by Jay Caselberg
Glass and plastic. Glass and plastic and steel. I looked out across the city tracing the edges of darkness with my eyes. My window stared out over lean, unclean streets and alleyways. Mean Streets. That had been the title of a film I remembered from sometime back in the distant past. I shook the memory away and flung the window wide, leaned out looking, seeking an escape from the heat. The air was thick with it — ready to burst. Sirens, choppers and other sounds were thrumming and drifting, hanging for a moment then fading into the darkness, stirring the civilization soup that slopped above the skyline.
And then…there she was.
Her image formed slowly, limned in purple. The violet light crept over a half shadow in the shape of head and shoulders, filling it with depth and substance, like blood running through empty veins. The dark-streaked skyline suddenly had a presence.
I stared, my mouth hanging stupidly open, wondering where the face had come from. And then I didn’t care, because the image hanging above the cityscape moved. The lips pressed together, pouting in a gentle moue. It was a sweet-yet-knowing look. I watched her face hanging above the city, and though it was violet, insubstantial, I wanted her. That face, her face, had shaken the black plastic complacency that currently filled my life night after night. And I knew, though it couldn’t be so, her gaze was for me alone.
One eyelid slowly closed, opened. And then, with that wink, it blinked out of existence and was gone. Suddenly, irrationally, I was jealous. How many more had seen her, seen what I had seen and felt what I was feeling? I thought, beyond all sense, that this vision ought to have been just for me.
The city in the Twenties was not so different from previous decades. It’s funny, but all those speculative writers in the previous century either glorified the march of technology or augured for some post-apocalyptic nightmare. It wasn’t so different when and where we lived. Wrapped and insular, and painted with its own special brand of slime and grime, civilization marched on the way it always had. Few things change in human interaction; the setting mutates a little, but the fundamental things apply.
I made my own speculations. I thought that her image was bound to be nothing more than another slick corporate manipulation of the unwashed masses — and unwashed we were, trained to consume, just so. But somehow, this was different. The face had been more than just a digitized graphic, more than something simply dreamed up electronically in the heart of a box. And there was I, one of the unwashed, wilting at the open window and straining for a ghost to reappear. It didn’t. I stood there maybe ten minutes, but her face had gone.
The words of an old, old song came to me then: Where do you go to, my lovely, when you’re alone in your bed? I don’t know where they appeared from, but they ran around the inside of my head over and over again. My memory was full of cluttered snippets from the past. I guess memory’s like that. It gets triggered by brief snatches of your existence and comes back to haunt you. And tonight I was going to be alone in my bed, just like every other night. That only made the ache worse.
Only later did I learn she called herself Susanne. The number after her name came even later still. It was a hell of a way to start an advertising campaign.
I turned from the window and flicked on the Tree V, keeping the sound down. I stared past the images, not really seeing them as they danced in the middle of my living room, looking through them to my stark, naked walls beyond. I’d turned it on just to fill the gap. As I sat there, eyes fixed on phantoms, I determined to find out who she was. That part was easy. I was a journalist for a netpaper then — one of the gutter hacks for Newsnet Corp. It was a profession that didn’t make you many friends, but nobody made friends in the city. They just built walls around themselves as protection from the urban tension, although mainly protection from each other.
I’d worked for a few outfits in my time. Did a stint as a cinema journalist — the old stuff when everything was 2D, flat screen. Films, music, I loved the stuff. It filled my head with memories of places I’d never been. In some ways, it was a replacement for the isolation-in-a-crowd syndrome that came with living in that urban maze. We each had to find our own way out. Her face, floating above the cityscape, had done something more, given me something else to strive for. With that one brief image, though I didn’t know who she was, what her name was then, I knew Susanne was going to be mine.
I sat most of the night staring at the walls and thinking. I’d lived in the place about a year and I’d never bothered to transform it into something that said it was mine. No pictures on the walls. No kitsch little objets d’art. Just blank, bare walls. I didn’t have anyone to impress. A couple of times I went to the window, in the vain hope that I might catch another glimpse of the image, of her. Then back to the chair and stare at the wall, the sounds of night stirring in the building around me. I sat there until I zoned out. Eventually I slept.
I’d never been in love. Oh, there’d been the passing infatuations, those moments where you think you brush against something in another that flares into incandescence, touching you with a belief you’ve found something special. It always fades, always. It was just the length of time it took to fade that distinguished one from another. This was something different. Love at first sight, call it what you will, but she had woken something in me. I found that strange — it was only a face. And yet, I dreamed.
I woke to the grittiness of not enough sleep and a crick in my neck from all night in the chair. The window was still wide open and the noise of street sweepers and delivery trucks shuddered through the room and through my head. It was way too early for rational thought or for that amount of noise and I screwed up my face against it. Reluctantly, I staggered to my feet and slammed the window. Slick breakfast Tree V faces grinned stupidly from the room’s centre. The disembodied heads conjured memories of last night’s face and I gritted my teeth. These faces, heavily made-up and over-colored, were less substantial than hers in my mind and hers had been merely mono — touched with shades of violet. Their idiot grins accused me of being a fool. I snarled at the images then flicked the Tree V off. Standing in the centre of the room, I rubbed the back of my neck and struggled to work out what the hell I was going to do.
I was currently between projects. The last pitch had been a series on Twentieth-century icons, the stuff I did best. But the funds would trickle dry soon. I had to come up with a new idea to pitch. Maybe last night’s vision was what I needed.
So it was; an idea took shape. Whatever had caused her image to appear over the cityscape shouted resources. Whoever was responsible had some serious funding and serious technology. That was the sort of stuff that made a good story. People always liked to read about money or success, or see its fall. It wasn’t directly linked to the kind of things I normally worked on, but it wouldn’t hurt to diversify. I knew I was only really looking for an excuse.
While I showered and pulled on fresh clothes I tried to analyze the way I was feeling. Sure, I’m normally attracted to faces first, but the image had been unreal. Or maybe it was hyper-real. Either way, there was no logical reason for it to have the sort of impact it did. Maybe I was just getting tired of the solitude and my self-imposed hermitage. I really ought to get out more.
I wasted no time heading into the fog-wreathed day to head towards the coffee bar on the corner. Chalked blackboard advertising the day’s specials, steamy interior and a net connection to the grid. I hated the red and white check plastic tablecloths, but it was close and they brewed passably evil coffee. Best of all, it was cheap. Among the grey-brown crumpled coats and huddled coveralls I had a chance to think. Most of the early morning crowd were building workers. Construction still went on in the city, mainly conversions of old office blocks. I ordered a coffee and carried it to the corner table where I could sit and watch the growing traffic through the greasy window. A few sips later, I pulled out my deck and thumbed it into life.
I stared at the small screen for a full ten minutes before finally working out that I had nothing to go on. No starting point. All I had was the vision above the skyline. What was I going to key in … head in the sky? I slammed the deck shut in disgust, finished my coffee, and walked outside into the slowly growing day. The mists were already starting to clear above the river. It promised to be yet another in the succession of days devoid of relief from muggy heat.
It was too early to disturb anyone yet —well, the sort of people I knew—so I decided to walk out onto the bridge and spend some time staring at what floated past in the murky river. Sometimes I did my best thinking like that. It was amazing, the thought-chains the flotsam could trigger. As I walked, I mentally ticked off the list of old friends I could contact. One of them was bound to know something. After a while, I turned to watch the crawling traffic. There were still enough commuters every day to give me a passing parade. Here’s George Jetson. Nope, we still had cars and roads and buses and trains. I smiled at the old cartoon image running through my head and turned back to watch the river.
What was it that made someone want someone else? From where came that spark of attraction that drives people to do crazy things? Something about her face had sent my pulse racing and opened up a chasm within me. And it had no right to do so. Some said attraction was a chemical thing, but I didn’t believe that. That answer was far too simple.
Eventually I dragged myself away from the bridge and headed into town. One of my old contacts worked out of a studio in the middle of the financial district, or what used to be the financial district. We still called places by their old names even though the patterns of work had changed over the years. There were no specific boundaries anymore. People came into the city and worked where they could afford to. After the initial gravitation away from the cities in the early part of the century, there had been a movement back, seeking the contact and the real-life interaction that they’d lost with working from home. People had missed the filth and the dirt and the noise and everything that went with it. I knew I would have missed it. I could only take so many trees and rolling fields. Give me the sharp-tanged edge of city squalor any day.
It took me half an hour by subway to reach the financial district and another ten minutes by foot to reach the old office building where Jerry worked. He was a freelancer too, but he did most of his work for the big boys. He did all right for himself. I peered up at the glass monolith and then leaned against the intercom, shielding the camera with my shoulder. He answered on the second buzz.
“Yeah, who is it?” He sounded half-asleep. “When are they going to fix this damned thing?” I heard him mutter to himself. I grinned and pulled away from the camera.
“Jer, it’s me, Bill. Can I come up?”
“Right, very funny, Marx. You realize you just woke me?” The intercom cut out and the door buzzed at the same time. I slipped inside and pressed for the fourteenth. Jerry was leaning against his half-open door as I stepped out on his floor.
“Jesus, Bill, what time is it?”
“‘Bout half-past ten,” I said. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“No, no. Come on in.”
He stepped back to let me pass and waved me into his studio, if you could call it that. The furnishings were on the high side of comfortable and he had enough space in there to hold a convention. The big boys had been treating him well. He stood draped in his robe and looked at me blearily.
“So, Bill. This is an unexpected pleasure. Coffee?”
“You need to ask?”
He grunted and shuffled to the kitchen. I found myself a spot on the one of the sumptuous black synth-leather sofas and waited for him to rejoin me.
“So what brings you over?” Bill called from the other room.
“Thought I might pick your brains. I’ve got something I’m trying to chase down.”
“Well, did you see that thing over the city last night?”
“Sure, who didn’t? What of it?”
“I was wondering if you knew anything about it.”
He appeared in the doorway holding a mug in each hand. “Where have you been? It was all over the net news about five minutes after it happened. Didn’t you see the bulletins?”
“Oh, Christ. I didn’t think . . . . ”
He wandered over, handed me a mug and took up position on the sofa opposite me, pulling his robe tighter about himself.
“That’s not like you. Where were you? Stuck in another one of your old films?”
I shook my head. He was right. It wasn’t like me at all. There was something very strange about all of this.
“Didn’t it affect you in any way?” I asked slowly.
He shrugged. “Nice enough image I suppose. Very clever. But, no. What’s the problem?”
“I dunno, Jer, it’s weird. It’s as if it woke something inside me. It really got to me.”
“You know your problem? You need to —”
“— get out more. Yeah, yeah. I know. So anyway, tell me what it’s all about.”
He took a sip at his coffee and thought for a moment. “Well, according to last night’s reports — I haven’t seen anything yet this morning — it was the start of some advertising campaign for a dating agency, would you believe? They’re in trouble anyway. Apparently, however they did it, that broadcast, it was done without any authority. There’s talk of a massive fine. It disrupted air traffic among other things.”
“A dating agency?”
“Yep. Perfect Partners or something. Either that or a marriage broker. Something like that anyway. They claim to guarantee the perfect match for their clients, the ideal partner.”
I dug in the back of my memory for something and then realized what it was. Mail-order brides. Back in the twentieth, they had a similar set-up. It got the women away from their less-than-perfect life in the Philippines or Russia or some other place and married them off to Western men, for a sum. In return, the lonely men got an obedient, dutiful house servant going by the name of “wife.” But I couldn’t see what the pay-off was in this one. Not if it was offering the same sort of deal.
“Do you know anything else about them?” I asked.
“Nada. Oh, except that their advertising campaign is due to start properly over the next few days. They’ll probably swamp the net and the Tree V.” He narrowed his eyes over the rim of his mug. “What’s ticking away in that evil little brain of yours, Bill Marx? You got a line on this or something?”
“Dunno, Jer.” And I didn’t. “Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t. Anyway, I’m sorry for getting you up, and thanks.”
“No problem. It was about time I got moving anyway. Let me know what you come up with, eh?”
“Sure. So you can relieve me of another slice of the pie, just like the last one.”
Jerry held up a placating hand. “Unintentional, my friend. I assure you.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard it all before. Anyway, thanks. I’ll see myself out and let you get on with stealing someone else’s story.”
Jerry waved me out with an amused grin on his face. We went back a long way. We weren’t really friends. More like friendly rivals.
Once out on the street, I headed away from the financial district, trying to dredge up as much as I could remember about the outfits that had operated in the last century, wondering if Perfect Partners was offering the same sort of deal. Somehow, it wouldn’t surprise me. Someone always found a way to trade in other people’s misfortune.
Back at my place, I started researching. It didn’t take long to find out a few things, some of which surprised even me. The romance industry had been worth billions in the past. It had faded out of vogue around the turn of the century. Too many exposés and fly-by-night operators making the headlines. And it was supplemented and slowly replaced by the growth of the global communications industry. Well, it seemed that enough time had passed for the tarnish to wear off. Whatever Perfect Partners were offering, they had to have some new twist to it. Time to look at the merchandise.
I finally found their ad, buried in the pink commercial finance section of one of the major netpapers. I thought it was a strange place to have it, unless they were targeting real money, which would have made sense. The ad was slim on details — just a teaser. But there was a number there.
I had no trouble getting through. A prim face appeared on the screen, slick and corporate. “You’re through to Perfect Partners. Please hold.” The image was replaced by her face, slowly turning on my screen. The bottom fell out of my stomach, and I swallowed back the feeling of ice at my throat. A moment later, the woman who answered was back.
“Good morning, Mr. Marx. How can we help?” Oh, they were good. Damned good.
“Good morning. I saw your advertisement. I’m interested in finding out more.”
“Certainly, Mr. Marx. If you’d bear with me for a moment.” The woman looked off-screen and appeared to be reading something. Her eyes narrowed just for an instant, and then the welcoming corporate face was back. “I’ll upload an information pack for you straight away, Mr. Marx. We have your node point here. If you have any further questions, just get back to us. We’ll be happy to help.”
I was sure they would, but probably not in the way I wanted. I finished the call and primed my deck for receipt. The file was over in mere seconds.
It was just as Jerry had claimed: a matchmaker. There were some pretty outrageous claims about ideal compatibility suited to your individual profile, but I would have expected nothing less. An exhaustive set of questionnaires would establish your compatibility, and they’d set you up with the appropriate partner. It smacked of the old computer dating services. Nobody was going to be taken in by that stuff. There was a hefty deposit, but not unaffordable, and the mention of an undisclosed fee. I guessed the fee was likely to be some multiple of the initial deposit.
I now had a problem. If I was going to pursue this, I had barely enough to cover the deposit. There was no guarantee I’d get a worthy story out of this. If it turned out to be nothing, I’d have wasted the last of my reserves. I chewed my lip, staring at the screen, weighing up the risk. And then, unbidden, an image of her face popped into my head.
I closed the deck and made the call.
The offices of Perfect Partners were slicker than I’d imagined: lots of fake wood paneling, and plants in every corner. The prim receptionist, hair sweeping in twin dark curves around her face, flawless complexion, sat behind a wide flowing desk, terminals on both sides. She looked me over as I entered, and though there was nothing obvious, I could tell I didn’t quite make the grade. And then she surprised me.
“Welcome, Mr. Marx. Before we get started, I’m going to need your deposit.”
I flipped her my card and watched helplessly as she ate the last of my funds. She pushed the card back across the desk with one forefinger. Whether they knew or not that she’d taken the last of it, didn’t matter I guessed. They’d had something out of me, and that’s what counted.
“Thank you, Mr. Marx. Now, if you’ll just follow me.” I followed her houndstooth jacket and bright red skirt through a side door, and then into an elevator. She watched the lights, not looking at me as we rose through the building.
“We’ll be setting a series of questions to match your personality profile, and one of our medical technicians will be along when you’re done to take a tissue sample.”
Tissue sample? That was new. I didn’t like the sound of that at all, but I kept the thought to myself. Curiouser and curiouser. As long as they didn’t want me to drink anything.
She led me into a small room halfway along a narrow, sterile corridor. There was a table and a chair and a keyboard and screen. That was it. No windows, no other furnishings, nothing. Just blank grey walls and carpet. I was about to ask what went on here, when she raised a finger to her lips.
“Take the seat there,” she whispered. “When you’re ready, just say ‘Start.’ The med technician will be along in about an hour.” She ushered me into the room, nodded and closed the door gently behind her. I took the seat, shrugged, and said “Start.”
A toneless voice issued from the ceiling above me. “Welcome, Mr. Marx,” it said. “What follows is a series of tests to establish your profile. Please answer the questions as truthfully as possible. Now, watch the screen in front of you please. If you are unsure, or do not understand, please say ‘repeat’ clearly and the question will repeat. Are you ready to begin?”
“Yes,” I said, and watched as images started to form on the screen in front of me.
The whole thing took about an hour and a half. They asked me questions about likes and dislikes, what certain words and patterns reminded me of, then the med guy came and scraped a bit of skin from my arm and took a swab from my mouth.
“What’s this for?”
He looked at me as if I was stupid. “Compatibility tests.” That’s all he said.
It wasn’t long before the slick receptionist appeared to lead me back downstairs. “That’s it Mr. Marx,” she said. “We’ll be in touch within a day or two.”
I wandered back out onto the street, slightly dazed and drained. Compatibility tests? Tissue samples? I had no idea what the hell was going on. Back at the turn of the century, there’d been these lonely-hearts clubs. They got you to fill in questionnaires and then tried to match you with a partner by computer. Maybe it was some sort of version of that, but it didn’t seem like it. These hadn’t been banks of multiple-choice questions. They’d barraged me with shapes and sounds, asked questions about my reactions, the images that had appeared in my head. It made no sense. Perhaps it was all just voodoo — make it look like you were getting something for your money. I smiled as I headed back to my place to wait, to somehow kill the shapeless time before they got in touch. Even if it turned out to be nothing more than a scam, it would be enough of a story.
Two days I waited. Well, make that thirty-nine hours and fifteen minutes. The sweaty heat hadn’t left. I tried to occupy my time looking for background on Perfect Partners. Whoever they were, they’d covered their ownership well. Maybe too well. They were an unlisted company, but the records showed two directors. Both turned out to be lawyers. One was unavailable; the other put up a wall. He wasn’t at liberty to discuss the company’s business or its associations. And who the hell was I anyway? I cut the connection and sat back. Two grand and nothing but a few so-called tests to show for it. Things had to start getting better soon. I thought about contacting Jerry again. If he’d nosed that I was on to something, he was bound to have been making his own inquiries. But then I thought again. If I seemed too eager, he’d be all over it before I’d had a chance to move. No, it was better to deal with it on my own.
The call from Perfect Partners finally came. They suggested an initial meeting on one of the floating restaurant barges that plied their trade along the river. A strange choice of venue, but it would do. Arming my skepticism, I headed off for the meeting.
She was more than I could have hoped for. She sat waiting for me at the restaurant bar, her face a picture — the same face that had sparked this whole thing. Forget her face — everything was a picture, and as soon as I saw her, a deep longing flowered inside me. I’d never seen a woman like that before. Everything about her was right.
When I walked up and introduced myself, and she said her name, the image was complete. Her voice, rich and full, was just what I’d imagined. She reached up and flicked the curve of hair away from her face as she sat there looking up at me. I wasted no time getting us to our table. I knew this was going to cost, but it was worth it. I didn’t even have to try and convince myself.
I sat picking at the first course, barely touching the wine. I’d come armed with a barrage of questions, but somehow they all floated out of my head and down the murky river water outside the windows. “Tell me about you,” she’d said in that deep rich voice, and I did. I talked and talked. I told her about where I’d grown up, school, how I’d drifted and finally ended up doing what I was doing now. I told her about my loves and hates, the things that turned me on and the events that had touched parts of my life. Through it all, she sat rapt and listening. She reached out a hand across the table and touched my fingers. It was like an electric shock and for a moment, I was speechless.
“Go on,” she said, as my words dried up. It took me a while to start talking again. I knew without a word that I was in love. It was more than simple desire, much more.
“No,” I said to her. “Tell me about you.”
“What do you want to know?”
I thought for a few seconds. “Where do you come from, Susanne?” I asked.
“Not very far from here,” she said. “And Susanne is only part of my name.”
I let that pass. “So, what, are your parents from some other country?”
There was a lengthy silence, then she sighed. “This was bound to come up sooner or later. Better that it’s sooner, I suppose. I don’t have parents, Bill.”
“What do you mean, you don’t have parents? Are they dead?”
“I was engineered, Bill. Grown. My name is Susanne.”
I sat staring at her. The waiter approached and I waved him away. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No, I’m serious.”
“Explain . . . .”
“I, Susanne, was determined to be your most compatible match.”
I drew back from the table, the implications of what she was telling me just starting to hit.
“But that’s impossible,” I said. “They can’t do that.”
She shook her head slowly. “It’s not impossible. They’ve done it. Am I not everything you want, Bill?”
I looked at her, and she was. It didn’t matter whether what she was telling me was true. I wanted her like I’d never wanted anyone else. Despite the alarm bells ringing in the back of my head, despite the craziness of what she was saying, it all meant nothing. So she’d been cloned, genetically engineered, trained and programmed — so what?
“Well they can’t do that, can they?” I stuttered. “They can’t own you, can they? You can do what you want.”
I sat thinking. The restaurant noise swelled and faded around me. We’d been together for such a short time, but I knew.
“I want to spend time. I want to be with you,” I said. “I have to be sure.”
“I want to be with you too, Bill. I’m meant to be with you.” She reached her hand across the table again and I took it. The contact sparked through me again and I smiled.
Our desserts came and the conversation became sparse. We were halfway through dessert when the metaphorical bomb exploded above my head.
“After tonight,” I said, “you can just walk away from this outfit and then we’ll see where we go together. They can’t hold you to anything.”
“That’s not how it works,” she said slowly, putting down her spoon.
I paused, my own spoon halfway to my mouth. “What do you mean?”
“The contract is clear, should you decide to proceed. You will transfer two hundred thousand to a named account, and once the transaction is complete, we are free to be together. We’ll be happy together, Bill. Very happy.”
I laughed. “Yeah, right.” Then I saw the seriousness with which she was watching me. I frowned. “You’re kidding, right?”
“We were meant to be together. That’s not very much to ask for happiness, a mere two-hundred thousand. I want to be with you, always. We’d be perfect partners, Bill. I can see that already.”
I lowered my spoon. “You’re serious, aren’t you? Jesus. Two-hundred thousand. There’s no way I could ever afford that.” But even as I was saying the words, I was thinking of ways I might possibly raise the cash. I wanted her so badly, the need was almost irrational. And I was thinking it even though I knew what I had to do.
“There must be a way,” she said. “Perhaps you can borrow it.”
I shook my head.
“But I really want us to be together.” I could hear it in her voice. I could see it in her face.
“Look,” I said. “If you want to be with me so badly, you will be. All you have to do is walk away. Everything else is just plain stupid. There’s no way I can ever afford two hundred grand. There’s no way they’ve got any right to ask. Just come with me. Come with me now.”
Very slowly, Susanne lowered her gaze. “I’m sorry, Bill. We would have been so right.” She stood, gave me one last look and walked from our table without a backward glance, leaving me staring after her. I could have made a fool of myself, got up and run after her, but I knew that wasn’t what I was going to do.
I don’t know what Perfect Partners had done, how they’d tailored her reactions, her scents, her look, those subtle things that make a person what they are, but as she walked away, it was as if something was being torn from inside me. I sat staring after her, knowing I couldn’t follow and cursing myself for it all the same. A long time later, I called for the check and paid.
I stepped outside into the heat, images of helicopters turning slowly through the napalm flames in my head, a soundtrack by The Doors playing in the back of my thoughts. This is the end…
And despite the growing ache deep in my guts, an ache that I knew would last and last, I was already working. Maybe I couldn’t have her, not someone like me, but I sure as hell had a story.
Jay Caselberg is an Australian author based in Europe. His work has appeared in multiple venues around the world including such places as Polyphony, Interzone, and The Third Alternative as well as a number of novels. He has been translated into a number of languages. More can be found at jaycaselberg.com and he can be found on Facebook and Twitter.