is a contributing editor for Details magazine who lives in a Forty Fort, PA.
His fiction has also appeared on Gothic.Net.
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by Duane Swierczynski
They've driven me completely, absolutely, bona fide, french-fried INSANE. Take
the call I got yesterday. I'm in the middle of writing a tricky lead, and the
phone rings. Not thinking, I answer, and immediately regret my finger pushing
It's a public relations flak.
I get pissed off for a second, but then my wheels start spinning. I think: I'm
gonna catch me this one!
So I listen to the voice on my headset carefully, waiting for an imperfection
to show itself: A tiny stretch of a syllable? A tiny pop in the line? A
particular inflection, repeated perfectly the second and third and FOURTH and
FIFTH time? But no. I'm not that lucky. I have to assume the voice is real.
"Who?" I ask-even though I heard her the first time. I hit the "record" icon
at my workstation.
"Melanie Garrison," the voice says. "From Post Media Arts? We spoke last week
about our new line of internal organ treatments?"
"Hello, Melanie," I say.
As usual, I'm only one of three in the office today. The ed-in-chief is here,
of course -- up in the mezzanine office, running through a stack of avatar
attendance files, doing a golf simulation, sucking on a Cohiba or something
else non-productive. PRICK! And our tech is down the hall, tweaking code in
the sealed room that houses our server, no doubt taking half-hour long breaks
to download teenage bondage pics and whack off. Which leaves me, one of the
few edit idiots -- OLD TIMER!!! the Greek Chorus cries -- who insists on coming into
the office to work on this cursed thing they call a service magazine, LIVE and
in person. Yeah, color me weird: I need to report to an office in order to do
my work. I even still keep an old-fashioned, cut-and-pasted X-Acto knife in my
cup o' pens. Hammer the boards together and break out the masonry nails! Kill
everybody over 30! I AM A MAN WHO REPORTS TO AN OFFICE TO WORK!
I look out from my office window. Lower Broadway is practically deserted, as
is most of downtown this time of year. Depressing.
"I wanted to know what you thought of the material we sent you," she says.
You see, I can't help think she's an AutoVoice. She's too perky to be human.
Still, I have no reason to assume otherwise ... and real flesh-and-blood flaks
are too rare to risk insulting one. Flesh-and-blood flaks can help you work
editorial miracles. Flesh-and-blood flaks can get you product. Let us all get
down on our knees to worship the asses of the FLESH-AND-BLOOD FLAKS!
And let us all defecate on the heads of the AUTO-FLAKS! Wasters of TIME!
Insulters of INTELLIGENCE! Techno-demons from THE NINTH CIRCLE OF HELL! My
father always said that the UPC bar code was the Mark of the Beast.
I'm determined to beat 'em.
"I'm sorry ..." I pretend to struggle for the name, "... Melanie. I don't recall
seeing them. Could you refresh my memory?"
"Sure," she said, brightly. "Our new line of ..."
And here's where I start recording again-this time, hitting the "compare"
"... internal organ treatments target men and women over the age of twenty who..."
I stop recording, loop the sample, then feed it back into the analyzer to
compare it to the first time she said "internal organ treatments." Then I
listen to the rest of her pitch and wait for the results to pop up on my
screen. Great new program -- MicroBell VoiceSpeaking. Takes only seconds. Cost me
a week's salary, but I was able to expense most of it.
I watch the bright red lines flicker and copy themselves into tiny boxes on my
screen. Cursors dance over the jagged lines. Melanie drones on and on ....
Finally, an answer:
98% EXACT VOCAL MATCH.
And that's just too damn accurate to be human. She's an Auto-Voice.
"Melanie?" I interrupt.
Swear I hear a faint pop before that "yes."
"Thank you, and FUCK YOU!"
I hang up the phone and go back to my real work.
Yeah, the Flak Corps are ruthless these days. And I'm not saying this to sound
like a saint, or something-they're honest-to-God vampires. They know the game:
work-at-home editors can use a million filters to sort through endless phone
calls. Homers can screen the world. Homers got the Home Privacy Act Of 2005
under their belts.
Me? Uh-uh. I'm stuck answering the damned phone because you never know who
will call. (Remember the good ol' days of Caller ID? Man, do I miss them. I
heap curses upon the invention of CallerIDBlock, then CallerEXPOSE, then
CallerPHANTOM, and all of the rest of the warring telecommunication options.)
So I've gotta answer. Maybe it'll be an exec from uptown. A source I've been
dying to contact. A reader with an insightful question to ask. Besides, I
don't get that "in-office bonus" every year for nothing. Thus, I answer my
And those PR motherhumpers hammer me like there's no tomorrow.
And you know the worst part? I'm doomed to answer them, because one needle in
the stinking avalanche of hay JUST MIGHT BE SOMETHING USEFUL! And our
magazine is all about usefulness, let me tell ya. We live and die by
usefulness. Man, if I answered even half of the flak calls I got, I'd have to
work overtime just to not complete any of my real work.
So I take a certain amount of pleasure in dismissing the syntho buggers. Sue
OK, back to today, since you want to know what happened. Today, I had a
complete throwback to the 1990s. Today, I had an in-office visit.
You see, the flaks know we're starting to not trust the phone calls. So the
only way to ensure a media "hit" is to get it in person. Like I said, they
used to do this all of the time in the 90s. They called it a "deskside
briefing." When Manhattan air got bad, though, they shitcanned that trick REAL
FAST. Now, they're bringing it back, because media hits are getting harder,
and because filtering mask technology has gotten a whole lot better. And I-
duh!-agree to them, because like I said, flesh-and-blood flaks are few and far
between. I can't say no. That's what those tweakers count on. The mutual cock-
But you know what I recently heard? Sometimes, it isn't really flesh-and-blood
flaks doing the visit.
That's right. They've got SYNTHO-FLAKS! Android chicks, all done up in Madara
skirts and doused in Largo Moss perfume. Android chicks so human, you think
the real flaks are the fakes.
Back to earlier today. The phone rings. I jolt, tumble through a million
reasons to pick and not to pick up the thing, and then do it anyway.
"Your 4 o'clock is here," an automated voice tells me. Our real secretary is only
around for special functions and editorial meetings. Our real secretary would
have known how to tell a syntho from a real live body. I sighed and said, "Be
So I have all of this SynthoFlak stuff going through my head as I walk past a
empty office after empty office. Actually, the empties are full of machinery. Black
plastic boxes and wires. Remote servers, for the home workers. Man, do I miss
wadding up a piece of scrap paper and lobbing at over at the editor next door,
just for fun.
A wheeling avatar almost knocks me over in the hallway. "Sorry,
buddy," the disembodied head on the screen says. It's Andrews. What a pussy.
Can't deal with being a total homer, yet can't deal with being in the office
all the time. So he uses this blasted robot to "stay connected." JERK!
I step into the lobby. She's sitting there, alone. I look at her, and the
first thing I'm thinking is: Is she a SynthoFreak?
"Hi," she says. It's almost a whisper. "I'm Caimeen."
But of course, she's real. Caimeen is delicate, kind of like those porcelain
statues of children with big heads that women collect. Her eyes are HUGE, and
skin so white and translucent that you could see the blue veins in her arms
and neck. She's a gorgeous little girl. The perfect PR envoy.
"Hi, Caimeen," I say.
What was next? Oh yeah. "Come on back to my office. We can talk there." Sue
me, it's been a while.
I lead her back to my office, around the drywall corridors, past the machine-
stuffed offices and back to my own. "You have any trouble getting here?"
"Not really," she says. "I'd forgotten how deserted Manhattan is this time of
"Where are you in from?" I ask -- part curiosity, part test. Yeah, I know beyond
a doubt she's human, but I can't help it. Skepticism is the reporter's friend.
"South Dakota. It's quite a jaunt."
"Where?" I ask again.
Sounds natural. Still, I wish could afford the new portable version of
VoiceSpeaking. We reach my office door, and I stop to ask: "You want coffee,
or water, or anything?"
"No, I'm fine."
"Need the use the ladies' room?"
"Okay then. Have a seat." I'm not sure what to do next, honestly. I'm kind of
surprised I still have a guest chair in my office, actually. I'm sure it's
been there for years, but I just forgot about it, I guess. It's silver, and
Luckily she starts, telling me all about this new epidermal skin treatment,
meant for city living, which is right on-target for the personal service section of the
magazine I edit. Shucks off the old, fragile stuff, and replaces with a new impervious
layer to block out pollutants and floating waste and radiation and ...
"Caimeen?" I interrupt.
"... waste and radiation and ... what?"
"I'm just wondering: are these treatments practical for the average working
"Uh ... what?"
"You know," I say. "Fiscally feasible for the working chump."
Caimeen looks perplexed. "What?"
I put not-too-fine a point on it: "Are they cheap?"
Finally, she relaxes. "Oh, yes. The monthly treatments cost no more than a
thirty day supply of your average commercial skin sealant."
She starts in again, telling me all about the guy who invented the crap, and
how he spent years watching his female relatives in Miami suffer needlessly
and dedicated his life to finding the ...
"... his life to finding the ... what?"
"Which corp is bankrolling these experiments?"
"What?" she repeats, her eyes crinkling.
"Who. Funded. Trials. El Payo for El Experimento, Chica."
I don't say a word.
"What?" she says again.
Ohmigod, I think. She's a SYNTHO FREAK, stuck in a groove. I don't need
VoiceSpeaking to tell me the truth.
I can't believe it. Those BASTARDS put one over on me!
I get pissed off for a second, but then once again my wheels start spinning. I
think: I'm gonna catch me this one, too!
"Excuse me, Caimeen," I say, secretly palming my old-fashioned X-Acto knife
and walking across the hall to the staff kitchen. (As if there are any staff
around to enjoy it.) I take a cup from the dispenser, poke a few holes in the
sides, wrap it in a napkin, then fill it with oxygenated water. Let's see how
this SYNTHO handles a dribble cup.
I walk back to her, handing her the cup. "Have a drink, sweetheart."
"What?" she asks again.
"Bottoms up, baby. Right now."
"What?" she asks again.
"No speak-a English? Drink the water! Now!"
This just pushes me over the edge. So I run my X-Acto knife across her throat,
from ear to ear, waiting to see the black wires beneath the molded flesh. But
I don't. Instead, everything gets real wet. And red.
Okay, so it's not the first time I've been wrong.