The first time he heard the ringtone he had been caught off guard by the “invisible” girl. He had laughed with delight by the genius of the illusion, but now he felt duped, haunted even. Little Jo had installed the novelty in his phone. She had told him the effect was “far-side-of-the-uncanny-valley perfect” And she was right. It was weirdly perfect.
Evidently the human brain was particularly good at judging exactly where in space a sound was coming from. “Who knew?” he had joked when she told him. And although his ear buds were a couple generations behind state-of-the-art, she had explained, they were equipped for passive sonar. “Again,” he had teased, “who knew?” The answer was of course, Jo, she loved that sort of obscura.
The sonar feature was nominally used to isolate his voice during calls in noisy environs and to remove the echo from his voice so callers can't tell he's talking to them from the bathroom. The app took advantage of these neurological and technological features to create little “ghosts”.
Rather than a dislocated ringing in his ears to alert him to an incoming call, the app took soundings of the spaces around him and blended the child's laughter into whatever sonic environment he might be in. The thing was, the app never placed the child in the same place - so it fooled him every time. At this moment the laughing child seemed to be about twelve feet away just about where the cluster of pipes rose up from the center of the slab. I need to remove that app.
The first time he'd heard the ghostly laugh he’d loved it. It occurred in the cool marble-lined hallway of his old apt building - a great old prewar walk-up on Chicago's West Side. With Little Jo watching him - all smiles, in anticipation of what he was about to experience - the app had placed the laughter just out of sight around the corner of the hallway. The sound was so substantial; so convincingly corporeal. Despite the fact that little Jo had explained the purpose and mechanics of the app to him, he was unable to control the expectation of seeing a real little girl around the corner, he had still expected to see a real little girl as he turned the corner. It had raised the hair on the back of his neck to find himself looking at the spot where his brain was telling him her laugh was coming from, and see nothing but empty air.
Months later, half a continent away and with Little Jo gone, he stared at the empty space in front of his water main, listening to the laugh. He turned away. What had seemed an unspoken promise, the joys of all the possibilities Little Jo had represented, had become the hungry ghost of yet another aborted dream. “Fuc-uK! uK! uK! uK!”
“David? Are you OK?” David turned back to look at the PVC water main in shock. “David?” He recognized the voice. Again, his brain played catch-up with his phone. With mortification bordering on nausea, he realized what had happened.
"Oh gosh Sarah, I’m so sorry! I’ve got this crazy app-” David looked down at his pRime. He had been so proud of it when he first got it: a loop of milky manufactured sapphire he wore around his ring finger. Its only features were three slightly recessed black slits that concealed POVs and sensors, like the sonar and, only God and Little Jo, knew what else. The ring remained as glossy and perfect as the day he bought it, but Jesus Christ it had a fucking hair trigger. “-I - I didn’t realized it had picked up…”
Sarah laughed. “Hey no worries, it happens. I was just checking in. Wanted to see how things were going.” Sarah was his contact at FactüRæ™; “West Coast Manager of Franchisee Relations.” David had never met her, she was in Canada somewhere, but she had made a point of making their relationship informal; friendly. And he could tell by the way her voice had trailed off that she knew what was going on.
“You saw video?”
“Yeah, I did. Wow. That was really something!” The feed of Little Jo comforting the boy at the bike accident had exploded. Last he checked, the various POVs of "the incident" had topped a quarter billion views.
Tentatively, Sarah started in, “David I don’t mean to pry, its just that Jo’s updates…”
Little Jo had made the move from Chicago out to LA a cross-platform social-media event. David had never been one for sharing the details of his day to day life. At best it felt too much like his mother and her friend’s constant habit of over-sharing every detail of their lives. At worst it reminded him of his parents and their friends habit of over-sharing everything about his and his friend’s lives. Adulthood for David and his generation had meant privacy.
Little Jo was a full generation younger than David. Almost twenty fucking years; what was I thinking? David had been surprised to see how different it for her and her cohort. For them social media was all peer-to-peer AL enabled network-building. It was a sleeker, more nuanced, and less intrusive. There was a frictionless mediation between individuals, that didn’t involve interacting through corporate owned domains, but instead involved direct and privately controlled navigatoRs interacting in ways that David had found surprisingly sophisticated, and without the need to sell the details of ones life to the lowest bidder.
While David had teased Jo at first, he had had to admit how well it all function - particularly when they chose to make the trip to LA by caR. Stitching together that cross-country trip might have been easier if he'd let Jo and her navigatoR deal with the logistics. As it is, Jo had made some great connections along the way. They had never had to worry about where to stay or eat and had ended up at some out of the way spots locals had pointed them towards. They had even stopped to tour a half-dozen or so small town fab operations, that they never would have found otherwise.
“…I feel like I made the move with you guys,” Sarah said after a pause. And again, there was dead air, as she once again gave David the chance to say something, but he couldn’t bring himself to. “Anyway, when I saw her posting again, from Seattle…”
Seattle. The news hit David like a fist. He hadn’t asked where she was going and had carefully avoided searching for the answer. Figures. Little Jo’s brother was there. David should be happy for her, he knew she had been missing her brother. But he wasn’t happy for her. He barely stopped himself from swearing at Sarah for a second time. “Fufifff.” He told himself it sounded like he was blowing sweat out of his eyes.
“David I’m really sorry,” she told him. “I just figured I should call.” She sounded really sorry, which took the edge off. All along Sarah had made their business dealings feel secondary to the friendship they were making. Even if it was some sort of new Sino-African management ideology, David hadn’t cared. He liked her.
His best guess was that she was a West Coaster, maybe Mexican, in her mid thirties. Her avatar was a still, which wasn’t uncommon for a work icon. It showed a widely smiling brunette looking up at the camera. But something about the POV was peculiar for a work icon. Kinda sexy, he thought, studying the image projected by his phone onto his palm. David had liked Sarah immediately.
“You’re brilliant.” David reassured. “Things are good. Jo’s brother is up there doing post-grad work. It’s great up there this time of year.” David was not ready to tell Sarah or anyone else, about the breakup. For what ever reason Jo hadn't publicly broken off the engagement, and neither had he. Not so much because he hoped it wasn’t final. He knew it was. But mostly because he didn’t know what to say about it yet. Fucking mess.
“Oh, good. I’m so glad. I know when events go viral like that, it can make things really hard; all the attention.” She was letting him off the hook and he was glad for it.
“Yeah.” He looked around at the activity on the slab. “Meanwhile, things are buzzing at the old homestead.” He flattened his hand, dismissing the projection, and then held his hand up and out, enabled the phones’ POV. Making a slow pan he showed Sarah the work site.
“WOW! David, it looks great!”
He couldn’t help but smile. “Thanks Sarah, I feel good about the progress. I got the site cleared in good time; and, while the lead abatement is going to be ongoing for the foreseeable future, I’m otherwise good to go with the county and the state.”
He tilted his hand upwards so Sarah could see the portion of the geodesics already knobbed with the black buds of the sintering arrays. Sarah “oohed” appreciatively. He moved his hand downward so she could see the crew of gaffeRs climbing like monkeys up and down the red struts of the enormous dome. Each gaffeR trailed great drooping strands of shielded fiber-optic, copper, and coaxial cable - all color coded. Around the base of the dome's frame smaller squirrel-sized juiceRs made sure the cables didn’t tangle of pull short. The thing looks like Thai psychedelic-realism store display.
“Ahhhhh” Sarah crooned, making David laugh. He pivoted, hoping to give a smooth cinematic sweep to the phone’s POV, and aimed his hand at a pair of plumbeRs that were assembling the system’s vacuum and mechanical booster pumps.
“David, seriously, way to go!” Sarah enthused. “You’re going to be in production in no time.”
“Don’t jinx me. If all goes well, I should be doing my first test prints in a week and a half, and publishing at full capacity by the end of the month.” In the agreement he and Sarah had negotiated with his brokeR, David was required to fabricate a minimum of a 150 hours a week for FactüRæ’s corporate client’s.
“I’m impressed. You’ll burn through your indenture in record time, I bet.”
He laughed, but didn’t agree. The 150 hours he was required to publish for FactüRæ was all lights-out publishing; mostly specialized composite caR parts. The other 165 hours a week were his to play with however - and he planned to play. His designs. His dreams. Although that probably isn’t what Sarah wanted to hear. Her interests were FactüRæ’s. The corporate literature Sarah had provided clearly indicated that the best franchisees were those who fulfilled their contracts as quickly as possible. David didn’t want to dampen Sarah’s enthusiasm.
“You should come visit the slab.” He told her. “There is a great little pink stucco North Korean joint on the way out here from town – it’s like something out of a movie. Strong Waragi margaritas.” He was flirting now, but so what, they were both adults. “We could meet there; then grab a caR the rest of the way to the slab.”
“Oh David, I can’t.” Sarah sounded confused.
“If it’s against company regulations...,” he kicked himself. “I mean. I was just thinking you’d want to see the slab.”
“No, David. I mean I can’t. I’m a manageR.” There was a silence. For the second time David felt like he had been punched. saRah had carefully articulated the AI-R. He could hear the sound of her tongue against her teeth, barest sound of moist lips parting. The simulation was far-side-of-the-uncanny-valley perfect. He was staring at the cluster of PVC pipes where his ear pieces were still telling him saRah was standing. “I thought you knew. Jo and I discussed it, but my legal status is also spelled out in the contract. I didn’t intend any sort of deception, I hope you don’t think-“
“Don’t be silly. I knew. I was just making a joke.” David could feel he was flush. Why am I explaining myself? He hung up without saying more, or even signing off. Why fucking bother?
“Fu-cuK! cuK! cuK! cuK!”