Science Fiction Romance data mining

The Infodict

By James Van Pelt · Apr 5, 2019
3,375 words · 13-minute reading time

Oversight 2

Photo by Nathaniel dahan via Unsplash.

From the author: They say that you can't know the mysteries of the heart, but that's only because you don't have enough data. If you had enough information, surely you could tell what someone else felt about you. If only you had access to all the information.


Sanji kept a spider on Marlyss constantly, and his Concierge prompted him with updates.  As Sanji sold forty cases to the crosstown outlet, it scrolled her location when her car passed under a traffic vid at Divisadero and Pine.

At the moment, he was in his office, deep in his leather chair, feet up, but it wouldn’t matter if was at home or at the park or on a flight; when the info flowed, he swam in it.

Earlier in the day he’d played back some of her phone calls.  Last week she’d said, “I’d love to have dinner with you.”  He replayed it several times, her liquidy contralto.  “I’d love to . . . I’d love to . . . I’d love to . . .”

Where’s she going?  Sanji called up her travel patterns for the last week, Monday’s for the last month, and every 5th of the month for the year.  Numbers rolled through the air between him and his desk, everything he’d gathered on her since they’d started dating a year ago.  No match.  He okayed the delivery, quick scanned for reservations she might have made or credit blips.  Nothing.  He red flagged the time for later analysis just as it reported her at the Divisadero and Lombard.

“You watching Marlyss again, bud?” said Raymond.  “You’re obsessive.”  Raymond sat on the edge of Sanji’s desk.  As usual his tie didn’t match his shirt, and the suit coat should have been retired years ago.  Rather than getting a hair implant, he had combed thin strands over the bald spot.                         

“Where’s your specs?  Don’t you work here anymore?”  Sanji minimized the Marlyss profiler, but kept the program running in the background.  New numbers showing this afternoon’s inventories, shipments and condition of the delivery fleet popped up.  All in the green.  He stood, smoothed the front of his jacket, checked his look in the mirror.  Businessman perfect.  Just the right part in the hair.  A meticulous, trim appearance.

“I get buzzed if there’s a problem.”  Raymond pointed to the flesh-colored button in his ear.  “I’m just a P.R. flak.   Non-essential paperwork only.  Short of a complete emergency, my job could be done by a high school intern.”  He shrugged.  “Let me take you to lunch.”

Sanji’s own earphone squeaked a high pitched, short-speak message about highway traffic and truck travel time.  With a pressure on his desk handplate, Sanji alerted the drivers.

“I’ve got the expense account.  I’ll pay.”  Sanji put his desk on auto mode, which handled routine calls, rerouted e-mail and forwarded everything to the Concierge, a black, wallet-sized case attached to his belt.

Sanji checked the daily specials at Reefers’s, a favorite spot for the business crowd, and ordered while they walked.  “What do you want?”  Above them thin clouds filtered the San Francisco afternoon, softly lighting apartment buildings and trees.

Raymond said, “Don’t you ever turn that thing off?  I thought I’d decide when we got there.”

Sanji laughed.  They wove through the lines in front of the fast food kiosks.  “You’re a positive Luddite.  We can have the food waiting, cooked to our specification, eat and be out in fifteen minutes.  Don’t you know they hate customers like you?”

They turned down a long hill, each step jolting Sanji’s specs as they flashed that Marlyss had used credit to park her car at a lot just off Divisadero and Marina Boulevard.  Weather numbers scrolled up: sixty-five degrees, eighty-six percent humidity and gusty breezes off the bay.  Probably cold as hell.  A list of small restaurants and shops within walking distance appeared, all in historic San Francisco, most without vid security he could tap into.  He checked her med monitors.  Pulse over 100 and steady.  Respiration elevated.  She was walking.  Blood sugar a little low.  Probably going to lunch herself.  But why downtown?  Why the change of habit?  Did it mean anything about their relationship?  He wouldn’t know where she was until she paid for something.

Sanji ran a quick check on her infosystems.  As far as he could tell, she hadn’t accessed any data about him since dinner last night.  Did that mean she didn’t care?

“Maybe I don’t know what I want yet,” said Raymond

“That’s the point.  You could be deciding now.  You’re not a very good multi-tasker.”  Other pedestrians walked around them.  Most wore specs.  Many of them working, sub-vocalizing communiques, their eyes flitting back and forth as they read data.

Raymond looked from building to building.  Sanji knew Raymond was interested in restored architecture.  Why he didn’t access the info off the net was beyond him.  Raymond actually liked to see the structures. 

Raymond said, “So, did you ask her?”

Sanji wrinkled his brow.  It was such a direct question.  “Yes, last night.”

“And?”

They crossed the street and entered Reefers.  “Good afternoon, sirs,” said the door as it opened for them.  “Your table is ready.”

A line shimmered on the floor leading them into the restaurant.  On the walls, outdoor footage of a rock concert surrounded them.  The soundtrack was just loud enough to make other patron’s conversations unintelligible. 

Sanji said, “She wants to think it over.   She’ll tell me tonight.  I’m thirty-two.  You’d think I wouldn’t be so nervous.”

“Thirty-two and never been married.  As far as dating goes, you’re practically a teenager.  Thinking it over’s better than a no.”  They sat.  “Can I get a menu?” Raymond said to the table. 

A minute later a waiter, looking miffed, delivered a paper version of the day’s offerings.  “Are you new to Reefers, sir?  We have a much more attractive electronic display tailor made for our Concierge customers.”

“You’ll just have to come back, son.  I left mine at work,” said Raymond.  The waiter’s jaw dropped, and Raymond added, “You must be the new one.  I’ve eaten here twice a week for four years.”

The waiter did the peculiar mid-focus, twitchy stare someone got when checking a readout in his specs.  “Who are you, sir?”

Raymond smirked.  “I pay cash.”

“Ah, one of those,” said the waiter with a sniff, as if everything was clear now.  He stalked away.

“Where do you get cash?” said Sanji.

“If you go to your bank in person, and present identification, it’s still available.  Mostly they keep it around for international travelers.”

Sanji shook his head.  This was another of Raymond’s oddities.  He was so consistently dependable, however, that management had decided he was eccentric rather than weird.

“But why go to the trouble?”

The waiter appeared again, an order tablet in hand.

“I haven’t decided yet,” said Raymond, and the waiter turned on his heel.  “That boy isn’t going to get a tip.”

Sanji toyed with his napkin.  Around them, others were eating their meals, their conversations lost in the projected concert’s ambient noise.  On the wall, a new band mounted the stage.  A sea of heads stretched from the foreground to the stage’s base.

Raymond said, “That’s Woodstock.  The 2026 one.  I love the classic footage.  The other night they showed the old Who concert that ended in a riot.  Pretty strange to be eating shrimp in the shell while watching cops beating kids over the head with batons.”

“It’s the atmosphere,” said Sanji.  He called up the Marlyss profiler again.  Her pulse was down, but he had no fresh information on her other than she only had fifteen minutes left on her parking.  The day after being asked to marry, she goes off on a strange errand.  The question was, what was on her mind?

“Is it work or Marlyss now?”

Sanji snapped the display off guiltily.  “How’d you know?”

“Your eyes get all spastic.”

Sanji sighed.  “How can you stand it, not being connected?  Do you know where your wife is this instant?  Have you checked on your children this morning?”

Raymond put the menu down.  “Now that I’m ready, where’s that waiter?  No, I haven’t checked them.  I don’t know how you do it.  You can’t eternally keep your fingers on everyone’s pulse.  It’ll drive you crazy.”

Marlyss’s heart rate blinked onto the display again.  The Concierge reported it had remained unchanged for the last ten minutes.  Analysis indicated she was sitting or standing, probably eating lunch.  Was she alone?  Something fluttered in Sanji’s chest.  “I have a right to all the information that’s available.  That’s the law.  What would be crazy would be not taking advantage of it.”

Sanji’s ear plug beeped a pay-attention as new displays scrolled across the bottom of his specs.  The Far Eastern division reported a markdown in raw material pricing.  If he ordered now, he could cut seven percent on manufacturing, invest the savings in interest-bearing bonds for an extra percent and a half.  He thought for a couple seconds about whether the numbers could drop more, decided that they might, but not much, placed the order and shifted funds into the right accounts.  In the meantime, a tiny vid window opened up in the upper left corner of his vision.  The spider had found Marlyss.  In the grainy picture from a bank’s security camera she walked up the street, gripping her coat closed at her neck.  The breeze whipped her long, red hair in front of her face.

A quick query placed the bank a half block from her car.  The Concierge listed three restaurants that were her most likely lunch spot.  All touristy seafood places.  But she hadn’t paid for anything.  If she wasn’t eating lunch, what was she doing there?  She walked out of the first camera’s view, and the Concierge switched to another camera that caught her back as she walked up the block, then out of sight around the corner.

“You’re not going to make it until this afternoon, are you?  Man, you are practically comatose when you pay attention to that thing.   You’re an infozombie.  They have twelve-step programs for your problem.”

Sanji squirmed.  “You can never get enough good data.  That’s why all information is public.  Nothing is private.”

“Maybe that’s O.K. for business activities or government policy.  You’re trying to read her mind.  Ah, there he is.”

The waiter reappeared, looking bored.

“What’s the catch of the day?  The menu didn’t list it.”    Rolling his eyes, the waiter said, “Orange Roughy.”

“I’ll have that then.”

Sanji leaned forward.  “You don’t get it.  If you love someone, you want to know everything you can.  How else will she know I care?”

“They used to call that ‘stalking.’”

“That’s ridiculous.  Stalking is following her around.  Threatening her.  All I’m doing is accessing available data, which is my right.  She knows I can do it–everybody does it–in fact, she probably expects me to.  This is the information society.”

“All I know is in matters of the heart, the more you know the more you don’t know.”

Sanji sat back.  The waiter arrived, pushing a cart, their meals steaming.  He put the plates in front of them.  When he left, Sanji said,  “What the hell does that mean?”

Raymond smiled, cut into the Orange Roughy.  “It means that sometimes you don’t want to know what’s on the menu until you get there.”

For the rest of the meal, they ate quietly while rock crowds cheered on the walls.  Numbers rippled across Sanji’s vision: delivery times, work schedules, stock prices.  His ear plug whispered status reports.  When he finished, he couldn’t remember what he’d eaten.

At work Sanji set a countdown clock in his specs’ upper right corner.  Four hours until he met Marlyss.  She went home.  No vids in her house, but her security alarm reported when she disarmed it, electricity consumption went up as she turned on lights, water usage indicated she’d showered.  Then, nothing.  Her pulse perked along steadily.  Her Concierge was in sleep mode.

He drummed his fingers on the desk, baffled.  Why wasn’t she checking on him?  In the year they’d dated she had never checked on him as far as he could tell.  From her point of view, their entire relationship was based on conversations and the time they’d spent together.  No wonder she can’t answer the question: she doesn’t know me, he thought.  A stomach twinge hit, and he flinched.  His own med readouts indicated indigestion and suggested an antacid.  He wondered what he had eaten that would cause that; he couldn’t recall anything spicy.  Last night had been the same though, and it wasn’t food related.  He told her goodnight, the echo of his proposal fairly hanging in the apartment’s air.  Her hand rested briefly on his, her fingers warm and long and fine.  “I need to think about it,” she said. 

After she left, he laid in his bed staring at the ceiling, thinking about her beside him.  He rubbed his palm over the sheets on what would be her side.  They were cold and smooth and empty.  He tried to recapture the moment before he asked her, when the words were formed but he hadn’t spoken them yet.  Even now, only minutes later, he could hardly believe he’d had the nerve to do it.  Then the twinge.  Stomach acid reflux.  She wasn’t there, and maybe she never would be.  His guts tied up inside him, but he didn’t get medicine.  He put on his specs, activated the Concierge, started the data streaming.  Green text flowing across his eyes.  Quick-speak chirps in his ear.  After a while, he connected the spider for Marlyss.  It picked through the megamillion information strands, and soon he swam in her numbers.  All of them.  Medical records, shopping purchases, paychecks, tax returns, utility bills, loans, bank statements, school, everything.  And the vids he’d saved.  Marlyss at the mall.  Marlyss in the park.  Marlyss coming and going from a thousand places, all captured digitally, stored somewhere, and retrieved, by him.

But nowhere--not a clue--on how she would answer his question.  Sanji clenched the sheets.  How could the answer not be there?  What was left to know?

His eyes grew dry watching the clock count down.  He blinked and shook his head.  Scrolled through jewelry catalogues, screen after screen of wedding rings.  Checked travel brochures.  South American beach resorts.  European tour packages.  What would she like?  Briefly he connected with a flower shop, then broke it off.  She said she wanted time.  Flowers would seem pushy.  Or would they be romantic?  What was in her head?

He imagined a sensor planted in everyone’s brain.  Readouts cunningly tailored to track emotion and thought.   That would be information worth having.  There would be no need for guesswork.

Irresistibly, with glacier-like gravity, the clock unwound the minutes.

Marlyss waited for him in front of the Maritime museum.  In the dusk behind her a restored schooner attached to the dock with three permanent gangplanks, thrust its bare masts into the cloudy sky.  Sanji walked quickly.  The wind cut through his jacket, and he realized he hadn’t been near the sea in months.  She’d suggested Fisherman’s Wharf for their rendezvous.  “I like the seagulls,” she’d said.

He’d correlated seagulls to her database and found she’d papered the first apartment she’d rented, years before they met, in Seascape Serenity, a pattern of lighthouses, chambered nautiluses and seagulls.

“I missed you,” he said as they hugged, and he regretted the words immediately.  It’d only been a day.  He sounded needy.

“Me too.”  She held his hand and they strolled toward the shops and tourist attractions.  In the bay to their left a cargo hovercraft surrounded by itself generated mist, thundered past Alcatraz.  He sensed the unanswered question between them like a malignant djinn.

Glumly he noted the temperature and weather report to give himself something to watch.  Even though she walked beside him, he couldn’t resist replaying “I’d love to have dinner with you.”  To give himself courage, he triggered the loop: “I’d love to . . . I’d love to . . . I’d love to. . .”

Beside him, she was a silent cipher, red hair spilled over her jacket, most of her face obscured.  Just the edge of her cheek and a bit of her nose visible from the side.  Something didn’t look right about her.  As they walked, he glanced from the corner of his eye several times.  Finally it occurred to him.  She wasn’t wearing her specs!  He ran a quick check.  Her Concierge was still in her apartment.

Casually he reached up and pulled his own off.  He blinked against the breeze hitting him square in the face for the first time.  They went into his pocket.  He shut down his Concierge, and his earplug went dead. 

Sidewalk stands they passed sold cheap tee-shirts and San Francisco trinkets.  Crab and beer smells escaped the restaurants.  Tourists waited in lines for tables.  She led them into a maze of souvenir displays and then onto a boardwalk overlooking a small marina.  Private fishing boats bobbed under the dock lights.  It was nearly night.  The buildings cut the wind, and Sanji didn’t feel as cold.

Marlyss said, “I come here sometimes when I want to think.”  She sat on a wooden bench and when he sat beside her, she looked straight at him for the first time since they’d started walking.  Her hand went to his cheek.  “Sanji.”  She traced a line from his temple to the corner of his mouth.  “I’ve never seen you without your specs.”

And they were kissing, her lips soft against his, her breath quick against his skin.  After a minute, he realized she was crying.  His face was damp with it.  He touched a tear from below her eye with wonder.

She said, “They told me you were an infodict.  My friends told me you were . . . emotionally isolated.”  She giggled, a surprising sound in her throaty voice.  “Oh, Sanji, I would love to marry you.”

And they kissed again, long and silent.  Sanji felt the waves beneath them lapping against the pilings, rocking their bench the tiniest bit.  Seagulls cried in the bay.  He held her close.  She trembled, and he trembled too.  It was all so huge, the emotion within.  In the night, in the artificial light, the boats moved in elegant witness to the moment.  Sanji knew he would remember this instant forever.

He didn’t know how long they’d sat before Marlyss straightened and pulled away from him.  She wiped her face.  “I need to tidy up a bit.  Do you mind?  There’s a restroom just around the corner.  I won’t be a minute.”

“Of course not,” he said, and even these little words felt different, because now he was speaking them to the woman who’d said yes.  Everything was different now: the quality of air, the quality of sound, all of it.  “I’ll be right here,” he said.

She kissed him on the cheek, smiled, and walked to the corner of the building, her footsteps loud against the boards.

Sanji leaned back, the bench a firm support behind him, and he stretched his legs.  He sighed.  It was good.

Then he noticed a small box half-way up the light pole on the dock across the water, a police unit, an infrared camera turned on only at night for security.  Of course, the police would watch closely at night, when most crimes occurred.  He looked around.  The area was thick with surveillance.  Accessible surveillance.  His hand snuck into his pocket, caressed his specs.  He twitched the Concierge back to life.

Yes, there he was, in reds and blacks as the camera saw him.  He expanded the search, jumping from camera to camera.  There was the front of the building he sat behind now.  There was the side.  There was the door to the public restroom.   Sanji backed up the infrared vid a couple of minutes.  There was Marlyss, entering the restroom.  Sanji turned the spider up a notch.  Water ran in the restroom.  A hand dryer pulled energy.

He thought, what’s she thinking now?  Is she sorry she said yes?  Will she always love me?  It would take a lot of data to know.  The information would have to flow fast and furious.  Yes it would.

When she came out, he put the specs back in his pocket, but the Concierge was ready.  The spider was running, and it would never rest.

This story originally appeared in Asimov's.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."