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Science Fiction Horror Fiction

The Plutocratic Affair

By Laura Pamenter

“Date of birth?” asks Tim—according to the nametag on his crimson shirt.

“February 22, 2042.”

“Oh! Happy birthday to you both. Are you two twins?”

“Twins?” I laugh uncomfortably. My eyes wander over James’ tall athletic build, golden bronze skin, and caramel curls. In comparison to my short, curvy stature, and emerald hair, James looks like a Greek goddess.

“Not twins, just friends since birth,” James says. “Our mothers shared a hospital room.” I nod along. James and I used to tell people we were sisters when we were kids. We didn’t look alike, but without a defining fashion sense and any body modifications, we were passable.

But we are nothing like sisters. Our connection is deeper.

           Tim speaks, “I’m gonna warn you Samara, the microchip you had installed as a child had many safety blockers in place to ensure that the content is—"

“Oh my god!” I squeal. In the top right of my peripheral, an aggressive photo of a woman squeezing her chest pops up. The tagline across it reads: “have fun with busty ladies tonight!”

“As I was saying,” Tim continues, “your child lock has officially been turned off. Happy eighteenth!”

James grabs my hand and squeezes it tight. She looks like a little kid who’s finally tall enough to ride at an amusement park. I personally have always hated rollercoasters.

“Okay, final details…” Tim claps his hands together and shuffles behind his desk. “…while children three to seventeen are only allowed one ad in their peripheral at a time, and six daylight hours ad-free, as a fully legal subscriber there are no restrictions…. you have full control over how many ads and what content….companies offer subscriptions from varying partners… compensation varies quite drastically...” Tim clears his throat, likely making sure we’re still paying attention. He sounds like someone who could be in a commercial, loud, enthusiastic, and a little dead inside. Not that I’ve seen a commercial in a while; streaming services are too expensive these days, even with commercial breaks.

“If at any point you are interested in one of the products or services advertised to you, your AD-I app records everything—scroll through your history and anything you’ve previewed can be found there.”

Tim smiles, shakes James’ hand, and leaves us to help another client. It’s bustling in here, a massive auditorium with a kaleidoscope of colourful advertisements lining every visible surface. It makes me dizzy. I close my eyes. James squeals. She grabs my arm and shakes it until the dizziness rolls into my stomach and I want to puke.

“If we hurry, we can still get our concert tickets!” She grabs my hand and pulls me out of the store. I look back at the slate grey building, three stories high, marked by nothing other than a smiley face with dollar signs for eyes; the symbol of AD-I—the company behind the capitalist revolution and invention of brain microchips which cause glitches in the occipital lobe, allowing one to see images in their sight peripheral. Kind of like ads popping up on your computer screen…except you can’t press the little “x.” Major advertising is prohibited in public spheres now, due to the already crowded images in one’s head. It is supposed to be a safety thing, but it’s a scheme: The government and AD-I can plaster up telephone poles and billboards all they want.

Just then, in the top right corner of my view, a flashing square appears. 

“James,” I say. Her eyes are locked on her phone screen. “Lee Anna tickets, in my peripheral!” I swipe my phone open to the AD-I app and find a deal for our concert tickets. “Three hours of ads weekly for a year, in exchange for one floor ticket!”

“Perfect!” James exclaims.

“Three hours weekly, for a year? That’s a lot, J.”

“No, two thousand bucks is a lot.” She rolls her eyes. “This is doable.”

“I don’t know…” I drag my feet as she pulls me along to her car, a gift from her father for her birthday; a sea-foam blue sports car with hot-pink and magenta lotus flowers on the sides. We look like Barbie and Beetlejuice, an unlikely pair, but maybe not that different. We’re both clever. Funny, In different ways, but still, funny. And we’re from very chaotic—yet opposite—lifestyles.

The difference is Barbie has everything and is happy with what she has. But James has everything and always wants more. She had a “big house, only-child with two bedrooms, family vacations, endless Christmas presents” kind of childhood. I had me and my little sister, Vannah, and my mother, doing whatever she could so that we’d always have new clean clothes and full bellies. She gave us more than she could afford. She gave us all of herself. And it was more than enough for me.

“Samara, please.” James purses her lips and pushes me against the car door with her body so that we’re up against each other and her head is resting on mine. She looks into my giant eyes and flutters her lashes like a doll. I sigh. 

“Okay,” I smirk. “Let’s do it.”

“Yes!” She cheers, pulling away and hopping up and down. She quickly runs around to the other side of the car and hops in. I slide in beside her. There is no wheel—self-driving cars became the law after too many blurred-peripheral-induced accidents.

The following events uncoil quickly. James signs us up for tickets. A series of targeted ads pop into my peripheral while I do my makeup; sapphire-blue eyeshadow and coral lipstick. James shows up at my house in a sparkling gold jumpsuit and white go-go boots, and with a six-pack of kiwi flavoured vodka sodas. The coolers taste like dirty socks, but we suck them back and make it to the concert just before the opening act ends. Everyone looks so glamorous, both the Elites—those rich enough to not need ads—and Jail-breakers—those with illegal ad-blockers who cheat the system long enough to have some fun. The best part though, is James spinning me around to the beat of Lee Anna’s drums, hair whipping in the stage lights like flames under the stars. 

“That was the best night ever!” James stretches out on my bed back home, all four limbs growing and snapping back into a coil like a yo-yo. She grabs my hand. Her perfect cuticles slide between the cracks of my hand until her fingers are threaded between mine.

I close my eyes and let out a deep exhale, releasing the tension of the day and absorbing the pleasure of silence. James isn’t wrong; the concert was incredible. But lying here beside her plastered smile with a clear head is to die for. She turns her head slightly and catches my gaze. 

“We could do this, ya know?” She whispers. “We could live like this. Concerts, parties... We could be rich, and we could do it together.”

“Together?” I ask. She nods. “And we can stop at any time? If it’s too much, I mean.”

“You can always press the unsubscribe button.” A tiny smile fills her fuchsia lips.

“Okay.” I squeeze her hand.

“Really? Oh, yes, Sammy! This is gonna be great! We could live in the city and go to Bali and…” James babbles on to herself as I drift off to sleep. The next morning, I hear more of the same through breakfast, and on the train while James lugs me through the city to an apartment complex in the heart of Toronto.

“It’s gorgeous,” I say, looking around at the column arches and stone touches like something of a different era.  

“Look at that view! And it’s so close to the train station so you can visit Vannah whenever you want.” She purposefully leaves out my mother. She likes to pretend there is animosity between us, the way it runs in her family. 

“James, c’mon, look at this place. It’s way out of our budget.” 

She grins, with an evil smirk, like a kid who’s just stolen something for the first time.

“Nope! The rent is subscription based.” 

“You’ve got to be crazy.”

“It’s not that bad! It’s like one ad in your peripheral constantly, and then a couple extra ones based on utility charges.”

My nose crinkles.

“Do you not want to live together? I thought we were best friends.”

“No, of course, I… it’s just a big commitment. And I haven’t really investigated it…”

“Sam!” She steadies my shoulders and looks at me. Then she pulls out her phone and tells me to do the same. A link pops up on my screen and I join her on a page with a subscription button. “Let’s do it,” she whispers. I grit my teeth. No. But she gives me “puss-n-boots” eyes. 

I lift my finger and drop it on top of the big “S” button. She gasps. She hugs me. Instantly we’re notified of our subscription, and a couple homeowner ads play intermittently “for our benefit.”

I watch James run around hastily measuring spaces and tapping buttons on her screen for the rest of the day. I don’t ask what she’s doing. I’m frightened, frankly.

My regularly scheduled ad pops up around dinner time to try to convince me to go anywhere but my own kitchen to eat—which is tempting as the new apartment has no food. But then the concert subscription ad pops up too. The apartment ad has been lingering from the moment we signed, plus there’s another small banner across the top of my sight from James’ hour-long shower. My head begins to spin so I curl up like a cat under the window and force myself asleep.

Four hours later, I wake up and I find myself in a different room. The entire apartment is furnished; minimal, but with enough seating for a large family, a copper bar cart with anything-but-rail liquor, a large speaker, and a collection of solo cups and shot glasses.

“What the hell, James?”

She’s sitting on the kitchen island in an electric-blue fringe dress with teal cowboy boots and pale-pink lip gloss. 

“Oh, good you’re up. People will be here any minute, go get dressed silly!” 

She shoves me towards the bathroom where I find a purple corset minidress hanging on the shower rail. It’s my size, and it’s way out of my budget. Beside the toilet are black knee-high boots with little stars on the toes. She left her makeup bag on the marble counter. I do as she says because the ads have put me in a daze, forcing me to move in a zombie-like fashion.

A puppet show unravels in our living room, like a synchronized dance, women in pretty dresses move like liquid, men with tattoos in pleated pants bob like apples, each string perfectly plucked so that the party sways in a motion so fictional, it’s surreal. Consequences are not, people absorb Cîroc like water, they ski slopes, someone’s moaning in the bathroom. There’s another person, another ad, images intersecting and diverging like a prism of mirrors. My brain levitates; I down a drink, another, I close my eyes and pass out on the bathroom floor. 

But like déjà vu, the days that follow nearly replicate our first night.

“How many ads did you subscribe to?” I ask James at a party one night, when someone suggests we rent a taco truck. She tells me to shut up. I’m “embarrassing” her. 

“Enjoy it,” she says through gritted teeth one day, like she’s doing me a favour. Her eyes look like lollipops. How long has it been since she’s slept?

I rub my face, hungover again. Drinking is the only way I can make peace with the whirlpool of images swirling around, mashing together like a psychedelic painting. In the middle of the living room, there’s a popcorn machine on its side. James knocked it over last night. She said she slipped, but I don’t think she could see it.

The doorbell rings. I look at James, but she’s distracted. Her hand it’s still clutching her phone though, tap, tap, tap.

I answer it, hoping it’s my mom or sister, or someone to knock some sense into me. But it’s a delivery man with a giant box. I sign for James and slam the door.

“Is that my espresso maker?”

“Your what?”

“Express-“

“No, I heard you. Why do you need an espresso machine? You go to CoffeeCorner every day! You have a subscription there.”

“Well sure, but the ad said it has over twelve functions…Why so uptight Sam?”

“Uptight?” There are five images in my head, bouncing off each other. I lose sight of James for a second; she’s floating between rose shampoo and bright purple hair dye. “This is too much! We need to get jobs or do something productive; we can’t survive like this.”

“Why? We have the easiest job in the world. We basically get paid to consume.”

“It’s making me crazy! It’s making you crazy.” Her eyes look past me like she’s blind and I’m nothing but a blur of light. 

“You’re just jealous.” Her face is emotionless. She doesn’t even look like herself. 

“That’s it!” I snatch her phone from her hands and pull mine out of my pocket. “I’m pressing the button.” 

“You wouldn’t,” she growls.

“James, you can’t even look at me!” She turns her head, glaring at the wall. “I’m going to ask this once, so be honest… how many ads are you subscribed to?” She shakes her head. My finger hovers.

“I don’t know!” she begs. “It’s full.” she croaks. “I can only see through the translucence.”

My jaw wiggles. I don’t miss a beat. I hit “unsubscribe from all.” The lights go out, the heat turns off, and the images in my head subside. A notification pops up, alerting me of my withdrawal charge.

“No, no!” James howls. “You’ve ruined us!”

“I’ve freed us,” I say proudly.

I reach out for her, but James runs around frantically. She switches on appliances only to be greeted null. She wails like a scream queen. She grabs the kitchen scissors; the one thing she bought with her own money, then she runs at me. I tilt my head. Her eyes shift, a mental I-spy game. She finds mine. My shoulders drop and my heart sinks into my stomach. She comes closer. Her chest is pushed up against my collarbone. She cradles my face in her hand.

Then she thrusts her arm forward and gouges the scissors into my eyes, one blade in each socket.

I scream. My brain screams. The pain is like fire on raw flesh. I feel bloody tears waterfall off my cheeks.

“You just destroyed everything I love!” James cries. I thought you loved me.

I can barely speak, but words radiate in my mind like something nuclear: “I saved you.” James scrambles to grab her phone. Tap, tap, tap, I assume she’s calling 911.

But her eyes go static once more. No, she’s back on the app.

My phone dings. I try to shout at it through sobs, telling it to call Emergency. But instead, a little jingle rings and an audio message plays:

“Ears are the new eyes! Sometimes seeing nothing is better than seeing everything. Convert to AD-I’s all-new audio ad installer chip, so that you never have to see an ad ever again!”

February 11, 2023 00:32

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3 comments

Bianca Juliani
11:38 Feb 14, 2023

Oh my goodness! This story has everything you’d want in a thriller/mystery short story. It’s deceiving, evil, but still shows endearment between these two characters. Taylor swift once said something along the lines of, “your greatest enemy will always be the one who was once closest to you.” I think you’ve captured this essence perfectly in your story. The twisted ending showing the true madness James had within herself this whole time is incredibly powerful and made me question society as a whole. This is a wonderful piece laura, amazing w...

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Amanda Lieser
03:21 Feb 13, 2023

Hey Laura! Wow! I am so glad I get to be the first to comment on this thriller. I think it answers some fantastic ethical questions and I was entranced by the vivid descriptions you included. I also felt like this was playing into a current complaint about society already. This was a wonderful piece. I will leave you with two of my favorite lines since I thought they went so brilliantly together: The difference is Barbie has everything and is happy with what she has. But James has everything and always wants more. Nice job!

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Laura Pamenter
14:44 Feb 13, 2023

Thank you so much!! I’m so glad you liked it and I really appreciate the feedback! :)

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