She had none of her golden hair, of course. That was embedded into the outer dermal layer. She did have most of the musculature in her face — plastic bags of clear gelatin stretched out over her cheeks, around her nose, bulging on her brow, and flat across her forehead. They were taut everywhere, other than her neck, where they hung loosely off her chin and jawline, having no torso to attach to.
The gelatin packs were particularly intricate around her mouth, more like cable wire circling in several rings to accommodate the complex simulation of speech. Speakers inside her mouth would do most of the vocalizing, but the lips had to move to match her speech to make it look real.
I adjusted her head in its cradle on the workbench to face me. Her smooth metal brow glimmered in the harsh halogen light from above. She was cold to the touch, all titanium and plastic. There was some color in her half-opened mouth, dark and red as it should be, her pink tongue standing upright and stiff behind porcelain teeth. More in the thin veins in her eyes, and even more in her pupils—green with hints of blue that I had always found so captivating. The color in them was perfect.
Even without her skin in this quasi-skeletal state, I could still see her. The point of her chin, her strong cheekbones, the general shape of her small ears. She was missing those tiny nostrils that she would crinkle in thought, but the graceful arc of her nose in the silicone cartilage was still there in profile. It was her. Lifeless, inanimate, but still her. My June.
It took me a minute to find the port inside her neck cavity, and even after I connected her to the computer she was immobile for a long time. As I reached for the cable thinking it was loose, her jaw snapped, forcing her teeth together. The tiny bars that were to hold her eyelids in place started to clap together across the center of her eyes as if blinking. Her pupils darted around the room wildly.
Eventually they settled, staring straight upwards. “Data upload initiated,” she said in a flat, electric approximation of June’s voice. “Receiving packet one of two thousand fifteen.” After a moment, “Packet complete. Downloading packet two of two thousand fifteen. Packet complete. Downloading packet three of—packet compete. Downloading pack—packet complete. Download—packet complete. Packet complete. Packet complete, packet complete packet complete packet com- packet packet pak pak-” Her voice devolved into a rapid blur of high-pitched gibberish. I winced at the noise and looked away.
After a few minutes she stopped suddenly, her mouth slowly closing before she spoke again. “Data upload complete. Fifty-two point oh-five-three-two-one-one petabytes received. Confirming. Data confirmed. Estimated point zero-eight-four-six percent or less file corruption in transfer. Attempt re-download?”
I shook my head. “That’s close enough. Initiate simulated neural pathway assembly.”
Her eyelid frames clapped together twice. “Initiating simulated neural pathway assembly. Please wait.”
Her eyes dilated, and her mouth began opening and closing rapidly, her teeth chattering like a telegraph. She made short, high-pitched gasp-like sounds. The gelatin musculature across her face rippled, tensed, loosened, then rippled again.
Slowly, her eyes started to look around the room with purpose, as if watching things flying past. Her chin quivered, and she let out a soft sigh.
“Hi June,” I said, stroking her temple. “Tell me what you remember.”
“On…” she said, then froze. She started again. “On my first day of school it rained. Catherine Howard was Henry the Eighth’s last wife. I don’t like barbecue. My brother is four inches taller than me. I like the smell of old books. NA stands for Sodium. I failed my driver’s test the first time I took it.”
The tinny quality in her voice was slowly fading, growing more warm, more like it should be. “That’s good,” I said. “Keep going. What else?”
“Voles mate for life. I like the sound of rain. The Oort cloud is three light-years from the sun. The Colussus of Rhodes was destroyed in an earthquake in 226 BC. Coffee upsets my stomach. My house plants always die. I like when someone kisses me along my jaw. I like the color blue. I… don’t know.” Her brow furrowed. “Everything is confusing.”
“You’re doing great. Your pathways are reassembling fine.” I leaned in closer. “Do you know who I am?”
She stared at me for a long time. “S…Simon?” she whispered.
“That’s right,” I said, smiling down at her.
She smiled back. “Oh, Simon,” she said. “Where am I?”
“You’re home, honey. With me.”
June’s eyes darted back and forth as she looked around the room. “This isn’t… Where is this?”
“I told you. Home.”
Her eyelid frames closed together in the center of her eyes. “I can’t… I can’t close my eyes.”
I patted her head. “It’s all right, calm-”
“I can’t move. Feel my body at all. What is…” She looked at the frame of her nose. She puckered her mouth outward to see it. Her eyes shot back to me. “Oh God, Simon.”
“It’s all right, June. I promise. Everything is going to be okay.”
She looked as far away from me as she could. “Oh God no, Simon. Not this. Please God, not this…”
She started to sob.
I placed my hand on her cheek. “Just calm down, honey. You’re almost there.”
“Please don’t do this to me, Simon. Let me go, let me go.”
“Just be calm.”
“Don’t tell me to be calm!” she screamed, her voice cracking. “I don’t want this!”
“It’s almost over. I promise. The neural simulation is almost done, and everything will be fine.”
Her face scrunched into a tiny ball. “No no no no no no no no no nooooooooooooooooooooo…” her voice fell apart into a scream, turning into high-pitched, inhuman shrieks of overmodulation. She arched what little of her neck she had far back, nearly pushing her out of her cradle as she wailed. She would have fallen out of it onto the floor if I had not had my hand on her.
I grabbed a small screwdriver nearby and brought it to her face. Her eyes focused on it, and her screaming grew impossibly worse. I placed my hand over her mouth, partly to hold her steady and partly to muffle it.
“It’s okay, honey. Everything is going to be okay,” I said as I pried loose a gelatin pack covering her right cheek and side of her nose. It flapped down over itself revealing a small circular membrane at the corner of her eye. I punctured the membrane with the screwdriver and pushed it deep into her skull at an upward angle until I felt its head land flush in a groove. Gradually I turned the screwdriver.
“I just had your brain functions up a little too high, is all,” I said. “To make the process go faster. I’m turning them down now.” She let out a great, sustained wail that vibrated all the way to my wrist. “Calm down, calm down. This is just a little bit of unpleasantness. It’s almost over. Then everything is going to be all better. Just wait and see. You won’t remember any of this, I’ll delete it from your memory. I swear, honey. Everything is going to be okay.”
Her screaming faded away, down to a soft moan, and then to nothing. I stood back up breathing hard. June’s face had relaxed, and even without her skin she looked almost serene, with a subtle smile on her lips and her eyes rolled up into her brow. Her only sign of life was an occasional twitch.
I sat down heavily in a chair by the bench, to wait patiently for the neural assembly to finish, so I could put her head onto her body, hanging on the wall behind me.
The night sky was clear, and this far into the countryside, full of stars. Even the Milky Way was visible down on the horizon. The breeze was slight and calming, and fortunately blowing the smoke from the fire in the other direction.
I looked over at June sitting next to me. She was looking straight up at the sky above. The light of the flames gave her pale skin a warm glow, made her blond hair all the more golden in the reflection, a few strands of it falling across her button nose. She sensed my eyes on her and glanced at me with a smile, her face the perfect picture of contentment. Happiness. Not a care or concern in the world.
“Come closer,” I told her.
She rubbed her soft cheek against me as she nestled into my chest, wrapping one arm around me and resting the other between my knees. I placed mine over it.
She felt warm against me, firm. Simulacra or not, my heart still fluttered at her presence.
It was June, in every way that mattered to me.
I rested my head on hers, as the pyre in front of us collapsed into its own glowing coals.
A.T. Sayre has been writing in some form or other ever since he was ten years old. His work has appeared in Aurealis, Haven Speculative, Andromeda Spaceways, and most notably in Analog Magazine, where his debut novel The Last Days of Good People will be published as a serial in 2024. His first short story collection, Signals in The Static, will be published this spring by Lethe Press. You can check out more of his work at atsayre.com/fiction
Born in Kansas City, raised in New Hampshire, he lives in Brooklyn and likes to read in coffeehouses.