I felt as if I had slept for hours, but it was still light outside when I woke. Kristian snored softly under his miniature gray duvet. I slipped out of bed and walked naked to the front of the apartment, feeling like a ghost passing through the rooms, my body contrasting with everything: walls, floors, light. Even the shadows were lighter than me.
The translucent curtains drawn over the front window glowed blue and silver. I parted the cloth, pressed my body to the deliciously warm glass. How fine to be a body against a smooth flat plane. I shut my eyes.
When I opened them again, a man stood watching me in the street below. He was tall, with curly black hair and a beard that grew down against his neck, around which a green bandana was tied. In his right hand he carried a red cap. The legs of his khaki coveralls were dirty with muck, the metal toes of his boots scuffed. His eyes were gray, his expression incredulous.
Step away from the window, I thought, but I did not. As fine as it had been to be a body against the glass, the pleasure was ten times redoubled by the sensation of being seen. My nipples perked lazily against the hot glass. Wetness slid down my leg. I stared back at the man until he dropped his gaze and walked away.
I put on my sweatpants and Kristian’s discarded shirt and unpacked while he slept. There were no hangers in the closet, so I folded my clothes into the top two drawers of the blond wood dresser. I stacked my books on an edge of the coffee table between the two couches, set my toiletries on the white shelf in the bathroom, joined our toothbrushes in a glass on the edge of the sink, and arranged my notebook and pens on the table in the kitchen. I found a heart-shaped rock Sylvie had given me at the bottom of my backpack and left it there.
In the refrigerator was a quart of milk, a package of spreadable butter, and some cucumbers and tomatoes. I took the tomatoes out and put them on the counter; didn’t Kristian know that you were never, ever supposed to refrigerate them, that it ruined the taste? In the cabinet above the counter were a few cans of sardines and a bag of dried yellow beans. A dark loaf of rye bread inside the wooden breadbox next to the sink. I was hungry, but not for any of these things. I thought about trying to make a meal of them, but I had no idea how. Besides, Kristian would probably want to go out to eat when he woke up. I wondered if the bars in Farsø would be like the ones he had taken me to in Copenhagen. I liked being a person who went out to bars. I liked drinking outside in the impossibly light evenings.
I banged around in the kitchen, closing cabinets and rearranging mugs, hoping Kristian would wake. When no sound came from the bedroom, I drew a tall glass of water from the porcelain sink and went into the front room. For a while I watched out the window, half-scared, half-hopeful that I would see the bearded man again, but he did not appear.
I turned on the little television. There were only four channels. The first was a scrolling line of text on a black background. The next was a news broadcast narrated by two anxiously muttering blond men. A man was interviewed in a field, and then they cut to a complicated diagram of farm equipment, and then to a clip of an old lady talking in front of a giant tire. The third channel aired a Danish sitcom. A man and woman in big sweaters had a comical fight, and then clinked beer bottles together and made up, earning appreciative canned laughter.
An American movie I had seen in the theatre played on the last channel with Danish subtitles, a science fiction epic about a family that travels to a faraway planet. The parents are scientists and their three children—a seventeen-year-old daughter and fourteen-year-old fraternal twins, a boy and a girl—were born on the spaceship. Space exploration is the only life they have ever known. Their parents homeschool them—spaceshipschool them—and the children are brilliant. The twins are science geniuses like their parents, and the girl is an artist. She plays musical instruments, paints, writes poetry, and dances for several hours a day, in a studio that transforms to meet her needs.
The sixth member of their family is an android designed by the parents. He is smart, funny, and very handsome, exactly like a person in every way, except that he doesn’t have any finger- or toenails. The android does everything the family cannot. He performs repairs to the ship’s exterior, anchored to the hull by his magnetized feet. He alone can navigate the ship by connecting directly to the main computer through a jack inside his right elbow and speaking to the system in their special language. While the family sleeps, the android tends the hydroponic farm where their food grows.
The parents completed the android just before the birth of their eldest daughter, and he is programmed to care deeply about the family. He knows this and, in an early scene, gives a beautiful speech about understanding that the sensations he feels are close to but not the same thing as love.
“It is not even clear that I can ‘feel’ anything,” the android says to the family one night, over a dinner he has prepared but cannot eat. “Only that I am drawn, by an impulse deep inside, to protect and care for you, my family. My care for and protection of you is more than simply necessary for my existence, such as the regular upkeep I must perform on my own system. It is more profound than my personal imperative to survive. Inside myself I know that caring for you is good and right. While I understand that I cannot experience feelings, I do not derive these sensations from any other task. To me, this is a sign of the great kindness of my creators. It is what motivates me to continue to learn, improve, and grow.”
The android doesn’t have a name. Everyone just calls him “the android.”
As their ship nears their destination, the twins begin to develop special powers. The girl becomes telekinetic, the boy telepathic. Preoccupied with studying the twins, the parents leave the oldest girl alone with the android. Unlike the rest of her family, she has always struggled in her relationship with the artificial man. She finds his childlike curiosity creepy and turns away from the sight of his nail-less hands and feet. Early in the film, the android finds the girl asleep in her holodeck and, forgetting, touches her shoulder gently to wake her. When the girl sees his hand on her body, she screams and runs out of the room. After this incident, the android is careful to always wear gloves and socks.
But then the girl and the android discover a shared love of cinema. Her parents have begun obsessive tests of the twins’ powers, completely disappearing into the ship laboratory, even sleeping there. Left alone, the girl and the android spend hours watching movies together. She shows the android her favorite 1930’s movie musicals, and he shows the girl his favorite romantic comedies.
Meanwhile, the focused attention of their parents has made the twins insufferable. They begin to use their powers on each other in the lab, daring each other to perform riskier and riskier stunts, which take on a distinctly unsavory quality. In one scene, the boy twin discovers incestuous desire for their father in his twin sister’s mind and tells their parents, who type it into their computer and draw a chart. The girl twin punishes him by using her mind to insert a probe into his rectum. He retaliates by rattling off her sexual fantasies, not only those about her father but others, about monsters, aliens, and animals. Enraged, she lifts her twin’s body with her mind and smashes him against the wall. The parents sit passively in their white lab coats, recording data.
The girl and the android visit the lab and witness the escalating violence between the twins. At first the girl thinks that her parents, locked in their research, do not notice the twins’ growing perversity, but then it becomes clear to her that they find this perversity to be the most compelling element of the twins’ powers.
“We can’t tell if our proximity to the planet has stimulated latent tendencies,” her mother explains dryly, “or if the twins have manifested these powers in response to some other stimulus. We must continue the work. Our findings could change everything.”
“I miss you,” the eldest daughter says.
“Progress has many costs,” her father reminds her.
The eldest daughter feels abandoned by her family, but she is distracted by something wonderful. She and the android have fallen in love. Can it truly be love when the android is not a real person? The eldest daughter is skeptical that her feelings can be reciprocated until, in a moving scene, the android convinces her of the authenticity of his ardor through a poetic description of his experience of love.
“I feel as if I have been rebuilt of all-new parts,” he tells her as they lie together on her bed, holding hands. She has overcome her phobia and is happy to touch him now. “Some so tender and precious it is as if they have come from your body, my love. Because I feel I know your inside as well as your outside; I feel we have come together as no two beings have ever before, and when I feel this way, I think that I am not an artificial man, no more artificial than any lover across the long span of human history.”
Immediately after this confession, they have sex. It’s the first time for both of them, obviously, but the android is “fully equipped” and it turns out to be wonderful. The eldest daughter is happy. The android says that he is, too. After, she falls asleep in his arms, and the android’s body glows blue, lighting her face.
The next morning, while the girl is trying to decide whether or not to tell her family, something goes wrong with the spaceship. The android attempts an emergency landing on the new planet but loses control of the ship. It crashes. In the moments before impact, the android covers the eldest daughter with his body. His titanium carapace protects them both.
There is a horrible fire. Everyone dies except for the girl and the android. The twins’ powers do not save them. The eldest daughter watches as the android pulls the bodies from the wreckage.
“I am very sad, a sensation I have never experienced before,” he says, holding her as she cries. “It is as if all of my processors are running at one-tenth speed. As if I require but cannot perform maintenance on every system. I feel powerless. I want to power down and never reboot, and I would, if not for you.”
The planet they have landed on is heavily forested and seemingly uninhabited. The android holds his mouth on the eldest daughter’s in a long kiss, filtering the air for her until he determines that the atmosphere can sustain human respiration. They bury the family and leave the wreckage in search of help, crossing dense woods full of strange friendly animals but no people. The girl cries often. The android gathers food and builds a shelter for her every night. He makes her smile by showing movies on the screen in his chest.
After many weeks of wandering, they find a beautiful city where everyone is happy. There is no poverty or suffering here. The inhabitants of the planet look like humans, only slightly different. Some have blue or pink skin, or tails, or horns. Some seem perfectly human. They invite the girl and the android into their society.
The girl and the android settle in a house made of crystal and silk. They adopt a pet, an animal like a cat with wings. For a while they are happy. The girl learns to play a new musical instrument, like a pane of thin glass, which emits a high wheeze when she waves her hands. All of their new friends agree the sound is lovely. The girl becomes a well-known solo musician, playing with the local orchestra in gowns made of impossible materials: living cacti, tiny swimming fish-snakes, a dense purple fog. The android becomes a scientist and teaches at the university. He has a name now: Charles.
After five years have passed and her grief has ebbed—after the eldest daughter has settled into her new identity on the new planet, her relationship with the android stronger than ever—after almost everything is perfect, the girl learns the planet’s secret. It began as a colony for android and human lovers who fled Earth, where these kinds of relationships are illegal. The emigrants perfected a technology that allows humans to reproduce with androids. Most of the people on the planet are hybrids. Cyborgs. This is why the planet’s inhabitants look human but not quite, why the pet winged-cat’s eyes sometimes dim and it curls up in a special nook in their house, sleeping for hours: its mechanical components need recharging. Everyone but the eldest daughter is part machine.
This knowledge changes everything. Did the android know about the planet and purposefully cause the crash that killed her family? She doesn’t want to believe that he did, but there are too many coincidences. In the context of her new knowledge, the android’s happiness seems sinister, and her new life begins to feel like a prison. At an important concert she swoons and drops her instrument, shattering it. The android takes her to a doctor, where, in the film’s last scene, they learn that she is pregnant. The android is elated. The eldest daughter sets her face in a blank expression. The last shot is the android’s nail-less hand on her stomach.
Sylvie and I had gone to see the movie the previous October. It was both not that long ago and incredibly long ago: the wet streets when we came out of the theatre, the dimmed marquee of the Japanese restaurant next door, the way the leaves squeaked underneath our feet while we walked back to the car. We both had crushes on the actor who played the android, a Swiss man with a perfect face and an elongated upside-down triangle torso and ropy limbs.
I loved the movie from the first scene, but Sylvie hated it. She ticked off the film’s flaws on her fingers as we walked into the long twilight: it was a waste of the actor’s talent, it was ridiculous and stupid, the plot made no sense.
“At least he looked super hot,” Sylvie said. “He has Egon Schiele hands, did you notice that?”
I nodded, but I had no idea what she was talking about until I went home and looked it up: of course, some fancy Austrian artist I had never heard of.
“How are you supposed to feel sorry for people in a spaceship? And why did they introduce the kids with the special abilities if they were just going to kill them off? God, what was that thing with the butt plug?”
Sylvie loved to argue and hated to lose; given the opportunity, she was happy to argue me into exhaustion and claim victory by default. I wanted to protect the movie from this, so I kept my thoughts to myself and voiced some minor complaints: the culture of the beautiful planet was thinly drawn, the actress who played the scientist-mom was annoying, the winged cat was ugly.
The actress who played the eldest daughter had never been in a movie before. They plucked her from some town in North Dakota for her big, dark blue eyes and open face. This was the kind of thing, Sylvie and I agreed, that was always happening to other people, never to us.
“Thank Christ they won’t make another one of these pieces of shit,” Sylvie said as we got into her car. “It’s been a huge flop. God, what a bore.”
Tinted orange by the streetlights, the raindrops caught on the windshield looked so melancholy, sliding down one by one into the wipers’ trough. Sylvie went on and on. There was no rule that we had to love all the same things.
“What are you watching?”
I jumped. Kristian stood behind the couch. How had I not heard him come into the room? I had assumed the wooden floors would creak. On the TV was one of the twins’ power experiments: the boy has read the girl’s mind without permission. She traps him naked in a net and watches his struggle.
I picked up the remote and turned off the television.
Kristian rubbed his face, yawning.
“You must be hungry. And bored.” He bent over the couch and gave me an upside-down kiss. “Already I have been a bad host.”
I saw the face of the bearded man in the street, curious and unafraid. He did not leer or gape. His unhurried gait as he turned away.
“Don’t be silly,” I told Kristian. “I haven’t been bored at all.”
Lisa Locascio’s writing has appeared in Bookforum, n+1, Tin House Flash Fridays, Santa Monica Review, and many other magazines. She is the first Anglophone writer to be granted an interview with Roberto Bolaño’s widow Carolina López, which appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Believer. Lisa lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches writing and literature at the University of Southern California and Mount Saint Mary’s University. “The Big Broadcast” is an excerpt from her recently completed novel, Jutland Gothic.