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The Perfect Wife


You’re having that dream again, the one where you and Tim are in Jaipur for Diwali. Everywhere you look, every doorway and window, there are lanterns and candles, firecrackers and fairy lights. Courtyards have become flickering pools of flame, their entrances surrounded by intricate designs of coloured rice paste. Drums and cymbals throb and sizzle. Surrendering to the din and confusion, you surge with the crowd through a market, the stallholders urging platters of sweets on you from every side. On an impulse, you stop at a stall where a woman decorates faces with beautiful Hindi patterns, the smell of sandalwood from her brushes mingling with the acrid, savoury cordite from the firecrackers and the aroma of kaaju, roasting cashew nuts. As she paints you, deft and quick, a cluster of young men dance past, their faces painted blue, their muscular torsos bare, then come back, dancing just for you, their expressions deadly serious. And then, the final touch, she paints a bindi on your forehead, right between your eyes, telling you how the scarlet dot marks you out as married, a woman with all the knowledge of the world. “But I’m not,” you protest, almost pulling away, fearful you’re going to offend some local sensibility, and then you hear Tim’s laugh and see the box he produces from his pocket and even before he goes down on one knee, right here in the midst of all this noise and mayhem, you know this is it, he’s really going to do it, and your heart overflows.

“Abbie Cullen,” he begins, “ever since you erupted into my life, I’ve known we have to be together.”

And then you’re waking up.

Every part of you hurts. Your eyes are the worst, the bright lights searing into your skull, the ache in your brain connecting with the stiffness in your neck, soreness all the way down your spine.

Machines beep and whirr. A hospital? Were you in an accident? You try to move your arms. They’re stiff – you can barely bend your elbows. Painfully, you reach up and touch your face.

Bandages encase your neck. You must have been in an accident of some kind, but you can’t remember it. That happens, you tell yourself groggily. People come round from crashes not remembering the impact, or even having been in a car. The important thing is, you’re alive.

Was Tim in the car as well? Was he driving? What about Danny?

At the thought that Danny or Tim might have been killed you almost gasp, but you can’t. Some change in the beeping machine, though, has alerted a nurse. A blue hospital uniform, a woman’s waist, passes at eye level, adjusting something, but it hurts too much to look up at her.

"She’s up and running,” she murmurs.

“Thank God,” Tim’s voice says. So he’s alive, after all. And right here, by your bedside. Relief floods through you.

Then his face appears, looking down at you. He’s wearing what he always wears: black jeans, a plain grey T-shirt and a white baseball cap. But his face is gaunt, the lines deeper than you’ve ever seen them before.

“Abbie,” he says. “Abbie.” His eyes glisten with tears, which fills you with alarm. Tim never cries.

“Where am I?” Your voice is hoarse.

“You’re safe.”

“Was there an accident? Is Danny okay?”

“Danny’s fine. Rest now. I’ll explain later.”

“Have I had surgery?”

“Later. I promise. When you’re stronger.”

“I’m stronger now.” It’s true: already the pain is receding, the fog and grogginess clearing from your head.

“It’s incredible,” he says, not to you but the nurse. “Amazing. It’s her.”

“I was dreaming,” you say. “About when you proposed. It was so nice.” That’ll be the anaesthetic, you realise. It makes things richer. Like that line from that play. What was it? For a moment the words elude you but then, with an almost painful effort, a clunk, you remember.

I cried to dream again.

Again Tim’s eyes fill with tears.

“Don’t be sad,” you tell him. “I’m alive. That’s all that matters, isn’t it? We’re all three of us alive.”

“I’m not sad,” he says, smiling through his tears. “I’m happy. People cry when they’re happy, too.”

You knew that, of course. But even through the pain and the drugs you can tell those aren’t everything’s-going-to-be-all-right-now tears. Have you lost your legs? You try to move your feet and feel them – slowly, stiffly – responding under the blanket. Thank God.

Tim seems to come to a decision.

“There’s something I have to explain, my love,” he says, taking your hand in his. “Something very difficult, but you need to know right away. That wasn’t a dream. It was an upload.”


Your first thought is that you’re hallucinating – that this, not the dream about him proposing, is the bit that isn’t real. How can it be? What he’s saying to you now – a stream of technical stuff about mind files and neural nets – simply makes no sense.

“I don’t understand. Are you saying something happened to my brain?

Tim shakes his head. “I’m saying you’re artificial. Intelligent, conscious… but man-made.”

“But I’m fine,” you insist, baffled. “Look, I’ll tell you three random things about myself. My favourite meal is salad nicoise. I was angry for weeks last year because my favourite cashmere jacket got eaten by moths. I go swimming almost every day –” You stop. Your voice, instead of reflecting your rising panic, is coming out in a dull, croaky monotone. A Stephen Hawking voice.

“The damage to that jacket was six years ago,” Tim says. “I kept it, though. I’ve kept all your things.”

You stare at him, trying to get your head around this.

“I guess I’m not doing this very well.” He pulls a piece of paper from his pocket. “Here – I wrote this for our investors. Maybe it’ll help.”


Q: What is a cobot?

A: ‘Cobot’ is short for Companion Robot. Studies with prototypes suggest the presence of a cobot may alleviate the loss of a loved one, providing solace, company and emotional support in the aftermath of bereavement.


Q: How will cobots differ from other forms of artificial intelligence?

A: Cobots have been specifically designed to be empathetic.


Q: Will each cobot be unique?

A: Each cobot will be customised to closely replicate the physical appearance of the loved one. Social media records, texts, and other documents will be aggregated to create a ‘neural file’ reflecting their unique traits and personality. 

There’s more, much more, but you can’t focus. You let the sheet fall from your hand. Only Tim could possibly imagine that a factual list of questions and answers could help at a time like this.

“This is what you do,” you remember. “You design artificial intelligence. But that’s something to do with customer service – chatbots –”

“That’s right,” he interrupts. “I was working on that side of it. But that was five years ago – your memories are all five years out of date. After I lost you, I realised bereavement was the bigger need. It’s taken all this time to get you to this stage.”

His words take a moment to sink in. Bereavement. You’ve just realised what he’s trying to tell you.

“You’re saying I died.” You stare up at him. “You’re saying the real me died – what? Five years ago. And you’ve somehow brought me back like this.”

He doesn’t reply.

You feel a mixture of emotions. Disbelief, obviously. But also horror at the thought of his grief, at what he must have been through. At least you were spared that.

Cobots have been specifically designed to be empathetic…

And Danny. You’ve missed five whole years of his life.

At the thought of Danny, a familiar sadness washes over you. A sadness you firmly put to one side. And that, too – both the sadness, and the putting-aside – feels so normal, so ordinary, that it can’t be anything except your own, individual emotion.

Can it?

“Can I move?” you say, trying to sit up.

“Yes. It’ll feel stiff at first. Careful –”

You’ve just attempted to swing your legs onto the floor. They go in different directions, weak as a baby’s. He’s caught you just in time.

“One foot, then the other,” he adds. “Shift your weight to each in turn. That’s better.”

He holds your elbow to steady you as you head for the mirror.

Each cobot will be customised to closely replicate the physical appearance of the loved one…

The face that stares back at you above the collar of a blue hospital gown is your face. It’s puffy and bruised, and there’s a faint line under your chin, like the strap of those hats soldiers wear on ceremonial parades. But it’s still unarguably you. Not something artificial.

“I don’t believe you,” you say. You feel weirdly calm, but the conviction sweeps over you that nothing he’s saying can possibly be true, that your husband – your brilliant, adoring, but undeniably obsessive husband – has gone stark raving mad. He’s always worked too hard, driven himself right to the edge. Now, finally, he’s flipped.

“I know it’s a lot to take in,” he says gently. “But I’m going to prove it to you. Look.”

He reaches behind your head and fiddles with your hair. There’s a sucking sound, a strange, cold sensation, and then your skin, your face – your face – is peeling away like a wetsuit, revealing the hard white plastic skull underneath.


You can’t cry, you discover. However great your horror, you can’t shed actual tears. It’s something they’re still working on, Tim says calmly.

Instead, you stare at yourself, speechless, at the hideous thing you’ve become. You’re a crash-test dummy, a shop-window mannequin. A bundle of cables dangles behind your head like some grotesque ponytail.

He stretches the rubber back over your face, and you’re you again. But the memory of that horrible blank plastic is seared into your mind.

If you even have a mind. As opposed to a neural net, or whatever he called it.

In the mirror, your mouth gapes silently. You can feel tiny motors under your skin whirring and stretching, pulling your expression into a rictus of dismay. And now you look more closely, you realise this face is only an approximation of yours, slightly out of focus, as if a photograph of you has been printed onto the exact shape of your head.

“Let’s go home,” Tim says. “You’ll feel better there.”

Home. Where’s home? You can’t remember. Then – clunk – a memory drops into place. Dolores Street, in central San Francisco.

“I never moved,” he adds. “I wanted to stay where you’d been. Where we’d been so happy.”

You nod numbly. You feel as if you ought to thank him. But you can’t. You’re trapped in a nightmare, immobile with shock.  

He takes your arm and guides you from the room. The nurse – if she was a nurse – is nowhere to be seen. As you walk with painful slowness down the corridor you glimpse other rooms, other patients in blue hospital gowns like yours. An old lady gazes at you with milky eyes. A child, a little girl with long brown ringlets, turns her head to watch you pass. Something about the movement – just a little further than it should be, like an owl’s – makes you wonder. And then the next room contains not a person but a dog, a boxer, watching you exactly the same way –

“They’re all like me,” you realise. “All….” What was his word? “All cobots.”

“They’re cobots, yes. But not like you. You’re unique, even here.” He glances around a little furtively, his hand on your elbow increasing its pressure, urging you to go faster. You sense there’s something he’s still not telling you, that he isn’t supposed to be whisking you away like this.

“Is this a hospital?”

“No. It’s where I work. My company.” His other hand pushes insistently in the small of your back. “Come on. I’ve got a car waiting outside.”

You can’t walk any faster – it’s as if you’re on stilts, your knees refusing to bend. But even as you think that – your knees – it gets a little easier.

“Tim!” a voice calls urgently. “Tim, wait up.”

Relieved at the chance to pause, you turn to look. A man about Tim’s age, but more thickset, with long, straggly hair, is hurrying after you.

“Not now, Mike,” Tim says warningly.

The man stops. “You’re taking her away? Already? Is that a good idea?”

“She’ll be happier at home.”

The man’s eyes travel over you anxiously. His security pass, dangling round his neck, says Dr Mike Austin. “She should be checked out by my psych team, at least.”

"She’s fine,” Tim says firmly. He opens a door into what looks like a large open-plan office area. About forty people are sitting at long communal desks. No one is pretending to work. They’re all staring at you. One, a young Asian-looking woman, raises her hands and, tentatively, applauds. Tim glares at her and she quickly looks down at her screen.

He guides you straight through the office towards a small reception lobby. On the wall behind the front desk is a colourful street-art mural framing the words IDEALISM IS SIMPLY LONG-RANGE REALISM! Something about it seems familiar. You want to stop, to look more closely, but Tim is urging you on.

Outside, it’s even brighter. You gasp and shield your eyes as Tim steers you past a polished steel sign saying SCOTT ROBOTICS, the initial S and R like two upended infinity symbols, towards a waiting Prius. “The city,” he says to the driver, while you struggle to fold your unresponsive limbs into the back. “Dolores Street.”

Once you’re both in and the Prius is moving off, Tim’s hand reaches for yours. “I’ve waited so long for this day, Abbie,” he says. “I’m so happy you’re finally here. That we’re together again at last.”

You catch the driver looking curiously at you in his rear-view mirror. As you leave the parking lot he glances up at the sign, then back at you again, and something dawns in his expression.

Understanding. And something else as well. Disgust.

The Perfect Wife
by by JP Delaney