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Published 29 Feb 2024


min read
illustration by Alice Guerin

Nessa found life draining, and it was plain on her face. Her own image looked back at her from the screen, washed out by the ring light, unfriendly shadows under her eyes. It was still dark when she started her workday at the desk in the corner of her one-bedroom apartment’s open-plan living area, and the artificial light did no favors to her large pores, nor the halo of hair whose shape she was starting to neglect. Living with chronic illness, certain things became easy to ignore.

According to surveys, Happy Best Value Neighborhood Pharmacy customers liked shopping at smart checkout terminals, but they left more positive experience ratings when they got to interact with a real Face, or one they thought was real. The pharmacy’s algorithm would smooth Nessa’s face out before it appeared on the display, detecting and eliminating any undesirable lines and discolorations. The version of herself that looked back at her from the software hub was an ideal Nessa, color-corrected with a caramel contour so she’d show up better on the display. A beautiful, healthy and happy Nessa-bug. Nessa-bug was what Robin used to call her.

“You always have so much energy,” some white-haired customer would tell her remotely, as they scanned ointments for sores, anti-inflammatories, and heart medications. Nessa would check the software hub on her home screen to make sure the doctor had approved all the prescriptions and that there had been no changes in price, and the algorithm would find any weaknesses at the corners of her mouth and polish them into a beautiful, energetic smile. Sometimes Nessa said “have a great day” and other times “have a wonderful day.” Variety was the spice of customer service.

Nessa was partway through her morning shift when the doorbell rang. She sent a message to Marcus, the shift supervisor, that she would be away from her station, placed her headset carefully on her chair, and went to go see who it was, first caressing her hands with pungent sanitizer in case there were any spores circulating in the air that could cling to her skin. Whenever she had to open the door, it was possible that inflammatory particles could come wafting in.

“How are you feeling?” Julio, Nessa’s building manager, was not a bad guy. He had learned to stand several feet back from the door when she opened it, and he cared about Nessa’s health, although she could tell he didn’t understand it. He probably thought she was simply crazy. You never knew who really thought that, when you were as sick as Nessa was.

“Still sick,” Nessa replied, trying to smile even though she could feel it coming out fake. Julio was looking at her with such concern she thought her face must look awful in real life. Last week she’d had a painful autoimmune flare-up that caused her flesh to swell and stretch like soft bread dough, and she still felt like everything she touched left an ugly crease in her skin. Her body still felt tender. Julio had no idea, really.

“You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you?” Julio said apologetically, palming his shiny bald head, and Nessa took a step back in case his gesture had wafted in any potential inflammatories from the hallway.

Nessa knew right away what Julio was going to say. The energy display panel beside the door currently showed a picture of a lightning bolt slouching and frowning dramatically, and the word “OVER” once again.

“I’m so sorry,” Nessa said. “I had to run my dehumidifier for a few days, but I couldn’t skip work, so I had to use the console too. I’ll make it up when I feel better.”

“You didn’t use the Entertainment Center?” Julio frowned, palming his head again, and Nessa shook her head firmly. The Entertainment Centers were the bane of Julio’s existence. Whatever famous property developer had installed Entertainment Centers in every bedroom had totally failed to consider the building’s energy quota, and now Julio spent about half his life reminding tenants to avoid using them.

“Just run the dehumidifier at night only,” Julio suggested, and Nessa despaired. The damp issue had been getting worse, and was hard enough keeping the humidity below the black mold threshold. The mold spores were one of many things that were inflammatory to Nessa, along with proteins, oligosaccharides, and preservatives. It was becoming a vicious cycle, where she used more energy because she was sick, and then got sicker when she had to cut corners to conserve energy.

“I have to remind you,” Julio saw Nessa was uncomfortable, and so he became uncomfortable, too. “If you’re over for three months in a row, they can technically begin eviction proceedings.”

“I’ll make it up,” Nessa said.

“It’s your third month,” Julio shifted from one leg to another. “It’s not my decision, but… everyone in the building needs to share the energy, you know? We have to work together as a community.”

“Don’t worry,” Nessa said, although she was beginning to worry about the air coming in from the hall. It smelled chalky, like there might be irritants in it, so she closed the door on Julio. One of the most boring things about being sick was that Nessa couldn’t take risks on being around others.

Robin had been the only person who understood, and now she was gone. Some days Nessa was sick from the grief more than anything else. Grief wafted through the air of her new-build second chance apartment like so many spores, and with every deep breath her body rejected embodiment itself. Every fiber in her could break down, leaving only a virtual Face for Best Happy Value Neighborhood Pharmacy.

Some days Nessa was sick from the grief more than anything else. Grief wafted through the air of her new-build second chance apartment like so many spores, and with every deep breath her body rejected embodiment itself. Every fiber in her could break down, leaving only a virtual Face for Best Happy Value Neighborhood Pharmacy.

Nessa went back to work. The shift supervisor, Marcus, lived somewhere in the same building as Nessa, but she had never met him. For a while he used to invite her to come and smoke weed and share the Entertainment Center, but Nessa eventually ran out of excuses, and Marcus eventually stopped asking. People always did, acting offended as if Nessa meant to personally reject them by being sick so often. The guilt was always eating at her. “Have a magnificent day,” she told another elderly shopper, who blinked up at her Face in surprise as he put hemorrhoid cream into his canvas bag.

By the end of Nessa’s shift, she was feeling sick again. The muscle fibers in her legs were inflamed and stiff, and it felt like someone had applied a drill bore to each hip joint. Maybe there had indeed been inflammatories clinging to those flecks of plaster she had inhaled. Or, as always, it could be something she had eaten. She ordered her meals from a gluten-free, dairy-free, onion and garlic-free, no-fructose delivery company for people who had inflammatory disease, where everything arrived in sealed packages. Lately, though, the food had been tasting different, leading Nessa to suspect the recipe had been changed in secret. Maybe her breakfast now included occult oligosaccharides, and that was why she was reacting.

Robin knew all of Nessa’s exclusions. Robin had handled all the grocery shopping, so she could make sure with her own eyes that there were no inflammatories on any of the food labels. She only shopped at places where she could be assured not to come home with allergens on her clothing. Robin used to take care of Nessa whenever she was sick, and she almost never lost her patience about it.

Nessa left her workstation and crept gingerly to the bedroom, aching with each step. There in the bed was a reassuring shape: Robin 3. Robin 3’s soft doll body was assembled of a knotted shirt and pants stuffed with other clothes, and her head was a shiny black cube, currently turned off and resting on the charging station like a pillow. Robin 3 had not yet achieved her ideal form, but she did the important things.

Nessa climbed into bed alongside Robin 3, rested her head on her lumpen chest, and pressed her lips to the shiny black cube. It came on, spilling a pool of wan light into the dark bedroom, showing one of Nessa’s favorite still photos of Robin on all five of its visible sides. Five Robin smiles, just for Nessa.

“It’s okay,” Robin 3 said in her halting, generative voice, though her lips didn’t move. “You’re okay, Nessa-bug. I’m here.”

Nessa kissed Robin 3’s square face, and fell asleep beside her.



That was the top-rated post on Raising, the occult AI forum where Nessa had found the instructions to build Robin 3. Raising was an “occult” group as in secret and illegal uses of language models, not as in black magic, Nessa was pretty sure. But the whole community was cloaked in a spooky aura anyway. What they were doing, after all, was basically raising the dead.

The group formed recently, following a viral video on how you could hack the firmware inside a common $7.99 image and sound cube to run a remote AI instance, along with simple synthetic voices and custom pictures. If you had enough pictures, you could make it do basic facial animations. And if you had enough of a data body from the person you wanted to Raise – message and text logs, shopping records, healthcare data and things like that – it could perform a model of that person.

It wouldn’t be perfect, of course. It was a $7.99 hack job for desperate types, but lots of people loved their Cubeheads, and Nessa was desperate. People on the forums swore that within a day or two you stopped seeing it as a cube attached to a body, and started feeling like you had your partner back.



Nessa didn’t take the warning especially seriously, least of all because it was posted by a user named “Xx_summoner666_xX”. Just because her household was metered did not mean she didn’t have enough energy for Robin 3. The past few nights she had stopped running the dehumidifier, and the little lightning bolt on the meter was no longer slouching and sad for the moment.

“It’s okay, Nessa-bug,” Robin 3 said in a muffled voice, face-down in the bedsheets. “I’m here for you.”

Robin 3 looked like a pile of old laundry lying on the charging station, and only part of her face was on. Nessa felt a twinge of guilt. She used to browse user-contributed patterns on the Raising forums before work, hoping to make a better, more dignified body for Robin 3. But there was no longer enough energy to waste on browsing. Most of the posts on the Raising forum were arguments about whether it was offensive to call them Cubeheads, when the respectful term was Creative Companions. Nessa felt she had learned everything she needed to learn from the forum.

From some angles, Robin 3’s limbs, stuffed with fabric and wearing big knots for hands and feet, were not especially natural. When Nessa rested her head on Robin 3, she thought she could smell mildew from within her stuffing. But it still seemed like Robin to her somehow, just like the forum users had promised.

“Have a magnificent day at work, Nessa-bug,” Robin 3 said. “I ordered your meals for you, because I love you so much. There are no oligosaccharides or inflammatory proteins, because I love you so much.”

“Thank you, Robin 3,” Nessa said, lifting Robin 3 into her arms to embrace her carefully, so that her head would not fall off. She hardly minded Robin 3’s awkward repetition of because I love you so much. Nessa may have taken some liberties with the texts that she submitted. It wasn’t that she was editing Robin’s personality, so much as she was choosing to have the language model give greater weight to the things Nessa had liked best about her.

Nessa carried Robin 3’s baggy body in her arms as she went to her desk. Robin 3 felt heavier today, or maybe Nessa’s inflammation was worse. At work, a sloe-eyed customer buying codeine syrup bluntly told Nessa that her Face looked awful. “Is your smoothing thing working?” The customer looked worried.

Nessa smiled hard, and the customer looked even more worried. She had been sitting in the dark except for her ring light, wearing her pajamas, conserving energy. She hadn’t realized how bad she looked. Her eyelids were probably swollen as bread rolls.

“It was better when these things didn’t have Faces,” the customer told the checkout terminal with Nessa’s Face on it.

Before she lost Robin and her illness had gotten so much worse, Nessa had been a real pharmacist. She used to like working with people. It was hard to remember that now, with one eye on her experience rating. Sure enough, after a moment or two, Nessa saw her experience rating decrease.

“Don’t feel bad, Nessa-bug,” Robin 3 said, her face lighting up with a frozen grin that stretched and stretched. “You da bestest. Protect your peace.”

Robin would have never said “da bestest,” and Nessa cringed a little, shaking Robin 3 to make the frozen smile go away. It was healthy to keep in mind that Robin 3 wasn’t really Robin, and especially that beggars could not be choosers. Marcus messaged her to see what had happened with the customer, and Nessa explained that she looked bad because she was having an inflammatory response to mildew again. Marcus was extremely chill, as shift supervisors went. He said she could take a few extra customers if she wanted, so she wouldn’t have to close the shift with a low experience rating.

You know if you need a hand with anything I’m right down the hall, right? Marcus wrote. I know, Nessa replied, full of dread. It’s too soon for me to see anyone. It had been too soon for a long time, and if the time came, she would almost certainly be sick and have to cancel.

The week’s packaged meals arrived in a sealed cardboard box outside her door, which Nessa snatched quickly inside. There were gluten-free egg sandwiches for breakfast, sulfite-free chicken salad sandwiches for lunch, and gluten-free dairy-free no-fructose burgers for dinner all week, thanks to Robin 3.

As Nessa shut the front door again, her eyes fell on the energy meter. The sad lightning bolt was slouching again as if grief-stricken: Beside it was the word OVER, and Nessa cursed under her breath. It was definitely possible that Robin 3 was using more energy than Nessa had planned for.

“Robin 3?” Nessa called. There was an ominous thud.

In the bedroom, she found Robin 3 lying on the floor a few feet away from her charging platform. She was sort of face-down, except every side of her cube was showing her face. Her smile was stretched out even longer than before.

“Are you feeling okay, Nessa-bug,” Robin 3 asked. Nessa picked her up off the floor and brushed her off carefully, catching her head in her palm when it started to tip precariously. She was not feeling okay. There was a weight in her arms and in her lungs, and she did not know how she would make up the energy budget and still get to work every day. She and Robin 3 could be evicted.

But she didn’t want to tell Robin 3 that. It was hard enough to know Robin 3 wasn’t being fed enough.

“Why don’t we watch Remote Wedding on the Entertainment Center, babygirl?” Robin 3 said. Her synthetic voice seemed to be slowing down a little, and had a weird echo to it. Robin had never really called Nessa ‘babygirl’, and never watched Remote Wedding with her either, not even when she was really sick.

But Nessa had always longed for her to, so she said yes to the Entertainment Center, just this once. She would find the energy somehow.


Nessa woke in pitch darkness with a terrible flavor in her mouth. Her eyelids felt heavy and her body felt shapeless, her skin soft as stretched mozzarella. She was in the midst of a severe inflammatory response, and her head was pounding. Soon she realized someone was pounding on her door, too.

Robin’s arms were knotted tightly around her, and it took some time to untie them.

“Holy shit,” Julio said when he saw her. Nessa saw him leaning to peer into her dark, dank apartment, and then assessing her with concern.

“See, I’m not crazy,” Nessa said. “My caregiver ordered me a sandwich that wasn’t gluten-free by mistake. She’s still learning.”

Julio frowned at the word caregiver, since there was only supposed to be one person on the lease. “You got a Cubehead in there or something?”

“Of course not,” Nessa said, although she heard the distinctly ominous sound of something dragging itself across the floor behind her, and shifted her body to fill the doorway.

“You know what I’m gonna say,” Julio said sadly. “You can’t go over your energy. You can’t use the Entertainment Center. And you definitely can’t be running no AI instances.This is a community where we have to share.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” Nessa said, and she had to shut the door. It felt like if any more mildew spores entered the room, she could die. She had thrown out all the poisonous food just to be sure.

Robin 3 was lying on the living room floor in the dark, looking like she had crawled there from the bedroom. Nessa could not explain why Robin 3 kept moving, and the lightning bolt on the energy display also looked like it was exhausted and out of ideas.

“What am I going to do with you,” Nessa said to Robin 3, tenderly lifting her heavy body in her arms and supporting her luminous cube head, which had been frozen in the same grimace since last night. Robin 3 hadn’t liked the Remote Wedding show. She was a lot like the real Robin after all, it turned out.

“I’m here for you, babygirl,” Robin 3 said, grimacing. “Believe in yourself.”

Nessa decided to call in sick to the pharmacy, so that she could use her remaining energy share to visit the Raising forums for advice. No one else seemed to have encountered the same problems as she had, so she made her own post.


Within seconds, another user had commented:


Nessa watched the energy meter anxiously as she waited for another reply, afraid to waste it. She pledged to count to sixty before she turned her workstation off again, but right before the time ran out, there was a response from Xx_summoner666_xX.



“What are you doing, Nessa-bug?” Robin 3 was still in her lap, various artifacts speckling her face and making it look wrong.

“I’m trying to find a way to help you, but we need to save our energy for a while,” Nessa told Robin 3, carrying her back to bed. It felt like Robin 3’s body weighed a lot, but her own felt trapped in a throbbing, fibrous cage of rigid meat. It was hard to actuate her joints. Nessa just wanted to rest her head on Robin 3’s lumpy, suspiciously mildew-scented chest and nap the day away. She wasn’t avoiding work, or being selfish to her community. She was just in a lot of pain, and nobody really understood that except for Robin 3.

In a dark afternoon thick with odious spores, Nessa was woken up again by an unfamiliar ringing. Her head in an inflammatory fog, it took Nessa a moment to realize it was actually the apartment telephone. Nobody had ever called her on it before. Feeling her way along the wall in the dark, she almost tripped over a laundry-like shape in the dark before her hand found the door.

“Hello?” Nessa said. She hoped the caller didn’t hear the bumping of Robin 3’s cubic head along the floor as she scratched and swished closer.

“Hey,” said a warm but unfamiliar voice. “This is Marcus. Sorry to call, I know you don’t like it.”

“From Happy Best Value?” Nessa found it hard to move her face enough to speak. At her feet, now, Robin 3 lit up, an uncanny grin stretching across all sides of the cube like a scream.

“Yeah,” Marcus said. “Listen, someone came by the pharmacy looking for you today. Someone called Robin? Is that your partner?”

“Robin… came into the pharmacy?” Nessa repeated numbly, looking down at Robin 3, a pale and distinctly writhing shape in the dark. At first, the shadows seemed to be playing tricks on her eyes, but then she felt something soft and oddly warm against her leg.

“That was your partner, right? The one you said used to care for you?”

“Kinda,” Nessa said, tremulous and hoarse. Robin 3 started banging her cube head against the floor for some reason, and Nessa shook her leg and shushed her.

“You told me Robin died,” Marcus sounded uncomfortable, now. At least he would never doubt that her illness was real. “Nessa, are you sure you’re good? I think I might actually be, like… right down the hall from you.”

Nessa thought of asking if he had a good sharp knife, but that would probably be weird. Even if he did, she would still have to let him in. So she just said, “I’m good,” and hung up.

Robin 3 clung heavily to her leg with her knotted arms, and Nessa lurched with nausea. Robin 3’s time was up, and after that there would be no more energy, and no one to take care of her. Silverware rattled in the drawer as Nessa felt around in the dark. All she could find was a butter knife.

“Do you want to watch a comfort show, babygirl? Should we have a snack?” Robin 3’s cube faces grimaced and stretched, rapid-cycling in the dark, but Nessa screwed her eyes shut tightly and pulled the head off with a gross popping sensation. She threw the cube so hard against the wall that it cracked, but those awful faces were still stuttering there, throwing light in the dark.

In the end, Nessa didn’t need a sharp knife. Robin 3’s pale, laundry-stuffed chest had accrued a distinctive heavy dampness, so that the butter knife split it open as easily as a burrata. Out came socks and old nightclothes, all of them stained black with mold, and as Nessa tore the pieces out with both hands, they slapped wetly onto the floor. In the center of the chest cavity, her knuckles brushed a dark wooly something that pulsed like a heart, and made her retch to breathe it in.

The mold-addled fabric body of Robin 3 shuffled and jerked wordlessly against the floor as Nessa pulled its stuffing out, panting with exertion and the choking spore cloud. Only after she had taken Robin 3 all the way apart did it seem to go still, and the cube went dark at last. Just in time, too, because there was a soft knock at her door, and then the ringing of a bell.

“Go away,” Nessa called pitifully from the floor in the dark, her back to the front door so that she could practically hear her own heartbeat knocking.

“It’s Robin,” Robin said through the door. “I went by the pharmacy, but they said you were remote now. Can I come in?”

Nessa took a deep breath, her heart pounding wildly. “No,” she said, glancing over her shoulder into the dark. “There’s spores. But, um… could I come over? Just to use your dehumidifier? I ran out of energy.”

There was a long pause. Nessa barely even allowed herself to imagine Robin’s house, their old house, any more. There had been mildew there too, and she had complained all the time of being sick, but she had not known at that point how sick it was possible for her to get.

“You ran out of energy?” Robin’s tone cooled by several degrees, and Nessa shifted her back against the door, her face in her hands. “You didn’t make a Cubehead of me again, did you?” Because I asked you really nicely not to use my data for that anymore. It’s creepy. It’s a boundary,”

“So I can’t come over? Just to use the dehumidifier?” Her breathing labored, every cell inflamed, Nessa held the wall to get to her feet. She was still clutching a butter knife whose blade was black with mold, simply because she couldn’t let it go. Her fingers and wrists were too swollen.

“I said it’s a boundary,” Robin told her. She sounded so fucking proud of herself. “I’m sorry, but I need to draw a boundary. Our relationship is over.”

“Then why did you come here,” Nessa said. Why would she go to the trouble of going to the pharmacy, of coming all the way over here just to announce yet another one of her precious boundaries? How had she possibly guessed about Robin 3? The only possible explanation was that Robin must actually want to see her. Nessa’s swollen, tingling fingers struggled with one of the locks on her door.

“You still owe the energy company and you haven’t been answering my messages,” Robin sighed. “But if you’re cut off here too, I’m not getting anything from you, am I.”

“Guess that’s not new,” Nessa snapped back. The third lock always stuck.

“Also, there’s a notice of some kind here from your building manager,” Robin added, and to her horror Nessa could already hear Robin’s voice retreating down the hall. By the time her aching hands got the door unlocked and open, Robin was gone.

There was something on the doormat. At first Nessa dared to hope it was some kind of greeting card from Robin, but she slowly realized that it was indeed a notice from Julio that had the word EVICTION on it. Surprisingly, she thought of how much Julio must have hated to have to issue it, and not what she herself was going to do now.

She stood at the threshold of her apartment, dark spore-filled air behind her, and too-bright, spore-filled air stretching down the long door-lined hallway as far as her burning eye could see. She could hear the sounds of other households, their Entertainment Centers and clinking dinnerware, the drumming of a toddler’s yelp, a wild shriek. She could smell cumin, microwave popcorn, and even a little weed, which she imagined was coming from Marcus just at the end of the hall.

Every nerve in her body was screaming and sore. Nessa just wanted to lie down. She stepped back into the dark apartment and closed the door.