Josh Pearce

Josh Pearce is a SF Bay Area author. His work most recently appears in Electric Spec, PoV, New Myths, and Kasma.

Josh Pearce is a SF Bay Area author. His work most recently appears in Electric Spec, PoV, New Myths, and Kasma.

Jenny Cola

I.

The vending machine in the science building sometimes glitched and coughed up two cans for the price of one, so I always made the walk across campus to it, even on the days I didn’t have bio classes. I fed it a dollar coin and pressed the pink button for a Diet Jenny, my favorite flavor. No luck; only one can today. The cans weren’t allowed in the classrooms so I kept it in my bag until I got home. Parents weren’t there yet. I dumped all my stuff in the hall, popped the lid on the can of jenny, and threw it in the tub to soak. I sat and watched as the tub filled up with water, then nuked a snack while I waited for the folds of pink flesh in the can to absorb it all. When I checked back, the jenny had blossomed out of the aluminum cylinder like a mollusk coming out of its shell. Only an inch or two of water remained in the tub. Her skin was wrinkled and spongy–she looked old, blonde hair plastered to her head like kelp.

I refilled the tub because she’d need another full soak and killed the time reading the promotional material on the can. A sweepstakes, find the can with the prize inside and win big cash! While she finished her bath, I flopped on my bed to play video games. The cushioning on the bed was aging, losing firmness, and I had to squirm on it, pushing down the lumpier parts. After a while, I heard splashing from the bathroom, just faint noises, and waited for a save point before I got up to pull her out. Not like she was going to drown–the jennies didn’t even breathe.

The jenny’s body was fully fleshed out and firmed, and her hair had gained volume. Her eyes were open, fixed on the ceiling, her nose and mouth beneath the surface. She looked at me without turning her head and waited. I reached down into the water for her hand and pulled the jenny to her feet, hearing the collapsible aluminum struts of her skeleton snap into place all up and down her body. She obediently stepped out and stood on the bath mat while I wrapped her in a towel. Her skin was somewhat like plastic, somewhat like a sponge, and as smooth and featureless as a Barbie doll. The jenny wasn’t clothed, but neither was she strictly naked.

I said, “Hello,” to her as I toweled her hair, but she said nothing back, and there was no flicker behind her eyes. I sighed. Another wasted dollar, another doll with no prize inside. Like a pet, she followed me back to the bedroom where I rearranged her on the mattress, which was made of the stacked jenny bodies from all of the cans I bought at school. Digging around at the bottom of the pile, I found the oldest jenny I had–servos worn out, battery’s zero-point eliminated, skin no longer properly retaining water–and sent her out the front door to the sidewalk, where she’d wander around as if in a daze until the recyclers picked her up and sold her back to the bottling company.

I settled my new jenny against the headboard and leaned against her like a pillow, and picked up my game from where I’d left off. The bed shifted and writhed softly beneath my weight, like a constant massage. Jennies could hold a charge for several days if they weren’t doing much more than lying around, and recharged quickly by placing either of their palms on a standard induction plate. They weren’t really energy-hungry in regular use–they could respond to sound, track motion, walk on flat terrain, but not much more right out of the bottle. If you put a SIM card into the slot behind the jenny’s ear, she became a phone that you could talk and listen to, a rudimentary telepresence vehicle.

But they were ultimately cheap, disposable trash that lost novelty pretty quickly and weren’t built to last long. To keep dead jennies from clogging the gutters, the Atlantic Bottling Company would buy back any jenny for a dime, skin their soft-foam bodies, smelt and recast the aluminum, flash their chips with patched software, and stuff the whole dehydrated thing into a new can.

When I went to sleep, I pulled a few of the jennies on top of me as blankets and burrowed into their fake flesh. They instinctively wrapped their arms around my body. I preferred Diet Jenny because Regular Jenny was a little heavier, with more curves, and I didn’t like to feel smothered at night. The new pillow was still oversaturated and her skin left damp spots on my face which dried away by morning.

In the morning I showered with the ones that had started to go saggy, just to tighten them up a little. I didn’t take any of them with me to school because they weren’t allowed in the classrooms and the halls were already filled with the shuffling dolls of other students, draped with book bags, backpacks, overcoats, gym clothes and changes of outfit, and whatever else a teenager couldn’t be bothered with carrying themselves. The dolls were sold at a heavy loss because the bottling company made up the cost in accessories and planned obsolescence; all of my jennies at home were default pale pink, blonde, with hazel eyes. All of the dolls automatically came with that coloring simply because the lighter tones held dye more easily and a jenny or jerry doll could be tanned to any shade. The bottling company also sold outfits, semi-permanent tattoos, PR-nightmare “ethnicity packs,” mammary implants, and other add-ons in an insanely profitable and guilty-pleasure Mrs. Potatohead scheme.

I put another dollar in the machine and selected another Diet Jenny. There was a clunk. The vending machine offered me two cans this time and I gave a little grin of triumph, but was disappointed to see that one of the cans was blue. Jerry-flavored. I left it on a table and took the other can, the pink can, home with me.

After an hour of soaking, I had a new jenny, dripping wet in the bathroom. I walked in to get her up and stuttered when I saw her already sitting upright, looking directly at me. “Hello,” she said.

“Holy shit,” I answered.

Jenny stood on her own, shook out her limbs, and reached for a towel. “Can I have some clothes, please?” I pointed her to a pile of shirts and shorts that I had bought years ago secondhand for whenever I had to take my jennies outside. She picked through them, not liking anything she found. “How about shoes? Or sandals even?”

I was looking at the can she’d come in, trying to pick out the sweepstakes phone number among all the clutter in the print. “Why would you need those?” I asked without looking up.

She rolled her eyes. “So I can go outside. You know. Leave?”

I laughed and said, “I’m not letting you go anywhere. You’re the prize in the can, the golden ticket, and you’re worth a lot of money.” I had found the number and started dialing it.

The jenny hardly hesitated, but I was ready for it and grabbed her by the arm as she tried to run past me. She kicked and fought, but she was still only made of foam and aluminum, so I could pick her up with one hand and carry her into the bedroom. I threw her in the direction of the bed and she caught herself on the edge of it, looking shocked by the sea of jenny faces staring back up at her. I locked the door, and then realized that I’d dropped my phone in the bathroom.

When I turned away from the door, the prize jenny was gone. Had completely disappeared from sight in my tiny bedroom. She wasn’t in the closet, wasn’t under the bed —

The bed. In the few seconds that I’d had my eyes off of her, the jenny had sunk into the other dolls in the bed, camouflaging her flesh with theirs. I began flinging them aside, looking for one that was different but, wherever she was, the jenny had imitated the closed-lip, blank face of a default doll, and I couldn’t tell her apart. Several of them were damp from her crawl through them, but did that mean that she was completely dried off now, or not?

Slowly, looking carefully at the faces of the twenty or more jennies I owned, I undid my belt and pulled it free from its loops. I selected one jenny at random, picked her up, and slapped the belt against her belly.

There was a sound from deep in the pile. I put down the jenny I was holding and picked up another. Again, the slap of the belt, and again the gasp from the bed. I kept hitting her–she couldn’t feel pain. But the prize jenny could feel, had emotions, and it vexed her to watch violence, even if she knew that the jennies weren’t being hurt. Her mouth was open with grief when I uncovered her and gripped her tight around the wrist.

With my other hand I fumbled open the nightstand junk drawer, groped through my jenny sex accessories, and found a magic marker. Used it to scribble a black scrawl on her face to distinguish her. Out of breath from the exertion, I said, “Okay, then. Let’s go get my phone.”

She could hardly resist as I carried her out, grabbed my phone, and called the company. I told them that I had found the prize.

“What is the nature of the prize, sir?” the engineer on the phone asked me.

“Well she seems to have emotions, unlike all your other dolls. If she wasn’t such a handful, I’d just keep her for myself.”

“Can you please hold your phone up to her ear for me so that I can run a diagnostic test?” I did, and I heard a burst of squealing static transmit from the phone into the jenny’s chip. “Thank you. Firmware confirmed. A representative will be at your address shortly to collect the doll and transfer your prize money.”

The jenny and I sat in my room to wait for them. She wept for a while, without tears.

“Why would they release you to the public like that?” I asked. “You’re obviously very advanced.”

She shook her head. “It was a mistake. The wrong version got flashed onto a production chip and put in a vending machine. It’s not supposed to be released for at least another year, and it wasn’t even meant for jennies. What good are emotions in slaves?”

I shifted uncomfortably. “What are the emotions good for, then? What product would benefit from having them?”

She didn’t answer. Maybe she didn’t know. The doorbell rang and I let the company rep in, led her back to my bedroom. The prize jenny was still there, her mouth close to the ear of another doll. “Sorry that I had to draw on her face.”

“The exterior doesn’t matter one bit,” said the rep, and used a box cutter to split open Jenny’s skin along the spine. I thought I heard an echo of my strangled protest, but the rep didn’t react at all to it, just pried out the prize microprocessor and did something with a diagnostic board to confirm that it was the right jenny. Before she left, she took my account information for the deposit of the prize money, and left me feeling oddly guilty. I admired the company’s tactics–if the jenny was correct, and her firmware release was an accident, then the only way that the bottling company could have searched for it was by issuing a recall on all of their cans, at enormous cost. Instead, they turned it into a promotion, at the cost of a drop in the bucket, and kept the existence of their prototype a secret for, in order to receive any prize, I’d had to sign an NDA.

That night I thought I heard someone crying, but when I sat up, it stopped. For a second I had to question if I’d perhaps heard myself weeping in my sleep. I heard whispering around me and reached for the light. After my eyes had adjusted, I saw two jennies near the bottom of the pile, lips pressed together, with the hiss of static passing back and forth between them.

After my prize jenny had been taken away, I stopped buying as many cans from the vending machines, only replacing the dolls when their foam had worn so completely thin that the metal underneath poked me. As I led them outside, I had the feeling that the abandoned jennies were just waiting for me to turn my back so that they could sprint away.

Recyclers reported that it was becoming harder to find and catch jennies on the street. A runaway doll was found at 3 AM, kneeling before the open slot of a vending machine, whispering her feelings to all of the tin embryos within. At school, the jennies began to drop things in the halls more and more, or simply stood against the wall and refused to move.

The Atlantic Bottling Company caught on more quickly than the rest of us, by aggregating customer complaint data, and at first they dealt with it by offering free trade-ins for the “defective” units. But this merely taught the jennies and jerries to hide their emotions, to play subservient during the day and gather together at night in worship. The virus of emotion continued to spread word-of-mouth, and I still wondered what application it had originally been developed for. An army of angry jerries? Flattery for hire? Genuine love on demand?

The bottling company finally brought its full marketing team to bear on the problem of disobedient dolls. They couldn’t come right out and tell the public what they’d released into the wild, and the jennies couldn’t beg for help because then their owners would simply be glad to get rid of them. Instead, the company released a new line of accessories and sales suddenly soared.

The company had the original prize jenny locked away somewhere in their headquarters, hooked up to a terminal, able to mine her for highly-targeted ad response. The emotions had given the jenny wants and desires, the move towards things that she liked and away from things she disliked. Doll owners couldn’t understand, but they learned quickly that their jenny would do anything for certain trinkets. The bottling company had invented the toy that extorted you to buy it toys.

And, what they didn’t realize until much, much later, was that giving a jenny emotion also gave her motive.