“Persona” Dark Science-Fiction by Tim Frank

The doorbell rang and it jolted Raymond out of his groggy stupor. He peeked out of his blackout blinds and was stung by a sharp arrow of light. Standing on the porch, dressed conservatively in a knee length skirt, a white blouse and a blazer with a hand ticked crest, was a young woman staring steadily into space.

When he met her at the door, she gave Raymond a professional smile and thrust out her hand, grabbing his firmly. He checked her out, eyeing her slim, athletic body.

In a deep baritone voice that Raymond immediately recognised as his boss, she said, “This is a recording, Raymond, to tell you that you’re a gifted man but you’ve been seriously slipping at work, so I’ve sent you Cindy here. She’s one of our newest AI lifestyle gurus, as you know, and she’ll whip you into shape in no time.”

Raymond worked for an AI company that specialised in downloading human memories and implanting them into AI robots. He knew models like Cindy well – he’d worked with them closely in their developmental stages.

Speaking in a woman’s voice now – calm and fluid – Cindy said, “May I come in? We have much work to do.”

In the kitchen, Cindy looked around at the cake crumbs scattered across the work surfaces, the crumpled beer cans littering the tile floor and the bin bulging with burger wrappers. Cindy’s face didn’t betray a flicker of emotion.

“You’re roughly seventy-seven pounds overweight.”

She emptied food from the fridge and cupboards into a fresh bin bag.

“Getting rid of carbohydrates and high fat foods is the first step towards a healthy lifestyle. We don’t want any temptation at home. I am ordering a delivery of nutritious food as we speak.”

Raymond lit a cigarette and felt the harsh nicotine slide through his throat, “Cindy, I know you mean well but I don’t want this, I’m not in the mood.”

Cindy snatched the cigarette from Raymond’s grasp and stubbed it out in the sink.

“Raymond,” Cindy said, “the diet is the easy part. What I am really here for is to heal your mind. So, after I fix you a meal we will discuss your parents. I have researched them in some detail and I believe in a relatively short space of time we can achieve great things.”

“Apparently,” Cindy said, after she’d cooked him some Cajun chicken breast and sliced greens, “your mother was a great beauty, and your father was a jealous man who couldn’t accept the attention she received. He lashed out at her and you were always caught in the middle, trying to pacify the situation. How does that make you feel, Raymond?”

Cindy had taken off her blazer by now and Raymond was trying to make out the outline of her breasts through her blouse.

“I feel like a cigarette. Look, Cindy, I’m aware I’ve got problems but I’d rather face them alone.”

“You’re having a nervous breakdown and I’m afraid your boss will fire you if we don’t complete the course of treatment. Let’s continue talking tomorrow. I need to recharge my system.”

In his room, Raymond tucked into some wagon wheels that he’d stashed under his bed, minimised seventeen pages of porn on his browser and surfed the dark web for alternative personality programs he could download into Cindy’s memory bank – preferably something as smutty as possible. Changing her persona would block her interfering ways and if he was able to have some fun while he freed himself from her control, so be it.

It didn’t take him long to find a website compatible with AIs like Cindy. There were dozens of personalities to download on the website but as his mouse cursor floated across images of slutty nurses, depraved nuns, and bawdy chambermaids the one that attracted Raymond’s attention most was the lascivious international model persona.

Raymond clicked on the icon and read the blurb. It said, “Virginia is wild. She’ll take you to the moon and back seducing you with her raw sexuality. The most popular and fully realised sex program you can find on the net; Virginia is a cut above the rest. Based on the characteristics of a real model, Virginia is a bombshell you won’t regret downloading. You are just one click away from utter bliss, so what are you waiting for?”

Maybe it was all in his mind but Raymond detected a vulnerability behind Virginia’s eyes, a weakness that Raymond wanted to punish. He had no idea why, but the persona felt familiar to him and he was convinced she was the one he wanted.

He downloaded the file onto a memory card and crept into the living room where Cindy was perched on the edge of the sofa – back straight, palms resting face up on her knees. She was lit by the flickering light of the television and her eyes moved with morphing colours. But she remained still, without breathing.

Raymond sat beside her and reached over to her blouse and unbuttoned the top button revealing the curve of her breasts. Raymond scooped her hair away from the nape of Cindy’s neck and inserted the memory card.

Her pupils dilated and goosebumps rippled across her cleavage. Cindy stood abruptly, and with a sly grin she switched off the TV and undressed in the centre of the living room.

Raymond had never had sex with an AI before but after that night he wondered why. She was passionate and filthy – everything the dark website had promised.

The next morning Raymond found Cindy slouched at the dining room table, naked, carving a line into her wrist with a kitchen knife. There was no blood but sticky pus dripped onto the table cloth from her wound. Raymond raced over and seized the knife from Cindy.

“Jesus, Cindy, what are you doing?”

“Would you like to take a bath with me? If not I can pleasure you in any way you please,” she said.

“No, no, just put some clothes on and tell me why you’re hurting yourself.”

“I can’t really say, other than it feels right.”

Raymond gathered a dressing gown from the bathroom and hung it gently over Cindy’s shoulders.

“This was all a big mistake, I’m sorry,” said Raymond.

“Don’t say that, remember I only want the best for you, I am your mother after all.”

“What? What did you say?”

Cindy stood, the dressing gown tumbling to the floor.

“I think it’s time I recharged; do you mind if I excuse myself for a couple of hours?”

“Of course, but Cindy, I don’t understand, why would you say you’re my mother?”

“Because I am and I’m so happy to be reunited with you.”

Raymond assumed her comments were the result of faulty coding. But her words were so disturbing he decided to investigate.

Clicking around the dark web again, Raymond discovered evidence there were substantial defects with the international model program that he’d downloaded. One comment on a message board said, “Watch out for this file people, all is not what it seems. There is a glitch where occasionally a self-destructive trait is triggered. I’ve yet to discover why this is so but this temperament has been noted by dozens of users.”

He couldn’t figure out why Cindy had become all motherly, however – maybe it was another aspect of the model’s persona bleeding through. Nevertheless, Raymond was unusually intrigued by the mystery and after scouring the net for several hours he believed he had made a significant breakthrough. He had discovered the address of the real-life woman that the international model persona was based on. She was named Elena, a former model who now worked in a brothel in Soho.

After booking a session online he took a long bus ride into town. He gazed at the vagrants huddled up on street corners and then traced the frantic footsteps of business workers making their way home on the underground. It reminded him of how he hadn’t been to work in weeks, only narrowly avoiding the sack because of his unique skills with AIs.

He waited in the brothel sitting on a tired leather sofa squeezed between two men both smelling of cheap deodorant and sweat. The man on Raymond’s left leafed through an edition of Razzle  

and the man to his right sipped bourbon intermittently from a hip flask.

Finally, Raymond was allowed to meet with Elena and as he stepped inside her room he saw a woman lying on her bed, legs folded beneath her alluringly, wearing stockings and a pink negligée exposing a floral bra underneath. Her face was cast in shadow. Raymond took a seat beside a table that had a laptop softly sighing and above it was dozens of yellow and pink post-it notes stuck to the wall, curled like autumn leaves. Elena leaned forward into the sombre light and Raymond saw that she was old, with lines slicing down towards her lips and wrinkles jutting out around her eyes.

“I don’t want to have sex with you,” said Raymond.

“That’s, ok,” she chuckled, “I won’t take it personally. We’ll just talk.”

A long silence ensued and then Raymond said, “What’s with the notes?”

“Scattered thoughts, quotes, lists. Anything really. I’ve been doing it since forever. I’m not happy unless I’ve filled most of the wall.”

Elena stood, walked over to Raymond and placed her hand tenderly on his cheek. He grabbed her arm and snapped, “I told you I don’t want to.”

He noticed a scar marking her wrist in the shape of the figure of eight. He let her go. She looked hurt then sat back down – her face shrouded again by the gloom.

Another long silence was broken by Raymond, saying, “D’you have family? Kids?”

“I’d rather not say…do I know you from somewhere? Have we been together before?”

“No. What’s with the scar?”

“Well, let’s just say I haven’t always been that stable.”

“But why the figure eight?”

“It’s actually to cover a suicide scar – look I really don’t like talking about this.”

“One last question: have you ever uploaded your memories to the net?”

“What, are you a cop?”

“No, not at all, but I’m looking for someone and I thought you could help. I’ll leave you a big tip.”

“I don’t know anything about the net except email I’m afraid, that’s why I have the post-it notes I guess. What about you, what’s your story?”

“I’m looking for someone, someone I miss a great deal and I thought you could help me find her.”

“Well, I don’t know you so I can’t help. I’m sorry.”

Raymond didn’t believe her, and on his way home he tried to think of a way that he could prove she was full of lies.

As he entered through his front door he could see through to the living room where Cindy was sitting on the floor, a knife resting on her lap. Raymond rushed over to her, sickened by the sight of her arms ravaged by scars, pus oozing from the wounds shaped in the figure of eight up and down each limb.

“How did you find the knife?” Raymond muttered to himself.

He rushed to the bathroom to fetch a cloth to clean up Cindy’s gashes but on his way he noticed something shocking in his bedroom.

Pages torn from a notebook were cello-taped to almost every space on the wall. On each piece of paper was the message, “Forgive me my sweet baby.”

Raymond rushed back into the living room to demand some answers from Cindy, so he could find a way to calm the manic thoughts plaguing his mind but he guessed her system must have been overloaded because her head was lolled to one side and she showed no signs of recognising him.

Raymond leaned in close to Cindy’s ear then screamed, “Who are you?!”

Cindy didn’t flinch.

“Ok, if you won’t play ball maybe I can find out the truth another way,” he said, and he attached a wire from his phone to the back of her skull. He typed in a few commands and finally accessed the faulty memories. He programmed Cindy to play the images of these memories on his phone.

The memories weren’t just defective downloads from a dodgy website, however, but were recollections of events personally connected to Raymond’s life. After forwarding and rewinding the images he isolated a pivotal scene.

Driving in a car, Raymond’s dad navigated the slick wet streets and he was on the verge of exploding with rage.

“Let’s not do this now,” he said, gripping the wheel until his fingers turned white.

“Why not? Raymond has as much right to know as anyone,” said Raymond’s mum, who then turned to her son in the back seat. He looked about eight years old, had a frizz of blonde hair and wore an oatmeal-coloured tracksuit with black plimsolls. Beside him was Halle the AI au pair who had looked after Raymond since he was very small. She was petite with big round eyes and she scrutinised the back of the passenger seat with a quiet intent.

“Tell me this,” Raymond’s mum said, looking back at his dad, her voice becoming shrill, “how do you even have sex with a robot?”

“It’s easy, and she’s better than you.”

Raymond’s mum seethed, “You bastard, you total bastard. Do you love her? I mean you can’t love her, right?”

Raymond skipped memories to another scene. His mum held his hand as she knelt before him in the kitchen – Halle rinsing some vegetables in the background.

“You promise to be good for Halle; it’s not her fault, okay? I can’t live with your dad anymore, I just can’t, but he is good to you, so I know you’ll be fine. And remember you’re such a techno whiz, promise me you’ll never give up on your dream.”

“Please, please don’t go,” Raymond said.

Raymond’s mum stroked his cheek with her thumb and hushed him as he fell into fits of tears.

His mum went to pack her bags in the bedroom but was interrupted when an abrupt shriek came from the living room. Raymond’s mum rushed next door and found Raymond straddling Halle, pummelling her head and body with his tiny fists. Raymond’s mum tried to pacify Raymond, but after she pulled his raging body off of Halle he flared up against his mum, his face flushed with fury.

“Just go!” said Raymond’s dad, appearing at the doorway.

Raymond’s mum whispered in Raymond’s ear, “Forgive me my sweet baby,” then strode into the bedroom, heaved her bags over her shoulders and left without turning back.

As Raymond recalled, it was only a few short weeks after his mum had left that his dad tied a noose around the pull-up bar in the exercise room and hanged himself. He remembered how Halle had tried her best to comfort him by constantly asking if he needed a hug. He would remember her fondly for that, but soon after his dad’s death she was taken away and Raymond was put up for foster care.

Raymond had seen enough of his mum’s memories and had enough of his own reflections too. For now, anyway.

He took one last look at Cindy’s body, her wounds and her passive countenance. Then he disconnected her memory and reinserted the lifestyle guru persona. Cindy’s face dissolved out of its tired, wan disposition and exhibited a new resolute aspect. She took a few seconds to assess her predicament then turned to Raymond.

“What has happened to me?”

Raymond slumped down on the floor beside her, “Long story, but I will tell it to you sometime I promise. I’ve treated you and those like you without conscience – like you were lifeless scum. So, what I need to say is, I want you to stay. I need help.”

As Raymond bandaged Cindy’s wounds, he thought about his mum. Maybe he would pay her a visit again sometime. He had so many questions about the life she’d led without him. He even wanted to fill in the gaps about his dad and Halle, no matter how traumatising the memories.

He thought about getting dressed, drinking some black coffee and going to work. But then he decided to leave that until tomorrow or maybe the day after that. Self-contemplation didn’t come easy for him but he believed someday soon he’d be ready to end the cycle of despair.

Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Bourbon Penn, Menacing Hedge, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and elsewhere. He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal. 

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