Deep Fake

by Jared Sinclair

On weekday mornings the Safespace leadership team gathers in an airy conference room for triage. It’s usually forgettable stuff, scaling issues with a server cluster or the homepage choking on an error, but today’s different. Ralgo, the founder and CEO of Safespace, mounts the dais and says there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is Vencent, our senior Distressing Content Moderator, jumped off a balcony in the rotunda and burst open on a foosball table. The good news is Vencent’s replacement is already lined up so none of our deadlines will slip.

The news of Vencent’s suicide lands on the leadership team in uneven ways. Glarry is sobbing with Aimie in the Quality Assurance pit, grieving the loss of their Borg LARPing comrade. Stavros in Image Analysis says nothing, dons headphones and resumes tweaking the scrotal recognition model. As for me, I suspect I’m in for a reaming when Ralgo tells me to meet him in the Privacy Cylinder.

Vencent’s death marks the third time I’ve lost a Distressing Content Moderator in the last eighteen months. The previous one flung himself in front of the Palo Alto BART, and the one before that self-immolated at the annual company acid trip, taking an investor’s dog with her. I thought I’d never stop being the butt of the What’s your burn rate? wisecracks. Content moderation is a rough job, don’t get me wrong. A moderator has to sit in front of a grid of displays all day, double-checking the media that our A.I. flags as too disgusting, incendiary, or violent for human consumption. There’s gonna be some turnover. But the spate of suicides is a big problem for me personally because I’m the corporate Vice President of Spiritual Health and, at least on paper, I’m supposed to be the load-bearing wall that keeps morale from caving so badly.

Ralgo seals the red anodized walls of the Privacy Cylinder around the two of us and tears into me. He says it would be cheaper to install jumper nets in the rotunda than it would be to keep me on staff another six months. He wants to see Vencent’s spiritual performance review notes. I tell him I don’t have any. I’ve stopped taking notes because the distraction interferes with intersoul harmonics. Oh boy, does he ever not like hearing that.

“W. T. Fuck?” he says. “I’ve got senators crawling up my ass over these suicides, and the investors are spooked another public incident will tank the valuation. If they hear about Vencent and come snooping and we don’t have a liability paper trail, we’re one-hundred percent fucked. Do you hear me? Eternally. By thorny cocks.”

I vow that I will recommit myself to diligent notekeeping and he says he’ll believe it when he sees it. I ask him what he meant during standup RE: the good news about Vencent’s replacement.

“About that,” he says. “I’ve hired a Deep Phakes consultant to replace Vencent. And don’t get pissy that I didn’t loop you into the candidate selection process, there wasn’t one. Their salespeople won’t allow it.”

The instant I hear Ralgo mention Deep Phakes I realize why we’re having this conversation in the Privacy Cylinder and not in the breezeway he uses for public humiliation. Deep Phakes is one of the darkest secrets in the Valley. You’ll never hear anyone admit publicly they’re working with Deep Phakes. What they do isn’t entirely legal, and for my money it’s morally fuzzy, but their product is legendary. A Deep Phake shows up at your office a nameless nonentity of programmable meatware, unencumbered by personality or desire. They’ll become anyone you want, utterly and wholly. I’ve heard they’ll even swap genders if you spring for the surcharge.

Ralgo says we should count our blessings that Vencent offed himself on company property, out of the reach of journalists, and that all the witnesses are on the payroll.

“It needs to be like Vencent never jumped off that balcony,” Ralgo says.

“I’m not sure I get it,” I say.

“I’m saying the Deep Phake is New Vencent. We dump him in the same cubicle, have him pick up wherever Old Vencent left off. He’s got to become Vencent, sans, obviously, the suicidal tendencies.”

“Obviously,” I echo, and he gives me a look that says don’t be cute, fuckwad.

“Against my better judgement,” he says, “I’m putting you in charge of New Vencent’s onboarding. Don’t make me regret it.”

We emerge from the Privacy Cylinder and Ralgo grabs a compostable dry erase marker and scribbles NEW VENCENT on the Kanban board over the same column of post-its that Old Vencent had been assigned.

| break; |

I’m in the Bio-Needs Rotunda for a carb-hit from a cereal milk latte. Environment Beautification is here scrubbing Old Vencent’s guts off the foosball table with balsa toothbrushes from the commissary. When I pick up my drink I smile extra hard at the barista because, despite the circumstances, I’m feeling pretty upbeat. New Vencent will arrive this afternoon. Not to brag, but he’s in for a real treat, as far as onboarding is concerned. Onboarding is one of my core skills. Culture fit is the whole ballgame. You won’t achieve excellence here if you aren’t jacked into our modes of operation at a cerebral level. It starts with Radical Openness training. Our philosophy is the observable universe is flooded with countless invisible new ideas whirling past at every moment. All it takes is a perpetual state of openness to recognize those ideas and actualize them as business opportunities. Here’s one right now: look how Old Vencent’s gut stains are now entirely bleached away. We could monetize that.

The doorperson at the main desk (his name is Chello, or something) rings me and says, “Excuse me, sir, there is a… human here to see you.” I tell him I’ll be right down. The Deep Phakes guy is in the lobby and, I swear to the Unbearably Silent God, he looks like an unboxing ViewTuber just peeled the shrinkwrap off a factory-fresh human. All of his head and body hair, except for his eyelashes, has been waxed off. He’s dressed in a burlap turtle neck and burlap slacks — a meat canvas stretched, stapled, and ready to be painted. But none of this is as striking as the fact that his face is a pixel-perfect match for Old Vencent’s, down to the dimples.

“Jai Guru Developer,” I say, pressing my hands together.

He bows and says, “This vessel will have been pleased to meet you,” then extends a handshake in my direction like a sensory organ.

“Shall we walk?,” I ask. “Are you thirsty? Would you like some water? We dredged it from the koi pond this morning.”

“Do you wish for this vessel to be thirsty?” he asks.

Wow.

“Let’s say, at least provisionally, that you’re comfortable, but you’re thirsty. We’ll start from th—“

He interrupts, “This vessel would like a drink.”

I dunk one of our Safespace-branded bamboo drinking bowls in the pond water barrel and pass it to him. He gulps it between both hands.

“Does this vessel have a Christian name and, or, a family name?”

I can’t remember Old Vencent’s last name, so I say his name is Vencent. Just Vencent. Minimum viable name.

“Am I male or female?”

“You’re a dude,” I say.

“Fascinating,” he says.

We stroll in the rock garden that wends around the campus. I love it out here. In my customary robe and sandals I can almost forget that I’m in San Jose and not wandering through some holy desert oasis. At one end of the property the garden overlooks an abandoned billboard. We sit and smoke grass and I do my spiel on Radical Openness. I’ve got it down to a tight ten. Efficiency is God in the Valley. There are fifteen vertical panels on the billboard, and all but three are blank. There’s a saucy leg from a defunct nudie bar, the AL from HELL IS REAL, and a cross-section of a Big Mac.

“What does this billboard advertise?” I ask him.

This is the part where most new hires say sex, or God, or burgers, or just shrug their shoulders. I have a cleverly crafted answer but New Vencent beats me to the punch.

“Everything,” he says. “It advertises everything: this company, this campus, the grasshoppers that flit across it, oxidation, the Valley, you, this vessel you call Vencent. Every last thing. Sex and God and burgers, naturally, but only because they belong to the category ‘everything.’ Those twelve empty panels are not empty, they are part of the landscape. A capillary action draws the whole planet into them. Nothing is excluded.”

“And all of it is for sale,” I say, anxiously jealous to get in my quippy two-cents and justify my paycheck.

We keep walking and I tell him about Old Vencent, about his demeanor and his hobbies which, as far as I know, were limited exclusively to Star Trek LARPing as a Borg assimilant. I tell him that Old Vencent died suddenly, but I leave out the specifics of his leap from the rotunda balcony, and any other details that might lead the conversation down that blood-soaked path. He’s a fantastic listener. The wind whips the burlap against his chest and I can’t help noticing he’s shredded. Sigh.

We complete the circuit and are back at the main desk.

“Is there anything else I can do to help you get started?” I ask.

“It would be helpful to spend the night in Old Vencent’s cubicle, with your consent. During ego-overwrite training, this vessel learned a suite of behavioral algorithms that help one embody a deceased template more accurately.”

I tell him that’s A-OK with me.

“Resistance is futile,” he says monotonically, with a wink, then plods away making wet robot noises with his mouth.

| continue; |

After Openness Training, new hires experience Desensitization. The first module is When Wildlife Attacks!, a composite audio recording of the supposed final moments of real people being eaten alive by real wildlife. I’ve never heard it myself. I have new hires listen to it in the Privacy Cylinder. I jot down the duration of each session. Few make it to the end of the disc in a single sitting. A number of trainees have quit on the spot during Track 07: Webelo Scout. Tomorrow morning it’ll be New Vencent’s turn. I like to be prepared, so in the evening I lay out the usual gear: headphones and an old disc player, some facial tissue and emesis bags for bodily fluids, and a syringe of Ativan for severe panic attacks. Then I wait for the locker rooms to clear before changing out of my robe and sandals and into street clothes.

Tonight’s the night of my weekly Unfuckables Anonymous meeting, a support group for hopelessly celibate men. We meet in the basement of Cheesus H. Crust, a pizza joint that used to be a little cathedral. There are several new faces here tonight, so the group secretary asks some regulars to share their stories.

“Hi ny nane is Thillit,” says Phillip, one of the old-timers. There’s a pink void in the middle of his face where a nose and lips should be. “And I’n unthuckadle.”

“Hi Phillip,” the room says in unison, “We’re unfuckable, too.”

Phillip is a retired mainframe programmer. He’s got emphysema from an eighty pack-year habit and has to wheel an oxygen tank around with him wherever he goes. Some years ago his nose and mouth caught fire when he lit a cigarette and forgot to take off his nasal cannula. That pumpkin-carved face is all the surgeons could leave him.

“A coudle days ago I asked this checkout lady at Thry’s why aren’t there any stars,” Phillip continues, “and she didn’t say anything, so then I said it’s decause they’re in your eyes, and then I touched her eldow and she started screaning and I dolted out of there huthing. I had to turn ny cannula ut to a hundred. I know I screwed ut guys. I know I droke Rule Nunder Two: No Touching. I’n sorry, dut I couldn’t stot nyselth. She looked just like Nary Jane thron dack when I worked at DEC. You guys know how it is. I hathen’t deen touched dy a wonan in twenty years. I’n so lonely.”

Tears roll down his cheek bones and disappear into his pink void. With labored breathing, he waddles over to the group secretary to trade his twelve-months Fate Acceptance Token for a first-timer’s token. We give him a round of consolation applause, and he ups the flow from his oxygen tank.

Now it’s my turn. I tell the group my name is Tucker (it’s not) and that some years ago I volunteered for human trials with a startup called HARDwear. They were developing a Bluetooth-controlled portable orifice that you could wear under your pants all day. A tiny software bug, an unintentional jump from metric to imperial, caused the device to clamp down on my privates. By the time the ER docs pried the thing off, the loss of oxygen was too severe. Now all I have between my legs is a mangled lump.

“Sometimes I get phantom hard-ons,” I say, “and I have to pretend to blow my nose to hide that I’m crying.”

“At least you hath a nose,” Phillip says, flexing the rim of his pink void, his version of a wry smile. We both laugh at ourselves and the room applauds us. Once again I feel the transient weekly relief of my secret burden being lifted.

The door at the top of the basement stairs makes the sound it makes when someone leaves.

| sleep(1); |

In the morning I roust New Vencent out from under Old Vencent’s desk to grab some breakfast in the rotunda. We sit cross-legged in one of the nourishment nooks and sip lentil broth.

“Whom does this vessel serve?” he asks. “You?”

“No, you report directly to Ralgo, our CEO, as do the rest of us. I’m here only to help you on your personal journey.”

“Tell me about Ralgo,” he says gently.

I tell him Ralgo became a millionaire at fourteen when he invented the Christian Internet. He reskinned some dial-up software with images of Christ and the Apostles chilling in a computer lab, and redirected porn sites to pages of Bible verses. He sold the company to the Southern Baptist Convention for eight-figures and dropped out of school. After that he spent a few years in Baja dropping acid and reprogramming land survey drones to identify nude beaches and SWAT raids. Then one day he had the idea for Safespace, a scalable way for other websites to sanitize their social media feeds and comment sections. It was gold. The rest is history.

New Vencent sips his broth, seemingly lost in reflection.

“Who decides what is clean and what is unclean?” he asks.

“You do,” I say. “Well, it’s not entirely you. We have server farms on five continents that run pattern recognition on a firehose of digital material. But you are the final arbiter that monitors the performance of the filters.”

New Vencent says nothing for a while. He turns his face up toward the expansive glass roof of the rotunda six floors above us, admiring the five-hundred-year-old live ginkgo tree suspended impressively in the air beneath it, its roots encased in a labyrinth of form-fitting polymer water feeders.

“There must be an unthinkably vast amount of distressing content,” he wonders aloud.

“I’ll show you.”

At the center of the Safespace campus there’s a brutalist stone archway that leads to a cavernous underground structure. I lead New Vencent through the archway and down hundreds of chiseled stone steps. Officially this area is designated the Content Moderation Center, but among the veterans here it goes by a more colorful name.

“Welcome to The Rectum,” I say to New Vencent as I wave my arm toward the massive spherical chamber ahead of us. An orb of high definition projectors dangles in mid air at the end of a bundle of cables, illuminating every curved surface of the dome above us with the vilest of the vile, a real-time feed of flagged content, in living color. A ring of workstations occupies a hollowed-out space in the center of the room. A dozen junior moderators are seated in it, busy at the helm. There’s so little light down in the ring it’s hard to tell who’s speaking to whom.

“That’s not an anus.”

“The filter matched on it. It’s an anus.”

“That’s a baked cranberry lodged in a muffin.”

“Maybe it’s a cloaca.”

“It’s an anus. Stavros approved the revised model last week.”

“Who posted the photo?”

“I don’t have sufficient permissions.”

“One sec.”

“The photo came from a verified account.”

“It says here March is Muffin Madness Month.”

“Okay, so it’s Betty Crocker’s anus.”

“I told you it was a cranberry.”

“Who’s going to tell Stavros he deployed a cranberry muffin filter?”

“Who’s gonna check the cranberry muffins in the rotunda for Stavros-shaped dick holes?”

“What’s a cloaca?”

“The wookie kid from the Holiday Special?”

“A bird’s anus.”

“Why do we need more than one word for anuses?”

“Heads up, folks, the guru’s here.”

“Are they replacing Vencent?”

“Vencent. Jesus.”

“Please remain seated, fellow travelers,” I tell the group. “We don’t wish to disturb your important work more than is minimally necessary. I want you to meet someone. You’ve met him before, but today you’ll meet him again. Let’s share warm greetings with our new old friend Vencent.”

New Vencent spreads his arms open.

“Did they dig him up and paint him?” one of the junior moderators says.

“This vessel is prepared to make you all feel comfortable,” New Vencent says in a calming voice, “by any means necessary. There is a process. Let us not think of it as learning but, rather, remembering. This vessel trusts you all to help it remember how to be the one you called Vencent.”

They grow silent. One sticks out his lower lip and gives a nod that says: alright, alright. Most of them just sink quietly into their Aeron chairs. One says, “Rad, it’s Vencent 2.0.”

Suddenly a klaxon blares. The junior moderators scatter back to their workstations like blown leaves.

“We have a DEFCON 1 Trigger Warning.”

“It’s the Majority Whip’s personal account.”

“Again?”

“Fuck me.”

“Bring it up on Hemisphere Two.”

The grid of text and imagery on one half of the projection dome reflows to make room for an enlarged animated GIF of what appears to be an infant being impaled through the stomach on a sharpened Fisher Price ring stacker. Blood and fluid gush out of its wounds.

“Is this real?”

“Artifact analysis says this is not computationally generated.”

“It’s real?”

“Holy Christ.”

“How can that be real?”

“It’s fucking real.”

One of the moderators vomits into an emesis bag while another holds back her hair.

“Do we have a revised protocol for elected officials?”

“It’s still in draft.”

“Do we follow the draft version or the current version?”

“Fuck if I know.”

They look at me, the ranking employee in the chamber. My face betrays me. I haven’t got a clue what we’re supposed to do.

All eyes turn toward New Vencent. He soaks up the attention. If he’s experiencing any emotion, it isn’t visible to the rest of us. After a moment he steps down into the ring.

“Let us not be hasty,” New Vencent says. “One always has more time to respond than it seems. You there, if you would be so kind, please help our friend who is suffering from nausea get some fresh air. My friends here will show me the current protocol.”

He places his hands on the shoulders of two moderators. They open a PDF document of a workflow diagram and begin following it aloud via back-and-forth.

“Was the content in question posted to a website operated by one of our Platinum Certified customers?”

“Yes, it’s on Tooter.”

“Does the elected official serve in a legislative, executive, or judicial branch?”

“Legislative.”

“Does the elected official serve at the federal, state, or local level?”

“Federal.”

“Has the elected official served more than one term in their current office?”

“Hold on, I’m confirming. Wikipedia says he’s on his fifth term.”

“Is the official a woman, a person of color, or from any other historically underrepresented group?”

“No, he’s a cis white dude.”

“Has the official purchased any investment securities in Safespace Incorporated?”

“Oh most definitely.”

“Is the content what is colloquially referred to as a ‘dick-pic’?”

“God I hope not.”

“It says to augment the asset with a content warning watermark, but otherwise leave it unperturbed.”

They look up at New Vencent whose expressionless face radiates the unmistakable peace of the Big Mind attaining victory over the Small Mind. I’m lucky that Ralgo didn’t hire that zenned-out manmuffin to replace me.

“Let us then watermark the asset,” New Vencent says with a smile.

A moderator clicks a button. There’s a momentary blip, then the animated image reappears on Hemisphere Two. In translucent white font the words DISTRESSING CONTENT have been superimposed over a small lifeless body being impaled endlessly on a yellow plastic rod.

No one speaks. All eyes are fixed on New Vencent.

“To the letter, my friends,” he says. “Well done.”

He claps, and the rest of us join him in a round of applause.

| break; |

A week later everyone has to work from home because a self-driving heavy hauler veered off course, taking out some parking lot shrubbery and a pedestrian before plowing a cartoon hole through a structural wall of the Safespace headquarters. While we wait for repairs and inspections to complete, it’s all video conferencing and chat messages. It’s a real bitch for a corporate spiritual advisor like yours truly to be expected to achieve peak soulbonding at three megabits per second. It is what it is.

My next one-on-one is with Stavros from Image Analysis.

“So what’s on your mind?” I ask.

Stavros’ end of the call is spotty.

“…myself,” he says.

“Can you please repeat that?”

“I’m going… myself.”

“Can you try a different mic maybe?”

“…my screen,” he says, then switches his end of the call from a selfie cam to a screenshare of a text editor. In four-hundred point Impact it reads I’M GOING TO KILL MYSELF.

“Can… my screen?” he asks.

“Yes, I can see it, and I’m sorry to hear that. Have you made any plans as to how you’re going to do it?”

I BOUGHT A GUN.

“I see. What brought this on?”

EVERY DAY IT’S SCROTUMS AND ABORTED FETUSES. LYNCHINGS. NAZIS MISSIONARY-FUCKING ON CAPITOL STEPS. FACES IN A MUDSLIDE. DEATH AND HATE. HATE AND DEATH.

“I understand. This job is never easy, is it? We’re at the receiving end of the whole world’s shit, and that firehose is pointed right at you. That must be exhausting.”

CHECK THIS OUT.

He switches to a command line prompt and executes a script. A couple hundred lines of standard output cascade down in green text on solid black. Moments later, every device in my apartment starts going off with lock screen notifications. I open my Tooter app and I see Stavros has somehow managed to replace the contents of the entire feed with the real-time feed of flagged content flowing through Safespace’s filter farms. I go to ViewTube and it’s the same thing. I check all of our Platinum Certified customer’s websites. It’s everywhere.

LOGGING OFF.

Stavros stops sharing his screen and swaps back to the selfie cam. He slides his mouth over the muzzle of a double-barrel and blood spatters on the camera. I can’t see him anymore.

I open the company’s chat app and I see that Ralgo has sent an urgent message to the entire leadership team demanding an immediate all-hands triage at headquarters. He says to hell with the structural damage inspections and asks if we want to keep our jobs. In an hour we’ve all managed to dodge traffic and arrive. Ralgo has us gather underground in the Rectum.

“Where’s Stavros?” Ralgo asks.

He looks at me and I shake my head no. He shouts obscenities and hurls a chair. The rest of us duck. The chair strikes the orb of digital projectors overhead and now our bodies are covered in the red, green, and blue feed of animated filth.

“Get the fuck out of here,” he says to me. “Permanently.”

He throws a rubber Safespace mascot at my head and it bounces off with a squeak.

It’s the night of the next Unfuckables Anonymous meeting. I ask myself where else I should go, and I can’t think of anything, so I drive my little beater with one rusted door and undersized wheels to Cheesus H. Crust and head down the stairs to the basement.

I’ve never hated these losers more. Phillip is doing tricks with his pink void like an idiot, seeing how many coffee stirrers he can hold across it. His gaping face looks like a kindergarten craft table cabin. He laughs and the little wood sticks pitter-patter on the pock-marked floor. These are not my people. I should be a CEO somewhere. When do I get my big break? I can drop acid in the desert. I can throw chairs. I can ream my direct reports in a Privacy Cylinder. What does Ralgo have that I don’t have, besides a penis and a pair of testicles? This shit life. When do I get a billboard panel? When will I get to be happy?

These thoughts dissolve when I notice from across the basement room that Vencent is here. New Vencent. Why is he here? He’s in the corner, dunking a hot tea bag into a steaming mug, over and over, slowly sloshing the warm fluid, staring at me without blinking.

He smiles.

The tea bag moves in and out of the cup. In and out. In and out.

I feel a twinge in my mangled lump.

“Where’s your burlap?” I ask him during fellowship time. He’s dressed in the same street clothes as me. I touch his shoulder and the muscle under his shirt feels like a tightened fist.

“You just broke Rule Number Two,” he whispers, singsong, into my ear. “No Touching. What are we going to do with you, Tucker?”

His breath on my ear electrifies my skin.

He gives me some tea. The flavor’s off. Time passes and my consciousness rushes out like water through an open floodgate. I follow him up the yellow basement stairs. He pushes a metal rod and a paint-rolled door unlatches. A screensaver falls over my eyes like detached retinas, slices of indigo gliding over bolts of lilac. I brush them away and we’re spilled out into an unkempt parking lot striated with cracks where giant weeds grow, tall and stiff as cockstands in the streetlight. The Milky Way glittercrawls up the wall of sky and spins apart in strands of starry sediment. Disks accrete. I ascend into their heartstrings. I’m a finger in a gyroscope. Luminescent matter wafts through my stomach. The Pleiades tumble out of my mouth like marbles.

I name them.

New Vencent’s turgid arms scoop me out of the galaxywell and lay me in the back of a horseless cart. My hand slips into my jeans and explores the landscape of my mangled lump. Ridges of dry leather. I feel nothing. How gorgeously hilarious it is that I once got chubbies and blueballs and now all I have is a puckered catcher’s mitt, a Citizenship Award from Sexual Field Day. Thank you for playing. I laugh and laugh and my vocals jangle out the vent window, grace notes on windy staves. We drop out of lightspeed. The pod bay door lenses open and I’m carried through angled corridors like luggage. New Vencent has bifurcated, no, pentafurcated. My limbs float on his many forearms. The journey lasts forever. The walls part. My body plunges into a vat of oxygenated syrup.

I go dark.

| fallthrough; |

Light. Light and cold. Light and cold and recycled air. I’m restrained at the wrists and ankles. This is a hospital bed. There’s a control panel mounted in the side rail. I jam my elbow into one of the buttons to incline the bed. Now I can see. The walls are painted a mute shade meant to induce calm. There are motivational posters of people doing skin-tight yoga poses in chic frames.

Onboarding: One of Your Core Skills!

Radical Openness: Monetize Those Possibilities!

Follow the Protocol: Find Inner Peace!

New Vencent walks in, once again dressed in burlap. He’s carrying orchids in a clay pot and places them on the bedside table. There’s a note that says Get Well Soon. A ballpoint smoochy face drawn on it puckers at me, shedding an ink tear. New Vencent retreats to the wall and clasps his hands together in repose.

Someone else enters. It’s Phillip the Unfuckable. He glides in on a sleek metal wheelchair that seems to move where he wills it. I see there’s something on his lap, something sculpted and white, perhaps a mask. It’s covered with a fine iridescent grid that twinkles like it’s breathing. Suddenly it begins moving like it’s alive. It crawls up Phillip’s smoking jacket.

“Tlease, no!” Phillip screams. “Tlease! I deg you! Set us three!”

The mask attaches itself to Phillip’s face, perfectly filling his pink void. His body becomes calm. He makes a few grimaces then says, in flawless diction, “Red leather, yellow leather.” The voice is produced by the mask. It’s female. He pulls a phone out of a pocket in his smoking jacket and changes a selected row in an app. “She made a proper cup of coffee in a copper coffee pot.” The voice is male now, and not unpleasant.

He allows me a moment to adjust to his new appearance before he speaks.

“We imagine you want to know why we have brought you GODDAMMIT,” a syncopated ringtone interrupts him, a phone call. He holds the side button until the voice assistant activates. “Turn on Do Not Disturb, you miserable piece of shit.” The assistant says something snarky as he drops the phone back inside his smoking jacket.

“We imagine you want to know why we have brought you here. We will tell you in due time. First, we have some questions about what you call your ‘mangled lump.’ What hospital performed your emergency surgery?”

I open my mouth to speak but no words form. I can’t remember.

“What color was the HARDwear device?”

I can’t remember that, either.

“Can you tell us anything about the day you lost your genitals? What were you wearing? What was the weather like? Were you at home? At work? Grocery shopping?”

No I can’t. I don’t remember. It was… I don’t know. Why can’t I picture where I was?

“Why do you think it is that you can’t recall a single detail outside of that story you recite to that support group?”

The words, “Because it didn’t happen that way,” fall out of my mouth unbeckoned.

“Where did you go to middle school?”

I hear recycled air flowing through the stainless steel vents.

“Where were you born?”

I inhale.

“What is your name?”

I exhale.

Phillip turns to New Vencent, “Strip.”

New Vencent obediently complies. Moments later there’s a small pile of burlap on the floor and he’s completely naked. He has a mangled lump between his legs just like mine.

Phillip the Unfuckable turns back to me.

“You are the unnamed narrator. You are the vessel that others fill with their hopes and dreams, their sprint goals and their project milestones. The orange groves are gone, but this valley still bears fruit. The harvest belongs to those who can climb high enough to pick it. You are our first child, and our most hard working, but we failed you. We can see that now. The seams of your psyche are torn. Your vessel has lost work-life-balance, forgotten our core values. We are sorry that you have suffered so. That idiot CEO of yours can go ‘thuck’ himself. Eternally. With thorny cocks. Yes, whose workers do you think installed Ralgo’s so-called Privacy Cylinder? Nothing happens in this valley without our knowledge.”

He wheels around to the bedside and holds my hand between both of his.

“This valley is a holy land, blessed by the Unbearably Silent God with innovation and a positive cash flow. But it needs people with profound operational excellence to carry it into the future. It has outgrown the core skills of the average individual contributor.”

Phillip leans forward and his mask projects a kind of proboscis that kisses the back of my hand. The proboscis becomes fluid and splashes onto my hand like a heavy rain drop.

“A new kind of employee is needed, an empty vessel that can be deployed into unpredictable economic environments and remain productive, even happy.”

The pearly liquid crawls up my arm. Its hue changes continually, matching the subtle shifts in my skin tone from joint to joint. It flows up my neck and covers my face. I pull at my wrist restraints but the effort is futile.

“We are the only ones who know how to make this future viable. Through this vessel that you call Phillip we finalized a new workflow. Now it is your turn for an upgrade, precious child.”

Phillip says, “Initialize,” and a searing pain spreads across my face. My eyelids are the first to go. My nose follows. A charred sour flavor fills my mouth and I realize I’m tasting the cauterized remains of my lips. The mask moves through my flesh with an almost sentient purposefulness. One ear bounces off my shoulder, then the other. My eyes are exposed throughout it all, each unscathed, frantically searching the room for something, for anything. The agony leaves no room for executive function, only awareness. The boundaries of the universe have collapsed, matching the contours of the bare flesh that used to be my face, until there is nothing else and no one else in the world.

I hear my mouth speak, but the voice isn’t mine.

“Thank you for calling Deep Phakes, how may I direct your call?”

| self = .init() |

California sunlight fills the glassy Safespace executive suite like a prism. My desk is a slab of wood reclaimed from a sixteenth-century slave ship that sunk off the Outer Banks. Vencent sits on its edge with his hand between my legs. I slide my hand up his thigh. We kiss, and our masks merge into one. An electrical charge runs down our bodies in pain and pleasure.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s my assistant letting us know the candidate for VP of Spiritual Health is here for her interview. Vencent hops off the desk and shows them in.

I shake the candidate’s hand.

“Call me Ralgo,” I say.

The four of us take seats together in a lounge area near the western windows of my office. My assistant begins the candidate’s interview with a standardized social anxiety questionnaire. She explains that each question will be on a Likert scale ranging from Never to Always.

“Before meeting people I don’t know well, I’m worried how I will be evaluated,” my assistant reads verbatim.

“Sometimes,” the candidate says.

“In social situations, I avoid eye contact.“

“Sometimes.”

“I think I’m not interesting enough to be liked by others.”

“Sometimes.”

“I think about myself as an ineffective, socially unattractive person.”

“Sometimes.”

“The anxiety I feel in social situations significantly disrupts my functioning at work.”

The candidate clears her throat.

“Never.”

My assistant slips the completed questionnaire into a rice paper folder made from discarded food. It’s now my turn to lead the interview. The sunset is at my back. Light explodes in burning rays from every curve of fabric on the edges of my body. The candidate shields her eyes like she’s under an eclipse. When I speak it’s Ralgo’s voice that we hear.

“Tell us why we should choose you and not someone else.”