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  • Constance Roberts

STRUNG - Chapter One


Been wanting to catch a glimpse of Penny and the other Automas? Now's your chance! Read the first chapter below!

STRUNG

What if Pinocchio was a girl?

CHAPTER ONE

The only way Penny could tell she wasn’t real was by the smooth, unlined crook of her elbow. Her ivory skin trailed down her arm as perfect as porcelain. There were no scars, no crevasses or dents where her joints met. Only a few decorative freckles artfully placed throughout her chloroderm, a plant based synthetic skin that protected her steel skeleton, circuit boards, and other various wires that tethered her consciousness to the manufactured body.

She wasn’t exactly sure how it all worked. Gideon, the tech specialist, had tried to explain it all to her when she’d first arrived at Monstro Theater, but she had been a bit distracted by more pressing questions to take in the intricate details.

Why had she woken up in a laboratory?

Why couldn’t she remember her own name?

Why couldn’t she taste the inside of her mouth?

In the studio, Penny gazed mindlessly over her perfect arms and hands, which, if she were human, surely would have been dripping with sweat after hours of rehearsal with Madame Stromboli. Thankfully, chloroderm did not sweat. Its only job was to look as identical as possible to human skin. The synthetic was maintained by a nutrient-rich ointment and daily exposure to sunlight. For Penny, that meant having aides apply the oily lotion over every inch of her before being powered down and locked in a box fitted with special light bulbs for four hours every night. This was to also let her software rest and update, Gideon had explained.

If Penny’s hardware ever over heated, Gideon was alerted immediately and the appropriate repairs were made. But that had only happened once, and it was in the beginning of her two-year servitude at Monstro Theater. Apparently, glitches were common in the early days of new models, as kinks always took time to work themselves out.

Penny’s gaze migrated through the glass wall of the studio, outside to the canal that sparkled in the afternoon sun. A row of tall brick buildings, their colors ranging from wild yellow to Scandinavian blue, were slabbed together with hardly a space between them. The walkway was adorned with manicured hedges that nobody seemed to notice as they passed by, their eyes already glued to their devices.

Penny stared longingly at a sickeningly cute couple on a bench sharing a treat piled high with whipped cream. A group of young girls, about Penny’s age, floated by on a gondola. She could tell they were tourists because nobody from Amsterdam wore spiked heels near the cobble stone streets. The girls huddled close as one of them flipped her caramel hair forward and took a selfie, their smiles so bright they radiated youth and freedom.

Hard to believe it had been two years since she’d been outside. Not that she could remember it, anyhow.

Penny’s vision shifted to her own reflection in the glass. A heart shaped face with doe eyes stared back at her, beneath a wig of mahogany red hair pulled back in a dancer’s bun. Hazel eyes shimmered in the sunlit window. Penny knew the face she saw wasn’t truly her own, but it was the only one she’d known.

“Penelope!” Madame Stromboli shouted from across the studio. The dancemaster leaned on the sleek black cane she used to keep time with the music. Her other hand, decorated with a different jewel on each finger, rested on her bulbous hip. The woman’s voice cracked like a whip. “If you’re the reason we stay locked in here until midnight, so help me. Now pluck your eyes off the window and rehearse this routine like your life depends on it.”

Penny smirked. She and the others knew Madame Stromboli’s threat was hollow. There was a show tonight, so the dancemaster would have to dismiss them within the next hour in order to be stage ready by curtain call. Regardless, it was Penny’s two-year anniversary, so she had a mandatory session coming up with Dr. Cricket. Not even a chance to sneak outdoors would keep her from that.

Penny took a deep, calming breath. Though breathing did no good biologically, it pushed away her distracting daydreams of the outside world. She picked up her violin she’d set down while the rehearsal had been paused for a regaling account of Madame Stromboli’s decade with La Scala Theatre Ballet Company. Penny just had to endure another half-hour with the long winded dancemaster, and then she could move on with her day.

Cleo, her best friend, cast her a teasing glance as the eight dancers shuffled into formation. Today, Cleo donned a wig of shiny black hair woven into braids with golden strands, which complimented the mocha shade of her chloroderm. Cleo whispered something through a wry smile, probably some jab about Penny getting called out again for the third time that day, but Penny failed to hear it over Madame Stromboli shouting, “I want full-out this time, darlings!”

The dancemaster’s cane pounded on the floor in four rhythmic beats before Penny methodically placed her bow on the strings and began to play. She didn’t even have to think about the chords, nor did she strain over the steps she had to perform simultaneously. None of the dancers did. The sheet music and choreography had been downloaded to their hard drives days ago. The hours of rehearsing each day were not for perfecting the execution of the steps or even technique. Rehearsals were always for perfecting the emotions and energy for each dance, the one thing no sort of technology could reproduce.

Penny and the other seven dancers at Monstro Theater were Automas, or “auts,” as they affectionately referred to one another. Penny knew the word in five different languages. Avtomat. Jiquiren. Robotto. Roboter. Robot. A vast wealth of knowledge was available to the Automas through a digital library. Basically, if she could download it, she could memorize it. Penny could already effortlessly play the violin, recite the infinity of pi, and build a rocket from scratch. In eight years, when her servitude was up and she’d be free to walk out the door, she’d be able to perform open-heart surgery and fly an F-15 Eagle jet. Among other things.

The Automas executed their flawless routine with plastered-on smiles. Penny spun around the practice space while she played away on her violin. Even though she couldn’t feel pain, she was sure her face muscles would have been sore by now from the wide, doll-like grin. This dance had a steampunk theme and spunky music to match. Stromboli had told them they were supposed to be passengers on an airship flying to an undiscovered land. Last week, they were marauders wreaking havoc in the desert.

At least their costumes for this routine weren’t so billowy and hard to see in. Penny had designed them herself. She had a talent for costuming and had downloaded every design, sketching, and sewing software available. In a matter of hours, she was a pro. Madame Stromboli was more than happy to hand off the wardrobe responsibilities to an Automa.

This week, she dressed her fellow auts in leather corsets and slacks, vests and skirts made of plum and burgundy silks, and brass accessories featuring keys and clock parts. She considered the ensembles her best work yet and couldn’t wait to unveil them later that night.

“Beautiful, my darlings!” Madame Stromboli clasped her hands together dramatically. “Orelle, if you could just lift your chin a bit higher…” The dancemaster wandered over to the chestnut haired Automa with hickory skin. “Let the audience be entranced by those rich brown eyes, ah?” While her attention was diverted, Cleo discreetly slid closer to Penny.

“Ugh. I can’t even pretend to focus today.” Cleo sighed. “This isn’t fair. It’s Cicero’s last day. We should all have the day off to say goodbye.”

“Ha! A day off,” Penny said. “Keep dreaming.”

“I guess I’m just kinda jealous. He gets to go out and be like, a real person. No curfew. No more stupid dances. I mean, I’ll miss him, but I’d trade places with him in a heartbeat.”

Penny shrugged. “I’ll miss him too, but it’s not like we’ll never see him again. He has to come back every four months for maintenance. That’s not too long.”

Cleo glanced sideways to an aut across the room. “Try telling that to Hera,” she said solemnly.

Lately, Penny had felt a heaviness every time she looked at Cicero’s lover. Today the porcelain skinned beauty wore a platinum blond wig and a perpetual frown. She kept her long hair out of her face with a dark blue scarf that matched her eyes. Hera and Cicero had been an item for the entire two years Penny had been at Monstro. Hera still had six years left until her servitude was complete and rumor had it, she didn’t believe Cicero when he said he’d wait for her.

“It’ll be so weird with him gone. I wonder what the new guy will be like,” Penny said.

“Dibs if he looks Latino,” Cleo said, just as Madame Stromboli was demanding the group’s attention again.

Penny shoved her friend teasingly.

“Again, my darlings,” Stromboli commanded. “It’s beautiful, but there is still something missing. Remember, in this dance you are daring, adventurous, excited to be the first embarking on a new land!”

By a stroke of luck, Stromboli’s speech was interrupted by Mr. Cricket’s British voice over the intercom. “Sorry to intrude, Madame, but I have a mandatory session with Penelope in ten minutes.”

Penny felt as though she could leap to the ceiling. Finally! Not only was she getting out of rehearsal, but she’d get to sit down with her favorite full-human at Monstro. She’d already set down her violin before Stromboli was done saying, “Fine, fine. Go now. But tonight, for the sake of us all, remember your stage posture.”

Halfway out the door, Penny looked back and gave a wave to Cleo, who mockingly scowled and mouthed I hate you.

Penny practically skipped down the hall to Dr. Cricket’s office. When she opened the door, the tall, lean-framed man was hunched over his laptop, his brown eyes sparkling behind sliver wire-rimmed glasses. He looked up the moment Penny walked in.

“Hey there, Penny. Have a seat.”

Penny involuntarily smiled. Dr. Cricket was the only full-human that used her nickname instead of calling her Penelope. It was refreshing to be treated as an individual, someone with feelings and aspirations. Not like the aides, who barely spoke to her and treated her like a machine that needed maintenance.

Dr. Cricket casually closed the laptop and gestured to her usual spot on his heather-gray sofa. He maneuvered around his streamlined glass desk to lounge in the chair across from her.

Everything in Dr. Cricket’s office was chosen to match his monochromatic wardrobe. All of the decor was some shade of black or gray, from the one of a kind art on his wall to the three fountain pens lined up on his desk. Even the books stacked on his cadet-gray shelves were all black hardcovers. A miniature installation made of chrome spheres that swiveled around an axis sat next to his silver nameplate, tempting Penny to fiddle with it every time she came in for a session.

Something about the way Dr. Cricket looked so relaxed in the black leather wing chair made Penny feel relaxed too. The man always moved so fluidly. His limbs seemed to meld into whatever surface they touched, like they just belonged wherever he placed them. Across from her, Dr. Cricket cradled his tablet in his hand with ease. The fabric of his slim-fit pants stretched across his lap as he rested his foot on his knee, proudly displaying his new Berluti oxfords.

Penny appreciated a man with style. It pleased her eye for good design. Dr. Cricket, with his triangular torso and towering height, wore designers well. The roguish streak of gray hair that stood out against his dark locks suggested he was in his mid-thirties, but the completely smooth olive skin over his pronounced cheek bones did a great job of convincing Penny he was most likely no older than twenty-five. He was still a bit old for her, considering Penny was seventeen at the time of her accident two years ago, but she didn’t care. Being around Dr. Cricket didn’t feel like being around the other people that worked for Monstro. He didn’t feel like her therapist. He felt like her friend.

Dr. Cricket adjusted the silver frames over his brown eyes, the color of dark roast coffee. “Sorry for pulling you in here for an extra session, but you know protocol.”

Penny settled herself on the couch across from him. “I really don’t mind,” she said. “If I had to shuffle and smile for one more run through of that routine I would have screamed.”

Dr. Cricket laughed, a quiet, rocky sound. “Cut Stromboli some slack. She’s stressed about the big fundraiser coming up. We all are.”

Ah, yes. The annual fundraiser. As if Penny could be allowed forget. In less than a week investors from all over the world were coming to the theater for a one-night show that had to be so spectacular, so amazing, that people would be willing to fork out billions of dollars to keep Monstro Institute and the Automa technology research going. Madame Stromboli was pulling out all the stops. There was an Atlantis style set being built, including a giant tank where Cleo and Aesop were going to swim around like sea creatures. Penny had spent every minute of her free time for the last three days designing the costumes and the choreography was supposed to be downloaded into the auts the day after next. Everything was riding on the annual fundraiser. Gepetto, the CEO, would not tolerate anything less than a groundbreaking performance.

“I know,” Penny said. “And I’m happy to do my part, but I’ll also be glad when it’s over.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” he said with a smile so slight it was almost hidden.

Dr. Cricket had a way of unhinging something in her when he said even the most casual things, looking at her so intently with his swirling java eyes. It was as if one look from him could unravel her; she had to admit, though, part of her wanted to be unraveled.

“So tell me Penny, why is it you don’t want to smile?”

“Huh?” Penny blinked herself back to reality. “What do you mean?”

Dr. Cricket tapped something into his tablet. He hardly ever took notes so early in a session. “You said earlier when you were talking about rehearsal that you didn’t want to smile anymore. Why?”

A peculiar question. Something was off.

Penny shrugged. “Oh, you know, after sixteen times in a row, I’m not really feeling it anymore.”

“I hear ya. Any one of us would need a break.”

“I mean, we know the routine by heart. It’s literally programed into our brains. I just think the time would be better spent with Cicero on his last day.”

Dr. Cricket nodded. “For sure. Let’s talk about Cicero. How are you handling his departure?”

For some reason, perhaps with everything going on, Penny felt like she hadn’t actually faced the fact until that moment. “Fine, I guess. I mean, I’ll miss him. Cicero’s like my brother. He’s like everyone’s brother. He’s been a part of my life every day for the past two years.”

“Being that it’s your anniversary and Cicero gets to leave tomorrow, that’s got to be a tough thing to process. Does that bring any emotions to the surface?”

Penny shifted in her seat. This was nothing like their usual chatter of new music and Cricket’s shopping trips to Madrid. She sighed. “If I’m honest, I’m pretty jealous. I can’t help it. Cicero fulfilled his servitude, and if anyone deserves to go off and live life, it’s totally him. But I can’t help wanting what he has right now. He’s so excited and hopeful and has all these plans. Waiting eight years just seems impossible right now.”

“It’s a long time,” Dr. Cricket concurred. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do after servitude?”

Penny shrugged. “Honestly, I try not to think about it too much. I just want to get through, you know? But I plan on doing a lot of traveling while I work on my fashion line.”

Dr. Cricket leaned back in his chair and fiddled with his Rolex. “What would you change about your day-to-day, if you could?”

Dr. Cricket’s office had no windows, but there was an Ansel Adam’s portrait on the wall of a silver river curving its way to a snowy mountain in the distance. Penny stared at it while she answered. “The biggest thing would be going outside. Don’t get me wrong. I love my friends, and I’m grateful for this opportunity. I realize I’d be six feet under if it weren’t for the Monstro Project, but sometimes… I just feel so trapped here.”

“That’s a completely normal reaction,” Dr. Cricket assured her. “Unfortunately, as you know, it’s not possible to expose you to the outside world while you’re in our care. That’s why we try to make your extended stay with us as comfortable and enriching as possible.”

“And you do. I know how lucky I am.” Penny hated to sound ungrateful. Anything Penny needed was at her disposal. She had access to every piece of literature or film ever produced. If she needed art supplies for her sketches or a special type of chiffon from India for one of her designs, she needed only to ask. If she really wanted to go somewhere, all she had to do was close her eyes and pick one of thousands of virtual tours around the world. Sometimes those digitally recorded images satisfied her need for escape. But sometimes, Penny longed for an experience that was real. An experience that she didn’t read about in a book or watch on a screen.

Dr. Cricket’s fingers typed away on his tablet. It was unsettling how much he was writing. Something was up, Penny knew it. If she could lean over just a bit she might be able to take a peek at his words…

“And while there’s not much else we can do about that feeling now…” Dr. Cricket abruptly stopped typing and looked back up at her. Penny flinched and sunk into the couch as if she hadn’t been trying to read his notes. “It’s good to plan for the future,” he continued. “Where is it you’d like to go on your travels?”

Penny didn’t hesitate to answer. “Once I get out of here, I’ll be so rich I could go to the moon.”

Dr. Cricket raised a dark eyebrow. “There’s a pretty long waiting list to book trips.”

“I know. I plan on spending my first stipend on a ticket to get my name in. While I’m waiting, I’ll cross some other places off my list. The Taj Mahal, Morocco, The Grand Canyon, New Zealand,” she said dreamily. “Don’t judge me, but it just looked so picturesque in that Hobbit movie. I also plan to backpack through Malaysia. Once we both get out, Cleo and I are going to take a tour of Seoul together, because that’s where they filmed a lot of our favorite K-dramas.”

The corner of Dr. Cricket’s lip tugged upward in a half smile. It was a glimmer of the Cricket she was used to.

“You know I’m not here to judge,” he said. He may have thought her love of Korean television was ridiculous, as did most of the other auts, but Penny didn’t care. When she’d first entered the Monstro Institute, Cleo was the first person she was able to connect with, and they happened to connect over outrageous Asian soap operas. The cheesy romances and dramatic story lines grounded her somehow, gave her an escape when adjusting to her new life was overwhelming. And say what you would about Koreans and their overly dramatic scripts, but when it came to fashion, Penny knew they reigned supreme.

“Sounds like you’ve actually thought about your plans a lot,” Dr. Cricket said.

“Well, like I said,” Penny smirked, “I try not to think about it.”

“What are you thinking about these days? What’s on your mind, Penny?”

Ah, the way he said her name. With ease and familiarity, like she was a real whole person. Like he really knew her. Like he wanted to do more than just know her.

“Not much, really,” Penny said, pushing away the taboo thoughts. “I guess the same thing that’s been on everyone else’s minds. Cicero leaving, his replacement coming in, the fundraiser coming up. The costumes are a pain in the butt to make. Who knew fish netting was so difficult to work with?”

Dr. Cricket gave her a knowing smile. “Forgive me, but I meant deeper. What’s on your mind when no one’s around? When you aren’t thinking about other people or deadlines?”

It took Penny awhile to speak. She knew the answer, but she was afraid of it. It sat in wait in the back of her mind every hour of every day.

“My past,” she said quietly, as if speaking of it were forbidden. It practically was forbidden at Monstro.

Dr. Cricket nodded like he’d known what she was going to say. “Why’s that?”

Penny sighed. “I guess I just…it’s so hard to ignore the fact that I had a life before all this. With people who knew me and loved me. People who are still out there. There’s so much going on and I try to stay busy, I really do, but…I find myself wondering who my parents were. Who my friends were. Do they still miss me, or have they moved on since the accident? It hurts knowing I’ll never be able to contact them, even after my servitude. Not that they’d recognize me now, anyway. I don’t even know what I used to look like. That’s so messed up.”

Dr. Cricket lowered his chin. Sympathy warmed his eyes. “I can’t imagine how that must feel, Penny. For what it’s worth, I’m very sorry it has to be this way for you.”

“Thanks,” Penny replied, though the words did little to ease the ache in her.

“With the mark of your two-year anniversary, I bet these questions are coming up more and more.”

“They are,” she admitted.

Dr. Cricket set his tablet aside and stood. He walked over to his desk and opened his laptop. After strumming a few keys, he brought it over to Penny and placed it in her lap.

“What’s this?” she asked. Not once has Dr. Cricket ever given her his laptop. Penny was almost afraid to look.

“An anniversary present,” he said. “Just read the page.”

Penny did. It was a German news article about a girl in Munich who’d died in an accident over two years ago. She’d been on her way home from a concert with her boyfriend when her car was struck by a drunk driver. The boy survived with minor injuries. The girl - killed instantly. There was a picture of the girl in the corner of the screen, smiling brightly in front of a patch of wild cornflowers. The blueish violet color brought out her golden blond hair and honey-colored eyes. A name was printed below the picture. Emilie Klein, age seventeen.

Several ticks of the clock passed before comprehension set in. Penny nearly dropped the laptop when she realized the girl she was reading about was her.

READ ON!

*********

What if Peter Pan was a girl?

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