“Go away, Todd. We’re busy,” Larry said. “Besides, you’re wasting your time. You know she only likes to fuck imaginary people.”
“That’s because she hasn’t tried the real deal,” Todd said.
“And that would be you?” Larry asked.
Col yawned ostentatiously at Todd, but he didn’t take the hint. He was thick that way. There was hardly room for two people in the cubicle Col shared with Larry, with their desks face-to-face and their screens back-to-back, but Todd came in anyway and put his hand on the back of Col’s chair and leaned over her shoulder. “What are you working on? I heard you haven’t left the building for three days.”
She hit the button to silver the screen and spun her chair so violently Todd had to take his hand away.
“Your business?” She glared and he took two steps back.
“C’mon, Col,” he said lamely.
Todd was white, male, virus-free (he said), and twenty-five, and he thought he was the default human being, of which other human beings were secondary and probably inferior versions. She knew why he came around so often, and it wasn’t her natural charm. She was the only female on the floor, maybe the only female left in the company, who had not succumbed to him. Except Alicia. Every time he came by Col’s cubicle to see if she was ready to hook up, she thought of herself dangling from his penis like a fish. It was anti-erotic. If she had been stupid enough to fuck a co-worker, she would rather do Larry, who was of course more interested in doing Todd. Office politics.
“You know why I stay here all night?” Col said. “It’s because I’m interrupted an average of every nine minutes during the day by inconsequential demands on my attention and I can’t get any work done. Gwen goes live on Friday and I’m still tweaking her. So no, I won’t go down the hall for, like, a quick boff on the conference table, like, as you so delicately put it.”
Larry pointed to the Genius at Work sign behind Col’s head. “We are artistes here, and you are a hack, so get thee to thy cubicle.”
They laughed at Todd and he went away, but he had a resilient plastic ego and any dents they put in it always popped right out again.
“I love when you get all pedantic on him,” Larry said. “But don’t you think he has a nice ass for a white boy?”
“Nope. No. No way,” Col said. “I’m not interested in any human who can’t pass the Turing test.”
“Ha. Ha,” Larry said, making each sound a separate word.
The first computer to pass the Turing test had done so back in 2013, by convincing 30% of the human judges that they were conversing with a real person. Todd, on the other hand, had never yet said anything to Col that convinced her he had a personality. He was too predictable. She thought unpredictability was an intrinsic part of the feel of engaging with another human mind, and she programmed it into her characters—not random unpredictability, but the kind that issued from a complex and not fully knowable interior. Which is one reason why the characters she designed felt so human to their users, and why she had a Genius at Work sign above her head, and why she worked all night at the office. It wasn’t why she was paid the big bucks—they didn’t pay her all that much money, considering her talent. But she felt appreciated at Incubus, and the bosses gave her the freedom to do good work.
Larry said, “You finished Gwen last week, I happen to know. Who are you working on? Don’t you want to talk it out, bounce it around?”
“He’s too new. I’m just getting a feel for him.”
“Him? Can I Beta test? I love your men. Who is he for?”
“It’s weird,” Col said. “Devlin won’t tell me who the client is. Supposedly an art collector, a real moneybags, who read about me in that interview in Mind. Thinks what we do is art. So I get to make anyone I want. And here’s the weirdest thing: Moneybags is going to build a huge stand-alone computer to house the character, and buy a license for our software—can you imagine how much that will cost?—and keep him in a private gallery. Maybe donate him to a museum later. And that will be the only copy. Incubus agreed in the contract not to keep a backup. So when I finish this guy, he’s gone, he’s really done and gone. No going back to tweak him, no upgrades. No visiting.”
“When were you going to tell me this?”
“Right about now, I guess.”
“Shit. I can’t even say it’s not fair. You deserve it after cranking so long on that bitch Gwen.”
“I hate re-creations,” Col said.
They shared a moment of silence over the fact that re-creations sucked. Gwen, the real Gwen, had divorced her husband five years ago. He still had a yen for her—though maybe it was just a yen to slap her around. Gwen the succubus was not like the real Gwen, of course; she was the husband’s version, quite a different entity. But the two Gwens shared a lot of traits. They were greedy, shallow, blonde, and, of course, slender and big-breasted. But the succubus would never walk out on the client, not for good. She’d do him wrong—she wouldn’t be a reasonable facsimile of Gwen if she didn’t do him wrong—but she would always come groveling back. At the client’s request, she’d never get a year older or a pound heavier. The succubus knew how to please him in bed, and he didn’t have to ask. But if he wanted to ask, if he wanted to demand, he could, the way he never could with the real woman. Gwen the succubus had already cost him a small fortune, but she would never try to take him for all he was worth like the ex-wife.
Gwen had been hell: sixteen months in development, three months of testing before the client ever saw her, another five months before he signed off. Two years of Col’s life. Gwen hadn’t been Col’s only project during that time, but she was definitely the most annoying. They hadn’t seen the last of her, either, since the client had bought a maintenance contract in case the succubus started to deviate too much. But that was not Col’s problem. That was the sort of thing any competent production slavey could do.
Larry said, “Wow, if this shit we do is art . . .”
“I know. If it’s art, I’m going to make the male equivalent of the Mona Lisa.”
• • • •
Hours after Larry left for the day, Col went down the concrete stairs to the first floor in her stocking feet. It was 11:30 p.m. and the last possible minute to get Japanese food delivered to the office. Back in her cubicle, Col put her feet up on the desk and slurped udon noodles, making a mess. She’d forgotten to eat that day and she was hungry.
The offices of Incubus were designed for the twenty-four-hour workday. There were seven-foot-long sofas in the lounges, enough vending machines to stock an old-fashioned automat, showers, lockers, and a gym Col had never visited. The company paid a premium to those willing to work in the actual offices rather than at home. The bosses had studies proving upside down and sideways that it enhanced productivity for people to mingle in the flesh, despite the fact that they all wasted time on gossiping, caffeine breaks, and playing pool. The frat house upstairs, third to eighth floors, housed the mass-market sex game designers—Todd was in the spatter division, churning out perfect victims. It was a twenty-four-hour circus up there for guys in their twenties who got paid to think about sex all day.
But it was quiet on Col’s floor, in the luxury division where they made one-of-a-kind characters. Management claimed that her division lost money, which she didn’t believe. Maybe they didn’t have huge profit margins, but the things they figured out about tickling the human psyche ended up in mass-market incubi and succubi, the kind an average plebe could download onto an average home system, so he or she could jerk off to an interactive pornographic movie.
On the high end, where she worked, they could do a lot more than provide an enhanced version of phone sex. A very rich client could afford a Sensorium. The Sensorium exploited the fact that every person had a unique body map in the neocortex that registered sensations: It was how you knew your right index finger had been pricked or you were flexing a muscle in your left leg. The techs at Incubus would scan a client’s brain to chart his or her body map; then they would surgically implant a Sensorium, a six-centimeter patch of engineered skin that delivered stimuli to the right neurons. Implantation was usually followed by a few frustrating weeks of trial and error and threats of lawsuits, until the client’s brain learned to accommodate the new input.
The Sensorium could simulate perceptions that registered on the skin, like pressure and temperature, and also the inner kinesthetic sensations of movement, balance, the feel of heart and breath. The technology was imperfect. It couldn’t do smell, for example. Smell was too complicated, there were too many molecules that the olfactory nerve could detect—but it could do taste: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Taste was not as good without smell, of course. And it still required a large dose of imagination to experience the full effect of jacking in. Col liked to think of that as collaboration with the client.
There had to be something worth jacking into. There had to be content: an interactive program, a rich environment, and someone worth meeting. That required access to Incubus’s mega computer and its proprietary database and rendering software, and most of all to the characters Col and Larry and the other designers created. With all that in place, the experiences that came through the Sensorium were as real as a dream while you are dreaming it. But you were wide-awake.
Col had been outfitted with her own Sensorium. She had to have it to test her creations. It represented a $263,000 investment for the company and a seven-year unbreakable contract for her, which was up for renewal next year. She was planning to renew. She worked to please herself, she always had, though lately clients’ sexual fantasies bored her, and she contented herself with figuring out technical problems.
What made Col good at her job, what made her very, very good, was that each of her characters always seemed to do what he or she wanted, but all the time it was what the client wanted and was not self-aware enough to know. Every human being starred in a private psychodrama, and unconsciously tried to cast other people for various parts, but of course those people had their own private psychodramas, so things got complicated. Better to cast a character. The character, unlike a real person, paid attention to you. The character got your number and punched it in and had you doing and feeling things you never dreamed you’d do or feel.
It was true. Col really did prefer fucking imaginary people.
Her favorite time at work was when the hall lights switched on and off as she passed, and the phones stopped blaring, and it was dim and quiet on the floor. She could daydream at night. Sometimes when people asked what she did for a living, she would say, “Daydream.”
She was daydreaming about the book collector. For the past three nights, all night, she’d been looking at paintings in museum databases, trying to find the portrait of a gentleman book collector she had seen in a museum last year. She couldn’t remember the museum, the theme of the exhibit, the subject’s name, or the painter’s name. She wasn’t sure of the painting’s century or country of origin. It baffled her that she could recall technical specs from three years ago, some bug found and defeated in obsolete software, but not this, which she so much desired to remember. All that had stayed with her was an image: a man in a red jacket, partly open down the front, showing a loose white shirt underneath. Laces dangled from the shirt. He had brown hair and an interesting face. The label said he had spent all his money on books and didn’t care how he dressed.
She hadn’t found him, though she’d looked at hundreds, maybe thousands of portraits. From what she remembered of his clothes, she had narrowed the date down to late fifteenth, early sixteenth century. Before they had those ridiculous slashed doublets. She was sure she would have remembered a poufy doublet.
He had famous friends, rich and titled friends, she thought. He had other friends, too, rakehells, gamblers, and duelists. They sought him out even after he beggared himself collecting books, because he was the kind of man people wanted to know.
She had stood in front of the portrait a long time. She couldn’t remember a single other painting from the exhibit. She had carried away an impression of stiff people in stiff garments enriched with lace, embroidery, furs, gold thread, pearls and jewels. Some of the men had worn armor plate. He was not like them.
She was looking for his face again. She wanted to know his name and when he had lived. She wanted to give the portrait to Alicia so she could start modeling him and researching costumes, and put the set designers to work.
But Col couldn’t remember enough to go on. She couldn’t find him and it was driving her crazy and taking too much of her time. She started saving portraits for Alicia with annotations: those lips, that nose, a fine pair of eyes. They had interesting faces in the late fifteenth century, and fabulous clothes. Here was a great self-portrait of Durer in 1498 in a black and white striped cap. His gathered shirt hung halfway down his chest under a gaping ivory jacket with black trim. He had a cloak slung over one shoulder, fastened with a striped cord, and long golden hair and a sidelong look. Who knew Durer was such a dandy? And here was a German guy with a codpiece jutting out from under his jerkin like a cornucopia. Her man would have a codpiece, too, of course, but nothing quite so obvious. She would leave it to Alicia to figure out the details, the fascinating fastenings.
Since Col had forgotten the book collector’s name, she must give him a new one, and a rank to go with it. He should be English so she could talk to him. She started a search running on English history and the peerage, circa 1498. It was a great era. Europeans were just discovering that the world was larger and more marvelous than they had ever imagined. Philip would like that. Philip de Graynfield.
A good character designer was like a method actor. Col worked from the outside in, from his milieu, his life history, his family, how he dressed, what he ate, where he lived. She also worked from the inside out: how he spent his time, what he desired, thought, and believed. She’d never done a character from before the twentieth century and had found other designers’ efforts at history characters to be failures, just twenty-first century people in costume.
She was beginning to grasp how much work this would be. How much fun.
She could have gotten interns and flunkies and bots to do some of the early research, and usually she did. But this time she was jealous of the early stages, and she wanted to keep the book collector all to herself. He would be hers the way no other character had been—not even her first, Jake, the carnie.
She never felt the same about a character after turning him or her over to the client. It was like falling out of love. She didn’t fall in love with all of them, of course, but she couldn’t help loving them all a little, even the detestable Gwen.
Shit. She should not have started thinking about Jake. Now she had a low level burn going, an itch she could ignore or scratch. She checked Jake’s account and it was inactive. She decided to scratch.
She called him up. “Hey, Jake, how you doing?”
He was taking a break in his trailer in front of the TV, with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. He never had to worry about no smoking zones. They didn’t have cam phones in 1977, so she always contacted him through a television set. He had his long legs stretched out in worn jeans. If he slouched any more he would fall off his recliner.
Jake gave her the usual once over and a grin. “You look like shit. You been working too hard?”
“Got a minute?”
“For you, I got a lifetime.”
“Sweet. I’m coming over.”
Col plugged the leads into her Sensorium and put on the headset. The bosses knew she stole time—they monitored every keystroke and voice command and kept Sensorium records—and they didn’t care. She could have been addicted and it would have been fodder for their research. But she wasn’t addicted. She kept it to two or three times a week because she didn’t want to be like that.
It was a chilly evening on the midway and there was enough mist in the air that the top of the Ferris wheel vanished except for the glow from the lights. She opened the trailer door. He never locked it.
Jake stood up and dropped his cigarette and rubbed it out under his boot. The place was a sty, the dingy carpet littered with butts and empties. Looked like he had switched from beer to whiskey since she saw him last, but not very expensive whiskey. “Missed you,” he said, like he meant it.
That was the thing about Jake. No matter how much he cheated, he could make you believe you were the only one. For a minute she was in love with him all over again.
They fucked on the Ferris wheel in the mist, on a hard metal seat hanging three stories above the parking lot of a strip mall, and it was uncomfortable and a bit too complicated and acrobatic, but it was also exactly what she wanted, fast and hard, which is why she’d called Jake. Jake didn’t do tender.
But he surprised her. He showed her his new tattoo: a blue columbine flowering at the base of his spine, growing out of the crack between his buttocks. She said, “Does Roger know?” Roger was his owner. Jake shook his head and smiled.
Columbine was her real name. She didn’t know how Jake had learned that little fact.
• • • •
She forgot about Jake. She forgot to go home and forgot to eat. Larry said she was obsessed, and besides she was starting to stink, so she took a shower and looked in her locker for something to wear that was not wadded up and filthy. But there wasn’t anything—even the locker stank—so she went to borrow something from Alicia. Alicia said, “Col, you should get a cat. Then you’d have to go home to feed it.”
Col said, “I have an imaginary cat.”
Alicia showed her preliminary renderings. Col was frustrated, because Philip de Graynfield didn’t look like the book collector she could almost but not quite remember. She didn’t know how to describe him so Alicia could fix him. “He’s too handsome. Make him look smarter.”
“So smart equals ugly?”
“No—not ugly. Just not Hollywood. But I like his clothes.”
“Thanks for nothing,” Alicia said.
But she was a pal. She lent Col a tight skirt and a fuzzy pink sweater. Col never wore clothes like that and it occasioned a lot of comment as she made her way back to her cubicle, but she didn’t notice. She was thinking about Philip, and even Todd intruding into her three-foot diameter personal zone could not snap her out of her fugue.
She talked to Philip at night, even though she couldn’t see him. She was proud of his voice and his accent. She’d tweaked and tweaked it and now it was impossible to tell how many little pieces had gone into its construction, how it had been assembled from the voices of actors in old movies and samples purchased wholesale until it had just the timbre that moved her, as if she was strung an octave higher and resonated to his tones. His voice fit him like a glove, and she knew the glove, too, the one Durer wore in the portrait, made of kidskin with a rolled cuff. But more worn, with a cut on the thumb and dirt rubbed into the palms and fingers, because Philip was too poor and indifferent to get a new pair.
So far the things Philip had said were banal. He was equipped with a couple of broad-based response trees (she’d written a lot of those in the early days, when character creation was a new field). She narrowed him down by hitting yes or no buttons when his answers struck her as in or out of character. This kind of sculpting on the fly was the way she arrived at a first approximation. She wanted to get a feel for interacting with him. He grew by talking to her.
It was late at night. She liked to wait until Larry went home, because Philip wasn’t ready to talk to other people yet. She addressed her blank silvered screen. She could see her own reflection, but she ignored it. She was used to ignoring it.
“Did you sleep well?”
“I dreamed.” He said it like it was a bad thing to dream. Then he said, “Might I know your name?”
“So I might know of whom I dream.”
“I don’t know . . .”
“I fear I have trespassed . . .”
She hit the No button. Too timid.
Philip said urgently, “It may be that I trespass, but I must know.”
Yes and yes. She leaned closer to the screen and whispered, “Columbine.”
He said, “Lady Columbine,” in that voice and she shivered. “What are you? You are not mortal, I think. You speak to me from the dark and I can only see you when I sleep. Are you a demon or an angel?”
“I am mortal,” she said.
“I am sorry. I would that you would never die.”
She wanted to tell him that he was the immortal one, but she terminated the conversation instead, unsettled by it.
• • • •
Alicia was art directing the whole project, not just Philip’s appearance. She supervised a team of people at work on his house, his street, his city: London. Some of his surroundings could be purchased. A big-budget movie had come out five years ago with a digitized London from 1492, just a few years before Philip would spring to life as a thirty-two-year-old, already going broke from buying too many books. The movie had shown the palaces and mansions of the wealthy, but Philip moved in other circles as well, down by the taverns and brothels of the docks, for instance. They pieced that world together from scraps or from scratch, from research with a good dollop of imagination.
Like so many courtiers of his day, Philip de Graynfield lived partly by mooching off the more fortunate (or less spendthrift). But he wasn’t a sycophant, oh no, not her Philip. He had friends rather than patrons. Rich and powerful people sought him out for his learning and his company, and because, unlike other courtiers who flattered them for favors and the leavings from their tables, he never asked for anything. He enjoyed good food and wine, but he was content with a crust of stale bread and ale if he was occupied. And he was always occupied. He did not have an idle mind, though he was of course idle, being a gentleman.
Col was spending money on Philip left and right. She was his true patron, if anyone was. She gave him a small library to start with, downloaded from many databases, free and otherwise. She gave him certain predilections and a yearly income from a manor in Cheshire so he could indulge them. He spent almost all of his income on books, and still he didn’t have that many, because books were expensive. She had set his parameters so he could only see what might have been available in London in 1498, and she was intrigued by his choices. He loved exotic things, scrolls from Cathay, a monk’s chronicle of raids on the Irish coast in 1237. He loved common things, too: Printing had only been around a half century in Europe, but already there were Latin primers and pamphlets about murders. He had a locked cabinet for pornography. He had gotten his hands on a sheaf of pages from an illuminated Kama Sutra. He could not read Sanskrit, but he examined the drawings minutely. He bought a Japanese pillow book from a sailor. He did not know of Japan and thought it was Persian. He had French and Italian bawdy books, too.
She gave Philip Shakespeare’s English, so much richer than the language she herself spoke, even though it was later than his era. But he had learned to speak from her, and he could not help sounding a little modern. She gave him Welsh from his mother, Latin and Greek from school, French, Italian, and a smattering of Flemish. He tried to teach himself Arabic so he could read a manual of surgery. She gave him a good memory but not a perfect one. He tended to remember what he’d read, not where he’d read it. He had constantly to look things up. There was nothing scholarly about his erudition, nothing precious. He wasn’t particular as to the rarity of books. He just wanted to know what was in them, driven by an omnivorous curiosity.
“What are you reading?” Col would ask.
He always asked her to show herself to him.
• • • •
Alicia still hadn’t gotten Philip’s face to Col’s liking. They had a big fight over it, and Alicia went home early, at 9:30 in the evening, to her cat and her girlfriend. Col left an apologetic note on her desk. The latest iteration of Philip would do very well. He was okay, she’d get used to him. Just make his eyebrows a bit more arched, a bit more—skeptical.
Philip needed a body and a way of moving. There was so much material to work with when you did a recreation like Gwen; cameras were ubiquitous, and Gwen was always being filmed whether she knew it or not. It was different making someone up.
First of all, he needed a walk. The walk was more important to Col than a certain breadth of shoulders or narrowness of hips or lean muscle ratio. She ventured out onto the streets, searching for a walk, and discovered she had missed autumn entirely. A minute ago there were green leaves in the park, and now the trees were bare. She sat in a café and stared through the window. There were plenty of men braving the elements in skinny little thermaskin suits. Not one had the right walk: This one bounced and that one sauntered, but he was too self-conscious about it. She decided it was because they weren’t wearing swords and the right clothes, and wouldn’t know how to use a sword if they had one. She sent for martial arts instructors, props, and costumes. They tried the costumes on guys from the frat house floors. They used the focus group room and she sat with Larry behind the one-way mirror and they laughed until it hurt at how the guys paraded around.
To Col’s surprise, Todd had the best walk. She was right, a sword made a lot of difference. If she ignored Todd’s head, she could almost see Philip. So they did motion capture on Todd, and they brought in a swordmaster to tutor him. He moved slowly through the forms, and they sped it up afterward and it looked good, if not perfect.
It was never ever perfect and Col was never satisfied. By this time so many people were pitching in—it was all the rage at Incubus, the latest addictive fad—that she managed to irritate almost everyone in the company with her perfectionism, including the bosses. But she was forgiven for Philip’s sake. Watching him was their favorite pastime. They had him running constantly so he could accumulate experiences. They peopled his world with simulcra cruder than himself, mere personality profiles in costume, hastily reconfigured. An amazing amount of computational power, human and otherwise, was lavished on Col’s project. They were all in love with the idea of Philip de Graynfield.
Whereas Col was in love with Philip. They hadn’t even met, not in person. She was reluctant to show herself. He had dreamed her, he said, he kept saying. She could not possibly look like the person he had dreamed. But Philip pleaded with her. He demanded to see her. He began to collect occult books, which he locked away with his erotica. He performed a spell of summoning he found in a manuscript, trying to conjure her, and still she wouldn’t go to him.
• • • •
One day, Col went home, showered, and ate. She did laundry. Her apartment was grubby and unfamiliar. She didn’t dare look in the refrigerator. She’d have to hire someone to come in and throw everything out. Col weighed herself and discovered she had dropped thirteen pounds. Her wrists were bony and she was pale as a ghoul. She hated her apartment, and wanted leaded glass panes for her windows, a floor of tile, a carved clothes chest, a carpet from Persia, and a curtained bed. Philip’s room.
When she came back to work, Larry said, “My god, look at you!” She had put on her best shirt, of rose-colored velvet. She left the top two buttons unbuttoned. A November wind had put some color in her cheeks. Her hair was clean. She usually kept it cropped short, but it had grown down to her shoulders since she’d started Philip. Her hair was fine and flyaway and she tucked it behind her ears to keep it out of her face.
“To what do we owe the honor of you appearing to be human again?” Larry asked.
“I’ve been worried about you, Col.”
She looked at Larry, really looked at him, as she had not done for a long time, even though they sat facing each other. Sometime in the last five months he’d grown a Van Dyke goatee.
“I’m okay. Just working hard, you know?”
“You always work hard, you’re a boss’s wet dream, but I’ve never seen you this obsessed. Half the time you don’t even know I’m talking to you. I’d about given up trying.”
He was pissed at her and she was touched. “I love the beard with the shaved head.”
Larry flapped his hand, affecting a mannerism so out-of-date it was hip again. “Oh, hush. So when can I talk to him? I’m dying for a test drive.”
“Oh, hey, I know that. So get on with it, okay?”
• • • •
All day she had an amazing sense of anticipation, a pervasive awareness of her own body. She’d been neglectful of her body, using it like a car and forgetting to put in oil. Now she felt she inhabited herself all the way to her toes. She watched Philip walking. He changed directions at a whim, and the city unfurled around him, just enough of it rendered to make it real to him. He frequently walked all day and read all night. He didn’t need much sleep, no more than she did.
Today his feet took him to the banks of the Thames. The tide was out and the shore was littered with debris. Mudlarks, skinny children and old women, searched the flotsam for anything they could sell, bits of wood and rope, gnawed bones. Gulls flew overhead. If Philip had possessed a sense of smell, he would have found the river very rank, no doubt. Boys came up to him, begging, and he gave them his last coppers.
Back in his rooms above the tailor shop, he gave his muddy boots to his manservant Eustace for cleaning. He lived in the home of Sir Randolph of Twyckenham, a third cousin of greater means and lesser learning than Philip, who rented him three rooms on the courtyard, two just above the tailor shop and one, his bedroom, on the floor above that. All of Philip’s rooms had cabinets of books. Sir Randolph had a large noisy family and so did the tailor, who lived beside his shop. Between Philip, the tailor and his brood, the Twyckenhams, and assorted servants, there were twenty-two people in the house. Most of them had off-the-shelf personalities, customized by interns or frat boys in their spare time.
Philip’s rooms were cold, heated by a portable brazier. Eustace took the brazier up to the bedroom and lit the lamps, and went back downstairs to his scullery maid.
Larry went home and Col told him goodbye absently. The offices emptied. She watched as Philip read late into the night. He took out paper, a quill, and a jar of ink, and sat down at his writing desk. Paper was still expensive. He often used the pages of books that had disappointed him, writing missives in the margins, begging letters to his uncle: Please advance me money against the wool, against the barley harvest. She hated to think of his poor tenants. This time he wrote on a precious blank sheet:
To my dear Mistress Columbine
How did he expect to post that letter? She appeared in his mirror, but his back was to her, so he did not see. He was not vain enough of his appearance to require a mirror; he had purchased it for the conjuration.
She said, “Philip.”
As he turned and got to his feet, he overset the inkwell and the chair. He hastened to the mirror and touched its polished brass surface.
“Lady,” he said. “You show yourself at last.”
“Who am I?”
“Why—you are the faery, Mistress Columbine, none other.”
“Am I as you dreamed me?” She had not bothered to disguise herself, though it would have been easy to appear more beautiful. He saw her as the camera recorded her.
He smiled. “Better—oh, better!”
“Why do you call me a fairy?” His hand still rested on the mirror and she touched the tips of her fingers to his.
“I found you on the list. Is it true you are as fickle as you are fair?”
She wondered what list. She could not possibly read everything he read. “Am I fickle? I suppose.”
He looked down, his brows drawn together, and said, “I feared so.”
“You’re fickle, too,” Col said. It would not do for Philip to have only book learning. She had given him a history of indiscretions, and since he had been activated, they had sent plenty of women his way—even an early iteration of Gwen, as the mistress of one of his friends. An enemy now. A man was apt to collect enemies in the course of an active life.
Philip raised his mobile, skeptical eyebrows, and again he smiled. “Does it trouble you? It would give me great delight to make the faery Columbine jealous.”
He should be more frightened of her apparition, she thought. But she knew he had a reckless streak. She had given it to him, after all.
She disappeared from the mirror and jacked in, and she was outside his bedroom door in the dark, on a steep narrow stairway. The house was quiet except for a bawling baby somewhere upstairs. She knocked and heard his footsteps. He drew the bolt and opened the door, and she saw him truly disconcerted, but only for a moment. He seized her wrist and pulled her inside.
She had never been so nervous with a real man or an imaginary one. Her heart was slamming. He let go of her long enough to slide the bolt closed. He leaned against the door, breathing fast, just as she was.
“Look you, I have caught me a faery,” he said. “Is it true you cannot abide iron? I have iron bolts on my shutters and my door, and I will not let you leave.”
Col said, “I don’t wish to go, but when I do, you won’t be able to stop me.”
His hand encircled her wrist. He lifted her hand and kissed her just below her palm, where the blue vein throbbed. The sleeve of her velvet shirt slid down her forearm. His voice was muffled. “By god, you are flesh, you are flesh. I cannot believe it.”
She could feel the bristles on his face. Eustace shaved him every few days, when Philip remembered to ask. It was so real. She did not want to remind herself otherwise, and yet part of her was crowing: I am a genius!
He put her hand against his chest and she felt him breathe through the thin shirred linen of his shirt. An embroidered ribbon decorated the neckline. His red surcoat was open down the front, and his shirt hung loose over his hose.
With the hand that did not hold hers captive, he touched her hair. “It is short,” he said, marveling. “Is it the custom that a faery queen should look a boy?” His voice had grown hoarse, as if he found it hard to speak.
“I’m sorry you dislike it,” she said.
She regretted then that she hadn’t glamorized herself and appeared as an imago. He had seemed to enjoy abundant female flesh, like the bitch Gwen with her enhanced boobs—Guinevere, as he knew her. Col’s breasts were small and she had hardly any hips. Philip’s hair was longer than hers. No wonder she looked like a boy to him. She pulled her hand away and crossed the room. She stood by his writing desk and looked at the ink spilled over the paper, the chair he’d knocked down when he got up to go to the mirror.
“I never said so, Mistress Columbine.”
He should not be watching her with that glint of humor. How could he be so sure of himself, while she wondered if she lived up to his expectations, as if she were the imaginary one? He took three paces and he was next to Col. He bent down and picked up the chair, setting it on its clawed feet. He looked down at her. Her forehead came to his chin. She had not realized he would be so tall.
He swallowed. The smile was gone. He did not seem to know what to say and neither did Col. His eyes were amber, not brown, in the light of the lamps that hung from hooks on either side of the bed.
Col put her hand under his shirt so she could feel the muscled ridges of his belly above his hose. Philip closed his eyes and opened them again. He looked stricken, pallid even under his sun-browned skin, and she thought she had frightened or repulsed him. She took her hand away.
“No,” he said, reaching for her.
His bed was not a wide matrimonial bed, but a narrow one. The bedclothes were flung over a lumpy mattress stuffed with wool. Alicia was a marvel. She had figured out exactly how the codpiece was laced to his hose, with thin silk ribbons tipped with copper tags. Col tried to undo the laces. Philip was impatient. He yanked on the laces and freed his cock. Her knit pants had an elastic waistband and her shirt was easy to shuck off, and soon she was naked but he wasn’t, because his garments were too complicated. He crawled on top of her and she put her arms up under his shirt and felt the muscles in his back, how they slid over his bones, the perfect articulation of his body. He was heavier than an imaginary man should be, more solid, more present. His cock was between them, rubbing against her, and she put one hand down to guide him inside. Maybe that was more forward than he expected, because he drew back, propped up on his elbows. But no, it was just so he could drive into her, and when he did she felt him all the way to the back of her skull, and she moaned and stiffened.
“Jesu,” he said, arching his back, and he was blaspheming in a way she never could, even though she was saying, “God, God!” Philip was a man of his era and she was a woman of hers. He was a questioning believer and she was just a disbeliever, more from habit than conviction.
The mechanics of fucking were absurd, that didn’t change from one century to the next. Philip seemed to have forgotten all about the positions illustrated in the Kama Sutra, and Col wasn’t interested in anything fancy either, not at that moment. She was slippery inside and out, and he was damp and hot under his shirt, and before she knew it her head was hanging over the edge of the bed and she had to grab a bedpost to keep from sliding off. He gathered her up and turned so her head was toward the wall, and she braced herself against the headboard. Philip had one hand in the crook of her knee and the other under her buttocks, and he dug his fingers into her flesh as if to assure himself she was real. Col lifted her head and licked the notch at the base of his throat. He had a hairless chest because Col did not like hairy men, but she’d forgotten all about the fact that he was her creation, and she started saying things, embarrassing things like, “I’m yours. Philip. God. I’m yours.” He brought both of his hands up to touch her face and he kissed her and still she tried to murmur against his lips, and he was rocking, rocking, breathing hard into her mouth. He took her bottom lip between his teeth. Poor hooked fish, she was impaled, and he was inexorable.
Even after she came, he did not stop, and she let him do what he wanted, and what he seemed to want was both her legs over his shoulders so he could ram her hard enough to jar her teeth. And when he was as far inside her as he could possibly get, he came, too, and she was amazed at how she tightened around him and flooded with heat, after she had thought she was finished.
She put her legs down and he lay on top of her with his face in her hair. He was catching his breath, though she could hardly breathe for the weight of him.
“By God,” Philip said, “or by the devil—I care not—you are mine, Faery Columbine. I heard you avow it.”
• • • •
Col pulled out the leads and said, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Had someone been tampering with the program, the inputs? Her hamstrings were as sore as if her legs really had been up by her ears. Philip was not endowed much above average—she knew his measurements to the millimeter—but her cunt felt reamed out. Her back ached and she was trembling from exhaustion and soaked with sweat.
She checked and double-checked to see if one of the frat boys had played a practical joke, but everything was set to the original specs. It was just Philip. And she knew she had accomplished something extraordinary.
• • • •
Everybody at Incubus knew the next day that she had fucked him, because he kept asking the mirror and the air when she was coming back. She kept him waiting four days after the first time, telling herself that once or twice a week was it, no more. He jerked off in his bed at night. He didn’t go out and she knew he was waiting for her. He didn’t know she could find him wherever he was.
Philip left his rooms at last and went to a brothel. He picked a thin, flat-chested girl, who was probably no more than twelve or thirteen. She already had a ravaged face. While Philip pulled his shirt over his head, Col dismissed the whore he had chosen and put herself on the bed, in the whore’s dirty chemise. When he saw her, he fell to his knees and wept. He begged her forgiveness, though he did not know how he had offended her. His face was ugly when he cried and she loved him for it.
• • • •
Col’s boss Devlin asked for a release date. She stalled, but eventually she had to set one. She tried to wean herself, staying home two whole days—it had been months since she took a weekend off. At home, nothing but sleep could capture her attention. She slept thirty hours out of forty-eight, and the rest of the time she was bored.
When she dragged herself back in on Monday, Larry had a secret smile on his face. It bugged her so much she had to ask him what was going on.
“I tried your boy,” Larry said. “I like how he calls me Lawrence, Lawrence, like I was Lawrence of Arabia. He calls me his Moor. Isn’t that darling?”
“You bitch, Larry! How could you? He doesn’t even like men, he’s straight.”
“You could have fooled me,” Larry said.
“I didn’t say you could,” said Col.
“I know. You want him all to yourself. But he’s ready, he’s finished, he’s perfect. He’s the best there ever was. You can’t hang onto him any longer.”
Col was crying. She called Larry a bitch again and a few other choice things. She was furious and didn’t measure her words. But she was more than furious with Philip. She felt betrayed, and suddenly she was in a whole wide realm of jealousy she had never entered before. He could fuck all the virtual whores and madonnas he could find, but she did not want another human being to have him. Oh Christ, what was she going to do when she had to give him up?
Larry held out his arms and she came around the desk and sat in his lap, with the arms of the office chair poking her, and she soaked Larry’s shirt with her tears. She took gulping sobs and Larry rocked her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done it.”
• • • •
Col held out for days, and then she was out of time. She visited Philip in his bedroom. They quarreled amidst his piles of books. She had thought he would be contrite, but he wasn’t; he was defiant. She had made him too well, and he was as full of contradictions as a real lover. He swore that she was heartless, and he could not, would not bear it. He would take consolation wherever it could be found, and yet she had deprived his life of any savor but the taste of her.
“Fairies are heartless,” said Columbine. “Didn’t your book warn you of it?”
“I want my seven years!” he shouted. “The books all say faeries take men for seven years of servitude. Very well: I pledge myself to serve you, Faery Columbine. If I am bound to you, are you not bound to have me?”
He was not at all subservient when he said this. He glared down at her, close enough to touch her but not touching.
“I’m afraid we don’t have seven years,” she said. She hadn’t meant to weep.
He walked away, turned back, came closer. “Have we a year then? A month? A week?”
She kept shaking her head.
“Then how long? How long?”
He walked away from her again and when he came back, he said, “Then we must make the most of it.” He touched her face with his thumb and tasted her tears. “Faery tears also taste of salt,” he said in wonder.
“Kneel,” Col said.
He knelt and put his arms around her waist and pressed his forehead against her navel.
“Swear you’ll be mine for the night,” she said.
“I swear.” He looked up smiling, but the corners of his mouth had a bitter twist. He unzipped her jeans. She had taught Philip about zippers, as she had learned about laces. Still kneeling, he pulled her pants down and she stepped out of them. He embraced her, running his hands up her back under her t-shirt, until he reached her shoulder blades. “Where are your wings, Faery Columbine, mistress mine?”
“I never had any,” she said sadly.
“But you have nectar,” he said. He rubbed his hand between her legs and found the wetness. He brought a finger to his mouth and licked it. “’Tis sweet. ’Tis passing sweet and strange.”
And it was strange and pitiful that he had tasted her tears and the slickness of her cunt, though his sense of taste suffered for lack of a sense of smell. He did not know any better.
She undressed him, and when he tried to hurry, she commanded him to be patient, reminding him he had pledged to be hers. She asked if he had let Lawrence take him in the ass, and he said he had, and she pushed books off the bed onto the floor and made him lie face down on the wool-stuffed mattress. She straddled his buttocks, smooth and round, and she scraped her nipples over his back until he groaned and tried to turn over. “No you don’t,” she said in his ear, and nibbled at the lobe. He had beautiful small ears, just as she had specified.
In time, she let him turn on his back. She slid down on his cock, taking it into her slowly, and rising again slowly, and she was so languid, so controlled, that his eyelids lowered until they were almost closed, and he rolled his head from side to side. Then he put his hands on her waist and bucked under her. She said, “No, stay still. Let me.” She wanted to go faster, but she would not. She taunted him, and it was torment to them both, of the most exquisite kind.
She slept with him. She had never slept with him, with any of them before. When Col woke up, Philip was staring at her. A shutter was banging on its hinge and gray London light came through the round panes of the window that overlooked the courtyard. She lifted her head from his arm.
“I must go,” she said.
“Day breaks and yet you have not disappeared. Are you real, Faery Columbine?”
“I have to go.”
He tightened his grip, saying, “No!”
But she was gone.
• • • •
Col, watching the screen, saw Philip turn and hide his face against the bedclothes. She hit the button and her screen turned into a mirror.
Are you real, Fairy Columbine?
She was not real, not here. She was only real there.
• • • •
Giving up Philip was the hardest thing she ever did. It was much harder than giving up her job. She had done the best she was capable of doing and would never do it again. Management agreed to let her contract expire early. They gave her a bonus big enough to live on for a year. She had made their business respectable.
Larry tried to call her, but it was impossible to carry on a conversation with her. He told her the gossip. She seemed not to remember any of them, all those people she had worked with for years and years. She was vague and polite.
She didn’t care. She didn’t care if she starved, to tell the truth. Sometimes she thought she was going to settle the age-old question of whether it was possible to die of a broken heart. She still had her wry humor, but it was as useless as any other antidote.
• • • •
One night, she dreamed she was brushing her teeth and she saw Philip in her bathroom mirror. She leaned on the sink and laughed until she cried, the first laugh she’d had in a long time. He disappeared and her buzzer rang. And rang, though she tried to ignore it.
She hit the com button and saw him hammering on the front door of her building. “I found you!” he cried. “Now let me in!”
So she did. In the morning when she awoke, she was bereft all over again. The grief was as fresh as the day she had given him up, and she hoped she’d never dream of him again, if to dream was to be tormented. She did not get out of bed all day except to piss. She curled up and wailed.
That night she fell into a fitful sleep, and Philip returned, saying, “Why did you weep, dearest? Why do you weep? I found you and I will not let you go, not for seven years or forever.” He tried to kiss her tears away, but she could not stop crying. She cried herself to sleep in his arms—but how could she, when she was already asleep?
Surely she was asleep.
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