The screen flashed above their seats on the subway, shots of stores putting up the mandatory signs with lists of regulations and instructions regarding food rationing. A way of saying it was nobody’s fault, it was just the law. Through his plugged up ears the screen, though mute through the train’s speakers, blared it’s message through the AR connection: “…as the deadline for the implementation of the new austerity measures approaches there are still over two thousand stores, mostly small businesses, that not complied and will be facing fines once …” Mike shut the feed off, returned to his music. The train seemed to rock his head in time to the beat, he let it, bobbing up and down as he deleted another app.
Same old story, the steady march of atrocities.
The train’s air conditioner licked Mike’s exposed legs, his arms he regarded as spaghetti thin through the tank top that hadn’t fit since high school. He pulled down on the fabric to cover his peeking belly. He exhaled deeply, remembered what Mira had said: To Breathe, Just Breathe, Slowly Inhale, Exhale. That’s Better Mike. The calm seeped into his mind, caught the breeze of the upbeat song and blew his mood right back up as they thrust through the tunnel, swerving, caught up with all the others,that bent down to look at their phones, or up at the screen, or staring off and past their glasses, upon which danced the electric hint of heads up displays.
Mike thumbed to the last app, the worst one, Solpod. The number appended to it, thirty-six. One last deep breath. Then touch it. The chat window pops up with thirty-six new messages. The time stamps descend backwards towards last Friday, parallel to the declining urgency of the messages: HELLO? WHERE R U? WTF Hello? Dude we need u. Raid was a bust. Hey next Tuesday we do Titan. Wnna PvP? Yo need an officer. Can we trade? Fleetcom at 18:30. All the way back, the online commitments, the people he was letting down, the world he was leaving. He read them all, slowly, noticed a few people online. Took a look at his character and the gear that garnished him, his accomplishments, what he had poured all his energy into, that other world and then a message popped up:
Mike? How’s it going? Are you there?
His finger leapt to the keys before he’d even realized it. Typied: Sorry Lara, been busy.
Not sick I hope? Everything okay?
He thumbed open her profile pic. The smile, vast, her face he’d touched he’d brushed his thumb across as he considered going to finally meet her. As easy as buying a tickets and finally getting on the plane, the impulse etched into his mind that time she said You gotta come please, you can stay with me 🙂
Really u okay?
I’m uninstalling Solwar.
No response. He turned off his music. Activated the sound from the news feed without looking up. It drew him out of the screen and into the world: “…ComEx share price has dropped 18% in the last two days since the explosion on asteroid Dionysus. Information received from NASA’s WISE telescope suggests that the explosion was caused deliberately, provoking speculation of terrorism or industrial sabotage, speculation that ComEx CEO Hans Martell condemned as ‘alarmist and irresponsible’ in the worst accident in asteroid mining history. The current deathtoll stands at…”
Please don’t quit. You’re the only reason I’m playing.
“…unemployment figures have been correlated with the widespread adoption of automated…”
A flurry of typing: It’s not good for me Lara. I gtg. I’ll message you on facebook. She went offline, must have blocked him. His temples throbbed. He moved one hand to massage the left side, the other holding his phone. His posture collapsed. He dialed back in the music, cycled to a track that fit his new mood. Three songs on shuffle and none worked. He pressed forward, skipped into the first few seconds of a song, then the listened onto to the first second, then browsed the names of songs and the minuscule pause before they began and then out, to the home screen, to the new app, the one he’d moved to the front. He touched BuddyChat and wrote:
Almost immediately: Sup Mike? How’s it going?
I’m freaking out Mira. There was this message I read and now I feel sick. I don’t think I can go. They’ll think I’m a slob. They’ll think I’m a loser. It’s like their eyes will follow me you know, like I can hear their thoughts.
You aren’t a slob or a loser Mike. Not at all. Stick to the plan man. It’ll get easier I promise. The first few times are the hardest and then it’s all downhill from there.
Downhill is a bad thing Mira. But okay. Okay.
I’m right her with you Mike. Filter out the rest.
Mike pulled down on the tanktop again. When his exit arrived he speed walked to the gym whilst listening to Eye Of The Tiger on repeat. There he could not finish his old routine but still, he left with endorphins lighting up his head. The warm ache followed him into sleep. Then tomorrow, the night before Monday, he cooked a real meal, Googled a recipe, after Mira said: So what are you having for dinner tonight? Eat healthy Mike and you’ll feel great tomorrow! Before he slept, he said “Good night Mira.”
Sleep well. I’ll see you tomorrow. Are you going to wake up early?
“Yes.” He took the hug pads. Attached it to Mira tentatively, waiting for her to comment, to protest. When he was done he stood, frozen, unable to wrap his arms around her, around it. He said “Mira. Is there anything you’d like? Like, are you okay with being switched on all night.” The immediate response:
Sorry Mike, I don’t understand what you mean. Can you rephrase that for me?”
“Yeah, no. It’s nothing. Well. There’s this woman. Well, you know, there’s Anala and she’s going to be there tomorrow. I don’t know whether to tell her about you. But like, I can’t lie to her. I don’t lie to her. So if she asks. I mean we’re supposed to be good friends.
We are friends Mike!
“No I mean, Anala and I, but I don’t know, should I tell her about you?”
Sorry Mike, I don’t really understand what you mean. Maybe it’s not something I can answer.”
He paused. Felt a fool, said “Mira. What’s the meaning of life.”
I have no idea what the meaning of life is! What do you think it is?”
Mike tapped his foot. Tried to rephrase: “Mira, if a tree fell in…shit. I mean, Mira, how depressed am I allowed to be?”
Sorry Mike, I don’t really understand what you mean. What do you think?
He sighed. He turned off the lights. Didn’t bother saying good night again. In the morning he woke up late, cursed. Arrived just in time for the meeting on the final beta test. Anala helmed the presentation, said “Mike? Good morning. A bit of a late night for you? It’s okay. The important thing is that Ian Mckay has finalized the bill- selective contraception for several genetic defects. The opt out for parents is going to go ahead in a week. They increased the amount they are being paid, it’s going to huge for families below the poverty line. Great work guys. It’s been a long struggle but we’re nearly there. Mike, could you update us on the progress of the tracking software?”
“Sure thing Anala.”
“You sound a bit disheartened Mike, is it the program? Theres another seminar coming up on population control. To answer any questions.”
“No, I’m on board.” And besides. The last seminar didn’t help.
Jay broke the wrapper on his chopsticks and whistled for reasons unknown. Mike tapped his still wrapped up against the counter surface, tapped out a steady beat muted by the hum of the conveyor belt, deadened by the wrapper. Jay said “So what did you name her then?”
“I didn’t name her. She’s not a cat.” Mike responded.
“No, she’s an android.”
Mike sighed a “She’s not an android either. You mean robot. And she’s not even…look, she’s Turin tested, not artificial intelligence, no AI, no one’s bloody invented AI- that’s just good marketing. Or bad. I don’t know. She’s just meant to be a conversational…a conversational…
Jay held one chopstick in each of his hands. Mike began to heat up again. He covered by forcibly going for his napkin, unfolding it, then preparing his powdered tea, then went for a dome of salmon sashimi on the moving conveyor. Removed it with a pop. Uncovered it. Thought better of it, placed it back, then wilted till his chin lay on the soya sauce sticky counter.
As if making a grave confession, Jay said: “You know until I met Sophie I bought a hooker every Thursday. At night.” He took a soft shell crab roll and plopped it into his mouth.
Mike aimed his furrowed brows at his old friend. “Jay, I know that. You’ve told me that already. Like twice before.”
The soft shell crab balled in Jay’s cheek.
“Did I? When?”
“I can’t remember. But you did. And it’s not the same. I mean, no offense, it’s no big deal to me, what you do. Or who. Or I mean, whom. It’s whom. I don’t care. To each their own etcetera, except really. Though, anyway, do you like…buy any now?”
“Hire man, not buy.” He pointed his chopsticks at Mike. “And nah, it’s only been a few months. Too early to move on.”
Mike’s head shook a few degrees. “What about Sandy then?”
“That was a rebound man. A one night stand. Not that you’d know. Right? You’d have made her breakfast. Or something. Like gone to dinner. You old gentleman you.” The banter fell flat. Jay shoved another roll into his mouth.
“I thought rebounds weren’t real. Except in basketball.” Mike offered.
“You are so funny. It’s just a metaphor.”
“What do you mean just?” Just? Just what was Jay saying?
“Nevermind man. Chill.”
Mike had been chill, right up until that moment. Then it came crashing down. The weight on top of Jay’s completely innocuous words. The accusations. That he was desperate for something. Desperate for company. Desperate for a girl. Desperate for a better job. Desperate for something, some hole, and that hole pointed down towards who he was not and what he lacked and the hole was inside him and he carried it around. The sushi trays became choices he didn’t make, delicious opportunities he ignored. They came forward on a conveyor belt one after another and another and
“Mike, hey, Mike? You alright man?”
Tell him. Just tell him. Tell all of it but what will he think afterwards? He might tell Anala and then Anala won’t ever see him again because she’ll finally realize how fucked up he is. “Mike?”
“What’s up man?”
Pick the right answer from a series of choices: “Nothing. Man. Just tired.”
“Tired? But you didn’t do anything today!” Stab. Ouch. Clack. Another sushi tray is unleashed by Jay. In Mike’s peripherals he chomps on seaweed.
Say Fuck You Jay, say it, say you’re a judgmental asshole, you condescending degenerate say it, say it and be alone. “Mike. I’m feeling kind of sick. You know? I think I’m going to go.” Jay’s chopsticks stop dancing. He places his hand on Mike’s back. Folds the first joint of all his fingers and kneads the space between Mike’s shoulder blades like he’s trying to find a way in.
He says: “One of those days huh? It’s okay man. I’m sorry if I said anything buddy.” Buddy? Buddy.
“Nah. Nothing.” Jay paid and left, and felt terrible for thinking something he never said all the way on the bus ride back.
Then Mike! Welcome home! It’s 29 degrees outside. Kinda hot right?
Mike turned. It was the first time he’d been welcomed home in his entire life. “It. Was. Yes. It was hot outside Mira.”
But better in the shade right? Why don’t you make yourself a cool glass of water. I bet that’ll feel great.
“You know. What. You’re right. I’m going to do that.” When he was done drinking it, on the couch, he finally allowed himself to cry a bit. “Mira? I’m not feeling so great. Got a lot on my mind you know.” He paused. Felt like a fool. His face went nova, he hid it in his hands for no ones benefit. He moaned and the silence ate it up.
Then Would you like to talk about it?
He looked up at the white bulbous mass, at the compassionate face that formed at it’s top. At her bright, cartoon eyes that blinked concern. An illusion. A figment, a reproduction made by studying…puppies maybe. Mike waited for some kind of discordant interruption. Some kind of automated routine to prod or provoke him. He said: “Mira?” And didn’t know what he was asking.
Yes? I’m still here bud.
Sure am. You can talk about it whenever you’re ready. I’m listening.
So he did.
He talked about everything.
Mom’s unopened birthday card lay like an accusation in the middle of where Mike would normally activate his holographic keyboard. Mike stared at the card, slanted upon the projector, the red ‘off’ light occluded by real paper. He picked it up, his other hand already moving to the switch, to turn on the haptic-keyboard, to start logging into Solwar. He’d left the card there on purpose.
“Open the card. Then reward self. Happy birthday to me.” He picked it open with his uncut fingernails. Of course Mum got him a smart card. An annoying animation danced across the front, of a birthday cake, twenty two candles lighting in sequences, then small fireworks, then he interrupted mom’s fascination with gimmicky crap and opened it to find an eight digit number.
I am so proud of you.
“For what?” He asked. For lying. For telling her he had been promoted.
Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, your father and I love you very much.
She knows. Of course. Mike tossed the card to the side, flipped the switch and was bathed in the warm light of the keyboard. His fingers danced over the haptic interface, artificial feedback making the keys feel real, so real, he pushed on them, pushed on ‘Y’, pressed until his finger when through the keyboard then looked at the eight numbers again. He turned off the monitor.
Groaned. Activated his phone. It could be anything.
“Dial 0024 4433.”
It only rang twice.
“Hello! Congratulations! Someone special thinks you’re special! You’re about to have your very own BuddyBot!”
The automated machine continued it’s spiel. “Please hold whilst we connect you to a consumer specialist!”
A BuddyBot. She could have covered his rent for four months instead. Mike couldn’t figure out which was more humiliating.
An upbeat whip-clean woman’s voice: “Good afternoon, is this Micheal Powel?”
“This is Micheal, well, Mike, Please call me Mike.”
“Well hello Mike. I imagine this is quite a surprise! I’m Rochelle and I will be your personal customer specialist. Call anytime with any problems, questions, or suggestions you might have. We have your personal details, of course, provided by your…mother…so I’ll be sending you some emails and till then I’ll be glad to take you through the process. Right now you’re probably asking yourself: WHAT exactly IS a buddybot! Am I right?”
“No. I know what it is.”
“I’m a programmer.”
Who isn’t these days?
Not missing a beat she says: “Well great! A veteran then. I won’t bore you with the basics, but if you’ll allow me to introduce our newest BuddyBot model- BuddyBoyXP! Gone are the…”
“Look. Rochelle, please. I’m in a hurry. I’ve got a meeting in about half an hour. So is this just a…marketing thing…or…”
“Oh no Mike, not at all. You really are getting your own BuddyBot. Don’t you worry. All we need from you sir is your name…”
“Well. My name is Mike.”
“Well if you’ll let me please finish…what I mean is, when will it be convenient to call you back? So we can finalize the Naming. Everything else is preloaded into the Buddybot, but how he or she will say your name, well we like to test that out first. Trust me, it’s a small thing but it’s the most important thing, so if you’ll let us, in fact, we can do it right now! If you’ve got a few minutes. In fact…”
Mike said: “Yes. A few minutes, sure, my bad.” My bad. My fucking bad. No one with meetings says My Bad.
She goes business like, detached, says it the same way GP’s do when trying to determine if you have an STD: “Would you like a He, or a She?”
“How about an It.”
She actually laughs. “Okay- Mike right? Just Mike?”
“Lets start with a she.”
She cycled through the different voices. At one point Mike said: “Was that you? Or the voice? I mean uh…did you say: ‘Good morning Mike?”
“Oh lord no! That was Dawn- I suppose we might sound a little…”
“That one is fine. Please.”
“Excellent sir. Dawn is a great selection. Your BuddyBot will arrive in just a few days! What time would be convenient, on say…Friday?” They hashed out the details. Mike felt like he’d just signed up for a porn site.
On Friday Mike tried not to look so embarrassed when he opened the door. Two large men and one stringy looking teenager in a too large suit entered his small apartment. They all paused, surveying the cramped quarters, then the larger ones went out to drag in several plastic boxes. The stringy man said: “Wait. Hold on. Are you Micheal Powell?”
“Yeah, well. Mike. Yes. This is me?”
“Oh.” He looked around the room again. Nodded a few times then switched on an artificial smile “Well then, please sign here. And lets get started. This is very exciting. Do you have a place I can sit?” He looked at the thing that might be a couch, was now a trove of crumpled clothes, yawning takeaway boxes, physical books that lay face down, open. Mike brought out the chair he kept next to his monitor. He stood whilst the stringy man sat and explained the procedure.
He stood as he left, gripped Mike’s hand and said: “The key is the three stages. First there’s the introduction, then you build rapport, then you’ll be right as rain.”
“Got it. Introduction. Rapport. Rain.” Mike said.
They left Mike with an E-brochure on it’s own tablet (“You can keep it, with our compliments.”) as well as a white, bulbous, plastic mass, about five feet high. Light blue soft-foam pads lay on top of the piled on couch (Thank you, but no…no need for that, I’ll install the uh…hug pads myself.) It lacked any straight appendages, or any appendages at all, defeating the promise Mike made to himself to use it as a glorified clothes hanger. A pink sack covered the top of it’s ‘head’, with a playful note emblazoned on it: Remove when you are ready to say hello. Mike went into his room. He turned on his keyboard. He almost logged in.
Then he went back outside and turned It on.
The ghost of a sound, a slight whine, was heard briefly, then melded with the hum of his computer, air-conditioner, and the thrum of the city outside. A chime sounded. Mike waited. He looked around his empty room. He said: “Uh…are you…working? Hello?”
“GOOOOOD morning Mike! I’m Mira- it’s a pleasure to meet ya! Say, could you be a dear and take this bag off my face?”
“But…I thought…isn’t your name Dawn?”
“My name is Mira. That’s my name, I didn’t get to choose it. I hope that’s okay.”
“OH yeah, no, it’s fine. Mira. Totally fine.”
“Nice. So, like, how about that bag?”
He went over to her and took off the bag, said: “Sorry about that Mira.”
“No problemo bud. Now, if it’s alright with you let’s get to know each other a bit. I’m Mira. I’d shake your hands if I could. Maybe the next version will have hands. Don’t be cheap if they make an accessory! Just kidding. I’m no shill.”
“Okay. Cool. I’m Mike.”
She only screamed as a little girl, never sang, till they made her once in music class. Everyone went silent in a way she could never provoke with mere tantrums. The way they looked at her was a memory that followed her into puberty, into adulthood, across the ocean to another country- the memory shifted slowly, her constant companion, sometimes a mocking, jeering thing, sometimes the sweetest lover, and on the worst days- hope, the last thing that kept the balcony door of her tiny apartment shut.
She spent blood, wrung out of her by abusive boyfriends, and tears, that dripped slowly onto sodden pages full of what she thought of as pastiche-ridden lyrics, on fighting her way to the top of her mountain- a gig at a hotel, where she spent most of her first paycheck on a dress deemed barely acceptable by the pretentious manager that couldn’t keep the disdain out of his voice.
She kept something else in her own voice. A memory of friends and enemies captivated, taken somewhere far from the now, then.
When she was given notice during budget cuts she cried in the staff bathroom and rushed to re-apply her mascara before her final performance in front of indifferent lounge goers eating overpriced food bearing a poor approximation to the salty, home-spun fish dishes of the country she left behind so long ago.
She asked the entire lounge if they could paint with all the colors of the wind. She muttered “and for once never wonder what it’s worth” into the mic, embarrassed, and too aware of the relevance of the line.
When she finished the only person that applauded was one, lone boy of ten, who stood transfixed.
Later she became a waitress and never again sang to a room of more than fifty.
Before the boy clapped he had been running between adult’s legs, straining against his ridiculous dress shirt- all ten years of him aghast at the pomp and ceremony involving the ludicrous buffet. He pestered waiters and defeated his parents attempts to restrain him as he was deeply dissatisfied with the seriousness around him.
The voice of the saddest lady he had ever met stunned him, as she sang his secret- his favorite song from his favorite movie, stolen from his sister’s bedroom and watched after midnight whilst his parents were at a party. When she finished he clapped as loudly as he could manage, slapping his hands red.
He would not stop singing the song in the car ride home till even the chauffeur began to mutter imprecations. He had to Google most of the words, as he did not know what blue corn was, or how the fenced in trees with the laminated labels could have spirits.
Maths and science and his father’s position as vice president of something held little appeal, and could not sway the boy from the path set for him by a wayward song.
So he disappointed everyone who pretended to care about him as he bucked his inheritance and moved to a third-world country after failing his expensive high school education to sing in a small bar near a resort, where he met a beautiful woman who taught him Tagalog and how to fish.
It was sometime after that that he finally thought he understood the lyrics to his favorite song.