‘Toizz’ by Mordant Carnival

Trisha was, without doubt, the worst housemate I’ve ever had. When I think of her, I damn the ludicrously inflated property values that left me at the mercy of this lottery, that force me to share my home with strangers. Sure, I’ve met some great people through houseshares, but mostly it’s been two-legged nightmares wearing human faces like masks. There was the guy who used to get drunk and try and get into my room late at night, the graduate chemist who smoked the place out with homemade fireworks and kept brewing up great reeking batches of something in the bath (I never found out what), the conceptual artist who would ask the kitchen’s Instanator for stuff like fifty-seven blue marzipan cupcakes and two-score mock spare ribs to make some kind of installation, so that it would be tied up for four hours solid and the Deli-Paks were always running out (I mean, I hate Instanator food anyway, but it’s the principle of the thing), the alcoholic who ran up a £700 phone bill and left without paying it, the cokehead who decided to remodel the kitchen with a lump-hammer… and then there was Trisha. Trisha and her toys.

She seemed perfectly pleasant. A little vanilla, perhaps. I figured she might be a bit of a clean freak; you might have a few spats over the washing up now and again, but nothing worse. Her clothes were clean, her hair was washed, she didn’t look like the kind of girl who’d eat half a plate of food and then kick the rest under the sofa, or who’d wash down her cornflakes with Special Brew.

Even though she worked from home (she was a freelance something-or-other), I didn’t see much of her. Just the odd greeting in the hall, or we’d both find ourselves in the kitchen at the same time, making hot drinks in the old-fasioned way. I hate to admit it, but one of the reasons I took to her was that she liked to use the kettle instead of the Instanator, just like me. I never saw her cook a meal, although the kitchenware was used and washed up. But then, I was out of the house a lot: working late or out with friends. I didn’t really think about it.

I started to hear the voices coming from her room a couple of days after she moved in. I just assumed she had the telly on, or the radio, or something. But after a while I began to notice that it was always the same voices: one soft and feminine, one low and growling, another high and too-sweet, Disney cartoon animal sweet. There were others, lots of others, but those were the ones that stood out. They seemed to repeat themselves. I was sure I heard the same phrases, over an over again. I was puzzled at first, but then surmised that she was playing some long-running RPG on her computer. I didn’t think it mattered. She was personable, didn’t leave half-eaten pizzas or septic lentil casseroles lying around, paid all her bills. Even when I thought I heard something squeal like a piglet, I didn’t think much of it.

Then I began to hear other things. Crawling, clicking sounds, scratching. I wondered if she’d bought a cat, and asked her about it. She laughed.

“That’s my new toys. You want to see them?”

“Sure,” I said.

She went upstairs to her room, returning with an armful of figures.

“Oh,” I said, my confusion clearing.

“Toiiz.”

Toiiz were the latest craze. Sure, miniature robots equipped with rudimentary AI were nothing new, but Toiiz had just grabbed people’s imaginations somehow. They had a lot of consumer appeal: the cutesy kawaii look, the fact that they responded to petting by purring, chuckling and singing, the way that every Toii was just a little bit different from every other Toii. They were created to change in appearance depending on how much attention you gave them: pet them and talk to them, and they’d get larger and sleeker. Ignore them, and they’d droop, the fibers of their plush lying more haphazardly to give an impression of neglect. Emotional blackmail with batteries. I wasn’t sure how they were made, but I’d heard they made use of some new organic plastic or something.

I’d only ever seen them on adverts, or boxed up on shop shelves. Up close, I found them a trifle creepy. They shifted in her arms, snuggling up to her. One, the largest, looked like a traditional anime schoolgirl. It had deep violet hair and little black boots. The other two were some sort of jewelled lizard and a small hairy blue pig. The schoolgirl turned its head up towards her face and trilled something in Toiispeak. I cringed inwardly. Sure, having them talk in that baby babble meant that the AI didn’t have to be as sophisticated and there were no translation issues, but it wasn’t half nauseating.

“Very, er, nice,” I managed to say. She beamed.

“This is Moko,” she told me, indicating the blue pig.

“This is Jazz–” the lizard raised a forepaw and waved at me–

“and this is Leelee.” The anime thing turned its enormous brown eyes to me and fluttered its lashes. I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

“Er. Hi there,” I said, foolishly. I felt like I had to say something.

“I’ve got loads more,” she said.

“The small ones, you know, MiniToiiz. I collect them. But these guys are my favourites.”

The introductions having been concluded to her satisfaction, she took her dolls back up to her bedroom. But after that I saw a lot more of the Toiiz, because she took to letting them wander round the house. I’d find them peering at me from behind chairs or tugging at my sleeves when I sat down to watch the InterTel. The doll was the worst, because it kept sort of flirting with me in a cartoony way, but I never really liked the pig either. Jazz the lizard bugged me less than the others. It seemed to be programmed to dig playing fetch, so I taught it to get my beers out of the fridge for me.

It was hard to be sure, but I reckoned the Toiiz were about as smart as dogs. They’d been given behaviour scripts that they’d go into: LeeLee’s flirting, Moko’s feed-me dance, Jazz’s hunt-and-fetch antics. You could train them, up to a point, but they didn’t deviate much from their digital rut.

At least, that’s what I thought.

I found the first casualty about three months into Trisha’s tenure. I’d come home late and I was hungry and tired, so I decided to put up with Instanator food for once. I flicked on the screen, selected some sort of pasta bake from the pattern menu, then made a cuppa while I waited.

The Instanator was the Autumn Nostalgia model, made to look a bit like an old aga. The stove top was a functioning hotplate, but the rest of the beast’s innards were pure high-tec. The Deli-Paks went where the fuel would have gone in days of yore, and the condenser was disguised as the oven.

The bell pinged, and I opened the door.

The smell was incredible. Roadkill on a hot summer’s day might come close, if it was a lot of roadkill. Choking, I took the mess out and shoved it into the incinerator as quickly as I could. What the hell had happened? Had one of the Deli-Paks somehow gone off? They were supposed to be all but incorruptible. They certainly tasted like it. I opened the compartment where the paks were meant to go, and immediately saw the problem. The protein pak, the thing the machine used to make meat or dairy-effect stuff, was lying at the bottom of the compartment. In its place hung a tangled mess of wires and plush and some kind of slimy goo. It stank, but not as bad as the bake thing had stunk. I put on a pair of rubber gloves and removed the mess, dropping it onto some newspaper. It was, without doubt, one of Trisha’s MiniToiiz. I was putting the Instanator on a scrub cycle when Trisha came in.

“What is that smell?” she asked, covering her face with her hand.

For an answer, I showed her the sad little pile of muck on the newspaper.

“It looks like one of your toys. I hope this one wasn’t particularly important to you.”

“God,” she said. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. It seemed to have got itself hooked up to the Instanator. It must have malfunctioned, or something.” She made a noise somewhere between an aww of pity and an eeesh of disgust as she peered down at the sad mushy puddle.

“I wonder how it got in there?”

“Fuck knows. Maybe you’d better keep them to your room in future.” I carried the newspaper to the incinerator, and threw it in. She watched me, chewing her lip.

She’d changed a lot in the months since she’d moved in. For a start, there was this whole sly, self-satisfied aspect to her demenour now which hadn’t been there before. She was dressing differently, wearing odd plasticky items that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the line of the body. They looked awkward on her. She’d changed her hair; her natural-looking blonde bob was now a stiff cap of some irridescent yellowish stuff that rustled when she moved. Her skin had the too-smooth look of PseuDermis, and her each of her nails had a fake microchip stuck in the center. Or maybe they weren’t fake. I didn’t know. These things could have been cool– I mean, I have a few mods myself: the memory jack, a six-hour speedola for partying, standard Virtua interfaces, some vanity stuff. But her, she wore all her new bits with a kind of pomposity that sucked all the fun out of them. I found her harder and harder to be around.

Despite my advice, she still let the toys have the run of the house. There seemed to be more of them every day. I almost broke my neck tripping over a lurid green snake that had decided to stretch itself out on the stairs, and one day all my pens disappeared, only to turn up as part of a purple dragon’s hoard in the cupboard under the stairs. The new toys all seemed to be the smaller variety, and not as bright or as trainable as the large ones. I was becoming increasingly sick of them. A couple of times I tried to tackle her on the subject, but she laughed it off.

One day I came home from work to find one of them lying in the mat. It was vaguely humanoid, but bright red all over. It rolled its black shoebutton eyes at me as I picked it up, and then it stopped moving. Sticky fluid was leaking over my hands; I turned it over, and saw that there was a huge gash in its back. Things were moving and twitching in there, but as I watched they slowed down and stopped. I felt almost sorry for it.

I showed it to her when she got in. She seemed unperturbed, merely observing that the neighbour’s cat must have got at it. I was happy enough with that explanation, partly because I really hated that cat.

But that wasn’t the last dead toy, not by a long chalk. The next one… I didn’t even realise what it was for awhile. It was just this filmy whitish sac, completely transparent. Ever see a frog that’s been devoured by a dragonfly nymph? They inject their prey with this stuff that liquefies them from the inside, and then suck out the mush so all that’s left is this sad, empty skin. The dead Toii looked like that. I dropped it with a reflexive “Euurgh!” of disgust. After that, I kept on finding dead Toiiz, each one in the same condition. When I cornered her and tried to talk about it, she just laughed.

“They’re only toys,” she said. “It’s not as if they’re really alive.”

“Trisha, this is driving me nuts,” I told her. “These things are everywhere. Where are you getting them all, anyway? Don’t they cost a fortune?” She murmured something about having her own supply, in a smirking tone. Like she had a private joke at my expense.

Things gradually deteriorated after that. The larger toys became more obnoxious by the day, always getting into my stuff, hanging around and singing to me while I was trying to watch InterTel or climbing up the back of my chair to play with my ears. LeeLee, she was the worst. Her Betty Boop act could have been designed specifically to get on my nerves. Jazz drank my shampoo a couple of times, but otherwise seemed subdued. It didn’t go near the other toys much anymore.

And then they killed the cat. Like I said, I had no love for the cat. The stupid dickheads that owned it had implanted it with one of those petvox things, and the evil creature just never stopped talking to itself in the retch-inducing voice that they’d picked out. I mean, it had a face like a sack of spanners and it ate its weight in birds every single day, and they give it this goofy, lovable-idiot kind of drawl. It didn’t know what the words meant, of course, it just had this bunch of stock phases; “I love you, Mummy. Come and play with me! Duhh, can I have a drink of milk?”, things like that. Listening to it chunter on in that voice as it played happily with a dying mouse was one of the grossest things I’d ever endured.

So, I was just standing there in the kitchen one morning, waiting for the kettle to boil, when I heard the neighbour start screaming. I shuffled into my unlaced boots and stuck my head out of the door. She was standing there in this little yellow dress and rainbow flip-flops, digging her magenta nails into her face, dragging down her cheeks.

“He’s dead! Oh, my Gooood! My little Bootsie! He’s deaaad!”

He was, too. The cat lay on its side on the path, its guts ripped open. Things were crawling inside it; I could see them, moving under the fur. I walked over to it. One of the things inside it flopped out in a trail of blood and slime. Kittens? No. It was a blue Toii, tear-drop shaped with a smiling mouth and big, liquid black eyes. It wriggled towards me.

The disgust got the better of me. I stumbled back and then began to stomp on the creature. With the woman’s screams ringing in my ears, I smashed it to a pulp. It was the most fun I’d had in weeks. That done, I turned and headed back inside the house. Trisha would still be home at this hour, but I knew she was up. I’d heard her moving around. I was still buzzing from the attack outside. I went up the stairs, shouting her name. “Trisha? Trisha! Do you know what they’ve done now? They’ve killed the–”

I didn’t finish the sentence, because I tripped over Moko. I caught myself, so I stumbled rather than falling back down the stairs. I clung to the banister, trying to kick that stupid blue pig off my ankle. It was squealing, clinging on with its hard little trotters. I thrashed my leg frantically, knocking it against the wall. It yelped, glaring at me with its shiny purple eyes squeezed half-shut in rage. I managed to kick it off, but it started to crawl back up the stairs. There was a flurry of movement, and then that damn lizard, Jazz, came barrelling round the corner and pounced. Not on me, though; on the pig. I didn’t stop to watch the fight. I carried on up to her room.

“Trisha!” By now I was becoming anxious. There’d been no response, not to my shouts or to the scuffle on the stairs, so I didn’t stand on ceremony. I pushed open the door, meeting some resistance.

She was lying half-in, half-out of the bed, naked to the waist. Stuff was moving under her skin, just like in the cat. She gave a moan, writhing back against the covers. At first, I assumed she was in pain– then I got a look at her face. That wasn’t pain.

There were… openings in her body. The things were crawling in and out of them. One of her fingers was plugged into the light socket of the anglepoise lamp from her bedside table. I saw LeeLee then, nestled up against her shoulder, face buried in the flesh, pink tounge licking at something. She was feeding on them, they were feeding on her… on whatever Trish had become. There was no blood. God only knows what she had in her veins.

I stood there, looking at the mess for a long moment. Then I slammed the door and went across the hall to my room, began throwing my stuff into my collapsible wardrobe. It took maybe half a day. Sometime after lunch I had the whole mess in my van, and was ready to roll. I knew there was no way I’d be getting the deposit back , so I nicked the Instanator on my way out. Oh, and I took the lizard. I didn’t trust it, but I couldn’t bring myself leave it with the others.

After that, the city seemed like less fun. I ended up living in the country with a few friends for a while, then got this place down by the sea. I’ve still got Jazz. Makes a great conversation piece: “Hey, is that– It is, isn’t it? One of those things. Eww!” It’s never expressed any interest in eating people, though I never did manage to wean it off the shampoo.

You probably know the rest. It got in all the papers: how people were using these things for the high that they got, and for a kind of extreme body-modification. How they were, in some horrible plasticky way, alive: how they’d eat stuff and get bigger and breed. How they’d kill each other, for food or just for kicks. How they could get into you, slowly turning your flesh to their plastic.

The things were withdrawn from sale; the company behind them seemed to evaporate into thin air with no lawsuits and only a couple of unexplained deaths. There’s still a few little enclaves of Toiiheads, but it’s not as trendy as it once was now that the initial frisson of scandal has worn off. Escaped Toiiz were rounded up and dissected or whatever, but cutting them open created more questions than it answered. There were rumors, notions; a government plot, evil spirits. Nobody really knows the truth. This urban shaman bloke that I knock around with swears blind that they’re some form of alien life, but then he’s said that about other things before now (including a table, some moss and his own hand). The general feeling is the designers had discovered this fun organic plastic stuff, and decided to try and find a way to make money out of it. They really hadn’t had any idea of what they were unleashing. A mistake, in other words, a fluke; just another dangerous toy.

I figured that they’d have learned their lessons, and that the whole sordid business was over. But I was in town the other day, and noticed some guys plugging in a new holoposter at the bus stop.

COMING SOON, it read.

PHRENZZ.

*******

(c) Mordant Carnival, All Rights Reserved.

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