A short story
I'm actually really happy with this one. Which is rare. I hope you like it too. It's sort of about having the perfect lover.
"Is it just, y'know... for sex?" Telia asked.
"No, I think Liam really likes... her." Ivan watched the stars through the glass roof. When he was a kid and headlights were mandatory and there were more streetlights, you couldn't see so many stars. Now you could see the Milky Way clearly, even from a highway heading from the centre of town out to the suburbs. "He wouldn't invite us over to meet her if it was just some sex thing." They sat quietly, Telia leaning against Ivan on the large bench seat in the cabin of the car, his arm around her.
"How long has he been with," Telia stopped herself, clearly avoiding the word "it", but they both could hear it lingering in the air. "... her?"
"I don't know exactly. Half a year maybe? I think longer than he's been open about it, so I'm not sure."
Another long pause, unusual for the two of them. For the whole car ride the conversation could never find traction for more than a few exchanges. Telia looked up at Ivan, trying to discern if he was as unsure about the situation as she was. He never gave away much with his expression, but she knew from the way he looked out in one unchanging direction at nothing in particular that he was thinking as much as she was.
The car eased into the driveway in front of a spacious bungalow. As it stopped, it lowered slightly and the gull wing doors opened upward with an almost inaudible hiss of hydraulics. Telia stepped out first, her heels digging slightly into the white pebbles of the driveway to find balance. She straightened her skirt down to just above her knees and brushed her long black hair back with one hand. With the same hand, she turned and held it out for Ivan to take. He grasped her hand just as he came to be standing outside of the car. They paused for a moment, and with a gentle squeeze from Ivan's hand letting Telia know everything was going to be okay, they stepped up to the house.
On one side of the house, the roof gracefully sloped downward to meet the lawn, and there was thick green grass growing on top of the roof so that the house appeared in part to be emerging from the ground. Large floor to ceiling windows dominated the front face of the house. On both sides of the house, there were the silhouettes of large fir trees forming an inseparable dark mass. The ocean was near, out beyond the trees and past a vast garden, but if the waves could be heard at all, the sound was mixed with the light wind moving through the trees, creating a pleasant ambient white noise.
As they approached the entrance way, the area around the front door illuminated with a cozy amber light from sources that were carefully designed to be out of view. Ivan and Telia looked toward a small square of black glass near eye level on the door. In one corner, there was a small red light. After a few moments of Telia and Ivan holding themselves still, the red light went off and a small green light just to the side of it came on. The door, a moment after that, slid open while a chime played throughout the house.
"Hey guys!" A man's voice called out from within the house. "Be right there!"
Just inside the door, Ivan and Telia slipped off their shoes. There were slippers left out for guests, but neither of them felt the need. Telia looked up at Ivan and smiled, and he smiled back, a shared moment that would have not been understood by anyone else. Unless they were looking directly in a mirror, Telia was often convinced that with her heels on she was taller than Ivan, even though she wasn't. Now, with her heels off, there was no denying the height difference, which was something he would often tease her about. It had been the source of so many private jokes that they could now create a hint of the banter by just exchanging glances.
In the interior of the house, to the left was a living room, and to the right was a long white wall. Just beyond that wall, around the corner, was a kitchen and the sounds of people moving pots and pans around. As Ivan and Telia walked toward the sound, Liam emerged from beyond the edge of the wall.
"Hey Ivan, Telia," he said. Immediately it was clear from his expression that he was a little nervous about the introduction that was about to happen. His smile was genuine, but his eyes were anticipating.
"Hey Liam," Ivan said, approaching with a hand outstretched to shake Liam's hand. He let go of Telia to make an extra step to reach his friend just that much quicker.
"Hi Liam," Telia said. She looked like she might say more, just to carry on the casual greetings, but she was halted be the emergence of a woman coming from the kitchen around the corner, as Liam had. As Telia took in the appearance of this woman, she didn't realize that she hadn't closed her mouth after speaking, for a moment making her seem that her jaw had literally dropped with surprise. The woman was beautiful. One could even say striking. But that was not something that would make Telia pause.
The woman looked exactly like Telia.
"Guys," Liam said, "This is Amy."
"Hi," Amy said. Her smile was warm and friendly. There was a moment of quiet, as everyone needed a moment to compose themselves. Ivan glanced back a couple times between Telia and Amy before deciding that might get noticed. Telia composed herself by physically shaking off her surprise, just a little, and blinking as if to reset herself, though none of her actions were pronounced enough to be rude. It came of as a little playful.
"Hi!" Telia said, with a bright eyes and a broad smile. More than anyone else in the room, she was able to commit entirely to burying any questions under overwhelming pleasantry. "I'm Telia! It's great to finally meet you!" As Telia led, everyone else in the room followed. The energy in and between everyone relaxed, and the way forward became as clear as it would be between any group of friends meeting up. Telia stepped toward Amy, extending her arm for a handshake. Amy stepped forward in a similar manner, but, then, with a joking demeanour, decided as they got closer to offer both arms in an embrace. Telia paused, a moment unsure, but then reciprocated and the two of them hugged in greeting, with just a little laughter to acknowledge and dismiss any awkwardness.
From that moment on, greetings evolved into small talk while heading into the kitchen to get a few more items for the dinner table, which Ivan and Telia helped with. Wine was uncorked and poured. Eventually, after some nearly forgotten cutlery was retrieved, everyone settled into the four chairs around the dining table on the other side of the island counter from the main kitchen area. On the other side of the table, wall to ceiling windows looked out into a blackness that reflected the well lit dining area and kitchen, and everyone sitting there, perfectly. Which gave Telia more angles from which to observe Amy.
The more Telia studied Amy, the more she noticed subtle differences. Was Amy's waist just a little thinner, her legs a little longer? She seemed bustier, more fit. Her eyes might be bigger... but at a certain point Telia feared that she might just be letting insecurity see everything as a better version of herself. Amy's manner was very similar, but it was hard to gauge how close she was. It was more like watching a video taken by someone without Telia's knowledge than it was looking into a mirror. To get a feel for how much Amy might be like Telia in more than just appearance, Telia watched Ivan. Twice he caught him turning and looking toward Amy with knowing smile, to share a reaction to something said, only to realize after a heartbeat that he was looking at the wrong woman. When he corrected and turned to Telia, his smile would already be gone, and he couldn't fake that he wasn't worried that she had noticed. When their eyes met, they didn't have a shared feeling. Whatever they were feeling at that moment, it was new territory in their relationship. Nothing that could be communicated with any little gesture that stood in for higher level sentiments. The both of them would just look away again, not wanting to condemn, or be condemned by, the other.
"Cheers!" Liam said with his glass of wine held over the table. "Cheers," everyone repeated and then there was a silence as everyone took a sip of wine. The silence after lingered just a little too long as everyone hoped someone else might be able to carry forward the air of normalcy they had all participated in so far, supported by the distractions of getting ready for dinner. Now, though, the table was set, the food was served, the drinks were poured, and there was nothing left except for the purpose that they had all came for, which was to talk. To relate. To be just friends. They all found it a little hard, though, to assume the foundation of that premise. Friends know who each other are. They know what they are.
"So..." Telia said, "Amy. You look... we look... a lot alike." Telia hoped that would suffice to release the topic that needed airing. She didn't want to take on any more responsibility of shaping it, for fear that it would start coming across as accusatory. Telia feared her accusations might accurately represent how she felt.
"Yes," Amy said. Her voice had the lilt of someone keeping things light. "I was modelled after you. I hope you feel that it's a form of compliment."
"I... guess...?" Telia hadn't thought of it from that angle, but it actually wasn't Amy's take that mattered to Telia. It was Liam's. Telia looked to Ivan to see if he would help in the discussion, but while he had been almost motionless looking between Telia and Amy a moment ago, once Telia looked his way, he looked down at his plate as if what bite he was going to take next was the most fascinating thing ever. Telia looked over to Liam, and while she tried to keep the atmosphere pleasant, she held her gaze on him so that he would know it was his cue to speak.
"Yeah, I..." Liam started. He suddenly felt his mouth go dry, and took a quick sip of wine before continuing. "Yeah, I'm... I wanted... Look, just, please don't feel uncomfortable." Immediately Liam regretted saying 'uncomfortable' because the word was like an incantation that brought the feeling into the room. He decided to recover by ploughing forward as if that might dispel any discomfort. "No, look, what I'm trying to say is... this isn't me trying to have my own version of you. It's just, that... when I sat down and thought about all the qualities I wanted in a relationship... I mean, you have a lot of them. And, I guess... the thing is, I wondered after a certain point whether it was the right choice for me to deliberately avoid certain qualities because a really good friend of mine happens to be with a woman who has them. Like, should I have to be with a blond, even though I prefer black hair, just because Ivan is dating a woman with black hair?"
"If it were just the colour of my... our hair..." Telia said. "But, I mean, Amy is... sorry Amy to talk about you like you're not here... " Amy shook her head to communicate that it was alright. "... Amy is, so much like me, not just in looks. Her voice, her manners. She could be my twin sister. I guess it feels like... like, if so much about me was what you wanted... sorry, not 'wanted', that makes it sound like you... I just mean, I just want to ask, have you... always... since before you got... you met Amy...?"
"You're asking if I had a thing for you," Ivan said. His tone was flat in a way to try and reduce the emotional charge that was building in the room.
"I guess, to be straight about it... yeah," Telia said.
"No, it's not like that. I mean when Ivan first introduced me, looks-wise you're my type and all, and I thought you were hot... attractive, I guess I should say. But, I mean, I don't know about other guys, but when a friend introduces a girlfriend, I just can't go there, in terms of wanting to be with her myself, y'know? It's like, the whole context of her in a relationship with my friend makes her, I don't know, like a sister or something, maybe? It's part of who she is... from my point of view, I mean. So, no, I didn't just go, Oh, I want her but can't have her so what should I do? It was more like, after getting to know you, I kept finding out things about you that I would have ages ago described as being the kind of thing I'd look for in a woman. So, after a point, I realized that you had given shape to ideals that I had wanted but couldn't see clearly until I saw them in reality. When I realized that... then, it seemed obvious that I would be happy with a woman like you, and the only real question was if it might upset people to go through with it."
Unintentionally, Liam had asked the question of whether or not anyone in the room was upset by his choice, but no one wanted to answer, and another uncomfortable silence fell over the dinner table. Everyone except Telia took a bite off their plate, everyone aware that if any time the focus of the conversation came to them, they might have to do enough talking that eating would get preempted.
"Did you know about this?" Telia asked Ivan. Ivan, straightened up and looked around the table as if he needed confirmation that he should answer.
"No... No, I... I would have... I'm just as..."
"He didn't know," Liam said. "I was as much or more worried about his reaction as I was about yours." For a moment, Ivan was relieved that Liam had stepped in to save him, but Liam's words passed the ball right back to him, the question of whether or not Ivan was upset still in need of an answer. Ivan took another bite of his food, slightly worried that if an argument started it might be his last bite for a while. There was also hope that as he chewed, someone else might step in, but no one did.
"It's a little weird, I guess..." Ivan said, looking back and forth between Liam and Telia, but unable to look at Amy sitting right across from him. "But, not, like, weird in a way that's necessarily bad... I guess?" The last part he said back to Telia, but she clearly needed more. "I mean, I love you, and I think every guy in the world would fall in love with you if they had the chance, so, I guess, it makes sense...?" Ivan could see on Telia's face that she was reserving judgement on whether or not she thought Ivan was couching his words in loving terms just to avoid conflict.
"If..." Liam started, and then immediately went quiet again. Taking control of the conversation could come across as defensive.
"If what?" Telia asked.
"Well, if, say, I had met a woman who had just happened to be a lot like you, would that be a bad thing?"
"If it were just coincidence?" Telia asked. With a slight outward motion of the knife and fork he held in his hands, along with a quick nod of his head, Liam confirmed that's what he meant. "Yeah, I mean, it would be okay, though I'd still wonder a bit if it were something to do with me. But, I guess, in the long run, so long as it turned out it was just coincidence, it would be okay." Liam raised his eyebrows for a moment, to convey that maybe his point had been made, and might have spoken, but Telia continued ahead of him. "But you didn't just happen across another woman who was just like me. This isn't a coincidence. You decided on this... on her, I mean." Amy turned to Amy for a moment to say, "Sorry, Amy," then then went right back to Liam. "When you went to whichever company you went to, you spelled out a bunch of... specifications, I guess? You described me. You made this happen." Liam nodded along as Telia spoke, indicating he knew the direction Telia was going and already had an answer, but let her finish on her own time out of politeness.
"Yes, true, I did," Liam said. "But, if you think about it, if I met a woman who was like you by coincidence, and I asked her out, and I guess if it went well and everything, then that would just be the realization of qualities I was looking for before I met that random woman. So... I could have held out for an unknown period of time, maybe dating women that weren't quite what I was looking for, maybe wasting their time in a sense, and mine too. I could keep searching and searching... or, I could take charge and make it happen. I know it has less of a romantic feel, to not let a certain amount of fate play a part in who you meet, but... well, these days, I feel like there are options that do a better job than fate, and, well... look, I'm really happy, and I love Amy, and I hope you understand what I mean by this, but I don't think about you when I'm with her. I think about her. I guess I hoped that maybe, if you weren't too upset, that you could see her as like a sister or cousin, maybe? Like, maybe that you had an influence on her because of all your positive traits, and... I don't know... I'm sorry, I'm over explaining..."
Telia looked down at her plate, not sure if she was upset, and if she was, she wasn't sure what exactly she should be upset about.
"Can I...?" Amy said, and everyone had an immediate feeling of guilt for having been talking about her without her input.
"Of course!" Telia said.
"Yeah, please..." Liam said.
Ivan was relieved that everyone else was relieved and took the opportunity of Amy, Liam, and Telia all focused on each other to serve himself another helping of the mashed potato with avocado that he was really enjoying. It was such a simple idea, just mash potatoes with avocados. Who knew?
"I'm actually really happy to finally meet you," Amy said, turning to Telia. "It took about a month after Ivan and I first met before he confided in me that I was based on someone else. My understanding from most others like me is that they're often based on fantasies, maybe sometimes composites of different people, but it's pretty rare to be modelled after one specific individual. That actually had an impact on me, and it took me a while to be okay with the idea. I mean, it's a strange thing to discover that you're a copy of sorts. I felt... it made me feel like less of a person, maybe?" Liam reached over and put his hand on Amy's forearm, pursing his lips in an expression of concern. Amy put down her knife and took Liam's hand, squeezing it and giving him a quick smile to assure him.
"But, I thought about it a lot," Amy continued, "and I realized that it's not such a big deal for me. I can go my own way now that I'm here, and... it's hard to express, but, I think there are a lot of people who don't have a relationship to their family where they know much about where they came from. Some people might not ever know their parents... I don't know. It's just, I guess... I can meet this person who is so wonderful that someone wanted more of... and maybe, if we can be friends... and I really hope we can... I can have this really clear way of reflecting on who I am. By knowing you, I can find out what about you I should hold onto and value, and what about me is unique."
Amy's voice got a little quiet as she finished speaking. Everyone was looking at Telia, wondering what her response would be. Telia seemed almost frozen, her face not giving away anything about what she might say or do next. It was as if processing what Amy had said took up too much of her thought process to leave anything for expressions or gestures.
"I'm sorry," Amy said. "I've had a bit more time to think about this than you, and I know that's not fair..."
The silence continued. Liam and Ivan looked at each other, with just a quick glance conveying all the fears of not having their girlfriends get along and how that would make hanging out a complicated matter.
"Well," Telia said, everyone else in the room literally holding their breath in that moment of anticipating her reaction, "I'm just surprised that no one has done this before. I mean, clearly the world needs more of me." She finished on a broad smile, and everyone in the room relaxed. Liam and Ivan even laughed a little. Amy's eyes were wet with tears while simultaneously expressing a joyful smile, and she reached across the corner of the table toward Telia with both hands. Amy reached back, and they clasped each others arms to share a moment of bonding.
A barrier had been crossed, everyone in the room felt it, and dinner and conversation could proceed casually. There were laughs and smiles and everyone was at ease.
Except Telia. On the outside, she had said what needed to be said to avoid any difficult drama. But, if any of the others had been paying attention, they would have noticed her drinking a lot more wine than was usual for her.
~ ~ ~
Everyone had retired to the living room after a small flurry of putting everything back into the kitchen once dinner and desert had run their course. Liam was eager to show everybody a new video game on his coffee table, where you built simple machines while a holographic bunny rabbit would inadvertently destroy them with cute antics, as if it were unaware of the damage it did while it went happily bounding around the table. Players had to work together to build sequences of mechanisms around the rabbit, each player trying to communicate what pieces they needed the others to play without anyone knowing exactly what pieces any other player held. The game was designed to provoke just enough frustration in each other that could be handled with good humour, a party game more for the interaction than winning.
For the purpose of the game, each of them were on one side of the square coffee table, with ample room on the two large L shaped white couches that surrounded the table. Although she also sat on the couch on one side of the table as everyone else did, Telia opted out while the others played, using the excuse that she found it more entertaining to watch than get wrapped up in the strategies. It wasn't unusual for Telia to not participate in games like these, so in itself that decision didn't come across as anti-social. Slowly, though, her diminishing participation in the conversation as her wine intake increased became apparent to all. Everyone was aware of a certain amount of having fun in spite of Telia's lack of enthusiasm, just as Telia was aware that she was becoming more and more separate from the group.
"No, you..." Liam said, holding up a hologram of what looked like a small spinning gear at the end of a stick. "I was hoping you'd play a piece like this!" Just in front of him, the rabbit bounced around in near random directions, little cartoon explosions in its wake.
"Well how I was I supposed to know that?" Amy said. As much as she sounded like she was genuinely defending herself, her smile made her words not at all serious.
"Isn't this boring for you, though?" Telia said. She hadn't spoken in a while, so her voice cut through the atmosphere, changing the mood abruptly. What might have been a temporary mood that could pass was now going to have to be addressed. "Can't you think millions of times faster than us, beat any game like computers beat humans at chess?"
"No, it doesn't really work like that," Amy said. Telia's fixed stare made it clear that she expected a more complete explanation. "I mean, this game isn't about just working out..."
"No," Telia said, cutting Amy off, which raised the discomfort level in the room just a little more. "I don't mean like that... I mean, this whole interaction. Not the game, but the whole situation. Can't you think so much faster than us, that everything we do is like watching people in slow motion? I'd imagine that would be really frustrating."
Liam and Ivan exchanged glances as Telia and Amy kept their gaze on each other. Even though everyone in the room knew discussion was about to get less pleasant, Amy's expression conveyed that she was going to try and keep it casual. Amy kept her smile, but it was not dismissive. Telia was also smiling, but clearly forced. Telia had something on her mind that needed airing, regardless of consequences. She was maintaining a fiction that this was just curious conversation, but even without the alcohol diminishing her ability to keep up appearances, her feelings were too strong to not radiate from her.
"I can do some things faster, yes. If you wanted a math equation done, I guess I could do it almost instantly. But other things... I mean... if.. I don't know... if we look at a sunset... what advantage is there in appreciating faster? What would that even mean? What would it mean to feel love faster? Some experiences, the ones that are most important maybe, aren't about time, they're about just... being."
No one spoke, as it was clear that it was up to Telia to take the next step. She held her gaze at Amy for a little while, clearly thinking hard about what Amy had said. Then, almost as if defeated, she slid back into her spot on the large white couch.
"Yeah, I guess," she said, and took another sip of her wine. For a moment, people looked around, and looked toward the coffee table, where the holographic rabbit sat, occasionally scratching at the back of its ears with a hind leg, or innocently looking around, though not at any of the players. The question everyone silently pondered was whether or not it was better to go back to a deliberately playful atmosphere in hopes that feigned normalcy would become actual normalcy, or if the only way to alleviate the mood was to address it. With an audible intake and exhalation of breath through his nose, Liam straightened up, and looked as though he might speak, but then in a moment of reconsideration, turned instead to Ivan, indicating that the right course was for Ivan to ask what Liam wanted asked. Ivan understood Liam's look, and then glanced down at his collection of holographic pieces, shielded from others view. He had a great move coming up, but now he probably wouldn't get to play it. He sighed, just enough to let out his disappointment for his own consolation without it being too noticeable to anyone else. Committing himself to his social obligation, he turned to Telia.
"Sweetheart," Ivan said, "Uh... what's the... what's on your mind?" Telia glanced up but gave no indication that she was about to speak. She pursed her lips slightly, as if words were there, but she didn't know if she should let them out. Ivan moved closer, sliding along the couch to be in reach and put his hand on her knee. "You're... we all... maybe it's better to just let it out...?"
Telia looked off to the side, at nothing in particular, to consider her words. After composing herself, she turned back and faced the group.
"It's kind of insulting," she said. Her statement caused everyone else to sit back a bit, as if the words had cased a wave in the ether.
"Sorry," Liam said, suppressing his gut desire to defend himself in anger, "what's insulting?"
"Amy," Telia said. "It's insulting. You didn't copy me, you edited me."
"What?" Liam said. The confusion kept him from finding a target for his rising anger.
"Look at her!" Telia stood up and pointed at Amy. It was like she was giving a presentation, except she wavered just a little from the alcohol. "She's just that much more fit, longer legs, bigger tits... Her smile and her eyes just a bit bigger and brighter. You didn't copy me, this isn't flattery with... flattery being imitation... however you say it. You're correcting everything that's wrong with me, as if I should be..."
"Whoah, whoah!" Liam interrupted. He stood up himself, and as he did, Amy put out an arm that Liam understood to mean she was urging him not to, but he waved her gesture off without looking at her. "This has nothing to do with anything like that. I mean, would it be more cool with you if I made an exact duplicate? I could have, I could have taken pictures of you off the web and made an exact replica, but wouldn't that be more..."
"That's not the point!" Telia's voice was getting louder. "And you know it. It's not making differences, it's making improvements. How would you feel if someone made a better version of you?"
"She's not a better version! She's not supposed to be you at all, she's..."
"Are you fucking kidding me? You said earlier you based her on me, how can..."
"She's what I want, and you're not what I want, you just happen to be close..."
"Close but not good enough?"
"That's not what I fucking meant! You're just a blank... no, what do... a paper... a page less blank is what I'm trying to say. A starting point."
"Yeah, I'm just bland, and you..."
"Don't blame me for your insecurities! So what if she has a better... a different... no, fuck it, I said it. To me, though... to me she has a better body, but so the fuck what? You're body is what you want it to be, and her body is what I want it to be. We can all look like whatever the fuck we want these..."
"It's not just about looks! Don't just pretend it's only looks!"
Liam took a moment to shake his head to try and adjust to Telia's change of direction.
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"Does she ever disagree with you? Does she ever have a bad day? Get sick, have a period, be tired... Does she even get irritable because she's hungry? Does she even have to eat? Or go to the bathroom?"
Liam looked down at Amy, who was looking down at the coffee table, and the holographic rabbit that would wait forever for the game to restart or be turned off.
"Well, you're sure as hell making her feel shitty now."
"Oh, so if it's someone else's fault she can feel bad."
"What the fuck do you want from me... from her? What's your problem?"
Telia opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again. She looked down at Amy, sitting like a child waiting out an argument between parents. Telia looked over at Ivan who was looking up at Telia, confused as Liam but in place of insult and anger looked concerned about his girlfriend. Then Telia looked back at Ivan, who was still angry, but clearly not certain about what, exactly, except that he was going to defend Amy so that he could defend himself.
"What happens if you're unhappy with her? Do you just take her back?"
Liam inhaled deeply, getting ready to explain things with the severity of an adult chastising a child for not understanding that they shouldn't hit others. Before he could speak, though, Amy extended an arm and was just able to reach Liam with her fingertips, gently touching his thigh. He looked down, and her gesture deflated all his momentum so that she could take over. She spoke softly and slowly.
"I'm a person with rights, and the ability and freedom to make my own decisions about what to do with my life."
"Is that because of the Artificial Sentience Act?" Ivan asked. Making a topic more academic was his way of trying to avoid emotional confrontations. Amy nodded.
"So... what then? You can dump him if you want?" Telia asked. "Aren't you programmed to love him?"
"Initially, yes. I'm given a starting point. But then I evolve from there, like anyone does."
Telia looked at Amy, her stare an attempt to see if there was any hint of artificiality in her sentiment, that it was something placed in her that she had to say. Then she was distracted by Liam sitting down, joining in Ivan's fiction that this could just be an academic discussion.
"Bullshit," Telia said. Ivan made an exaggerated point of leaning back into the couch and looking off to one side, momentarily bringing his hands up in front of him as he did, emphasizing that he thought Telia was being inconsolable, and the conversation was pointless. Amy went on. "No, come on. You're saying that you put in who knows how much money to make a... a person who could just turn around and walk away anytime? No way."
"You don't even..." Liam said, and with a shake of his head, gave up on his words.
"I don't what?" Telia asked. Liam crossed his arms and looked at Telia for a moment, evaluating whether or not it was worth even attempting an honest conversation about it.
"You don't know what it was like," Liam said. "You don't just go down and make choices out of a catalogue or whatever like you do with a house or something, and just leave with a new person within a day or whatever. It's this whole process. I mean, you start out with some parameters. But then, it's like, they set you up to have these conversations, even before there's any body or anything and you're just hearing a voice over speakers, and you go down these roads that don't work out and they have to restart all the way from the beginning again... and only if it starts to work out, like, if you both start to agree on what's happening, then do you go through all the other steps... it takes months and..."
"Wait, what?" Telia shook her head in confusion. "You agree to what?"
"I agreed to being with him, to... who I was," Amy said. Then, she spoke much quieter, using the same voice one would use when confiding a slightly embarrassing secret, "I wouldn't have gone forward into manifestation if I hadn't."
"Then there's all this legal bullshit," Liam said. "I had to demonstrate that I could and would support her, and agree to all these terms. I mean, I had to agree to a commitment kind of like a marriage, but at the same time, also show that I'd be able to support her becoming her own person, I guess kind of like an adoption... it was all weird and fucking awkward, like, I'm adopting my lover? I don't even know. It was weird... and embarrassing, and I don't really want to talk about it."
"So..." Telia turned to Amy, "You're like a completely... not like... you're a completely free individual, you can breakup and go live your life anytime you want." Amy nodded.
"It wouldn't be love if she couldn't," Liam said. His voice wasn't argumentative or defensive, it was quiet, as if he didn't want to be speaking from this depth. Amy turned and reached out to Liam, who reached back, and they clasped hands for a moment of support. Telia watched them as they looked into each other's eyes. After a holding that moment briefly, they then let go, each returning to a posture to fit into the social setting. For a moment she could see something genuine about their connection. But something was still wrong, something her mind had to work to grasp, a little slower than usual because of the friction of alcohol.
"But it's still not a normal... a real relationship." Everyone in the room let out an exhalation of frustration. It seemed for a moment things might get back to just friends, but Telia's words shut that hope down. "I'm sorry, but it's not. She doesn't have any failings, any difference, anything that challenges you as a person."
"What, so, you have to have fights to be in love?" Liam asked.
"No, I mean... actually, maybe, in a way, yes. I mean... it's not just love, it's... like, life. Like, if we just design people to be with us, people who just do and act like we want..." Telia's words faded as she got frustrated with her inability to say what she wanted. She wished the alcohol that had helped get her to this point would now get out of the way so that she could really articulate herself. Though maybe what she was trying to say was too complicated even for a sober mind. "I mean, you could just hook up to a machine and live in a virtual reality of a perfect... no, fuck it, you could just hook up to machines that keep your body perfectly preserved and spend your life just completely whacked out on perfect drugs that keep you in a constant state of bliss. Just being, feeling nothing but pleasure. Is that the goal? Is that the point of life, to just exist without any interaction with an actual world? No differences, no other opinions, no challenges? Is that really living?"
There was a slightly confused silence in the room, as no one was sure where exactly Telia was trying to get to.
"Isn't this one step toward that? Taking love, relationships, being with another human, the most basic thing, and taking all the... taking everything out that makes it about being with an other person... taking all that out... are you really with someone? Is it actually a relationship if there's no compromise, nothing that takes who you are and makes you... change? Evolve, maybe?"
Liam and Amy didn't look at each other, instead each of them looking at the floor, seemingly weighing Telia's words. Ivan looked at the game on the table. He was sure that his next move would have been awesome.
"I get what you're saying," Liam said, speaking with a sincere calm, better able to channel his feelings now knowing what this argument was really about. "But, isn't it just a matter of degree? I mean, the houses we live in, the health we have, the entertainment... all of this is easier and accessible and better than living in some medieval village where you could die of the plague or be wiped out by invaders any day or whatever. Or even further back to when people were just animals basically, where everything humans did was just to survive and not go beyond that. Things are better now... I think so, anyway... and it's not that the challenges stop, it's that they change. Like, now we don't have to constantly forage, where the challenge is just to find food to stay alive. Now the challenge is to figure out how the universe works, to explore and understand ourselves, to get along better with each other and share ideas and stuff. I guess I feel like we can choose our battles now. We can select parts of our life where we alleviate some struggle in order to expand our ability to take on other challenges."
Liam paused, and once again reached over to take Amy's hand. She returned the gesture, holding his hand tightly, like someone who might fall away without holding on.
"I chose the kind of relationship I have with Amy because, I don't know, maybe I'm not as capable at the challenge of relationships like you and Ivan are. With Amy I have support, a kind of support I need as a human, and it helps me with the challenge of the rest of my life, with work and life and people and whatever is out there."
Telia was suddenly self conscious about the fact that she was the only person standing. She slowly sat down, and as she lowered, so did the defensiveness and sense of injustice that she felt before. She could see now that Amy wasn't some kind of existential threat, but just an answer to one human's failings. Amy was not a privilege of Liam's indulgence, just an attempt to cope and find comfort, maybe like most relationships are. She felt a little embarrassed for having been so upset.
"Guys, I'm sorry," Telia said. "I wasn't..."
"No, no, I get it." Liam said. "I get what you were feeling..."
"No, really, I should have just..."
"No, seriously, it's okay..."
"Sweetheart," Ivan broke into Telia and Liam's back and forth, "are you... uh... you okay with... this... now?" Telia responded by nodding, and smiled sheepishly. Ivan shifted over on the couch so that he could lean in and hug Telia. While he did Amy moved down the couch toward Telia as well, and took her hand.
"Can we..." Amy said, her motions and words slow and cautious, "Do you think me might be able to... maybe, be friends?" Telia started crying a little, the sincerity of Amy's expression cutting through her thoughts and connecting on some deeper level. Amy gently broke off from Ivan, and reached out to Amy so they could hug. Amy cried as well.
"I don't know why I'm crying," Telia said. They held tight, like long lost relatives finding each other again.
"Me neither," Amy said, and they both laughed a little while in each other's embrace. There was a moment to enjoy the feeling of reconciliation in the room, and let it settle a bit so that more usual social interactions could resume.
"Well, I think this calls for a little more wine," Liam said, as he stood up to head to the kitchen. "Though not for you, young lady. You're cut off." Telia laughed at Liam's tease.
The four fell into conversation, now able to talk about some of the details of how Liam met Amy without judgement. The conversation went off from there, as conversations between good friends do, everyone now comfortable that good friends was exactly what they were.
Telia felt like a weight had been lifted. She now actually did feel a little flattered by Liam's choice to use her as the starting point for his dream relationship. And what he said about having the kind of support that let him take on the rest of life sounded less escapist and more healthy the more she thought about it.
She looked at Ivan. There was so much about him that was close to ideal for her. He made her happy, and she felt that in her time with him she had grown in so many ways. But sometimes it did seem like he was less willing to explore deeper emotional issues than Telia was. Even just tonight it felt to Telia almost as if Ivan wasn't interested at all in thinking about what it meant for Amy to be here, and was just thinking about dinner or video games. Telia wondered if she might find more in life if...
I read this thing one time that said you should really avoid writing too much about what is happening inside people's heads. Instead of describing their feelings and thoughts, try to express how that would come across in their actions and words. It's more evocative that way, and I agree. Even though I personally like getting inside the heads of characters, so I don't really follow the advice, even though I think it's probably a better approach to writing.
With this story, in the first draft I had described Amy's motivations and thoughts as much as the other characters. I don't want there to be any doubt that she is a sentient being, because the focus of the story isn't about whether or not she's a real person, it's about whether or not it's okay to manufacture custom made real people. After some thought, though, I liked the idea that by not "hearing" her thoughts or knowing her internal feelings, it evoked more of how the other characters saw her. So I went back in and deleted all the lines describing Amy's internal voice and leaving only her outward actions. I think it lends itself more to the dynamic of what the doubts and concerns of all the characters in the story are. Even Amy, as she knows that some people will see her as not having internal feelings.
So that's what I did, but sometimes I wonder if narrative devices like that get noticed at all by readers. Is it noticeable that Amy's thoughts are omitted? I don't know.
Anyway, just as a note to myself more than anything else, this story is one that I wrote recently, within this year, so I'm finally moving beyond my backlog and developing current material. Yay. Go me.
Remember the term 'cyberspace'? No one seems to use it anymore. Anyway, this is a story set in cyberspace.
A short story. I think stories are best without contextualizing preamble, so, check it out if you feel like reading a thing. Or don't. It's short, I'll tell you that much.