Second Chance

(A Pink Fluff story)

- by Mikhail Koshenko -

Gusts of the Milan wind and rain flushed against the windows of the old ballroom that had been the venue of the Kitani Ready to Wear shows since 2057. Various types of models stood frozen in mid movement on and next to the catwalk, waiting to be put back in their boxes or else, if they caught Kitani's fancy, for the download of their show programming. Kitani Faruzza herself was very much an organised person, but Ian's designer enthusiasm was such when he was demo-ing his new babies of the season that he could not be bothered to get them out of the way and store them before he was finished.
Kitani inspected them one by one, knowing their type and type number by heart, seeing them as close relatives: the Cynthia Mark II, the Ghauri Royale de Luxe, the Ghauri III ... she halted at a Claudia Mark IV and lifted the tousled hair from its face. `What would she have been thinking of if she were real?' she thought, looking at the moist eyes, that somehow radiated melancholy. The robot models had become better and better, far beyond the beauty and charm of the women that had been their examples, even beating the Dancing Mannequins that had been the first and second generations, who had their heyday when Kitani was new in the business. Yet, it was the afterglow of an industry. Robot models were a species on the verge of extinction, like the fashion shows that were their natural habitat. More and more customers and journalist preferred to watch new designs on the 3Deo in the comfort of their own home, without the confusion and the noise of a show. A sad thought. Kitani loved the staging of the shows as much as she liked designing fashion. She drew the fabric of her elaborate dress closer around her. The countless veils that circled around her body protected it from view, but not from the draught travelling from a crack in the wall to an open window opposite.
Maybe she should ask Ian if he could bring in some revamped Dancing Mannequin models. After all, the clothes of this season were twenty years retro too. They had to try something to get out of the trodden path.

`There is one more thing.' Kitani sighed with relief. This was Ian's way of introducing something novel, something he was unsure about. Usually Ian was unsure about his best ideas. Only in the final phase of meeting, when people were shifting their mood into a pleasant goodbye mode, he could bring himself to mention that he had something wild. You could consider a meeting with Ian wasted if he had not brought up `one more thing'.
`Oh? What's that?' She wished she could send him an encouraging smile, but he would not see it through her veils anyway. Already he was jogging to a crate in the back, the only one that had not been opened. Mucking with the back of a hammer head he opened it. He knew very well what he was doing after being in his job for twice as long as Kitani in hers, but still he managed to look like a clumsy but contented teddy bear.
Kitani followed in his tracks, manoeuvring the skirts of her dress around the odd bits and pieces of paper, wood and cardboard on the floor. Ian was a hurricane in more than one aspect. With the lid of the crate in his hands, he watched her coming.
`It is your design, you can't blame anyone else for it, darling,' he said when she got temporarily stuck at the corner of an empty crate.
`I would not run if I were wearing a bathing suit either,' she replied, `As you know well.'
`There is nothing wrong with any design of yours.'
`Good. For I would still wear them if I had to be in a wheelchair to do so,' she said. `Now kindly show me your latest miracle.'
He stepped aside, to give her a view of the contents of the box.
It had golden blond hair, a smooth round face and a tiny nose. It was not a robot model, but a doll. To make that clear even more she wore an outfit well known to girls worldwide as the Saturday Night Clueless: a white mohair sweater, a pink fur miniskirt and a pink feather boa of the kind you could only wear as a show dancer, or an Eighties teenager out to a disco party.
`Ian, this is a MegaFluff,' she said. `You know what happened the last time we tried those.'
`The people loved it,' he said.
`It was a mess. They lack the control, the precision and the perfection of a robot model. They are just not cut out for the job. They are people.'
`That is why the people loved them. And this one not just a Miss Prettylegs in a doll's costume.'
`Neither were they.' True enough - they were robots for almost all but their human brains, and even that was embedded in silicoid technology. But Ian seemed very convinced about this one.
Slowly she bowed over the crate and grabbed the doll's left arm. The skin was thick and rubbery - hard to imagine it contained still much of the original organic material, but she knew it did. Under the skin weren't muscles, but wires, batteries, strings, wheels ...
`So what is the difference?' she asked. `Is it a hundred percent robot? Can I switch her on?' She reached to the back of the thing's neck, but it seemed there were three button instead of the usual two.
`Wait, what button do I use? There are three.'
`The middle one isn't a button but a socket. Don't feel too closely because there ...'
`... might be some stray current coming out.'
`Thanks for the warning.'
Kitani turned the right button and pulled her hand back. The doll reacted immediately to the switch. All over her slender body humming and clicking parts responded to its activation.
Clack. Clack-clack. Clackclack. The doll opened its enormous blue eyes, closed them and opened them again.
Great. They were dealing with an intellectual. `Welcome, dear.' Kitani said, more to see what would happen than because she meant it. The doll's eyes flashed and seemed to jump at her.
Kitani could have believed she heard the noise of her jaw dropping. Perhaps she did. It took her seconds to find a reply, and it was not a very bright one.
`We will see ... Ian, before we go any further, what do I have to fork out for it? And what on earth make you think I should?'
`She is yours to keep, for free.'
`You mean you are giving it away?'
`I am not giving her away as she is not mine in the first place, love.'
`Then whose is she?'
Ian grinned.
`Yours.' The doll winked at him. Click-clack.
`I am asking a serious question, Ian.'
`In a way she belongs to us all. She is the last hope of the industry. Yours and mine, as I see it. But ... you may consider her the gift of an admirer, if that makes you feel good.'
`I would have preferred roses.' She had never owned a robot model or a MegaFluff. The models were hired from Ian's agency when she needed them for shows or photo shoots, and she regarded MegaFluffs a decadence for people who were misguided enough to think that for children their parents' care and attention were replaceable. But who was she to be the judge ... the thought of Cherri, out there, living on Moon Dust or Hypnotal made her shiver. She should be nineteen by now, or should have been.
And of course, you could not really own a MegaFluff. They were licensed to you, or you bought their time, like you did with any employee. The whole conversation had taken a rather absurd turn. Ian loved absurdity, and it was the butter on his bread.
`You're okay?' It was Ian. She took a deep breath.
`Yes, I'm fine.' If just the doll stopped staring at her. `Really, Ian dearest, I don't think it's a good idea ...'
`Why don't you watch me first?' Kitani could swear there was an undertone of ... despair in the doll's voice. The speech generators got better too, apparently. And there had to be someone in there of course, someone who knew how to handle her plastic body, her voice, everything. Or there was no point in her being here. She had to be brilliant in whatever it took, and yet she had took for granted that she could be switched on and off whenever it pleased someone else, and be put away in a box for months maybe. How desperate could you be? But again, who was she to be the judge?
`All right, show me.'
`Ian's Big Magic Trick ...' He started to search through the many pockets of his jacket. The doll veered up, blinked - click-clack - and reached out for his left breast pocket and took out a what looked like a little electric plug without a cable. With her left hand she lifted her hair from her neck, to put the plug in with her right. Elegantly she stepped out of the crate, walked to the curtain end of the catwalk and turned to face an imaginary audience. Ian grabbed his keypad from another pocket - this was much easier to find as it weighed down his jacket on one side. After some banging on the keys, he looked expectantly at the doll. Her pose stiffened and a flurry of rattles and clicks went through her limbs. Initialising checks. Kitani recognised them from the behaviour of the robot models. It was important that everything exactly as it should - the robots moved very fast and perfectly able of launching themselves into the audience by a wrong movement.
The noises stopped and for a second the doll just stood there. The next moment it walked down the catwalk, briskly, every pair of steps the quantum copy of the last. Having reached the little plateau at the end, she started to perform a set of ballet moves that were beyond the co-ordination and control of a human brain. Yet, it was clear there was someone on that catwalk, no, not just someone, someone with presence, with it.
`Ian, who is this? Why isn't she making a fortune being nanny-toy for some billionaire's kid or in theatre, instead being run by a computer for practically nothing?'
`She had a difficult time for a few years.'
Aha. Contrary to what the general public believed, the girls and the few boys that became MegaFluffs were no dropouts, losers and cranks. They could not be. Not with the jobs they were supposed to have. For some reason this kid, who probably spent some time on drugs in the street, had managed to get through selection, or found a sponsor, or just someone who desperately needed an organic liver, heart or whatever.
Looking at her, Kitani realised there was something bothered her, even made her angry. Envy? True, like so many girls she had wished to be on the catwalk, even if the robot models had won the battle over the real life models - being cheaper, more reliable and just better. Yes, she had wanted to be on the catwalk, but she could handle envy ... what was bothering her?
And then, when looking at a Cindy Classic, she knew. Unlike the other girls, she had not loved to be a model, she had loved the models themselves, or rather the Dancing Mannequin robots of those days. Like she had learned to love their successors, the robot models - no longer moving shop window mannequins with an engine, but serene, realistic replicas of the ancient real life models. But all this would be wiped away if there would be more dolls like this one. And possibly they would save her industry, but they would doom Ian's - did he know?
The doll pirouetted, her hair curling around her head as she turned and turned. She reached up, but her hand got stuck and perhaps a split second before the girl realised it herself, Kitani saw she had lost her balance. The urge to restore her balance cut through the computer control and effectively hastened what it had tried to avoid. The doll shrieked even before it fell on a chair next to the plateau. The glass back of the chair crushed into smithereens.

Ian was with the doll before Kitani was, hugging and comforting it. He was very pale and did not notice he nearly toppled a Claudia Mark IV, that ignored the disaster in blissful deactivation. Kitani felt sorry for the girl. Twenty years ago, she had been lying there in the same way, but it had not been a deserted ballroom, the sanctuary of camera-shy fashion designer, but a tryout show, with every seat taken. Yet, she needed to make a clear unsentimental decision now; the finances of Kitani Inc. did not allow for much. She pointed at the broken chair.
`If this had been a real show, that would have been the chair of Rebecca Myers of Vogue. You know Rebecca.'
`Twenty years ago I gave a girl a chance', Ian said, `and she failed. So I gave her another chance.' His gaze tried to pierce through the veils that curved around Kitani's head.
`But not at modelling.'
`I would have, if there had been the slightest reason to believe you would succeed.'
`I don't think there is any reason to believe that she will succeed.' Kitani nodded in the general directions of the doll. It was sitting at a chair, her knees pulled up to her chin and her arms wrapped around her legs. Damn. Cherri used to sit like that.
`You don't know, Ian said, `Linked up to the computer, she just needs some more training and a better program, while you, twenty years ago and relying on your own brain, never had a chance against the mechanic precision of those dolls. Everybody needs a second chance sometime, Kitani. Everybody deserves one. You do, I do, everybody, if it makes sense.'
`A mistake like that would ruin me if it happened in a show, Ian. The second chances aren't always there. I did not get a second chance to make up for whatever I did wrong with Cherri, you did not get a second chance from Love of my Life Hugh. The streets are full of people who did not get a second chance. If Kitani Inc. goes bust, some of my people won't get a second chance either. Life is not fair.'
`Just because life is unfair, there is no reason we should be.' Kitani saw helplessness in his eyes. Ian stretched out his arms and said: `What can I say to change your mind?'
Kitani did not fail to notice the stress on `I'. It would have been preposterous if anyone else had put it in that way. `Nothing,' she would have said. But Ian had given her a first chance: a little girl desperate to be a model, a chance to be the first non-robotic model on the catwalk for decades. And when she failed and started out as a designer, he had rented her out his mannequin models in the first difficult years of Kitani Inc. for practically nothing, just because he felt responsible for her disaster on the catwalk. He had said goodbye to `the lads' for months when Giovanni died, her husband, just to be able to be there, and again when Cherri was not in her bed one morning and apparently was nowhere else, ever again. No second chance. It was Ian who had told a thousand journalists to go get screwed when they suggested Cherri running away had something to do with her being a test tube baby and Kitani being unable to be a real mother. Even more, he had used the strings to make sure everybody in fashion industry told the journalists to go get screwed.
What could he say? She looked at the doll. It would not get a second chance anywhere. Not with Carmaro, Taka Takana or Oliveira, who used male models only, including for female clothing. Not with West Red and DIY, who where bailing out of the show circuit next year. And hopefully not with Yamamaha, who had a reputation of damaging his models beyond repair.
The doll's head sagged between its knees. What could he say? What should she say? Kitani looked at the robot models. She loved them, always had, more than anyone would ever know, but it would not be the same to see them marching and dancing on the catwalk. Not now that she ... Let the dead bury the dead, she decided. She looked at the MegaFluff, that made little, jerky movements, as if she was fighting something inside herself.
`Ian, this kid should have a mother somewhere, or someone who cares for her. Let's find her. And until that time, she can stay with me, and you can train her and we will see if it comes to something.'

People say dolls can't cry. Kitani had read somewhere that in a penguin colony of tens of thousands of identical birds, a mother can find her own baby squealing for her to come to the nest.

Picking up with her ears the faint, whistling noise coming from the doll, more like a sustained, anguished breathing, she knew that it was her daughter crying in there, having returned to give her a second chance.
She cursed her stiff plastic legs, because she almost fell when she tried to run to Cherri. She cursed her hard plastic arms when she did her best to hug the doll, but the strangest thing was, she could feel her heart thumping at the place where it had been until, twenty years ago, a girl had been foolish enough to let herself be rebuilt into a Dancing Mannequin.