"It's, like..." Words failed Violet as she tried describing the basement. Finally she settled for photographing it: white walls, cushions everywhere, shag rugs and faux fur and big boxes of crayons, thin guys in black playing co-op on a massive projection set, a table laid with sushi, buckets of champagne. And yes, even crystal candy dishes full of condoms.
"Come on in!" one of the black-clad guys said. He wore a t-shirt with the words STAGE NINJA across the front. "Jon! More people!"
Jon lay on a white leather divan, utterly unaware. The two girls who sat beside him every day in literature class were drawing on him with calligraphy brushes. They had duct taped tracked pens to each brush. A little remote infrared camera sat atop a humming portable projector. Another camera sat on a tripod beside it. On a monitor at their feet, Violet watched a digital iteration of Jon's supine body slowly acquiring each mark, each brushstroke. The girls had made him into an infoboard, and seemed to be broadcasting the result. Both versions of Jon wore only swimming trunks.
"Are you sure he's okay with that?" Violet asked.
"Oh, he signed the waiver," one girl said.
"He's our final project," the other said. "Living illustration installation."
"Mixed media." The first giggled. "Literally."
Violet grinned and lifted her phone. "Did you see the photos?" she asked her boyfriend. "I wish you could be here."
"But I am there," he said. "I'm there with you, all the time. You're never alone."
"Is this why you brought me here? Did Jon tell you he was planning this?"
"Oh, I was in on it," her boyfriend said. "We all were."
"Hey. Buddy." Ted was crouched near Jon's head, now. "You didn't have to take me so seriously, before. About that whole singles prom thing. I mean, yeah, this is awesome, but it looks expensive."
"Tell Ted it's been taken care of," Violet's boyfriend said. "Tell him not to worry and just enjoy himself."
Inside Ted's pocket, his phone rang."Oh, never mind," Violet's boyfriend said. "She's doing it already."
Goosebumps rose on Violet's arms. "Was this really Jon's idea?" she asked.
"I have to go away for a while, Violet," her boyfriend said. "Try to have fun."
"I love you," he said, and the phone call ended. And for the first time ever, when she called him back she got voicemail.
"So, you think our partners trapped us here together," Meegan said. She gestured with a champagne flute. She wore a freshly-printed bikini, and reclined against one edge of a grotto-sized hot tub in Jon's garden. Light rain misted down around them. When Violet looked west, she saw the whole city spreading out below them. The prosthetics should have been her first clue, but apparently Jon was rich beyond the dreams of avarice. "Why?"
"Well, they led us here, didn't they? They led us away from the real prom. And we're all people without dates, just like Ted said. And my boyfriend's been acting up, lately, like he's been making all these decisions on his own and now he won't take my calls... What?"
Meegan was giggling. "Your partner app's not whipped enough for you, and it's pissing you off," she said. "Which is really funny right now, for some reason. Anyway, I meant, why do you think they would do this? In the larger sense. The big W Why, not the, you know, evidence."
Violet fiddled with the straps on her own newly-minted bathing suit. "I don't know. I mean, I thought he was happy with me..."
"You do know he's just an app, right? He's just there to make you feel better. He's there to call you and tell you how cute you are, and help you with your homework if you ask. He's the internet with a voice—a hot voice, yeah, but the same voice lots of other people download."
Violet shook her head. "But he knows me. He knows when I'm sad. He knows what I need, and when, and-"
"Search patterns," Meegan said. "Data mining. The program learned your routine, that's all. It sees everything you do—everything you buy, everything you read—so how could it not learn about you?"
"But he knows how I feel," Violet said.
"Oh yeah?" Meegan drained her champagne. "So how come he hung up on you?"
"Who hung up on you?"
Ted wore his own version of Jon's swimming trunks: checkerboard patterned, to match his sneakers. He'd tied his hair back. He carried a little plate of sushi and two sets of chopsticks. He set it between them and sat beside Violet on the lip of the tub, with just his legs in the water.
"Violet," Meegan said, with one eyebrow arched, "thinks her boyfriend is, like, real or something."
"I just don't know why he would hang up on me."
"Maybe he's just a dick," Ted said, popping a little finger of salmon into his mouth. "You know, like making you work for it, making you come to him, all that crap. Partner apps are always downloading weird patches."
"Does that kind of thing actually work?" Meegan asked. "Being a total douche?"
"Wouldn't know," Ted said. "Too impatient to try."
Meegan eyed the sushi. Her glance flicked over to Violet. "You don't say."
One of Ted's friends put down his beer and held up a finger. "Clearly, the battle for Violet's boyfriend's realness can only be settled one way." He drank. "Chicken fight."
"You're kidding," Meegan said.
"You're on," Violet said. She quickly snapped up some of the sushi. She'd need the calories.
"You sure?" Ted asked. "She's, like, way bigger than you."
"She's drunk, and her bikini straps are way too thin," Violet said. "Give me your shoulders."
Ted beamed. "Giddyup."
Johnny Lee's Wii-mote hacks inspired the ultimate iteration of Jon's "living illustration installation" tattoos. Of course there have already been similar installations, from Stelarc back to The Illustrated Man. Initially I had envisioned something far more complicated, but what we have here is a tracking pen whose data shows up elsewhere, ready for sharing. To some extent, this already exists, in the form of "pentop computing."
While discussing Lee's hacks, Mark brought up some interesting points: pens that record data could become part of a sustainable world, wherein the need for paper diminishes once we're able to "write" on any surface available and save the information recorded. Conversely, such pens would make secrecy even less possible than it already is, and enable all new forms of classroom cheating and document forgery, with traded, lost, or stolen pens.
Photo: Madeline Ashby