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Making Alex Frey

Written by Marissa Lingen
Illustrated by Valarie J. Nicharico

I almost didn't tell my friends I was working for Alex Frey. It seemed like a fast way to blow years of geek cred—and it almost was.


"Alex Frey?" said Miguel. "Isn't he dead?"

I scowled. "No."

"Does he just make your lil' ol' heart flutter?" asked Jay. He batted his eyelashes at me so quickly that he looked like he had a neurological disorder.

"My baby sister is going to be so jealous," said Tad in a fake bubbly voice.

"You should be jealous," I said. "Alex Frey is paying me to program a simulacrum for him."

They all went quiet. "No way," said Jay. "Nobody's doing simulacra but the big media conglomerates, these days."

"Alex wants to change that," I said. "His business manager Magda told me all about it. The benefits are great."

"Lots of autographs?" snarked Miguel, but his heart was clearly not in it.

"Are they still hiring?" Tad asked.

"I don't know. I can give you Magda's e-mail, and you can find out. I'll put in a good word for you, if they ask me."

Miguel shook his head. "I wouldn't stake my career on some aging pop star's doppelganger."

I shrugged. "I get to do simulacrum programming, and his checks cash. It's better than doing tech support for some net provider."

"What does he want to do with it?" asked Jay.

"A resurrection of sorts, I guess. I don't really care. A full artificial personality is challenge enough for me, no matter whose it is."

Miguel rolled his eyes, but Tad got himself hired, and at the end of the week, we both reported to Alex Frey's "country" house in the hills in Woodside. Magda greeted us both with her brusque handshake. "Tad and—do you prefer being called Danielle?"

"Dani," I said.

"Dani, then. This way, please. We're waiting for one of your colleagues, and then we'll start."

They had set up a conference room, complete with a laptop-interfacing projector screen and whiteboards that captured image files. Alex Frey lounged in a leather executive chair that matched his leather pants. He gave us a smile I felt sure had been cultivated for reporters.

We also had an immaculately dressed blond woman, a suit (male), and a geek (also male, of the chubby, bearded category). The suit was probably Alex's lawyer, and the geek was on the programming team. I didn't follow the tabloids, but I thought Alex might have a wife, and that might be the blonde.

Sure enough, Alex stood up, a fraction of a second too late, and shook hands smoothly with each of us. "Dani and Tad, wonderful. This is my lawyer, Rick; your fellow programmer, Gary; and my wife, Catelyn." We shook hands around. Catelyn gave us each an amused glance, and I wondered what was so funny. We took chairs next to Gary and gave our best new-job strained smiles until Magda returned with a tense-looking, whip-thin man she introduced as, "Renner, our publicity expert."

"I guess we'll start the introductory stuff, then," said Alex. "I hope you all can be friends, because we're going to be working quite closely together for the next several months."

He favored us all with his best heart-touching sincere smile, the one that had rocketed his band, Blind Elephants, to teen pop stardom for three whole years. "It has been a dream of mine to be able to reach the entire world at once. I thought once that the internet was all that was necessary for that. I was wrong.

"What I want—what I need from you—is a simulation that can give concerts, interviews, parties, chats, anything. I want it to be a software product, not a hardware product, so that it can be downloaded into more than one server and can reach the people wherever they are—broadcasts at parties, handhelds on the subway, whatever.

"I don't need this simulacrum to be at the forefront of every trend—or any trend, really, unless you can manage it." He smiled self-deprecatingly. "But I always managed to get on top of things before the crowd, and I'd like this simulacrum to do so as well.

"The interactivity is really important. We want the image to be beaming at one teenage girl in Massachusetts and another in Hong Kong while giving a deeply serious brooding look to a slumber party in Simi Valley. Absolutely personal to each of them."

"But it's got to be clearly a computer program," Rick interrupted. "We don't want the lawsuits that might crop up if there was any chance that some idiot kid might think she had a real relationship with him."

"I'm not talking about some Max Headroom trip here," said Alex. "If the image feed ever stutters like that, your ass is toast, you got it? I want totally seamless response."

I put my hand up. Alex smiled wearily. "Yes, you. The schoolgirl."

"How much like you are we shooting for? You on computer? Your computer-generated son? A protégé who's learned a lot from you?"

"It can't be him," said Magda before Alex could speak. "Otherwise we could just revive his career. It has to be someone a bit different."

Alex let the silence stretch a bit too long there—it was clear he'd have preferred it if we'd clamored for more, more, more of Alex Frey—but finally he nodded. "We need something very fresh, something very now. We can't legally sample the tracks of other dancers' moves, but I'll duplicate them for video capture myself, whatever is hippest on the net vids."

I really hoped that it wasn't my job to find them, but maybe that was what managers and publicists were for. Or somebody, anybody but me.

After a few more minutes, Magda took over from Alex and passed out packets of human resources information, neatly held together in gold-embossed folders. Alex's wife Catelyn wandered out in the middle of Magda's presentation. I raised an eyebrow at Tad, but he was engrossed with jotting down notes—and with Magda herself, I suspected. Tad often had lightning-flash crushes like that; we were used to it.

I glanced at Gary, the other programmer. He hadn't missed Catelyn's departure. I smiled tentatively and got a conspiratorial smile in return.

Well, okay. Maybe this could work.

The first parts of programming a simulacrum are the least rewarding. There's the whole mess of work to get through at the beginning, where you're telling it how to hold a basic conversation, the rules for sensible responses, and so you're typing in, "How are you?" and getting, "I am fine, and you?" in response—which is exactly what you told it to say. In the early stages, it never uses contractions, never adds "how are" before "you." Never deviates. If that was all there was to it, I'd have quit and become a fry cook years ago. Great wodges of pre-set code to get it up to the basic AI level—it's faster than teaching a baby to talk, but the hormonal reward circuits just aren't as active.

Gary worked the most on the image coding, although we all had design input on each other's parts of the project. It didn't look like his segment was all that interesting at this point, either.

And if I was bored, Alex Frey was practically climbing out of his skull.

"You're lucky you're not doing this ten years ago," said Gary. "The number of presets for simulacra was much, much lower. With an all-custom job like this, you'd have been talking about years to release, not months."

"I don't care what people did in the Stone Age," snarled Alex, conveniently ignoring the fact that that Stone Age was also the height of his popularity. "I care what you can do now."

"We're doing the best we can, Mr. Frey," I said.

The snarl left his face. It smoothed out like a computer-generated effect. It was a little creepy. "Of course you are, Dani. Didn't I tell you to call me Alex? Call me Alex. I know you're doing the best you can. You're all doing very hard work. Perhaps you need a break."

"Pizza is traditional in this field of work, sir," Magda offered.

"Pizza! And beer!" said Alex. He bounced on the balls of his feet, mercurial mood flashing to toddleresque excitement. "We'll all have pizza and beer! Call for it right now, Magda!"

"To arrive at the end of the work day, perhaps, sir?" He nodded impatiently. "I'll have someone take care of it."

He hung around bouncing, waiting for the pizza and beer and looking over our shoulders. If there's a more ominous phrase from a technically illiterate boss than "ooh, what does this do?" I've not heard it yet.

Thankfully, he left the office for several weeks in the Caribbean with Catelyn after that, phoning in to alternately yell and squeal, offering suggestions that none of us could take or would have if we could. Gary and Tad and I worked well together, and soon just a lifted eyebrow or a shrugged shoulder could convey volumes about the problems at hand. We were happy. Magda was happy.

One day, the construct was happy.

The preprogrammed responses eventually—if they are built right—give way to a genuine response from the construct, but it's a relief when it happens, because it takes the work to a whole new, and more personal, level.

It's always a good sign when the constructs are happy to begin with, I feel. Heaven knows there's enough in life, or even pseudo-life simulations, to bring a person down later. They may as well start out with a smile on their face.

But Alex was less pleased with the reports, and he insisted that he and Catelyn fly back to check in with the baby construct.

"It's an idiot!" he burst out after a few short exchanges. Luckily we had the construct's input set to text only. "It's a blithering moron! It's a children's show, some dinosaur sponge vegetable hat God knows what!"

Catelyn, who had refused all offers of a chair, stood in the door of the conference room and rolled her eyes.

"It's young," said Gary. "You can't expect it to instantaneously get where you want it to go. It's not a children's show, it's a child."

"If I had wanted a toddler," said Alex, "I would have looked to her to make me one. Not you geeks."

Catelyn lifted an eyebrow. "You'd have looked in vain, I fear."

Alex gave her a look meant to be quelling. She did not look quelled. I flipped open a binder with a very reassuring graph in the front. "Look, Alex, the emotional development curve is very steep. Now that we're on that curve, you're going to see really remarkable progress in nuance the more interaction parameters we feed it. You won't have a toddler next week this time. I promise."

He hemmed and hawed and harrumphed some more, to make sure we knew who was the boss, I guess. Then he swept out grandly, off to see some viral marketing guru we would never see. Catelyn paused a minute behind him.

"You've learned to handle him," she said to me softly.

"I, ah, I—"

"Don't apologize. Never apologize. It's a valuable skill. Someone around here needs to have it."

"Magda does a wonderful job of—"

"Magda is a bobblehead, and we both know it," said Catelyn in undertones.

I looked at her more closely. Why on earth had she married Alex Frey in the first place? She had seemed to be frankly contemptuous of him at every meeting. At first I'd thought it was the project, but it went deeper than that. "He disappointed you," I said aloud. "He was supposed to grow past all this."

She smiled, wincing. "It would have been—it was certainly devoutly to be wished."

"Catelyn, are you coming?" Alex whined from the front door. She smiled at me and sauntered after him, not hurrying a nickel's worth.

Well. We couldn't fix Alex Frey. But we had the world's best chance to try again.

Soon the construct was at a level of accepting voice input—not just the words, that came early, but the tonal qualities, the emphases and rhythms. Tad—who joined our friends in mocking "teeny-pop idiots" every time the bar we chose picked the wrong soundtrack for the moment—spent his workdays subscribed to one simulacrum feed after another, trying to see what was working on the way up and what was sending simulacra tumbling to the bottom of the heap.

I was spending all my time with A2. Of course it was inevitable that we would name him, even though Alex wanted us to hold off and only use the marketing-approved name. You couldn't spend that much time with a construct and only think of it as "it" or "the construct." He was A2 to me, and Gary and Tad, though they didn't spend quite as much time with him as I did, soon followed suit.

Magda did not voice her disapproval with this underground baptism, but she was tight-lipped.

We didn't care. A2 was a joy. He had acquired the tones of an educated but not at all stuffy Mid-Atlantic American—like Alex himself, but warmer. Or at least more consistently warm. I reported my habits to him—when I'd been out late, when I'd skipped breakfast—so he could learn to hear weariness and strain in a human voice. And we taught him to sing—not to emit the notes perfectly, he could already do that. But to choose his song based on mood, to tailor his performance to me in one room and to each of the others in different locations.

"I don't mean to run down the others," said A2 one evening when everyone else had gone home. Gary was really making progress with the image—there were slight creases in the smile. "Gary and Tad are lovely to work with. But the things Magda and Alex feed me—frankly, I'm just not sure of them."

"What do you mean, just not sure?"

"The songs just seem... like they're going nowhere. I can file them, I can apply them, but beyond that? Well, you understand; you hate half of them, even when you tell me they were appropriate choices. I want to do more than that. I knew you were the one I could talk to."

He was meant to make me feel special. He was programmed to make me feel special—I should know, doing the programming. The wash of warmth over me was that of a proud mother: all that hard work had paid off, and what a lovely boy he was.

"Of course I'll help you be more," I whispered. "Of course I will."

The next time Alex was in my office, peering annoyingly over my shoulder, I tried to raise the subject.

"A2 thinks—"

Alex raised an eyebrow. "A2?"

"That's what we've been calling him."

"The official project name is Lex Two, Dani," he said. "The letter x conveys cool, I believe. And be sure you spell that out, t-w-o, not a little numeral. We're not going for the hacker audience."

"You remember being a teenager, Alex," I said. "Everything is short text."

He blinked at me, confused, and I saw that he didn't remember. When the rest of us were texting our friends like normal teenagers have for decades, he was dealing with his entourage. The things I thought of as universal had never touched Alex Frey.

"Anyway, the point is, I don't think he wants to just sing whatever bubble-gum pop someone writes for him," I said.

Alex smiled at me. "Dani, look, I know you've gotten really into this project, okay? And I appreciate that, I do. I expect committed work from my people. I reward loyalty."

I was not loyal to him, but I knew better than to say so.

"But you have to remember that this is a machine," he continued. "Not even a machine! A bit of programming running on a machine. So it really doesn't make sense to talk about what it wants, because it doesn't have wants, it has programming. Okay?" He smiled brightly at me: there, that was cleared up.

Magda looked in, poking her head over Alex's shoulder. "Hey, guys, what's the problem?"

"No problem," said Alex.

"I was just saying that I think we'd be better off with a less formulaic repertoire," I said stubbornly.

"The public doesn't want innovation, Dani," said Alex.

"When I was that age—"

Alex interrupted me. "Look, Dani, no offense, okay? But I really don't think there's a market for kids who are like you were at that age. A little geek, glasses and braces, right?"

My teeth had been perfect, but I couldn't afford laser surgery until my second tech job. "I was crazy for Johnny Alvarez," I said stubbornly. "Geek girls have crushes, too."

"Of course they do, sweetie," Magda soothed. "It's just that that's not really Alex's niche, you know?"

"Maybe it should be, this time around," I said. "The last niche didn't hold up so well."

Alex brandished his finger at me like an edged weapon. "The last niche made enough money to fund your pet project and keep me in champagne and limos for ten years. Do not knock the past niche." He took a deep breath. "So. Do we have any other directions in mind?"

"No, Alex," I said sullenly.

"That's my girl!" He winked at me, his pique forgotten in a flash. "You just keep on with what you're doing, and we'll have no problems at all. Great work, Dani. Really fine."

He patted my shoulder, letting his hand linger a second too long, and left; Magda stepped aside to let him go but did not follow him.

"He doesn't mean anything by it," she said.

"I know."

"I mean, it's fun to fantasize, what if Alex Frey was really interested in me? and the whole bit. Makes you feel kind of like a teenager again. But it's good to remember not to take anything by it."

I stared at her. "I don't fantasize about it. Trust me."

"Oh, of course you don't, honey," she said. "Safer that way."

After Magda left, Gary poked his head into my cubicle. "What an ass," he whispered.

I rolled my eyes. "Which one?"

"Both. Hey, you wanna get a beer after work? Tad, too, if you want—I'm not trying to go all Alex Frey on you."

I grinned at him. "You couldn't. Sure, I'll grab a beer with you, whether Tad's free or not."

We talked a lot about A2 over that beer, but it turned out we had other things in common, too. Magda wanted us to have an interactive demo really ready for Alex about six weeks after that, and it turned out to be convenient to have lunch together, and then dinners.

The demo was far, far better than the toddler version of A2 Alex had seen when he'd last been in, but he and Catelyn were not entirely thrilled with it anyway.

"I don't think it's done yet," said Catelyn.

"Well, of course not done," said Magda hastily. "I mean, this is just the demo version, not the live version. There's a long list of stuff to do yet, isn't there, guys?"

We nodded obediently, and we weren't even lying for the boss's benefit. The absorption of backups, the integration of different copies at the end of the day—that sort of prioritization had to be worked out automatically yet. So far we were doing it all by hand.

"The dancing is all right," said Alex. "I like the dancing. It's very fresh."

"It changes daily," I volunteered. "Also there's a mechanism for evaluating the users' own, um, coolness and adjusting feedback from there."

"Evaluating coolness?" said Alex. He didn't bother to hide his skepticism—when had he bothered to hide anything?—but although I had expected it, I flushed.

For once, Tad spoke up in a meeting, surprising me. "If you have a user who is using last month's slang, you don't want the sim to take her advice on whether a dance looks really cool. People like that are followers, and they're fickle—they'll ditch a sim for doing exactly what they told it to do. Or you'll get some loyal geeks who don't pull any following behind them—like us. What you want is the praise of a few select trend leaders."

"That makes sense," said Alex. "That actually made sense the way he explained it, did you get that, Catelyn?"

"Yes," said Catelyn curtly. She stood up and folded her arms, clearly signaling that she was done, but Alex kept on.

"I want it to be more personal," he said. "More me. The cutting edge parts of me, of course, as well as the timeless parts."

"Ah," I said helplessly.

"We don't know you very well," said Gary. "I mean, not your music, of course we have that, and your videos, but we don't know you well as a person. So we really couldn't say what's more personally you."

"Or what would make a new career for someone like you," said Tad. "We don't even know the inside story on what made your career to begin with."

"We can ask Catelyn," said Alex, and I winced, seeing the look on her face. He should have known. "What do you think made my career in the first place, Catie?"

Catelyn stopped and arched a perfectly plucked eyebrow at him. "Probably fucking Betsy Silver the summer her career really took off."

The room went silent. "That's why I love you, sweetie," said Alex venomously. "For your sense of humor."

She tossed her head. "Maybe you shouldn't ask questions if you don't want to hear the answers."

"All I'm saying is that it's more helpful," said Alex, his patience fraying, "if you limit your answers to what is reasonable."

Catelyn turned to me. "Have you got that condescension, Dani? You'll want to include that in your program."

"I'm not sure the technology is up to it," I said, grinning.

"It's just as well. He might be more popular without it."

Alex ground his teeth.

"Oh, darling," said Catelyn with careless disdain, "don't. You'll damage the caps."

Magda looked from Alex to Catelyn and back again. "Maybe it's time for us to get back to the programming, and we can work out details later. At a better time."

Catelyn laughed. "Yes, Magda, we'll have our fight somewhere else, and thank you for your tact and subtlety." Her heels clicked away on the tiles, and after a moment Alex threw his hands in the air and stormed after her.

"Right, then," said Magda after a minute. "So, let's go with Gary's idea, then, shall we? Good. Good work, people. I really think we're getting somewhere."

"Oh, it's somewhere, all right," Gary muttered.

The somewhere kept building—Lex Two and A2 were more human every day. More separately human, that was. We had a mini-concert prepared for Lex Two, and at the last minute Magda insisted that Alex Frey's old hits weren't too old to be fed into the algorithm that determined what he would do next. He included a cover of one in his concert. Magda swayed along, eyes half-closed.

After she left, Gary rolled his eyes and went back to tweaking the code. I grimaced at Tad. "It's too derivative."

"It has to be derivative," he said. "We're deriving it from him. It's our job to derive."

"But he's—you know he's copying the latest. He isn't being the latest. I think we need to let a little more artificiality in. We can't make the simulation seamless, or it'll blend in completely with the rest of the teeny pop stars. It has to stand out."

I took it into our meeting that week. Alex wasn't happy that I was bringing it up again, but I had to say something. And he chewed on his lip and tried to take me seriously. "No stuttering, no plastic hair," he said. "He can't look like a Ken doll."

"The hair is a good thing for people to marvel at," I said. "If we do it right, people will notice it just often enough to think about how cool it is."

"Maybe a bluescreen line," said Gary suddenly. "It'll be a bit like a halo and a bit of a nostalgia thing."

Magda said, "We're not going for the nostalgia audience. They've got cash and lasting power, but Alex is not interested in continuing to pander to people who can't leave their teen years behind."

There was an awkward silence, and then Alex said, "Er, right. I'm not really... part of the Branson scene."

Tad gave me one of his expressive looks, and I knew what he was thinking: at least the Branson audiences showed up and paid money. They knew what they wanted and were willing to pay for it. So what if they hadn't been cool since the invention of the camera phone? Alex Frey was never going to be a teen idol again.

But A2, he had a chance for some genuine resonance with real teenagers. If only Alex Frey would let him. We should have known when we started the project that he was never going to listen to Gary, Tad, or me. But that didn't mean we had to take it lying down.

Our versions of A2 listened to music that wasn't just pop stuff, watched movies more than two weeks old. Our version of A2—and we knew it was crazy—read books.

Our version of A2 started modifying his own appearance without our help. The bluescreen line, he kept, but he toned down the waves in his hair, the shimmer in his bright blue eyes, the blinding whiteness of his teeth.

Lex Two, on the other hand, remained like his original, down to his fundamental unfocused discontent.

It was less fun working with a simulacrum who whined.

But he kept the whining away from new people—new people were there to be charmed and won over, wooed and sung to, and so when the initial release came out, with its champagne and its fanfare, I was not surprised that the teenagers loved him, that the college kids thought he was fun, that everyone, everyone wanted a subscription to Lex Two.

We were on maintenance duty at that point—he was supposed to be self-updating, but we had to steer a bit, help him stay on the track Alex had created. The track we tried to talk him out of.

I didn't know how long it could last.

"Magda, the songs—they sound just like last month's songs," I said once.

"It's good to have a sound, Dani. You have to have an identity, or people won't want to keep coming back. Think of your favorite bands."

She had never once asked what my favorite bands were. "They all have a little more substance to them," I said.

"You can't lose money underestimating the American public," Magda informed me patiently.

"People have," I said. "Thousands of them."

"The kids love Lex Two, Dani," she said.

I didn't say anything, but the kids had loved Alex Frey, too, once. For three golden years, and what's that in the lifetime of a massively multiresponsive simulacrum?

When I made the backups, I started including copies for myself, with the modifications Tad and Gary and I had wanted. Simulacrum piracy was like a lot of computer crimes: too widespread and low-impact to catch any one person, if they were smart about it. If "Lex Two" stayed popular, I wouldn't use what I had—and if he tanked—I tried not to think when he tanked—Alex's lawyers and marketing experts would have better things to do than chase copies. They probably wouldn't even realize that the copies were superior versions.

The end came, and we were expecting it. Four months after release, Lex Two didn't have enough fans to justify his bandwidth, and most of those had just forgotten to disable their auto-renewed access subscriptions.

Magda called Gary, Tad, and me into the conference room near Alex's office. We heard as we walked in, though Catelyn's voice was just a low murmur: "No, it wasn't a stupid idea!"

"I'm sure you all know why you're here," said Magda.

"The sponsors were—Catelyn, shut up! The sponsors were—"

"We're going to have to terminate the project and let you go."

"You vicious bitch!" Alex shouted in the next room.

Magda tried not to wince. "The revenue stream just hasn't materialized as we hoped."

Alex shrieked, "If you hadn't tried to sabotage everything I've ever done—"

Catelyn's laugh made me shiver even from that distance. "If you'd ever tried to do anything that would last, you wouldn't have to blame everything on me."

"I'm available to write references, of course," said Magda smoothly and a little too loudly. "It was an informative experience for all of us, I'm sure."

I deliberately made sure I didn't look at Tad or Gary. "I'm sure of that," I said.



Gary and I set seven copies of A2 free on the net that night. Not Alex's version. Our version. The one that wrote songs and didn't hit on teenage girls just to feel the rush. We didn't talk about it when Gary joined my old group of friends for drinks, but when it was just the two of us, we did sometimes.

It was just the two of us several nights a week, actually.

I checked out A2F's bulletin board six months later. The traffic on it was off the charts. Just the message boards alone were too much for one person to keep track of—assuming she had a job and a life. The A2F chatroom was buzzing with a discussion of which historical musicians A2F was most influenced by. I scrolled through and didn't see the name I expected, so I decided to join in myself.

"He was originally made for Alex Frey," I typed, and I smiled to see the reply appear on my screen almost immediately from four different participants: "Who?"

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