Lara clutched the stolen envelope firmly to make sure it didn’t slip out of her invisible fingers.
She closed the door behind her and sagged against the building, heart pounding. She was furious with Spiro for getting her involved in a harebrained adventure. She was thrilled at the most exciting thing she had ever done. She was proud of herself and ashamed of herself and scared of going to jail. She wanted to cry and laughed instead.
She looked down at the tufts of weed poking through cracks in the asphalt where her feet ought to be. Being invisible was the best part of the caper but she hoped Spiro’s programming would remove the effect soon. It was going to be hard to move on a city street if no one could see her coming.
She peered around the trash bins and looked down the alley. No one was in sight. Spiro had done what he called a “reconnaissance mission” a few days earlier, meaning he walked around to the back of the store to make sure there were no cameras. Spiro’s invisibility routine was clever but it had no effect on security cameras. Lara and Spiro had solemnly agreed that high resolution video showing her strolling away with the stolen goods would undercut the whole “perfect crime” vibe. Also possibly land both of them in jail.
Lara fumbled to tuck the envelope in her backpack purse, then pulled off the latex gloves by feel and dropped them on the ground beside her, where they instantly appeared out of nowhere as they left the screen that was keeping her out of sight. They looked sad, like deflated cow udder balloons, and perhaps they were filled with fingernail DNA, if that was a thing, so she picked them back up and stuffed them into the purse.
Out of habit she felt around for her hand lotion and squeezed a dollop out into her palm by feel. Rubbing her hands together helped calm her nerves.
She could hear sirens in the distance coming closer. Time to move.
Something wasn’t right. She shook her head, trying to work out why she had a nagging feeling that something was missing as she walked down the alley past the overflowing trash bin behind the diaper delivery service.
It finally came to her: she couldn’t smell her lotion, the distinctive odor of blown out candle that was her long time favorite. She raised her hands and sniffed and smelled nothing.
Strange, she thought. Maybe the propane smell a few minutes before had stunned her nose in some way.
She straightened up, looked out on the main street to be sure no one would run into her by accident, and then walked down the sidewalk briskly. She didn’t want to be late for her next appointment.
The tiny sorcerer looked around frantically, then leaped behind a tiny stone wall and watched the tiny fireball whiz over his tiny head.
“Ow,” said Spiro. The others looked at him. “I hit my hand on the desk when I jumped,” he said. One of his teammates explained briefly about situational awareness, then they bent back over the game.
The situation was dire for the Arrgle team. Two swordswomen dressed in midnight black were advancing towards them, glowing weapons at the ready. The other team’s wizard was preparing another fireball. A transformer was disappearing into a dungeon, presumably to change into a dragon or kaiju or oral surgeon or something equally terrifying.
Spiro waved his hand in front of his face, trying to dislodge the ad that was blocking his view of the game. He looked around the table and said, “We have to make some healing potions. Anybody have any wolf entrails? Anybody have a wolf? Any animals of any kind that might have an entrail? Anyone sure what an entrail is?”
The other players shrugged. One of them made his tiny soldier reach into his Big Bag O’ Holding and pull out a swallow. The three-inch tall soldier held it up to the players around the table with a questioning look. Spiro consulted the potion recipe and nodded in agreement. “Swallow entrails are on the list, as long as it’s an African swallow.”
Kaitlin’s tiny barbarian was flexing her muscles and hitting the ground with her club occasionally. Kaitlin said, “We’re playing the Apple marketing team. We’re engineers, so they’re inferior human beings by definition. This should be easy. Are you sure about this plan?”
Spiro said, “Kaitlin, you have to trust me. I mean, you literally have to trust me. You’re the head of our division and your job depends on believing that I’m roughly the most brilliant programmer in history.” The other two at the table started miming chokes and coughs that sounded quite a lot like “bullshit.” Spiro grinned at them, then turned back to Kaitlin. “That’s why I’m the Sorcerer in the game. And you’re the Berserker – we must have all done type-casting for ourselves when we chose our characters.”
Kaitlin said, “You’re going to make me invisible?”
“You’ll be able to walk right into the Apple camp and swap the fake Holy Hand Grenade for the real one. They won’t know anything happened until they try to use it against us and it explodes into a colorful rainbow of swirling particles that holds them entranced. Then dark and gloomy clouds will gather and vaguely bat-like shapes will swoop down from overhead and gouge out their eyes and reduce them to smoking piles of ash.”
Kaitlin stared at him. “Did you just say the words ‘colorful rainbow of swirling particles’? Wow. You are a very strange person. Who talks like that? Never mind. Go back to the invisibility part. You have to make me invisible in order for my character to disappear in the game? I thought we couldn’t do that.”
“We can’t. There are strict rules against programming for invisibility. I will be deeply ashamed and guilty about it. I wouldn’t even consider it if I didn’t have an understanding division head who will cover for me without hesitation because she’s a co-conspirator. Why, that’s you!”
“Good point. I’ve never been invisible before. Seems a shame to use it for just a game. Maybe we’ll talk later about spying on my husband and stealing art from Sothebys.”
The Arrgle team created a stockpile of healing potions and Staffs Of Almost-But-Not-Completely-Ultimate-Power. The battle that followed began with a very satisfying collection of bloodcurdling shrieks and clanging of swords and volleys of arrows and explosions and . . .
Spiro paused and said, “Volleys of arrows? We don’t have any archers. Does the Apple team have an archer?” The others shook their heads, intent on the tiny combat. Spiro chewed his lip thoughtfully. A game bug? He would have to check the logs later.
. . . and hacking and thrusting and rending of garments and severing of limbs and the unexpected but somehow completely expected appearance of Cthulhu.
Kaitlin said, “Now is the time to send me in. Spiro, do your invisibility dance.”
Spiro left the game and brought up his main command menu and poked at it until Kaitlin faded away, disappearing from tableside along with the tiny berserker in the game.
Kaitlin’s voice came out of the air. “This is so cool!” She called her husband into the home office where she was playing. The others could hear him exclaiming at the oddness of a voice emerging from thin air. A moment later the fake Holy Hand Grenade disappeared from their arsenal as her invisible barbarian took it with her. Less than two minutes later, she said, “I’m done. Spiro, bring me back.”
Spiro gestured, Kaitlin reappeared, the battle was rejoined with cries of anger, carnage, blood, viciousness, the usual fun.
When the other team’s sorcerer came out holding aloft the fabled holy hand grenade. Spiro, Kaitlin, and the other Arrgle players held their breath until the moment when something quite like a colorful rainbow of swirling particles turned into clouds and bats. Much eye-gouging ensued. Four ash piles smoked gently where the Apple warriors had been standing.
The teams grumbled and boasted to each other. The Apple marketers were clearly confused about what had happened. They promised revenge and signed off.
Spiro couldn’t ignore the blinking lantern that appeared to be attached to the stone wall of the dank dungeon surrounding him. He made a mental note to reprogram the dungeon to make the lantern flicker instead of blink. He said, “That’s it for today. I’ve got to get back to work. Are we on for Sunday morning?” The others nodded and winked away.
The game wasn’t over. The teams would leave the tabletop behind over the weekend and meet outdoors with avatars matching their miniature counterparts. Each person would switch on a game filter that would make their neighborhoods look like a collection of decaying Gothic mansions, trees dripping with lacy lichen, mist clinging to the ground. Sword fights were impractical since some of the players were in different cities. Instead the players would scamper about, crouching behind crumbling stone walls, sprinting for cover behind a rotting log, peering out long enough to aim spells and launch fireballs.
Since none of that was visible to anyone who wasn’t running the same game, the players appeared to be cavorting about and waving their arms due to some horrible muscular disorder or possibly severe alcoholism. But no one took any particular notice. It was commonplace for people to be inhabiting private worlds visible only to them, even when they were in the outside world, and the polite thing was not to pay attention.
– – O – –
Spiro stared at the trampled grass and scorched castle walls on the tiny battleground for a moment, then said, “Yo Arrgle.” The borders of his vision got the familiar shimmer that meant his system was waiting for instructions. He said, “Turn on the office. ”
The dungeon disappeared. He was sitting in a tastefully decorated 12 foot square office, with a swivel chair behind an executive desk that was exactly the same size as the battlefield a moment before. There was a picture of his wife Lara on the desk, along with a picture of Milford Sound in New Zealand, which he had never visited in real life. He had read once that successful people should have an aspirational picture on their desk. Spiro decided a travel picture would be easier to explain to Lara than a picture of a rare comic book, although Lara would have understood the comic book. She had known him a long time.
The office had generic framed pictures and a window on one wall that looked out over a vineyard and creek. Insects buzzed gently outside. A bird chirped occasionally. The feeling in the office was bucolic and peaceful, so conducive to focusing that Spiro found it incredibly distracting. He said, “Yo, Arrgle, turn off all background.”
Now he saw the reality of the room without any special effects. Almost every home had a room or two like it for augmented reality – a square room with bare walls, no windows, a plain table in the middle of the room with one chair, and cameras in each corner. The images of photos on the desk and the pictures on the wall were gone. The standard size and layout meant the servers could create the appearance of several people in the same place, stitching each person’s feed together so a work group could appear to be sitting at a conference room table, or a classroom could have rows of desks filled with students, with no visual artifacts to disturb the illusion.
Within a few seconds, an advertisement appeared on one wall for cheap packages to decorate bare rooms. There were almost always at least a few ads that couldn’t be turned off. Spiro was frequently frustrated that the advertising AI wasn’t as smart as the tech companies promised. He shrugged. Not his department.
And the notification light was still flashing on the wall. Now it looked like an LED instead of a lantern but it was still impossible to ignore. Spiro swiped at the notifications. His boss at Arrgle, Barry, had been trying to reach Spiro for twenty minutes. An emergency? Unlikely, thought Spiro. Probably more annoying chores, trying to make Spiro’s life a bit more miserable. For the thousandth time, nay, the ten thousandth time, Spiro wished there was a way to change his chain of command so he wouldn’t be in Barry’s department. But Spiro would endure working with Barry if necessary to let him keep writing SML code. He loved writing SML code.
Spiro thought for a moment and said, “Yo Arrgle, turn on the tiki bar.” The table became a bamboo bar, tiki statues appeared in the corners, and the lighting dimmed to match the tiki torches. A drink shaped like a coconut with a jaunty umbrella rested nearby. Spiro smiled. He hadn’t used the tiki bar for a while. He knew Barry would hate it. Spiro chose to appear to be dressed in a hula skirt, just for the hell of it, and punched the floating reply button to connect to Barry.
– – O – –
Barry appeared across from Spiro on the other side of the bamboo bar. Arrgle’s servers tried without much success to match up the edges where the tiki bar blurred into Barry’s office background. Barry stared around at the tiki bar, shook his head, muttered “Cute,” and let his body slump to convey the burden of being an Arrgle manager and specifically Spiro’s manager.
Barry was trying to look threatening, although the effect was more like the expression of someone with a familiar but still difficult stomach disorder. “Where the hell have you been?”
Spiro said, “Aww, I missed you too. I was in a meeting with Kaitlin. It ran long.”
Kaitlin was Barry’s boss. As always, he looked as if it was a personal slight that he had been left out of a conversation. “Anything I should know about?”
Spiro enjoyed seeing Barry’s discomfort. Spiro and Kaitlin got along famously, which interfered with Barry’s plans to terrorize Spiro. “Just going over some details so marketing and PR can finish their SML presentation next month. We’ll probably work on it some more this weekend.”
“Should I sit in?” Barry asked.
“You would need to bring your own sword,” Spiro said. He relented when he saw Barry had no idea what he was talking about and said, “No, no worries, it’s all routine.”
“Routine? Nothing about this is routine,” Barry shot back. “You’re in so far over your head you can’t even see that the ice is cracking on this project.”
Spiro frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“If there’s ice, then I couldn’t get in over my head. How would I get under the surface? I would have plenty of time to get out before it froze over. Unless I fell in an ice fishing hole. Did I fall in a hole?” He stopped when he saw Barry’s expression but then couldn’t resist. “Barry, I’m concerned for your well-being. There are little heat lines emanating from the top of your head. That might be why the ice is melting.”
“Shut up!” Barry clearly wanted to do more shouting but wrestled himself back to spitting out sentences through clenched lips. “Shut. Up. You’re going to take the fall for the bugs in this project. It’s not ready. I’m going to make sure everyone knows who was responsible for every mistake and side effect.”
Spiro had come up with the key ideas behind new technology that could change what people smelled. He had presented it to Barry a year earlier and Barry had immediately understood that it would be an important project for the company and had the potential to change the world, which is why it made him so angry that Spiro had conceived it and would get the credit.
“Now, now, be calm, find your quiet place. We’re past that now. I’ve got most of the syntax working properly – chocolate smells like chocolate now instead of barbeque grills, that was weird. And I’ve gotten most of the bugs out of the location triggers. We can get people smelling apple pie when they get near a bakery, no real pies needed. And we can trigger smells system-wide, if there’s some reason to do that, which is a little hard to imagine.”
Barry seethed. “You can’t think this will roll out smoothly. Just testing it might cause some unexpected public health crisis.” Spiro looked at him impassively, waiting for the fit to pass. Barry gave up. “Never mind. Marketing and legal are going to be talking about the timetable for public testing. What do you think?”
“Definitely ready sometime between next week and six years from now, possibly never.”
Barry made a strangled noise. “You’re a pain in the ass, you know that, Spiro?”
“Yeah, but I’m the best programmer you’ve got. And you secretly love me, so I know you’re wrestling with that, too.”
Barry looked disgusted, reached up in the air for his command menu, and disappeared.
– – O – –
Spiro closed the game logs with a frustrated sigh. He still didn’t know why arrows were flying during the tiny battle. He shut down his computer with a wave of his hand and the monitor and keyboard winked out.
He pushed back his chair and went downstairs to where Lara was preparing dinner. Spiro’s AR automatically synced with hers so they saw the same effects. Most people did that in shared living spaces. It was confusing to have conversations when one person saw a painting on the wall and the other saw a window looking out on a lake. Or Mars, or a monster truck rally – people had unpredictable taste.
Spiro and Lara rarely changed their decor. The floor was real wood, the comfy sofa looked quite a lot like the real comfy sofa, although an effect made it look a bit newer than the real thing and the stain from the popcorn butter didn’t show. Some of the art was real, some came from an impulse purchase years earlier when they saw an ad for a virtual art collection with a 25% off coupon. The window was a real window and looked out on the real tree-covered hills outside San Rafael in their quiet neighborhood.
Spiro happily breathed in the aromas of lemon and garlic and butter. He gave Lara a kiss on the back of the head as she bent over the stove, a spatula in each hand, focused like a drummer playing complicated polyrhythms. He said, “Hi sweetie. That smells amazing! What are you preparing?” He could see the recipe floating above the stove along with ads around it for cooking shows, exotic ingredients, and an ad for antacid tablets, which seemed kind of rude.
Lara looked up and said, “Chicken piccata. With real piccatas. Mmm, you look sexy in a very peculiar sort of way.”
Spiro looked down. He was still dressed in a hula skirt. “Like it? A little something special I put on to excite you.” He reached up to his command menu and switched off the outfit, going back to the jeans and quarter zip that he was wearing in real life. “Actually, I had a meeting with Barry a couple of hours ago and thought if I dressed up special he would like me more. He reacted as if I was trying to provoke him, a thought which, of course, had never crossed my mind. I was shocked and disappointed that my effort went unrewarded. Anyway, he’s in a troubled mood lately. This project makes him uncomfortable.”
Lara shot him a questioning look. “What is it with this project? It seems to have everybody on edge. When are you going to be able to talk to me about it?”
“I don’t know,” Spiro answered. “My guess is a few weeks before I can say anything to anyone, and even then you’ll have to sign an NDA. Until then I’m bound by eldritch blood oaths of secrecy. You have to take it on faith that I’m a hero and the smartest programmer on the block and the master of the universe.”
Lara gave him a loving smile. “Yes, dear. In your dreams, all those things are true. Go away so I can finish dinner. Look at recipes – it’s your turn tomorrow.”
Spiro retreated to his den with Foobar, their pet spaniel, hopping along behind him on his three legs, hoping for a lap to jump into.
– – O – –
The den was a windowless vault lined with neat boxes and bookshelves. There was a small stack of comics on the coffee table waiting to be cataloged, transferred into acid-free bags, backed with cardboard, and filed in the right boxes. Oh, and possibly Spiro would read them along the way, very carefully, making sure not to crease the cover or tear a page.
Spiro didn’t know he was a comics collector when he was ten years old. He just felt that it was important that he buy every issue in each series he decided to follow, and store them in neat piles in drawers in his childhood bedroom. He had always instinctively observed the three cardinal rules: never write in a comic book; never fold a page; and never, ever let your mother throw away your old comics. It had evolved from a childhood habit to a hobby and eventually an obsession.
He breathed deep, luxuriating in the familiar smell of ink, the acid odor of decaying paper wafting up from older titles, and the distinctive scent of the China clay coating used after 2000. Sniffing the air brought back memories of walking into comic shops when he was a kid filled with wonder and anticipation.
Collecting is a gentle madness. It crosses over into veneration of objects – comics, books, paintings, stained glass windows – more for their place in the collection than for anything mundane like what they actually say or what they look like.
A week earlier Spiro had been talking about the passion of collectors with Livre, the young clerk at Cataclysm Comics in downtown San Rafael. The store had recently expanded again and a dozen people were browsing on a Saturday afternoon.
“I’m kind of weirded out by how popular this stuff is,” she confided to Spiro. “It’s almost all available online. Better quality, too. I mean, look at this.” She reached up to her command menu and opened a copy of Marvel Interior Dialogues #42 and shared it with Spiro so he could see it floating above the counter. She zoomed in. “See? That’s way more detailed than the paper copy. And cheaper.”
Spiro thought for a moment. “You’re a youngster. I’m an old man of 36 and I remember what things were like before AR. A lot of these people are here for the same reason I am – nostalgia for physical objects. I read comics on a computer when I was in grade school but it wasn’t the same as sitting in my room with magazines that I could touch.”
Livre chuckled. “That was a long time ago, grandpa. There are a lot of things that people did back then that you’ve probably given up by now. I doubt if you’re driving a car or sending text messages with your thumbs.”
Spiro nodded. “There is an emotional component to ownership of physical items. My father was a book collector. He would spend hours every week scouring sale listings to fill holes in the collection that only he could see. I would ask him about a random book on the shelf and he would light up and immediately be able to tell me everything about the publishing history and how many copies were printed and show me the author’s signature. Then he would go back to moving the books around on the shelves in a pattern that only he knew. Because in the end a collector can really only talk to another collector.”
Livre gestured around the shop. “All these people didn’t have book collecting fathers. Wait a minute, maybe they did. Are these all your brothers and sisters?”
“Mom and dad loved each other very much, and quite often.” Livre snorted. “No, there’s something else. I work on augmented reality for Arrgle. It has obviously had a huge impact on the world – it’s how we communicate and get entertainment and even dress ourselves.” He gestured at the outfits that he and Livre appeared to be wearing. “But an increasing number of people are rediscovering the importance of physical objects. Touching something in the real world has a different emotional impact than something that we see and hear as a result of waving our hands around, no matter how real something appears to be in AR.”
Livre nodded. “Yeah, I get that, I guess. God knows we sell a lot of comic books. Seems like more all the time.”
“Hobby collecting is back on the upswing,” Spiro agreed. “That’s not all. Sales of high end clothes are increasing – real clothes, not purchases in wardrobe apps. Grocery deliveries are down because more people are shopping in physical stores so they can evaluate the fruit by touching it.”
Livre said, “Wow, you keep up with this stuff. You work at Arrgle. Are you a billionaire that I should recognize?”
Spiro put a fierce expression on his face and looked around. “Damn! Where’s my advance team? You’re supposed to have been fully briefed.” He uncrinkled his eyes and turned back. “No, not even a millionaire. But someday when I’m rich and famous, you’ll look back on this day and tell your friends about how you sold me this copy of Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer.”
Livre said, “Oh, I promise, I’ll never forget this moment. At least not today.”
– – O – –
Spiro still had comics that he had bought when he was ten years old. He had kept them in neat piles on the shelves of his childhood bedroom, carefully sorted, with a running inventory in his mind of missing numbers and when the next month’s issues would arrive. Other parents might have worried about a child that carefully straightened a stack of comics when one was knocked askew, but it was accepted as normal behavior in Spiro’s household. The books in his father’s collection were alphabetized and filed by genre and always lined up neatly on the shelves.
The collection was still pristine. Neat grey cardboard boxes lined the den walls, labeled with publisher, titles, and dates (“DC Comics, Gilligan’s Island Of The Dead, 2045-47.”) Shelves with hardcover and paperback reprints were arranged by color and height, which Spiro believed was whimsical. A few framed strips and panels hung on the walls, signed by the artists at comic conventions Spiro had attended in his twenties. And there were special display stands for some of the treasured rarities – the limited edition first issue of a series about Yoruba warrior Irete, this time fighting against climate refugee slavers in the 2040s; an early issue of Marvel’s series about Cory Doctorow as a superhero, signed by the man himself.
Spiro’s father had described visiting used bookstores when he traveled with Spiro’s mom, looking for rare treasures. Today Spiro could get a digital copy of almost any collectible comic with a few clicks. That was sufficient for many people but it left Spiro with a nagging dissatisfied feeling and he frequently wound up buying the paper copy of the same comic to make his collection complete. And he haunted comics stores, especially Cataclysm Comics, which had earned a national reputation for the surprising rare comics that could be found in its stacks.
Like any collector, Spiro was haunted by holes in the collection that only he could see. No one would ever know that he didn’t have issue number 2 of Pandemic Ninja, but he felt it like a missing tooth.
Lara’s chat icon popped up in the corner of his vision. He tapped on it. She said, “I hate to interrupt if you’re doing something important like saving humanity or reading Comic Crap” – he could always hear the uppercase letters – “but dinner is ready. Set the table or we’re eating with our hands again.”
Spiro said, “Yo, Arrgle, turn off the den lights,” as he headed for the door.
“You’re fourteen now,” Lara’s mom said. “Shall we make an appointment for your Arrgle shot?”
Lara looked up from her phone and pretended to be bored. “Yeah, whatever.”
Her mom knew better than to be baited. “No, I can see you’re not interested. Let’s wait until a better time, like when you turn 21.”
“Mom!” Lara wailed. “I’m ready, I guess. All my friends have Arrgle already. I feel so stupid with this old phone. It seems like Arrgle bots are pretty cool. They tell me it’s way better than the glasses. It seems so weird to put little machines into my body. Christine’s mom won’t let her get bots because she says they’ll cause scurvy or they’re radioactive or something, she’s a little vague about the details. Don’t you and dad worry about side effects?”
Her mom softened her tone and said, “We feel completely safe. The science says the nanobots are pretty miraculous. I know, strange to think about miniature machines not much bigger than molecules.”
Lara looked impatient and said, “We got all that in biology last year, they clamp onto nerves and send signals directly to the brain, I get it. But isn’t it weird that Arrgle is giving these shots away for free?”
Mom said, “It is amazing, isn’t it? The FDA says the Arrgle bots are literally identical to the Apple bots. Same technology, just running the business differently. Apple makes money by selling expensive tech and locking customers into a walled garden.”
Lara looked down at her Android phone and said, “Yeah, some of my friends can’t message me any more because they have Apple bots.”
“Arrgle is giving away its bots to anybody for free. There will be some ads but so far your dad and I haven’t been bothered by them. Did you see the announcement last month? Apple is changing its bot programming so it works with Arrgle.” She called her husband in the other room. “Honey, what’s the word for the Arrgle standard?”
Her dad came in from the living room. “Beats me. It’s a programming thing. Protocols? Something like that.”
Lara said, “Arrgle is going to be a big deal, isn’t it?”
“If your mom had told me to buy Arrgle stock ten years ago, we would be taking a private jet to our vacation home in Bora Bora. Not that I’m bitter.”
Her mom said, “You should thank me. It’s a constant hassle to find parts to repair a yacht and the air conditioning bills for a mansion would be astronomical.”
”Probably right,” her dad agreed. “Anyway, the early Arrgle investors have probably bought up all the castles with the best views. A lot of people didn’t think anybody would dislodge Apple and Google. But Arrgle might have found a way to take over the world.”
– – O – –
Lara waited in the exam room, with its familiar disinfectant smells. When the doctor came in, Lara said, “I think I’m going to get my Arrgle shot today.”
The doctor said, “Good. It’s great technology. You’ll like it.”
Lara said, “I’ve heard all the ads that say everything is private. Some of my friends’ parents say the bots let the government monitor people’s thoughts. What do you think?”
“Good news – no one can read your mind, with or without bots. But privacy is confusing and sometimes it can seem like the big companies are inside your head. The big tech companies track your location, whether you wear glasses or have bots, because they have to know where you are in order to show you effects when you get someplace. AR tech listens to everything you hear, that’s how you can talk to your friends. And it sees everything you see. Not all of that info is sent to Arrgle but some of it is.”
Lara said, “So nothing is private, right?”
“It takes a little faith but there’s a good chance everything is private. DOPPA has real teeth. You know DOPPA, right?”
“Data Online Privacy Protection Act. We studied it.”
The doctor nodded. “It goes back to the days of the first augmented reality glasses. People freaked out that somebody might have a camera in a bathroom without their consent. So when AR glasses began to catch on, DOPPA came together pretty quickly – the first thing some of the politicians back then had agreed on in a long time.”
Lara said, “So they’re not supposed to watch or listen. Do you think that’s true?”
The doctor said, “It’s been studied to death by everybody and the tech companies are taking it all very seriously. If anybody finds that Apple or Arrgle has recorded even a single sentence or that they’re logging anything you see, they’ll be facing massive fines and maybe even be put out of business. So the tech companies are shutting down everything that analyzes that kind of data. Google is going a bit nuts, since a big chunk of their business was built on sucking up personal data.”
Lara shifted uneasily. “It’s scary. No matter what the rules are today, Arrgle might be working on something different tomorrow. How do we know?”
“That’s part of what we have to take on faith. The bots are permanent.”
“Do you think I should get an Arrgle shot?”
The doctor said, “I can’t give you that kind of advice. You have to decide. But I can tell you that medically I’m not aware of any reason for you to avoid it. And for what it’s worth, virtually all of my patients have gotten the shot already. I got mine last year. That’s why my eyes keep moving to the side – I can see your chart beside your left ear.”
Lara involuntarily looked left. There was nothing there. “Ooookay. I think I’ll get my shot.”
– – O – –
As promised, Lara’s vision was occasionally blurred for the next week as the nanobots swam around her bloodstream and latched onto the right nerves. At some point overnight they finished their work and synced up with the Arrgle network. Lara woke up that morning and a small menu icon appeared to be hanging in the air two feet in front of her, in the upper right corner of her vision. That was nothing new – it was similar to the menu she saw when she put on her Apple glasses. She reached up and tapped the menu and saw the icons that Arrgle had been promoting in its advertising ever since the FDA approval. She could start a chat, turn an AR layer on or off, do a search for AR events like her morning classes, activate an AR keyboard, and more – all with no glasses.
Lara squealed. She couldn’t help it. She wasn’t normally a squealing person but this was fun. She said, “Yo, Arrgle,” and saw the shimmer that meant the system was listening. She tried calling her best friend, the one with her favorite online user name: “Call #adalovelace.”
A friendly woman’s voice that sounded like someone standing off to one side said, “Your contact list is empty. Would you like to call the Computer History Museum?”
Lara said, “Crap. Cancel. How do I import my contacts?”
A disembodied hand appeared in the air and moved toward the command menu as the woman’s voice began to explain how it worked. Lara was fourteen years old so she cut off the tutorial as soon as she got just enough information to know where to start. She began speaking commands and jabbing at the air.
The next time she tried to connect, her friend Siobhan – #adalovelace – appeared in the room full size, apparently standing on the floor next to the bed. Her avatar was modeled on the real Ada Lovelace as she might have looked in her teens if she had worn more comfortable clothes than were common in 1830 and was kind of a badass. “Hey,” said Siobhan. “What are you doing awake? I’m making breakfast. What happened to your avatar? It looks like it went back to the default, the goofy one with the too big smile and no boobs.”
Lara said, “My Arrgle just kicked in. I don’t have glasses on. This is so cool!”
“Right on!” said Siobhan. “About time. You don’t have to worry about your avatar for school, you’ll have cameras, but don’t forget to get it customized for later or Constance will tear you apart.”
“Got it. See you in class.” Lara reached out and disconnected. She instinctively reached for her phone and glasses on the way out of the room, then paused, thought a moment, and left them behind. She wouldn’t need them any more.
– – O – –
Twenty years later, Lara still had misgivings about the Arrgle technology in her bloodstream, but it had stopped being dinner table conversation many years before. Early in their relationship she and Spiro had talked for hours about the effect that AR glasses were having on the world and possible downsides of Arrgle’s nanobot technology. Lara could never get Spiro to share her concern about the social side effects of technology. He had been excited by the programming opportunities and had never lost that enthusiasm.
Lara gazed lovingly at Spiro as he cleared the ex-piccata plates. She had met Spiro in college, then reconnected with him when they both wound up in northern California after graduate school, more by coincidence than design. By that time Lara had been through a short marriage that was inexplicable in hindsight, so she saw qualities in Spiro that she might have dismissed a few years earlier in college. He still had the same look, slightly pudgy but not quite overweight and looks that were on the verge of being handsome without ever making it there. He was frequently oblivious to the world around him, focused on his programming, and had a list of nerdly obsessive interests that were endearing in part because he didn’t try to press them on her.
Mostly, though, Spiro was unfailingly nice. His evenness would occasionally drive her crazy but she had learned that his feelings were sincere and he genuinely loved her, and for the most part that was enough. She sometimes missed the excitement that came along with a bit of danger in a relationship, the flare-ups that come with emotions that are closer to the surface, but those days were behind her. It was good to be married to a nice guy.
Lara had a satisfying career as a marketing executive, currently working with a small cosmetics manufacturer nominally based in Europe. There was an address in Paris and perhaps even an office there but employees were scattered all over the world and manufacturing and packaging was done in Asia. The company’s European identity was largely a branding exercise. Lara and Spiro’s house looked like a delivery truck filled with samples of lotions and skin creams had overturned nearby, some tubes sent to her for testing, some because she had become obsessive about skin care.
Spiro finished the dishes and joined Lara in the living room. The world was filled with immersive AR entertainment – multi-player games with full-size avatars; movies that could be experienced as much as watched by walking around the characters and observing from all angles; audience participation events of all kinds. But Lara and Spiro frequently unwound from work by sitting on the couch and watching a traditional hour of scripted entertainment on a large screen in the living room. They finished an episode of the Great British Bed Racing Show, with very polite contestants pushing beds through an obstacle course, and Spiro made his way to sleep.
Lara loved their routine. Spiro turned in early. She could always join him when the evening called for cuddling, but she was a night owl and frequently ended with a few hours to herself for reading, watching a series that he wasn’t interested in, or going online for research or chat or last minute work. Spiro got up early and had morning hours to himself to work – it was usually work – while Lara slept.
The one thing they almost never did was talk about Spiro’s work. She got what she could about office gossip from him, although he was never good about remembering details about other people’s lives, which was what interested her most. But he strictly observed the prohibition imposed on engineers to prevent them from discussing work projects with anyone, including spouses. Other Arrgle spouses were in the same position, finding out only in hindsight what their partner had been working on. “This app that was announced today? That’s what I’ve been working on for two years.” It wasn’t worth being angry about it. It was just the rules.
Lara absently picked up a test lotion from the side table and rubbed some on her hands. She winced at the scent, “Grilled Onions.” She was baffled by the choice of (for no lotion manufacturer ought to choose, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions.
“Onions?” Lara said out loud in puzzlement. She’d have to send a note to product development. She settled back on the couch and waved her hands to turn on the screen and watch the latest episode of Enderby, the British comedy about a dyspeptic poet implicated in the murder of rocker Yod Crewsey. Strange concept, but the accents were lovely.
Uncommon Scents is a cautionary frolic that has more humor and 80% less dystopia than the average near-future thriller.
In 2053, augmented reality has become the primary source of entertainment and communication for most people, as well as cluttering the world with nonstop floating ads. Lara is not happy about this new version of reality. Worse, she and her husband Spiro are being driven apart by his all-consuming work for the largest AR tech company - work that he can’t talk to her about because it is so annoyingly secret.
Lara winds up hunted by fierce security guards and a flash mob of conspiracy theorists, all trying to find out who is leaking company secrets. She has to decide what is more important: saving the world or saving her marriage.
Click here to buy Uncommon Scents on Amazon in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.
Five stars - Very enjoyable read
The perfect crime with a healthy dose of humor all set in a scifi future. Fun and engaging!
I recently finished this thriller ride of a book that captivates the imagination with the perfect weave of slapstick comedy, augmented reality, conspiracy theory AND an enthusiastic nod for the nerd haven of comic book collectors. And, did I mention? It culminates in a hoot - the perfect crime. Rest assured, in 2053 Keith Richards is still alive. Check out this amusing read on Amazon!
Thank you for your query. Unfortunately, it's not quite what I'm looking for at this time, so I will have to pass. I encourage you to continue querying with the hopes of finding the right agent for your project. Best wishes in your search for representation.
I can't tell you how much I hate the word 'paradisiacal.' Is that even a real word? You should take it out. I'm sure your little book is lovely, dear. I'm going to finish it, I've just been busy.
Wordy, nerdy, and dull . . .
Bruce Berls has been writing about computers and technology at bruceb.com for more than 20 years. Jim Rowson is a former Google software engineer with more than two million lines of code to his name. They are working on two more novels in the same world.