BY IAN GORDON
(Statement of STEVE TAYLOR, VANITY LTD. Tech Support)
Mr. Burmann was one of the annoying ones, you know? One of those who always found problems with the equipment. He’d already been through three units before his complaint was referred to me, and now he was fretting about the fourth—a brand-new unit at that! Given his reputation as a bit of a timewaster, customer services put the complaint through on a standard, with a three to five-day turnaround. A mistake? Possibly. But they couldn’t have known the problem was unprecedented; it was a third-generation unit for goodness sake!
The delivery driver, a stout chap in his late forties, pulled up outside the secluded cottage of Mr. Mark Burmann at approximately 8:55 a.m. It was a chilly morning in the British Midlands; frost from the previous night coated the uneven flags leading up to the door. The courier struggled up the pathway with what was assuredly an awkward package—a rectangular cardboard box some six feet in height, a foot in width, and another half a foot in depth. Luminous yellow tape surrounded the box, the word FRAGILE emblazoned on it in bold black lettering. The cardboard itself was grey, upon which numerous instances of the words VANITY LTD. were visible.
As the courier successfully reached the door without stumbling and/or dropping the hefty package, the unassuming Mr. Burmann emerged from the warmth of the cottage. The man was around thirty years old, sporting a healthy paunch, and a penchant for unkempt, receding hair. His eyes were a little too close together, complimenting a birdlike, angular face, and a sheer rock forehead. Thin lips curled upwards in an artificial smile, as the courier, under considerable duress, staggered into the vestibule with the box, and set it down without incident. Burmann, a man of few words, signed for the item, smiled again wanly, and sent the courier on his way.
Closing the door, he clutched the box, and painstakingly shimmied it from the vestibule, into what was apparently some sort of dining room come study. Armed with a utility knife, he hastily tore it open, marvelling at the package within. It was a box within a box; the tatty outer shell gave way to a more sophisticated cardboard, finished to resemble brushed steel. Italicised lettering across the front of the package read Tru™ Reflection: It Sees the Real U, under which, in smaller lettering were the words by Vanity. Impatiently, Burmann attacked the box with the utility knife, stripping the glossy cardboard back to reveal yet another layer of packaging—bubble wrap. He tore it off, eager to claim his prize.
And it was done. There before him, stood Vanity’s latest (and ardently coveted) model of the free-standing digital display system, Tru Reflection. The device was now in its third generation, boasting Tru™ Photorealistic Rendering and Tru™ Speech Emulation. Burmann had owned more than one of each of the previous generations, and hoped the latest model would be free of the frustrating flaws inherent in its forerunners.
At a passing glance, one could almost be forgiven for mistaking Tru Reflection as nothing more than a free-standing mirror, with its vertical orientation, brushed steel frame, and adjustable mount. And that’s precisely what it was, though its internal components were capable of transforming it into something much more than your average looking glass.
The balding thirty-year-old nibbled at his fingers as he ran his eyes over Tru Reflection’s matte display screen. It was perfectly smooth, and he likened its featureless surface to that of a black hole in deep space; it absorbed all available light, casting no reflection whatsoever. The screen was a marvel of engineering, and a vast improvement on its predecessors. Mark salivated with excitement.
Rummaging through the torn cardboard and bubble wrap, Burmann located the power cord. Hastily connecting the female to the system, he proceeded to connect the opposing three-pronged plug to the nearest wall socket. Tru Reflection drank greedily from the source of electricity, and three red lights appeared at the base of the unit. The display screen illuminated, coupled with Vanity’s patented synth-string jingle, a rather joyous F major seventh chord. Then the system greeted its new owner.
“Hello Mark,” it said, in a sublime female voice. “I am Tru Reflection, version three point zero.”
Fully operational, the display screen was now a functioning looking glass. Burmann glanced at his reflection fleetingly, before the familiar sense of self-loathing forced him to look away.
Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew a smartphone, and, following a fingerprint scan, launched the Tru Reflection app. Selecting a previously saved template labelled Blue-Eyed-Mark, he nibbled at his fingers again as a modified photograph of himself was downloaded from Vanity’s servers. Upon completion of the download, Vanity’s melodious jingle sounded again. Using the onscreen editing tools, Mark made some additional changes to what was already a heavily edited image (eyes from brown to blue, and a cheekbone sharpener) and hit CAST.
On the display screen, the unwelcome, birdlike features of Burmann were instantly replaced by those of the modified image. And what a sight it was—the voluptuous hair, the chiselled jaw, and the wild, sapphire eyes.
Now he could look at himself.
Now he could daydream.
Now he could masturbate.
But there was a setback; Tru Reflection’s display screen flickered, and the unit promptly shut down. The perfect face of Blue-Eyed-Mark disappeared. Several iterations of profanity escaped Burmann’s lips.
Once again, he was forced to contact Vanity for assistance. The phone call, lengthy and expensive, went much as Mark expected it to. The customer services agent, Diane, offered a service window of three to five working days.
“Three to five days?!” Burmann had raged. “Four fucking machines! Four fucking complaints! Three to five fucking days?!”
But his colourful language had no effect on the young agent; Burmann, unfortunately, would have to wait three to five working days for a home visit.
The following morning, as Burmann strolled into the dining room come study clutching a mug of black coffee, he paused. Tru Reflection had come back online. There was something odd about it; though the sleek display screen reflected the room faithfully, his image was entirely absent.
Withdrawing his smartphone, he launched the Tru Reflection App. Selecting a template labelled Nordic-Mark, he hit CAST.
Vanity’s heavenly jingle sounded, but the display screen remained blank.
Utilising the app’s camera mode, he took a photograph, successfully capturing his morning face, bloated cheeks and all. Making a couple of minor adjustments to the image (eyes from brown to green, and a close shave) he hit CAST again.
Tru Reflection’s display screen flickered briefly, but that was all; it remained entirely free of Mark’s image.
Unsatisfied with the idea he had inherited the properties of a vampire, he took another photograph, in this instance choosing to leave the image unedited. Once more, he hit CAST, and again, the display screen flickered, before returning to its plain reproduction of the unoccupied room. Burmann shook his head in disbelief.
Returning to the kitchen, he approached the coffee pot, which was still steaming on the windowsill above the countertop. Glancing outside, he watched the morning mist as it tumbled through the greenery of the mature garden, filtering through the silver birches at the far end. With eyes deceived by both steam and fog, Burmann caught sight of a motionless figure amid the pruned rose shrubs. The creeping vapour seemed to animate it, giving flow to its long blonde hair.
As the steam from the coffee pot reduced to a wisp, Mark locked eyes with the stranger, and saw that it was a man, a handsome man, who, oddly, bore a striking resemblance to himself. A horrifying thought crossed his mind, followed by a shocking moment of realisation. The gentleman in the garden was a template, an edit produced for Tru Reflection, the image labelled Nordic-Mark.
Burmann’s life changed in that instant, concluding that his malfunctioning, third generation Tru Reflection, had somehow projected Nordic-Mark into the real world. But how could such a thing be?
Retreating from the kitchen, Burmann once again launched the Tru Reflection app, and promptly deleted the offending template.
But the reproduction remained in the garden.
Burmann executed the ERASE CAST HISTORY command.
But still, the queer facsimile remained in the garden.
In a last ditched attempt to be rid of the unnecessarily handsome doppelganger, Mark unplugged Tru Reflection, and watched as the reflected image of the dining room come study disappeared from the display screen.
But Nordic-Mark remained in the garden.
Wiping beads of sweat from his brow, Burmann contemplated the mysterious guest. He sipped chronically at the mug of coffee, and once again nibbled at the raw and flaking flesh about his fingernails.
He reached a decision—he would step outside and face the abomination.
With one last sip of coffee, he placed the mug on the countertop, moved from the kitchen to the utility room, and opened the back door. The mist had cleared somewhat, revealing the true ghastly nature of the facsimile. Mark approached it tentatively.
“Hello?” he muttered.
Nordic-Mark remained silent. Burmann gulped audibly upon noticing that the figure was in fact breathing, albeit rather slowly.
“Hello?” Mark voiced again.
But still, the reproduction remained unresponsive.
As the balding thirty-year-old neared the figure, he noticed unnatural imperfections: smooth white flesh and a lack of fingernails; straw-like hair and blank, mottled eyes. Below its bulbous nose, a cavernous mouth continued to draw air.
Burmann reached out and touched Nordic-Mark’s pale hand, eliciting no response. The flesh was supple, but it was cold and sleek.
“Uh ... you should come inside,” Burmann stated, and gripped the creature’s hand firmly.
Nordic-Mark blinked, and as its marbled eyes observed Burmann’s hand upon its own, it scowled, and glared back up at him. Its face was a mask of pure hatred; its dark eyes the hollow suggestion of vicious intent.
“What’s ... uh ... wrong?” Mark asked hesitantly.
What had merely been a scowl, was now a distortion. It bared its teeth; the facsimile wanted to eat Burmann alive.
Mark fled back to the house.
Leaping into the utility room, he locked the door behind him, and immediately turned to look upon his pursuer. And there it was, ambling across the grass like a toddler taking its first steps.
But before the once handsome figure had made it even half way across the garden, it stumbled forwards onto the stone path, and shattered into a number of uneven pieces.
“Holy. Fucking. Shit!” was all Burmann could muster up.
Taking the decision to the leave the accidental creature in the garden, he quickly returned to the dining room come study. Pulling out his smartphone, he once again launched the Tru Reflection app. Consulting the FAQ, he wasn’t particularly surprised to find no mention of metaphysical manifestations.
Still sweating, and quite terrified, he put the phone down on the dining table, pulled out one of the chairs, and sat.
In what was supposed to be a moment of reflection and contemplation, Burmann was startled by a thud in the room above—his bedroom. With the bump, came the hideous realisation that the subsequent CASTS following that of Nordic-Mark, may too have been inadvertently projected into the cottage and/or garden.
Mark climbed to his feet, and slowly moved in the direction of the stairs, arming himself with a large paperweight along the way. Reaching the bottom of the flight, he heard the disconcerting thud again. A shiver passed through his bones; Burmann wasn’t cut out for such insanity. His experience was simply that of an introverted loner; encounters with figments of his imagination were quite simply unheard-of.
He slowly climbed the stairs, one step at a time, listening.
No further thuds were heard.
Reaching the landing, he veered to his immediate left, and climbed the additional two steps to his bedroom. The door was ajar. Pushing it open tentatively, he was relieved to discover an empty room. However, the walk-in wardrobe was closed, and within was enough space for a clone or two. Nervously, paperweight in hand, he crept up to the wardrobe, and pulled open the double doors.
Instantly, light fell upon the interior space, and a green-eyed, stubble-free variant of himself spoke aloud:
Mark let out a startled shriek, and brought the paperweight down upon the head of the disturbingly faithful facsimile. The paperweight crumpled its skull like tinfoil, the force of the impact catapulting a marbled, emerald eye across the room. The clone collapsed to the carpeted surface of the walk-in wardrobe, and a pale blue liquid streamed from what remained of its head.
Burmann promptly heaved, and produced a liquid of his own.
He was down to the dry heaves before he found the composure to glance again at the devastated remains of Green-Eyed-Mark.
But it wasn’t over; there was another facsimile in the cottage, there had to be. Three CASTS, three clones.
And so, he proceeded across the hall, and checked bedrooms two and three.
He checked the bathroom, including the shower cubicle and the tub.
Downstairs, he checked the living room and the water closet.
The kitchen was an open space, as was the dining room come study, so that just left the crawlspace at the top of the stairs.
“Fuck...” Mark mumbled under his breath, his fingers tightening around the paperweight.
Returning to the top of the stairs, he approached the wooden panels concealing the entrance to the crawlspace, and crouched before it. The hatch was aligned with the panels, rendering it invisible to the naked eye. Burmann feared the prospect of opening it, and so instead, knocked.
After a moment, something knocked back.
“Hello?” Mark mumbled.
On the other side of the hatch, a similar voice echoed, “Hello?”
“Are you dangerous?” Burmann continued.
“No,” the clone answered.
“Are you sure?” Mark reiterated. “I don’t want to have to hurt you.”
“I’m sure,” the clone insisted.
Burmann opened the hatch, and saw the very same trousers he himself was wearing.
“Come on out,” Mark invited.
The clone stooped, and crawled out of the hatch. Climbing to its feet, it stood at precisely the same height as Burmann, and, disturbingly, it was literally his true reflection. He shuddered, recalling the last CAST, the subject of which had been an unedited photograph of himself as he had appeared that very morning. That horrible face he loathed—the birdlike features, the disproportioned ears, the pinpoint pupils, the receding hairline, the oily complexion—gazed back at him, faithfully reproduced by the malfunctioning Tru Reflection. And it was all the worse, for he could smell its odour—his odour—and could taste it in the back of his throat.
Simultaneously, the two Marks were on the dry heaves.
Simultaneously, the two Marks fainted.
When Burmann finally regained consciousness, he was forced to consult his watch to determine the date and time. Somehow, he had been out cold for over sixteen hours, as it was after 01:00 a.m. on the morning of March 3rd.
His doppelganger, Mark the Second, was nowhere to be seen.
Climbing to his feet, Burmann heard the familiar tones of buttons being punched on a smartphone. The faint sounds were coming from downstairs, specifically the dining room come study, intermittently punctuated by that incessant Vanity jingle.
“Oh shit...” he managed.
Descending the stairs at speed, Mark clumsily burst into the dining room come study. There, in the dimly lit space by the mantelpiece, Mark the Second was sat cross-legged in front of Tru Reflection, Burmann’s smartphone in his hand. Tru Reflection was back online and, as before, it still appeared to be malfunctioning, reflecting the room, but not its inhabitants.
“What are you doing?” Mark yelled, addressing the clone.
“What I should have done to begin with,” the doppelganger answered. “I’m running a diagnostic.”
“What the hell for? You need to turn that thing off!” Mark barked, pointing at the display screen. “It’s caused enough bloody trouble as it is!”
“You think I don’t know that?” number two returned. “I’ve got a bloody clone running amok!”
Burmann gulped, his anxiety increasing.
“Fucking hell!” he yelled. “You’re the fucking clone here! You’re lucky I haven’t done away with you like I did the others!”
His comment seemed to distract Mark the Second momentarily, and in that instant, Burmann happened to glance at the phone in the clone’s hand. As instructed by the diagnostic tool, the disillusioned facsimile had queued up dozens of templates, and was about to hit CAST.
“Don’t you fucking dare!” Burmann yelled, lunging towards his doppelganger.
But it was too late. Mark the Second tapped the large green icon, and a batch process was executed. As Mark collided with the clone, the smartphone fell out of its cigar-like fingers, and crashed onto the mantelpiece. The display screen shattered on impact, rendering the device inert.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Mark the Second demanded, clawing at Burmann in an attempt to crawl out from under him.
“I was trying to stop you from CASTING, you stupid bastard!” Burmann exclaimed. “You do realise what’s going to happen, don’t you?!”
“Of course,” the clone casually replied. “As part of the diagnostic process, the app will batch-process a number of CASTS in order to weed out bugs.”
“BUGS?!” Mark practically screamed.
“Programming errors and the like,” number two replied calmly.
“Fuck my life,” Burmann muttered, shaking his head.
Mark the Second smiled.
“Don’t worry, it’ll take a while to process,” it said, in a peculiarly reassuring tone of voice. “In the meantime, I’ll put some coffee on, and we can talk about what we’re going to do with you.”
“Do with me?” Mark quizzed, aghast. “Do with me?! You’re the fucking accident here!”
Number two just shook its head.
“Come on, calm down, let’s go get some coffee.”
And with that, Burmann’s identical clone strolled out of the dining room come study.
Mark frowned, and glanced up at Tru Reflection’s display screen. There was something sinister about it now. It towered over him like his master; its refusal to reproduce his image was a reflection of its contempt towards him. The system was after all, very familiar with the balding thirty-year old. Burmann’s Tru Account was synchronised with the third generation of Tru Reflection and its predecessors, and consequently, it was privy to his CASTING habits, and the archive of disturbing images he had doctored over the years. Perhaps the third generation—with its Tru™ Central Processing Unit and Tru™ Artificial Intelligence—disliked the pitiful loner, and loathed his wanton desires; particularly that most frequent of CASTS, the controversial template labelled She-Mark. Burmann had spent many an evening in front of She-Mark. The first generation rendering had been somewhat pixelated, but it had served its purpose. The second generation had improved upon its forerunner greatly, especially in its rendering of the eyes and areolas. But She-Mark was Burmann’s private creation; the machine was incapable of passing judgement, wasn’t it?
Burmann panicked. The clone-turned-barista had executed a diagnostic, an operation designed to eliminate errors by repeatedly CASTING previously generated templates.
She-Mark was on its way.
As was the recently crumpled Green-Eyed-Mark.
And the violently unstable Nordic-Mark.
China-Mark and Thai-Mark—they were coming too.
Not to mention Dreamy-Mark, Cloudy-Mark, and Fairy-Mark.
And—God help him—Cripple-Mark and Ampu-Mark.
All those weird and wonderful templates he had so fervently gazed upon, they were soon to be his uninvited guests.
Leaving the dining room come study, Burmann joined Mark the Second in the kitchen. But to his horror, he wasn’t alone. The diagnostic’s repetition of Mark’s last CAST—the unaltered image of himself—had spawned another identical clone, Mark the Third. Swallowing audibly, Mark joined the pair, and accepted the mug of coffee the clone to his left offered him.
It said, “Turning into a bit of a situation this, isn’t it?”
“You can say that again!” the clone to Mark’s right answered.
“Neither of you are supposed to be here!” Mark barked, addressing the pair in a vicious tone, nervously sipping at the mug of coffee.
Before the clones could respond, the door to the living room swung open, and in strolled a brand-new reproduction of Green-Eyed-Mark.
Eyeballing its new company, it said, “Hello?”
“Hello!” the clone to the left of Burmann returned. Noting its eyes, it added, “Green eyes—at least we can tell you apart from the three of us!”
Green-Eyed-Mark, its pearly skin glossy and marbled eyes glazed, muttered once again, “Hello?”
Burmann, caught in a web spun of his own vanity, placed the coffee mug on the table, and held his head in his hands. What on Earth was he going to do? How could this improbable series of events be reversed?
It was the dead of night.
His smartphone was shattered.
Vanity had provided a three-to-five-day window.
Above all else, the situation was utterly absurd.
He lifted his head, afraid to look upon his accidental siblings. And then he noticed that the motion sensor light out in the garden had been triggered. The four Marks, Green-Eyed included, approached the kitchen window, and peered out into the misty garden; the flowing vapors were phantom-like in the glow of the security light. As before, a figure was standing among the flowers of the mature garden. As the mist dissipated, the group beheld the unnatural visage of Nordic-Mark; the shattered pieces of its previous incarnation lay at its feet.
“Hello?” muttered Green-Eyed-Mark, quite appropriately this time.
Mark the Second said, “We should probably leave him where he is.”
“Agreed; he’s dangerous,” uttered Mark the Third.
The original Mark Burmann however, bracing himself for further clones and malformed monstrosities, added nothing to the exchange. Instead, he returned to the kitchen table, sat, and clutched the still-warm mug of coffee.
He would sip and sip until the whole sordid business was over.
Steve Taylor, a member of Vanity’s TST (Technical Support Team), arrived at the home of Mr. Mark Burmann, a low-priority callout, at approximately 11:00 a.m. He had called ahead of his arrival, but Burmann’s phone was offline, according to the service provider.
As Taylor made his way along the damp pathway to the door, he observed a number of silhouettes shuffling back and forth behind the thick blinds adorning the windows of the cottage. Assuming Burmann had guests, the tech support operative thought nothing of it, and proceeded to knock on the door.
The door was promptly answered by a short gentleman of oriental persuasion, with pinpoint eyes and birdlike features.
“Mr. Burmann?” Taylor prompted, suspiciously.
The man motioned for Taylor to enter, but remained silent.
Upon entering the cottage, Taylor was struck by an overwhelming scent of fresh coffee, and an unusual humidity. Standing in the vestibule, he heard dozens of voices, all of which seemed to be muttering indistinctly in similar, droning voices.
The Asian doorman motioned towards the door connecting the vestibule to the cottage proper. Taylor opened the door, and stepped into a dark fantasy.
The cottage was crowded, filled with men and women of the most unusual sort. Each and every face was but a variation on a theme; sometimes the look was feminine, but more often than not it was masculine. The creatures gawped with their pinpoint eyes, tempting Taylor into a surreal world of receding hairlines and sheer rock foreheads. And then a figure would approach with wide, protruding eyes and long flowing hair, followed by his or her twin, bulbous noses sniffing the air as if in search of prey.
Taylor retreated, plunging himself deeper and deeper into the depths of the cottage. There, in a shadowy corner of a large living room, he observed copulation; malformed, armless figures plunged wildly into hellish hermaphrodites. The sounds the act elicited were shrill and deafening, the act itself seemingly excruciating for its participants. Rows of motionless green-eyed clones silently watched as the horror unfolded.
Coughing and spluttering as he stumbled out of the room, the tech support operative soon found himself in what appeared to be a dining room come study. Amongst the strange bodies littering the room, his eyes fell upon the shattered display screen of the Tru Reflection unit, the remaining fragments of which continued to reflect the room, but only the room, not the writhing forms of the deformed and perverted surrounding it
Gasping for air, he retreated, and in his confusion, found himself in the kitchen, which was evidently the primary source of the overwhelming smell of coffee. Across the room, beyond the inconsistent shapes and forms of the birdlike brethren, Taylor observed a steaming coffee pot, and beyond that, in the fertile garden outside, stood a group of tall, blonde mannequins, their stillness akin to members of the Terracotta Army.
The horror was overwhelming, but Taylor maintained his composure.
As he turned to leave, he caught sight of something. A quiet figure, at odds with the other individuals in the cottage, was sitting quite calmly at the kitchen table, his hands clutching an empty mug. The man’s face held a look of dejection, but Taylor also saw a touch of guilt, and in a moment of dawning realisation, he recalled the words probability, and accountability, as whispered amongst members of Vanity’s DT (Development Team). Indeed, something truly horrifying had beset Mr. Burmann, and the third-generation Tru Reflection was responsible, or rather, the greedy directors at Vanity Ltd., who had rushed out an appliance unfit for public consumption. The implications were astounding.
“Mr. Burmann?” Taylor finally prompted, moving towards the hunched figure.
But it wasn’t the man at the table that answered, rather the occupants of the room; every man, every woman, every ghastly variation proffered a response.
“Yes?” they replied, enthusiastically.
But Taylor’s eyes remained fixed upon the man at the table, the template from which the nightmare scenario had unfolded.
The tech support operative joined him at the table, and whispered once again, “Mr. Burmann?”
“I saw it in the garden first...” Mark mumbled. “It fell, and came apart ... then there was another in the wardrobe ... I killed it.”
Taylor frowned, but continued to listen.
“Then I found one in the crawlspace; just like me...”
“What happened to that one?” The tech support operative asked nervously.
Mark Burmann looked up, shrugged, and simply muttered, “I’m just going to sip till it’s over.”
Taking no chances, Steve Taylor fled the cottage at Brook End, and proceeded to log what was deemed an unprecedented case with the Development Team at Vanity Ltd.
Some weeks later, Burmann’s neighbour, Mrs. Finch, made several complaints to the local authority regarding a lack of activity at the cottage. The subsequent police investigation led to the discovery of an empty property, with evidence to suggest that a large party or gathering of some sort had taken place in the days or weeks prior. Amongst the clutter, no physical evidence was recovered to suggest foul play, though one officer proposed that an elaborate staging had taken place, citing the presence of industrial cleaning products not typically found in your average household, though the purpose of such a staging could not be determined.
The only traceable witness was Mr. Steve Taylor of Vanity Ltd., who was responding to a service request on behalf of the reclusive thirty-year-old regarding a faulty piece of equipment. The police swiftly approached the tech support operative, hopeful his statement would provide information pertaining to the whereabouts of Mr. Burmann.
In the interrogation room, Taylor was extremely nervous, and it is owing to a curious remark made at the end of the questioning that investigators are to conduct a second, more thorough search of Burmann’s cottage.
(Statement of STEVE TAYLOR, VANITY LTD. Tech Support, cont.)
It is my belief the events that transpired at Brook End were the direct result of faulty components developed by Sandcorp Inc.; unprecedented faults to which Vanity Ltd. cannot be held accountable. You see, Tru Reflection is just a receiver. It is designed to receive and reflect, nothing more. You wouldn’t prosecute a camera for capturing indecent images, would you? The unit probably drove him mad. He was a loner, you see? He obsessed over his appearance—hence the kit. The people he partied with were most likely vagrants … you know … transients who moved on when they’d finished trashing the place. But as for Mr. Burmann himself, who knows what happened to him?
Has anybody checked the crawlspace?