Size / / /

The first thing I see when the persona generator opens is the bedroom ceiling above me. It's a humid afternoon and the paint's peeling off the cracked plaster like some third-rate strip show. It's enough to make me want to stay in the generator.

Still, I climb out and find myself standing on an unmade bed next to the accessory closet. I grab my trench coat and fedora from the closet before looking around the room.

That's when I see my new boss. Four feet of trouble. Brunette variety. Tear tracks cutting through the dirt on her face, wearing jeans that were already old when Molly Dolls were nothing more than molded plastic and fantasy homes.

She's no idiot, though. "I want the Debutante persona," she says. "You're still not Debutante Molly, are you?"

I like a girl who doesn't need me to explain everything. "That's right, kid." I pull my blonde hair back into a ponytail and cover it with my fedora.

"Why do you keep coming out as the Petey persona?" Poor kid sounds like she's about to cry. Don't blame her for wanting Debutante Molly. Debbie's the kind of girl who reminds me why God bothered with Adam's rib in the first place. As wholesome and satisfying as a virgin daiquiri on a hot day. Everything I'm not. "Petey's not even a girl's name," the kid says.

"Stands for Private Detective, kid. Get it? P.D. Full name Private Detective Molly, Model 2025." I turn to get back into the generator. "Switch the control dial to Debutante and try again."

"Wait," she says. "I've already tried three times. Tell me why it won't work."

I freeze with my hand on the door. Sounds like she's giving me a case. I spin around and look up at her face. "You want me to figure out who froze your dial and why?"

She nods, tears welling up in her eyes. I'm a sucker for a crying girl. You can call it programming if you want, but I think it's Molly-Doll nature. Just like human nature, but a whole lot more decent.

I hop off her bed and walk over to her, wrap my arms around her shin. "Trust me, kid. I'll get you answers." The case seems like a cinch. Her parents have probably preset the control dial.

She leans over and picks me up, brings me up to her face. "My name's Dorothy," she says. She's got dangerous eyes—bright blue, looking even brighter because they're rimmed red from crying.

From my vantage point near her face I can scope out the rest of her bedroom. This case just gets stranger. I'm the newest thing in the room, and my model was released years ago, in 2025. The place is a dump—old worn blankets, a little plastic truck missing a wheel, an old, old pre-animation Molly playhouse that looks like a dog chewed a corner off its garage.

I wonder how her parents could afford me.

She carefully puts me down on the bed and sits down beside me. "Do you have a gun?" she asks.

"If you want me to," I say. I walk over to the accessory closet. Rummaging through Molly-sized dresses and makeup kits, I finally find the smaller box I'm looking for. I open it and slip out my piece. It feels just right in the palm of my hand.

Her eyes widen a little bit and she stops crying. "Could you shoot a person?"

"That depends, doll," I say. I make my piece disappear beneath my trench coat. "We'll talk about it after I meet your family."

Truth is, her parents have to override the built-in safety for the gun to fire its stun charge. The idea is that I could be a temporary bodyguard when the parents aren't around.

She bites her lower lip and I can see she's fighting tears. "I don't have any family anymore. Except my uncle Alastair."

"Is that right? What's a sweet thing like you—" I start to ask when a heavy knock on the door interrupts me.

Dorothy jumps. "Who is it?" she asks.

"This is Social Agent Hanover," a man's voice says. "May I come in?" Before Dorothy can answer, the door opens.

If weasels wore cheap suits, this is what they'd look like when they got their heads in the chicken house. He's got a narrow, pointed face, with dark hair slicked so close to his scalp it looks painted on. His smile is as artificial as the kind my plastic-mold ancestors wore. "Ah, Dorothy. I wanted to make sure my little gift to you is working properly." He looks directly at me.

"It's not," Dorothy says. "I want a Debutante Molly and it keeps coming out as Petey."

"Oh. I'll have to see what I can do about that," Hanover says.

This is the man who purchased me? I'd bet my core code that he didn't do it to be nice.

Hanover extends his hand and I let him touch my arm with the tips of his fingers. "An investigator, eh? Keep me informed on any discoveries you make."

"I'll think about it," I say. I dig into my trench coat for my nail file and start working on my cuticles, so I don't have to see that smile of his.

"Keep in mind that Dorothy is currently a ward of the state," he says sharply. "That makes me her legal guardian until her case is resolved."

Damn! I incline my head. He knows the rules, all right. We're not made to fink on our bosses, but their parents—or legal guardians—can make us sing like friggin' song birds.

Dorothy has no idea what's going on. "Mr. Hanover," she says. "Why can't I have a Debutante Molly?"

Hanover is suddenly in a big hurry. "Sorry, dear. I'll have to look at it tomorrow." Another man walks past her doorway and Hanover hastens after him. "Mr. Alberni," he says. "One more question before I leave."

The two start speaking quietly a few feet away from Dorothy's door. Dorothy points at the man talking to Hanover and says, "That's Uncle Alastair. Mommy said I had to listen to him, but I don't. He thinks he can just take Mommy's place." She pauses and looks at me. "You should shoot him. He's the one who should have died."

I strain to hear the conversation Hanover and Alastair are having, but I can't quite make out their words. "Hey kid," I say, "why don't I case the joint while you go wash your face? Why cover such a pretty little face with dirt?"

Dorothy and I both grimace. I might be programmed to say these things but it doesn't mean I like them. Still, she walks down the hallway to the bathroom and I have a chance to snoop after Uncle Alastair and Hanover.

I tiptoe out of her room and slump against the frame of her doorway. Like I'm just a doll. The hall has no windows and no lights, so the two men are little more than shadows, silhouetted against the light from the next room over. They're arguing quietly but angrily.

Uncle Alastair is standing with his back to me. "My sister was working full-time when she died, damn it. That makes Dot a ward of the state and her medical care the state's responsibility."

Hanover's snake eyes sweep beyond Uncle Alastair and settle upon me for a moment. One side of his lips curves up. "Patience, Mr. Alberni. Your niece's operation isn't scheduled until next week. There is a process to be observed. An investigation to be completed."

"Look. I'll say it again. I'm not taking legal custody until after the operation."

Hanover returns his attention to Dorothy's uncle. "That wasn't my question, Mr. Alberni. I'll ask again. Your sister picked you up every night on her way home. Why didn't she pick you up on the night she had her car accident?"

"I told you," Alastair says. "I was working late. Those of us who work for a living do that sometimes."

Despite his words, I can tell—by the way Alastair holds himself, even the smell he releases—that he's nervous.

"Hmmm. And it was just coincidence that your sister had recently been let go? On account of missing work, I believe."

"My sister had been let go because she was too sick to work two jobs," Alastair snaps. "That happens when you're down to one working lung."

Hanover's voice is oilier than a salad dressing. "Mr. Alberni. I don't want to rehash painful memories of your sister's battle with Lagos Plague. I'm just here to ascertain a few key facts. The truth is, your sister's job was due to end right around now, wasn't it?"

"Her second job," Alastair says. I miss the rest, as Dorothy picks me up on her way back from the bathroom. I let what I've heard so far keep running through my brain, looking for heuristics to put it all together.

I beam the clues to the bigger Molly computer (included in the generator), while the kid swaddles me in a blanket. "You're my baby," she says.

"You got it, kid. Goo," I say, trying to play along. I can tell from her frown that I'm not doing a real good job.

Fortunately for me, Uncle Alastair drops by. I get a better look at him in the bright light of her bedroom. He's wearing jeans and a flannel shirt worn so thin it's almost transparent. His face is clean-shaven, but his lower cheeks and chin are paler than his forehead and nose, like he works outside and only recently shaved a beard.

"What was Hanover saying to you?" he asks, stepping into the room and sitting next to her. The way he says "Hanover" leaves me no doubt who Uncle Alastair would want me to shoot.

"Nothing." Dorothy turns her back to him.

"Dorothy. I heard him say something about an investigation."

"It's none of your business. He was talking to Petey," she says.

"Right." He appears to see me for the first time. "The Molly Doll he gave you." He ventures a small smile. "Petey, eh? That's a funny name for a girl. Why'd you call her that?"

I can tell the poor sap is trying to be nice, so I can't help wincing when Dorothy responds, "None of your business. You didn't give her to me."

"It's actually P.D.," I tell him. "For Private Detective."

He looks stunned to hear me talk and then he smiles for a split second. "That's amazing. She sounds like a real person."

I realize he's younger than I had taken him to be. Maybe in his early twenties. He reaches for me but the boss pulls me onto her lap and curls away from him. "Don't touch her," she says.

Alastair pulls his hand back as if he's been stung. Finally he says, "Listen, Dottie—"

"Don't call me that. That was my mom's name for me."

"Okay." He pauses. "Dorothy. Listen. That man is not your friend. Do you want your mom's death—" he looks at me and the last remains of his smile disappear. "Shi— shoot. Just remember our secret, okay?"

Dorothy doesn't say anything and after a moment he leaves her room. He doesn't slam her door but closes it quietly.

"He doesn't know any secrets," Dorothy says. "It's not a secret that my mommy loved me."

Her lips tremble and she throws herself onto her pillow, weeping. As it happens, Molly Dolls have a built-in subroutine for times like this. The subroutine makes me walk to her shoulder. It makes me stroke her hair and kiss her cheek and temple. It makes me whisper in her ear in my most grown-up female voice, "I love you. You're beautiful. I love you."

She puts her hand under her pillow and takes out a folded piece of paper. "See." She very carefully unfolds it, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her shirt. "It's her goodbye note. She says sorry, and that she loves me." She collapses back onto her pillow, skinny body shaking with sobs.

The subroutine has run out of automatic words for me to say, so I'm choosing to speak when I say, "You're all right, kid. It's the rest of this crazy world that's messed up."

Eventually she falls asleep. That's when I hear them. I thought I had smelled them before, but I hoped I was wrong. It's very dark in the room at night, and noisy, with the trucks rolling past outside, but I can still hear one of them scurrying beneath the bed. And then another one chittering its disgusting noises in the kitchen.

Some of the other Molly personas are programmed to be afraid of the dark, but I'm not like that. If you're going to be solving cases involving humans who tower five or six feet above you, there's no time to get scared. Except by something truly horrible. Like a mouse. Some things a persona can't help being scared by. The thought of their whiskers sniffing at my trench coat, their paws leaning on my shoulder so they can gnaw at my face.

I clutch my stun gun and wish I knew real curse words so I could curse Agent Hanover for not activating the gun. It's a long night.

The next morning at her mother's funeral, Dorothy clutches me tightly around the waist. She doesn't cry, but at one point she starts coughing so loudly the minister stops until she finishes.

That's when I see blood on the tissue that she covered her mouth with. I don't have to be the Doctor Molly persona to know what this means. Hanover and Alastair had been talking about an operation and I was starting to get the picture. Lagos Plague can be treated, but replacing a damaged lung doesn't come cheap.

After the funeral ends, while Dorothy's school friends awkwardly make conversation, Social Agent Hanover approaches. "Dorothy," he says. "Do you think I could borrow your doll for a few moments?"

Dorothy wants to say no. She looks at me and I look back. "C'mon, Dorothy," he says. "I just want to make sure it's working right."

That decides her. She hands me to him. "She keeps coming out as a detective. Will you show me how to change her?"

Hanover smiles, and I feel a deduction start to worm its way up my spine and into my brain. "I think I can show you how to fix that. But not for a few days."

He takes me a few steps away and says, "Your journal. I want your journal."

"What journal?" I say, but it's useless. My right arm reaches into my trench coat pocket and hands him the tiny electronic journal. As legal guardian, he can take my journal anytime he wants.

Keeping a journal isn't something I do by choice. It's built in as a convenience to the parents. The style shifts, of course—if I was Debutante Molly I'd be writing an Engagement Diary. Same purpose, though. Whatever you call it, it lets the parents keep tabs on where the kid has been.

Hanover starts scrolling through it right there. He looks up at me and glares. "A weasel, eh?"

"Sorry, bud," I say, giving him my best Molly smile. The deduction flowers in my mind. "You shouldn't have jammed the default at Private Dick if you wanted compliments."

"Jammed the default? I don't know what you're talking about," Hanover says. He takes a quick look around him. After he's sure no one's listening, he shrugs. "So maybe I did. Whatever. I hereby forbid you to mention anything about this conversation to Dorothy."

Some pleasure circuit triggers a positive reaction and I flush. I'm starting to crack the case. "That's why you gave her to me, isn't it?"

"No. I did it because I'm the stinking ghost of Mother Teresa," Hanover says, slipping my journal into a port he's holding. He's going to download it and return it to me. Some of my pleased flush fades. "You have any idea how much you cost?"

"Nine hundred and eighty dollars," I say. "List price. Accessories not included."

"Right." Hanover nods at me and hands me back my journal. "I guess we'll see how wise an investment it was." He half smiles and waves his hand at me. "Go on—get back to your owner."

As I'm walking back into the funeral home, I'm thinking hard. What does he want? I search my built-in database but there's nothing about social agents. "Social agent" sounds a lot like "social worker," but the Social Worker Molly persona is nothing like Hanover. She's one of the sweetest personas in the box. Pretty, too, especially if her owner puts a Brent doll in her proximity (model 2020 or later).

Social Agent Hanover doesn't have a pretty bone in his body. He has a few feet of reach on me, like all humans, but I figure he'd fold up like a rag doll if I could connect with his face even once.

That night I stare up at the ceiling while Dorothy sleeps. Trying to work up my courage. The mice don't sound as close as they did last night. I convinced Dorothy to clean her room after the funeral, and I don't hear any of them under the bed tonight.

I still hear them in the kitchen, though. It's enough to make a plastic doll sick, the way they roam around like they own the place.

The problem is. The problem is that the kitchen is where Dorothy's mom kept her informat terminal. And I need more information to make sense of the case. I still don't understand why Hanover would preset the generator to Private Detective. He wants me snooping around Dorothy, but why?

It's hard to make myself move, but finally I steel myself to jump out of Dorothy's bed. I keep one hand on my piece, and walk to the door.

As I ease out the door I hear the skitters getting closer. I tell myself that they can't hurt me. That their teeth can't possibly break my polymer skin. That it's just a pre-programmed aversion. But nothing helps. My whole body is shaking like a rag doll as I walk down the hallway towards them.

I keep walking anyway. A private detective can't cater to her fears. Every time I think about giving up, I remember Hanover's smile. Like I was going to hand him the kid's head on a platter. Like I already had.

They keep their informat terminal on the kitchen table, with an old-fashioned cable connection making it about as fast as a three-legged horse. I wait as it boots up. Then I type in my search terms—social agents, medical care, orphans. Even on their connection, it only takes a few seconds to search, but it feels like an eternity.

I curse the fact that I can see so well in the dark. I can count every hair on the mouse sniffing around the refrigerator door. It finds a crumb there and eats it in two bites. It's almost impossible for me to turn my back on it to look at the search results. But I do. I'm sure it's creeping up behind me, although my ears are sensitive enough that I would hear it. I think.

I don't have to read much. Turns out social agents are private consultants—like a private detective I guess, but not as smart. They get paid to administer government payments, but their real money comes from finding ways of cutting benefits. They get to pocket fifty percent of any payments they cut. Privatizing government and all that.

I put my back to the screen and stick my nail file in my mouth to help me think. So Hanover wants to deny Dorothy her operation. That much I could have guessed. But what's his angle? What was I supposed to discover for him? Once again I feel a deduction flush coming on.

Scrolling back to a newspaper article about medical benefits, I see that only children of the working poor are eligible for government medical benefits. Suddenly my face feels like it's on fire. I finally understand. Simple, really.

When Dorothy's mother was working more than sixty hours a week, Dorothy would have received the operation for free, but once she lost her second job the kid would have been out of luck. It sounded from what Alastair was saying to Hanover like her mother was sick anyway. Dying while she was still full-time was pretty much the best thing she could have done for Dorothy. But of course none of the benefits kick in if a death is a suicide.

"Damn." I throw my nail file down. A mouse skitters up and sniffs it, but I don't care anymore. I sold the kid down the river, when I gave Hanover my journal. It says as clear as water that her mother gave her a goodbye note. Once Hanover comes back here and finds it, that's all she wrote for her benefits. Not just the life insurance, but all the benefits. No more public school. No more free medicine. And no lung operation. Lots more blood on tissues.

There's only one chance that I can see to set things right. I throw another nail file down at the mouse and then escape in the other direction while it's working up its courage to approach it.

I probably shouldn't still be hanging around the next morning when Hanover returns. But I'm programmed to be curious, and I want to see how my case ends.

Hanover shows up at seven thirty the next morning. Probably too eager to get his money to wait. This time he's accompanied by a short doughy man in a dark suit.

Uncle Alastair shows the men into Dorothy's room, looking desperate, but still arguing. "This is ridiculous. I have to get to work," he says. "And Dorothy needs to get to school."

"Maybe she does and maybe she doesn't." Hanover doesn't try to hide his smirk. "Public school is a benefit for the children of those who work full time."

"That's enough, Agent Hanover," the stranger says. "Let's get this over with."

Uncle Alastair sits next to Dorothy and takes her hand. "Don't worry, Dorothy," he says.

Dorothy lets him take her hand and glares at Hanover. I told her the score this morning, and I don't blame her for being mad. "I'm not worried," she says.

"Dorothy," Hanover says, "Mr. Stanford here is a professional witness. He's here to look into something for us." Stanford, at least, has the grace to look embarrassed.

Hanover flips over her pillow and finds the folded piece of paper. "Here we are," he says. His tone is triumphant.

I bite my lower lip. This is where it gets tricky. I had to give them something. If I had just destroyed the note, the witness might have believed my journal.

Hanover unfolds the note and waves it about triumphantly. "Here it is," he says. "A goodbye note from the deceased implicitly admits intention to suicide."

Uncle Alastair and Dorothy are completely silent, as Stanford looks at the note. His face works for a moment as he reads it and then hands it back to Hanover. "Are you trying to tell me a grown woman misspelled 'dear'?" he says.

Hanover seizes the note. "She was very poorly educated," he says.

Stanford looks disgusted. "It is my professional judgement that this is not the handwriting of a twenty-eight-year-old woman."

"Am I in trouble?" Dorothy looks at her feet. "I just wanted her to miss me."

"Of course she does, sweetheart." Alastair glances at the note and puts his arm around her. "Of course she misses you." He looks up at the other two men. "Unless it violates some regulation for Dorothy to write herself a note?"

Hanover glares at me. "What happened to the real note?"

Shoot. I knew I should have dissolved myself already. "I'm just a doll," I say. It hurts my head a little to evade a question from her guardian, but it's not like I'm lying.

"Let me see your journal," Hanover says.

Despite the increasing pain, I giggle. "It fell back into the generator," I say. Which is true. It fell back in after I pushed it over the edge. It's been hard to stay out of the generator when my journal is inside, but like I said, I'm programmed to be curious. Besides, I'm counting on being put back in the generator sometime real soon.

Hanover sets his teeth, but the witness interrupts him before he can reply.

"Jesus Christ, Hanover," he says. "Stop arguing with the Molly Doll. If I wasn't charging you two hundred dollars an hour, I'd say you were wasting my time." He nods to Alastair and lets himself out of the bedroom.

Hanover's mouth works but nothing comes out. After a moment, he shoves me into the generator. "It doesn't matter," he says. "I'll just reboot you and try again. The next version of you will find something else. I read your specs. You won't be able to help yourself." He points at Alastair. "And don't think you can just shut the doll in the closet. I'll have the government take physical custody of the girl the second I see you interfering with this case."

Alastair glares at him but doesn't say anything.

I don't resist when Hanover shuts the door to the generator. We aren't made with self-preservation instincts. The darkness comes in a wave, but finds me happy.


I come to my senses all at once. I clap my hands with delight as I step out of the incubator and look at myself in the mirror. There's a big man waiting for me next to my best friend, but he can wait. Men will always wait for me.

I get out my makeup kit and go to work on my best friend. She looks sad, and there's nothing like makeup to cheer a girl up. She says something to me and I giggle. "You're right," I say. My owner is always right.

Her eyebrows rise a little bit. After a second I decide to accent their motion with just a little touch of color. The secret of good makeup is working with what a girl already has.

"Petey?" she says, and I shriek with laughter. The thought of me being P.D. The private detective persona is such a man.

"I'm Debbie," I tell her. "Short for Debutante. But not too short. If I was a human I'd be five foot eight. Just right. You're beautiful, too. We're going to have so much fun at the party tonight." There's a party every night with Debutante Molly.

After a while the man goes to look at my generator. He says my default setting is broken and he can't find any persona except for Debutante Molly. "You can just send the whole package back to the company," I tell him. "You'll have us all back in less than a month. Guaranteed."

"Listen, bimbo, the operation's next week," he says. "I need this working today."

For some reason this makes me laugh. My best friend smiles and then I go to work on her lips.

"Private Detective Molly" illustration copyright © 2007 by Egypt Urnash

Ari Goelman lives in Vancouver with his wife, their toddler and the rain. He has recently published stories in Talebones and Fantasy Magazine, among other venues. "Origin" marks his second appearance in Strange Horizons. His first Strange Horizons story, "Private Detective Molly," can be found in our archives, and is also available in podcast format on Escape Pod.
Egypt Urnash is an animator and illustrator. Raised in New Orleans on cartoons and science fiction, she now lives in Boston despite its frigid winters. You can see more of Egypt's work on her website, or email her at
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18 Sep 2023

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