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A Man in a Can

Marilyn K. Dickerson

“Would you prefer a blonde, a brunette, or a redhead, Director Zanith?” Saleswoman Zara, Household Appliances Division, Zycon Interplanetary Enterprises looked up enquiringly, pen poised over the purchase order. “Of course, the Humatoys also come in Empyrean Silver, Galactic Gray or Cosmic Black with just a touch of gray at the temples. But for a young attractive woman like yourself, I’m certain you would naturally choose one of our more youthful, virile models.” Zara’s blue eyes beamed out of a face like a dried up yellow apple, gray hair straggling untidily at the nape of her skinny neck. Without waiting for a response, she shuffled through several brochures stacked neatly on the clear plastic desk. Studying the literature, she thrust a brochure at Director Zanith, seated opposite in a chair resembling a hollowed out ice cube.

Zanith, wearing the purple robe and golden key and chain of the Zyconian Intelligentsia, accepted the pamphlet with undisguised irritation, allowing the folded sheet to slip through her fingers unread. As Director of the Zyconian Astrophysical Institute, she was accustomed to evaluating data and drawing her own conclusions.

Gray eyes cool, she looked up. With quiet authority she said, “I think we should dispense with further discussion until you have produced one of your models and I have seen an actual demonstration. Then I shall decide for myself. As to the color of its hair,“ she shrugged, “oh, I suppose a brunette will suffice -- in a large size, preferably, and of course with all the deluxe attachments.”

Zara twitched a placating smile. “I’ll have a demonstrator sent immediately, Director Zanith.”

Folding her hands carefully on the desk surface, the saleswoman lifted her receding chin and spoke into space. “This is Station Z 1432, requesting a Humatoy Model - Samuel, Terrance, Ulysses, David, number six, please.” Zara repeated the order, addressing herself to no one in particular, but enunciating in a clear, precise voice. Out of the ether came a responding “bleep” and the saleswoman nodded in satisfaction.

During the transmission Zanith felt a curious vibration beneath her feet and as Zara excused herself, leaving the room, the Director peered over the arm of her chair to study the unusual carpeting. When ushered into the mirror-walled room she’d casually observed the soft, black floor covering and dismissed it. With closer scrutiny, she discovered it to be much like a short, thick mat of human hair, quivering barely as though a network of nerves lay just beneath the surface. Her toes in their thin sandals still tingled with the odd sensation when there came a distinct thump from the wall behind the sales desk. A small square panel of glass swiveled to reveal a dull silver canister, two feet high and one foot in diameter.

Zara reappeared at the same time and set about adjusting dials and apparently keying the release mechanism built into the container lid. This she did gripping the can deftly under one arm and busily working the dials with her free hand. Fascinated, Zanith stared at the metal cylinder, until a red light among the intricate system of buttons began to flash on and off.

“Ahhh. There we have it,” Zara effervesced. “Now, my dear, prepare yourself for a splendid surprise.” She cast Zanith a coy glance from under pale lashes, and forcing off the lid with the flat of both thumbs, she dumped on the floor what appeared to be a lump of hairy, human flesh.

Zanith sat up straight in her chair. At her feet the strange bundle emitted a low, hissing noise, and slowly at first, gaining momentum, it began to writhe and grow. Two long muscular legs popped from the central body. Lean, naked hips and a broad hairy chest emerged next. At last two powerful arms sprang out of the torso and the head rose upwards with a slow, majestic movement.

Zanith stared, speechless. He was the most beautiful man - uh, toy, she had ever seen. Its thick, dark hair, slightly mussed, slanted across a wide forehead. Dark blue eyes under black lashes and marked brows stared blankly forward over Zanith’s head. The nose was straight and perfect, the chin strong and square with a cleft beyond perfection. Taking a hesitant step forward, Zanith found herself breathlessly wanting to touch him - it.

“That’s right, dearie. Don’t be afraid to play with it,” Zara’s voice intruded. The saleswoman reached out to smooth a wrinkle from the Humatoy’s neck, at the same time fluffing up the hair on its chest. With a fluttering glance at Zanith, she peeled off the Zycon Interplanetary label swathing the model’s genital area. Zara stood back, arms folded smugly.

Zanith gulped. “I just can’t believe it. I don’t know what I expected, but he‘s so extraordinarily real!”

“I thought you’d be pleased with the Z6 model,” Zara purred. “I call him Michael, but of course you may have some other pet name you may favor.”

Zanith shook her head. “No, I think I must concur.”

Zara bustled to the desk, returning with a two inch thick, hard bound volume. “Now, this is your owner’s manual,” she said, flipping the pages. “I do recommend that you read it thoroughly, However, there are a few adjustments we should make now. The Humatoy has several responses which are stock features, but the engineer who designed the central servo-control unit took into consideration that the individual owner should be allowed some latitude in programming stimuli reactions based on personal needs.”

Zara launched into a practiced sales pitch, gesturing dramatically with one hand flexed toward the tall, naked figure. Her monotone merged with the young woman’s harried consciousness. “You will notice, Director Zanith, the fine realistic skin tone, an exclusive development known as Manahyde, produced by Zycon Interplanetary Enterprises. The hair on the body serves a twofold purpose of realism and is actually part of a highly sophisticated sensory system responsive to heat, light, pressure and of course, sound. Perhaps you’ve observed the unusual carpeting. It’s also made of Manahyde - complete with sensors.”

Zanith’s expression remained unmoved but her eyes slid downward toward the Manahyde covering the floor. She recalled the shock sensation that shot up her leg when the order for Model 6 had been placed. Unconsciously she shifted from one foot to the other, uneasily aware of the minute sensors cringing under her weight. She had wondered why the salesroom possessed only a crystal and chrome desk and two chairs, all suspended from the ceiling with fine, invisible wire.

Zara’s voice droned on. “The firmness and body temperature are maintained by internal air pressure regulated by a transistorized control unit located in the model’s lower back.” She stepped to Michael’s rear and peering around his muscular bulk, instructed Zanith to approach the Humatoy, interlock the fingers of her right hand with those of Michael’s and to place her left hand on his chest over the region of the ‘heart’. Zanith hesitated, but looking up into the vacant yet compelling features of the counterfeit man, she did as requested.

To her surprise, the hand she grasped was warm and strong and when she laid the flat palm of her hand on his chest, she started at the constant, steady throb of a mechanical heart. Breath flowed evenly from the flared nostrils, air surging into the massive chest that rose and fell with a powerful, steady rhythm that pulsed through the room. Transfixed, Zanith saw a vivid blue light come alive in strangely intelligent eyes. Michael smiled warmly and looked down into her upturned face.

Gesturing wildly, Zara waved an arm trying to catch Zanith’s fascinated attention. “Tell him who you are,” the former mouthed insistently, “Tell him who you are. He mustn’t see or hear me. He must be keyed to respond only to your voice pattern and energy output.”

“Oh! Oh, yes.” The girl smiled directly into the Humatoy’s eyes. “How do you do, Michael?” she said softly. “My name is Zanith. I want very much for you to live with me and be my companion.”

Vaguely mindful that Zara was at work regulating buttons and switches, Zanith thought she’d faint when Michael’s smile broadened. “Hello, Zanith, he said in a deep mellifluous voice. “You’re looking very beautiful tonight. I like the way you’re wearing your hair caught up in a crown of golden curls. It becomes you.” He paused, still smiling faintly as though drinking in the lovely sight of her face. His hand moved to her waist, drawing her closer. “I want to kiss you.”

Zanith recoiled, backing away from Michael’s outstretched hands. “Zara! Zara!” she shrieked. “What happened? What do I do?”

Zara moved around Michael, patting strands of her gray hair into place. “Well now, she said with a sly twinkle. “I’ve made all the necessary adjustments to activate our friend, here. Why don’t you kiss him?”

Zanith stared blankly at the older woman and stepped decisively back into the circle of Michael’s arms. The jolt she received on contact made her stiffen in surprise. She pressed against the naked body again to verify the results. This time she stood on tiptoe, her arms wrapped tightly around his neck. Zanith sighed happily and then startled by the sharpness of an unexpected jab, she sprang backwards.

“Hmmm,” Zara said thoughtfully, taking in the Humatoy’s precocity. “I must have wound the genital coil too tightly.” She cast an apologetic glance at the shaken Zanith and returned to the control panel. “I think,” Zanith heard the saleswoman say to her self, “I’d better diminish the voltage on the mouth to mouth contact. Can’t have Michael blowing a fuse.” Zara’s head came up with a snap. “Oh, dear,” she exclaimed with some agitation, shutting Michael’s hatch cover and hastening to Zanith. “I almost failed to caution you on a particularly significant point of Humatoy usage. She peered intently into the Director’s surprised face. You must never raise your voice to your appliance,” she stressed urgently. “Unleashed sonic vibrations may overheat his sensitive circuitry to such a degree that total implosion could destroy the mechanism.

Zara searched Zanith’s face for some reaction to her warning but found none. “You do understand”? she ventured to ask.

Regaining an icy semblance of composure, Zanith’s features remained expressionless. “Of course, I understand. Shall we get on with the purchase papers?” She turned her back to Zara and reseated herself at the desk, chin high, eyes fixed unwaveringly on an undefined hole in space.

Befitting a class distinguished scholar who wasted no time on human relationships, Zanith bought a toy to service her body instead of her brain.

The elevator doors swished open and Zanith stepped out on to the Institute’s roof-top parking area where her conveyor capsule was the last to remain. She stared dispiritedly at the silver gray fuselage. For a Vesparian month, Michael had literally brought her flying home each day in a whirl of anticipation. But now she pressed her lips together hard trying to cast out his painful memory. Michael no longer existed.

Identifying Zanith’s projected energy pattern, the capsule’s hatch opened spontaneously. Of a narrow, tubular shape rounded at bow and stern, the carrier rested on ski-like runners. She slid into the pilot’s seat and flicking the switch for the Zyconium energy release, set the dial for automatic control. The small craft grumbled out of its lethargy. “Go” buttons flashed green and with an imperceptible shudder, the conveyor rose three feet off the ground. Hovering, it lifted towards the high plateau that was a long, purple silhouette against the red-orange blaze of the sunset.

Zanith never failed to thrill at the glorious explosion of color. She had created that brilliant Zyconium energy burst in the vault of the heavens! Her theory and persistence at the Institute caused that surrogate sun to rise and fall in its vast, twirling orbit. It may not be a real sun, she mused to herself complacently, but it was the only one Zycon possessed. The planet’s sun had charred itself into oblivion twenty years ago. Only her discovery of Zyconium and its subsequent molecular fusion releasing an infinite power source, sent that celestial power pack of heat and light into the black void gripping her homeland. Now a gigantic satellite reactor circled Zycon simulating a real sun, controlling the temperature and weather conditions of the planet below. Zanith checked the time dial. The sunset scheduled for 1800 hours was prompt to the second. She smiled to herself, knowing a secret rapture of achievement. The capsule swept through the radiant mists of twilight, careening in a slanting arc.

The Director had chosen to build her domicile on the striated mesa beyond the slope of the Zantherian Plain. No roads led there. No vehicle dared touch ground without permission. Her house was her fortress. Intruders perished as had Paul, her conjugal mate. Zanith rubbed the back of her neck wearily. How long had it been since Paul had run away with that traveling ginseng peddler? No matter. She didn’t really care. Then like a fool, she had brought Michael into her sanctum. The Humatoy should have been the answer to her needs. She could deal with machines. Her stomach muscles knotted in a spasm of protest. She had certainly dealt with Michael. Zanith signed heavily, self castigation gnawing a bitter chancre on her soul.

Rosy tufts of cloud vapor streaked past the curvilinear windshield as the green beacon lights of her terminus appeared below. Anyone flying over the unique structure recognized on sight to whom it belonged. Two story, circular rooms were laid out according to the molecular structure of Zyconium. Zanith snorted softly in amusement. She was well aware that some invidiously called it ‘Zanith's temple to Zanith’ but none disclaimed the genius that made their daily lives possible. From the sky the ‘shrine’ glittered in the pattern of two huge diamond shapes point to point. Wide, tri-bonded corridors connected the high columned rooms, each crowned with a jewel faceted dome.

A low voiced beeper announced the vertical descent and with a slight, rocking motion the capsule settled into its deck cradle. Shutting off the power, Zanith waited for the whine-down and ducking her head at the exit, negotiated the four steps to the ground. Passing her hand through the yellow scanner beam emanating from the cockpit, she watched the landing platform sink slowly into its underground hanger.

“Good evening, Mistress.” At her elbow, Ziam, her Neeloff servant, his kinky, red head barely reaching her waist, greeted her in his childish, lisping voice. The glassy, green eyes raised to her face stared innocently, thin purple lips shaped their perpetual, bracketed smile.

Zanith patted him absently on the head. “Oh, good evening, Ziam. Has all gone well today? The strange pair strolled the fifty yards through the front portal of the central hall. Ziam, a ghome of a humanoid, his figure rotund and thickset, stubby feet, wearing crude sandals, hurried by her side.

“Yes, Mistress,” he panted. “All is well. And oh, there was a message from a Zara person.” Ziam’s smile remained fixed, his brows drawing together in a frown. “Is she not the person the Mistress has been avoiding these past several days? The mother of Michael?”

Zanith heaved a sigh of irritation. Guiltily, she recognized her own reluctance to face Zara again. The thought of Michael brought a sharp pain of regret tightening around her heart. She stopped to gulp air and fight his haranguing memory. Michael! Oh, Michael! What have I done to you? Despondently, she slumped down on a stone bench flanking the walkway, dropping her head in her hands. Ziam shuffled from one foot to the other, uttering sympathetic little animal noises.

“Please, Mistress, do not grieve for the ‘Michael Machine,’” he begged. “You did not mean to - to kill him with your tongue.” The servants voice rose shrilly in his helplessness and then the shadow in the wide, green eyes lifted as he recalled Zara’s message. Ziam wriggled with excitement. “I did not tell you the words of Zara,” he stammered eagerly.

Zanith lifted a drawn face to stare at him.

“Yes! Yes!” he exclaimed, suddenly remembering. “The person Zara said that your appliance’s life signal no longer registered on the master computer and your guarantee entitled you to repairs and new parts if required. The repair unit arrived as I prepared dinner.” Ziam’s vice faded to a whisper as he watched her, the furrows of his brow growing deeper, the inane smile unwaveringly hopeful. “Perhaps the machine ‘Michael’ will be restored to you, Mistress.”

The blood drained from Zanith’s face, her skin gleaming white and fragile as porcelain. Silently her lips formed Michael’s name. Picking up her skirts, she ran towards the double arched doors that noiselessly sprang open.

Michael did not perceive her entrance. He sat relaxed on the floor in front of a towering, rock fireplace, his back resting against one of the many air cushioned couches floating in the large, circular room. One leg was drawn up, entwined fingers clasping his knee. With his dark head tilted back, he appeared lost introspectively in the fantasy of the flames.

Zanith called to him. At the sound of his name, Michael rose quickly and she flew down the shallow stairs and flung herself into his arms. There was an instant flash of his grin and the glinting blue of his eyes. Then he staggered backwards trying to catch his balance. Under the weight of her charge, they both tumbled into a heap onto the couch.

“My god! You’re not Michael, my Michael! How dare you make a fool of me!” Zanith’s gray eyes blazed angrily at the man stretched naked beside her, his hands locked behind his tousled head.

His eyes unperturbed, harbored a hint of laughter as he watched the irate Zanith clutching her purple robe against her breasts. “No, he said calmly, “I didn’t make a fool of you, Director Zanith. We made love to each other.” He grinned, “Most fools are self-made.” He turned on his side propping his head on his hand. “Besides,” he offered, still taunting her with his eyes, “I’ve always remembered an ancient adage my father taught me as a child. ‘When rape is inevitable, son,’ he used to say, ‘relax and enjoy it.’” Michael lifted a broad shoulder in an ironic gesture that said the matter was beyond his control.

Zanith closed her eyes with an audible groan. Capitulating, she gave her couch mate a reluctant, self conscious twitch of a smile. “All right. Point conceded. You didn’t tell me you weren’t my Michael, because I didn’t ask. I should have guessed anyway,” she rationalized to herself outloud. “The voltage was too high, the coil...” Zanith cleared her throat and began fussing with the folds of her robe, drawing it over her bare shoulders.

“Don’t do that,” Michael protested mildly, pulling the garment out of her hand. “I want to look at you with the firelight against your skin.”

Zanith grabbed for the robe but he crushed it into a ball and pitched it into the shadows. Piqued, she knelt on the couch sitting back on her heels, arms crossed over her breasts. “For heaven sakes, Michael, or whatever your name is. We can’t sit around here naked. What will the servants think?”

Michael reached up and played with a long strand of shining hair that curled over Zanith’s shoulder. “The name is Michael and now she’s worried about the servants,” he quipped with a comical lift of his brows. He gave the curl between his fingers a playful tug, his eyes looking squarely into hers. The levity, like smoke, dissipated. “I know, we both know,” he said in a level tone, “that the Neeloffs think exactly what you program them to think. Isn’t that the way everything works around this place? Zanith says the sun shall rise and the sun rises. On time. Zanith says the Neeloffs shall see or not see and they are dumb and blind. Zanith says Michael shall be dispatched to the closet when she’s finished with him, and so be it.” The man shrugged, his smile quizzical. His words held no bitterness.

Zanith pulled away from him, half turning so she wouldn’t have to meet his eyes. A small warning voice told her what he intimated. He knows. He knows what I did to the Michael Machine. The certainty was an agonizing fist in the pit of her stomach. “Well, why don’t you say it?” she demanded angrily. “You must be the ‘repair unit’ Ziam was babbling about. Surely you’ve diagnosed the appliance’s problem by this time,” she clipped out sarcastically, “ a short circuit, faulty wiring.”

Michael weighed his answer. He didn’t speak for several seconds and the silence was as shattering to her frayed nerves as a denunciation. She flinched as his lips brushed her shoulder. “You’re too hard on yourself, Director Zanith,” he murmured softly, his breath warm against her flesh. “So you fell in love with a machine. So what? That’s what’s really bothering you, isn’t it? Not that your verbal attack destroyed him but that you stooped to need a tin can full of Manahyde and sensors.” He inhaled deeply, expelling the breath through his nostrils in a studied sigh.

Zanith listened, unable to speak.

“I confess, Zanith, that I was angry when I saw the heap of rubble to which you’d reduced the Humatoy,” he went on in the same quiet voice. “It wasn’t just the destruction that was appalling, like a bad child smashing a plaything. It was a much more personal revelation to me, like viewing my own remains, dead and mangled. The Michael Machine was an experimental prototype. The only one of its kind. For efficiency’s sake, I patterned his entire system to coordinate with my own. His build and voice, his pressure points were mine. Better to gage his effectiveness and facilitate repairs if needed. I also installed a malfunction detector to record circumstances of circuitry failure.”

He was so close that as he paused again, Zanith could hear his tight, constricted swallow. He doesn’t want to hurt me, she realized, inwardly, surprised and touched. He’s already reviewed the whole ghastly scene of Michael’s ruin through the malfunction device and he’s trying to protect me.

Keeping her slim, straight back turned to him, he saw only the lovely contours of her profile against the fire’s glow. Her mouth drooped slightly, eyes distant, remembering. “I came home early in the afternoon that day,” she said in a low, choked voice. I’d canceled an extremely important meeting because all I could thing about was Michael. My mind was filled with him. His voice, his smile, his touch when I came into this room. He was seated on the floor much as you were earlier. I called his name and when he came to me and smiled, I thought my heart would burst with joy.” Her voice caught and she lowered her head, eyes closed. “And he said, ‘Hello, Zanith. You’re looking very beautiful tonight. I like the way you’re wearing your hair caught up in a crown of golden curls. It becomes you.’ It was the same canned little speech he’d recited at the sales office,” she bit out between clenched teeth.

“Suddenly my brain just boiled over in a cataclysm of rage. With it came the shocking, humiliating realization that I had rushed home without reason or forethought to be with this pretense of a man! This mechanical ‘being’ who spoke of the night when it was mid-day, who admired my ‘crown of curls’ when my hair hung loose on my shoulders!” She shook her head in a dazed bewilderment. “I just stood there staring at his splendid face and he repeated the same grating, shattering words again and again. A hot seething anger washed over me and I heard a high pitched, shrilling voice screaming at him. The voice kept shrieking his name over and over and crying out that he was nothing but a tin dummy, a dummy, a dummy!

“I was beating on his chest with my fists clenched and he merely continued to smile with that child-like gentleness. Then,” Zanith stopped, catching her breath in painful gasps. “Then before my eyes his face began to collapse. There was a ghastly, acrid smell of burning conduit and his eyes flickered and went dead. His head sagged back and his chest just caved in and shriveled. In seconds he was a smoldering pile at my feet. Oh, god! It was awful! Zanith doubled over, covering her face with her hands.

Michael swore softly under his breath, grabbing the hysterical woman into the hard lock of his arms. Her face buried against this neck, Zanith cried out the personal racking catharsis of horror and remorse. At last, weak and shaken, she lifted a tear streaked face.

Michael glanced down at her out of the corner of his eye. “Finished? Or is this just an intermission until the next scene?”

“Finished,” she decided, sniffling and rubbing her wet cheeks with the back of her hand.

“Good. Sleep a while, then.” He pressed her head into the firm hollow of his shoulder.
Hours later, Zanith awoke, aroused by the couch’s cold emptiness. Michael was dressing, shrugging into a gray mesh jersey. Through the overhead dome, the Vesparian moon flooded the room with a luminous veil of green light. Struggling to sit upright, she discovered herself covered with the purple state robe Michael had thrown away earlier. She clutched at it gratefully, her solemn eyes watching his silent silhouette, against the pink glimmer of dying embers. She contemplated the man’s movements with a dry-eyed apathy.

“I won’t see you again, Michael, will I?” she managed at last, the words barely audible.

After pulling on knee boots and carefully fastening his belt, he straightened. “No, Director Zanith,” he replied, formally polite. “I wont be back. I’ll have the office send a replacement Humatoy, a John or a Charlie model. They’ll serve your needs, and they’re not as complex as the ‘Michael Machine.’ Since it’s proven too vulnerable, I’m discontinuing the experiment.” He turned towards her but his face and tall figure were only a nebulous shadow in the dim light.

Zanith nodded gravely, numbed by a sense of loss. “I understand,” she said simply, “but I don’t want a John or a Charlie. I want...”

Michael didn’t let her finish. His searching scrutiny penetrated the blueprint of her soul, the vision leaving him hopelessly bereft. “It wouldn’t be wise for you to have another Michael, man or machine,” he admonished softly, “I’ve seen the Humatoy in the closet with his guts burned out.” He lifted a shoulder, his mouth rueful. “I can’t live in a closet, ‘a man in a can’ to suit your convenience. I’m only mortal flesh and I think, I believe, I could care for you.” He shook his head with a slow, thoughtful deliberation, “and I can’t take that chance.” He smiled faintly, the blue eyes mirroring a regret she saw but did not understand. Turning, he quickly mounted the stair. The front door slid silently closed behind him.

Lost in the vacuum of time, Zanith remained carved in ice, a beautiful sculpture with ghostly eyes fastened on the panels through which Michael had disappeared. Gradually, through the convex ceiling crept the dawning splendor of morning light. A mantle of warmth lengthened over her and responding to its touch, she stirred. Reaching for the robe of state, Zanith slipped her arms into the sleeves, hugging its purple richness close against her body. Drawing herself upward, arching her back and lifting her head, her laughter bubbled outward, a proud, triumphant sound. “It must be 0900 hours,” she exulted aloud, without consulting a time dial. Zanith’s sun had risen.

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