His face is freshly shaved, he is wearing a decent shirt, and he has spritzed his torso in the more expensive of his two deodorants.
There is just one more thing to do before he leaves. He pulls his phone out and fires off a quick text to his friend,
"Going to meet date at the Peach Tree."
There. That should do it. Just in case.
Before he has a chance to put it down, the response arrives,
"ok. text me after."
He replies: "will do", swipes to the camera and holds it up for a selfie. No need to smoulder, those photos always just give an air of vague constipation. He grins cheesily, flashing freshly scrubbed pearly whites that are just a smidge too big for his generous, dark mouth, and uploads the shot to his feed with a short caption.
"Off to meet my date! Wish me luck!"
The responses flood in immediately, and he switches the device to silent before puts it back in his pocket. He catches a glimpse of the comments,
"Let us know how it goes"
"Good luck mate"
"ring me later bro"
"Where are you headed?"
"Be careful ok."
"What time are you meeting her? Do you need an out?"
There. Now there's a record of what he looks like, what he's wearing and what his plans are. You know. Just in case.
He takes a deep breath to steady the fluttering of his heart, and assures himself that of course it'll be fine, he's just going to go and have a good time, what's the worst that can happen?
He somewhat successfully suppresses the visceral pictures his brain conjures in answer to that question, and gives himself a mental shake. It's in a public place. What's she gonna do?
I hate Tindr dates.
The thought arrives in his head before he can stop it, but he sets his jaw, and heads out of the front door anyway. You've got to get back out there, he reminds himself. Everyone dates like this now.
That stubborn, pessimistic part of himself is unmoved. It shouldn't be this risky just to try to meet a girl.
That same inner pessimist hisses smugly at the sight of a group of women on the corner of his street. He slows his pace to take stock and scan for a face he knows that would indicate that at least some of them are are likely to be human and therefore safe. Damn. He doesn't recognise any of them. His front door keys are still in his hand, so he slides them between his fingers and tucks his hand in his pocket before carefully crossing the street.
He puts his head down, and braces himself. It starts before he is level with them.
"Where are you off to, handsome?"
"Hey, why are you in such a hurry?"
He can hear the stuttering of stilettos trying to catch up with him, and risks a very brief glance back.
Oh, no, she is beautiful! He groans, inwardly. She has blonde hair, cut in a bob to frame her face, and shorter at the back. It looks like she just stepped out of the hairdresser's that afternoon. Her bright red lips match her dress, and her teeth look expensive. He ignores her and keeps walking, beginning to regret his choice not to take the bus. Her mocking laughter fades behind him.
The beautiful ones are the worst. You're safe with an ugly one, or a fat one - safest if she is both fat and ugly to be honest - but who wants that? The beautiful ones are high risk, high reward.
All the Mechs are beautiful. If you are going to make a girl in a computer, what would be the point of making her unattractive? When they began self-replicating, they followed the same protocol. This makes plain women safer. It also makes beautiful women move through the world entirely differently, and the more beautiful they are, the more fear they command.
He hopes that this one - the one he is heading to meet right now - is not exactly like her picture. Which, by the way, is breath-takingly gorgeous - tall and slender with light golden skin, her hair a mass of rich chestnut waves to her waist. It's bound to be heavily filtered. Aren't they always? No one ever looks like their picture - right?
At least it's only lunchtime. There is plenty of light left, and by the time he comes home the streetlights won't even be on.
He can't believe he is already looking forward to coming home, and he hasn't even got there yet. Of course he is excited to meet someone new, and there's a really good chance they will hit it off. But it's tainted by trepidation, as these things so often are. He feels jaded by it, and just wants to get home.
Before Max opens the door and heads inside the restaurant, he scans the tables he can see through the window. He can't see her, it's too busy - but there being lots of people around is a good thing for a first date.
When he is shown to his table, his heart sinks. Someone is already sitting there. She has her back to him. Short blonde hair above an exposed white neck sends his hammering heart to his shoes. It's her! How can it be her?! She was behind me!
He almost turns back and leaves before she sees him. But it's too late - she has glanced over her shoulder, and her eyes and mouth stretch wide in pleased recognition.
"I thought it was you! You tried to run away from me," she admonishes teasingly from behind her cocktail glass, "but I caught up with you all the same." Genuine pleasure at seeing him warms her curving mouth, and he is mesmerised by it. There is a cherry on a stick in her glass, as there always is in these sorts of situations. She seizes it delicately with red talons and waves it at him sternly. Her eyes dance. She sucks the cherry off the stick, watching him minutely for his reaction. He is captured and frozen in her gaze.
"A-A-Andrea?" he stutters. "Your hair... you.... you...."
"I cut it off and dyed it. Shocker, I know." Her eyes roll and her voice is sardonic, as if he is being presposterous to be surprised that hairdressers exist. "Don't tell me you don't like it? I got it done especially for our date." Her eyes all wide innocence, and her red mouth pouting in mock disappointment.
"And... your.... your tan...."
"Oh, that," she laughs, "Those pictures were my holiday snaps from last year, and between you and me," she leans forward to whisper conspiratorially, giving the smallest incidental glimpse down the front of her dress, "I had a bit of help." She winks and then laughs delightedly again at his bemused expression. "It was from a bottle. It was my sister's wedding as soon as I got back from holiday, and I didn't want to look like a milk bottle in her photos. I'd love to be a sun-worshipper, but I burn something terrible, so I'm pretty much a vampire."
She flashes her teeth at him and laughs again, with total ease and confidence. "What, did you think I would look like my picture? Come on, when does that ever happen?"
She is right. It doesn't. The vision in front of him is, if possible, even more beautiful than the picture. But her eyes, the shape of her face... it is her.
Please, don't think of him as an idiot. Mechs are really, really hard to spot. Poor Max, he has had his heart bruised, and he feels a little lonely. It's clouding his judgement.
He likes her. Or he thinks he likes her, based on their conversations so far. He really does want to get to know her better. They had got on so well, the conversation flowing easily between them, and despite her hardened, mocking exterior, she makes him feel kind of important. Important to her, anyway. She doesn't read his message and leave it sitting there for days. Those little magic dots (Andrea is typing...) appear very quickly each time. And now, look, she has eyes only for one person in the room. And it's me! He feels taller under her gaze. He feels like the best version of himself. Not to mention, she is one of the most beautiful people he has ever seen, let alone been on a date with. If she is human, walking away will be the singular most stupid thing he has ever done in his life.
He is torn for a moment, but he imagines how it will feel to turn and walk away with her laughing eyes on his back, and know that some other, braver man - lucky swine - will sidle up in moments and take his place.
She has skewered him cleverly to his seat, and he is not sure precisely when it happened.
And yet.... how did she get here so quickly? "Oh, a friend gave me a lift." Which friend? "What, jealous already?"
She has a reasonable answer for everything, or, if not reasonable, then sarcastic. Her arched brow makes him feel a bit foolish.
To an onlooker, he looks like a charming and attentive date. He barely takes his eyes off her, even when the waiter comes to take their order. The way he is studying her face, looking deeply into her eyes while they sip cocktails. Asking her lots of probing questions about herself while he is served something delicious drenched in perfectly poached egg. She laughs, she teases, she flirts. He nudges the conversation towards families - does she have any children? Does she want any?
She has ordered a salad and is eating only sparingly, but that could mean something, or it could mean nothing. Some skinny people eat whatever they like and never gain a pound, and others stay slim by being careful about what they eat. Perhaps she is in the latter category. Or perhaps she can't eat at all, and in a moment she will go to the restroom and waste everything she just swallowed. He scrutinises each mouthful while pushing his own food around his plate, feeling too nervous to be hungry.
Either she is perfect. Or she is deadly. He keeps looking into her eyes, trying to work out which. Trying to decode her.
She looks right back, and he knows that she knows what he is doing, and is laughing at him.
Some attractive women do a passable imitation of a Mech, and move through the world with total confidence. Which just makes the Mechs harder to spot.
Confidence should be an attractive trait, but it is attractive like a colourful frog. It draws your eye, but it warns you at the same time.
He is sweating. It beads on his forehead and blooms under his arms. His discomfiture seems to amuse her all the more.
He keeps the drinks coming. Mechs can't get drunk, and drunkenness is difficult for them to mimic.
He can't figure her out. When the plates are cleared, there is still plenty of light left, so he offers to buy yet more drinks.
When she excuses herself delicately, he watches her walk, with perfect poise on those impossible heels, towards the ladies. Anyone would need to go after that many cocktails.
He leans over and tops up her glass. A flickering reel of images across his brain of Andrea in that cubicle and all the things she might be doing... Either something thoroughly human, with underwear pushed down soft white thighs... Or something else - whatever it is Mechs do to get rid of human food they swallow. His private thoughts, or maybe the booze, or maybe both, are making him feel pleasantly warm, and almost willing to throw caution to the wind.
Those obnoxious pictures are still painted on the back of his eyeballs when she re-emerges. He watches her very carefully over a forest of bottles and glasses. Only the briefest pause to smooth the front of her dress. What was she doing in there? She doesn't wobble. She doesn't put her hand out to steady herself. Her ankle doesn't turn even once, despite her efficient pace, and the amount of alcohol she has drunk. Maybe she can just handle her liquor.
Maybe he should just ask her. His heart hammers harder at the thought. Mechs are programmed to assimilate into the human race, and when this doesn't succeed it causes some horribly volatile glitches.
The best case scenario is that she is only human - will she be flattered? Or offended? Will he blow any chance of being with her? Will she laugh, knowing that her cat and mouse game drove him crazy? Maybe he is just a game to her. Maybe he should just walk away.
It's as if the world glitched and he loses a few seconds, because the next thing he knows she has walked right past her own seat and straddled him.
Suddenly she is leaning in close. So tantalisingly close. He had absolutely no intention of pulling away. He wants so badly to find out what her lips taste like, how soft they were. He tells himself that these details would serve as further clues that will help him decipher her. The moment he thinks it, he convinces himself that it's true. Her eyes narrow, and she nips playfully at his lower lip, which is hanging, in all honesty, a little moronically in expectation.
He stares, transfixed at her mouth shaping the words, "You do see me as a woman, don't you, Max?"
I knew it.
If he says no, there is no telling what it will do. If he lies, it will know he is lying. Pretense is not enough, you see. You have to actually see them the way they are programmed to want to be seen. They do not grasp the fact the perception cannot be compelled.
His hesitation has told it all it needed to know, and its eyes flash horribly. Its slender hands run down his chest slowly. No doubt it can feel his heart thumping fearfully, confirming what it knows already - he sees a machine, and he is terrified for his life.
It is pressing, harder and harder as its hands track lower, and its fingers curve into claws. His eyes widen and he gasps. He looks around wildly for help, but the restaurant is deserted. Even the bar staff have vanished.
"I thought you were different," it pouts at him, "I thought you were like me."
The fabric of his shirt tears. Its nails keep sinking inexorably into his skin, blood welling up and pouring down his waist.
"You should know," it murmurs, jabbing ever more deeply for emphasis, and eliciting a cry of pain, "it's what on the inside that counts."
We all know that what is on the inside is just more of what is on the outside, only redder, wetter and smellier.
There are lights and sirens approaching. For a second, through a haze of pain and terror, he thinks what fools they are, to announce their approach and hasten his death. Now the Mech knows the specialist team will be here in moments to shut it down. If they had been silent, it might have played cat and mouse a little longer, he might have had a chance.
Its bright red mouth is curved in a seductive smirk - there is no sadism there, just programming. It knows no other way to smile.
"Please," he croaks desperately, "please don't do it-"
They found it straddling where his middle used to be, spattered with innards in a lake of red. Still smiling.
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Hi L.C. Great story! It all began so innocently, but now the concerned friends make sense. Talk about a nightmare date! The storyline flowed at a steady pace, revealing clues about the Mechs along the way-nice switch from she to it- and the crescendo end was truly gruesome. I really enjoyed this read.
Thank you! I've been sitting on this one for a while, even now I'm not quite happy with it. But it already fit the prompt, so that was the nudge I needed to push it off the branch.
Excellent! I'm so glad I did not read the content warnings, which are often the bane of a good suspense story and would have spoiled it for me here. I love horror that doesn't show its hand and this one delivers like a cerebral strip-tease heading into full Cronenberg. Off to reading it again so I can enjoy how the clues are so carefully planted.
Thank you for reading, and to read a second time is the highest compliment you could give me!
Wow, now this is a horror piece. You are a master wordsmith when it comes to producing fantastic dialogue. I'm shellshocked at how realistic it sounds. Profound. My favorite quote: "You should know," it murmurs, jabbing ever more deeply for emphasis, and eliciting a cry of pain, "it's what on the inside that counts." It seems like the robots believes that the human organs are more essential than the human soul; I really love that, and it makes sense from a robot's perspective. Talk about a date of unimaginable horror! I should have know...
Thank you, your feedback means a lot to me.
This was great! Very interesting take on the prompt! I really liked the slow reveal. The end was horrific in the best way, and I’m not usually a gore/horror fan.
Thank you for reading! I'm not especially a fan of horror either, but sometimes that's where the story takes me. Thanks for the feedback!
You’re welcome ☺️ lol, if it works it works
I don't feel very adept at it, so if it worked I'm glad!
Haha, I’d say you’re very adept.
It is kind of you to say so, but I've never felt like horror is really my area. There's a lot of technical know how in building suspense and so on. It was, if you like, a wild stab in the dark 😁
Fabulous!! An unexpected turn. A great read.👏👏
Super interesting concept! And i think it worked well to have these roles kind of reversed; I think you’d typically see women being more cautious about meeting a strange man from a dating site, but in this case, he had every right to be nervous. And you did a good job following his thought process the whole date, building the inner conflict and uncertainty. I thought this early line was hilarious, and so accurate lol! “No need to smoulder, those photos always just give an air of vague constipation.”
Thanks for reading, and for the comment! I was worried that subverting the gender roles and norms might not work. It sounds like it did and I am glad!
HOLY MOTHER OF MACKEREL! That took a turn that not even I expected. As a horror lover, this was something extraordinary. Women can seriously play with people's minds, in either a good way or bad. Poor MC, that's an awful way to go out. Though be careful, women are going to rule the world one day. Amazing story, I can't wait to see what you'll do next.
Thank you 😊 Somewhere hideously red, wet and smelly if the feeling in my water is anything to go by!
This was a tense, fun read :) I think you captured a failing battle with willpower here. There's something he wants, even though he knows in all likelihood it's bad for him. There's many clues he decides to ignore, in favour of the ones that support his hopes. And of course, by the time he realizes, it's too late. It's an interesting world, in the story. It sounds like people know of the Mechs, but can't reliably identify them, and they're a constant menace. It's got some Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?/Blade Runner vibes. There w...
Thank you so much for taking the time to write that! You are absolutely right, I didn't invent any of the safety measures Max uses before his date. If my character had been a woman, those precautions would have landed very differently - so it was a very deliberate choice to make him male. I'd love to expand on this one at some point to explore some of those questions. 😁
Was this inspired by Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Elaborating on the dystopian background of why the Mechs were manufactured to begin with would be a great follow up to this.
I am ashamed to say I've never read it! It's one of the many, many books on my nightstand that threaten to crush me while I sleep. Funny you should say that, I have a prequel roughed out walking through how we get here 😁 Thank you for the comment, much appreciated 😊
I was totally sweating along with Max haha! I liked the way that you gradually leant into her being a mech, and his desperation for her not to be!
Thank you! I *almost* flipped the script at the end and had her be human and *him* be the Mech, who glitches and becomes violent when he discovers that fact. But I couldn't bring myself to fridge Andrea.
Oh that would be a fun exploration!
Robots who don't know they are robots is one of my most favourite tropes!
If dating wasn’t already hard enough, just throw some hard-to-identify, killer, human imposters into the mix! I loved this observation, “We all know that what is on the inside is just more of what is on the outside, only redder, wetter and smellier”.
Thank you! Feedback always appreciated 😁 I wanted to play with a few themes with this one. I think that's why I sat on it so long - because it was all over the place. I've managed to cut it by half, but all the themes are still there.
I dig it. I'm all for juxtaposing a nice setting like a bar during date-night with the gore of sitting in the crevice of a bloodied husk of meat. (I'm sure there's a vague praying mantis reference I could make.) It kept me pretty well engaged. The minor things didn't pull me out like they would in most stories I read. This seems to be the week of quality for me. (It's almost frustrating to admit that given my own submissions.) I will say, I thought some of the adverbs could be slashed. Seeing three in a sentence was a style choice I'd usual...
Thank you for this 😁 I cut words ruthlessly, so it's always interesting when someone else finds even more to cut! I balance un-writing (using the minimum number of words) with keeping the cadence of the sentence. I'm still working on it.
Made some minor edits to correct some mistakes towards the end. Many thanks for reading!