Fiction by Jeff Harrell
“Dammit, where the hell are my keys?” Kat muttered under her breath. She was late. She was incredibly, impossibly late.
The ubiquitous words streamed past in the corner of her hud.
msalice: check ur panties
macien: u crazie, u a perv
mik: there in the bathroom by the sink
msalice: what u mean i lose my keys in my panties allatime
Why she’d left her keys by the sink, Kat would never know. If she wanted to find out, she could go back later and review the feed archive. But she knew she probably wouldn’t. It was just one of those things.
“Thanks, Micky,” she whispered, before flying out the door.
By the time she got across campus, she was so late it wasn’t worth going to her first class. Professor Lewis’s glare was intense enough to cause actual physical harm, and she was on thin enough ice with him already.
Besides, she could just get the feed off somebody’s blog later.
She got a coffee at the stand in the quad and staked out a bench by the fountain to have a smoke and kill the half hour before her next class.
mik: did u remember ur keys?
She laughed. “Yes, Mickey,” she whispered just loudly enough to be heard by the mic in the earpiece of her hud. “Thanks for lookin’ out for me.”
mik: n e time, babe
She flipped through her feeds as she sipped her coffee, occasionally glancing over at her chat window, but mostly ignoring it. Once in a while Håkon would chime in with something. That was always entertaining. He was a poor kid from a little village about a hundred miles outside Bergen. He couldn’t afford very good machine translation. He was usually understandable, more or less, but sometimes his contributions came out sounding like existentialist poems written by self-obsessed teenagers.
håkon: Sun am so blonde there! It is the calculates here above today. Above winter schism in Ibiza I reclined. Sun forgets me and disappointed all of we are.
cal4l: lol hakon
håkon: Why doest thou lol? It is the great crying.
cal4l: hakon u crazee
Flip. Mario was on a plane, bound for god knows where. He turned his head to look out the window and Kat saw crystal-clear stars crawling across a purple sky. Flip. Joio was typing something on his ancient laptop, the screen blurred out. Bidness. Boring. Flip. Calli was having sex. Again. Ceiling tiles and the top of somebody’s head. Kat flipped to Alex’s feed and got a good look at Calli’s oscillating tits.
The clock in the corner of her hud blinked 10:58. She stubbed out her cigarette.
“A couple of announcements.” Mueller tossed a stylus back and forth between his hands as he read the day’s trivia off of his hud. Wednesday’s section is postponed, see Lev after class for details. Midterm papers are still due a week from Friday, text only, no casts. A few groans at that one.
“Okay,” the professor said, dropping his hud on the table and turning toward the big liveboard. “If we can keep on track, today we should finish our discussion of privacy.” He scrawled the word in the middle of the liveboard and drew a big circle around it. “Who wants to define privacy for me?”
Front-row kid raised his hand. Front-row kid always raised his hand. Mueller glanced around the hall to see if anybody else was even paying attention, then pointed half-heartedly at front-row kid. The phased array mics in the ceiling swiveled their electronic attention to him.
“Privacy was the state or condition of being free from observation by other people,” said front-row kid, his words popping into existence on the big liveboard like movie subtitles.
Mueller made a dismissive gesture. “Right out of the text,” he said, “word for word. Can’t argue with that.” He swiped across the liveboard and front-row kid’s kissass definition vanished with a cartoon poof.
“But what does that mean? Anybody?” His eyes scanned the hall. “Miss Patel?”
A mousy freshman in the fifth row tried to disappear into her seat, but it was too late. She cleared her throat. “It’s … uh. It’s like … being left out on purpose.”
Words glowed on the liveboard: being left out on purpose.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Mueller said, drawing a circle around the last two words.
Kat’s chat window blinked.
cal4l: bet she’s wild in the sack
msalice: its true we shy girls try harder
“Privacy,” Mueller said in his this-will-be-on-the-exam voice, “is the state of being deliberately isolated from social interaction.” He turned back to the liveboard and double-underlined the word “deliberately.” Then he drew a box around it just to make the point.
“You know this if you did the reading,” Mueller said, “but not that long ago, maybe during your grandparents’ lifetimes, maybe your great-grandparents’, there were countries where privacy was considered a civil right.”
A murmur went through the hall. Kat was part of it. She hadn’t done the reading. Kat hardly ever did the reading.
“Name me some civil rights,” Mueller said. “Anybody.”
“Freedom of belief,” called out somebody from the back of the room, probably a TA trying to prime the pump.
“Good,” Mueller said as that bullet point popped up on the liveboard.
“Freedom of expression,” said somebody else.
“Okay, good,” Mueller said again. “What else?”
“Freedom of communication,” said a kid on the other side of the hall.
“Excellent,” said Mueller. “One more?”
“Freedom of movement,” said the guy on Kat’s left. He was kinda cute. A little nerdy, but cute.
“All right,” Mueller said. “We could keep going, but those are the big ones.” He pointed at the bulleted list on the liveboard. “What do those four things have in common?”
“They’re all guaranteed in the Second Compact,” said front-row kid.
Mueller cracked a smile. “Okay, that’s true. But that’s not what I was going for. What I mean is, what is it about those things that made them important enough to write into the Second Compact?”
Nobody said anything. A few suck-ups were finger-typing surreptitiously, trying to get an answer out of a chat window.
“Freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of communication, freedom of movement,” Mueller said, ticking them off with his stylus. “What do those four things all have in common?”
Without really meaning to, Kat raised her hand. Mueller pointed at her. “Miss Hatori?”
“They’re all things we’re not allowed to stop each from doing?”
“Exactly!” exclaimed Mueller, loud enough to startle a couple of dozers.
elswirt: shes a genious!
håkon: My private parts have become swollen.
msalice: well said, hakon
“That’s exactly right. These four things, and the rest of the civil rights enumerated by the Founders, are things that the people cannot legally stop each other from doing.”
miles: Good answer, Kat.
Miles? Who was Miles? She ticked his name with a flick of her finger and a feed window popped up. She saw herself, sitting slumped in her seat and biting her thumbnail. Ohh. Miles was the guy. The cute nerdy guy. She glanced his way and saw herself smile in the feed window on her hud.
msalice: kat and miles sittin in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g
mik: thats not funny, shut up
Mueller was still in animated mid-lecture.
“So how does privacy fit into that framework?”
There was a long silence, then Miles spoke up. “It doesn’t,” he said.
Mueller started juggling his stylus again. “Go on.”
Miles sat up straight in his chair. “Okay, um,” he stammered, knowing he was going out live over about three hundred separate feeds. “If I’ve got all those rights … if I’ve got the freedom of communication, say, then how can you have privacy? How can I be free to communicate if you won’t let me communicate with you?”
Mueller gave one of his trademark half-smiles. “Okay, that’s good. That’s a start. Let’s talk about the freedom of belief for a second. Somebody define it for me.”
Front-row kid again: “The citizens shall make no law restricting the formation of conviction or opinion, and shall not discriminate against one another based on belief.”
“Okay, fine,” Mueller said, “but again, what does that mean?” Nobody spoke up. “We can all think whatever we want, right? We’re free to form opinions.” He underlined form opinions as the words appeared on the liveboard. “In order to form opinions, we need facts. We need to observe things. I can’t form an opinion about you” — Mueller pointed to a kid at random — “if I can’t see you. So if you deliberately cut yourself off from society, if you retreat behind this giant wall they used to call privacy, then you’re depriving me of my right to think my own thoughts.”
He let that sink in for a minute. The hall was filled with a soft swishing sound as students finger-typed in the air, taking notes or annotating their feeds or just chatting.
Mueller went on. “Calling privacy a civil right raised a lot of problems,” he said. “Show of hands. How many of you have ever cheated on a test?”
No hands went up.
“How many of you have ever went someplace and then lied about it?”
No hands went up.
“How many of you have ever cheated on your boyfriend or girlfriend.”
Mueller grinned. “Why not?” he asked.
“‘Cause we’d get caught!” Miles said like it was the dumbest question in the world. Everybody laughed, Mueller included.
“That’s right,” he said. “Because you’ve all got blogs, right” — a murmur of assent — “and you’re all sharing your lives with everybody you know, all the time. Cameras in your huds, microphones by your ears, your whole lives going out twenty-four hours a day over your own personal feeds. No matter what you do, somebody’s going to see it. Somebody’s watching you all the time. Every minute. Maybe your parents. Maybe your teachers. Maybe even me,” Mueller said with a devilish grin that made the students crack up.
Maybe even a poor kid from Bergen, Kat thought.
“Why do we do it?” Mueller asked.
“Because it’s fun,” said a blonde in the fifth row with stripper hair and a stripper name. Candi, Lexi, Savannah … something. Kat could never remember.
“Why is it fun?” Mueller asked.
“It’s fun to chat with my friends,” said stripper-name girl, “and to keep up with what they’re doing, and to let them know what I’m doing and stuff.”
“Don’t you have any secrets?” Mueller asked.
Stripper-name girl thought about that for a long beat. Then: “Like what?”
Mueller smiled. “That right there,” he said, pointing at stripper-name-girl and making her slide down in her seat, “is transformational sociology in a nutshell. A hundred and fifty years ago, attitudes toward personal secrets were completely different from those we hold today. Everybody had secrets: big secrets, little secrets. And people valued them so highly that they made privacy a legal right, so they could protect their secrets from each other.”
Mueller paused for dramatic effect. “In essence,” he said, “everyone was lying to each other all the time.”
He glanced at his watch. “Okay, next time we’ll talk about the macro-scale consequences of the legal institution of socio-isolationism and how they led to the founding of the Second Compact.”
At that moment the bell chimed. Students started getting out of their seats. “Read chapters nine and eleven in Minkowski over the weekend. Chapter ten is optional, but I strongly recommend you at least skim it, because you’ll need the background for our section on post-scarcity economics.”
Hardly anyone heard the last part.
Kat spent a lot of time Friday afternoon watching Miles’ feed. She blew off her afternoon applied holographics class to sunbathe in the quad and watch Miles sit through his post-postmodern ethics seminar, trying to see whether she could get him to laugh. One unbelievably lame joke about Klein and Aurbest in a leaking rowboat arguing about whose dick to use to plug the hole finally did the trick, and one of the TAs finally had to come over and shush him.
miles: You got me in trouble. Are you happy now?
miles: Don’t worry, I’ll get you back.
katohato: u promise?
miles: Count on it.
katohato: how about tonite? roommate’s out of town. u can get me back all night long
Miles didn’t say anything for a couple of minutes.
katohato: u still there? hellooo?
miles: I really like you, Kat. I really do. But I’m seeing somebody.
katohato: lol, invite her along!
miles: Ha ha. I’m serious. If things were different, I’d be there in like two minutes. But we’re exclusive, so I can’t.
Suddenly the day seemed a lot less sunny.
katohato: can i still flirt w/ u?
miles: I’d rather you didn’t.
katohato: shit, u don’t like me that way. i feel like a shithead
miles: No, listen, you’re taking it all wrong. I don’t want you to flirt with me because I do like you that way. I just can’t do anything about it.
katohato: i understand
miles: Do you really?
katohato: sure, totally. i gotta go. chat me l8r.
Kat closed the window without waiting for a reply.
Kat’s chat window went nuts all afternoon.
cal4l: u can do better, girl
msalice: hes not even that hot
håkon: Serious doubts are possessed by me concerning the length and girth of his masculine elongation!
Only Mickey seemed to get it.
mik: sure maybe it would have been fun but hes not what your looking 4 in the long run
“Oh really, Micky?” she whispered into her hud. “Just what am I looking for in the long run?”
mik: yr keys. there by the sink.
Kat laughed a lot harder at that than she expected to.
macien: this is booooooring!
cal4l: yeah, atleast get neckid ur sumthin
msalice: ill get neckid for ya
cal4l: yr always neckid, its lost its novelty
msalice: f u!
håkon: I would enjoy seeing you naked!
Kat pushed her hud up on her forehead and rubbed her eyes. Four hours of Minkowski’s rambling theories about post-scarcity societal transformations. She was seriously starting to second-guess her decision to stay in and read instead of hitting frat row with the girls. Then she thought about an army of bulked-up frat boys, drunk on warm beer and horse hormones, trying to get her to flash her tits for their huds. She shuddered and went back to her book.
She was only halfway through the next paragraph when there was a knock at her door. It was Calli. She was dressed in more than her underwear, which was unusual. She also wasn’t wearing her hud, which was even more unusual.
“I need to talk to you about something,” she said, finding a corner of Kat’s bed that wasn’t covered in books and clothes and perching on it.
“If it’s another threesome with you and Alex, I’m gonna pass,” Kat said. “Besides, I got the whole show this morning.”
Calli grinned from ear to ear. “Yeah, that was super fun. But no,” she said. “It’s something else.”
“It’s just … uh.” Calli dropped to a whisper. “You gotta turn your hud off first.”
Kat rolled her eyes. “Sweetie, the whole world watches you fuck your boyfriend. What’s the big?”
“It’s different,” Calli hissed. “Just trust me, okay?”
“Whatever,” Kat sighed. She finger-typed a quick message into her chat window.
katohato: going dark for a while
msalice: cause she be sick o yo whiny ass, mik
mik: f off, floppytits. and when’s the last time you got a wax? damn, girl, its like the forest primeval downthere
msalice: gotta get you to floss somehow, turdbreath
That was all Kat saw before she pressed the tiny stud on the earpiece of her hud and watched the lenses go dark.
“Is it off?” Calli asked, still whispering.
“Yeah, it’s off,” Kat said. “You see it off, don’t you? Now what’s with all the drama?”
Calli got up and opened the door. She looked both ways down the empty hall, then looked both ways again just to be sure. “Okay,” she called.
A boy darted out of her room, ran down the hall and ducked into Kat’s, slamming the door behind him. He winced at the noise. “Shit,” he muttered.
It was Miles. He wasn’t wearing his hud either.
This was getting weird.
“Thanks, Calli,” he said, and she slipped out into the hall leaving them two of them alone.
“What are you doing here?” Kat asked, knowing it sounded rude but not really caring very much.
“Nisha and I had a fight,” he said.
“Oooh, this is gonna be good,” Kat said, reaching for her hud. “Let me just get this all on” –
“No!” Miles shouted, snatching the hud out of her hands.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Kat demanded. “Are you insane?”
Miles slumped on her bed, still clutching the hud in his hands. “Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “I just don’t want things to get any worse.”
“What do you mean?” Kat said, still pissed. “Worse how?”
Miles let out a heavy sigh. “Nisha was watching my feed this morning. When we were in class. She … she caught me looking at you.”
“So?” Kat said. “People look at each other.”
“Yeah, but this is different,” Miles said. “She saw me looking at you … a lot. And then she caught us flirting this afternoon, and when I got to her room tonight she just let me have it.”
“For flirting with somebody else?” Kat said incredulously.
“It wasn’t just that,” Miles said. “It’s a lot of stuff that’s been building up for a while. This was just, like, the thing that set it off. You know?”
“So what are you doing here?” Kat asked. “If she’s like that, she’s gonna kick your ass when she finds out you came to see me.”
“She’s not going to find out,” Miles said. With one finger, he reached up and tapped his temple. “No huds.”
“It’s not like people didn’t see you come in,” Kat said.
“Actually I think I’m okay there. Calli helped,” Miles said. “She’s a real nice girl. I need to subscribe to her feed.”
“Only if you want to watch close-up zoom-in-zoom-outs of Alex’s pubic hair twice a day,” Kat mumbled.
“Never mind. So you snuck in here, all the way across campus” –
“Not that far. I just live over in Webb.”
“Okay, whatever,” Kat said. “You snuck across the street and up here. Why?”
Miles shrugged. “I guess I just wanted to hang out. With somebody who’s not pissed at me.”
“Keep looking, asshole, because I’m incredibly pissed at you,” Kat said.
Miles looked like he’d been slapped. “Really?”
Kat sighed. “No, not really. But I was. You were a real dick today.”
“Oh, come on,” Miles said. “I was not. I was just trying to be considerate” –
“Miles, sweetie,” Kat said, “you need to start hanging around with people who don’t require quite so much consideration. You need to be with people who let you be yourself.”
“Yeah, well, that’s why I’m here.”
“All sneaky-like,” Kat said. “Is that how you be yourself?”
“Maybe,” Miles said, grinning.
Kat chewed on her thumbnail for a second. “She’s still going to kick your ass, you know.”
“Your feed’s offline. My feed’s offline. Do you really think she’s not going to put two-and-two together?
Miles contemplated his shoelaces. “Shit,” he mumbled. “Why does life have to be so complicated?”
“I don’t think it does, baby,” Kat said softly. “You just need to be honest with people.”
“Why?” Miles whined. She shouldn’t have, but Kat couldn’t help finding it endearing.
“Because if you don’t they’re gonna find out and bust your ass,” she said.
“Yeah,” Miles said.
Neither of them said anything for a long time.
Kat slept until noon the next day. Miles was next to her, curled around a pillow in the fetal position. He was breathing through his mouth, and drooling just a little bit, and damn if Kat didn’t think he was just about the cutest boy she’d ever seen.
Well, the cutest one she’d seen in the past few days, anyway.
Why did he have to have so many issues? He was smart, he was more or less decently good-looking, he was incredible in the sack. Why did things have to be so complicated for him? Why couldn’t he just relax and be himself and let other people make up their own minds about him?
As she was looking at him, Miles snored once, loudly, and shifted in his sleep onto his back. The sheet fell down around his waist, exposing the chest and shoulders that had felt so good next to hers the night before. Kat reached out with one fingertip and traced a line from the tip of his chin down past he bellybutton. He stirred, but didn’t wake up.
She grinned wickedly.
Trying not to shake the bed too much, Kat reached to her nightstand. She rolled over next to Miles and kissed his jaw, his chin, his throat. He mumbled incoherently, reached up with one hand to stroke her bare back.
As soon as they were both ready, she put both of her hands on his chest and her knees on either side of his hips. Just as she sat back, lowering herself onto him, she put one finger to her temple and mashed the power stud.
The chat window flickered into visibility in the corner of her hud. As she began to move, she finger-typed on Miles’ chest.
katohato: morning, everybody
Copyright © 2007 by Jeff Harrell. All rights reserved.