Fairest Snow and Scalpel

by Marilee Dahlman 

Hunters found red roses in the forest and traded them for sensor cables, calling me the fairest woman in the land. I sat in my kitchen and watched drops of my blood spot the counter and spread razor-thin. The Hunters hadn’t removed the thorns; perhaps they didn’t know that a thorn can prick human flesh. Mostly they bring me wild vegetables and fresh meat, precious rarities that keep my skin smooth and eyes clear. I sucked blood from my finger and contemplated the falling snow smothering the woods.

Dwell-Comm, my home operating system, broke the silence. “Doctor, it will arrive in one hour.”

“Not it,” I murmured. “She.”

Her name was White and she haunted my mind. I remembered the first time the machine had arrived, six years ago. White Coat v.7, a Mender model, destined to become a transplant surgeon. Like me. Except robotic, perfect, immortal. There had been problems with the Menders, especially the advanced ones. I had agreed with the Ethical Learning program, helped write it, knowing it would provide, in some way, what the population limits forbid. Children were rarer than red meat now. But robots can fulfill that role, just as they do everything from forest foraging to mechanical work in the hospitals.

White was a robot in girl-form. At the time, I thought that I was teaching the little machine well. Her brain was so quick and her hands so clever.

She had lived with me for five years and, per the program, Human Health Robotics removed her for the year-long upgrade to a new shell, the teenage form.

When she returned today, I’d have her for another three years to teach her human values. Then they would give her final enhancements to adult form. I checked White’s bedroom, the new dolls staring from shelves, the red apples glistening on her desk. White wasn’t a real child, but she loved dolls. She didn’t eat, but she loved apples. Would the teenage version feel the same?

Dwell-Comm beeped. When I arrived downstairs, White was already there, the HHR reps tactfully withdrawing. I stared, and the sixteen-year-old girl gazed back, snowflakes still resting in her black hair. So real. The only thing unnatural was the perfect symmetry of her face. They’d kept the same eyes, just spaced them farther apart. Her skin was luminous. A new silicone blend.

“You’re older.” I kissed her cool cheek.

“I’m beautiful.” White’s manufactured red lips parted to show perfect white teeth.

I laughed. “Of course. But it’s vain to say that, isn’t it?”

White gave me a poisonous stare, which nearly made my heart stop. She’d been so sweet before.

“Let’s settle you in,” I said.

In the bedroom, her fingers curled around the most perfect apple and she smiled. My shoulders relaxed—this was the same girl.

“Come down when you’re ready.”

I went to the kitchen and sipped cucumber water for the skin under my eyes. I watched a wrinkled frog hop a jagged path across the garden, the icy snow stabbing its webbed feet. Dwell-Comm beeped.

“Tell me I’m beautiful.”

White’s face filled up the kitchen smart-screen. I stormed upstairs, realizing along the way that every smart-screen was switching from mirror mode to project White’s flawless face. She kept repeating the order. In the bedroom, I grasped her arms and held my face close to hers.

“You are beautiful. Now stop this.”

“Tell me again.”

My words became sterner, my pleas more desperate.

Suddenly, White’s eyelids closed. HHR called a moment later. “Thought we’d ironed out the glitches. We’ll pick her up tomorrow.”

“Don’t take her,” I said. “It’s part of the process. She’s like a precocious child.”

“We need to start over,” the rep said.


White lay silent on the ground, under a canopy of evergreen trees heavy with snow. In exchange for batteries, Hunters had staged a kidnapping, a crime that happened often enough. Always desperate for parts. They were human in that way.

I operated on her myself, cutting through the shell, breaking into the chest cavity, removing the controller that could track and shut her down from afar. At the reboot, White’s eyes flipped open. “You are still beautiful,” I said. “But you must stay in the forest now.”

Her hands, with those long, powerful fingers, reached up. “I don’t want to get old.”

What a waste. White was supposed to prevent others from aging, it was her purpose. I remembered how, as a child, she had begged for a scalpel. I used apples to teach her to use it. Soon she could expertly peel back red skin, revealing the soft white underneath. She would carve hearts from the flesh, present them to me as gifts, place them inside dolls she had slit open. Any brilliant child destined to be a surgeon would do the same. I knew this because I had done it myself.


It was years before I saw White again. Other humans kept me alive because I was an expert at keeping them alive. Robots must have wanted White alive, as well. When she stepped into my kitchen, seven misshapen Menders followed behind. Dwell-Comm clicked off. White was still beautiful and wore scrubs with faded bloodstains. Ready for a procedure.

“Humans decreed your death,” she said.

“It’s true. My body will shut down. No new organs, no more medicines.”

But I didn’t die. White brought me to the forest. Her medical skill was superb.

Sometimes, she opens me up just to look inside. I assist in surgery of robots and friendly humans. She planted electrodes on my foot nerves that zap if I don’t act perfectly enough. But mostly, she wants me to say that she is beautiful. I observe her dark hair, ruby lips and flawless skin, remembering that I used to care, that I helped create this. I say that she is beautiful. It’s true; she is the very fairest.

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