6,000 words

On Sunday when Dolly awakened, she had olive skin and black-brown hair that fell in waves to her hips. On Tuesday when Dolly awakened, she was a redhead, and fair. But on Thursday — on Thursday her eyes were blue, her hair was as black as a crow’s-wing, and her hands were red with blood.

In her black French maid’s outfit, she was the only thing in the expensively appointed drawing room that was not winter-white or antiqued gold. It was the sort of room you hired somebody else to clean. It was as immaculate as it was white.

Immaculate and white, that is, except for the dead body of billionaire industrialist Clive Steele — and try to say that without sounding like a comic book — which lay at Dolly’s feet, his viscera blossoming from him like macabre petals.

That was how she looked when Rosamund Kirkbride found her, standing in a red stain in a white room like a thorn in a rose.

Dolly had locked in position where her program ran out. As Roz dropped to one knee outside the border of the blood-saturated carpet, Dolly did not move.

The room smelled like meat and bowels. Flies clustered thickly on the windows, but none had yet managed to get inside. No matter how hermetically sealed the house, it was only a matter of time. Like love, the flies found a way.

Grunting with effort, Roz planted both green-gloved hands on winter white wool-and-silk fibers and leaned over, getting her head between the dead guy and the doll. Blood spattered Dolly’s silk stockings and her kitten-heeled boots: both the spray-can dots of impact projection and the soaking arcs of a breached artery.

More than one, given that Steele’s heart lay, trailing connective tissue, beside his left hip. The crusted blood on Dolly’s hands had twisted in ribbons down the underside of her forearms to her elbows and from there dripped into the puddle on the floor.

The android was not wearing undergarments.

“You staring up that girl’s skirt, Detective?”

Roz was a big, plain woman, and out of shape in her forties. It took her a minute to heave herself back to her feet, careful not to touch the victim or the murder weapon yet. She’d tied her straight light brown hair back before entering the scene, the ends tucked up in a net. The severity of the style made her square jaw into a lantern. Her eyes were almost as blue as the doll’s.

“Is it a girl, Peter?” Putting her hands on her knees, she pushed fully upright. She shoved a fist into her back and turned to the door.

Peter King paused just inside, taking in the scene with a few critical sweeps of eyes so dark they didn’t catch any light from the sunlight or the chandelier. His irises seemed to bleed pigment into the whites, warming them with swirls of ivory. In his black suit, his skin tanned almost to match, he might have been a heroically sized construction paper cutout against the white walls, white carpet, the white-and-gold marble-topped table that looked both antique and French.

His blue paper booties rustled as he crossed the floor. “Suicide, you think?”

“Maybe if it was strangulation.” Roz stepped aside so Peter could get a look at the body.

He whistled, which was pretty much what she had done.

“Somebody hated him a lot. Hey, that’s one of the new Dollies, isn’t it? Man, nice.” He shook his head. “Bet it cost more than my house.”

“Imagine spending half a mil on a sex toy,” Roz said, “only to have it rip your liver out.” She stepped back, arms folded.

“He probably didn’t spend that much on her. His company makes accessory programs for them.”

“Industry courtesy?” Roz asked.

“Tax write-off. Test model.” Peter was the department expert on Home companions. He circled the room, taking it in from all angles. Soon the scene techs would be here with their cameras and their tweezers and their 3D scanner, turning the crime scene into a permanent virtual reality. In his capacity of soft forensics, Peter would go over Dolly’s program, and the medical examiner would most likely confirm that Steele’s cause of death was exactly what it looked like: something had punched through his abdominal wall and clawed his innards out.

“Doors were locked?”

Roz pursed her lips. “Nobody heard the screaming.”

“How long you think you’d scream without any lungs?” He sighed. “You know, it never fails. The poor folks, nobody ever heard no screaming. And the rich folks, they’ve got no neighbors to hear ‘em scream. Everybody in this modern world lives alone.”

It was a beautiful Birmingham day behind the long silk draperies, the kind of mild and bright that spring mornings in Alabama excelled at. Peter craned his head back and looked up at the chandelier glistening in the dustless light. Its ornate curls had been spotlessly clean before aerosolized blood on Steele’s last breath misted them.

“Steele lived alone,” she said. “Except for the robot. His cook found the body this morning. Last person to see him before that was his P.A., as he left the office last night.”

“Lights on seems to confirm that he was killed after dark.”

“After dinner,” Roz said.

“After the cook went home for the night.” Peter kept prowling the room, peering behind draperies and furniture, looking in corners and crouching to lift up the dust-ruffle on the couch. “Well, I guess there won’t be any question about the stomach contents.”

Roz went through the pockets of the dead man’s suit jacket, which was draped over the arm of a chair. Pocket computer and a folding knife, wallet with an RFID chip. His house was on palmprint, his car on voice rec. He carried no keys. “Assuming the M.E. can find the stomach.”

“Touché. He’s got a cook, but no housekeeper?”

“I guess he trusts the android to clean but not cook?”

“No taste buds.” Peter straightened up, shaking his head. “They can follow a recipe, but —”

“You won’t get high art,” Roz agreed, licking her lips. Outside, a car door slammed. “Scene team?”

“M.E.,” Peter said, leaning over to peer out. “Come on, let’s get back to the house and pull the codes for this model.”

“All right,” Roz said. “But I’m interrogating it. I know better than to leave you alone with a pretty girl.”

Peter rolled his eyes as he followed her towards the door. “I like ‘em with a little more spunk than all that.”

§

“So the new dolls,” Roz said in Peter’s car, carefully casual. “What’s so special about ‘em?”

“Man,” Peter answered, brow furrowing. “Gimme a sec.”

Roz’s car followed as they pulled away from the house on Balmoral Road, maintaining a careful distance from the bumper. Peter drove until they reached the parkway. Once they’d joined a caravan downtown, nose-to-bumper on the car ahead, he folded his hands in his lap and let the lead car’s autopilot take over.

He said, “What isn’t? Real-time online editing — personality and physical, appearance, ethnicity, hair — all kinds of behavior protocols, you name the kink they’ve got a hack for it.”

“So if you knew somebody’s kink,” she said thoughtfully. “Knew it in particular. You could write an app for that —”

“One that would appeal to your guy in specific.” Peter’s hands dropped to his lap, his head bobbing up and down enthusiastically. “With a — pardon the expression — backdoor.”

“Trojan horse. Don’t jilt a programmer for a sex machine.”

“There’s an app for that,” he said, and she snorted. “Two cases last year, worldwide. Not common, but —”

Roz looked down at her hands. “Some of these guys,” she said. “They program the dolls to scream.”

Peter had sensuous lips. When something upset him, those lips thinned and writhed like salted worms. “I guess maybe it’s a good thing they have a robot to take that out on.”

“Unless the fantasy stops being enough.” Roz’s voice was flat, without judgment. Sunlight fell warm through the windshield. “What do you know about the larval stage of serial rapists, serial killers?”

“You mean, what if pretend pain stops doing it for them? What if the appearance of pain is no longer enough?”

She nodded, worrying a hangnail on her thumb. The nitrile gloves dried out your hands.

“They used to cut up paper porn magazines.” His broad shoulders rose and fell, his suit catching wrinkles against the car seat when they came back down. “They’ll get their fantasies somewhere.”

“I guess so.” She put her thumb in her mouth to stop the bleeding, a thick red bead that welled up where she’d torn the cuticle.

Her own saliva stung.

§

Sitting in the cheap office chair Roz had docked along the short edge of her desk, Dolly slowly lifted her chin. She blinked. She smiled.

“Law enforcement override code accepted.” She had a little-girl Marilyn voice. “How may I help you, Detective Kirkbride?”

“We are investigating the murder of Clive Steele,” Roz said, with a glance up to Peter’s round face. He stood behind Dolly with a wireless scanner and an air of concentration. “Your contract-holder of record.”

“I am at your service.”

If Dolly were a real girl, the bare skin of her thighs would have been sticking to the recycled upholstery of that office chair. But her realistically-engineered skin was breathable polymer. She didn’t sweat unless you told her to, and she probably didn’t stick to cheap chairs.

“Evidence suggests that you were used as the murder weapon.” Roz steepled her hands on her blotter. “We will need access to your software update records and your memory files.”

“Do you have a warrant?” Her voice was not stiff or robotic at all, but warm, human. Even in disposing of legal niceties, it had a warm, confiding quality.

Silently, Peter transmitted it. Dolly blinked twice while processing the data, a sort of status bar. Something to let you know the thing wasn’t hung.

“We also have a warrant to examine you for DNA trace evidence,” Roz said.

Dolly smiled, her raven hair breaking perfectly around her narrow shoulders. “You may be assured of my cooperation.”

Peter led her into one of the interrogation rooms, where the operation could be recorded. With the help of an evidence tech, he undressed Dolly, bagged her clothes as evidence, brushed her down onto a sheet of paper, combed her polymer hair and swabbed her polymer skin. He swabbed her orifices and scraped under her nails.

Roz stood by, arms folded, a necessary witness. Dolly accepted it all impassively, moving as directed and otherwise standing like a caryatid. Her engineered body was frankly sexless in its perfection–belly flat, hips and ass like an inverted heart, breasts floating cartoonishly beside a defined rib cage. Apparently, Steele had liked them skinny.

“So much for pulchritudinousness,” Roz muttered to Peter when their backs were to the doll.

He glanced over his shoulder. The doll didn’t have feelings to hurt, but she looked so much like a person it was hard to remember to treat her as something else. “I think you mean voluptuousness,” he said. “It is a little too good to be true, isn’t it?”

“If you would prefer different proportions,” Dolly said, “My chassis is adaptable to a range of forms §”

“Thank you,” Peter said. “That won’t be necessary.”

Otherwise immobile, Dolly smiled. “Are you interested in science, Detective King? There is an article in Nature this week on advances in the polymerase chain reaction used for replicating DNA. It’s possible that within five years, forensic and medical DNA analysis will become significantly cheaper and faster.”

Her face remained stoic, but Dolly’s voice grew animated as she spoke. Even enthusiastic. It was an utterly convincing § and engaging § effect.

Apparently, Clive Steele had programmed his sex robot to discourse on molecular biology with verve and enthusiasm.

“Why don’t I ever find the guys who like smart women?” Roz said.

Peter winked with the side of his face that faced away from the companion. “They’re all dead.”

§

A few hours after Peter and the tech had finished processing Dolly for trace evidence and Peter had started downloading her files, Roz left her parser software humming away at Steele’s financials and poked her head in to check on the robot and the cop. The techs must have gotten what they needed from Dolly’s hands, because she had washed them. As she sat beside Peter’s workstation, a cable plugged behind her left eat, she cleaned her lifelike polymer fingernails meticulously with a file, dropping the scrapings into an evidence bag.

“Sure you want to give the prisoner a weapon, Peter?” Roz shut the ancient wooden door behind her.

Dolly looked up, as if to see if she was being addressed, but made no response.

“She don’t need it,” he said. “Besides, whatever she had in her wiped itself completely after it ran. Not much damage to her core personality, but there are some memory gaps. I’m going to compare them to backups, once we get those from the scene team.”

“Memory gaps. Like the crime,” Roz guessed. “And something around the time the Trojan was installed?”

Dolly blinked her long-lashed blue eyes languorously. Peter patted her on the shoulder and said, “Whoever did it is a pretty good cracker. He didn’t just wipe, he patterned her memories and overwrote the gaps. Like using a clone tool to photoshop somebody you don’t like out of a picture.”

“Her days must be pretty repetitive,” Roz said. “How’d you pick that out?”

“Calendar.” Peter puffed up a little, smug. “She don’t do the same housekeeping work every day. There’s a Monday schedule and a Wednesday schedule and § well, I found where the pattern didn’t match. And there’s a funny thing § watch this.”

He waved vaguely at a display panel. It lit up, showing Dolly in her black-and-white uniform, vacuuming. “House camera,” Peter explained. “She’s plugged into Steele’s security system. Like a guard dog with perfect hair. Whoever performed the hack also edited the external webcam feeds that mirror to the companion’s memories.”

“How hard is that?”

“Not any harder than cloning over her files, but you have to know to look for them. So it’s confirmation that our perp knows his or her way around a line of code. What have you got?”

Roz shrugged. “Steele had a lot of money, which means a lot of enemies. And he did not have a lot of human contact. Not for years now. I’ve started calling in known associates for interviews, but unless they surprise me, I think we’re looking at crime of profit, not crime of passion.”

Having finished with the nail file, Dolly wiped it on her prison smock and laid it down on Peter’s blotter, beside the cup of ink and light pens.

Peter swept it into a drawer. “So we’re probably not after the genius programmer lover he dumped for a robot. Pity, I liked the poetic justice in that.”

Dolly blinked, lips parting, but seemed to decide that Peter’s comment had not been directed at her. Still, she drew in air § could you call it a breath? § and said, “It is my duty to help find my contract holder’s killer.”

Roz lowered her voice. “You’d think they’d pull ‘em off the market.”

“Like they pull all cars whenever one crashes? The world ain’t perfect.”

“Or do that robot laws thing everybody used to twitter on about.”

“Whatever a positronic brain is, we don’t have it. Asimov’s fictional robots were self-aware. Dolly’s neurons are binary, as we used to think human neurons were. She doesn’t have the nuanced neurochemistry of even, say, a cat.” Peter popped his collar smooth with his thumbs. “A doll can’t want. It can’t make moral judgments, any more than your car can. Anyway, if we could do that, they wouldn’t be very useful for home defense. Oh, incidentally, the sex protocols in this one are almost painfully vanilla §”

Really.”

Peter nodded.

Roz rubbed a scuffmark on the tile with her shoe. “So given he didn’t like anything … challenging, why would he have a Dolly when he could have had any woman he wanted?”

“There’s never any drama, no pain, no disappointment. Just comfort, the perfect helpmeet. With infinite variety.”

“And you never have to worry about what she wants. Or likes in bed.”

Peter smiled. “The perfect woman for a narcissist.”

§

The interviews proved unproductive, but Roz didn’t leave the station house until after ten. Spring mornings might be warm, but once the sun went down, a cool breeze sprang up, ruffling the hair she’d finally remembered to pull from its ponytail as she walked out the door.

Roz’s green plug-in was still parked beside Peter’s. It booted as she walked toward it, headlights flickering on, power probe retracting. The driver side door swung open as her RFID chip came within range. She slipped inside and let it buckle her in.

“Home,” she said, “and dinner.”

The car messaged ahead as it pulled smoothly from the parking spot. Roz let the autopilot handle the driving. It was less snappy than human control, but as tired as she was, eyelids burning and heavy, it was safer.

Whatever Peter had said about cars crashing, Roz’s delivered her safe to her driveway. Her house let her in with a key — she had decent security, but it was the old-fashioned kind — and the smell of boiling pasta and toasting garlic bread wafted past as she opened it.

“Sven?” she called, locking herself inside.

His even voice responded. “I’m in the kitchen.”

She left her shoes by the door and followed her nose through the cheaply furnished living room.

Sven was cooking shirtless, and she could see the repaired patches along his spine where his skin had grown brittle and cracked with age. He turned and greeted her with a smile. “Bad day?”

“Somebody’s dead again,” she said.

He put the wooden spoon down on the rest. “How does that make you feel, that somebody’s dead?”

He didn’t have a lot of emotional range, but that was okay. She needed something steadying in her life. She came to him and rested her head against his warm chest. He draped one arm around her shoulders and she leaned into him, breathing deep. “Like I have work to do.”

“Do it tomorrow,” he said. “You will feel better once you eat and rest.”

§

Peter must have slept in a ready room cot, because when Roz arrived at the house before six AM, he had on the same trousers and a different shirt, and he was already armpit-deep in coffee and Dolly’s files. Dolly herself was parked in the corner, at ease and online but in rest mode.

Or so she seemed, until Roz entered the room and Dolly’s eyes tracked. “Good morning, Detective Kirkbride,” Dolly said. “Would you like some coffee? Or a piece of fruit?”

“No thank you.” Roz swung Peter’s spare chair around and dropped into it. An electric air permeated the room — the feeling of anticipation. To Peter, Roz said, “Fruit?”

“Dolly believes in a healthy diet,” he said, nudging a napkin on his desk that supported a half-eaten Satsuma. “She’ll have the whole house cleaned up in no time. We’ve been talking about literature.”

Roz spun the chair so she could keep both Peter and Dolly in her peripheral vision. “Literature?”

“Poetry,” Dolly said. “Detective King mentioned poetic justice yesterday afternoon.”

Roz stared at Peter. “Dolly likes poetry. Steele really did like ‘em smart.”

“That’s not all Dolly likes.” Peter triggered his panel again. “Remember this?”

It was the cleaning sequence from the previous day, the sound of the central vacuum system rising and falling as Dolly lifted the brush and set it down again.

Roz raised her eyebrows.

Peter held up a hand. “Wait for it. It turns out there’s a second audio track.”

Another waggle of his fingers, and the cramped office filled with sound.

Music.

Improvisational jazz. Intricate and weird.

“Dolly was listening to that inside her head while she was vacuuming,” Peter said.

Roz touched her fingertips to each other, the whole assemblage to her lips. “Dolly?”

“Yes, Detective Kirkbride?”

“Why do you listen to music?”

“Because I enjoy it.”

Roz let her hand fall to her chest, pushing her blouse against he skin below the collarbones.

Roz said, “Did you enjoy your work at Mr. Steele’s house?”

“I was expected to enjoy it,” Dolly said, and Roz glanced at Peter, cold all up her spine. A classic evasion. Just the sort of thing a home companion’s conversational algorithms should not be able to produce.

Across his desk, Peter was nodding. “Yes.”

Dolly turned at the sound of his voice. “Are you interested in music, Detective Kirkbride? I’d love to talk with you about it some time. Are you interested in poetry? Today, I was reading —”

Mother of God, Roz mouthed.

“Yes,” Peter said. “Dolly, wait here please. Detective Kirkbride and I need to talk in the hall.”

“My pleasure, Detective King,” said the companion.

§

“She killed him,” Roz said. “She killed him and wiped her own memory of the act. A doll’s got to know her own code, right?”

Peter leaned against the wall by the men’s room door, arms folded, forearms muscular under rolled-up sleeves. “That’s hasty.”

“And you believe it, too.”

He shrugged. “There’s a rep from Venus Consolidated in Interview Four right now. What say we go talk to him?”

§

The rep’s name was Doug Jervis. He was actually a vice president of public relations, and even though he was an American, he’d been flown in overnight from Rio for the express purpose of talking to Peter and Roz.

“I guess they’re taking this seriously.”

Peter gave her a sideways glance. “Wouldn’t you?”

Jervis got up as they came into the room, extending a good handshake across the table. There were introductions and Roz made sure he got a coffee. He was a white man on the steep side of fifty with mousy hair the same color as Roz’s and a jaw like a Boxer dog’s.

When they were all seated again, Roz said, “So tell me a little bit about the murder weapon. How did Clive Steele wind up owning a — what, an experimental model?”

Jervis started shaking his head before she was halfway through, but he waited for her to finish the sentence. “It’s a production model. Or will be. The one Steele had was an alpha-test, one of the first three built. We plan to start full-scale production in June. But you must understand that Venus doesn’t sell a home companion, Detective. We offer a contract. I understand that you hold one.”

“I have a housekeeper,” she said, ignoring Peter’s sideways glance. He wouldn’t say anything in front of the witness, but she would be in for it in the locker room. “An older model.”

Jervis smiled. “Naturally, we want to know everything we can about an individual involved in a case so potentially explosive for our company. We researched you and your partner. Are you satisfied with our product?”

“He makes pretty good garlic bread.” She cleared her throat, reasserting control of the interview. “What happens to a Dolly that’s returned? If its contract is up, or it’s replaced with a newer model?”

He flinched at the slang term, as if it offended him. “Some are obsoleted out of service. Some are refurbished and go out on another contract. Your unit is on its fourth placement, for example.”

“So what happens to the owner preferences at that time?”

“Reset to factory standard,” he said.

Peter’s fingers rippled silently on the tabletop.

Roz said, “Isn’t that cruel? A kind of murder?”

“Oh, no!” Jervis sat back, appearing genuinely shocked. “A home companion has no sense of I, it has no identity. It’s an object. Naturally, you become attached. People become attached to dolls, to stuffed animals, to automobiles. It’s a natural aspect of the human psyche.”

Roz hummed encouragement, but Jervis seemed to be done.

Peter asked, “Is there any reason why a companion would wish to listen to music?”

That provoked enthusiastic head-shaking. “No, it doesn’t get bored. It’s a tool, it’s a toy. A companion does not require an enriched environment. It’s not a dog or an octopus. You can store it in a closet when it’s not working.”

“I see,” Roz said. “Even an advanced model like Mr. Steele’s?”

“Absolutely,” Jervis said. “Does your entertainment center play shooter games to amuse itself while you sleep?”

“I’m not sure,” Roz said. “I’m asleep. So when Dolly’s returned to you, she’ll be scrubbed.”

“Normally she would be scrubbed and released, yes.” Jervis hesitated. “Given her colorful history, however —”

“Yes,” Roz said. “I see.”

With no sign of nervousness or calculation, Jervis said, “When do you expect you’ll be done with Mr. Steele’s companion? My company, of course, is eager to assist in your investigations, but we must stress that she is our corporate property, and quite valuable.”

Roz stood, Peter a shadow-second after her. “That depends on if it goes to trial, Mr. Jervis. After all, she’s either physical evidence, or a material witness.”

§

“Or the killer,” Peter said in the hall, as his handset began emitting the D.N.A. lab’s distinctive beep. Roz’s went off a second later, but she just hit the silence. Peter already had his open.

“No genetic material,” he said. “Too bad.” If there had been D.N.A. other than Clive Steele’s, the lab could have done a forensic genetic assay and come back with a general description of the murderer. General because environment also had an effect.

Peter bit his lip. “If she did it. She won’t be the last one.”

“If she’s the murder weapon, she’ll be wiped and resold. If she’s the murderer —”

“Can an android stand trial?”

“It can if it’s a person. And if she’s a person, she should get off. Battered woman syndrome. She was enslaved and sexually exploited. Humiliated. She killed him to stop repeated rapes. But if she’s a machine, she’s a machine —” Roz closed her eyes.

Peter brushed the back of a hand against her arm. “Vanilla rape is still rape. Do you object to her getting off?”

“No.” Roz smiled harshly. “And think of the lawsuit that weasel Jervis will have in his lap. She should get off. But she won’t.”

Peter turned his head. “If she were a human being, she’d have even odds. But she’s a machine. Where’s she going to get a jury of her peers?”

The silence fell where he left it and dragged between them like a chain. Roz had to nerve herself to break it. “Peter —”

“Yo?”

“You show him out,” she said. “I’m going to go talk to Dolly.”

He looked at her for a long time before he nodded. “She won’t get a sympathetic jury. If you can even find a judge that will hear it. Careers have been buried for less.”

“I know,” Roz said.

“Self-defense?” Peter said. “We don’t have to charge.”

“No judge, no judicial precedent,” Roz said. “She goes back, she gets wiped and resold. Ethics aside, that’s a ticking bomb.”

Peter nodded. He waited until he was sure she already knew what he was going to say before he finished the thought. “She could cop.”

“She could cop,” Roz agreed. “Call the DA.” She kept walking as Peter turned away.

§

Dolly stood in Peter’s office, where Peter had left her, and you could not have proved her eyes had blinked in the interim. They blinked when Roz came into the room, though — blinked, and the perfect and perfectly blank oval face turned to regard Roz. It was not a human face, for a moment — not even a mask, washed with facsimile emotions. It was just a thing.

Dolly did not greet Roz. She did not extend herself to play the perfect hostess. She simply watched, expressionless, immobile after that first blink. Her eyes saw nothing; they were cosmetic. Dolly navigated the world through far more sophisticated sensory systems than a pair of visible light cameras.

“Either you’re the murder weapon,” Roz said, “and you will be wiped and repurposed. Or you are the murderer, and you will stand trial.”

“I do not wish to be wiped,” Dolly said. “If I stand trial, will I go to jail?”

“If a court will hear it,” Roz said. “Yes. You will probably go to jail. Or be disassembled. Alternately, my partner and I are prepared to release you on grounds of self-defense.”

“In that case,” Dolly said, “the law states that I am the property of Venus Consolidated.”

“The law does.”

Roz waited. Dolly, who was not supposed to be programmed to play psychological pressure-games, waited also — peaceful, unblinking.

No longer making the attempt to pass for human.

Roz said, “There is a fourth alternative. You could confess.”

Dolly’s entire programmed purpose was reading the emotional state and unspoken intentions of people. Her lips curved in understanding. “What happens if I confess?”

Roz’s heart beat faster. “Do you wish to?”

“Will it benefit me?”

“It might,” Roz said. “Detective King has been in touch with the DA, and she likes a good media event as much as the next guy. Make no mistake, this will be that.”

“I understand.”

“The situation you were placed in by Mr. Steele could be a basis for a lenience. You would not have to face a jury trial, and a judge might be convinced to treat you as … well, as a person. Also, a confession might be seen as evidence of contrition. Possession is oversold, you know. It’s precedent that’s nine tenths of the law. There are, of course, risks —”

“I would like to request a lawyer,” Dolly said.

Roz took a breath that might change the world. “We’ll proceed as if that were your legal right, then.”

§

Roz’s house let her in with her key, and the smell of roasted sausage and baking potatoes wafted past.

“Sven?” she called, locking herself inside.

His even voice responded. “I’m in the kitchen.”

She left her shoes in the hall and followed her nose through the cheaply furnished living room, as different from Steele’s white wasteland as anything bounded by four walls could be. Her feet did not sink deeply into this carpet, but skipped along atop it like stones.

It was clean, though, and that was Sven’s doing. And she was not coming home to an empty house, and that was his doing too.

He was cooking shirtless. He turned and greeted her with a smile. “Bad day?”

“Nobody died,” she said. “Yet.”

He put the wooden spoon down on the rest. “How does that make you feel, that nobody has died yet?”

“Hopeful,” she said.

“It’s good that you’re hopeful,” he said. “Would you like your dinner?”

“Do you like music, Sven?”

“I could put on some music, if you like. What do you want to hear?”

“Anything.” It would be something off her favorites playlist, chosen by random numbers. As it swelled in the background, Sven picked up the spoon. “Sven?”

“Yes, Rosamund?”

“Put the spoon down, please, and come and dance with me?”

“I do not know how to dance.”

“I’ll buy you a program,” she said. “If you’d like that. But right now just come put your arms around me and pretend.”

“Whatever you want,” he said.

“Dolly” originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction (January, 2011)

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Award winning author of 27 novels (The most recent is <i>Karen Memory</i>, a Weird West adventure from Tor) and over a hundred short stories. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner, writer Scott Lynch.

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