Thursday, September 26, 2013

2H2K - January 2050: LoaneRs

Carnegie Library (1913)
[The following is the first of 12 short stories, introduced here.]
Little Jo watched David as he barked commands at a cloud of invisible avataRs - or at least invisible to her. Her phone was dead, the only image she could see in her frames was a light indicating that they were searching for a connection. Little Jo couldn’t see what her fiancé was hearing or see what he was seeing; but she could imagine: the persistently polite, but helpless, scrum of telleRs, cashieRs, and operatoRs. And even though she couldn’t see his face from where she was standing, David’s frustration filled the large front room of the rental shop.

On the best of days David’s relationship with Artificial Labor was difficult. It was part of what attracted Little Jo to him in the first place. They had met in a bar two years before and in the middle of their conversation he had barked in pain. When she asked if he was OK, he’d explained that he was fine, that he was addressing his navigatoR, which he had named “aRgh.” She had laughed so hard he had begun laughing. When she could catch her breath, she’d demanded he prove that it wasn’t just a joke. David had presented his palm, his pRime was a great black asymmetric ring he wore on his middle finger. “This is aRgh.” he had said, with a wicked smile.

She had smiled back, but hesitated. Her pRime was a long four-sided handset she wore dangling from a bracelet. It was vintage. Her father had given it to her as a graduation present. It had a love-worn galvanized steel case, with a ancient POV and effective array embedded at one end - but she never used them. "I had the case cracked and my guy upgraded the works, it only looks slow, but its not. It has the processing power to keep up with anything you want to run on it" her father had assured her. "As long as you have good peripherals, it will make a great pRime." 

And he had made sure that she had great peripherals. Her graduation present had been a family affair. Her frames had been a gift from her mother, they were a bit over two years old now, but because they had a state of the art POV and HD glass, they were still better than what most of her friends wore. Additionally they bristled with effective sensors that made the handset's vintage moot. Her earings were gift from her brother. They were a custom fab that made her look as if her ear canals had been gold leafed, and like her frames, still out performed what most people wore, even two years later. But it was her mouthpiece that was the real jewel-in-the-crown of her headset. It wasn't part of her graduation gift-suite, it had been a going away present from her mother.

The dentist had shown her the polished white flakes before he laminated them to her molars. He had pointed out the little clusters of RFID-enabled microchips on the inside face of the flakes. They had looked like microscopic villages huddled around the openings of pin prick canals, and networked by grooves that Little Jo had been unable to see, but he assured here were there and would wick saliva to and from the various chips in the processing village. That had been just days before the move to Chicago. “I just want to be able to hear you clearly” her mother had told her.

“And know that I’m eating.” little Jo had shot back. Her mom had smile and agreed.

“Yeah.” She had admitted, hugging Little Jo close and whispering in her ear: “Theres an app for that."

A week later she was in the South Loop at a tiki bar called “Pago Pago” with a bunch of grad students from the Art Institute. David was a friend of someone from the fab shop. He looked like a movie star. Like Bieber, she thought, when he was still grizzly; before he got fat. And he had offered her his pRime. He had held his palm out to show it to her, then he had turned his hand over and made a fist, presenting his pRime as if it was a signet that she should kiss. She held up her pRime for him to see with flirtatious flair; as if it were a cigarette that need lighting and she was Marlene Dietrich. "aRgh, this is sawyeR." she had said, making her permission exlicit. He smiled and tapped her pRime with his. Like wizards with our enchanted familiars, she had thought.

Allowing aRgh access to sawyeR, giving David’s navigatoR a chance to exchange personal information with her own, was not something she usually did with guys she met in bars. Some girls like the bad-boy glamor of tattoos or a rock band, I lake a man with an AL chip on his shoulder... David’s disdain for - but simultaneous understanding and command of - all things AL gave him a bad-boy glamor Little Jo that had found irresistible. With sawyeR’s conditional approval she had taken him home that night. And with my family’s conditional approval, we got engaged. 

Jo came from a family steeped in AL. Her parents were cross-trainers, who had traveled the world locating and "recording" the abilities of skilled craftsmen and women. "I teach machines to do things." Her father liked to tell people. Her baby brother, the star of the family, was about to complete his PHD in servotecture at Stanford’s AL Lab. He was brilliant and expected to go far and do great things. And her great uncle - as close to a patriarch as her family had - was an artist, famous for his use of AL.

Jo, who had no special relationship to AL, or anything else. In a family of overachievers and wunderkind, she felt dull. Listening now, as her fiancé bellowed at the empty air around him, she wished she knew what to do, the way she imagined her brother would know what to do. In an expression of contempt, David began to repeatedly emphasizing the AL-R in operatoR, manageR, and superviseR to the point of absurdity: “I don’t need an operat-HAIR, or a manag-HAIR, or a supervise-HAIR!” It wasn't lost on Little Jo that she was the only one within earshot capable of actually feeling David’s contempt. “I need to speak to a fucking human being!” he yelled.

It’s all my fault. She looked down at the tiny antique pRime in her hand and her stomach tightened. David had urged her to get a new one when he updated his. “We can share a plan,” he’d said, “it’ll be really cheap.” She had stubbornly stuck with her old handset. She was comfortable with it, thought it had retro-cool. “Sure,” he’d conceded, “but the battery sucks.” And, as always, he was right. The battery had started to fail a month ago and in the past couple days had gone from bad, to worse, to disaster. Despite the fact that sawyeR had repeatedly tried to remind her, she’d forgotten to charge the thing. We got in so late last night and woke up so early.

So now, because the she had had sawyeR arrange the rentals, and everything was reserved in her name, with permissions she needed sawyeR in order to access, they had lost the first two and a half hours of what was already a supposed to be long and hectic day. 

It had been dark when they crawled out of their double-wide pod. Too early even for the complimentary continental breakfast. And the caR had been faster than they expected. The sky was getting light when it dropped them off, but the sun hadn’t been up yet.

While they had waited for the rental shop to open they sipped Cokes and she had tried to make jokes about the rental shop’s name (“The LibraRy? Really?”), as well as its overly grand façade (“It looks like a piece of Boston landed in LA”). But David hadn’t taken the bait. He hadn’t been in a joking mood. Instead he had launched into a long-winded explanation about the public library system. And sure enough, a quick Query revealed that had been a former Carnegie library.

As the sun rose, David had begun to mansplain the sunrise as well. They hadn’t planned to stay up celebrating Chinese New Year. They had checked in at the "Pod Palace" and after quickly dumping their things, had gone out to look for something to eat. They had both been so wrapped up with the move that they had lost track of the day. The scene downtown had been wild. Year of the horse. But that’s not what had drawn the crowds. After twenty five years the Chinese had officially begun to retracting the ParaSol, and the Angelenos had turned the occasion into a street party that was crazier than any of the “2H2K” parties she could remember hearing about. 

Again, sitting on the steps of the LibraRy, Little Jo had tried to turn the conversation, to talk about the crowd they had partied with, but David wouldn’t be sidetracked. When he’s nervous that’s what he does: explain things. So she let him go on about how, unlike when they deployed the space mirror in a single explosive shock to the earths climate twenty five years ago, sparking off a wave of super-storms and draughts, retraction would be done more cautiously. It would take a full decade to completely fold up the 600,000 square miles of reflective mesh.
Jo listened with some real interest as he told her, at length, about the physics the “curved-crease macro-deployable.” But as he began to opined on why the huge orbital mirror made the sun look “uncanny – like something from a cartoon or a video game” he lost her. While david had been in high school when the ParaSol was deployed, Little Jo had been in diapers; way too young to remember any before/after difference in the sun's appearance. And while Little Jo had seen time lapse videos of the heat-shield deploying, and had seen the change that had come over the sun, she still found the claim that the sun was now different in some un-quantifiable way, hard to swallow.

She had heard plenty of other people David’s age and older make similar comments about the difference the heat-shield made in the appearance of the sun, of colors, of the “flattened quality of light,” but everything seemed to look a lot like it did in old movies. If something had changed she couldn’t tell the difference. Little Jo was suspected it was some form of generational nostalgia: When I was young, the sun was REAL...

But that was two long hours ago, and now the sun was high in the sky and, even if not as hot as it had been in the good-old-days, it was still hot enough. David's eyes focused past the avartaRs he was looking at with his frames to look at Little Jo and she looked away; pretended to be examining the orange nylon cover-alls on a heavy-duty landscapeR.

Outfitted for earth-moving and arboriculture, the landscapeR was almost twice as tall as David its frame looked to have been routed from sheets of a cranberry-colored phenolic resin composite. Its oversized chrome joints were the only metal parts on it besides a miniature diesel powertrain, but like the cluster of cylindrical dry-cells running down its back, those we all encased in a heavy-duty-looking fibrous plastic casings. It must have weighed tons - and be nearly as old as my phone, she thought, guiltily.

The gardeneRs they had brought with them from Chicago were nothing like the big rental units, most were lighter than house cats, but also about as strong. Coming to LA, homesteading a slab, setting up the FactüRæ™ franchise, had all seemed so exciting six months ago. The age difference between her and David had, not only not bothered her, it had seemed a plus. She had felt safe: he would know what to do. He knew about water rights, was a licensed engineer, and his designs were so smart, so modern. It had all seemed so right. But now, listening to his anger, knowing it was her that he was once again angry at, Little Jo felt the weight of their move bear down on her.

Jo looked past the gardeneR and saw that a small crowd had formed catty-corner from the shop; a caR was stopped in the intersection and she could see that there was someone on the ground. “Jo? Where are you going?” David demanded. “Jo we can’t leave, we’ll lose the deposit - Goddamn it Jo!”- But she was already stepping into the mid morning heat - the heat that David had been determined to avoid by renting the gardeneRs early.

Not knowing why, Jo was running. She had never seen a caR accident, never even known anyone who had seen one, much less anyone who had been in one, but knew that was what she was looking at now.

As she got closer she could see that it was a boy – same age as her brother, maybe a little younger. He was curled up on the ground next to a twisted bike. His pants were torn wide open at the crotch; there was blood and he was moaning. “He didn’t stop,” a woman explained, to no one in particular, “he just came right down the hill and didn’t stop.”

The boy’s hands clutched at his torn underpants, his face was badly scraped. “I called; I think the caR called, but its talking nonsense” said a man David’s age, standing in front of Jo. “May have been damaged in the crash.” The caR’s front end was crumpled against a hydrant. “It tried to dodge the bike, “ he explained. “So I called.” The man pointed at the boy’s bloody pants. “He hit the handlebars; tore him – tore his pants up. They’ll be here soon.”

For a moment everyone but the boy seemed to look up at Jo – watching her face as she approached, they looked confused as Jo pushed into their midst. The man who-had-called began to protest when she pushed him out of her way. “Now hold on…” But as she lay down next to the boy and curled her body around his, the only voice Jo could hear was the boys: “Oh God” he whispered, “My balls. Somethings wrong. Jesus. Are they fucked up?”

Without imagining the optics of her actions, Jo spooned the boy; pressing his back with her stomach and cradling the crook of his knees with her thighs, she wrapped her arm around his chest and spooned him – firm, but still. Putting her mouth next to his ear she began to whisper: “Its OK, they’ll be fine. You will be fine. Stay still. It’s OK.”

When the paramedics came Jo never let go of the boys hand. As the guRney loaded him into the ambulance, she climbed in besides him. She could see David watching her from behind a row of landscapeRs. He turned away as the paramedics stepped in and the ambulance’s doors closed behind them.


  1. If this is your idea of a future reality, then you have mistakenly used many words which won't even exist in 2050! The word 'phone' being just one of them.

  2. Its tough; perhaps I was a little sloppy in the way I use the word "phone" here, since the "phone" I am describing is no longer a discrete device, but just an application of a more general device (Jo's "pRime").

    I imagine the pRime less as a "smart phone", or "portable computer" and more akin to home, or primary, computer So a pRime is used for lots of things, including as a phone.

    As for the disappearance of the word phone, I've given a lot of thought about the way language might change, that we might abandon a word as dominant as "phone" seems entirely unlikely. Even if "being on the phone" once referred to speaking into a discrete object tethered to the wall, we now use it to mean remote speaking. Unless the Singularity has swept us all up in some kind of nano bot geek rapture, transforming all matter in the solar system into a matrioshka brain occupied by god-like super intelligences, then we will still be little hairless apes with a fondness for remote speaking, and the word "phone" having great first-mover advantage, will still be the word we use to describe that activity.