Omega and I crept across the dimly lit room, then stood intrigued before the AVC. Its mantel, two meters long, held eighteen smiling little heads, some with shoulders and upper torsos, others had complete bodies—heads, feet, and everything in between. Several of the heads belonged to the same people, at different ages, as we would soon discover. Toward the right end of the mantel was a group of five, seated around a tiny table scattered with dishes and food: an old, white-haired woman, slightly hunched forward, a middle-aged man, with buzzed blond hair, holding a glass out above the table, a woman with hazel green eyes and short red hair, a boy perhaps my age, eleven, and a little girl, possibly seven or eight years old. All five had their eyes turned on Omega and me, and judging from the expressions on their faces, I could only assume they were happy to see us.
Omega raised her hand toward the head on the left end of the mantel. A man, who appeared to be in the final decade of his cycle, and the woman next to him, followed her hand with their eyes. Omega swiped her hand through the two heads.
“Hello,” the first head said.
We both jumped.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” the same head, that of the old man, said. “My name is Awkley.” The man smiled, blinked, and nodded.
Omega stared slack-jawed at the head. “Is it a book?” she whispered.
“Yes,” the head said.
“No, no, no,” one of the heads to the right of it said. I didn’t catch which one.
I glance from the first head to the next, a woman, apparently an older version of the red headed woman at the table. Without turning, I said, “They’re not real.”
“Well, obviously,” Omega said.
“How are you doing?” the second head said.
I leaned in close for a better look.
“Welcome to our house,” the old woman’s head added, “My name is Ketley. And you are?”
“Now that’s a pleasant name.”
Omega and I looked at each other.
“And you are?” The old woman smiled at Omega.
I turned back to the holo head and said, “Not ‘what’ … Z. My name is Z.”
“Yes, Z, and this is Omega.”
“Oh mega,” the third head, a man with unruly gray eyebrows and slightly pointy ears, said.
“What is your name?” Omega said.
“Murse,” the head said, smiling and raising its left brow independent of its right. “I don’t believe we’ve met before, have we?”
“How do you do that?” I said.
“This?” It raised its right brow and lowered its left.
“I mean talk. I mean, how do you … I mean, like real people talk?”
Omega shoved her hand into Murse’s head. “You’re just holograms.”
“And you are not?” the head to the right of Murse said. It was the head of a beautiful woman, whose age was impossible to determine – between thirty and forty would have been my guess. She had blond hair, like Omega had back then, in her youth, so light it was nearly white. I had to look hard to see she had eyelashes and eyebrows. Her eyes were so beautiful, I found it hard to move on.
“We’re real,” Omega said, “see?” She gave me a firm nudge.
“So you are,” the pretty head said.
Clunk! “No more real than we are, Em.” The man at the tiny table had set his glass down. A little of whatever was in it splashed out onto the table top. “See?” He gave the little girl sitting next to him a nudge.
“Awkley, you don’t need to kill the children to make your point,” the younger lady at the table said.
“You’re Ketley, right?” I said.
She turned to me with a puzzled look on her tiny face. “I used to be like that,” she said, “always forgetting names, sometimes seconds after being introduced. It’s all right, you’re young, don’t worry about it, you’ll learn. Yes, Ketley, a kettle version of Awkley The Awkward.”
“You used to live here?” Omega said.
Half the little heads spoke in unison. “We still do.” The other half were shaking their heads, no.
I gave a quick study of the various faces on the mantel and realized there were three each of Ketley and Awkley, and the young woman next to the young man at the far right end bore a striking resemblance to the little girl at the table, whereas the male at that end was an older version of the boy at the table. There were five other faces, three men and two women, who had watched, smiling steadily and blinking, but had, to this point, remained silent. I said, “Omega just wants to know if you’re a book about the people who lived here?”
“No,” the second of the five silent heads, a man of maybe thirty, with a large forehead, and a receding hairline, said, “we’re just visiting. Though I suppose we visit here a lot. I’m Vosraque, and this is my little Puddin’ Pie, Tum.”
“Oh, shut up, ass wipe!” Tum said. “You’re supposed to treat me like a lady, not some cheap dessert!” She turned from her mate to Omega. “Don’t be a fool. Don’t get linked to a man who describes you in edible terms. They do that to make up for their lack of sophistication.” She then turned to me and winked. “Vos Dear, would you just look at this. Isn’t he adorable?” Her dark eyebrows did a quick series of pushups. “Oooo, bumba, bumba.”
“Sweetie Tums, you’re making Awkley’s new guests uncomfortable.”
“Oh, Honey Buns,” she mocked. “Sugar Turd …” She crossed her eyes and pretended to choke. “I am about this close to puking!”
“Muffin Dear,” Vosraque croons, “they can’t see how close you mean. They can’t see your hands.”
“Come on you two,” the male head, to the left of Vosraque said. “You’re going to leave them with the wrong impression.”
“What? That my mate has no class, no backbone, and you have no sense of humor?” Tum turned to me, then Omega, and back to me. She appeared puzzled. “Speaking of no sense of humor … What is with you two?”