DISCLAIMER: This story contains crude language, ladies loving ladies, and robots. Enjoy!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
CHALLENGE: Written for Epic Proportions 2013.
FEEDBACK: To shaych3[at]yahoo.com

Pleasure Master
By sHaYcH


The login is simple, elegant and streamlined while at the same time being based on one of the most complex anti-hacking algorithms man and machine can invent. What it all boils down to, though, is a simple press of a thumb to the scanner built into every keyboard since 2022 and typing out a code blipped to the complant. Everybody has those now – heck, newborns are fitted with complants as they emerge from the womb just so Mom and Dad can dial in to their every heartbeat, burble, and fart.

Complants – communications implants – the brainchild of a multinational tech org that went open source and basically built the headweb – forget the internet, that's ancient history. In this era, surfing is done at the same time as planning grocery lists – a list that can instantly be thought-grammed to the local grocer and be delivered before little Billy gets home from school demanding his energy snack.

There are, however, things the old line-and-wire internet is still good for – things not always welcome in the headweb. Bad things, most often – the kind of illegal activities that end up involving police and get splashed all over the thoughtosphere. Mostly though, the old server based internet is used for those things that exist in the gray areas – the little shadows people would rather just keep to themselves. The secret things, the hushed things – the embarrassing things.

That's right. Porn. The internet is for porn and now, as always, porn is king. Only these days it isn't grainy photos or blurry video getting users to fork over the dough for a cheap thrill, it's absolutely anonymous, incredible – and virtually real - sex. Neither partner ever knows their lover's name, much less any other detail about them except whatever is shared in text-only chats where every ground rule you can think of is set out, up to and including how many times each person wishes to climax before the session ends.

Once all the details are hashed out, it's simple. Just wirelessly connect the PleasureMaster IV erotic stimulation device and fuck. It's intense, it's freeing, and by all the deities, no one ever goes away wanting. There are, of course, apocryphal stories about people so deeply enchanted with the PleasureMaster's abilities that even days later, they experience jabs of ecstasy, but by all accounts, reviews, blogs, news articles, HeadTube vlogs, and testimonials, the encounters are secure, safe, and incredibly satisfying. What makes the PleasureMaster so ubiquitous is the perfection of its construction – no matter how a person's tastes run, there's a design that's guaranteed to trigger their senses and more than enough free and cheap mods to make it even more personalized. True PleasureMaster aficionados are as picky about their favorite device or mod maker as hovball fans are for their favorite teams.

For many years, the use of the PleasureMaster network was something of a dirty little secret, starting in basements and working its way up to the bedroom and eventually, the boardroom. Now, even the ArcGov president is, reportedly, a member – which is good, because aside from a few insane politicians, no one really wants her job. Finding any kind of work that doesn't drive a person utterly insane these days is tough – even the so-called "easy" jobs require intense training, what with all the laws governing everything from recycling to body odor, physical contact to how frequently a person can smile at a co-worker before they must then either transfer to another task or initiate a minimum six-month copulation period in which both parties' paychecks are docked thirty percent of their gross monthly income and placed into a savings account that will then revert to the parties once the relationship either culminates in separation or marriage. If said canoodling ends in marriage, the monies then go into a trust fund to provide for the education of eventual offspring.

It's all the brainchild of the government – the Arcology Republic of Micrapendo wants its two-point-three billion residents to be absolutely content and happy with their lives, and thus avoid the horror of civil unrest as happened in the spring of 2095 in the Arcology of Bankopolis.

The nightmare images of blood soaked spires, bodies strewn from street to street, policebots lying in pieces while the citizens destroyed their arcology remain fused in the historical consciousness. Even hundreds of years later, the ArcGov is still recovering and the Global Credit Ministry has completely outlawed all privately controlled interest based banking. No matter where a person lives in this small world, they now earn the exact same interest on their savings as everyone else. Equal poverty for all.

This story, however, isn't about how or why the world changes, it's just about pleasure and its eventual control over everything living in every arcology on Earth from hemisphere to hemisphere and possibly even, for a brief time, stretching into space.

During the blizzard ridden winter of 2065, SpaceFed established Mars Colony One, which was to be the great global hope for environmental salvation, but it, like so many other solutions, came too late, and now, some doubt it still exists. The last communication between Earth and Mars was published by SpaceFed in 2072 and all it contained was a simple mission report from Colonel Cambridge, the man in charge of the colony mission. Maybe they all went mad – maybe they died – or maybe they found Martians. Ask a conspiracy theorist – plenty of ideas abound. Some even say that they never even left earth, just like the old moon landings back in the twentieth century.

Mars – and space itself has taken a back seat though to the new age, the arcology age and in this age, what matters most is one single thing. Pleasure. That ineffable, indescribable sensation of pleasant feelings that can drive otherwise rational people to do some of the most horrific things, has been conquered. One only needs order the PleasureMaster IV from the local government approved PleasureMaster website and, within minutes, the ThingMaker 4000 will print out a person's very own device, ready for use in ten minutes or less, guaranteed.

Clever programmers even make modifications to enhance their pleasure – some choose to sell those modifications on the headweb. Sixty credits for a clitoral stimulator that'll put a joyful buzz in the button – why, that's less than the cost of a bucket of coffee-flavored null calorie caffeine drink! Eighty credits for a "wet" mod that simulates the warmth and sucking of an anatomically correct mouth. That one is very popular. There are other, far more exotic mods – the zapper, for instance, for that micro-electric slap wherever a person might like a little pain. Or perhaps a user's tastes run to speed over power, depth over width – if it feels good to someone, it's out there to be bought, used, and enjoyed and it's all one hundred percent government approved.

Better than that, one can own multiple devices – they aren't very big, but everything about them packs the perfect wallop of physical pleasure and it all fits in the drawer of a nightstand in any standard arcology bedroom.

Every bit of this history, data, factual gathering, and quite a bit more is known to Kenara Madison Smith, Kenny to her friends, yet still, she refuses to take part in the global pleasure pastime, preferring, as she claims, to stick to the immediacy of the here and now. After all, half the fun of pleasure is, of course, watching the other person get off. Pleasure is a two person game in Kenny's book, and flying solo has never been her preference.

If truth were to be told, Kenny's preference is darkly colored by parents who loved each other with every bit of their hearts and somewhere, somehow, a tiny part of her mind cries out in loneliness because that is what she wants out of life. It's a perfection, however, that's colored by time and distance as her parents have long since retired and all Kenny has left are the memories, so she's left staggering from bad romance to imperfect relationship and finding less than fool's gold. She won't settle for less than the real thing, but unfortunately, with the rise in the PleasureMaster's popularity, finding partners has become increasingly difficult.

The pervasive, growing attitude among the citizens of the arcologies is why leave the house to find pleasure, why go anywhere to get anything when you can access everything from work to yoga pants via the headweb and then hit the internet for a good, hard fuck before bed? It's perfect, it's sterile – no feelings involved, no fears about unwanted, unsanctioned pregnancies – and oh, how ArcGov gleefully preaches their approval about this particular advantage to the PleasureMaster because, with upwards of eleven billion people filling the arcologies of the world, the PleasureMaster IV is fast becoming their preferred method of population control. Why poison people with drugs or impose hefty fines if the best way to stop them from making babies is to give them the same sense of satisfaction they got from their illicit sex in the first place?

It's enough to drive a hopeless romantic to drink.

It's late, well past artificial moonrise, and yet, the arcbar on level eighty is deader than subterranean morgue. Kenny's gone through three packs of Coffin Nails, sucking down the cancer-causing lung rotters like they were spun from sugar and fairy dreams, but not even the momentary high the drugs produce is enough to stave off her cravings for pleasure. The barbot's getting a vocal receptor full of semi-drunken grumbling as Kenny waves her hands at the scattering of clientele in the club and slurs, "An' these guys? Who wants 'em? Jim over there, he's got a three inch cock and a cold fish for a tongue. Terry, she's ol' Miss Piston Fingers – they could use her fucking arm t'drill for water."

Obligingly, the barbot puts a glass on the bar, fills it with water and then charges Kenny's tab ninety-three credits. Water being far more precious than simple synthetic alcohol, it's become something of a fad to show off how educated one's palate is by sipping water like wine and identifying its source by bouquet, flavor, and mineral content. Kenny's so drunk, she can't tell the difference between the water and the vodka tonics she's been tossing back all night, so she slams it, belches, and turns to stagger home, telling her greasy haired would-be companion to, "Piss off, you pickle dicked lolly licker," before she stumbles through the door and into a nearby hovertaxi.

"Fuck you too, Kenny! You suck dick like a broken Mark One!" he shouts after her, then turns and orders another drink.

"Kappa block, number sixty-nine," Kenny mumbles to the pilot bot, then slumps over, unconscious. Before, she's always thought her flat unit to be auspicious, but now, it's just a constant reminder of what she's not getting. The pilot bot takes her home, levitates her into the flat, tucks her into bed and, of course, uses her wristlink to apply two hundred and sixty-four credits to its tab, itemizing the bill to include her "polite, courteous, and safe return home" among its charges. It even pauses to pet the dog and cat before exiting the flat and triggering the safety system.

When she wakes and reads her previous night's credit charges, frustration brought on by weeks of near total solitude causes Kenny to kick her dogbot hard enough to make it shriek in protest as her catbot, a later, far more complex model of petbot that comes standard with a human vocalizer and a variety of emotion chips, including one for humor, laughs and says, "Busy night not getting laid again, Kenny? Maybe you should just buy a PleasureMaster. It's all the rage, you know. The government will even subsidize your purchase – and for every thirty days of active use, you'll get a three hundred credit bonus to your retirement package."

Of course the catbot also comes programmed with the standard ArcGov propaganda spiels, but in its case, there's a certain amount of fine-tuning that came courtesy of the catbot's original maker – Kenny's father. It was his retirement gift for her – a way of leaving a piece of himself behind for his little girl, though she knows it not. All she knows is one day, she came home, and he was on her doorstep with a little bow on his head and a sign reading, "I need a home." One look into its perfect golden eyes was all Kenny needed to let the petbot into her life. She's regretted it almost every day since, but nothing could convince her to part with it – it is, after all, sometimes the only thing she talks to for days on end.

Retirement is the one thing that everyone in all the arcologies strive for – for that's when a person can finally leave the crowded, glittering metropolises and return to the World Outside and live among the grass and trees of the Real Planet.

Kenny, however, isn't quite so sanguine about the idea of reality. She still has nightmares about all the bugs, animals, and other worrisome problems said to infest the world beyond the arcologies. After all, didn't they go into the bio-stabilized city-states to escape the horrific damage done by pollution, out of control weather, rapidly mutating viruses, and other deadly diseases?

"I don't give a ratbot's ass about retirement," she growls nastily, even more irritated by the cat's pragmatism. Out of spite, she kicks the dogbot again and gets a brief shock for her troubles. Instantly regretful and feeling like a complete shit, Kenny sighs and grinds her fists into her eyes, trying to crush the bad mood before it hurts someone else. "Oh, doggy, I'm sorry," she croons apologetically, slumping into the couch and patting her lap until the synthetic pet creeps up and nuzzles her hand warily, ready to shock her again if she misbehaves. Its programming is very specific – humans are to offer comfort and pleasure, and in return, it will do the same, but if humans offer pain, then it to must do the same, commiserate with the pain offered by the human in question.

More stupid people every year from die kicking their petbots one too many times than they do in hovercar collisions. Conspiracy theorists say it's just another way for the ArcGovs to keep the populations under control. Some even postulate that there is a central data collection center that keeps tabs on every single incident of petbot abuse, and if a person seems truly vicious, why then, one day, they just... vanish, never to be heard from again. It is, however, just a theory, with no proof, facts, or even one shred of evidence to support it.

Of course, the more Kenny pets and loves on the dogbot, the more it returns her affection, stimulating the oxytocin centers of her brain and inspiring her to link in to the headweb to say hello to her friends and co-workers.

"No, no, today's my day off," she tells Cindy McMurtry, a systems analyst who lives two quadrants over. "And no, Jessie, I didn't get laid last night. Please don't tell me all about your latest PM script. I could care less about penetration points or clitoral pizazz!" This to Jessie Shumaker, also known as Zipchick, one of the hottest PleasureMaster scriptwriters on at least ten levels of the Micrapendo arcology.

"But Kenny, you've gotta try it!" she enthuses. "Once you PM you'll never RL again!"

"Screw you, Jessie. I don't want some plastic and rubber fingercock when the flesh ones are so much better," Kenny gripes angrily.

Cindy giggles and tells her, "Oh that's so PM Mark One, Kenny. They're up to number four and oh, sweet Deity, you can't tell the difference. It's warm and slick, and with just the right modifications, the only thing you need do is come all fucking night."

Adding her own enthusiasm to the mix, Jessie purrs, "You've really got to try it. I mean, seriously Kenny, what've you got to lose?"

The words echo through Kenny's head all day and late into the night as, once again, she haunts the tables at an arcbar, this time on level sixty-nine, usually her lucky number, but tonight her choices for companionship have been whittled down to a slightly arthritic woman with faded glowtats covering her face and a fresh out of the edufactory boy with a downy beard, bright eyes, and the starving look of a plague orphan about him. Plague orphans are bad news, because they've got no family and no future – their lives are owned by the arcology, and generally, they find themselves stuck scrubbing recycler tanks or scraping bat guano from the air ducts until madness takes over and they go completely insane. Still, Kenny's desperate, and the boy is, at least, clean.

Before she can approach him, though, someone else lures him away with the flash of a pierced nipple and the wave of a credstick. Damned plague orphans'll do anything for credits, even fuck.

This particular arcbar doesn't have a barbot, just one very bored, very drab woman whose name no one remembers, so everyone just calls her Mouse. Mouse's real name is Roxanne Hazelwood, but even with such a strong name, all anyone notices about Mouse is her eyes, which are a hue of blue so milky-pale that no one likes looking at them long, because they remind the viewer of the long-lost skies of the Real Planet. She wears contacts most days now, keeping her eyes a bland shade of steel gray that doesn't invite confidences or confessions.

It amuses Mouse that Kenny sits there, jack-jawing for three hours, getting drunker and drunker, going on and on about how all she wants is someone to wake up next to, someone to explore every facet of love and joy that the human body can possibly experience before she gets kicked out of the arcology and is forced to live among the other retired worms the arcology doesn't want anymore.

"I mean, is that so much to ask?" Kenny whines as she chugs back her eighth vodka tonic.

Mouse murmurs something appropriately forgettable and pours another drink which Kenny sucks down then staggers out mumbling something about surrendering to the inevitable.

As she wipes down the bar, Mouse smirks and says, "And another one bites the dust." Except there's something about this one, something that lingers and leaves traces, something about the drunkard's rich green eyes, her low, sultry voice, the way she moves, even while drunk, not to mention the fall of her hair – strands so ruddy they could be thin rivulets of blood – but what really picks and tickles at Mouse's thoughts, making her wish the drunken sot would come back, is her face.

That is a face that could launch a thousand hovertaxis. If asked, Mouse wouldn't be able to say, exactly, what it is about that particular woman's face that she finds so perfect, she just knows, down deep inside, that's she's seen the woman she wants to marry – and who would never bother to look twice at her.

Shaking her head, she puts it off as a fluke, laughs and quickly checks into the headweb. Surfing to her credit account, she makes sure the bankers haven't screwed her out of a scintilla of interest. Once she's sure her nest egg is comfortably incubating, Mouse discos from the visual overlay, logs out of work, and makes way for the next fleshbag her boss scraped up from some gutter somewhere and propped up with promises of leveling beyond the grunge and shit of the pleb quadrants.

That was her life, before – well before she was scraped up, scrubbed down, de-loused and put to work slinging vodkas and other synthetic intoxicants. The hazy "other life", the one where she could barely crawl to the nutribar dispensaries to get her daily dose of crumbled chemical rations is mostly forgotten, though there are times, late at night, when the artificial winds blow just right that she remembers, that she goes back to that time when being an orphan would have been preferable to being forgotten. But that's long in the past, now. Thanks to her boss, she's got something that feels like a life and so, these days, she shows up once a week, puts in an hour or two, and makes sure the boss' PleasureMaster is plugged in and purring like a kittenbot.

After that, it's back home to the flat in kappa quadrant where she writes programs and designs mods for everything from frying pants to hoverbikes. Sometimes she even throws her hand into making things for the PleasureMaster, even if she doesn't use the device herself. She's got all four models – bought when they first hit the market, just so she could access their code, but they're pristine, never printed, virgin devices.

If Mouse were honest with herself, she could quit the arcbar entirely and live off the earnings from her mods, but one, she owes her boss – she owes him everything she has and more – and two, she likes the job. Maybe people don't do much but talk at her, but at least she doesn't go stir crazy and end up like one of the mumbling headwebbers at the local stimdrink fountains. So she works for a few credits, listens to drunks, and sometimes, the boss discos out long enough to have a pleasant conversation.

Every month, she gets a notice from the government reminding her of the dividends she could reap if she'd just enjoy her purchases, but she's stubborn and old fashioned. Pleasure, she believes, should be accompanied by an emotional attachment, though where one is going to find that in an arcology of two and a half billion individuals, most of whom never leave home, much less the headweb, she can't quite fathom.

Still, Mouse hasn't given up all hope, just most of it, and that's fine, because it allows her to be the cynical one, the girl that hides behind her hair and her strange looks and the too-polite smile that make most drunks treat her like a common barbot. Mouse's flat is much like Kenny's, except instead of a dogbot and a catbot, Mouse just has one very fat, very content elderly Real Cat she snuck in from the ground levels and built a hab for that has everything he could ever want. Most days, he just lies in the sun patch and bakes his old bones – he's nearing twenty and though Mouse knows she can extend his life indefinitely with drugs and endless surgeries, she knows she won't – she won't torment him that way. No, someday, she'll have to say goodbye, but not today.

"Hey, Fuzzy," she says, rubbing his belly when he rolls over and experimentally meows at her. The cat's never had a formal name and pretty much responds to anything she calls him – what does he care about names, after all? He's a cat. He eats, he sleeps, he bats his paper ball on a string, and he digs around in his cat box for amusement. Names are for humans with bad noses. Fuzzy knows himself – and others – by scent. Mouse is foodlovewarmthcomforthappy and Mouse's boss is smokesoursweatfishtreats so he's allowed in the house because fish treats are the nectar of the gods.

Once, there was painangerkickingyeller but that one went away and never came back, which is fine by Fuzzy because he was getting really tired of licking blood off his claws. Humans taste awful.

Mouse feeds the cat, clicks on the Tri-D TV wall and picks through channels until something appropriately mind numbing is playing, filling her living space with sound and light and giving Fuzzy something to chase while she sinks into her cradle chair and drops into her Tri-D design application.

Very rarely does anyone ever dig deep into the actual code of a program anymore, but Mouse does, because she likes the crispness of the text, the streams and lines spinning out of her brain and scrolling to life in front of her, emerging as a better exhaust system, a glittering piece of jewelry, a new handle for a squash racket or, in this case, a modification for the PleasureMaster that will simulate the presence of another person entirely, not just the parts that control all the fireworks. Today, Mouse is making a wife, and this – this is her Pygmalion program.

If she succeeds, she'll be more wealthy than any man, woman, or child living or ever will live in the arcologies. If she fails, no one will ever know, because she'll trashflush every last erg of code before sharing it with a single user. For fifteen hours solid, she writes code, imbuing every property she could ever desire in her perfect mate – the shape of her breasts, the color of her eyes, the suppleness of her skin, and because Mouse understands that pleasure should be endless and ever changing, she makes her wife a husband as well. With but a simple command, the spousebot will shift, features firming, breasts flattening, pelvic region changing, the PleasureMaster IV emerging and hardening, its mushroom head purple with the flush of artificial lust.

It's the "artificial" part that stalls Mouse. Everything else is perfect – from the curl of the bot's eyelashes to the capillary response of its skin, it would be the ultimate, absolute, exquisite spouse. It is as tall or short, broad or thin, heavy or light as its creator desires – everything about Pygmalion is customizable. She can even pre-load it with any number of ten billion commands – anything from dish washing to bondage, laundry folding to oral sex and everything under the arcology's predetermined perfect weather expression of the day.

And yet, it's not what Mouse wants, but it sure looks an awful lot like perfection – like an echo of a truth she hasn't quite allowed herself to accept.

The headweb is buzzing with news of the latest PM mod released by Zipchick and Jessie is bragging about her credline skyrocketing. "I can move, Kenny! I'm winging up to level eighty-three today! I found a flat in zeta quadrant that's so fucking hot! Here, look!"

Instavid plays, and Kenny is treated to a perfect Tri-D tour of the flat. It's nice. Nicer than her kappa quadrant place for sure and it has actual plants. Real, live plants that require care and watering.

"You're going to murder those poor ferns," Kenny mutters as dogbot and catbot press for attention.

"Oh, don't be such a dreary downer, Kenny!" Jessie says as she sashays around her flat nude, looking for the last few places where she and her PleasureMaster have yet to fully get off. "Oh hey, should I do it against the fridge? I wonder if the suction would hold long enough?"

"Jessie, hang up, please. I really don't want to listen to you come all day," Kenny groans as catbot looks up and smiles.

"Oh, listen to her. Maybe you'll be inspired. You know she makes wonderful little grunts just before she's about to fry the batteries on her PleasureMaster," the cat says coaxingly.

"Sometimes, I swear your programmer was a complete lech," Kenny mutters, shoving the catbot from her lap. "I'm going, Jessie. I have work."

"Liar," both Jessie and the catbot say, though Jessie's far more affectionate about it.

Maybe it is a lie, but there is work to be done – there's always work to be done, so into the headweb she goes, drowning herself in the comfort of the tasks she's been trained to do since her complant was tuned into the full web and not just her family's personal headweb.

To Kenny, it's comforting to be a cog in the machine, to be one of thousands – perhaps millions – of others whose daily work keeps the arcology strong and functional. She's good at her job and knows just how to slip in and out the tasks she's assigned before stepping on someone else's toes. In fact, as far as Kenny's concerned, this is the job she wants to have forever. So what if it doesn't pay very well – it's not like she's trying for early Retirement.

Outside is scary, outside is where bad things happen. Inside, with the climate control, hovercars, absolute police control, and where everyone knows their life destination via their financial potential – it's either go big, be rich, and live high or be content with mediocrity. Jessie has dreams of the pinnacle of the arcology's hab levels, but Kenny, well, Kenny would be happy living out her life right here, so long as she can share it with someone.

Therein, of course, lies the rub. For Kenny, finding people has never been a problem. She's pretty enough, smart enough, charming enough, even easy enough to want – but then competing with the seeming perfection of the PleasureMaster IV's ever growing fan base is proving more and more difficult as its dominance in the market grows. She feels now that she should have paid more attention to its rise, but it's too late, and the arcbars are emptying, the pulseclubs are flat lining, and even the stimdrink fountains are null zones of vacant-eyed headwebbers who'd rather surf than sip.

Occasionally, she sits out on the balcony with her petbots, watching the arcology as it grows more and more strange and silent and wonders if she should have gone with her parents, as they had jokingly suggested. Mostly, though, she just continues to stumble about almost blindly, fitting herself to a long established pattern of hunting for perfection in an infinitely imperfect world.

Days pass, Kenny works harder and harder, she visits arcbars, stimdrink fountains, pulseclubs, even the local grocers, libraries, and shopping emporiums, but they are all filled, increasingly, with empty space, bots, and stern-eyed cops who ask too many questions about why she's out when she could be at home with her PleasureMaster.

There's something vaguely frightening about the whole thing, but Kenny can't quite bring herself to think too hard about it. Why should she? Thinking about things only asks for trouble, and Kenny's not one to make trouble.

She finds herself haunting arcbars more than than anywhere else, because the cops don't ask too much about her life if she's obviously just getting drunk or stoned. After all, what business is it of theirs if she alters her mind before going home and plugging in to the arcology pleasure craze?

Most of the barbots ignore her other than to charge her whenever she orders more drinks and once in a great, great while she almost goes home with someone, but the longer she waits to find that perfect pleasure partner, the less and less likely it is that someone she's willing to settle for will be waiting. Even Terry Piston Fingers is married now.

There's a rumor going around the headwebs that some super secret uber hot designer is working on something that'll revolutionize the PleasureMaster IV forever, but so far, it's vaporware – heck, it isn't even vaporware, it's just whispers and no matter what the headbloggers publish, no one confirms or denies the existence of the Pygmalion mod. The world moves on.

Arcbars close, pulseclubs become crimedances where gangs go to murder each other for fun and profit, stimdrink fountains fight tumbleweeds as even the vacant-eyed headwebbers stay home to be close to their ThingMakers, just in case Pygmalion appears. Kenny keeps trying – she's lost touch with Jessie, who's found all the fame and fortune she ever wanted, though still talks to Cindy every day. She has to – they work for the same corporation on cooperating projects. Unfortunately, all Cindy can talk about is Pygmalion.

"I swear, if this is Jessie's work, I will pay the damn creds to get my ass to that penthouse of hers and wring her jewel-covered throat. She should have told us about this!" Cindy whines as they parse code together.

"Cin, you really think Jes could keep her mouth shut about something like this? I'm telling you, it's just a bunch of bullshit tossed out to keep us all happy and distracted from the fact that there's fewer and fewer pleasure partners out there," Kenny says irritatedly. Cindy doesn't have to worry anymore because she found her prince – or at least, someone she can share her PleasureMaster fixation with, and that has made her happier than Kenny thinks any friend of hers has a right to be and still bitch about things.

"No, I guess you're right, but still – think about it!" Cindy whines and Kenny can almost imagine her shaking with anticipatory glee. "Pygmalion!" she croons. "What could it be? How will it feel? Will Lars and I come together with it, or separately?"

"TMI, Cin," Kenny groans.

"Oh, sorry."

"Just... don't do it again."

"I'll try," Cindy replies wryly, knowing that she'll fail, again, because Lars is wonderful and amazing and she can't believe he wants to share his PleasureMaster time with her every night.

If only Kenny would break down and actually buy one of the damn things, she'd learn. She'd know. She'd be a convert to the Church of Pleasure.

Mouse finally releases Pygmalion, to smashing success. For her, it's a double-edged sword because even though she's now one of the richest woman in the arcology, her bed is still empty at night. The mod did nothing at all for her. She gave it every chance to woo and keep her, to love and cherish, to have and to hold, and all she could do was remember that she watched it form, layer by layer, in her ThingMaker. It isn't flesh and blood, for all that it is warm and soft. Even the breathing mod she installed didn't help.

It just isn't beautiful, for all that it looks just like the one person she can't get out of her damn head. For all that it mimics life, to Mouse, Pygmalion is the antithesis of what she craves. It's just a thing to be stored in a closet and never looked at again.

But the promise of money is too good to pass up, so she releases it and it takes the internet and the headweb, by storm. Mouse, of course, remains anonymous, but her alter ego, Pygmalion's inventor? She is on the tip of everyone's tongue. There isn't a headblogger alive that wouldn't give half their PleasureMaster time to have five minutes with The Big Cheese, but the mod maker is strangely silent about her creation.

The Big Cheese becomes old news as more and newer mods are made, mods that take Pygmalion from just incredible to stratospheric in terms of satisfaction rates. There's even an entire social network just for Pygmalions to connect to other Pygmalions and share strangely creepy recounts of their lives with their owners.

Out of boredom and maybe a fragment of hope, Mouse still works at the arcbar, still listens to the occasional sob story, though these days, it's mostly about how the poor slob in question can't yet afford the latest, greatest mod for their PleasureMaster. There's one that's different, though, one that Mouse secretly hopes will return even as she fears ever hearing the woman's soft, slightly drunken voice again.

She can't remember her name, but she can definitely remember the face, because that face set, for her, forever, the shape and form of Pygmalion, though of course, for the consumer, Pygmalion's face is entirely generic so that no one person will ever look quite like it. Plus, the modders are already coming up with thousands of tweaks – soon, there will be as many Pygmalion faces as there are human, if not more.

Mouse is convinced that one day, she'll step out to have a Coffin Nail and ten Pygmalions will be there, all waiting to bum a stick from her and ask about her day and not a single one of them will look alike, or demonstrate any quirk of behavior that will tell the viewer that they are anything more than a particularly well-designed, high level companionbot. This is the subtly of her design – take the sexual factor and submerse it in the trappings of near reality, of the almost too perfect reflection of what a consumer imagines to be their ideal mate.

Strangely, though she's the designer of the Pygmalion, this idea scares her as much as it makes her want to jump up and down for joy. After all, she's God in a very real way to a whole new race of being. A vanished, invisible, anonymous god – in every way, a perfect god to be worshiped and forgotten.

Her musing is interrupted by a rich, lush voice that's already heavy on the alcohol rasp. "An' I told 'er, 'No, I don' wan' no stinkin' PleasureMaster gift card. What the fuck d'you think I am? Desperate?"

"Indeed," Mouse murmurs, the back of her neck growing warm as she keeps herself bent forward, hiding her face from this stranger who isn't strange. It's her!

"Bu' no," she drawls, slapping the counter. "I gotta take it. Gotta use the fucking thing if I wanna ge' the creds. Me! The Flesh Queen! I hafta go plastic 'cuz m'boss is a hose dishk co'licking bish!" It's obvious the woman's been drinking for a lot longer than she's been in this particular arcbar.

"Last one," Mouse mumbles as she sets out a vodka tonic. "You're tottered."

"Hey, you – you're no' a bot," the woman slurs. "Wha' don' ye come hom' wi' me?" she asks, her hand landing on Mouse's.

The heat almost sears right to her bones.

"Sorry. I don't date customers." Not true, but Mouse can't date this woman, not her muse, her living embodiment of Pygmalion's form.

The answer doesn't matter, though, because the woman's flat on her face, passed straight out.

Generally, the bouncerbot takes care of such problems, but today, Mouse is the one who summons the hovertaxi, carries the slight form of her unconscious customer out, places her into the seat, buckles her in safely, and makes sure the pilot bot correctly scans her wristlink before whisking her away to whatever quadrant she calls home.

"Sweet dreams, Kenara," she murmurs, then hurries back into her bar and the sparse clientele.

Kenny wakes with a rip-roarer of a headache and the distinct impression that she's been touched by someone special. Worse, she knows she has to break down and sign up for the damned PleasureMaster network because rents are due and she needs the creds. With a feeling of impending doom, she sits down at her decrepit old computer, dusts her thumb over the keyboard sensor and waits for it to log into the internet.

It's not as fast as the headweb, which moves at the speed of thought and faster, but it's still respectably fast, and soon, she's navigating her way through the ancient website, filling in forms, creating a username, entering her personal information and answering what seems like the most absurd questions imaginable. Really, who cares what her favorite candy bar is or whether she likes the color orange? Shouldn't the program only be concerned if she likes anal, oral, or good old fashioned missionary? But no, the PleasureMaster website puts her through more of a psychological profile than her last shift evaluation.

Eventually, she makes it through the maze and lands in Wonderland. The gates of the website open and she is then informed of her choices for construction – her boss skated close on the cheap, so what Kenny ends up looking at is the bargain basement version of the PleasureMaster IV – no mods, no special add-ons, just a garden variety eroto-stimulation device with fully functional integrative wireless features. There's even a widget to guide her through the whole thing, with a happy little bouncing animated phallus that dances around on the screen, blinks it's curly eyelashes at her and assures her that it's all perfectly normal and promises to have her, "Screaming her way to pleasureland before dawn."

"Not if I have anything to say about it," she grumbles, making sure to spend every last credit on the card before keying in for the triple-credit back rebate. Sure enough, her banklink chimes minutes later with the information that over four thousand credits has just been added to her account. With a sigh of relief, she pays her bills and then stares over at her ThingMaker, where the shiny new PleasureMaster IV awaits.

"Well, I guess I'd better use it at least once," she grumbles, collecting it and trying not to giggle at the incredibly realistic feel of the device, even if it is colder than a dead fish right now. "Wow. No wonder everyone's going batshit insane for the Pygmalion mod – I bet it's way better than a standard sexbot."

Kenny's experiences with sexbots are limited to a few experimental visits to back ally sex shops when she was young and stupid, but what she remembers is mechanical, emotionless, and not very pleasurable, for all that the shops seemed to be doing a brisk business. What else she remembers is the horrid sense of "otherness" about the bots – though they were meant to mimic human sex workers, there was something about them that was cold, dead, and utterly unromantic. If what she's heard about the Pygmalion mod is true, however, then all that is gone with the wind – buy the right tweaks and your new best fuck buddy will satisfy your every craving, even for that ineffable something called companionship.

"Of course it's way better," the catbot says sarcastically. "It's meant for more than just fucking, though why anyone would care about cuddling after pleasure escapes me."

Kenny gapes at the bot and then just shakes her head. "Sometimes I wonder if you really are updating the firmware in that head of yours, kitty. The whole point of cuddling is to induce all those yummy hormones that make a person want more pleasure."

"Hormones are overrated. Better to stick with straight up lust. Want, fuck, leave. Wash, rinse, and repeat right up until it all turns to recyclable cellulose," the catbot says as it winds around Kenny's feet, purring loudly.

"But I can have that with a real person too, and get the hormone benefits of multiple pleasure sessions," Kenny protests.

"Plus the risk of pregnancy, STD, emotional trauma, physical danger from the brain blips, and the list just goes on and on," catbot says lazily. "You are going to be so much better with your PleasureMaster, trust me on this one."

"You're a robot, kitty. I wouldn't trust you as far as I could kick you," Kenny says sourly. "But never let it be said that I was a Luddite."

Seating herself in front of the computer, she begins to scroll through some of the available chatters, deciding against, "Pulsating Pussy Pounder" on principal and not really finding the sound of "AssMuncher" to be all that appetizing. Dozens of others with similarly unappealing names seem to clog the suggestion list until, finally, at the very bottom, she stumbles across the simple and seemingly perfect, "BarGirl_10".

With a touch of resignation, Kenny looks at the "woman's" profile, but of course, there's no pictures, just the rather strange statement of, "I don't want to be here."

"I so sympathize," Kenny mutters as catbot jumps into her lap and eyes the screen.

"BarGirl? Really? You couldn't find something exotic and fun like Clit_Eatswood?" it asks while grooming its fur.

"I really, really need to remember to change your programming, kitty," she says, chucking it over onto the couch. "You're worse than hormone bomb going off in the middle of an edufactory full of sixteen year olds."

"Ouch. I need to try harder," it says while clawing the corner of a pillow until tiny bits of stuffing begin to bunch up in its claws. "I am supposed to be your companion, Kenny. Maybe if you stopped thinking of me as an 'it' and," it says, jumping off the couch and leaping back onto the desk so it can limp over and hold up its now damaged paw. "And more like your loving little friend like the mutt, we'll have much more fruitful conversations." And then it mewls in pain.

Automatically, Kenny scoops it up and starts picking the stuffing from it's paw, being gentle and pausing from time to time to pet and stroke the robot, which purrs and purrs and purrs until she's relaxed and soothed and actually smiling a little.

"Now," he says, his voice sliding down into a warm and friendly tone. "Why don't you say hello to this BarGirl, hmm?"

Still stroking the catbot's head, Kenny stares at the screen for a moment longer then clicks on the PM button and types out, "Why not?" and, before she can chicken out, hits the send key.

A flash of a second later, the text response is, "Because it's a lie."

"Aren't some lies acceptable?" she murmurs, typing the same.

Only if truth scares you.

Kenny shivers. Maybe it does, a little. Better a little falsehood and fun than truth and terror.

Truth doesn't have to be frightening.

Right. And lies aren't always bad. For instance – here's a lie for you – I'm naked.

Yawn. That one is obvious from a mile off. You don't want to be here, either.

No, I don't. Let's just say I got bamboozled into it.

Why me?

Because you had a boring name. I like boring – or at least, normal. I don't need porn, I want pleasure.

If all you want is pleasure, go find one of the six million top buzz masters.

Okay, fine, I want... more than just pleasure. But I'm not going to get that from a lump of rubber and some servo units.

No, but... it's a place to start. I wanted more, too. Now I'm here, where I don't want to be. Tell me something you'd like to do to me.

"Oh by the deities!" Kenny blurts, thrown out of the conversation. "Fuck if I know. I'm not even sure if you're a woman." Nervously, she types, Gimme a clue – are you really a girl?

LOL. Yes. How about you, KMS?

I have functioning girl bits, yes. Though I like... everything.

Mm, me too. Though there's something about a woman's body that just begs for hours of pleasure.

"Woo, you're a sneaky one," Kenny murmurs. Yes, but... sometimes what you want is fast and hard.

I can do that. I'm very intimately acquainted with the other functions of the PleasureMaster, not just the self-serve options. In fact... you could say that my absolute favorite thing has little to do with tradition and everything to do with you, bent over the arm of a couch, your bare ass red and smarting, your body tingling and wet and my cock sliding deep and hard into you.

Kenny squeaks, shoves the catbot off her lap and thrusts her hand down her pants. Fuck, she types shakily.

Or maybe you want my fingers gliding over your clit? My tongue following along... A file pops up and across the room, Kenny's PleasureMaster beeps to life, downloading the script.

Your turn, KMS. Show me what you got, teaser.

"Oh fuck," she whines, knowing she doesn't have a single thing written and if she stops to dash something off now, the warm, throbbing ache between her legs will vanish.

Somehow, the answer comes to her, though.

Ride the feedback wave, BarGirl. I want you to feel me come.

Shame, fear, and boredom forgotten, Kenny can't get naked fast enough, can't get the PleasureMaster inside her hard enough, and as she spends the next six hours caught in the thrall of the device, can't quite forget the lie it's telling her. Sure, she's coming her face off, but it's not quite... right. On the other hand, BarGirl stays with her the whole time, trading feedback and scripts, talking about everything from their favorite fantasies to the strange politics of a boss giving her employee a sex toy as a bonus.

Sweat soaked, aching from head to toe with release, Mouse flops back, tosses aside the PleasureMaster and groans. Across the room, her ancient cat lazily glares at the new "pet" his mistress has let take over her life and flehms, but decides it's too damn tired to get up and slap its rival around the flat until it flees. For Mouse, it's been six weeks of nightly conversations with KMS – they always start the same, with the message, "Still don't want to be here?" popping up on the computer screen.

Tonight, Mouse almost answered, "No." KMS is brilliant, funny, delightfully devilish, and when she lets go of herself, can create some of the most elaborate and intense fantasies Mouse has ever experienced – leading to incredible nights of almost sex that leaves her drained and so close to perfectly satisfied that she wants, sometimes, to activate the Pygmalion, just to pretend, for a little while, that she's holding KMS, that KMS would have the face of her some time barfly with the sultry voice and the gorgeous eyes.

But no, that slides too close to madness for Mouse, a madness of mechanism and machinery, the cloaked fakery of the all too modern world. What she yearns for is reality. True reality, not this steel and glass tower the ArcGovs built and packed with the best and brightest. Out there, beyond the glass sky is a real earth, a planet of trees and grass, of animals and birds, of dust and water – and she wants it long before she's "retired" to greener pastures. Why wait until she's too damned fucking old to enjoy it? Why let them toss the lame horse into the mud pit to slog and grub and face the nights with bones bent with age?

The money she's made with Pygmalion is astronomical, but even then, it's barely enough to get her and a spouse out, if only she had that spouse. Early Retirement isn't cheap and going alone isn't what she wants. Not when she can afford perfection. Mouse wants someone like minded, someone who will face the adventure of stars and storms with the same joy and delight – and yes, fear – that she will. Much as she loves her cat, she knows he's just not going to be enough of a companion in the great wide world Outside.

Her monitor beeps.

Dragging herself off the bed, she staggers to the chair and sits.

By the deities, you fuck like a demon.

KMS is given to hyperbole, and that's okay. Mouse kind of likes it.

And you come like a goddess. Hyperbole can drip from her fingers, too, when necessary.

I want more. I'm so fucking wound up tonight, BarGirl. I went out and... and... ah fuck, I could have gotten fucked five ways from Sunday by this guy with the biggest cock I've seen in years, and all I could think about was getting home so we could talk. I wanted his cock, BarGirl. Badly. But then... I closed my eyes and it wasn't him I wanted pounding me. It was you. Deities, I'm so tempted to splurge on one of those Pygmalion things and... and...

Mouse's breath is stuck in her throat. She can't hardly see as she types, And what, KMS?

And get your picture so I can make the face yours. My best friend says it's all the rage – PleasureMaster partners making up their Pygmalions to look like each other so the fucking is even more real. Someone even came up with a mod that makes the face holographic, so you can change it as many times as you want – a new face for every lover.

How many photos do you have? Mouse finds herself typing angrily. Jealousy slides over her like a net, trapping and pinning her in place.

None, I swear. None at all. I only wanted yours. KMS's letters take a long time to appear on the screen.

No. It's a lie. The Pygmalion is a fucking lie, KMS! If you want to fuck me, then fuck me, not the damn bot.

Fine. Let's meet.

The two most dreaded words of any PleasureMaster user – meeting in real life never, ever works. It's a proven fact that the fantasy built up around the constant sexual exchange just can't possibly be made real and Mouse knows this. She knows this right down to the hard, icicle cold core of her being and it is for this reason that she logs off.

Cold turkey. No more PleasureMaster, no matter how much she aches for her KMS.

It's over.

Kenny is devastated. She's been dumped – that much she knows just by the fact that BarGirl_10 hasn't logged onto the system in over three months. Life goes on, turning the cycles, and Kenny has gotten all the credit she was owed for the PleasureMaster so now, now she just spends night after night trolling the lists, looking, hoping, but never finding someone who doesn't want to be there. Six months later, she gives up and goes back to the arcbars which are even vaster wastelands – near retirees, those too poor to afford even a first generation PleasureMaster, and junkies.

Out of a desperate need to feel something, anything, she has a series of incredibly meaningless affairs, fucking everything that asks or even hints at the possibility – even riding the toothless face of an oldster just to give him a thrill before he's trucked off to the great world beyond the arcology's glass towers. Sadly, he's probably the best of the lot, giving her a hell of a night's worth before kissing her and hopping on his hovertaxi to greener pastures.

And through it all, Kenny's heart hardens and shrivels, her dreams die, her hopes for a chance to wake up next to someone who isn't her annoying, but irreplaceable catbot and her loveable, but incredibly stupid dogbot grow dimmer and dimmer until, one day, she realizes she just doesn't care.

That, she decides, is the perfect reason to get blindingly shitfaced, and she knows just the right place to do it. The arcbar she has in mind is a favorite, mostly because the bartender is real and, in just the right light, she can catch a glimpse of her face, which is, well, interesting. Somehow, she's never thought to look before, but now, she does, and what she sees is a strange beauty.

Behind a curtain of the drabbest, badly cut brown hair hides a face that is carved of amber – golden skin that bespeaks an ancestry redolent with jasmine and paper fans but eyes that say otherwise. Suddenly, Kenny wants to know, has to learn everything she can about this enigma, so she spends a lot of time studying her. Time and credits, because the alcohol isn't cheap, but it's better than the usual breed of synthetic crap – this bartender, she's learned, programs her own code into the taps, which makes everything taste just a little crisper, a little closer to the purity of the real thing.

Only once in her life has Kenny ever had real alcohol – when she graduated school, her mother bought her a tiny, fragile bottle of an incredibly rare whiskey. That bottle sat on a shelf for weeks before she finally convinced herself to drink it, and when she did, she wished she hadn't, because it was too fucking special, too fucking good to waste on the stressed out, stoned as hell palate of a kid who couldn't care if it was whiskey or paint thinner. By then, though, it was too late.

So now it's all synthetic, all the time, because real is too fucking expensive and Kenny's too fucking cheap to splurge. Besides, if she ever wants to show any initiative at all, she's got to save a little money, just so she dig her way out of kappa quadrant and aim a little higher. Not too high. She's not that ambitious. Why bother, when by the age of forty or fifty, she's just going to be pitched Outside and forced to scrabble in the dirt or die like any other old timer?

Tonight, however, her favorite bartender is out, the harried replacement griping about how it was just a cat and why would anyone give a toss about the death of an old, mangy cat anyway?

"Maybe because it was her friend," Kenny mutters and leaves before she punches the man in the mouth.

Contentment – it seems like an easy thing to find, but is, Kenny discovers, horrifically difficult to achieve with any lasting success. At the moment, she thinks its resting at the bottom of a vodka tonic. Sashaying into the arcbar, she stops cold when she finds it packed full of men, women, and vacant-eyed Pygmalion modded PleasureMasters. Dressed like perfect dates, they sit and mimic human-like speech, motion, and action, but nothing about the bots is remotely human, no matter how perfect their breathing mods work or how well the circulation mods help them blush properly or even how fast they blink their faux eyelids. They are not real and why no one else seems to notice the plastic nature of the bots is so disturbing, so frightfully foreign that for a moment, Kenny thinks she's sleeping and has stumbled into nightmare. Fleeing, she leaps into the nearest hovertaxi and zooms to the one arcbar where she hopes things haven't changed so dramatically, the one place where the bartender is still human enough to care whether or not her clientele is flesh and bone or polymer and metal.

Along the way, she is treated to the sight of Pygmalion bots enjoying hovercar rides, going shopping at the arcmalls, and even a pair of newlyweds – one a human, one a Pygmalion bot - racing down the steps of a quadrant cathedral while a crowd of humans and Pygmalions throws holorice over them. Unable to quite understand what's happening, she links into the headweb and is blasted with the biggest news story to ever hit the arcwaves – the Micrapendo ArcGov has declared Pygmalions to be "subCitizens" with some of the rights and privileges afforded to humans, including the right to marry, to hold jobs, and, of course, to be seen in public. They are, in effect, slightly more sentient than the pilot bot driving the hovertaxi, but only just. The news is likening it to allowing someone with a low IQ the same rights. Worse, there are already pundits asking about what happens when Pygmalion wants to marry Pygmalion – or procreate? Will there be mods written so they can get pregnant and make Pygmalion babies? What will those Pygmalions then grow up to be? More surrogate sex partners for humans?

It's all a right confusing mess and the ArcGov uses the shenanigans to slip several new laws into place, laws that tighten freedoms, eliminate choice, and to Kenny's horror, mandate that all citizens absolutely must either be married or own a Pygmalion PleasureMaster by the end of the year – less than three weeks away – or they'll be forced Outside forever.

"We of ArcGov are committed to the happiness of our citizens and to that end, we wish to ensure that all citizens of proper age will be given every opportunity to achieve said happiness, thus we institute the Companionship Act and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for Micrapendo."

The quote chills Kenny to the bone, but who can she talk to about it? All her friends think it's a stupendous idea – savings accounts are being drained to purchase the most modded out Pygmalions they can afford – some are even getting married to long time partners. Already, the census is predicting a happiness boom, which for ArcGov is all to the better – happy citizens equal more output which results in more taxes. BarGirl, she thinks, would understand why she feels this queasy sickness in the center of her gut, but that relationship sailed away like every other she's ever had.

"Face it, Kenny," she mutters as she flops onto the bar stool. "You're about to be relegated to sun, scrub, trees, grass, and all the other crap Outside." Almost fearfully, she looks around her, expecting to see the blasted Pygmalions, but this bar, unlike the other, is as much of a dead zone as it has been for the past two years. Maybe a dozen customers fill the place and there, at the other end of the bar, carefully wiping down the stained and scuffed mahogany, is the live bartender.

There's a sadness about her that Kenny realizes must be the grief from the loss of her cat and almost, she hurries out to buy a sympathy card, but what does one put in a card to one's bartender about their cat? "Hey, sorry your buddy died, can I have a vodka tonic with a twist?" Instead, she just sits there, staring, and, after a while, is stunned to realize the woman's eye color has changed. Gone are the steel gray eyes and in their place are something far more glacial and yet, truly gorgeous.

At the other end of the bar, Mouse can't believe her luck. Today, of all days, she has to walk in. Pygmalion's Galatea, the muse for her mod, the living angel of flesh and voice that inspired her to create the monster now consuming the arcology like wildfire. There she is, waiting, waiting... oh, deities, she's waiting and all Mouse can do is crush back tears for her Fuzzy and kick herself for not paying better attention to his health. All those weeks with KMS, all that time and he was just... slowly fading. One day, she woke up and he was gone. That guilt sat with her, poking and prodding and, eventually, forced her to run away from the one chance she had of ever meeting KMS for real.

Barely breathing, Mouse slinks down, puts a vodka tonic on the bar and hardly looks up to scan the credits. Better she be shorted a tip than have to see the face and eyes or hear the voice of inspiration. The same voice she always, without fail, imagined belonged to the long-lost KMS.

"Glad to see some places haven't changed," Kenny says as she practically inhales her drink. For whatever reason, maybe it's a need for connection, maybe it's just that she can't stand to go one second more without grabbing someone, she snatches Mouse's hand into hers and says, "By the deities above, thank you for being real!" Right on the heels of that, she mumbles, "I'm sorry about your cat."

Speechless, Mouse looks up, her mouth opening, a thousand things crowding her tongue and yet, not a one slips and falls out. Eventually, she manages to stammer, "Th-thanks. A-another drink?" She's so flummoxed, she doesn't even bother asking how she knows about Fuzzy.

"Have one with me," Kenny says expansively, drawn to this fragile butterfly of a woman and the grief she tries to hide. "You're allowed, aren't you?"

"Well, I-"

"Come on, come on – one drink. It's not like you've got a pile of customers all clamoring for brews," Kenny coaxes.

Shyly, Mouse nods. "A-all right. Just as long as it's only one."

She pours herself a cola and adds the merest splash of amber-tinged whiskey, but makes sure to give Kenny a full measure vodka tonic. They drink, and for a blink of an instant, Mouse pretends that they are lovers, meeting for a date, and that, at any instant, Kenny is going to lean across the bar and kiss her and it's going to be incredible.

But it doesn't happen. The drink ends, Kenny gets smashed and goes home to sleep it off. Next day, she gets up, works her tail off, goes back to the bar. Again, they share one drink – just one – but this time, Kenny asks a question. It's a simple question, but one fraught with the overtones of Hell.

"So, are you married? Or are you going to be a PM slave?"

Mouse, filled with revulsion for her creation, says, "Neither. I'm going Outside. I'd been saving for it – hoping to go with a partner, someone to see me through the nights, and the days and all the strangeness of the green land, but I'd rather dig in the dirt and be given an honest purpose than be forced to pretend to a happiness I'll never feel with a machine or a stranger."

Clinking her glass against Mouse's, Kenny says, "A woman after my own heart, for all that I lack the same courage. I don't really want to go Outside, with no headweb, no friends, no bots, no nothing but whatever is left of the earth. Besides, I've got petbots. What'll happen to them?"

"Don't you know? You take them with – the only computers you're allowed. I bought two rats and a pit bull and packed their furry brains with as much information about agriculture, medicine, and other forms of pre-arcology lore I could find. I've been thinking about a few birdbots, too. They'd make excellent scouts," Mouse says with some excitement. "I modded them all myself. Spared no time or expense on them – I want them to be absolutely perfect. If nothing else, I won't starve."

"You've really got this all planned, don't you?" Kenny says sadly, hating the fact that she's going to lose a friend she almost had. A pretty friend at that. In a wild burst of spontaneity, she says, "Come home with me. If – if you're going to leave for the Outside, you should... you should at least have one last good go."

Eyes nearly popping from her head, Mouse whispers, "Oh deities," and runs out of the bar.

Stunned, Kenny says, "Was it something I said?"

A drunk, half slung over his chain of tumblers, slurs, "Why should she go home wi' ye, babe? Ye look just like the world's worst generic Pygmalion. Ain' nobody wants t'fuck a generic anymore."

"A what?" she blurts, but the drunk just snores into a puddle of alcohol and drool.

Back at home, she sits on the couch with her catbot, who purrs and cuddles and assures her that she is not generic. "You, my friend, are an original, and if that bar girl can't see it, then she's blind."

"It wasn't her," Kenny mumbles, rubbing her cheek over his head. "Different person."

"What ever do you mean. Of course it was her," he says with all the confusion a bot can muster. "She was at the bar and she was a girl, ergo, bar girl. What else am I to call her when you haven't offered me her spanking name?"

A shiver crawls down Kenny's spine. "It's just..." she falls silent and the catbot sighs.

"Oh. Her again. Listen, that's buried. This one is not. Get your fleshy butt back out there and bring this girl home. Maybe you'll change her mind about running off to the wilderness," he says comfortingly.

"Or maybe she'll change mine. How'd you like that, kitty? Life Outside, with sunshine, real rain, dirt. Bugs. Grass. Bugs," she muses, not at all liking the idea of bugs.

"I'm programmed to eradicate bugs. I'd like it just fine. Doggy would like it even more – plenty of room to run. Plus, you could buy a few friends for us before we go. And they don't exactly send you out there in your underwear, you know. A whole ground roller packed full of supplies – enough for five full years. Just so you can acclimate. And they always make sure to take you to the same kind of terrain you braincamped in while in high school," he says laconically. "They don't want to kill you, Kenny, just make room for the next generation."

Braincamp. Kenny hasn't thought about that in ages. For six summers running, she was locked in the holochamber at her parents home, attending ArcCamp 52. There were hikes in the mountains, swimming at the sea, fishing, boating, and even pottery, macrame and a whole host of other archaic pastimes that, at the time, made her crazy. The only thing worthwhile was the friends – the boys and girls she met and stayed in touch with and later, as her body matured, fucked. Hell, by her last year at camp, she'd had mental sex with everyone but the counselors and by her second year into college, she'd physically fucked the best looking of the lot.

"Deities, I'm a slut," she mutters, rubbing her head.

"No, you're a girl of passion. Now go – I've tapped the botweb. Your bar girl is back at work, you'll just have time to get there and bring her home if you run," catbot says anxiously.

Hovering between reluctance and excitement, Kenny slinks out and hurries to the taxi port while catbot watches.

"Now, let's just hope Fate's done fucking with the poor girl," catbot mutters as dogbot slinks up and lays beside him, sighing worriedly. Pressing his paw into the dogbot's nose, catbot says, "It's okay, boy. She'll figure out out, eventually. She's not stupid, just... possessed of the thickest set of blinders I've ever seen.

Kenny runs from the taxi to the bar, slipping in just as the door slides shut behind a departing customer. The place is empty, lights are going dim, and at the bar, the bartender is totaling the night's receipts.

"Is there still time to get a vodka tonic?" Kenny asks softly.

Mouse looks up, her mouth dropping open. "You... came back."

"So did you. Though I'm not generally fond of it when women run out on me... have you got a name? I don't think you ever said and you know mine from my wristlink – it seems terribly odd for me to address you as Bar Girl," Kenny says wryly.

Why Mouse should turn such an awful shade of scarlet, she doesn't know, but she ignores it when she says, "Roxanne. But everyone calls me Mouse."

"Mouse? Now that's not a terribly nice name," Kenny says as she settles on the stool across from her. "But Roxanne – now there's a name with some beauty and history – there's poetry and songs about Roxanne. Though I wouldn't call you Roxy. You're far too dignified for that," she adds as Mouse automatically pours her a vodka tonic.

"I... kind of like that idea," Roxanne says shyly. "Sh-should I just call you Kenara, then?"

Kenny smiles. "You could... or Kenny. It's what my friends use – though my mother, of course, tended to use all three of my names whenever I wasn't up to her version of snuff. Ah, deities, you should've heard her – 'Kenara Madison Smith, you get your ass off that chair and wash those dishes right now!'" Laughing, she says, "My friend Jessie used to call it the 'KMS alert'. 'Uh-oh,' she'd say. 'KMS alert! Better hide your Coffin Nails!' Somehow, Mom always knew, though."

Mouse's heart has never beat so fast in all her life. Here she is with her original Galatea, the face for Pygmalion, talking to someone whose initials are KMS who has the same humor, the same joie de vivre that drew her into the web of sex and lust with KMS and – and – and she has to kiss her. Just once. Just... this... once.

Fuzzy would understand. She just knows it. The old cat was a pleasure hound. He'd get why she has to know, why she has to take a chance at something besides endless solitude.

The bar doesn't seem like much of an epic hurdle, and Kenny certainly isn't complaining, although it is rather uncomfortable to have almost three feet of solid mahogany between them. Her mouth, though – by the deities, Kenny's mouth is everything Mouse wants it to be. Soft and hot, lush and wanton. She practically crawls over the damn bar, sending the glass flying, splashing vodka everywhere, but then she's on the other side, pushing Kenny into the wood, her hands in her hair, gasping, plundering her mouth, carving heated rails of touch into her body, sliding her hands up under Kenny's shirt and digging at her ribs, cupping her breasts, doing the things she knows KMS loves, pinching and rolling her nipples sharply as Kenny sobs with need.

"Fuck, Roxanne, it's like you've got the map to everything that turns me way the fuck on," Kenny whimpers, kissing her helplessly.

"You have mine, too, Kenny," Roxanne whispers. "Think. You called me Bar Girl. Yourself KMS. This is real now. Real and if you still want me, I'm going home with you."

Kenny's head feels like it's about to implode. Bar Girl – Roxanne – her bartender is... BarGirl_10? "But -" she whispers. "You ran away," she says, tears burning in her eyes.

"I'm not running now. You found me. You caught me," Roxanne says as she pulls back shyly. "I am made of secrets. You just keep uncovering them."

"Secrets? But," Torn between wanting to take this beautiful, incredible woman home and do everything she ever wanted to do to BarGirl right now and getting away before it's more than her libido that's signed away to the altar of this woman's intensely sky blue eyes, Kenny just stands there and says. "What secrets?"

"Just one, really," Roxanne says as she drops onto a bar stool. "BarGirl isn't my only username. I ah... I'm also The Big Cheese."

And that just does it for Kenny. The laughter just won't stop. "You... you made the Pygmalion?"

"Unfortunately," Roxanne mutters, wondering if she's just lost everything she could have had.

The sick tone gives Kenny pause. "Unfortunately? Hey... someone told me that I -" She starts to frown as two and two rushes to form four. "Oh by all the deities and star lights – you... I – you made it to look like me!" she whispers, putting her hands to her face in a rushing mélange of horror, embarrassment, shock, and maybe even a little bit of pride. "I was your... muse?"

"Yes. You walked in here one night and... I wanted you. I wanted to have you all to myself. To be the one you took home. But you never saw me, so I... I thought I could make a substitute. Only that failed, too, because even though Pygmalion could hold me and talk to me and say everything I wanted to hear, it wasn't real. It wasn't... right." Roxanne begins to pace. "So I thought, if I just... set it free, I could make some money and then... then get Outside and it wouldn't matter anymore because Outside, I'd be too busy to care about my heart. I'd meet some Old Timer with a few years left, we'd settle down, raise some food, enjoy the sunlight, and watch the stars at night. But then I met KMS and I thought – maybe this PleasureMaster thing wasn't so bad – maybe I could be happy like everyone else."

"And I had to go and ruin it by suggesting we meet for real," Kenny says sourly.

Shaking her head, Roxanne grabs her hands and says, "Yes and no – there was... my cat... he... died and I was so guilty, so upset and yet, there you were, offering... everything I wanted, suddenly, I was terrified of it. You were perfection to me and everyone else was just... boring. I didn't want to meet KMS and be disappointed."

"And now?" Kenny asks softly as she falls into a world of blue.

"Now I just want you to take me home. Forever," Roxanne replies, sneaking a soft kiss. "Or at least, for tonight. I'm leaving, you see. Going Outside. There's nothing here. I want to be... free."

"What about me?" Kenny blurts. "I'm here! You said forever. That's not just 'forever until I leave', you know!"

"Then come with me. Come Outside. We'll travel. Find the sea. Make love on the beach," Roxanne says as she tugs Kenny toward the doors. "We'll turn our backs on this stupid, pleasure mad world where nothing is real and it's all in your head and live, really live!"

They're just meters from the hovertaxi stand. Kenny can feel everything in her life coming to a solid and sharp fork. Two branches appear – one takes her far away from the world of Micrapendo and the arcologies and the other condemns her to a life of meaningless sex with machines.

"You're offering me bugs if I give up bots," Kenny says weakly.

"I'll invent repellant for you," Roxanne says, laughing brightly. "Come on, Kenara. Take me home. I want to be inside you," she murmurs, kissing her hungrily. "I want you inside me. Flesh to flesh. No more feedback, my love, just pure real adrenaline."

The kisses are too powerful to ignore, too right, too proper, too perfect – Roxanne is her bar girl and she loves her. "I love you," Kenny murmurs, stepping into the hovertaxi and pulling Kenny with her. "I love you."

"I love you, too, my beautiful muse," Roxanne whispers.

Dogbot sighs and groans as Kenny shouts, "Oh, fuck, Roxanne, yes, suck me, suck me hard!" for what has to be the fiftieth time that night.

Catbot just preens his whiskers and says, "Don't worry, doggy – they'll get tired soon. They're only human, you know. Now, let's see about downloading those instructions on how to use wind to power a small mill... we're going to need to keep our batteries good and charged, my floppy friend – those two are going to need all the help they can get!"

Kenny doesn't want to move, doesn't want to slip from this place of utter perfection where Roxanne's fingers are still curled deep inside her, her mouth fastened to her nipple, sucking and biting, as she shatters her with orgasm after orgasm, but if she doesn't get up soon, the ArcCops are going to haul them out of there like a pair of squatters.

"It's time, Roxanne," she murmurs tenderly, moaning softly. "Oh deities, you make me so fucking hot, baby," she moans when Roxanne just sweeps her thumb over her clit in hard, swift circles. "But seriously, we have to go-oh!"

As Kenny slumps into a semi-gelatinous puddle, Roxanne says, "Now we can go."

"Fuck," Kenny groans, but gets up, dresses and takes one last look around her flat – empty now of everything but memories. All else is already waiting at ground level, with their brand new TravelHome – an invention of Roxanne's and, surprisingly, catbot. The two put their noses together and, within hours, had created a mod for the simple ground roller that turned it from a box with all terrain tracks into a mobile dwelling with room to spare for a happy young couple and their petbot menagerie.

"No regrets?" Roxanne asks as she dresses for a whole new adventure.

Kenny shakes her head. "No. Mom and Dad are out there, somewhere. I'd like to find them. Say hello. Introduce you. Maybe – maybe the world Outside won't be so bad, with you," she says as her complant activates for the very last time. Messages pour in from every friend or acquaintance she's ever had – promises to find her when it's their turn to go Outside, terragigs of photos, videos and twenty-seven years of love and friendship download into the storage cortex. Presumably, Roxanne is undergoing something similar.

It's all they'll have to sustain them – all anyone going Outside has to remember those left in the massive cities that squat like giant glass spikes deep inside the landscape of earth.

Outside – the great unknown. Is it poison? Is it death? Or, after five hundred years, has the earth finally had time to heal? Can humanity actually survive, in small groups, and use the land properly while in the arcologies, the remaining billions wait their turn to breath real air, to live real lives outside the artificial world controlled solely by pleasure?

No one really knows for sure, because once Outside, no one ever returns to the arcology. Taking the long hovercar ride up and up and up – beyond everything but the very highest point in the arcology, Kenny and Roxanne cling to each other, hope, fear, and yes, a little sorrow, keeping them silent as everything they've ever known slowly fades behind them. Then it's into the TravelHome – not nearly a box on tracks that some of Kenny's less than charitable friends tagged it when she first sent pictures of the design out the other day. It's sleek and beautiful, and, as far as Kenny is concerned, perfect, because inside is the start of her life with Roxanne. The life she's always dreamed of – the partnership of love and sex, joy and curiosity, and laughter – always laughter.

Some officious looking bot reads off their particulars, gets them to sign an affidavit that yes, they are leaving of their own accord well before retirement and yes, they understand they can't ever come back or attempt to make contact with anyone still within Micrapendo or any other arcology, on pain of imprisonment or death.

"Yeah, yeah, we're exiles," Kenny mutters frustratedly. "Can we go now? This is boring me."

"You may depart, Kenara Madison Smith. May the deities guide your steps," the bot rolls away, Kenny and Roxanne climb into their vehicle, start it, and leave.

"Is that really how it all went, kitty?" Kenny says as she lies beside Roxanne, their brittle gray hair twisted and tangled together on the pillow. "Did we really just drive away? I mean, you hear so much now about how they fight to keep them – how the Pygmalions can't let their humans go -"

"That's how it was, Kenny," he says gently. "Peaceful and right, just the way it was meant to be."

The Pygmalion wars have ravaged Earth as the pleasure bots have turned on their partners and destroyed every last bastion of green left just so they can keep their slaves bound to the underground arcologies and their lives of meaningless, emotionless, perfect sex.

For the last ten hours, Roxanne has been wired into the last headweb mainframe that the resistance has managed to cobble together, attempting, somehow, to activate the backdoor code to her creation and cause them all to self destruct, but Mouse is old now, her bones weak and weary with age, her mind worn and frayed – bits and pieces have slipped away over the years as she and Kenny have fought to stay one step ahead of the Pygmalions.

Catbot has done all he can, but now, what remains is this – love, hope, and his final secret weapon – truth. For every hour that Roxanne has been under, he has retold their tale, pulling all the pieces of their past from the dark recesses of their minds and forcing them to remember those early days, to relive those moments of that long year where they stumbled and bumbled, tripped and staggered until they finally fell helplessly, haplessly, and perfectly in love.

It's in truth where he hopes Roxanne will find the key.

Outside the explosions grow louder. The thundering growl of assault vehicles, gunfire, and screams come closer and closer – there's fire in the wind, fire and death and the end of everything – of all free life – unless there's one more miracle hiding inside Mouse's fragmented mind.

Kenny hugs her wife close, her tears soaking their hair. "Come on, baby, you can do this," she whispers. "You can do this for Jess and Bill and Sarah and Cass." Their children, their children's children, and the families they never thought to have, but had anyway – the fighters out there on the front lines, pouring their lives into Hell to buy them five more seconds.

Roxanne cries out, her eyes pop open, and in a hollow, shockingly lifeless voice she screams, "No!"

The door bursts open. Three dozen Pygmalions burst inside, pulse weapons aimed at the elderly couple. Catbot leaps, claws extended as dogbot attacks, barking and growling viciously. A shot is fired. Catbot screams and falls and then, one by one, the Pygmalions begin to dissolve as Mouse's command sweeps through their system, their bodies vanishing, crumbling into their original component materials – powdering before dogbot's shocked eyes.

Catbot blinks and purrs brokenly. "Did it, Kenny." When she doesn't reply, he slowly drags himself over to the bed, climbs up and nudges her hand. "Kenny?" His battery is about gone, but there's just enough left for him to read her biosigns and they're... gone.

"No. Oh no," he purrs sadly, barely able to check Mouse. She's gone too – both lost in that last burst of fight.

Dogbot whimpers and looks up at the bed.

"Shoo," catbot whispers. "Go find Jess, doggy. Find Jess!" he says, knowing the bot loves her more than anything. With a bark, he takes off.

Burrowing himself between his oldest and dearest friends, catbot uses the very last of his strength to link his mind into the last ergs of the headweb and goes back, back, and back almost two hundred years to when they first exited the arcology and saw the sun rise for the first time, felt real air on their faces, and, when the rain fell, danced and laughed for hours while the brand new world spread itself out for them.

"Look, kitty," Kenny says with a happy laugh. "It's a squirrel! Are you going to chase it?"

"I'm a petbot, not a rodent hunter," he says, studying the squirrel with interest.

Roxanne laughs. "Oh, go have fun, kitty. We've got a whole world – a whole big world to play in now!"

Brighter and brighter and brighter the light gets until, with a final purr, the catbot's batteries fail.

"You did it, baby," Kenny says as she and Roxanne lie in a field of bright yellow flowers watching dandelion motes dance in the sun. "You stopped them."

Roxanne smiles. "I did, didn't I? Funny how long it took me to find that damn RECYCLE ALL command, though. Still – never thought it would be the fucking death of me."

Kenny laughs. "Oh hush. We aren't dead, just... uploaded to a new mainframe, that's all. Isn't that what you'd say about one of your crappy designs?"

"Oh shush, you," she replies, tackling her to the ground and tickling her mercilessly. "Or I'll..."

"Make love to me forever?" Kenny whispers, kissing dandelion fluff off her lips. "And ever."

"Something like that," Roxanne murmurs, planting kisses down the column of her throat. "After all, eternity is a long, long time. We might get bored."

"Baby, we had two hundred years and we still couldn't stop fooling around. Something tells me eternity won't be able to handle us!" Kenny says, laughing wickedly. "Touch me, Roxanne. I need you inside me."

"Oh deities!" Roxanne murmurs, "I will never, ever tire of hearing that."

Across the field, his tail swishing as he watches a squirrel bound through the limbs of a tree, catbot sighs and says, "Gotta love a happy ending. Thanks Fate. I owe you one!" and leaps for the squirrel as a tiny, jewel-bright spider scurries across a web.

The End

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