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The screen showed a customs officer interviewed in front of wooden crates, then switched to an open-mouthed sex doll, a Furby toy, a scrolled-down page of regulations, another sex doll, Sony's robotic dog, and finally a computer.
With the sound turned off, and viewed from the awkward perspective of the floor, it was difficult to tell what the news story was about, but if Graham had got it right, somebody was trying to import a batch of sex dolls with an elementary communication system, with a Furby-like electronic brain, dolls that did aural as well as oral. And they'd tried to import them as electronic equipment, when legally they were sex toys, or maybe the other way round.
"Would you ever want to have sex with a robot?" asked Graham. "I mean, when Sony or whoever gives up building miniature dogs and gets around to making humans with genitals, would you ever want to sleep with one?"
He felt Faith's head turn on his arm and knew her eyes had opened, though he wasn't looking at them.
"You have an amazing line in pillow-talk," she said. "You're supposed to say stuff like 'I love you', not ask me if I want to join a robot orgy."
As they lay together, flush and satisfied in the valley of white carpet between the sofa and TV, images from the screen played over them like nightclub lights. A Channel 4 newsreader looked down at his notes on the desk, out of picture, so he appeared to be staring below the screen at Faith's bare breasts and her mass of hair like a dark fur coat lying by her side. His face displayed earnestness, but his mouth was silenced by the mute and opened and closed stupidly in goldfish gulps, as if he couldn't find the words to describe the arch of her back, the beautiful curve of her hips.
"An amazing line in cushion-talk," corrected Graham, dryly. "All the pillows are upstairs. The padded thing under my head is a cushion."
Faith's head rubbed up and down his arm. "I'm way ahead of you," she said, "I've thought about this before. It depends on how lifelike they are. If they're perfectly lifelike, attractive and sensitive, great lovers, then the answer would be yes, I'd be happy to sleep with one. How about you?"
"I can't see me trading you in for something with batteries."
Faith slapped his bare belly. "If only you could hear yourself."
"But you haven't given me an answer."
"My answer's no," he said. "I couldn't sleep with one. I'd never be able to see them as human."
In the unused fireplace beyond Graham's head stood a bowl of fern-fronds, spray-painted every colour but green, since that would have looked weird, but now appearing as many shades of blue with the curtains closed and no light from anything but the TV. Beyond his feet in this small room, against the wall and close to the door, was Faith's upright piano, the piano she was slowly unlearning.
Graham reached for his trousers without disturbing Faith, and checked the time on his mobile. Five to nine. At nine he should be out on the street, waiting, but he could be out there in two minutes.
"So, if somebody with a real partner sleeps with one of these hypothetical robots," he asked, "is that infidelity?"
Faith gathered herself to speak, then hesitated. "The answer has to be the same, doesn't it? It depends on how lifelike they are. If they've got feelings, emotions, the whole relationship thing, then yes, it's infidelity."
"You're kind of upping their status, giving them the same value as real people."
"Or applying the same values. Yes, I am." Faith sounded indignant, like her point was obvious. She shifted, bringing her arm over Graham's chest, her leg over his, brushing his hair away from his ear, where she talked quietly. "But only if they can talk and think, otherwise they'd just be a glorified dildo."
"No, I don't think that works. Try this - if a robot has a human partner, but slips off to a hotel and sleeps with another robot, is that infidelity?"
Faith's body jerked against him, then settled. "Absolutely. This is assuming you can't tell they're robots, that they have emotions, are capable of love, not just sex-machines. If you can't tell, how are you going to treat them any different? You wouldn't even know if they'd slept with a robot or a person."
"I just don't think that'll happen. They may look great and be wonderful in bed, but you'll always know they're not real."
"Maybe they're already out there," she said. "You see them on the street, even fancy them, but you just can't tell."
They'd been like this from day one, recalled Graham, so secure in their relationship that they could talk about sex, about sex with other people, knowing it would never happen. Sex with robots wasn't a very romantic subject, as Faith had pointed out, but she liked to know what he was thinking about after they made love, and if he didn't say then she might make a point of asking.
Faith adjusted her long skirt, leaving her knickers close to the piano pedals but bringing the skirt material over her legs and pelvis. "I feel like he's perving at my bits," she said, looking up at the screen. "Anyway," she added, settling back on Graham's arm. "Rubber dolls are history. The first sex robots will be males."
"No way. The first robots will be built by geeks, by male geeks, and they'll build females."
"No, it's males who're produced purely for sex. You've got the male angler fish, that tiny little male who bites the female and becomes part of her body, shares her blood, loses his eyesight, just hangs in there and produces sperm. Then you've got bees and ants with their pathetic drones, and female black widow spiders and praying mantises saying 'thanks for the shag, now how about dinner?'"
She lay still for a while. Graham played with her thick hair.
"But they're all built for procreation, not recreation," he said.
She kissed him on the cheek. "You're so adorable, even if you do sometimes talk nonsense."
Her skin was hot against his, a comforting heat.
"I owned a vibrator once," she said. "I think I told you. When I was a student. Top of the range. I can't remember the price, but I do remember it was a week's rent. And I gave it a name."
"A man's name?"
"No, no gender. I called it Desire. A tacky name, looking back, but I was younger and didn't know better." Her tone sharpened, became more rational. "This is very nice, sweetheart, and I don't really want you to go, but aren't you going to be late?"
"What time are you being picked up?" she asked.
Faith sat upright, her wavy chestnut cascade swinging around to settle on her back. She picked up the TV remote and a small clock appeared in a corner of the screen. "You'd better get dressed, you've only got two minutes."
She looked for her bra and found it within reach on the sofa. Graham turned his baggy white shirt the right way out and fed his legs into his chinos. The TV showed commercial logging of a rainforest.
Faith still held the remote, and for a while Graham thought she might switch the sound back on. Instead, she cocked her head to one side. "That's good."
"What is? People cutting down trees?"
Faith was a fanatical tree-lover.
"No, this is still the news, and they're talking about run-of-the-mill destructive behaviour, so they must have run out of really bad things that happened in the world."
She climbed into her cotton top, speaking through the material as it covered her face. "You remember two days ago, they could barely fit all the bad news in. All those train and plane crashes."
Her face appeared through the neckline, for a moment it was sad, as she remembered her own personal bad news of that day. Then she appeared to put it to one side. "All those news editors cursing their luck. Not enough time to squeeze all the disasters in. And here we are two days later watching sex dolls with the brain of a cricket and regular pillage of the planet, and in the papers it'll be stories about pigs with faces like well-known actors and pictures of the Virgin Mary found inside potatoes, because clearly nothing much has happened in the world. "
Graham tied the laces of his shoes and stood up, smiling. He was the one who usually found news programmes unbearable. Faith generally tolerated them with the same forbearance as the rest of the planet, perhaps a little more, as she worked in TV herself, behind the scenes.
Now fully dressed, she put an elbow on the cushion that had been behind his head and regarded him. "Where's the job?" she asked.
Whichever way she stood or sat or lay, on whatever item of furniture, it never failed to look elegant, at least in Graham's eyes.
"Thames Valley. Should only take a few hours."
He hoped she didn't ask anything more, because he wasn't prepared to lie to her. This wasn't a job in the regular sense, it was a favour to Vince and he wouldn't get paid for it. Sometimes he did genuine call-outs in the evenings and nights, and that's what she'd assumed he was doing now, and he hadn't bothered to correct her. Between the seat of the sofa and an armrest was a plastic pouch of CD-ROMs. He picked it up and bent down to kiss Faith on the lips, closed mouth, a kiss goodbye.
"Good luck," she said, which wasn't something she normally said when he went to work.
Graham stood on the threshold of his house, at the top of the four broad steps that led down to street level, looking out on to the ancient street and the church opposite, under a London sky turning deep blue between clouds, now the early summer sun had gone.
Elegant Georgian townhouses faced each other across the tarmac, separated from the pavement by basement patios and uneven black iron railings. All the ground floors were in off-white stucco, except for a few rebels in light pastels, and one in tan. Above the stucco, plain brick rose up to create straight facades that hid shallow-sloped roofs. And dotted along the kerbs, setting off this man-made glory, were rowans and ornamental cherries and small London planes in full leaf.
The church opposite took up an entire block, from one sidestreet to the next, rising directly out of the York stone pavement where a country church might rise out of grass. Elaborate flying buttresses supported a thin steeple, and along the side facing Graham were many slim tall windows, each topped off by a small circular one the size of a porthole. Once, that church had been filled with worshippers of God, but science and progress had reduced their number to the level where they could no longer afford the upkeep. In line with the times it had been bought by developers, who'd added an internal floor and divided it into flats. Now it was home to a score of yuppies - worshippers of mammon.
Graham never tired of the beauty of this view from his doorstep, the well-kept houses of his lawyer and banker neighbours, the trees, and the magnificent city church. The church was the landmark where he'd arranged to be picked up by the strangers in an unknown car. He crossed over and stood in its shadow, feeling perfectly relaxed, looking forward to the adventure.
He might still smell of sex, but there was nothing unusual about that, he usually did. His own body gave off no odour of any kind, whether he washed or not, and they made love so often that if anybody thought he had his own characteristic smell it would probably be the sweet smell of Faith rather than his own body.
Forty minutes ago he'd sorted through his CD-ROMs and arrived downstairs, not thinking of sex but not thinking of anything else, apart from maybe a few lines of computer code, and their eyes had met, a single glance, his recognition, her return signal acknowledging his, a signal back to say yes I have plenty of time, all in a brief meeting of eyes, a long conversation compressed by history, familiarity and affection into milliseconds. Then she'd stuck her tongue inside his mouth five minutes into the evening news. That was the way with Faith. Sex could cure many ills, she was right about that, and even if it failed there was plenty of fun and distraction to be had in the trying.
Maybe she was right about the first sex robots being male. He didn't know much about fish and spiders but he shared Faith's passion for bees. The trees and the bees - that was her euphemism for sex. The birds and the bees? She'd never worked out where the birds fitted in. Sure, birds ate berries and transferred seeds, but that was plain midwifery. It was the bees who were the true handmaidens of sex, the real tree-pimps, brazenly carrying pollen from one to another.
It was females who did all that carrying and collecting. Male bees existed purely for sex. They came from unfertilised eggs with half the chromosomes of a female - half-bees - drones. They lived only to mate with the queen, and since this was their sole purpose in life they had enormous genitalia, way out of proportion to their size. Each carried ten million identical sperm, and when they ejaculated their penis detached, plugging the sperm inside the queen and incidentally killing the drone. They lived their lives in pursuit of a single, fatal orgasm.
Every few seconds a car drove by the church. Graham watched each one for signs of stopping. He had no idea what kind of car he was waiting for, or who would be inside.
Faith's passion for bees spilled over into a liking for ants, which he also shared. If bees were the sex-fiends of the insect world, then ants were its masterminds. They herded aphids for honeydew, farmed mushrooms grown on minced leaves, built rafts and lived in highly-organised societies. When the human race inevitably destroyed itself through nuclear warfare, genetic manipulation or a nanotechnology disaster, and took most of the planet's animal population with it, ants would inherit the world, they would become the dominant species. They had arrived before humankind and were likely to outlast it, they were the fairytale tortoise to humanity's hare.
Back when he was twelve or thirteen he'd watched a nature programme about fire ants in the Amazon basin. When the big river flooded, they joined together to create a raft for their queen, held up by surface tension, a raft that floated freely until it drifted into land. He'd wondered at the time if they felt excited by their expedition, their equivalent of a trip to the moon, if a collective intelligence was capable of feeling that kind of excitement, and the question had arrived so forcefully that even in adulthood it sometimes came back to him.
Strangely, he also remembered the program being littered with American adverts, which was odd because he must have seen it at his parents' house in Surrey.
A new Jaguar saloon, a curvy S-type heading west, slowed as it approached. There were three people inside. The bodywork had a strange hue, the pink of a pale rose when lit by the headlights of a passing car, but bronze beneath yellow sodium streetlamps. It pulled in thirty feet away, at the corner of a junction.
Graham approached the passenger door. The electric window came down. A large man with a shaven head and a stoop, even when sitting, smirked at him from the passenger seat but said nothing. The driver leaned across, small but muscular, early fifties, wearing a Paul Smith suit or equivalent that failed to overcome the hardness of his face and merely transformed him from looking like a boxer into a boxing promoter. "You the computer geezer?"
"Well get in the fackin car, then."
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