Rowan sat in the middle of a tall, glass case, a shiny pipe running from the front of her face-plate to disappear somewhere out of the frame. Purple and indigo lights played in refractions and reflections over her polished shell, casting the body in shifting, neon hues. Her body moved about the translucent cage in wavering, undulating bursts, sometimes drunkenly shifting and swaying, and sometimes erupting into moments of frenzied struggle against the glass constraining it. People thronged outside, drinks in their hands, and watched the spectacle of a glinting, gleaming, fighting drone trapped like an insect in a bottle.
In the eye of the camera they showed as little more than indistinct blurs, splotches of human-shaped color with all that could betray their identity digitally sanded away. Aphrodite would not give away the faces of her clients to Helen, and to a degree, she was glad for it. She did not want to know who the people luridly staring at the quavering mass her friend was rendered into were, only—
Helen’s phone rang; she paused the livestream and picked up.
“Hey Bohdan,” she said, walking away from the screen, the half-formed thought dissolving away from her attention. “Thanks for calling back. Can you please send me the transcript from Yemchuk’s? I want to start coding it. Cool, thanks. See ya at the meeting.”
She returned to the computer, closed the surveillance app, checked the mail; Bohdan, as always, was professionally prompt. She downloaded the file, booted up QDAMiner and went to work.
By the time she had finished for the night, the neon-soaked twitches of her friend’s defaced body had faded away from her attention. She slept soundly, and well.
“Helen,” Hank called out after her as she walked out of the meeting. They sat down in the kitchen annex, the pile of documents to go through dropped next to the steaming mugs of a fragrant herbal infusion subbing in for tea this morning.
“That shirt is really good on you,” he leaned in ever so slightly to get a better look.
“Thanks,” she glanced at her latest thrift store find. It was a plain white linen that could have once passed for a workingman’s clothing, but something about the cut reminded her of all the photos of the butches of old posing confident in their female masculinity. “I like it too.”
“You have to show me where you found it,” he said then, after a reluctant moment, added. “Are you still chasing those conspiracies…?”
Helen chuckled lightly at how nervous he looked asking that. Then again, it wasn’t like she could blame him. The last time they’d had a conversation about those things, it’d ended up with her storming out on him and a terse phone non-apology a day later. She was just glad he didn’t expect more of her.
“Nah,” she shook her head. “Not for the time being. I found what I needed and…” she glanced at the pile of papers. “It’s not like I’m… or any of us really… will have much time for anything like that in the coming weeks.”
“Preach,” he beamed. “And I’m happy to hear, you’re dropping it, even if…” he opened his mouth as if to say you should release the footage, but bit his tongue in time. “You just look better, you know? Actually relaxed.”
“Yeah…” she murmured pensively. Was she?
Ever since she had made her decision with Rabbit, and laid out a plan, however tentative, to confront Aphrodite and finally learn what it had all been about, she’d found herself at ease. Some unseen tension that had held her contorted had finally eased. There was no more investigation to be done, no more digging. The pursuit of both Galatea’s secrets and Rowan’s reasoning both led to the same point, months away. No matter how much the idea of actually visiting one of Galatea’s resorts, confronting Aphrodite and experiencing what Rowan would want to experience scared her—and it scared her plenty, with this subdued, night-time anxiety not unlike how she had felt when her education was coming to a close, opening for an uncertain future—it also provided a hope for a definite closure, for answers and, finally, respite. It wasn’t that she couldn’t wait, but there was, finally, a roadmap. A possible conclusion to plan for.
“Okay,” she reached for the first paper, touched her pen to it. “Let’s go over this…”
Spring rains battered against the office windows. This emotional relief couldn’t have come at a better point.
The weeks that followed unfolded into a frenzy of approaching deadlines and frantic realizations that the best laid plans of project leads would never quite pan out the way they were supposed to. No one, not even Anna, was surprised. As the last dregs of winter gave way to the vibrancy and bloom of warmer seasons, as the air started to grow thick with pollen, they crunched their way towards the finish line.
There was the last of field research to be done, the final interviews to collect, transcribe, collate, a mad dash of administrative proceedings to get everything in order, and then the sleepless week of report writing; of phone calls at dead hours of the night, triple-strength coffees to carry herself through mornings, of the frantic sense of everything coming apart at the seams. And then, just like that, the report was done, and the work continued. Presentations, conferences, media, going for drinks with the team to celebrate the return of normal life…
All that time, messages from Galatea piled up in her inbox, informing her with perfect regularity that everything about Rowan was fine. Ever since she had been installed in her cybernetic shell and put to “use”, the reports indicated steady mental health, good work performance, no issues to point out to. As baffling as it felt, everything seemed to be going well for her.
To admit to the notion that maybe that happiness was genuine and free no longer felt heart-breaking. Part of it had to be simple numbness; Helen had been exposed to it enough for it to stop coming across as scandalous and become simply quotidian. Part of it was deferral. When she opted to dwell and think on it more, it returned to her as this barb lodged somewhere in her gut, a splinter of frustration she could not dislodge. The idea that this was what joy and happiness for a woman could be like remained alien and vaguely hostile. But it was also an idea that could wait for its planned resolution, and in truth, she found herself thinking about it less and less.
In the panicked haze of fast-approaching deadlines, she gave up on watching the Rowan livestream; she had no time for it, and no energy. Even after it had concluded, and she was again with free time, she found herself checking on the cameras less and less. When she did, late at nights, when the sense of obligation sublimated into the feeling of guilt, what she saw was difficult to relate to.
There was a visceral horror to the images from the first days, from the brightly lit laboratories where Galatea measured and conditioned Rowan. It was revolting—and darkly captivating—to watch her friend be treated like a guinea pig, strapped into machines, monitored, diagnosed, drugged. She kept looking at her face, expecting to see fear or alarm, and always ended up distraught when she found blissed out emptiness instead.
It terrified her; it still did when she remembered or reviewed the footage. But the rubber doll they’d turned Rowan into, faceless and indistinct from any other drone in Galatea’s inventory, was far harder to relate to. Its movements, alternatingly beautifully smooth and mechanically jerky, were different from how Rowan used to carry herself. In fact, Helen couldn’t even be sure if the drone that the cameras showed her really was Rowan. How could she be certain? It lived a life unlike a human being, alternating between being put to strange use and being returned to its berth, like a widget being plugged into a loading station for the night.
It should be repulsive but instead it came across as, above all, alien. And the less she could see Rowan in this strange, shiny body, the less she watched, until the surveillance app faded from the “recently used” tab and she stopped opening it at all. There was no point. In some months, she would find and experience it all first hand, and then, she hoped, dearly, brightly, it would all make sense, and even the aftertaste of guilt over how she’d abandoned looking would be finally purged from her mind.
And so those months passed, the spring giving way to the suffocating heat and scalding sun of high summer. From a garden the city turned into an oven. The work slowed down, but thankfully the last few projects paid well enough that Helen could enjoy long, pleasant nights with friends, finally catch up on all the series she had been passing up for later, and see a bunch of great bands that no one had ever heard of. Times were good, and even the looming approach of the departure day couldn’t spoil the feeling of things just going along well enough.
Until it was time to go.
Rabbit stopped in front of the airport’s entrance hall door, and lifted their head to snap themselves a quick selfie, preening with their new, thin-framed shades. They went along nicely with their fashion sportswear that was all the rage the season; tight pants and shirt a bit too well-cut and expensive for anyone to be comfortable with using them to serve their purported function, but really good at bringing out the shape of a fit body for everyone to see. Rabbit had spent the good part of the last few months working out, and clearly they wanted the world to notice.
Helen, for one, appreciated the sight.
“You really do look intimidating,” Rabbit smiled as they moved inside, into the artificial coolness of the air-conditioned arrival hall. “Girded for war?”
Helen hesitated, nervously looking down at her own outfit. It was black; black t-shirt exposing the tattoos sleeving up her arms, black jeans, black combat boots. It was, perhaps, not the best choice considering the weather, but it felt hers, and there was a kind of security in that feeling.
“God, you remind me—” Rabbit chewed on their lip for a moment. “It’s funny how you keep reminding me of drummers, you know. Lauren Hammel from when she played in High Tension?”
“And Tropical Fuck Storm, too,” Helen smiled. It wasn’t the worst person to be compared to. She looked around. “She’s really good.”
The airport, typically for this time of the year, was beyond crowded. Hordes of tourists shuffled to and fro like a human sea, between gates, stores, travel information. Hundreds of languages filled the air.
“Oh, yeah. And it’s really your vibe, too,” Rabbit nodded eagerly, dragging their glittering suitcase behind. “Just, you know, considering where we’re going, what you intend to do…”
Helen felt her stomach sink a bit at just the thought.
“...it’s like, that’s not how subs look, you know.”
She clenched her hands into fists, angrily jerking her own baggage towards check-in.
“I’m stressed, okay?” she snapped at Rabbit. “Please, don’t.”
“Okay,” they replied, went silent for a second, then continued. “I’m just really excited. Goddamnit but their trip planner was something.”
Helen frowned at the mention. Rabbit wasn’t wrong. It was something alright—an impossibly intricate interface where, if she wanted to, she could plan out everything to happen to her during the stay down to the smallest preferred fetish, or just throw caution to the wind and let their “pleasure designers” take over. There was a kink blacklist with more options that she had known existed. Just looking up some of the terms had been a trip. There were dozens of pages filled with reference material and advice. She spent a full night agonizing over it before making a single decision.
“Mind if I ask what you settled on?” Rabbit said after a moment, swaying slightly from side to side.
“Just this… medium package,” she grunted, remembering the can’t decide on specifics? Set boundaries instead! menu, denoting what limits those Galatea organizers should plan for her. The description of what was allowed under the Extreme package made her honestly disturbed. “Didn’t really want to go into details.”
She also didn’t really want to talk about it, but it was hard not to see how much Rabbit did, so concessions had to be made.
“Yeah, no, I went into more detail. God—” Rabbit continued as they slowly shuffled forwards toward the security guards, “I really hope they live up to some of the promises. And how you can plan some of it, then let the rest be a surprise. No wonder they charge a fortune for this shit.”
There was no arguing with that. The price tag attached to their trip was another disturbing feature of the entire endeavour. She swung her head around, surveying the crowd. She wondered who else in it, if anyone, was going to the Galatea fuck farm. How would they look? Who would they be? Could she even tell?
The woman at the security check, when they finally got there, turned out to be unusually nice; they made it through without a hitch, emerging into the brightly lit, garish realm of the duty-free zone. The stores holding candy packs the size of a schoolkid’s backpack made Helen smile; they reminded her of the gifts her parents would get from their frequent travels.
“I’m gonna get something to drink,” Rabbit announced. “Which gate are we? Actually—” they paused, noticing a sign with the signature leaning statue logo. “Look, Galatea has a lounge here!”
Helen blinked, but it didn’t really surprise her. Again, considering the price, small luxuries like that were to be expected. She tensed, imagining what it would like; memories from watching Rowan working flashing before her eyes. She wasn’t sure if she was ready.
She was also, she found out not without relief, wrong.
The lounge, overlooking the vast concrete expanse of the landing strip, was not an antechamber to the realm of perversion she and Rabbit were bound for. It was, in fact, minimalist and tasteful, a glass-roofed, sunlit open space adorned with greenery arranged into vaguely brutalist pots. Instead of the stale coolness of air-conditioning, the air was heavy with fresh humidity, with the earth smell of soil and growth. An imposing vivarium, a bottle garden the size of a small room dominated the middle, containing a whole cross-section of black soil and explosively colourful exotic vegetation. Tiny droplets of water condensed on the inside of the glass, giving it a misty, otherworldly appearance.
“Ooh,” Rabbit murmured at the sight. “Pretty.”
Hidden between potted shrubs, offered privacy by screens of green leaves, there were cushioned chairs, clumped together into isolated groups where the people taking on Galatea services waited. Helen caught just glimpses of them, but they were enough to confirm her suspicion of who they would be.
“We stand out,” she grunted as they quietly made towards a seat of their own, gravel crunching under their feet. Rabbit nodded quietly.
The eyes were on them. People in tailored suits, with Swiss watches glinting from their wrists and luxury electronic widgets in their hands turned heads and watched them, frowning, squinting. No one said anything, but it was clear what the message was. Who are those people? Whatever impression of expensive fashion Rabbit could give on floors below here looked at best hopelessly parvenu.
It wasn’t just the tokens of wealth they had on them. The Galatea clients had the well-tended to middle age and the practiced manner of gesture and expression that Helen had learned to recognize during fundraisers and meetings with politicians. They were rich, and they were also the kind that thought themselves an elite and would gladly show what means they had to support the claim.
“Wonder if there are any faces from the TV here,” Rabbit said with an anxious smile.
Helen tried not to look too hard; she really didn’t want to learn who of the country’s one percent decided to live out their decadent sex dreams away from the eyes of society. It just surprised her that even though the people around were mostly men, she could notice at least two or three couples, some stately bourgeois marriages. Then, she noticed a silver-haired man and a woman easily thirty years younger sitting together; she looked just as hopelessly out of place as Helen was, awkward in her designer dress.
And then she didn’t want to look at those people any longer.
“And I wonder,” she bitterly whispered back to Rabbit, averting eyes from a bearded man in a casual shirt of the sort that could only mean yeah, I’m in tech, “what they would do if they knew what we think of them.”
“Arise ye wretched of the earth…” Rabbit intoned in response, but even they refused to raise their voice.
There was weight to the damp air, a kind of pressure that could only enforce silence. They found themselves a seat hidden from view and lumped down there, waiting in quiet anxiety. Scattered pieces of conversations reached them, rendered unintelligible by the acoustics of the lounge. Helen sighed to herself and put in her headphones, flicking through the list of albums on her phone until she found something anti-capitalist and loud enough to soften the atmosphere.
It helped, but not enough to cover the mounting anxiety taking root alongside her spine, in the back of her skull. It was this knowledge of being out of place, of doing something wrong. Rabbit, next to her, reclined in their chair and flicked through their phone; even if the atmosphere of this place made them silent, they remained bright, clearly looking forward to what was to come.
Helen wished she could share the sentiment.
It wasn’t just wealth and status that separated her from all the others, from all those rich people blowing huge money on luxury sex trade. They were like Rabbit, assuming the profit motive and lust for power had not yet stripped all human emotion from their souls; but as much as Helen would prefer to believe they were all calloused sociopaths hell-bent on ruining the world for everyone but themselves, it wasn’t that desire that had brought them here. They had their fantasies, and they were probably excited about having them fulfilled. And that, again, left her an outlier.
The plan she had, the one that offered her solace in the months running up to this very day, no longer seemed like that much of a bright idea. What was it, anyway? Go there, discover the joys of submission, finally understand the way Rowan felt when they did all that they did to her while leaving her all the happier for it, confront Aphrodite, who was, quite probably, a shadowy artificial intelligence? It was hard not to notice how crazy it sounded. But she was way past the point when she could have backed down.
She glanced at Rabbit again. Aphrodite had to know what she was doing when she offered her the plus one option on this visit. Even if Helen wanted to withdraw now, even if she was to panic and refuse, it would mean leaving them hung out to dry. She exhaled, fingers drumming nervously alongside the edge of the chair.
The tension did not abate when they finally boarded the plane, a business jet in Galatea’s livery, nor when she was seated next to Rabbit in a luxurious private cabin, nor when they took off. She had put in a debt of months of calm, and it was now coming due.
“Helen?” Rabbit asked, sipping from the bright orange drink they were offered; they even dressed it with a lemon rind. “Are you okay?”
She did not reply at first, watching the always-beautiful sight of the world as seen from miles up. The cup of black tea she had in lieu of liquor steamed; she could tell by the smell alone that it was quality and well brewed. And as thankful as she was for that—airplane tea usually belonged in its own unique category of vile—it also bothered her in its excess.
“I’ve told you I’m stressed,” she replied. “Just…”
She paused, and when she couldn’t find the right words to express what she was feeling, Rabbit picked up the conversation for themselves.
“Right I’m sorry I’m going to drop it on you now, but there’s something we should establish clearly, okay?”
Helen looked at them, still saying nothing. Phrases like that seldom heralded anything good.
“Over the next few days. I am,” Rabbit continued, “probably going to get fucked by someone—or something, I guess—that’s not you. Probably repeatedly. I’m pretty sure you do realize that, but just in case…”
She just gulped. The thought had not evaded her attention, even if it being put that bluntly felt… rough? It wasn’t like she was going to lose Rabbit to a Galatea drone, and besides they weren’t even a couple, not by strict standards, just intimate friends, but still…
“I hope you get some of that too,” Rabbit added, “and I want you to know that I don’t mind. But if you do…”
“I don’t,” she said hastily, and maybe a bit insincerely.
“Good,” Rabbit nodded with a slight smile and returned to their drink. If they noticed how forced Helen’s words were, they cared not at all. Helen had just given up on the right to complain, and it was all they needed.
Not sure what to do, and with anxiety gnawing at her boness, she turned away from the window and reached for the Galatea Safety Manual that the steward had left alongside the drink, suggesting that reviewing it might be a good idea before arriving at the facility. She opened it and was greeted with a series of warnings in bold letters, reminding her that the use of recording devices was strictly forbidden in Galatea venues, that they were all under constant surveillance and the safety manual should be consulted, as violation of resort regulation was grounds not just for expulsion, but also a lifetime ban on Galatea products and services.
She wondered briefly how many of those businessmen and politicians in the rest of the plane were dependent on Galatea’s cutting edge medical technology. It was one way of ensuring that they would remain compliant, she guessed. The thought briefly distracting her from the creeping worry, she started to flip through the pages.
Drones: good practices.
The header, offered next to a whole-page photograph of a drone shell with an exclamation mark displayed over its face, drew her attention. She started to read.
Drones, semi-autonomous extensions of Galatea, are offered for your use.
She thought of Rowan, and felt bile rise in her throat at the phrasing.
While their purpose is manifold and they are ready to serve for your enjoyment and satisfaction, there are a few good practices that should be employed when dealing with them:
- While drones may differ in behaviour and appearance from humans, they shall nonetheless be treated with the same sort of respect. A drone’s no is a no. A drone will never deny use without serious justification, and as such the failure to respect it will be treated no differently than the failure to respect the no of any other sex worker in Galatea employ (see section 1 – General good practices);
- While drones can be freely touched while performing their services, care should be taken not to disrupt their work too much. Interfering with the work of a drone just to get an extra squeeze in is heavily discouraged, and if it disrupts the operations of the resort, it is a ground for a fine. The same applies to excessive engaging of drones outside of designated play areas;
- Under NO circumstances is an attempt to be made to remove any part of the drone’s shell from its body. It will cause a security intervention and immediate expulsion from the facility, with attending consequences;
- Drones are not individual and are not considered to have a gender (suggested pronoun: it). While you are free to refer to them with nicknames (insults are heavily discouraged), it is not possible to specify a particular drone for a service being ordered;
- Drones are not likely to speak back when engaged in a conversation. While by no means forbidden, their failure to speak back should not be treated as an individual slight or deliberate offence;
- In cases of emergency, drones should be treated as Galatea employees, and their directions obeyed;
- If possible, clean drones after use.
She closed the booklet, and her eyes, and thought of the incidents that must have caused the institution of those rules. When the initial, short lived amusement and outraged expired, she thought more of the wording. Drones are not individual. The old fears, the ones she thought were behind her flared back up.
What did they do to Rowan? What did they make out of her?
The Galatea facility was a series of obelisks of glass, steel and concrete, gleaming beacon-bright in the midday sun. They towered over the lush countryside extending around them, old farmland bought to be left to its own devices, to grow wild and thick. There was a kind of beauty to how the flowered grasslands, now yellowing in the heat of the summer, contrasted with the sleek modernity of the buildings and the airstrip.
As the plane made its landing, Helen got a good look in; from above, one could see faint lines criss-crossing the grasses around, outlines of old fields fading from sight and memory in lands made to be untended. It was an awkward feeling looking at it, and admiring the choice; she didn’t want to think highly of anything that Galatea did.
They rolled out of the jet slowly, walking over the hot asphalt towards the nearby reception building. This is it, Helen thought, heart racing as if about to burst.
“This is it,” Rabbit exclaimed, beaming and excited.
Their baggage had been delivered to their rooms before they’d even entered the pleasant cool of the reception hall. Within moments of crossing inside, a woman in Galatea’s space-age livery, with lips the color of burnished gold, came to attend and usher them in.
She bombarded them with canned chatter all the way in, all about how Galatea was honoured and pleased to host them and such; but scattered between that were actually important details. The facility proper—the fuck farm itself—would not open up until the evening. Until then, they had the free reign of everything else, of all the restaurants and amenities they might be interested in, but the actual stay—the thing they came in here for—would have to wait a few more hours.
When the woman mentioned how the staff would be at their beck and call, and how they should not hesitate with their wishes and needs, Rabbit cracked a horrible joke; the way the woman handled dodging it was professional enough to make even Helen smile.
And then, they finally arrived at the door to their room, the usher turned to address them one last time.
“Miss Hu,” she said with a slight bow. “I would like to remind you that your chosen safeword is ‘Red’ and that it will be recognized even if your voice is unintelligible.”
Helen blushed, and at the same time felt another claw of base fear rake across the inside of her chest.
“In case you want to change it, please alert the staff before the evening opening.”
“Sure,” she muttered.
Then, she turned to Rabbit
“Mx…” she began, managing to somehow pronounce the honorific perfectly, but they waved her away.
“Rabbit,” she continued without missing a beat. “I would like to remind you that you chose the ‘no safeword’ option in the tour planner.”
“What?” Helen gasped.
“Yep,” they nodded.
“This choice will be locked in at the opening. If you want to change it, you have time until then.”
“Nope,” they replied. “But thanks for the reminder.”
“Very well. In the name of Galatea, please enjoy your stay.”
She pushed the door open, revealing spacious, luscious interior, all minimalist furniture and carefully cultivated vegetation for ornamentation. As they stepped inside, Helen kept staring at Rabbit in a mixture of dumb surprise and growing, gut-level fear.
“What?” they asked, skipping gracefully inside and dropping onto one of the beds. “What?”