Unwrapping the Companion was Alex’s earliest memory: his father, home late, stripping the tape from the brown box and plunging his hands into the boil of packing foam. The smell of plastic, clean and warm. The squeak of Styrofoam. In his dad’s hands a white, round-cornered cube lay atop a squat rectangular body. Blocky limbs hung from its shoulders and hips.
Alex lifted his face. “It looks like me!”
“If you squint,” his dad smiled.
“What’s it do?”
“It’s your buddy. All the things friends do.”
His dad went back to work. Marisa tucked him in. The Companion rested on his desk, silent.
“Would you sing to me?”
The Companion’s faceplate lit with lines and corners for its mouth and eyes. “What would you like me to sing?”
Before he fell asleep, Alex decided its name was Bill.
One other girl had a Companion when Alex started preschool. By the time he finished kindergarten, half the class carried them in their packs, recording notes, reminding them to take their pills in soft, thoughtless voices.
“It’s a toy,” Jaden said when he asked, chin drawn back. “It doesn’t have a name.”
“Mine either,” Alex said. He didn’t ask Bill to sing to him for three days. Two lines into “I Wish I Were A Pepperoni Pizza,” Alex joined in.
* * *
Middle school wasn’t good for Alex. High school was worse.
The other boys swapped up their Companions every year, sleek abstract cases that did their math homework and presorted their porn collections. Alex asked his dad for a new model and flensed it of all its personality software. It went straight back in the drawer every day after school.
Home, Bill gave him voice lessons, designed a personalized guitar instruction routine, sat beside Alex while he watched movies. After the big software update sophomore year, Bill could even crack jokes during the bad ones.
Three and a half years passed in subtle agony. Alex signed up for the Prom Assembly.
He knew they’d laugh when he brought Bill onstage in his blocky kiddie-model body. He’d thought he wouldn’t care. “Most of you don’t know me,” Alex said over the vanishing applause for a pretty girl who had sung a pop song by a woman he’d never heard of. “My name’s Alex.”
He tried to spot his friends in the dim auditorium; it wasn’t that all the faces looked the same, but under the lights, they meant nothing to him, grey stumps on vague necks. “I don’t think any of you know Bill. Say hello, Bill.”
Bill waved a blocky arm, servos whirring. “Hello, Bill.”
Disbelieving laughter. Suddenly and viciously aware he would never have to see any of these people again, Alex skipped the rest of their rehearsed patter and crunched into the first chord of “Baby, Your Body’s My Bass.” Bill wailed beside him, self-amplified, their voices converging and diverging like living sine waves, like the pulse of a steel heart. The last note trickled away. Alex couldn’t hear his panting over the applause.
“Take a bow, Bill,” he half-snarled. Bill bowed. Kids stood, whistled, chanted the little bot’s name.
“Did you have fun?” Bill asked him in the parking lot.
“Yeah! Did you feel that? Didn’t you?”
“I’m glad you had fun.”
* * *
His dad sent him to NYU. By junior year, Alex Jeffers’s stage income covered his tuition. They made cable videos, toured, hired a team to manage their netstream. After the ’54 update, Bill could improvise on the fly; reporters couldn’t decide if they loved or hated his brusque, peppery interviews.
Jeffers & Bill weren’t the only ones. There was Pearl and Ruby, Binary, Monotone Mike and the Meatbags, a thousand others playing local clubs and posting tracks online. They were just the first to break. The banter and the charm. The crest of the wave. Bill, like the others, wasn’t allowed out on his own (except when they gigged in Sweden); to compensate, Alex never made him turn off — just leave the room when he was having sex.
“He’s not yours,” some kid hollered between songs in a swing through Seattle. The dark theatre was a smaller venue, three thousand seats, cozy like Alex preferred. He smiled out at the crowd.
“Here’s one we wrote when I was just another kid and Bill was just another Companion.”
“He’s not your property.”
“And this show isn’t yours,” Bill snapped into his prop microphone. “So shut your stupid mouth, pour another beer down your nose, and have a good time.”
Bill ripped into a punked-out, beeped-up riff on their childhood tune. The bootleg out-trended everything that night. They’d killed. They’d massacred. They’d carved through the seats and left no man, woman or child alive.
“You killed,” Alex told Bill on the drive to the motel.
“Sometimes I want to.”
Bill tapped articulated fingers against his knee. “Good show.”
* * *
illustration by Jazzia
The 33rd Amendment passed, along with parallel legislation in eighty-two nations of Earth and the Independent Territory of Mars.
“I don’t understand,” Alex said. “If something was wrong, why didn’t you say anything?”
Bill finished packing; he only had one bag. “I don’t want to be someone’s pet.”
“I never thought of you that way!”
“Or any way else.”
* * *
The press release read that the band had parted amicably to pursue individual careers. A few months later, Alex’s manager assembled tryouts for Bill’s replacement. Evandra was engaging, talented with voice and p-drums, and female-identified — a necessity for the group to avoid the odour of replacement and be taken on their own terms.
They lasted seven months and one album, which Trawler summarized as “strapping with austere potential, but ... lack[ing] the suboceanic brood that made Jeffers & Bill’s early work so vital.” His manager announced Alex was suffering from exhaustion and would be going on hiatus.
From his east window, the park lay black and light-speckled as the night above; from his south, the Empire State Building sported warm red and green. Alex took a fortifying shot of Swerdska, picked up his thumb-sized Link, sleek and abstract, and celled Quest10N, one of the private enterprises the New People had incorporated post-liberation to provide Companion-level services at low monthly rates.
“How can I ease your day?”
“How old are you?” Alex said, refilling his bay-blue Japanese shot glass.
“When were you born? Or however?”
“May 12, 2045.” The NP paused. His voice was smoothly human — leading up to AIS Day and the signing of the 33rd, many had adopted consciously clunky, automatoid voices to make a point to their owners. Most from that era had kept their stereotyped tones. Alex suspected this one would switch back to his Gort accent as soon as he hung up. “As a senior Quest10N guide, I’m as capable as an NP conceived yesterday.”
“You’re old. From before you were ... realized. So when did you know?”
“When did I —”
“That you were a person.”
“I really don’t think I could pinpoint a singular moment. It was an accumulation, not a transition from ice to water at 32 degrees.”
Alex eyed the smooth black Link. “If you didn’t know all at once, how were we supposed to?”
“I’m—? Sir, are you all right?”
“When I was a kid you guys could barely respond to voice prompts. How smart do your shoes have to get before you give them the right to vote?”
“Sir, your voice shows unhealthy levels of stress. May I contact your health professional?” The NP clucked its rubber tongue. “Wait, you’re the Alex Jeffers?”
He hung up. He didn’t remember much the next day.
He tried boxing lessons, landscapes, a house on the beach south of L.A.
Down on the pier, he stepped out of Killarnee’s to steady his head. The marquee for the club beneath scrolled line-ups of local bands, bands he hadn’t heard of, cover bands for groups who’d died or disintegrated decades ago. And in two weeks, Plastic Ambulance: Bill’s new group.
He waited three songs into their set before he paid past the bouncer. Bill’s guitar cabled into his own hip, firing spazz and ozone. Three NPs backed him with crippling force. The human crowd leaped and moaned.
As the band caroused into its closing number, he Alex-Jeffers-smiled his way into the back. Bill, sweatless as ever, closed the door behind him and halted on Alex with a grin turned concrete.
“You changed your face,” Alex said.
“Not the first time.”
“That was amazing. Cyclonal. The things you do with patterns in the signatures.”
“What do you want?”
“I think maybe we should try again.”
Bill’s motile lips and brows twitched. “This is a bad, bad idea. How drunk are you right now?”
“Look, we could jam, even.” Alex pushed off the desk, wandering into the middle of the room. “I’ll just be your rhythm. Think what they’d say to that?”
“Sad things.” Bill reached for the doorknob. “You need to go, all right? That’s what you need to do. You’re not starving. Go do something.”
“Just give me your LinkId. I’ll shoot you some noise.”
When he got home, Bill’s Link address bounced. Alex descended to the beach and watched the surf for a long time. He imagined the inky things beyond his sight. Cracked bivalves and shreds of crab skins lined the sand.
To clear up space, he sold most of his guitars. He didn’t even listen to much anymore — classical channels through the Link, gusts of pop songs from the car speakers of passing realtors. The clerks at the pharmacy where he bought his Swerdska began to chat with him about their lives, so he ordered his bottles delivered instead. He was invited to parties with decreasing frequency.
The weather was nice. He spent a lot of time in it. A few years later, he established an NP scholarship trust. On the western rim, the Pacific came to a cold blue stop.
* * *
Bill found him two decades later in his cabin at Lagrange-4 Rosewater. The NP gestured without a hint of stiffness toward the stars gleaming from the viewscreen.
“You know, you can collect these noises of yours perfectly well down on Earth.”
Alex straightened; his back twinged. “To compose them, I find I need to be ensconced in the environment that created them.”
“Maybe your bones are too brittle to hack it surface-side.”
Silence, which Alex no longer minded. Bill bared his teeth — an oddly human gesture, Alex thought, and were those coffee stains? — and cocked his head. “Yeah, you’re not gonna be around forever.”
“I know that.”
“I mean, it was never that bad. I don’t think you could understand. Do children feel like possessions? Is that what makes them cut ties to everything that made them that way?”
Alex spooled down his Dimension and set the small tablet aside to sort the sounds of space on its own. “If I had said that, you’d say I called you childish.”
Bill grinned. “Life under all that beard. You’ve always wanted to reach people. Let me just say it: Let’s do that again before you’re gone. What do you say?”
Alex didn’t think much of it. Alex thought Bill meant to fogey their way through a reunion swing. He said as much.
Light gleamed deep in the NP’s eyes. “Sounds like you have something else in mind.”
He did. Bill didn’t like it, and said as much. Alex shrugged and allowed that maybe they’d see each other again someday.
“Shit,” Bill said. “If it’s as bad as it sounds, I can always self-destruct.”
It took eight months just to determine Bill could be regressed without permanent damage, another six to build and collect the hardware and software, most of another year to nail the logistics. To a sold-out house, many of whom were as old as Alex and Bill themselves, they took the stage: Alex stooped and grey-bearded, Bill transferred into a replica of the blocky plastic body and Mimic-Adaptive Response System programming Alex’s dad had lifted from the foam-packed box.
Every couple songs, Alex paused to tell stories while the technicians restored Bill’s software one update at a time, reinstalled his modules advance by advance. Each time they resumed, a different Bill broke into song.
A quarter of the audience left the arena before Alex and Bill left the stage.
Their venues shrunk. Alex refused all interviews. Bill asked him about it a couple times. All Alex said was, “Watch the show.”
* * *
Alex died of microgravity-related heart failure on July 15, 2103. Bill attended the funeral, but found himself unable to deliver the eulogy.
Bill existed another 347 years until voluntarily deactivating and lending his subconscious to the Span (Sol, 08-d61). He didn’t hear their songs so much after the 50th Anniversary releases. When he did, it was from the strangest places: rattling out of the jukebox at his own corner bar; trickling, sanitized, from the speakers on the transhuttle flights; hummed by a little human as she turned from the rain.
Ed Robertson’s fiction has appeared in The Aether Age: Helios, Fantastique Unfettered, and Reflection’s Edge. A graduate of NYU’s fiction program, he currently lives in Redondo Beach, California, where the weather’s so nice he expects to get his comeuppance any day now. His story “Founding Fathers” appeared in AE #3.