Momentarily, Careeno Sharp looked up from the heart he was transplanting to open the message bouncing in the corner of his i. Normally he would wait at least until a stopping point in the surgery, but the icon was the yellow hippo symbolizing his daughter and he knew he wouldn’t stop wondering what witty message she’d sent him until he saw it.
Camping out with the Outsiders for history class this wknd. Hope I don’t come back missing an arm or leg – apparently they eat the prettiest females first when times are thin!!:)
A smile slipped onto Dr. Sharp’s face like cream pouring into coffee – his first smile all day. His assistant, Dr. Guyser, frowned. “You wouldn’t have your i turned on now, would you, Dr. Sharp?”
Careeno winked to stow the message in his files. “Of course not, Dr. Guyser. Now hand me that scalpel – I mean… you know. The thingy.”
Dr. Guyser sighed, probably wondering why he wasn’t head heart surgeon of the local survival center by now. Silently he reached for the ventricle molder.
As Careeno ate his pizza in the dark homesphere, he and Zyra bantered back and forth. They talked about the idiocy of matrimony, the hilarity of this week’s promoted product (a diaper that was supposed to predict soiling fifteen minutes in advance, as well as increasing the wearer’s earning potential later in life), and the food Zyra had eaten with the Outsiders. Apparently their food came from the ground, was cooked in stone ovens, and tasted like dirt.
But not in a bad way, Zyra qualified. I mean, it’s like communing with the earth in the deepest way by eating of her flesh. And when I die, I’ll feed nature, replacing the nutrients I used today.
Careeno had to read that message twice to be sure his i wasn’t playing a trick on him. Then a reply zipped from his brain to the letterbox. He rolled his i to send it off, not bothering to check for typos.
Zyra. My baby. Modern science is changing so fast by the time you graduate upper school, the d-word will no longer be a thing. At least, not for us Insiders.
For the next hour, Careeno sat at the table, ignoring the half-eaten slice of pizza on his plate, not seeing the sunset behind the mathematical skyline of New Khromium. His regular eye was closed so he could focus entirely on his i, where he expected to see a bouncing yellow hippo any second now. It wasn’t until the homesphere announced television time that it hit Careeno his daughter wasn’t speaking to him.
Was it something I said? he wondered, then quickly deleted the words from his letterbox. He flipped a switch on the wall, and the kitchen table collapsed into a widescreen television where he could watch his favorite vampire comedy show. Soon he was lost in the world of poor undead Violetta and her clueless boyfriend Marx, and for once his program wasn’t interrupted by a message.
Careeno Sharp trudged through his weekend feeling just a little heavier than usual. It was just a little more of a struggle to lift his body like a fossil trapped in tar in his bed in the morning, and his coffee tasted just a little more like his last toxic kiss with his wife, even though he used the good cream. It wasn’t until Sunday around noon that Careeno realized he hadn’t received a single message from his daughter since Friday evening. Normally, if an hour elapsed with no message, he would be surprised. He couldn’t remember if he was angry with Zyra or vice versa, let alone why.
As he was sorting through the advertisements and greetings from friends that had appeared in his letterceptacle over the past few minutes, a system emergency message popped up, blocking his view. He tried to swipe it to the ignore pile, but it wouldn’t budge, so he sighed and read it:
The maximum number of standard deviations has passed since the last message you received from Sharp, Zyra. Our computers have concluded that Sharp, Zyra has died. Would you like to enable replacement messaging? This low-charge, high-value service will automatically send you messages at regular intervals with content based on Sharp, Zyra‘s messaging history. Our scientists and linguists have teamed up to make this product a realistic substitute for human contact.
At the bottom of the box were two buttons: Enable Replacement Messaging and No, Thanks. Careeno stared at his two options for a moment, not seeing words or letters but meaningless shapes superimposed on rectangles the color of a rat’s brain. He’d dissected that rat in medical school to one day prevent strangers from dying. But he’d been powerless to protect his own daughter from the perils of Outside.
With a determined wink, Careeno selected Enable Replacement Messaging. Within a few seconds, that giddy yellow hippo was bobbing up and down in the corner of his i once again. The doctor took in a shaky breath, then opened the message.
Hi dad! Sorry about the long silence – i’ve been busy making sure the Outsiders don’t try to bite off one of my arms! It’s really pretty out here – how come you never took me for a vacation or something?!? Whatev – I forgive you. C U soon!
Careeno read the sentences over and over. As much as the syntax resembled his daughter’s, as clearly as the punctuation marks rang with her virtual voice, as contextually accurate as the content was, he forced himself to remember it was just a machine, and he would not see his daughter soon. Then he read the message again. After a few more repetitions, he gave up on remembering the details about the original source. The words became a prayer that carried him through the rest of the week.
Dr. Sharp broke his life-streak that June. He’d gone five years without losing a patient, but this 150-year-old man’s heart was so old as to not be compatible with the technology used at the survival center. Sharp and Guyser tried to just wing it, using whatever scrap materials they could find in the discard bin, but after six hours of nerve-wracking work the official presider stopped over to declare Wendell Clark dead.
That evening, Dr. Sharp got home late, as he had had to fill out all the electronic forms related to billing and corpse disposal arrangements. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but couldn’t imagine digging into the leftover casserole from last night – all he could see in his mind’s eye was the mangled heart throbbing erratically in the rib cage of the man he’d joked with about a recent soccer game that very morning.
So Careeno collapsed on the kitchen table – the homesphere happened to be in meal mode, and he didn’t have the gumption to flip the switch – and he stared up at the domed ceiling, eyes tracing the shapes of a three-year-old Zyra’s hands in green paint. The day he’d held her up, she’d been so small he must have been a giant, a magical portal to another dimension. Her mother was also there at the time, laughing the way she did when she was in love. That was two years before Careeno had gotten his i, which was the year his wife had left (“You’re married to that thing in your cornea now,” she’d spat as she packed her bags), two years before the first day he’d brought Zyra to school and she’d held his hand and told him not to worry, she’d be all right. Careeno stood on the table, reaching up to trace the lines of the handprints formed of his DNA, and that of the woman he’d loved at the time, to feel the ripples in the paint that predicted his daughter’s lifeline, all the children she was going to bring into the world.
A hippo appeared in the corner of Careeno’s i. He opened the message like a starved hyena digging into a carcass.
How ya doin’ daddy? Want to meet me at Gilberto’s Tacos tomorrow night (your treat) ?
Careeno took a deep breath, but the chemically-controlled air of his homesphere wasn’t enough to fill his lungs, and he felt suffocation enveloping his skull. No matter, he thought as he hopped to the floor and slowly walked over to switch the homesphere to sleep mode. Tomorrow night I’ll see Zyra and everything will be better.
Rough shaking, the firm hands of a girl who’d worked with wood, jolted Careeno out of the idream he’d chosen for that night. He rolled onto his side to squint at the round window. The sun was barely beginning to creep out from behind the black buildings. Before he could close his eyes again, that face appeared, hovering over him, attached to a neck attached to shoulders, a torso wearing a slightly more asymmetrical version of the pink shirt she’d been wearing the last time he saw her in person.
Careeno let loose a little scream he wouldn’t want his coworkers to hear, then sat bolt upright, scrambling to the side of his tiny bed as far as possible from this apparition. Emergency and error messages multiplied like bacteria in his i, warning him that this perception of light hitting matter was 100% similar to Sharp, Zyra, who was dead, and therefore the world was malfunctioning. Error. Error. Error.
“I came back to see if you wanted to come live with me,” Zyra said softly. Leaning over her father’s bed, she took his hand.
He squirmed away like a child loathe to get a shot. “You’re not real,” he croaked, desperately trying to blink away the error messages in his i, to blink away this vision in his eye of the girl whose words had cheered him for months after her smile had ceased to do so. But she stayed in the center of his field of vision, now becoming distorted and grainy as one final error message superimposed itself in front of all the others: Your i is dead. Prepare for blindness. Don’t forget to preorder your replacement!
“No!” Careeno screamed aloud. “She can’t be dead!”
Despite his protests, within a few moments the world of neon icons and pop-up ads for Genetically-Enhanced Soda disappeared, leaving only blackness where Careeno’s right eye had been once upon a time.
Through his left, he could clearly see the form of his daughter, radiant in the aurora as she chasséed around the side of his bed to throw her arms around his neck. He wrapped his arms around her warm body, breathing into the gentle rise and fall of her back, her heart beating against his chest like a steady drum. She smelled like things he’d never smelled before, and the gesture was one typical New Khromiumans didn’t perform often – there seemed no point, when one could express one’s love more specifically in a message. But despite the strangeness, Careeno felt like he’d returned home, though he hadn’t moved. Though he was now without an i, he felt he could see for the first time in thirteen years.
Without breaking their embrace, Zyra said, “They collect discarded eyes from Inside at the border. If you become an Outsider, they can give you your real eye back. Then we can picnic on the sea-cliffs together and talk out loud and watch the seasons change.”
No i to consult for his contacts’ opinions, no instantly accessible web to tell him what to do. For the first time in thirteen years, Careeno Sharp made a decision.
“Take me Outside,” he uttered, and tears were coursing like mighty rivers from all three eyes, and he was dancing around the kitchen with his daughter, and in a sudden rush of energy he lifted her in his arms so she could touch the ceiling of their tiny homesphere for the last time.
Image credits in order of appearance:
“Shinjuku night view” by mrhayata from Tokyo, Japan – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shinjuku_night_view.jpg#/media/File:Shinjuku_night_view.jpg
By Amy March from Ankara, Turkey [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“Beinisvord, westcoast of suduroy, faroe islands”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beinisvord,_westcoast_of_suduroy,_faroe_islands.JPG#/media/File:Beinisvord,_westcoast_of_suduroy,_faroe_islands.JPG