Story Excerpt

The Best Man

by Jay O'Connell

“Gotta look sharp at my wedding, Bro.” Tate blinked me. “I bought you a gift.”

I was sipping my morning espresso while crafting an apology template for Novellus, the formerly-Swiss-but-now-Oceania-based Pharma Megacorp. Their retail gene-mod, Genipro, which protected against reproductive and gastric cancers, turned out to have unintended behavioral side effects now manifesting in teenage clients; specifically, a love of twangy country music—more specifically, the stylings of Slim Whitman.

I’m a corporate apologist, a contractor, working for Sotto Voce, a Global PR firm. This kind of cock-up was my bread and butter.

“Stop sending me crap,” I blinked back at Tate. “I have no space. Literally. I’m a city mouse.”

“I live in a city too, Bro.” Tate shot back.

“You’re rich. It’s different.”

“You’re gonna love this,” he blinked.

“Better not be another gadget,” I blinked back. Tate didn’t reply. His time was far more valuable than mine, so this was the way our conversations ended, with my last message quivering in the ether, the text just hanging there in my wearable, delivered and unanswered.

I took off my wearable, a newish pair of Serendipity OverCasts, and rubbed my eyes. I got out of my Zero-Gee office chair and walked to the fridge, which I opened and stared into blindly. I wasn’t hungry, which if you’ve seen me you know is rare.

Tate was getting married.

It was hard to stay angry at the man. He’d staked me half the downpayment on my condo, so I didn’t have to buy mortgage insurance. I’d told him I owed him half the upside on my unit, when and if I ever sold it, but he’d waved that away. “Pay it forward, dude.”

Tate hadn’t surfed in over a decade, but he’d kept the lingo and the demeanor as he jet-setted about designing elaborate trade shows for SubOrbital, a satellite bandwidth provider. He demo’ed new products and services that, you guessed it, used a ton of bandwidth. His mix of theatrical background, tech-savvy, and salesmanship had helped him write his own ticket. Fifteen years ago he’d been a college dropout addicted to MMORPGs, answering customer service calls for SubOrbital when it was a hundred-person company. I’d learned he was a millionaire while reading an article on SubOrbital in the Times; every employee with a number under five hundred was rich on the stock options alone.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

In two days he was marrying his long-term relationship Jericho in a ceremony in southern Italy. Jericho’s family owned property there, in the heel of the boot. The offspring of a tight-knit Filipino family who had been serious about the Catholic thing for generations, Jericho had almost three hundred cousins. Family events resembled Tate’s trade shows, with name tags and screen-printed commemorative T-shirts and scads of children calling everybody auntie and uncle. I’d been to a wedding and a funeral and learned a dozen names, which I’d have to brush up by scrolling back my LifeBook feed.

Tate and I were the sons of a pair of WASPS, the tapering tail of our family name. Jericho would add Tate’s name to his, and maybe breathe a little life into it. He’d been a firefighter and a designer and now he was figuring out how to spend Tate’s money to make the world a better place. He was also drop dead gorgeous.

I don’t do relationships. Not sure why they never work for me, but they don’t, and I’m old enough to have stopped expecting my life to change. I’ve learned to accept my situation.

I had booked a flight, corpse class to Oostini in Southern Italy, but had to hub through Dublin and Rome. I’d be unconscious, catheterized and packed in a capsule so I’d not have to endure the two to three hour layover in each city. My body clock would be reset en route so I’d experience no jet lag. Yay technology! Sure, I’d once had to apologize to a corpse class passenger who had been, ah, mislaid for a few weeks—but she’d survived!

That kind of thing almost never happened.

*   *   *

Tate’s gift plunked into my mailbox about thirty minutes later. He had bought me a Wilkinson Tonsorbot from a joint called The Joy of Shaving. I unpacked the unit and cleared a space for it on the vanity in my tiny bathroom.

The shavebot consisted of a lighted mirror like a round shiny head on a pole mounted above a pair of brass arms, one ending in a badger hair brush, the other a surgical steel straight razor.

I sucked at shaving. My lily-white, sensitive skin disagreed with it, going bumpy and red and awful afterward, so I shaved infrequently, tending toward a scruffy ginger-colored half-beard that my brother hated. He wanted me clean-shaven at his wedding so he’d bought me a robot?

“Use of your Wilkinson Tonsorbot requires your signature on our Limited Liability Waiver,” the bot said after I’d plugged it in and let it boot. Of course the mirror was also a display. I flicked through pages of legalese before finding the accept button.

I was familiar with such text. I waited for approval, which triggered a firmware update. I watched the green progress bar fill slowly.

I wasn’t a lawyer, but I’d learned to express regret without incurring liability. My first year on the job my text had come back from legal pulsing with zigzag red underlines, deletions, and comments, but I’d eventually internalized an algorithm. My stuff sailed through legal now without a hitch.

I knew how to sound sincere.

AB Split testing revealed that my apologies reduced the chances of participation in class-action suits by almost 9 percent, which put me in the top 1 percent of my profession. Semantic Copy-Bots couldn’t mimic my performance. Yet. So I made a half-assed living.

I’d been with Sotto Voce and worked on the SepsiCo account after the first global ideoplague. Even though that first memetic viroid was traced to a cabal of market-manipulators, SepsiCo had apologized profusely to the seven hundred million infected individuals who had developed an all-consuming lust for the SepsiCo family of beverages: Effervesce. Roar. Oranja. And of course, Sepsi Cola itself.

A generation of biohackers had reverse engineered the behavioral mods from brain parasites like Toxoplasmosis, the cat poop bug. SepsiCo logos, flavors, and jingles caused those infected with the Sepsi ideoplague intense, um, pleasure.

Sometimes orgasms.

Lingering, messy orgasms for two bucks a can. SepsiCo sold a ton of product for a few months, but lost money developing the Vaxmeme to back out the plague’s effects. I’d crafted apologies in a dozen languages—I’m good with languages—for a dozen demographic groups within those languages, 144 apologies in all. Three months of billable hours. Sotto Voce had been ecstatic.

They foresaw a ton of work along these lines in the future.

The Tonsorbot chimed, the firmware update complete. The mirror filled with a happy face. “Would you like to experience your first Wilkinson Tonsorbot Close Shave?”

“Knock yourself out,” I said.

The unit whisked the shaving brush in the soap pad, working up a rich foamy lather, and applied itself to my face. The scent of sandalwood and eucalyptus tickled my nostrils as the heated brush swirled pleasantly over my skin. I brushed my neck with my fingertips and the bristly hairs, normally as sharp as pine needles, felt oddly soft and slick.

The Tonsorbot hummed as it worked. “Please tilt your head back and remove your hand,” it said.

I complied as it scraped the razor carefully up my neck toward my chin. Several perfect scrapes later the bot said, “Turn to the left,” so I did.

That was the moment the second global ideoplague manifested.

I use a nightly Fresh Breeze mouth culture spray. That was my vector, though there were dozens. I was looking down at my arms folded over my chest as the bot worked on my upper lip when the plague hit, the wave of self-loathing so intense I gagged.

I jerked forward a half-inch. The bot whisked the razor away leaving a bloody red incision oozing across my right cheekbone.

My face in the mirror was peach colored and ruddy and mottled looking, like a piece of rotting fruit. There were dozens of different colors in my skin, beneath layers of translucency threaded with branching bluish veins. The overall effect was repulsive. I’d never noticed before how ugly my skin was.

A styptic pencil protruded through the shaving brush and was whisked over the razor cut, numbing the wound and shutting off the trickle of blood.

“Sorry you got nicked!” the shavebot said. I noted the passive voice. “Wilkinson would like to offer you a coupon good for a year’s supply of shaving soap!”

The boilerplate attached to the coupon would absolve Wilkinson from liability for the nick. I accepted anyway. It had been my fault for flinching. As I pressed the coupon button, I found myself nauseated by my reflection.

I contemplated the straight razor. Terrible thoughts coursed through my brain, intrusive and unwanted. I wanted to use the blade to slice my face off.

Instead I found myself rummaging through the medicine cabinet. I owned four tubes of 60 SPF sun block, because I’m very pale and I’m never sure if the tube I have has expired.

I found the Halloween makeup beside a tube of melanoma removal cream, a tube of metallic green, and squirted a dollop into my hand.

I massaged the color into the disgusting pallor of my face, my hands, my arms, covering every visible bit of skin. I was metallic green now. I could stand to look at myself in the mirror.


*   *   *

With nine hundred million infections, IP2, nicknamed to the consternation of many Lone Star, was far more lethal than the first. Almost two hundred deaths, mostly suicides, would be attributed to the plague in the class action suits that followed. We know now that the biohackers who’d created it had no political motivation; the second plague was another ham-handed attempt at free-market manipulation. The inept hackers had been trying to boost the popularity of Auntie Bellum’s, a family-friendly lifestyle eating chain in the breakaway Lone Star State. Instead of increasing the appeal of the chain within the target demo—white people—the ideoplague had triggered a skin-shade dysphoria.

You couldn’t call Lone Star racism, or even reverse racism if such a thing existed; the revulsion lacked historical roots and resonances. The second ideoplague was more properly termed a dysphoria—simply an intense, negative reaction to caucasoid skin coloring.

These feelings were more easily manageable for non-Caucasians, who experienced the symptoms of revulsion with less of an impact on their own sense of identity. In practical terms, the murder and suicide attributed to Lone Star were confined exclusively to Caucasians themselves.

The dysphoria caused a tiny percentage of fair skinned sufferers to blame the Other for their own self-hatred. That reaction mystified me. Sure, I’d wanted to cut my face off, but the idea of attacking someone with inoffensive skin because I hated mine made very little sense. But then, I had painted myself green minutes into the plague, so my opinion didn’t mean much.

*   *   *

The CDC alert that lit up my wearable ten minutes later advised those afflicted to shelter-in-place, but I had my brother’s wedding to prepare for. I let the Tonsorbot finish my shave, screwing my eyes tightly shut, and reapplied green to the lower half of my face and neck afterward.

By the end of the day the CDC established that while IP2 had been vectored widely the condition wasn’t contagious; there would be no quarantine. Tate teleconferenced me that evening.

“Dude,” he said, frowning as his eyes met mine in the vid chat. “You’re green.”

I nodded.

“So you got the ideo thing,”

“Yeah,” I said.

Tate chewed his upper lip. “Was it in the shaving cream?”

“No,” I said. I’d consulted the growing list of vectors at the CDC site. “It was my mouth culture spray.”

Tate did a double take. “You sleeping with someone?”

“No,” I said.

“What do you care what your breath smells like?”

“I care! I use it for myself!” I said. “Look. I’m clean shaven. Thanks.”

“Dude, you’re green.”

“I know,” I said.

“It’s gonna take months for them to develop the vaxmeme,” Tate said. “I’m getting married in two days.”

“I know,” I said.

“You’re my best man.”

I nodded. “I’ll get past it. Are you infected?”

“Nope,” Tate said. “My breath stinks in the morning. Jericho says I smell like a sewer.” He said this as if it pleased him.

I nodded.

“So I brush my teeth.”

“I’ll be there, Tate,” I said. “I promise.”

“You can’t look like Kermit at my wedding.”

“I know,” I said.

“This is hard for you,” he said quietly. The surfer tone was gone. He looked a little sad.

“Of course it isn’t hard,” I snapped. He wasn’t talking about the ideoplague. “I’m happy for you, asshole.”

Tate shook his head. “I love you,” he said. “You know that, right?”

I told him I did, that I was on a deadline, and I had to go. For once I ended the call.

My brother was rich and generous, in love and getting married. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, but sometimes . . . he got to me. I wasn’t any of those things. I never would be.

I was a green man living by myself in a tiny apartment who professionally apologized for things that weren’t his fault. I’d studied to be a teacher, of a useless subject, back when thinking that wasnt like dreaming you’d be a movie star or a professional basketball player or a Major League Gamer. Back when thinking you could teach was something grown-ups did, before distance learning and semantic AI and TeachNet.

I needed to go get drunk.

I hadn’t been lying, I was on a deadline and I needed to finish up a job before I left for Italy. An emergent network phenomena had caused three hundred and fifty citi-cars to circle the Washington D.C. beltway for nineteen hours straight the previous week, and I had to apologize for that inconvenience and dispense car-cleaning coupons to the inconsolably pissed off. Emergent Network Phenomena was the current state of the art term for Act of God. I’d already explained this idea before; half the job would be a cut-and-paste.

I finished six demographic group wordings and fired them off to legal, put on a suit jacket and a fedora, which hid some of my greenness, and went out for a much-needed drink.


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Copyright © 2017. The Best Man by Jay O'Connell

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