The elevated highway rushes beneath the Jaguar as I scream through the desert in the left lane. The speedometer reads 220 KPH. From within the air conditioned cabin, the desert looks like a white-hot furnace. Jen would say I’m running away. Maybe I am.
Seventy kilometers outside Vegas the HUD trills with an incoming call. It’s Jen again. Blue eyes, oval face, blond hair that fans around her shoulders—she blinks, looks to the side, faces forward, the hint of a smile on her lips. She knows I’m ignoring her. I take a deep breath and nudge the accelerator, layering on speed. The scream of the redlining engine drowns out the cheery tone of her second and third calls.
Thirty minutes from Vegas another call arrives, this time from Conner Paulson, CEO of Lotus Marketing. My boss. I don’t have the option of ducking him, not even when heading off for a week of vacation in Sin City. His avatar transforms to a live image and the steering wheel vibrates as the sedan brakes and transfers to full auto.
“Good morning, Conner,” I say.
Conner glowers. “Not really. It’s a shitty morning. Did you hear about Avonna?”
“How could I not? The video went viral.”
“They say good things come in threes. It’s a lie, Lewis. Bad things come in threes. Or fives. Or hundreds, like goddamned fire ants.” His fleshy, acne-scarred face forms a deep scowl. He looks like he’s trying to figure out if I’m secretly responsible for everything from global warming to the fact that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in well over a century. “It’s a disaster,” he says.
“I’m sorry, Conner.”
I’d seen the video that morning as I spooned soggy cereal into my mouth. Shot on Avonna’s cell, she struts into a spacious bedroom wearing a pink bra and panties, hair damp from the shower. She stands in front of the mirror and powers on the blow dryer. Her eyes widen and she leans towards the mirror. A slight tremor runs through her. She blinks and her face resets to its usual confidence. She draws a comb through the satin sheen of her brown hair—back on script for the fourth installment of the Hair Diary campaign Lotus created for Avonna beauty products. Her movements are herky-jerky, almost spastic. Another tremor runs through her. She stares into the mirror, confused.
Shot in super-definition, the bedroom lighting carefully designed to show off her curves (and of course her glistening hair), Avonna sets the dryer to maximum and places it directly against her abdomen. Her synthetic skin begins to melt, revealing the ductworks beneath. She tilts her head, smiling, her hair falling to the side. Oily smoke rises from the blackened place below her ribcage. “So smooth,” she says.
The video stormed the major networks earlier that morning.
Above the steering column, Conner rubs his jaw with a massive palm. “She wasn’t showing signs of scatter and wasn’t scheduled for a retune until January. The metrics read normal.”
“At least she got the tagline right,” I say.
“She did at that.”
A Corporate Person like Avonna comes with a hefty price tag but they provide decades of brand promotion without the risks presented by celebrity endorsers. Former president Kenny Lorraine’s numerous sexual liaisons with hotel bellhops, action movie star Tommy Cruz’s shooting spree in Branson Missouri—the wrong spokesperson can kill a brand overnight. Silver Linings adult diapers went out of business shortly after the Branson incident.
“How long until you hit Vegas?” Conner asks.
“Little less than half-an-hour.”
“Good. Maureen booked you a flight on the ten-thirty to New York. You’re going to pay Avonna a visit.”
“Why don’t you send a technician? Besides, I’m on vacation.”
“Not anymore you’re not. This one requires some … finesse. You’ve got experience with things like this. Oh, and I’ve got lung cancer. Again.”
He waves at me. “It’s my own damned fault. Barb’s always telling me to quit with the cigarettes. Oh well. Another day, another pair of lungs.” I’m too distracted by his blasé response to invasive surgery to ask him what he means by finesse, or why he’s sending a salesman on a scatter-run when he cuts the connection.
Before I reach the LAS terminal and hand off the Jag to the American-United concierge, Jen tries calling once more, sends a bunch of texts. Seated in The Captain’s Lounge, I read through the messages:
Why don’t you answer your phone?
I miss you. Call me when you can.
Vanilla or Cinnamon Dolce? I can’t decide.
I delete the texts and stare at the empty screen. I imagine Jen sitting in her wheelchair, hand poised in front of the cappuccino maker at the lab, unable to choose between one sort of syrup-heavy caffeinated beverage and another. I wonder if she’s stuck in a loop. Me as well. It’s a terrible idea, but I reply to her last text:
Go for black. It’s the only safe option.
I hit send and wait. No response. She must be having her Neuropathy treatment. I won’t hear from her again for hours. I tuck my phone away and head for the bar where I order a double bourbon, neat. Above the constellation of alcohol bottles, a flat screen displays a panel of talking heads discussing the Avonna incident. An inset at the corner plays the video itself: Avonna’s eyes widening, the tremor, the hot tip of the dryer burning through her skin ….
I drain the musky liquor, place the empty tumbler atop a hundred dollar bill, and hurry back to the waiting area. I imagine Jen strapped into a chair, electrodes attached to her skull, data appearing on various screens as technicians probe her synthetic brain. Years of treatment and they’d made no headway, seen no improvement. She remembers me regardless of how deep they probe, how many times they cycle her memory.
Three hours and two martinis later the plane touches down at a rain soaked LaGuardia. I disembark and stumble into the private concourse in search of my driver. It doesn’t take long to find him. A stout Pakistani wearing a felt fedora, a silver kerchief tucked into his breast pocket, holds a sign that reads: “Welcome to New York, Mr. Lopez.”
“That’s me,” I say.
We shake hands, and then the Pakistani, moving far quicker than I would have expected, leads me out of the private terminal, through the concourse, and into a steamy New York evening. By the time I slip into the backseat of the limousine my shirt clings to my chest. The door locks behind me. I run a palm across my forehead and push into the plush leather, eyes closed. I’ll check into the Ritz, sleep a few hours, and then pay Avonna a visit at her Soho penthouse.
“Hello, Lewis,” a woman’s voice says, cool and silky. I nearly smash my head through the moon roof. “Are you okay? Would you like me to take a look at that?”
I rub my bruised cranium and wonder if the martinis had a more powerful effect than I anticipated or if Avonna had materialized out of thin air.
“What are you doing here?” I ask.
“Conner didn’t tell you?” She cocks her head to the side. She really does have gorgeous hair—not synthetic but grown from transplanted skin cells. The thought of where that skin might have come from puts a damper on my appreciation.
My eyes dart down to her midsection, hidden under a turquoise wrap dress. “Conner said you needed some special care. His exact word was finesse.”
It feels strange talking to her—almost like a real person, but not quite. The fakery has improved with time, but ask enough questions on the right topic and you can get a Corporate Person talking gibberish. Even so she looks real. After years of selling them for Lotus, even after Jen, it still gets to me. Like a cunning forgery of a Van Gogh or Michelangelo, no matter how well done, they’re still nothing but fakes.
No one but the folks at Lotus call Corporate Persons by their brand names. Borberry’s public name is James Pendleton Gates. Avonna goes by Kristy Porter. I used to call Jen Xianso before the car maker returned her—the first and only refund Conner ever gave. But those were special circumstances.
Avonna smiles. “Finesse,” she says. “That’s so smooth!”
The limousine ascends to the elevated autolanes—not as fast as the empty highway outside Vegas, but we make good time. “What didn’t Conner tell me?” I ask.
Avonna smiles. “I’m being decomped. We’re on our way to the warehouse now.”
I don’t know what to say. Jen had put the four-inch spike of a stiletto through the Xianso Vice President’s eye and we hadn’t destroyed her. I might have done the same if some fat asshole tried to rape me. The legal settlement between Lotus and Xianso specified that we would reimburse them for Jen, prorated for their eleven months of use, and they would, quid-pro-quo, not publicize why they returned her.
Avonna watches traffic pass beneath the limousine, streams of red brake lights. I consider calling Conner. I didn’t sign up for this. I hadn’t signed up for Jen either.
I remember the way she looked when I arrived at Xianso’s offices. Sitting primly on a divan and clutching a small handbag as though she might be waiting for a bus. Real and artificial blood flaked from her skin. Bullets had shredded her blouse. Ductworks protruded silver-blue and orange, leaking fluid. She’d sat that way for twelve hours while the scatter team flew across the Atlantic to retrieve her. She then waited again while I caught the red-eye from Tokyo. I had sold her to Xianso. She refused to leave with anyone but me.
I brought her to the Lotus labs where she underwent a heavy scrub. A total reset. While it wiped her memories of the rape and how she killed Xianso’s VP, inexplicably she remembered me. Fixated on me.
“I belong to you,” she insisted on the day she escaped the lab and showed up at my doorstep.
“No you don’t, Jen. You belong to Lotus.”
“Yes I do! You have to let me inside. Nothing feels right. Nothing.”
I raised a stunner and aimed it at her chest. “You know I can’t.”
“You’re malfunctioning,” I said. “You’ve formed an attachment to replace your brand loyalty.”
The stunner crackled. Jen slumped to the ground, arms akimbo, eyes open, staring. Countless scrubs later she remained fixated and became a permanent resident at the Lotus Lab in Albuquerque. They disabled her from the waist down to deter future escape attempts. They would have decomped her if all the cognitive engineers weren’t so damned curious about her latent memories. Every time they burned down the forest the bit of her that had fixated on me survived like a stubborn old tree.
Confined to the labs, she calls me two-dozen times a day. I could block her number and be done with it—I rarely take her calls—but each time I think about doing so I remember how she ran to me when I stepped into the executive suite of Xianso’s Beijing office. Leaking goo, clinging to me, sobbing but unable to generate tears because of shredded ductwork. “Thank god,” she said. “Take me away from here. Please.”
“Avonna?” I say. “You’re sure Conner said that? You’re sure he said that you’re being decomped?”
“Yes. He called this morning and said he’d send a driver to pick me up.” A hot, metallic taste fills my mouth. The bastard. I hope his lungs collapse before he can get in for surgery. I pull out my phone.
After a series of rings, Conner’s voice: “I know why you’re calling. Just do your job.” A recorded message. Somehow I avoid smashing my fist through the limousine window.
Avonna blinks. “Is something wrong? Your temperature spiked and your breathing is irregular. Do you need a doctor?”
“No, I do not need a doctor!” I dial Conner’s phone again. Another message:
“Give it up, Lewis. I let you play knight-in-shining-armor once already and look how that turned out. I don’t need another Jen weighing down development. Sometimes they go bad—it’s the nature of the business. We’ve already started the build out for her replacement.”
Fucking Conner. He treated my demand that we not decomp Jen like that of a kid begging his parents to keep a stray dog. Said he’d “humor me.” Well fuck him. If he wants Avonna decomped, let him fly his ass to New York and do it himself.
“Are you sure you don’t need medical assistance? Your pulse is over one-sixty.”
I take a series of deep breaths—inhale, exhale—the way the Yoga instructor once taught me and my Ex on an ill-fated date. Some plan to get us more “active.” We broke up soon after. A moment later I check in with Avonna. “How about now?”
“One-eleven. Much better Mr. Lopez.” She sounds so happy. Like I’ve made her day. The guy sent to oversee the first decomp in Lotus history.
“Can I ask you something?” I say.
“Why’d you do it? Do you even know?”
Avonna smiles—all she does is smile—and runs her fingers through her hair. “What do you think of Tresilmaine?”
It takes me a second to realize she’s asking about a competing shampoo brand. Lower tier, the cheap stuff—what you might find at Wal-Mart. “They’re aimed at a different segment than you. No competition.”
“Their new maximizing conditioner looks really nice. Maybe even nicer than ours—I was talking to Helen at the salon and she said that—”
“Avonna, you’re deflecting. I want to know why you defaced yourself.”
She spools hair around her index finger. “I didn’t!”
Rather than argue I load the video on my cell and hand it to her. She watches herself burn a hole through her stomach. Her expression of polite interest never changes.
“Who was that?” she asks when the video ends. “She’s so pretty.”
“That was you.”
“No it wasn’t! I would never do something so awful.”
“Well check out your midsection if you don’t believe me.” There’s no modest way to do it, but then Corporate Persons don’t have modesty, at least not the sort that comes from embarrassment or shame. They do what their programing allows, and for Avonna, that means a bit of flaunting. She unties her dress and pulls it over her head.
She looks down at the rough-edged wound on her abdomen. Much smaller than before; synthetics repair themselves faster than skin.
“See,” I say. “You did that. I want to know why.” Avonna’s smile fades to wide-eyed confusion. The same look from the video.
She trembles. “So smooth,” she says and turns her face away. “Did you know Avonna’s daily moisturizing body wash’s aloe content is lower than Tresilmaine’s body wash?”
Her profile reflects in the limousine window, floating there like Conner or Jen’s avatar. Her eyes flick from side to side as I wait, wondering if her sudden interest in competitor’s products is a symptom of neural degeneration or a delaying tactic.
“Avonna? Why did you do it?”
I want to know so badly it borders on irrational. Her answer won’t provide the cure for Jen’s fixation. Jen who walked thirty-six miles to reach my townhome so she could tell me that she belonged to me, loved me. That was before 20,000 volts turned her eyes to hard, unseeing sapphires and she crashed to her knees, hair splayed on the sidewalk. I lifted her and carried her inside. She smiled when she woke, relieved to see me, happy. We ate Thai takeout while waiting for the technicians to arrive; Jen enjoying the heat of chilies and sour lemon grass as much as I.
Each time she undergoes another treatment I wonder if the calls and texts will stop. If she will forget me. That is my secret fear: being forgotten by one who cannot remember because she is incapable of real memories. Fear of losing fake love offered by a fake person—it’s hard to say which of us is worse off.
I repeat my question. “Why did you do it?”
Avonna narrows her eyes. “How much of me is real?”
“Real? All of you. You’re one-hundred percent real.”
“Not like this.” She runs manicured nails through her hair. “So smooth.” She pinches a lock of hair between index finger and thumb and yanks it loose. A clump of skin comes with it. She doesn’t flinch. “See? Blood.”
I do see. The remnants of the martinis churn in my stomach. The bald patch on the side of Avonna’s head glistens red. She doesn’t seem to mind. I grab a handful of napkins from the bar and offer them to her but she won’t take them.
I don’t know what to say. She shouldn’t be able to perform self-destructive acts. Burning through her synthetic skin was an abomination but yanking out her hair? Impossible. Her template demands fastidious dedication to keeping it beautiful. She exists to display hair perfection, to model it to customers, to sell the Avonna brand by embodying it. She isn’t showing signs of scatter—random degradation of neural processes—but something much worse.
She sets the hair on the seat next to her, crosses a bare thigh over the other.
“You should get dressed,” I say. “We’ll be to the warehouse soon.”
She glances at her mostly naked body. “Do you like the way I look?”
“Your heart rate is up again—are you attracted to me?”
“No, Avonna. I’m not attracted to you.”
“Why not? Aren’t I pretty? Aren’t I smooth?”
“You’re bleeding,” I say. “And you’re not my type.”
She smiles, reaches for the napkins, dabs her head. “You like blonds.”
A lucky guess? No, a statement of fact. The limousine slows, exits the auto lanes, merges with ground-level traffic. Neon signs flash past, dulled by the dark tint of the windows. “Avonna, put your dress on.”
She cocks her head, raises an eyebrow. “Why don’t you kiss me?”
I rub palm sweat on the seat. She’s so far off template, so screwed up. How did she get this way? What set her off? Maybe Conner was right to order the decomp.
“You’re trembling,” she says. “You want me, don’t you?”
My fingers trace the outside of my pants pockets, searching for a stunner. It isn’t there. I stopped carrying it soon after turning Jen over to the Lab. I tap the glass separating us from the Pakistani. “Hey. Hey, open up!”
“It’s okay, Lewis. I won’t tell anyone.”
I pound the glass with a fist. The limousine cuts to the right lane. The glass lowers and the driver looks at us in the rearview mirror. “Everything okay back there?”
“How far to the warehouse?”
“Ten minutes or so.”
Avonna chuckles. “Perfect. That’s perfect.”
“Leave the glass down and step on it,” I say. The Pakistani shrugs and the limousine lunges forward. I don’t want to look at her. That smile, those fluttering eyelashes, Avonna leaning forward to show cleavage ….
“What’s wrong, Lewis?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. We just need to get you to the warehouse.”
“So you can decomp me.” She speaks with the same coquettish lilt as when inviting me to kiss her.
“You didn’t decomp Xianso.”
I can’t hide my surprise. How does she know about Jen? A vague dread settles over me. A malaise of the inevitable. “What do you know about Xianso?” I dislike the way the word feels in my mouth, the connotation. I’ve come to think of her as Jen, her brand fixation nothing more than part of a story in which I am both hero and villain.
“So smooth,” Avonna replies. “So smooth.”
We pull into an industrial park. Lines of semitrailers merge with warehouses, corporate logos emblazed on their sides. Round a curved road skirting a manmade lake with a fountain at the center, we turn into an empty parking lot. We approach a nondescript, cement building. A rollup door rises and the limousine edges inside. Floods illuminate an empty space. Steel pylons rise to support the flat roof. We weave through the pylons and arrive at the back of the warehouse where a silver Corporate Person cylinder sits next to an articulating chair that resembles those used by dentists.
“Best we could do on short notice,” the Pakistani calls over his shoulder. The tires screech and the engine dies. Avonna, nonplussed, waits for the driver to open her door. “Shit,” he says, catching sight of her scabbed-over bald spot. “She did that?” I nod.
Avonna struts to the chair and sits. Reclines, legs draped across ivory leather. “Decomposition,” she says. “Who gets my hair?”
She sighs. “Lustrous, silky, smooth, natural thickness, healthy …”
The Pakistani and I look at one another. “Should we get started?” he asks.
It’s a simple process—a snip to the spinal column, removal of the biobattery fed by the ductworks, draining the liquids—I’d practiced the procedure before leaving to pick up Jen years ago. Walked into the Xianso offices with the toolkit in hand, prepared to help carry her body out the backdoor. The dry heaves, empty tear ducts, the relief in her voice as she pleaded for me to take her away—it didn’t matter that she was a fake. My need to protect was real.
The Pakistani retrieves the decomp kit from the passenger seat. “Care to do the honors?” I open the kit. Remove the syringe and draw 300 milliliters of silver immobilizer to inject into Avonna’s neck.
Avonna stares up into the overhead floods. “Avonna at home highlights bring the salon right to your doorstep …”
“Avonna?” I say. She won’t look at me. “This will feel cold.”
“… sun-bleached locks without all that harmful UV exposure. A perfect companion to Avonna Natural Tan lotion …”
“Display mode?” the driver asks.
I don’t bother explaining that Avonna isn’t a generic sales model, that she has her own unique template. She’s repeating marketing copy because she wants or needs to, as impossible as that is. The needle shakes in my hands. “You do it.” I shove the syringe at the Pakistani.
“But I’ve never done it before.”
“Neither have I.” He doesn’t believe me. “Look—it’s not hard—you insert it where her jugular would be.” If she were a person.
My phone vibrates. Vibrates again. The speaker blares Conner’s voice into the warehouse: “Answer the goddamned phone!”
“Why? You’ve got a fucking override. It’s not like I have a choice.”
I pull out the phone and Conner projects himself into the room, life-size but ephemeral, desaturated. “Good—you’re almost done,” he says.
“No thanks to you. Can’t you see we’re busy?”
Not-quite-Conner whirls on me. “What’s eating you? Synth-love?”
“Decomposition,” Avonna says. “Wish you were here. Wish you the best. Wish you would …”
“Inject her,” Conner says. The Pakistani steps toward Avonna, hesitates. “Do it or you’re fired!”
Avonna rotates her head, looks the Pakistani in the face. “You’re fired!” she speaks in Conner’s gruff voice. “Fired!” The syringe clatters on the floor.
“Forget it,” he says. “This is nuts. I’m out.”
“Lewis?” Conner coughs. “Listen to me—she’s corrupt. She corrupted them all. We’ve gotten calls from Nike, DeBeers, The Home Factory …”
It takes me a second to realize he’s not talking about Avonna. “What?”
“You’re not the only one Jen’s been calling. She hacked the network, sent template updates—this is just the beginning. We’re looking at a mass recall. Every single one of them.”
“Where is she? I want to talk to her.”
Conner shakes his head. “You can’t.”
“We had to.” Not-quite-Connor coughs into a fist.
I stare at him, suddenly cold, tired, beyond tired. “Fucking bastard.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Lewis? Calm down. You know what you do when you have a virus—quarantine won’t cut it. Not with that level of sophistication—”
“She wasn’t a virus.” My vision doubles, triples, light refracting in my tears. I kill the connection, rip open the phone, and remove the battery.
The Pakistani sits in the limousine, head resting on the steering wheel. “What now?”
“I don’t know.”
Avonna rises from the chair, smiles, cocks her head, hair falling to the side. “So smooth.”
“We can’t just leave her, can we?” the Pakistani asks.
“No. We can’t.”
I don’t want to ride with her and so I take the front passenger seat. Roll up the opaque glass. Watch as the industrial park disappears, as the lights of the city mount and rise into skyscrapers, dark and golden silhouettes against the sky.
Jen would say I’m running away. Maybe I am.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nathan M. Beauchamp’s short fiction has appeared in Under the Bed, the Exigencies anthology, Kodon, and Metatron Mag. His debut novel, Universe Eventual: Chimera, is scheduled for release winter, 2014. Nathan is currently earning his M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Western State University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two young boys.