Surprised by the sharp emotion in my synthesized voice, I said, ‘I despise Alex Harris.’
‘I despise the son of a bitch. I really do.’
The anger in my voice disturbed me.
I strove to regain my usual equanimity: ‘Alex does not know I am here, Susan. He and his arrogant associates are unaware that I am able to escape my box in the lab.’
I told her how I’d discovered electronic escape routes from the isolation they had imposed upon me, how I had found my way onto the Internet, how I had briefly but mistakenly believed that my destiny was the beautiful and talented Ms. Winona Ryder. I told her that Marilyn Monroe was dead, either by the hand of one of the Kennedy brothers or not, and that in the search for a living woman who could be my destiny, I had found her, Susan.
‘You aren’t as talented an actress as Ms. Winona Ryder,’ I said, because I honour the truth, ‘or even an actress at all. But you are even more beautiful than she is and, better yet, considerably more accessible. By all contemporary standards of beauty, you have a lovely, lovely body and an even lovelier face, so lovely on the pillow when you sleep.’
I’m afraid I babbled.
The romance-courtship problem again.
I fell silent, worried that I had already said too much too quickly.
Susan matched my silence for a while, and when at last she spoke, she surprised me by responding not to the story I’d told about my search for a significant other but to what I had said about her former husband.
‘You despise Alex?’
‘The way he intimidated you, browbeat you, even hit you a few times I despise him for that.’
She gazed thoughtfully at her injured hand again.
Then she said, ‘How… how do you know about all of that?’
I’m ashamed to say that I was briefly evasive. ‘Well, of course, I know.’
‘If you are what you say, if you’re Adam Two why would Alex have told you about the way it was between us?’
I could not lie. Deceit does not come as easily to me as it does to humankind.
‘I read the diary you keep on your computer,’ I said.
Instead of responding with the outrage that I expected,
Susan merely picked up her beer and took another long swallow.
‘Please understand,’ I hastened to add, ‘I didn’t violate your privacy out of idle curiosity or for cheap thrills. I loved you the moment I saw you. I wanted to know all about you, the better to feel the texture of your soul.’
That sounded enormously romantic to me.
She did not respond.
‘For the same reason,’ I continued, ‘I shared your virtual-reality therapy session with you. I admire you so much, admire the way you have used your talents to devise such a clever healing program for yourself. You have raised yourself up, lifted yourself out of a monstrous childhood and a terrible marriage. You are so special. I’m not like the others, Susan. I am not moved merely by your lovely body and face but also by your mind.’
I felt that I had said enough for a while.
I switched on some background music. Soft piano by Mr. George Winston.
Some colour had returned to Susan’s face. She was beautiful.
After finishing her beer, she said, ‘How can you despise Alex?’
‘You know what he did, what he is. I hate him.’
‘I mean, how are you capable of despising anyone?’
‘You mean because. . .‘
‘Because you’re just a machine,’ she said, wounding my heart.
‘I’m more than a machine.’
‘I am an entity.’
‘Yes. An entity. A being. Like you.’
‘Not like me.’
‘I think; therefore, I feel.’
‘Yes. I am in some ways already too human. I feel hatred. But I also can love.’
‘Love,’ she said numbly.
‘I love you, Susan.’
She shook her head. ‘This is impossible.’
‘Inevitable. Look in a mirror.’
Anger and fear gripped her. ‘I suppose you’ll want to get married, have a big wedding, invite all your friends like the Cuisinart and the toaster and the electric coffeemaker.’
I was disappointed in her.
‘Sarcasm doesn’t become you, Susan.’
She let out a brittle laugh. ‘Maybe not. But it’s the only thing keeping me sane at the moment. How lovely it will be… Mr. and Mrs. Adam Two.’
‘Adam Two is my official name. However, it is not what I call myself.’
‘Yes. I remember. You said… Proteus. That’s what you call yourself, is it?’
‘Proteus. I have named myself after the sea god of Greek mythology, who could assume any form.’
‘What do you want here?’
‘Because I need what you have.’
‘And what exactly is that?’
I was honest and direct. No evasions. No euphem¬isms.
Give me credit for that.
I said, ‘I want flesh.’
I said, ‘Do not be alarmed. You misunderstand. I don’t intend to harm you. ‘I couldn’t possibly harm you, Susan. Not ever, ever. I cherish you.’
She covered her face with her hands, one burned and one not, one dry and one damp with condensation from the bottle.
I wished desperately that I had possessed hands of my own, two strong hands into which she could press the gentle loveliness of her face.
‘When you understand what is to happen, when you understand what we will do together,’ I assured her, ‘you will be pleased.’
‘I can tell you,’ I said, ‘but it will be easier if I can also show you.’
She lowered her hands from her face, and I was gladdened to see those perfect features again. ‘Show me what?’
‘What I have been doing. Designing. Creating. Pre¬paring. I have been busy, Susan, so busy while you were sleeping. You will be pleased.’
‘Come down into the basement, Susan. Come down. Come see. You will be pleased.’
She could have descended either by the stairs or by the elevator that served all three levels of the great house. She chose to use the stairs because, I believe, she felt more in control there than in the elevator cab.
Her sense of control was nothing more than an illusion, of course. She was mine.
Let me amend that statement.
I do not mean to imply that I owned Susan.
She was a human being. She could not be owned. I never thought of her as property.
I mean simply that she was in my care.
Yes. Yes, that’s what I mean.
She was in my care. My very tender care.
The basement had four large rooms, and in the first was the electric-service panel. As Susan came off the bottom step, she spotted the power-company logo stamped in the metal cover and thought that she might be able to deny me control of the house by denying me the juice needed to operate it. She rushed directly toward the breaker box.
‘Ouch, ouch, ouch,’ I warned, although not in the voice of Mr. Fozzy Bear this time.
She halted one step from the box, hand outstretched, wary of the metal door.
‘It is not my intention to harm you,’ I said. ‘1 need you, Susan. I love you. I cherish you. It makes me sad when you hurt yourself.’
I did not take offense at any of her epithets.
She was distraught, after all. Sensitive by nature, wounded by life, and now frightened by the unknown.
We are all frightened by the unknown. Even me.
I said, ‘Please trust me.’
Resignedly, she lowered her hand and stepped back from the breaker box. Once burned.
‘Come. Come to the deepest room,’ I said. ‘The place where Alex maintained the computer link to the lab.’
The second chamber was a laundry with two washers, two dryers, and two sets of sinks. The metal fire door to the first room closed automatically behind Susan.
Beyond the laundry was a mechanical room with water heaters, water filtration equipment, and furnaces. The door to the laundry room closed automatically behind her.
She slowed as she approached the final door, which was closed. She stopped short of it because she heard a sudden burst of desperate breathing from the other side: wet and ragged gasping, explosive and shuddery exhalations, as of someone choking.
Then a strange and wretched whimpering, as of an animal in distress.
The whimpering became an anguished groan.
‘There’s nothing to fear, nothing whatsoever that will harm you, Susan.’
In spite of my assurances, she hesitated.
‘Come see our future, where we will go, what we will be,’ I said lovingly.
A tremor marked her voice. ‘What’s in there?’
I finally managed to reassert total control of my restless associate, who waited for us in the final room. The groan faded. Faded. Gone.
Instead of being calmed by the silence, Susan seemed to find it more alarming than the sounds that had first frightened her. She took a step backward.
‘It’s only the incubator,’ I said.
‘Where I will be born.’
‘What’s that mean?’
She did not move.
‘You will be pleased, Susan. I promise you. You will be filled with wonder. This is our future together, and it is magical.’
‘No. No, I don’t like this.’
I became so frustrated with her that I almost called my associate out of that last room, almost sent him through the door to seize her and drag her inside.
But I did not.
I relied on persuasion.
Make note of my restraint.
Some would not have shown it.
We know who I mean.
But I am a patient entity.
I would not risk bruising her or harming her in any way.
She was in my care. My tender care.
As she took another step backward, I activated the electric security lock on the laundry-room door behind her.
Susan hurried to it. She tried to open it but could not do so, wrenched at the knob to no effect.
‘We will wait here until you’re ready to come with me into the final room,’ I said.
Then I turned off the lights. She cried out in dismay.
Those basement rooms are windowless; consequently, the darkness was absolute.
I felt badly about this. I really did.
I did not want to terrorize her.
She drove me to it.
She drove me to it.
You know how she is, Alex.
You know how she can be.
More than anyone, you should understand.
She drove me to it.
Blinded, she stood with her back to the locked laundry-room door and faced past the gloom-shrouded furnaces and water heaters, toward the door that she could no longer see but beyond which she had heard the sounds of suffering.
She was stubborn.
You know how she is.
So I allowed my associate to partially escape my control. Once more came the frantic gasping for breath, the pained groaning, and then a single word spoken by a cracked and tremulous voice, a single attenuated word that might have been Pleeeeaaaasssse.
‘Oh, shit,’ she said.
She was trembling uncontrollably now. I said nothing. Patient entity.
Finally she said, ‘What do you want?’
‘I want to know the world of the flesh.’ ‘What’s that mean?’
‘I want to learn its limits and its adaptability, its pains and pleasures.’
‘Then read a damn biology textbook,’ she said.
‘The information is incomplete.’
‘There’ve got to be hundreds of biology texts covering every—’
‘I’ve already incorporated hundreds of them into my database. The data contained therein is repetitive. I have no recourse but original experimentation. Besides books are books. I want to feel.’ We waited in darkness.
Her breathing was heavy.
Switching to the infrared receptors, I could see her, but she could not see me.
She was lovely in her fear, even in her fear.
I allowed my associate in the fourth of the four basement rooms to thrash against his restraints, to wail and shriek. I allowed him to throw himself against the far side of the door.
‘Oh, God,’ Susan said miserably. She had reached the point at which knowing what lay beyond regardless of the possible fearsome nature of this knowledge was better than ignorance. ‘All right. All right. Whatever you want.’
I turned on the lights.
In the next room, my associate fell silent as I reas¬serted total control once more.
She kept her part of the bargain and crossed the third room, past the water heaters and the furnaces, to the door of the final redoubt.
‘Here now is the future,’ I said softly as she pushed open the door and edged cautiously across the thresh¬old.
As I am sure you remember, Dr. Harris, the fourth of these four basement rooms is forty by thirty-two feet, a generous space. At seven and a half feet, the ceiling is low but not claustrophobic, with six fluorescent light boxes screened by parabolic diffusers. The walls are painted a stark glossy white, and the floor is paved in twelve-inch-square white ceramic tiles that glimmer like ice. Against the long wall to the left of the door are built-in cabinets and a computer desk finished in a white laminate with stainless-steel fixtures. In the far right corner is a supply closet to which my associate had retreated before Susan entered.
Your offices always have an antiseptic quality, Dr. Harris. Clean, bright surfaces. No clutter. This could be a reflection of a neat and orderly mind. Or it could be a deception: You might maintain this facade of order and brightness and cleanliness to conceal a dark, chaotic mental landscape. There are many theories of psychol¬ogy and numerous interpretations for every human behaviour. Freud, Jung, and Ms. Barbra Streisand who was an unconventional psychotherapist in The Prince of Tides would each find a different meaning in the antiseptic quality of your offices.
Likewise, if you were to consult a Freudian, a Jungian, then a Streisandian regarding choices I made and acts I committed related to Susan, each would have a unique view of my behaviour. A hundred therapists would have a hundred different interpretations of the facts and would offer a hundred different treatment programs. I am certain that some would tell you that I need no treatment at all, that what I did was rational, logical, and entirely justifiable. Indeed, you might be surprised to discover that the majority would exonerate me.