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Science Fiction Speculative Fiction

    Popularity was destiny.  Stenn-5.8813 knew.  Walking around as an advertisement was tiring, even though it was the end of the day and 'they' were eager to continue jaunting until the wee hours of the morning.  There was still work to do.  They flipped on the internal HUD appearing in their field of view.  Rostering through the persona index containing the day's ego-dumps, they carefully itemized a pair of hip luxury slippers—were they wire mesh stilettos?—check, and they took a toll on the wage rewards.  Stenn-5.8813 had to do better next time.  They continued to peruse the index.  Photos of every choice delicacy gained considerable attention, but the multitude of self-serving diatribes filled with emotional pablum were the Crème de la crème of ego-dumping.  That was where the money lay.  A smile came to their face at the obsequious responses.  The hive of self-seekers consumed every rant and vacuous drama like a suction vat, fodder that whipped the followers into a frenzy for social acceptance; the number next to each name in the index marked the rewards earned the more that was gloated about Stenn-5.8813.

    In short, popularity was the monetary unit of the age.  Keeping up with the trends and favorability ratings was an arduous task, and to retain their standing, Stenn-5.8813 made a mental note on the next day's itinerary to be dumped onto the hungry public.  That was the hardest part.  Their trip to the Riviera in a couple of weeks, though, would blow the competition out of the water, especially the way their comrade-in-partnership, Atch-1.1918, flaunted every up-to-the-minute fashion in the market.  It was wise to run a 24-7 live feed during events like this.  With the wage rewards collected, their little vacation would pay for itself.  That was in the future though, and for the moment, beating the competition was paramount.

    That reminded Stenn-5.8813 to upgrade the wage rewards program and raise the stakes in competitive product placement.  It was a risk, but it was well worth the extra funds.  It should have been something that came automatically with the implants, but the value put into it would pale to the greater returns.  This brand of advertising was a bonus, though highly recommended if living inches from starvation’s edge was not exactly one’s cup of tea.

    A message alert came.  A graphic brandishing a new song popped up in their sight, the same singer they played repeatedly throughout the day before.  Within a second, the music cued.  Now's that chance for those extra rewards.  Quick!  Time for the placement pitch…

    “Tap out to the latest track from VooVoo with ‘Never Stop.’  Lose yourself in the rhythm of a thousand rhythms,” so their recitation went, talking to the mirror.  Push those products.  Gotta push those products!  “You’ll never stop tapping; never stop repeating; never stop sedating…Once you start, you’ll never stop!  Buy the new VooVoo track “Never Stop,” available now on Barf-O-Matic Streaming, a division of Plutonic Pharmaceuticals.  Are you tapped out yet?”

    And so on.

    Stenn-5.8813 made a solemn promise to carry the physical product for the next placement pitch; whether it was done again through the mirror or the ocular implants when socializing, the planning had to be impeccable, or suffer the setback of a big fat zero on the persona index, and certainly not a double zero.  That was reserved for the competition.  Vogue Politik was a nasty game, but everyone had to play or face the pits of famine.  The credit score can’t push itself!  You are what you advertise; big biz and big gov needed their cut!

    The interior of the restaurant was a glass cage rimmed with gold-metal struts and casings glimmering in the light that filtered through the window walls.  Outside, posh city life passed by like snapshots out of a chic magazine insert and, in all its post-modern irony, belied the urban blight sprawling just a block away past the Great Divider.  Stenn-5.8813 paid no attention.  They were too busy reviewing the list of ego-dumps the ravenous fans demanded.  That was their ticket to afford the very luxuries that enabled coming to this restaurant in the first place.  They quickly browsed the menu popping up in their head as a familiar song played over the sound system.  It was the second time in the venue they heard the same VooVoo song.  They smirked arrogantly, crediting themself for the haughty promotion earlier.

    A reflection in the glass table indicated the arrival of their comrade-in-partnership.  Atch-1.1918 was clad in a mauve turtleneck as they bobbed like a martinet through the sea of immaculately fashioned patrons.  Seating themself, they greeted one another with split-faced grins, the visual cue of placement pitching.

    “Hi, Stenn!”  Atch-1.1918 said adjusting themself in the seat.

    “Hi-hi, Atch!  Piquant’s Delicatessen, the flavor of Community Street––”

    The other finished, “––the Business district’s finest cuisine!”  The advert was short and curt, paying homage to their current patronage.  It was also to the benefit of social standing to split a placement on occasion.  “How’s the curve?  Hopefully no zeros on the horizon.”

    “Think I’ve got the edge,” Stenn-5.8813 replied, observing their latest stats tabbing through the slots in their eye.  “Looks like a few dropped out at the zero-mark.  Quitters.  Guess they go hungry for a week!”

    “What about the trust funds?  They usually got deeper pockets than that.”

    “True.  It’s just fun to see the enemy fall!”

    “There are always the handouts…”

    They both giggled like hens.

    “Speaking of which,” Atch-1.1918 stared directly into the dead eyes of their comrade-in-partnership and blurted, “Westermann Trust, securing the future.  You can rest assured; you have our trust!”  So went the placement pitch.  The roster was full today.

    “Think I’ll get the phony baloney malcontent.  I haven’t tried it yet.”  Stenn-5.8813 pressed their fingers to the top of their brow.  “Boy.  Do I have a headache,” and beamed across the table, pulling out a tiny bottle from their purse, “Total Re-Live: what better way to lift that boulder off your head!”

    “Come to think of it,” Atch-1.1918 concluded the answer to the advert, “I have one too.  I think I’ll need some Total Re-Live myself,” they intoned the name brand to punctuate the add in their partner’s favor, then changed the tone.  “I’m looking at the Lyco-Slider.  It’s low in calories brought to you by the Surgeon General; it’s time to do your part in reducing your carbon footprint!”  Then changed their tone again.  “Stenn, did you see that emaciated dude climbing over the wall?”

    “Did they shoot it?  Probably had low credit ratings––Who’s your credit sponsor?  I hope it’s Surefire Credit; guaranteed to collate your persona ratings!”

    “Nah.  Didn’t have to.  The doddering idiot slipped and fell.”

    “Ouch!  Looks like he's going to need some Total Re-Live!”

    “Ha!  Watch for redundancies.  Automatic demerits!”

    “Oops!  I guess we can order now.”

    Atch-1.1918 raised their hand.  “Honors!” and shouted out the table code.  An orange light shined through the glass in the middle of the table and each of them took turns placing their fingers over it.  “Read our fingerprints.  Nifty!”  The light turned green.  They cleared their throat before ordering.  “We’ll have the––what is it again, Stenn?”

    “Oh!  The phony baloney malcontent.”

    “That’s it.  Yeah, one phony baloney…and I’ll have the Lyco-Slider…oh and add to that a cup of rubber-rose soup.”  They both tapped the table to finish the order and the light went out.  Stenn-5.8813 noticed the debt ticker up into their account box on the right-hand corner of their vision.

    “There!”  Atch-1.1918 said, cocking their head and snapping into a stiff grin.

    “How’s the rubber-rose soup––uh-oh!  Looks like the competition’s edging me out.  I knew I screwed up on that redundancy!”  They began to shake with anxiety.  “Quick, Atch!  What’s in that stuff?”

    “It’s new.  Artificial enzymes and sawdust…from Global Frankenfoods.”

    “Thanks!  Hey, they're a blue-chip premier!”  They immediately bleated the advert, “Global Frankenfoods––we serve the world over.  Have you tried our new rubber-rose soup?  Made from the finest ingredients right out of our labs.  Sawdust is not just for the dustbin anymore!”  Stenn-5.8813 saw their score uptick, but still short.  Their partner saw tiny beads of sweat build up over their brow.

    “Oh, no!  What if you lose?”  Atch-1.1918 did not look forward to having to switch comrade-in-partnerships to save their own persona.

    Stenn-5.8813 shook their fists in a childish fit of anxiety coupled with a prolonged squeak.  “Oooh…I’m so depressed right now.  I think I could just die!  If I lose, I’m no longer top dog and that’ll put me in the gutter for a week!”

    “Relax,” they said patting the air with an open palm.  “We’ll get through this!  Don’t let those banana brains get the best of you!”

    They were growing desperate with a histrionic display of delirium tremens.  “Uuhh…Biafra Bananas…grown in the finest climate…oh wait…or is it coldest of climates?”  They failed to understand that bananas needed a warm climate.  The uptick budged.  “Oh, Atch, I’m still short!” they bobbed up in down on their seat with hands balled.

    “That's because you're nervous.  Just cool it.  I don’t wanna see you end up on the streets!  Look around for inspiration.”

    Stenn-5.8813 whipped their head around.  “Oh!  oh!  I got one.  Do you have thoughts of suicide?  Ever think of yourself as that fifth wheel while driving on the highway?  Then look no further than Death’s Doorstep.  We do consultation on the best way to remove yourself for the betterment of society.  Just think how amazing your friends will feel when you’re no longer a financial or psychological burden to them.  You don’t have to hesitate when you’re at Death’s Doorstep!”  The index bar inched up another notch.  “Woo-hoo!  We’re now at parity!”

    “Woot!”  Atch-1.1918 cocked their fists above the tabletop.  “You go, gir––I mean…way to go!”

    “Gotta try harder!”  The sweat was now trickling down their face.  “Awwee, my make-up!”

    “Here…here’s a napkin!” they said, reaching for the still folded napkin and shoving it into the other’s fidgety fingers.

    “Thanks…”  They began padding out the wet stains on their cheeks, covering up the faint depositions of mascara running down their face like dusky rivulets.

    “Speaking of which, I’ve been so depressed.  Life’s unfair to me.  They added another paragraph to the persona score submission guidelines, and it took me a whole extra thirty seconds of my time to read through it.  That, and soy stocks plummeted according to the latest ledger!”

    Stenn-5.8813 gulped away some of her fears.  “I dunno.  Something about a farmer revolt somewhere overseas.  I hope they send troops there and teach those serfs a lesson––Ah, here we go!”  They perked their head in a sudden flash of inspiration.  “Neuroblobbisene,” they said, pulling out another bottle, this time with the appropriate title etched across it, “Neurotransmitters not firing away?  Synapses sputtering like a dying engine?  Then get dosed with a blast of Neuroblobbisene and put those pathways to use!  One hit flips you from dipper to chipper in a matter of minutes.  Neuroblobbisene.  The only dose is an overdose!”

    There was a momentary pause.

    “Stenn, how’s it looking?”

    The arch in Stenn-5.8813’s brow said enough.  “Ooh, we’re still at parity!  They must’ve made a big placement!”

    “Just keep at it.  Don’t let ‘em throw you to the wolves!  Keep goi––wait a minute.  Looks like the revolt’s been squelched!”

    “Really?”

    “Yeah.  We must’ve launched a few hypersonics.  Didn’t even have to mobilize!”

    “Instant grat!  Yay!”  They pumped their fists.  “I see the soy market even swung back.”

    “Goodhurtz Technologies, a new frontier in warfare!  Sorry.  Had to self-promote.”  They tittered.  The tee-hees were blatantly pronounced.

    “That’s okay, Atch.  I think I can spare a slot of lost margins.  Besides, shared commercial space helps with the index.  Shows we’re civically compatible!”

    “Whew!  Guess I can use a little neuroblobbisene myself!  Sometimes, the world’s so unfair––oh, look.  Out in the street.”

    Stenn-5.8813 turned where Atch-1.1918 glanced, looking out toward a section of the wall window, past a row of seated customers matted in near silhouette.  Someone handcuffed in the back was being escorted into a police truck.  They couldn't help notice the degree of roughness with which the suspect was handled.

    “Wonder what they did?” Atch-1.1918 asked without a change in emotion.

    “Search me.  The bag over their head’s not a good sign.”  Stenn-5.8813 casually shrugged.

    “00 score?  I thought they just outright blew your skull up.”

    “Maybe?  If I lose this, that could be me, you know!  Oh,” they looked up. “Here it comes now!”

    An autoserver trundled up to their table on a tracking system bolted to the ceiling like an alpine gondola.  The platform lowered and the lid of the cloche slid open lengthwise.  They took their respective plates with a toothy grin.

    “That must be the rubber-rose soup,” Stenn-5.8813 pointed out.

    “Ah.  Portions shrunk a bit since last time.”

    “Not the prices.”

    “Whatever.”

    They looked down at their plates.  The food had the color of plastic wrap.

    “Looks like food coloring’s been straining the budget,” Atch-1.1918 remarked.

    Stenn-5.8813 pensively squeezed their hands.  “Uh…the jerk's still got a lead over me, but I know the right company we can use.  I’ll give ‘em a shout-out.  Stein and Schlock Chemicals, bringing new dimensions to your culinary fun.  Turn those colorless hot potatoes into a palette of mouth-watering delicacies.  Just add a few drops of our patent color formula and no one will tell the difference from the gourmet gastropub around the corner.  Stein and Schlock Chemicals––it’s a kitchen keeper!”  Stenn-5.8813 stretched a crink out of their neck after bobbing it back and forth during the placement.

    “That was a long pitch!”

    “And how!  And it looks like I just came out on top…Oh!  And I even won for the day!”  Relief came.  They felt like a deflating airbag.

    “Woot!  Woot!”  Atch-1.1918 pumped a fist.  “Eat our dust!  They’ll be running home with a big fat zero on their back!”

    “Yep!  Looks like another win for the persona index!  And we can celebrate by digging in––”  She suddenly frowned, staring off into the void.  “Uh, wait a minute.  That was a 00.”

    “Seriously?”

    “Says it right here.  Must’ve been on the losing end more than once.  It was just reported they dropped dead out of nowhere.”

    “Pellet in the midbrain, eh?”

    “Looks it.  The explosion was big enough to turn their brain into instant pudding!  Oh, well.  Their loss.  Statlermaupot Disposal: no bone's left behind.  Full incineration guaranteed!  That was extra-credit.  More wage rewards!”

    “That’ll carry over to the next cycle.  We’ll kill it on the Riviera!”  Atch-1.1918 lifted the soup spoon into their mouth.

    “We’ll be high off the hog for quite a while!  Oh, yeah!”  Stenn-5.8813 clasped their hands and stirred them as a victory dance.

    Atch-1.1918’s lips collapsed.

    “Atch, what’s wrong?  Depression again?”

    “Nah.  This soup tastes like rubber!”

    In an instant, their body stiffened like a board, the eyes popping from their sockets.  A second later, they plunged face-first into the plate, splattering the entré.

    “Atch!  What the––Oh, my God!”  A massive swelling sensation filled their head, a cause for a real headache.  Stenn-5.8813 grabbed the bottle and pried open the seal tossing the pills into their mouth, only to realize it was not the Total Re-Live, but the Neuroblobisene.  Too late!  The pellet wedged inside their cranial cavity exploded.  Everything went black as their head also plopped into the dish with the sound of a ‘splotch.’

    Deep within their skull, a dying HUD showed the final results on the persona index.  Stenn-5.8813 was too focused on their immediate rival, missing the interloper who snuck up at the last minute and one-upped them all.  Screams of torment haunted their last ego-dump, the final installment of the persona index heard by the fawning crowds online.  It was the price of losing the high-risk wage rewards program at a score of 00.

August 19, 2022 04:44

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1 comment

R. J. Gaines
01:15 Sep 03, 2022

For the record, I updated my list of stories for Reedsy in a personal folder. If you wish to see the revised versions, please click here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1zvZDuo-bYTheKa6kWUyz2XpYMFaafMe1 Thanks again to all of you who support my work!

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