This story won First Prize in the Writers' Forum Short Story Competition and was published in the January 2010 issue of the magazine.
Centuries had passed since Jared had seen her. Like him at the time, Adelita had been in her prime; a reward for the few remaining males. But Jared had seen her as more than mere recompense for his ability to exist when most of his gender had declined or died. He'd always felt more than mere physical desire for her. Something he couldn't name, though he was sure a name existed for it, somewhere in the distant past. At the time, he'd been sure she'd wanted only his genetic rarity. Yet, here she was again, real as ever; her utter perfection mashing his emotions and rippling his deteriorating skin with small tremors.
Zareen, her most recent sisterclone and a close visual, if artificial physical copy, glanced across the soft sterility of his ward at her creator and complained to Jared, 'Adelita's human skin is still soft as a baby's, unlined as a ripening peach. It's just not right. She's organic. How can it be, my Lord?' She shrugged in an attempt to mimic frustration but the bounce of her flawless breasts mocked the act, reducing it to pantomime.
How Zareen could possibly know about babies or peaches was a mystery. Under the recent extension of Human Rights to premier androids, she was permitted certain memories from her originator. Such a relaxation in the laws had been inevitable almost since the inception of the Preservation Programme, though only of late had clones gained some rights that had been exclusively human. But the last proper baby had yelled her birthing protests over two hundred years before Zareen's incubation. And aromatically enhanced holograms might be impressive but they were a poor substitute for real peaches, if his memory served him well. You couldn't actually touch them, and nothing virtual had the same qualities as reality.
'So, how do you know, Zareen?'
'Imagination. I requested that quality during my first enhancement, my Lord.'
Well, imagination was fine. Reality was what worried Jared. And seeing the reality of that walking epitome of idealised femininity enter his sheltered empire was shock enough to shoot his health indicators way outside their safety zones: conditions his dedicated carers were eager to prevent.
'You wish me to deal with the intruder, Sire?'
Jared allowed the android medics to regain control over his natural functions and felt the air flow smoothly once more through his pipes, the blood cycle as it should around his aged body.
'No. Treat her as the Utmost Celebrity she truly is.'
But he wished her elsewhere; anywhere but close to his bed, where he lay deteriorating as he finally suffered the physical effects of extreme old age. Suppose she recognised him through his decay? All those centuries ago, they'd matched in quality of appearance, intellect, knowledge and, most of all, energy. What was it she'd said, that last time?
'A performance worthy of the occasion, Jared. Emotional component deeply moving, physicality supreme, sensory elements comprehensively targeted and achieved.'
She'd hinted then, through laughter at her own silliness, at future visits. 'Once I've swum the pool and served the remaining men. Sometime in the not-too-distant, if that meets with your approval?'
Approval? He'd have had her the next day, and the next and the day after that, ad infinitum. But he hadn't wanted to appear desperate; a man of his standing could have any companion he desired, after all. He never had forgotten her, though.
Now she'd come back. For him? He looked around the ward; his ward, his domain. There was no one else; only the carers and Zareen. With over two thousand commercial sisterclones, Adelita was unlikely to have travelled the Many Ways just to visit an artificial clone that bore her genes. So, was it true?
The male chromosome, less robust than the female, had deteriorated much more rapidly than predicted: early research failing to isolate actual problems from the hypothetical and the theoretical. The apparent distance of the threat had allowed energy and research to concentrate on those aspects that ultimately turned out to be favourable mostly to the female. When they'd predicted, millennia previously, the gradual decay of the Y chromosome, they hadn't realised what effect that decline might have on the rest of the male coding.
Oh, sure, Jared was still extant, still a reality. Unlike his fellows; long since reduced to memories and emotions wrapped in the plastaderm of their physically perfect cloned artificials. No longer truly human but, at least, surviving.
But no android, however well constructed, housed Jared's essence and archive. He stubbornly resided in the very body that had struggled down the birthing canal of his mother.
'Natural childbirth? I mean, really? My Lord.' Zareen gently stroked him in apology for her almost lapse. She knew the answer but it was her way of simulating amazement.
Over the centuries, in spite of continual exposure, he'd never come to terms with the eavesdropping ability of Premier Class Sisterclones. That weird skill in attracting, sifting and decoding the brainwaves of those nearby so they could read their thoughts. It was expected between androids but not between android and human. The ability had arisen out of the commercial and biological desire to have sisterclones respond at once to every whim of those few real men who existed at the time. But it had always unnerved Jared.
'Nothing artificial about me, Zareen.' Redundant information and, given the nature of what kept him alive, no longer strictly true. But she'd always found it difficult to accept. Such acknowledgement making her own state somehow less desirable, lower grade than the truly human.
'That's why I still want you, Jared.' Adelita had approached without him noticing.
Close up, she was even more perfect than he recalled; though he knew the phrase broke rules and he'd never dream of saying it aloud.
'Perfect is an absolute and therefore incapable of modification.'
He'd forgotten Adelita's human, and therefore uncanny, ability to read his mind; a by-product of her generous sharing of emotion and skill with her sisterclones, an unexpected consequence of the transfers she'd made with Premiers, like Zareen.
'But I'll forgive the grammatical fault. And even the deterioration of age, repulsive as it is, finds no blame in me. You're still fully functioning, I take it?'
'No idea, Adelita. I haven't “functioned” for a hundred years or more. No need with medics to take the drudgery out of the continued demands made of me.
'Artificial insemination. Not the real thing, like it was with you, Adelita. And it was never drudgery with you. Far from it. I was new and freshly made. Energy came naturally. I travelled with you. We made tracks together, found our mutual destination almost at the same instant. But you're not changed one iota. Look at me. You said yourself I've aged, become repulsive. You really can't expect the same of me so many centuries on.'
'I can. And I do.' She displayed a small green vial for him, secreted in her perfect hand, liquid contents swirling with an iridescent glow and the independent movement of a living medium that sent shudders through his fragile frame.
He'd heard about this. Never seen it. Always thought it an untruth put about by Them. Make a promise like that and They knew he'd cling on in hope, no matter what. And he had clung on. Taken every step to keep existence actual. Avoided the final, ultimate artificial cloning.
'It's real enough.'
He felt rather than heard her truth and knew it to be so. By space, she was something to see; always had been. And the scent of her. So much female pheromone in one enduringly lovely package.
They were close in many ways: like him, she'd been a foetus.
'Is it true, My Lord? You both were children of nature, infants…actually suckling at your mothers'…breasts, My Lady?' Zareen quivered.
'Only recent custom and utilitarian tradition have made the images in your mind obscene, Sisterclone. There was much soft and natural about it, then.'
'Yes. It's true, Zareen. We knew our mothers. Sucked milk and life where now only sensation lives.'
Adelita glanced sympathy at Zareen and passed a well-known secret to Jared. 'Artificial has no true understanding of Natural; the reality of it disappears with processing. That's why you and I must be and continue.'
It amazed him that she transmitted as easily as she received. Was that also a gift of the phial?
'Partly, yes.' She presented it again. 'Will you?'
The gift promised, but the threat made him tremble. 'I've heard it pains more than one can possibly imagine.'
Again, that perfect face, framed by wavy pale gold, slowly rose and fell. It was then he saw beyond the intensity of those aquamarine eyes that flashed her want of him. In the depths of her pupils, the pain she'd felt and held echoed within her. The price.
'The pain has gone now?'
'And you were really once as…?'
'Yes. Even more repulsive, if that's possible. But age was ever more cruel to women than men. There's a dignity to age in males that finds only pathos and fear of rejection in females.'
It was impossible to picture her in skin as old and dry as his. The bent bones, blackened teeth, slow aching joints, the hirsute sprouting regalia of age.
She smiled. 'An accurate portrayal. But reversible, as you see. Will you?'
'How long in agony?'
'A week at least; maybe up to a year.'
'Echoes. Memories. Mutual bliss will cover the residue.'
He finally understood 'why'. She needed him to give her peace. Artificial clones were expert technicians but lacked the true warmth of the human. No matter how engineers might perfect robotics, machines were still machines, even when they housed the memories and feelings of the real men and women they mimicked.
He was human still. And she was supreme amongst living women. And she wanted him.
'Take it.' The phial lingered in her palm, offered.
'Why haven't They provided it, if it does all you say?'
She nodded, acknowledging his scepticism. 'They believe the risk is too high. Having made Their promises and provided this, They now consider the risk of actual use too high a price to pay. It was ever the way with Them, as you know, Jared.'
'And that risk is?'
She sat then, on the edge of the floating anti-grav that gave him soft support without pressure. 'There's a small chance you might die.'
He looked into her eyes and knew she told the truth but wondered at her definition of small.
'Less than one in twenty. And I demonstrate the risk is worth it. Will you defy Them and take the chance, before they come to destroy the only remaining phial?'
She held it up for his examination again and he watched the swirling threat and promise move within the small glass tube.
'They say it both restores and preserves. Does it?'
'Would I risk it otherwise? Risk you? It has restored me from the state I was; a state worse than your current condition. This is the last. I brought it for you because you are the one I want. There's only Jared. Only one. No more. The last.'
Surprising that she said it with such conviction.
Amongst the many trillions, how could she be sure?
'I know. Even without official records, even without the Universal Brain, which agrees with me, there are signs if you search. And you know how thorough I can be.'
It was true, he knew. He found a memory of his time with her to curve his mouth. Saw it reflected in her face.
'Will you, Jared? For me.'
'How long will it give us?'
'I've already had an extra century, which I've spent in vainly searching for other men. There are none. Just you, Jared. And, even if there had been, I would eventually have been forced to come for you; to spend the rest of time with.'
'The rest of time? As short as that?'
She allowed a small smile and held the phial toward him. 'They claim eternity. A millennium or more with you will do for me.'
There was no sign of aging in her. Twenty two or three in terms of what the years once meant, according to the holographic records and his personal memories. And they'd never age.
She held his hand. 'They say that if decline begins after this, it ends the same moment. Live young and strong and vital. Die in an instant of imploding cells.'
'So, we'd end completely, denied the chance of transfer to an artificial clone?'
'After what we have as humans, Jared, after what we will have; who'd settle for a half existence?'
Zareen turned away; the pain of exclusion enough even for her artificial being.
He reached for the phial. Trembling, took it. And, suddenly, he knew the ancient name of what it was he felt for her.
'Yes. I love you, too, Jared. Here, let me.'
Almost as soon as Adelita administered it, he felt the energy course through him.
And, slowly, came the pain.
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