‘Good Form’, Jo Thomas

Illustrations © 2012 Miguel Santos



Day 1

 [ Good form, © 2012 Miguel Santos ] “You’re new,” the man behind the desk said.

She nodded for politeness’ sake, to show she’d heard.

“Name?”

“Astrid Lee.”

The man called up records on his console. “Got you. Follow the blue lights to your assigned workshop. There’ll be a control point along the way where you’ll be asked to change into company overalls.”

“Shouldn’t there be some kind of induction?” Astrid asked, surprised.

The man smiled. “All you need to know was covered in the interview process and the paperwork you signed.”

The blue light led her to the promised changing room then to a large room divided into six large workshops. Two were closed off, their glass dividers opaque and sound damped for privacy. Two were divided off but the glass remained clear. Two were open with boxed supplies on the desks and floor, and only one of those were occupied. The blue light led to the other.

“One week on days, one week twenty four hours a day, one week off,” Astrid reminded herself.

The phrases “small team”, “lone working” and “unique, quality product” had been bandied about when she had asked about the working conditions. Astrid hadn’t cared. There was too much irony in being replaced with machines and then being employed to put other machines together.

“Hello,” she said to her new cubicle neighbour, “I’m Astrid.”

The pale, moon-faced woman looked over her shoulder. “Dianna. Unpack the limbs and lay them out on your bench so you can run basic diagnostics.”

She turned back to her own boxes, leaving Astrid to do as she was told.

The first box was a muscular right arm. Astrid couldn’t bring herself to take it from the plastic beads that protected it and, instead, opened the boxes holding the other arm and two equally well muscled legs. That done, she stared at the rich brown synthetic skin.

“Not seen a form before?” Dianna asked, watching.

Astrid forced a smile. “Yes, but only through windows.”

Dianna turned back to her own work, to limbs that looked delicate and slender.


Day 2

“Torso today,” Dianna said, and then turned back to her work.

Astrid opened the most likely of the two remaining boxes. She stared—the factory had gone as far as to ensure the chest had nipples—then pulled it out. She could feel the shape of ribs beneath her hands, under a fine layer of skin and muscle.

“All fake,” she whispered.

She wanted to take her hand away and scrub it until she felt clean again, just as she had the night before.

“Oh, that one’s hot!” Dianna said.

Astrid stopped, holding the torso away from herself at an awkward angle, and looked at her neighbour. Dianna held her form’s hour-glass torso against herself, hands tight on two rounded buttocks.

“I’ll swap,” said Astrid.

“Why? You prefer women?”

“I just thought you’d find this one more interesting,” Astrid said evenly, “You said he was hot.”

She wished Dianna didn’t enjoy the forms quite so much. Although she used to see more blatant behaviour from her former students, this was somehow much worse.

“We’re matched up with the forms we’re given,” Dianna said. “No swaps or we ruin the final product.”

They’d said as much when Astrid had been put through the battery of personality tests. Now she was starting to wonder if it had been worth it, if she should have ignored the suggestion from the employment agency, but she needed the job.

She turned away from Dianna and put the torso on the bench beside the limbs. She avoided looking at it as much as she could as she made the connections required to run diagnostics. Only when she had the programs running did she give in to curiosity and look down. She was relieved to see it was like any shop mannequin—sexless with nothing more than a bulge so clothes and accessories hung properly.


Day 3

“Head!” Dianna sang.

She stroked the torso, upright on her bench, with a little too much delight for Astrid’s comfort. Telling herself that it was simply a cleverer version of a shop dummy only made her feel worse. They couldn’t chose for themselves.

Dianna said, “We’ll sort out hair when the diagnostics have run.”

The form she was building clicked as the head was fitted to the torso. The head turned all the way round, both ways, and then went through various tilted positions.

Astrid copied her neighbour. It was harder than it had looked to make the connection and she almost screamed when it clicked because the eyes opened. She hadn’t noticed Dianna’s form do that and she hadn’t realised the forms were given eyes that looked like metal balls. The ones in shop windows wore sunglasses.

Dianna laughed. “Just run the diagnostics.”

Astrid turned to vent but saw Dianna stroking the other torso again, her fingers close to small, almost child-like breasts. Part of Astrid’s brain wondered what the factory put under the synthetic skin to make breasts feel like breasts, if they felt like breasts. The rest just felt sickened.

“Please don’t do that,” she said.

Dianna looked at her with raised eyebrows. “Why not?”

Astrid couldn’t find an answer she thought the other woman would accept. The forms were just machines, just moving mannequins. They had no feelings, no intelligence, no needs of their own.

“You’ll get used to it,” said Dianna, “You’ll get to like having the use of them before they get shipped out.”

Astrid shook her head.

Dianna grinned. “When you go home tonight, look them up on Internet. Look up the porn. See what it’s like. You’ll see what I mean.”

“There’s porn?”

Laughter. “There’s porn of everything.”


Day 4

“Arms!” Dianna sang.

Astrid studiously avoided looking over. She’d found the porn. She’d also found her neighbour’s history with forms went back several years.

She carefully clicked the muscular arms into place. When she watched what she did, she saw a lifeless, synthetic form. When she tried not to look or blinked or closed her eyes, she felt too soft skin under her hands that brought back images from her research.

“It’s just basic physiological response,” she muttered, “The body doesn’t care that it’s tasteless, immoral dross. You know better.”

She didn’t look at the CCTV camera. It had been clear that the footage of Dianna had come from the company’s files, even if it weren’t admitted. The porn was being used as advertising—even ordinary looking people could take pleasure from copies of famous people.

Astrid thought of the clauses she had agreed to in her employment contract. She’d asked about the request for release of security footage but had accepted the official response. Perhaps the other applicants had been more knowing and aware. Her only experience of forms was watching them through a department store window. She couldn’t afford the entry fee for that kind of shop. She had naively thought that all they did was what she’d seen in the windows: prowling, smiling, posing.

Last night’s research had disabused her. She’d found a handful of soundless, grainier footage of shoppers. Enough to know that some people emulated the advertising. It was just like any other porn Astrid had seen. One party satisfied, the other there simply to serve and satisfy the others’ wants.

Astrid touched dry, soft lips, parting them slightly to show pseudo-mouth behind—then took her hand away abruptly, wiping it on her hip.


Day 5

“Legs!” Dianna sang, “And we’re almost there!”

Astrid got on with her own form. It took a while to get the legs to click into place and he remained sat on the bench while diagnostics ran, servos bending and stretching his legs, the pseudo-muscles and skin flexing as if it were a real, biological body. The head stared blankly, the features frozen.

There was nothing in there. Nothing alive, nothing that thought for itself. A pared down version of the original’s personality would be downloaded into the form next week and she would baby-sit for a hundred and twenty hours—five days straight—while the programs settled down.

She’d be allowed to sleep, and eat, and drink, and toilet, but it would all be here, closed off behind opaque glass partitions. Her stomach churned as she realised just what must be going on in those two private workshops.

“It doesn’t have to happen,” she said to herself, “I don’t have to do this. He doesn’t have to do this.”

Later, she said, “I’ll quit,” knowing that today would be her last chance because she wouldn’t be allowed to leave while the personality was there.

She watched the two opaque workshops become clear, the partitions pulled back, the occupants revealed. The naked, almost sexless forms came to stand in the middle of each workshop. The technicians smiled and laughed. A suited manager arrived.

Astrid hesitated. Surely the personality would put enough on the chips and processors and data storage held in the form that he could decide what he wanted for himself?


Day 6

Astrid returned from the weekend armed with games, books, films and knowledge. She had researched the original as much as she could. There was something about his playful public persona, the way he smiled at the camera, his willingness to be seen with a range of women, that had her convinced it would never tell her anything about the real man. While she suspected she would never like the original, she had an admiration for his apparent awareness of self and social environment. She hoped she could instil something of it in her charge. She might never have been the world’s greatest teacher but she flattered herself she’d had some success teaching teenagers to think, not just follow their hormones. And what were hormones but biological programs?

Her heart beat fit to burst as she started the company software.

“Start personality download?” it asked.

Astrid worked a suddenly dry mouth, swallowed a couple of times and, finally, agreed. The workshop drew its partitions, the glass turning opaque as it closed her in. She watched with wide eyes.

It was something of an anticlimax to find that the download and the automatic diagnostic session would take the next twenty-four hours.


Day 7

She woke suddenly. She couldn’t have said what woke her, at least at first. Then she realised that strange sensation was the feeling of being watched. She sprung, or tried, from the fold-up single bed. The hammocky bed didn’t seem to want to let her go, though, and it took several attempts. She wondered sourly how her neighbour managed to get any kind of performance on this furniture.

“Good morning,” she said with a polite smile, the same sort she had always pinned to her face at the beginning of a lesson.

The form sat on the bench and looked at her. There was nothing to say there was life behind the metal eyes. There was no cocked head, no blink, but those were the expected reactions of a child or an animal, not a machine.

“It’s polite to let people know you’ve heard them,” she said.

The form said nothing but the fake eyelids almost fluttered, not quite closing into a proper blink. Astrid wiped the sleep from her eyes as she stepped up to the console. There were a series of questions for the first day along with bites of information that should, apparently, be covered so that the form would be familiar with human society.

She reached for the steaming cup of coffee that had appeared in the nearby dispenser and paused.

“Oh.”

The form’s head pivoted to look at her, a too smooth, mechanical move.

“You were trying to copy what I did, weren’t you?”

The question wasn’t one on the recommended list, although that probably wasn’t why the form didn’t respond.

“You tried to blink.”

She stood squarely in front of the form and waited for the head to track back to her in another too smooth turn. Then she blinked slowly and deliberately. The form blinked back.

She smiled. “Well done.”

The console beeped. A glance showed the first question had been highlighted. With the form still connected up for diagnostic purposes, the company software must be able to track their interactions—and it was demanding that procedure be followed.

“Hello,” she said, “I’m Astrid Lee. Who are you?”

“I am a copy of—”

Astrid tuned out the response, watching the console. The words weren’t important. It was enough to know that the form was responding as expected.

“You know what you are, then?”

“I am a form, a machine copy of—”

Astrid waved her hand. The response was as required and she didn’t need more words to know the form was responding as expected. She saw movement out of the corner of her eye. The form had turned to look at her again. It blinked.

“Am I doing something wrong?”

“No,” she said.

“Don’t you like me?”

She flushed, caught by features showing an innocence the original probably hadn’t known in a long time.

“It’s not that,” she said, “I just know that you’re answering as expected. I don’t see much point making you say the same thing again.”

“You ask questions you don’t want to hear the answer to?”

There was no harm in telling him how things were, if he knew he was a copy. Astrid smiled to soften the blow. “The company software has prompts I have to put to you, to make sure everything has taken properly. You’ve already said enough for me to know you know, without you saying the whole answer.”

The form blinked and then mimicked her smile. It was uncertain and unpractised.


Day 8

“Good morning, Astrid.” The form smiled at her, cross-legged on the bench.

“Mornings are not good,” she said.

The form didn’t reply, just smiled and returned to looking at the book he held. It was a sign of how well his adjustment was going that he could do something so… human.

She rose and stretched and rubbed away sleep. She still wore yesterday’s clothes under the overalls because she couldn’t bear to change without privacy.

“Turn around, please,” she said in her best teacher’s voice.

He looked up from the book to give her the original’s Puckish smile, then shrugged and shuffled himself around on the bench.

Astrid watched the broad naked back for a moment before turning so that the CCTV wouldn’t capture her hurriedly dropping the overalls to change her underwear.

“What did you do while I was asleep?”

“I read all the other books,” he replied, lifting the one he held to show her over his shoulder.

“All of them?”

She knew she read fast and, without allowing for breaks, she would have taken at least two days to get through what she’d brought with her.

“This ‘Shakespeare’ you brought with you,” he said, “I don’t know why you bother with… Him or her?”

There was something about the way he sat, about the way it felt as if all his attention was on her and the book was incidental, about the hint of a smile in the shape of his cheek. He was waiting for a reaction. Teasing or learning? Had he picked it up from her prompting yesterday or from his own programming? Was it something the original would do?

“Him,” she said, ignoring the prod.

“Do I have to plug back into the console or can we play a game of chess first?”

She smiled. “Let’s see what the computer says.”

“It’ll say there’s work to do,” he said as he righted himself on the bench again. He swung his legs, a child-like gesture despite the big, muscular frame.


Day 9

“Let me,” he said as she shut down the Internet browser he had been using overnight and started the company software.

Their fingers touched. An accident, both reaching for the console at the same time. Astrid pulled back from the too soft synthetic skin and blushed. The form tapped in a response to the company software’s demands, apparently not noticing—or maybe not caring.

“If you’re not careful,” she said in an even voice, “They’ll keep you here to train your siblings and send me off to your new home.”

He looked over his shoulder with that mischievous smile again and she promptly forgot the words she’d been going to add, just as she’d already forgotten to ask him what his Internet reading had been.

“I’m just making sure we don’t waste time with all this boring stuff,” he said, “I do it faster than you, after all.”

She sat down, uncertain whether she liked this… Helpfulness? Overbearing manner?

“We can spend more time talking and playing games instead,” he said.

He straightened and turned to face her. If she’d felt like she had his attention before, now she felt like she was the centre of his universe. A very small universe, she reminded herself.

“That’s okay, isn’t it?”

The face puckered, not as child-like an expression as it might have been the day before or the day before that. Today it was the face of a young man, mature enough to realise it was okay to be wrong and ask for correction.

“It’s okay,” she said with a smile, “But maybe you should ask if someone wants you to do something before you do it?”

“Even little things like typing on a computer? How about the things people don’t know they want? Or the things they’re too scared to ask about?”

She looked away. “There are some things you shouldn’t do just because someone else wants you to.”

She felt him watching her but didn’t know how to explain herself.


Day 10

Astrid woke curled up against the broad chest. His hands stroked her back as she swam back into awareness. She wouldn’t have thought the fold-out single bed could hold a man of his size, let alone the two of them.

“What—What are you doing?”

She realised her own hands were stroking the dark, too smooth skin, her hips thrust towards him. She adjusted her position to something more seemly and looked away.

“You had some bad dreams,” he said, his hands not stopping their soothing motion.

It was almost natural behaviour, the way he answered the unasked “why” instead of the almost rhetorical “what”. Was it from the original’s personality, the company software or her teaching?

Astrid pulled away from him and got to her feet.

“You shouldn’t,” she said.

“Why? Don’t you want me to?”

She stepped away. The console was already on, with an Internet browser waiting for a search term to be entered. It wasn’t the way she had left it but she was too anxious to be doing something to question what the form had been doing.

“It’s not appropriate,” she said.

She heard the bed creak as it gave up his weight. There wasn’t enough space for there to be more than a heartbeat between the sound and his touch. She wrapped her arms around herself.

“You shouldn’t worry so much about ‘appropriate’.”

His fingers kneaded her shoulders gently.

“I’m employed to—” She paused, uncertain what to call this phase. It could no longer be considered ‘baby-sitting’. “Look after you.”

It was as immoral as if she had taken a shine to one of her students. Except that she used to laugh at the idea of finding one of her half-formed, teenage students attractive, with their gawky teenage frames and their hormonal minds. It was harder to laugh at the idea of a full-grown man.

“I don’t need looking after,” he said.

Astrid caught her breath as his hands moved from her shoulders, gently tugging her arms so that they rested by her side instead of clutched around her middle.

“I need company,” he said simply, “That’s what you’re here for.”

He tugged at her overalls, unzipping it and pulling it so that it was pushed halfway down her arms, restricting her movement—unless she pulled her arms all the way out. His hands trailed down to her hips and pulled her backwards against his chest, against the bulge she had considered safe and sexless.

She should tell him to stop. She should tell him she didn’t want this. He must have safeguards, be programmed to follow instructions. He couldn’t do this against her will. Her mouth formed the word “please” but she didn’t seem to have the air to say it.

She didn’t want him to stop. She shouldn’t let him do something just because she wanted it.

She didn’t manage to find her voice in time, thoughts lost as the soft, dry mouth met her neck. She closed her eyes so she couldn’t see the console or the CCTV.

His hands stroked her front, one rising to cup a breast and the other sinking beneath the overalls. Obedient to the suggestion, she parted her legs for his hand and leant against him. The first, gentle touch sent a ripple through her, surprise that it could feel so… normal. The ripples that followed were enough to have her clutching at his hair and hands as she gasped.

Afterwards, she stroked the hand that still nestled between her legs. It was hard to believe the soft, synthetic skin covered hard metals and rigid plastics instead of muscles and bone. He smiled against her neck and she wanted to say something that captured her sense of wonder.

Through the console, a woman cleared her throat. “Miss Lee. This wasn’t what we… expected of you.”

He stepped back and, for a moment, Astrid was tempted to whimper and follow his reflected warmth. Instead, she zipped up her overalls and did her best to look calm as she faced the manager.

“Oh?” Astrid asked.

The suited woman smiled. “I guess you have some kinks the personality tests didn’t highlight. If we’d known we would have matched you with a form intended for… escort services rather than simple companionship.”

“Compani—”

“No matter,” the manager said. “You’ve tripled its asking price just based on the CCTV footage of the last couple of minutes. We’ve even had bids from some exclusive hotel resorts we’ve been angling for business from.”

Astrid closed her mouth with an audible snap, wincing when she heard it.

“In fact, it’s to be sent out early—so you need to run through the final diagnostics set and have it ready within the hour.”

The manager’s picture was gone by the time Astrid had formed a response. She turned to the form. It looked blank and emotionless, leaving Astrid uncertain whether it could feel anything at all.

“Why? Why did you do it?” she asked and, for the first time, she meant just the words that left her mouth. She just wasn’t sure if she was asking him or herself.

 [ Not appropriate, © 2012 Miguel Santos ] The form moved past her and connected himself to the console, selecting the diagnostics tool without her input or instruction.

“You seemed to need a good memory.”

She thought of him being at a holiday resort, a slave to keep lonely men and women company, and maybe to give them more than a conversation just so they could have a “good memory”. Her experience was nothing special. It was just another one of those memories he was there to make. She felt sick.

“How did you know to—” She stopped, not wanting to put it into words.

He didn’t answer. The final diagnostic program had begun and the form was as silent, still and lifeless as the moment the personality had first been downloaded. The search engine was still open in the browser window.


© 2012, Jo Thomas

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News