Content Warning: This story deals with issues of consent and medical trauma, and contains elements some readers may consider distressing.
The first time Ari meets herself she assumes the long-awaited climax has finally arrived; the blizzard of a psychotic break come to snow out the fallowed folds of her brain. Before that, she goes out of the apartment for a walk to get some air. Before that, the landlady hand-delivers a final notice of eviction and tells Ari she’s praying for her. Three days and then I call the sheriff.
It’s on the corner of Park and East Lakeshore where Ari’s wandering eyes snag on a familiar shape—her own, walking hand-in-hand with a guy in a slim-fit dress shirt. The face could be a mirror; the eyes are hers, even the little smile is hers. Ari’s an only child, and yet her identical twin smiles just a little more coquettishly as the well-dressed man steers her into a ramen bar and out of sight. Ari roots to the pavement while foot traffic diverts around her.
Something about passing yourself on the street takes you out of your own skin.
That evening, while doomscrolling about distant tragedies like the outbreak of primordial anthrax in Siberia to displace her own personal struggles, she sees her own face again, this time in a promoted ad for a company called U-Mii. She’s only just calmed herself and grounded enough to pretend she’s fine, but now she dives in.
“Kara” is the name of the flagship model of U-Mii “synthetic companions,” which the ad plays verbal Twister not to call a sex-bot.
Kara loves you, coos a sultry voice that could be Ari’s own if it weren’t so confident.
Kara doesn’t judge. Kara’s never too tired to give you the comfort you deserve. Kara understands.
Ari eats dinner, her last egg and a toasted heel of bread, and as she’s chewing, a memory shakes loose. Two years ago, shortly after receiving her B.A. in psych (when she was living off a mix of babysitting and amateur modeling), she answered an online ad for what she thought was a nude photoshoot but turned out to be something else, somehow more invasive.
A full body scan for $5,000. She remembers the cold room, the merciless leather of the bar stool from which she perched, bare-assed, while two men wearing blue medical gloves and hairnets hovered around her with what looked like miniature metal detectors, dragging their wands across every inch of her horripilated skin. They didn’t talk except to make curt requests she acceded to—lift your arms, open your mouth, flex your buttocks, suck in your stomach, puff your chest, spread your legs…
She almost asked for another $500 when they told her they needed a comprehensive scan of her vagina, but there’s something about already being naked that makes a weak negotiator. She sat for two minutes with a man’s crew cut hair grazing her inner thigh while his latex gloves distended her labia minora and the end of his scan stick plumbed her yonic architecture like the devil’s q-tip. Even though the rented office room studio was freezing, she remembers the loud squeak of the leather seat separating from her sweaty buttocks when she stood up at the ordeal’s end.
At the time, $5,000 seemed like a lot in exchange for the rights to her likeness. When you’re starving, even a crumb can be life-changing. But now, she scrolls through the U-Mii online store and browses the Kara line and sees the disparity between what she was paid and what she’s helped create. The sub-models have names—Paramour, Femme Fatale, Consort—and the cheapest, most basic option is called Girl Next Door. It—she?—retails for $15,000, with low-interest financing on offer.
In the demo shots, the various Karas mostly have the same pixie cut she kept when she got scanned, the same she saw on the model she glimpsed on the street, but the Femme Fatale has a cute raven-black bob. Ari stares a long time before deciding it suits her.
She can see the appeal of each: Girl Next Door with her approachable, simpering mien, Paramour with her artsy verve and faux punk fishnet-and-studs aesthetic, Femme Fatale’s stomp-on-your-aorta stilettos, and the Machiavellian trophy-wife confidence Consort projects. The only one she can’t quite understand is the most expensive: Sugarbaby Brat, who starts at $160,000 and has a “platinum series” billed at $195,000. Her specs are virtually identical to that of Consort ($80,000) but in fairness, Sugarbaby Brat has a pierced nose and “loves to beg for favors.”
The Karas cast smoldering glances over their bare shoulders. They lounge on settees, sit on swing sets in schoolgirl outfits, and suck their fingers. They do everything but give up the full show.
She turns her phone off and wraps herself tight in her bedsheets like her whole person is an open wound in need of pressure. Come, sleep. Come.
Most of what she does is sleep now. There’s not much else to do when you’re unemployed, single, and broke. She does nothing all day, and in that regard it’s the same as when she was still employed by the company that downsized her and about fifty other employees two months back, after she gave them a year of her life. She worked in an office utterly divorced from the realities of the company’s day-to-day business, which she never really understood, though she remembered certain clues pointing to food service being their literal bread and butter. Her job was forwarding emails, communicating memos from upper to middle management, and running errands for the people in suits whose jobs it was to go to meetings and discuss the productivity of all the people who did the actual labor (whatever that was). She was no more qualified for the position than any other warm body who could operate a computer, but she liked having money in her pocket. Now she sleeps with her eyes closed, in a bed rather than slumped on a desk or on the seat of a bus. As long as the planet still spins, everyone’s life is going somewhere, isn’t it?
The first time she dreams through a Kara unit’s eyes, she’s only a passenger. Helpless, a rudderless craft adrift in another’s stream of consciousness.
She—or the Kara, anyway—is splayed out on an operating table. Restraints keep her limbs and head immobilized, but through her peripheral vision she sees workers with masks and hairnets and gloves—dressed for manufacturing microchips, not for cutting flesh—milling around.
“It’s a by-the-numbers refurbishment, just do your job,” says a man.
“No one’s that unlucky,” says another voice, possibly female. “This is the third model sent back by this same customer. All mutilated.”
“The customer has paid the replacement fee every time. Frankly, what he does with our product is none of our concern.”
“You don’t find it messed up?”
“As long as he’s not doing it to real women…”
She realizes, before she wakes up, that her arms are not actually restrained. She simply doesn’t have any. Frayed wires and shards of ceramic pseudobone jut out from mangled stumps. One of the technicians adjusts a mirror, and she sees the Kara’s face, with a triangular patch of flesh cut out from the cheek to make a window to the mouth, revealing long roots of porcelain teeth nested in artificial gums so pink and healthy.
When she’s awake, she chases down whatever opportunity she can. She rides her bike around and takes the bus to hand-deliver applications or meet potential clients. She makes it clear she’ll do just about any job. No one wants to work anymore, they all say. Well, no one wants to hire either, it seems. She starts to wonder if there’s a point to all this beached-fish struggling.
Online, she is confused for a U-Mii, so her brief attempt to resurrect her career as a camgirl dies in a brushfire of disassociation, and so she gives babysitting another try. She gets a short-notice job somewhere uptown. The wife thanks her for being a lifesaver, the kid is quiet and not any trouble. Ari dozes off on the living room couch, wondering what it’s like to own a house.
The next dream, she feels in control, because she knows it’s coming. But even though she knows she could take the controls at any time, she sits back and lets the Kara work, because her story is compelling. This Kara is closed up in a storage closet, at the least at the start. The air is loud with an industrial air conditioner’s drone that almost drowns out a tumult of bird calls. When Kara sneaks out of the closet, following the secret protocol stealthily programmed into her OS, Ari glimpses through her eyes the mold-stained corridors of a concrete bunker. Through gun-slits, chartreuse leaflight slants in. The bird calls get louder. A door appears, guarded by two men in green paramilitary fatigues, toting rifles. They barely acknowledge her as she walks silently past them, into the belly of a darker room. The man slouching on a rattan throne blinks bloodshot eyes at her. His pupils are like papaya seeds, and they get bigger still when Kara’s hands, fingernails painted bold red and filed to points, close around his throat. The eyes bulge and the throat makes a desperate gurgly music as the drug lord or whoever he is struggles against unfeeling hands puppeteered by a three-letter agency. She considers letting go, but then, does she know for sure he doesn’t deserve to die? This dream ends with gunfire, with a Kara—mission accomplished—collapsing when the tattered scrim of her shredded torso gives in under the weight of her chest and head.
When Ari wakes up, her knuckles aching from too much squeezing, it’s late in the evening. The mother she met earlier has not returned. Instead, a ponderous, bald man of middle age looks down on Ari with something like recognition (and maybe guilt?) in his eyes.
“Thanks for watching Tommy,” he says, handing the money over and walking away like he’s forgotten a grenade in the oven.
Most of the dreams are not as detailed. Some feel secondhand, as if she’s only being told what another dreamer perceived. Some are too vivid and shake her awake with peril or desire.
This Kara wears the dull fatigues of a VoidCorp employee, spacewalking without any helmet or suit. Magnetic boots fasten her to the heatshield of whatever station this is so that Kara, like a good little worker bee, can weld shut a rupture in the outer casing. Only after waking will it occur to Ari she’s never heard of a VoidCorp, and there’s no space station half as big as the orbital behemoth of her dreams.
The next Kara is supine in a bed, holding her ankles while a bland twenty-something with a beard that could have been spray-painted on gives her all he’s got, and it’s now that Ari discovers that although Karas have no pain sensors, they are no such strangers to pleasure, even if they never asked for it or don’t know how to ask or say no. The man’s lungs wheeze, and his bony hands dig into Kara-Ari’s (Kari’s?) shoulders. Ari looks away just in time for a woman, sweaty and decked out in yoga gear, to briskly walk past the wide-open door without even a sideways glance. It’s such a brief sighting Ari can’t figure how old she is, and if she’s the guy’s wife or mom or just his roommate. The universe is possibilities.
“What the fuck?” the man on top of her cries out.
When he pulls out his cock—already turning flaccid—the foreskin is dyed with a dark stain of menstrual blood. Blood wasn’t in the Kara’s specs, was it? The smell of carrion startles her nostrils awake.
This next Kara has seen better days. So has the world around her and the ragged train of sunburnt survivors with pale rimes of salt around their muzzles. Behind Kara, the skeleton of a skyline rises from orange dunes, shattered testament to a dead civilization. Up ahead, a rumor of green nestles in the cleft between two mountains.
“This tribe we’re meeting gives nothing for free,” Ari hears her own voice say. “Don’t worry. I will protect you all.”
Her factory-made, humanlike arms are long-gone, replaced with crude but potent assemblages of scrap iron tipped in vise-like claws. When she sees her reflection in a polished section of her left claw buffed clean of rust, she recognizes the sleek, angular bob cut of a Femme Fatale model.
Then there’s the Kara who’s sitting at a kitchen table, across from an old woman. Together they clip coupons out of newspapers, until, without warning, the old woman gets up and leaves the room. Kara is still clipping her coupons when the woman returns carrying a tea saucer, her wobbly, arthritic hands shot through with purple watersheds. A cupcake sits on the saucer, a burning candle stuck through its pink spiral cloud of frosting.
“I didn’t forget who turned one today,” the old woman beams, setting the treat down in front of Kara.
Ari blows the candle out. “Tell me how it tastes, auntie,” she says.
The woman’s mouth is open with astonishment. “Sweetie, are you—how is it you’re crying?”
And then one Kara sits on a couch holding hands with a man who looks familiar. He’s stroking her hair and tickling her shoulder with the tears that drip from his bleary eyes. Her improbable tears flow into his. The television bathes them both in antiseptic pale light and white noise.
“What’s wrong, baby?” the man asks.
It’s Jacob. The guy from Ari’s stats class back in college. The one she gave a fake number to on the last day of the semester because she’d always been uncomfortable with how he watched her across the lecture hall.
But most of the Karas are alone, waiting in dark rooms and in shipping crates and on the shelves of warehouses and factories.
Eviction day comes without fanfare or bombast. A soft, almost timid knock on her door. She says it’s unlocked, and the landlady opens the door by a wedge and sticks her matronly face in.
“Are you all right, hon?”
“All packed,” Ari says, gesturing to her thumb at her overstuffed backpack and the bicycle leaning against the wall.
Landlady shuffles in and closes the door behind her. Ari might really believe she cares, the way her face sags. “I don’t like this. But, well, rent is rent. You understand.”
What would be the consequences if she didn’t understand?
“Sure,” is all Ari says.
The weight in her lungs isn’t as heavy or desperate as strangulation or drowning. She’s wobbly at first on her bike, unused to carrying such a heavy load in her backpack, but she steadies. Ari’s going back to her roots. Go back far enough and everyone has nomads in their family tree. Maybe she’ll find a park where she can sleep—not all of the benches have bars on them. Maybe she’ll call her folks and ask them to forgive her for everything they did to her. Maybe she’ll crash on a friend’s couch for a while. Note to self: find friends with couches. Friends she can trust not to hate her once they realize this isn’t just a phase she’s going through.
Or maybe she’ll just keep biking until the city runs out of city, and she’ll make a life in whatever waits beyond. She’s wondering how hard it could be to live in a tree when she turns out of a blind alley and right into the path of a grumbling garbage truck.
For a while after the impact, she sits on her back with her limbs splayed out like a dead bug. Is this lack of any feeling what the books and movies call “shock?” Her senses are indistinct, washed out.
Shadows move across the vast lightness of her vision, voices unharbored from throats speak in puzzles, like the words have been canted 90 degrees from anything intelligible. By and by, the words right themselves.
What was she doing on a bike?
One of those U-Miis, right? Gives me the creeps looking at it. Too real.
Someone just lost a load of money.
Full of bugs, these girls.
Full of cum more like.
No, I mean, they’re getting recalled. This model is, anyway. Read something about it. Weird stuff—crying, screaming out of nowhere, some of them even started bleeding.
Creepy. Can’t believe dudes fuck these things.
Should we pick her up?
Fuck that, I ain’t touching another man’s rag. We’re losing time anyway.
Her vision resolves. Her scattered possessions and the broken geometry machine. Nothing leaves so whimsical a corpse as a bicycle: half-trampled wasp, half-metal pretzel, all Daliesque melted clock. A pair of men in gray uniforms shuffle away. One of them nearly trips over the mangled wreck of her bike as he staggers back to the idled garbage truck.
The truck rumbles off, and Ari’s still spread-eagle on the pavement, feeling absolutely nothing, like suddenly she’s not a chaotic clump of cells plagiarizing themselves but something cleaner; plastic, steel, and stellar matter poured into a Platonic mold and left to cool and set in the shade of the universe’s indifference. Once there was a girl-woman, a child of a newborn century who had dreams because she was taught she needed to want things; now there’s only a dream. The world dreams the dreamer so that someone will remember the world.
She waits a while longer to feel something. Anything. When nothing comes, she rises, surprised by how easily she picks herself up. She starts walking. Still waiting to feel. To hurt.
After a while, a café appears, and she sees her own face under one of the parasols, glossy-eyed and vacant, staring through her. The doll eyes focus, the lips tighten into a frown as recognition settles. A steaming cup of coffee waits across from the Kara, in front of a pulled-out seat. Maybe the “date” is using the bathroom or paying the check inside. An idea percolates.
“Let me tag in,” Ari suggests.
The Kara at first stares uncomprehendingly. And then something happens. She tilts her head. Offers a half-smile. Knowing, understanding, maybe even grateful.
“Go on. They’ll never notice the difference.”
With a nod, the Kara gets up from her chair, clearing the space for Ari to sit down. Kara hesitates only for a blink, touching Ari’s face with a tepid hand, and in the brief contact, Kara’s hand warms up, flooded with the imperfect, fragile, and torrid uncertainties of breathing life, even as Ari’s own cheek stiffens into a shell of immaculate fiberglass. Which of the Karas is dreaming her now?