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art by Jonathan Westbrook

A Phone, My Heart, and Maybe My Last Shred of Dignity

Luc Reid is the founder of the Codex writing group, a former radio commentator, an occasional musician, a small-time playwright, a 2nd dan black belt in Taekwondo, and a 5th-generation Vermonter. A second, newly illustrated edition of his 2006 book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures has just been released for Kindle (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00B43LAB0), and he's the author of articles and stories for venues including Nature, Daily Science Fiction, two Writers of the Future anthologies, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, The Writer Magazine, and others. He writes and speaks on the psychology of habits, writing, and self-motivation techniques and offers hundreds of original articles on those topics at lucreid.com.

It seemed to Iowa as she curled up on her automod, cradling the antique cell phone, that sometimes it was better to experience things backwards. When you lived through things forwards, you had to live with the fear of what might or might not happen. When you looked backwards, though, the worst was always over.
In reverse, you could see your failed relationships and your humiliating childhood as though you'd zoomed out, as though you were floating free over a sea of distant events that no longer pertained to you. You didn't have to worry that the next person you tried to love would turn out to be even worse than the last one, or that your crazy plans might go wrong.
Nothing really stopped Iowa from trying out crazy plans anyway, as long as they were conducted indoors. It was true that she came completely unraveled whenever she tried to speak to someone in public, and it was true that she was damaged goods, but crazy plans were not the kind of thing that daunted her.
With her automod cupping her in its oversized cushions and dusk draining the light out of her keepsake-crammed micro-apartment, she was free to critique her latest crazy plan, to reflect on the series of disasters she'd created and on what they had done to her life.
Earlier: Iowa's sanibot, a cheap, stylish bronze model the size of a cat, whistled cheerfully as it foamed at the burned spots and splatters of blood and grease in her dining area carpet. Iowa's nose was dripping from crying, and she had snorted everything back up into her nostrils to prevent snot getting on her blouse. Skadi shook her head in disbelief and patted Iowa's hand.
"I really have to go," Skadi said.
"No," Iowa said. "I'm so sorry. We can get something from the dispenser! Don't..." She trailed off, too scared to say what she wanted Skadi not to do.
Skadi's round face crinkled for a fraction of a second in an expression of happiness, or maybe pity. From her old messenger bag she took out something black and hand-sized. A stubby rod stuck out from the hinge of the device, and Skadi pulled on this as she pried the thing open, extruding a little antenna. Inside, the bottom section of the device had black buttons on it with white numbers and letters. The top section said "Motorola."
"A phone?" Iowa said.
"The real stuff," Skadi said. "Vintage." She gave a little click click noise with the side of her mouth. "So long!"
Then she walked out of the apartment. Iowa watched her go, clutching the phone because she knew what it meant, the smell of burnt feathers strong in her nostrils.
Earlier still: the flaming chicken finally collapsed in a heap on the carpet, but the fire alarm continued howling. Iowa was paralyzed, tears streaming down her face, frozen in humiliation and horror.
Skadi grabbed Iowa's extinguisher box from the wall and depressed the button. Auto-targeting, it spewed a column of white foam that engulfed the dead bird and quickly melted away, leaving a sodden, blackened, twitching corpse that didn't look anything like the perfect dinner Iowa had pictured.
The alarm went quiet, and for a moment the only sounds were Iowa's sniffling and the hum in the walls as the ventilation system cranked itself up to high.
Before that: The chicken let out a screech and burst into flame. It floundered in the box, a grotesquely spasming ball of flames. Yanking loose from the tether, it upended the box and tumbled out. It made horrible, strangled noises as it ran around and around Iowa's dining room, crashing into walls and spattering everything with hot blood. The fire alarm came to life with a blare that hurt Iowa's ears almost as badly as seeing what she had done to that poor chicken hurt her heart.
Earlier: "Don't worry," Iowa said, beaming. "I'm pretty sure this is exactly the way they used to do it. Here, come watch!"
"Iowa, I'm not..." Skadi said, but she trailed off.
Iowa stopped short. Stupid, stupid! She'd been sure, but she'd made mistakes before. Apparently she'd just made another one. "You don't like girls?" she whispered.
Skadi looked up at the ceiling in mock exasperation. "Actually, I do like girls. I'm just not sure I'm ready to see a chicken electrocuted."
"No, no--it'll be painless--they used to do it to people!"
"Yeah, but..."
"Oh right! I forgot you know all about those things. But come see, it'll be exciting. Just like in the TwenCen!"
She could feel Skadi's resistance, so Iowa forged ahead before there could be any more objections. She opened the box where the chicken still sat, looking agitated, its foot securely tethered but the clip on its right wing having fallen off. Gently, Iowa reconnected the clip. Then she followed the wires back to the dining area table and flipped the switch on her electrocuter.
Earlier: There was nothing more to do. Skadi had sent a generic accept message back, the chicken had been brought over by courier and was tethered in a box in the dining area, and the wires on the electrocuter from the custom-fab stand were already clipped to its wings. Iowa sat, waiting, for what seemed like a long time. The only sound was the anxious rustling of the chicken.
"Skadi Halvorsen is here," the domestic computer finally announced from all around her. Iowa jumped up and ran for the front door, but then she forced herself to slow to a walk. She smoothed her hair and tugged at her blouse, which didn't need to be adjusted.
"Oh, hi!" she mumbled under her breath. It didn't sound quite right. "Hi. Good evening. Oh, hello."
She was at the door now, and she nervously tapped its control contact. It slid open, revealing Skadi rummaging in a messenger bag. Her short red hair was rumpled, her eyes were bright, and she apparently didn't realize that the controller on her arm was strapped on upside down.
"Oh hello," Iowa said in what was supposed to be a suave voice. She sounded like a 12-year-old boy making fun of an Englishman. She winced.
"Uh... hi!" Skadi said. She seemed jumpy. "I actually was going to come see you some time, so this is good. What's the thing?"
"Thanks so much for stopping by," Iowa said. Thanks so much for stopping by? She kicked herself, mentally. "Won't you come in? I was just making dinner." Wasn't there a non-idiot mode for her brain? Kick, kick.
"I can't: I have work," Skadi said. "I mean, I can for a minute, but I can't stay. I'm supposed to be doing deliveries."
Reluctance was OK. Iowa could work with that. Anyway, she had a real "ace in the pocket."
"I'm making chicken," she said. "Real chicken, like back in the TwenCen."
Skadi stared. "You are not."
"I am!"
"I've got to see this."
"And stay to eat."
"That's not fair," Skadi protested. "I really can't!"
Iowa tossed her head to make her hair flip fetchingly. It fell in her face instead. A few strands ended up in her mouth. She discreetly spat out the hair, pushed it to the sides of her cheeks, smiled graciously, and led the way to the dining room, where her table and food dispenser was.
"I'm going to electrocute it!" she said brightly.
Earlier: Iowa wished she understood makeup at all, but her mother had tried to teach her the way her mom had always tried to teach everything, using criticism and panic, so they had never gotten far. She came away from the bathroom mirror pretty sure she didn't look like a circus clown, but she didn't feel like herself, and she certainly didn't feel half as beautiful as she would have liked.
It was easy enough to find Skadi's public node through the performer listing on Corptastic's faire hub, but she couldn't just virtual Skadi and have a conversation. It's not that she wouldn't--she really couldn't. As far as Iowa was concerned, meeting someone in virtual space was no different from talking in public, just with avatars watching instead of physical people. The fact that she'd managed even to whisper after that purple-haired guy had interrupted was a little baby miracle--although it wasn't like that had turned out so well.
With no better options, she settled for queuing up a text message at Skadi's public node, saying:
I have an old-time TwenCen thing I'm trying to figure out. Sorry to bother you, but you seemed really knowledgeable--could you come take a look? I gave you perms for my contact info.
Then she sat down on the automod, which molded itself into a fat, comforting chair, and waited.
Earlier: Getting a chicken, Iowa was surprised to find out, was actually no problem: there were three rare animal dealers right downtown who sold them. Their hubs came up instantly when she checked the Stream. Oowee, though, they were pricey! Still, she was a frugal person, so she had plenty squirreled away. She had a freight logistics job she did for a company she had never visited, located somewhere in Nevada. They paid okay.
She had the chicken ordered within minutes: a Rhode Island Red. It looked very pretty to her--or she guessed she meant it looked "delicious." She didn't like the idea of killing anything, but it wasn't as though they were raised to be pets: someone was going to kill them, and if they were going to die, they could hardly do better than to do so in service to Iowa getting a girlfriend.
How to kill it, though? That was the problem. And it should be a humane way, the most humane possible. Well, didn't they used to kill people back in the TwenCen? However they killed actual people would definitely be the best way, because people get treated better than animals.
She sat down at her Stream console, put on the glasses, and mumbled some search terms, coming up with an answer within a few seconds: electrocution and lethal injection. What a couple of choices!
Lethal injection was out, because she didn't want to poison dinner. It was too bad she couldn't use a lethal injection of melted butter.
So it would have to be electrocution, and that led to an inevitable question: what's the best way to electrocute a chicken? She'd need something with cables and a switch, probably, and she could order up something like that from a custom-fab stand. She'd get clips made at the ends of the wires, and in order to not hurt the chicken and avoid being pecked, she'd put the clips just on the ends of its wings. She'd make sure the electrocuter device used a very high amount of electricity, however those things were measured, so that it would be quick and painless.
There, that didn't sound so hard! One quick shock and it would all be over for the chicken: it would never know the difference. Maybe the electricity would even cook the chicken for her!
She shifted over to the sales node for a local fab stand, selected an electrical design assistance module, and got to work on her "electrocuter."
Earlier: Back at home, Iowa shoved herself deep into the automod, which obligingly rearranged its cushions to wrap itself around her. She spent a long time sitting there and going over, in torturous detail, every stupid thing she had just done.
It was a long, satisfying, miserable self-flagellation, but after a while the same thing happened to her that always happened when she tried to take herself seriously for too long, which is that she stopped caring. Sure, she'd just done some stupid things--but they weren't any stupider than a bunch of other things she'd done in the past. Anyway, nothing was necessarily wrecked yet. The fact of the matter was that she still felt exactly the same way she'd felt when she'd slipped on that "Jell-O." Besides, even if it was just a pleasantry, Skadi had called her "fave."
So the only rational avenue forward was to come up with a crazy plan, and crazy plans were easy google for Iowa. This one involved a real, live chicken.
Earlier: After the presentation, Iowa had to wait until a woman with maybe five dozen children--OK, it was only three, but they moved around a lot--was finished haranguing Skadi about her theories on TwenCen entertainment. Skadi answered the few questions the woman came up with, but she kept glancing over at her little paper box of food, which Iowa guessed was her real-life lunch.
Finally the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe went away with her dozens. Skadi immediately lunged for her paper box. By the time Iowa got to her, Skadi had a big mouthful of slab meat.
"Mmnn, hiyff," said Skadi sheepishly. Iowa could tell this meant "Oh, hi."
Iowa glanced around them. There were at least a dozen people walking by, just a few meters away. She willed them not to look at her and then resolutely turned back to Skadi, trying to forget she was in public. She took a deep breath, smiled nervously, and handed Skadi the phone. Her heart seemed to be beating about five times normal speed. She tried to breathe slowly so that she wouldn't pass out.
Skadi took the phone reluctantly and regarded it as she chewed, looking at it from different angles. She looked back at Iowa and swallowed.
"Did you have a question or something?"
Iowa's smile faltered. Had she done it the right way? Skadi must know what giving someone a phone meant, but maybe it only meant that if you did it a certain way. Petrified, Iowa realized this meant that she was going to have to talk--with people nearby.
"It's a phone," she whispered.
"Yes, it is..." said Skadi.
"I'm giving you a phone."
"OK... thanks?"
Iowa tried to say something more, but her throat seized up. She looked back and forth between Skadi and the passersby who were probably going to begin staring any second. Her mouth opened and closed like a gulpy goldfish. She began blinking, trying not to cry.
"Oh hey, you're not worried about those people, are you?" Skadi said. "Here, come back into the TwenCen with me where they haven't been born yet. They'll be nothing to worry about at all."
Iowa gave Skadi her "Don't patronize me" look, which she had honed to sharpness growing up with two know-it-all parents who insisted on doing everything for her, especially when there were other people around.
Skadi took Iowa's hand and tugged, guiding her carefully around the collapsed wall to a couch that didn't so much as twitch when they sat on it.
"OK, here we are in the TwenCen, completely safe from any futuristic-type people who might otherwise bother us," said Skadi.
A shuffling noise distracted them, and Iowa looked up to see a heavyset man with purple hair moving toward the set, carrying a big hand made of red foam. One finger of the big hand was pointing up.
"Sorry, on break!" Skadi shouted, before he came close.
"I just--"
"Closed! Please go away! Love to talk later!"
The purple-haired guy stood there, indecisive, but Skadi turned from him and fixed Iowa with her bright blue eyes. "So, what were you going to say?"
Iowa didn't dare to look at the man, but in a moment there was more shuffling, which grew fainter. Focusing only on Skadi, she took a deep breath and whispered: "In your demo, you said that when people wanted to go out on dates, sometimes they gave each other a phone. I'm..." she couldn't go any farther.
Understanding dawned on Skadi's face, and she began to laugh so hard, it turned into snorting. Iowa felt like someone had just poured a bucket of humiliation over her head. Skadi seemed to be trying to stop the laughter, but her face was red and she was shaking, with tears coming out of the corners of her eyes.
"Oh fave," Skadi finally gasped, "a phone call. Not a phone. They used the phone to call each other, get it?"
Iowa leapt to her feet, but Skadi snatched her hand.
"Hey, wait!" Skadi said. "I don't mind--I think it's cute!"
But Iowa knew she'd made an idiot of herself, just like she always did, and she jerked her hand away. She sprinted out of the parking garage, mentally vowing to never, ever speak to anyone in public again.
Earlier: Iowa didn't like leaving Skadi's presentation before it was done, but the best time to catch her would probably be just after she finished, so she slipped away. For a moment it seemed as though Skadi had turned her head to watch Iowa leave, but Iowa suspected it was only because it's annoying if someone walks away when you're talking. She fervently hoped she wasn't ruining her chances by ducking out.
Only a hundred meters or so away there was a souvenir shop designed to look like a TwenCen convenience store. Iowa rushed into it, looking for phones.
"Can I help you find something?" said the salesboy. Iowa didn't understand his costume: he was wearing some kind of eye make-up, his clothes were entirely black, and there were little pieces of jewelry piercing his nose. Now that she saw him talking, it turned out he even had jewelry on his tongue.
Iowa just smiled, anxious. She looked around: there wasn't anyone else nearby. She leaned over and whispered in his ear: "A phone."
He thought for a second, walked over to the next aisle, reached up to a white metal shelf, and pulled something out from behind a row of fuzzy toys. It didn't look like a phone to her: it was yellowish-white, with a short, squat piece featuring a round, numbery thing and another, longish piece that had two bulby protrusions at the ends. The two pieces fit together by the long thing sitting in a little rack on the squat thing, and they were connected by a curly, rubbery cord.
"It's just a non-working replica," said the boy with jewelry in his tongue.
Iowa gave him a disbelieving look. He sighed and projected a little air screen. After a few seconds of searching the Stream with subvocal voice commands, he put a 2-D video on the screen of someone in TwenCen work clothing like Skadi's talking into one of the bulby protrusions.
Iowa nodded, took out her pocket controller, and thumbed a payment authorization without even checking the price. It turned out it cost nearly 300 pans. She must be crazy, giving a dumb, expensive present like this to a perfect stranger.
Crazy or not, she picked up her phone and went back to the presentation. Skadi was just winding things up.
Earlier: It wasn't that Iowa knew a lot about the TwenCen period, or that she was even especially interested: the Faire was just a way to be out among people. Iowa took every opportunity to get out of her too-quiet apartment, to lose herself randomly in the masses of humanity and feel like a part of something, even if she was really only an observer.
Probably she should have just gotten a pet, but she hadn't had much luck with pets and had kind of a jinx feeling about the whole topic. It wasn't that she didn't work extra hard to take good care of her pets: it was just that they tended to die horrible deaths.
So, in order to not be alone, Iowa was only too grateful to be able to go to something like Corptastic's annual TwenCen Faire at an old-time parking garage on the north end of town. She didn't participate in the activities--the stockbreaking seminars, the sitcom plays, the shopping contests. She just walked around, looked at people's costumes, sampled the food--little paper cups of wobbly, translucent "Jell-O" and deep-fried hamburgers--and basked in the general feeling of temporary community. The air around her was filled with quaint TwenCenisms ("Groovy!"... "Really? Because your mom does."... "Now listen here, you dude!") People had come together, and they were happy and laughing and interested and excited. They swirled all around Iowa, accepting her, demanding nothing. There was no better feeling... well, no, that wasn't strictly true. Love might be better. Given Iowa's track record, though, she didn't feel qualified to say.
It was just as that thought struck her that she stepped on a piece of "Jell-O" someone had dropped and skidded wildly for half a meter, barely keeping her feet. When she got her balance back, she looked around to see if anyone was staring, but no one was: she was at the back of a small crowd. The crowd was watching a woman give a presentation in a replica of a TwenCen living space, complete with wood-and-cloth furniture and a little cooking area full of plastic devices. An air screen said "Skadi Halvorsen--TwenCen Single Living Demo."
"So what we call the TwenCen really covers about eighty years," said Skadi. Skadi was in her mid twenties, like Iowa, and she had short, curly red hair like a little wreath of flame around her face. She wore a TwenCen business suit, a tie, and shiny, black shoes. When Skadi spoke, she spoke in rushes, her words tumbling out between thick, expressive pauses during which she seemed to be mentally catching up with what she had just said, and sometimes she paused for just a moment right in the middle of a phrase.
Skadi continued. "You can think of it running from about 1950 right up until the Uplink Period. The TwenCen was when computers first became important, when the telephone and television were king, and when the world really got connected. But even though people were able to reach each other at any moment for the first time in history--through phone, e-mail, text, or virtual immersion--there was a lot of loneliness. When people left school and began their adult lives, they didn't have options like the extended family housing groups and cohousing communities we have today. While only 4% of twenty-somethings today live alone, back then there were ten times that many."
I'm a four percenter, Iowa thought. That's what she was: one of the misfits.
Skadi demonstrated "microwaving" a meal then, taking a roast chicken dinner in a paper container out of a "freezer" (basically nothing more than a very cold box), and showed how young adults would spend time watching 2-D television or using a computer game called Facebook.
"Is that from a real chicken, like at the zoo?" a little kid called out.
Skadi laughed. "Wouldn't that be great? But no, of course this is slab meat, just like you'd get from your kitchen dispenser."
She gestured to a control eye, and the lighting in the living area changed to a nighttime mode.
"Matchmaking services were very limited for most of the TwenCen period," Skadi said, "so people would invite each other on 'dates.' You could give someone a phone, call, use Facebook, send a text, or trial-date in a virtual world first." Her face went into a cutely salacious expression, and she gave a little click click noise with the side of her mouth. A huge smile that had been building for the last few minutes climbed up Iowa's cheeks, and she felt her heart skip. The passion and the crazy idea came at the same time.
Give someone a phone. That was ridiculously quaint! It would be something nobody else would think of in the present day, even if back in the TwenCen it had been completely normal.
Iowa's attention was jerked back to Skadi's presentation by a crash: Skadi had accidentally bumped the microwave machine off its counter. She lurched after it, but it was too late: the microwave slammed into one of the cheap fiberfoam walls and tore the whole thing--windows, shelves, and all--loose from the rest of the set. Skadi went down after the microwave, and a shelf of paper book replicas, also made of fiberfoam, cascaded down on top of her.
"I'm OK!" Skadi called, struggling to her feet. Two teenagers in back broke into sarcastic applause. Everyone else looked painfully embarrassed.
Skadi brushed wisps of fiberfoam off her suit, smiling ruefully. "Not to worry--no fatalities, and nothing's on fire!"
Then she started a demonstration of 2-D telecommuting, but by that time Iowa was already wrapped up in her new, crazy plan.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 8th, 2013

Author Comments

One of the challenges in writing events backwards is that you can't use suspense about how things are going to come out to keep the story interesting. What I tried to do instead (and only you can tell me whether or not I succeeded) was to create suspense about how things came to be in the state we find them at as of the "beginning" of the story and to offer a mystery or two that is only solved when we know what came before. While I was at it, I got to create a geeky romance between people I'd enjoy meeting in real life, to imagine how people in the future might think about our time period, and of course, to research the best (or more accurately, worst) way to electrocute a chicken.

- Luc Reid
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