * *

“Damn.” Abby shook her head.

Peter stood up to approach her but she was already on her feet. She found a bottle on her bedside table and put it to her wrists.

“I just need a little oil.” She poured a little more of the contents in her neck and turned her head both ways. When she returned to her seat she wiggled her fingers and flexed her hands.

“Sorry about that.”

* * *

There were a lot of people who were very set against Maternoid production and distribution for various reasons, but the FDA approved us as medical devices. Not many people opted for natural childbirth anymore. Maternoids brought a lot of good things to clients who had nowhere else to go, but of course it was easy to abuse the process too. All of this is well documented.…

There was one assignment where the clients wanted me to perform an Option 9 three times because they changed their mind one week before delivery. Option 9 is the specimen disposal selection. Nothing was wrong with any of the results they just kept wanting something different. Instead of brown eyes they wanted blue. Then instead of a boy they wanted twin girls, then decided they wanted twin boys. The third time, I refused. And that was it. After release, I was pulled from rotation, found defective and ordered for demolition. Right before the procedure, my assigned doctor at the time, a Dr. Howard, terminated my contract so that the orders for demolition were voided and sent me out to find a friend of his. That friend was Marky, a big name in the black market at the time, and he in turn pointed me to Evette.

* * *

“Evette?” Peter almost choked on his coffee. “The Evette?”

“Yes, one and the same.” The look on his face made her chuckle. “And yes, Peter, I worked in her brothel.”

* * *

By the time I did my last rotation, there was a lot of hostility to Maternoids. There were so many different companies and so many different models out there that the market was saturated. But a lot of the danger started coming from the clients themselves. If the clients felt there was too much independence you would be labeled defective and destroyed, no questions asked. There were a few Abigails I knew where the clients would start taking advantage of them. And to say no almost guaranteed a defective complaint. One host found out what her husband was doing and just found it easier and cost effective to get her Maternoid labeled defective. After a while it stopped being easy to destroy us. You found a lot of Maternoids living on the street. Evette gave us orphans a safe place. She was our mother hen. The men who came through her doors didn’t want human women. They wanted the robot fantasy. That’s what they liked. It gave us the money to live comfortably and no one bothered us because we were “staying in our place” by playing the role of mindless machines. People like Markey who worked in the black market got us the top grade parts we needed to fulfill those fantasies. Peter, are you blushing? You are! Ha ha! I won’t go any further if this is too much. Are you sure? All right then.

I could not get the enhancements to become a gynoid. I would have had to have been rebuilt, and Evette thought it wasn’t worth the risk. There were parts of my system, however, that could be upgraded. My casing and original programing allowed me to feel pressure so that I could hold things and know when release was imminent. After some modifications, I was able to physically feel things I touched. I will never forget the moment I could feel Evette’s fingers around mine. I came back to The House, and all the girls laughed at me because I kept touching everything. I even smashed cake in my hands just to see what it felt like! Ha ha! But none of that compares to the first time I felt water from a faucet. And rain… so many different types of rain! And the feel of snow and flower petals. Flower petals are some of my favorite things to hold. Smell? I can smell a little; some things are stronger than others. My model was limited in what I could do, so I had to make up for it in other ways.

Evette was one of the very first Maternoid experiments before the mannequin debacle. I believe she was the Eve S4. The manufactures did many studies and concluded that the public would prefer the “surrogate engine” to have simulated vaginal birth. So Evette was built under those specifications. But, as you can rightly assume, it was a failure that never made it out of the prototype phase. Evette was the only one who successfully adapted to basic intelligence programing but when she asked to be called Evette so that she wouldn’t be confused with the others, well, they had no choice but to pull her from the lineup. They kept her for a while, though, as a test subject. From what I was told, she escaped the lab and lived in the sewers for a few years because she found it extremely difficult to be anywhere that had bright light. Bright light brought back very strong memories of the laboratory. She never talked about it further, and I never asked.

Evette’s curiosity about humans outside of what she’d come to know drove her to the library. She learned all there was to know about the commercial models and then began to observe and study the Trails, her host family, putting it all down in her first journal. It proved to be invaluable. Ironically enough, Mr. and Mrs. Trail, who’d been so dead against the Maternoids’ manufacturing, actually employed one to give them another child. But by that time Evette was out of the household and, as she would say, “Hypocrisy was not a new lesson.”

She discovered the black market, took the severance pay the Trails had been kind enough to allot her, and bought The House.

Evette and I, we had a kinship. She was not made from my materials and was very boxy so she would wear expensive kimonos to hide her angles. Her library and notes were immeasurable. Yes, real books. Because she was a failed prototype, the only computer hardware she had was made for laboratory use. She was very old by the time I came to The House. Her eyes were failing. She had memory problems. She would repeat herself, get lost in the House and sometimes forget the girls’ names. That one really bothered her.

Evette was very much an idealist. She wanted people to see us as something more. She believed that we were not just things to make and destroy. She was brilliant. She figured out how she was built, how Maternoids worked, all our strengths and weaknesses. If it had been legal I am sure she would have been a great scientist or a doctor. Evette believed that our “defects” were just a sign of evolution. She too had tried to have enhancements on her programing and case, but because of her prototype status her body rejected every single one. She thought of it as her own evolution coming to an end. Evette wanted us to be the bridge to acceptance. That meant having a reproductive system that would allow human sperm to fertilize an android egg. Ha ha ha, yes, I too thought it was insane. But Evette found that the creation of Maternoids had brought us to brink of a breakthrough. The logistics went over my head, frankly, but to her it was just a matter of time.

There was a girl there named Nan. She was not a Maternoid but a Nanny model. Evette’s theory was that Maternoid programs were more sophisticated because of the enormous scope of what we were built to do. Nan was a bright, perky, adorable girl who always wanted to help. First she was upgraded to a full-functioning gynoid, then, with Evette’s engineering, Nan was able to conceive. Once. She miscarried a week afterward. The conception damaged Nan’s systems and then failed completely. Evette never forgave herself for what had happened, and she never experimented like that again. Years later, government officials raided The House. Evette had sent us out, and it took us a while to get back. We were not far away when we saw all these cars and vans surrounding The House. Everything was being carried out. We saw a man come out holding Evette’s head in both hands. They didn’t care about us, though, just Evette.

We were all family, but Evette was my first friend. My best friend. I believe she confided in me more than others. I tried to return the favor. I still miss her dearly.

* * *

Abby faced the window, silent and unmoving. Ten minutes passed, then fifteen. Peter called for the nurse.

“This happens from time to time.” Tamera rubbed Abby’s shoulders and arms. “She locks up. This stimulates her sensors to reset itself.”

She pressed her cheek against Abby’s head. Abby’s fingers twitched, curled, straightened. Then one hand patted Tamera’s face.

“Thank you, Tamera. I am fine.”

But Peter wasn’t so sure. For the first time he noticed how the morning sunlight had faded to a darker glow. He checked the recorder. Two and half hours had gone by.

“I think Abby needs to rest,” Tamera said in her smiling way.

Abby shook her head. “Please don’t speak for me. I said I am fine, and I am.”

Abby sounded fine, if a bit stern. Peter remembered his grandfather talking about that tone. Tamera left them alone again. Abby asked Peter to bring her oil. Besides the bottle was a faded pink ribbon with marks down the length. One of the marks was smudged. Abby touched his arm, and he jumped forward. Up close, he could see small spots of tarnish on the hard to reach places around the rims of her eyes and smiling mouth.

“Is something wrong, Peter?”

He showed her the ribbon. Abby dropped more oil around in the crease of her neck. Upon replacing the bottle, she picked up the ribbon and laced it between her fingers. She then handed it to Peter, and sat back down.

“If you turn it to the side,” she almost murmured, “you can make out what it says.”

Peter turned the ribbon this way and that. He brought the ribbon close to his eyes and then pulled it away. That’s when he saw a word: Forever. Peter looked at the woman in front of him. The silence between them had changed. Peter thought about turning off the recorder but felt that if he moved even an inch more it would disturb the peaceful air around them. He suddenly saw Kelly sitting in the hallway right outside her dorm room. Oversized t-shirt and sweatpants, hair coming loose from her ponytail. He sat across from her, shirtless, gym shorts, their bare feet sole to sole, no words to disrupt the rare silence surrounding them. They just kept looking at their feet, smiling, with the intermittent low sound of Kelly’s giggling. Abby asked:

“Do you like fireflies, Peter?”

“I do. Haven’t seen them in years though. Not since I was a kid.”

Abby nodded.

* * *

After Evette was destroyed, we all went our different ways. It was too hard for a lot of us to find jobs. We lost touch. I regret that. They are all gone now.

I went around doing odd jobs here and there, all nanny work, taking little pay, in and out of hostels. But I remembered Dr. Luntz. I thought about him often. He had been so kind to the Abigails. So after about a year of floating around I decided to ask him for a job. I found out he had moved his practice to Lewisboro. When I was first assigned to him he was twenty-seven. When I found him again he was fifty-five. The doctor was tickled that I remembered him. He remembered me too! He didn’t ask where I’d been or what experience I had. He just hired me straightaway as his assistant. That was a big deal then. That’s how I made my living. I saved up my money and got myself a small place not far from the office. Around that time, they made the official switch from chrome to rubber. Those human-looking Maternoids were successful, and… well, the attitudes had changed a lot from when I was a brand-new. There was much more inclusion with all the androids, even if there were still a lot of things that were considered off limits. Progress was slow, but it was progress.

I found out the doctor was living in his office. I didn’t ask him about it at first. He was still very kind to me. He’d become a friend. I certainly didn’t want to embarrass him. But, one day I had to ask him why he chose to live that way. He told me he had a house, paid off, but he wasn’t married, had no family and didn’t see much of the point of going somewhere he’d spend less time in than his office. Still, I kept poking and prodding, and he finally admitted to me that years before he’d suffered a nervous breakdown. Everything had burnt him out, the clients, the manufactures, even the Maternoids he worked on. So every day, when he closed up shop, he’d make himself something to eat, then turn off the lights and sleep. He said being in the office when it was empty made him feel whole again. One morning he changed. He didn’t talk much to me, and I stayed out of his way. I thought that he wanted to put me back into rotation. I was still a functioning, if outdated, Maternoid. I could go back into rotation at any time. Admittedly it made me sad. I went back to my apartment. I was home for about an hour before there was a knock on my door. There stood Dr. Luntz.

He politely asked for a cup of tea. I made him a cup. He asked me to sit with him. I did. He then asked me to tell him my history without the reservations, as he called it. So I did. He was shocked, appalled, amused, angered, saddened, but never judgmental. I was grateful for that. He asked me to call him Frederick, and I insisted that for that night, he sleep on the couch. For the first time in my existence, I did not put myself in sleep status. I sat next to him and watched him sleep. All night long. When he woke up, you could hear my system grinding because there had been no rest period. He chastised me and made me switch to sleep. My timer went off six hours later, and I was very surprised to see Frederick. He was cooking himself lunch. Instead of going to the office, he chose to stay there with me.

In the daytime hours, he was Dr. Luntz, and I was his assistant. Outside of those hours he was Frederick, and I was Abby. He didn’t like that. He wanted Frederick and Abby at all times of the day. I know there were others like us but they too had to abide by the rules of the time. We went on like that for two years, then Frederick sold his house and bought another in Ridgeland. It had no neighbors, just acres of wooded land, and a creek that ran through it. We liked to walk together. In the autumn we’d sit and watch the leaves turn and fall. Winter came and he took me sledding until his arthritis got too severe, so then I took him sledding. And in the summer we would take our time in the evening so that we could watch the fireflies. That was my favorite.

But he was worried about me, especially about my upkeep. The marriage laws still prevented us from getting married. Instead, he made me the legal heir to his money and property. I had him with me until he was ninety-seven. He was confused. He kept saying “Where are you? Where did you go?” So I lay next to him and took his hand. Frederick turned to me and smiled. He said, “Oh, there you are.” Then he sighed and was gone.

* * *

“I will save you from ruining your eyes,” Abby said. “It says, ‘We have always been together. We will be together forever after.’ I bought the ribbon during our road trip to our new home, and he liked it when I wore it as a headband. It’s one of the last things he was able to write. That’s why it’s so hard to read.”

Peter looked down at the ribbon again. At that angle he could finally make out the rest of the words. Abby took the ribbon in her hand and gently laced it through her fingers again. Her thumb ran over its silky grain. He wondered how many times she reread the message, how many times she’d caressed the thread. Abby spoke again but he knew she was still looking at the ribbon.

“I sold the property to a nice young couple and floated around again, earned myself a teaching degree and spent seventy-five years teaching grade school all through the South and East Coast. I knew it was time to retire when my joints started freezing, and I had to spend more time in sleep status to refresh. And that brings us to today, with me talking to Keith Marsharin’s grandson. Such a small world we live in.” Abby laughed, shaking her head.

“I hate to ask this. I honestly hope you don’t, but do you have any regrets, outside of losing touch with your friends? Anything you would have done differently?”

“Oh, I don’t think there is anything I would do differently. However, I wish that I had been smarter, quicker to learn because maybe then I could have made a difference somewhere. Evette did, and Frederick did as well. I haven’t made much of a contribution. I do regret that. Very much.”

Peter looked at her long and hard. It was such a penetrating stare that Abby drew back. He asked her if he could take some photos of her. He took a few with her being framed by her chair and the window, and he made sure he got her ribbon.

“Could you wear the ribbon like you did when you were with Frederick?”

It took a few minutes but Abby was able to get her fingers to work the bow like she had so many years before. Peter took a few more pictures then began to pack up his belongings.

“You’re wrong about not contributing to anything,” he said, putting his camera back into the satchel. “I think you helped everyone who came into your life. My grandfather didn’t like school. He couldn’t read very well. You stepped between him and a group of bullies. Then the rest of the year, you tutored him on his reading. You’d reward him with cookies. You were the reason he applied for college. You were the reason he became a teacher. You were the inspiration for his children’s books, and he thanked you in his acceptance speech for a book award. And now that I have got to meet you, I have to say that you made a contribution to my life too.”

Peter bent forward and kissed Abby affectionately on her cheek. He then turned off his recorder and slipped it in his pocket as he left the room. Abby touched the place his lips had been and laughed softly to herself.

“What a world,” she whispered.

* * *

The sun was just disappearing behind the cluster of trees in the distance. Abby laid her head against Frederick’s shoulder. Somewhere between the darkening of the sky and the sound of the cicadas, the ‘whirr’ began to sound like a rattle. Frederick held her tightly to him. She’d forgotten how much she missed the smell of his cologne. It had been a faint aroma then. Now it came in strong and fresh.

“Do you see that?” he murmured against her forehead. The duet of the crickets and cicadas overtook the sound of the hard knock of her fan belt. Yes, she did see it. One small dot of light, then another a few feet away, then three more to the left and five more to the right. All those pretty fireflies.

Abby wrapped her arms around Frederick’s waist. The lights ebbed, flowed, brightened and dimmed. Hundreds, thousands, millions of little lights came together flying until there was no any distinction, no window, no floor, no rattle, no fan belt, nothing but the crickets and the cicadas and Frederick telling her to watch her step as they walked into the brilliance of the night.