“What’s your name?”
“Irrelevant. You’re not here for my fascinating self.”
“They said you are the best.”
“So the best I am. Sit.”
The lady nodded, unconvinced and with a disappointed look in her eyes. But she did sit down in the dimly lit shop, her blank stare wandering around the featureless room. Clemance noticed her appearance—an elegant red dress and expensive make-up contrasting with her messy nails. First-time gamers were always nervous.
“This place—or whatever you call it. It was difficult to find, you know? I almost gave up.”
“Were my indications unclear?” he asked.
“On the contrary. It’s just that I was unaware this kind of business even existed in my hometown. Here, in the very centre, under everybody’s eyes.”
“The best place to hide something is in plain sight. And this is by no means the only one. London is a big city.”
“That a foreigner like you seems to know better than I do.”
“Since you’re here, you should consider yourself lucky,” he said. “Have you got what I’ve asked for?”
“My specs? Yeah, sure. I have them here on a card. You can retrieve all you need from that.”
What an old-fashioned and unsafe way of treating sensitive data. But then, would she be here if she cared about them in the first place? Clemance thought, without comment. He took the device, inserted it in a long-unused card slot, and started working. His tiny computer was a shining, compact, dark-blue cube—the only bright light in the small room.
“I’ve already got everything at home. The hardware, and all the rest,” she said in a low voice.
She stared at him for a moment, then her eyes began wandering. Inquisitive, and yet nervous, almost scared. “This trade. For how long have you been doing it?”
“So you’re an expert. Tell me something. What’s the most common scenario customers want you to prepare?”
“You’re one of them. Can’t you guess?”
“No. Yes. Sex-perversions, maybe?”
“Sweet. You’re definitively not my typical client.” He couldn’t avoid smiling. Naïve too, and this was not typical of first-timers either. Maybe in this resides her charm, more than in her beauty or her exquisite clothes. “People are not that normal. Not in these days, no.”
“Answer me. Please.”
“Death,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“You mean killing people?”
“No, even though killer scenarios are quite popular. Nobody kills any longer—rich people like you, at least. That’s a poor man’s fancy nowadays. Impractical and rude.” He shook his head. “But I meant something different. I was referring to their own death.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Humans are afraid of dying. So they want to try what death looks like first. What it feels like.” He shrugged. “They think knowing in advance will take part of their pain away. Their fear.”
“Is it?” He stopped for a moment, staring at her. “Actually, it’s rather easy.”
“It’s a question of logic. If you’re dead, how can you feel anything at all?”
“You don’t get it. They’re interested in experiencing what comes just before. How they would feel at that moment. What follows, they won’t care. That is, most of them don’t.”
She looked away, and he carried on working. “Relax,” he said. “It will take a while.”
* * *
“We’re searching for hell.”
“Reality is not bad enough for you?” Clemance asked, observing without curiosity the strange duo in front of him. One of them was older, huge and richly clothed; the other, young and handsome, classical features and a querulous light in his eyes. They had come in without appointment—a few hours after the young lady in red. That alone spoke volumes about how well connected they were—to know where to find him straightaway. Not first-timers for sure, these fellows. He knew Mexico City could be a place pretty hard to locate without contacting him first, and it was intended to be.
“You’re a funny one. I like people with sense of humour,” the older one said. “But no. What we want is the perfect ordeal.”
“Perfection is in the mind only and doesn’t generally translate well in human artifacts, virtual or not,” he replied, noncommittal.
“You’re a game dealer. Better than that: you’re known to be a fucking genius in this trade—the ethical genius, or so they call you. Well, genius, you will prepare for me the scenario I’m looking for. I want him to scream,” the old guy said, indicating his companion. “I want him to bleed to death. A thousand times over.”
“And you, what do you want?” Clemance asked the other, who had not said a word until that moment.
“Me? I only want him to beg mercy for the sins of the flesh. When he’s feasting on my body.”
He observed the young guy, dressed in black, his hair platinum blond, and transparent nail polish on his manicured hands. At a pure aesthetical level, they would make best-selling characters. If only they weren’t morally so unoriginal. Some hours of hard work on these two.
“I can deliver suffering and anguish, all shades you can dream of. And you’ll be able to tweak the scenario afterwards, to suit the mood of the moment.” Clemance said, eventually. “I believe I’ve just received your encrypted specs on my cloud-box. Do you want me to start?”
The two looked at him, nodding.
“It’s going to be rather expensive.”
“I know your tariffs,” the older one said.
“I’m not talking about money.”
“Why have you called your shop Mexico City for anyway?” the young asked with a curious regard. “Addicted to Latin American stuff, that’s it? But you have nothing of the sort here. Not even a photo on the wall. Is it just for the exotic vibe of the name?”
“I thought you liked exotic.”
“Here.” The other ignored his friend altogether and made a couple of quick operations on his tablet. “Stocks are already on your corporate account. You can check it out. Now proceed. We don’t have the whole night.”
The conversation was over. Clemance patiently unfolded the encoded data and began weaving them in the appropriate scenario while the two began caressing each other, ignoring his presence. Then the young one produced a shining stiletto, cutting the palm of his hand and letting his companion lick out the blood. His fingers dancing on the virtual keyboard, Clemance remained still, observing with cold detachment the reflex of his green screen on the blade.
* * *
“Are you there?” a voice cracked from the speakers a few hours later.
A few moments of silence, then it came again. “Clemance, put your goddamn finger on the goddamn keyboard and open the channel.”
He contemplated for a moment an act of rebellion. Consolatory and useless, like the majority of human actions. He did as instructed.
“I’m here. So?”
“Just checking in. Tell me about your daily preys. Make me dream.”
“Got three new profiles. Reading them for upload.”
“Fire them out.”
“I’m not done yet. Still filtering. It will take about thirty minutes.”
“Oh yes. I always forget—you’re one of the ethicals.”
“Don’t like to be called in this way.”
“But this is what you are, my boy.”
“No, this is what you leeches call us,” Clemance snapped.
“Whatever. Too bad the others are not geniuses like you.”
“Make it one hour. For my coffee break.”
“You lazy, touchy bastard.” The voice sneered at him, before breaking into laughter. “Leave the full profiles out for now. Give me specs I can use. Anything good?”
“You’ll like them. A lusty she-economist; a young, suicidal emo; and a sadistic shotacon.”
“Nothing original. You disappoint me, baby.”
“Quite common, I’ll concede. They look pretty though. Stylish even in the flesh. Almost authentic. And they get better when you load them on.”
“I’ll trust your judgment. What’s your favourite?”
“Why? Because she’s lustful?”
“No. Because she’s desperate.”
“Is she going to be a good sell?”
Through the speakers, he could hear the familiar sounds of his handler recording the information, preparing the calls and updates for the market.
“Fine job, my boy. If we’re lucky, we might use these ones in a few new scenarios. Or we can let clients bid individually for including them as guest stars in their otherwise fully loaded games. A bit of novelty is always welcome. Especially now that we’re getting better customers by the day.” A laugh, with a satisfactory note in it. “We’re upscaling. Old wealth. That kind of people wants the real thrill, not fake simulations. Their boredom threshold is dangerously low, and we need to beat the competition. The good news is that your brand, Mexico City, is becoming a guarantee of quality. Dystopia on tap, refined and glowing. You might be an ethical smug, but you’re a damn good one.”
“Glad to have made your day.”
“By the by, do you think your newbies will live long? Outside your games, I mean.”
“Why do you care? I’m not going to give you their unfiltered data anyway.”
“I know you won’t. Call it professional curiosity. And now that we talk about it… I’ve always believed you’re a sick fuck, Clemance. You, your reptile eyes and those delicate white hands of a princess. You look so gentle and polite, and you’re the nastiest of all game architects I’ve ever met in my long and adventurous life. You’re a monster, a vampire without all that shine and sparkle.” The voice sounded lower now, its tone more confidential. “I have checked your records. A surprisingly high number of your customers remain alive for only a few weeks after they have come to see you. Ethical, my decrepit English ass. If I didn’t know better, I would start thinking you hand them something toxic.” Another laugh. “Or maybe Mexico City games are simply too amazing for them to come back to reality after they’ve tasted them. You’re too effective for your own good.”
“Are you complaining, Neil?”
“With all the money you bring in? I wouldn’t dare. But at least you could give me their complete data once they’re gone for good. What damage could it possibly do?”
“You already have my answer. It’s not going to change. And no, it’s not a question of price.”
“That’s why I never offered you one. But just to let you know, baby, I’ve come out with a little theory about this too.”
“You seem to have a lot of free time these days. Has your mistress dumped you? Your wife did it long ago.”
“Smartass. You see, I’m convinced you have your own collection of horrors. For your private entertainment, during all those long nights alone in your cubicle designing nightmares for public consumption. I don’t really want to know.”
“And you won’t.”
“No doubt about it. Well, my sensitive, ethical genius, have to go now. Stay cool.”
Clemance unplugged the speakers and closed his eyes. His mind went back to the lady in red, the economist. To what had happened after.
It had taken him about one hour before the game and its characters were ready, according to the specs she had provided.
“Have you tried it yourself?” she’d asked him with curiosity.
“The scenario you were talking about. Death, you know.”
He had looked at her, into those amber eyes unable to conceal a tormented soul. He never discussed anything but business with customers, and personal questions were not included in the service agreement. The young woman was so new to the market that she ignored even those basic rules.
“Almost every day.” He’d paused, searching for words that would not sound too cynical. He didn’t want to hurt her. Actually, he didn’t know why he was replying either. Maybe because I could feel sorry for you, gorgeous lady in a fancy dress. “I’m pretty ordinary, lady, like the guy next door. Each time, I try a slight variation. There are so many ways to die, you do wonder how we keep alive. I came to think it’s this very wonder that does the job. It’s… refreshing.”
She had shivered, looking at him with her eyes wide open. He could read attraction and revulsion at the same time, but also a bottomless sadness and loneliness.
“You need not to fear me, Coralia,” he’d said, gently.
“How do you know my name? Wasn’t in the specs.”
“As if anybody spending his life in the virtual land could ignore these things,” he’d replied, trying to wash any hint of sarcasm from his voice. “Relax, I said. I’m here to serve.”
He had retrieved the device from the box and put it down on the table. “Procedure completed. The game has been preloaded with your biometric data and your preferences. New behavioural details will be locally uploaded at each run, to make simulations more accurate. You will get loading instructions and access codes directly into your cloud-box. Identification is by a combination of iris recognition and psychometrics. To make sure only you can access and play it. We care about your privacy. And talking about that…” He tilted his head, hinting at the card. “Don’t ever do it again. Encryption on external devices is always insufficient. They’re too old, and you don’t need them anyway.” He’d smiled at her. “Good fun ahead, lady in red. That lithe alien is going to give you a lot of pleasure. It will be exactly like in your dreams, only better. You might decide you don’t want to get back to this world, but this is a risk you knew you were taking when crossing this line.”
She’d lowered her eyes, suddenly embarrassed. “How much do I owe you?”
“I don’t want your money,” he had said in a cold voice. “You’ve already paid me anyway.”
“Haven’t you figured it out yet?” He stared into his screen to avoid meeting her regard. “With your own data. They’re now part of my virtual bank. They will be anonymised and used to construct other games. Other scenarios, and characters, for people that pay us real money. Some of them will virtually kill other customers like you, populating our prime clients’ unique version of delirious escapism. In a way, you will live forever.”
Clemance could see her shaking.
“Privacy and personal data protection are the reason, right? The reason why it’s illegal.”
“No.” He’d lifted his head, looking straight into her eyes. “But it’s because it’s illegal that you’re ready to pay such a high price. Didn’t prohibitionism teach you smart people anything? Not even to you, Coralia the economist?”
She’d grabbed the card and collected her bag, in a rush of panic. “Goodbye. I don’t think we’ll see each other again.”
“Not if you can avoid it. Enjoy your game.”
She’d left and started walking in a hurry on the Strand toward Waterloo Bridge, dismissing the cabs. Within seconds, he had closed his shop and followed her, for once inexplicably drawn to a customer. He knew by instinct where she was going, and he was not mistaken. After a short stroll on the Thames’ desolate bank, she’d stopped, looking at the murky water. He could hear her mind screaming, speaking more loudly than words. And he’d kept watching, waiting, not sure what to expect, feeling her pain.
“Delirious escapism, this is how he called it. Is that what I have bought?” she’d said aloud, almost in reply to his thoughts, turning her head to observe the city. “Yes, escapism—delirious or fucking lucid. It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day.”
Clemance hadn’t been able to avoid looking at the Thames either. Dark waters with a sparkle of lights, futuristic buildings and gargoyles in grapheme, backstages of so many of his games. He’d felt the urge to go and get her, take her into his arms, but he could not force himself to act. After having explored all combinations of lives, created all possible, outlandish scenarios, and for such a long time, he found himself surprisingly shy in a three-dimension reality. He’d stood where he was, unable to make a move.
She had smiled at the gargoyles, observing their monstrous heads and their hollow eyes. “I should have populated my game with gargoyles, instead of unlikely aliens,” she’d said. “Being one of them. At least I would have the option of coming here and talking to my stony sisters when losing my mind once for all.” Calm and collected, she’d produced a cutter from her bag, plunging it deep into her throat. Then she’d jumped in the water.
He had remained there, like he was watching the scene of a movie or one of his games. Not moving, observing her body in the dark red dress slowly carried away by the river, for minutes that had seemed ice ages. Then he had left the place in silence.
So sad. She hasn’t enjoyed her alien lover—not even for one night. She could have waited.
* * *
It was dawn, and a pale light came through the glassy panels of his ceiling. Mexico City, his shop, the centre of his world. This would be a weird place in hell, should it exist—which it does not, of course. And I would be the trickster god that shows souls their way, leading them to the fall. He had almost finished his work—scenarios like exquisite artworks, selling lucid dreams and hallucinations-on-demand. Building perfect places for people to go and stay there, never desiring to come back. Until ready for another outstanding simulation, signed off by the ethical genius that so often claimed their real lives. Enough of self-pity, you ethical idiot. Be the monster you’re designed to be, and take responsibility.
He observed his latest creations with the clinical eye of a neuroscientist and the refined taste of great artists, like the genius game architect he was. Clemance, the best of all. His new three characters were there, slowly moving on the screen, rising from their slumber.
The pretty economist, the sadistic old guy, the depressive teenager. Eternally young, forever smiling.
Russell Hemmell is a statistician and social scientist from the U.K, passionate about astrophysics and SF. Recent Stories in Not One of Us, PerihelionSF, SQ Mag, and others. Finalist in The Canopus 100 Year Starship Awards 2016-2017.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Mexico City”
Russell Hemmell’s “Mexico City” is a different kind of piece for us. But this chilling, superbly crafted story that steps outside the ordinary makes for the kind of writing that our magazine is all about.