When Toni woke for the first time, she thought she was dreaming. “She” being a term used loosely, of course, as SaniCorp designated the sex of its DESOV2 units based on the donor.
It bears mentioning that she had other similarities to the females of the human race: namely a full, red mouth, delicate features, and breasts—though they were small and her figure erred on the side of slim rather than voluptuous. She also had the necessary parts, properly equipped for whatever her employer might have in mind.
There was never any indication that Toni was different from the other T-models. Her sleep cycles were regular as she recharged each night for six hours, though she clung to the dreams with a childish dedication: that happened sometimes. Generally they would eventually grow out of it, forgetting the dreams that gave birth to their AI, and be fully trained in time for their date with the Sales Floor, one year later.
Her motor skills were notable; she could handle a knife with careful precision and only a quarter of a micrometre’s margin of error. Her voice could mimic any of a lexicon of sounds, from the roar of a ship’s hover propulsion on takeoff to the dulcet coos of an Easy Bird™ (only available from SaniCorp). Her memory banks were ripe for the filling—she could store up to one million recipes, complete with cooking techniques, should she be purchased by a restaurant; she had the potential to memorize a library of ship blueprints with the anticipated industry growth for the next ten years, and a memory upgrade could be made available at that time, or a discount with an upgrade to a better model; she could speak every language and dialect, mimicking accents perfectly, should someone find use for her in the service industry.
Toni was the same as any other T-Model (and had only a minor upgrade in skin texture from the S-Models), except that she wasn’t. Toni was anomalous.
“Aim. Draw. And fire.”
Toni felt the synthetic sinew in her arm stretch, tense, and release as she drew back the bow string and unleashed the arrow. It sailed in a perfect, streamlined path before finding its mark in the centre of the bull’s-eye, a hundred yards away. The target stood in a row of many, all equally pierced.
One hundred rounds. Toni knew it was time to put away the bow and move on to other practices. She was in the sixth month of her training, and her tally was as follows: she had hit 5,000 targets, dead on; she’d diced 600 watermelons, 10,000 carrots, 3,600 potatoes, and 1,720 mushrooms in evenly sectioned slices without cutting a finger; she had sung 400 arias, recited 1,430 poems (though their content was wiped from her RAM before she could store it) and weathered the attentions of the amorous machines 8,000 times to test the functionality of her sexual equipment.
Strangely the amorous machines mostly just trained her regarding potential male clients. She would, of course, be expected to pleasure both sexes, should her future lie within such a profession, but SaniCorp believed her rigorous linguistics training would cover the other end of the spectrum.
Toni watched the line of T-models in front of her head off to the knife room, and instead of thinking of efficiency, she found herself thinking of sleep.
The donor was a young woman named Julieta Vasquez, and her dreams had been noted for their peculiar attention to detail; but far from giving Toni an obsessive compulsion, they left her with a whimsical, glassy look in her eye which the taskmasters at SaniCorp worked to eliminate with careful refinement.
Dream donors were not hard to come by, but they had to be carefully screened for any instability which could potentially infect the recipient. The meticulously-crafted quilts of the subconscious were what gave SaniCorp’s DESOV2 (Desirable, Ethically-Sound Objectified Verisimilitude, Mach 2) units—especially models M through U—their knack for adaptation, free-thinking, and work ethic. Though the taskmasters could imprint a model with any number of tasks and commands, only the dream donor could grant them the ability to grasp the complexities of day-to-day variability.
So SaniCorp built the DESOV2 units, and the DESOV2 units dreamt.
Toni thought it was going to be a new dream. Not repeats of the ones she’d had since birth, but a new one rich with detail and colour. She could see Julieta—her donor—sleeping gently in a web of rippling indigo, and she believed that what she was seeing was true.
Toni had some vague concept that Julieta was beautiful, though her appreciation of beauty was as-of-yet unrefined. Something about movement intrigued her, and so she was especially fond of Julieta’s long, black hair. Toni herself had just the short, blonde synthetic fibres of the other T-models—though of course she could be customized upon purchase.
Toni watched Julieta’s chest rise and fall with her deep, calm breaths. Somewhere far above them, alien birds spread wings against a red-tinted sun. The sun was always visible, in various shades of red and brown, but something had always suggested to Toni that the dreams took place somewhere deep under the ocean—an idea she quite liked as she’d never seen the ocean. She had the general understanding that it was large, wet, and effeminate.
She always started in that room, with Julieta asleep in bed. At first, when Toni was born, she experienced what many natural-born humans would consider to be a nightmare: trapped in her own body, unable to move about with any form of whim or desire. But she’d since cast off that limitation, like an insect with its exoskeleton. Lucidity came naturally to her.
Toni sat on the edge of the bed, for a moment forgetting to blink regularly as she gazed at Julieta. Her social interaction taskmasters would have her reprogrammed if they only knew—she tried to blink extra to make up for it. She didn’t want Julieta to feel awkward—Julieta’s eyelids flickered in her sleep. She was probably discomfited. Toni took a step back.
She could hear a muffled sort of music and hoped it would feature prominently in the dream. Toni was fond of the musical exercises the taskmasters assigned her—though they wiped the specific songs from her memory after each performance, so she could only have some vague memory of chord progression, and the lyrics often escaped her, so she had taken to making up her own. “Blackbird baking in a frying pan/take these garlic salts and add some brie”—
As the music gained clarity and potency, she could pick out heavy, industrial beats interlaced with an armada of stringed instruments. She thought a single wind would add well to the piece and so began to sing, picking a bassoon at first before slowly winding her way up the octaves until she had a clarinet’ s lighter tone.
A door appeared at the foot of the bed and opened; the music grew louder and Toni could see a landscape of grasses and a giant Elephant, fist-sized jewels hanging from its ears and tusks. She gazed longingly at Julieta (remembering, this time, to blink), rose from the bed, and went to join the dream.
Toni sliced pickles; they felt rubbery and warty in her fingers. When she had cut fifty of them into tiny, bite-sized pieces, a solitary eyeball on wheels measured them, beeped in satisfaction, and moved on to the next workstation as the sliced vegetables fell into the incinerator.
Toni turned, ready to head to the language room, but a large Monitor barred her way. The screen was black, save for a green line that pulsed across its middle in jagged peaks.
“T-model 387 ‘Toni’,” it buzzed at her. Toni nodded, as she had been programmed to do.
“Your nocturnal readings are still anomalous. You are experiencing dreams?”
Toni cocked her head to one side, creasing her eyebrows in an expression she’d learned was thoughtful.
“I don’t remember,” she lied, as she had not been programmed to do. The Monitor buzzed once or twice—perhaps satisfied, perhaps not—before wheeling itself away down the hall. Toni watched it go, only then realizing she was holding up the T-models behind her in their migration to the language room. She led them onwards, thinking of the previous night.
She’d tried to bring Julieta with her on the dreams many times—tried to wake her from her slumber and lead her out of the door. But Julieta never stirred, lost deep within the confines of her rest. Toni began to think Julieta might be boring—but she never told her so, as she had some vague notion that it would be impolite. Instead she simply stared, unblinking, and occasionally sniffed Julieta’s hair to see if anything had changed.
“Lucy Lovelace looks for luxury in Luxembourg,” Toni said, enclosed in her box. The gray walls pressed against her slim shoulders. She could hear the mumblings of the other T-models through the walls but ignored them, staring straight ahead through the tiny glass window. A flickering, red light watched her lips, recorded the sounds she produced, and x-rayed the movements of her teeth and jaw. Words flashed before her in various different languages.
“La tristesse est la puissance.”
“Monogoto niwa taitei ura no ura ga aru mono da.”
“Solo tenerte cerca siento que vuelvo a empezar.”
There was a deep vibration in the air whenever she said something with a slight error, after which she would repeat herself, correctly. The vibration always left the room feeling just a touch smaller, and she imagined a sense of liberation whenever she was free to leave. She thought she remembered learning something, once, about people being born from gray-walled boxes, or being crushed alive within them—she couldn’t recall.
In contrast, the sleep casket in which she charged overnight felt large; once she closed her eyes, there were few limits to the space around her.
The web was empty. Nothing else had changed—the rippling indigo still clung to the dream, now lonely and afraid because Julieta wasn’t within it.
Toni ran her hands along the indigo and felt it tremble like a harp beneath her fingers. They were warm, and smelled faintly of something spicy. She turned, and the door to the field stood ajar.
Opening it, Toni saw the vivid green plains, heard the faint sounds of the music in the distance. There were no elephants; just a solitary figure standing in the grass, her long black hair sailing behind her in tangles. She wore a red summer dress, and it licked around her knees like flames.
As Toni approached, she could hear the song echoing along the wind, and realized the figure was Julieta, singing along with it.
Toni’s donor turned, brown eyes shining. Toni wondered if it was a medical condition.
“Who are you?” Julieta asked.
“I’m—I’m your dream recipient,” Toni said. She wasn’t sure whether to introduce herself—it had never occurred to her that Julieta wouldn’t know her. Social interaction called for something here: was it humility? Or perhaps passive aggressive behaviour was best.
Julieta seemed to consider this for a moment, hugging herself in the wind, before she turned.
“Sing with me. You can, right?” she said. Toni nodded, then stepped towards her and took her hand. They stood alone against the wind and again began to sing, though Toni found it very frustrating when Julieta sang the incorrect words. Why would a blackbird need to learn how to fly?
Afterwards, Toni was feeling confident that the taskmasters would be proud of her; she’d exceeded in every field, from music and social interaction to anatomy and, of course, linguistics. Julieta, for her part, had been fairly receptive, though afterwards Toni felt she would benefit from a moment to herself. While Julieta’s fingers played with her ear lobe she found herself thinking of slicing vegetables—how many more mushrooms would she have to process before her training was complete? She thought it was 3,217 but was the math wrong?
After a while she felt Julieta’s breath hot on her ear.
“You’re pretty,” she said.
“Of course,” Toni said.
“Of course,” Julieta repeated, turning to face the sun. “Stupid Robot.”
Toni said nothing.
“I haven’t dreamed in ages. It dries me up. The music isn’t there anymore.” Julieta seemed to struggle with herself for a moment, before adding, hopefully: “Maybe it’ll come back now.”
Toni was not sure if social interaction called for some sort of comment at this point, but she was saved from having to decide, as Julieta kept talking.
“You have to do whatever I say, right?”
“Yes,” Toni answered, without hesitating. It wasn’t technically true—she only had to obey whoever purchased her. There was no programming that suggested she had to obey a donor—by all accounts they were never meant to meet.
“Cool,” Julieta whispered, placing her lips on Toni’s ear. Toni didn’t breathe under normal circumstances, but something inside of her caught in her throat, like a glitch.
“Um,” Toni said.
“Just be quiet. If you really are a robot.”
Toni lay perfectly still, unsure of whether or not this was a request that was meant to be disobeyed.
“I want you to come get me.” Julieta’s voice was suddenly tense. Toni turned to study a hesitant piece of grass, clinging to Julieta’s dress.
“I want to go away. Do you get what I mean?”
The grass dipped up and down, yes—then swayed from side to side, no. Toni felt Julieta’s hand creeping up her smock, but her hands felt cold, and the pinches came too hard.
The grey-walled box in linguistics training felt especially cramped, made worse by her lack of concentration. The vibration caused by all her mistakes seemed to float with her throughout the day, giving every contour a menacing buzz.
The Monitor caught up with her half-way to music.
“Your sleep patterns last night were –“
“I don’t remember,” Toni said, dreamily. The screen buzzed in angry white noise.
“Something must be done,” it said, and wheeled away.
The indigo web was, once again, empty. Toni rushed to the door, poking her head through and feeling the tension coiling inside of her. It had been doing that all day. It took her a moment to register the problem; her ears pricked but she could hear nothing; she peered through the darkness but she could see nothing.
“Julieta?” she said. The door opened under the force of her hand and she pushed through, into the dreams and the dark.
She awoke, screaming. The sleep casket cracked open and she spilled out onto the stoic floor as some Black Boxes surrounded her, levelling electric prods in her direction.
“T-model 387 ‘Toni’—report,” the Monitor buzzed, rising from the floor. Toni blinked up at the screen through bleary eyes.
“T-model 387 ‘Toni’—“
“I—I didn’t dream,” she said. The ground felt cool beneath her fingers as she tried to map the layout of the T floor in her head.
The screen pulsed in silence.
Toni stood, careful to dust herself off.
“I didn’t dream. It was the first time—I couldn’t find anything. It was ... shocking.”
The screen buzzed.
“Your sleep patterns—“ it started, before hesitating for a moment. “Excellent. Tomorrow we will schedule you for a memory wipe. You’ll be escorted upon waking.”
Electric prods were lowered. Toni returned to her sleep casket, closing the door behind her. She could hear the Black Boxes vanishing down the hall.
They would wipe her memory the next day. She had to escape that night.
Beyond the door Toni had remembered some deep message coded into her dreams, some biochemical trace of Julieta’s subconscious, that told her that dream donors were horribly murdered—or perhaps eaten—perhaps made to govern small nations on wayward satellites. Toni was sure it was all terribly complicated and that something had to be done. She would have to go to Julieta ... and take her away.
Toni crept down darkened hallways she’d only tread in the light. It didn’t matter; she had them memorized and, anyway, she had fair night vision. Occasionally, small things skittered across the floor, making sloshing or sucking or wiping noises as they went about their assigned tasks. Toni wasn’t worried about encountering them—she knew her sleep casket registered as empty and that something would come to collect her. She’d already taken a butcher knife from the cooking room and was considering ways that a sharp edge could best be used against electric prods.
She saw an eyeball jump and scurry around a corner as she approached. They wanted to see what she was doing, wanted to observe her before they wrote her off. So she headed towards the archery room, because Toni had some vague idea that it was good to cause confusion.
When they realized her intentions, they sent out a couple of Black Boxes to subdue her. She swung the butcher knife in an arc—it seemed so slow to her, slow enough that she could dodge the electric prods as the knife connected with a Black Box, severing the extended prod in a clean motion. She absorbed the discharge through the knife’s handle with a shudder before she withdrew the blade, leaping upon the Box. Damaged, its programmed response was to head for the repair warehouse, and Toni went along for the ride.
The remaining Boxes fought to catch up to her, and Toni hurled the butcher knife at one as it approached; it dropped the prod, joining them in their journey to the repair warehouse. The walls opened and other Boxes popped out to join them. Toni leapt from her mount, charging through the walls before they could close again, leaving her assailnts on the other side. She had no idea where these back ways went, perhaps deep into the bowels of SaniCorp’s beast—but she had no other option. Following darkened pathways pulsing with the occasional electrical surge, she thought she remembered something about small, furry creatures with hairless tails—but it was something she’d been asked to forget, and it slipped away from her before she could make the connection.
She could hear the Black Boxes catching up to her, and continued through the darkness. It embraced her, swelled like a song, surrounding her with warmth. Toni found a hatch, opened it, and pressed her palm against a switch. The wall opened, and she awoke to sunshine.
The side of the building was pulsing with waves of electricity, each throb in sync with some unknown melody. One finds that the deadliest things are often lovely, and for some reason associated with pop music.
Toni processed the sunlight, confused—she was supposed to charge at night, wasn’t she? She’d always been taught as much. But the sun blinded her, made her dizzy, and she almost fell from the side of the building like some dazed hatchling, featherless and surprisingly ugly. The buildings around her crouched like wary predators, and Toni’s instincts shook her into a state of alert—she began to process movement everywhere: not just in the alleys but up the walls, across the rooftops, even shimmering around air vents and chimney stacks, like the whole world was alive. Toni, with her limited grasp of beauty, felt overwhelmed.
She crouched on a hatch at the side of the tall, silver SaniCorp building, like a thorn from the stem of a rose. The service hatch had no problem supporting her weight, but it might not like the mass of Black Boxes heading towards her, and she was sure she wouldn’t enjoy the surge of electricity undulating up the side of the tower—however pleasant the word “undulating” might be.
The sunlight shimmered all colours at once and Toni marvelled at the way it shone off her arm as she leapt from the building. There were violets and oranges. There was water and fire. Toni brought her legs below her as the flat, mud-brown buildings below came closer and closer, the wind howling in her ears.
For a moment she thought of the grass plains, and the tension burst from her chest as she slammed her legs into the rooftop. The building shook, the tendons in her legs absorbing the impact with a loud hiss. She’d done 4,000 acrobatic leaps since she first awoke—or was it 3,000? She suddenly found it hard to be sure—and she was tested for shock absorbency three times a week.
She cast one glance up at the tall tower of SaniCorp, and turned to leap across to the next roof, her smock rippling in the wind behind her. She knew where Julieta lived—had seen it in dreams clearer than real life. It was a house buried deep in the city, cradled between two tall buildings the colour of tree roots, a single window gaping out at the world like a lidless eye. Toni found a rush of excitement spring inside of her at the idea.
Toni found the building by following a smell of spices and sticky pudding and oil, remembering an unfamiliar sensation of waking up between warm sheets. She found it by listening for the hum of an earthy voice and the gentle flit of linens hanging to dry. She found it by asking a bespectacled man for directions—and remembered to blink, which meant she was doing very well.
Once at her destination, she dug her hands and feet into the soft sides of the house, ignoring the way it sagged beneath her, and quickly climbed to the black window. The sun set as she approached and for a moment the angle presented a blinding reflection, sharp as daggers, and Toni felt herself losing her grip and falling to the ground, falling through the air, unable to right herself and absorb the impact properly.
But then the sun vanished below the horizon and the light was gone, and Toni still clung to the side of the house, not falling at all. She opened the window and climbed inside.
The room was littered with torn paper, dirty laundry, and a cheap acoustic guitar made from reinforced cardboard and wire, laying forgotten under a layer of dust. The whole room buzzed with expectancy and heartbreak, but Toni, unable to recognize it, simply stared.
Julieta was asleep on an indigo bed. Toni felt strings inside of her twist in ways she hadn’t expected, felt tensions that her joints didn’t know how to release. Carefully, delicately, she crawled beneath the sheets, feeling Julieta’s warmth beside her, and fell asleep—the fan in her chest whirred irritatingly before settling down to rest.
“Hello,” Julieta said. Toni opened her eyes and felt the stifled air, the sheet pulled over their heads. They lay in a dull blue glow, their features haunted. Toni smiled.
Julieta twisted her body beneath the covers to pull herself closer. Toni took her hand, pressing it against her cheek, and allowed Julieta to caress her skin.
“You’re the robot girl. Come for more, have you?”
She had a wry smirk on her face but Toni was distracted. Julieta seemed odd, listless. Toni didn’t think it was a dream, but maybe it was a new dream—something exciting. She pulled Julieta against her and felt the heat swell from one body to the other. She brought her lips to the crook of Julieta’s neck.
“I haven’t dreamt in ages,” Julieta said. Toni moved away, the sheets rippling above them like water. She stared.
“Not since I gave them to you.”
Toni vaguely noted that Julieta’s fingers were tracing lines in her flesh, and they began to turn white under the pressure.
“Last night was the first time—but I couldn’t do anything. I said things and did things and I had no control over it at all. It was like watching someone else live my life.”
The light made Toni feel sleepy—was this part of the dream? Julieta was speaking in vague riddles and social interaction lessons had taught her that this was something women did both in real life and in the subconscious, so it was hard to tell. Should she respond in kind?
“At dawn I walk on four legs, at noon on two, and at twilight on three,” she said. Julieta’s brow creased.
“The fuck are you talking about?”
“I’m sorry; I thought that was the game.”
Julieta suddenly sprung forth from the bed, the sheets cascading down her front . Toni admired the glow of moonlight on her dark skin. That was beauty, too, wasn’t it? She’d have to ask someone.
“I want my dreams back. I want you to give them back to me. That’s why you’re here, right?”
Toni sat up, as well, and moved to the edge of the bed. Julieta’s eyes looked wild and moist—was that normal?
“I asked you to come get me—and take me away. I want my dreams back.” Julieta’s hands came forward to embrace either side of Toni’s cheeks. The touch was soft, gentle, and desperate. Toni felt the excitement boiling inside of her and she reached up to reciprocate. This was social interaction—this was affection. Excellent.
“Yes. Yes. Please—just give them back. I’m nobody without them.”
The grip on Toni’s cheeks tightened, and Toni responded in kind. She would make Julieta understand—that the dreams were meant to be shared. Julieta squeezed harder—and so did Toni.
“Oh God, please—you have no idea—“ Tighter. Tighter. Julieta’s face was turning bright red, then slowly white. Toni could feel the blood pulsing beneath her fingertips. Her life was thrilling.
“I can feel it working,” Julieta gasped as Toni’s fingers pressed deeper. She had no idea human skin was so malleable. Was her finger meant to go so deeply? Was that what Julieta wanted?
“I’m dreaming—“ she gasped, her body shuddering with such a tremendous violence that Toni had to squeeze tighter just to keep her grip.
“Oh God, I’m dreaming.”
Toni travelled during the day so she could watch the sunlight, and slept at night to charge. If she kept to the ocean and swam beneath the indigo waves, she could avoid Monitors and Black Boxes with their electric prods. And in her dreams, Julieta played music.