Alyssa had not been back to the house for some time. If she was being honest she probably wouldn’t have accepted her father’s invitation had she not been so intrigued by this breakthrough that had set the other sites participating in the Shabti program abuzz with amazement. Her father had the only conscious Delta. And he was not just a conscious Delta; he was the first conscious Shabti – period. Officially on leave, she hoped to return to Site Three with insights gained from firsthand experience of the subject. There had to be something different about him, something beyond the blood and tissue samples distributed between the other sites. She had come to try and meet the Delta, to look for an essential ‘Daveness’ that could be identified and refined in the next iterations of the programme.
Typical, there was no one at home. Going through the porch door Alyssa McDonald thought back to all the times she had come back to empty houses as a child. Her father, the big scientist, always too busy with his work to notice his living creation growing up year by year. By habit her first stop is upstairs to dump her bag in her old room. No changes, photos of her on the walls at the important stages of her life – sports events, prize givings, graduations – nothing really personal, just those things he thought should be marked. All reminders that, on many levels, they’d never really got each other.
At least everywhere was clean and tidy. Maybe he had finally accepted the need for a cleaner to stay on top of things. Going back through the house she notices more changes. Subtle ones. No, not just a cleaner. A woman? Her father with a woman? No, couldn’t be, at least she couldn’t imagine anyone else coming back here. Still, something was not quite right. Someone was studying – all kinds of things, the piles of books in the family room were not restricted to medical research. And where had all the documentaries come from? She was not so surprised at the content, looking through the boxes they were almost all fine and worthy subjects, but history had never been his thing and since when had her father made time to watch everything ever made by David Attenborough? And astrophysics? There was something very odd going on with the eclectic mix of viewing. A woman with older children? He was often absent minded but that would be too much to forget to mention. She hadn’t bothered to check the other upstairs rooms.
As a child Alyssa and her father had communicated mostly via the medium of the fridge door. Looking for a drink to take the edge off a hot day, and thinking this might be the place to solve the mystery, she leaves the educational treasure trove behind and heads for the kitchen. She finds not individual letters, or even magnetic words, but a post-it note on the fridge door written in a rounded script like a hand getting used to forming letters – ‘If we’re not in when you get back we are down at the lake’. The post-it was signed ‘D’. We?
Following the path down through the stand of trees behind the house she comes to a sudden stop after rounding the bend into the private beach. She recognises the old plaid picnic rug but not the couple screwing on it. A thin pale man kneels back on his haunches, a coloured woman straddling him as he thrusts up and into her. He holds her down to him with hands tight on her shoulders, his face buried into her ample bosom. Alyssa doesn’t know what to do; she should go back to the house and leave them in private but finds she cannot move from the path. An uncertain voyeur, guilty and excited at the same time, she watches them as they soon reach a gasping climax.
Suddenly gentle, the man lays the woman back on to the rug, reaches in between their bodies and carefully catches something as he slowly withdraws from her. A dark hand feels around the edges of the rug, finds an insulated box and drags it over to their side. The rescued prophylactic is sealed in a jar marked with a biohazard warning and then put into the box like a rare and precious find. Reaching into the box again the woman puts something against the inside of his arm. Lia cannot see what they are concentrating over. A dark vial returned to the box which is then closed and pushed back out of the way. A blood sample? Laughing now, the man bends again to kiss the woman, trailing his lips over her body and finishing by nuzzling between her legs as she runs her fingers through his shoulder length brown hair. Responding to some inner impulse, he rises and strides into the clear cold water of the lake, swimming away from his erstwhile lover without a word.
The woman lies as he leaves her, head back, eyes closed, legs apart and knees bent as if unwilling to give up the feeling of him there, waiting for his return. Alyssa waits. The pale man does not return; the woman looks to be dozing. Eventually Alyssa walks towards the rug, shoes crunching the small shale of the beach to indicate her presence as she nears the exposed woman.
“Er … hello? Hi? Are you ok?” Stupid thing to say, of course she is ok, she looks about as ok as anyone could ever be. “I’m Alyssa McDonald. That’s my Dad’s house at the top of the path. Are you sure it’s ok for you to be here? What if someone sees you?” There had been no other car by the house. There was only a small knot of discarded clothing by the rug – was that a sarong? Where had this strange couple come from? Had her father taken them in for some reason? There were no other houses around by this part of the lake. She hadn’t thought to check his study, there was room enough in there for two extras bodies if they were happy with being intimate, was one of these ‘D’?
“Pleased to meet you Alyssa, have a seat.” A languid hand pats to invite her down to the rug. “Oh, don’t worry this is about the safest place in a very safe place. I thought you must be special, to be able to wander in and get so close to the ‘product’. And don’t concern yourself about modesty, the snipers in the trees have got used to ignoring what they see. No, don’t look round, don’t look for them. It’s a game we play. I pretend they are not there and they pretend they don’t see the floorshow.”
“Snipers?” Snipers! When did the base start having security inside the perimeter?
“Yeah, gave me such a shock one day when I looked up and there was a pair of eyes staring back at me. After that I thought it best we just had sex in the open. I didn’t want himself getting freaked out by seeing someone looking at him, we never quite know how he is going to react to surprises. First time they tried to get him to fire a gun the noise scared him so much he rabbited off through the trees. Took three days for him to come back, dirty and a bit scratched up but nothing a feed and a good soak couldn’t fix. Your father isn’t too happy about all the security around the place, but Director Harrison insisted on making more of a show of protecting the investment after that.”
“Why do it outside at all? Surely there must be somewhere more comfortable you can go?”
“He likes to feel the warmth of the sun on his skin. And,” the inviting hand shaded the dark woman’s eyes as she gave the blond a significant glance, “we are working on his tan. Ok, it’s not much of a tan but at least he’s doesn’t have that blue undertone anymore. I’m Helena, by the way, his nurse.”
“So, that was the wonder of the age.” Alyssa tries to sound nonchalant as she shakes the same hand, but she is surprised to see all the pieces fall into place. Obvious really. Knowing how recently he had become active she realises the childish handwriting on the note was just that –nearly two metres tall and impossibly real ‘D’ was all of six months old. “Does my father know what you are doing with him?”
“Oh yes. I know it’s not in the official reports but your father is convinced that his progress is in some way connected with sex. He became responsive after becoming, well, responsive, shall we say. Struan doesn’t ask too many questions. On an abstract level he can process what is going on but he gets very uncomfortable with what he keeps calling ‘TMI’. The note that brought you down here is our way of saying ‘don’t come looking for us, we know you don’t want to know what we are doing’. We stay here to try and keep Dave as happy as possible. As far as the director is concerned, a happy Dave is a compliant Dave. So long as the product arrives at the labs and is prepared to let them do what they want when they want no one says anything.”
“And are you really happy with this arrangement? However you started, nursing is not the word I would use to describe what I saw you doing.” No point pretending that she hadn’t seen the ‘floorshow’.
“Honestly?” Helena’s look of disbelief speaks volumes, but Alyssa is too distracted to pick up the response.
“Honestly – what are you getting out of this?”
“Other than great sex with a man who adores me? Feeling younger and healthier than I have done for years? Not having to go back in that warehouse and look at all those failures day after day? No, there’s clearly nothing in it for me.”
“But … he’s only six months old … that’s got to be wrong, hasn’t it?” Even with only a brief unobstructed view the pale figure had definitely looked fully mature, and was certainly a very willing – forceful even – participant in the act, but the newcomer still found the thought disquieting.
“I’ll let you try and explain that one to him shall I? Seriously, I tried to slow him down. He seemed so fragile at first I was scared of hurting him so I kept putting him off. And then … then, oh, you don’t need to know the detail but one thing led to another and, well, here we are. Look, it’s not like I’d intended any of this. Being seduced by one of your father’s experiments was hardly the most obvious thing to put on my to-do list this year. I only took the job here to keep in touch with my grandson who’s a pilot over at the airbase.”
“And there’s no downside to this?” With her world view taking a sudden lurch Alyssa takes another long appraising look at the figure next to her. This is a grandmother?
“I won’t pretend there isn’t … I told you, I am still his nurse. I take his bloods, I dress his wounds and help him get over whatever has been done to him in the name of science. He knows he is a freak and it gets him down. I see him sad and lonely when he can’t make the effort to hide it any more. I’m still not sure what it is he gets from me, but why should I deny him any happiness I can give?”
“Does he always love you and leave you?” With her beautifully taut skin and firm body, this is a grandmother? Alyssa fights an urge to touch the lustrous dark skin, it seems so youthful, so inviting.
“He heard you coming down the path. I know he didn’t want to finish so quickly but he’s still a little shy of meeting new people. I’m sure he will be back as soon as his swim tires him out and he gets cold.”
“Can I ask – what’s with the specimen box?” All she wants to ask is how this woman looks the way she does, this must be why her father asked her to come over, part of what he couldn’t say over the phone. Maybe this was the source of some of the other rumours she’d heard.
“That’s part of the quid pro quo around here. We provide samples of him in return for the appearance of a free life at the house, time for him to try to learn about the world. Officially, they say they are worried that he might become fertile so they have to keep checking. Off the record, I’m sure there’s some very unprofessional sniggering and testing of rejuvenation products going on somewhere.” A chuckle and a small conspiratorial smile, “still, they don’t have to have everything. We give them enough so they don’t think to ask for any more.” A pause as she looks around the apparently idyllic beach. “He’s right, you know, it is nice just lying here in the sun. If you don’t have anywhere else to be just now, why don’t you relax a while? I promise you are very safe here.”
With nothing else planned, and no one else to see other than her father, Alyssa agrees to stay with the older woman. Wary of the potential watchers in the trees, however, she finds that she cannot forego her rather functional sports bra and briefs. With a long civilian trans-Atlantic flight and the journey up to the base behind her she soon relaxes in the summer heat. As she begins to doze to the background sounds of the small creatures in the undergrowth her new companion sits up as if something has just occurred to her.
“There’s maybe something I should tell you before you meet him. We’re used to it, and I doubt if your father even notices it any more so he’s probably not mentioned it or bothered to include it in the reports, but Dave speaks with an accent. There’s no problem understanding him, it’s just that he sounds a little out of place around here. Actually, you’ll probably feel right at home when you do speak to him but probably best not to draw attention to it.” Odd accent, OK, she can cope with that one, but it looked like that is just the softener.
“And, well … Struan has been taking Dave off site, trying to get him used seeing people and how they interact. Nothing major, just small trips out to local towns, supermarkets and diners mostly; they shop, drink coffee, stay quiet and no one notices them. Last week he had the mad idea of driving him down to Boston to see how he coped in a large city.” Helena looks uncomfortable. Harvard had been Struan’s old stomping ground before he joined the program full time. Harvard had been where they had lived as a family before her mother had left them and returned home. What had her father done? “I know this is probably not the news you want to hear, but it might be best to get it out in the open sooner rather than later. Something happened while they were out … he didn’t think it through and he is really sorry, but your father tried passing Dave off as your boyfriend when they bumped into some old friends.”
“He did what?” Her voice chokes and comes out as a shocked hiss. “But …” Mad old fool.
“I don’t know why he did it, he said he just panicked and couldn’t think why he would be in Starbucks with another Scot who looked about your age, felt like he had to create a back story or something. For an intelligent man and all, your father can be monumentally hopeless at times. It might just have been wishful thinking, a Freudian slip if you like. Course the friends were old friends and they known you since you were so high … so now Dave is a ‘phase’ you are going through.” What else? There had to be something else, Alyssa could see it. Mad, mad, old fool. “… And we’ve all been invited over for a party at Richard Lytton’s place next weekend – your god-father is just dying to catch up with you and see whatever magic Dave must have to make you try out straight as an option and why you’ve been keeping him a secret.”
There is no way of stopping the sigh of resignation that escapes Alyssa. It is the same one used by all grown-up children disappointed and eternally embarrassed at the things parents do. This was what was so urgent, what he couldn’t say on the phone. Helena recognises the sigh from one of the last conversations she had with her own daughter – a conversation that had started happily with the news that she had met someone and would be moving in with him, and which got increasingly strained when she said that this someone was not only white (understatement) but there was something of an age difference (understatement didn’t quite cover it – he was younger that her first great-grandchild). Still, she had kept things as close to the truth as possible and hoped that that would be enough to reduce the fall-out should her grandson ever bump into them on the base or – worse still – call unexpectedly.
“You said we’ve all been invited? How many people is ‘we’?” Alyssa’s sinking feeling gets deeper as she remembers where ‘uncle’ Richard’s estate is. “This is going to be an overnight stay. What’s the old idiot said?”
“The four of us, you’re with Dave and I’m, well, I’m really along to make sure Dave is ok but officially I’m now your father’s lady friend. Apparently Lytton had made some off-colour comment about your father finally seeing sense, and Dave being his boy toy, so he overreacted and made up two couples to avoid the suggestion.”
“Indeed. Just to complete the awkwardness, we have been invited up on Friday evening, the party is Saturday and we should be back here late Sunday.”
“Two nights. Two nights, three days. Enough hospitality to risk a serious case of alcohol poisoning. No wonder the old fart wouldn’t come and meet me. Oh this is going to be so wrong.” Both of them do the sigh this time. “I guess you’d better tell me more about him then.”
Helena recognises the surrender in the tone and explains the unusual nature of her charge’s journey from helplessness, even through the early stages that Struan had problems with, “you should have seen his face, complete horror and he goes running off to hide and wouldn’t come back until we were housebroken. Poor Dave. Good thing that was only a day or so.”
Alyssa has to admit that she is intrigued by the person coming through from the nurse’s description. He seems a quiet, docile creature, devouring the world through documentaries and teaching himself to read and write away from the official eyes of the programme. Whatever else he might be he does not sound like the soldier the directors have been looking for. Deep in thought she drifts off trying to reconcile the two differing views – the gentle man described by Helena and the hoped for superman dissected, tested and probed by the programme. Her father’s place in all of this seemed unclear. What had happened to his liberal tendencies – was he trying to protect a new life or shaping it to submit to the inevitable?