art by Seth Alan Bareiss
by Ken Liu
Raymond stared at the display in his lap.
It showed a picture of him and Laura, taken just a second ago. Laura's smile was beautiful, as always, while his image was a slack-jawed caricature of himself.
"Why does this thing need a camera?"
"Everything has a camera these days," Laura said. Before Raymond could point out that this was no answer at all, Laura picked up the glass slate, shook it like an Etch-a-Sketch, and put it back in his lap. The picture of him and Laura slowly dissolved, melting into formless patches of color.
"There, gone. Now just touch it," Laura said.
Raymond poked his finger against the glass. The screen rippled like a pool of water. The swirling colors cleared to reveal colorful, rectangular icons leisurely drifting across the surface like a school of koi.
"I don't need an ebook," Raymond said. "Or a tablet, or whatever you call them now."
"This isn't a tablet," Laura said. "It's an mMod."
"That sounds ridiculous. Mmmmmod," Raymond pushed his chin forward and breathed exaggeratedly through his nose. "Do your marketing people want it to sound like a pretentious restaurant?"
Laura rolled her eyes. "This is a digital lifestyle device with a personality. Many geeks would sign over their life savings to me just to get ahold of this prototype. Forget about e-readers and tablets, this is the real future of books."
"You know I don't like gadgets. I don't even have a smartphone! I like real books, made of paper, with real ink and smelling of--"
"That's why I'm giving it to you, as an experiment. If someone like you ends up liking it--and I bet you will--then just imagine what kind of sales we'll have."
Raymond examined the mMod skeptically, turning it over in his hands. The flat, silver-white slate had the dimensions of a paperback novel but was only about a quarter of an inch thick. The corners and edges were rounded, and the slick back of its synthetic composite body gave off a mesmerizing, rainbow-like sheen. The front was a solid piece of glass. Although the mMod felt cool at first in his hand, it quickly warmed to his touch as the back and edges seemed to soften like wax and molded themselves to his palm and fingers. When Raymond lifted his fingers, the irregularly contoured indentations and ridges quickly filled in and smoothed out. It felt... alive.
"That's a neat trick," Raymond said.
"Yeah, I was responsible for that bit of physical design," Laura said. She laughed. "It literally grows on you."
The taxi, waiting downstairs, beeped impatiently.
"Oops, my cab." Laura grabbed her suitcase. She paused at the door. "Remember, this is a prototype only. They are still finalizing the software so not everything is going to work perfectly. Which is also why they need me over at manufacturing to work out the final kinks. Top secret, for your eyes only, if anyone sees it you have to kill them, etc. Love you. I'll call you when I land in Hong Kong."
Raymond almost dropped the mMod. Laura's voice came out of the thin slate, which vibrated in his hands. Did this thing act as a phone too?
Raymond looked down at the bright, photorealistic icons, now darting around the screen like a school of nervous fish. He had the absurd feeling the mMod was giving him a quizzical look.
"This is actually your digital companion speaking," the mMod said, "your talking book."
Raymond was finally getting the picture. He had seen the commercials about "intelligent" voice assistants on those tablets and smartphones. The people in them always looked so stupid, talking to their machines. But the machines in the ads always had robotic voices, not like this.
"Uhhhh-what are you doing with Laura's voice?"
"I thought it might get your attention." Was there a hint of a smile in the voice? "But now that you are freaking out, let me change it a little. Is this better?"
The mMod now sounded like a breathier, alto version of Laura. Raymond didn't know what to say. He felt the machine's soft shell vibrate against his hands as it spoke, as though it was caressing him. He liked the sensation.
"Still too close? How about this?"
Now the voice didn't sound like Laura any more. It sounds, and Raymond blushed as he thought this, sexier.
"That's fine," he said quickly.
"Good," the mMod said. "We are off to an excellent start. Now tell me about yourself, Raymond. What do you do for a living?"
"...so then I suggested we start making mugcakes, you know, like cupcakes, but baked in coffee mugs? I thought that would set us apart, get us some buzz. But my boss wouldn't even think about it."
The mMod giggled and Raymond smiled. Talking to the little ebook-thing was so easy. It knew when to ask questions and always asked the right questions. When it laughed, the vibrations against Raymond's hand made it seem as though the mMod were purring.
"Hey, listen, do you have a name? I can't just call you 'mMod' all day."
The mMod laughed. "I think the name is silly too, but Abricot managed to sell ten million mMûres last year, and no one thought that was going to fly either, so I'm inclined to defer to their marketing expertise. Anyway, I don't have a name. What would you like to call me?"
Raymond hesitated. He was not in the habit of naming his gadgets, and always thought people who gave their computers names ridiculous. But this mMod... she was different.