Companions – Short Story

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I did my fly up and rinsed my hands in the sink. My paper hat was skew-whiff in the mirror. I took it off, parted my hair, repositioned it, then for the fifteenth time checked I hadn’t got any sauce on my shirt. I shook my hands dry as I turned, and through my own interminable bad luck I found myself flicking water over James Dean’s groin.

“Shit, sorry man,” I murmured as I bustled past.

“Ah, it’s nothin’,” he shrugged, undoing his belt and slinking past me into a cubicle.

I left the bathrooms and rejoined the party, slipping between rowdy wide tables laden with empty bottles and low melted candles. The hall stretched on forever. I skirted the dancefloor and a roar of laughter went up somewhere to my right. I turned just in time to see a low flying hotdog twirling through the air towards me; I ducked under it and yelled obscenities over the music. John Belushi sat back down, still holding the bun and smirking, his Host patting him on the back with mirth.

I checked my shirt again, but the sauce had missed me. I couldn’t say the same for poor Whitney, who was dancing slowly in an elegant white dress which now had a greasy bratwurst-shaped stain on the back. I’ll admit, I laughed.

I made it back to my table and sat down heavy on those uncomfortable velvet lined chairs. The décor here is loathsome. It’s that awful, fake, wannabe grandeur you find in places designed for the lower echelons to experience a little ‘class’. I say that as if I’m above it all, but I still come here every year, same office party, same faces. I picked up a bottle of cheap red wine and went to pour myself a glass, thought better of it, and took a slug straight from the neck.

Across from me, Ian from accounts was reclined in his seat spinning some frayed yarn in the attentive ears of Elizabeth Taylor. She was twirling the end of his tie as she listened, her eyes wide and adoring. To look at it you’d think he was the most interesting guy in the world. I knew Ian, a little, and I knew for a fact he’d be talking about tax returns, or auditing, all that stuff he’s crazy for. Elizabeth didn’t seem to care what he talked about.

A lot of American choices this year, I noted. Not really so surprising, there’s a special sort of glamour Stateside that we just never quite nailed over here. I’d seen Brando tonight too, somewhere. He was a regular. People always go for the same choices, year on year. Actor, singers, whatever. Each Christmas it gets a little less exciting, seeing the same beautiful faces drifting around the room. The first time I saw Elvis I cried. Everyone cries when they see Elvis.

A clinking hushed our table, and a couple more near us. Not enough money in the firm to have the whole hall to ourselves, you see, so my boss just pays for a few tables and we have to put up with the racket from the rest of the hall. My boss was standing up now, wine glass and fork in her hand. When she speaks publicly it’s always with this weird phone voice, like she’s trying to hike herself up several social classes. God knows why, because we see her every day. When she got angry her true twang slipped out: thick Brummie.

“Hello, my friends. It’s so good to see so many of you here.”

I snorted but managed to wrangle it into a cough before too many heads turned. Jesus, she’d got worse this year. She sounded like a pissed American doing an impression of the Queen. I stifled another laugh, washed it down with cheap wine. Her Companion was stood by her side, gazing up in admiration. It was Diana again this year. It was always Diana.

“Another year is behind us, and I am proud to say that Sternum and Co. has had another excellent twelve months. It’s all down to your fabulous efforts, and I just want to say, we couldn’t do it without you. I’d especially like to address our sales team. I know it can be a slog making those calls every day. I started where you are now, so I know the feeling, trust me!”

Laughter. Ugh. Someone slapped me on the back, a bit too hard, and I raised my bottle. The rest of the sales team were cheering and leaping around, coked off their tits, their Companions going mental alongside. It’s a little depressing watching Michael Jackson excitedly celebrating sales targets in a dining hall in Sheffield.

“Your dedication is what keeps Sternum ticking over. So I dedicate this toast to the whole team. Here’s to another fantastic year!”

Prosecco, jubilations.

There aren’t many offices that still throw this kind of party, these days. They were all the rage once, the pinnacle of style, but of course that meant they were blindingly expensive, too. When the technology first became available, the tabloids were packed with images of bankers and footballers stumbling out of night clubs arm in arm with Monroes and Hepburns and Capones and whichever dead member of the glitterati was in fashion at the time.

It was actually a fairly simple transition to this from chat bots. A few decades back, people started developing simple computer programmes that answered with the persona of a dead celebrity. You’d type questions to them, and get some pithy response referencing the character’s body of work, or some choice lyrics. Developers ran with this idea, and fleshed the bots out into a full blown AI based on a deceased celebrity, pieced together from studying thousands of hours of TV, radio and magazine interviews. Every response, every personality quirk carefully mapped out and uploaded into these online chat bots.

Once the bots had become convincingly sentient, business types decided there could be money in this. With some twisted process I don’t want to think about, they scraped every last scrap of detail held in the internet about each celebrity, and collated it. Think ‘big data’, but based around one person at a time. Map it out, and you can predict everything: how they walk, how they laugh, how they fuck. Take all that data and shove it into the head of a glorified Madame Tussauds waxwork, and watch it walk about, being witty and iconic and everything you always dreamed of.

Speaking of which, where the hell was my Companion? I’d not seen him for an hour. I was sitting there alone like the biggest loser at a convention for… well, losers. The rest of the office didn’t see it that way. They loved it. Popping corks and covering each other in foam, chest bumping and ego fluffing. There wasn’t much in the way of conversation. No one chooses their Companion for the chatter.

I threw back some more wine and invited my bottle to dance. We took to the tiles and I swigged, swaying in time to the music. A shimmy here, a shuffle there, wondering if the odd movements I was making might look vaguely attractive to any members of the opposite sex. I felt a nagging desire to talk to a girl, but no one would catch my eye. You can’t blame them. Even with my piss on his trousers, James Dean was a hundred times better looking than me. All eyes were on him and his Host, a pouting brunette in a sapphire dress. They danced slowly, pressed close.

There’s an archaic saying that goes something like ‘never meet your heroes’.  It’s redundant. Meet them all you like, they’ll be consistently perfect. The big data waxworks, Companions, were immediately put up for hire – at extortionate rates, of course. Patrons hire them for an evening, and the Companion is wired to be completely loyal and attentive. Every joke you make is hilarious, every yawnsome anecdote you spin is riveting.

On the dance floor I realised I was slowly gathering curious looks. I was the only one alone. I skulked off to the bar, taking a seat between Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. They were both leering at the barmaid and nursing tumblers of whiskey. These guys were two older models. The classics. You have your newer editions, your Kurt Cobains and your Amy Winehouses, and you have your originals. Some contract law somewhere states the media personality has to have been deceased for X amount of years before you can recreate them, and so every few years a new model comes out. Bowie’ll be any year now. I’m looking forward to that.

Bogart and Gable were looking old. Not human old, but old like a typewriter looks when you put it next to a laptop. I ordered a beer to go alongside my now half empty wine bottle, and said hello to both gents. As one, they acknowledged me with a tip of their hats.

The head of HR, Deborah something, approached the bar and perched on the stool to Bogart’s left. She took a cigarette out of her purse, and the old dog’s lighter was underneath it before it had even reached her lips. I swear everyone smokes these days, now cancer is a thing of the past. It’s fine, I suppose, it’s just the smell I can’t stand. Sticks to your clothes, gets everywhere.

Bogart flicked his light shut, and tucked it away inside his jacket pocket. A second later he whipped it out again, and held it under Deborah’s cigarette once more. She politely told him it was already lit. Bogart looked at it, perplexed, apologised profusely, and put the light back in his jacket.

The oldest models are the glitchiest, as you’d expect. They can be prone to getting caught in dialogue circles, asking the same four questions endlessly. Other times they can crash when faced with wildly new surroundings. Take Buddy Holly to a techno rave and watch him freak out and start speaking binary. There’s nothing in their collected personality bytes to tell them how to deal with it. Newer models have ironed out this issue by altering the algorithms to allow for a degree of learning, and the gaining of new experiences – this is wiped clean after the end of the evening, of course. If they learned too much, their personalities could change entirely. No good to anyone, after that. For some reason, witnessing Billie Holiday attempt to reinvent herself as a drum’n’bass DJ kind of dims her allure.

I left the old cats at the bar and drifted off through the party. A few Hosts were beginning to slip away with their Companions. Officially you’re not meant to sleep with them, but everyone does. They gave them genitals when they built them, for God’s sake. I’ve never done it. I’m not morally against it, I just… I don’t know. I kissed one, once. Janis Joplin. You can tell it’s all just silicone and clockwork. I saw Hendrix striding out of the hall hand in hand with a friend of mine, Ruth. She’s nice. She has a boyfriend, but somehow, people don’t see sex with a Companion as cheating. At least, some people don’t. It can get messy.

Where the hell had my guy got to? I was floating around the party like an old plastic bag, except with considerably less sex appeal. I dropped back down into my seat and uncorked another bottle. The insufferable sales gang, my colleagues, had snuck off somewhere, most likely the toilets for more Charlie. Belushi was notably absent too. As was Monroe.

Finally, the chair next to me was pulled out by a rough, tanned pair of hands. My Companion sighed contentedly as he sat down, and swung two large black jackboots on the table.

“And just where have you been?”

Che Guevara sucked on his cigar and blew smoke in the air. He cocked his head at me, and raised an eyebrow.

“Que?”

Not a word of English. That’s what I get for trying to be a smart arse.

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