Klaus contemplated the screen one last time, and pressed 'enter.' As the form was processed, he could feel heat rising to his face; a mixture of guilt, embarrassment and excitement. It was done. Klaus took a deep breath, turned his computer off and headed for the gym.
The workout had been heavier than usual, designed to help him sleep: but that was not to be. He spent most of the night berating the ceiling for his own weakness. And he'd been not only weak, but also incompetent. Incapable of choosing, the shame too strong to allow for any choice at all. In the end, the 'automatic profile match' option had been the only way out. Assuming they knew what they were doing more than he did.
* * *
The rest of Klaus's week passed in a blur—working too hard, not sleeping too well, despising himself for his folly. He should have got a cat. Except a cat was not really what he needed. He could not put it in so many words, but this was not about companionship.
* * *
Klaus took a deep breath and pulled his duvet higher to cover most of his face. Saturday night, 2300 hours. Back from work since 2030 hours to a snack in front of the news and a 120-minute intensive workout. The heights of social life. He could almost see Conrad's face, wavering between disapproval and pity as it was doing more and more often each time Klaus went to the Schloss. Which was the reason for living in the Bonn flat now.
He tried to relax one muscle at a time. Unsuccessfully. His back hurt like hell, be it from tension at work or excessive exercise he didn't know. He closed his eyes; God, he was so tired of staring at the ceiling.
The doorbell rang. Klaus sprang up, and grabbed his gun from under his pillow. Sliding in the familiar darkness, he was at the door just as the unexpected visitor leaned on the bell again. Klaus peered through the peephole. Unknown male. 185 cm, 72 to 75 kg. A ridiculous head of curly, yellow hair. Not enough light to discern his facial features. Tasteless red clothes, indecent pose. Apparently harmless; but Klaus knew better than to trust appearances. Yes, the man looked like some sort of effete fop, but Klaus had seen children use AK-47s with practiced and lethal ease. He waited. After a minute, the man rang the bell a third time. Then he stepped back as if uncertain. And stood. After ten minutes, the man was still standing motionless in front of the door. Even for someone like Klaus, the situation was becoming creepy. Time for action. He yanked the door open and aimed his gun at the stranger. Who raised his face and smiled. "Hello! I am your PlayThing, from PlayThing.com. I apologise for the late delivery. I can provide a delivery slip, if you so require."
Gun still pointed, Klaus stared, feeling a deep blush reach up to his ears.
The PlayThing kept smiling, and after 30 seconds it repeated: "Hello! I am your PlayThing, from PlayThing.com. I apologise for the late delivery. I can provide a delivery slip, if you so require it. PlayThing.com would appreciate your acknowledgement and acceptance of your order."
His arms getting heavy, Klaus lowered his gun. He hadn't realised the delivery would be so quick.
"Hello, I am—"
"Shut up! I understood the first time!"
The PlayThing stopped, its smile dimming. It stood motionless again. Then it started over, in a monotone: "PlayThing.com offers all its customers fourteen days to return their purchase if dissatisfied. Shipping expenses are included in the deal."
Return the purchase. Klaus considered it briefly. Repair the lapse. Erase the memory. But could he? After all the months of debate; the soul-searching; the bargaining with an unresponsive Above. After the bitter awareness of weaknesses he could not overcome had seeped into the ordered structure of his life.
The PlayThing opened his mouth again. Klaus stepped back. "Come in."
It walked into the living room, then turned, its smile back in place. "Thank you, MajorVonDemEberbach, on behalf of PlayThing.com. May I remind you that PlayThing.com would appreciate your acknowledgement and acceptance of your order within 24 hours of receipt."
Klaus closed the door and leaned against it. He felt leaden. His exhaustion seemed to have caught up with him all at once. He realised he had no idea what to do. He had not thought the practicalities through. The PlayThing was standing in his flat, smiling. Waiting.
"Ehm. Sit down."
Still smiling, the PlayThing graced the floor with its lean frame.
Klaus took a deep breath. "I meant on the sofa."
The PlayThing rose off the floor and spread itself on the cushions. It had never stopped smiling.
Suddenly, Klaus hated the posing. The affectations. The hair. The fine-boned face. The well-modulated voice. The peaches-and-cream colouring. The large blue eyes. The unceasing, beguiling smile. Rage replaced numbness.
"What the fuck were they thinking, sending me this poor excuse for a cheap tart?! Didn't they say they would match my profile?!"
The PlayThing blinked, and its expression became neutral. "In case of dissatisfaction or a change of mind, PlayThing.com offers its customers the option of a full refund upon return of the PlayThing unit, within the limits of fourteen days. Shipping charges inclu—"
Total, deep silence. Klaus realised that the PlayThing was not breathing. Nausea invaded him, and he threw himself on the closest armchair. He covered his face with his hands, the gun he was still holding cold over his right cheekbone. It had all been a ghastly mistake. Sleep. He needed sleep.
He stood, and turned towards his bedroom. He didn't look at the motionless PlayThing on the sofa.
* * *
MajorVonDemEberbach has entered sleep mode.
MajorVonDemEberbach has not acknowledged receipt and acceptance of his order.
Entering wait mode.
* * *
Klaus opened his eyes. He thought he remembered a tumult of dreams, but they fled as he moved. He'd overslept. No matter, it being Sunday. He dragged himself off the bed, heading for Nescafe—and realised the PlayThing was still sitting on the sofa, in the exact position as when it'd been ordered there. Its eyes were closed. Klaus knew he needed to deal with it, but he needed coffee more. And a shower. And clothes.
Showered and dressed, Klaus forced himself to stop his procrastination. He sat on the armchair facing the PlayThing, coffee in hand. "You. Can you hear me?"
The PlayThing opened its eyes, and smiled. "Good morning, MajorVonDemEberbach. I hope you slept well."
Klaus took a long pull at his coffee. "Right. What were you saying about your terms and conditions last night?"
"I am your PlayThing, from PlayThing.com. I can provide a delivery slip, if you so require. PlayThing.com would appreciate your acknowledgement and acceptance of your order within 24 hours of receipt. In case of dissatisfaction or a change of mind, PlayThing.com offers its customers the option of a full refund upon return of the PlayThing unit, within the limits of fourteen days. Shipping charges included in the deal."
So. Acceptance, or return. Klaus looked at the thing again. In the spring sunlight pouring in from the window, its hair looked like a shining cloud. Its eyes sparkled. Its skin glowed. It was sinister. It was a thing. It was beautiful. It was obedient. It was programmed for being exceptional in bed. Klaus knew that sending the PlayThing back would only mean starting his agonising all over again. Much as he hated it, he had to admit he needed it. And maybe, if he tried it for a few days, he would find he could do without it, after all. And return it within the full refund limit.
"If I cannot decide whether to keep you yet, what should I do?"
The PlayThing's smile disappeared. "You are welcome to return your PlayThing at a later date; progressive reductions of your refund will apply. In all cases, may I remind you that PlayThing.com would appreciate your acknowledgement and acceptance of your order within 24 hours of receipt."
Klaus took a deep breath. "I acknowledge receipt of my order."
* * *
MajorVonDemEberbach has acknowledged receipt and acceptance of his order.
Entering active mode.
* * *
The PlayThing threw itself at Klaus: "Darling! I knew you'd welcome me at last! I have SO been looking forward to meeting you!"
It was flexible, quick to pick itself off the floor, and it had a sturdy structure, noted Klaus as he shook his aching fist. "DO NOT pounce on me like that again, understand?"
The PlayThing cocked its head and pouted. "I don't care for a man who's like wire rope."
Then it turned to observe the hunting print on the far wall.
Klaus did a double take. What was going on? It had been slavishly obedient before. "You! Aren't you supposed to obey my orders?"
It turned, and smiled—but this time it was a derisive almost-sneer. "Make me, if you can." Crossing its arms, the PlayThing turned its back again.
A malfunction. It had to be a malfunction. He had to contact PlayThing.com before the damn thing blew up in the middle of his living room. "Where is your user manual? And the PlayThing.com help-line number, too."
"On the web site, where else? PlayThing.com. Look it up."
By the time Klaus had stopped sputtering, scanned through the user manual, decided it was as useless as any other manual he'd ever seen, and found the helpline number, the PlayThing had inspected the flat in detail. Its comments on the furnishings had not helped Klaus's patience. As he could tell from the reaction of the hapless call centre operator. They went through the usual idiotic diagnostic list—yes, the PlayThing had its eyes open. No, it had not been exposed to extreme temperatures. Yes, it talked. Which was the problem in the first place, wasn't it?
By the time the call had descended into a screaming match, the PlayThing was looking on with a smirk.
Klaus held his ground until he realised he was losing his voice. "For the last time, how can you say it's behaving normally and nothing is broken? It's not obeying orders! It's being exasperating!"
The speaker at the other end of the line—the sixth person to talk to Klaus, and allegedly the German branch manager of PlayThing.com—repeated the party line. "You asked for an automatic profile match. We customised and delivered a PlayThing with the appearance and personality that matched your profile most closely. Our files show that you acknowledged and accepted receipt your DRN-RD unit one hour ago, which assumes you are satisfied with our product. Should your opinion change, you have fourteen days—"
Klaus slammed the phone down, and sank on the sofa. He hated help-lines. "Fuck."
The PlayThing sauntered close, and went down on its knees in front of Klaus. "Your wish is my command, O Master."
The second it took Klaus to decide whether the PlayThing had started to function properly, or whether it was being sarcastic, was his undoing. The PlayThing had unzipped Klaus's trousers and applied its mouth to Klaus's cock. He froze. The marketing blurb had not lied or even exaggerated. The PlayThing's hands snaked up under Klaus's shirt. He rolled his eyes back, and moaned.
Next thing he knew, Klaus was lolling on the sofa, feeling his back finally relax and melt into the cushions. The PlayThing was sitting on the floor, nibbling and licking the area around Klaus's mouth. It took Klaus some time before he realised what the taste on the PlayThing's lips was. He squirmed, and the PlayThing lifted his face and beamed at him—a very different smile from the ones Klaus had seen so far. The PlayThing moved to lie down on the sofa, slipping half on top of Klaus—who was startled by the pressure of a very hot erection against his thigh.
Klaus blinked. "I thought you—I mean, I—ehm, well…"
It breathed a little laugh over Klaus's lips : "Why shouldn't I be excited at being near you?"
The PlayThing was warm, soft skin over hard muscle—its heart beating fast and strong, its breath hot. Klaus sprang up, dislodging the PlayThing, which averted a fall by grabbing the sofa's back with enviable reflexes. "You didn't breathe before. You don't need to breathe. And you don't need a heart. And you don't need to be excited."
It touched Klaus's breast and coaxed him down. "I was waiting for you to accept me to be born." It took Klaus's hand and guided it to wrap around its erection. "This is what I feel for you." Then it tugged the hand up over its heart: "This is what I feel for you."
It wasn't possible. It just wasn't possible, thought Klaus. How could they do it? And then he let the PlayThing slide next to him, and wrap him into its arms. "Sleep, my heart. Rest. You've been tense and tired. I'll watch over you."
When Klaus opened his eyes again, the light had moved to the other side of the flat. The PlayThing's eyes were closed, and it was snuffling gently against Klaus's neck. Klaus moved, and the PlayThing stirred with an annoyed mumble.
Klaus shook its shoulder. "Hey. Can you hear me?"
The PlayThing yawned. "I was asleep!"
Was that a peevish tone, thought Klaus. "It's afternoon."
"1513 hours and 34 seconds, yes."
Klaus stared. "How can you—"
The PlayThing rubbed its eyes. "Internal atomic clock. Handy." It stretched, and stood. "Right. Time to go to bed."
The situation was so surreal that Klaus found he could not even be angry. "I just woke up!"
Another smile—no, make that a smug grin. "I didn't say 'go to sleep'. Bed, now. That sofa is a back-killer. Come on!"
Klaus had no idea how, but the PlayThing bullied him into bed, and made sure there was not a stitch left on either of them. Then it manhandled Klaus flat on his back, and straddled him.
"Let's do things seriously, this time," it said.
* * *
Next time Klaus woke up, it was to the sound of the doorbell. Shortly after, the PlayThing walked into the bedroom, holding a parcel. It smelled heavenly.
"I did the best I could, but there's really no decent restaurant delivering on a Sunday evening." It put the parcel down on the bed, then threw Klaus's wallet in the general direction of the mess that was their clothes. "The picture on your ID looks nothing like you."
A small part of Klaus's brain felt a deep relief at how the unnatural spell of non-anger was finally over—the small part that was not busy grabbing and shaking the exasperating, nimble thing.
The PlayThing's initial struggles soon ceased, and it went quiet, blue eyes beaming a proud, disdainful stoicism. Klaus stopped. What was the point? He let the PlayThing go; it flopped back on the bed with a pained groan, holding its neck with its hands.
Had Klaus damaged it? Could it feel pain? The PlayThing stood. "The food was for you. I don't need it." Then it turned and stomped out of the room. Klaus grabbed the food parcel and threw it against the wall, together with a string of curses.
* * *
The most annoying of the PlayThing's quirks was a tendency to sleep in, and to complain vociferously when Klaus rose at his usual time. Or maybe it was hogging the bathroom. Or redecorating the flat as if it were colour-blind. Or disappearing only to come back with tasteless stolen goods. When Klaus pointed out that it was he who was liable, should the PlayThing be caught, the least irritating of its answers had been: "Don't be a stick in the mud, darling. I thought you liked a thrill."
Weekends were the worst, as the two of them spent most of the time together. This Saturday, Klaus had just returned from an invigorating morning run, and all he'd got when he tried to approach the bed had been a grunt and a thrown pillow. Getting the PlayThing to wake up enough had been a chore—even if Klaus's tenacity had eventually been amply rewarded. So much so that he'd found it difficult to sit properly at the breakfast table. He blushed, and tried again for a more comfortable position. Klaus had had no idea the PlayThing would be so forceful. Or that he'd like it so much.
The doorbell rang. There was no way the PlayThing would take it, since it was once again dead to the world, so Klaus went to the door.
The postman smiled: "Von dem Eberbach? Registered letter. Please sign here."
Klaus took the largish brown envelope bearing the PlayThing.com logo. It had to be the PlayThing's warranty. Only thirty-seven days late. Why should he be surprised? Compared to the grossly defective PlayThing, this was a minor lapse.
He slit the envelope open with his pocket knife, and read it.
Dear Major Von dem Eberbach,
Once again PlayThing.com thanks you for your custom, and we fondly hope you have found your purchase to your full satisfaction.
Please find enclosed herewith the detailed terms and conditions of your PlayThing's warranty, together with a copy of your receipt. In the enclosed sealed envelope please also find the security password for your DRN-RD unit. This password is aimed at ensuring your safety and protection, in the unlikely event of malfunction or other unforeseen circumstances. The password can be used to put your PlayThing in safe mode, or to deactivate it temporarily.
In order to utilise your password--
Password? The off switch! Klaus dropped the letter and ripped the brown envelope apart. The smaller sealed envelope within looked exactly like the ones with which his bank sent him a new PIN. Klaus stared at it. Then he picked up the letter again and read it through. He turned and looked at the sliver of bed visible through the door. The PlayThing lay sprawled amongst rumpled sheets. Decadent, red silk sheets it had shoplifted on Thursday while ostensibly shopping for Klaus's groceries. The argument had been furious. The PlayThing had hit Klaus with a vase (stolen too). Klaus had in turn smacked it one. As the PlayThing picked itself up off the floor, Klaus had once again noted the technical perfection of a hand-shaped print blossoming on its cheek.
The fight had not ended up in bed, as if often did. The PlayThing's way of showing extreme displeasure at being manhandled was always to lock itself in the bedroom. The sofa was indeed a back-killer. Klaus's mood the following day had been foul. And once back home, he'd found the PlayThing adorning the newly-acquired sheets. For a change, the colour coordination of red silk and creamy skin had been exquisite.
Klaus re-folded the letter, and walked into the bedroom. He scrutinised the slumbering thing for a while. Then he ripped the small envelope along the three dotted sides. Eroica.
The PlayThing mumbled something and stirred. One blue eye looked up at Klaus. Its mouth formed a petulant pout. "I am not making you breakfast, no matter how many times you ask. That abominable Nescafe of yours positively stinks."
He had to test this. He said: "Eroica."
The PlayThing went very still.
"Eroica. Safe mode."
All expression slid away from its face, and its eyes dulled. It stopped blinking and breathing. It stood up, naked as it was. Bowed its head slightly.
"MajorVonDemEberbach." Its voice was inflectionless.
Klaus took a deep breath. A test. Just a test. "Go and make me coffee."
The PlayThing shuffled to the kitchen. It switched the kettle on, spooned Nescafe in a cup, and stood motionless until the water boiled. It poured, stirred, put the cup on a tray. Then it lifted the tray and turned.
"Anything else, MajorVonDemEberbach?"
Before he knew what he was doing, Klaus repeated the password. "Eroica. Eroica. Deactivate."
Its strings cut, the PlayThing hit the floor. Cup and tray went flying and shattered on the kitchen tiles. China shards and coffee spattered the floor and the PlayThing's still body. Klaus walked close, unheeding of the mess, and looked down. Its eyes were open, staring up at the ceiling, its body slack. It looked dead.
Klaus felt something like dry wood cracking inside. He rushed to pick up the PlayThing, pulling it in a sitting position, fighting against boneless limbs. He shook the PlayThing until its teeth rattled, and screamed: "Eroica! Eroica! Reactivate! Reactivate NOW!"
The PlayThing shuddered and blinked. "What happened?" It whispered. "What's this mess?"
Klaus just stared.
Its eyes widened: "I—you! You turned me off! You bastard, you turned me off!"
The PlayThing's voice was pure hurt and fury. It pushed Klaus away, and started raining punches at him with blind rage. Klaus grabbed it and held on tighter and tighter. He pushed both of them to the floor, pinning the PlayThing with all his weight. The tiles were warm and sticky with coffee. Klaus buried his face in the crook of its shoulder, his mind blank with inexplicable shock. The smell of coffee was overpowering the PlayThing's curses, and Klaus held on against blows, bites, and screams of "IhateyouIhateyouIhateyou!"
* * *
Klaus opened his eyes. The floor was sticky but dry. The remnants of the cup were gathered in a small pile nearby, and a blanket was covering him. He sat up. A red-hot headache was branding his brain just behind his left eye. His throat was raw, his mind blank. Klaus rose and hurried to the bathroom. He almost made it to the bowl before he threw up what felt like more than the contents of his stomach. Afterwards, he sat on the cold floor. Aspirin. Shower. Mouthwash.
Pulling his bathrobe together, Klaus made his way to the bedroom. Why was the door even open, a small voice marvelled inside his head. Swathed in the duvet, The PlayThing sat on the far side of the bed, its back to the door. It turned stiffly. It had been crying. Klaus sat next to it, took the thing's hand between his, and leaned in to touch their lips together.
The PlayThing pulled back, its eyes sad. "You never kissed me before."
Wordlessly, Klaus wrapped it into his arms, and curled them both on the bed. The PlayThing followed tiredly, letting itself be kissed again. Gentle, barely-there kisses.
The PlayThing's face was unreadable. "I—" Klaus stopped in frustration. "I don't even know your name!"
It closed its eyes. "I don't have a name. I am unit DRN—"
"DRN. Dorian. You are Dorian."
The PlayThing's eyes opened again. They were dark, bottomless. "I am Dorian."
* * *
Klaus woke up with a gasp. The alarm clock glowed at his confusion. 0307 hours. Soft darkness, barely relieved by a lemon-coloured moonslice dripping a faint luminescence over the bed. The PlayThing—no, Dorian—was sleeping on his belly, face turned away. The light ran off his back, snaking among the blunt hills and dips of his spine, forming an alien landscape.
Barely touching, Klaus's fingers whispered over each bone and travelled up to tangle with thick hair. He pushed the moondrenched mass away, reaching for the delicate skin behind his ear. And froze. High on Dorian's nape was the PlayThing.com's logo. In that light, the blood-red rose showed as black as the barbed wire ringing it.
The image of Dorian dead on the kitchen floor, glassy gaze boring into him, shocked Klaus out of the bed. Startled awake, Dorian turned. For a ghastly moment, Klaus looked down on unseeing eyes. Then Dorian blinked, his face going from recognition to memory to melancholy.
"Why are you so scared? I love you."
Klaus stepped back as if hit. He felt his blood abandoning his face. "Who programmed you to say that? You are not alive! You are an appliance. Like a toaster, or a washing machine. A PlayThing."
The frozen silence didn't last long. Dorian stood, grabbed a handful of clothes off the floor, and left the room. A minute later, the front door slammed.
Klaus sat on the floor. Why had he said that? Why had he deactivated the—Dorian. Why did he feel like he felt now? He was right. Dorian was a thing. And a defective one at that. The logo hid a bar code and a tracker. For identification, processing or retrieval, the PlayThing.com web site stated. How could he, a highly trained operative, have forgotten that? But he hadn't, not really. It was like that stupid picture. A vase or two faces? Faces. Face. Dorian's face as Klaus had deactivated him. As Klaus had kissed him and given him a name. As Klaus had told him he was a machine.
* * *
At 1154 hours on Thursday morning, Klaus admitted to himself that Dorian had run away for good. His hand hovered over the phone. He should alert PlayThing.com. Tell them his unit was missing. They'd activate the tracker, find Dorian. Offer Klaus the choice between a clean reformatting, a replacement, or a cash refund.
Appliances didn't cut and run. It wasn't permissable. No loose microwaves. No stampeding vacuum cleaners. Even Klaus's laptop, admittedly a cranky little bastard, hadn't done a runner yet. Klaus looked at the phone. A refund. A replacement. A reformatting.
* * *
Klaus got back home very late, and with more than one drink inside him. Which went to explain, at least partly, why he hadn't realised there was something—someone—in the flat, until he stumbled on a largish mass on the living room floor.
Before the mass could do more than grunt at being stepped on, Klaus had turned the light on and was aiming his gun at it. Him.
Dorian shot him an acid glare. "How very you. In case you haven't read the manual, the most effective place to shoot me is just below my bellybutton."
Klaus took a single step back. "You look like shit."
"So do you, darling."
Klaus re-holstered his gun, and made for the drinks cabinet.
"How odd; I wouldn't have pegged you as one who's taken to drink. But then, you wouldn't have pegged me as one who's alive."
Stopping and turning back, Klaus said: "Are you back for anything besides picking a fight?"
"I wiped your bank account clean."
He pounced, grabbing Dorian by the front of his frilly shirt. "What?"
"I slept with a different man every night. None of them realised I was an applia—"
Klaus threw him across the room. Dorian crashed into a cupboard, then bounced back, teeth bared. They'd never fought so hard, or for so long. It took Klaus an eternity to pin Dorian down, and have a go at his face. A jet of blood spurted from his nose, spraying Klaus's face. He stopped, fist in mid-air. "How can you bleed at all?"
"How the fuck do I know? I am not a roboticist!" Dorian spat blood. "I went to your father and told him what I am. And what you bought me for. I think he believed me."
Klaus shook Dorian, banging his head against the floor. "Why are you doing this?"
"I hate you. I want to hurt you. I want you to feel what I felt."
Klaus slid off Dorian, and stood. He licked Dorian's blood off his hand. "Your blood tastes just like real blood."
He put his still-bloody hand in his breast pocket. He pulled out a small sealed envelope, which he threw at Dorian. "I asked them to reset your password. And before you ask, I cannot do it again without providing them with the previous one, and the extra codes that go with it."
The envelope was slowly getting soggy from the spit and blood on Dorian's chest. He stared at it. Klaus knelt and snatched it back. He pulled out his cigarette lighter, and set it on fire. Dorian rose, mirroring Klaus's position. They sat in silence, looking at each other.
Eventually, Klaus stirred. "If I asked you to forgive, would you?"
Dorian shook his head. "I don't think I can."
Klaus took the other man's hand. "Why have you come back?"
Dorian lowered his head and didn't answer.
It felt like a long time before Klaus could rise again, tugging Dorian up with him. They stood. Then Dorian took a deep breath, and sat on the bed. He stretched over the counterpane, and opened his legs. "Do you want me on my back, or on my belly?"
Before Klaus could react, Dorian turned over, and pushed his hair aside, exposing his PlayThing mark. He raised his arse, and said: "Come on now. You bought me. Use me."
Klaus felt the blood drain from his face. He turned and left the flat.
* * *
Klaus pushed open the flat's front door. Much as he shunned the idea of going back, the Chief had noticed Klaus had been spending the last eight nights in his office. The Schloss—and Conrad's inquisitive eyes—had been out of the question.
The flat had changed. Gone were all the 'improvements' Dorian had made, it was back to its bare, pristine look. Solemn music—Mahler's Adagietto—played softly. Curled up on the sofa, Dorian was folding and refolding a piece of silvery paper. He—it—didn't look up, just stood the object among a small zoo of paper figurines on the coffee table. A tiny origami of a horse. No, a unicorn.
"What are you doing here?"
"Where else should I go? I am a PlayThing. I am programmed to obey you. To have sex with you."
"Were you programmed to try to hurt me?"
"I did it because I hate you."
Klaus loosened his tie. "Why don't you just leave, if you hate me so much?"
"Because I CAN'T!"
Dorian rose and went to the stereo. The music changed to a loud atonal sequence. A soprano gave out a series of elongated animal screams. Klaus strode to the apparatus and pulled its plug off the wall. "What the hell was that noise?"
"Schoenberg. The Erwartung. Mechanical music."
Klaus turned on his heel, and marched into the bedroom, slamming the door closed. In the living room, the demented music started again. Louder. If only for that, Dorian deserved the sofa.
* * *
In the end, cohabitation was not as difficult as Klaus had expected. He left as early as possible, and returned as late as possible. In case of accidental meeting, they ignored each other. Dorian seemed to spend all his—its—time on the sofa, listening to increasingly atrocious music, and sometimes reading or making paper animals.
On day thirteen, Klaus walked in at around midnight, to find Dorian glueing the shards of a coffee cup together. The music's volume could have raised a corpse—not unlikely, since it sounded like a funeral march. He—it—looked unshaven. Klaus teetered out of his cultivated indifference. Why would they have given him—it—a beard?
Klaus glared in the general direction of the sofa. "What's this music, then? I'd like to tell the neighbours, when they come with an axe."
Dorian shrugged. "You should study your German cultural heritage more. Zemlinsky's Seejungfrau."
"He was Austrian."
"Dear me. My databases must be more defective than I thought."
"Keep dripping sarcasm, and you'll add flooding to the neighbours' complaints."
Dorian's laugh sounded as if it had been torn out of dry lungs. "How appropriate. The Little Mermaid causing a flood."
"It's not funny."
"But it is. And as I said—I am defective." Dorian rose, and fished a sheet of paper from his pyjamas' breast pocket. "I am going back to PlayThing.com. I put together a query for a malfunction check. All I need is your signature. By the way, you should choose a more secure user name. Leopard1B is just not good enough."
Klaus ignored the proffered paper and went back to the entrance to pick up his mail. And froze. Among the usual plethora of junk, a heavy squat envelope stared at him. There was a boar crest in the upper left corner, and a Swiss stamp. Feeling Dorian's eyes at the back of his neck, Klaus took refuge in the bedroom.
Twenty minutes later, Klaus wrenched the bedroom door open, and marched into the kitchen. Dorian went after him. Back turned, Klaus was opening and closing the microwave door. Each time, the appliance gave a plaintive beep.
"It's the recall slip from PlayThing.com, isn't it?"
The microwave's beeps metronomed the heavy silence.
Dorian's pitch rose: "Why don't you have PlayThing.com recall me? When are you going to do it? I cannot take this waiting any more! If you don't, I will. I'll just show up there and say I am malfunctioning—since that's what you think, isn't it?"
Klaus turned. "It's a letter from my father. He's coming this Thursday to discuss my 'sordid little secret'. Which you kindly informed him of."
A pile of dirty plates went flying, followed by Klaus's bellow: "You don't even remember doing it! Maybe you're right—you ARE malfunctioning!"
Dorian hung his head and left the kitchen. More crockery shattered under Klaus's hands.
* * *
Klaus climbed the stairs to his flat at exactly 1400 hours; three hours before his father was due. There had been a certain grim pleasure in seeing the confusion on the Chief's face at Klaus's request of a half day off. Of course that had been before the smirk—the old bastard had connected the dots, even if he had no idea of the pattern. Yet. Klaus filed this specific paranoia for another day, and braced himself for the next task: making the flat ready for his father.
Except the flat was ready. Spotless, silent, and deserted. The only trace of Dorian's presence was sitting on the coffee table—a fresh copy of the malfunction check request.
Great. Three empty hours, and a brand new paranoia as to what Dorian might be up to. Just what he needed. He pocketed the malfunction check request, then he changed into his oldest tracksuit and went for a 150-minute workout.
* * *
To Klaus's surprise, Father was five minutes early—nobody else could ring a bell with such determination. A final tug at his uniform tunic, and he opened the door. Eyes gelid, Heinz von dem Eberbach walked in.
Klaus clicked his heels. "Welcome, Father."
"I am not here for pleasantries, Klaus. Where is that—that unspeakable thing of yours? I want to see you dismantle it immediately. And then I will listen to your excuses."
"No excuses, sir."
The man sat on the straightest chair in the room. "I am waiting."
Klaus took a deep breath. "My apologies, sir. I am unable to fulfil your request."
He forced himself not to flinch at the noise of his father's walking stick hitting the coffee table. "You disgusting pervert! How dare you disobey me!"
"I didn't say I won't, sir. Just that I can't. Dor—the Pl—ehm, it's gone. Away. I don't know where it is."
Klaus watched with horrified fascination how his father lowered his head into his hands, and seemed to shrink into himself with a tired sigh. When he spoke, he sounded almost, almost—old.
"Is it something I did, Klaus?"
"I don't understand, sir."
"Why did you do this? Why this sordid, filthy—" He stopped with a half-helpless, half-angry gesture.
Klaus forced more words out. "It it not something you did, sir. I am taking full responsibility—"
"Spare me the soldier routine, Klaus. Please."
Silence stretched in the room. Klaus stared in front of him. "I wanted—I wanted—companionship."
"This is not what I was told when that, that abomination—"
Klaus sat on the sofa—Dorian's sofa—and fought to explain to himself, and to his father. "I think there was some sort of malfunction. It has been acting erratically."
The man looked up with what could have almost been hope. "Do you mean it was lying to me?"
A shrug. Each moment of silence fell on Heinz von dem Eberbach's face, making it a little greyer and more drawn. He stood. "It's not too late, Klaus. Nobody needs to know anything. There is a widow Uncle Johann knows, in Hannover. It may work—"
Klaus stood too. "It would work the way it worked with it. Him. Dorian. He hated me. Hates me."
The man—the old man—looked at the door. "I don't understand you, Klaus. I don't think I ever did. I will spend the night at the Koeningshof, and leave tomorrow afternoon. When you are ready to come to your senses, I will welcome you." On the threshold, Heinz von dem Eberbach spoke without turning. "I am sure you are aware of the need for discretion. No matter what." Then he left.
Klaus looked at the door. What is a malfunction?
* * *
The first thing that Klaus noticed as he walked into the flat was the sea of paper figurines strewn all over. Cranes—hundreds of them. Thousands, even. And of course the silence. Too much of it. And the handwritten note on the coffee table. Klaus rushed through the flat, checking each room in turn. Dorian was in the tub, completely submerged, eyes staring up like some forlorn sea creature.
Klaus cursed and struggled to lift the slippery, slack body out of the scalding water. Corpses are always so heavy. The situation was an eerie mirror of the scene in the kitchen not so long ago. Except Klaus did not know the reactivate password now.
Still, he tried, voice progressively rising: "Eroica. Eroica! Reactivate! Dorian! Wake up!"
Of course, it didn't work. No heartbeat. No breathing. He picked Dorian up and laid him on the bed, using the sheets to dry him. Then he went for the phone, dialling the PlayThing.com help-line number from memory.
While waiting for the emergency technician to show up, Klaus fished the crumpled note out of his pocket. He smoothed it, and read it again.
I said I couldn't leave. And I can't. I want to be with you. I love you—even if you think I am an appliance you bought for sex. I hate you for that, and I hate myself even more for loving you, but I cannot help it. And what I hate most is, I do not even know where this is all coming from. I do not know whether you are right, or I am. And even if I am, you still bought a PlayThing, not me. I cannot stand this. I am sorry.
PS: if you show them this letter, they will give you a full refund.
* * *
The PlayThing.com technician selected some sort of screwdriver from the array of tools in his briefcase. "Hmm. Strange. It switched itself off, for some reason. Did you get it to take a very hot bath? Overheating may do that—it's in the manual. Well, no matter—it cooled off before permanent damage set in. I'll just switch it on again for you. And I think we should run a full diagnostic, since we're at it. Just in case there's a malfunction somewhere."
From his bedside chair, Klaus shook his head. "No. No need. I think it's what you said. The bathwater was very hot. I have been—careless."
"Don't you want to know what went wrong?"
"I don't think anything went wrong."
* * *
Klaus came back from letting the technician out of the flat, and stood next to the bed. "I know you are awake; he reactivated you."
Dorian opened a wary eye, saying nothing. The blue iris ring looked dark with fatigue.
You do not know whether you are right, or I am, Klaus thought. But I do. "Did you get into a boiling hot water tub to land me with the repair bill, or was it a misguided attempt at communing with that Zemlinsky opera of yours?"
"It didn't work, anyway." Dorian turned his head towards the window. "Why didn't you ask the repairman to fix me, since he was at it? I don't understand you, Klaus. You are not the type of person who can tolerate a defective machine."
"The manual says you are not supposed to harm yourself or others—basic core instructions. Your behaviour cannot have been programmed into you, even if they screwed the automatic profile match completely."
"You said it yourself—I am malfunctioning."
Klaus sat on the bedside chair. "Human beings malfunction all the time. It's called making mistakes."
"Like buying a robot for sex."
Dorian sat up. "So that was a mistake?"
The corner of Klaus's mouth quirked ruefully. "It did land me—us—in hot water. But now I want to put the mistake right."
"Can you? And whose mistake are we talking about?"
Klaus shrugged. "You were right."
Dorian stood and went to the window, shivering. Even from that distance, Klaus could see goose-bumps on the other man's arms. "I still wish I didn't love you."
"I don't." Klaus paused. "Wish it."
15 May 2010
Coda: Only for the Brave
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Eventually, Klaus fell asleep. In the half-light, Dorian contemplated the smudge of a smile on his lover's lips. Then he turned on his back, and looked at the ceiling.
MajorVonDemEberbach persuaded and convinced.
FreeWillSubRoutine executed successfully.