Social services

By Madeline Ashby


"Spirit Machine" by Daniel Martin Diaz

Introduction

In 2013 at Institute for the Future, the non-profit forecasting thinktank where I'm a researcher, we explored what we're calling the Coming Age of Networked Matter. Over the next few decades, a confluence of breakthroughs in physics, engineering, biology, computation, and complexity science will give us new lenses to observe the wondrous interconnections surrounding us and within us. In the future we’re moving toward, we won’t only observe complex systems, we’ll also modify and even create them in vivo and with purpose. It will be an era of huge possibility, daunting pitfalls, and high weirdness.

To help make this future tangible, we commissioned some of our favorite writers of speculative fiction -- Cory Doctorow, Rudy Rucker, Ramez Naam, Bruce Sterling, Madeline Ashby, and Warren Ellis -- to write short stories tied to our research theme. The anthology, titled An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter, contains six stories all released under a Creative Commons license. The accompanying art is by Daniel Martin Diaz.

We are thrilled to premier these stories on Boing Boing. At IFTF's site, you can watch an animated author interview and find out how to win a limited edition print copy of the book and a t-shirt. In August, the entire book will be available as a free PDF at IFTF.org. -- David Pescovitz

"But I want my own office,” Lena said. “My own space to work from.”

Social Services paused for a while to think. Lena knew that it was thinking, because the woman in the magic mirror kept animating her eyes this way and that behind cat-eye horn-rims. She did so in perfect meter, making her look like one of those old clocks where the cat wagged its tail and looked to and fro, to and fro, all day and all night, forever and ever. Lena had only ever seen those clocks in media, so she had no idea if they really ticked. But she imagined they ticked terribly. The real function of clocks, it seemed to her, was not to tell time but to mark its passage. Ticktickticktick. Byebyebyebye.

“I’m sorry, Lena, but your primary value to this organization lies in your location,” Mrs. Dudley said. Lena had picked out her name when Social Services hired her. The name was Mrs. Dudley, after the teacher who rolled her eyes when Lena mispronounced “organism” as “orgasm” in fifth-grade health class. She’d made Social Services look like her, from the horn-rims to the puffy eyes to the shimmery coral lipstick melting into the wrinkles rivening her mouth. Now Mrs. Dudley was at her beck and call all the time and had to answer all the most inane questions, like what the weather was and if something looked infected or not.

“This organization has to remain nimble,” Mrs. Dudley said. “We need people ready to work at the grassroots level. You’re one of them. Aren’t you?”

Now it was Lena’s turn to think. She examined the bathroom. It had the best mirror, so it was where she did most of her communication with Social Services. The bathroom itself was tiny. Most of the time it was dirty. This had nothing to do with Lena and everything to do with her niece’s baby, whose diapers currently clogged the wastebasket. There was supposed to be a special hamper just for them with a charcoal filter on it and an alert telling her niece when to empty it, but her niece didn’t give a shit—-literally. Lena had told her that ignoring the alert was a good way to get the company who made the hamper to ping Social Services—a lack of basic cleanliness was an easy way to signal neglect—-but her niece just smiled and said: “That’s why we have you around. To fix stuff like that.”

“That is why you decided to come work for us, isn’t it?” Mrs. Dudley asked.

Lena nodded her head a little too vigourously. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, that’s it exactly.”

She had no idea what Social Services had just asked. Probably something about her commitment to her community or her empathy for others. Lena smiled her warm smile. It was one of a few she had catalogued especially for the purposes of work. She wore it to work like she wore her good leather gloves and her

pretty pendant knife. Work outfit, work smile, work feelings. She reminded herself to look again for her gloves. They didn’t have a sensor, so she had no idea how to find them.

“Here is your list for today,” Mrs. Dudley said. The mirror showed her a list of addresses and tags. Not full case files, just tags and summaries compiled from the case files. Names, dates, bruises. Missed school, missed meals, missed court dates. “The car will be ready soon.”

“Car?”

“The last appointment is quite far away.” The appointment hove into view in the mirror. It showed a massive old McMansion in the suburbs. “Transit reviews claim that the way in is . . . unreliable,” Mrs. Dudley said. “So we are sending you transport.”

Lena watched her features start to manifest her doubts, but she reined them in before they could express much more. “But I . . . ”

“The car drives itself, Lena. And you get it for the whole day. I’m sure that allays any of your possible anxieties, doesn’t it?”

“Well, yes . . . ”

“Good. The car has a Euler path all set up, so just go where it takes you and you’ll be fine.”

“Okay.”

“And please do keep your chin up.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your chin. Keep it up. When your chin is down, we can’t see as well. You’re our eyes and ears, Lena. Remember that.”

She nodded. “I—”

A fist on the bathroom door interrupted her. Just like that, Mrs. Dudley vanished. That was Social Services security at work; the interface, such as it was, did not want to share information with anyone else in a space and so only recognized Lena’s face. Her brother had tried to show it a picture of her, and then some video, but Lena had a special face that she made to log in, and the mirror politely told her brother to please leave.

“Open up!”

Lena opened the door. Her niece stood on the other side. She handed Lena the baby and beelined for the toilet. Yanking her pants down, she said: “Have you ever had to hold it in after an episiotomy?”

“No—”

“Well, you might someday, if you ever got a boyfriend, which you shouldn’t, because they’re fucking crap.” The sound of her pissing echoed in the small room. “Someday I’m going to kill this fucking toilet.” She reached behind herself, awkwardly, and slapped it. Her rings made scratching noises on its plastic side. “You were supposed to tell me I was knocked up.”

Lena thought it was probably a bad time to tell her niece that her father, Lena’s brother, was the one responsible for upgrading the toilet’s firmware, and that he had instead chosen to attempt circumventing it so it would give them all its available features (temperature taking, diagnosis, warming, and so on) for no cost whatsoever. He didn’t want the manufacturer knowing how much he used the bidet function, he said one night over dinner. That shit was private.

Her niece didn’t bother washing her hands. She took the baby from Lena’s arms and kissed it absently. “It’s creepy to hear you talking to someone who isn’t there,” she said. Her eyes widened. Her eyeliner was a vivid pink today, with extra sparkles. Her makeup was always annoyingly perfect. She probably could have sold the motions of her hands to a robotics firm somewhere. “Don’t you worry sometimes that you’re, like . . . making it all up?”

Lena frowned. It wasn’t like her niece to consider the existential. “Do you mean making it up as I go? Like life?”

“No no no no no. I mean, like, you’re making up your job.” She glanced quickly at the mirror, as though she feared it might be watching her. “Like maybe there’s nobody in there at all.”

Lena instantly allowed all of her professional affect to fall away, like cobwebs from an opened door. She turned her head to the old grey leather couch with its pillows and blankets neatly stacked, right where she’d left them that morning. She let her niece carry the full weight of her gaze. “Then where would the rent money come from?” she asked.

Her niece had the grace to look embarrassed. She hugged her 64 AN AURA OF FAMILIARITY

baby a little tighter. “Sorry. It was just a joke.” She blinked. “You know? Jokes?”

A little car rolled across Lena’s field of vision. Its logo beeped at her. “My car is here,” she said. “Try to leave some dinner for me.”

** *

“Is it true they make you all get the same haircut so they can hear better?”

Lena peered over the edges of her frames. Social Services didn’t like it when she did that, but it was occasionally necessary. Jude, the adolescent standing before her, seemed genuinely curious and not sarcastic. That didn’t make his question any less stupid.

“No,” she said. “They don’t make us wear a special haircut.” Jude shrugged. “You all just look like you’ve got the same haircut.” “Maybe you’re just remembering the other times I’ve been here.”

Jude smiled dopily around the straw hanging out of his mouth and slurped from the pouch attached to it. It likely contained makgeolli; that was the 22nd floor specialty. Her glasses told her he was mildly intoxicated; he wore a lab-on-a-chip under the skin of his left shoulder, in a spot that was notoriously difficult to scratch. The Spot was different for every user; triangulating it meant a gestural camera taking a full-body picture or extrapolating from an extant gaming profile. “Oh, yeah . . . Yeah, that’s probably it.”

“Why do you think I’m here, Jude?”

“Because the Fosters aren’t.”

The kid didn’t miss a beat. The algorithm had first introduced them three years ago, when his foster parents took him in; he referred to them privately as “the Fosters.” Three years in, “the Fosters” had given up. They collected their stipend just fine, but they left it to Lena to actually deal with Jude’s problems.

His main problem these days was truancy; in a year he wouldn’t have to go to school any longer unless he wanted to, and so he was experiencing an acute case of senioritis in his freshman year. If he chose to go on, though, it would score Lena some much- needed points on her own profile. There was little difference, really, between his marks and her own.

“Is there any particular reason you’re not going to school these days?”

Jude shrugged and slurped on the pouch until it crinkled up and bubbled. He tossed the empty into the sink and leaned over to open the refrigerator. You didn’t have to really move your feet in these rabbit hutch kitchens. He got another of the pouches out. “I just don’t feel like it,” he said.

“I didn’t really much feel like going, either, when it was my turn, but I went.”

Jude favoured her with a look that told her she had best shut her fucking mouth right fucking now. “School was different for you,” he said simply. “You didn’t have to wear a uniform.”

“Well, that’s true—”

“And your uniform didn’t ping your teacher every time you got a fucking boner.”

Lena blushed and then felt herself blushing, which only made it worse. She looked down. True, their school district was a little too keen on wearables, but Jude’s were special. “You know why you have to wear those pants,” she said.

“That was when I was thirteen!”

“Well, she was ten.”

“I know she was ten. I fucking know that. There’s no way I could possibly forget that, now.” He crossed his arms and sighed deeply. “We didn’t even do anything.”

“That’s not what you told your friends on 18.”

He sucked his teeth. Lena had no idea if Jude had really done the things he said he did. The lab inside the little girl had logged enough dopamine to believe sexual activity had occurred, but it had no way of knowing if she’d helped herself along or if she’d had outside interference. The rape kit had the same opinion: penetration, not forced entry. When the relationship was discovered, the girl recanted everything and said that nothing had happened, and that it didn’t matter anyway because even if something had happened, she really loved Jude. Jude did the

same. Except he never said he loved her. This was probably the most honesty he had demonstrated during the entire episode.

“I know it’s difficult,” Lena said. “But completing your minimum course credits is part of your sentencing. It’s part of why you get your record expunged when you turn eighteen. So you have to go.” She reached into the sink and plucked out the pouch with her thumb and forefinger. It dangled there in her grasp, dripping sweet white fluid. “And you have to quit drinking, too.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s stupid. I was just bored, and it was there.”

“I understand. But you’re hurting your chances of making it out of here. This kind of thing winds up on your transcript, you know. You can’t get a job without a decent transcript.”

Jude waved his hand. “The fabbers don’t care about grades.”

“Maybe not, but they care about you being able to show up on time. You know?”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah. I know.” “So you’ll go to school tomorrow?” “Maybe. I need a new uniform first.” “Excuse me?”

“Well, it’s really just the pants. I threw them out.”

Lena blinked so that her glasses would listen to her. “Well, we have to find those pants.”

The glasses showed her a magnifying glass zipping to and fro across the cramped, dirty apartment. It came back empty. “You really threw them out?” she asked, despite already knowing the answer. Maybe he’d given them to a friend. Or sold them. Maybe they could be brought back, somehow.

“I think they got all sliced up,” Jude said, miming the action of scissors with his fingers. “I wore my gym clothes home yesterday, and I put my other stuff in my bag, and then under the viaduct, I gave them to this homeless dude. He found the sensors right away. Said he was gonna sell ‘em.”

She winced. “How do you know he’s not wearing them?”

“They were too small.”

It was beyond her power. She would have to arrange for a new uniform. She’d probably have to take Jude to school tomorrow, too, just to smooth things over. He tended to start a new attendance streak if someone was actually bringing him there. The record said so, anyway. For a moment it snaked across her vision, undulating and irregular, and then she blinked and it was gone.

“I’ll be here tomorrow at seven to take you to school,” she said, and watched the appointment check itself into her schedule. “And don’t even think about not being here, or not waking up, or getting your mom to send a note, or anything like that. I intend to show up, and if you don’t do the same, Social Services will send someone else next time, and they won’t be so understanding. Okay?”

Jude snorted. “Okay.”

“I mean it. You have to show up. And you have to show up sober. I’ll know if you’re not, and so will your principal. He can suspend you for that, on sight.”

“I know.” Jude paused for a moment. He reached for the fresh pouch, and then seemed to think better of it. “I’m sorry, Lena.”

“I know you’re sorry. You can make it up to me by showing up tomorrow.”

“I don’t want them to send someone else. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble. I was just mad, is all.”

“You would have better impulse control if you quit drinking. You know that, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So you know what we have to do next, right?” He sighed. “Seriously?”

“Yes, seriously. I can’t leave here without it.”

They spent the next half hour cleaning out his stash. He even helped her bring it down to the car. “Are you sure this is it?” he asked, when it perked up at Lena’s arrival.

“It’s on loan,” she said. “Some people lease their vehicles on a daily basis to Social Services, and the car drives itself back to them at the end of the day with a full charge.”

“It’s a piece of shit.”

“Just put the box in the back, will you?”

Jude rolled his eyes as she popped the trunk. Technically, she shouldn’t have allowed him to come down to the garage with her. It wasn’t recommended. Her glasses had warned her about it as they neared the elevator. She made sure Jude carried the box full of pouches and pipes, though, so that he’d have to drop it if he wanted to try anything. Now she watched as he leaned over the trunk and set the box inside.

“Nice gloves.” He reached in and brought something out: Lena’s good leather gloves. They were real leather, not the fake stuff, with soft suede interiors and an elastic skirt that circled the wrist and kept out the cold air. They were a pretty shade of purple. Distinctive. Recognizable. “Aren’t these yours?” he asked.

“I . . . ”

“I’ve seen you wearing them before.” He frowned. “I thought you said this was someone else’s car. On loan.”

“It is . . . ”

“So how did your gloves wind up in the trunk?”

Lena wished she could ask the glasses for help. But without sensors, the glasses and the gloves had no relationship. At least, nothing legitimate and quantifiable. They had only Lena to link them.

“I must have used this car before,” she said. “That must be it. I must have forgotten them in here the last time and not used the trunk until then. And the owner left the gloves in the trunk, hoping that I’d find them.”

“Why the trunk? Why not on the dash? How many times do you look in the trunk?”

Jude slammed the trunk shut. He held the gloves out. Lena took them gingerly between her thumb and forefinger. They felt like her gloves. A little chilled from riding around in the trunk, but still hers. How strange to think that they’d gone on their own little adventure without her. Hadn’t the car’s owner been the least bit tempted to take them? Or one of the other users? There were plenty of other women on the Social Services roster. Maybe they’d been worn out and then put back, just like the car. Maybe the last user was someone higher up on the chain, and they knew Lena would be taking this particular car out on this particular morning, and they put her gloves back where she would find them. That would explain how she’d never seen them until just now.

“Don’t look so creeped out,” Jude said. “They’re just a pair of gloves, right?”

“Right,” Lena said. “Thanks.”

** *

By the end of the day, Lena had to admit that the car did not look familiar in the least. That didn’t mean it looked unfamiliar, either, just that it looked the same as all the other print jobs in the hands-free lane. The same flat mustard yellow, the same thick bumper that made the whole vehicle look like a little man with a mustache. It was entirely possible that she had used this car before. Perhaps even on the same day that she’d lost her gloves. She didn’t remember losing them. That was the thing. She kept turning them in her hands, over and over, pulling them on and pulling them off, wiggling her fingers in their tips to feel if they were truly hers or not.

When had she last used a car for Social Services?

“February of last year,” Mrs. Dudley said. “February fifteenth, to be exact.”

Lena did not remember speaking the words aloud, either. But that hardly mattered. It was Social Services’ job to understand problems before they became issues. That was how they’d first found Jude, after all. Surely the glasses had logged her examination of the gloves and the car and the system had put two and two together. It could do that. She was sure of it.

“You subvocalized it,” Mrs. Dudley said.

Yes. That was it. People did that sometimes, didn’t they? They muttered to themselves. It wasn’t at all unusual.

“People do it all the time,” Mrs. Dudley told her.

Lena forced herself to speak the next words out loud. “Did the owner of the car save the gloves for me?”

Mrs. Dudley paused. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“What do you mean?”

Outside, the highway seemed empty. So few people drove any longer. Once upon a time, four o’clock on a Friday afternoon in late October would have been replete with cars, and the cars would have been stuffed with mothers and fathers lead-footing their way into the suburbs, anxiously counting down the minutes until they earned a late fee at their daycare. Now the car whizzed along, straight and true, spotting its nearest fellow vehicle every ten minutes and pinging them cheerfully before zipping ahead.

It felt like driving into a village afflicted by plague.

“I think we need to bring you in for a memory exam, Lena,” Mrs. Dudley said. “These lapses aren’t normal for a woman in your demographic. You may have a blood clot.”

“Oh,” Lena said, perversely delighted by the thought. “But first, you have to do this one last thing for us.” “Yes. The house in the suburbs.”

“You must be very careful, Lena. Where you’re going, there’s no one else on the block. It’s all been foreclosed. And it’s going to be dark soon.”

“I understand.”

“The foreclosures mean that the local security forces have been diminished, too. Their budget is based on population density and property taxes, so there won’t be anyone to come for you. Not right away, anyway. Everyone else lives closer to town.”

“Except for the people in this house.”

Another pause. “Yes. The ones who live there, live alone.”

** *

Jackson Hills was the name of the development. The hills themselves occupied unincorporated county land, the last free sliver of property in the whole area, and the crookedness of the rusting street signs seemed meant to tempt government interference. That was an old word for molestation, Lena remembered. You came across it in some of the oldest laws. Interference. As though the uncles she spent her days hearing about were nothing more than windmills getting in the way of a good signal.

Was it an uncle that was the trouble this time? The file was very scant. “Possible neglect,” it read. The child in question wore old, ill-fitting clothes, a teacher said. His grades were starting to slip. His name was Theodore. People called him Teddy. His parents never came to Parent/Teacher Night. They attended no talent shows. But they were participatory parents online; their emails with Teddy’s teachers were detailed and thoughtful, with perfect spelling and grammar.

“We intend to discuss Teddy’s infractions with him as soon as possible,” one read. “We understand that his hacking the school lunch system to obtain chicken fingers every day for a month is very serious, as well as nutritionally unwise.”

Teddy had indeed hacked the school lunch system to order an excess of chicken fingers delivered to the school kitchen by supply truck. He did this by entering the kitchen while pretending to go on a bathroom break and carefully frying all the smart tags on all the boxes of frozen chicken fingers and fries with an acne zapper. With all the tags dead, the supplier instantly re-upped the entire order. The only truly dangerous part of the hack was the fact that he’d been in the walk-in freezer for a whole five minutes. Surveillance footage showed him ducking in with his coat zipped up all the way. The coat itself said that his body temperature had never dipped.

“I don’t get any junk food at home,” the boy said during his inevitable talk with the principal. “They don’t deliver any.”

The gate to Jackson Hills was still functional despite the absence of its residents. It slid open for Lena’s car. As it did, a dervish of dead leaves whirled out and scattered away toward freedom. It felt like some sort of prisoner transfer. The exchange made, Lena drove past the gate.

The car drove her through the maze of empty houses as the dash lit up with advertisements for businesses that would probably never open. Burger joints. Day spas. Custom fabbers. In-house genome sequencing. All part of “town and country living at its

finest.” Some of the houses looked new; there were even stickers on the windows. As she rolled past, projections fluttered to life and showed laughing children running through sprinklers across the bare sod lawns, and men flipping steaks on grills, and women serving lemonade. It was the same family each time.

“WELCOME HOME,” her dashboard read. ** *

The house stood at the top of the topmost hill in Jackson Hills. Lena recognized it because the map said they were drawing closer, and because it was the only house on the cul-de-sac with any lights on. It was a big place, but not so different from the others, with fake Tudor styling and a sloping lawn whose sharpest incline was broken by terraced rock. Forget-me-nots grew between the stones. Moss sprang up through the seams in the tiled drive. There was no car, so Lena’s slid in easily and shut itself off with a little sigh, like a child instantly falling asleep.

At the door, Lena took the time to remove her gloves (when had she put those on?) and adjust her hair. She rang the bell and waited. The lion in the doorknocker twinkled his eyes at her, and the door opened.

Teddy stood there, wearing a flannel pyjama and bathrobe set one size too small for his frame. “Hello, Lena,” he said.

She blinked. “Hello, Teddy.”

“It’s nice to meet you. Please come in.”

Inside, the house was dusty. Not dirty or even untidy, but dusty. Dust clung to the ceiling fans. Cobwebs stretched across the top of every shelf and under the span of every pendant light. The corners of each room had become hiding places for dust bunnies. But at Teddy’s height, everything was clean.

“Where are your parents, Teddy?”

“Would you like some tea?” Teddy asked. “Earl Grey is your favorite, right?”

Earl Grey was her favorite. As she watched, Teddy padded over to the coffee table in the front room and poured tea from a real china service. It had little pink roses on it, and there was a sugar bowl with a lid and a creamer full of cream and even a tiny dish with whisper-thin slices of lemon. When he was finished pouring, Teddy added two sugars and a dash of cream to the cup. He handed her the cup on a saucer with both hands and then pressed something on his watch.

“It tells when it’s done steeping,” he said. “Would you like to sit down?”

Lena sat. The sofa shifted beneath her, almost as though she’d sat on a very large cat. A moment later it had moulded itself to her shape. “It’s smart foam,” Teddy said. “Please try some of your tea. I made it myself.”

Lena sipped. “You’ve certainly done your homework, Teddy,” she said. “You’re not the only person to research me before my arrival, but you’re the only one who’s ever been this thorough.”

“I wanted to make it nice for you.”

It was an odd statement, but Lena let it pass. She took another sip. “This is a very lovely house, Teddy. Do you help your parents with the housework?”

He nodded emphatically. “Yes. Yes, I do.”

“And are you happy living here?”

“Yes, I am.”

“There don’t seem to be many other kids to play with,” Lena said. “Doesn’t it get lonely?”

“I don’t really get lonely,” he said. “I have friends I play with online.”

“But it can’t be very safe to live here all alone.”

His mouth twitched a little, as though he had just heard the distant sound of a small animal that he very much wanted to hunt. “I’m not alone,” he said.

“Well, I meant the neighbours. Or rather, the lack of any.”

His shoulders went back to their relaxed position. “I like it here,” he said. “I like not having any neighbours. My parents didn’t like it very much at first, but I liked it a lot.”

Since he had left the door open, Lena decided to go through it. “So when are your parents coming?”

“They’re here,” he said. “They just can’t come upstairs right now.”

Lena frowned. “Are they not well?”

Teddy smiled. For a moment, he actually looked like a real eleven-year-old and not like a man who had shrunk down to size.

“They’re busy,” he said. “Besides, you’re here to talk to me, right?”

“Well . . . Yes, that’s true, but . . . ” She blinked again, hard. It was tough to string words together for some reason. Maybe Mrs. Dudley was right. Maybe she did need her brain scanned. She felt as though the long drive in had somehow hypnotized her, and Teddy now seemed very far away.

“I hope that we can be friends, Lena,” Teddy said. “I liked you the last time they sent you here.”

Her mouth struggled to shape the words. “What? What are you talking about?”

“You wore those gloves last time,” he said. “In February. You’d had a really lonely Valentine’s Day the day before, and you were very sad. So I made you happy for a little while. I had some pills left over.”

It was very hot in the room suddenly. “You’ve drugged me,” Lena said.

Teddy beamed. “Gotcha!”

Lena tried to stand up. Her knees gave out and her forehead struck one corner of the coffee table. For a moment she thought the warmth trickling down her face was actually sweat. But it wasn’t.

“Uh oh,” Teddy said. “I’ll get some wipes.”

He bounded off for the kitchen. Lena focused on her knees. She could stand up if she just tried. She had her pendant knife. She could . . . what? Slash him? Threaten him? Threaten a child? She grasped the pendant in her hand. Pulled it off its cord. Unflipped the blade.

When Teddy came back with a cylinder of lemon-scented disinfectant wipes, she pounced. She was awkward and dizzy, but she was bigger than him, and she knocked him over easily. He saw the knife in her hand, gave a little shriek of delight, and bit her arm, hard. Then he shook his little head, like a dog with a chew toy. It hurt enough to make her lose her grip, and he recovered the knife. He held it facing downward, like scissors. He wiped his mouth with the back of his other hand.

“I knew I liked you, Lena,” he said. “You’re not like the others. You don’t really like kids at all, do you? This is just your job. You’d rather be doing something else.”

“That’s . . . ” Her vision wavered. “That’s not true . . . ”

“Yes, it is. And it’s okay, because I don’t like other kids, either. They’re awful. They’re mean and stupid and ugly and poor, and I don’t want to see them ever again. I just want to stay home forever.”

Lena heard herself laughing. It was a low, slow laugh. She couldn’t remember the last time she had heard it.

“Why are you laughing?” Teddy asked.

“Because you’re all the same,” she said. “None of you want to go to school!” She laughed again. It was higher this time, and she felt the laugh itself begin to scrape the dusty expanse of the vaulted ceiling and the glittering chandelier that hung from it. She could feel the crystals trembling in response to her laughter. She had a pang for Jude, who would have absolutely loved whatever shit Teddy had dosed her with.

“I just need someone to create data,” Teddy was saying. “I’ve tried to keep up the streams by myself, but I can’t. There are too many sensors. I have to keep sleeping in their bed. I have to keep riding their bikes. Both of them. Do you even know how hard that is?”

Lena couldn’t stop laughing. She lay on the floor now, watching her blood seep down into the fibres of the carpet. It was white, and it would stain badly. Maybe Teddy would want her to clean it up. That seemed to be her lot in life—cleaning up other people’s messes. But as she watched, Teddy got down on his knees and began to scrub.

“It won’t be that bad,” he said. “I’ll make it nice for you. All I needis someone to pretend to be my mom so I can do homeschool. I have all her chips still. I took them while she was still warm, and I kept them in agar jelly from my chemistry set.” He winced. “I would have gotten Dad’s, too, but he was too fat.”

Teddy reached out his hand. “Do you think you can make it to the dining table?”

She let him help her up. “Social Services . . . ”

“You can quit tomorrow,” Teddy said. “Just tell them you can’t do it anymore.”

“But . . . My mirror . . . ” Why was she entertaining any of this? Why was she helping him?

“I have a mirror,” he said. “Your face is the login, right? You talked to my mirror the last time you were here. You just don’t remember because you blacked out later.”

She turned to him. “This is real?”

He smiled and squeezed her cold hand in his much warmer and smaller one. “Yes, Lena. It’s all real. This is a real house with real deliveries and real media and a real live boy in it. It’s not like a haunted house. It was, until you came. But it’s your home now. Your own place, just for you and me.”

“For . . . ”

“Forever. For ever and ever and ever.”

-end-


Click here to watch an animated interview with Madeline Ashby about this short story.

Madeline Ashby

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and strategic foresight consultant living in Toronto. Her debut novel, vN: The First Machine Dynasty is available from Angry Robot Books; the sequel, iD, was just released. Her criticism has appeared at Boing Boing, The Creators Project, io9.com and Tor.com. You can find her at madelineashby.com, or on Twitter @madelineashby.

More stories from
AN AURA of FAMILIARITY:
VISIONS FROM THE COMING AGE of NETWORKED MATTER

"By His Things Will You Know Him"

by Cory Doctorow

"Apricot Lane"

by Rudy Rucker

Text © the author and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Artwork © Daniel Martin Diaz and used with permission.

Continue the discussion at bbs.boingboing.net

2 replies