Our congratulations to Christopher J. Burke, the winner of eSpec Books’ June Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.
by Christopher J. Burke
“Cyber What?” I only paid half-attention even before I started raiding Melanie’s fridge, when she lost most of the rest of it, but I caught the word “cyber”.
“No, Cyber Where!” she said, thrusting her hands out at me for emphasis. “It’s a pun. And it’s the new idea I’m developing.”
I plopped myself onto her couch with a pilfered bottle of water. Feeling between the cushions, I fished out the remote. “It doesn’t work.”
Mel glanced at the screen and saw it come alive as I fingered the keypad in my hand. “What doesn’t work? You mean my idea? Of course, it doesn’t. It’s in the planning stages.”
“Not that.” I dropped the remote, then cracked the bottle and took a long draught. “The pun doesn’t work. What’s it mean?”
She grabbed her earpiece from the desk and held it up, the dongle hanging between her fingers. Unlike the usual short-range antennas, that one probably had a much greater range than regular low-end devices. Likely had faster data transfer, courtesy of a few firmware hacks.
“Duh! The equipment is cyberware. Hardware, software, cyberware!” Almost as a reflex action, she hooked it over her left ear. When she glanced down to see the cord rubbing against her shoulder, her first instinct was to swing the plug behind her head.
“Could you not?”
“Hannah, join the 22nd century already.”
“I did. Three years ago, like everyone else. I had my experimental phase back in college, just like you. Okay, and a little bit in high school, too, but you started enjoying those Naughty Nineties sooner than me.”
Mel laughed at the memories. She was probably accessing these from storage even as I mentioned it. “I always was the prodigy of our group.”
I couldn’t help but grinning for a moment at that. “I’m just saying that I wished the hole in the back of my neck has closed instead of the ones on my lobes.”
My mouth was dry, so I took another swig from the bottle, then grabbed the remote and flipped channels until I saw some extreme weather. It had a calming effect that lasted until Melanie snorted.
“You complain about me plugging in. You’re doing the same.”
“This is just background noise and pretty pictures. You were about to immerse yourself, and contrary to what you think, you suck at multitasking.”
I kicked off my shoes and tucked my feet under me on the sofa. “So what’s this idea? What ‘where’ are you talking about?”
“Any ‘where’! Any place you’d like! What would you like?”
I flipped channels, stopping on some old vid. A rom-com from the looks of it. You could guess the decade from the hairstyles. He was kind of cute, and she was kind of cuter, but they were my age now before I was born.
Mel grabbed her tablet from the desk, swiped her hand across it and stole the big screen from me. I was looking at a pretty park and some old buildings.
“How about Paris? How would you to experience Paris?”
I went to toss the bottle and look for food. “Already have. Didn’t take a lot of time or money, either.”
France disappeared, replaced by Iceland from the looks of it. “Have you seen the Northern Lights?”
My head was in the cupboard where I knew she hid the good snacks. “On a screen. What would be different?” I looked back at the television. “You realize it’s daytime over there, right?”
Mel put the tablet back on the desk, exasperated. The earpiece, once unhooked, joined the tablet, along with the dangling dongle. She started to say something, but instead leapt onto the couch, stealing my spot. I mean, sure, it’s her couch, but I’d been sitting there, like, thirty seconds ago.
“I want to develop a service that will let you be in Iceland, be in Paris, without the time and money.”
“How would it work?” I was legitimately asking at this point. There were times Mel needed a sarcastic friend and times she needed a devil’s advocate. Now was time for the latter. I ripped the wrapper from a fruit bar, took a bite and thought about it. “You might see in Paris, but you wouldn’t be there. And you can do that with a phone and a cardboard headset.”
“I’m not talking about a toy with canned images or hacked visuals from local cameras. I want to experience it. To feel it.”
Feel it? “Mel, I get seeing something, somehow, somewhere, and maybe hearing it, too, but how are you supposed to feel?” Let’s put aside taste and smell for the moment. But could you really experience a city without some fine dining and, oh my God, the pastries?
She reached behind the sofa, and pulled out a higher end “brow” piece, which sits on a person’s forehead, stretching nearly from ear to ear. It could plug into the neck or …
Mel pushed back her bangs, revealing a series of ports right below her hairline. I knew of few people who actually needed that kind of interface. Until now, I wouldn’t have thought Mel was one of them. I still wasn’t convinced that she was.
“When did you –?”
“I was ahead of my time.” She placed the brow piece before I could object and jacked in. I was so shocked I didn’t notice the television switch. “Wait, what are we looking at?”
Out of every strange thing that had come to pass in this afternoon, I could honestly say, that was probably the least expected of all of them. The image was normal eye-level, and it was moving down the street. I glanced around for a remote, wondering how to control it, pan around, zoom, but realized that Mel just had to think about it to make it happen.
Or so I thought until she called out.
“Simon, can you hear me?”
A male voice answered through the TV. “You don’t need to shout. You don’t even need to talk for me to hear you.”
“My friend, Hannah, is here. I didn’t want to be rude. I have you on speaker, okay?”
“That’s fine. Hi, Hannah. I think you have something on your blouse.”
I’d been walking toward the screen, but I stopped in my tracks. I stared at the TV for a moment, before glancing down. A glob of fruit jelly had fallen on me. I snatched a tissue from the box and wiped it off.
I looked back at the set. “You can see me?”
Mel laughed. “Over here, Hannah.”
“He can see me through your cyberware?”
“No. He can see you through my eyes. And you’re seeing what he’s seeing through his.”
Could that work?
“I can see, hear, and even smell what Simon is experiencing. And I can do this instantly with at least a dozen friends that I’ve already connected with. And there are thousands more out there.”
Incredible. “But I don’t see the logistics of it. People getting implants to be connect with a relative handful of people with implants? And how would you monetize something like that?”
“Automatons. We set up municipal docking stations that people can rent and move anywhere around town, like they do now for transit, and …”
I put up a hand. “Hold it. You’re not talking about bicycles. You’re talking robots with expensive cybertech. Do you think any city – even, Lubbock – sorry, Simon – would put up the capital for such a … fantasy?”
Melanie’s face fell. The devil came due. “I said I just started developing the idea. There are other ways …”
“Excuse me, ladies.” For the moment, I’d forgotten about Simon. I knew looking at Mel meant looking at both of them but I chose the screen anyway. “I need to break the connection. I do still have some matters that I don’t broadcast.”
Just before breaking the connection, I saw something in a store window. “Simon, before you go, could I see what you look like? Could you show me your reflection?”
“Sure.” He happily obliged. His reflection was clear enough to see his was well-dressed, well-groomed. But I noticed the gear he had equipped. It wasn’t the run-of-the-mill gray or chrome. And it was much easier on the eyes than the clumsy piece that Melanie wore. Hell, it even made me think twice about accessorizing, without the modifications and upgrades.
“That set-up looks incredible. Where do you get your tech?”
“Lots of places, but the look is purely my design. No reason that cybers can’t be stylish, right?”
He signed off and the screen went black. Mel removed her gear and rubbed her forehead. She seemed to have mild euphoria mixed with a headache.
I took the brow piece from her and looked it over. “Mel, you’re working on the wrong pun.”
She tilted her head up at me. “What?”
“You need to develop a line of cyber-wear. If people are going to use this stuff, they should look good doing it. Get me some paper, we’re sketching out some designs.”