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Duane Swierczynski is a contributing editor for Details magazine who lives in a Forty Fort, PA. His fiction has also appeared on Gothic.Net.

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-1999 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

Fever Pitch

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 the button.
     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" icon.
     "... 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:
     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 phone.
     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 me.

     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- suck.
     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 right out."
     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 year."
     "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.
     "South Dakota?"
     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 sturdy-looking.
     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 Joe's pocketbook?"
     "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.