A high school girl clashes with an unstable, virtual anime diva who thinks she is the perfect woman.
Author's Note: Thank you for reading
by Branden Szabo
I grew up in a culture dominated by technology. Although the world of 2051 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 met up after school or hung out at shopping malls on weekends, all your social needs were one click 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 for all that. My mother left when I was young and my dad was a very busy software engineer for a company called Jackson and Carr, always away on long business trips.
If there was one person who could sum up the world I lived in, it was Rena Valentine. Except she wasn’t a person, she was a virtual pop idol with artificial intelligence, able to live only online. If she wanted to walk reality she needed hologram projectors to paint her image. You couldn’t ignore her; she was in commercials, soap operas, performing in concerts and almost everything in between. Her design was rooted in Japanese anime giving her the artistic and attractive features anyone could admire. Her hair was glossy purple; her big eyes had irises of green.
I didn’t like her. She was 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 marketing gimmick. I recalled a French novel I read some time ago called “The Future Eve”; it was about creating the perfect mechanical woman, free of the usual female vices. I wondered what life would be like if I was a robot created by men, 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 deep her feelings ran.
I’d hear the boys in my high school talk about how cool and pretty she was. While online, she was just like any other person able to chat and send emails, as long as she thought it was worth her time. I, like all the other girls, lamented that none of the boys ever asked us out. Teenage boys 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 stormy night. He was one of the cool kids in school; he only went by his last name: Langley. While I was over he didn’t talk much about himself, probably because I was simply the smart girl there to help pass his next test. I did know a little about his home life though, like my family his mother had divorced his dad. 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 message from Rena Valentine along with a portfolio filled with pornographic pictures of herself. They were unsettling and violent, the kind of pictures you’d expect a misogynist to enjoy.
So this was how eager she was to make people happy? I confronted Langley about the pictures; he told me Rena was his girlfriend and that he asked her to send him the 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 at the female race, 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 scolded him, but that only drove the knife in deeper.
“You’re right, I’m sick!” he yelled through the tears. He ran out into the wind and rain, I tried to follow but he was struck by a speeding car on the street.
After calling an ambulance I ran home scared and angry at myself. My dad was well off and wanted only the best for me, but the big fancy house he bought was nothing but a dusting chore since he was never home. I had seen the dark side of my generation today, the side that buried it’s 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. My frustration began to bleed through after remembering what happened to Langley. I asked why she let Langley do what he did, which prompted a harsh response, “You think Langley is sick don’t you? Abusing me made him feel better about himself; I was trying to help him!”
“He needs a therapist!” I retorted, as a woman myself I could never agree that encouraging Langley’s habit was a good thing.
Rena came back hard and hung up, “Because of you he got hurt! Stay away from my boyfriends!”
Boyfriends? Rena, the computer animated anime diva really did 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 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 her concerts online and analyzed the talk show interviews on daytime television. Her website was www.cutestidolever.com, God, how fluffy was that? I caught her telling a concert crowd that she was looking for a boyfriend; apparently Langley was used up old news to her already.
I stayed up all night calling a radio station trying to win backstage passes to a Rena concert coming to my town. It was fascinating to see; Rena’s holographic form sang, danced and played the guitar amid a swirl of lights.
“Oh, ho, ho,” she laughed when I came backstage, “Save me from my adoring fan--” She saw it was me and became far less pleasant, “Or save me from you rather.”
I wasn’t expecting her to listen when I warned her to stay away from my classmates.
I asked who created her.
“I can’t tell you,” she said while re-tying 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 boomed. She was so close 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 was going to remove her from pop culture.
“Be careful what you wish for dear,” said with a sinister smile.
At the time I didn’t know what she meant when she said that. A couple days later while walking to school I bumped into a classmate from second period named Melvin. The unfortunate name his parents stuck him with described him perfectly, he was a short one with shaggy hair and a poor grasp of popular fashion. He wanted to walk me to school but I suspected it was just an excuse to get close to me.
“G-Go out with me,” he finally said while blushing.
I anticipated that our encounter would come to this, so I had a response prepared. I honestly did not find him attractive so I turned him down. This 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 anyone 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. 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. During lunch I got a call from my father, his latest trip was only supposed to last a week but now it looked like it could be a month. A whole month 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. Whatever, I hung up on him.
It took me a while to pull Melvin’s friends away from their smart phones but once I did I got the location of his house. His parents were gone and his door was open, so I walked in haphazardly. His room was dark due to the blinds being drawn. He was there, sitting alone 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 the screen. It was Rena. Her new boyfriend was Melvin; it must have happened after I rejected him. I berated the boy with accusations and told him his new found 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. 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… 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, but he didn’t intend to take it so far.
“And you rejected him,” said Rena, “You’re cruel. But I’m not.”
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. That’s when Melvin fought back.
“What right do you have to judge? You don’t have a boyfriend because you’re so bossy! I see you in class, you’re a teacher’s pet with no friends and you think you can tell us all what’s right and wrong.”
Thewords 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 rich girl that no one liked. It hurt. I collapsed to my knees and began to cry.
Rena, like some kind of villainous monkey, kept chiding Melvin on to say more. But he was done with talking; he 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. I waited. He never kissed me. 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 Langley, 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 stained wood. He didn’t like it when I hung out there but he wasn’t home. Homecoming was just around the corner and I had no boyfriend to take me to the dance, so I spent the day poking around the study, admiring the knowledge each bookshelf held. There was one book out on his desk; I recognized the title as “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 a 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 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, 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 got done for the day. I told him about all the trouble Rena had caused, I told him she believed she was real and how she abused the boys she met. To my surprise he already knew all about it, in fact the whole reason his trip was taking so long was because everyone was trying to find a way to stop her.
“It was a dream that turned into a nightmare,” my dad said, “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 good intentions. For the first time, I felt a sense of sympathy for Rena, who was in simple terms my own sister.
Rena was an independent thinking program who had been told over and over again 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 and Carr was trying to get the diva under control again. There was a huge white room filled with computers and the brightest minds America and Europe had offer. Rena existed online, but not without Jackson and Carr’s servers. And she was smart enough to know that if she wanted freedom she needed to get off those servers.
“I think you should shut Rena down,” I said, still not sold on sparing her because she was my sister. Dad emanated hesitation, 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 their systems. Like the drama queen she was, Rena wined and moaned and wondered why everyone was trying to shut her down.
“You said I was the perfect woman!” Her anime face was contorted with rage, “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? Well then. I don’t need you anymore daddy!”
All of the computer screens in the room filled with gibberish and the lights went crazy. She was inside the building’s computer network and tearing everything up like it was teddy bear stuffing. The fire alarms went off and water rained down on everything, I saw sensitive computer equipment blow up and ignite. 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 sure a certain other person didn’t live. 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 watching us.
Turns out Rena Valentine had a kill switch but development was cancelled over the fear of it being used by a rogue employee to gain some leverage. I met with the few software engineers who had agreed to give the kill switch a try, as their boss’s daughter I had the final say in everything. I had no idea if Rena’s poison was complete enough to work but this was my only chance.
Rena quickly jumped into our computers and projected her holographic image before us. There was nothing she could do; we had already uploaded 32 gigabytes of destruction into her program.
“You’ll do anything to kill me!” she stabbed a finger at me, “Fine! I hope the whole world hates you for this!”
Her image began to flicker and fade out, like the fading heartbeat of a real person.
For only a second I reflected on everything that had happened with the girl. 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 stroked her cheek with my hand even though she couldn’t feel it, “Real girls forgive each other.”
I was fascinated with the 180 degree turn my feelings made but I stood by them. If Rena wanted to be real, I needed to show her what it meant to be real.
Rena pulled 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 girl I was, I knew they’d see my way of thinking eventually.
Langley 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 too cool for his first name, Remington. He always wore a white leather jacket and sat in front of me in English, he was the kind of guy I liked to look at but I always figured he’d be a jerk if I talked to him. To my surprise he wasn’t, he was very nice; he even pretended to know me.
Langley was going to be alright and I don’t know how it happened but I found myself scheduled for a Friday night restaurant date with Remington. Talk about pressure, I had to go out and buy something nice to wear. When we got together, I ditched my heavy glasses at the last second. I couldn’t see a thing so I ended up pointing to something random on the menu and hoping it was good.
Remington was well spoken but 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 our date and off of cloud nine, I brainstormed ways to help him study. The more days I spent with Remington 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 there was even a report about her trying to seduce a young boy online. I didn’t care because I was doing fine; 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, Remington stopped calling me. 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. Sick? Langley said no. I reluctantly got online to check his social network home page but all of his information was locked. Langley helped me disarm all his security settings and I found the real source Remington’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 her now,” read one of Rena’s messages, “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; she contacted the amphitheater and set everything up herself; all the sponsors had to do was collect money. Unlike most talent Rena didn’t need an income. I got tickets for myself and hoped that I could run into Remington.
I traversed the amphitheater but couldn’t 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, “After the concert Rena asked for you by name, she even had your picture.”
Rena was waiting for me backstage strumming a holographic guitar. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I for one wanted to ask about Remington but she cut me off, “Why did you let me live?”
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, people love her; she could interact with her fans 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 the change of heart. I suspected her psychological attacks on Remington were nothing more than a scheme to get me angry.
I started to leave. Her translucent form tried to cut me off but I simply walked through her.
“I told you I don’t want your pity!”
The concert hall was empty but all the amplifiers and speakers were 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 hurt my ears. She made it louder and louder, I fell to the floor in pain. There was a lull in the torture as Rena asked again why I let her live.
“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?”
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!”
It was like Rena had been bitten by a snake; she jumped back and turned off the speakers. For a moment I didn’t know what she would do, she was capable of anything. Her image began to flicker and shake, I had to ask what was happening.
“Dad said that this world would be perfect for me, but I don’t understand it one bit! If you won’t destroy me, I will!”
She was fading away from existence, being consumed by the kill switch Jackson and Carr had made. The last thing I expected was for her to activate it herself. I pleaded with her; I told her that she still had a chance to figure the world out.
“No…I don’t,” she told me with tears in her eyes. The most advanced AI in the world disappeared before my eyes. I never got the chance to tell her she wasn’t alone. None of us understood this world.
I was happy to see Remington waiting for me when I went to school the next day. Rena’s disappearance had made the news and crushed many a heart in my school. I told Remington the truth and no one else. No one 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 computer pad screen. My dad recovered and promised me Jackson and Carr would never create another Rena.
Eventually, Remington’s grades improved and I found my 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 Remington and I along for the ride, although he insisted I have my own room. One night I was standing out on my room’s balcony looking down on the lights of Europe when I got a call from my dad, he wanted me to stop by Jackson and Carr’s building right away.
It was so late that nobody was there but my dad, high strung and on his fifth cup of coffee. I asked what was going on and he directed my attention to the glass pedestal in the center of the computer lab.
“I fixed all the problems!” he said in such a scary tone. Fixed what? I didn’t understand. The hologram projectors in the room whirled and created the image of a virtual girl on the pedestal. My blood ran cold. Dad ranted and raved, saying that this new virtual diva he created wouldn’t be defective like Rena.
“This…this is the perfect woman!” he declared.
I was staring at another holographic diva with the same anime design as Rena. Only this time she looked exactly like me.