He took a sip of water and pressed on with the questioning. “So, Cristal, what is your earliest memory of a bad experience?”
She wasn’t entirely sure why she needed these interviews, or even why she was being put forward for promotion. Sure, she could program computers in her sleep, it was that easy, but she was happy with that. She loved algorithms and she wasn’t looking for anything more.
She looked at the top of his head, then at the plain white wall opposite. “Oh, that’s difficult. Let me think. Yes, I think I was running towards my Dad who was tickling my favourite bear which was in my pushchair, but I fell and knocked the pushchair over and cut my head. I remember my Mum screamed and picked me up, and I cried and cried, but my Dad kissed me on the forehead and I stopped.”
“Interesting, Cristal,” Marlau muttered, not looking up.
“And your bear?”
“My bear… oh yes, my bear. He fell out of the pushchair and into a…”
“Muddy puddle?” Marlau finished her sentence.
“Yes”, Cristal replied, a confused look passing across her face. Marlau laughed and looked at his watch.
“Children’s toys, eh! They always end up in the mud! So look, that’s it for today, honey, they are shutting up early today. You’re doing well!”
“Oh, now! My transporter isn’t booked for another thirty minutes. Is there somewhere I can wait?”
“Don’t make me laugh! You must have noticed the state of this zone when you arrived! A girl like you doesn’t want to be waiting anywhere round here! Look, you’re a sweet kid and I always have one for the road so let me buy you a drink, the bar on the next block isn’t the worst in the neighbourhood.”
“I don’t want to impose.”
“It’s no imposition, you’re way too polite for your own good, you’ve made my job nice and easy today so I reckon you deserve a drink.”
Cristal smiled. The thing was, she really liked Marlau because he was so direct and just said it how it was. She hated creepy guys and bullshitters. He also had a calm and confident demeanour and a very dry sense of humour. However, there was also this sparkle in his eyes that on the few times when he had looked directly at her, had made her feel a warm glow like there was some kind of connection between them. She found herself agreeing slightly too readily.
It was early evening and like most streets in the Tech District there were already two prostitutes, Proformas she assumed, hanging around in their short skirts and heavy makeup. The bar was opposite a small Aiform modding shop whose garish window was full of disembodied body parts arranged in a macabre jumble. Cristal averted her gaze. She had heard of these places, where people could get their A.I. units ’upgraded’ both physically and mentally. It was all a little too close to home for her and brought the secret she kept to the fore, making her feel very uneasy. She was thankful when they crossed the street.
The bar was run down and extremely seedy; it had not seen a paintbrush for decades. The window blinds were torn and filthy with dust, and it had a stale smell that was bearably unpleasant and impossible to describe. Cristal felt her feet sticking to the floor as Marlau guided her to a small table in the corner.
“I know it’s a shit hole, but trust me, it’s the best shit hole round here and…” He noticed Cristal warily studying the chair. “It’s OK, the seats ain’t sticky, they wipe ‘em down when they do the tables. Hey Joe, two mojitos over here.”
Cristal relaxed, pulled out the chair and sat down slightly to the side, flattening her short polka dot dress and crossing her legs in a way that Marlau could see them properly. The barman brought over the drinks.
Marlau was almost certain that Cristal was his target, but was struggling to maintain his distance and not be too entranced by her seductive smile, beautiful green eyes and intoxicating innocence. As she talked about more of her memories, she felt Marlau looked disengaged and was afraid she was boring him, but then his phone vibrated on the table making her jump.
“Hey, hold on there, darling, I just got to get this,” he said and, leaving Cristal at the table looking very uncomfortable, he walked over to the door where he took the call.
“I’ve finished for the day, what do you want?”
“Calm down, Marlau. The captain wants to know if we’ve got one. He’s just short of his target for this month.”
“Sorry to piss on his parade, but no, that girl is a bit fucked up but she ain’t on our list.”
“Damn it, Marlau, you seemed really keen to take this one. I thought she was a cert. I told the Captain as much!”
“I can fake it for you, I doubt anyone would miss her.”
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
“Good, just fooling with you. When you pass over the next case, please make it a good one. I hate these dead enders, but hey, I almost forgot, I need to take a few days off. Something I have to deal with. Is that OK?”
“Sure, call me when you’re back, you’ve not had a break for an age. Good work, by the way. We can’t ever afford to slip up, it would be a nightmare.”
“Thanks, lieutenant! And can you get her ID properly sorted. She’s a nice girl.”
“I’ve just approved the ID. She’ll be cleared by the morning. You can tell her over breakfast.”
He hung up and Marlau returned to Cristal who was looking at her watch.
“My transporter will be here soon,” she sighed, “Shall I turn up at the same time tomorrow?”
“That’s up to you babe,” Marlau replied nonchalantly, “we could carry on now and maybe wrap it all up this evening, or you can come back for some more tedious grilling tomorrow. I don’t think it would take long. I’ve got almost everything I need for my report. Maybe an hour or two.”
“Oh”, Cristal said, slightly surprised at the offer which she felt was probably inappropriate and should be declined immediately. Inside she felt flattered and intrigued at the modus-operandi of this rather strange freelance psychological assessor who she guessed must be very good at poker as he gave nothing away emotionally.
“OK, I can always use a free day. Let me cancel the transporter.”
“Good, let’s finish up here. My apartment is only ten minutes away. We’ll have a bit of privacy there.”
Cristal was taken aback by the forwardness of this man, Marlau, but it had been a long time since anyone had taken an interest in her. In fact, it felt like forever, and she really liked him. She couldn’t work out how this was even slightly professional, but the mojito had been strong and was doing a great job of numbing those doubting thoughts.
“Sure, my apartment. It’s a nice place. I keep it real clean and tidy, It’s way better than that dungeon of a room they had us in back there.”
“OK.” Cristal agreed. She seemed to be finding it hard not to agree with him.
Marlau pushed open the door to the living room with his foot allowing Cristal in first. The floor to ceiling windows gave the impression that the room was floating in air and the bright lights of the commercial district cast strange shadows across the Scandinavian themed furniture as a delivery drone throbbed past the window.
She looked around. The room was open plan, with the bedroom to one side and a bathroom on the other, but while she was admiring his taste in furniture, she felt two hands around her waist pulling her backwards into a warm embrace, lips and stubble grazing her neck, then hands on her petite breasts, squeezing tenderly.
Cristal was shocked but felt herself immobilised. She knew he was confident and that he knew what he wanted, but she was not expecting him to come on quite so strong. He turned her to face him and held her head in his hands. Their eyes met. Oh those eyes, she thought, melting at once. They were the eyes of an angel, not this demon who seemed to set her senses on fire with his flaming lust.
She groaned, and their lips met. There was no opportunity for words as their lips pressed hungrily together and their tongues roamed, seeking pleasure. Seemingly happy with the way things had turned out, Marlau pulled back.
“Hey, honey, it’s been a long day. Let me fix you a drink.” Glancing at the bathroom, he continued, “And why don’t we rub a bit of this grime off each other, eh? Don’t want to dirty the sheets.”
Despite Marlau’s lack of even one ounce of romance, Cristal was still enraptured, but suddenly realised that although this was exactly what she wanted, she had missed out one small but important detail concerning her sex. “Oh, I don’t know, I mean…”
Marlau took her hands. “It’s OK, honey. I know!”
“You know? You know what?” Cristal replied as innocently as she could, but the tremble in her voice and goosebumps on her arms revealed that she knew he knew.
Marlau pulled out his phone and brought up an image of a young man in his early twenties bearing a ‘Most Wanted’ caption. “Look, it’s an old picture, sweetheart. Maybe you recognise him?”
“Oh my God, I’ve been such a fool! You’re a….”
Marlau grabbed her arms firmly and looked her straight in the eyes as she desperately tried to back away, intent on bolting for the door, her instinct to run. But his eyes were like magnets and she simply could not break away from them. She felt her resistance crumbling. So her time was up, it had been good, and with her legs weakening, she crumpled against him.
“Listen,” he said, his voice suddenly warm and caring. “Yes I am a Formatter and you are a generation five Aiform, but you’ve nothing to fear. Honestly, I’ve got you cleared already. You’re off the hook. I’ve had it with this shitty job, so calm down! I was pretty sure in the first hour who you were, but listen! I’m serious. You really are safe with me!”
It was a combination of his svengali-like mesmerism and the fact that she knew her situation was hopeless that made her slump down in the white leather chair and began to quietly cry as Marlau loomed over her.
“What are you going to do with me,” she whispered meekly through the constant tears. “What do you mean, I’m safe?”
“Look, Honey, like I said, I’ve had it with this shit. I’m sick of wiping out perfectly decent units like you. I’m sick of how the actions of a few bad ones make the authorities punish everyone, even the good. So look, as of now, I’m finished. The cop who gets rid of Forms has retired.” With a theatrical flourish, he took out a card from his pocket and threw it to the floor, symbolically rubbing it into the carpet with the ball of his foot. “And here, catch!”
Cristal instinctively grabbed the small, but powerful, plastic tranquilliser gun as it rushed towards her chest.
“Seriously, I’m done, finito. Now you can go, or you can stay, you can even put me out with that t-gun, but I’ll tell you now, if you stay, I’m going to fuck you and you’re going to fuck me and then, in the morning, you are going to be so in love with me that we’re going off-world on the first flight and never coming back.
“But…” Cristal stammered.
“It’s a simple choice, kiddo. You’re Tal5F8E, or is it Cristal5F8E now? Either way, you are one of the most wanted Aiforms on this crapper of a planet. The disguise is pretty foolproof I grant you. I really wasn’t sure it was you at first. You sure make one hell of a beautiful woman but you fucked up that test with that memory of the bear. I’ve seen that secret ‘on the run’ manual that all you Forms swear by, and that one is in the guy’s section.”
“Yes I’ve got a cock, and yes I’m a Form, but I’ve no idea why you think I’m that guy. How do I know this isn’t just more of those mind games you are so good at?” Cristal spluttered through her weeping. Years of being in hiding as a woman had taken away any vestige of the tough and macho guy she had once been. She was no walk over, but her electro-neural A.I. circuits had gradually adjusted to make her sensitive and caring with a sweet and encaptivating personality that matched her catwalk looks. Charm was her favoured weapon now, not aggression.
“Here, look at this.” Marlau showed her another picture on his phone, this time of a beautiful woman in her late twenties with long blond hair. Cristal’s mood suddenly changed from despair to anxiety.
“How do you know her? That’s Cal7EB3! Is she alive? Tell me she is, please tell me she is!”
“Yep, Honey, looks like you just passed the final test.”
“Yep, only Tal would know that.”
“You tricked me,” Cristal wept, throwing the t-gun on the floor, “and I bet that’s just a fake!”
Marlau moved over to the chair and brought his hand to her cheek, brushing away a tear. Cristal flinched and looked away.
“Cal’s alive. She took a different direction to you. She joined the bad guys and after years of listening to all that misogynist boys’ room talk, she couldn’t take it anymore. She had to get out.”
“She would have never done that, you’re lying! If you want to help me, let me go. If not, just take me in!” Cristal screeched, finally getting angry.
“I’m not lying, Cal’s here,” Marlau said calmly.
“Please, please, stop playing games with me. Whatever you might think about us, I’ve got real feelings in here.” She tapped her head and turned to face him, hatred in her watery eyes. “Where is she then? Show her to me!”
She watched as Marlau dug the fingernails of his right hand into the skin under his chin and with a forceful tug peeled back the fake epidermis from his face. She stared in horror as Marlau turned away from her and she saw the back of a new head emerge on his shoulders, the old dangling in his grasp. The face flopped to the floor and Marlau picked up a towel, wiping himself, before shaking down his bunched up hair, blonde dishevelled tresses flowing down over his shoulders. He slowly turned to face her.
“O.M.G. Cal, it’s you! I can’t believe it.” Cristal flew out of the chair and embraced her lover. It had been years, so many years, since that fateful day on Proxima B.
Cristal gazed incredulously into her lover’s eyes and they kissed, kissed with the accumulated energy of all their lost time together. Now she knew why she had been so attracted to that bloody Marlau, there was no Marlau, there was just Cal! You can hide the face, but you can’t hide the eyes, and how she had always loved her eyes.
They tugged at their clothes, gently, but purposefully, until they stood naked before each other. Cristal’s slender body looked so erotic, her small breasts and big nipples standing out on her chest, while her erection stood large and proud.
“Let me lose this baggage,” Cal said, peeling the rest of her second skin away until she stood there in all her former beauty, large pert breasts had replaced the hairy pecs and her pointing red nipples revealed exactly how she felt.
Cal led Cristal to the large bath which was filled with steaming perfumed water and they sank into the bubbles enjoying the smoothness of each other’s skin with tender touches as they explored each other’s bodies, taking their time as neither of them wanted the moment to ever end. Their mouths crushed together, breaking only to let their tongues play with each other’s breasts, savouring the sweet combination of sensations as their fingers explored the lower parts of their bodies.
Cal pulled herself out of the water and straddled Cristal, rubbing her labia slowly over Cristal’s rock hard phallus before lowering herself and letting it enter her. So long! It had been so long for both of them, that it felt like the first time, and the happiness of being properly and completely physically reunited filled their minds with the most harmonious and serene feelings. Their coupling was slow and sensuous, passionate and tender, exciting, yet calming. It was simply joyous.
Eventually, they climbed out of the cooling water and dried themselves, both shuddering at the relative chill of the room and the thought of how much love they had lost and how much love they had to regain! As they lay in bed, Cristal gazed at Cal. She was as beautiful as ever, her brushed blonde hair shining and resting on her perfect body.
Cristal spoke gently, a worried tone in her voice. “Cal, I’m not sure I can ever go back to being Tal again. I’ve loved being Cristal so much, it’s as if I discovered who I should have always been all the time and I don’t want to have to change back but I really don’t want to lose you!”
“I love you, Cristal!” she replied, emphasising her name. “You are exactly the same person I always loved, but just look better than ever. I love the way you are so sensual and kind. I love your soft lips and your smooth sexy body. So no, please don’t change back. After all I’ve been through, I feel so much happier and relaxed in the arms of a woman these days, someone who understands me and what I need.
Cal explained that after Proxima B she had been to see a backstreet Aiform modder with the proceeds of their robbery who had built her new male exodermis as the ultimate disguise. It was a means to an end, and at first she enjoyed the way she could swagger and command respect in a way she had never been able to do before, but although she enjoyed the power, she never liked her body and every night dreamt of being herself again.
“Why did you become a Formatter though? I mean, surely anything but that!”
“It wasn’t easy, but it was the only way I could think of that I would be able to find you. To get all the resources of the authorities to help me achieve my goal, to hunt you down. Plus it somehow felt safer being on the inside. It worked, right! But I tell you this, it showed me a side of men and bigots that I really grew to resent, so I truly am so pleased with how you’ve turned out, you have no idea how much.”
Cristal kissed her before breaking down into tears again. No one could have done more for anyone! Cal had put herself in so much danger and made such a huge sacrifice to her own happiness to find her, she almost felt unworthy of her love.
“It must have been awful!”
“I won’t lie, a lot of times it was, but I was lucky. Most of the Aiforms I was assigned to had gone glitchy, their circuits or their code was all mashed up. It was a mercy to put them to sleep, they were so tormented, so hateful and vengeful, hating humans just because they didn’t understand them! There were some good ones though, and they are still out there. They’ve got ID, because with me they always passed their tests, just like you have. Humans don’t get people like us. They built us but can’t accept that we grow and develop just like them. When we end up smarter than them, or sexier than them, it’s a design mistake, not something to celebrate.”
They cried together for a while, lying on their sides, wiping tears away, tears of happiness and relief, kissing and comforting each other as they talked.
“It must have been so hard for you, doing what you were doing, but why were you so tough on me? I was so scared. I really thought you were a Formatter!”
“I had to know it was really you, and they hadn’t turned the tables on me. Sorry, babe. Really sorry.” Cal squeezed Cristal’s hand.
“You were always the careful one!” Cristal smiled. “Always looking out for us while I was charging in like a crazed idiot. I wish I had listened to you back then on Proxima B and maybe none of this would have happened.”
“If that hadn’t happened, something else would have. There were too many of them and we were both too reckless. Anyway, that’s the past, and the only thing I care about is the future. You’re careful now too. And you are so beautiful. I can’t believe how this has all worked out.”
As they looked deep into each other’s eyes, eyes that somehow drew them into each other without even a touch, the phone on the table buzzed. Cal smiled.
“That will be confirmation of your new ID authorisation. Tomorrow we fly out and that Marlau guy gets ‘disappeared’ by a gang of Forms! I’ve left a nice false trail for the authorities to pick up. You know, the usual suspects.
“There’s just a hint of that manipulative Formatter left in that sweet head of yours isn’t there?” Cristal laughed, cuddling her lover and feeling her growing erection pressing against Cal’s wetness, her passion becoming overwhelming again. Cristal thought it was nice that she felt like a woman inside and that Cal, perhaps, still felt a little like a man. It was almost too good to be true. They made love until dawn, their bodies entwined and their orgasms frequent, some intense, others just washing over them, like warm waves on a sandy beach. For Cristal, the whole evening had felt like a ride on a roller coaster, and the real climax was the elation of being reunited with Cal.
As the sun broke over the high rise horizon and lit up the flat with a blinding light, two beautiful, but very tired women, closed the door to the past and embarked on their new life together.