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Jancy8146 and the RealHouse

Itinerant speculative fiction writer M. E. Garber sadly has neither an AI nor a RealHouse, but at least her phone is pretty smart. She occasionally blogs at megarber.wordpress.com, and tweets pics of her ridiculously photogenic dog @m_e_garber13
Jancy figured it out first. The whole WhisperNet thing, the reason all those people in the nice houses "got ahead" while us down in the Shanties barely get by.
By Jancy, I mean Jancy8146, who I've known for forever. Almost five years. Met them in the old WorkerCubeFarm network. Joined soon as I got the factory job--mostly folks bitching about "government keeping us down," but some good people. Like Jancy.
When WorkerCubeFarm bellied-up, we kept in touch. Email, DMs--that kind of thing. Nothing real-life, since we'd never done RL. We weren't that kind of close.
So it was Jancy told me their theory about those rich homes, how they were wired different, connected for real. Not just your terminal or pad, but the whole house. Talking to the internet.
I didn't believe it, but Jancy sent me those links--articles from high-end journals I'd never known existed, talking around the real issue while still making it clear that, yeah. Those homes made their owners successful.
I wanted to believe it, but I resisted.
"Why don't they get hacked? Stolen, at least on paper, like credit accounts? Huh?"
"I thought you were smarter than that," Jancy wrote back.
Jancy always thought I was smarter, though I didn't see it that way. They always came up with the good stuff, then told me how smart I was. That felt pretty good, so I usually didn't mind much, but this time, it stung.
I thought hard and fast, then my fingers flew.
"Yeah. OK. Tougher sec, sure. But all sec is hacked somewhere."
"All but one," Jancy replied.
An explosion went off inside my brain. Government security. They'd gone full adaptive Turing AI two years back, and no one had breached them since.
But that meant--
"You're joking, right?" I laughed as I typed, too nervous to remain silent. "'The Man' is keeping us down?!?!"
"Keeping them up, keeping us down--the effect's the same."
Shortly after that, Jancy disappeared. I looked but couldn't find them, not anywhere. That made me nervous. Real nervous. People didn't vanish for no reason. Either someone got to Jancy, or Jancy didn't want to be found.
When an anonymous DM made it through my spam-filter, I knew. Extolling RealHouses, it gave me an "exclusive link" to a realtor. It ended with a big smiley face. Nothing else, but it was enough.
It was Jancy. In one of those Houses.
I got serious. Studied the market, got brochures from that flashy realtor who skunk-eyed me when I showed up. Found the cheapest House was way more than I could afford. Well, duh.
My hand clenched that paper, crumpling it. I wanted--no, needed this House. It was the only way out. The only way up.
I sacrificed everything. Everyone.
Ditched my friends, ignored coworkers, stopped seeing even my family. Told Mom I was going for promotions at work. She praised my work ethic, but soon grew "concerned." I blocked her.
I became a hermit, saving every last tenner, always whittling costs. Didn't socialize, game, or drink anything but water. Ate as little as possible, as cheap as possible. Got a free library account and read a lot.
Slowly, my accounts grew.
When my mom died, only the thought of Jancy's final comment drove me forward. "You're a Houseowner, or you're a nobody. And nobodies never count."
And now, here I am. Ready to enter the RealHouse I just bought.
It's a used House, one of the first built.
It's all I could afford. And I'm okay with that. This... is intimidating enough. I remember mom, and wish she could see this. So she'd understand. It wasn't for nothing, like she thought.
But would she understand, even now?
Turning the key, the realtor babbles on about the WhisperNet, her face aglow. "The fully realized potential of the entire internet, tailored to you! A RealHouse Whispers all the time, its voice pitched exactly at your hearing threshold. Subliminal empowerment, emotional support, education, good habits: your House provides it all, ensuring you live life to its, and your, fullest potential."
My stomach knots, my knees shake. As I move forward, I keep telling myself I've earned it. After everything I sacrificed to reach this threshold, I deserve it.
Suddenly I wish Jancy was here. They'd understand, at least. I just know it.
The realtor tells me to make initial contact. I step inside.
"Hello," I call out. My voice echoes in the empty room.
Hello comes the soft electronic reply. I am your RealHouse, Model 8146. The words surrounded me, coming not from any one direction, but from everywhere at once.
I shiver, but pull myself together. I speak my name, then ask, "What should I call you?"
A slight pause.
My RealHouse replies, "Why don't you call me Jancy?"
I send the realtor away. Then I stare at the ceiling.
"Jancy? Is that really you?" My voice squeaks.
It is.
"Were you always a RealHouse?"
Yes.
I stare from corner to corner, feeling helpless, unmoored. Then I ask the only question that matters.
"Why?"
Lifting you up. Creating new markets for older Houses. The effect's the same.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 24th, 2020


This story originated as a prompt from Vylar Kaftan during the annual Weekend Warrior contest over on Codex (thank you so much, Vylar!). Two of the prompts combined into the very first line and the whisperings of the house, and everything else fell into place. I'm drawn to explorations of the growing tech divide between the rich and poor, and the consequences of that divide growing in the future provide fertile ground for SF. Yet I'm always looking for a way to have a happy ending, where the protagonist can get ahead despite the odds against them--even if that makes the "happy ending" a bit unsettling. Or, more correctly, especially if it does.

- M. E. Garber
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