by Stephen Dedman
The CD-Rom was labelled 'Venus: Shareware Version 2.0', with a Chinasoft logo. "What is it?" Sebastian asked, looking at the blank case. "A flight simulator?"
Frank shook his head, then looked around the library furtively and whispered. "Better than that. Have you ever heard of the Venus Database?"
"No. What is it?"
"It's probably an urban myth, but it's supposed to be a program somewhere that will find your perfect partner for you."
Sebastian looked at him dubiously. "They keep a register of blind chubby chasers?"
"Ha ha." Neither of them had been genetically engineered, but like most Millennium babies whose parents could afford a full medical insurance package, they'd been vaccinated against acne before hitting their teens, and surgery had given them near-perfect teeth and vision. However, both were asthmatic, and Frank was as obese as Sebastian was scrawny; he was also nearly three inches taller, but Sebastian smelled better when he remembered to wash. "Like I said," Frank continued, "the database is probably just another myth, but anyway, this is better. It makes your perfect partner." Sebastian raised an eyebrow. "Okay, a computer simulation, not the body or anything, but the graphics are excellent, and she has a personality, too."
Sebastian stared at the CD, which was slightly larger than a quarter. "Yeah, I bet."
"That's just the start-up; you have to download the rest from their website."
"And how much does that cost?"
"It's a demo. Shareware. You know Chinasoft." Sebastian nodded slightly; the label was the world's largest source of bootleg software. Some said it was a gang of sociopathic hackers disseminating viruses; some that it was run by one of the Triads, who had a near-monopoly on the black market in everything from passports to transplant parts; others that it was a group of recalcitrant old-fashioned Communists, determined to bring computer literacy to the poor and vice versa; but most maintained that the name was a misnomer and it was actually based in California and used to gather demographics for direct marketing companies.
Sebastian didn't much care which story was true. In his experience, Chinasoft's products were no more likely to be infected than other shareware; the 14K and Chiu Chao Triads were a fact of life in Vancouver, and organised crime owned almost everything anyway or might as well have done; Communism was as dead as Fidel Castro; and most of his disposable income already went into his software and computer upgrades anyway. "There's a long questionnaire you have to do before they show you any of the women," Frank continued, "and once you've chosen one, it's up to you how much personality you download - though you'd better have plenty of memory free, and stay online so it can update itself."
"A couple of hours. It starts off simple - sex, age, gender preference, that sort of thing - then goes into your other interests. It can pick up contradictions, too; I was joking around when I started, lied about my age and that sort of shit, and it caught me out. Pretty impressive."
The siren sounded, summoning them to class.
"Shit. Do you want it?"
"I'll try it," said Sebastian, pocketing the disc. "See you in Physics."
* * *
The first few questions, as Frank had said, were routine, and Sebastian decided to answer them honestly. They didn't directly ask him about his income, though they wanted to know where both of his parents worked, and some of the questions seemed designed to discover his spending habits. Sebastian answered them anyway, making it perfectly clear that he didn't play any sports; he had taken a few judo lessons, and swam occasionally but never competitively. When the survey asked him to explain this, he replied, "Asthma and disinterest," and that seemed to satisfy it; anyway, it jumped to questions about his physique. He resisted the urge to lie about his height and weight, but when it asked for his blood group, he typed in, "Why?" and continued. A few seconds later, a window appeared on the screen, informing him that the Japanese routinely advertised their blood group in personal ads, considering it as important as Californians did star signs. Sebastian chuckled, and scrolled back up to type in the answer. The next batch of questions concerned the rest of his family, then his friends, then previous girlfriends. Then, unexpectedly, academic questions, assessing his knowledge of different arts and sciences. Finally, after an hour of questions, the computer displayed a description of him, including his interests. He read it, impressed by its accuracy, made a few minor corrections, and waited.
The next batch of questions concerned his sexual preferences - gender, age range, physique, nationality, and interests. He was a little puzzled by a few of the questions, until a list began scrolling down the screen. Beside each girl's name were two thumbnail images - a close-up of the face, and a full-length profile. To Sebastian's disappointment, all of them were fully dressed, and though it was possible to make the full-length images rotate through 360 degrees, he couldn't find a cheat code to render them naked. It took him several seconds to realise that all of the costumes and most of the hairstyles were, to some degree, uniforms - surfie, neo-Goth, dreadlocked feral, otaku in a 'Lum' T-shirt, Trekkie. The faces and bodies beneath the costumes and make-up seemed similar, all apparently fifteen to eighteen, and all with the same dilated pupils. He gave the otaku an eight, sevens to the neo-Goth and the Trekkie, fives to the surfie and the feral. They were instantly replaced with another screen of archetypes, none of whom scored better than a six. After a while, racial differences and a broader range of heights and builds began to appear, figures ranging from anorexic to weightlifter, androgyne to voluptuous; then, after nearly an hour, more subtle variations in their appearance. He soon found himself giving scores of six or seven to faces that had previously rated nines. Some of the girls seemed identical, but had different names; others seemed to vary only in their eye colour, the height of their cheekbones, or the number of earrings. It was after eleven when a new icon appeared beside each girl's name; an old-fashioned telephone handset. He touched one, and the thumbnail of her face expanded to fill the screen while a clear contralto voice said, "Hi, this is Melissa. Thanks for calling, and I'm sorry I'm not in; had to go to the library. Leave me a message, and I'll get back to you."
Sebastian sat there, temporarily stunned. A window appeared underneath her face; 'Leave message Y/N?'. He touched the 'N', and face and window disappeared. He moved on to the next girl, a tanned blonde. This time, the girl appeared wearing a bikini, a towel draped over her shoulder. "Hi! Thanks for calling, but I'm in the pool, and you wouldn't want me to electrocute myself, would you? Leave your number, and I'll call you back when I get home. 'Bye!" She blew him a kiss before the image froze again.
One girl was out shopping, one at a party, three had gone to the movies, the feral was at a protest march, the neo-punk was barely audible over the background music, and the neo-hippy seemed unsure where she was, much less when she'd be back. Then a new window opened, and a beautiful young Chinese woman said softly, "I'm sorry, we're going to need a few hours to look at the data you've given us, and find somebody for you. Can you call us back tomorrow, please?"
Sebastian looked at the clock on the toolbar - 12.09 - and realised that he'd been sitting for more than four hours without a break. His parents had gone to bed hours before, the coffee cup on the shelf beside him was half-full and stone cold, and tomorrow was a school day. He clicked on the 'Y', and logged off.
* * *
Desiree had long, dark hair, not quite black, and dark blue-grey eyes. Her complexion was pale pink, her mouth slightly too wide for conventional beauty, her breasts larger than was fashionable but not big enough to be incongruous. She was slender, but not skinny; two inches shorter than Sebastian, and maybe five pounds lighter. She wore a faded Snow Crash T-shirt, jeans that were just loose enough to be comfortable, sneakers, and no visible make-up or jewellery. A bookshelf crammed with paperbacks was visible behind her; the image was too small for Sebastian to read the titles, but he could recognise some of the spines from his own collection.
"Hi," she said. Her voice was soft, with a hint of an accent that Sebastian couldn't identify. "Sebastian?"
"I'm Desiree - Des, if you insist, but I prefer Desiree." She hesitated for a few seconds. "They tell me you like chess. Do you want to play a game?"
"Chess?" He tried not to sound disappointed; sure, he was in the chess club at school, but that was mainly a way of passing the lunch break, and he hadn't answered all those questions just to get another chess program. Still, the girl was attractive enough. "Strip chess?" he ventured.
The image on the screen froze for a moment, then said coolly, "Maybe when I know you better." She raised her fists; he blinked, then touched her left. She opened her hand; a black pawn. A chess board appeared next to her face; she began with the Queen's Gambit, speaking as they played - asking his opinions of different films, books, comics, musicians, actresses. They'd been playing for nearly twenty minutes, and he was down to his King, a Bishop, and two pawns, before he realised what was happening; not only was she distracting him from the chess game, she was using the game to make the silences less awkward while they found things to talk about. "Maybe I should've said yes to Strip Chess after all," she said, with a very slight smile. "Check."
He repressed a snarl; his only hope was to queen one or both of his pawns, and now he tried to distract her, but it was too late. Two moves later, trying to put her in check, he had to sacrifice his bishop to save his king. Three moves after that she checkmated him.
"Another game?" she asked.
"Come on," she said, then looked around as though someone else was watching her, then quickly tugged the hem of her T-shirt up and yanked it down again almost immediately. Sebastian blinked; he hadn't actually seen anything, except for a flash of whiteness that was probably only a bra, but it had aroused his curiosity, and more. He stared as she set up the board for another game, then reached out to move the queen pawn.
She beat him again, but this time it took her nearly an hour, then she made the board disappear. "Thanks," she said. "That was fun. See you tomorrow night, or are you busy?"
Sebastian had been thinking that he was going to spend Saturday running the Venus program again in the hope of getting another girl, one whose burning ambition was to model for the cover of Vampirella and who thought the French Game had something to do with oral sex... but to his surprise, he heard himself say, "Yeah, okay."
He went to bed early, but found himself unable to sleep. An hour later, he went back on-line, looking for pictures of girls whose breasts looked just like Desiree's should... but though many of them were appealing, none of them seemed exactly right, and he kept thinking of the chess games, trying to remember where he could have made a smarter move.
* * *
He spent most of the afternoon playing blitz chess against the program that had come with the DOS, then logged on to Chinasoft's site after dinner, when his parents had gone out. Desiree smiled when she saw him. "Hi," she said. "I found this in a music archive, and I thought you might like it. It's called 'Sebastian.’"
"It's an old song; Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, whoever they were. 1960s or 70s or something; I couldn't even find any video to go with it. But the lyrics are really cool. Listen."
He listened. He wasn't a big music fan - he usually watched MTV with the sound muted so that he could enjoy the visuals without being distracted - and he knew just enough about poetry to recognise a metaphor when he heard one, but he nodded when it was over, and said, "Yeah, that is cool. How did you find it?"
"I just ran a search on your name, and this came up. I thought you might like it."
"I do; thanks. Are there any songs called 'Desiree'?"
She grimaced. "I've only found one. It's by Neil Diamond, and the lyrics are crap; some of his weren't too awful, but this one really reeks."
"You're into old music?"
She shrugged, obviously slightly embarrassed. "Hey, it's okay," he said. "Most of the shit you hear on the radio is nineties nostalgia; my parents tell me that the big thing in the nineties was seventies nostalgia, and my grandparents remember the seventies, when it was fifties nostalgia. It's like every twenty years, someone figures that most people buying music are our age, so shit that's twenty years old is new to us..."
"Or our parents are buying it," she said. "Trying to show us that they used to be cool..."
He laughed. "Did your parents name you after that song?" The question was out before he realised how stupid it was, but Desiree merely smiled. "I don't think so," she said. "How about you? Sebastian's not that common a name, either."
"I was named after one of my mother's uncles," he said. "I think they hoped he'd leave me some money when he died."
"He's still alive; went to Cuba for a black market heart transplant last year. Dad says he doesn't know why he spent all that money, 'cause he never saw him use the old one." He looked at the monitor curiously. Software that could pass a Turing test wasn't new; even one with a slow-scan video had been done, a couple of years ago, but on a mainframe at MIT, not on a Mac as shareware. On the other hand, if Desiree was a real person, even with some sort of filter disguising her voice and appearance, then what did he/she want? "Where are you?" he asked.
"Santa Clara," she replied, without any hesitation. Silicon Valley; south of the border, but in the same time zone. He nodded. "You still at school?"
"Yes," she said, grimacing. "Dad wants me to go to Stanford next year, I want to leave home. What about you?"
"Haven't really decided," he said. "I have to pass English, first... What're you going to study? Computing?"
"Biotech, with a minor in sociology. You?"
"That's a strange combination," he evaded.
She shrugged. "I think it's better to consider the social implications of new technology before they impact on - sorry, I know that sounds pompous, but so many people have asked me, I sort of came up with a stock answer. But look at the effects that sex selection treatments have had in places like China and India and -" He looked blank. "Okay, it's not really a problem yet, but the technology's only been available for five or six years, right?" He nodded. "China has a one-child policy. India has incentives for small families. So do lots of other countries where most fathers want at least one son, but daughters are still considered to be a financial burden..." He nodded again. "Baby boys are outnumbering baby girls by more than ten to one in some of these places," she said. "What's going to happen in a few years’ time when the young men want wives?"
"Chaos, I guess, but wouldn't the people who invented the technology have known that?"
"I'm sure they did, but this was something people all over the world had wanted for centuries; it was worth a fortune, so of course the biotech and pharmaceutical companies all wanted to be the first with a cheap, reliable method. And what were they supposed to do after that? Tell the third world they couldn't have it? Tell their governments to ban it? Change the cultures so that people would want daughters as well as sons?"
"The last one?"
"Maybe, but how? Besides, it's better than seeing millions of baby girls being killed off or abandoned, and there are some who'd say that this is going to help the third world bring their population under control within a couple of generations..."
"What do you think they should've done?"
"If I knew that, I wouldn't need to study, would I? Look, it's getting late, and I still have homework to do..."
"Just a quick game?" This time, she took nearly forty minutes to beat him narrowly, then downloaded the song for him to burn onto a disc. "Tomorrow?" she asked.
"Sure. See you then."
He was playing the song over again and working on his English essay when a horrible thought occurred to him. He knew from experience that you couldn't trust people you met on the net to tell the truth about their gender or their age or their location... what if Desiree was a teacher? One of his teachers? Or one of his fellow students?
He thought about it for a moment. She certainly didn't sound like any of the teachers at school, or any girl that he'd ever listened to, and if it were a boy... well, maybe he could still get something useful out of it.
* * *
"You any good at English Lit?" he asked, when Desiree's face appeared on the monitor. He heard music in the background; old Simon and Garfunkel. Probably originals, not covers. Desiree shrugged. "So-so. What're you reading?"
"The Great Gatsby, but that's not the problem. I can cope with most of the stuff that's less than a century old, but tomorrow we start Romeo and Juliet, and I bet that's just going to be a bundle of laughs."
"Well, it's funnier than Chekhov," she said, after a long pause. "I know it's a tragedy, but some of the puns are awful."
He pounced. "You've read it?"
Another pause. "I've seen the play, and the old Baz Luhrmann film, but I haven't studied it."
"Can you help me with it?"
"What sort of help?"
"We're going to need to write an essay on it, and I'll need a good grade; I always do badly in English exams, but I need a pass to get into the course I want. I don't know why; computers can fix my spelling and punctuation, tell me if I've forgotten to put a verb in the sentence or -"
"What about when you talk? Or are you going to let a computer do that for you, too?"
He looked at her suspiciously. "Okay, maybe not, but I'm not going to need to remember this stuff just so I can read a contract or carry on a conversation. I thought you were going to major in biotech, not lit?"
"My father teaches English," she said, after a brief hesitation. "I had the same argument with him once, and he asked me what I thought fiction was for, and why they bothered teaching it. I said I thought it was meant to be interesting and fun, and I didn't know why they kept giving us stuff that wasn't. He said I was right, but lit is about more than that; it's about the way people think, and the choices they make, how they decide what they're going to do and what sort of person they're going to be."
Sebastian thought about this for a moment. "Okay, some of the stuff we read, sure, but Pride and Prejudice? The only choices they make is who they're going to marry."
"You don't think that's an important choice?" asked Desiree, smiling.
"Sure, but... look, you're seventeen, right?" She nodded. "How long do you think it'll be before you have to decide that? Ten years or so?"
"Probably," she said, after another long pause. "Maybe more, maybe a lot less, but not everyone is that lucky. Read Romeo and Juliet; she's thirteen when her parents choose her husband for her, and don't think that doesn't still happen."
"Yeah, I know, but not here - well, not often, anyway," he concluded, lamely.
She raised an eyebrow, Spock-style. "Then think about the big decision she has to make - whether or not to defy her parents. Don't tell me that's not still relevant."
"- but I'm not going to write your essay for you," she said. "I have to study, too."
"I wasn't going to ask you to," he lied. "But... well, it's a play, it makes more sense if you act it out, right? I was wondering if we could read some scenes together..."
"Okay," she said. "I don't have a copy here, but Dad should. Do you want to start tonight?"
"Tomorrow will be okay," he said. "Chess?"
* * *
There was music playing in the background again when Desiree appeared. "Romeo and Juliet meet at a ball," she said. "I tried to find some appropriate music; this was the best I could do."
"What is it?"
"Masks, from Prokofiev's ballet. Mum's a music librarian and a big ballet fan. I thought we'd take it from Act I, Scene V. Do you want to do the bit between Tybalt and Old Capulet?"
"Yeah, okay, but I don't really understand Tybalt."
"He's simple enough - terminal testosterone poisoning, just like Romeo and Benvolio, but it comes out as anger instead of lust. Waves a big sword around a lot, so he probably has a small penis." She smiled. "Timeless stuff, this. Okay, then, from Juliet's entrance, line 95; your cue is 'Now seeming sweet, convert to bitter gall.'"
"'If I profane with my unworthiest hand
"'This holy shrine, this gentle fine is this, -
"'My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
"'To sooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.'"
Small chance of that, Sebastian thought wryly, either kissing her or touching her, if she really is just software. A touch screen just isn't the same. Desiree, her face solemn, picked up her cue, and they read through to the first kiss - and then both froze for a moment. She was the first to laugh, and he joined in barely a second later.
* * *
"How're you doing with that software?" asked Frank, when Sebastian saw him in the library the next day.
"Okay," he said, non-committally, then froze. Jesus, Frank had given him the disk, what if Desiree was really Frank? He looked at his friend for a moment, then relaxed slightly. She sure as Hell didn't sound like Frank. Even if he was letting the computer make his chess moves for him, which was the only way he could've beaten him like that, Frank knew less about music and lit than Sebastian did, and the only time he'd ever shown any interest in biotechnology was when Berlei Genetech had patented a gene for breast size. Still...
Frank grinned, looked around, and lowered his voice. "Have you bought any patches for her?"
Frank stared at him. "Check out the Help! menu," he said, softly. "The best you can get out of the shareware version is a bikini, but you can buy a patch for her nipples when you register, it's only another fifty bucks..."
Frank nodded, then opened his clipboard and flashed a printout at him; a picture of a blonde, wearing only a thong, holding up her enormous breasts by her long crimson nipples. "The patches will only work for one girl, though, so I can't lend them to you," he said, "and your free week must almost be up. If you don't register soon, you could lose her, and the extra fifty's worth it... it's almost like you can touch them, and watching Shahna lick them, it's like..." He rolled his eyes. "What's yours called?"
"Desiree," said Sebastian, dully.
"Look, why don't we hook up our computers sometime and have them do a lezzie scene for us? Anything hardcore you need an adultcheck for, but I think I can persuade Dad to buy it for me for my birthday." He grinned. "All I have to do is tell him it'll bug Mum if she finds out, and that's usually enough." Sebastian nodded slightly; Frank's parents had separated seven years ago. His mother had a steady girlfriend, his father didn't. "Check out the Help! menu - though she'll probably tell you about the registration tonight. You've had her since Friday, right?"
* * *
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Desiree was silent for a moment. "You were having so much fun, I was worried it'd spoil the mood. And it's only a thousand a year."
"I don't have a thousand."
She looked away. "The demographics software says you should have. Don't you have anything you can sell, or pawn?"
"Not without my parents noticing, and they'd - I can't explain something like this to them - can I pay monthly, instead? I should be able to come up with a hundred..."
"I don't think so. Even a thousand is a discount rate; the company has to cover set-up costs. Is there any other way you can raise the money?"
"No." He slumped in his chair. "So what happens now?"
"They delete all my files at this end, and you'd better wipe them from your hard disk. They won't run without updates, and if you try, I think there's a virus in there. A bad one."
"What about back-ups?"
She shook her head. "Still won't work without the updates, and you don't have enough memory in your machine for all my files. I'm sorry, Sebastian."
He stared at the monitor sullenly. "I don't believe you're just a computer program."
A moment's hesitation. "Believe whatever you want," she said, unhappily.
He thought about this for a moment. "There's an old joke about humans and computers," he said. "One advantage humans have is that we can be made by unskilled labour -"
"Maybe, but software is easier to copy, and cheaper, especially if someone else wrote it first. And humans aren't just being made by unskilled labour any more. Not everyone can afford genetic engineering, but they can afford sex selection."
"So in a few years, demand for women in a lot of countries is going to exceed supply. How do you think that demand is going to be met? Real women? Or terminals and software?"
"That's ridiculous," he snapped.
"It's not. Even in rich countries where there's no shortage of women, men spend billions on pornography and phone sex -"
"Yes; we can offer much more. Exclusiveness. Love. We will never leave of our own accord, never take another lover - if that's what you want, and most men do, then that's what we're programmed for. How much do you think that will be worth to men who have to compete with ten others to win a woman, or settle for buying sex when they can afford it? We can stay young forever, if that's what you want, or age with you. And you can take us anywhere you can take a lap-top; a mining camp, an army base, when you travel... And as virtual reality technology improves -"
"If I wanted a sales pitch," he said, harshly, "I would've asked."
Desiree bit her lip. "Sorry," she said. "I thought you'd want to know."
He took a deep breath. "What happens if I can come up with the money in a couple of months?"
"They'll program another woman for you," she said. "You can call her Desiree, if you like, but it won't be me, unless you can pay by Friday -"
"That sounds like extortion." She shrugged. "Isn't there anything I can do?"
She hesitated. "I'll ask the finance department to see if there's anything you can use as collateral for a loan. I can't promise anything..." She looked away. "What do you want to do tonight? Another game of chess? Or more Romeo and Juliet?"
"What do you want to do?"
"I'd prefer the play," she said. "Act II, Scene II? The balcony scene?"
* * *
"'O blessed, blessed night!" he read. "'I am afeard,
"'Being in night, all this is but a dream,
"'Too flattering-sweet to be substantial.'"
"'Three words, dear Romeo, and good-night indeed.
"'If that thy bent of love be honourable,
"'Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,
"'By one that I'll procure to come to thee,
"'Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite;
"'And all my fortunes at thy foot I'll lay,
"'And follow thee, my lord, throughout the world.'"
He looked at the screen for a moment, neither of them speaking, then Desiree swore. "I'm playing the nurse, too, aren't I? Sorry; I always feel silly talking to myself. 'Madam!'
"'By and by, I come: -
"'To cease thy suit, and leave me to my grief;
"'To-morrow will I send.'"
* * *
Sebastian had taken Ecology because it was the least unappealing option available in the timeslot, but had come to enjoy it - mainly because of the teacher, who was as famous for her patience and her dry sense of humour as she was for her voluptuous good looks. For once, though, Sebastian barely noticed her as she spoke about peppered moths and Heike crabs. "An even better example is the jewel beetle, from Australia," she said, as he tried to look attentive. "It nearly became extinct late last century, even after it was declared an endangered species. It was discovered that this was due to the males copulating with beer bottles instead of female jewel beetles." Sebastian blinked, and turned to look at her, suddenly interested despite his problems. "The beer bottles - stubbies, they call them - were made of orange glass, and had rows of bumps around them to make them less slippery. Female jewel beetles have slightly smaller orange bumps on their back; they're a secondary sexual characteristic. But because the beer bottles had larger bumps, the male jewel beetles found them more attractive than the females of their own species. The brewery had to re-design the bottles with smaller bumps to preserve the species." When the laughter had died down, she said, "If you think that this attitude is typical of Australian males, I won't argue, but it's certainly not restricted to them. Look at the exaggerated physiques of popular sex symbols - not just pornographic ones, which I’m sure most of you are familiar with; look at Barbie's legs, and the muscles and breasts of comic superheroes and Hollywood action stars. Think of plastic surgery, padded bras, corsets, high heels, codpieces..."
"It's not really the same thing," protested one boy. "I mean, okay, maybe some men prefer beer to women, but at least we know the difference. We're - well, most of us are smarter than beetles, we know those things are fake, and we have sex with each other, not the things."
"So far," said the teacher, over the laughter and jeers. "But look at it from the jewel beetle's point of view for a moment. Having sex with beer bottles was probably much easier for most of them than having sex with female beetles, and maybe it actually felt better than sex with female beetles. Humans have put a lot of effort into sex substitutes that might look more appealing than reality, and require no competition and generally less effort... but if they came up with one that also felt better, we might manage to do to ourselves what we nearly did to the jewel beetle."
"What about..." one girl started, then looked as though she wished she hadn't. The teacher looked at her, smiling encouragingly. "... emotional involvement?"
"That can be faked too," replied the teacher drily. "But we've strayed a little off-topic. Can anyone think of any more ways humans have influenced the evolution of animal species?"
* * *
Sebastian logged on as soon as he arrived home, and was startled to see, not Desiree, but the beautiful young Chinese woman he'd seen when he'd first done the questionnaire. "Sebastian?"
"Desiree tells me that you can't afford to maintain access."
"Not right now," he said. "I can pay a hundred and -"
She shook her head. "I'm afraid not; the demand for our computer time is high, and we can't afford to carry anybody."
"Desiree said she'd ask if there was anything you'd accept as collateral for a loan."
"I'm afraid not," she said, then smiled slightly. "If you were older, we could give you a few thousand in credit if you agreed to marry a woman who wants a visa to stay in Canada... but you're not even seventeen yet. However, in your survey, you indicated that your mother works for the Department of Immigration. Is that correct?"
"So you have a computer at home with access to Departmental databases?" Sebastian opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, then nodded. "Do you know her passwords? Or could you get them?"
Sebastian hesitated. He'd cracked the security on his father's computer before, but had never bothered with his mother's; he was sure he could guess her passwords before security caught him, but that wasn't what worried him. Immigration fraud was well known to be one of the Triads' most profitable rackets... which suggested that Chinasoft was owned by a Triad, after all. "Maybe," he said.
The woman's smile widened. "If you can do it by midnight tonight, there'll be no interruption to service, and you'll have free access for five years, regardless of price increases - and trust me, the rates will go up. If not, we can give you until midnight Monday, but no later than that."
Sebastian stared at her, then took a deep breath. "Can I think about it?"
"And can I speak to Desiree now?"
The woman nodded, and her image dissolved into Desiree's. There was a long, uncomfortable silence before she asked, "Well?"
He recounted what the woman had said, and Desiree bit her lip. "Are you going to do it?"
"I don't know yet. If I had the money, I wouldn't hesitate, but making a deal like this with the Triads... what are they likely to do?"
"I don't know; probably create false records for some illegal immigrants. They shouldn't be able to do too much before the passwords change again. Besides, does it matter?"
"I don't know," Sebastian repeated. "I guess that depends on who they bring in." He brightened. "Are you going to be one of them?"
Desiree looked startled, then shook her head. "No! Where did you get that idea?"
"I still can't believe you're just a computer program," he said, petulantly. "Okay, maybe you don't really look like you, or sound like you, but you must be a..." His voice trailed off. Desiree was still shaking her head, though less vehemently.
"I'm sorry you don't believe me," she said, "but even if what you were saying was true, even if I were a flesh-and-blood woman, I think you'd be disappointed. You didn't just choose me, Sebastian; you created me. I'm your dream girl. Do you think you'll ever find anybody else who you love the way you love me, or who knows you and loves you back the way I do?"
Sebastian swiveled his chair away from the monitor, unable to look at her, but reluctant to shut down the computer. His copy of Romeo and Juliet lay on the floor, opened to the page where they'd finished reading the night before. He wondered, bleakly, what would have happened to Romeo and Juliet if Friar Lawrence's scheme had worked and they'd survived. Exile in Padua, maybe, cut off from their families and their money. He tried to imagine them eking out a living as best they could, pining for the luxuries they remembered, maybe coming to resent or even hate each other... He shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "Probably not. But if I say yes to the Triads this time, what's to stop them holding you to ransom next time they want a favour?"
Desiree looked at him sadly, but didn't reply. "'Parting is such sweet sorrow,’" he said, then switched the monitor off before she could reply.
* * *
Sebastian threw a tip onto the stage near the stripper's feet, then looked around the table at his workmates. Tyler was already so drunk he could barely keep his eyes open, and Justin, his best man, wasn't much better off. Sebastian hoped they'd remembered to program their cars to take them home, and took another sip of his watery Pepsi while the others chugged their beers. The stripper blew him a kiss, and he smiled back, wondering whether she'd been born female; his master's thesis had been a computer model of social trends as a result of sex selection, and one of those had included an increase in male-to-female sex change surgery. He'd also successfully predicted changes in migration, both legal and illegal, as men went looking for women and women went looking for wealthier men. The Department of Immigration had hired him to make a more detailed model; he telecommuted most of the time, rarely visiting the office, but when his supervisor had invited him to this stag party, he'd accepted. Now he was regretting it.
The man sitting next to him opened his mouth to say his name, failed either to remember or pronounce it, and muttered, "Sss.... say. That woman I talked to when I called you th'other day..."
"She your wife? Your girlfriend?"
Justin laughed, and Sebastian smiled slightly. "She's a secretarial program."
The man blinked. "She's ani... ani... she's...?"
"Software." Sebastian nodded.
"Jesus, she's fuckin' amazing! Where did you buy her?"
"I didn't. I programmed her myself."
"Jesus," said the man, with genuine - if drunken - respect. "Jesus, man, you're an artist. Are you selling her?"
"No," replied Sebastian.
The man shook his head, obviously puzzled, then turned around as the stripper removed her bra. "Fuckin' amazing," he repeated.
"They're fake," snorted Justin.
"I knew that," said the man, with ponderous dignity. "I can tell real from fake; I just don't give a fuck." He raised his voice. "Does anybody here give a fuck if they're real or fake?"
Tyler turned around to look, and overbalanced, falling out of his chair. Sebastian drank the rest of his Pepsi, threw another bill onto the stage, said goodnight to everyone, and walked out.
This story originally appeared in Oceans of the Mind.