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Hungry Animals

by Darcy Pope 5 months ago in Sci Fi · updated 5 months ago
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It occurred to her that this wasn't good work, or kind work, or even work that was at all beneficial to society.

Hungry Animals
Photo by A. L. on Unsplash

“I love you, Meridy. Really, I do.” Her boyfriend sighed and tilted his immaculate head, scrutinizing her. “But you’re just not Milk.”

Meridy paused with a spoonful of pasta halfway to her mouth. She felt appropriately baffled, but Chad was looking at her as though waiting for her to say, “No problem at all, good sir, I completely understand!”

What she said was, stupidly, “Milk?”

Chad sighed. “See, this is why I have to break up with you, Meridy.”

Meridy felt as though she’d been tossed up in the air by a fickle, careless god and left stranded. Fumbling with her thoughts, she blinked the code to her iLid - two quick, pause, one slow - and the implant in her forehead promptly displayed a private hologram of her current stats. She frowned, using the deliberate flick of her eyes to scroll through her health records.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Chad. My calcium intake is completely normal.”

Chad threw his head back and laughed.

Meridy snapped, “What?”

“See?” He pointed at her. “You don’t even know Milk!”

Meridy pulled up her search tab and was instantly bombarded with images and articles lauding a slender young woman, who had shimmering black hair and dewy violet eyes. MILK SOLD OUT PERFORMANCE. MILK FEEDS BABY GOATS. MILK TURNS EIGHTEEN WITH A BANG!

In one clip the superstar was dancing in a denim miniskirt and cowboy boots. In another she was brushing her teeth in a fluffy bathrobe, wearing a mint green facemask. Another showed her in a stadium, surrounded by thousands of fans, wearing a leopard print bodysuit and cat ears. Milk struck a pose and winked, before Meridy closed her iLid.

“She’s an idol? You’re leaving me for an idol.”

Chad was shaking his head at her, disappointed. “See? You work too hard, Meridy. You don’t pay attention to the world around you.”

“You think you have a chance with a superstar?” Meridy demanded incredulously. “Chad - what the hell? I work too hard? I’m a real journalist, not one of these trashy paparazzi.” She dismissed the host of brain rot that had just flooded her iLid. “I report on the real world. I don’t have time for celebrities.”

“Maybe so,” Chad shrugged, with an expression of such smug contentedness that Meridy found herself gripping her cutlery a little too tightly. “But Milk is my priority now. It doesn’t matter if we never meet. If I can support her from afar … that’s all that matters. I hope that you can find it in your heart to be happy for me.”

Meridy frowned and blinked to open Chad’s public SeeMee. Her stomach dropped unpleasantly. The numbers hovering over his right shoulder were a fluorescent green, and scrawling up into the high eighties. He’d hovered around the thirties and forties during their last three years together. It wasn’t only his mental health stats that were rising, but his socials as well.

All of his profiles had been converted to Milk fanpages, and his followers had skyrocketed. She flicked through them with the speed of a professional, until Milk’s coy little bubblegum smile was burned into her retinas.

Chad was waiting for her with an air of indulgent patience, as though she were a child and he an enlightened adult.

“This is a sick joke,” Meridy decided finally. “A stupid prank. Let’s order dessert.” She folded her napkin and took a long swig of her merlot. She felt it seep around the edge of the glass and dribble down her chin. She flinched and the droplet ended up spilling onto the collar of her shirt. “Dammit!”

Chad shook his head at her again. “I am sorry, Meridy. And I hope that you can forgive me. I don’t want to be with anyone but Milk.”

Suddenly flushed and sweaty, Meridy smacked her hand down impatiently on the table. “You’re insane,” she hissed.

Chad stood to leave. He was a tall man, made athletic from a strict schedule of surgeries and enhancements that kept him in peak physical shape but made him feel like rubber to the touch. He approached her side of the table and, with an solemnity so severe it was nearly mocking, kissed the top of her head.

She flung herself out of her chair and slapped him across the face.

Abruptly, the restaurant around them fell silent. The muffled conversations in various little alcoves in the private, candlelit space ground to a stilted pause. The waiters, unfazed, continued sweeping amongst the tables with professional ambivalence.

Chad’s expression darkened. “Milk would never behave so childishly.”

Meridy felt an odd rush of embarrassment and shame - as though the idol herself were smirking at her from behind Chad’s shoulder. See? Milk seemed to be saying. In Meridy’s head, the megastar’s voice was lilting and musical. I don’t even have to be there for your boyfriend to want me more than you.

*

Meridy replayed the footage she’d recorded via her iLid, twisting back and forth on her office chair. She shifted and wrinkled her nose. The pantyhose she was wearing had a hole in the left buttock and it was distracting her from her work.

The soft buzz of various holoscreens throughout the office, SeeMees chirruping with alerts and the 24 hour news cycle, the voices of her colleagues murmuring and the rattle of the temperamental coffee maker each felt like individual saws grinding against her frayed nerves. She attempted to focus on the footage in front of her.

She’d recorded a march in the meat packing district after a massive layoff. The marcher’s SeeMees were on vivid display, their red numbers sinking and rising to the point of blurriness. Their faces were hardened and stern, their signs were bold (BURN THE BOTS! BOTS CAN ROT!), and it would provide an excellent backdrop to her article about company accountability to their worker’s mental health stats.

Even so, it was normal to have a handful of reds. Meridy’s numbers had been sinking into the red since Chad had left her, and she knew that it’d been a point of gossip around the office.

“Meridy? Want a donut?”

Meridy glanced over her shoulder at Fitz, the foppish young man who’d just started with the company. He was smiling and holding open a pink box full of glossy pastries. She took one and stuffed it in her mouth.

“Thanks,” she said, spraying crumbs. Fitz winced.

“Hey,” she called before he could leave her cubicle. He glanced back reluctantly. “Have you ever heard of Milk?”

Fitz brightened. “Who hasn’t? She’s, like, super popular.”

Meridy tore into her donut. “So you’re a fan.”

“She’s the best. Totally interactive with her fans, you know? Why?”

“Just curious.”

“Well, here, I’ll send you some of her socials. She has a couple private streams - you have to pay a subscription for those, obviously - but her public channels are still loaded with content.”

“What kind of content?”

Fitz shrugged, his eyes going blank as he opened his own iLid. “You know, tutorials, daily life things. Sometimes she dances.”

Vague condescension curled through Meridy, but she kept it to herself. She smiled tightly and thanked Fitz, then turned back to her holoscreen. She wrote up her article with uncharacteristic carelessness, sent it to the editing software, and sank back in her chair to blink open the links.

*

Meridy put down the lipstick that she’d been applying, distracted by a new message on her iLid. It was girl’s night, a monthly tradition that she’d kept up with all of her college friends since they’d started their professional careers.

Hey Mer-Mer! I so hate to be the one to say this … like, seriously. The girls and I were thinking that you should just stay in tonight. You’ve been in the red for like the past two months and it’s seriously starting to bum us out. We think you really need to take care of yourself. Totally let us know when you’re back in the green!!

Meridy deleted the message without replying. She capped her lipstick and smeared it off with the back of her hand, cringing at the feel of chapped skin under the waxy layer. She tore off the black dress that she’d squeezed herself into, under the impression that she’d be spending the evening balancing precariously on a high cushioned stool in one of trendy downtown bars that always made her feel out of touch.

She wiggled out of her skinmould underwear, peeling it off her clammy belly and thighs. It looked like a deflated carcass on her bedroom floor.

Meridy wandered into the kitchenette and pulled a bottle of wine from the fridge. She uncorked it savagely and gulped straight from the bottle. She drew herself a bath. The water was scalding hot and made her skin red and shiny within seconds.

She blinked open her iLid and drank her wine, pulling open the links that Fitz had sent her for the hundredth time.

Meridy watched Milk go through her morning skin care routine (all natural products, her complexion glowing), watched her grocery shopping (at a private grocers that sold vegan and locally grown products). Watched Milk try on clothing that had been sent by luxury couture brands, her hair like a curtain of silk that swished to her lower back as she posed.

Watched Milk eat at a popular sushi restaurant. Watched Milk be charming with her friends. Watched Milk board a private jet. Watched her meet and greet with hysterical fans.

In spite of herself, Meridy found herself digging deeper and deeper into Milk’s socials. Glamour shots on silver carpets. Luxury vacations; hotels underwater with skylights the size of football fields and glass hotels that floated over plains of Arctic snow. Milk posing with a breakfast of waffles and mimosas, the Italian countryside lolling in the background. Milk tucked within groups of glamorous friends. Milk accepting awards, Milk recovering bravely from a breakup to a popular male model, Milk posing next to a sleek hoverjet.

Meridy watched an entire live-streamed concert, over six hours long. It was a never ending fever dream of neon smoke and flashing lights, glitter clouds and holograms of animals long gone extinct, tigers and polar bears and blue whales, that stalked through the sold out stadium. Her songs looped incessantly in Meridy’s head as she fell into a muzzy, wine-soaked sleep.

*

ALERT! According to SEEMEE INC. research professionals and statistic analysis, your mental, emotional and physical health has reached an all time low! Productivity has reached an all time low! Finances have reached an all time low! ALERT! Have you considered going for a walk? Have you reached out to loved ones? Are you currently being a beneficial member of society? If you’ve answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, you could be in trouble! ALERT! Call our toll free number for 24/7 prescription antidepressants, delivered right to your door ….

Meridy deleted the warning from her iLid. Her SeeMee wasn’t wrong. Her sheets were greasy from sleep sweat and when she moved a certain way she could smell herself. Her teeth were woolly from too much wine and not enough toothpaste. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d shampooed, or gone into work, or talked to someone that wasn’t the deliverybot dropping off takeout at her door, or the holonet programmed in her apartment.

Meridy habitually opened Milk’s socials. Milk’s SeeMee stats and engagement numbers were so bloated, in comparison Meridy’s own SeeMee was like placing a scrawny, cringing stray next to a burnished purebred. She lifted the block that she had on Chad’s socials out of sick curiosity, and the first photo that pixelated to life was of him at a Milk concert. He was surrounded by other men of a similar age. They were all wearing the cheetah print cat ears. For a bizarre moment, Meridy wasn’t sure if she was disgusted or jealous.

A tepid knock at her door made her stiffen. Meridy went through her stale messages to make sure she hadn’t invited anyone over in a drunken stupor.

The knock came again, more firm. Meridy fought her way out of her sticky bedsheets. She shuffled into a pair of sweats and approached the door like it was an animal that might bite.

After looking through the peep hole, Meridy cautiously opened the door. She frowned at the blonde woman standing in her doorway.

“Can I help you?”

The woman smiled perkily. She radiated professionalism, from the blunt cut of her bangs to the ironed navy skirt suit. “Hi! You must be Meridy no. 142908!”

“Who’re you?”

The woman tilted her head, hair swishing, forehead and mouth still and stiff. Meridy realized with a startled jolt - she was one of those new personified AI’s that were being trial ran in various social and political sectors. There’d been a public outcry against the idea, but the AI’s were becoming more and more commonplace. Meridy had only ran into a few, but enough to recognize the traits. The rigid facial features. The bright computer-chip eyes that were never glazing into an iLid.

“My name is Betty!” the AI chirped. “I’m here on behalf of SeeMee Social Services to remind you about your failing statistics. As you were made aware of when purchasing and implanting the SeeMee, we take special care of our clients that are failing to meet their performance goals as expected by age, income and social status.”

“Uh, yeah, I got the notice this morning.”

Betty’s head twitched to the other side, smile widening to show teeth. “SeeMee Inc. takes our client’s mental, emotional and physical health extremely seriously. We provide all clients with a ten percent discount to our treatment centre for the first month -”

“I don’t need to go to the treatment centre. That’s for crazy people. Not for me.”

Betty rearranged her expression into one of concern. It was like watching cards shuffle into place. “If your stats prove satisfactory at the next mandatory check-in, Meridy no. 142908, the treatment centre will not be necessary. However, after six full months of perceived inactivity, SeeMee Incorporated will see treatment as mandatory and are within our rights to act accordingly. You’ll find that it is all clearly stated in the contract. We only want the very best experience for our clients.”

Meridy swallowed.

“I will see you in a week’s time, Meridy no. 142908!” Betty turned on her heel and started to walk away. Her movements were only slightly laborious.

Meridy lurched after the AI. “Wait! A week? I only get another week?”

Betty looked over her shoulder, nearly turning her head all the way around on her neck. She smiled serenely.

“At SeeMee Incorporated, we take our client’s mental, emotional and physical health extremely seriously.”

*

Meridy considered the wet burn of light on pavement. The holographs overhead that advertised credit chips and astral vacations were blurry in the rain and made the reflections on the cement fracture and glitter, white and blue.

They were waiting outside one of the downtown bars like crows on a perch. Meridy could only make out a few other paparazzi in the odd pockets of shadow, hunched against the summer rain, some murmuring in conspiratorial huddles. Their voices were only barely audible, some sucking on e-pens and battered pipes that release sweet clouds into the night, enshrouding them all in the acrid afterburn.

Meridy had the camera function ready on her iLid, the world around her hyper focused enough to make her head hurt.

It occurred to her that this wasn’t good work, or kind work, or even work that was at all beneficial to society. But with her SeeMee so mired in the red, it was nearly impossible to go out for a walk without people crossing the street to avoid her, let alone get a job. So she stood with the other carrion birds who were ready to strike at the first sight of exposed flesh.

There was a palpable hunger in the air that made Meridy think, not for the first time, that these people wouldn’t hesitate to draw blood.

The first set of bodyguards came out of the bar, surrounding a slim figure under a black umbrella.

Some of the paparazzi shouted questions - “ABRA! ABRA! Where are you going? Have you been crying? Where’s JCruz? Trouble in paradise?”

Meridy focused on getting her shot.

She was good at squeezing around the crush of bodies, going unnoticed and picking the perfect moment of clarity. The instant a chin lifted and revealed a face meticulously crafted by injections - sulky lips and coquettish stares, youthful and seductive in unsettling turns, like turning over a pretty corpse only to see the maggots curling underneath. Meridy knew altogether too much about this superstar - ABRA - who recently became a product of public domain. Not as popular as Milk, but on the rise. There was a large overlap in the fan base. ABRA had a similar appeal, the sleek hair and Bambi limbs, but privately Meridy thought she didn’t hold a candle to the real deal.

She burrowed between elbows and torsos and the smell of wet fabric, the desperate shuffle of sneakers on the rain soaked cement, the grunts from the bodyguards. Her dedication paid off in good money shots - a flash of creamy thigh encased in fishnet, red tongue between plush pink lips and a pair of sultry green eyes mid blink, and a complete side profile perfectly captured in a gap between the crush of bodies.

The bodyguards ushered the young celebrity into a streamlined hoverjet, shark nosed and black as pitch, and Meridy backed off. She separated herself from the agitated flock and flicked through her shots on her iLid. She was getting better - good enough to start selling her pictures.

Soon, she told herself. Soon.

*

There was no issue getting past security. Meridy had half expected her cheap press chip to quit on her at the last minute, ruining everything, but when she placed her finger on the scanner pad that was presented to her, it trilled merrily and she was waved through. The iZine that she sold her pictures to was just barely legit enough for her work to qualify as press coverage of the awards ceremony.

She wondered if anyone would notice the way her numbers were fritzing rapidly, but she wasn’t the only one with an unstable SeeMee amongst the throngs of journalists and papparazzi that were cramming themselves into the event.

The annual awards ceremony was all red velvet and golden gilt staircases and gleaming stages where the awards were presented, heralded by obligatory applause. Meridy stood on the outer fringes, away from where the talent mingled in the dining space amidst bottles of wine and tables smartly outfitted in crisp white linen and sparkling silverware. Waiters balanced trays of champagne flutes and platters of tender pink fish and fresh greens.

Meridy felt a surge of hunger deep in her gut.

“There she is,” and the crowd broke apart like a disturbed nest of termites, “the white whale.”

Milk arrived with an entourage of bodyguards and young, pretty people radiant in their silks and crushed velvet, their sateen mouths and gleaming precious-metal hair. Milk was in the centre of it all, her violet eyes limned with lime green that curled exotically against her creamy skin, her hair an art piece wound in spikes of molten silver wire, embedded with gemstones the size of tropical fruit.

Meridy felt a complicated rush of awe and love, hate and envy, for the alien megastar who glided into the ceremony with the brazenness and arrogance that only the young and eternally wealthy possessed in spades.

In her innocuous black dress Meridy looked like part of the waitstaff, so when she followed one of their elaborate threads through the talent, no one questioned her. She was handed a bottle of cabernet and instructions to go to table 303, which she promptly ignored. She picked out Milk’s table instead, closest to one of the main stages that cast everyone in neon pink light.

In the thick of it, the sound was almost deafening, the chatter and the laughter, the squeals and the admonitions. Holoscreens brightening and dissolving. Teeth bared in painfully white smiles. The glitter and clink of glass. The heavy thrum of bass that made the floor shudder. The play of shadow against skin slicked with glitter, body paint, leather and jewels.

It was surreal to be this close after months of watching Milk on her iLid. Meridy wasn’t the only one hovering at the edges of the table, they were thick as a layer cake, but Meridy had plenty of experience slipping in and out of crowds. She eased herself closer - closer - until she hovered at Milk’s delicate white shoulder, until she was refilling Milk’s very own wineglass. Meridy was ignored as the table erupted into laughter, buoyed by the crowd that hovered around their table and yet fully pretending it didn’t exist.

Meridy refilled the wine with the dedication and solemnity of a worshipper at the altar.

Finally, Milk stood. She and an entourage from her table flitted away for the powder rooms, gowns floating like luminescent butterfly wings. Meridy followed, unnoticed. Heads craned to watch Milk as she swanned through the crowd that parted obediently before her. Meridy clung to the ripples in her wake.

The women’s powder room was larger than Meridy’s apartment, chandeliers dripping crystal from the ceiling. Meridy watched like an observer of rare specimens, as the celebrities tittered infront of the mirrors. She blinked open their SeeMees, their numbers plump and green. Well fed animals.

Meridy approached from behind. She was on fire. She saw herself like a spectre over Milk’s delicate reflection in the floor length mirrors.

One of the girls frowned. “Um, excuse me? This is a private powder room.”

Milk tilted her head. Her skin was like bioluminescence. Up close, her neck was disturbingly long. She opened her mouth to speak.

Meridy buried her fingers into that thick, beautiful black hair and slammed the girl’s pretty forehead into the mirror.

Screams erupted. Meridy swatted the girls off like gnats. At first, the skin on Milk’s forehead split to reveal a gush of bright red. Neck craned back, and spasming violet eyes that watched Meridy. A twitching and deadened expression. Meridy rhythmically slammed the face into the splintered glass again - again - again -

Sparks. The red paste gave way to intricate metal wires and glimmering silver plates, enmeshed with synthetic gore.

There was a buzz coming from the bot in Meridy’s grasp, the body juddering and shivering so hard that it made her hard to hold onto.

Unbridled glee bubbled up Meridy’s throat. In the mirror, her SeeMee numbers rocketed into the stratosphere. She wondered why everyone was still screaming.

“See?” Meridy laughed. Maybe she was screaming too - everything was so clamorous that she couldn’t tell. “See? This whole time! She was just a stupid fucking robot! Hah!”

Take that, Chad.

A door slammed. A heavyset figure in black loomed behind her. She was cradling a bot in her arms, a bot that was smoking faintly and smelled of burnt hair and rubber. Meridy felt a sharp pinch in her neck and the world crumpled around her.

“Call SeeMee Social Services-”

“Get the girls!”

“- authorize a memory swipe -”

“Fucking hell-”

“Who the fuck is this chick?!”

*

Meridy spooned cereal into her mouth. She looked dispassionately at her boyfriend sitting across from her. He was watching a Milk livestream on one screen, expression avid and focused as he scrolled through another site.

“Whoa. Holy shit. Look,” her boyfriend said, “you can buy your own Milk-Love Series Bot. We could do a payment plan of twenty four hundred merits a month … Babe? What do you think?”

Milk winked and blew a kiss. The screen went black.

Sci Fi

About the author

Darcy Pope

24, she/her, queer :)

https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/110033912-guacamolechip

https://archiveofourown.org/users/dumbdaisies

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