Authors: Robin Wasserman
I told myself that it wasn’t any different from what I’d been doing for the last six months as BioMax’s poster child for the happy, healthy mech, doing what they told me to do, saying what they told me to say, bowing and scraping for board meetings and press conferences and legislative committees, dangling on their strings. I’d started because my father had asked me to, and I was still playing nice, honoring the letter of our bargain—I got all the credit I needed to help Riley, and my father got his daughter back. Or at least a reasonable simulacrum thereof. But once I’d made the obligatory appearances he’d asked of me, I stuck around. I’d always been good at acting the part, and at least this time the act would be for a good cause.
Baby steps, that was the plan. Persuade the orgs that the mechs offered no threat, meant no harm. That we were just like them. That we were young and foolish—yet also mature. Carefree, yet responsible. Predictable, yet prone to petty spats and parties like the orgs our age. It meant walking a fine line, and singing different songs to different audiences. Kiri customized the sober lectures I delivered to boardrooms, the grinning idiot I made myself into for pop-up ads, each persona carefully crafted to suit its circumstances—irrelevant, apparently, that none of them suited me.
The vidlife took the act one step further. We would offer them proof—24/7, in living color—that I was no more harmless and no less vapid than your average rich-bitch wild child. We would sucker them into caring about my fights and flings, sacred pacts and romantic treasons, and without realizing it, they would
come to believe that
felt. That I was, in my petty melodramas of daily life, no different from them. Or at least no different from the other people they watched on the vids. There were those at BioMax who couldn’t understand how acting a part would convince anyone of anything about the “real” me—but they were the ones who didn’t watch vidlifes. Those of us who did knew the shameful truth: No matter how much you
you were watching live-action puppets play out the fantasies of the masses, the more you watched the vidlifers, the more you believed in them. That was, after all, the whole point of the vidlife: to forget the fantasy and accept the reality. To ignore the distinction between “reality” and “real.”
“Ready?” call-me-Ben asked.
I nodded, and he exchanged a cryptic set of gestures with the vidlife rep, then gave me a thumbs-up. That was it.
Nothing seemed different. Nothing
different. The buzzing of the micro-cam hovering over my shoulder could have been a fly.
Just make them love you
, I reminded myself, waiting for something to happen. Preparing myself to be bright and sparkly, harmless and irresistible, to be the old Lia Kahn, the one who didn’t run on rechargeable batteries.
We’re the same people we used to be
, I’d said at meeting after meeting, lying through my porcelain teeth.
We’re perfect copies of our old selves. We’re exactly like you.
The voice, when it finally spoke, was inflectionless and personality-free.
There’s a party at the Wilding,
the voice said. From what I’d heard, there was always a party at the Wilding. The club ran full speed from dusk till dawn and round to dusk again, the dancers and dosers locking themselves in a nonstop fantasy.
Find something to wear and check it out.
“You know what?” I said brightly. “I feel like dancing. Maybe I’ll go find myself a party.”
And without waiting for a response, I skipped out of the bunkered office, already mentally running through my wardrobe, wondering what would be suitable for the Wilding, wondering what the voice would make me do once I got in.
Wondering who would be watching.
Mechs don’t get tired. We don’t, technically, need to sleep. And obviously there’s no need to eat or drink or rest our legs from hour after hour of whirling beneath spinning neon lights, arms twirling, head thrown back, bass-pumping music shaking the walls, floor undulating beneath our feet, bodies on bodies pressed together, sticky, sweaty, salty flesh grinding against flesh, and in the center, me. Seventy-two hours at the Wilding, watching dancers flow in and out, like jellyfish washing up on the beach, then dragged out again by the rising tide, ragged and desiccated by their hours in the sun. Except here in the Wilding there was no sun, no hint of anything that might mark the time passing, or the daylight world beyond its midnight walls.
It turned out the Wilding had only one rule, anything goes, which was good for me since I’d heard one too many stories about mechs trying to slip into org-only clubs and getting the shit pounded out of them. But here the wasted masses were too lost in their dancing, their shockers, their threesomes and foursomes, their licking and tonguing and whipping, to notice what I really was, or to care.
“You need a guy,” Felicity shouted in my ear, with a giggle that sounded almost sincere. Everything she said sounded almost sincere—the same went for Pria and Cally, the other two vidlife regulars who’d swept me into their circle as soon as I stepped into the club. The fly cams buzzing over our heads glowed as they came within range of one another, and on cue the lifers laughed and shrieked, stroked my hair, whipped me in wild loops across the packed dance floor, and didn’t seem to care that I was a mech—which of course only meant that their characters didn’t care, and they were playing their parts.
Cally grabbed my shoulders and kneaded her thumbs into the synflesh. “Definitely need a guy,” she agreed. “You’re way too tense.”
“I’m just tired,” I shouted back, my body still rippling in time with the music, arms, legs, hips on autopilot as we bobbed on the synthmetal waves. “Don’t you ever get … tired?” I didn’t mean tired of dancing. And they knew it.
“Never,” Felicity said, twirling in place. Her red hair furled around her head like a cloud of fire.
“But don’t you ever …” I chose my words carefully. No
mention of cameras or privacy, nothing that would burst the delicate vidlife bubble. “… feel like a break?”
“Break from what? This is life.” Pria giggled. She threw her arms in the air, where they flickered and whorled like ribbons in the wind. She’d been vidlifing for two years without a day off, and I wondered if she even knew the difference anymore. What would she do if the voice in her head went silent and left her on her own?
“Come on, pick someone,” Pria urged me. She twisted me in a slow circle, her pointed finger hopping from a weeper with huge biceps and teary hangdog eyes to an albino blond to an artfully scruffed guy, bare from the waist up and dosed out on Xers, who happened to be a dead ringer for Walker, my org ex. Not going to happen.
“Look, I already have—” I stopped, reminding myself that for these fifteen days Riley—or, more specifically, Riley-and-me—did not exist. No one wanted their vidlifers tied down, at least not with an outsider, and certainly not with another mech, a random from a
who’d never been to a club and, if he had, would have spent the night sitting in a corner, still and silent as his chair. It would be different if Riley had agreed to go on the vidlife with me. It might have been an appealing novelty act, he-and-she mechs, a matched set ready and willing to show off how anatomically correct—how lustful, how passionate, how
—the walking dead could be. But Riley never would have agreed to something like that, so I hadn’t asked.
, the voice in my head decided for me, as my eyes settled
on a punkish banger a few years older than me, his spiked hair tipped with metal studs, silver bangles ringing both arms from wrist to elbow. The silver decals striping his neck marked him as a skinnerhead, one of those fetishists who claimed to crave eternal life as a mech—but didn’t crave it enough to actually cut open their brains and download them into a computer. Covering yourself in mech-tech was the newest trend, at least among those who weren’t trolling the streets looking for a mech to bash, and sometimes—fine line between love and hate and all that—among those who were. This loser clearly considered himself on the cutting edge. Someone out there on the network apparently thought that made him my perfect match.
Go for it.
It didn’t take much.
My come-hither glance was rusty, but it got the job done. Or maybe it was the pinpricks of golden light at the center of my pupils, the dead mech eyes flashing under the neon strobes, the taunting glimpses of synflesh beneath the on-and-off transparent material of the flash shirt. What skinnerhead could resist a skinner?
I love Riley
, I thought, as the skinnerhead began to grind his hips against mine.
Tell him you want him
, the voice in my head commanded.
“I want you,” I breathed. The skinnerhead smiled like a wolf.
He pressed his left hand—nails coated in metallic silver, of course—to my bare shoulder. His fingers spidered down my back, and I hoped it was too dark for the cameras to see my face. He twisted me around, pressing his sweaty chest against
my back, his groin against my ass, and wrapped his arms around me, one hand cupping my breast, the other squeezing my waist, his lips at the curve where my neck met my shoulders, breathing in my artificial skin.
Riley and I had talked about this. We’d discussed the obligations, weighed pros and cons, set boundaries. But boundaries were hard to specify in advance. No nudity, fine. But what about a skirt that barely covered the curve of my thigh, what about silver-tipped fingers creeping beneath the netsilk, what about legs tangled in legs … arms encircling chests … what about lips?
It’s just an act
, I had said, we had agreed, I reminded myself now.
His lips were on mine. Sucking. Slobbering. His tongue in my mouth, something wet and alien, probing soft places it didn’t belong. I counted to ten. Ignored the squishing and smacking sounds, focused on the music. Counted to twenty, closed my eyes as his tongue slurped down my chin, up my cheek, explored the caverns of my ear, his body still grinding against mine, slow, slow, slow even as the music gathered strength and speed, a hurricane of beats. We were the calm at the center. I counted to thirty. Thought about the big picture, the message it would send, another divide between mechs and orgs crumbling to the ground, another thing we had in common: desire, need, want. Thought about the computer that was my brain and the body that was only a body, mechanical limbs woven through with wires, fake nerves that let me feel but made nothing feel
real. Counted to forty, and his tongue had no taste, because I couldn’t taste; his hair, his neck, his sweat had no smell, because I couldn’t smell. I counted to fifty, and when his lips moved down my breastbone to the dark shadow beyond, I threw my head back and tried to smile.
And then I got to sixty and pushed him away, so hard that he stumbled backward, wheeled his arms for balance, and toppled into a klatch of lip-locked vamp-tramps. “Can’t spend it all in one place!” I shouted, and let the crowd fill the spaces around me, so by the time he got to his feet, I was gone.
“Let’s talk about the Brotherhood of Man.” The interviewer flashed a saccharine smile. “Unless it’s too difficult for you.”
I shook my head. After two weeks in the vidlife, “difficult” had taken on a new meaning; this didn’t qualify. “I’m here to talk,” I said. “About whatever you’d like.”
“We all know the story of how the Brotherhood began,” the interviewer said, then immediately disregarded her own words by regaling us with the gory details: the Honored Rai Savona’s noble quest to preserve the sanctity of human life, his abdication of the Faither throne in favor of a small, grassroots, antiskinner organization that helped the poor, fed the hungry, and, incidentally, advocated for the eradication of those of us with artificial blood running through our artificial veins. As the interviewer moved onto the “tragic downfall” portion of events, the vidscreen behind her flashed images: kidnapped mechs strung up on poles at the altar of Savona’s temple, the
“mysterious” explosion at the edge of the temple complex, the destruction of a facility that was never supposed to have existed in the first place—and then the final image, Savona’s right-hand man standing before the adoring masses, apologizing for the transgressions of the supreme leader. Promising a kinder, gentler Brotherhood under his new kinder, gentler leadership. Auden Heller, the best weapon the Brotherhood had against the skinners, because his ruined body, his artificial limbs and dented organs, were all permanent reminders of the damage we could wreak.
“Lia, how did it
I steeled myself, waiting for her to ask me about Auden, though she’d been told he was off-limits.
Or about Riley, who had burned in the explosion but was back now, a different body but the same mind, containing an exact copy of all the memories of the previous Riley, every memory but the memory of how he died. Every mech had an uplinker, and we used them daily to upload a copy of our memories to a secure server, just in case. But unless you were uploading at the moment your body was destroyed, that memory would be gone.
“—when Brother Savona came out of hiding and surrendered himself to BioMax?” she concluded. Then she leaned forward, as if—misinformed about my technical specifications—waiting for waterworks.
“I was surprised.”
“Because you were among those who believed that he’d died in the explosion?”
Sure, we’d go with that.
I nodded, wishing I were free to answer honestly. The only surprise was that a cowardly nut job like Savona would deposit himself on BioMax’s front doorstep and beg for judgment. The only thing I
was disappointment that he was still breathing.
“And how did you
”—insert predatory smile here—“when corp security operations officially pardoned him for any role he may have played in the unpleasantries at the temple?”
BioMax had released its own official account of “the unpleasantries,” one in which Brotherhood fanatics had nearly slaughtered a building full of their own, not to mention a handful of innocent mechs. (Of course it was the
who had nearly massacred all those orgs. But that kind of truth was counterproductive, and so we all kept our mouths shut.)