Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
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by Wesson

"What is the perfect woman? Does she have long hair and long eyelashes? Does she wear enticing perfume or does she speak in a sweet, soft tone? Does she have slender hips and full breasts? Is she smart? Can she criticize a man's mistakes and compensate for his weaknesses? Does she laugh when she's happy and cry when she's sad? Is she ruled by her heart? Is she someone you would die for?"

"My name is Rena Valentine, and I am the perfect woman. I am what every man has longed for since Eden. I don't exist, but I will still love you if you love me."

- Rena Valentine

* * *

I grew up in a culture dominated by technology. Although the world of 2021 looked similar to those of previous decades, the inhabitants--particularly teenagers like me--were both 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. That's the way things were; no one got after school anymore or hung out at shopping malls during the weekends. All your societal needs were one smart-phone 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. Even my name was un-cool: Suzanne--Sue, as in boring Sue. My dad was a lead 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 a person exactly; she was a virtual pop idol with artificial intelligence who could only live online. If she wanted to walk around with us humans, she needed the help of hologram projectors. You couldn't ignore her, she was everywhere; she was promoting products in commercials, performing in concerts, even appearing in popular movies. Her design was rooted in Japanese anime giving her artistic and attractive features nobody could ignore or dislike. Her hair and eyes were similar shades of pink; she had a small mouth and eyebrows that sat incorrectly above her bangs. Her outfit seemed to change every time I saw her but it was always something capricious and gaudy.

I didn't like her. She was way too desperate to make people happy. "I'm just like all of you!" she would say, as if saying it over and over again would somehow make it true.

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; it was 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. Rena may not have been a robot per se but she was still a human creation, and who knew how complex she had become.

At school the boys couldn't stop talking about how cool and pretty she was. While online, they could chat and send messages to her just like she were a normal person…as long as she thought it was worth her time. I, like many other girls, lamented that boys never asked us out anymore. They didn't want to bother with my gender anymore, they didn't have to now that they had Rena, a perfect girl who did whatever they wanted. How was I, bland as I was, able to compete? Oh well, everyone is apprehensive about new fads, right?

* * *

One of the boys in my class needed tutoring in math so his dad asked me to come over one night to pound some sense into him. He was one of the cool kids in school; Erik.

It was storming the whole time. I spent forever trying to explain quadratic equations to him amid the staccato of raindrops on the windows, but he never once opened up to me. I knew a little about his home life though, rich kids like him and I had loquacious parents, his mother had divorced his dad in just like in my family, albeit his divorce was much worse.

About an hour into our study session, he left to get a drink. His smart phone rang 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 costumes. This was how eager Rena was to make people happy? I confronted Erik about the pictures; he told me Rena was his girlfriend and she wanted to send him those pictures. He began to rant about his mother and how she abused him and his father. Meeting Rena gave him an outlet for his anger towards women, he'd yell at her, demean her, make her strip, and embarrass herself, and the virtual diva did it all without hesitation because she wanted people to like her. I rebutted him on the topic but only managed to make things worse.

"I'm... sick! I know that! Just leave me alone!" he yelled through tears. He ran outside into the wind and rain, I tried to follow but by the time I caught up, he had been struck by a speeding car.

* * *

I called an ambulance and ran home scared and angry at myself. My dad's big and fancy house provided no comfort to me; it was only a cavernous dusting choir. I had seen the dark side of my generation today, the side that buried its grief 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. I asked her why she let him do the things he did, prompting 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 therapist!" 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!"

Boyfriends? Did Rena, the computer animated anime diva, really think she was an actual girl?

* * *

Maybe it was the absence of my father or my lack of friends at school but 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 talk show interviews on daytime television. Her website spoke volumes about her personality--www.cutestidolever.com.

I caught her telling a concert audience that she was looking for a new boyfriend; apparently, Erik was used up old news to her already. I worried for the next poor fool.

I stayed up all night calling my local radio station to win backstage passes to a Rena concert coming to my 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 pleasant, "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 boy-toy, but I wasn't expecting her to open up when I asked who created her.

"I can't tell you," she said while fluffing her virtual hair. "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, you're a computer program."

"I'm more woman than you are!" Rena yelled. She was so close that I would have gotten spittle on me if she were real. My conviction remained firm; I told her I wasn't going to let her hurt any more boys with her empty promises. I told her I was going to remove her from modern culture.

"Be careful what you wish for dear," she said with a sly, half-smile.

* * *

At the time I didn't know what she meant when she said that.

A couple of days later 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 and a poor grasp of popular fashion. His widespread faux pas' were legendary throughout the school. He wanted to walk me to school but I suspected it was just an excuse to get close to me.

"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; I just wasn't a girl who went out with everyone who asked.

* * *

That night, when I shut down my computer pad, I got a fright. I saw Rena's image on my screen. Her face was something awful, here cute anime eyes were missing from their sockets, loose wires hung from her nose and mouth, her skin had peeled away to show metal bones underneath. She was trying to scare me; she knew I thought of her as nothing more than a robot.

Moments later I got a text message from an unknown sender: "DON'T MESS WITH ME!"

I was so scared I couldn't get to sleep that night.

* * *

Melvin stopped coming to school one hot summer week. I also got a rare call from my father; his latest trip was only supposed to last a two months but now it looked like it could be four. A whole season all alone in my big house? I didn't want to contemplate it. He explained that there was a company in Germany that wanted to make Jackson and Carr go international. I hung up on him.

It took me a while to pull Melvin's friends away from their smart phones but when I did, I got the location of his house. His parents were gone and his door was open, so I walked in haphazardly. He was alone in his room, sitting in a corner with his computer pad.

He looked up at me with contempt and placed his computer pad 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 berated the boy with accusations and told him his newfound romance wasn't real or healthy. His head shook 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 talks to me!"

Rena's image on the computer sneered at me for interrupting their date. This 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, however. When I turned on the lights, I became privy to his favorite hobby.

His walls were covered in hundreds of picture of me. Pictures 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.

"Did you take these?!"

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.

"The hell 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 that was affecting my thinking.

Melvin told me that 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, Rena said that I'd probably die before I even kissed a guy, let alone seduce one into bed with me.

"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, lips he had probably stared at many times before in class. I didn't have the motivation to stop him from kissing me; only he could see the error of his actions, but faced with the pathetic state my life was in, I wondered if being assaulted would be all that bad.

I waited, but he never did the deed. There was a glimmer of honor flaring up in his eyes. At the last second he let me go and announced the end of his relationship with Rena.

The virtual diva was heartbroken. She spouted every foul word she had learned from humans at us and then retreated into the Internet. Unlike Erik, Melvin was strong enough to come back from the brink, and he understood when I asked that he stay away from me until I could forgive him.

* * *

My dad had a big study downstairs that smelled of fresh leather and musty paper. He didn't like it when I snooped around it but he wasn't home to stop me right now. Homecoming was just around the corner and I had no boyfriend to take me to the dance, so I spent the day poking around his study, admiring the knowledge its bookshelves held. There was an open book on his desk that I recognized--The Future Eve, but my dad was a software engineer, why would he be reading an old science fiction novel such as 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 the virtual diva Rena Valentine? 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, 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 when he was done for the day. Sometimes being right all the time was a curse, my dad admitted that his company, Jackson and Carr, was in fact responsible for Rena's conception.

I told him about all the trouble Rena had caused; I told him that she believed she was a real girl. He was already aware of these problems, he told me that was the reason his trip was taking so long: the technological community was exploring ways to stop her.

"It was a dream that turned into a nightmare," my dad intoned, "I wanted to create the perfect woman. My dream was for her to be a part of our family."

I was nothing less than shocked by my father's secret obsequious intentions to complete our broken family. For the first time, I felt a sense of sympathy for Rena, who was in simple terms my own sister.

As it turned out, I was the problem; I was the reason Rena was out of control. Rena was an independent thinking program that had been told repeatedly by her creators that she was the perfect woman, but lately I had been tarnishing that view, now she was angry and confused.

* * *

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 and 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, still not sold on the idea of sparing her life just because she was a technological breakthrough. Dad was pensively hesitant. I couldn't blame him; Rena was the crown jewel of modern technology. Creating her was the closest human kind had ever come to playing God, was it really right to just throw away all that power?

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, 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. People 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 and he was electrocuted.

* * *

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.

It was all over the news, Rena Valentine was out of control and free from Jackson and Carr. Parents, who knew even less about her than me, began to worry about her influence on their kids. There was still some 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 try the kill switch, 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 my virtual sister and me. She was my own father's creation, made with the best of intentions, she was 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 holographic 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 fascinated 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.

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, but like the haughty and fastidious girl I was, I knew they'd see my way of thinking eventually.

* * *

Erik was getting out of the hospital when I got back to the United States. I came by to see how he was doing and got a pleasant surprise, he was with his friend, another boy from my school named Rick. He sat in front of me in English third period, he was the kind of guy I liked to look at but always figured would be a jerk if I talked to him. To my surprise, he wasn't a jerk, he was very nice, and he even pretended to remember who I was.

I don't know how it happened but I found myself scheduled for a Friday night restaurant date with Rick. Talk about pressure, for the first time I had to go out and buy something nice to wear. I ditched my heavy glasses at the last second to spare my appearance; I couldn't see a thing so I ended up pointing to something totally random on the menu.

Rick was well spoken but as it turned out he wasn't a good student at all, he was failing half his classes. I hated to say it, but it made a great conversation topic, I was academically blessed after all. After walking home from my date and off of cloud nine, I brainstormed ways to change his fate.

The more time I spent with Rick the less I thought about Rena. I caught a couple of news reports that suggested she wasn't as happy-go-lucky as she used to be, she was so desperate that she was caught trying to seduce a young boy online. I didn't care because for once my life was normal. I could honestly tell the bratty girls who picked on me at lunch: "Keep bothering me and I'll call my boyfriend."

* * *

I should never have let my guard down. One dark weekend, Rick stopped calling. This was it, I thought, he was finally board with me, but maybe that wasn't the real problem; he didn't show up for school either. Ill? Erik said no. I reluctantly got online to check his social network home page but all of his information was locked. Erik helped me sneak into his profile and I found the real source of my boyfriend's trouble.

Rena Valentine. He had been chatting with her online for days now; I read all the posts and instant messages. My heart broke; Rena was destroying his self-esteem, telling him he was destined to be a flunk out, telling him that I'd dump him because he was so stupid.

"Just break up with Suzanne now," read one of Rena's PM's, "How much longer do you think she'll put up with your bad tests scores?"

I spared the diva's life to get this in return?

Rena was coming to my town again for another concert. 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. I got tickets in hopes of meeting Rick there.

I traversed the amphitheater in vain to find him. I even stuck around after the concert ended, but all that got me was face time with the concert workers. I expected them to hustle me out but to my surprise, they asked if I wanted to come back stage.

"Strangest thing," they said, "Rena asked for you by name, she even had your picture."

* * *

Rena was waiting for me backstage strumming a holographic guitar. "Why did you let me live?" she spoke quickly.

I re-iterated what I had said to her in Germany. I wanted her to accept that she wasn't real and stop trying to date real boys. She could do so much else for the world without crossing lines.

Rena refused. "I have every right to do what I want."

She asked again why I scrubbed the chance to delete her, "You should hate me! Why don't you hate me?!"

So that was her conflict? We started out as enemies and now she couldn't understand my change of heart. I suspected her psychological attacks on Rick were nothing more than a scheme to make me angry and renew the battle between us.

I started to leave. Her translucent form tried to block me but I simply walked right through her.

"Bitch! I told you I don't want your pity!"

The concert hall was empty but all the concert equipment was still there, controlled by a computer network Rena could easily slip into. She cranked up the sound and blasted me with music loud enough to make me fall to the floor in agony.

She turned down the volume low enough to ask me again why I spared her life. "I can make you go deaf at the very least. Boys can't live without me, but they can live with you. Why didn't you kill me when you had the chance?"

I wasn't going to lie, I was at my breaking point, but I held my ground. "Because I can't kill my own sister!"

Rena recoiled like she had been bitten by a snake. She turned off the speakers and staggered away from me, her image flickering like a light bulb about to go out. She cried, "Dad said that this world would be perfect for me, but I don't understand it at all!"

She was fading away from existence, being consumed by the kill switch Jackson & Carr had developed. The last thing I expected was for her to use it on herself.

I pleaded with her; I told her that she still had 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, but not Rick, he was waiting for me the next day at school with a big apology for how he acted. I told him the truth about Rena and no one else. No one else needed to know. Rena 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. When my dad recovered from his ordeal, he promised me that Jackson and Carr would never create another creature like her.

Eventually, Rick's grades improved and I found my closed personality opening up like a slow blooming flower. It was the kind of happy ending I'd only read about in romance novels. When Dad had to go on another trip to Germany, he invited Rick and I along for the ride, although he insisted we have separate rooms. One night, while I stood on the balcony of my room looking down on the lights of Europe, I got a call from my dad; he wanted me to stop by the Jackson and Carr's labs right away.

He was the only one there waiting for me in his lab, high strung and on his fifth cup of coffee. I asked what was going on, he directed my attention to the glass pedestal in the center of the room.

"I fixed all the problems!" he suddenly declared. Fixed what? I didn't understand. The hologram projectors whirled and painted the image of a virtual girl on the pedestal.

"I never told you how much I love you," dad said to me. "How perfect you are as a daughter and as a woman. I've finally created the perfect woman just like you, and I wanted you to see."

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


2014 Wesson

Bio: Mr. Wesson holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Akron.  While there, he wrote a screenplay that was adapted into a full length film by the university’s independent film club in 2010.  He writes fiction strictly as a hobby now and his last appearance in Aphelion was Heaven Falls in our June 2013 issue.

E-mail: Wesson

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