“Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits.”
— Henry David Thoreau
In the ghostly branches of a hologram tree, light winks off the shiny side of something red and round. I hesitate to reach for it. It’s just a projection of the past onto the present after all, but it looks so real that I can’t help myself. I raise my arm, but my body feels hollow and slow.
“Hey, who are you? That’s not for you!” someone calls.
I try to say my name, Thalia Apple, but the words burble up from my throat and pop likebubbles in my mouth with a taste that’s faint and far away. My jaws work, unable to grasp the last word sitting smugly on the tip of my tongue. So, I pluck that red and shiny thing from the tree and shove it in my mouth. I feel it slide down my throat then watch as it falls out of a perfect empty circle carved from my hips to my ribs. I try to snatch it before it hits the ground, but it changes shape and flitters away on delicate wings, too fleeting to catch.
I must find something to block this opening where my belly button used to be or everything I want to say will fall out . I pick up a pillow, my favorite soft blanket on the ground beside me, then the dark and loamy dirt—like what my grandparents dug their hands into when they were young—but it all falls through , making a mound at my heels. I inhale deeply, catching the slightest whiff of something sweet, something desirable, as red and round as my name and I moan.
“…comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love.” — Song of Solomon
“What’s the matter, Thalia?”
I wake up with a jerk. Squinting into the light, I see Mom zip past where I’m sprawled across the couch clutching a pillow to my belly. I try to clear my head and get my bearings. I’m not under a tree. There is no dirt. I poke myself in the stomach to make sure there’s no hole. When I sit up, my head feels too heavy, so I flop back on the living room couch. My arms feel like spindly strings attached to my shoulders. My legs are wobbly. My belly is concave.
“Why were you in the dark?” Mom asks over the yapping of her personal cyber assistant, Gretchen, who runs through today’s junk mail on the main screen.
“Today only…” Gretchen announces.
“No,” says Mom. Bonk, Gretchen deletes the message.
“Save big…” Gretchen says.
“No,” says Mom. Bonk, goes Gretchen.
“Cyber sale!” Gretchen announces.
“Send to Thalia,” Mom commands. Ping!
I roll away from the noise but can’t get comfortable on the stiff couch because the backs of my legs stick to the wipeable surface. I pull the heavy pillow that smells strongly of synthetic citrus cleanser over my head to block out the fracas. I wish I could dive back into my dream and find that thing I was searching for. I inhale deeply, but the biting lemony-lime scent is not the smell I want. The smell I’m after is less pungent. More subtle. Not yellow or green but warm and earthy brown.
Mom’s heels clack against the tile then she slips a cool dry hand under the pillow and presses against my forehead.
“What are you doing?” I swat her away with the pillow.
“Checking for a fever.”
“You’re a doctor for god’s sake,” I grouse at her. “Why are you touching me?”
Mom crosses her arms and sticks a hip out to the side. She’s all points and angles. “If you had your Gizmo with you, I could read your vitals from over there.” She points across the room. “But since you don’t, I have to do it the old-fashioned way.” She holds up her hand and waves her fingers at me.
“Gross,” I mutter.
Mom snorts. “That’s how doctors used to do it. They even used their hands for surgery.” She makes a sick face at the thought of digging inside someone’s body. “Why are you on the couch in the middle of the day anyway?”
“I just feel….” I try to describe it. “Weird,” I say because there is no one word I can think of.
“Weird is a relative term,” says Mom. “Be specific.”
“Hollow,” I say. I could tell her more. Details like how it starts in my belly. Between my ribs and hips. Above my navel but beneath that springy muscle, the diaphragm, that makes your lungs expand and contract. How it’s a strange yawning feeling, like my insides grew a mouth and that mouth is opening. I push a finger into the spot but all I can say is, “Empty.”
“Are you achy?” She cocks her head and her hair shifts like a black cultured Silkese curtain across her narrow shoulders.
I shake my head no, which makes me dizzy for a moment as if my noggin is a balloon tethered above my shoulders.
Mom switches into full-on M.D. mode, picking up my arm by two fingers around my wrist, checking my pulse.
“Next you’ll cut off my leg with a rusty saw and no anesthesia,” I mutter, uncomfortable in her grip.
“Your historical medical references are hilarious,” she deadpans. “You should work as a re-enactor at the Relics. Did you have your Synthamil today?”
“Of course,” I grumble.
“And water? Sixteen ounces of each this morning?”
“God mom, yes.”
“Have you urinated?”
“Would you like a specimen?”
“Don’t get smart.” She drops my arm which flops to the couch. I feel like I’m made of Just-Like-Skin. “Your Synthamil has been precisely calibrated and if you don’t…”
“Jeez, mom.” I sit up and hold my head in my hands. “I know. I drank it all and I had water on schedule and I peed. Okay?”
“Well, you’re certainly grouchy,” she mutters.
I glare at her through my fingers as she clacks away and returns gently shaking a bottle of blue Synthamil with my name embossed in gold across the label. “Maybe we need to recalibrate. Your metabolism might have shifted.” She twists off the cap and hands me the liquid. “Maybe you’re having one last growth spurt.”
I roll my eyes at her before I take a swig. “I’m seventeen, not twelve.”
She shrugs. “It’s been known to happen. Sometimes people in their twenties grow a few more inches. Especially when they enter the Procreation Pool and their hormones surge.” She’s off again, clicking through the hall to her home office.
I chug the Synthamil then wipe the back of my hand across my mouth so I don’t have a blue moustache.
Mom returns a few minutes later with a patch and an antiseptic swab. “I’ll monitor you for twenty-four hours and see how everything is looking. Lift up your shirt.”
“I don’t want that on me.”
She tugs at the back of my shirt anyway. “It’s only for a day. It’ll give me more info than just your Gizmo, which you never have with you anyway.” She manages to expose my lower back. The swab is so cold it makes me jump. “Hold still. You won’t even know it’s there.” She peels the ultrathin two-inch patch off its backing and presses it firmly against my skin, rubbing around all of the edges to make sure it’s good and stuck. Then she takes her Gizmo out of her pocket and establishes a link with the patch.
“Doesn’t have a locator, does it?” I scratch at it.
She swats my hand away. “Don’t pick. You could break a circuit.” She checks the connection then slips her Gizmo into her pocket. “And it’s not an affront to your personal liberty. It only collects internal data.”
“As if that’s not personal?”
Mom’s eyes narrow and she frowns, which makes her look just like her mother.
“That’s your Nguyen face,” I tell her. She gives me the eyebrow. “For real, you look just like Grandma Grace when you’re mad at me.”
For my biology class, we’ve been mapping the genomes of our four grandparents, our parents, and ourselves in order to figure out where our traits come from. I’m convinced there must be a humorless gene that comes straight from my mother’s Vietnamese side because Grandma Grace is the most serious woman I’ve ever met, which is probably why she’s such a good hematologist. There’s nothing funny about blood.
Mom pushes off the couch. “I’d be happy to find a specialist to go over your data and make a recommendation.”
It’s an idle threat and we both know it. Specialists are the last resort, only called in when all the existing science has failed and the only thing left to try is some experimental treatment a doctor is hoping to patent as the latest break-through therapy. “As long as it’s Papa Peter,” I say.
This actually makes mom laugh. She looks like her father when she’s happy with his broad smile and bright eyes. My whole life, I’ve heard stories about what a gentle and sweet pediatrician he was and how he sacrificed part of his family’s rations for food and medicine to save starving children during the wars. That was a huge point of contention between my hard-nosed grandmother and my bleeding-heart grandfather that almost destroyed their family. My mother says it’s an example of an old-fashioned cultural divide—Asian versus African American. Since Papa’s black she claims he had a family history of looking out for the most vulnerable. But that never made much sense to me. I think Grandma and Papa are just different sorts of people no matter what their cultural backgrounds may have been.
“Papa Peter’s hugs and stickers won’t recalibrate your Synthamil formula if something’s off,” Mom says as she finishes tidying up the mail because she can’t stand anything unnecessary junking up our waves. “By the way, Gretchen sent you some VirtuShops,” she tells me. “You need new pants.”
“I have plenty of jeans and skirts.” I get off the couch and tug my miniskirt down around my thighs.
She gives me the eyebrow again. “Thalia, we discussed this. You can’t keep wearing old stuff like that.” She points to my corduroy mini. “What’s it made of, anyway?”
“A vintage natural fiber called cotton, thank you very much.”
She looks to the ceiling as if the solar lights will recharge her patience with me. “I know what cotton is, Thalia. You have an Interpersonal Classroom Meeting this week. You can’t wear Grandma Apple’s old clothes to an ICM. What will your instructors think?”
“Who cares what they think? Anyway it’s not a real class. More like four hours of product placement combined with a thinly veiled focus group, if you ask me. Not that anyone ever does.”
Mom shakes her head and sighs. “A, that’s not true. And B, your father and I care what your teachers think.”
“Teachers?” I snort.
“Thalia,” she starts, but I cut her off.
“Dad doesn’t mind,” I tell her and she doesn’t say anything because she knows it’s true. “I’d rather go real-time shopping anyway.”
“Should be called waste-of-time shopping,” Mom says and chuckles at her own dumb joke. “If you don’t like what I put in your box, then design your own.”
“But I don’t know what I want until I see it and touch it.”
She stops what she’s doing to look at me. “Seriously, what century are you from?” This is her favorite question. One she’s asked me since I was little and preferred to look at real books than have tablet time. “But if that’s how you want to do it, fine. Just do it. Get something decent and make a good personal impression.”
“I like the feel of cotton,” I tell her as I sit down to browse my message center on the main screen.
“Chemically, Cottynelle is virtually the same,” she says.
“Virtually,” I reiterate. “But not really.”
“Your clothes are grown from bacteria and yeast in a lab.”
“Enough.” She gives me a warning glance. “Why don’t you let Astrid cull the news for you?” she asks, motioning to how I’m manually going through headlines.
“That would necessitate finding my Gizmo.”
“You don’t know where it is?” She looks at me as if I’m missing an appendage.
“Around here somewhere.”
“You’re as bad as Grandma Apple.”
“How bad am I?” Grandma Apple bops up from the basement, her gray curls bouncing. She carries a ball of string and two pointy sticks.
“Never mind,” says Mom and goes back to her conversation with Gretchen.
“Gizmo,” I mouth to Grandma who twirls her finger in the air as if to say whoop-de-do.
I snicker, which makes my mom’s back straighten, although she pretends to ignore us as she pockets her Gizmo then announces, “I’m off to the lab again.”
“But it’s Friday,” says Grandma.
Mom glances up. “So?”
“Family time,” Grandma says hopefully, but I see her shoulders slumping in anticipation of defeat.
“Did you schedule it?” Mom asks.
“But Lily, it’s every Friday,” says Grandma.
“Well if you don’t schedule it…” Mom trails off. “It’s not hard, Rebecca.” Mom has a habit of speaking to Grandma as if she’s talking to a small child who doesn’t understand the great big scary Interweb. “Thalia or Max could teach you in two minutes. You just tell your PCA, what’s her name?”
“Annie,” Grandma says dryly.
“Just tell Annie one time to coordinate all our calendars with a repeating event. Then we’ll be synched up, and when Gretchen checks my daily calendar to generate my to-do list…”
“I know how to do it,” Grandma clarifies. “Just seems unnecessary.”
I blink off the main screen. “We can do family night without Mom,” I tell Grandma, hoping to avoid another awkward conversation about family life between the two of them.
Grandma smiles at me, but I see the tiredness around her eyes. “Of course, lovey.” She holds up the ball of string. “I’m going to teach you how to knit.”
I catch the tail end of my mom’s eye roll as she swings her black Silkese jacket around her shoulders. Before she leaves, she says, “Schedule family night. We’ll do it next week.”
“Sure thing,” I call after her, knowing full well that will never happen. “You, me, and Dad?” I ask Grandma after the door wheeshes closed.
“I doubt it,” she says, pointing to the flashing video-message indicator on the main screen with my dad’s network photo.
I accept and Dad pops up on the screen. He’s in his office, slouching at his desk, surrounded by gently buzzing blue walls. “Hey, you guys, sorry I can’t make family night. I’ve got to work late.” Then he sits up tall and smiles. “But wait until you see what we’re working on! It’s almost done and you’ll be the first to have it. Promise.” I close Dad’s message and ask Grandma what she thinks the surprise will be.
“A robotic head for when you’re tired of thinking for yourself.”
“The latest craze,” I tell her. “You should have been a designer.”
“Missed my calling, huh?”
“Oh well, not everyone can change the world one nanoprocessor at a time.”
We both giggle at our stupid jokes, mostly because no one else would appreciate them.
“Let’s go knit,” I say. “With these.” I hold up my hands and wave my fingers like my mom did earlier.
“Subversive,” Grandma says with a chuckle.
Since it’s just the two of us, Grandma Apple and I cozy up in her living room, which is in the basement of our house. I love her place with all the fluffy throw pillows, warm quilts, and soft worn rugs, the old-fashioned wooden furniture, and best of all—the books. Mom can’t stand to come down here. She says all the microbes in the natural fibers make her sneeze. Not that that should surprise anyone. Sometimes I think my mom would rather live in her lab where every surface is smooth, cold, hard, and antibacterial.
I curl up next to my grandma on the sofa with my feet tucked beneath a hand-crocheted blanket her mother made a hundred years ago on their family farm.
“Used to be you could get yarn made out of natural fibers like cotton or wool,” she tells me as she loops the slate-gray string, the same color and texture as her hair, around a knitting needle.
“What’s wool again?” I ask, trying to mimic her motions with my own ball of red yarn and silver needles.
“The hair from sheep. But there were lots of other animals that people used for yarn, too. Goats, alpacas, rabbits. Each one had its own texture, and some of it was so soft and warm, you wouldn’t believe it now. Real yarn was nothing like these synth fibers.” She frowns down at the rows she’s knitting.
“Which did you raise?” I ask.
“Goats,” she tells me for the millionth time, but I can never remember the difference between a goat and a sheep. “Not the woolly one that said baa. The ornery one that would eat anything.” She laughs at some memory I’ll never understand. “But ours ate mostly sweet hay and clover, so their milk was delicious. And the cheese! There was nothing better than fresh goat cheese. Except for warm bread to put it on.” She sighs. “Ahh, the smell of fresh-baked bread. I keep telling your father he should make an app for that! Then I’d have a reason to use my Gizmo.”
I chuckle, then we’re quiet for a few moments while she corrects my yarn. Once I get the hang of the knit stitch, I say, “Tell me about dinner again.”
Grandma draws in a deep breath. “Well,” she says, thinking back. “That was the real family time, you know. Not for everyone, I guess, but in our family, since we were farmers, we wanted to sit down together and enjoy the food we’d raised.”
“That was before the wars.”
“Yes, but even during the wars, we did the best we could from what little we were able to grow, even if it was just bitter greens and a few chicken eggs.”
“And you had lots of people who came to eat with you, right?”
“At first,” she says. “But when things got scarce, like everyone, we hid what we had.”
I shake my head. “I don’t want to hear that part. Tell me about when dinner was good.”
Grandma grins. “Alright.” She lays her knitting in her lap and thinks for a moment with her eyes closed. “I’ll tell you how to make a roasted chicken.”
Grandma takes her time, as if she’s back in a kitchen, preparing each ingredient. She tells me about melting butter in the microwave and pouring it over the chicken. Then sprinkling on salt and pepper and fresh herbs that grew right outside her back door in a little pot filled with rich dark dirt. She explains how her mother put the chicken in a pan with onions and carrots and potatoes dug from her garden then stuck it all in the oven for hours, only opening the door to brush the juices over the chicken’s skin every once in a while. I close my eyes when she talks about food and I try to imagine how it was. My mind drifts and blurs through vague images, but it all fades into words because I have no idea what she’s really talking about. And, to be honest, some of it sounds gross. Like the part about eating something dead.
“The fragrance of that roasting chicken would permeate the whole house, and you knew when it was done the skin would be brown and crispy and the meat would be tender and juicy.”
As she says this, a sound, like a yowling animal trapped beneath my rib cage, roils up from deep inside of me. “Oh my god!” I say, sitting up straight.
Grandma blinks at me.
“That keeps happening,” I tell her. “It’s so embarrassing! It happened the last time I was at a PlugIn with Yaz. Luckily most people had on their Earz so not too many heard. And the ones who did thought it was a weird ring tone.”
“It’s not funny!” I clutch myself around the middle as if that will stop the noise from coming out again. “This doesn’t happen to anyone else I know. Something’s wrong with me. I’m a freak.”
“I don’t know about that,” she says calmly. “It sounds like your stomach is growling.”
I must look horrified as I picture some rampant parasites in my guts, shrieking for blood.
Grandma lays her hand on my leg. “It’s just what used to happen when people were hungry. Our stomachs would growl like that.”
“For god’s sake, don’t tell Mom!” I almost shout.“She would never forgive me.”
Grandma snorts. “Even the best inoculations can’t fight the power of a good roasted chicken!”
“That makes no sense,” I tell her. “I don’t even know what a roasted chicken is.”
“But someplace deep inside, your brain does,” says Grandma. “And my description was so powerful that it woke up the eater in you for a moment. I mean, come on, human beings ate food for hundreds of thousands of years before the inoculations. It’s a normal, natural response, Thalia. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Easy for you to say. It’s not happening to you.”
“Oh, you’d be appalled by what noises we used to make when we ate. Burps and gurgles and farts!” she laughs. “Your grandfather Hector could belch his full name after a few beers.”
“Disgusting,” I say.
“Actually, a well-timed, rip-roaring fart could be quite funny, if you ask me.”
I shake my head. “Oh, Grandma.”
“Anyway, Thal, I wouldn’t worry too much about that noise from your tummy,” she says with a wink. “I’m sure it will go away.” She looks down at the square of material I’ve knit. “In the olden days, this would have been called a pot holder.”
“What’d you do with it?” I ask, trying to figure out any use for something so small.
“You used it to pick up hot pots so you didn’t burn your hand.”
“I always forget that food was warm.” I size up the thing in my palm then laugh at how absurd the world must seem to Grandma. “Now it’d have to be a Gizmo holder.”
“What a good idea!” My grandma, ever the resourceful one, takes it from me and folds it in half. “Add a strap and it would be perfect.”
From upstairs, I hear pinging on the main screen. “Ugh,” I groan. “Probably Mom sending more VirtuShops. She thinks I need new pants.”
Grandma frowns. “I love your little skirts and jeans.”
“Of course you do—they were yours.”
“When I wore them, they were just farm-girl clothes but you have such a wonderful independent sense of style.” The screen pings again. “Could be a message from your dad or a friend,” Grandma says. “You know it’s okay if you bring your Gizmo down here.”
“I like having one place with nothing yapping at me.”
Grandma nods, because more than anyone else, she gets me. Mom says that’s because I’m an old lady at heart, which I take as a compliment.
“I should probably go check it,” I tell her with a sigh.
“That’s fine, sweetie,” says Grandma. “Thanks for doing family time with me.”
“I’ll be back,” I say, but she just smiles down at the long chain of stitches gathering on her lap.
Upstairs, I see Yaz’s network photo blinking on the main screen, so I slide across the slick tile and accept the call. “Hey, what’s going on?”
“Where have you been?” she gripes. “I pinged you, like, a million times.”
“I was downstairs with my grandma. Are you on your PRC right now?” I point to her new HoverCam, which floats above her left shoulder.
“Not live,” she says. “Just recording. I’ll edit you out later.” She flicks the camera, which sends it on a lap around the room where half the contents of her closet are scattered on the floor.
“Did you change your eyes?” I ask, studying her face, trying to pinpoint what’s different today.
“Yes,” she says, blinking bright blues at me. “You likey likey?”
“It’s okay. I can’t remember your natural color anymore.”
“And my hair.” She fluffs the platinum blonde streaks that used to be two-tone blue and purple. “Hey.” She squints at me. “Are you on your family’s main screen?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“Why can’t you use your Gizmo like everybody else so we can have a private conversation?”
“I’m not incapable,” I tell her, quoting my grandmother. “Just uninterested.”
“But that means I’m being broadcast into your family’s living room for everyone to see.” She spins and strikes a pose in black bra and panties then shouts, “Hello, Apples!” I see a new temp-i-tat of a multicolored double helix stenciled around her midriff.
“First of all, I’m alone. And second, you’re the one who now streams every moment of your life onto your Personal Reality Channel,” I point out.
“Leave my PRC out of it,” says Yaz. “Besides that’s different. I choose when to expose myself based on what it’ll get me. Right now, I’m just exposed.” She dramatically wraps her arms across her body, feigning modesty.
“Like you care,” I say with a laugh.
“That’s actually why I’m calling,” she says as she goes back to picking through clothes. “I got a new product placement—if I can find it—and I want to wear it while I broadcast from a PlugIn. Come with me?”
“Not a PlugIn again.” I slouch down and sigh.
She stands, feet wide, hands on hips, eyes boring twin holes in my forehead. “You won’t go to the Spalon.”
“You don’t like EntertainArenas .”
“You can’t stand TopiClubs.”
She snickers. “The only thing old hat is your impossibly outdated lingo, Miss Apple.”
“Got it from my grandma,” I brag.
“No!” She widens her eyes in mock surprise.
“Fo’ shizzle,” I tell her, which reduces her to a fit of giggles.
“You did not just say that.”
“Straight from the Relics,” I admit. “We could go there and watch old 2-D movies.”
“Those things give me a headache. Anyway, can’t we do something relevant to our own demographic?”
“You only think those things are relevant because your algorithm says you’ll like them.”
“No, Thalia,” Yaz says slowly, like I’m an idiot. “My algorithm says I’ll like Spalons and EntertainArenas and PlugIns because I do. Most people our age do.”
“Well, there’s the problem,” I tell her. “I don’t like most people our age, so…”
“You don’t give them a chance.”
I slump down further on the stool. “They think I’m weird.”
“That’s because you are weird,” she says.
I ignore her and lean close to the Eye. “Have you ever thought you might like something the algorithm doesn’t even know about?”
“Like what?” she asks with a snort. “Reading books?”
That cracks me up.
“Come on, Thal,” Yaz whines. “I’m sick of being home. My mom is driving me bonkers, and I want to get this product placement going, and there’s a new game that just launched and…”
I cross my arms and stare at her. “Give me one good reason I won’t be bored off my ass there.”
“It’s new! Jilly, send Thalia info about PlugIn 42,” she tells her cyber assistant. A live video feed from the PlugIn pops up on the corner of my screen. I glance at it, see nothing of interest, and command it to close.
Sensing my lack of enthusiasm, Yaz says, “It’s in the West Loop. You’ll like that.”
I sit up a bit because she’s piqued my interest. “I thought it was just a bunch of abandoned buildings around there.”
Yaz plucks items of clothing from her pile and tosses them over her shoulder as she says, “Isn’t that what you like? Old abandoned crap that nobody cares about anymore?”
“You make it sound like a bad thing.”
“I heard it was a retail area. Restaurant equipment and textiles or something. You could probably find lots of weird stuff. Oh, here it is!” She slides her legs into a black jumpsuit then stands and zips it from ankle to neck. “It’s made from recycled inner tubes.” She steps back and models her outfit for the camera. “How do I look?”
“Tired.” I snort. “Get it? Tired? Like you’re made from tires!”
“Really?” she says, but I can see that she’s trying not to grin.
“Okay, not my best material,” I admit.
“Just come with me, would you? Maybe you’ll like this one.”
Yaz siddles up to the HoverCam and cradles it in her palm. “Thalia, my little kilobyte, if you never leave the confines of your home, how can we have any fun?”
“I have fun,” I say.
She swats her camera away. “By text chatting with a bunch of cyber ninja freakazoids? You guys don’t even use video.”
“That’s to protect our privacy and anyway the Dynasaurs are not freakazoids,” I say, but then I reconsider. “Okay, so a lot of them are pretty strange. But they’re my friends.”
She rolls her eyes. “Friends are supposed to be fun, Thal. Look it up. It’s part of the definition. Which is why I…” Yaz does a goofy dance in the middle of her room. “Am the best friend there ever was!”
I can’t help but laugh. Yaz has always been amusing if nothing else. “That may be true, but we have a different kind of fun in our little cyber group.”
She drops her arms. “No you don’t. All the Dynasaurs do is talk about how great things used to be and how everything sucks now, then they try to figure out how to break stuff so the rest of us can’t have fun either.”
“There’s more to it than that,” I argue, but only halfheartedly because basically she’s right.
Yaz shoves some stuff in her bag and says, “Anyway, would you just come with me? Hack the PlugIn security if it makes you happy.” Then she looks at me forlorn. “Please? I don’t want to go alone.”
“Okay, alright, save it.” Our friendship has been the same since we met in toddler social time, where she constantly dragged me away from dismantling toys in a corner so she would have someone beside her. Plus, at heart, I think she believes she’s doing me a favor. That someday I’ll actually like something she drags me to. And sometimes I have to begrudgingly admit that I do enjoy myself, which is probably why I eventually give in. “Fine,” I say, acting way more annoyed than I am. “I’ll go with you. But it better be interesting.”
“Oh goody!” she squeals and dances. Then she stops and stares at me for a moment. “And try to wear something less embarrassing.”
“Hey!” I protest but she disconnects, leaving me yelling at a blank screen.
In my bedroom, I command the screen into a mirror and study my reflection, wondering if Yaz and my mom could be right about my clothes. They think I should be embarrassed by the way I dress because it’s different, but the truth is, I don’t want to look like everybody else. Especially when the rest of me is totally ordinary. My skin isn’t dark or light, just plain warm brown. My hair isn’t straight or curly, just long dark brown waves over my shoulders. I have Grandma Grace’s narrow eyes, but mine are green like Grandma Apple’s. And when I’m happy, I have Papa Peter’s big smile just like my mom. But my chin with its little cleft and the dimple on my left cheek come from my dad, which Grandma Apple says is a carbon copy of my other grandfather, Hector, the only one in my family who didn’t make it through the wars.
I could cut my hair into some asymmetrical chop like other girls my age. Change my eyes or my skin or get some body art. But I’m sick of the holes and implants, and ever-fading temp-i-tats everyone is obsessed with. My body’s not a screen. Beside, the inocs are bad enough. I don’t want anybody else poking me to rearrange my genetic makeup. Plus, the ways kids my age try to distinguish themselves just makes them look more alike to me.
Another tiny yawp burbles up from my stomach. I wrap my arms around my belly and press my lips closed to try to stop it, but I can’t. It’s like a speedboat motoring up my alimentary canal with noise from the engine echoing off my inner organs. My skirt isn’t the thing that’s going to embarrass me, so why should I bother changing clothes?
I turn off the mirror and figure I better find my Gizmo if I’m going to leave the house. “Astrid, wake up,” I command since I know it’s buried somewhere in my room. Within two seconds, the muffled voice of my PCA is begging for attention. I yank at the tangles of my comforter and clothes piled on my bed until my Gizmo drops to the floor and Astrid declares, “Sixteen new items!” while persistently flashing her screen. I don’t totally get the draw of a twenty-four-hour personal cyber assistant. To me they’re just nanotech with personalities more artificial than most humans. Which is why I reprogrammed mine to speak only when spoken to.
“Show messages,” I command. Astrid pulls up my message center and runs through new assignments for biochem, lit, and recent history (which I tell her to save for later) and a bunch of crap, especially Mom’s VirtuShops which I run through so I can get rid of them.
“Lame,” I mutter when Astrid chirps, “You’d look great in these!” and flashes pix of me digitally modeling a pair of navy blue PolyVisq pants. “Did you lose weight?” she coos over my virtual self in slick red ElastiVinyl leggings. As if I would be caught dead in those. And the gaggiest of all: “Girl, those make your butt look scrumptious!” she says about my pixilated rear end in purple Teflon trousers. “Delete! Delete! Delete!” I command. When that’s done, I tell Astrid to go to sleep.
It’s not that I hate technology, just the kind that never leaves you alone. Like Yaz’s new HoverCam. So, as soon as Astrid’s happily snoozing wavy gray lines across my Gizmo screen, I switch to a stealth server so I can log on to the Dynasaur network using my hacker name HectorProtector.
My dad is the one who showed me how to access these private, hidden channels without being traced. When I was twelve, he took me to an electronics graveyard, where I stood in disbelief at the mountain of motherboards, cascade of keyboards, and sea of screens. We picked through the surprisingly well-organized piles of digital detritus until we had everything we needed to build an old-fashioned homemade tablet from scratch, which dad called a jalopy because it reminded him of the beat-up old cars that guys like his great grandfather built and raced way back in the 1950s. Next, Dad showed me how to access the Dynasaurs chat room so I could take my jalopyout for a spin without being traced. When I asked him why he was showing me how to talk to the enemies of One World, he said he wanted me to understand that One World’s appearance of total market domination was only as good as everyone’s acceptance.
These are the skeptics, he told me. The ones who will question the system and keep it honest if it becomes corrupt.
If One World wants complete freedom on the Web so they can dominate the global marketplace, then they have to let everyone else have access, too. Which is why it’s legal for the Dynasaurs to exist, even if what they do sometimes is against the law. Their existence is a prime example of why Libertarianism works, Dad told me. If there were no outlets for the skeptics One World would be perceived as a corporate dictator and more people might rebel. It just so happens, One World is very good at distracting most people from questioning the system by keeping everyone’s belly full and brain entertained. Except for the Dynasaurs. Their greatest source of entertainment is throwing wrenches in One World systems. And that means people like my dad are continually trying to outsmart the Dynasaurs by creating better cyber security. Honestly, I think my dad likes the elaborate chess game he’s playing with these guys more than he likes making new products.
Now when I log on to the Dynasaur network, I don’t use a jalopy like I used to. Instead, I figured out how to crack the operating system of my Gizmo and reconfigured it to hop from stealth server to stealth server all over the world. So, within seconds of logging on, I’m having untraceable conversation with my pal AnonyGal.
Hey HP was that you who pranked the ProPool Meet-Up Site last wk?
Unlike a lot of hackers, I work alone and I don’t leave signatures. This is a point of contention among some Dynasaurs who think that not signing your work is cowardly. I think those people get some weird kind of rush off the cat-and-mouse game they play with cyber security. Constantly changing servers, wiping cyber lives clean, and re-creating online identities seems like a lot of rigmarole for a little infamy. Personally, I’d rather stay under the One World radar, but I don’t mind recognition in the Dynasaur forum every now and again, depending on who’s asking. And since AnonyGal has been around on the chatboards for a long time, I feel safe texting back.
What makes you think it was me?
AG writes, Had all the hallmarks of an HP smack. Clean, elegant, and hilarious.
I never thought about my pranks having personality, but AG is kind of right. The hack was super simple but had big results. I found a back door in the Procreation Pool Meet-Up Site system, then changed a few lines of the algorithm so that instead of being paired up with someone who shares the majority of your interests, you’d get a request from someone who was completely different. I write, Grandma always said that opposites attract.
AG sends me a smiley face with the message, Wish I could have been a spybot on some of those dates!
The thing is, I wasn’t trying to be unkind. I really do think it’s more interesting to meet someone who is different than yourself and I’d like to believe that maybe my hack made at least one match in digital heaven before my work was undone by security agents.
As I browse around the general topix board, I see that earlier tonight AnonyGal posted a call to action:
Anybody see the new product launches in this weeks’ ICM dox? Looks like fruit ripe for the picking? Who’s in?
I haven’t bothered to look at my ICM dox—I never do—and I don’t like to join group hacks where people band together to find loopholes and back doors in the code of new products, so they can sabotage them before the launch. Some of the time it works but most of the time One World finds and fixes the problems before the Dynasaurs act. I respect how AnonyGal works, though. She’s a master at delegating tasks to find holes in One World code. Basically, the reverse of how I work, which is probably why I like her. That and the fact that there are very few girl hackers my age.
I figure she must be young because doesn’t she sign off like the old-timers with the Svalbard symbol—a tiny sprout emerging from a seed above the word Remember. For the longest time I didn’t know what I was looking at when I’d see that symbol. To me, it looked like a weird alien fetus escaping from a pod. But then my dad explained the symbol and told me that it’s in honor of the Svalbard Rebellion, which happened after the last remaining seed vault near the Arctic Circle went belly up. World governments fought long and hard over who would control the seed vault until One World swooped in and promised to feed any population that capitulated to One World controlling their food supply, including the vault. One by one the governments agreed to let One World take over in order to save their starving masses.
Then twelve years ago, there was a rumor that One World destroyed the vault and all its contents, which sparked a rebellion. Of course, that ended badly when One World retaliated against the protesters, which drove the movement underground. My dad says lots of people who took part in the rebellion have a tattoo of the symbol somewhere on their bodies. Since lots of older members in the chat rooms use the symbol in their signatures, I assume the old-time Dynasaurs are a legacy of that rebellion.
Then there are the newbies like me and AnonyGal. No tattoos and sign-off symbols for us. Just some girls looking for a place to hack in peace. I bet AnonyGal never worries about what she wears, either. I finish cruising the chats, and since there’s nothing else of interest going on, I log off for now and get ready to meet Yaz.
Before I leave the house, I pop into the basement to say good-bye to Grandma.
“Heading out?” she asks.
“Yaz talked me into going to a PlugIn,” I tell her, feeling a little bad for abandoning her.
But Grandma smiles brightly and says, “Good! You should spend more time with people your age.”
“I have no idea why people go to those things,” I admit. “Anything you can do there, you can do at home.”
“They’re like restaurants or coffee shops were for my generation,” Grandma says. “You could make the same stuff at home, but sometimes it was nice to go out and be around other people.”
“If you say so.”
“I made you something.” She holds out my red pot holder transformed into a Gizmo-sized pouch with a long gray strap.
“This is great!” I grab it and slip it diagonally across my body. “Look, it’s perfect!” I tuck my sleeping Gizmo inside.
“One of a kind, just like you, my dear.”
I rub the soft fibers between my fingers. “People used to make stuff all the time, didn’t they?”
Grandma nods. “Mostly because they had to, but sometimes just for the sake of art.”
“Art,” I say, relishing the word. “Sounds fun.”
“It was,” she says. “But your generation finds their own ways to have fun, don’t you?”
“According to Yaz, we do.” My stomach makes the weird yodelly sound again. I look at my grandma who’s trying not to laugh as I clutch my belly. “Do you miss it?” I ask her.
“Miss what, honey?”
“You know, eating, cooking. Food, I guess.” The rumbling in my stomach threatens like the first rolls of distant thunder.
“Well, as your mother says, foodless nutrition is for the greater good.” Grandma gives a little shrug. “So it’s silly to pine away for something we can’t all have. But between me and you?” She holds my gaze for a moment, then she whispers, “Yes, I do.”
I hesitate by the door, my stomach gnawing at itself as if groping for something it can’t quite reach. “If you could eat anything at all,” I ask my Grandmother. “What would it be?”
She thinks for a moment. “That’s a hard question,” she says. “Sort of like asking a mother to pick a favorite child, but…” She nibbles on the side of her lip. “I suppose if I had to choose, I would say an apple.”
“An apple?” I ask with a laugh. “Like us?”
“No,” she says. “The real thing. A perfect, red, round, crisp, tart apple.”
I lean down and hug my grandmother good-bye. I know that kind of interpersonal touch is weird and anachronistic, but it’s something that she and I like to do. She says it reminds her of the past, and being held by her makes me feel good in a way I can’t quite explain. Almost like I’m a little kid again and nothing in the world can hurt me.
“Thank you, honey,” she says, patting me on the back. “Have fun and be careful.”