The bell on the front door chimed and a man walked in- he didn’t belong there. It was a nice lobby, temperature regulated by soft swirls of conditioned air. Everything smelled a little like chamomile. There were no cracks between its windows or doors- inside there was only silence, and a measured darkness which provided respite from the flashing fly reels swarming incessantly outside.
The man had fat shoulders and a big neck. Despite his brutish appearance, an expression of unsettling pleasantness was plastered across his face. It was difficult to trust that this sweating man with hands quite capable of delivering a fatal blow could indeed be a paying customer.
But, as the young man behind the counter reasoned, trust was a prerequisite for any business transaction. So he slid his thumb off of the button which would summon two guards through the sliding door.
“Beautiful place,” the customer said with a great grin on his face. He strode right up to the counter and placed his meaty hands on top of it.
The young man took it as an insult. “Can I help you?”
“You own the place?”
“No. Imagination Incorporation is an international company. But I’m one of the designers.”
“Designer, huh?” The thick man stopped fiddling with the complimentary Endispenser on the counter and looked up. “You’re one of the engineers.”
The clerk nodded, nervous. “We have more endorphins in the back if you want,” he said, and put his hand possessively over the little tin machine. “This is out.”
The customer grinned again. “Nah. I’m not here to get happy.”
These things just got nastier and nastier.
The customers came with ideas- bare bones fantasies that Rand was supposed to write out. They wanted to fuck everything. They wanted to reinvent slavery. They wanted to heft a machine gun in a room full of their old friends and bullies. They came with ideas so specific and deranged that it took months of research to even understand what they might look like.
Rand understood, he did. In fact, he liked the challenge. But not today- not when his head was pounding with this Synth shit someone pawned off on him the night before.
Today, Rand was simply tired. He longed for the old clients, back at the beginning of I.I., who’d come in and request a beach. A nice, easy beach vacation with a topless swim instructor and a couple dozen swaying palm trees. Everything about it was so classic- the individually rendered granules of sand, the tang of the tropical Mai Tai- (better liked than any real one; they never knew which drink they actually wanted to order). He knew the point was for I.I. to imagine things for them, but, come on. A whole world of digital hedonism at their fingertips and they kept on picking the beach.
His disdain made it easier for Rand to keep scrolling through the intake form in front of him. Based on the image enclosed, he’d assumed something brutish alright. The guy was big and ugly and dressed like a Shafter from the UnderLA. He thought, okay, incest. Little girl kidnapping. Maybe, on the other hand, some sort of romance with a thin and pretty reel star- the kind of soft, sweet girl he’d never get in real life. But raping was old hat by then, more unoriginal than the Bahamas. This was some other thing.
Rand pulled up his canvas and slapped a little flier together.
“FEMALE SURVIVOR? SPEAK YOUR TRUTH TO HELP US MAKE YOUR SISTERS MORE SAFE.”
He pasted the I.I. logo to the top and regarded it, satisfied. He thought it was a nice way to put it.
He sent the flier out through his corporate channel and it got greenlit immediately- another perk of seniority. That night his ad was plastered across the sky, the ground, the buildings. He gleefully anticipated how many responses he’d get from the UnderLA- the women there were guaranteed to be qualified- and better yet, their entire bodies doubled as adspace.
It had been exactly three years. Exactly, she knew, because it was an easy day to remember. Minutes after it had finished she had staggered towards the nearest store, desperate to get her hands on any sort of hurt spray. Her biometrics were read by the automatic trigger at the door. Two tinny voices were still telling her “Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday!” as she paid.
She thought perhaps that it would be too soon to tell someone else- after all, her rapist was still living in that same sector, her sector. In fact, she thought their buildings might have affronted the same street. That was the disturbing part about it- it hadn’t even happened in one of the Unders. Not that the things which happened down there were any less wrong.
She introduced herself at their front desk as Paige Strafe and was given a little name tag to affix to her blouse. She felt nervous, but there was a reason she had come.
The ad she had read in a supermarket had somehow given her hope. It was like she would have a place in deciding what happened to other women, later. Like she could protect them somehow. She had no delusions about being able to go back in time and protect herself. But there was also the money to be had.
“Paige.” A man in a smart shirt and faded jeans greeted her. “I’m Rand. I’m the one in charge of this project. I’d like to start by getting you wired. What do you say?”
Wired. That was a bit more than she had bargained for. “What is that for?”
“The cameras are for creating a living record of survivor’s experiences, like yours. We need to be able to feel the experience viscerally so that we can make people understand what happened to you. It’s the only way we might prevent people from acting out like this in the future.”
He hadn’t answered her question. The electrodes were being stuck to her head, and a wire got wrapped around her ear. It felt cool, and she might have imagined it, but she felt the subtle thrill of electricity.
“Will I be able to see it, after it’s finished?”
“You might,” Rand murmured. “Sometimes these things get stuck in production.”
Her heart halted a little, but they were having her lean back in a chair, and she had already signed a mountain of paperwork.
He wasn’t lying to her. Some subscribed to the theory that allowing people to live out their violent fantasies in simulation would prevent them from committing those acts in real life. For the old ladies, the Imaginings were escapes. For the rapists (and everybody had a little bit of rapist in them), Imaginings were outlets. Preventative measures. Therapy, you could say.
That was the stance I.I. always took when it came to the legal proceedings. The opposition said that these fantasies only conditioned violent people to become more violent. And Rand could see that too- that after experiencing a taste of what some horrible thing could be, Joe Customer would want it even more. He’d feel validated in his sick desire. It could go either way, truly. And the tech hadn’t been around long enough for there to be any serious studies on it. That was to be expected. There were never any studies until after the damage had already been done.
But this wasn’t Rand’s concern. A job was a job, wasn’t it? The women who sold their stomachs and thighs as uplinked adspace, or traded their sex for money and credits, they were just doing their job. The doctors who turned away cash strapped customers knowing full well they’d die- they were just doing their job. And the lawyers who took bribe money to keep the Unders the Unders and the rest the rest- they had jobs to do themselves. They worked long and hard at it, the same way Rand did. He put in the hours to make the best product he could make.
That was the whole purpose of this macabre interview. Rand widened his legs around his stool. That was the reason Paige was here today. In the interest of being thorough. In the pursuit of his flawless record- the highest satisfaction rate for authentic Imaginings I.I. had ever seen. It took hours, it took work. Rand was proud of himself.
“Now try to remember what it felt like in the moment he took off his pants,” Rand said. Paige had been forthcoming with the setting. She had described her clothes (“not for the purpose of judgement, but to give merit to the whole truth”), the weather, her thoughts as she walked through her neighborhood that day. Her fear as she felt she was being followed, by someone she couldn’t identify. Her eyes being covered as she was pushed against a wall- and the rest- the best- they were almost to it. She’d been distressed, even outlining this. Deliciously distressed. The wires fed panic straight from her brain through his console and into his delicate rendering. This would be a challenge, for sure, but a masterpiece.
Paige opened her eyes. “It wasn’t a man,” she told him.
Rand stopped. He looked at her cute lips, he’d been staring at them, and he stared now as if he’d seen a glitch.
“Say that again,” Rand said.
“It wasn’t a man. My attacker. She was a woman. The woman from my neighborhood.”
“What do you mean, a fucking woman?” Rand cried. He ran his hands through his hair. A woman?? He was wracking his brain. The whole point of this digitized mindfuck was to get his customer off. The man was a violent criminal in real life- he’d admitted so in his intake form. He appreciated seeing his victims’ pain. And what he wanted most now- what he was willing to pay forty years in cash and credits for- was to understand how he’d made those women feel. It was his new dream. To feel their mounting terror beat by beat. And to pat himself on the back, after, for being the one to impose it.
“I don’t understand,” Paige said, sitting up. “Why is that a problem?”
“I guess I should’ve been more specific. I guess I should have specified on the goddamn flier. But it’s not like I could spring for that many characters, is it?”
“Give me back those papers,” Paige narrowed her eyes. “I want to look at what I signed.”
“You signed, I pay you, you fuck off, I come back tomorrow and do it all again,” Rand snarled. “Whatever. Go home now.”
“Why are you doing this?” She demanded. He hadn’t noticed when she’d snatched the electrodes off from her hair. There were wires dangling and pieces ripping. The bitch. “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted I.I. to do some charitable project. You people are nothing but criminal enablers, aren’t you? Jerking off and working ‘round the clock to push us all back towards lawlessness!”
“Yes, well, I’m sorry you feel that way,” Rand barely looked at her. He was busy folding up components, hard drives, his canvas and stylus and notes.
“You will be sorry,” she huffed, and thank god, went back out the door she came in.
Corporate was demanding damage control.
The way Rand saw it, it wasn’t a big deal.
That girl Paige Strafe had leaked her “traumatic experience” to the press, and the bot streams were crowded with images of I.I.’s tightly shuttered downtown office. But they hadn’t gotten anything. There was no traction, no real story, and the whole thing would fizzle out before Rand’s high even wore off.
Yes, it was despicable. But there were things more despicable than soliciting rape survivors to relive their assaults under false pretense. There were, and Rand knew them intimately. One only had to look at his vault of Imaginings.