A science fiction tale that tells a truth: every technology has unintended consequences
“I still hate this,” Trevor said. “That you’re doing this to Becky.”
“So you’ve told me,” I said wearily. “Many times.”
We sat in the clinic waiting room, done in Martian rust reds, very trendy for such an illegal operation. But, then, this was very upscale illegality. Trevor, who had so much money he never thought about it, hadn’t asked how I was paying for Becky’s surgery, and I hadn’t volunteered that I’d cashed in my retirement fund at Payne, Jeffers. We’d been waiting on the rust-red conformachairs, which were not as comfortable as advertised, for nearly an hour.
Trevor scowled at me. “Amanda, as a tactic this lacks—”
“Sweetness,” I said. “I know. I’m not a sweet person, Trevor. This is a surprise? You’ve known this about me since we were nine. We didn’t become friends because you value sweetness.”
But I was, all at once, beyond restraint. I turned on him. “And Jake didn’t marry me for sweetness, either. Who wants to go to bed with a lump of marzipan—he used to say that to me! And he didn’t leave me for lack of sweetness, either, or he wouldn’t have chosen…what does she have that I don’t?”
My voice had risen to a shout. The three other people in the waiting room, two of whom were holo-masked, stared. I twisted my hands together and spoke more softly. “He’s just erased me from his life. That’s what I really can’t stand—that he acts like I never existed at all.”
Trevor put his arms around me. I collapsed against his thin chest and narrow shoulders—delicate frames were hot just now with gays—and sobbed quietly. The man sitting two chairs away moved to four chairs away.
After I finally blew my nose, I said, “Trevvy, I have to know. Jake was the love of my life.”
“Jake is a cheating and lying bastard, and anyway, I’m the love of your life.”
“You don’t believe that.”
“Well, no.” He held me at arm’s length. “You look like a dead spot in the ocean. Go put on some makeup. Obsession is not a good look for you. Anyway, Becky should be the love of your life.”
His expression stopped my remaining sniffles. Trevor always smiles and he is never, ever critical of me. Not seriously. I said, “She is.”
He didn’t bother to correct the lie. But he looked away from me, and something in my neck went cold. I’d lost my soon-to-be-ex husband. If I lost Trevor, too….
“I’m here, Amanda. Always. And no, I don’t need sweetness from you. I just need—”
My wristband brightened and said, “Ms. Rydder, the surgery went fine, and you can see Rebecca now. First door to your left.”
I charged through the door. Becky lay in a smartcrib, watching a holo-mobile two feet above her. Bright, nonexistent shapes twisted and flowed in the air. Becky’s plump little hands reached for them until she saw me. She crowed with delight, and I picked her up and cuddled her, studying her right eye.
It was clear, stained-glass green with thick, dark lashes. Just like Jake’s eyes.
No scars on the smooth baby skin.
No grogginess from the anesthesia, no pain, no cloudiness in her iris.
You couldn’t tell that anything had been done to her at all.
Using the software was as uncomplicated as the implant itself. What was hard was setting it up. The manufacturer doesn’t do that for you, understanding more than anyone the absolute necessity of customized, unhackable encryption on dedicated and shielded computers. Most wearers of Opti-Cam implants are not six-month-old infants. Last month alone, six major mobsters were indicted and an Asian dictator assassinated using information from Opti-Cams.
Trevor set up my system. It was pretty minimal: receiver, screen, retransmitter, basic encryption. He protested the retransmitter. “This data isn’t something you should view on anything but this one screen here in your bedroom, off-line for all the Internets. Don’t retransmit to your wrister or, quod di prohibeant, to any screen anywhere at your job. Do I have to remind you that this whole setup is illegal?”
“Just get it working. And drop the Latin—it’s pretentious.”
“You never did have any sense of verbal fashion, Mandy. No, don’t touch that…wait a minute…there.”
The screen brightened to an expanse of white. I was about to protest that the system didn’t work when I realized: Becky was staring at the ceiling.
She lay in her crib across the room, drowsy and blinking. The white expanse disappeared, reappeared, disappeared again. I said, too shrilly, “Mobile on,” and her smartcrib activated it. Becky’s eyes opened wide and she cooed. My screen showed somersaulting kittens made of light, seen from Becky’s perspective as the camera behind her cornea sent its images to the receiver.
“Mobile off.” The kittens disappeared. I crossed the room and loomed over Becky, looking back over my shoulder. On-screen was her view of me, head turned away.
Trevor said, “I still don’t think you’ve thought this through. And I still hate it. Becky—”
“Won’t know a thing. She doesn’t feel the implant, and the images don’t get stored in her brain, at least not any more than they would from her own vision. Nothing connects to her memory. There are dozens of studies proving that.”
“With adult subjects. Not infants.”
“Infants remember even less than we do.”
“I wish you remembered less,” Trevor said. “Remembered less, felt less, schemed less—”
I’d stopped listening to him. I watched Becky watch me until her lids fell into sleep and the screen went blank.
This was Wednesday. On Friday Jake would pick up Becky for his weekend of shared custody.
“What’s with you?” Felicity said to me in the ladies’ room nearest our cubicles. “You’re jumpy as a cat.”
“Cats aren’t particularly jumpy. Neither am I. Just stressed about the GloBiz account.”
Felicity frowned, but before she could point out that GloBiz was consistently thrilled with our campaign for them, I was out of the ladies’ room, out of the building, in a cab home. Only 4:00 p.m., but so what? Even a copywriter deserves a dangerous, illegal, utterly stupid hobby.
In my bedroom I turned on the dedicated computer. Becky gazed at the back of a head in a moving car. One head, not two. Jake, alone, had picked her up at day care.
Then his apartment, not Pam’s. I had never been inside either one, but I recognized his half of what had once been our furniture. He put Becky on the floor to crawl, and whenever she glanced over at him, I glimpsed the slippers I’d given him for his last birthday.
In college, I’d been a film major. No Fellini retrospective, no Welles film work, had ever enthralled me like the images on my screen that Friday evening. Jake’s slippers, Becky’s toys, a rubber ducky floating in the bathtub. Quick shots of Jake’s face, laughing or talking to her—why didn’t the implant have audio! Pam did not appear. When Becky finally fell asleep, I turned off the computer and then sat for a long time in the dark, tears running down my face, rage in my heart.
He had no right to do this to me. To Becky. To live his life as if I’d never occupied the center of it.
At midnight I gave in and keyed his number into my cell. He answered sleepily. “Hello?”
Not breathing, I clutched the phone.
More sharply: “Hello?” And then, “Amanda, if this is you, you’re violating the restraining order. Please stop. I mean it this time. I’ll go back to court if I have to.”
I said nothing. Tears and rage, tears and rage. Long after he hung up, I clutched the phone as if I could crush it.
On Saturday, Pam appeared in Becky’s field of vision.
At first I got only flashes of her; Becky was not interested in focusing on this unknown person. It was eerie to glimpse a red-shirted elbow, the toe of a black boot, the back of a blond head. It disassembled her, made her less than real. Eventually, however, she sat down in front of Becky and fed the baby strained applesauce.
Instantly, I wanted to leap through the lens and shove her away from my baby. Leave her alone, you bitch, she’s mine! Pam was pretty but not gorgeous, a girl-next-door type if the door happened to open on a Hamptons beach house. Sun-streaked hair, fine sun lines around brown eyes, no makeup, vintage Lululemon workout clothes. On the street I’d never have noticed her. Her body looked nicely curved but neither buxom nor model-elegant. What did she have that I didn’t?
Becky spat applesauce at her and the view vibrated—she must have been giggling. Pam giggled back.
Stop. Leave her alone! She’s mine!
By Sunday afternoon, when Jake brought Becky back, I had slept a total of three hours. All weekend I’d sat by the screen, seldom eating, scarcely going to the bathroom. Becky might wake in the night; there might be something to see. It was, as I’d discovered online, a one-bedroom apartment. Did Jake wheel her crib out into the living room so he and Pam could have sex in the bedroom? Or did they do it with Becky asleep beside them?
By order of the court, ever since that stupid misunderstanding two months ago, Jake and I had no contact when Becky was returned on Sunday. Jake brought his sister with him every single week. Linda brought Becky into my building, and the two of us did not exchange a word.
I unwrapped Becky and studied every inch of her, looking for—what? Anything amiss, a bruise or a dirty diaper or ripped pj’s. There was nothing, of course. Jake had always been a terrific father.
The baby was asleep by seven o’clock. I called Trevor to come over; my call went straight to voice mail. Felicity had a date. TV was boring. I roamed the house, unable to sit for even a moment.
Until I stopped cold, feeling my own mouth open into an O. After checking on Becky one last time, I brought the small, dedicated computer into the living room and connected it to my wall system.
Trevor had made his fortune with Holo-Shop. He invented it, patented it, and sold it for an exorbitant sum plus royalties to Microsoft.
There had been other holographic conversion programs on the market, but they were quirky, experimental, difficult to use. Holo-Shop was none of those, and the results were sharper than anything before it. You brought up a flat image on a screen, set the parameters you wanted, and touched the H-S icon. The image sprang from the screen in holographic three dimensions. It could be small or large, although the larger you made it, and the farther away the hologram from the screen, the lower the resolution. A three-inch rose was a miracle of dense perfection; a room-sized puppy was insubstantial vapor.
Holo-Shop could not evoke moving images, not yet, although Microsoft was reportedly working on it. Meanwhile, advertisers and artists and retail outlets manipulated holograms to sometimes powerful effect, sometimes laughable kitsch. Ditto the millions of users who wanted the pyramids to decorate their trendy Egyptian-themed living room but to disappear when they needed to set up a card table for poker.
I ran the camera images of Jake as Becky saw him until I found a good one: Jake crouching on the floor, smiling, green eyes alight, arms extended for the baby to crawl into them. I froze the image, projected it with H-S, and fooled with it for a while. When it was done, Jake sat life-size on my bedroom floor, ghostly enough to see the dresser behind him, arms outstretched. The dresser didn’t matter. I got down on the floor and moved to sit in the circle of his arms.
The second weekend that Jake had Becky, Pam was there all weekend. I watched them every minute that Becky was awake. They kissed in the kitchen, took Becky to the park, watched something on TV while she crawled around the floor. Pam wore Carson Davies boots in calfskin, $800. When Trevor called with tickets to the hottest play in town, I told him I had the flu. By Sunday afternoon, when Linda handed Becky back to me, I was groggy from sleeplessness, reeking from not bathing. I didn’t look at Linda looking at me.
I once saw a show about toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease. When mice contract it, they lose their natural fear of cats, making it easier for cats to eat them and the parasite to get into the cat. There was some evidence from brain scans that the mice realized this lack of fear was stupid, but they couldn’t help themselves. They were compelled to let the cats see them.
At work I accomplished nothing. I’d set the retransmitter to send the images of Jake and Pam to my wrister; the hell with what Trevor said. Whenever I could, I ducked into the ladies’ room and brought up images to study. Felicity went from warmly supportive (“You don’t feel well? Oh, I can finish that copy, Amanda”) to faintly resentful (“You haven’t even started on the McMahon account stuff? But we got it over a week ago”).
On Thursday night, Trevor called. I told him I had the flu. On Friday night, he let himself into my apartment with his emergency key. I barely had time to dart out of the bedroom and close the door.
“Trevor! I told you I’m sick!”
“It’s not flu season, Mandy.” His handsome face looked strange without its habitual smile.
“If I say I have the flu, then I have the flu!”
“I don’t think you do. You’re doing it again, aren’t you? Two restraining orders and a court fine weren’t enough?”
“I’m not. I’m not stalking Jake.”
“Swear on pussy willows’ pussies?” Our childhood oath; at ten years old it had seemed hilarious.
“Swear on pussy willows’ pussies.”
“Then you’re obsessing over the Opti-Cam images.”
“Isn’t that my business?”
Trevor lost his temper, something even rarer than losing his smile. “Oh, Christ, Mandy, you’re my business! Don’t you know that if I were straight, you and I would have married and had three Beckys of our own? Don’t you know how much better I’d have been for you than Jake? I can handle your intensity, he couldn’t. And I know when you’re lying to me.”
“Please go, Trevor. I’m not up to this right now, really I’m not—”
He left, slamming the door behind him. Once, nothing in the world would have kept me from following him. Trevor, my best friend, my support and confidant….
On the screen in the bedroom, Becky lay in her infant seat, studying her bare toes. She must have just woken up. On the rug, barely within the circle of her unknowing vision, Jake and Pam made love.
Frantically I keyed in his cell number. Anything to disrupt them, anything! The call went to voice mail. “Stop!” I screamed. “Stop, stop, stop!” The cell must have been on silent; they didn’t stop.
I am not sane, I thought, which was my last sane thought.
I called in sick to work on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I never left my bedroom. It began to smell: of Becky’s diapers, piled in the corner whenever I changed her. Of a pizza molding on the dresser. Of me.
On Thursday morning, Trevor returned.
“Go away! Go away!” I’d waited all week for 10:00 a.m. on Thursday! Trevor was not going to spoil this!
“Mandy…oh my God.” He stood in the door to my bedroom. Becky gurgled in her swing. She was dressed in her snowsuit; the window stood open to help with the stench.
“Go away!” I barely glanced at him—it was 9:57!
“Mandy, darling, whatever you’re going to do…don’t.”
“Let me help you. You know we’ve always helped each other.”
“Don’t touch me!”
“I won’t. You know I won’t if you don’t want me to. I’m just going to pick up Becky, okay? Here we go, sweetheart, come to Uncle Trevor….”
Jake’s law office was superefficient. The partners would be gathering in his spacious office for the regular Thursday morning meeting. His wall screen would be on, ready to bring up the week’s data. He didn’t know I had his office password; I’d stolen it right after he told me he was leaving me, but despite everything that had led to the restraining order I’d never used it. Until now.
Trevor said, “Mandy, what are you doing? Put down your cell if you’re calling the cops. I’m not here to force you to do anything you don’t want to do, I promise. Put down the cell.”
I pushed both buttons simultaneously, my cell and the “Send” button on the computer. The phone number bypassed Jake’s office answering system—a direct line for privileged clients who needed to reach their lawyer instantly for some legal emergency. Jake would not recognize the number of my new, throwaway cell. His voice said, “Hello?”
Now it would happen. Now I would get what I had been trying for so long, what I needed more than food or water or even Becky: I would get a reaction from Jake. The image of him and Pam naked on the rug would burst from the wall screen in his office in all its color-saturated, three-dimensional luridness, and Jake would know I had done it. That he could not erase me.
“Hello? Who is this?” Jake said, still calm. “Can I help you?”
No one in the background gasped or laughed or said, “What the hell—?” Nothing.
Jake tried one last “Can I help you?” and then cut the connection.
Trevor, patting Becky’s back, said softly, “Mandy….”
I cried, “Why didn’t it work?”
Trevor’s face changed. His gaze moved to the computer. He knew, then; he was always smarter than anybody else I knew. He said, “Because Jake knew you’d do something like that. He put a detailed blocker on his system.”
“I just wanted him to acknowledge I exist!”
“Oh, he acknowledges it,” Trevor said. “How do you think he knew what you’d do?”
He held Becky, now squirming in her snowsuit, away from him and stared into her eyes, first the right and then the left, again the right, again the left. “The technology’s available to everyone. Including Jake.”
I don’t like to lie to Trevor. Sometimes, however, you have to do certain things you might not want to do. He went with me to the clinic, but of course he couldn’t sign any papers; he is not related to Becky. I told him I’d had both Opti-Cams removed. I swore on pussy willows.
Now I stand in my bedroom, which sparkles with cleanliness. Becky sits in her swing, gurgling at me. I lean closer to her. My hair, clean and shining, swings toward her. My makeup has been professionally done. My cleavage gets help from a $200 bra. I smile at my baby.
Jake is watching.
This is one of six hard science fiction tales that will appear in Coming Soon Enough, a forthcoming e-book from IEEE Spectrum, featuring work by Greg Egan, Brenda Cooper, and others.
About the Author
Nancy Kress has been writing science fiction and fantasy since the 1970s, winning five Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, a John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Her next novel, Yesterday’s Kin, will be released in September. She often writes about the unanticipated effects of technology in everyday life. “Technology is always a double-edged sword,” she says. “The day that fire was discovered, arson became a possibility.”