Claire Saunders isn't real. It says so, on file.
But there's more information than that. A ZIP code, for example: turns out it belongs to a self-storage facility in Santa Clara, where the long corridor of blue-shielded units is a like a visualisation of the brain. Or maybe the internet? Claire walks along it, slip of paper she stole like a rag between her fingers, smudged by the sweat on her hands. She wonders who the other people are, who have their lives stored here for a rainy day, whether they'll come back to them with as much trepidation as her.
It's odd, being here, when she's never been in one of these places before. Odd that she'll have something to take away that she didn't lay in place.
There's a unit that's hers, but it looks like all the others. Claire stares at it, the folds of metal all rolled out across the doorway, then presses a hand against the blue, catching the underside of her knuckles as her fingers slip along the ridges. The paper in her hand has a code, which she presses into the computerised lock, and of course it opens the door on its other side, leaving her pressed up close to what belongs to someone even more else.
With a sigh she steps away, into the opened unit. She isn't sure what she expected – a blast of the other, perhaps? Saddle and tack hung up on the wall to tell her she didn't once make horses whinny and stamp at her touch? Boxes askew, a self-help book falling out of one well-thumbed and promising she could get in touch with her 'feminine energy'? A piano? What she's got is boxes, plain brown cardboard, not neat but not scruffy as they're stacked in a collection of towers. A bicycle leans against the wall. Claire had a bicycle in college.
She knows she should feel something, guilt perhaps, as she immediately pulls the brown tape off the first box she comes to, but she knows full well that whoever put these things here isn't going to know. She, or indeed he, or maybe she should say ze, is locked away on a delicately fashioned brick of metal and plastic. It's Claire who's here.
The box is full of kitchen things, crockery and a coffee maker, a pair of tongs and a plastic slotted spoon. A lamp has been thrown in as well, with multiple joints made out of black-painted metal. None of it means anything. Another box is full of books, paperbacks by people Claire doesn't know with robots and space cities on the covers, classics that look decidedly less well-read, bioengineering textbooks, and a photo in a frame of Claire graduating from somewhere she never went.
Her actual graduation photo, which she knows does not exist, is not all that dissimilar; it still looks like her staring back from the glossy paper. Which is wrong, all too wrong, because she knows it was someone different inside – it should still matter, even in a frozen image like this.
Who are you? she thinks, though of course the photo is not marked with any name, just as its face isn't marked by scars. They must have assumed she would know when she looked at it again.
Another box contains a laptop case, heavy and chunky and maybe five years out of date. She takes it out and there are clothes underneath it, but Claire's beginning to wonder whether she hasn't planned this trip all wrong. The heft of the laptop feels right in her hand, better than cardboard flaps, as if all the information she needs will be found in the computer, rather than in the objects that surround her. It feels right to look for another hard drive.
A moment's decision, and then Claire steps back, glancing once more around the dusty, but pleasantly climate-controlled room. It's not that bad a place for a life to lie in waiting, but she isn't so sure that it's a life that's here. Could you define anyone by a lamp? Some well-read books? Probably this is nothing but a collection of objects. A still life, apple on a table.
Turning on a toe, Claire leaves the facility with the laptop case, a garish red against her black dress. She doesn't even glance at the receptionist as she returns to the sunshine and her car. But, before she can drive away, she is forced to halt on the forecourt. Sharply.
Not four cars away from hers, there is a tall woman she cannot help but recognise, overseeing a young man loading boxes into a van. "Careful," she's saying, hand shielding her eyes. "I can't replace the glass in that one."
November. Or, no, not November, but it takes Claire a moment to recall her real name. Then she remembers: Madeline Costley.
Claire thinks about walking by, relying on the fact that Madeline has only met her twice – even if Claire has measurements enough to rebuild her body from clay. This is hardly facing up to her dislike of other people, but it feels like it would be best. Finally, knowing she shouldn't risk word getting back to DeWitt, she tries just that, walking by the scrubby bushes that divide the rows of parking bays.
But her movement catches Madeline's attention, and more than that it seems the woman has a good memory for faces. Either that or the scars are memorable. "Oh, hello!" she says, dropping the hand from her eyes now she's facing away from the sun – even though it doesn't stop her squinting. She stands differently from any personality they ever gave her, but she still looks like November. "Dr. Saunders, right? How are you?"
"I'm fine," Claire replies, feeling over-exposed with her arms at her sides. "Thank you." The laptop case is heavy in her right hand, its shoulder strap dragging on the asphalt. "How have you been?"
Beside Madeline, the man continues loading the van, apparently paid well enough not to take this time to slack. Madeline glances his way from time to time, even as she pursues their conversation. "I'm doing really well, actually. Getting my life back together." For a moment her mouth quirks into a sad sort of smile. "It's refreshing, you know? To wake up in a world that's years ahead of where I left it. Her shows aren't on anymore; none of the kids down the park have her toys." She nods. "It's easier."
Of course; her daughter. Claire doesn't know what to say, since she knows it's not a doctor's opinion that's wanted. "I'm glad," she tries eventually, suddenly wanting to know if Madeline still likes swimming so very much, as much as November did. "I mean, I hope it's what you wanted."
Again Madeline smiles. "I think it is."
The sound of the highway is loud in the afternoon, buzzing like the heat that rises from the black-grey tarmac beneath them. Or at least it seems that way to Claire, but she doesn't know why Topher gave her synaesthesia.
Now she's annoyed herself with thoughts of Topher, Claire forces herself to ask another question, if only for the distraction. "So, what brings you all the way out here?"
Madeline looks confused, glancing towards the building before she looks back to Claire. "Adelle said this was where all the actives left their things. Something about there being a close call with an engagement one time? Back in LA?" She's clearly looking for confirmation, but for a second Claire can't give it to her. Where all the actives left their things. Because naturally they were all the same: blank slates waiting for their chalk.
Finally Claire pulls together a sentence. "I'm sure that's right," she says, relieved as Madeline relaxes, her removal man heading back into the building, presumably for more objects. Claire continues her lie. "I'm not involved in that side of the operation, so I didn't realise." She holds up the laptop in her hand, a little like a shield, conscious of how its scuffed appearance doesn't match her own style of self-presentation. "I needed a place to store some things of my own; someone recommended the security here." No, wait, that doesn't make enough sense. "And I have family…" she offers also.
"Well, it's nice to see you," Madeline remarks, her face unmarred by suspicion or accusation. "I suppose we can catch up at my diagnostic?"
Claire doesn't know why she says it, not entirely, but she shakes her head. "Um, unfortunately that won't be possible. I've had to take a leave of absence."
"Oh." Madeline frowns.
"But it is very nice to see you," Claire finishes quickly, cutting over the dirt and scrub to find her car. She smiles the requisite amount of times, waving even as she drives away.
Madeline doesn't seem to take the hint, watching as she goes.
Ganymede was a guy. A guy so beautiful that Zeus wanted to take him up to heaven. Or Olympus, I guess.
There are files on the laptop. Music and games – like Half Life 2(?) – and Thoughts: a sprawling OpenOffice document that reads like a parody of a diary. Claire would never have allowed herself to write like this.
I don't know why my folks never cracked an encyclopedia. Why pick a boy's name for your daughter when you can check it out so easy?
Claire sits on her hotel bed as she reads, index finger jabbing at the laptop's 'down' key, wondering how to take the overwrought self-reflection as she scans the words of 12-point Arial.
I wonder if sex with someone else would make this body feel like mine.
The problem is, these are feelings she understands, even if they are worries she never had. Claire remembers, after all, the one time she had sex, in a room not unlike this one. Prom had been hell beforehand, but she didn't hate people at eighteen quite the way that she did now, and Harvey Ramirez hadn't been a bad date, even; he'd been kind and danced with her enough that she could check off another social ritual where she'd strategically avoided revealing her geekiness. Apart from to her friends, of course, who all had plans to cap the Big Night in capital letters, just like the movies – including Lacey, obviously, though it wasn't going to be as special for her (but, you know, she's been with Stewart for five years, so you can't call her a slut).
Were any of those people real? That, Claire thinks, would be interesting to find out.
All the same, Claire remembers every second of the fabricated memory: the darkness as she undressed and the feel of cool hotel sheets against her bare skin, lying back beneath that other body, being kissed and touched and realising there was something new between her legs, politely sheathed in rubber. She'd snuck a flask of Dad's bourbon in her bag; they'd been drinking – it made her feel more secure.
The main thing she remembers is how warm Harvey was against her, hot pressure everywhere, pushing air into her flesh even when he held himself above her. Woozy from the drink, she felt different in her body, enough to respect the belief that sex is a transformative experience. Yet even after his pants and grunts, his graceful retreat to the trashcan, she knew it hadn't changed her. It hadn't changed a thing, just as she'd known it would not.
Had this person, her former self – Ganymede, was that ?her name? – had she tried sex, Claire wondered, before the Dollhouse? Would it have changed anything for her?
Claire realises then that she's been staring at the wall; a bland print of a cornfield drifts into focus. Shaking her head, she looks down again at the laptop, scrolling down the document further and further, pages and pages, until she reaches the end.
This afternoon I'm going to tell Topher.
Suddenly Claire's breath stills. She can't believe the words in front of her.
This afternoon I'm going to tell Topher.
Her heart begins to pound through the silence, far too fast. No, she thinks, it's not possible. It can't be the same… Is there anything that – child – doesn't know? Her finger, moving on its own, fumbles back and forth across the touchpad, closing the OpenOffice window, shutting the laptop down. She shuts the lid before the action can complete, pushing the heavy thing away from her to the end of the bed, stretching the power cable as far as it will go.
There are tears in her eyes now, necessary breathing ragged. She feels sick as she looks at the laptop. This, surely, is the last intrusion. To know who she was before.
Shaking, she stands, shuts off the light and slides under the bedclothes. Her shoes drop to the floor as she wrenches the sheet-tails from beneath the mattress, squeezing her eyes shut against wakefulness.
Ganymede Grey is a lie. She knows this as she looks in the mirror, hair three-days greasy though you can't really tell, skin clear though all she drinks is soda and she's just spent the day eating a full bag of Frito Lay's. As she stares, Ganna wonders what it would be like to have a tattoo, right across her face – something crass or gross or ugly or geeky. She'd do it, too, if it wouldn't result in everyone saying 'oh, what have you done to your lovely face?' – or, worse, look good.
Behind her, her phone rings. It's always ringing – she's popular, for reasons she doesn't understand.
"Hello?" she answers her cell to an unknown number.
"Good evening," comes a woman's reply, crisp and English – set to stun. "Am I speaking with Ganymede Grey?"
"Sure." Graduate top of your class (sucks to be you, Topher)? You stop being intimidated by phone calls. If nothing else.
"My name is Adelle DeWitt." Ganna sucks in a breath, because of course she recognises that name. "From Rossum's Identity Sequencing Programme. I'm calling to inform you that you've met our criteria for the final stage; I was hoping we could arrange a time to meet so that we might discuss it further."
Ganna sits down. There's no convenient chair so she lands on the carpet, breathing heavily. Met our criteria. She can't believe it. They told her at the beginning of the tests, months of psych analysis, that they were stringent and meticulous – and probably not looking for what you thought they were looking for. She's never been able to tell what she has in common with any of the groups she's been tested with; she never thought it would get this far.
But – to know who she is, to understand and see what makes her who she is? That's all she's ever wanted.
"Miss Grey?" DeWitt asks after the silence. "Miss Grey, are you there?"
Another few years and she'll be Dr. Grey. In light of this she doesn't care.
"I'm totally at your disposal."
Strangely, Claire wakes to the phone ringing. Too asleep to remember caution she reaches out a hand and lifts the receiver.
"Hello?" she asks shakily into the plastic, bringing the phone to her ear.
"It's Madeline," November's voice says. "I've been trying to find you." She's talking quickly for the morning, relieved but furtive – strange-sounding. "I'm not assuming anything, but something struck me about you yesterday. I want to give you a number, for someone who understands."
"Madeline…" Claire tries to ask. "What?"
"Don't say anything, just take it and use it if you want to. This shouldn't go on." And then she tells Claire a number, once before hanging up the phone.
Going by the facts of human recall, Claire knows she shouldn't be able to remember the whole number; it's not even a California code. But November's voice continues in her head, the tones perfectly repeating themselves until, for better or worse, Claire clutches the pen on the nightstand and transcribes the number to the hotel's message pad.
It's morning now, but early enough that her East-facing window is ablaze with sun. Claire's woken in her clothes. The zip of her dress is digging into her back, make-up is clogging up her eyes; she feels awful.
And so she showers, washing her hair with the generic-smelling shampoo and conditioner the hotel provides. It makes her hair feel different as it dries, unfamiliar almost, but as she tries to look at it in the cloudy mirror she realises that is a stupid point to get stuck on. Snug in the hotel's overly-fluffy bathrobe she sits back on the bed, lifting Madeline's phone number from the bedside table and staring at the chickenscratch numbers.
Clearly Madeline knows. Residual memory or sharp perception, whatever the cause, there's only one thing to 'know' about Claire Saunders and Madeline Costley knows what it is.
Even though she didn't think she would, Claire finds herself dialling the number. She phones many people, all the time it feels, though she has no friends; why make an exception now?
It picks up on the third ring. "Hello?" A woman's voice answers. "Madeline?"
"… No," Claire replies.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the voice says back, a little unctuous. "I thought only Madeline had – this number."
OK, Claire thinks, that's odd. "Madeline gave me the number."
"Oh!" She sounded excited now. "Are you another… Would you know what I mean if I asked you about Dollhouses?"
Years (at least one) of paranoid secrecy make the question immediately seem dangerous. "Who is this?" Claire asks, fairly certain now that she should abandon this conversation.
The voice is high and sweet enough to be a honey trap. "My name is Cynthia Perrin. I think we should meet –" Cynthia doesn't get to say anymore, because Claire hangs up the phone.
Nothing good ever comes from talking about the Dollhouse and no one ever brings it up seriously unless they have a lot of power to their name. It's time to leave the hotel; she shouldn't have rung the number. She should never have let it distract her.
And so Claire drives back to LA, because where else can she go? Holed up in a fleabag motel she begins to study everything the computer has to offer, learning everything she can about the person whose body she owns.
There's a Rossum building on campus, the façade of which shines brightly in the lunchtime sun. Slurping on her cola, Ganna asks Topher over the table, "Would you ever work for Rossum?"
He snorts into his burger. "Uh, no? Sure, all pharmas are evil, but I'd rather not get issued a one-way ticket to hell."
Mutely Ganna nods, staring at the mirrored building. It's five-hundred yards away, but she feels like she can see her face staring back at her.
"Hey, you OK?" Topher asks, stealing her uneaten fries. "You're spacing."
She knows she should tell him about the research programme; she's been meaning to tell him about the research programme. What she says is, "I think I'm having a queer day." It's true. "Nothing feels right."
That Topher can take that in his stride, that's what makes him great. "You wanna try some neutrals again?" he asks. "I'm juiced up on Spivak."
"I think I wanna play Halo," she replies, smiling as much as she can. At least one more game.
The more Claire reads, the more it comes back to him. Topher, Topher, Topher – it's like that name is all she can see, all she can find. Even as she plays the computer games from beginning to end (computer skills, she has them, though Morrowind takes an age), she can hear his voice in the back of her mind, offering his morally-suspect opinions as if his preferred actions would get her through these new worlds faster.
She has to find him again, she knows that now, but she also knows that sex is not the way to get to him with this body. That was a mistake, but she doesn't blame herself for following her limited information to the lowest common denominator.
There are photos on the laptop and it's those she follows to make her look this time. She buys jeans a size too large, men's black t-shirts and flannel button-downs, lets her hair grow greasy tied back in a pony tail. She learns how to walk in flat shoes, lets the laces of her Converse fray on the ground. When she looks in the mirror it's Claire Saunders she sees, scars and all, but she knows Ganymede never saw ?herself, so she doesn't think that's a problem.
Her face without make-up, Claire knows, isn't one that Topher will recognise, though she sees it every morning. Walking out the house with it feels something like a victory.
DeWitt pours her some tea, into a green cup with no handles. "Ganymede," she says.
"Call me Ganna." The room's black, strangely, but then they are underground. Still, she's been led to believe that LA is somewhat shinier than this. The stark white light has an alien-abduction vibe; kind of a fail for a woman who's in sales.
Though maybe it's accurate? "Ganna," DeWitt concedes. "You're aware this is a ten-year programme, and you will only be conscious for an hour-long check-up within that period, unless the programme ends under adverse circumstances."
"What's gonna happen to my body in that time?" Not that she really cares, to be honest, but Ganna asks anyway, eyeing DeWitt as she sips her tea.
Elegantly DeWitt places her teacup back in its saucer before she answers, "Your brain will be introduced to a number of personality prototypes – archetypes, if you will – of increasing complexity as our research continues. They will be involved in a number of different scenarios, including criminal and sexual situations –" They both glance at Ganna's forms, spread across the table with the blue ink quite obvious. "But you have indicated you are comfortable with this." A smile flits across DeWitt's face. "By the time the programme is complete, we project that we will have the ability to sequence your identity entirely, after which a number of processes will be available to you, free of charge. Naturally, you will also be paid very handsomely for your involvement."
Ganna looks DeWitt in the eye. "I'll know who I am?" After all, that's the most important question.
"You'll know who you are," DeWitt confirms, leaning forward and crinkling her eyes a little closed, assessing. "Are there any last calls you would like to make before we begin?"
For a moment Ganna's tongue sticks in her throat. She meant to tell Topher yesterday, but now there isn't time. Now she's here it's best she just disappears, it really is. "No," she replies.
It takes weeks for Claire to get it right, but every second is worth it for the look on Topher's face as she walks down the corridor and into the server room.
"Heya," she says, with a grin and a finger-wave.
For a moment he does nothing but stare at her, eyes alight with hope and fear. "What did you do?" he asks.
"Oh, nothing major," she replies. "Most people, they wanna change themselves?" She tells him like it's a secret, "They go shopping."
He's getting the subtext, she knows he is. His face reads of nothing but betrayal. "How could you… Why would you come to me, looking like this?"
She shrugs, walking into the room proper, scuffing her shoes on the ground. The Dollhouse is the same, it seems, with electronics housing people in dark, dank rooms. Topher's bed has bright-coloured sheets on it, but even they can't stand against the murk. "I'm surprised at your restraint," she continues, looking round the room and watching him fall apart out of the corner of her eye. "You asked me, sure, if I wanted to know who I was…" She's trying new speech patterns, but she's not sure how well they work. "I didn't realise that you wanted me that way."
"I didn't want –" Topher replies, still reeling and backing away from her. "What are you doing here? Why are you doing this? Claire – I… This lacks all fairness."
She stops, turns and faces him. He can't look away, but he's cringing from the sight of her. Frustrated, she asks sharply, "Who am I to you? What did you make me?" Now she approaches him, gets in his space (and his sickening smell of sugar and fried potato). "Did you miss her?" His eyes reluctantly meet hers. "Didya miss me, Topher?"
"You left." For a moment it sounds like real emotion in his voice, but then he starts back, angry with himself. "She – left." He's angry with her now, glaring and pointing while she crosses her arms in clothes that need a wash. "You wanna know who she was to me? What, you didn't figure that out? Ganna was – my best friend, for six years. And she had problems, you know, who doesn't?" He's shaking his head and running his hands through his hair. Claire wonders what's been happening, in the time she's been away. "I thought she was solving them," Topher continues, not really talking to her. "But she left. To become a doll." On that word he deflates, phantom misery rising in his expression. "I guess," he continues, "I guess she thought that would make things better, when she got out. I haven't spoken to her since…"
"Since when?" Claire demands, though she already suspects the truth.
There's no mercy now in Topher's gaze. "Since right before I imprinted you."
It's true, then. Of course it's true. Claire can feel it in her bones. Her original self is a part of her; Claire Saunders is a refraction of Ganymede Grey, twisted and reconsidered but nonetheless a reaction against that original human being. She is no whole, she lacks integrity. She's an echo in a cave. A solution to a problem.
"You made me, then," Claire says, hearing the first promise of tears in her voice, "to be the mirror image of her. To like nice clothes and high-heeled shoes, to know who I am and what I believe. You really did it."
Topher squeezes his eyes shut. "I needed us to disagree. I needed you to be different…"
"But you still needed me in the Dollhouse." She's working it out now, the way his mind worked. "You needed a person who would never leave this place, but you couldn't have me hate myself. So, I'm supposing, you engineered me to hate the world instead." Resolutely she sniffs as Topher looks back, straightens her shoulders and tells him the truth. "Well, you failed. Because I'm not a person." He seems scared of her now, but she can't bring herself to read his fear as anything more than a chemical process. "I'm looking God in the eye and I can see all the moulds He worked from. I'm not a person; I know everything there is to know about me." In this situation Claire Saunders would tilt her head and blink, and so she does. "Didn't you remember that people never know?"
For a moment he stares at her, but then he regroups and asks, forcefully, "What do you want me to say, Claire? That I'm not perfect?"
She slings sarcasm back. "You've never admitted it before."
"Fine!" He throws his hands in the air. "I'm not perfect! I make mistakes! My UI operates with a semi-permanent malfunction! Is that enough for you?"
"No," she replies. "It's not."
Shaking his head, Topher slumps, looking to one side at the humming machinery. They moved the wedges after Alpha's attack, she remembers that, and they're hidden in this room somewhere, almost certainly. Claire wonders what it would be like to have Ganymede in her head once again, to feel comfortable in these ill-fitting clothes. She can't imagine it would be better than this, she really can't.
Eventually, after a few moments, Topher speaks again. "Then explain to me – why are you here? I know how your brain works – I mean, from a very boring, social-interaction perspective as well as the neural cartography – but I don't know why you're here." He looks at her outfit, the carefully worn-out hems of her jeans. "Obviously you wanted to mess with me – is that what you're doing again?"
Claire rubs her eyes, sleeves drawn across her fingers; when she looks back Topher's shuddering at the gesture. "I don't know," she tells him. "I don't know what I'm doing." There's no way to gather her thoughts. "I first came to the Dollhouse – well, you made me think I first came to the Dollhouse to escape the world. To be a rat in the plushest cage that would have me." She pauses, thinking back to her made-up interview with DeWitt, selling herself with possibly more fervour than she ever has before, merely for the opportunity. "Escaping the world was easy. But escaping the Dollhouse? Escaping myself? It feels impossible. All I do is end up where I was before."
"I could reset you?" Topher offers, with little enthusiasm. "You could forget everything you found out – you could come back and start again…"
"And find out for a second time?" she asks. He doesn't have an answer. "If we looked at my bio, I think we'd see that I'm curious, observant and have above-expert diagnostic skills. No one is that proficient at keeping secrets. Not in this house."
"Then where will you go?"
She doesn't reply, because she still doesn't know.
Her phone rings in her pocket as she leaves. "Hello?" she answers.
"Dr. Saunders?" comes a woman's voice, far too familiar. "Cynthia Perrin. You're a hard woman to find."
"Not by any means," Claire replies, tucking the phone to her shoulder as she crouches down to tie her laces. It's then that she decides. "Let's meet."
There's a van by the coffee shop. Men. Violence. She struggles, because she's built to always struggle, but eventually she falls, eyelashes drifting shut against a face of old scars and fresh bruises.
Claire Saunders isn't real, so in the end she wonders, what is the point?
A week later, Claire Saunders is allowed to wake up. She sees Boyd with dewy eyes, bright giggly feelings tingling for him the way they always have. She knows she's a doll, but it's true, isn't it, that he can make her feel real?