Dolls (TJ Land)
The only time Günther found his human body anything other than inefficient, riddled with redundancies, generally defective, and intensely ugly was when it was immersed in hot water.
Which was peculiar, because one of the things he’d least enjoyed since returning to the satellite and to the wonders of being organic was how damp everything was. On Earth, he’d been able to lift a ton of debris without his body showing the slightest sign of strain; now, just holding his palm over a hot surface for long enough would make it grow moist with sweat. On Earth, all he’d needed to do to reenergize himself was go outside and stand in the sunlight; now, his food steamed and dripped and oozed, and he was expected to ingest it along with nutrient pills dissolved in water, and then more water to wash away the taste. On Earth, he hadn’t had a bladder.
Things had been better on Earth.
Not, of course, for anyone who wasn’t an indestructible armored doll guided by the consciousness of someone whose moist little body was safe and sound two hundred and seventy miles overhead. Anyone who had the misfortune to have a bladder on Earth these days likely didn’t have much use for it, given that what water remained was at least thirty-five percent salt now. One should, he acknowledged, take care to count one’s blessings.
Like baths. Dear God, how he’d missed baths. Although, admittedly, the one they’d installed in his absurdly elaborate quarters was a touch undersized for a man almost seven feet tall. He had to bend his knees.
“Good God. Look at the sight of you,” came a voice, as he sank deeper into the water, relishing the sensation of heat seeping into his muscles. “You look like the archetypal debauched, hedonistic Terran officer. Change the bathwater to blood, add in a few strategically positioned dead babies, and you could be on a rebel propaganda poster. If we sent pictures of you to their outposts, we’d have a third Colony War on our hands in minutes.”
“You’re welcome to join me in my hedonism,” Günther replied. He hadn’t gotten used to having to actually move his lips and tongue to communicate, and all his words felt overenunciated and formal.
The footsteps that padded across the tiles towards him were curiously soft, and he opened an eye. His lieutenant’s tread had, of course, become significantly quieter since they had returned, now that they didn’t weigh three and a half tons and weren’t bristling with weaponry. But even so…
Ah. There was the reason. Shukri wasn’t wearing shoes. He wasn’t wearing anything.
“You could also be on one of our propaganda posters,” Shukri said as he approached the tub. “The sight of you naked and clean and enormous could triple our recruitment rate.”
He walked with a certain deliberation, far removed from the effortless grace for which he’d been famed during their deployment. It wasn’t just the novelty of having muscles (and toes—Günther still hadn’t been able to acclimatize to his own. They looked so odd poking out of the ends of his feet). The satellite’s gravity was slightly less than Earth’s.
“If you’re going to talk, you’re going to leave,” Günther growled, without meaning it.
The surface of the water rippled as Shukri’s slender brown body sunk in and settled upon his chest. (And it was his body, Günther told himself, for all it looked nothing like the being who had served at his side for the last decade).
There came a few moments of silence. They both liked silence. It was familiar. The only noises on Earth were the wind, rare smatterings of rebel gunfire, and the occasional distant howl of a mutant.
But now that he’d begun to think about it, the strangeness kept tugging at him. List-making was a habit he’d fallen into years ago; they’d all needed something to pass the time between salvage operations and mutant raids, and he’d never taken to Shukri’s endless books of brain puzzles. Now, he found that he generated lists even when his mind had a plethora of entertainments with which to occupy itself.
In his mind’s eye, the title appeared in bold:
Shukri’s body and Shukri’s ‘body’: Points of Comparison
- Sharpness. Boney elbows, pointed chin, long, narrow fingers. Not so much unlike the spikes and blades and acute angles that had jutted from his Earth body.
- Smoothness. Shukri had been born into one of the last remaining civilian outposts in China, barely five years before the planet had been declared uninhabitable. As a result, he had been among the final victims of the biological weapons program that had leant the second Colony War its distinct and stimulating character (hah). One of the lingering signs was that he didn’t grow hair. The thick carpet of black follicles on his scalp was the result of costly surgery, his eyebrows were drawn on, and every other inch of his body was bare. What was more, because he’d been piloting for almost his entire military career, his skin bore no scars, no radiation burns, no suspicious lumps. His doll had been similarly sleek, as invulnerable to bullets as it was to bug bites.
- He was, in either form, beautiful to look at.
- Smell. Sweat, and shampoo, and the faint chemical stink that haunted all those whose bodies had spent years at a time sealed in a capsule while their minds did more impressive things. His doll had had no smell, save for when it had been coated in the blood of mutants and scavengers.
- Size. On Earth, he’d been as tall as Günther, who had himself topped ten feet. Now, he was only five foot eight, albeit that his haughty way of carrying himself tended to make him look taller.
- His doll would not have fit half so snugly against Günther’s chest.
Günther was mulling these points over when a fourth discrepancy made its presence known.
“Stupid thing. I had a filthy dream about you last night, and it hasn’t given me a moment’s piece all day,” Shukri muttered.
“Dr Myler told me that priapism is one of a range of conditions often experienced by pilots returning to… to normalcy. Apparently, they’ve had several cases so extreme that penile gangrene set in.”
Wincing, Shukri said, “If I give you a handjob, will you promise to never, ever use the phrase ‘penile gangrene’ again?”
Günther made an appreciative noise as Shukri’s hand curled around his cock.
“Oh, that’s a surprise,” Shukri said, in low, teasing tones.
Günther winced. The words were a mimicry of his own, when, a month ago, he’d emerged from his capsule and laid eyes on his lieutenant’s true form for the first time. His surprise— shock, really— had been prompted by the fact that, up until that exact moment, he’d had no idea that Shukri was a man.
Looking back, he tried to pinpoint the source of his misassumption. Certainly, Shukri’s doll had been no more feminine than Günther’s own. He suspected that it had more to do with the fact that he’d developed an infatuation within two days of Shukri’s arrival at the underground base in what remained of Nebraska (a crater and a fallout zone). And, given that all his previous partners had been women, he’d fallen prey to a logical fallacy:
Premise 1: I am attracted to and sleep with women.
Premise 2: I am attracted to and want to sleep with my new partner.
Conclusion: My new partner is a woman.
It was an error Günther would have become aware of sooner, had protocol not curtailed any discussion of their pasts or their private lives while on duty. Had they communicated via speech, pronouns might have tipped him off, but the dolls spoke to one another in images and instincts, not words.
Unbidden, the awful memory of their homecoming returned to him. As Shukri had stepped out of his capsule, naked but for the electrodes still plastered to his scalp, he’d stretched, and given Günther a cheeky wink. Then he’d noticed Günther staring at him in shock. ‘Oh, that’s a surprise’ had been Günther’s attempt to make light of the situation, and it had failed categorically.
The mortified silence between them as they’d presented themselves to Dr Myler for brain scans and blood tests would, Günther suspected, haunt him for the rest of his life. The next morning, Günther had spent a sizeable chunk of his savings and an even larger chunk of his dignity purchasing a bouquet of synthetic roses. It had been only the first of many, many gestures of contrition needed before Shukri allowed him to take him out for dinner.
“Just so we’re clear, I’ll be holding that over your head for the rest of your life,” Shukri murmured, pressing his mouth against his neck. Humming, Günther threaded his fingers through Shukri’s dark, expensive hair.
Giving one of his nipples a pinch, Shukri continued: “You were a surprise for me too, you know. I didn’t expect you to look like Orion Greenbelt.”
Scratching through his memory, Günther placed the name alongside an image of a strong-jawed silver fox sitting at a piano and looking mournful. “The one on your poster?”
“The musician, yes.”
“I don’t look anything like him. That nose.”
“Shush. He’s gorgeous, and a genius. When we’re finally paid, I’m going to drag you to Europa to see a live performance.” Shukri kissed his chin. “And you look very much like him.”
“Just because we’re both old and grey.”
“Not so old,” Shukri murmured, coaxing him on gently.
It dawned on Günther that, while he was enjoying Shukri’s fondling, it was likely time for him to return the favor.
And he was furious with himself that this, this, of all things, was a problem. Standing his ground in the face of a slavering mutant on the charge, scouting in rebel-held territory, even the time his doll had become trapped in that ravine, unable to move for the four days it took Shukri to find him—not once, not once had he ever been even mildly susceptible to panic. ‘Almost inhuman stoicism’—the assessor’s words, not his—was one of the reasons he’d been entered into the pilot program in the first place.
Shukri sighed as Günther slipped a hand below the water and took hold of him, and for a while Günther thought he was doing quite well.
Then he realized that Shukri’s own ministrations had stopped, and that his lover was resting his chin upon his chest, and staring up at him with narrowed eyes.
“I don’t know where you got the idea that you’re difficult to read,” Shukri said.
And, as always, his lieutenant’s derision made him bloody-minded. Sitting up, he hoisted Shukri out of the water and onto the lip of the tub, sloshing water onto the floor. Then, securing him in place with his hands cradling his hips, Günther nudged his knees apart.
“Yes, yes, that’s very sweet of you,” Shukri sighed, petting his head. “But we will need to talk about this.”
Günther ignored him. He’d never done this before; he needed to concentrate. He took Shukri’s cock into his mouth quickly, worried that hesitating might undo his resolve.
Why was he so tense, for God’s sake? He’d had enough blowjobs to understand the logistics. And he’d gone down on two of his girlfriends—albeit several years ago —and had received an enthusiastic response on both occasions. Surely it couldn’t be that different?
But it was. He kept noticing things, and whenever he did a jolt of discomfiture went through him. For example; Shukri’s foreskin. Hardly unforeseen. Most men had one. Except it had never occurred to him to wonder what one might feel like in his mouth. He didn’t dislike it, but it was… strange. Distractingly strange. And then there was the frustrating fact that he couldn’t get it all the way into his mouth. Günther knew that such a thing was theoretically possible; he had a very vivid memory of the first time someone had taken him into their throat. But he was worried that if he tried, he’d gag and make a fool of himself.
Shukri was kind enough not to comment on what Günther felt sure had to be the clumsiest blowjob he had ever received. Even when Günther couldn’t quite bring him to completion, he simply chuckled and slid back down into the water, winding his arms around Günther’s neck.
“I will improve,” Günther said, gruffly.
“You probably will. I know you. You can master any physical activity you set your mind to. Martial arts, shooting mutants, bomb diffusion, piloting a doll…” Shukri’s thumb came to rest under his chin. “But, love, I don’t really want to be a new skill for you to have to learn, you know?”
They lay in the water for a while, saying nothing. Günther stared up at the ceiling, compiling a new list.
Potential Outcomes of This Conversation:
- Shukri would shake his head in disappointment and disgust at his erstwhile commanding officer’s weakness of character, and then he would leave.
- Shukri would tell him that he cared for him very deeply, and that they would always be friends, and then he would leave.
- One or other of them would lie, and, in doing so, turn what they had now into something sad and grubby.
Shukri stretched, straightening his legs beneath the water and craning his neck. He said, “I’m so much shorter than you now. I can’t decide if I like it or not.”
“I do,” Günther heard himself say. “I like everything about the way you are, in this form or the last one. But I’ve felt… adrift from myself since we came home. My skin doesn’t feel right. Even eating is strange. It’s not that I don’t want you. I do. The problem is that I’m not what I was on Earth, and when I touch you, I’m reminded that I’m not what I thought I was when I was last in this body. I feel as though I don’t know myself at all anymore.”
The water was growing cold.
Slowly, Shukri said, “I’ve been catching up on what we missed while we were down there. You know, things change so fast on the colonies. I think that’s why I like Earth so much. Everything’s always still and stable. Anyway, one thing I was reading up on yesterday was advances in doll technology. It’s amazing, how far they’ve come since we were first deployed. Dolls aren’t just for military use anymore. They make domestic models. Soldiers who’ve been paralyzed get one for nothing. And they aren’t like ours, they’re made to look as human as possible. Most people can’t tell the difference.”
Günther thought back to his own beloved doll— in storage twenty metres underground the surface of the Earth—and of its armored carapace, its six arms, its featureless face. What would it be like to pilot something that could pass for human? He couldn’t imagine it.
“Apparently there’s a whole brothel full of them on Europa,” Shukri continued. “The employees sit in nice clean offices and pilot them, while the clients don’t even know they aren’t fucking the real thing.”
“I suppose it minimizes the risk of disease,” said Günther, unable to discern the direction in which he was headed.
“So what if, theoretically, I could get my hands on one? A pretty one. I don’t know what you like, but they come in all shapes and sizes. Or I could try and find a blank, and you could choose what you wanted it to look like. And then we could…well…try and make a go of it.”
Günther stared at him, trying to work out if he was joking. “You… you are suggesting…”
Hurriedly, Shukri added, “Look, it’s just sex, isn’t it? And… alright, fine, I know it sounds weird. But stop and think about it logically for a moment. Why did we use dolls on Earth? Because these bodies, our bodies, they’re too weak and flawed to do the things we needed them to do down there. So instead we wore bodies that could get the job done. So why can’t we do the same thing now?”
After a lengthy pause, Günther said, “I don’t want to sleep with something that doesn’t look like you.”
“How gallant,” Shukri said, flicking his nose. “But let’s be sensible, love. You didn’t know what I looked like until a month ago. And I’m sure you’ve slept with plenty of things that didn’t look like me in the course of your life. So…”
“Lieutenant, you’re missing the point,” said Günther impatiently. “I don’t want to sleep with something that doesn’t look like you ever again. I can’t imagine it. I want to marry you, and I don’t want my husband to spend the rest of his life in a capsule just to accommodate my preferences.”
Günther cursed himself. He’d had a plan, he’d had a fucking plan. It had involved taking Shukri to the Valles Marineris for a week of sightseeing and Martian wine tasting, at the end of which he’d go down on one knee and propose like a fucking gentleman. Fuck.
“Oh,” said Shukri, blinking as though he’d accidentally looked directly at the sun. “You… really?”
“Yes,” muttered Günther.
“Yes!” Günther swallowed, and worked to keep his voice even. “Would you like to get m—”
“Yes,” said Shukri, emphatically. “Of course. I mean, you may not have noticed, but I’m actually pretty crazy about you. Cock-phobic jackass that you are.”
A list titled Things I Have Done In My Life To Deserve This popped into Günther’s head, with an empty space beneath it. He felt his facial muscles move — still couldn’t get used to those things — and suspected that he was beginning to grin.
“Okay, commander, so now that we’ve got your epically shitty proposal out of the way, here’s mine,” said Shukri, standing up and stretching. The sight of him, his lean limbs and strong thighs, knocked the breath out of Günther’s lungs. “I’ll give the blowjobs from now on, and you can cover being handsome and romantic. Deal?”
Günther abruptly rose to his feet. Shukri made a curious noise as he was scooped up for a second time, and carried, dripping, out of the bathroom.
After baths, mattresses were Günther’s favorite part of being back. Dropping Shukri onto his, he swooped down on top of him and proceeded to pepper his face with kisses.
“I will improve,” he promised. “Will you teach me?”
“Oh, alright. If you insist.” Shukri ran his fingertips over his face. “Although… if we were to be deployed again, sex wouldn’t really be an issue, would it?”
Incredulous, Günther said, “You want to go back to Earth? We only just came home!”
Shukri’s palm cupped his jaw, soft and smooth and slightly damp. “No, I don’t think we did.”
Günther knew exactly what he meant, but a part of him couldn’t believe either of them were actually considering it. What did Earth have to offer? The mere sight of the planet was so unappealing that real estate prices on the Moon had been in freefall for decades. There was nothing on Earth for anyone but dust and the ruins of civilization.
And his doll. And endless days spent doing nothing but watching Shukri’s doll practice its aim on mutants and rocks. And the sky, which was still a perfect shade of blue you couldn’t find anywhere else in the solar system. And Shukri.
Günther realized he’d already made his decision.
“Not much of a honeymoon,” he grunted, sliding a hand up Shukri’s thigh and wrapping a hand around his cock. By God, he’d get it right this time if it killed him.
“Oh, don’t be contrary,” Shukri said, kissing him as he hardened in his grip. “You’re just as excited as I am.”
As he set about educating himself, Günther contemplated the prospect of another decade spent in his real body, with only his husband for company, and had to admit that he was.