Fifteen years after David McAllister invented the first cyborg clone, Isosceles Cyborgs has since become a household name. Cyborgs are used in the military, private industry and as companions for human beings. For Ally Rogers, though, the possibility of settling for a machine instead of a human man is out of the question. Even when her love life is non-existent and her best friend, Lauren, tells her that Clay, her husband of six years is not what she thinks, she will not change her mind.
Lauren decides to put her objections to the test. She calls IC, and Jasper and Drew arrive to show Ally what they do best: convince her of their usefulness.
“Look, you need to meet someone you can trust,” Lauren said. “Trust is everything. Now, please, honey, let’s get out of here before—what was his name, Beck?—shows up in a panel van with untraceable license plates.”
Ally Rogers laughed and reluctantly rose from the park bench. She could admit Lauren was right—meeting a guy from an online chat room in a secluded place wasn’t the smartest thing she’d ever attempted in her search for Mr. Right. Lauren always managed to appear just when she needed her, although she couldn’t fix what was wrong with Ally’s love life.
Lauren wrapped her arm around Ally’s waist. “Come on, cheer up! You want to meet a man the normal way! We can fix this!”
Ally shook her head as she walked alongside her. “What normal way? There are no normal ways.”
“Well, I look at it like this: if you’re willing to go this far to find love, you’re ready to take a real step, a step that will ensure success! Or at least something that’s not going to get you tied up in somebody’s shed.”
Ally laughed. “Oh, yeah? Like what? I’ve done the blind date thing, taken classes and joined clubs and…”
Her friend hesitated, running her tongue over her lips. “You haven’t tried an Adam.”
“What?” Ally stopped walking. “You’re not talking about…”
“Just consider it for a second. You could get one of those Isosceles Cyborgs. They’re everywhere now.”
“Come on.” Ally shook her head and resumed walking. “I’m not that desperate.”
Lauren’s tone gentled. “You agreed to meet someone you don’t know on a lonely street in the dark. You’re telling me that’s not desperate?”
Ally couldn’t speak. Lauren was the best friend she’d ever had—closer than any sister could have been. She never pulled any punches where the truth was concerned. Didn’t matter if the truth was ugly, either.
“I’m sorry.” Lauren wrapped her arm around Ally’s waist once more as they walked. “That didn’t come out right. Listen, you’re not desperate—you have no reason to be desperate. You’re a young, vital, attractive woman who needs a man—”
“—a man being the key noun here, Lauren. A man, not a machine.”
“Think about it, though,” Lauren said. “People swear by them. Haven’t you seen the commercials?”
“Yeah, I’ve seen them.” Ally frowned. “One of them looked like a guy I work with, and I’d rather buy a different vibrator for every day of the week than date any of the guys at work.”
Lauren smiled. “Think about it this way, then. What’s the difference? This is a vibrator hooked to a very handsome, fully functional man.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Lauren’s voice rose in excitement. “Seriously! A man who doesn’t leave you, who doesn’t hurt you, lie to you, treat you like shit, boss you around, expect you to wait on him! That’s what you want, what every woman wants! You think there are real men out there like that?”
“How can you say that? You’ve got a man like that. Clay is wonderful. He’s polite and funny, sexy as hell. He takes care of the house and the…”
Ally’s voice trailed off as Lauren stared at her.
“You mean Clay…” Her mouth opened and didn’t close until Lauren touched her chin and pressed her lips together.
Ally shook her head vehemently, her eyes wide. “You said you met Clay at a family reunion in your hometown! You told me you two went to school together and…”
“Would you lower your voice, please?”
“But…” Ally stammered and continued to shake her head. She made an effort to speak more quietly. “He’s not a machine! You’re messing with me to try to prove a point!”
“How old do you think Clay is?”
Ally blinked. “Thirty. You threw his surprise birthday party in January.”
“How old did he look six years ago?”
“He looked the…” Ally’s voice trailed off. He looked the same.
“Ever wonder why he hasn’t aged? Not a wrinkle, no beer belly or sagging skin, no gray hair or laugh lines?”
Ally stood silent, blinking rapidly. This couldn’t be true. She knew Clay, had talked to him, laughed at his jokes, even played touch football with him last fall. He was human…or was he?
“Let’s go back to my place. I want you to look at him again. See if you can tell.”
Ally shook her head. “No. Lauren, no. Come on, this is…well, I don’t know what this is. But you’re scaring me.”
“Scaring you? Come on, Ally! I love him. Clay is everything I always wanted.”
“But he’s not real!”
Lauren took a step back. “What? You’re judging me now?”
“I’m not judging,” Ally said, taking her friend’s hand into both of hers. “I’m, well, I’m freaking out a little. I thought he was real.”
“He is real. You’ve known me most of my adult life. You saw the parade of losers I dated, and when I married Clay in Vegas, you came to my wedding! Nothing has changed! He’s still my husband, and you’re still my best friend! You’re always telling me how great he is, and now you’re thinking this was all a mistake?”
Ally didn’t know what she was thinking. Lauren was happy, had been truly happy ever since she’d met Clay. But she hadn’t met him…she’d bought him.
“Are you coming with me or not?”
Ally hesitated. Lauren was right—she was judging her, and really? Who was she to judge someone else’s bliss when she couldn’t find happiness of her own? She finally nodded.
* * * * *
The whole thing was crazy.
Clay was a cyborg. That certainly explained a few things. Clay had looked exactly the same all these years, behaved the same, in fact was a perfect gentleman in every way and always had been. They’d never had children, although before she’d gotten married Lauren had told her many times she wanted to be a mother.
But what about the wedding? How did one marry a machine? Lauren hadn’t invited her parents to the ceremony, nor had she ever taken Clay home to meet them. Obviously the whole ritual was performed solely for Lauren’s benefit. It was not legal to marry a machine…yet, anyway.
Did her parents know about this? Ally’d spoken with them once or twice over the years, but they’d never come to visit their daughter. Yes, the more she thought about it, the more she realized Clay being a cyborg was the only thing that made sense.
Cyborgs were the answer, if you could believe all the advertising for Isosceles Cyborgs. The company’s guarantee of “unless you know, you’d never know” was obviously accurate. She wouldn’t have dreamed Clay was anything but human.
The creations were the brainchild of Dr. David Isosceles McAllister and his wife Chelsea Dawson McAllister. They even had a cyborg of their own, the first in the series, a clone of Dr. McAllister himself named Adam. She’d never thought about it before, but were any of her other friends, people she’d thought were human, actually cyborgs?
The commercials said all of the cyborgs were designed specifically for the needs of the end user. She tried to remember exactly what else the commercials had touted. Something about DNA matching. What DNA did Clay have?
Was it Lauren’s?
The idea of Lauren using her DNA to create a living cyborg gave her a horrible case of the shivers in ways she didn’t want to examine. So what if they were tailored to the end user? So what if they were perfect companions in every way? The entire scenario was like something out of a horror movie. How could Lauren settle for a fake husband?
Lauren was her best friend, and Ally couldn’t bear to hurt her feelings. She was not, however, going to entertain the idea of getting a cyborg for even one second. Maybe it was judgmental and maybe she was desperate, but she wasn’t that desperate—not by a long shot.
Ally waited as Lauren opened the front door to her apartment. She could say none of this to Lauren. Whatever made Lauren happy was Lauren’s business, and if this was what she wanted, she could rock on with her bad self. Certainly didn’t mean Ally was going down that road.
Clay walked into the room as they entered. He pulled Lauren into his arms and kissed her, the same way she’d seen him kiss her a hundred times. Only this time, everything was different. Clay might be the same cyborg he’d always been, but in Ally’s mind their relationship had changed forever.
Releasing Lauren, Clay tossed up a hand toward her and smiled—a friendly, casual, absolutely perfect smile. “Hey, Ally.”
Plastering on a smile of her own, she waved back. “Hi.”
He blinked and turned to Lauren. “Everything all right?”
“Yes. Maybe some coffee? I’d like you to talk to Ally and me for a few minutes, if you have the time.”
Even the most casual things now struck her as odd. If he had the time? Didn’t he have whatever time she wanted him to have? Did he not do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted?
Perhaps she was being polite. Polite? The thought struck her again—polite to a machine? Ally wasn’t even polite to her coffeepot, and she loved her coffeepot. This was like talking to a coffeepot—only the pot talked back.
Ally shook off the odd feeling spreading through her. Best not to say anything until she figured out exactly what Lauren had in mind with this meeting. Did she imagine getting to know Clay—again—was going to make her decide to get a cyborg of her own?
Clay stroked Lauren’s back and kissed her once more, then disappeared into the kitchen, He was her walking, talking, basically—coffeepot. Ally shrugged involuntarily. She hated herself for these cruel thoughts. Lauren is happy. She’s happy. This is not about me!
Lauren’s eyebrows furrowed. “Are you all right?”
“This is…well, it’s a lot to absorb.”
“Come and sit for a minute. Clay will bring us something to drink, and we’ll have a talk, okay?”
“Lauren, you know I love you,” she said as she walked to the sofa. “And I’m glad you’ve found the right…one…for you. But this isn’t going to convince me to get a cyborg.”
“Are you familiar with Plato at all?”
“Plato, you know, the Greek philosopher?” Lauren sat back in the cushions and sighed. “He believed people were originally joined, one being—half man and half woman.”
“They were divided, and afterwards, each desired his other half, and when they found each other, they threw their arms around each other, longing to grow back into one. That’s what you want.”
“What I want? What…”
Clay walked into the room carrying a large square tray. “I already had some coffee made. Perfect timing.”
His voice was smooth and deep, and a profound sense of calm moved through her, almost a physical tranquility. It gave her the willies.
“Thanks, Clay. Sit beside me, and help me explain something to Ally.”
Ally rose from the sofa. “Thanks, but it’s getting late. I’ve got to get going.”
Lauren pointed at the sofa. “No. I have never told another living soul outside of the Isosceles offices about this. I want to tell you—I think it’s important. You are my friend, and I love you. But tonight, you did something frightening in your quest for a relationship. You need to hear this.”
Ally considered her options. She could leave these two to whatever it was they did together—no, don’t think about it, girl, do not go there—or she could try to distance herself. Lauren’s opinion wasn’t going to change her mind, but listening wasn’t going to kill her.
The final decision was made for her when Clay rose from his seat and walked over. “Can I take your coat?”
He held his hand out to her with its smooth, long fingers and neatly trimmed nails. He turned his palm up, waiting for her to remove the coat and hand it to him.
He did have beautiful hands. She’d been thinking about hands a lot lately, noticing her own hands in fact, especially while typing instant messages to Beck. She’d imagined his hands on her as she’d touched herself during those long hours on the computer. Now she had to wonder, whose hands had been typing and touching themselves across the Internet with her? Had Beck even been a man?
She handed her coat to Clay. Dropping back into the sofa cushions, she took in a deep breath of Clay’s cologne mingled with the smell of the crackling fire. If she could get past the fact Lauren had what amounted to an appliance walking around the house, with nice hands but no beating heart…well, everything looked normal as long as she’d didn’t look too close.
Lauren poured a cup of coffee and pushed the cup toward her. “Can you tell now? Now that you know, I mean?”
Honestly? No, she couldn’t, which gave her an overwhelming sense of the unreality of this situation. She shook her head.
“I was missing something in my life, the other half of me, to quote Plato. After trying how many times to find him? How many horror stories later? I was at my wit’s end, and I had to do something about it. I took charge.”
“Was it expensive?”
Ally realized her slip of the tongue as soon as the words fell out of her mouth—Clay was not an “it” to Lauren, but if she noticed she gave no indication.
“The DNA sampling wasn’t cheap, but I decided to do it to guarantee a perfect match for me. He knows what I’m like, because he is like me on a biological and even a computer programming level. I was also allowed to choose specifics I preferred—hair and eye color, height, weight…all the basics. For a little more I could make fine-tuning choices, but I elected not to at the time.”
Would Lauren tell her if she asked? Exactly how much? She tried to figure out a way to phrase the question but could come up with nothing polite…especially with him sitting right there listening to every word.
Besides, did it make any difference? If Isosceles Cyborgs was giving clones away on a street corner she still wouldn’t want one.
“I’m glad it worked out for you, Lauren, I am. I know you’ve been happy since Clay came into your life.” There. She sounded supportive without telling an out-and-out lie. If she told her friend the truth—the whole concept gave her the walking willies—they’d been friends too long for her to be cruel.
“IC can work out for you, too. Why not give them a call?”
She shook her head slowly. “I don’t think so.”
“The quality is going up all the time, and the pricing is coming down. I had to take Clay in a few weeks ago for some of the latest upgrades. It’s amazing what even the most basic, stripped down, non-DNA-matched models are running now…”
As Lauren chatted on as if they were discussing the varieties and benefits of hand lotions, Ally tried not to think about how Clay had been recently “revved up” to suit Lauren.
“…as a matter of fact, I got a ‘Refer a Friend’ card in the mail last week! This is perfect! You can have one of their high-tech models, non-DNA matched of course, for a whole week to sample!” Lauren jumped up from the sofa and grabbed her purse off the coat rack.
“Really, that’s not necessary.” Ally held up both hands as if she could physically ward off her friend’s enthusiasm.
She fished the card out of her wallet, grabbed Ally’s hand and slapped it into it. “Weren’t you asking me just last week if Clay could come over and help you move all your furniture so you could paint your living room? Why not take advantage of the free labor? You don’t have to have sex with them if you don’t want to.”
Ally felt her face burn, but she bit her tongue.
“I’ll tell you what.” Lauren pulled the card back out of her hand. “I’ll call IC tomorrow morning and have them send over a couple of their hunky models. They are all abnormally strong, which comes in very handy, and I know how you like men built like Gerard Butler when he was all buff for the movie 300.”
“No,” Ally said. “Please don’t. Listen, it’s late. I’ve got to get home to bed. We’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”
Lauren pleaded with her to stay, but she couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Maybe this is the wave of the future, she thought as she jogged down the front walk, but not my future. The chat room romance thing had been a bad idea. She could accept that. But there were better options than this. She would find one of them, and move her heavy furniture on her own