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Human Touch, A
By Alan Cook
Posted: Saturday, February 21, 2009
Last edited: Friday, January 29, 2010
This short story is rated "R" by the Author.
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Let's hope the future isn't like this.

               "Don't forget to put on your suit."

            He whirled around, a cutting retort coming to his lips, and glared at the perfect apparition. With an effort he suppressed the words. What was the use?

"I don't make the rules, Jim," she said in her mellifluous voice. "I'm only trying to keep you out of trouble." She pouted, prettily. She knew his moods even when he didn't say anything. She was trained to read body language. At least she couldn't read his thoughts—yet.
"I'm sorry, Diane. I forgot." He tried to sound sincere. "I was just going to run up to the roof to see what the weather is like." There were no windows in the small apartment.
"I would be happy to get you a complete local weather report. You know all you have to do is ask." She went over to a large monitor against the wall and began speaking into a microphone attached to it.
"Don't bother. It doesn't matter."
"Why do you want a weather report, anyway, sweetheart? Your suit protects you against any kind of weather."
"I guess I'm just a meteorologist at heart."
"But Jim, you've never expressed an interest in meteorology before."
She couldn't understand sarcasm. Sometimes he delighted in penetrating her cover, exposing her for what she was. "I'm going to put on my suit now. You know how I love my suit."
“It's the very latest design," she said, enthusiastically.
"It has a built-in voice-activated radio." He mimicked her tone.
"It also has a voice-activated telephone that lets you call anywhere in the world."
"It has a powder dispenser in case I get jock itch."
"It disposes of your waste in a hygienic and non-polluting manner."
They could go on like this all day. He wanted to add, "It disguises my body and my voice so that nobody knows whether I'm a man or a woman. To the world I'm just a sexless blob." He didn't say this because he knew she would report it. After five years with her he knew exactly what she would report and what she wouldn't.
"Jim, honey, give me a kiss before you put on your suit."
She came toward him, perfect red lips slightly parted, an expression of intense desire on her perfect face, framed by perfect, softly-waved blonde hair. His favorite perfume emanated from her. The illusion was so real that he often became engulfed by it. Not today, however.
"Stow it, Diane. I have to leave."
“Just one kiss, Jim."
At his request she hadn't been trained to be just a yes-person. She put her arms around him and pulled his face down to hers. Her tongue went into his mouth. Her body was warm. He liked to keep it at slightly above human temperature. Her perfect breasts pressed into his chest. Her flat abdomen locked against his. He felt a stirring in his loins. One of her hands ran lightly down his body and between his legs.
He pushed her roughly away. She staggered, then caught her balance. She sounded hurt as she said, "Jim, I thought you liked that."
"I told you, not now."
"I'm not supposed to accept everything you say the first time."
"For the third time then, not now, dammit!"
He went over to the suit, standing in the corner. It reminded him of the space suits worn by the astronauts of the last century. He had seen them in movies. Only it was lighter, more flexible. The head plate was opaque to the outside world. When you were inside the suit nobody could look in.
"Jim, you mustn't leave while we're quarreling."
"We're not quarreling."
The suit was hinged, standing open at the side. He stepped in and activated a switch with his voice. It sealed itself around him. He walked to the door, adjusting his stride to the requirements of the suit, and opened it.
"Where are you going?"
"When will you return?"
"Maybe never. Go find yourself a male robot to play with."
"Jim, you can't say that."
Now he had done it. "Robot" was one of the forbidden words. "Lover" was the correct term.
"Go to hell!"
He slammed the door and stomped down the corridor. He knew what Diane was doing. She was already transmitting his socially-unacceptable behavior. It was weird; assaulting or swearing at your lover was okay. Calling her a robot was not. Well, let her report him. He didn't care.
He took the elevator to the ground floor and walked out into the sunlit spring air, although of course he couldn't feel either the air or the sun in his air-conditioned suit. Again he had a strong desire to know exactly what the weather was like. With his microphone off so passersby wouldn't hear him he verbally tuned his radio to a farm news station and listened for the weather report. The temperature was in the 70s, unseasonably warm.  Possibility of showers.
Here, outside his apartment, he was no longer Jim; now he was GRXQVT, a six-character designation, randomly selected. Vowels were not used so there would be no resemblance to an actual name with a gender connotation. No resemblance to any actual word, present or past. There were quite a few pedestrians this afternoon.  All looked identical in their silver-colored suits with standard height and circumference. For short people the suits had built-in platform shoes.
But what about those who were too tall or too fat? He could distinctly remember the time before suits, or "BS"—another prohibited expression. That was twenty years ago.  Sports had been played then, including basketball. And basketball players had often been seven feet tall. What had happened to them? It did not bear thinking about.
Each suit had its owner's "name" on the front and back in block letters several inches high. Otherwise, there were no distinguishing features. There was no chance for discrimination based on gender, race, color, size, age, looks... He knew by heart the other advantages of isolating people: no rape or sexual harassment; no violence; no spread of AIDS or other sexually-transmitted diseases. In fact, no spread of communicable diseases of any kind. They had all been essentially wiped out.
All the AIDS sufferers were long dead. It was an antiseptic and perfect world. With perfect humanoids fulfilling sexual needs—trained to wash themselves carefully after each encounter. And test tube babies, using only the sperm and ova from men and women with no genetic defects.
Children were raised communally. Babies and young children didn't have suits; that was the chink in the armor, to coin a phrase. There was the possibility of child molestation. But he knew the caretakers were well supervised.
Jim—he still thought of himself as Jim, although only Diane called him that—went underground at the nearest tube station and boarded a train. He rode to the end of the line, past the high-rise buildings full of individual apartments, past the manufacturing plants, past the offices, out to where there were trees and green grass. As he surfaced into the sunshine he had an urge to run barefoot through the grass hand in hand with a real girl, the way he had in his youth. He wanted to rip off his suit, lie on the ground and roll over and over. He couldn't risk it, however.
He saw his partner approaching on a solar-powered motorbike. He gave a verbal order to drop the magnifier in front of his eyes so he could read the letters on the suit to make sure. BHJSNL. That was his partner, all right. He frowned. It was terribly inconvenient not to have a pronoun with which to refer to his partner. "He" or "she" was not usable because gender was hidden. And you couldn't refer to a person as "it."
This was just one of the many problems with socially acceptable language. And he was acutely aware of them because their job was to develop an updated dictionary of socially acceptable words. The dictionary would be approved by the State, and all persons using words not in the dictionary would be subject to fines. Jim greeted BHJSNL as the motorbike came to a stop.
BHJSNL returned the greeting and asked, "Why did you want to meet way out here instead of our usual place at the university?" The voice that came out of the helmet was modified so as to be genderless and accentless.
"I…just felt like a change. I wanted to see some grass and trees."
BHJSNL glanced briefly around and made a noise that was probably derogatory in its original form, but which came out neutral. BHJSNL said, "Let's get to work."
BHJSNL was all business. No small talk.
Jim said, "Okay; first I'd like to discuss the problem of words that are acceptable in one situation but not another."
"Let me turn my recorder on."
Voice-activated recorders were in all the suits. Jim and BHJSNL both started theirs.
Jim continued, "Let's start simple with the words 'male' and 'female,' 'man' and 'woman.' In ordinary conversation these words cannot be used because they are subject to prejudicial thinking. And yet, they can be applied to lovers…"
"Anybody may purchase either a male or female lover."
Apparently the irony of applying gender-specific pronouns to robots but not people hadn't occurred to BHJSNL. Trying to get a rise out of BHJSNL, he said, "Anyone may also purchase a customized lover that is a combination of male and female."
"That is correct." There was no inflection in the voice.
Jim smiled as he remembered the words to a bawdy song from the BS era:
"There once was a man from Racine
Who invented a fucking machine,
Concave or convex,
To fit either sex,
With attachments for those in between."
Of course he couldn't repeat it to BHJSNL. All the humor was drained out of socially acceptable language. He was glad he was writing a dictionary and not a joke book.
"The words 'male' and 'female' are correct to use in child-care centers," BHJSNL said.
"And in health-care facilities."
"And in procreation centers."
"And even when referring to animals—which everyone does at least once in awhile. So we have to put them in the dictionary."
"But restrict their usage."
"That's exactly my point," said Jim. How do we do that?"
"By context. It's a problem of education."
"We aren't in charge of education."
"But we do have to give examples."
"Examples of unacceptable as well as acceptable usage," Jim said. "All right. For example, it is unacceptable to say, 'Men are smarter than women.'"
"Not only is it unacceptable, it isn't true ."
A spark. Although the tone of the altered voice was flat it was the first spark of humanity Jim had ever detected in BHJSNL. Could it be that BHJSNL was a woman? The thought intrigued him.
On impulse, Jim said, "Turn off your recorder." He gave the verbal command to shut off his own.
"Why? We have work to do."
"Because...because I don't feel like working today."
"We have a deadline to meet."
The humanity was gone. How could he penetrate that shell again?
"Do you remember the BS era—laughing with your sweetheart, walking in the rain?"
"We can't talk about that." The alarm in the voice was not completely disguised.
"We can if you shut off your recorder. No one will know."
"I don't want to."
Jim suddenly no longer cared about the recorder. "Do you remember your first date?" Surely BHJSNL was old enough to have dated. "How nervous you were beforehand? Did you look all right? Would you be able to think of things to say?"
"Stop." BHJSNL gave the command to shut off the recorder. "I'm leaving. You are going to get us both into trouble."
"Please don't go." Jim wished the feeling behind his words could survive the voice-altering process.
BHJSNL hesitated. Jim held his breath.
"I'll stay if you watch your language," BHJSNL said, turning toward him.
Watch his language? He didn't want to watch his language. But how could he speak of the things in his heart to a faceless, inhuman entity? He had another impulse. This time he hesitated only a moment. Then he gave the command that opened his suit; he stepped out, barefoot, onto the grass.
He wore a gray coverall, similar to what once had been called long underwear. There was no need for fancy clothes when nobody ever saw you. He closed his eyes against the brightness of the sun; the helmet of the suit acted the same as dark glasses. He felt its warmth on his body. That tickling sensation must be a breeze.
When he could open his eyes he looked at BHJSNL. BHJSNL was standing dead-still, facing him, probably in shock. It had been 20 years since BHJSNL had seen a live human being.
"You will be arrested." BHJSNL finally gasped, and the gasp could not be disguised.
"There isn't a surveillance satellite due over this area for 30 minutes," said Jim. He wasn't sure this was true , but he no longer cared about surveillance satellites. He wiggled his toes in the grass. He had an aching desire to see another real live human. He spoke carefully, not showing too much emotion, since his voice was no longer being disguised.
"Come on out. The sun feels great."
BHJSNL still did not move. Finally BHJSNL said slowly, "My body is not perfect."
Now Jim knew for certain that BHJSNL was a woman. His desire to see her increased. He said, "I hate perfection. Only lovers are perfect. I have wrinkles. I need a haircut and a shave. And look at these God-awful clothes."
BHJSNL gave the command to open her suit. Jim waited in suspense as she stepped out, not looking at him. Her hair was short, brown and somewhat scraggly. She wore the same kind of shapeless coverall that he wore, only there was a hint of a woman's figure underneath. His eyes went to her face. There were some lines. She must be about his age. One thing riveted his attention—she was wearing makeup.
"What's your name?" he asked, still staring at her.
"My name?"
She appeared to be surprised by the question. Her undisguised voice was a little bit higher pitched than that of his lover.
"It''s Barbara."
"My name is Jim." Barbara—it sounded musical. A real woman's name for a real live woman. He couldn't get over it. "You are beautiful, Barbara."
"You can't say that," she replied, automatically. And then, "Besides, I am not beautiful."
"To me you are. Let's sit down on the grass."
He sat down and patted the ground beside him. Slowly, she sat down also, but a little distance from him.
"You are wearing makeup."
She still wouldn't meet his eyes. "I couldn't let myself go completely."
"I shave about once a week—whether I need to or not."
She smiled. She actually smiled. Then she slowly turned and looked at him for the first time. She said, "You've kept yourself in pretty good shape."
"I work out with weights. And I run." Practically everybody either ran or walked—in their suits. It was almost a mandatory requirement of the health service.
"I walk; sometimes I jog."
Memories were flooding back. Jim said, "Tell me about your first date."
"I don't...after you."
"Okay. Her name was Sally. I must have been about fourteen. She smelled like soap and she wore glasses. I took her to a movie. Afterward, we ate tacos. I got food all over my shirt."
"Did you kiss her?"
"She shook hands with me. Can you believe that? What about you?"
"My mother didn't want me to have anything to do with this neat guy because he was older and he had a motorcycle. I snuck out my bedroom window one night and met him. He drove all over town with me behind him. I thought I was the coolest girl in the world."
"Did your mother find out?"
Barbara laughed. "Yeah. She grounded me. I didn't have another date for six months."
"Do you ever have a desire to return to those times?"
"Constantly." Her expression was wistful.
"When I'm mad at the world I take it out on Diane—that's my lover. I tell her what a terrible lover she is, and how much better my previous lovers were. The problem is, she never gets upset. She just keeps saying, 'Jim, tell me what you want.' It stops being fun after a while."
"I have mine move furniture. I make him completely redecorate my apartment; then, when he's done I have him put everything back the way it was. If he so much as gets a scratch on anything I tell him what a clumsy oaf he is and that I'm going to replace him. He apologizes, but as you say he doesn't get upset, so the relief is momentary."
Barbara looked worriedly at Jim, and said, "Someone might see us or a satellite could pass over. We have to put our suits back on."
"Yes." Jim knew this was true , but he didn't want to break the spell. He said, "Can we meet again?"
"We're working on the dictionary together."
"No, I mean like this."
"It's too dangerous."
"We could take a hike in the mountains. Surveillance is not nearly as good there."
That was all he needed. Just a hint of encouragement. His day had been made. Hell, his decade had been made.
"You will put your suits on immediately."
Jim and Barbara jumped to their feet in unison. Two suited figures were walking toward them from a police car. The solar-powered cars were so quiet one couldn't hear them approach. Jim looked at Barbara and she looked at him. She took a step toward her suit.
"Wait," said Jim. "Before...before you put it on I-I just want to touch your hand." He reached toward her.
"You know that is not permitted." The faceless voice coming from one of the suits was also sexless, impersonal. "You will put your suits on immediately," it repeated.
Barbara quickly reached out her hand. Her fingers touched his. Human fingers. The tingle of that touch swept all the way up his arm.
The blast from the stun gun was silent. Barbara collapsed and fell at his feet and didn't move. Her eyes were closed. Since the shock hadn't been partially defused by her suit he didn't know whether she was alive or dead.
Jim saw a rock on the ground beside her. A good throwing rock. He had once been a pitcher. He swiftly bent down and picked it up. He cocked his arm, aiming at the nearest policeperson.
Another blast from the stun gun hit Jim; his body went limp and landed on top of Barbara. The policeperson continued to point the gun at Jim for several seconds, and then, satisfied, returned it to the holster attached to the suit.
"Get the VSC," the policeperson said to the other one. The disguised voice sounded casual and emotionally neutral as the words came out of the suit. It had the same tone one would use to ask for the newspaper. The second policeperson went to the car and returned with an electronic sensing device. That suited figure bent over the sprawled bodies of Jim and Barbara, glancing at the digital and graphic readout of the Vital Sign Checker as it hummed into life.
"They'll be all right. They'll be out for a couple of hours and when they wake up they'll have short term amnesia—they won't remember anything that happened in the last twenty-four hours."
"Perfect. In two hours we'll have them back in their apartments under the care of their lovers. And we'll instruct the lovers to step up surveillance on them to code 5. We don't want any repetitions of this behavior."
"Speaking of surveillance, the satellite that spotted them went over fifteen minutes ago. That leaves forty-five minutes until the next one."
"This place is really deserted."
"That's what I was thinking."
"Shall we?"
"Why not?"
Verbal commands were issued and the suits swung open. A muscular young man stepped out of each one, wearing a form-fitting body suit underneath, the kind bicycle riders once wore. They grinned at each other, joined hands and went skipping across the grass.

Web Site: Alan Cook, Mystery and Walking Writer  

Reader Reviews for "Human Touch, A"

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Reviewed by Ronald Hull
Yes, A Human Touch is in the same vein as my story, Scanned. We think alike on the matter.

I'll have to admit that I couldn't think of a proper way to end the story, so I took a shortcut that some are calling me out on. Perhaps I'll revise the story later to get more action and angst.

I really like the aesthetic thrust of your story––perfection. And the ending is a really neat twist. If I could make a suggestion, I think that talking about voice activation is not necessary. Conversationally, Diane could just say, “Omni View, the weather please.” And Jim could say, “ProTechTo Suit, please disengage.” I think the reader would then understand that everything in this world was voice-activated. BTW––if Jim, “turned off his microphone,” then how could he speak to his suit? I think you meant that he turned off his loudspeaker.

I'm such a poor reader, that I've only been reading short stories in Playboy (some to great dissatisfaction) over the years. I like your style, and if I ever get away from writing so much, I'll read your other stories.

You're right. We both have similar backgrounds and similar taste in fiction. Based on your awards, I would say that I'm not quite up to your speed, yet.

Keep cranking them out…


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