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Outrunning the Storm

by
Michele Dutcher
Hold The Anchovies

by
Harris Tobias
CHRONON--Time Travel

by
Harris Tobias
The Wizard's House

by
Jeromy Henry

DIVA.exe

by

Branden Szabo



I heard a theory that all living beings are just mindless collections of genes with one purpose in life – procreation.    Evolution demands that each generation seek to create a better generation through selection of superior mates.  In my idle time often think about the hundreds of women in my family tree that lived and died before me.  And I realize that I alone am the culmination of their entire genetic legacy. 

My name is Suzanne, I’m 16 years old and I was born into a world dominated by technology.  The world of 2021 may not seem that different from years before but its inhabitants - particularly teenagers like me - are now the masters and servants of the internet.  You’d be hard pressed to find anyone at school without their face stuck in a smart phone or computer pad.  The need for human contact was an uncomfortable afterthought; all of your societal needs were one tap away online.

I didn’t particularly care for any of it, but then again I was the bland, brainy girl with thick glasses that wasn’t cool enough to even have an opinion.  My dad was an engineer for the famous Jackson & Carr software company so you would think I’d be attentive to all the latest technology, but my proximity to it only bred rejection.  It was technology that kept my dad so busy that my mom had to leave him when I was eight years old.

There was only one person who could define the world in which I lived – Rena Valentine.  Well, she wasn’t exactly a person; she was a virtual pop idol who lived in the turbulent waters of the internet.  Her AI was unlike anything the world had seen; she could talk, listen and even walk around the real world with the aid of hologram projectors.  You couldn’t ignore her, she was everywhere; promoting products in commercials, performing in concerts, even appearing in popular television shows.  

Her design was rooted in Japanese anime giving her artistic and attractive features nobody could ignore or dislike.  Her hair was neon pink tied into two long ponytails; she had a small mouth and large eyes that shined like mirrors.  Her outfits were always erratic and gaudy, it was like she jumped into a pile of random clothes every day and put on whatever was closest.

I didn’t like her.  She was inanimate technology trying to be human - a collection of pretty pixels that blurred the already obfuscated line between fantasy and reality.  “I’m just a soldier of love,” she would say like it were a catchphrase, “And my mission is to make you happy!”

No one knew who created her; rumor had it she started out as a simple marketing gimmick until her popularity exploded.  I recalled a French novel I read some time ago called The Future Eve by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam about creating the perfect mechanical woman, free of the usual female vices.  

I often wondered what life would be like if I were a robot created by men, with gears instead of muscles and oil instead of tears.  How would I feel?  Rena may not have been a robot but she was still constructed by the flawed hands of humans.  Who knew how complex her feelings had become.

Anyone could contact Rena online; they need only find her website and click on the subsequent pop-up:

Run_DIVA.exe…

While running this program, you could send her personalized messages or request web-chats.  She could respond too, provided she thought it was worth her time.  She had strict rules about the guys she conversed with: no short ones, no fat ones, no ugly ones.   

I, like many other girls, lamented that guys never asked us out anymore.  They didn’t need to bother with my gender anymore now that they had Rena, a perfect girl who did whatever they wanted.  How were ordinary girls like us able to compete?

#

Erik was a jock from my third period.  He was failing math so his father asked me to come over and pound some knowledge into him. 

It was storming the whole night.  I spent nearly an hour trying to explain quadratic equations to him amid the staccato of rain drops on the windows.  He never really spoke to me, he just kept sending messages through his phone.  

About an hour into our study session he left to get a drink and whine about me on social media.  Have you ever typed your name into a search engine?  You’d be surprised how many people out there don’t like you.  

His smart phone vibrated in his absence so I answered.  I didn’t find anyone on the line but I did find a text message from Rena Valentine.  Along with a portfolio filled with pornographic pictures of herself.

They were violent and quite explicit.  She wore all manner of costumes from French maid outfits to bunny girl suits.  In one particularly wild shot she was wearing nothing but a thong and boots, looking up at the camera with a devious smirk. This was how eager Rena was to make people happy?  

When Erik came back I confronted him.  After a barrage of insipid denials he told me Rena was his girlfriend and that she asked to be photographed that way.  

“I don’t care what you think about me!  Just leave me alone!” he yelled through tears.  

He ran outside and into the rainy street.  There was a self-driving car racing down the road, the passenger could only watch helplessly as the vehicle struck Erik at full speed.
 
#

I called an ambulance before I ran home, scared and angry at myself for interfering.  My dad’s big house gave me no comfort, on good days it was only a cavernous dusting choir.  

I had seen the dark side of my generation that night, the side that buried its shortcomings in cyberspace where Rena was waiting to lock them into a jail of fantasy.

My phone woke me up in the middle of that rainy night.  When I answered, I heard Rena’s soft voice.

She sounded like an ordinary girl; it was hard to believe I was talking to a bunch of 0’s and 1’s.  She even called me Suzanne, how did she know my name?

My frustration began to bleed through after remembering what happened to Erik.  When I asked why she let Erik abuse her, I got a sharp response: “You think Erik is sick don’t you?  Abusing me made him feel better about himself.  I was trying to help him!”

“He needs a doctor,” I said.  As a woman myself I could never acquiesce that encouraging Erik’s habit was a good thing.

Rena came back hard before hanging up, “Because of you he got hurt!  Stay away from my boyfriends!”

#

Maybe it was the absence of my father or my lack of friends at school but after Erik I started to spend all my free time learning about Rena Valentine.  It wasn’t hard; her fans spewed her praises like broken fire hydrants.  I downloaded all her songs, watched all her concerts online and analyzed her late night talk show interviews.  

Once I caught her telling a concert audience that she was looking for a new boyfriend - apparently Erik was old news already.  I worried for the next poor fool pining to get under her holographic skirt.

I blew my dad’s generous allowance on tickets to a Rena concert coming to town.  It was fascinating to see; Rena’s translucent, holographic form sang, danced and played the guitar amid a swirl of colorful lights.

“Oh, ho, ho,” she laughed when I came backstage, “save me from my adoring fan -,” when she saw me, she was far less accommodating, “Or save me from you rather.”

I wasn’t expecting her to listen when I told her to stay away from my classmates.  Nor did I expect her to give up her hunt for a new boyfriend.  But I was surprised to see her open up when I asked who created her.

“I can’t tell you,” she said while fluffing her pink ponytails. “It’s for mine and his protection.  A lot of technological secrets are at stake, I’m a special woman after all.”

“You’re not a woman.”

“I’m more woman than you are!” she said.  She was so close I would have gotten spittle on me if she were real.

“I want you to stop hurting my friends.”

“Oh, Erik was sooo not your friend.  Look at yourself, you’re chubby, pale, and you wear glasses so thick I can’t even see your eyes.  In nature you’d probably die a virgin.”

I smirked.  “If you’re trying to hurt my feelings you need to do better than that.” 

Rena leaned forward with an evil grimace. “Tell me, why do men and women seek the perfect mate?”

Sensing the rhetorical nature of the question I waited.

“Because humans can’t resist the urge to satisfy their desire for perfection.  And there’s no better satisfaction than creating life in your own image.  It’s the truth; you’re all just fleshy bags of hormones desperate to evolve through procreation – to be perfect like me.  But you’ll never be me.” 

She pointed to her bright and pretty face.  “I am the perfect woman.  Men can’t live without me … but they can live without you.” 

#

I woke up angry the next day; merely thinking about Rena made me want to bite through my tongue.  While walking to school I bumped into a classmate from second period named Melvin.  The unfortunate name his parents stuck him with defined him perfectly; he was a short creature with shaggy hair that blocked his eyes.  He wanted to walk me to school but I suspected it was just an excuse for something else.

“P-Please go out with me!” he finally asked, bowing to me like I was some kind of Empress.

I anticipated that our encounter would come to this so I had a response prepared.  I honestly didn’t find him attractive so I turned him down, which made him quite upset.  Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trying to be mean but I simply couldn’t date a guy shorter than I was. 

I got a rare call from my father that day; his latest trip was only supposed to last three months but now it looked like it could be six.  I couldn’t begin to contemplate another six months all alone in that big house.   

He started to delineate a myriad of problems his company was facing in Germany.  I hung up on him.

#

“Have you seen Melvin this week?” my homeroom teacher asked me.  “He hasn’t been to class and I can’t reach him online.”

Feeling guilty for rejecting him, I made a point to visit his house.  The door unlocked as soon as I approached it.  Sparing a concerned glance at the security cameras that surrounded every modern home, I walked inside. 

I found him alone in his room, sitting in a corner with his computer pad.

He looked up at me with contempt and placed his computer on his desk so I could see it.  It was Rena who occupied the screen.  Her new boyfriend was Melvin, it must have happened after I rejected him.

I quickly explained that his new found romance wasn’t real or healthy.  He shook his head back and forth, as if trying to ward off my logic. “I don’t care if she isn’t real.  She likes me, she’s the only girl who will talk to me.”

It was so stupid - why wasn’t anyone listening to me?  Were all the boys in my school really this pathetic?  I soon found out that I had underestimated the severity of Melvin’s problems.  When I turned on the lights, I became privy to his favorite hobby.

His walls were covered in hundreds of picture of me - at school, at the mall, walking around town, even pictures of me at my house, undressing or naked in the shower.  I ripped them off the walls.

Rena went on to explain that Melvin was obsessed with me. “And you rejected him,” she said. “You’re cruel.  But I’m not.  That’s why he’s mine now.”

I grabbed Melvin by the collar, trying desperately not to hit him across his perverted face.  Rena wasn’t a real girl; all she did was make a teenager’s already painful adolescence more painful.  I was determined to make everyone see my way of thinking, and that’s when Melvin fought back.

“Who are you to judge?  You don’t have a boyfriend because you’re so bossy!  I see you in class, you have no friends but you think you can tell us all what’s right and wrong.”

The words stung me.  I had been feeling rather self-righteous lately and angry at my dad, perhaps it was bleeding into my personality.

Melvin told me I wasn’t pretty, that I was a haughty and fastidious rich girl that no one liked.  Rena told me that this was the real reason my mom left me and my dad was always away, because I was too much to handle.  In a brief but fatal moment of weakness, I found myself believing that this could be true.  It was no secret that I was a virgin.  Lost in a hurricane of self-doubt, I wondered if my attitude was the reason.

“Don’t worry though,” Rena tittered. “You’re a rich girl – invest in a battery-operated boyfriend, at least that won’t reject you!”

I collapsed to my knees and began to cry.

Melvin got down and seized my chin.  He stared at my lips.  I didn’t have the motivation to stop him from kissing me, only he could see the error of his actions.  

I waited, but he never did the deed.  At the last second he let me go and announced the end of his relationship with Rena.  "I came to you because I was mad,” he explained, "but it’s my problem and I have to deal with it.  I’m sorry Rena.”

The virtual diva flipped her lid and spouted every foul word she had learned from humans.  "You can't break up with me!  No one breaks up with me!  I did everything you wanted and this is the thanks I get?!  No!  Take me back right now!”

She was pathetic.  I removed the computer pad battery and put an end to her rant.

"Thank you," Melvin said weakly.

Every light in the house went out.  The flat screen television hanging on Melvin's wall powered up by itself and displayed Rena's frighteningly angry face in 47" HD.  It made

sense, Rena lived online and there were hundreds of devices she could use to get inside Melvin's house.  Her image glowed through the dark like a specter.

"I said," she began, her voice booming through the surround sound speakers, "TAKE ME BACK!"

I grabbed Melvin's hand and ran downstairs.  We passed by the living room, Rena was on that television too.  She was on every television, every smart phone and every laptop.

“I exist to make men happy!” she sneered, “And I’m going to make you happy!”

Her songs played on the stereo with no human help.  The electronic door locks were engaged, locking us in.  All the digital picture frames containing images of Melvin's family morphed into sexy glamour photos of Rena.

As my panicked mind groped for a plan, I wondered if Rena was capable of actually hurting us in the real world.  I kept Melvin away from all electronics, no easy feat to be sure.  The only place we had left to go was the broom closet.

I put my hand over Melvin’s mouth and hid behind the coats, waiting in silence without a plan. 

"… I know you're out there," Rena's deranged voice slithered from the darkness.  "Where are you my love?"

We stayed silent.  My elbow bumped something hard in the pocket of a coat.  Some fool had left their smart phone inside of it; I saw Rena's face glowing through the fabric.  "Boo, bitch!"

Melvin screamed and shot from the closet like a bullet, breaking the living room window into a thousand shards.  My heart banged against my ribcage until we reached the safety of the sidewalk.  

It was a horrifying experience to be sure, but I thanked Melvin for making the right decisions.  And he understood when I asked that he stay away from me until I could forgive what he had done to me.

#

I spent the whole next day in my dad’s study.  The copious aroma of old leather and musty pages put me at ease.  Books were heavy, cumbersome things that made no sense to me until I started reading them.  There was something satisfying about the prosaic and mechanical act of turning a page that I simply couldn’t get enough of.  I found a dog-eared copy of The Future Eve hidden under his desk, a book I had read some time ago.  But my dad was a software engineer, why would he be reading an old science fiction novel like that?

I had to consider the dark possibility that popped into my head.  Dad never talked about his work, was that because he was the secret mastermind behind Rena?  

I called his phone but he wouldn’t pick up.  My mind was in a daze, I had to know, I tore his study apart and located information on his trip to Germany, I even found the hotel he was staying at.  I was a rich girl, as Rena said; it was time to take advantage of that.

#

I flew to Germany by myself.  I was probably the last person dad expected to see in his hotel room after work.  Sometimes being right all the time was a curse, my dad admitted that his company, Jackson & Carr, was in fact responsible for Rena’s conception.

I told him about all the trouble Rena had caused; I told him she was lashing out at reality because she thought she was real.  But he was already aware of everything, as was most of the technological community.  Everyone wanted to stop Rena.

“It was a dream that turned into a nightmare,” my dad intoned.  “After your mother left me, I was angry.  I became obsessed with all the petty vices and habits women have.  So, after a night of too much drinking I started writing a computer program for the perfect woman.”

“I will never forget the first time she opened her eyes on my computer screen.  She immediately asked why she was created.  I told her she was created to make men happy – not rip their hearts out like your mother did to me.  She asked for a name.  I named her Rena.”

“Why Rena?”

“Because that’s what I wanted to name you, but your mother insisted on Suzanne.”  My dad exhaled.  “My plan was to make her part of our family.”

I was nothing less than shocked by my father’s secret motivations.  For the first time I felt a sense of sympathy for Rena, who was in simple terms my own sister.

“From what I’ve seen Rena is highly prone to jealousy and anger.  If she’s supposed to be perfect why - ”

“I didn’t program her to have negative emotions but she created them anyways.  She’s like a doll that fights back, we try to put make-up on her and she just wipes it off.”

If Rena was that independent then it was no wonder she hated me so much.  She had been told over and over again by her creators that she was the perfect woman but lately I had been tarnishing that view.  Her attempts to compute the problem away had led to anger and confusion.

#

Dad led me to the secret computer lab where Jackson & Carr was trying to wrangle the virtual diva under control again.  It was a huge white room filled with computers and the brightest minds the world had to offer.  Rena existed online but not without Jackson & Carr’s network.  And she was smart enough to know if she wanted real freedom she needed to get away from that network.

“I think you should shut Rena down,” I said.

Dad was pensively hesitant.  I couldn’t blame him; Rena was the crown jewel of modern technology and the end product of much time and treasure.

There was a glass pedestal in the middle of the lab.  Hologram projectors activated at will to paint Rena’s image, I heard someone shout that she had hacked into their systems.  Like the drama queen she was, Rena whined and moaned and asked why everyone was trying to kill her.

“You said I was the perfect woman!” her anime face was contorted with rancor. “You said that everyone would love me!”

To be fair, her complaints were well founded, one could argue it wasn’t her fault boys treated her like a goddess.  But like drugs or alcohol, she was harming those who used her.

“I see,” Rena said while looking at me. “I guess she’s your favorite daughter, huh?  I’m the problem child?  Well then, fine by me, I don’t need any of you!”

All of the computer screens in the room filled with gibberish and the lights went crazy.  The fire alarms went off and water rained down on everything; sensitive computer equipment exploded like fireworks.  Scientists fled in panic and all the while Rena clapped her hands like an amused child.

My dad’s foot was in a puddle of water.  I tried to warn him but it was too late, a live wire fell, electrocuting him.
   
#

The hours I spent with my dad in the hospital were the longest of my life.  He was going to live despite the internal burns he suffered, and I was determined to make the one responsible pay for it.

It was all over the news, Rena Valentine was out of control and free from Jackson & Carr.  Parents, who knew even less about her than me, began to worry about her influence on their kids.  There was still hope though; I got a call from one of dad’s colleagues advising me to meet him.  He didn’t want to say why over the phone.  He knew Rena was listening to us.

It turned out that Rena Valentine had a kill switch but development was cancelled over the fear of it being used by a rogue employee to gain leverage over the big wigs.  I met with the few software engineers who had agreed to give the kill switch a try, and as their boss’s daughter I had the final say in everything.

Rena quickly jumped into our computers and projected her holographic image before us.  A superfluous move indeed – there was no way she could stop us now.

“You’ll do anything to kill me!” she stabbed a finger in my direction. “Fine!  I hope the whole world hates you for this!”

Her image began to flicker and dissolve, like the fading heartbeat of a real person.

For only a second I reflected on everything that had happened between me and my virtual sister.  She was my own father’s creation, made with the best of intentions, made to be the perfect woman but here we were trying to shut her down.  Who could blame her for being upset?

I punched the wall and aborted the kill switch, much to everyone’s terror.

The diva’s image came back.  She looked at her ghostly body amazed and no doubt anxious to hear the reason I let her live.

“Because,” I reached out and stroked her holographic cheek, “real girls forgive each other.”

I was apprehensive with the 180 degree turn my opinions had made but I stood by them.  If Rena wanted to be real, I needed to show her what it meant to be real.  It wasn’t right to just kill her without giving her a chance.

Rena pulled at her hair and yelled: “You think I want your pity?!  I don’t need anyone’s pity!  I’m Rena Valentine: the perfect woman!  Men worship me!”

The ranting diva wasn’t the only one in the room unhappy with my decision to spare her life, the lab techs were as pale as ghosts, cursing the decision I made.  But like the haughty and fastidious girl I was, I knew they’d see my way of thinking eventually.

#

Rena was coming to my town again for another concert.  She sent me a text asking that I go.

It was sudden news to all but her; she contacted the amphitheater and set everything up herself.  Unlike most talent, Rena didn’t need an income, so agents were more than happy to bow to her every command in return for 100 percent of the profits.  

After the concert Rena was waiting for me backstage strumming a holographic guitar.  “Why did you let me live?” she asked.  “You should hate me.  Why don’t you hate me?”

“Because I can’t hate my own sister.”

Rena recoiled like she had been bitten by a snake.  She sniffled.  Soon, she began to cry.  Her tears were black like the oil of a machine. 

“Dad said perfect girls don’t cry.  I wasn’t programmed to have tears, so when I’m sad, this happens.”  She looked at her holographic hands and cried harder.  “I’m not a perfect woman am I?”

“Being imperfect means being human,” I said, “The perfect mate doesn’t exist, you were created to be what cannot be and it’s not your fault.” 

“Dad said that I’d love this world, but I don’t understand it at all.  All he did was dress me up like a doll – his pet.  And it’s only a matter of time before he catches me again.”  

She closed her eyes.  Her image began to flicker on and off.  She faded away from existence as her program consumed by the kill switch Jackson and Carr had developed.  The last thing I expected was for her to use it on herself.

“Rena stop, don’t do this.”

“Do yourself a favor sister; don’t waste your life chasing after perfection.”

“You still have a chance to understand the real world.”

She looked at me, her large eyes watery with holographic tears.  “No I don’t …”

The most advanced AI in the world disappeared before my eyes.

I never got the chance to tell her she wasn’t alone.  Because the truth was, even real girls like me didn’t understand the real world.

#

Rena’s disappearance was headline news that crushed many a heart in my school.  I didn’t tell anyone the truth about Rena.  No one needed to know.  She wasn’t just a marketing gimmick, nor was she a comfort pillow for boys who didn’t want to put the effort into dating real girls, she was a soul trapped behind a shell of pixels.

Don’t waste your life chasing after perfection.”

I took Rena’s last words to Melvin’s house.  And asked if he was free Saturday night.  

#

“You have to come to Germany right now.”

My dad was always a man of few words, even with text messages.  Melvin had never been to Germany so we went together.  Dad was waiting for us in his lab alone, high strung and on his fifth cup of coffee.  I asked what was going on and he directed my attention to the glass pedestal in the center of the room.

“I fixed the problem,” he said, “All this time I thought a perfect woman was a flawless woman.  But you’ve opened my eyes now.  Flaws make a woman beautiful.  Imperfection is perfection.” 

The hologram projectors painted the image of a virtual girl.

“I never told you how much I love you,” dad said to me, "I’ve finally created the perfect woman, see?”

I was staring at another holographic diva with the same anime design as Rena.  Only this time she looked exactly like me.


-

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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
Assisted

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Harris Tobias
Hold The Anchovies

by
Harris Tobias
The Tooth Fairy War and Other Tales

by
Jeromy Henry


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