There are simply no standards left. Carelessness and callousness abound. I told them and I told them that I had no inkling of how Nigel was mismanaging his money. And no, I had no idea what happened to the pension fund, but surely they can all find other jobs? And isn’t that why we pay such high taxes, so that the indigent can have it easy? We work and earn and they collect and loaf.
Yes, I lived in the mansion and in our summer home and our little bungalow in the islands. I was supposed to live somewhere else? It was a happy marriage. What I did with the tennis pro and the pool boy was none of your business. My affairs completely. I had my affairs and Nigel had his. As I said, it was a happy marriage.
It simply was not fair, to threaten someone in my situation with scandal, lawsuits, and bankruptcy. If they left me any proper amount of money, I could have weathered the scandal. If they left me a good reputation, I could find a warm berth heading up some charity or other. What was left for someone who has lost both? Reality programming or television game shows? I had, with some occasional surgical assistance, kept my good looks and girlish figure, but people didn’t seem to care. They had no right to treat me that way. Nigel, now sitting in ‘country club’ prison, was no help at all.
They would leave alone if I could pay them what they claimed was owed after they seized all our real estate and the yacht. Unfortunately, there was only one way I could come up with that kind of money. It was unsavory, but it was the only option that guaranteed me peace and privacy.
And so it was that I found myself wearing nothing but my underthings and a metal skullcap while my mind and body was being assessed by three impertinent men in lab coats. I would have given them a piece of my mind if I could speak. Alas, I could not utter a sound or move a muscle.
Unfortunately, that silly metal hat was now on intimate terms with my motor cortex. The hat was very opinionated. Anything not specifically permitted was forbidden. Anything specifically allowed was mandatory. And so I stood there, still as a statue while I was being scanned, photographed, and assessed like I was a diamond and they were student cutters.
“No getting around that she’s middle-aged,” said one of them. “Cosmetic work, maybe?”
“Move something from the rump upstairs?” said another junior, standing at my rear.
Hat! Kick him! I commanded. The hat had no more sense of propriety than this gang in labcoats. Yes, I had a pear shape, but a pear is a very sensual and firm fruit.
“Healing takes too long and she doesn’t earn anything in the meantime,” said their leader. I think he was their leader. They deferred to him and he had the thickest glasses. “She’s not ugly and not all of the units are required to be sexpots. She’s in very good health, that’s the important thing.” Well, thank him for noticing. All that swimming and tennis wasn’t just for fun. And neither the pool boy nor the tennis pro ever complained about my body, thank you.
Since I speak very proper English, and know perfectly well what a clean house should look like, they decided to make me a maid out of me. At least they didn’t try to make me a French maid. No, quite an English one, with a little white cap and a white apron over a blue satin dress with a puffy knee-length skirt. That was another point of debate for the lab coats. The juniors weren’t sure my legs were worth exposing but the thick-lensed one pointed out a floor-length costume would just get in my way.
They took off my friend the skullcap, but not after I had watched hours and hours of film showing people cleaning and dusting. It turns out if you watch someone doing something, your motor cortex hums along as if you were doing it yourself. So the little bastard skullcap took careful notes and drummed them into my mind when I was asleep. I was now an impeccably trained maid. Obedience assured; that was why I’d be earning so much money for them before my freedom was bought.
Then they presented me with my box. It was a clear plastic, with various tubes and wires and gauges. It was Snow White’s coffin, redesigned by Doctor Frankenstein. Apparently it was my lab away from the lab. I’d be fed, cleansed, and so on while in the box. But, as the chief explained to me, I wouldn’t have to bother with any of that, not personally, that is. My programming would keep me awake while I was out and about, however there was a program to put me out as soon as the box was closed and freeze my muscles, stiff as a window dummy. They were going to box me for shipping to my new employer. In transit, my involuntary programming would be updated to make sure I acknowledged them as boss.
I stood in my box, feeling like something a small girl would buy at a toy store, and watched as the clear plastic door was closed over my face. As soon as the door locked, there was a second of blackness and then the door was opened. Of course, I was now in another room looking at other people and praying desperately I was back in the lab or in the gutter, safely hallucinating. No such luck.
“Hullo, Marjorie, can you hear me?”
Oh, damn, she was my new employer. “Yes, madame, I can hear you perfectly.” My face was held perfectly straight and my voice was perfectly level. Which was not what I felt like, given that I was now completely in the power of Becky, my old school chum. We used to crib test answers and swipe beaus off each other. I’d stolen Nigel from her; never mind that her current husband was still alive and solvent. Those bastards at the service guaranteed that my next position would be well away from anyone who knew me.
“Step out of the box, please,” she said. I stood in front of her.
“Smile, please,” and I did.
“Oh, that’s a good smile for you. Perfectly vacuous and inoffensive. Now listen here, my dear, as much fun as it would be to catch up with you – and you’d have to listen for once – you’re only pausing here en route to Geoffrey’s. He’s my son and he’s just begun university.”
Wonderful. I was going to be the plaything of a slacker student. I would probably reek of marijuana. Perhaps I could get a high by inhaling the smoke. It might help.
Becky prattled on, and of course I had to hang on every word. “You’re going to keep his place for him, and do everything he tells you, as if I myself were giving you the order. Except that you’re going to do something else for me and not tell him. I’m going to call the house mid-day Wednesday, when he’s out with classes, and you’re going to tell me everything he’s been doing. If he asks you whether you report to me, you will deny it, and if he tells you to stop reporting to me, you will agree but keep reporting to me anyway. Can you repeat that?”
I did. Word for word. “Oh, my, technology is wonderful. You were always such a slow learner, Marjorie, but look at you now!” She cackled while I thought Disney heroines had it light with witches and dragons. Still chucking, Becky closed the lid and time skipped a beat again.
My next time out of the box was with Geoffrey and his flat-mate. I knew Geoffrey from pictures and a video I was shown, so obedience kicked in immediately. I stepped out of the box and curtsied and gave my pre-recorded greeting.
“Hello Geoffrey, I’m a gift from your loving mother. I will keep your house clean so you can focus on your studies. We’re all very proud of you and look forward to your many academic successes to come.” This has been a paid announcement and does not reflect the opinion of this station.
“Bloody hell,” was the response. Geoffrey looked to be a promising combination of Becky and her equally grasping and self-important husband.
“She seems nice,” said the flat-mate. He was Indian or Pakistani – is there a difference? ...and surveyed me closely while I stared straight ahead, smiling woodenly with that smile that Becky liked so much.
“You don’t get it, Freddie. This is a spy. Mom probably has her programmed to report on everything we do.” It’s a wise child who knows his own parent. But Becky did not mention the flat-mate. Was there something about him Becky did not want to hear, I hoped, I hoped. I was under no compunction to spare Becky bad news about her precious son being a poof.
“And if she doesn’t report in, your mother knows something’s rotten in the state of uni,” Freddie replied.
“Can you reprogram her?” Geoffrey asked.
Great, now I was going to be hacked. Could I get a virus? The lab coat brigade had assured me that any threat to my vital organs or genitalia would allow me to snap the spell and fight or flee. Was that protection any good? Perhaps one of them would fall asleep with a lit cigarette and put me out of my misery.
Freddie shook his head. “Major reprogramming would take a while. Easiest thing might just be to transfer ownership. Let me get a recorder so I can get some voice samples from you.”
“Nothing doing. You forget why you’re here, Freddie.”
Why are you here, Freddie? I wondered.
“She reports to you.”
“Your mother’s paying for her,” replied Freddie.
“And for this flat, but I still brought you on as a housemate. Why did I bring you on, Freddie?”
“Because you’ve got the inner discipline of mush and I’m supposed to run interference with temptation.” Freddie looked at me. “She’s not bad looking for her age, but... tempting?”
“That’s not what I meant, Freddie! If I’ve got a complete slave I could use her to get things past you, couldn’t I? Mom sent her to keep me honest, but by her definition. I want you to keep me honest, by my definition. I want this pantomime maid on board, and that means she answers to you and not me. And do it post-haste; I have no idea when Mom expects her to report in.”
My mind reeled at the reveal of Geoffrey’s self-awareness, resolve, and frank dependence on others. Either it was a recessive gene or Becky cheated with someone humane.
Freddie, as a technoholic worker bee, was an anathema to Geoffrey’s would-be friends who came by expecting a place to party. He warded them off like a barn cat repels mice. Kin to the lab coat brigade, Freddie arranged my defection with alacrity. My standing orders were revised so that I would give Becky muddled reports on Geoffrey’s progress with his business classes. Fortunately, Becky would have no problem believing that I could mishear or misremember or otherwise mangle what I picked up regarding those business classes, which spared us having to make credible lies.
Geoffrey, it seemed, had plans of being a journalist. To clean up his phrasing a bit, after years of having to watch well-off people play legal, financial and social games, and keep his mouth shut about it, he looked forward to dragging their secrets out into the open. I was not quite sure which side I would voluntarily be on, as I am – well, was – a well-off person with a healthy dread of reporters, but on the other hand Becky would be beside herself at such mundane aspirations of her offspring. In any event, I had no voluntary choice in the matter.
However, my horizons were expanding. Having successfully hacked me in a minor way, Freddie had gotten a taste of power. Since the boys really did not care how clean their house was, my maid duties were often interrupted. Asleep in my box, I dreamed of ballet dancing and belly dancing. I woke up to two new costumes and a screen I could use while changing.
As a ballet dancer (with another puffy skirt), I was quite limited. I never had the physical training and there really was not enough room in the flat. However, Freddie got the idea of using me as a kind of barometer. I would get updated weather reports from an earpiece. My left arm rose with temperature, my right with humidity. My leg rose with wind speed and I rotated so it pointed in the direction of the wind. Geoffrey killed the experiment with the observation that I looked like a particularly tacky coat rack, and began leaving his raincoat and umbrella on me.
Being a belly dancer was much more interesting. I had a mermaid skirt and a sequined top. My choreographer was Freddie who great fun setting up a laptop to send commands to my earpiece. I repeated moves to keep the beat of whatever music he selected. Geoffrey vetoed Britney Spears with a loud bellow. Again, my attitude was conflicted. I despised these modern talentless tarts, but I saw Freddie watching me with rapt delight and I quite enjoyed the audience.
“Why don’t you just program her with filthy movies and have at it?” Geoffrey asked at one point. Freddie was about to retort but he was cut off to everyone’s surprise.
What I had said was “that would be permitted.” It was one of my stock responses in case people asked me what I could or couldn’t do for them. But the moment’s passing thought about Freddie using me sexually had prompted an affirmative response. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. Well, maybe I could. Freddie wasn’t bad looking, and he looked at me like I was made of chocolate.
After he finished blinking, Freddie looked me up and down and right in the eye. “If I reprogrammed you for sexual activity with me, would your conscious mind approve?”
“Yes,” I replied as an automaton. Geoffrey slapped his face with his palm.
The next day, while Geoffrey was at classes, I was sitting with sex manuals marking them various positions and maneuvers as preferred, tolerable, or uncomfortable. This was interrupted by Becky, calling in for her weekly report of lies.
Freddie probably didn’t have to explicitly program me that night, but I think he just wanted to show off. I dreamed of selected video clips of adult activity and I think I smacked my lips when Freddie opened my box.
I would have liked some lingerie but no one asked me. Freddie seemed quite happy with one of my belly dancer outfits. I had three by that time. It was not my favorite but it was clearly his favorite. I was not wearing it for long.
That led to our next surprising discovery. I was capable of pillow talk. Apparently my programming acknowledged post-coital relaxation as an excuse to let me speak freely, at least when spoken to.
We discovered that when he said, “I wish I knew your name,” and I told him. Pretty soon I was telling him my entire life. I’d have told him the offshore bank account numbers if he asked me. Instead, with a wicked gleam, he asked me about Becky. I spilled everything I knew.
When I was empty, he asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?” I said frankly, “Yes, I’d like you to screw me again.” I have no idea whether I would have said it if I had full control of my tongue. However, I cannot complain about the results.
The next morning, Freddie said to Geoffrey over breakfast, “Wait until you hear what Marjorie told me last night!”
“You’ve named it? It’s now telling you bedtime stories?” Geoffrey, like Becky, was not a morning person. Freddie persevered, and cast me as the victim of fickle fate and a faithless husband. Geoffrey looked at me with new respect. It’s quite satisfying to get respect while you’re handing someone a plate of scrambled eggs and wearing a rumpled belly dancer’s outfit. “Bloody hell,” Geoffrey apologized. “I thought you were some old slag who was at the end of her rope. I didn’t realize you were a person.” Well, breeding will tell and he was still a lot of his mother.
However I was no longer ignored like a piece of furniture or a flat-mate’s toy. Geoffrey left with a “see you later, Marjorie,” in the morning and a “hello, Marjorie,” in the evening. I smiled back and it was my smile, not the skull-cap’s. The boys still got maid service, but now that I was emotionally invested I felt a certain amount of pride knowing that they had warm, freshly made beds and clean, ironed clothes. I felt a bit like Barbara Eden in that I was now keeping house in one of my expanding collection of harem outfits, but my standing orders included getting my exercise in once my chores were done. Belly dancing was much better exercise than tennis had ever been, and I liked Freddie more than I liked the tennis pro. Freddie wasn’t quite as well developed but he was considerate and grateful.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey did some basic research on Nigel. “She’s in for a packet. Nigel was a rotter, however you slice him. Er, sorry, Marjorie.”
“Why?” I said flatly. I wasn’t able to follow up with ‘He was a rotter’, but the boys caught on that we hadn’t been on civil terms for a long time.
“So how much would it cost to manumit her?” Freddie asked.
“They have her fixed. There’s a clause in the contract she signed that once she can’t be rented as-is, they can put her in for whatever cosmetic surgery seems appropriate. Then they tack those costs onto her existing debt and add a year or so to the indenture. And if her current lessee – in this case, my darling mother – requires her to be spruced up, they’ll do it but add the costs to Marjorie’s debt.”
Oh, charming. My face didn’t fall but they looked at me like it had.
Freddie thought a moment., and my heart leapt. Freddie’s thinking had always worked in my favor. “Marjorie, answer me honestly, with no concern about hurting my feelings. If you had a choice between being free right this minute and keeping on as we’re doing, which would you prefer?”
“I’m having a fine time now,” I replied. “If you released me, I’d probably be a much worse dancer.” As it was, I was posed like a living statue with one leg forward and both hands pressed together over my head. Freddie liked it. I was beginning to consider free will vastly overrated.
“Except Mom can still spoil the deal if she decides to cancel Marjorie’s contract. We certainly can’t afford her,” Geoffrey griped.
“What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface? She’s mine,” Freddie jibed back.
“Paid for by my mother. And I’ve gotten used to her, all right? Marjorie, if you have any ideas, feel free to share them.”
“Don’t banks pay hackers to fix their security?” I asked innocently.
Well, between them Freddie and Geoffrey had the lab coat brigade in a hammerlock. I had been leased, in contravention of contract, to someone who knew me personally – never mind that my final assignation was to a stranger. And Freddie had a nice list of the security holes he used to make me his own.
So we renegotiated. Freddie was going to join the lab coat brigade when he finished his studies; right now he’d be a ‘consultant’. No cash over or under the table, his payments would go towards his leasing of me. Marjorie’s payments would go into a special drawing account that I could get at when free.
Freedom was a relative term. What would I do under my own initiative? Write a book? Hah! Anything Freddie asked me to do was fine with me, and he was perfectly happy to ask me what I’d like to be asked to do. Becky’s money would be used to cover whatever needs I may have in the future, such as minor surgical reupholstery to keep myself presentable. Count me among the indigent happily living off the wealthy.
Also, I’m quite the coward. Living on nutrition from my dollbox keeps me away from chocolates, and whatever it bathes me in does wonders for my complexion. That’s what we call it now, my dollbox. We decorated the sides of it, Freddie and I, with pink cardboard and sparkling letters like a box for a doll. Freddie labeled it “the Barbie doll for thinking adults.”
Freddie’s using the programming to teach me to draw; my motor cortex has to use the pencil to provide lines and shading to match what I see. He never gets tired of my nude self-portraits, done in front of a mirror, though I still think the results look more like tracing a photograph than real art. (How do you teach aesthetics to a skull-cap?) But I’d never have learned as much, or as fast, left to my own lazy self, in the same way that the imposed belly dancing regimen is better than anything I could have managed ordering my own limbs about.
Freddie was also interested in teaching me to sing but both Geoffrey (a dear boy, less like Becky every day) and I vetoed that. The best Freddie would be able to do anyway is modify my natural screech into a close imitation of Madonna or Cher. Better off dressing me up and letting me lip synch and dance to the video.
I think I like the Cher outfit from “If I Could Turn Back Time” more than I did the harem garb, with the Madonna bustier from “Open Your Heart,” a close second, but Freddie’s the boss and I am perfectly content with the arrangement.