BetaU – T. B. McKenzie

On Sunday, Janie’s com pinged with a message from her cousin who worked for Visage, one of the big city body-mod firms. You should go for this! read the underlined text, which took her to a minimalist page with the company name, BetaU in the middle and a single link at the bottom: Employment Opportunities.

Only the fanciest places hired humans any more, and Janie’s curiosity sparked, if not her hope, for they’d only want sevens or above. Janie was a natural three, according to her mother, who offered to pay for a Budgetslim or Blemishless every Christmas, certain it would push her over five.

What scam is this? she sent back to her cousin even as curiosity made her click. They were hiring in sales, no details about what kind of body-mod they were selling other than the tantalising by-line: Whatever you want to want. There was one prerequisite for applicants: No cosmetic modifications please.

Well, it was worth a shot. Janie sent through her stats, authorising a full backscan on her history. A moment later her com pinged again with an address and interview time.

#

The building was a tower of glass and steel like all the others on Madison Avenue, but with a sculpture out front that looked like a giant chrome block of Swiss cheese. The ten-foot-high cube changed its shape as Janie approached the door, some of its cavities enlarging, others contracting, the holes playing a chord with the wind.

An automatron recognised Janie as she walked into the foyer. It directed her to wait in a smaller room with the other applicants. Any hope she’d been harbouring vanished as Janie sat between a man and a woman who both looked like screenstars. If they weren’t body-modders, then they were natural eights, impossible to compete with. No one spoke. A real woman served what smelled like real coffee and Janie took a latte, chatting awkwardly about the weather just to fill the silence. One at a time the server called out names, and the room began to empty.

“Janie Allgood,” said the server when only two were left in the room and her second coffee was well past cold. “Good luck!”

#

The lady who sat behind the metal desk had expensive features that pushed her past eight, perhaps even as far as nine. Her viridian eyes followed Janie like lasers as she sat in the empty chair. When 8½ twisted her blue lips into a smile, Janie felt herself blush like it was her first day of school.

She had expected an interrogation about details her backscan might have missed; her peer-circle, where she saw herself in five years, at least, but the first thing 8½ said was: “Training starts Monday, would that be a problem?”

“Tomorrow?” Janie said, her heart a paddle ball. She’d forgotten how real coffee made her head spin.

“Yes, tomorrow,” confirmed 8½ with a voice as smooth as her skin. “You are exactly what I have been looking for and are the first that has not lied about body modification. It is easy enough to falsify a backscan, but I can tell.”

8½ tapped the side of one emerald eye as if that explained everything.

“Don’t you want to know about me?” Janie asked, thinking that this was some kind of test, and to pass it she must show the right balance of modesty and assertiveness.

8½ smiled wider, showing her glazed teeth. “The data we have collated indicates all I need to know. You grew up in a rural town, came to the city when you were sixteen, studied classical literature, with a master’s thesis on Proust, and then applied for standard Life Credit when you turned twenty-five. You have had five romantic partners, the longest lasting no more than two weeks. You have a sister and nine cousins, and are regarded by your many nieces and nephews as their favourite aunt. Your parents have retired to the World Ship Tranquillity Three, and you contact them regularly, though have on three occasions lied to your mother, allowing her to believe you are still working on your novel, which you have not opened in the last three years.”

“That’s in my backscan?” Janie asked, unable to hide her anxiety.

“You must understand, Miss Allgood, that the success of our product has been deemed worthy of government support. Access to a deeper level of employee scanning is part of this assistance. Do not let it concern you, we pride ourselves on our ethical code. Now where was I?”

“My writing?” Janie said, forcing control back into her voice. 8½ raised an eyebrow.

“Yes. You are an active member of seven book groups, and have three avatars, one who is a well-regarded critic, and the other two who write fan fiction for the franchised story worlds Offplanet and GrimGoth. You rate classical music highly, yet your play count reveals you prefer late twenty first century rock. You volunteer at a hospital where you read to sick children, but do so less from a sense of altruism than to purge yourself of the guilt you harbor from your monthly Life Credit allowance. Likewise, you would like this job for the routine it would give you more than the extra credits, a routine that you have missed since your studies ended.”’

8½‘s voice had missed neither a beat nor a detail. Janie shifted uncomfortably on the hard seat that was more sculpture than chair and forced her mouth to shut.

“You have six hours to accept our offer. Any questions?”

“Wait, I got the job?”

“As I have said, your records are in order.”

Janie looked to the door, for some reason wanting to run. “You know I don’t have any experience in sales.”

“No,” 8½ said calmly, “but you have an impressive willingness to both admit and step beyond your limitations. Take your weight, for example. You could easily have accepted your parents offer to pay for a reduction, yet attempted the harder path of exercise and diet control. And you are steadfast in this resolve, despite repeated failure. Tell me Janie, for this is perhaps the one thing our files cannot reveal, what motivates your resistance to body modification?”

And here it was, the expected interrogation, but it came now as a side-ball, in her blind spot, striking just when it seemed everything was going so well. Janie’s arms instinctively crossed over her chest and when she spoke it was in a rush.

“There’s no point changing what I look like when it’s what I feel like that’s the problem.”

8½’s face lit up. “See, Janie, I was right about you.” Her head tilted a little and she frowned. “Yet I see you are confused; is there a particular concern I can assuage?”

“Yes,” Janie said, still flustered and trying to find her footing. “What do you even sell?”

“A better you, of course,”’ 8½ said as if the answer was self evident.

“Body mods?” Janie asked, blood rushing once more up her neck. It would be just like her mother to use her cousin as a way to get Janie to change.

“Nothing so crass. We offer tailored re-motivational neural plasticity.”

“I’m sorry, Ms…”’

‘Mrs,” corrected 8½. “Mrs. Verdurin.”

“I studied literature, not science.”

Mrs. Verdurin waved her hand as if brushing away a bothersome fly. “Don’t let that concern you,” she said. “All that fancy term means is that we are able to help our customers improve their desires and motivations, mark them up, if you like, as an editor can a rough draft, turning a jumble of inconsistent ideas into a seamless story fit for publication.”

“Really?”

The look on Janie’s face made Verdurin laugh.

“Oh yes, it has been thoroughly tested and is completely reversible. As I said, the governments of many nations have invested considerable resources into the procedure. We will be the first to bring it to the market. Now please excuse me, I still have one more interview. You have six hours to consider our offer.”

Mrs Verdurin stood and held out her hand.

“No need, I’ll take it.”

“I am very pleased to hear this, Janie. You are a perfect fit for our growing family, and with a little tweak or two I am sure you will feel as happy with us as we are with you.”

Janie let go of her hand. “Tweak?”

“No need to be afraid. All our employees receive the benefits of our products. We can help you become the person you have always wanted to be. As you said yourself, Janie, it is what’s inside that counts.”

And that was almost exactly what the screen ads and billboards proclaimed a month later when BetaU opened for business.

#

Donald walked under the shifting sculpture that howled a symphony in the wind. The automatron directed him to a room where a maid poured him coffee and he browsed the catalogue of procedures that had weird sounding names and no listed prices. Eventually the maid ushered him through a wooden door and into an office furnished like a vampire sim, with rich curtains by the windows, oak panels on the walls, and an honest-to-god fireplace that filled the room with the pleasant smell of smoke. An agent was waiting for him beside the hearth.

“Welcome,” she said; mid-thirties, kind smile, no more than a four, a bit frumpy but there was something about her. He had thought this would all be done at a kiosk, like the dentist, but after the coffee girl, he had reformed his expectations. Homely, was the word that came to mind as he shook her hand. Don started to relax.

“I’m Miss Allgood. Scotch?”

She gestured to a liquor cabinet lined with top shelf stuff. Not the vat stock you got at the general, but what looked like real whiskey and rum with labels as old as the room.

“God yeah,” he said, and Miss Allgood poured him a double on the rocks. She sat on one of the old recliners by the fire. Don dumped himself into the other one. “Cheers,” he said and found the scotch as warm as the leather, though both were probably fake.

“What is it that we can do for you?” asked the agent and Don’s leg started to jiggle as he remembered why he was there.

“Um, there’s this woman at work…” he began, and was glad to see that Miss Allgood did not frown or show any sign of judgment.

“Have you spoken to your wife about her?”

“God no,” he said, and took another nervous sip.

“Of course not,” said Miss Allgood, reaching forward to place her hand on his knee, making it still. “You’re doing the right thing, the responsible thing.”

He relaxed a little and she sat back, smiling.

“Won’t hurt, will it?”

“Of course not,” she said again, pressing a button that made a screen rise up from the armrest of her chair. “The procedure is completely painless. And the only difference between the basic packages and our more tailored options is time.”

“And credits,” he added cynically.

“With the government subsidy and your current credit score, I can…”

“Forget it,” Donald said, regretting he had even mentioned the cost and feeling like a cheapo at the general complaining about the price of RealMeat cubes. “I just want the special I read about, NonAmour, I think it was called. Don’t want too much re-wiring, wife would see something’s up.”

Miss Allgood gave an understanding nod, and tapped on her screen. “What is her name?”

“My wife?” said Donald, almost dropping his drink.

She looked up and gave him a wink.

“No, the other woman.”

“Yeah, right,” Donald said, wiping his fingers on his leg. “Um, Robyn, Robyn Winters.”

She was tapping at her screen again. “Ahh, Miss Winters, a six point nine.” She turned the screen around on its bronze spindle.

“Yeah, that’s her,” Don said, looking away from the lips and smile that had been his torment since Robyn had started work at New-Gaia. He drained his glass.

“I see she is a scenic engineer too,” Miss Allgood observed, twisting her screen back to read the summary.

“Yeah,” Don said. “We program in the same pod, so?”

“I’m just making sure you understand the nature of the procedure, Don. Working so closely with Ms. Winters, there is a slight chance of a relapse and—”’

‘Oh, I see,” Donald interrupted, deflated. “Let me guess, you don’t have a credit back policy?” He got up, went to the bar and poured himself another double, this time no ice.

“Please, Don,”’ Miss Allgood said, turning in her chair to look at him, although her fingers still tapped away at her screen. ‘With a tailored Love&Cherish package we can re-align your feelings from Miss Winters to your wife, where they belong. This drops the chance of relapse to under five per cent.”

“How much?” he asked, staring into his drink.

“We have a special this week on all tier two procedures.”

Donald laughed. “How much?” he asked again.

“Twenty thousand credits.”

The tone of Don’s laughter changed.

“You’re joking, right? I could drink Pina Coladas on the coast of Spain for the next ten years on that. Fuck, I could get a life time worth of Xanax and Viagra—”

“Which our files show you have already tried. Drugs, as you know, can alleviate the symptoms but not the cause. What we offer is lasting change.”

“Just how much do you know about me?”

“Please Don, there is nothing intrusive about this. We seek only to help.”

“Says the woman trying to sell me a memory wipe.”

She laughed as if his joke had been made with, not at her.

“Memories are far too complex to alter, Don. No, what we do is more subtle. Think of your desires as strings pulling you in unwanted directions.” She snipped her fingers in the air. “We can cut them, and reattach them to better places.” Now she was tying imaginary knots. “We could even take away your drinking problem. For a little extra cost, of course.”

“I don’t have a problem,” Donald said, draining his second glass. “Just Robyn. And that thing with my wife. Do that too.”

“I will need your bio right here,” Miss Allgood said, turning her screen to face him. Don pressed his palm on the glass and it buzzed.

“Thank you. Now please, have another drink.”

He looked back to the bar and there was a new bottle on the shelf. Bright purple liquid glowed inside.

“Thought you said this wasn’t a drug?” he asked suspiciously.

“No, I said drugs don’t work. That liquid contains a school of atomoids, and those little critters work quite well indeed. Now, don’t look look like that, these are not the nanobots of yesteryear. Picture white blood cells, converging on bacteria, but in this case the infection is a learned or inherited neural topography. Once mapped, these cobwebs can be cleared away and new, more beneficial connections made.”

“And——this, I mean, it’s painless?” Donald asked again, imagining little metal crayfish lasering neurons like in an old screen game. “I won’t feel a thing?”

“I didn’t,” said Miss Allgood with a reassuring smile.

“You?”

“Oh yes, perk of the job, you understand. I used to have what they call a ‘hang up’ about my weight. I blamed my mother, of course, who only wanted to help. Now though, I am perfectly comfortable with what God gave me, as the saying goes.”

“You look just great to me,” he said, and felt the fool for the way it came out like a come on.

“Are you interested in that procedure too, Don?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. “Neither our records nor your application indicated that body image was a concern.”

He laughed, making light of the situation. “Well, just not my own.” Then he went back to the bar and poured a purple shot. It tasted like apples.

#

March was a busy month, and Janie led the sales board, as she had since the start of the year. Drug addicts were her bread and butter, yet since they were fully subsidised, they didn’t count toward the Super Seller Tally. But even addicts had to agree to the procedure—this wasn’t China, after all—so Janie treated them as practice, and even managed to upsell many to packages beyond ColdSober. The only thing she didn’t like about addicts was their chosen method of ingestion. Janie had to have InControl herself just to stop her hands shaking every time she inserted a needle.

FearLess was their biggest seller. It was partially subsidised due to the range of negative psychological maladies it could undo, but once the punters were through the door Janie could really get to work. So far, ninety-two percent of her phobia clients went on to a more tailored package.

“Perhaps you would like to look at our brochure?” Janie would begin, the anxious client tapping their feet nervously in her office that she’d designed herself.

“Brochure?” would come the client’s response, and they would start to peruse the carefully worded euphemisms.

From A to Zen, was the heading on the front, and the client would smirk, some with derision, some in honest amusement. It was then that most started to speak, throwing their kite of uncertainty into the wind.

“So how much does inner peace cost?” was the common first question of a cynic, or, if they had a better sense of humour: “Should I come back when you have a clearance sale on enlightenment?”

Janie would laugh with them in understanding. “What is happiness worth to you?”

Most were canny enough to point out the obvious. “I guess if I have to ask, I can’t afford it.” While others made the leap to something like, “I doubt I’ll feel very Zen if I can’t pay rent.”

“Perhaps,” she would say with just the right tone to make them wonder.

“And it’s all bullshit anyway,” they would continue, using different expressions, but always the same plea to reason. “You can’t just make me happy with a flick of a switch.”

“Why not?”

This was the part she loved most, letting them play out the string of logic until none was left.

“I mean, I am my thoughts,” they’d argue. “You change them and you change me, right?”’ Such a question was the first slip of the tether.

‘You came here today to do something about your fear.” She would remind them then, sometimes showing a holo of their particular phobia for good measure, creating the response they so despised. “Is this who you are?”

Most looked away from the bugs or bored crowds or dizzying heights (once it had been feathers) and for many that was enough to close a sale. But some continued to argue. “Yeah, but if you take all that away, I mean, what would be left?”

“Why, you would be, of course.”

They would laugh again, but now it was not so certain and Janie would blow stronger, pushing their kite into the jet stream.

“Do you become less yourself when your hunger is satiated? Is something lost when you scratch an itch?”

“That’s different,” they’d argue, “that’s just…meaningless stuff.” Some waved their hands, exasperated, others became angry.

Janie would smile then, serenely, her tone at odds to the incision she was making. Sometimes she made her screen a mirror for this part, but only if the clients were fours or lower; any higher and narcissism tended to make them reaffirm their self-certainty. “You are right, you will be different, you will be the person hidden under all that noise. Wouldn’t you like to meet them? That is what we offer. The real you.”

They’d sign even if it meant taking out a life mortgage. No one ever complained about the repayments, though more than a few added StressLess to their package, unburdening themselves from credit anxiety.

#

Her first and only disappointed customer came three months after Donald, (whom she referred to in her notes as Lusty#7), when a young man, Dangles, she had named him, returned, disheartened.

“It didn’t work?” Janie asked, knowing of course that it had.

“Yeah,” Dangles shrugged. “But it wasn’t supposed to make me like this.”

“Like what?” Janie asked. Dangles was one of a new generation of young fools who performed death defying stunts for the entertainment of their followers who experienced everything from the safety of an E-merse suit. Dangles had risen to fame riding balloons into low orbit, then diving naked back to ground. His Grand Canyon jump alone had paid for all the procedures he could ever want.

“You said it would make me better,”’ Dangles explained, shaking his shaggy head of hair. ‘Calmer. But now I just don’t give a fuck. It just seems stupid, you know, to risk your life. It’s all just so…” He trailed of and shrugged.

“You remember that we do not have a warranty for disappointment,” Janie said calmly.

“I’ll pay,” his eyes lit up. “You can undo it, right?”

“Undoing a procedure is called a re-negative,”’ Janie said, and tapped at her screen, then turned it towards him so he could see the cost. “And they are significantly more than the original…”

“Fine, whatever,” he said, already pressing his palm against the glass.

A moment later an automatron rolled in with a small wooden box held in its manipulators.”’

Thank you,” said Janie to the robot, and then passed the box to Dangles, who opened it greedily. Inside was a thickly rolled joint, identical to the one that had first taken away his fear. He lit up, and sucked back smoke with his eyes closed.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, wistfully. “That’s the fucking stuff.”

Janie had worried that Mrs. Verdurin would be disappointed she hadn’t convinced him out of the re-neg but she just smiled.

“Whatever they want to want, Janie.”

And Janie continued to be the monthly Super Seller right up until she met the Mother.

#

The woman gave no name and sat in the chair, refusing even water. Janie had scanned her file and was not surprised the woman wanted some work done. She had a life that read like a cheap sim: husband cheated on her, then she lost her Life Credit when she was found guilty of stalking the other woman. Recently she’d had a bit of luck, inheriting an estate from a long lost uncle. Now, looking to re-invent herself, she’d applied for NewHope, one of the introductory packages. Janie was certain she’d upsell her to a more tailored procedure.

“My husband,” the woman began, her eyes not meeting Janie’s. “Ex-husband I mean. He had NewHope, said it worked right away.”

Janie adjusted her posture, made a note on her screen. “Of course, though it is a rather simple process.”

“That’s what I want,” the woman said quickly, a flash of anger.

Anger was no good. Janie held out her hands apologetically. “I only mean that for a small addition you could purchase our TaoNow—”

“No,” the word was final, and with two interruptions in as many minutes, Janie worried this could be her first walk-out. She quickly tapped on her screen.

“Just NewHope then. As you say.”

“Will it make me forget?” asked the woman, her hands twisting in her lap.

“Your ex? No, we do not alter…”

“Not him,” the woman said, glaring up at Janie. That was three interruptions now. “My son.”

“Son?” Janie said, looking back at her screen.

“You won’t find him in there,” said the woman. “AutoCo had the settlement rated private, even made up that shit about my uncle to hide their payout.”

Janie was at a loss. A backscan had never missed something as big as this before. She would have to have a word with Client Prep.

“What happened?” Janie asked, and regretted the question at once, for the woman looked away, her eyes filling with tears.

In the silence Janie quickly cross checked the woman’s name with a deep net search for court cases and the flyer company, AutoCo.

“It will make me forget, won’t it?” she asked again, her voice as distant as her glazed eyes.

Janie was still reading from her screen. She had found a single news link about a mid-air crash on the interstate flyway. Not even meant to be possible. One casualty, young boy, only five. Instinctively, Janie reached out for the woman’s trembling fingers.

“I’m so sorry, but NewHope only channels your thoughts into more constructive avenues.”

“Constructive avenues?” the Mother repeated, pulling her hands back into her own lap. “Well, Robert said it worked for him.”

“I’m sorry,” Janie said again.

Then the Mother spied the medicine cabinet and sprang from her chair. Wrenching open the white door marked with a red cross she pulled out the jar containing a single glowing pill.

“This it?” the Mother asked, and Janie, in an effort to regain control of the situation, fetched her a glass of water.

But the Mother had already swallowed the pill and was back in her seat, eyes squeezed shut as if that might speed the process.

“Here, lie back,” Janie offered, pressing the control that reclined the woman’s chair.

A stillness was spreading over her face and body as the atomoids did their work, cleaning out the corridors of her mind, shutting doors, opening others. She looked more than asleep though, almost dead.

“Thank you,” the Mother said, breathing out slowly. “Rob was right,” she continued, whispering to herself. “It is already working.”

“How, how do you feel?” Janie asked. She never asked this, but the look on the woman’s face was empty. Even the TaoNow customers looked serene.

“He’s fading,” she said, her voice starting to brim with emotion. She looked up at Janie, something new burning bright in her eyes. “It’s just like he said it would be. I can let him go now.”

“Let him go?” Janie repeated, uncertain.

“Yes.” She sighed out a final breath and got up from her chair. “Yes. Yes the sadness is going—his face, his smell, I think I can forget him now.” She held out her hand. “Thank you. I shall recommend this to my group.”

Janie let the Mother shake her hand once she was alone she sat down in her chair and looked at the empty pill container the woman had dropped on the carpet. Janie turned off her screen, which still showed the news article of the boy’s death. A chime startled her and Janie realised she had not even prepared for her next appointment.

#

Ah, Miss Allgood, what can I do for you?”

Janie had been made to wait for half an hour outside the CEO’s office. Her resolve had only grown in that time, perhaps fuelled by the three coffees she’d accepted from the server.

Mrs. Verdurin had done more modding since last they had met. She was now a nine-plus, and her eyes were vivid sapphires.

“I want a re-neg,” Janie said with less force than she had been planning. Mrs. Verdurin reacted with her usual calm concern.

“Please, sit down, Janie,” she said. Janie did, but found her knees would not stop their rhythmic dancing. That last coffee had been a mistake.

“I want you to undo the SkinDeep you gave me in training.”

“This is because of the NewHope case from yesterday,” said Verdurin, shaking her head sadly. When she opened her eyes, they had turned a deeper shade, almost purple. “I have watched the recording. I am sorry that you found that so unsettling.”

Mrs. Verdurin stood and moved to sit on the edge of her desk looking down at Janie.

“Don’t let this darken your thoughts, Janie. You are doing well.”

Janie stood up so that she was eye level with the woman, but felt the move had been too aggressive. Instead of taking back power, in some way she had given ground to the CEO. Janie couldn’t even meet Verdurin’s eyes, which had now turned neon pink. “We weren’t supposed to make them forget. You said that’s not possible…”

Verdurin held up a hand to interrupt and Janie bit back the rest of her planned speech. She blinked and her eyes changed to sunset orange. “Now Janie, do not place words. I said it was not possible for us to manipulate memories directly. Cognitive association benefits, however, are proving to be quite effective.”

“Cognitive what?”

Mrs. Verdurin gave her a look of concern, blinked again, setting her new eyes back to blue. “Tell me, Janie, how often do you think about your writing?”

‘Writing?” Janie asked, taking a step back, as if Verdurin had just slapped her in the face.

“Yes, writing. You used to do a lot of it. You even started a novel.”

“I—I did?” Janie said, finding it hard to breathe. Of course I did, she thought.

“See,” Mrs. Verdurin said, “cognitive association benefit. We change the desire; you do the rest.”

“But that…” Janie fell quiet, remembering more.

“Janie, Janie, Janie,” Mrs. Verdurin said with a shake of her head on each repetition. It was so similar to the way her mother spoke that Janie was certain it had been pulled from a recording. It even achieved the effect it had on Janie as a child. She felt defeated, a foolish girl too stupid to understand what the adults saw so clearly.

“Your desire to write was chained to your depression. Once that chain was broken the desire was freed and forgotten, like all unnecessary data.”’

Janie backed away from Mrs. Verdurin, who advanced like a tiger, her silk suit swishing, eyes bright yellow and hands held out as if in welcome.

‘I never wanted to forget…”

Verdurin took her by the shoulders as if to keep Janie from falling. “Not consciously, perhaps. But if you trace back the dominoes of your life you will find a little Janie Allgood all alone at primary school, wanting only to fit in with all the other pretty girls and boys. That Janie decided that she must therefore be different, destined to work in hiding, isolated, where she would be judged for her thoughts, not her looks. But look at you now, just think how that lonely little Janie would feel to know that happiness was as easy to add as milk to coffee.”

Janie wanted to argue, but the words were true and they cut through her like a surgical laser.

“You do not need a re-negative, Janie, you need to trust me, and together we can put this little blip behind us.”

“Blip.” Janie repeated the word in a monotone, then pulled free from Verdurin’s grip. “I don’t want to forget again. Not about who I was or that boy who died. I want you to put me back—I want to feel awkward again, I want to worry again and lie to my mother again,” she stepped forward, forcing Mrs. Verdurin to retreat, “I want to write again. And another thing: I quit.”

Verdurin’s eyes were pink again and her smile, just for a moment, faltered.

“Quit? Yet you are so happy.”

“Happy?” Janie said the word like a curse, but Verdurin was only getting started.

“This last year with us has seen a measured improvement with your life satisfaction,” she continued. “Your family and friends all report a thirty-seven percent increase in meaningful interaction, and you have been seeing Mark from accounting for over a month now, who likewise reports a satisfaction rating of sixty-eight percent with your budding romance.”

“Don’t fucking bring Mark into—”

“Please do not swear, Miss Allgood,” said Mrs. Verdurin. “It is so out of character.”

This made Janie laugh, nervously. “What would you know?” she asked, intending it as an attack, but seeing at once from the woman’s smile that her accusation had played directly into her hand.

“You forget how much I can see, Janie.” Verdurin sighed, and Janie had the distinct impression she was far older than her perfect face let on. “We really can’t have this, not now. Imagine what our critics would say if they learned one of our best agents had re-neged and left the company?”

“I-I won’t say anything,” Janie said, trying a new approach. “I’ll sign a non-disclosure. Just put me back the way I was.”

“The way you were?” Mrs. Verdurin shook her head, and her painted fingernail became a dagger aimed at Janie’s heart. “A nobody, helping no one? Writing sex scenes between aliens and vampires and lying to your mother about a novel you’ll never finish? No, I was right to be worried about the report HR compiled on you. Their analytics said you were only a thirteen percent risk, but I know better.”

“I want to want to write,” Janie mumbled, her certainty undone as a new feeling began to creep into her belly. It was warm, but not the pleasant warmth of wine, rather a dull numbness like anaesthetic.

“Ahh, it has finally begun,” said the CEO, her head tilting and her neon eyes scrutinising. When next she spoke, her voice was slower, once more the measured cadence of a metronome. “Coffee makes a terrible delivery method I am afraid. Our atomoids enter via the same adenosine receptors that are blocked by caffeine.”

“Wha—” Janie began, and Verdurin took her by the shoulders again, guiding her back to a chair.

“I wanted to call it Utter Contentment, but marketing said that read as far too final. No good at all for return business. So we’ve gone with FullFilled. They are the experts, after all. It has only just finished trials. Please, sit back and relax, Janie.”

Janie did, and looked up into the bright blue eyes.

“That’s better. See, I share the philosophy of all medical practitioners whose guiding principle is to do no harm. And it would do a great deal of harm to re-burden you with the anxieties of your past. You are like a released prisoner, so accustomed to your confinement that you cannot adapt to freedom. But it is my duty—my pleasure—to help you.”’

“No,” Janie mumbled, but the word carried no weight, no force. She felt good—not drugged and dazed, but calm, at peace. She could see now that Verdurin was right, that this feeling was good, perfect. It was all that mattered.

Verdurin, satisfied by what she saw in Janie’s face, returned to her own chair and lay her hands flat on the metal desk.

“Now, where were we? Ahh yes, the future. We are growing fast, Janie, and it is my hope that you will continue to find happiness with our ever expanding family. Tell me, do you like the ocean?”

#

Donald had discovered that happily-ever-after needed maintenance, even in LA, where the temperature never dropped below balmy. The move from New York had been the only way Donald could get away from that psycho Robyn, who insisted they’d had a thing going. At first Don was flattered — she was almost a seven after all — but after a year of it he’d been ready to call the police and file a stalker charge. So when New-Gaia offered him a transfer to the west coast office, it was the perfect solution. Problem was his wife wanted to stay in Manhattan. Eventually though, he convinced her to take a dose of SeaChange and after that it was like it had been her idea all along. But now, two years after the relocation, he found he was sick of the sun and sand and needed a dose himself.

There were a dozen different facilities offering the service now, like Feel Fine and Okey Dokey, but Don preferred the human touch. So when he heard that BetaU had opened a shop in Santa Monica, he’d skipped lunch, taken a flyer to the coast and was now walking under another morphing block of metal cheese. Aside from the blinding glare of reflected sun, the only difference from this sculpture and the one in New York was the chord it made as the sea breeze blew through it.

The automatron greeted him with programmed familiarity, and ushered him through to the waiting room where he started to browse the new catalogue. A server pushed a cart around offering everyone organic cold pressed juice. When she came to Don, he gave a polite shake of his head. Human agents were okay, but maids still made him awkward.

He was called into the brightly lit office, a white cube of a place where the agent sat on one of the crystalline chairs and a baby in a bassinet bounced happily in the corner. The agent smiled warmly and gestured to the child.

“I assure you he won’t cry,” she said sweetly. “My son is quite content, and we do try to encourage a family atmosphere here. Indeed, I believe you might be interested in our new range of parent specials yourself, Don?”

Only then did Don look away from the gooing, gagahing kid and recognise the woman.

‘Miss Goodall?” he said, momentarily dislocated.

“Allgood,” she corrected, “But I’m married now. And I hope you don’t feel I have been presumptuous. Our files indicate you have two children yourself, yes?”

“Um, yeah,” Donald said, “Becky and Art. Pains in my arse, the both of ’em.”

Mrs. Allgood laughed.

“So, will it just be a dose of SeaChange, or can we do anything else for you today?”

Donald sat down in the empty chair and looked up at the painting hanging on the far wall. It was mostly blank canvas, with a single stroke of yellow at the bottom.

“DotingDad,” he said, remembering the specials he’d seen in the waiting room. “That any good?”

“Ah, yes, I thought that might interest you.”

She dialled in his order and a moment later a bar fridge rose up from the floor between them. On the shelf inside was a box of chocolates and in the door tray were half a dozen little bottles. She took out two that glowed with purple phosphorescence and unscrewed their lids.

“Cocktail?” she asked and poured the contents of both into a tumbler over ice.

“Um, I don’t drink these days.”

Mrs. Allgood gave him a wink and a knowing smile. “Don’t worry, it’s non-alcoholic.”

He saluted the sky before taking a sip. It might not have any kick, but they’d gotten the burn right.

“And here is a little reward for your loyalty.”

Don swirled the ice in the half empty glass as she took out the box of chocolates with a BetaU logo on the front.

“We call these Dlites,” she said, lifting the lid to show an arrangement of dark treats each with a different decoration. “Their changes are temporary, untailored, but quite effective nonetheless. The ones with the swirls are called LittleThings, the ones with coconut are BeautyFulls and the ones topped with are DonJuans, though they perhaps would best be taken with your wife present.”

Don laughed and took one of the coconut covered chocolates and found its sweetness paired perfectly with his drink.

The nanomawhatsits worked fast and soon Don found himself looking again at the painting behind Mrs. Allgood. He hadn’t realised before that it was a beach scene; the yellow stroke of paint defining the sand and the empty canvas forming the sky. He’d spent his career programing landscapes full of the most intricate detail, always trying to add more to achieve the perfect view. But here, in front of him, with everything stripped away, was what he’d never managed to create. Unbidden tears of joy began to dribble down his cheeks.

“You like it?” asked Mrs. Allgood, turning in her chair to regard the painting with Don. “That is my own work. The ocean seems to have unlocked my hidden creativity.”

“It’s perfect,” he said, wiping at his eyes as the empty horizon line drew him in with the sensation of falling.

“I am so glad to hear that,” she said, and took out one of the chocolate swirls, popping it into her mouth before putting the box back into the little refrigerator.

In the corner the baby gurgled happily, looking up at its mother. Mrs. Allgood sighed.

“See,” she said. “It’s the little things that count.”

###

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