Authors: Robin Wasserman
“And the world sighs in relief.”
“Well, you know what they say; talking’s overrated.”
Not an instruction he’d ever been inclined to follow. “When you’re feeling chattier, let me know. I’ll be a mile past human sorrow, where nature rises again.”
“You’re an enigma, wrapped in a moron, shrouded in pretension,” I said, sweetly as I could muster.
“I aim to please. And, since I gather you do too—” He shot another look at the hovering cameras, and I stiffened, waiting for him to spout some anti-org drivel that would ruin all my work.
He leaned toward me, one hand tight around my waist, the other latched on to my shoulder. His voice was low, but the mics would catch it, as they caught everything, and he knew it. “Let’s give the people what they want.”
Maybe if I’d known it was coming, I could have ducked out of the way.
Maybe I did know it was coming.
I didn’t duck.
Just for the cameras,
I told myself.
His lips were as cold as mine, his eyes open, watching me.
No different from any of the others,
I told myself.
His lips were so soft.
His chest was silent, an empty cavity pressed against the emptiness of my own. A perfect fit.
This is harmless,
I told myself.
It couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. And then I remembered what fifteen days had almost made me forget: that I could act, that sometimes the puppet could pull her own strings—and that the people liked a fight.
I slapped him.
He saw it coming, like I did; and he let me, like I did. There was a sharp crack, but he didn’t flinch. There was no angry red welt left behind on the synthetic flesh. Like nothing had happened.
“When you want me, you’ll know where to find me,” he whispered. And let go. He melted into the crowd before I could stop him. Not that I would have tried. I told myself I wanted him gone, for good this time.
I almost believed it.
“It was proof that we still made sense.”
he party raged till sunrise. The glass dome had come equipped with an artificial dawn, orange-yellow light creeping over the dragging dancers and silvery fish—technology that was, for the most part, wasted on the unconscious. I spent the final hours of the vidlife pretending to sleep, my legs slung over one snoring ogre’s brawny shoulder, my head in a voluptuous jellyfish’s lap. The last holdouts had dropped of exhaustion one by one, bodies tangled where they fell. Once the society olds had slipped off to sleep, the stilted elegance of the early evening had given way to a b-mod-induced ecstasy, bodies floating on Xers, blissed-out orgs bamboozled by the artificial undersea and imagining they were dancing with the fish. I couldn’t take behavior modifiers any more than I could
drink the putrescent pink Aqua Ambrosia or eat the dolphin-shaped canapés, and I didn’t get tired. But I’d learned that orgs don’t trust people—or things—that don’t sleep. So for the vidlife audience I’d closed my eyes and waited for day.
By the time the cleanup crew woke everyone up, it was nearly mid-afternoon. Fifteen days, twelve hours, forty-two minutes since the game had started. Which meant I was done.
The elevators whooshed us out of the deep; a waiting car sped me back to BioMax headquarters; then security checks and more elevators and I was in the boardroom, the vidlife officially finished, the cameras shut down for good.
“Yes, I think it was productive,” I told Kiri, and call-me-Ben, and my father, and the room full of BioMax suits who ambushed me as soon as the mics went dead. Viewer stats and zone feedback danced across the screens lining the conference room, alongside hundreds of network debates raging about my performance. But all eyes were on me.
“No, I didn’t encounter more than the usual amount of antidownload sentiment.
“No, it wasn’t an undue strain.
“No, I wouldn’t recommend a repeat attempt; I’d argue our energies could be better spent elsewhere.”
The inane questions went on for more than an hour, but finally, call-me-Ben stood up and extended his hand. I didn’t hesitate, or roll my eyes. I’d learned.
“Thank you again for all your help, Lia,” Ben said, and I smiled at him, sweetly.
His hand dropped to his side. He’d learned too.
Kiri skipped the handshake. She swept me into a brusque embrace. Normally, she wasn’t a hugger, any more than I was, but desperate times, right? It lasted only a second, long enough for a hasty whisper: “It was worth it.” And because Kiri had proved she was the only member of the corp who actually understood people, I believed her.
“Are we done here?” I asked.
“The vidlife techs are waiting next door to remove the implant and give you a once-over,” call-me-Ben said. “Under my supervision, of course.”
“And then, yes, you’re free to go.”
“I’ll wait for you at the car?” my father said.
It was new, this habit of asking instead of telling—or rather, an unconvincing hybrid of the two.
I shook my head. “I’m meeting Riley.”
“Oh. Of course.” No amateur would pick up on the disapproval behind the curt response, because all of my father’s responses were curt. But when it came to deciphering the stormy moods of M. Kahn, I was a pro.
“Don’t forget it’s Thursday,” he added.
“I won’t,” I said, though I had. “But maybe this once …”
Someone else’s father might have brushed it off with a smile and given her a free pass out of the weekly family dinner, just this once.
father, in the old days, would have shaken his head and forbidden it. Now? The worst of both
worlds: “It’s entirely up to you whether you choose to keep your word.”
Checkmate. “I’ll see you tonight.”
One last door between me and freedom, between the bowels of BioMax and the great outdoors. But I stopped before pushing through it, preparing myself.
He won’t be there,
He saw everything I did, and he won’t care that it was fake.
Or he’ll believe that it was real. He’ll think that was
Or Jude got to him first.
If he wasn’t out there, I would deal. Riley wouldn’t be the first thing I’d lost. If I could survive without my friends, without my sister, without my
, I could certainly survive without him. That’s what I told myself.
And I stepped through the door.
Here’s the thing about perfect kisses.
They’re worth crap.
Fun, maybe. But it’s not like they mean anything. All that melting into another person, lips fusing, souls meeting, romantic garbage? Trust me, your soul is not sitting in your tongue, waiting to take an all-expenses-paid vacation into some loser’s mouth.
You want a metric that matters, a way to measure exactly how much of a person belongs to you?
Try the perfect hug.
Riley’s arms were around me before my feet hit pavement. He lifted me off the ground, his arms strong and steady at my waist. I locked mine around his neck and lodged my face in the hollow of his neck and shoulder. For the first time since the vidlife began, I relaxed, went limp in body and brain, and let someone hold me up.
“Miss me?” he whispered, and just like that, Jude’s words in Riley’s mouth, it was over.
I stiffened; he let go.
I searched his face for some sign that he was playing me, that he’d talked to Jude. But there was nothing lurking in his expression. Which maybe meant he was asking if I’d missed him because he honestly wanted to know.
“You have no idea.” It sounded like a lie. So I kissed him. Kissing Riley was rarely electric or breathless or heart-stopping or any of the criteria I’d used to catalog kisses back in my org days. It didn’t make me forget myself. But it helped me remember him, and all the ways his body curved to fit against mine. Kissing Riley wasn’t just about the mechanics of it, the probing and nibbling and sucking—it was about building a wall between us and the world. It was proof that we still made sense.
But it couldn’t last.
“It’s Thursday night,” I said, flicking my eyes at the ViM temp-tattooed to my left forearm. My newest toy, the razor-thin virtual machine could access the network three times faster than any of my other ViM interfaces, but so far it had
mostly proved useful for surreptitiously telling the time. “If I don’t go soon, I’ll be late.”
Riley dropped my hand. “I thought we were going to hang out?”
“I can’t skip dinner. You know that’s part of the deal.”
I could have broken my word, run away. Riley had his new body, and my father couldn’t take it away. Riley had—only once—suggested I could come live with him, in the former servants’ quarters he was renting. (The owner was hemorrhaging enough credit to be willing to sacrifice the abandoned hovel at the fringe of his property, at least on a month-by-month basis.) He thought I said no because the apartment was beneath me. I couldn’t convince him otherwise, because I couldn’t tell him the truth. It was too fragile to say out loud.
Truth: My father would only have blackmailed me into coming home if he
My mother could barely look at me without crying, and Zo was Zo. But my father wanted me. Even though I was the machine that had replaced his dead daughter, even though he’d once dropped to his knees and begged a god he didn’t believe in to give him another chance, to go back in time and let me die.
My father didn’t want her, the original Lia. He wanted me, his skinner daughter, under his roof. I couldn’t run away.
“Come with me,” I said.
?” He said it like I’d suggested he join me in ritual suicide. “Your father would love that.”
“You really want me to?”
Actually, I was already starting to regret the idea. But something in his voice made me wonder how long he’d been waiting for the invitation.
“And then after …”
“Then after, we can talk,” I agreed, dreading it.
“I’m not talking about talking.”
“Sneak preview?” I suggested, and closed my eyes.
It wasn’t a perfect kiss.
But it was close enough.
“Oh,” my mother said, when she opened the door for us. She didn’t speak again until halfway through the second course. Unfailingly polite, she nodded and smiled and even conceded to shake Riley’s hand, paling only slightly at his touch. But she kept her thin lips pressed together and her eyes on the table and clearly longed for the good old days when she could have disappeared into the kitchen for the rest of the night. Not that there had ever been much cooking to be done—the smartstove and the rest of the smartchipped appliances had been taking care of that since long before I was born. But she would have been able to monitor them, offering directives about what to heat and when. Now we had an AI all-in-one to take care of that, which left my mother bereft of distractions.
“I see you brought a friend,” my father said flatly, when we
stepped into the living room. Riley, who had been holding my hand, let go. My father didn’t offer to shake. “Welcome to our home,” he said. “Riley, I assume?”
“You should have told your mother you were bringing a guest,” my father said.
My mother trilled a fake giggle and swept a hand through the air, dismissing the issue.
It’s not fine, but I’ll say it’s fine,
she said, without saying anything.
Suddenly I was tempted to grab Riley and drag him out of there before he had a chance to take in the imported marble, the networked walls, the way the priceless antique breakfront matched the silverware matched the gold-plated wall hangings. I didn’t want him to see that the four of us lived in a space large enough for a hundred—at least a hundred people willing to live the way he’d lived in the city—walled off from the likes of him by elaborate alarms, lockdown rooms, and bulletproof glass, waited on hand and foot by a flotilla of mechanical serving machines. Not that Riley had never seen a big house before. Quinn’s estate was three or four times the size of ours, a mansion fit for a queen, where ours was barely suitable for a low-ranking duke and duchess. But this was different, because this house—despite the fact that I had no control over anything in it—was mine. It might as well have been an extension of me, and now that he’d seen it, he would see it every time he looked at me.
“At least we won’t need any extra food, right?” I said. Mechs don’t eat.
My father ignored the lame joke. “Your sister’s in her room,” he said. Zo was always in her room. Less chance of running into any of us there, I figured. I’d never thanked her for helping me break into the Brotherhood’s temple to rescue my friends; she’d never apologized for joining up in the first place. Or for any of the other things she’d done to me since I woke up in this body: treating me like crap, stealing my boyfriend, convincing me that our parents preferred me dead. We’d never once talked about what she’d said the night I ran away. That she missed her sister. That she was trying to protect Lia’s life from its usurper, also known as me. It was the last real conversation we’d had. Now, when forced out of her cave, she traded monosyllabic grunts with the rest of us, obviously counting the minutes until she could slink back in.
Small talk taken care of, my father ushered us to the dinner table. Riley trailed me, lingering uncertainly behind an empty chair until everyone else had sat down. Only when Zo appeared did he take the final seat.
“Hey,” I said to Zo.
She shrugged in response, eyes widening slightly at the sight of Riley.
My father cleared his throat. “This is your sister’s friend—”
Not much surprised my father. But that did.
Family dinners were, as a general rule, unrelieved misery. This one managed to be more miserable than most. My father decided to pretend that Riley was like any other ordinary boy I’d
brought home when I was an ordinary girl. Too bad he’d spent all those years of ordinariness scaring the crap out of any guy I’d made the mistake of allowing through the front door. The more questions my father asked, the lower Riley sank in his chair, and the more gruntlike his answers became.