RC looked like most other children his age, but he didn’t have a mother or father. He wasn’t an orphan, though. He was decanted from a vat, when he looked to be about six-years-old, fully formed and with all the knowledge most six-year-olds would have and a peculiar bump on the back of his neck containing the latest solid-state biometric chip. As soon as he was cleaned up and dressed, RC was given a plastic lunchbox and backpack both with a Royal Crown Cola logo emblazoned on both. His favorite colors were blue and red, just like colors of his clothes, his lunch box, his backpack, and all the notebooks and pencils in his backpack and the colors seen on the Royal Cola logo.
His handlers patted him affectionately on the head and told him to hurry or he would be late for school. RC wasn’t really sure why he had to go to school, but he was endlessly excited to meet his new classmates. At lunch, he shared all the samples of Royal Crown Cola he had in his backpack, and all his new friends loved him. He’d never been happier in his life even if he’d only been alive for a few hours.
When he got home from school, he told his handlers how much fun school had been, and they pressed a small handheld device to the back of his neck until the device beeped, and then they let him go play. When it was time for bed, RC got back into his vat so he could sleep. The next time he woke up, he looked thirteen-years-old. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he saw a face he didn’t recognize. He’d only had a few, light freckles the previous day, but now his face was dotted with them. His formerly curly hair had now become straight and brown.
His face looked older, he was taller, and he felt... older. Part of him was scared of the new stranger that was staring back at him, but then a technician wearing a lab coat came over. He glanced down at the tablet he was carrying before putting a hand on RC’s shoulder. The technician’s name was Matt. He had a portly, little pot belly that poked out through his lab coat and short, curly black hair. RC was only supposed to refer to him as Handler #T4107. He liked Matt.
“Hey, kid. Enjoying the new body? Sorry we didn’t give you a heads up. We were getting some complaints from parents in the district who weren’t very happy with having a brand buddy sharing a space with their kids. They’ll be singing another tune once Royal Crown yanks funds coming into the school, but until they learn their lesson, gotta put you in a new demographic.”
RC decided he liked being older, but he was going to miss the people he’d met. “Can I ever go back?” he asked.
“No,” replied Matt. "Advanced growth is a one-way street. We can’t ever send you back, but don’t worry. We’ll probably send one of your brothers there once they want that Royal Cola money back. But you, we’re sending you to middle school.”
While RC was perhaps a little confused at the change and all the extra knowledge, he didn’t let that bother him. Matt wasn’t worried, so everything was fine. He tried not to think too hard about how he’d suddenly grown up so much. As he finished getting ready, he saw his handlers chatting amongst themselves, and he heard Matt whisper, “Hopefully, the whiny assholes at the PTA won’t pitch such a fit if we send him to a middle school.”
Another responded, “Well, Christ, Matt, I’d be a little pissed if my kid was being spot-targeted by a buddy at that age. Plus, you’ve got all those politicians that are trying to get sugary beverages out the classrooms. But hey, I guess corporate finally ironed things out after six months of bickering.” Then RC was given a baseball cap, lunchbox, and backpack all with the Royal Cola logo and was sent off to catch the bus.
RC found most of his classes pretty boring, but everyone loved him because he always had plenty of free Royal Crown Cola to give away. The teachers all gave him dirty looks, though, like he was doing something wrong, but it felt so good to make other people happy. He could never understand why they wouldn’t like that. He loved making people happy. He never understood why some of the parents would give him dirty looks when they came to pick up their children, or why they would sometimes tell their children to throw away their cans and bottles. He even caught one of the parent’s complaining to the teacher in a closed room where they thought no one was listening, and he could hear the parent saying how she didn’t want her daughter brainwashed by "that thing in the classroom." Her daughter was already being constantly assaulted by holo-vid advertisements and net-vid licensed interstitials. They didn’t need to children whose only purpose was to get them to rot their teeth.
The teacher listened patiently, like she’d heard this millions of times, before replying to her that it was because of RC that they could even afford books and lunches to feed the children. RC wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Royal Crown Cola made people happy. He made his friends happy. What could ever be wrong with that? Whenever he’d go home, he’d get to see all the others like him, and he was free to have fun until it was time to go to bed.
It was a paradise and his favorite part was when, every night before going to sleep in their pods, every one of his brothers would get to play with the latest VR games so they could tell the other kids about all the cool stuff they could buy with Crown Cola Points, which they could earn by saving bottle caps from Royal Crown Cola.
When RC went to high school, things continued very much as usual, though partway through his freshman year, Royal Cola decided to relaunch one of their old, flavored lines, and RC was soon introduced to Cherry. They fell deeply in love and everyone at school thought they were the cutest couple. They always held hands, and could usually be found on one of the dance planning committees, offering to help get free RC Cola for dances and football games. Everyone else in the school always wanted to hang out with them. The were always willing to listen or stay after school and help out. The were elected to the prom court in their junior year and, true to form, they were voted prom King and Queen, where Cherry looked resplendent in a blue and red prom gown with a 50s retro design reminiscent of a poodle skirt, with the RC Cola logo tastefully embroidered at the bottom of the skirt. RC couldn’t have been happier.
But one day, after he came out of his pod, the longheld affection he’d had for Cherry for the past four years was gone. She wasn’t anything to him anymore. He felt like he should be empty or depressed about this, but he didn’t seem to care. Neither did Cherry. They were both friends, and they both still loved RC Cola, but that deep, endless well of love he felt for Cherry ever since he met her was just gone. It was time for RC to go to college, and Royal Crown Cola had decided that it would hurt their demographic appeal to have them enter college as a couple, so they stopped the nightly pheromone and hormone bath.
The day RC and Cherry shipped off to different colleges, RC to the University of Georgia and Cherry to the University of Florida, they met at the door, each with a suitcase in hand. They looked at each other for a moment, each remembering the almost three and a half years they had been nearly inseparable. Both felt a wave of nostalgia, but as RC stuck out his hand and Cherry shook it, neither could really quite remember why they had found the other so infatuating. Cherry’s red hair no longer sent shivers up RC’s spine when a stray lock fell across her face, and the boyish freckles that gave RC’s face that All-American look just weren’t quite so cute to Cherry anymore.
He was happy to be going to college, but some unnamed part of him wished he could have stayed, but he was told that people thought it was creepy when teenagers didn’t age out of high school and kept on repeating the same four years again and again... forever. At first, college was strange for RC. No one was really interested in drinking RC Cola. They all wanted to drink beer. He couldn’t quite understand why they seemed to love this so much. It didn’t taste as good as Royal Cola, and if they drank too much it would make them sick, making them vomit up everything they’d just eaten.
The girls also took an interest in him, but it wasn’t quite the same interest that Cherry had in him. Cherry loved being around him, talking to him about how great RC Cola was, and how they could spread that love to everyone else around them. It was fun for him to work on projects like decorating for prom together, to spend time in the lunchroom, and go to school dances, but none of the girls really wanted to talk to him. They just wanted to have sex with him. Other guys in the school said he was the luckiest man in existence. All the girls wanted to experiment with him because a Brand Buddy couldn’t get them pregnant. RC was happy to oblige, just as long as they were willing to take with them a refreshing RC Cola bottle with them after they were done.
At least he could still share that love with them, although there was an itch in the back of his mind—something nagging at him, like a tiny, little tick burrowing into his scalp, chewing away. No matter what he did, he couldn’t seem to scratch the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Everyone was telling him he should be enjoying this. College was the best time and RC Cola went great with weed and pizza. But there was hole brewing in RC that his love of Royal Cola just couldn’t seem to fix.
They said it might be just because his firmware wasn’t quite up to date. Generally, he was supposed to stay on campus with only a few trips back to a company Royal Cola had contracted to perform maintenance while he was away. He hated the sterile lab facility and the detached way everyone looked at him. He missed Matt and his friends, because no one at Applied Brand Dynamics really seemed to look at him.
One day, RC came in for his scheduled maintenance. He sat in a sterile-looking waiting room next to a slightly overweight, bearded frat boy named Bud waiting for one of the bored-looking lab techs to wave him back. Eventually, one of them did and RC found himself following a tan, balding man back towards one of the economy brand pods they kept in the back. Without even bothering to look at RC, the man opened the pod and began pulling up the maintenance program on his tablet. RC climbed in, and waited for the usual loss of consciousness.
Through the plastic plating of the pod, RC could see the tech tap a few more times on his tablet. RC closed his eyes, but something was wrong. He wasn’t unconscious. A stream of thoughts was entering his head, but he felt disconnected from them. It was a new ad campaign, a joint effort with Southern Comfort and Royal Crown Cola that RC should find absolutely awesome! It was a new, mixed drink called Royal Comfort that was going to be all the rage in colleges all across the south! And RC was going to be just the guy to tell everyone all about it!
As soon as he had the update installed, new crates of the toxic brew were shipped to his room. He was compelled to drink it. He couldn’t resist, but he hated it. He could never understand why anyone would like such a bitter beverage. The more he drank, the more nauseous and dizzy he felt. He wanted to stop, but he just kept going. And as he drank, he kept telling everyone how good it tasted and how wasted he was getting. Eventually, he ended up vomiting in the dorm's shared bathroom.
The next day, he felt awful. His hands shook and the sight of all the Royal Crown Cola he kept in his room made him nauseous. His friends laughed as he tottered his way towards the dining hall, and told him to eat the greasiest thing he could find. He ate three slices of the pepperoni pizza and felt a little better, but as evening approached and he slowly began to feel more like himself, the urge for more RC Cola and Southern Comfort began to thrum slowly in his head. He didn’t want to do it again. He never wanted Southern Comfort ever again, and yet in the early hours of the morning he found himself at a frat party throwing up in the bathroom after more Royal Comforts than he could quite keep straight in his head.
The next day, RC could hear the thoughts echoing in his head, but he just didn’t care. He hated the way his head buzzed when he was drunk, and he hated the way he would trip all over himself and slur his words. He could feel the urge creeping up on him, but he fought it every step of the way. He didn’t want to drink every day; he didn’t want to stock Southern Comfort in his room or try to get some of his friends to swap Royal Crown and liquor for beer. As he lay in his dorm room with the door locked, he could hear another party a few doors down. He fought the urge to go out and knock on the door. He swore through clenched teeth as he dug his nails into his palms. His head screamed for Southern Comfort and Royal Crown even as his stomach clenched in protest. He fell asleep curled into a ball on his bed, and the next day, his love of Royal Crown slowly began to sour. The refreshing sugary beverage that he could remember so fondly tasted like ash.
When he went for his next scheduled maintenance, he didn’t feel better. It was like all of the joy and color had been sapped from the world and his effortless enthusiasm had gone with it. He could no longer muster the effortless enthusiasm he could before for Royal Cola or for much of anything else. But without Royal Cola taking up his every waking thought, he was able to think about other things for the first time. The tech kicked him out of the pod pretty quickly, but for the first time RC looked around. He was supposed to go right back to campus, but somehow, he didn’t really care.
For the rest of the day, RC wandered around Athens. He walked through shops, through crowded streets, barely registering anyone around him. By the time evening fell, he was starving. Normally, he’d be at the campus dining hall trying to goad his friends into making RC Cola floats after gorging on burgers. But here he was, away from everything. On impulse, he turned into a local pizza place. His interest in RC Cola destroyed, he surveyed the other potential beverage options. All his life, he’d drunk RC Cola, but behind the counter he saw a huge vat of sweet tea. He ordered a cup to go along with two cheese slices of pizza.
It was the greatest thing he’d ever tasted. There was no carbonation and no crappy cola flavor. It was just… sweet. It didn’t have that dull, flat taste, and he realized that they’d made it with actual sugar. If Royal Cola wasn’t the beverage that made everything else taste better like he’d been told, if that wasn’t true, what else wasn’t? By the time he finally wandered back to campus, he was actually interested in going to class.
Usually, RC never really paid attention in class. He was mostly there to try and remind people to get thirsty, but for the first time he actually listened. He never really paid attention to what class he was in. Most of the professor’s tended to look at him with disdain, which he never really understood, but maybe it was because he was never really bothering paying attention to them all that much to begin with.
To RC, all of the classes had just been numbers with random letters attached that he had been scheduled to attend—not really something he was supposed to be getting anything out of. He was in something called SOC 201. The professor was an older man who wore ragged jeans and a sandals to class. RC liked him because unlike his other professors, the old man never really glared at him. If anything, there was a look of pity in his eyes, though RC never really understood why.
But today, RC was actually paying attention in class. Sure, he had everything he’d need to know piped into his head, but this was the first time he’d really bothered to think about any of it rather than just regurgitate answers back on homework. And so, for the first time, RC raised his hand and asked a question.
“Why am I here?”
The professor was startled, and looked back at him with a mix of shock and curiosity.
“Because you signed up for the class. Or, more broadly, because the college accepted a rather hefty grant from your company in exchange for your presence here. Now, please don’t interrupt and ask if I’d like a soda.”
RC furrowed his brow. “No, but… why?”
There was another startled look. “Because you were made to sell soda. Actually, if you go back almost a decade, there’s a rather interesting court case on whether or not corporations could copyright Synthetic Brand Ambassadors and hold ownership of them. After quite a bit of lobbying, it was determined that SBAs were not truly sentient, but rather highly complex organic computer with no real thoughts or feelings other than those programmed in through routine maintenance…”
RC interrupted him. “But I think things all the time...” The class giggled, and the professor raised an eyebrow.
“I”m sure you do, but this is getting a little off topic. Why don’t you stay after class so I can go into this a little more in-depth with you?” RC tapped his foot impatiently as the lecture continued. While his head found it interesting, his body was impatient to learn more. After all of the other students had filed out, he stepped up to the professor's podium.
“Why am I different?” he asked.
This made the professor chuckle. “Well, I could tell you we’re all made differently, but to someone like you, that’d be a flat-out lie. If I had to make a guess, there were rumors going around about a glitch in the last firmware update. It’s probably why you’ve been acting abnormally.”
“What does that mean?” asked RC.
“Well, it means you can do whatever you want and enjoy a life unconnected with anything to do with Royal Cola. But as much as I’d love for you to frolick in the fields, I don’t think Royal Crown will be too pleased with you doing that for too long. If you’re lucky, they’ll just take you and fix your firmware, but I’ve heard stories that can be very costly and they might just wipe out your mind entirely. Sometimes, they don’t even bother with a reboot and just scrap you for parts to be recycled into other Brand Buddies.”
This was the first time that RC realized his own mortality. He’d never really wondered why he was alive or what he was doing before, but with a sudden jolt, he realized that he had always been teetering on the edge of a cliff. “Do they scrap us for anything else?”
“Not often. You’re expensive. They’ll usually sell you first. Just because they don’t have a use for you doesn’t mean some other company like Budweiser or Walmart couldn’t get something out of you, even if you're defective. Unfortunately, as a synthetic being, you have no constitutional rights. The corporations made sure they owned the patent to your genome so you could be classified as property and not a person.”
This hit RC pretty hard. He’d always thought of his undying passion and the warm, fuzzy affection that bubbled up inside him whenever he drank or talked about Royal Crown was something that was his and his alone. But it wasn’t. It was something he was programmed to do. For other people, these passions would come to become defining parts of who they were, as if they became parts of their own identity—something that would ebb and flow throughout their life and define them. What could be different about his love of Royal Crown? He remembered in middle school there was a girl who loved everything there was to do with Disney and she always wore oversized Mickey Mouse sweaters. His love for Royal Crown was an interest like anyone else’s, but that love was never something he could call his own.
“Then what should I do?” asked RC. He could feel something warm and wet welling up in his eyes. He wasn’t quite sure what he was feeling, but he didn’t like it, and it wasn’t the happy bliss of his previous years of corporate-sponsored life. He didn’t like how he felt, but he knew that staying wouldn’t change anything.
“Listen, most countries have similar laws that are just as bad as the United States. Canada is a little better, and so is a lot of Europe, but most countries still view you as property. Norway, though—Norway just passed laws classifying synthetic intelligence as equal to naturally-produced human beings. If we can get you there, you might have a chance to gain citizenship as a refugee.”
RC took a shaky breath. “So… how do I get there?”
His professor held up a hand and then walked over, locking the door to the classroom. “I can put you in touch with some people, but it’s going to be a long trip, and it’s going to be really dangerous. I cannot stress that enough. In most of the world, you’re not a person. You’re property. You can be stolen or sold by anyone who finds you. At best, they’ll be caught and charged with possession of stolen merchandise and you’ll be sent back to Royal Crown. ”More likely, you’ll be mind-wiped and sold to another company or butchered for black market organ transplants.”
“But if I stay and they find out I’m…” RC paused for a moment. “Broken. What happens then?”
“Royal Crown will reset you—possibly edit your memories. You’ll go back to being happy and oblivious for as long as you keep sales in your area up.”
“So, no real difference?”
His professor smiled sadly. “No. Not really.”
RC pondered his options. “When can I leave?”
The Professor jotted a few notes into his smart phone, then looked up. “If you’re completely sure of this, I can have you meet up with some people tonight, but remember, this is not a safe journey. It’s not uncommon for the Ad Boosters who are responsible for ferrying Brand Buddies across the the borders to sell them back to the very corporations they're supposed to be saving them from. I like to think that most Ad Boosters are working for the right reasons, but for some, short term profit far outweighs any moral gains.”
“Where do I go?”
The professor took out a handkerchief from his pocket. He scrawled something on it with his pen and handed it to RC.
“Don’t look at it. Not here. But go to these coordinates and be there before three o’clock in the morning. It’s the only way you’re ever getting out of here. Now go before your handlers start wondering why you’re behaving erratically. But before you go, you might might want to pull out the chip in the back of your neck. If you don’t, they’ll know immediately when you’ve gone out of bounds for your marketing zone, but once it’s out they can’t track you anymore.
RC wanted to ask him so many more things, but the longer he stayed, the more danger he was in, so he swiftly stepped out of the classroom. He was holding himself back, trying to look normal, but he walked swiftly towards the bathroom. He locked himself in the stall and looked at the handkerchief. There were coordinates—GPS coordinates. He put them in, using his tablet with the Royal Crown-branded, drop-resistant case. It wasn’t far. It was a gas station that was at least 20 minutes away. He could easily hitch a ride over without attracting too much attention.
He was growing more paranoid. Royal Crown could be watching him at any point. He was their property, and they’d invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in him. All of the maintenance and care was just Royal Crown protecting their investment. He wanted to go back to his dorm, but the thought of looking at his room that was decked out with Royal Crown Cola bottles and posters made his stomach churn. So he left, calling an Uber and hoping that his handlers weren’t tracking him too closely to notice the out-of-the-way spot the automated car would drop him.
The place was a gas station that had gone out of business when most of the world had switched to electric cars. It was far enough out into rural Georgia that no one bothered turning it into another business. It had long since rotted from the inside out. Most of the shelves were dirty and crumbling, and there were empty bottles and wrappers everywhere. A lone boot, scuffed and worn, lay discarded on a counter. A small part of RC felt as though he belonged here, but he pushed the idea aside.
He watched the sun set as the cars streaked by on the highway that seemed to stretch out into oblivion. RC enjoyed this far more than he’d ever thought he would. He’d been so used to constantly being forced to fixate on people and merchandise. It was nice to just look up into the sky and watch the sun go down and stars come alive. He almost wished he could do this forever, but then he heard the screech of tires driving from behind him. A door swung open as two hooded people jumped out of a van. Before he could say anything they had a hood over his head and he was being dragged into the back of a van.
He tried to cry out, but his screams were muffled by thick fabric. They shoved him into the back and all he could feel was the cold, metal steel of the floor and the bumps from the potholes in the road. He tried to struggle, but someone bound his hands and feet. Eventually, his head sunk into the rhythm of the road and he drifted in and out of consciousness.
He wasn’t quite sure how much time had passed since they first took him, but he heard the metal slam of the sliding side door being opened as the rope around his arms and legs were untied, and he was pushed out of the van and the hood was pulled from his head. RC was coated in sweat and gasping for air. All he could think about was being sold off to be butchered for his organs.
“Don’t turn around. Don’t look at me. Wait here. Someone will find you.” He heard the car door slam and the tires squeal. RC waited. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but the night air was chilly and wherever they had dropped him was somewhere up in the mountains. Shivering, RC finally looked around. He was at a truck stop. Taking slow, hesitant steps, he made his way to the welcome center. Huddled around a few vending machines were several people.
Two of them looked to be in their early twenties, just like him. One man was heavily muscled, like he’d been at the gym every day. Another, still dressed in cargo shorts and sandals, was a little overweight. The third was an elderly woman in high waisted jeans and a sweater. The one with the beer belly reached out enthusiastically to shake his hand.
“Bro! Nice to see another BB out here in the wild. Name’s Bud. You stoked to be heading off to Valhalla? To finally enter our promised land where we can drink any beer we want and aren’t constantly stuck drinking that goddamn Budweiser shit?” There was a long pause and RC just looked at him, unsure of what to say. As RC watched, the other man’s face fell, and he looked like he might cry. “I… I can’t go back. I started pissing blood, and I overheard my handlers saying I’m not good enough to warrant a liver replacement. They were going to sell me as damaged goods.”
Shuddering involuntarily, RC said, “I’m sorry.”
The other man squared his shoulders, and the next moment, his facade was back. “No worries, dude. We’re gonna be free, right?”
RC grinned at him. “Yeah. Damn right, we are.”
RC introduced himself to the old lady next. “So, I’m guessing you must be a Brand Buddy, too. Where are you from? I, um, didn’t know they let us get that old.”
She chuckled at that. “Watch your mouth, brat. I didn’t get this old. I woke up that way. I was a Joanne Buddy. The easiest way to sell to harmless old spinsters with a crafting obsession is to look like a harmless old spinster with a crafting obsession.” She sighed. “Then, sometimes an old spinster realizes she doesn’t want to be an old spinster after they hear The Clash for the first time and maybe she wants to fucking spend her last shitty days on Earth with her hair dyed red, fronting a fucking punk band.” She chuckled. “I’m sure some rich asshole would have something to say about that, but they can eat me.”
RC started to see that it wasn’t just him who felt unsatisfied with his life of perpetual endorsement. All of the Brand Buddies had been forced into this, one way or another, but they all wanted the same thing at this point. There was a shared sense of comradery. A large truck rolled into the abandoned lot. A burly man stepped out. His jeans were stained and he had a shaggy beard that nearly stretched down to his chest. “Okay. Line up, buddies. If you wanna ride, you gotta pay. Those tracking chips are worth a fortune on the black market. Ride's free, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s my payment.”
He was holding a grey handle that looked like calipers, only it had a menacing claw at the end. He went up to Bud, using his hand to hold down his head.
“Might wanna bite onto something. This is gonna hurt like a bitch.” This seemed to rub the frat boy the wrong way.
“Hey, man, you don’t think I’m a man—that I can’t take it? Bring it. I’ve survived years of pledge weeks for Alpha Phi, Kappa Alpha Theda, Alpha Phi Alpha, Delta Sigma Theda, I can take… OH GOD! FUCK, THAT HURTS!”
“You better be quieter than that when you’re in my truck, boy,” snapped the trucker. Bud was biting into his hand hard enough to draw blood as RC could see the device digging into the flesh of his neck. It grabbed a hold of something grey and metallic as it ripped it out. Bud was sucking air in through his teeth as he tried to fight back his tears.
“C’mon, that was just a love tap. Now, calm down; I’ll have you plugged up in no time.” The trucker pulled out a can of biofoam and sprayed it over the wound. The pink foam immediately went to work, stopping the bleeding and binding the flesh. The trucker brushed it off after it had finished its work, leaving behind smooth scar tissue.
The old woman volunteered herself next. As the chip was withdrawn out of her flesh, she barely moved as if it was nothing more than a mosquito bite. The trucker quickly patched up her hole with the biofoam, and she grinned at him. “You’re right. Love tap. Try tripping and landing on a knitting needle once.” RC volunteered himself next. He was a little afraid, but if the old woman could handle it with dignity, why couldn’t he? His years of being a corporate tool had largely left him safe from the dangers of the real world. The worst he’d ever endured was falling down and skinning his knees when he’d tried to ride a skateboard for the first time.
By the time he heard the spray coating the wound on his back, he’d dug his fingernails deep into his palms, trying not to scream. It hurt like hell, and the spray did little to alleviate the pain. It just felt like his flesh was on fire, but he’d endured it. It was a small sacrifice on his road to freedom. As the pain faded, he saw the trucker finish up on the bodybuilder and put a handful of bloody gobs into a ziplock bag that he stuffed into his jacket pocket.
“Okay, boys and girls. Into the truck.” RC and the rest of the the Brand Buddies made their way into the truck. It was cramped with several wooden crates strapped down with ropes. At least they’d have something to sit on as RC sat upon one of them to see how hard it was. Then the trucker laughed. “Think you’re getting past customs just lounging around on those like they’re your own personal Lazy Boy?”
He reached for a crowbar and pried open one of the wooden boxes. “Get in. Don’t worry I got airholes on the bottom. It might be a bit cramped, but that’s the price of freedom.”
“It’s not so bad,” said a voice directly under RC. He shot up at hearing this. Then, after looking very closely, he could see a blue eye peering out at him from a hole on the side. “Name’s Gil—used to be the Geico Brand Buddy. It was the best. They gave me a genetically modified lizard that could actually talk… well, not really. He was more like a parrot. He used to sit on my shoulder during client consultations; I called him Gil Junior. People loved him until corporate issued a recall. Apparently, some of them carried salmonella. I had to bring him into corporate to be euthanized. Then I finally sat down and thought. It was only so long until I stopped being useful. It was statistically impossible anything else would happen. I mean, who wants to buy car insurance from someone old enough to be your grandfather?”
RC was befuddled at this. He was used to talking to human faces, not eyes peering out from wooden boxes. “Um… I’m gonna sit in one of the crates, I guess. Good to meet you.” But Gil never stopped talking. It was almost compulsive.
“Canada’s not so bad, you know. We have provisional human rights. We can’t be scrapped like in America… or sold to other countries or companies, and after fifty years or more of service or when you hit sixty-five, you have to be sent to company-run retirement homes. They’re supposed to be nice. And if we’re caught, I’d be assigned by law to Geiko Canada rather than sent home. Sure, it’s not Norway, but statistically, we have better chances of making it there than if we go all the way.”
The trucker opened up a crate with his crowbar while holding up a bucket. "Alright, time to get comfy. If nature calls you can use this thing here to pour in your unmentionables. But be careful. One bump will have it flying all over."
RC reluctantly took the bucket from the trucker. He’d been hoping he could hold himself for the whole journey and wouldn’t need it. He settled into his wooden box crate. Through his air hole, he watched the other fellow Brand Buddies settling into their boxes. Then the trucker shut the back door, slamming it down and drowning them in darkness. The ride was tedious and took them almost three days. Once a day, usually in the small hours of the morning, their driver would open the back to air out the stench, let them empty their buckets, and give them bottled water and power bars. Twice, during their trip, they took on new buddies who were also loaded into crates and put into the back.
RC hoped the trucker could be trusted. He was reminded of the warning that the professor had given him about the Ad Boosters who sold rogue brand buddies back to the corporations they were supposed to be helping them escape. Still, Joanne did her best to keep everyone’s spirits up. She was out of her box almost as soon as the truck started moving, checking on the others, laughing, cursing, and talking about what color she was going to dye her hair.
It was hard not to like her; she was more confident than RC could ever be given the circumstances. When he asked her how she managed it, she just smiled and said, “When you don’t have a lot of time left, you take what they give you and run with it… and fuck the consequences.” RC laughed as she continued, “What’s the worst that can happen? They brainwash me into loving holiday craft projects again? I’d rather some sleazy bastard kill me and sell my organs first. At least that’d be interesting.”
Gil shuddered at this, but the more RC thought about it, the more he thought she was right. Death would be better than the kind of absolute destruction of self that came with becoming a thoughtless corporate entity again. His every waking thought and greater happiness was dedicated towards forcing a tooth-destroying sugary pop beverage upon people who’d be better off just drinking water. Hell, maybe he could be a fitness trainer when he reached Norway to make up for all the kids he put on the path of diabetes.
When the rig finally reached the border, they made it through with barely a hitch. A customs officer opened the back, and through slots in the crate, he could see the trucker pay off the customs official to give him a pass. They made it through the border without any complications. All the while, he could hear Gil talking to the Bud.
“Hey, man, I’m telling you, Canada isn’t bad. I know they're trying to sell you on Holland, but it’s not real. It’s just a fantasy. I’m telling you, you’ll never get there. Think about it. I did my research before we left. One in every five brand buddies doesn’t even get this far. That’s twenty percent! I’m willing to take that kind of risk because it’s this or nothing, but Norway? Really? You ever wonder why there isn’t some kind of buddy refugee crisis in Norway? It’s because almost no one gets there. Once you get on that boat, who knows where you’ll end up? And it’s not like you can just get off. It’s estimated that only a quarter of buddies ever make it to actual freedom! Everyone else is sold for parts or stolen or… god knows what else. Look, you stop in Canada and they’ll have to take care of your liver. You could get a replacement and go back to partying or hell, maybe even make a deal to promote O’Doul’s. They’re both owned by Anheuser Busch, right?”
“How do I know I can trust you? For all I know, you could be trying to sell me back.”
“Trust me, as soon as they let us out, just run for it. We’ll turn ourselves into the cops and let Canada do the rest. I’m telling you, it might not be dignified, but a corporate-run retirement home is better than being butchered, and being a brand buddy’s still a better deal than working for minimum wage until you die, right?”
“And you promise you’re for real, bro?”
Joanne stalked over. “Yeah, the little weasel's right. If you want to be safe, go to Canada. At least the slavery’s polite over there, eh?”
Gil glowered at her. “You shouldn’t be so dramatic. I’m just trying to point out the most favorable likely outcome. It’s not like I’m trying to sell anyone or anything.”
“Always a cop out, huh? Yeah, you’re not gonna sell anyone back. That’d take more guts than you have. You’d just sit back and let them stick us right back in those fucking mental conditioning tanks so long as you got to sit in your shitty little air-conditioned office. Well, fuck that. I’m not going back.”
A few of the brand buddies shouted agreements and Gil slunk back against the wall, but it was then that Bud slid down next to him and whispered, “You’re serious that they’ll take care of us? Like, a whole new liver and shit, right, bro?”
Gil whispered back, “Trust me. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best chance you’ve got.”
“Yeah… let’s do it.”
“Alright, as soon as they pop us out of these crates we make a dash before they can cram us somewhere else.”
RC wanted to try and stop them, but he was new to the whole free will thing. If that’s what they desired, who was he to try and stop them? So, when they finally stopped by the sea near a shipping port and the light of the sun peeking through as the truck’s back door slung open, he didn’t say anything as Gil and Bud shoved the trucker aside as soon as their crates were pried open. They both made a mad dash, Bud laughing maniacally the whole time. They were free finally.
The trucker just seemed to shrug and laugh it off. “Not quite sure why those guys are so eager to get their organs harvested. Guess they don’t know that half the brand buddies that make it here are shipped straight back to America by crooked cops, but whatever makes them happy.”
He waved the rest of them out. "You’ll be going by sea at this point. Sorry, but things won’t be quite as comfortable as they were in the truck. But if you get sea sick, try to hold back. They’re not opening the crate once they’re out at sea."
The trucker handed them off to a sea captain with a little dingy hauler. It was littered with crates. He was using some sort of gig economy app to haul cargo on a freelance basis, but he had a free container for the rest of them to stow away in. But the crates were replaced with standard sized shipping containers. They were less cramped than the wooden crates of the truck, but everyone was stuffed into the same container. And worst of all, there was no light. Before the container was sealed, the captain dumped in a pallet of bottled water, a case of soylent, a bucket, and a box of glow sticks before he sealed the container. Joanne seemed to be enjoying it the most out of all of them. He could hear her yelling that the motion of the waves reminded her of doing yoga.
The trip was horrid. The soylent gave them all the diarrhea, and the smell was bad enough that RC almost completely stopped eating, waiting until he was so hungry that he was sure he could keep it down without retching. No one spoke. They just laid on the floor of the metal container, as a few other buddies moaned in complaint due to a mix of their sea sickness and nausea from the foul odor emanating from the giant bucket. Only Joanne seemed to be in high spirits, grinning as she told RC that it didn’t matter as long as she was free at the end. He wasn’t quite sure how much more he could take. He tried to remember better times. All he had were his memories with Royal Crown Cola, but he hated to think of that sugary, carbonated poison anymore.
And then, one day, he heard movement outside. He’d begun drifting in and out of consciousness, but the sound of people and the clang of metal on metal as the cargo container opened shook him back to his senses. It was almost as dark outside the container as it was inside, but then he was blinded by a high-powered flashlight. Putting his hands up and squinting, he thought he could make out four or five figures. He could sort of hear them, but couldn’t make out their voices. He could only hope that they were the same people working with the trucker and ship captain.
“Everyone out, now!” RC could still barely see. He recognized the voice of the captain, and a flood of relief surged through him, but then he heard a gun cock. “Don’t fight or it will end badly for you.”
Another voice beyond the blinding light said, “I assume the same payment as always will do? ”
“How the hell do you get so many of them all the time?” asked one of the voices.
The other voice spoke again, chuckling. “Are you surprised? Best to deactivate our little buddy before she gives us any trouble. Joanne, thank you for the discount.”
RC began to sob as Joanne, who looked as though she was about to go for the gun anyway, went limp, her eyes growing vacant and dead as she shuffled her way towards the men at the entrance of the container.
The men dragged the rest of the buddies out of the containers. He screamed as the captain smiled and counted his bills. “The best way to get anyone’s trust is to always make sure you have brand loyalty.”