Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

Never having found a real woman with whom he could sustain a more than temporary connection, Ellery Pierce, a technician at a firm that made animatronic creatures for movie studios and theme parks, decided to fabricate one from scratch.

The artificial woman would naturally be able to perform every function, but sex was the least of what Pierce looked for in his made-to-order model. He had never had undue difficulty in finding live females to satisfy his erotic appetites. He was witty, considerate, and instinctively affectionate. Physically he was trim and fit, curly haired, clear-eyed; in his smile generosity and impudence were combined with a hint of reproach. The reproach was for the many women he had known who, having soon exhausted an early attraction, on longer acquaintance found him wanting.

For years he had made a sincere effort to determine the reason for this state of affairs and, if the fault proved his own, to seek a personal change. But the fact was that no matter how hard he tried, he could not honestly blame himself. Obviously he bore no responsibility for having been reared by a single mother who adored and spoiled her only child, a child who was therefore led to expect much the same treatment from the other examples of the female sex he would encounter after leaving the nest.

In which expectation he was proven wrong rather sooner than later. There were some women who immediately disliked or were indifferent to him, but they were easier to deal with than those who at the outset seemed to regard meeting him as at least a positive experience and sometimes even life-enhancing, to the degree that they might subsequently insist they were in love. In such cases he often responded in kind, and by the time he was thirty-three he had lived, respectively, with three such persons and had been married to two of them. Each of these associations had come to an unhappy end, and though he was first to admit to being imperfect, he believed his only major flaw was an inability to choose the right partner.

It took forever to dawn on him that, anyway in his case, there were no right ones. Eventually the most amiable would turn sarcastic, make aspersions on his tastes, oppose his opinions, disrespect his judgments, and in general be an adversary instead of an ally. No doubt some men did not mind that sort of thing or, more likely, felt they had no alternative to making the best of the situation, but Pierce was not of their company. He suspected the solution might well be not, so to speak, human but rather technological.

The materials by which artificial creatures could be made were available at his place of work, where one of the current projects was the construction of animatronic orangutans for a movie to be set in Borneo. Real animals would be used extensively in the picture, but however well trained, they were not altogether reliable in certain stunts involving actors. With their natural reluctance (though not, in apes, an inability) to distinguish make-believe from reality, live orangutans were, in the violent scenes, capable of mistaking the man who played the villain as the genuine article, maiming him if not worse. Pierce's special-effects company could produce imitation orangs so lifelike as to fool their living counterparts at as close as twenty paces, and who knows how far they might have gone had a female animatron been supplied with a sex organ sprayed with the scent from a real animal in heat?

The firm had less experience with the simulation of human beings. In the movies robots and of course "cyborgs" are depicted by actors made up to resemble automata, not the other way around. In theme-park exhibits the animated mannequins make only limited, prescribed movements, and their voices, if any, are those of amplified electronic sound systems. To fabricate a woman who could be put to all the uses of a real one, and fool everyone but her creator, Pierce had his work cut out for him. But he was a journeyman at the craft, and he was persistent once he had defined a result short of achieving which he could quit without forsaking his life.

The effort would have been demanding enough could he have pursued it openly and full-time -- the selection of synthetic skin alone took years -- but he had to continue in his regular job as well, if only to ensure access to the materials and equipment with which to fashion the artificial woman. In fact Pierce did better than that, so proficiently that in time he was appointed head of the research department, in which post he enjoyed many privileges and immunities helpful to his private project, coming and going as he wished, in all areas of the plant, at moments of his own choosing. The night watchman would never ask why he was there at three A.M., nor see what he was doing.

Pierce was in his mid-forties when, after many failures, diversions, and interim stages, he had at last produced a creature in whom he had sufficient confidence to introduce her to another human being. He chose the postman who delivered mail to the rural box at his weekend hideaway, to which he had begun to bring the artificial woman in disassembled form six months before. He had put her together there and conducted many private trial runs, some even outside, for he had no near neighbors and the house was at the end of a long lane on which a car could be heard as soon as it turned off the county road.

The mailman, in his right-hand-drive vehicle, would swoop onto the shoulder for only an instant in which to thrust a rolled newspaper into the box before accelerating away. Counting on him to serve as the perfect short-lived audience for the maiden event, Pierce led the woman down the dirt lane at the normal pace of a human being strolling on such a surface. After much work and many adjustments, her stride was at last flawless. While an ability to run at full speed had been relatively easy to develop and maintain, a simple walk was very difficult to accomplish, owing to the problem of equilibrium, a more complex process than one remembers, though every mortal eventually masters it as a child.

While they waited at roadside, Pierce made small talk with his creation, whose responses were activated by the sound of another voice. Phyllis could draw from a bank of several dozen programmed phrases, and she also had the capacity to learn new ones as she heard them. When he now said, "It's warm for March," and she answered, "Spring is early this year," he decided to provide her further with, "I saw some crocuses in the side yard."

The postman was a punctual fellow, his Jeep vaulting over the camelback a hundred yards to the east at 10:02. When he braked at the mailbox, Pierce said, "Good morning, Rollie. I don't think you've met my wife, Phyllis."

"Didn't even know you were married," said the man, teeth gleaming. He nodded. "Ma'am."

"This is Rollie, Phyl," said Pierce.

Phyllis smiled prettily. "I'm pleased to meet you, Rollie," said she. "I've heard so much about you."

The postman's brow showed a furrow. "You have?"

Pierce intruded, taking the extended newspaper. "We just got married last week, in town."

"I'll bet you will be real happy," Rollie said, nodding some more with his balding head and fat shoulders. He gunned the engine and sped away.

Phyllis's maiden appearance had been an unqualified success! Pierce was gratified. He yearned briefly for someone with whom to celebrate his triumph, but he had only Phyllis. He could never take a living person into his confidence on this matter, for doing so would nullify his purpose in building the robot -- a truth that first occurred to him only at that moment. He was stuck with Phyllis for good or ill, much as a mother is responsible for a child she has borne, with the difference that it would not be criminal for Pierce to neglect, discard, or even destroy the creature he had made, in any of which circumstances he would be guilty only of wasting much of his life.

"Well, Phyl, it's up to us," he said when, back in the house, he opened a bottle of champagne and poured them each a glass.

"Here's to us, Ellery," said she, and, as she had been programmed, lifted the flute to her delicate pink lips and quaffed from it. Her throat was a waterproofed tube that debouched into a collection chamber in the abdominal area. She was capable of eating real food, even masticating dense meats, all of which descended to the same chamber, which could be removed for emptying through swingaway buttocks, hinged inconspicuously.

"What do you think, Phyl? Are we ready to go to bed?"

She smiled, with a sensual glint in her hazel eyes, and breathily moaned, "God, how I want you, Ellery."

But every time she repeated that statement it sounded less provocative, perhaps because he had continued to drink more champagne and, unlike her, was affected by it.

"Maybe I should have you talk dirty," he told her when the bottle was almost empty and his disappointment had accumulated.

"I would like that." This was the stock phrase, applied to anything he said with a certain inflection. It was not appropriate here, sounding like mockery.

"Don't respond for a while, Phyllis. I'm trying to think, and I'm somewhat drunk. I haven't had any alcohol for a long time."

Displaying a sympathetic expression that was remarkably believable, she remained silent as ordered.

Pierce was suddenly almost overcome with an emotion that, consciously anyhow, was not simple self-admiration. "I've never known a woman who would not use such an opportunity to get the knife in -- I mean, if she herself was sober as you are. If she too was drunk -- well, usually they've been loud. I can't stand noisy women, Phyl. They haven't the voices for it. They tend to be screechy. I've given you a soft voice of the kind I like. Say something now."

"I'm really enjoying myself," said she and caressed him lightly on the wrist with velvety fingers, the tips of which were, as in humans, cool, but her palm was warm. After many trials he had arrived at a system that could maintain the right temperature through the circulation of warm oil, heated by a system that had its own dedicated source of power. The storage batteries that provided the other, motile functions would soon have been exhausted by this demand. Periodically warmed by a house-current plug-in, the oil in its insulated conduits would not cool for hours. Whether for all night remained to be determined; thus far Pierce had returned her to the home workshop when he went to bed.

But they had reached a new phase now. It was only around noon, but he was drunk and really for the first time felt sexually attracted to Phyllis in an immediate way, as opposed to the theoretical allure of the planning and construction stages. He had given her breasts of the shape and size he believed perfect, the nose and mouth and silken chestnut hair, the poreless skin, the smooth slender thighs, the curve from waist to hip, the elongated and very narrow shape of foot by which he had always been fascinated. Yet until this moment she had remained a machine, which was to say too flawless to pass as human. A case might well be made that sensuality was a contradiction of the perfect, perfection being complete in itself, needing nobody else.

What was different now was not Phyllis, who could not change, but rather Pierce himself. He swept her up in his arms -- at 108, well distributed, she was just the right weight to carry -- and bore her into the bedroom, lowered her to the bed, and, leaning, pressed his lips to hers, which triggered her to give him the tongue and put gentle but importunate fingers into his crotch.

He undressed her of the jeans and sweater in which she had met the mailman and tore away the sparkling white underwear with one hand while ripping off his own clothes with the other. Never had he known desire of this intensity, and his ardor was reflected in hers. She clasped and plucked and sighed, tossing her head violently on the pillow, moaning, "God, how I want you, Ellery."

But about to make entry, Pierce all at once deflated. What a foolish phrase! It was something a robot might be programmed to say. That it was said in an acceptable voice, and not a metallic, reverberative tone, suggested an intentional parody.

Driving back to town early Monday morning, a trip that for three-quarters of its duration was in bumper-tight traffic, Pierce had, as always, optimum time for reflection. He had made a mistake in taking Phyllis to bed before she had been properly furnished with the other attributes he sought in the perfect woman, those with which he had erroneously, sentimentally credited her when he was drunk. On the other hand, she should never be treated as a sex object -- for the sake of his self-respect, not hers; she was a machine.

At the moment, deprived of her integrity, Phyllis rode in a metal box in the rear of his Land Rover, disassembled into several large parts, a measure Pierce felt he should take lest an accident lead to her discovery.

His home in town was in a high-rise building, and transferring Phyllis from the basement garage to a tenth-floor apartment was a demanding exercise, but he had been doing it successfully and unobtrusively for years. Throughout the phases of her construction he had kept her in disparate parts throughout the week, in the locked crate, inside a walk-in bedroom closet, which was also locked against the possible intrusions of maintenance personnel or the weekly cleaning woman.

Now, as he wheeled the crate over the threshold, he made a bold decision. He liberated the head, thorax, and limbs from their imprisonment and assembled Phyllis right there on the living room rug. For the first time her nudity was embarrassing to him, though not of course to her.

"Have to put some clothes on you," he said. For some months he had been purchasing by noncompromising internet or mail a wardrobe appropriate to a woman of her apparent age, which he placed at, give or take, twenty-five. "Go on to the bedroom." She had taken only a step or two before he corrected himself. "Sorry, Phyl. You've never seen it, have you? It's at the end of that hallway. Why don't you go on ahead while I put this stuff away."

She had stopped and turned gracefully at the first word. "That would be nice."

He watched the movement of her exquisite behind as she left the room, but as sculptor, not lecher. He could not have done better there, though perhaps improvement might still be made in that transitional area between the back-of-the-knee and the developing swell of the calf. Her stride was a fluid marvel, justifying the grief it had caused him.

He left the carrying case and hand truck where they were and followed her to the bedroom. Having had no further instructions, Phyllis stood facing him in the middle of the room, at the foot of the bed. She was lovely, if he did say so himself, but not gorgeous in the way that would on first sight enflame men and infuriate other women. She was more sleek than voluptuous. Even so, were her breasts a bit too full?

He weighed them in his hands. They were at room temperature, the heating element not having been charged since the day before, and he felt no desire while manipulating them.

"I think they're just right, Phyl, at least for now."

"That's nice."

"Elaine told me she once had an orgasm when the doctor did this at her annual exam."

"Elaine was your first wife."

"The doctor was a woman."

"I see," said Phyllis.

Pierce let go of her breasts. "Elaine wasn't a Lesbian. She said that only to insult me."

"She," Phyllis said smugly, "was not nice."

"You," Pierce felt enormous satisfaction in telling her, "will never need to be examined by any kind of doctor. You can't get sick, and you can't die. You will never have a menstrual period....Don't say either 'That's nice' or 'I see.' Get something else from the bank."

She nodded smartly. "Bite me."

He whooped with laughter. "I forgot all about that one! I put it there as a joke. You're not supposed to say it to me, though."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be," he said unthinkingly, as if he were being considerate with a human being. "You haven't done anything wrong. Now I'm going to dress you and then go to work. No more locking you up in parts all week. That had begun to depress me, even if it had no effect on you."

Probably because of his negative reaction to her previous utterance, Phyllis remained silent, standing there naked at the foot of the bed, looking too much like a window dummy.

"Okay, Phyl, do something. It's too weird when you're like that."

"What do you want me to do, Ellery?"

"Try to dress yourself," said he. "Get your underwear from the top drawer of the bureau."

He was pleased to see she could put one leg into the briefs while balancing on the other. Not only were her limbs satin-smooth and would never need depilation or know scars, but they would stay in that condition. If the skin was damaged in any way, it could be repaired with an invisible patch.

"Let's try something, Phyl. There are a couple of boxes on the floor of the closet. Go through them yourself and pick out something to wear at home all day. I'm going to leave you here when I go to work."

In a few efficient moments she was wearing shorts striped in blue and a pink shirt and was shod in backless tan sandals, an appropriate outfit for the occasion and temperature, and though probably not what Pierce himself would have selected at this moment, altogether suitable. He was impressed by her ability to make a reasonable choice of this simple kind.

"You look very nice."

An immediate difference between Phyllis and a real woman was her utter lack of interest in his approval of her attire. She nodded politely and said, "Yes." With both his wives and all his girlfriends Pierce could by praising their taste in clothing sometimes win back at least some of the points he lost elsewhere. This was quite another thing than "How beautiful you are when you're mad," which tended to infuriate, whereas he was convinced there were times when a man might find an advantage in saying, "You're a selfish bitch but I have to admit you have an eye for fabrics." That this might sound gay could only help further.

His plans for Phyllis were founded on the wisdom of half a lifetime. "You should show modest pleasure when you are complimented. A thank-you and a smile will do it....See that leather box over there? Get the string of cultured pearls from inside and put them around your neck. I like an elegant touch with a simple outfit. Earrings wouldn't look right."

This was one of those times when speaking to her seemed no more than talking to himself, though her eyes were brightly fastened to his, her lips parted ever so slightly, her head tilted in the attitude of the intent listener. Nevertheless he went on. "Your skin is flawless. That might not be completely realistic but it's a personal taste of mine since I was a teenager and saw how the prettiest girls could be ruined by facial eruptions."

Phyllis stared toward the window on the far side of the bed. "Look at the sunshine. What a nice day."

He had lost her now, which was probably just as well. He did not need a collaborator on so personal a project, not even if it were his own creation. A Ferrari does not help tune its own engine.

When Pierce returned from work in the early evening, Phyllis was still seated in the basket-chair in which he had left her that morning. He would not kiss her hello, her lips having been without warmth all day. It would be unsafe to leave the heating system plugged in unless he were at hand. Though she might be instructed to pull the plug at the first sign of disfunction, placing complete trust in any machine would be at least as unwise as trusting any of his living women had proven. True responsibility was a rare virtue in life or laboratory. So, anyway, he believed it prudent to assume.

Phyllis was where he had left her, but she now wore the burgundy-colored silk dress he had added to her wardrobe after scanning upscale catalogues for images that appealed to him. She had become more beautiful than he designed her to be, indeed than he thought he wanted her to be until he saw her now. She had done something to her hair that was difficult to define, pulling some of it back and piling some high, and had subtly altered her natural coloring, presumably through makeup though he had provided none.

She sprang up, kissing him with warm, moist lips that were another happy surprise. She helped him remove his jacket, and she hung it in the doorside closet.

"You plugged in the heater yourself?" He asked about the least of her accomplishments because it was the easiest to understand. She had, after all, seen him do it.

Phyllis whirled away to the little bar in the corner near the passageway to the kitchen. "Tell me if I've got the lime juice right." She added ice from the bucket to a little china pitcher and swirled it vigorously.

"You're making gimlets?"

She brought one to him, holding her own aside until he tasted his.

"It's perfect," said he. "Not too cold, and just right with the gin, not vodka. I hate vodka." He savored a second sip, playing for time in which to decide how best to question her artificial intelligence without discouraging her, or it.

"So, Phyl, what kind of day did you have?" He sat down on the sofa and patted the cushion next to him. But she failed to get the message, or defied it, choosing a chair instead, in fact one on the other side of the plate-glass coffee table onto which she lowered her as yet untasted drink.

"I cleaned the apartment," said she. "When I saw I had done a good job, I called the woman whom you hire and discharged her."

"You what?"

"Yes, Ellery," said Phyllis, nodding. "She would be redundant."

Pierce felt a fearful premonition, brief as a momentary draft from a remote window, but moved aggressively to override it. "You take a lot on yourself, Phyllis."

"I'll call her back."

"No." He took the last swallow in the shallow glass. "That's okay. Let's see how it works out. Meanwhile I'll pay Celine anyway. She's a single mother and needs the money."

"She told me she was thinking of dropping you," Phyllis said. "Her schedule's too full."

"That's probably pride."

"I can't identify pride. Maybe I'm spelling it incorrectly."

"No," said Pierce, pleased to find just the right excuse to make a telling point. "You will never understand that concept. You are a machine, Phyllis. You can't have pride any more than you can feel pain."

"But I know what pain is, Ellery, even if I can't feel it. I am aware that you can feel it and that I am not to cause you any, even though I am stronger than you."

"You're dreaming." It occurred to Pierce to swap his empty glass for her full one, which it really made no sense for her to drink anyway. He was already getting the effect of the first gimlet. "You're not stronger than me. I can literally take you apart any time I want."

She appeared to be deliberating. "You're right, Ellery," she said finally, winking at him. "I wasn't serious. I was lying."

"No, you weren't, Phyl. Machines have no sense of irony and therefore never joke and never lie. You were simply trying to take power. Automobiles try that from time to time, with sticking accelerators, brakes that fail, and so on....If you don't want your drink, I'll take it."

"Of course, Ellery." She brought it around the coffee table to him.

"Sit down here, Phyllis." When she did so, primly keeping her knees together, Pierce praised the first gimlet and drank half the second, then distended his nostrils. "I smell food. Did you phone for that, too?"

"Yes." Her eyes looked as real as any could, though he had installed them with his own two hands helped by needlenosed pliers and tweezers, and they were attached within not to a brain but rather a compact computer, access to which was offered by a little trapdoor in her crown. "I dialed the numbers in your book: the liquor store, market, the drugstore."

Pierce had quickly finished the second drink. He stood up with authority. "I'd better eat before I get too drunk on my empty stomach. I passed up lunch. We were testing a new servo motor, smaller even than the ones in you, Phyl. About the size of a thumb, but not very durable."

"I want to hear all about your work, Ellery."

They went hand in hand to the dining area, where, before she detached herself to enter the kitchen, Pierce asked, "How did you pay for the stuff you had delivered?"

"I signed for it. I took the credit-card numbers off the receipts in your desk."

"What name did you use?"

"Phyllis Pierce."

He frowned and asked, as much of himself as of her, "Are you my wife?"

"That was how you introduced me to the mailman. Was I wrong?"

"No, that's fine." He was proud of the supple figure he had given her, as she stood in the doorway to the kitchen, looking gracefully back over a silk shoulder.

Seated at dinner, he asked, "Where in the world did you find a restaurant that makes pot roast?"

"Boeuf braisé," said Phyllis. "I followed the cookbook."

"What cookbook?"

"French Cuisine for Dummies, which I ordered from a bookstore that delivers."

"This is first-rate, Phyl," Pierce said, savoring the dark thick gravy's marriage with the buttery mashed potatoes.

"You can't lose with the best ingredients and care in their preparation." Phyllis had filled a plate for herself but had not tasted of it.

"Are you quoting from somebody?"

"I heard that on the Food Channel." She fingered the rim of her plate. "Would you like me to eat this?"

"I can't see the point in it. But you were right to fill the plate. It looks better that way."

"I could empty myself, Ellery. You wouldn't have to see it."

"Thanks all the same, Phyl. That system's for use only when we eat with other people." After the preprandial drinks and several glasses of a hearty pinot noir, Pierce no longer thought it odd to thank a robot for an offered courtesy and to make an apologetic explanation. Thus far, in all the ways that counted, Phyllis was an admirable surrogate for a woman. Indeed she did a better job at it than any real one with whom he had associated, except of course his mother, one of whose many culinary specialties had been pot roast -- and Phyllis's mashed potatoes were better. Her roasted baby carrots with thyme and frenched green beans with almonds were unique in his experience.

"I like to be with you, Ellery."

"I enjoy just the two of us, too -- uh, also." He did not want to confuse her in matters of language. "But I look forward to our having a social life. My wives sooner or later ruined that. One always drank too much and picked a quarrel, if not with me, then with other women. And I once caught a girlfriend of mine making out with some other guy in a pantry off a kitchen."

"Making out?"

"Kissing, fondling, necking."

"It shouldn't be done?"

"You should just dance with the guy that brung you."

"I don't understand that idiom."

"My fault, Phyl. It's folksy jargon, referring to fidelity." She was capable of adding to her memory bank anything she heard, but he suggested she disregard this one and resumed. "I'm going to invite some people to a dinner party here, Friday or Saturday night. We'll stay in town next weekend, barring any malfunctions. You're performing so well. Thus far I don't see any need for finer tuning. I want to go for broke. I've waited so long."

"I'm at your service, Ellery." Phyllis showed the smile that made so much of a pouty lower lip, which, not a professional sculptor, he had labored so hard to fashion.

Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Berger


Excerpted from Adventures of the Artificial Woman: A Novel by Thomas Berger
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.