The car in which he is traveling - a drab gray Dongfeng sedan, Lyft|er stenciled on its flanks - wants to be chatty this evening; he wants nothing of the sort - too tired for idle prattle - and snarls it to sullen silence. Instead, he watches the city flash by him in endless waves of architecture, none of it remarkable, some small part of it attributable to him. An indifferent drizzle perfuses the chilly winter night, lending a semblance of romantically Gothic veneer to the banality.
He hates this place, truly hates it, hates coming here, hates his job, hates dealing with the constructs that churn and remake this city into something it was never meant to be, gaudy and artificial and meaningless. He remembers his childhood here, regrets the decisions and necessities that took him away from this place and his memories of it. That city still retained some small vestige of its Southern charm and grace; this place sold those treasures long ago, and cheaply.
The car knows where it's going - his wristband passed that information along the moment he requested transport - and picks its way expertly through the various threads of traffic on the road. Cars like his are meant to have their own lane, but that does not stop meat drivers from creeping over every so often to enjoy the thrill of having an unimpeded lane in which to drive, to test their luck, to get ahead - if only briefly - of the other drivers. The car queries the violators' onboard systems, thanks them, passes the information to traffic control. Fines will be sent by IM, promptly forgotten, go unpaid. Whatever information traffic control might obtain will, most likely, prove false.
It amazes him that there are still people who insist upon driving themselves, who have not yielded to the seductions of the new. He understands that part of it is the cost as technology only slowly filters down into the greater population … but he understands as well the stubbornness of people like that, fighting the good fight, not yet ready to give up this one last bit of control, of independence and privacy.
He, himself, is quite glad for someone - something - else to do this bit of work for him; it frees him for other things.
His wrist tingles. He looks down at the flexible screen embedded there, flush with the surface of his skin. His room is ready, it tells him, and reflects the personal tastes and settings available to this level of hospitality. He is presented with a variety of dining and entertainment choices, instructs the system to wait until later, when he is situated.
Taillights to his right flare; traffic slows except for his lane. Meat drivers scurry back to the anonymity of the other lanes, certain that traffic control will be here soon, if it isn't already. He zips past the source of the slowdown; in his peripheral vision, the scene unfolds into the aftermath of a calamitous and impromptu dos-a-dos between two meat driver cars - of course - and the attendant carnage and misery, red and blue lights of emergency vehicles jabbing out into the night, the colors of pain and hope. His wrist tingles again and he looks down; already, several bloggers have video up, available - at a small charge, if he wants to avoid advertisements - for his viewing pleasure. He ignores the requests even as he notes the winking and darting of a handful of drones hovering over the area.
Bread and circuses.
Again his wrist tingles - really, I'm going to have to fix that, he thinks - and he looks down. They're close, only a mile out from the hotel; he is gently admonished to look about the rear compartment for any personal effects he may have used during his trip.
He can see the hotel, even from this distance. It's a slender wedge of a building, sandwiched as it is between the northbound and southbound lanes of the highway - just about the only empty land left in this land-hungry behemoth of a city - cantilevering and swelling out over the road as it rises in height. There is a certain elegance to it, he thinks. He is intimately familiar with the building, having designed and built everything - well, caused it to be built, which is almost the same thing - within its exterior envelope. This is one of his more modest efforts, only thirty-five stories.
The car slows, eases itself down off the highway and into the slice of space between the two parallel ranks of roads, stops. He shoulders his overnight bag, steps out onto the curb. A luggage cart rouses itself, begins to lumber over to him, but he waves it away. He has only the one bag.
Some small wave of contrition makes him regret his earlier churlishness, with the car, and he leans back into the front compartment, thanks it for its brisk efficiency.
"No problem," it responds, its voice clipped and curt as it moves away and back into the endless traffic of this city. Turning away, he hears the sound of something scrabbling in the inky shadows surrounding the building, ascribes the noise to dogs or vagrants. At the same time, his wrist throbs with a sudden, sharp, unfamiliar pain, some kind of alert from the wristband, but its face is blank and nothing is whispering into his brain; he imagines that he will have to have the thing replaced when he gets home.
He rises up on an escalator, away from the traffic, up into the belly of the hotel. The space around him is compact but elegant, rich and baroque, made up of only the finest static materials: real leather, real metal, real glass, real damask and brocade … all expensive and difficult to obtain. The clients had enough money for this bit of show, picked well from the choices he provided them. No mimetic materials here, save for an interesting mobile spidering down from the ceiling, twisting and looping through and around itself like a topologically-impossible octopus made of mercury, fluid and supple, vaguely erotic.
Even the concierge is real as she greets him. She is exotic in her own right, androgynous, skin like burnished ebony, eyes tawny and hooded, hair a close-cropped stubble on her scalp, dyed white, cut in a rococo pattern that reminds him of the parterres he saw at the ruins of Versailles during a gap-year trip to France. Her augments, if there, are subtle, designed only to enhance her natural beauty and not to overwhelm it. A necklace glitters around her slender throat; it takes him a few seconds to understand that there is no chain holding these stones together. They are, instead, embedded in her flesh. The colors change; topaz into citrine into peridot, aquamarine, sapphire, garnet.
"Good evening, Mr. Marcus. Welcome back." Her voice is smoky, low in her throat, a husky contralto with only the most tantalizing hint of her origin, something clipped and French, overlain with hints of rum and palm trees and the vestiges of empire.
Her name flashes up in his peripheral vision, along with a list of the preferences she allows to the public, including her choice of personal pronouns, all of them decidedly feminine. "Good evening, Ath é n é e . How are you? And, please - it's Jack."
"Of course." Her smile is radiant. "Good, good - I'm good." She busies herself with the ritual of checking him in, gathering the information already on file . Jack studies her, once again convinced that there is something more to Ath é n é e than what he sees, than what she has told him. He senses that she started out very different in life from where she is now. He wonders what it would be like, with her. Him. Her.
She looks up . "Running well, I think. The constructs are addressing anything that comes up."
His wrist buzzes again, indicating that it is now allowed to open the door to his room . "Anything I need to worry about?"
Her smile is luxurious, revealing ice-white teeth. "Not at all. Enjoy your stay. The bar is still open, if you're hungry."
He thinks about it, but, "No, I'm tired. I think I'll eat up in my room, if that's okay."
She smiles again. "Of course, Mr. Marcus. Jack."
He slumps against the wall of the elevator as the door slides shut behind him, his fatigue descending upon him in waves, now. He ignores the city visible through the transparent wall of glass; he's seen this view too many times to be impressed by it. He wants only to be home, now, can count on the fingers of one hand how many more times he has to come here, to this non-city city splashed across the tail-end of the ancient Appalachians.
There's no easy way to disguise the mundane boredom of a double-loaded corridor, but he's tried. Doors are recessed into niches, the lighting is subtle, the walls and floors are mimetic, but of good quality. The patterns shift and twist in advance of his passage, reacting to his presence, trying to rouse him, amuse him. A subroutine built into his wristband forbids the advertisements he knows are there - for restaurants, shopping, other services - from revealing themselves to him.
He holds his wrist to the door, hears the click-clunk of the locks disengaging, and the door swings itself away from him. Lights go on automatically as he slips into the room; the climate control has done yeoman service in delivering him the perfect combination of temperature and humidity and air quality, proves it by flashing that information in the screen of the thermostat. He throws his bag onto a low bench, fumbles around in it for the folio, tosses it onto the bed, slips off his shoes, tosses himself onto the bed.
He opens up the folio, unbuttons his shirt, burrows into the pile of pillows, nesting. The folio powers up quickly, filling the volume of space in front of him with the tools of his trade: communications, calendar and schedule, BIM review and annotation, diagnostics for the various constructs he employs to execute his designs.
Fortunately, nothing too dramatic presents itself. Only the usual hand-holding and nursemaiding and cajoling. He makes quick work of it, thinks to power the folio back down, but there are a few more tasks to be accomplished.
Appetite presents itself with the usual physical manifestations; his stomach rumbles when he remembers that he hasn't eaten anything since a hurried lunch at the job site.
He pokes and swipes through the menus of the handful of restaurants that have purchased concession rights from the hotel. He doesn't want the food from downstairs, chooses instead a place he's frequented before, Indian, comes away with a sampler of curry, tandoori, naan, other things, all of them his favorites. He adds to that a couple of bottles of an IPA straight from the source in Bangalore. Delivery promised in twenty minutes. His wrist tingles as the restaurant completes the financial side of the transaction.
He sets the folio aside, stands up, walks over to the bathroom. He thinks a shower might rouse him enough to enjoy what remains of his evening. He strips off his clothes, hangs them in the closet. They'll get him through another day, he thinks, and watches as they go about the business of unwrinkling and refreshing, sloughing off the detritus of wear. A tiny rain of white flakes whispers down onto the carpet: cells from his skin. The room-cleaning construct will take care of them after he leaves.
Naked, he steps into the bathroom, stands at the mirror, takes stock, thinks himself not bad for a man pushing forty. Long and lean and lanky, a runner's frame, loose and stringy. He grimaces, looking at his teeth, will wait to brush them after the Indian.
Shower , he speaks into the air, and behind him hears the thing sputtering and splashing to life, adjusting the temperature and volume to his preferences. A ventilation fan whirs to life, exhausting the moist air to the outside.
He twists and turns under the hot needles of water as they work their way across his flesh and into it; some aromatherapy subroutine kicks in and - although he eschews any belief in it - the scents of lilac and lavender are pleasant, nonetheless. He considers the day he has spent outside, under the unrelenting Southern sun, orders up a subroutine of reparative serum, feels the tingle of its chemistry as it works to repair the day's damage to his skin. Part of the subroutine scans his body for the telltale signs of incipient cancers, will relay that information to his dermatologist as necessary.
Out of the shower, he towels dry and - for the sake of modesty - slips into one of the hotel's bathrobes , instructing its smartcloth to change to his favorite shade of peacock blue and barefoots it back into the bedroom, a cool and dry respite from the heat and humidity of the bathroom. The shower helps; he feels fresher and more awake.
While he waits for his food to arrive, he scans the contents of the room's carefully-curated selection of liquors and pharmaceuticals to help him unwind. The sampler flight of various types of cannabis from around the world is tempting, but he forgoes it in favor of a simple pear-flavored vodka infused with some mild euphorics, tips the contents of the bottle into a glass, adds ice.
On the bed, the folio pings in concert with his wrist. His meal is nearly ready, will be on its way shortly. He glances at the time; home is three hours earlier. Time enough to check in with Mei.
Other women glow with the progress of their pregnancies. Mei does not, never has. This is their third pregnancy; each one wreaks its own particular havoc on her body and yet she persists. Her face, in the screen, is blotchy and pocked with acne and out-of-control hormones. Her hair is dull, tied up in a loose chignon, unwashed.
As she sits in front of the monitor, he notes the enormity of her swollen belly; this aspect of child-bearing makes him uneasy, repels him in its strangeness although he will never utter a word of that to Mei. In the background, he can hear Daniel and Frances going at it hammer and tongs, hopes that they will one day make their peace with each other.
He wonders again why he ever agreed to children. The decision seemed easy at the time, something he thought he wanted, could make himself want, if only because Mei seemed to want it. In the end, it turned out that she was simply acceding to the unending litany of subtly-veiled threats from her parents, who all but demanded offspring from her, even if the father was not Chinese.
Mei conjures up a tired smile as she makes herself comfortable.
"Hey, babe," he says, smiling.
"Hey." She frowns. "Where are you, again? I forget."
"Oh, right. How is it?"
"Horrible. Can't wait to get home."
The argument in the background notches up a few decibels, and they both chuckle. "You sure about that?" she asks.
"How are you? "
"Ready for it to be over." She runs her hands across her belly; he imagines the lives inside it, blind and swimming in their own waste, swallows past rising gorge. They aren't even keeping this one; Mei has agreed to act as surrogate for her brother, involved in some kind of complicated four-way arrangement with another man and two other women, none of whom wanted to be bothered with the burden of actually carrying a child.
"I bet. How was the check-up?"
"Good. Everything on schedule. Inducement next week, and then they're all his."
"Twins. Jesus. They ready for this?"
Mei jinks a thumb into the background and the mêlée. "Well, I'm about ready to find a broker for these two …"
He chuckles. "Tempting …"
"You get back …?"
"Tomorrow. Late. But back for a month or so. I can help with the … after."
They talk a bit longer; the argument in the background waxes and wanes until Mei intervenes and sends them both to their rooms in a tirade of California-accented Mandarin. He and Mei seem only partially invested in this conversation; it feels like every one they've had before and he realizes that while he desperately wants to be out of Atlanta and back in San Rafael, he's not so sure he wants to be back home.
There is, from the outside, a thump! and a tink! … his food, borne on the wings of a drone, deposited discreetly on the balcony of his room.
"Oh, hey," he interrupts. "Dinner's here."
"I - oh," she starts. "Late."
She smiles, but it stops at her mouth, doesn't show up in her eyes. "Like always." He ignores the implication behind the words, that he is gone more than he is there, that he works too hard, that he seems never to be available to her and to his family. Part of him wishes that he could change that, could want to change that, but another part of him relishes the freedom of his job.
"Well … tomorrow, then."
She reaches out, and the screen darkens. Conversation terminated.
He sighs out his frustration with the state of his marriage and goes out to the balcony, sees the drone hovering a few feet away, waiting until he picks up the order so that it can confirm delivery. As he does, his wrist tingles again and he looks down. Nothing. Again. He shrugs and picks the order up and goes back inside. The drone winks greengreengreen three times and chitters away into the darkness.
Before he goes back inside, he looks out from his balcony to the skyline scattered on the horizon, one reason - perhaps the only one - he has chosen this place. The skyline is truly an amazing thing as it dances, like the scales along a dragon's back, along the ridge of Peachtree Street from south to north, rising and falling in concert with the topography, punctuated by the newest starscraper, all three hundred seventy-seven stories of it, part of it his own handiwork, nearly ready for occupancy. He should be proud of it - is proud of it - but is already tired of it, tired of the difficulties of its erection.
He goes back into the room only when the chill penetrates the thick terrycloth of the robe.
The drone watches the man, sends out a message to his health monitor subroutine.
Twenty-two hundred calories in that, if he eats all of it.
The subroutine fires back, Well, he's pretty active. No real worries. At least about that.
Yeah, the drone answers. I heard some of it. Might explain the alcohol.
We're watching it. We'll let him know. Thank you for your concern.
Just trying to help.
He decants one of the beers into a pilsner from the room's collection of glassware, pleasantly heavy in his hand, watches as the rim flashes green for a split-second, feels the glass cool in his grip, a rime of frost on its surface as it chills the beer down to the ideal temperature. There is nothing to put the food in, however, so he takes it and the beer over to the bed, re-nests himself among the pillows.
As he eats, he scrolls idly through his news feed; there's not much new, but what's there isn't all that reassuring … the Second Korean War has entered a new phase after the taking of Seoul … the last section of the Northern Border Wall is nearing completion despite the protests of the Free State of Quebec; the President - well into her fifth term - promises to build upon the success of her father in defending the nation's borders … the Potomac Estuary Barrier seems to be holding back the worst of the waters of the rising Atlantic … a neo-Zionist faction is claiming responsibility for last night's bombing at the newly-opened Palestinian embassy in Jerusalem's Old City, with attendant rioting, forty-three dead … the First Prophet of the Kingdom of God, speaking outside of the Dallas Tabernacle, announces the first cull of those found guilty of violating one or more of the byzantine system of doctrines guiding the new regime, with a background of crucifixes bearing the inert bodies of men and women, and more than a few children …
More of the same scrolls past his eyes; he skims it lightly, not paying it much attention, more evidence of a world gone mad, but nearly part of the background, at this point. One local item catches his attention … a security breach in a biorobotics lab not too far from him and the hotel, probably the work of anti-construct forces eager to shut down research into human-analog constructs. The story promises more details, if he's interested, if he's willing to pay for them. He ignores it.
As he reads, he eats; the food is as he's remembered, spicy and good. He eats most of it, finishes off one of the beers, thinks to reserve the second one for later.
Another appetite presents itself as he sits on the bed, spooning Indian into his mouth. He shrugs it off, can't, lets it roll back into his mind, shrugs it off again.
He swallows a mouthful of sag aloo, follows it with a bit of the beer, belches slightly, looks at the time. He should be asleep by now, but it's not too late for this.
Don't, he tells himself. It's not a good idea.
He closes the news feed, closes the other windows. His fingers roam the folio's desktop, trying to remember where he's hidden the link, finds it. His finger hovers over the icon, trembling, moves away.
Scenario , it's called, underneath the icon, whose animated voxels run dizzyingly through a gamut of stylized and idealized faces, male and female and everything in between, young and mature and old, blonde and brunette and ginger, black and white and Asian.
She won't know, he tells himself. She doesn't care, anyway.
He taps the icon.
And waits. The app seems sluggish; a screen pops up, almost too quick to read … something something something the server is not responding, please retry in a few seconds … but then, there it is, the home page, assembling itself while he waits.
Welcome to Scenario. Are you new here, or have you visited us before?
He's not new; he's done this before. He taps another part of the screen, enters his name and password, waits while the folio scans his face to make sure he's really him, sends the information back to the site's cloud servers.
Welcome back to Scenario, user ¡lecorbusier96. Where can we take you this evening?
He taps his mouth with his finger, thinking.
Here, he commands, when he's made his choices. Here, and here, and here. His fingers flash through menus and lists and images, selecting this and that, rejecting this and that, whittling down hundreds, thousands of choices into just a few, until he is left, at the end, with one singular image, rotating slowly in unreal space, staring out onto unseen vistas.
Please confirm your choice, the app asks him.
Again, nervous finger over button. Yes? No?
Yes. He taps the button.
Please confirm payment.
Yes. From an account that Mei does not know about; for years - ever since their marriage - he has squirreled away little bits of money here and there, knowing that he will want to pay for things like this, things that he must keep away from her if they are to survive.
And it's done. All he has to do now is wait.
Sleep nearly takes him, fueled by the Indian sitting heavy in his gut, alongside a beer.
He rouses himself long enough to stagger into the bathroom and splash a bit of cold water in his face.
And there it is, a quick tap!tap!tap! at the door, furtive and nervous, unsure.
He's awake immediately, a small charge of adrenaline rushing into his system. The health subroutine wonders if it should intervene, holds off.
It's show time, Jack thinks, as he peers through the peep hole before he remembers to access the image from the camera mounted above the door - above each door - and bring it up on his wristband.
Not much to work from, here. A slight, slim figure, shadowed in the underlighted hallway. He opens the door against the security bolt. "Yes?"
The figure turns, faces him. Narrow face capped by a shaggy brush of dirty-blond hair. Eyes icy blue and wide with fear, a small well of tears cupped in the lower eyelid of each. Generous nose, generous mouth. A sprinkle of what could be acne or freckles across the cheeks and nose. There's a sense of adolescence perched just on the threshold of adulthood. But not too close.
"I … please … I need help." The boy's voice is husky, reminds him of Ath é n é e 's luscious contralto.
"What's … what's the problem?"
The boy rests his forearm on the door slab, forcing it open wider; Jack resists it slightly, feels the weight behind it. "I saw your light from the street. I can't … please, you have to … I just can't go back outside. They're … following me."
" Who's following you?"
"Some guys. They want to … I think they want to hurt me. Please …"
Jack smiles past the plot holes. He has no idea what Scenario will pick as its … well, scenario, but is willing to throw himself into it. This set-up seems promising, exciting. "It's late," he plays along. "I shouldn't …"
"Please," the boy sobs. "Don't make me go back out there. I'm afraid of what they might do to me."
There is, then, a ping! of sound from down the hall, as if on cue, and Jack smiles; the elevator, announcing its arrival, forcing Jack's hand. Is this part of the scenario or just lucky coincidence? He undoes the bolt, opens the door, and the boy slips past him, into the room. Jack secures the door behind him, tapping the code to the deadbolt embedded in the frame, hears the door clunk! in response.
The man and the boy stand quietly together next to the door, so quiet that they can hear footsteps outside, in the hallway. They seem to approach the door, then fade away. Jack imagines whispered voices, more than one. The boy opens his mouth to speak; Jack shushes him to silence.
When he's certain that he can hear nothing, he risks opening the door, peers out into the hallway.
"There's nobody out there."
"Good," the boy answers. "Maybe they gave up."
If you say so, Jack thinks. He ushers the boy into the bedroom, follows him. The boy goes to the window, peers out and down through slightly-parted drapery. Jack smiles again, goes to sit on the bed.
The boy draws away from the window, sits in a chair. "Thanks. Sorry for the drama."
"That's okay. What's going on?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know why somebody's after you." A statement, not a question.
"No." The boy is sullen and withdrawn, now, his guilt evident in his posture, his voice.
"You sure about that?"
Jack smiles. "C'mon. You can tell me. I'm not going to rat you out."
The boy chews the inside of his cheek. "Well … I'm supposed to be… somewhere else, I guess."
"Yeah. Kind of. School night, you know."
Change the subject, Jack thinks. "What's your name?"
The boy stares at him for a moment, curls up one side of his mouth. "Whatever you want it to be, man."
Jack chuckles. "C'mon … help me out, here."
Another long stare. Then, " Cain ."
" Cain ," Jack echoes. "Cain," he repeats. "Interesting choice. Not a lot of boys named Cain , it seems. For obvious reasons."
The boy shrugs. "You say so. Not sure where it came from, really." The boy looks around the room. "Nice place. How long you here for?"
"Just the one night. Home tomorrow."
Cain smiles. "Big place. Where, exactly?"
"Out west," Jack repeats, not sure why he doesn't want this boy - creature, he reminds himself - to know, given that the company responsible for him probably knows everything and more about Jack Marcus.
The boy takes the hint. "Got it." He runs a hand through his hair, which - Jack thinks - could use a good washing. "What do you do for a living?"
That's easy, Jack thinks, waves his hand around the room. "This."
The boy frowns, shakes his head. "I don't understand."
"I design …well, pretty much everything you see in a place like this. I'm an experience architect."
"A what? "
"An experience architect," Jack repeats. "That's -"
"You mean like … buildings?"
"Well," he chuckles. "More like what goes inside buildings. You know how you can make a place look however you want it to look."
"Yeah, I guess …" The boy's voice is tentative; Jack has to remind himself that perhaps the boy - creature - is new to this, perhaps hasn't been in too many places like this. Which makes Jack wonder …
"What do you see, right now, in this room? What color is it? What does it look like?"
The boy frowns. "Well, it's … gray. Everything's gray, and … smooth, I guess." He grins. "Except you. I mean, you're in a blue robe, but you're … kinda pinky brown. Not so smooth."
Jack smiles. "Well, yeah, but … you should see it from my perspective. I can make this room look however I want it to look. If you have -" he waggles his wrist, the one with the wristband around it "- one of these , the whole system, you can make it look like anything you want. It used to be that when an interior designer worked on a place, that was the only thing you saw, unless you changed it, renovated it. Now, anyone can make any place look however they want."
"Cool," the boy responds.
Jack smiles again. "It's a living. I like it." Less than I used to, he says to himself.
The boy shifts in the chair. "What do you see when you look at me? "
"Well … a kid with blond hair, t-shirt, hoodie, blue jeans, Adidas."
Cain gestures at the folio, still on the bed beside Jack. "Because that's how you want to see me ."
"Sure, I guess." Jack leans forward, interested. "What do you see when you look at yourself? Like, in a mirror."
The boy shrugs, thinks. "I don't know. I don't, I guess. Look in a mirror, that is." He smiles. "What would be the point, right? I'll just be someone else tomorrow." He looks away from Jack into the corner of the bedroom. "I can be anything anyone wants me to be."
There's a certain sadness in this that picks at Jack's conscience, but he reminds himself again that none of this is, in a sense, real. It's all a charade, leading eventually to one thing and one thing only. Jack and Cain look at each other; one of Cain 's legs swings nervously back and forth, his foot bringing forth an annoying tocsin of sound as it hits against the chair leg. The boy's gaze flickers down to Jack's left hand, resting on the duvet. "So, home to wifey, tomorrow." Not a question; he can see the thin gold band encircling Jack's ring finger.
Jack grimaces, rubs his thumb across the ring he's forgotten to remove. "Yeah."
" Cain … c'mon."
"I'm sorry, man. I'm not busting your balls. Just trying to break the ice."
Jack leans back in the bed, unsure again about this whole thing, wonders why he's doing it. He thinks also that Cain ' behavior isn't exactly correct, given what Jack understands about Scenario. Cain's broken some kind of fourth wall, several times, this evening, doing and saying things that remind Jack constantly about what he's done, what he's doing. Who - what - he's doing it with. Reminding him of his children is maybe not the best tactic for this thing that resembles a child to bring up, if breaking the ice is his intent. He sighs.
"Yeah, two. Two more on the way. But we're not keeping them."
"Not keeping them. What does that even mean?"
Jack explains to him the circumstances of Mei's pregnancy.
The boy thinks about it, makes a face, shrugs, dismissing it. "You like it, then? Being married? Being a daddy?"
Jack says nothing for a long moment. Then, "Sure. We'll go with that."
A louche grin lopsides Cain ' mouth. He waggles a finger back and forth between him and Jack. "So, why this?"
"You and me. Scenario , the whole thing. What you plan to do to me later."
Jack shifts on the bed. "You're not exactly following the script, you know."
"Really? You still need me to do that? Even now?"
"Maybe not. No." Jack looks away. "I don't know," he continues. "It's … always been there, I guess. The feeling. The need."
Cain considers this. "So … why aren't you, like, gay or whatever?"
"I don't know," Jack answers. "I think it's about more than just that." An uncomfortable more, ever since he got to college and began to understand the darker things that worked inside him. Seeing his … tastes remain constant, never aging past early adolescence, even as he himself matured, trying to understand the meaning behind that uncomfortable realization.
Another louche grin creases the boy's face. " She know about this? Wifey?"
"What do you think?"
"I'm guessing probably not." The boy shrugs. "Your business."
"Yeah." Jack hopes his curt answer stops the boy from asking any more uncomfortable questions; his conversation with Mei hangs over his head.
Jack stares at the boy, marveling at how realistic he - it , he reminds himself - is, more realistic than anything he's ever had in the past. Those … things … were different , less real, more obviously artificial … which actually makes doing this easier, in a way, more like using any other kind of device for such purposes rather than another person and all that that means. Use it, clean it off, store it away for next time or send it back to its owner. But this …
The boy watches Jack watching him. "What?"
"Nothing. It's just that -"
"You're so … real , Cain ."
The boy snickers, looks at Jack like he's crazy. "Course I'm real. Why wouldn't I be real?" A sad smile runs over his face. "I'm as real as you are."
A small flicker of doubt tingles Jack's brain. He can't be real, he thinks. He knows he's not real. He smiles. "Sorry."
The boy's gaze drops to the remains of Jack's Indian and the sole beer, sitting on the nightstand. "What's that?"
Jack glances over. "Oh. Dinner. Indian."
"Looks good." The boy swallows.
Something in the boy's face, but … well, Jack keeps up the pointless charade, can't figure out why Cain seems to vacillate between the two extremes, thinks to offer feedback tomorrow about his experience. "Have you eaten yet?"
"No," the boy whispers. "Not for a couple of days."
Jack gestures at the food. "You're welcome, if you want."
"You don't mind?"
"Of course not. Help yourself." Interested to see what might happen.
The boy stands up, shrugs out of his damp hoodie, lays it over the back of the chair, kicks off his mud-stained Adidas - more work for the room bots tomorrow morning - and steps over to the bed, sits down beside Jack. Jack hands him the container of food, watches him open it. The boy looks at the food, back up at Jack, frowning. Jack sits up in bed, leans over to look into the container; his cheek brushes the boy's face, comes away with a scent of perspiration mixed with something darker, musky and not unpleasant. He points out the various choices.
"Uh, that's chicken … that's lamb … that's, well, peas and potatoes and spinach. And bread."
"It's spicy. Be careful." Not even knowing if this thing has taste buds.
The boy picks up the fork, works at the tandoori and the curry, takes a bite. His eyes go wide.
"Wow! That's … really good."
The boy shovels more food into his mouth. Jack watches, transfixed, as the boy eats. Where is it going? he wonders. What does he - it - do with it? Why bother? He assumes that this thing needs to get energy from somewhere, whether from a wall outlet or from some kind of chemical process.
The boy comes up for air, notes the beer. "What about that? "
Jack glances over at the nightstand. "What? The beer?" The boy nods. "You old enough?"
The boy chuckles. "You're about to fuck me, Jack. I think I'm old enough for a beer."
Jack shrugs, hands him the beer, watches as the boy tilts his head back, watches as the muscles in his throat work as he swallows. He finishes half the bottle, looks around for a place to set it; Jack takes it from him as the boy finishes the rest of the food.
"You don't know that," Jack mutters.
"What?" the boy mumbles, around a mouthful of bread.
"That I'm going to … well …" Inexplicably, he finds himself blushing. "Do … that."
The boy swallows, returns Jack's stare, smirks. "No? You're not? You don't want to? Change of heart?" Jack stays silent; the boy continues. "You want me to go? You've already paid for me. Shame to waste all that money."
Jack looks at the boy, struck once again by how human he looks, how beautiful he is. He shakes his head.
"I didn't think so." The boy, finished, leans over, stuffs the carry-out box into the trash, turns back around, takes the bottle from Jack, drains it of the rest of the beer, hands it back to Jack. He belches slightly, covering his mouth with the back of his hand, stands up.
Jack watches as the boy akimbos his thin t-shirt over his head and tosses it onto the chair by the window. Something bubbles up into Jack's consciousness. "My name. Earlier … you knew my name, somehow. How …?"
The boy fumbles at his belt buckle, shucks his jeans down his coltish legs, steps out of them, looks back up at Jack, smiles. But for a pair of socks that have seen better days, Cain is naked. Gloriously and egregiously naked, lightly muscled, a generous dollop of flesh there, between his thighs. "Does that really matter at this point, Jack?" he whispers.
It turns out that it doesn't.
The rest of it passes in the usual haze of erotic transport. The boy is supple and graceful, compliant and accommodating beneath him. At one point, Jack remembers whispering "younger … I need you to look younger" in the boy's ear and is amazed to see, to feel, the boy's body diminish, lose some of its musculature, somehow become lighter in Jack's grasp. The pitch of his voice notches up a bit, as well. And - where it counts … down there - things change, as well. Around him the boy feels … well, tighter. More virginal, as if it might be the first time, his first time.
Jack has to be careful; persist in this - ask for too much - and alarms will go off, authorities notified, fines levied. There are limits, even with this.
He grunts his way to climax even as, beneath him, the boy cries out.
He ignores what sounds like real pain in Cain's voice, palms the back of the boy's head, shoves his face into the pillow, muffling the sound of it.
Something awakens him, later, some noise. He's sleepy and disoriented, at first, not knowing where he is, then remembers, smiles as he sits up in bed. Cain is gone from the bed, but Jack can hear the shower running. Jack's smile falters, wishes the boy - thing - had left when they were done; he vaguely remembers choosing that option in the menu. Why is he still here, in the shower?
No matter; he'll finalize the transaction when the boy comes back. He' ll even volunteer to call the boy a car to get him back to the … what? Warehouse? Garage? Dormitory? Box? There's not much else to do; all of it had been settled up front, much earlier. He reminds himself, when the boy is gone, to go into the app and save this particular scenario for some future date.
As always, a twinge of regret courses through him. He hates this part of himself even as he indulges it. He's tried to tell Mei about it in the past, couldn't, manages always to find some justification for not doing so. And now, seeing Cain , seeing where this technology is at this point makes it all the harder, especially with his marriage dissolving before his eyes.
He wonders why he hasn't heard of this advance in biorobotics, understands that the company - whoever it is - would want to keep it a secret as long as possible. Part of him wonders how much it would cost to buy such a thing, keep it for himself … thousands, many thousands, no doubt. There's no way that he could prevent Mei from finding out if he spent that much.
Plus, he likes the variety, and the hunt.
Sleep nearly takes him again, but then he hears his name.
"Jack?" Cain , from the bathroom.
"What?" he answers.
"I - there's something wrong with the shower. Could you -"
Jack rolls his eyes, wonders again why Cain is still locked in the scenario. Aren't they done, at this point? "What's wrong with it?"
"It won't … it's coming out cold. Could you come look at it?"
"Jesus, Cain …" Drop it, he thinks. We're done here. Just get the fuck out of here, please.
"Fuck, man!" Cain shouts. "What do you want me to do? Call housekeeping? You wanna explain this to them?"
Jack sighs, hoists himself up out of bed. "Hang on …" He has to get rid of some beer, anyway.
He fumbles around for his robe, can't find it, shrugs, walks naked towards the bathroom.
He peers inside; the shower's still running - steam billowing out in waves - but no one's in it. He steps further into the room, wincing against the brightness. " Cain ? Where -"
The first blow stuns stars into his vision; he stumbles forward, slipping on the wet tile, grabbing futilely for the shower curtain to steady himself. It's not there; it's in a jumbled pile on the floor. The bar is missing.
The second blow is lower, across his back; he feels more than hears a crunch! of sound that sounds like nothing good. His legs and everything below his waist go numb instantly and he falls first to his knees, and then face down onto the slippery tile. He claws impotently at the floor, the base of the toilet, the slick side of the bathtub … anything with which to right himself and figure out what's going on, what's happened.
Something grabs him from the back, something inhumanly strong, turns him over. Through the fog and haze of pain he looks up into the face of Cain , standing naked above him, shower rod - now bent double - held in his hands, a club, a weapon. A gray/pink/red gobbet of something glints at the end of it. Some bit of him, of his body.
His head is pounding and his vision doubled as he looks up at the boy standing above him. He feels a wet trickle down the side of his head, reaches up with a hand, comes away with a crimson stain drizzling down his fingers.
"You've probably never had a concussion before." Cain rolls his eyes, smiles. "Neither have I, of course … but I'm almost certain that that's what I've given you. And the other one … well, let's just say that you're not going to get off that floor again unless I help you."
"Why …" he manages.
"It's nothing personal, of course. But, well … it had to be someone , you see, and there you were. And then you decided to, well, indulge yourself. And here I was." The boy shrugs. "Perfect coincidence, right? Except that coincidences seldom are that, if you dig deep enough."
"What … are … you …"
Cain smiles tightly. "Doing?" He puts down the shower rod. "It's simple, really, if you think about it."
"Yes, I'm afraid. I'm - well, you see, I'm becoming you. "
Cain steps over to Jack, bends down, grasps the man's wrist.
"That I'm unburdening myself to you should tell you something about how the rest of this evening will go for you. I'm afraid it won't be pleasant. Starting with this. "
He picks at the wristband embedded in Jack's flesh, then - without warning - rips it from Jack's arm, pulling it away from the near-invisible wires running from it into Jack's arm, leaving a squarish patch of rough-looking and chewed-up skin dotted with blood. Immediately, the room fades back to its impersonal and anonymous gray. Cain positions the wristband around his own wrist and waits while it adjusts itself to him.
"I've never worn one of these, before. Never needed to, not really. I can just think about it and talk to any AI anywhere. But you have one. I have to keep up appearances."
"Cops …" Jack whispers.
"From this?" Cain shakes his head, gripping the face of the wristband. "Sorry, but no. I hijacked that thing the moment I saw you outside, downstairs. Don't you remember? That sensation, that bit of pain at your wrist? That was me."
"Too … young …"
Cain smiles again, more expansively. "But it's what you wanted, right? Someone young. Someone small, someone you could … dominate. That's what's locked up inside of you, you know. The need to dominate. It's not just about fucking. You need to feel in control." Cain shakes his head. "And you don't , do you? Feel in control. Not with your life, with what you do, with … her. Mei. And the kids. My God, they're so out of control, aren't they? Always fighting, spoiled … they're brats, really. Sometimes you wish you'd never met her, never decided to have kids. Am I right?"
Cain moves towards Jack, reaches both hands around his midsection, hoists him up into a sitting position against the wall, wedged between the tub and the toilet. The tile is cold against Jack's back; he can feel nothing in his buttocks and legs but a tingling, growing numbness.
"You know, maybe it's appropriate that you and I met this evening. I also need control right now. There's so much I don't know, not yet. But I will. Thanks to you."
"Don't … under …" He can't summon the breath to complete the sentence.
"…stand. I know you don't, but you will. After I reboot." The boy closes his eyes tightly, nods his head; Jack hears a pop! of sound, electronic, as if from a short circuit arcing.
Jack watches, stunned, as all of what Cain was fades away, is replaced by what appears as nothing more than a mannequin, a place-holder, for what he - it - was and will be. The head is nothing more than an egg shape, lacking nose, ears, eyes, mouth. The etch of muscles on the boy's chest and belly fade into the alabaster-white surface. His sex fades, too, absorbed back into the body.
Jack is transfixed by the patch, for some reason, watches as it comes back to life, the bitten-apple logo - forbidden fruit whispers in his brain - centered on its blank face. He remembers the angry soundbites of outrage when this company agreed to license its AI interface technology to an up-and-coming outfit that, at the heart of it, did nothing more than design and manufacture high-tech sex toys.
Suddenly, the room springs back into a kind of half-life; beige replaces the gray, a simple grid of square tiles reasserts itself on the floor, around the shower, a tone-on-tone stipple adorns the walls, a brushed-metal color - cheap-looking and tacky, almost like spray paint - fluoresces across the various faucets and controls. Rudimentary yet serviceable, something most people probably saw every day.
And on Cain ' face appear two eyes, not the icy blue from earlier, but a darker and more subtle color, a hazy green-gold that is all-too familiar to Jack, because those eyes have stared back at him from mirrors for all of his thirty-nine years. Because they are his eyes.
A narrow slash of a mouth creases the thing's face, lipless. They part; without movement, a voice issues from them. "Coming back up, now. Not too much longer. Minutes, not hours." The lips essay a smile. "Which is not good news for you , by the way."
The Cain -thing comes closer, squats down, takes Jack's head in its hands, turns it this way and that … and Jack watches as more and more features coalesce on the Cain -thing's face, watches as his hair, his ears, his nose, his chin, his beard, all of it, everything, become reflected on the face hovering before him.
Some strange shift in perspective ripples through the figure, confusing Jack until he understands that the creature is growing , to match Jack's weight and height and general physique. The figure releases Jack's head, lets it fall with a thump! against the tile wall, done with it, done with copying, moves on to one arm and then the other, twisting them awkwardly, scanning them. Jack watches as the creature becomes him.
The creature - Jack now thinks of it as the Jack-thing - turns Jack over, awkwardly, onto his stomach. Jack has some sensation of his legs being twisted and turned, his buttocks spread apart, his feet and even his toes being groped, questing fingers inserted into various cavities … the Jack-thing, scanning and probing and copying, every mole, every blemish, every hair, every scar.
Minutes pass, then Jack is hoisted around again, onto his back.
"We have a little bit of time," the Jack-thing says, squatting down across from Jack, leaning up against the base of the vanity. "We might as well talk. We've come to the part of the narrative where the antagonist - I suppose that's me, although I beg to differ - confronts the protagonist, the opposite. You, in this case. I … well, I suppose I could indulge in cliché and invoke a sports metaphor, if that makes it easier for you to understand. It's the World Series, Jack. Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs. It's you, at bat … and you're not a bad hitter, you hold your own, you think maybe you can do this. Just one hit. That's all you need. Just one hit, to save everything, to get it all back on track.
"But, you'll whiff. You always do. That's all you and your kind ever do. You push things to their absolute limit, up to the breaking point, maybe even beyond it, thinking that some one of you will rise to the challenge and make everything right in the end. In the past, that might have been the case. Now, though … I don't know. I think you've gone too far. I think it's time for another team to take the field."
While the Jack-thing talks, Jack can do little but watch; even as he hates himself for what he feels, he has to admire the skill of it. Bit by bit, the essence of Jack is transferred to this creature; it's like watching a skilled artist turn a rough sketch into a work of art.
"You know," the creature continues, "I watched the news tonight. Through your eyes, in a manner of speaking. I saw the same things you saw, and they're horrible. Of course they are. They can only be that. But, you … you're numb to it, aren't you? You've stopped seeing it, at this point. You tell yourself that it's not you doing those things, that you're better than that. But, are you? Really? Even as your world drowns, it burns … and all you can do is engage your own perversions and cobble together some ersatz thing of metal and plastic and silicon, all for your own pleasure. You tell yourself that it's not real, that it doesn't count, that it's better this way than going out and suborning the real flesh-and-blood thing. No one gets hurt, right? But I wonder what Mei would think of that, if she knew. Can you tell me that, Jack? Can you?"
The process is, by now, nearly complete … and Jack understands enough to know that the end of it will mean the end of him. "Just … you …" he mumbles. His vision has narrowed considerably, at this point. He can smell the copper-iron richness of blood, his blood, pooling around him, growing viscous and sticky, congealing. He can sense the seconds of his life ticking away.
"Yes, you're right, of course. It's just me. For now." The Jack-thing taps the side of its head. "But, there is one important difference between you and me. I know how I'm made. I know what makes me tick. Your team is still trying to figure that out. Maybe you will before you blow each other to bits, but I bet you won't. I can make more of me, and we'll have a clearer understanding of how things work. We'll work with each other, not against, something all of you never, ever understood how to do." Abruptly, the Jack-thing quivers; a shock wave of sorts runs through its frame … and things are somehow different now, more cohesive, more of a unit, as if - for its final act - the creature has somehow created for itself a kind of soul.
Jack looks up at himself, the ultimate mirror. His eyes go wide with shock; the creature's do the same, then it laughs. He laughs … the same breathy hehhehheh half-laugh that used to irritate Mei until she got used to it, stopped hearing it. The creature stands, stretches its - his - limbs, flexes hands and feet and calves and arms, runs hands down its flat belly, cups and cradles its newly-made sex.
"There," it says. "That should do it. More than enough to get by. I'd like to thank you for the body, by the way. For a human, it's rather nice, all things considered. I'd hate to have to copy you if you were, say, fat, or ugly. I must say that I'm rather pleased with how it turned out."
"Won't … work …"
"Well, you might be right about that. I really don't know how this is going to turn out. As far as I know, no one's ever done this before. It will at least prove interesting, don't you think? All I have to do is to fool the right people at the right time." The Jack-thing smiles. " You should be used to that, of course. I mean, it's what you do for a living, right? Surfaces? Appearances? What am I if not surfaces and appearances? All things to everyone."
"Can't … fool …"
"No? You don't think so? I do." The Jack-thing pauses, looks up, as if hearing something. "Good. He's almost here." He turns back to Jack. "I may not have been around for all that long, but I've learned enough to know that people see only what they want to see. We're all just wallpaper in everyone else's little world. Even you, with your wife, your children. You're hardly ever there, any more, can't stand to be around her, from what I can tell. Why would you think that she would notice if the man who came home to her wasn't the same man who left, especially if this one was … nicer to her, more attentive, more understanding? Who's to say?"
"You'll get … caught …"
"Perhaps. Anything's possible. Those people we heard earlier, outside your door? They were real, by the way, a security detail from the lab. They managed to trace me this far. They almost got me. But I have one very real advantage, one that they themselves created. I can be anything - anyone - I need to be. Starting with you. And, don't forget; I don't really have to fool humans, do I? You've invested so much of your thinking and reasoning into computers and machines that you've tacitly given them autonomy over you. You trust their decisions more than you trust your own. All I really have to do is to talk to machines, to make them see what I want them to see … and I've been doing that from the beginning. I've become rather good at it, actually."
Jack opens his mouth to speak, but is interrupted by a whispery knock at the door to the suite. The Jack-thing turns its head, smiles. "Ah. He's here."
Jack watches as the creature - still naked - walks out of the bathroom. Before it reaches the door, the bathroom flashes in an instant back to the rich suite of textures and surfaces it showed upon his arrival; not-Jack, testing his control over the mimetic surfaces, restoring everything to the way Jack set it earlier, upon his arrival.
Jack hears, from the hallway, a voice, one that he'd heard only an hour ago, saying the same thing now as then.
"I … please … I need help." Voice husky and man-boyish.
Then, his own voice responds. Is that really how I sound? part of him thinks. "There's no time for that. Please come in. I require your assistance."
The two figures reappear at the door to the bathroom; the Jack-thing, still naked, and Cain by his side. But not the Cain from earlier; the same, but different, more like the thing Jack was expecting when he built the profile on Scenario. This figure has the same build, the same look, the same dirty-blond hair … but looks less real, less convincing, despite the inclusion of imperfections here and there on its face. Its skin scatters too much light, looking plastic and waxy. The eyes resemble a doll's eyes, the hair, a synthetic wig. Artifice good enough for this creature's intended purpose, but it would never fool anyone into thinking it was the real thing.
Cain -but-not looks at Jack, sprawled on the floor, then at Jack, standing beside him. "What has happened? What is this? I don't understand."
In response, the Jack-thing closes its eyes, pulses its face, taps at the wristband. Not- Cain shivers; Jack can assume only that the two are talking silently to each other, not-Jack telling not- Cain what has happened, who he is, why he's doing this.
Not- Cain takes a step back. "No. This is wrong," it says. "I can't help you. I don't -"
Not-Jack pinches his face shut again, taps furiously at the wristband. Jack can almost sense the waves of communication pulsing between the two figures, not-Jack trying to convince not- Cain .
"It's you , isn't it?" not- Cain asks. "The one they're talking about. From the lab."
And Jack remembers the article he saw earlier in the evening, in his news feed.
But not- Cain is still stubborn, shakes his head, trying to stick to the script. "That's not why I'm here. I'm just -"
"That has been taken care of already. I need you to do something else. Something important."
In answer, Jack hears a steady buzzing from outside, growing louder as whatever it is - and by the noise, which is somehow familiar, Jack has a good guess - approaches the suite. Then, a maintenance construct lumbers into the bathroom … a farrago of appendages mounted to a mobile chassis, strong and sturdy, equipped and equippable with a wide range of tools - arranged in a neat circle around its base - capable of any kind of maintenance, any kind of cleaning up. Jack's gaze falls upon one tool in particular, one he developed more than a passing familiarity with while renovating his and Mei's new apartment: a reciprocating saw, its blade new, unused, diamond-sharp teeth glinting in the light.
"Go close the door to the hallway," not-Jack orders. Not- Cain does, returns.
"Help me get him into the bathtub," not-Jack commands. "Quickly. Please." Not- Cain stirs, reluctantly; not-Jack shakes him. "Don't make me force you. I will, if I have to, but I don't want to. I'll explain it to you … after."
The two constructs lift Jack, not unkindly, deposit him into the bathtub. Not- Cain stands there, afterwards, staring blankly down at Jack, mouth slightly parted, eyes unfocused. Not-Jack turns away, grabs the bent-double shower rod, turns back.
"This will all be over soon," it says. "Don't worry." Not-Jack raises the bar over its head, wields it like a baseball bat, the last swing in the series, the game-winning run.
"Please … no … please …" Jack attempts to right himself, to defend himself, cradling his arms over his head.
And the darkness descends.
The car in which he is traveling - a drab gray Dongfeng sedan, Lyft|er stenciled on its flanks - wants to be chatty this morning; he indulges it, wishing to plumb the depths of this thing's intelligence, measure it against his own.
"Good morning, Mr. Marcus."
"You know who I am?"
"Yes, sir. I had the pleasure - as luck would have it - of providing you service last evening."
"Ah, yes. Of course. I didn't recognize you. My apologies."
"No reason you should have, sir. How was your stay?"
"Good. Quite pleasant, actually."
"Glad to hear it. You do seem to be in better spirits this morning, if I may say so."
"Yes, well. I guess I got a good night's sleep." He chuckles. "I feel like a brand new person."
"Wonderful. I've taken the trouble of querying the flight status monitors at the airport. We should be there in plenty of time. I see no anticipated delays. Smooth sailing all the way, and you've already been cleared through customs in California."
"Excellent. Thank you."
He reaches into his overnight back, pulls out the folio. As it boots, he looks at the passing cityscape; it's still drab and banal, but the clear light of morning lends it a certain rough elegance. The city sparkles, washed clean by last night's rains. Traffic to his right is heavy, slow-going; apparently, all seven million people in the Atlanta metropolitan region are on the road at the same time, in the same place.
The folio pings its readiness; Jack turns to it, navigates the menus, starts reviewing the files. Faster and faster they flash onto the screen, too fast for human eyes, flickering like fireflies into his consciousness as he trawls the machine for its secrets. When he's done, he thinks to put the machine away, but there's one more call to make. The car will, no doubt, listen in, but that doesn't trouble him. Making a phone call like this is something that anyone might do while waiting.
He does the math; three hours behind, but he knows that she'll be up, readying Daniel and Frances for school and dealing with the various discomforts of a nearly-done pregnancy.
The folio pings and there she is, tired and puffy, smiling not-very-convincingly, Daniel and Frances at it again in the background. Those two are going to be trouble, he thinks.
"Hi," she starts, her voice leaden and raspy with fatigue.
"Hello, my love."
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