Content Warning: Sex, references to sexual harassment/assault
Eight weeks. That’s how long it took Clarissa to get her life figured out.
The first thing she did was try to get a new boyfriend, but it wasn’t easy. It was winter, slow season; men were less likely to walk to Infimmi neighborhoods, especially since they never had any public transportation when it was cold. Of course, it wasn’t really cold — Clarissa didn’t even really know what it meant, for a place to be cold in the way cold water was when she swallowed it too quickly and felt it trickling through her stomach. She’d seen old pictures before, of streets covered in white fluff and people wearing what looked like mattresses wrapped around their bodies. She didn’t know exactly why they didn’t have snow, or real cold, any more; it had something to do with getting rid of the trees, but she couldn’t recall the details. In any case it didn’t seem like a bad thing. She imagined they’d get no business at all in winter if they still had cold.
But it was still slow season. Men didn’t like to put on sweaters or feel even the slightest nip of wind, so they stayed inside. Men were soft. Clarissa and the other girls weren’t allowed to feel cold — bikinis and bare feet were the uniform, rain or shine (not that they really had sunshine, either — Clarissa couldn’t remember if the gray clouds that hooded the city sky were meant to block the sun on purpose, like planes, or were accidental — if she’d ever known at all). In a bikini Clarissa sometimes got cold even in the heat of summer. Something about a man’s eyes was like ice cubes on the skin. But once they started performing — swaying, dancing, shaking their asses inches from high-caste faces — she usually got sweaty, fast. The movement warmed her. The gazes grew hot. The hands were like licking flames, but meatier.
And she was feeling the baby. It didn’t take long. She found herself tiring more easily. She found herself needing to use the bathroom more, even in the middle of shows, even when she didn’t drink all day to avoid just that. The dehydration would make her even dizzier. And she was gaining weight, little by little. She didn’t have a scale, but it was impossible not to notice, when she wore her stomach out like a medal every night. It wasn’t like a medal anymore, though — not made of hard metal. Girls were hard. But not pregnant girls. Pregnant girls were delicate. She didn’t like it. It didn’t feel good when men put their hands on her stomach, her waist, or even her hips. Not that it had ever felt good — but now it felt distinctly bad. Wrong. She had seen men putting their hands on the bellies of pregnant women before. But it was always the father, or the grandfather. And he would be gentle, or at least he was supposed to be. And he knew what he was putting his hand on. These men didn’t know. They didn’t care. She was there to be touched and what was inside of her was irrelevant.
But Clarissa was nothing if not persistent. After eight weeks, knowing she was only a day or two or a week away, if she was lucky, from getting fired, she got a boyfriend.
Boy was accurate; friend was a strong word. He was tall, with broad shoulders and a tapering waist. A V-shaped man; this was the ideal. He had to be wealthy. He was clearly high-caste. She had scored on the looks front — she hardly knew why he liked her enough to murmur drunkenly in her ear, “Squishy boobs, will you come wimme?” But she knew that couldn’t be the whole story. Looks were never the whole story. Denys hadn’t even been the best-looking guy, as good-looking as this one. She knew she was too stupid to care about how wrong this would go. “Of course, squishy nips,” she wet-whispered into his ear. “Whatever you want.” She felt as good as she possibly could; that morning, she’d walked to the adoption center and they’d told her they had a family lined up. Mid-caste. Respectable. Husband and wife, married, no children. Both worked in construction — a stable profession, as the world was always falling apart and needing to be fixed again. But the wife was going to be a stay-at-home mom. The husband had just gotten a promotion, so that was an affordable option for them. But they couldn’t, or didn’t want, to pay for a designer baby that wouldn’t be perfectly designed anyway. So they were adopting, which was of course free.
Why doesn’t everyone adopt? Or would they run out of babies? Clarissa thought dizzily. But mostly she just thought happy thoughts. In less than a year it would all be over. What she’d do next she had no idea. But she wouldn’t be a mother, and that had to be something.
V-shaped man lived in what was all but an abandoned warehouse, and he lived alone — alone from anything alive, that is.
His house was jam-packed with robots.
Some of the robots were humanoid — wiry-bodied women with bleached hair and lingerie, child-shaped robots in coveralls who scurried around tidying the many rooms of the semi-renovated building, a barman robot in a tuxedo who mixed drinks in record time, a dumpling-shaped old woman robot who beat the linens dry by hand. Then there were robots that were anything but human — buzzing, hovering orbs that served no purpose Clarissa could discern, tables that rotated slowly and unexpectedly, shrieking door and window alarms, and a belching stove that cooked food that tasted, he claimed, like real meat.
“I’m a father,” V announced the next morning as Clarissa admiringly watched Jeanne, the stove robot, frying Aiggs™ in something that she fantasized smelled even better than butter — because it was hard to imagine anything smelling better than whatever it was that the Aiggs™ were being fried in.
But when V said this Clarissa went from dazed — still somehow floating in the warm gluey haze of after-sex, even though it had been over two hours since they’d last had sex and it was, not of course, as though she had permitted him to penetrate her — that would have been far too dangerous, and thankfully he hadn’t yet asked — she went from dazed to stunned and cold-stomached, not just empty-stomached, trembling all over and thinking he’d somehow discovered her secret and was making some kind of joke about it.
Subconsciously she ran a hand over her stomach. It felt surprisingly flat. Maybe it will never happen, she allowed herself to think.
She clenched one fist, another subconscious movement. She would try not to think of tips anymore, to worry about pleasing anyone other than V. She knew she had irrevocably entered a new stage of life, and adapting quickly was better than slowly — this she had learned slowly, but knew very well now.
V repeated himself: “I’m a father.”
“Who’s the mother?” This time Clarissa responded swiftly, urgently, instinctually.
V grinned, every perfectly-shaped and whitened tooth gleaming as his full lips raised the corners of his unwrinkled mouth. “Me. I’m the mother.”
“Asexual reproduction’s a myth, they mythbusted that.” She didn’t know why she was confident, she knew she knew nothing next to V. But he seemed to like confidence in her. Maybe that’s where it came from? The desire to please? She had begun to feel as though the distinctions were blurring — or they’d been blurred all the time. Her own feelings. Her own desires. Others’ — that is, men’s. The men’s were usurping, or melding. She didn’t know which was worse, and which was true.
“Then screws, and nails, and plasma circuit boards imported from Korea,” said V. “Inlaid manufactured diamonds. Wrenches. Multitools. My expensive e-Education.” He pronounced it eat you cajunn. Clarissa had heard of it before, but in the Infimmi, they always referred to it as ee eh dyou kay chun. She filed away his pronunciation in the back of her mind. She wanted to appear to him anything but Infimmi — for her own dignity or his, she wasn’t sure.
“So your robots. You’re their father. That’s all you’re saying.”
“Sure. But I’m a proud father. I’m a creator, except my rest days aren’t every seven. They’re whenever I like. Sometimes every seventy, sometimes every two. I create my own life too, don’t I?”
“Lucky for you.”
He grinned at her again, leaned back in his chair, and sipped his drink — some kind of blue stuff that had come from a bottle with a muscular man on the label. Why he needed it she didn’t know. Maybe it was for maintenance. Maybe it was for the taste. His muscles pulsed through his shirt like beating hearts attached to his biceps. Ten out of ten sex appeal, Clarissa mused to herself. Fascinating how people paid for a sexless birth experience, only to fashion their zygotes into a being of intense sexuality. But — she admitted to herself without any hesitancy — he did not compare to Denys by any means. Whereas Denys embodied manliness, V was like a child — exploratory but confident, bumbling without self-consciousness. She liked that. She liked that there was the illusion of control on both sides.
“Would you consider it?” he was asking her.
She didn’t know what he was referring to; had she spaced out again, or was he thinking again, as seemed to be a pattern, in a manner that assumed she was in his head too, and leaping as agilely as he through the labyrinthine jungle of his thoughts?
“I’d consider anything, depending on the price.”
“Hm. Then…” He said a number.
“I’m an Infimmi — I can’t open a bank account, remember?”
“Sure, I’ll open one for you.”
“Then it’s not really mine.”
“Fair enough. But then what kind of price were you thinking?”
“I said it depends. On what the thing I’m considering is.”
“You said it depended on the price.”
“They depend on each other.”
“If you say so. Well. I thought you’d be experienced in… these matters.”
“Enough to know what I’m talking about.”
She said nothing.
“You must have wondered. Why we didn’t do it.”
She didn’t need his crude gesturing — left pointer jabbing through the ring formed by right pointer and thumb — to know what he meant, now. “I didn’t wonder.”
“Because lots won’t. Celsians, other high-castes. They’re nervous. They don’t know what they’re doing. And they’re afraid of us.”
“Maybe I should be afraid.”
Clarissa smiled to herself; she thought he might be already. “That’s up to you. Fear’s just a tool.”
“A tool for what?”
“I don’t know. You’re the— the father, aren’t you?”
When she said this his hands twitched, as though he could feel something inside them — a tool, or maybe one of her breasts. He’d had a particular attachment to the left one — it was considerably larger and more pendulous than her right. Some things which were the faults of nature, she had noticed, were of the greatest fascination to high-caste men, who otherwise dealt in perfection. To her, of course, his faultlessly sculpted cheekbones, eyes an identical shade of cerulean, eerily symmetrical rib cage, were of the greatest fascination — with respect to his body, at least. Fortunately or unfortunately — she was still unsure — his body was one of the least fascinating things about him.
As V’s hands relaxed and he turned his gaze back toward Clarissa’s, Jeanne the robot stove handed her a plate of fried Aiggs™. She began to eat. Her thoughts stilled like ripples in a street puddle, reflecting the saw-toothed skyline with utter clarity. Food made a world of difference. Satiation — not needing to think about food, as she did day in and day out — made her a new woman.
She had felt that feeling of satiation from the moment they had eaten dinner that evening, and throughout all their rounds of sex that night, which were interspersed with small but filling and nutritious snacks, prepackaged Celsian items, so that the robots would not need to be turned on, and the moment could be preserved just for her and V, in the silent warehouse-like house. Wasn’t there another term for homes like this? Vaulted ceilings, great emptiness between items of furniture, long staircases, floor-to-ceiling windows, gray walls — other than warehouse?
She couldn’t remember, but she was sure there was another word for it. She put another spoonful of Aigg™ on her tongue, let the flavors sink into her taste buds, and then swallowed urgently. Some habits could never die — she hoped the calories would bring a little more energy to her brain, as soon as possible. She felt smarter than usual, but not smart enough.
“I’m a danger,” she told V. “I’m an Infimmi. We’re like — sperm sponges. We soak it up. We get pregnant. It’s unavoidable. It’s dangerous. And it’s how we’re built. I don’t trust condoms or contraceptives. They’re not made for girls like me. I’ve heard of them failing, lots of times, or more often, the men provide fake ones. Because we never buy the stuff ourselves. They buy it. It’s too dangerous.”
V nodded slowly. “A sperm sponge.”
“You’re powerful, you know.”
“If you say so.”
“If you say so.” But, she realized, he was serious.
“You’ll move in with me?”
“For however long you like.”
“I’d like a long time.”
“I know,” Clarissa told him. She chewed another bite of Aigg™. “You all do.”
V held his empty cup out vaguely to the left, and a pillowy robot caught it mid-fall. “We’re not all the same.”
“That doesn’t mean you don’t all want the same things.”
“Do you all want the same things? Infimmi girls?”
“Of course we do.”
“Thrilling,” he said again.