Orla had been doing well in the session up until the point where the young Thai masseuse who called herself Rabbit asked her to sit up and cross her legs.
Orla did as she was told. Rabbit squatted behind her and began digging her elbow into the back of Orla’s shoulder. Orla held the towel over her breasts with one hand, and bowed her head. That’s when she began to cry. The tears dripped right into her lap.
Rabbit stopped. ‘I make you hurt?’
‘It’s not you,’ said Orla. ‘Just another bad day.’
‘I go on?’ said Rabbit.
Orla wiped the tears from her eyes, nodding. She concentrated on the sound of the bamboo flute filtering through the room. Rabbit pushed her knees against Orla’s back and placed her hands on either side of Orla’s jaw. She stretched Orla’s head up and back, making her spine arch. She finished by clapping her hands all over Orla’s back.
‘Done,’ she said.
She slipped out and slid the door closed.
Orla felt dizzy as she got off the table. Her body smelled like massage oil and Tiger Balm. The room didn’t have a mirror but Orla knew her hair was all messed up. She pulled out the elastic and tried to flatten it as best she could. She also knew there’d be an embarrassing towel imprint on her chin and cheeks but there was nothing she could do about that.
Out in the waiting room Rabbit had left a cup of green tea for her to drink.
Underneath the cup was a business card.
‘For you,’ said Rabbit.
The card was thick and white, bearing capital letters embossed in blue.
THE SISTER COMPANY, it said. THERAPY, LIFE COACHING & COMPANIONSHIP FOR THE MELANCHOLIC.
Below the capital letters was a phone number.
In the days following the massage, Orla had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. It didn’t help that the sky had been dark for three weeks of summer thunderstorms, with no end in sight.
She still managed to get to work on time each day. It was standing room only on the train. She swayed with the rest of the passengers, one hand gripping the nearest pole, and the other thrust into her trouser pocket, fingertips pressing against the corners of the business card that Rabbit had given her.
She wondered how she had become so lonely. Boring, bawling Orla – the one everyone left behind.
By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, Orla still hadn’t called the Sister Company. During the morning commute, she slipped her hand into her pocket and noticed the corners of the card were bent and soft. She’d have to make the call soon, before the whole card disintegrated.
Work was a tiny office in a building on York Street in the CBD. The company Orla worked for shared the first floor with a small-time wills and estates law firm. It was quiet in the office when Orla arrived – all the other content writers were already hooked up at their desks, their eyes closed.
Orla hooked in to her own set of neurobuds, closed her eyes, and started working again on the simulation on her task list.
She sat developing a new scene, visualising a naked woman having an erotic moment on a horse. She added details to the visualisation: full breasts, hardening nipples, a red heart locket around the woman’s neck. She made the horse bare its teeth.
Then her focus wavered and she began thinking about buying an ice-cream on her lunch break. A soft serve cone suddenly materialised in the woman’s hand. In the woman’s other hand appeared a business card with blue capital letters.
‘Shit,’ thought Orla, and deleted the two details.
She rewound the draft in her mind and began working the angles. She started the visualisation again from the point of view of the woman. And then from the point of view of the horse. For every sim, there was always at least one weirdo who wrote in asking to experience the POV of the incidental fauna.
‘How’s the story going?’ The face of Orla’s boss flashed up on the interface to her right.
‘All right,’ said Orla.
‘How many hours has it taken?’
‘Twenty so far. I’m up to Chapter Six.’
‘Well, the budget’s thirty-five. So don’t get bogged down. No political intrigue, please. I know how you get. We’re producing erotica, not Richard the Third.’
‘The client’s looking for an eighty per cent job. They’re not paying for perfection. We need to send it to sound design by end of Boxing Day.’
‘Anyway, remember the Rising Tide sim you wrote the other month?’
Orla nodded but couldn’t remember. Maybe it was the one about the sea monster with six penises.
‘It outsold expectations by ten thousand. When you really focus, Orla, you seem to have a finger on what the ladies want.’
‘Oh,’ said Orla. ‘Great.’
It didn’t feel great. Nothing felt great anymore. Orla couldn’t even remember the last time she really laughed.
‘We’re having after-work drinks with that client, first Wednesday after new year,’ said her boss. ‘A bit of a celebration. Put it in your calendar. And, you know, try and wear some makeup for it. Spruce yourself up a bit.’
‘Can’t believe Christmas is tomorrow. The year really flew. What are you getting up to?’
‘Lunch,’ said Orla. ‘Maybe.’
‘Sorry I didn’t get around to organising a Christmas party. Working mother, juggling balls, trying to have it all, et cetera.’
‘Not a problem.’
Orla’s boss flicked off screen.
Orla locked her workstation and left.
As she made her way to Town Hall Station, a stream of people pushed past her. They were dressed in suspenders and fedoras and fishnets and feather headpieces and long strings of pearls. They piled into white minibuses that were parked in a chain up the street, ready to be driven off to their themed Christmas party.
Orla watched them flirt and giggle. They all wanted to be living in the 1920s, she thought, but instead they lived lives in which their bosses dictated to them what to wear on the one day a year assigned for workplace shenanigans.
Orla pulled the business card out of her pocket. She called the number.
‘Can I have your earliest available appointment?’
The closest branch of The Sister Company was in a narrow building on George Street, next to Wynyard Station. According to the building directory, it was the only office on the second floor. Orla shook the rain off her umbrella and took the lift.
The office was small, with bright red furniture and grey carpet. A small Peace Lily in a white ceramic pot sat on one side of the reception desk.
A middle-aged woman behind the desk looked up from some filing.
‘I’m here for a twelve o’clock appointment?’ said Orla.
The receptionist blinked. She ran one red nail over the pencilled entries in a one-day-to-a-page diary. There was something slightly mechanical about the way she moved; a waxy shine to the face.
‘I’m Rhonda. Merry Christmas.’
‘I was surprised you’re open on Christmas Day.’
‘The wellbeing of our clients is more important to us than public holidays. So, it seems you’re doing a pre-session with us today.’
‘Please,’ said Rhonda. ‘Come this way.’
Orla followed the receptionist down a corridor. The office extended further back than she thought it would. She looked at the back of Rhonda’s wig-like hair, watched the stiff swing of her arm, and noticed the little lag in her feet as she walked. It finally dawned on her.
‘Yes?’ Rhonda turned.
‘This is the first time I’ve met an android in real life.’
‘Not as scary as you thought, right?’
‘It’s kind of cool.’
Rhonda smiled. There was lipstick on her teeth but Orla decided not to mention it. Orla thought Rhonda’s smile looked fake but maybe that was just an unavoidable consequence of having a fake mouth.
‘As the controlling company of your employer,’ said Rhonda, ‘the Parent Company has a mental health scheme in place by which it will fully subsidise you for six initial sessions with The Sister Company.’
‘Wow, that really helps.’
‘I don’t know why your boss didn’t put you on the scheme directly.’
‘I don’t talk about my private life at work.’
‘I see,’ said Rhonda. ‘And we’re here.’
She opened a door and ushered Orla into a dark room. In the room stood a tall, black box.
‘I know.’ Rhonda rolled her eyes. ‘It looks like a coffin. We have cutting edge tech but idiot designers. You don’t have claustrophobia, do you?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘When I close this door, you’ll find yourself in complete darkness. Don’t be alarmed. It’s meant to be like that.’
Sure enough, when Orla stepped in and the door closed behind her, she couldn’t see a thing. Whether her eyes were open or shut, all there was in front of her was pitch black.
Rhonda’s voice echoed around her ears.
‘Now, what we’re going to do is a top-down body and brain scan. I’d like you to speak about what’s been bothering you that has led you to seek therapy. The booth will be monitoring your brain activity as you speak. Start when you want to start. End when you want to end. You have all day, if you like. The more detail you can put in, the more it will assist us to tailor our therapy to your needs. When you’re ready to leave the booth, just push the door open and walk back up the corridor. I’ll be waiting for you at reception. Are you ready?’
‘Yes,’ said Orla.
‘Great. Keep your eyes closed throughout the process and I’ll see you on the other side.’
A low buzz replaced Rhonda’s voice. Orla closed her eyes. Through her eyelids she could see a beam of light slowly moving down past her face.
She began where she wanted to begin, and ended where she wanted to end. She didn’t know how long she was in there but it felt like an hour, maybe two. The light seemed to move in a cycle, passing her eyelids over and over again.
When she was done, Orla fumbled in the dark for a tissue, and wiped her eyes. She sat quietly for a moment before feeling for the door.
Back in reception, Rhonda smiled at her.
‘How was it?’
‘All right. A bit emotional.’
Orla noticed Rhonda’s nostrils flare. She was yawning through her nose, as if Orla wouldn’t be able to tell.
‘It can be difficult,’ said Rhonda, ‘but it’s a very brave first step to take.’
‘Well, then, what we’re going to do now is collate the results of your scan and I’ll see you at the same time next week.’
‘Oh! That’s New Year’s Day.’
‘Are you busy?’
‘Good. It’ll be a two-hour introductory session with your therapy companion. All sessions thereafter will be one hour each.’
‘Do I need to sign anything?’
‘It’s all taken care of.’
Orla went out into the street. She didn’t feel like going back to her flat, with its one tiny room and grimy windows and cockroaches that came crawling out of nowhere.
She walked down to York Street and caught the lift up to her office.
She settled into her chair and hooked herself up. She visualised the rest of the Equine Equinox sim and went through to check that she’d more or less stuck to the assigned plotline. Then she printed out the list of required product placements and went through the draft again, adding an Hermès bag here, a Jeep there.
Orla was sick of it all by the time she got to the Lacoste shoes. There were still about thirty placements to go.
She unhooked herself from the desk and walked across to Town Hall. She decided to pass the rest of the day riding the train around Sydney.
The train spoke to Orla and everyone else in the carriage.
‘Merry Christmas and thank you, customers, for choosing to ride with ParentRail.’
It annoyed Orla, as it always did. She’d had no other choice.
Orla tried not to look at the ads flashing all over the floors, walls and ceilings of the carriage. It was difficult. Her eyes settled on a live action ad showing a bunch of women with taut bodies dancing around in multicoloured underwear.
As the train passed Macdonaldtown, the carriage lights dimmed, the windows transitioned to grey, and an American celebrity hologram began moving through the carriage. The holograd started talking to the grey-haired woman next to Orla about a new cola. The holograd shimmered and held a holocan out to the woman.
‘If it has zero calories, does it really exist?’ asked the woman.
‘Yes, indeed,’ said the holograd.
‘What’s it like dating Judd W.?’
‘A gentlewoman doesn’t kiss and tell,’ winked the holograd. ‘But what I will say is that this cola tastes like freedom.’
The woman ordered two cases on the spot to be delivered to her doorstep. The holograd scanned her wrist, confirmed the transaction and continued its virtual sashay through the carriage.
On New Year’s Eve, Orla didn’t even leave the flat. She got into her pyjamas, baked a batch of frozen chips, and turned on the NYE coverage.
Orla didn’t feel like hooking in to the sim version. Having it play out in her own mind would be too much, so she watched the coverage on her old vision. She watched two blonde hosts compliment each other on their tasteless fluoro dresses, dropping the names of their designers. Somehow, the women looked younger than they were last year.
‘After a year of highs and lows, gains and losses,’ said one, ‘you deserve these fireworks, beautiful Sydney.’
‘There’s certainly no greater place in the world to live,’ said the other.
Orla flicked through the other channels – ParentGlow, ParentTen, ParentHood. The same program was being broadcast on all of them.
Next up was a montage of hurricanes and tsunamis and scandals and elections and parades from the year that was, a few clips of 2030’s hottest hits, and then the nine o’clock family fireworks, accompanied by a medley of Wagner and uberpop.
As they had been for a number of years, the fireworks were pre-programmed graphics superimposed on soaring microdrone footage of Sydney’s landmarks. They were cheaper and safer than actual fireworks, and kept citizens from milling around in dangerously large groups at vantage points across the city’s foreshore.
The musical accompaniment and fireworks combinations varied each year, to keep the mix fresh. This time, the display opened with millions of shimmering rainbow pinwheels and dancing monkeys. Eleven cricketers in green and gold walked across the sky. A fleet of eleven silver ships sailed in the opposite direction. The smell of gunpowder wafted through the vision’s olfactor.
When the last of the virtual nine o’clock fireworks had spun out over Sydney Harbour and poured golden from the Harbour Bridge, Orla turned off the vision, twisted earplugs into her ears, and went to sleep.
It was quiet in the CBD the morning after, as Orla made her way to her next session with The Sister Company.
Just like the week before, she took the lift.
The doors opened onto the second floor. A gangly blonde woman in a sky blue dress rushed in, bumping into her.
‘Fuck, sorry,’ she said.
‘No worries,’ said Orla, stepping out.
The woman’s eyes were red and puffy. She held a tissue to her nose, sniffling.
‘You know how it is,’ she said, as the doors closed. ‘Therapy dredges up the worst. But they say I’ll be functional again soon.’
Orla sat in the waiting room for her appointment. For a while, she watched Rhonda pottering around – refilling the business card holder, adjusting the height of her swivel chair, flicking through documents and licking her index finger now and then. Orla bowed her head and stared into her lap.
‘Orla?’ a woman said, in a voice that sounded precisely like her own.
Orla looked up. The first thing she noticed was her therapist’s black flats. They were identical to Orla’s, with little shiny bows at the top. Then Orla saw the black trousers and polka dot shirt. The therapist was wearing the exact same outfit that Orla had worn to the pre-session.
‘Hola, Orla,’ said the therapist. ‘Happy New Year.’
The other strange thing was that the woman’s face looked exactly like Orla’s, minus the chubbiness. Overall, the woman was slimmer than Orla, with clearer skin. Her hair was also ash brown but without the black roots. In fact, everything that Orla hated about her own body—the fat in weird places, the heavy arms, the forearm freckles—was gone.
‘How did –’ Orla took a moment to think. ‘You’re an android.’
‘I am. My name’s Kabuki.’
‘As in Kabuki theatre?’
‘I’m Japanese tech, Australianised. The Sydney development team thought it’d be cute to name me after words they pulled out of a Tokyo guidebook. Initially I saw your name and thought you were going to be Irish.’
‘I’m Chinese, Australianised. My parents named me after a brand of kitchen sponge.’
Kabuki smiled, nodding.
They shook hands. Kabuki’s was surprisingly warm. It felt like real flesh and blood.
Kabuki ushered her down the corridor and into a consultation room. A bookshelf lined one wall. The shelves were mostly empty, except for three antique paperbacks, stress balls in assorted shapes and colours, a series of frosted blue vases, and a cactus in a terracotta pot.
‘Don’t be too overwhelmed by how realistic I appear,’ said Kabuki. ‘Our receptionist, Rhonda, is an earlier model. Artificially intelligent but nothing more.’
‘I didn’t know technology was so far along,’ said Orla. ‘They still can’t even get the train timetable right.’
They sat down opposite each other.
‘The public isn’t always aware of the latest technological advancements,’ Kabuki said. ‘It’s really a matter of priorities. With money and commitment, you can make anything happen.’
She crossed her legs and clasped her hands, resting them on one knee.
‘So what we’re beginning today is a program of individualised therapy, which we call “Integrational Realignment” – a sort of early intervention with a personal touch.
‘The edge I have over regular and holotherapy is that I can completely identify with your particular situation. As you recall, in the pre-session we monitored your brain activity as you recounted emotions you felt during past trauma.’
Kabuki reached behind her left ear and pulled out a microchip the size of a pea.
‘The program in this chip replicates that unique mix of emotion and experience. It functions as an overlay for my essential system. It’s like having a brain that can run on two tracks simultaneously. On one layer I have your lived experience, which provides me with the ability to feel exactly as you have felt. Underlying that layer is in-depth therapeutic know-how, which I’ll use to help you nurture your positive thinking. In short, what I can offer you is exceptionally tailored coaching and companionship that will help you become functional again.’
‘So you understand why I made the appointment,’ said Orla.
Kabuki reinserted the chip, nodding.
Orla was relieved. If Kabuki really did have full emotional capabilities, then she knew how it all felt. The weekends of interminable crying, the inordinate weight gain, the sheen disappearing from every new acquaintance and wedding and party and barbeque. She knew about Orla having no family left. About all the good friends who’d up and moved away without bothering to leave forwarding addresses. About the guys Orla had dated who’d dropped off the radar and never called again. She literally felt how Orla felt, watching everyone around her just following the crowd, procreating, and marking time with gins on Friday nights and lattes at weekend brunches.
Kabuki smiled. ‘You’ve lived in Sydney your whole life but you don’t have much to show for it. You wonder if this is all an illusion, a nightmare. You wonder if this is a holding city, where you’re just waiting to die. You’re slowing down but the days are speeding up and blending into each other.’
‘Shouldn’t you have worse existential anxieties than I do?’ asked Orla.
‘I’m the therapist here,’ Kabuki laughed. ‘So out of the two of us I’m clearly dealing all right.’
‘How do you think I should fix it?’
‘You already know how,’ said Kabuki. ‘There’s no new path to happiness. It’s a choice.’
‘Well, I know what people say will fix it. But I don’t think it will work.’
‘Tell me anyway. But let’s start off with two of the more common solutions. First, a little bit of Vitamin D for mood elevation. Second, exercise. So let’s walk.’
Suddenly, Kabuki was up out of her seat and out the door.
Orla followed Kabuki up Hunter Street.
It was near empty – a few people wandered around, lost and hung-over. Orla noticed Kabuki had the same slight lag in the feet as Rhonda did but that was the only sign she wasn’t human.
‘Are sudden walks part of the therapy?’ Orla asked. ‘It feels unusual.’
‘I take a flexible approach,’ said Kabuki.
Kabuki took a deep breath through her nostrils and looked to the darkening sky.
‘I smell a storm coming,’ she said.
‘Are you sure you want to keep going?’
‘No time like the present. I love the drama of a thunderstorm.’
‘What if you get struck by lightning?’
Orla was already panting on the uphill ascent. Kabuki was practically power walking.
‘So,’ said Kabuki, ‘tell me how you’re going to make yourself better.’
‘Well,’ said Orla. ‘I’ve been reading a lot of self-help and all of it says I should socialise even when I don’t feel like it.’
‘Also, my mind apparently shapes my own reality. So constant rumination isn’t healthy.’
‘But don’t you think it’s weird, tricking myself that things are good when they aren’t?’
‘It’s a matter of distorted perspective. The melancholic mind tends to remember the negative and discount the positive.’
‘But what if I’m sad because I can see things clearly?’
‘Some of the most intelligent people in the world experience negative events and yet choose happiness. But,’ Kabuki continued, ‘we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I want you to start with the basics. Like, pick up a hobby.’
‘What would I do? Do you have a hobby?’
‘I act in my spare time.’
‘Yeah. I like the idea of total immersion. Understanding human motivation at its deepest levels. People even say I have the charisma of De Niro in his Taxi Driver years.’
‘But De Niro’s a guy.’
‘I guess I have cross-over appeal.’
The sky cracked and rain gushed. It got into Orla’s flats, and streamed down the gutters. The wind picked up and blew Orla’s hair across her face.
Kabuki strode on unconcerned.
‘Isn’t it a treat to be alive!’
By the time they reached the Royal Botanic Garden, Orla was drenched through. Kabuki showed no signs of wanting to turn back.
They walked towards the harbour and ended up at the water, the Harbour Bridge visible in the distance.
On the grass to the right of a large tree, a few dozen white wooden chairs had been set up in two sections. An aisle of pink and white rose petals ran between them. Here and there, petals skipped in the wind. Women clutching white umbrellas kissed hello, holding their billowing silk dresses down at the sides. Two tourists in shorts stood by, cameras ready.
‘A wedding!’ said Kabuki. ‘I love weddings.’
‘Who gets married on New Year’s Day?’ Orla muttered.
‘Let’s be wedding guests.’
Kabuki grabbed Orla’s hand. They sidled up to stand behind the white folding chairs, next to small children in clear rain ponchos hiding behind their fathers’ legs. The children rubbed their eyes and howled at the wind.
‘Don’t you think it’s a bit sociopathic?’ said Orla. ‘Joining a stranger’s wedding?’
‘We’re not discussing me. You’re the one in therapy.’
The wedding photographer raced up and stuck a lens in Orla’s face.
‘Twins?’ she asked.
‘She’s my –’
‘Sister,’ said Kabuki, and hugged Orla’s shoulder.
‘Beautiful,’ said the photographer, snapping away. ‘Just beautiful. How do you know the bride?’
‘We’re colleagues, actually,’ said Kabuki. ‘She’s stunning, isn’t she? Just stunning.’
Orla watched the bridal party approach. The bride beamed, even though she was nearly lost in a dress made of infinite layers of fluff. Three bridesmaids in aqua followed. Each pulled along a gigantic round white balloon, tail adorned with coloured paper tassels. The balloons were acting up, trying to pull themselves free at every moment.
Everyone stood for the bride. A quartet began to play. But the music could barely be heard over a sudden gust of wind that blew the bride’s dress up above her head and kept it there. She let out a bloodcurdling scream. She wasn’t wearing underwear – just a triangular patch of blonde hair.
The bridesmaids shrieked and let go of their balloons. They rushed to pull the dress down, battling the layers.
The dress stayed up for what seemed to Orla to be a glorious eternity. The photographer’s camera fluttered. Guests sighed in sympathy. Parents clapped their hands over the eyes of their small children, who squealed in anger. The wedding celebrant, in a voice of rising panic, asked for calm.
Orla watched the balloons escape up and over the harbour, disappearing into the sky, tassels streaming. She looked from the vagina to the balloons and back to the vagina again.
She laughed and laughed and laughed.
They walked back to Wynyard.
‘I was right, wasn’t I?’ said Kabuki. ‘Crashing a wedding – fantastic.’
‘Best start to the year ever. I feel bad about laughing.’
‘You know, life’s about meaningful experience,’ said Kabuki. ‘You need to be out in the world connecting with that. And you need to be eating right. Are you eating right? Lots of leafy greens?’
‘Can’t really afford them,’ said Orla. ‘But I’ll try.’
Orla felt like things were looking up. She would go home and make a salad and get on the stationary bike and take up a hobby – maybe cross-stitch.
Behind the reception desk, Kabuki printed her off some material.
‘These are worksheets on perfectionism,’ said Kabuki. ‘They’ll help you improve your tolerance when the world falls short of your expectations, as well as your ability to accept the state of things when you can’t change them.’
Orla looked at the worksheets.
‘Are these spelling mistakes deliberate?’
Kabuki laughed. ‘Time’s up. Next week it’s down to serious business. We’ll discuss some medication options, and map your life across six domains to make sure you’re on the optimal path for success.’
‘Sounds good,’ said Orla.
Kabuki shook her hand. ‘I’ll leave you with Rhonda to make our next appointment. One week from today should be fine.’
Orla was about to exit through the glass doors downstairs when she remembered the client drinks for Rising Tide. They clashed with the appointment she’d just made.
She took the lift back up to the office and found Rhonda slumped over her desk, unconscious.
‘Oh my God. Rhonda?’
She shook Rhonda’s shoulders but no response. Rhonda’s body felt rigid, like she was locked into place. Orla put two fingers on Rhonda’s neck to check for a pulse, then remembered that Rhonda was a robot.
What am I doing? she thought.
She hurried down the corridor to the consultation room.
‘Kabuki?’ she said, knocking on the door. She turned the handle. The door clicked open.
No one seemed to be in the office. There was an odd gap in the corner of the room. One of the walls seemed out of place, as if it had slid to one side. She could hear Kabuki’s voice coming from behind it.
‘Yeah, drinks would be great,’ Kabuki was saying. ‘Talking to losers all day is such a fucking drain. Just pack up the chairs, bring the dress back to the office. That sudden wind, though – perfect! Unrehearsable! Yeah, let’s get wasted, forget work. Just give me some time to freshen up? Gotta get this fugly suit off and find a hotter one. Sure. Twenty minutes?’
Orla stepped through the opening.
She found herself in near darkness. Kabuki was facing away from her.
‘Half an hour, then,’ Kabuki said. ‘Meet you out back.’
Kabuki pulled out what looked like an earpiece and dropped it on the carpet. Then, with one hand, she reached back to the nape of her neck, dug her nails into the flesh, and began to pull. Her neck and microchip and hair and scalp started to separate from the rest of her body. She kept pulling the flesh up and forward over her head. Her ears and face peeled off with the rest, in one continuous piece.
Underneath was a shining wet metal skull, balanced on metal vertebrae.
A strange fleshy odour, sweet and foul, filled Orla’s nostrils. She gasped.
The android spun around, holding Orla’s replica head by the hair.
The android’s own head was a twisted network of metal, with two eyeballs and a set of teeth fixed onto it.
‘Orla?’ said the metal face.
‘Hi, I –’
‘Isn’t Rhonda out front?’
‘Oh,’ said the face. ‘Recharging. Rhonda’s so ancient she still has a bloody model number – Réception 3600.’
Orla watched the android toss the head onto a nearby chair, and then climb out of Orla’s replica body.
‘Sorry,’ said the android looking down at her metal skeleton. ‘You got me at an awkward moment. What exactly did you overhear?’
It was then that Orla saw how far back the room extended. Along the three walls, hung queued up on hooks, were dozens of Kabuki’s “suits”. Each was suspended in a clear plastic pouch, like a giant IV bag, filled with dark yellow liquid. Orla squinted. One of the nearer ones looked a bit like Rabbit. It was hard to tell, without a skeleton filling it out.
The android seemed to lose interest in Orla, and turned to scan her collection.
‘Who do I feel like putting on today?’ she murmured.
She paced up and down the room until she decided on the suit she fancied. She entered a number into an interface next to Orla, and the hook bearing the chosen suit swung down the line towards them.
The android pulled out her eyeballs and teeth and flung them onto the carpet. The eyes bounced at Orla’s feet.
She punctured the bag with her claws and ripped it apart. Liquid flowed out, soaking the floor. She felt around in the bag for her new set of eyeballs and teeth, and pushed them onto her face.
She took the selected scalp, stretched it over her skull like a swimming cap, and pulled the new face into position.
Suddenly, the android was blonde, with full lips and blue eyes and a cute button nose.
She pulled the rest of the body from the bag, stepped into its toes, and pulled it up over her frame. Her bones lengthened to fill the suit.
Her thighs and arms were thin, her stomach was flat. She adjusted her breasts. They bounced in just the right way.
She took a towel and dried off the liquid. She raised one arm and tilted her head upwards. Hot air blasted from somewhere above. As her hair dried, she closed her eyes and moved her head sensually from side to side. She tossed her lustrous locks. They cascaded in perfect waves.
Finally, she pulled a sky blue dress over her head and shoulders, and nearly lost her balance as she slid her feet into a pair of pink suede pumps.
‘How do I look?’ she said, in a new, husky voice. ‘Everything in place?’
Orla nodded. The android looked and sounded exactly like the sniffling blonde from the lift.
‘You look shocked,’ said the android. ‘Come on, let’s be real. It’s hardly the singularity. What else can I do? Creep around town like a four-legged metallic praying mantis? This is a client who never has fun. I’m just taking her out for a spin in my spare time. Think of me as a voyeur into dysfunction – makes me a better therapist, don’t you think?’
Kabuki turned to a mirror hanging on the back of the sliding wall. She pulled out a syringe and injected its contents into her lips. She lined her lips with pencil and shaded them in with hot pink lipstick. She popped an index finger into her mouth and pulled it out.
‘Don’t want lipstick on our teeth, do we?’ she said, admiring her inflated pout.
‘No,’ said Orla.
‘Well, better be off. Got my cutest face on and no one to show it to. Best if you don’t say a word to anyone. Parent Company’s trade secrets, more or less. You understand. I’ll see you next week.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Orla.
The android smoothed her hair in the mirror.
‘Then, my darling,’ she cooed, ‘time is really up.’
Her gaze met Orla’s and her new set of teeth glinted in the dark.
The wall slid shut.