When I was a much younger woman, as part of the divorce settlement from my then-millionaire inventor husband, I asked for our house in Connecticut, a modest amount of alimony, and six sexy cowboy robots. Sentient sex toys, if you will.
The robots were my revenge for all the time and money Herbert had lavished on tawdry mistresses across the world. His company, New Human More Human, specialized in mechanical soldiers for the U.S. Department of Defense with a lucrative side business in sensual satisfaction. The factory delivered my boys in a big white truck. They jumped off the back ramp wearing shit-eating grins and oozing Wild West charisma. No other firm in the world could produce as fine a product. My husband was the Preston Tucker of his time: a brilliant innovator and visionary done in by vicious boardroom skullduggery.
If you believe that one strong man can succeed in the face of titanic conspiracy and unrelenting backstabbing, you probably believed global icing would be solved. Then the snow reached five feet high against your living room windows and your belief in science was shattered, as was mine.
In any case, Herbert fulfilled his divorce obligations. But he also incorporated his revenge. He had my guys created as sexy ice-skating cowboy robots with steel blades permanently attached to their feet. By design they were most happy when twirling, spinning, and jumping on ice. The frozen lake behind the house sufficed during the winter but back when summer was still a threat, I had to build an indoor rink to avoid months of pouting. There's nothing more sad than a depressed sexy cowboy.
Let me back up. One of the best dates Herbert and I ever went on, pre-nuptials, was a charity benefit at the Hartford Ice Arena. A group of skaters in tight jeans, flannel shirts and cowboy hats took the ice halfway through the show. They gyrated and spun around to an Elvis remix in a way that made the crowd—especially the female half—go wild. I myself heaped so much praise that Herbert turned red with jealousy. He was never very sanguine about competition. He was even worse at winter sports, and in fact met his mortal end ten years after our divorce by skiing off the side of a kiddie slope in Colorado.
Let me jump forward: this is not the story of a woman gifted with mechanical companionship who eventually realizes true love only comes in the shape of a flesh and blood man. Screw that. Since the day that white truck arrived, every one of my emotional, intellectual, and sexual needs has been satisfied by my cowboys (except for Buck) in their splendidly unique ways. Never again have I taken a human lover. I'm only writing this now because I'm a hundred years old and dying, hoping to find a companion for the one sexy cowboy robot who needs it the most.
First I'll tell you what happened to the other five, so that you understand the great responsibilities and sexual joys of owning a mechanical cowboy.
Naturally all my boys were great at mending fences, roping horses and tending the vegetable garden, but from day one Doc distinguished himself as our go-to robot for any mechanical or electrical problems. Not just with his brothers—that time Yuri cracked his knee on a sideboard, or when Neill's arm was stolen by government agents—but in the mansion and across the grounds, too. Over the years he fixed the garbage disposal, the furnace, the sonic Jacuzzi, the vacuum bots, and the cranky house computer. Whenever my aircar had problems he was the first to slide under the fantail, and once we built the indoor rink he single-handedly redesigned the chillers to double their output at half the energy cost.
On the ice he specialized in triple lutzes and a signature move that included hooking his white cowboy hat on his jutting pelvis. In between rehearsals and shows, he built his own workshop in an old shed and would spend many happy hours tinkering. At night in my bed his hands were warm and his breath sweet like maple syrup. He insisted on calling me Katherine instead of Kay. From him I learned the importance of wearing protection from the knees down; steel blades are hell on shins and satin sheets.
From Doc I also learned the importance of foreplay. Not that I was unacquainted with its benefits, but the first lovers I ever had were awkward teenage boys, and then a string of adult men mostly interested in themselves, and then there was Herbert, who believed lovemaking should take the same amount of time it takes to eat a boiled egg. I wondered if his speediness was specific to me, but his worldwide mistresses reported the same brisk efficiency. Doc, on the other hand, thought foreplay should take as long as a seven course meal at a five-star restaurant. His long, supple fingers were more than sufficient but he also brought massage oil, soft feathers, and small appliances to the task. He was an inventor and tinkerer, remember, and thought the human body was a fine engine to tune.
I knew he loved me but wasn't in love with me, as the saying goes. He loved circuits and designs, and making machines work better, and landing quad jumps in front of adoring crowds. Of us all, he was the most patient with Buck's unpredictable temper tantrums. His theory was that Buck's brain had been ever-so-slightly damaged in the manufacturing stage. Doc was also good at keeping secrets. I didn't realize he was smitten with a secret love until the security staff caught her sneaking out his workshop window one cold winter morning. Dr. Skylar Anderson was the chief designer at New Human More Human, and my ex-husband's latest wife.
"Skylar," I said disapprovingly, arms folded over my chiffon bathrobe.
She straightened the lapels of her lab coat. A red bra strap poked out from under her blouse. "Kay."
"Does Herbert know?"
She sniffed. "He's been too busy whoring his way through the secretarial pool. I've already filed for divorce."
This made her the enemy of my enemy, and thus an ally, so we had tea and pancakes and discussed lawyers. Later, at lunch, I asked Doc, "You and Skylar. You don't think it's very Oedipal?"
"Would you mind it something awful if I went to live with her, Katherine?"
"Would that make you happy?"
"I reckon so."
"But where will you skate?"
"There's a city rink near her house," he said, cheerful and optimistic.
Their affair only lasted three weeks. Doc came back complaining that Skylar had only wanted him for his circuits, but I think it was the poor quality of the city rink that disappointed him most. We commiserated over the breakup on a faux bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire and then he went back to his workshop, happy as any sexy cowboy robot can be. Eventually he went to work for the UN Commission on Warming the Planet Back Up, at their headquarters atop Sicily. The Sicilian women adored him and the frozen Mediterranean was excellent for skating.
Neill and Buck both came off the delivery truck wearing tight white T-shirts and leather vests, very similar in appearance: rugged, fair-haired, with chiseled chins and bright blue eyes. But there was always something comforting about Neill and dangerous about Buck. Maybe it was the way that Neill could stand at the center of a frozen pond and let the stillness of the piney woods seep into him, no need to show off or test the ice. Buck, though? From day one he had to spin as fast as he could, jump higher than anyone else, be the center of a private solar system around which the rest of us orbited in agitation or love or both.
It's fair to say Neill was bisexual, but during threesomes he was usually more interested in Yuri or Dana than he was in me. When he and I were alone, he was determined to experiment with ropes, knots, and just about every position in the Wild West Guide to Sexual Positions. The Mosey, Saddlehorn, and Road Stake went well enough, but I had to replace the damaged headboard after we did the Appaloosa, and needed anti-inflammatories for a week after the Missouri Toothpick. Between rehearsals and marathon sex sessions, Neill read his way through most of my library. He would thump from one bookcase to the next with plastic guards on his skates, fascinated by the great philosophers and religious thinkers.
I wouldn't have minded his choices so much if he didn't entirely skip my row in the self-help section. That's what I did before the Big Bad Ice: Dr. Katherine Campbell, best-selling psychologist. Maybe you've heard of my books? The Power of Last Night. Getting Things Mostly Done. The Nine Habits of People Who Really Matter. I had a syndicated radio show. I appeared frequently on daytime television. My hair, makeup, wardrobe and jewelry were impeccable, and my teeth brilliantly white. I was, in a word, insufferable.
In retrospect, Neill showed good sense by skipping my books. Herbert never read them, either. Like his creator, Neill also preferred ink on paper, and the way pages were sewn into spines.
"I prefer gravity," he said, more than once. "Pixels have no weight."
After Buck left us to build his secret laboratory up at Dodge Falls in New Hampshire, Neill volunteered to ski up the Connecticut River and talk some sense into him. The rest of us weren't too keen on the idea. Bad enough to lose Buck to the crazy world outside, but risk another of us as well? Since the advent of the Big Freeze, snow bandits had taken to seizing any shipments of food or fuel that tried to make it overland. On the estate we had the aircar, the heated gardens, a security system and a larder full enough for decades. Out in the valley, Neill would be on his own.
"What if you don't come back?" asked Dana, number five in the sexy robot lineup. He was our cross-dressing robot: sexy cowboy on the ice, alluring cowgirl off it. He rested one manicured hand on Neill's arm. "What if someone lassoes you and burns you for heat?"
Neill said, "I'll ski by night and hide by day."
Yuri took a sip from his beer bottle. None of the robots needed food or liquid, of course, but they'd been designed with storage tanks in their chest cavities to keep up social pretenses. "You think you've got a chance in hell of convincing Buck to come back?"
"I think it's worth a try," Neill said, square and honest. Of all the robots he was the one who most missed Herbert, or the ideal of Herbert; the absent father who had created them but then abandoned them with his death. Buck was a piece of Herbert that could not be lost as well.
Neill set off one winter sunset with the sun red behind the pine trees. To make it safely to Buck's lair, he would have to climb over broken bridges and dams, avoid any local marauders, and keep himself safe from the dangers of the natural world. We received messages letting us know he'd successfully passed through Hartford and then Springfield. Then, somewhere near Turners Falls, he fell off the map. We heard nothing until Buck broke radio silence, popping up on the vid screen one night to inform us that agents of the U.S. federal government had captured Neill for nefarious experiments. They were holding him in an underground lab near Mount Sugarloaf.
"Experiment on him for what?" I asked, bewildered.
"Herbert personally designed him," Buck said, his voice grim across the many miles. "New Human More Human is defunct. Skylar Anderson destroyed the last of the company records years ago. What's left of the Defense Department thinks they can tear Neill apart and learn enough to build a whole new line of robots."
We mounted a rescue attempt immediately. Cody, number six in the cowboy lineup, was a pilot whenever he wasn't practicing his sit spins. With his aerial skills, my financial resources and the true bravery of cowboys everywhere, we sped north. By the time we arrived, flames were shooting from the pristine countryside. The government lab was in ruins. Neill and Buck were safe in the woods, but Neill's left arm was missing.
"They took it," Neill said, holding his empty sleeve forlornly. I imagine he was thinking about sex again; it's hard to perform the Four in Hand when you don't have a hand to put in the appropriate orifice.
Yuri thumped him on the back. "We'll build you another, partner."
Dana gave Neill a kiss on the cheek, leaving pink lipstick behind. "The important thing is you're alive."
Buck was sooty but unharmed. We considered each other across the small clearing. His shoulders were stiff, his chin defiant. I wondered if he had killed any of the government men, and if he'd feel bad about that in the years to come.
Neill said, "You should come back with us, Buck."
"Nah," he said, in a slow but deliberate drawl. "I'm better off on my own for now. But y'all keep in touch."
With that he loped off into the woods, his gait odd.
Only once we were on the chopper, speeding home, did I realize Buck had sawed the skates off his feet.
For the first thirty years of my life, men in women's clothing did nothing for me. Dana changed all that. By day he skated around in his blue jeans, leather gloves and black shirts with elbow patches. Come evening, he would disappear into my closets and emerge wearing the best of my gowns, shoes, and precious jewelry. I don't know who taught him how to apply makeup but he was a master designer with shadow and blush. Whoever knew my nipples would perk up at the sight? The human body is a strange organism.
He said he didn't want to be a woman full time. That would ruin the skating act. But from the moment he came out of the factory he had a yearning for the lacy softness of a brassiere, the arch of fine high heel shoes, the glitter and graceful folds of a well-made cocktail dress. He liked to shave his legs (yes, my robots had renewable hair) and stretch long, sleek stockings over them. He enjoyed hooking a lace garter belt around his hips. In bed he wore pink lingerie and was an enthusiastic supporter of phalluses shaped like pistols. He also would say or do anything to make me laugh, including the use of feathers, ice cubes, and an endless supply of dirty limericks.
Before the Big Freeze, Dana would go into town dressed as a woman, on the prowl for a man who could love all of him. I worried about those trips, but there's no stopping a sexy cowboy on a mission. After Neill's rescue at Mount Sugarloaf, Dana's feelings for him flared into a one-sided infatuation that affected them both on the ice. Dana started doubling his jumps instead of landing triples, and Neill nearly dropped him once during a lift, and then someone loosened the seams on Neill's costume so that all of him popped out during a backflip.
Things might have gotten worse between them, but the next day we received a distress call from Long Island Sound. An ice barge with children aboard had run into trouble. The boys saddled up and rode out on snowmobiles. During the rescue Dana was lost to the water. One moment he was hoisting an infant to safety and in the next, the merciless ice had opened up and sucked him into its black depths.
Neill took the loss especially hard. For weeks he skated around the rink in silence, wearing black clothes and one of Dana's favorite feather boas. I myself tried to remember all of Dana's dirty jokes and limericks. None of them seemed funny anymore. The others mourned their lost brother by getting his name tattooed on their forearms and inventing a new jump-spin-land combination called Dana's Stick.
Buck heard about it, though I'm not sure which of the boys called him. He called me on the vid to express his regrets. I could see a blazing hearth behind him; his secret lair didn't have much in the way of furniture, but there seemed to be a lot of computers and equipment. I imagined the place was as gloomy and bitter as Buck himself.
"Dana was a good cowboy," Buck said. "I'm sorry he's gone."
"Are you?" I asked. "You didn't much approve of his attire."
Which was true, and Buck was robot enough not to deny it.
"I don't want to fight," he said, instead. On the vid, his shoulders were slumped and his eyes downcast. "I do miss y'all, even if you don't miss me."
Fat snowflakes slapped lightly against the windows of my bedroom. It wasn't like Buck to be so boldly needy. Maybe all those years alone in New Hampshire were changing his outlook on life. He'd gone there after Herbert's death; to mourn, maybe, or to bitterly rue the loss of his creator.
"We miss you a lot," I told him. "You can come home anytime you want."
"My work is important." Like Doc, Buck had inherited Herbert's genius and overinflated ego. He believed he could save the planet. I guess the real Herbert might have been able to, but his mechanical heir hadn't succeeded yet.
"Kay," Buck said, breaking the silence between us. "If I came back, would you get rid of everyone but me? Would you let me be your only cowboy?"
From Buck, this was unheard of. We'd never even kissed. From day one he'd been wild, untamed, his own free robot.
He must have seen confusion in my face, because he logged off without saying goodbye.
As it turned out, our grieving over Dana was happily in vain. Three weeks after the disaster on the ice, he sent word from Key West. Robots don't need to breathe, of course, so after being sucked into the powerful currents of the reversed Gulf Stream, he'd simply hung on for the ride. He liked Key West a lot. Though it was no longer a tropical paradise, the ice fishermen still applauded the sunset each night before snuggling into their igloos. He'd found true love in the arms of a Cuban named Elian, and did we mind if he stayed down there to teach the locals how to figure skate?
Yuri and Cody were my fiercely competitive sexy robots. Not on the ice. During performances they were consummate professionals, and the townsfolk who came up for the shows once a month never saw their intense rivalry. But you've never seen two boys compete so much over who could eat more flapjacks (though they couldn't, technically, eat), get more drunk (simulated, in wildly hilarious ways), or score higher on cowboy video games (eighteen-hour marathon sessions in the library were not unheard of, until I got sick of hearing 'Yee-haw!' and threw them out). In the back forty they rode robot horses and roped robot steer until Doc had to bang the dents out of them, and then they started all over again. In my bed they wrestled over who got my back passage and who got my front. No matter who won, I always benefited from their rivalry.
One day they got it into their heads to see who could cross-country ski the farthest. By this time Doc was in Italy, Dana was in Key West, and Buck was still in New Hampshire. The skate show had diminished to just Yuri, Cody, and Neill, and didn't draw crowds from town like it used to. Not that many people still lived anywhere in New England. The smart ones had drifted south to the crowded equatorial nations, and the old ones rarely left their homes anymore.
"You don't mind, do you?" Cody asked one night, his hand pumping away pleasurably inside me.
"Mind what?" I gasped.
Yuri's mouth lifted from my right nipple. "If we modify skis to fit our skates and go off for a little while."
The boys had learned long ago that I can't deny them anything when I'm about to orgasm, and so off they went on their journey. That was twenty years ago. They circumnavigated frozen oceans, icy Mideast deserts, and the top of every mountain they could find. They brought food, fuel, and engine parts to small villages. In those pockets of civilization where humanity still struggled to survive, they also performed pairs skating routines. The seats were often empty but for wide-eyed children who had never known prosperity or what it was like to be truly warm.
In the end, only Neill and I remained on the estate. I was too old and withered and stubborn to move. Neill was too devoted to leave. He continued to read the philosophers in the library, though after fifty years he'd surely memorized every one. In bed, he was considerate of my frail bones, vaginal dryness, and decreased libido. Ours was no longer a world in which women could find medical or surgical solace from the cruelties of old age. Earth was a dying planet, destined to be buried under ice and snow no matter what miracle solutions always seemed at hand.
Long after the house computer had rusted into silence, the skating rink was still operational. Neill had become an excellent solo performer. For hours he would skate to singers long forgotten, like Toby Keith and Taylor Swift. Most days I would pull on my scarf and coat and boots to trudge down the slope and watch him spin. Some days I dozed off in my fireside chair, instead, and he would kiss my forehead on his way out the door.
"I'll be back in time for dinner," he would say.
One evening I woke to a cold hearth and dark skies. The house was silent but for my own voice. I made my way down the slippery slope already knowing the sad truth. Neill was exactly where I expect him to be: center ice, arms raised up, legs crossed, face proud. He had skated his final performance. He would stand there until the roof caved in and winter buried him forever.
"I'm sorry," I said, through tears. "You shouldn't have been alone."
"He wasn't," a voice said behind me, from the empty stands.
Buck was standing in the shadows, his hands buried in the pockets of his long camel hair coat. We regarded each other across a gulf of empty seats and old regrets.
"He knew his battery was going," Buck said, shifting his gaze to Neill. "We were never designed to last this long, Kay."
"The others . . . " I said faintly.
"Have come to see me," he said. "I managed to extend them for a few more years, but Neill didn't want that. He was ready to be released. No one really wants to be immortal."
I wiped my face. "Not even you, Herbert?"
Buck blinked. For a moment I thought he was going to deny it. Then he said, "How long have you known?"
"I was always suspicious that you wouldn't sleep with me," I said. "And I thought something was amiss when you took the biological Herbert's death so hard. But it was Skylar who confirmed it, on her deathbed. She said she always suspected you'd downloaded your own personality into one of the robots to preserve yourself. You did an excellent job."
Buck moved closer to the edge of the rink. I wondered if he missed the glide of ice under his skates, the rush of air as he sped around in circles.
"It was an experiment," he said. "I didn't really expect success. All of a sudden I was handsome, and young again, and graceful for the first time in my life. But you only had eyes for the others."
"You could have joined us."
"I hated you back then. You always made me aware of my own deficiencies. I wasn't a perfect man, but for decades I believed I was."
I couldn't argue with that. Didn't want to, not with Neill frozen on the ice in front of us. All I could do was pull my hat down over my ears and make my slow, painful way up the slope to the empty house that had been rowdy with sexy cowboys for so many decades. Release sounded like a good word. Sounded like a long promised reward after fifty years of ice.
Buck followed me. Heated up soup that I wouldn't eat and tucked me into a bed too big for just one person. I remembered him on the night he proposed marriage. Just the two of us in a sidewalk café in summertime, coffee and baklava on the table between us, moonlight on the street and in his eyes.
"Come back to Dodge Falls with me," he said. "Let us take care of you."
So I did.
And it's here I've spent my last years, slowly dying amid well-heated rooms and hydroponic gardens that bloom with long-forgotten flowers. Dana keeps me company most of the time. He's not very erectile anymore, but we enjoy taking baths together and snuggling under blankets and putting on our best dresses for afternoon tea. Buck never comes to my bed. Maybe he thinks I'll break a hip. Maybe I'm afraid to show him what a sack of old flesh I've become, while he's still strong and handsome. He spends his days working on the Big Freeze. He thinks he's finally found a solution; even now, pilots are seeding the oceans and clouds with chemicals that will restore the planet's damaged equilibrium. We hope.
Dana and I can count the days we have left, or at least a rough approximation. Yuri and Doc and Cody are already gone, my beautiful boys. It's Buck I'm worried about. Years of skating took their toll on the others, but he could outlive us for another ten years. Who will take care of him? Who will save him from the loneliness and bitterness? He needs a companion.
I should have known he has a plan.
"Here she is," he says one morning, unveiling a glass cabinet in his lab. "I've kept her in storage all these years and just finished the upgrade."
Inside is a beautiful woman: glossy brown hair, clear skin, firm breasts, legs to die for. Her cowboy hat, suede shirt and fringed shirt are as fresh as the day she rolled off the assembly line. The seventh sexy robot. An homage to the greatest love of Herbert's life.
"Skylar!" I exclaim indignantly. "You built a perfect replica of her not me?"
He blinks at me. "That's not Skylar—that's you!"
"It's Skylar," Dana confirms. "Her nose always was a little bit crooked."
Buck says, "Well, it doesn't matter. She's never been activated. There's no personality profile. I want you to have her, Kay. I can transfer your mind into this body."
"No. Give her to Dana," I say.
Dana shakes his head. "Neill's waiting for me in electronic heaven. But I'll borrow the skirt."
Buck steps closer to me. "We need you, Kay. The world needs people to rebuild it."
I stare at the beautiful Skylar, but spare him a sideways glance.
"The truth is that I need you," he confesses. "I need my Kay back, no matter whose face you're wearing. Be young for me again. Be strong and beautiful, and we'll take on the world together."
"Huh," I say.
Buck squeezes my hand. "Promise me you'll think about it."
When I said I wanted a companion for Buck, I never thought it would be me. I try to imagine waking up young, strong and beautiful. To spend every day for the rest of my life seeing Skylar in the mirror. I say nothing on the way back to my room. Dana limps along beside me, equally quiet. Maybe thinking of the skirt.
"You could," he finally says. "You'd still be Kay on the inside."
"Screw that," I tell him. "Come on. We're going to back to Connecticut. Let's go see Neill, and have ourselves a drink or two, and go out with a bang."
That afternoon we put on silky blue underwear and our cold-weather clothes. We apply foundation, sunscreen, and mascara at least fifty years past its expiration date. Dana's blue eyes sparkle under gold eyeshadow. I pull out the small box that contains the last of my jewels.
"Here," I tell him. "Wear these diamond earrings. They always looked better on you than me."
We don pearls and gloves and set off. It takes awhile to circumvent Buck's security system, but Dana has Herbert's smarts. Outside the secret lair, the winter sky is cobalt blue and the bitter air makes my skin tingle. Trees along the frozen river have long since fallen under the weight of ice and snow, leaving a splintered landscape. I should have brought snowshoes. Dana tosses his skate guards aside and we help each other stay upright. It'll be nice if Buck's plan succeeds. If the world's gardens and forests return after such a long, deep sleep.
"There once was a boy named Cass," Dana says, after we've gone maybe a half mile. The breeze blows his hair back from his handsome face. "Whose balls were made of brass. In stormy weather, they would bang together . . . "
He sits down on an icy boulder. "Funny. I can't remember."
He's never forgotten a limerick. I sit down beside him and pat his gloved hand. His blue eyes stay fixed on the distance. I think he sees Neill. I think I see Neill, too. Neill with his white hat, and Cody with his green bandana, and Yuri with his big old leather boots. There's Doc, too, smiling like he knows a secret. It's a hallucination, of course, and the only one I've ever had without the help of illegal chemicals. Those four sexy robots come over and pull Dana to his feet.
"Time to skate, partner," Neill says.
I stand up, too, but Doc shakes his head fondly. "Not you, Katherine. You've got a world to rebuild and a new body to do it in."
"Buck doesn't want me," I say vehemently. "He wants an ideal. He wants someone to worship him, the bastard. Seventy years and nothing's changed."
"Doesn't matter what Buck wants," Neill tells me. "You get a chance at life, you live it. Write more books."
"You never read my other ones," I sniff.
"Sure I did," he says. "When you weren't looking. Didn't want you to get a swelled head."
"Write stories about us," Cody adds. "Tell them we lived, and we loved, and we ate lots of flapjacks."
Yuri blows me a kiss. "Persevere, sweet Kay."
They skate off into the sunset, my five sexy robots, doing triple lutzes on the way.
I guess, for the boys, I can live some more. I can write their stories, and the story of life before the Big Ice. I can cut Skylar's hair, get rid of that cowboy skirt, and bang a notion or two through Buck's thick metal skull. But first I have to get off this rock and back up the frozen river. The wind is strong but the sun warms my face, and along the way I hear the sound of water dripping off trees. The world is renewing. I'm glad I'll be here to see it.