Art by Nathan Susnik.
From the editor:
Lauren’s state-of-the-art iPerceive unit represents the latest in perception-smoothing technology. But when it starts to malfunction one weekday morning, she’ll learn just how much of her reality is a lie.Don’t miss this story The Guardian called a standout in an already strong collection from Shoreline of Infinity. Author Nathan Susnik is a medical writer and editor living with his family near Hanover, Germany. He’s new to Curious Fictions, so give him a warm welcome.
From the author: "...standouts include two stories exploring the theme of virtual reality. In “The Pink Life (La Vie En Rose)” by Nathan Susnik, the protagonist gradually becomes aware of the lie promulgated by her hi-tech reality overlay…" --The Guardian
On Monday a crisply painted fire hydrant moved into the alcove next to my apartment building. On Tuesday it sang La Boheme. On Wednesday, Carmen. Today, Der Vogelfänger. The fire hydrant has digitally perfect tone and tenor. I walk past it twice a day on my way to work:
I reach my 85th floor office, greet my secretary, and look out at the architecture. The city is an art deco wonderland. #newyork1950s. Market reports waterfall down the Chrysler Building, splashing onto the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. A personal message blinks on the Empire State Building:
@rickstock538 - InComp/Filefunk merger approved. Buy!
I'm halfway through a reply when - flash - #newyork1950s is gone. An endless field of homogeneous, concrete skyscrapers is in its place.
Flash - #newyork1950s.
Flash - endless concrete skyscrapers.
Flash - #newyork1950s.
Flash. Flash. Flash.
“Ava,” I say.
“Yes Ms. van Kamp?” She comes in the room looking different from before, less than perfect. There's a pimple on her forehead, a large white head pressing out from a glowing red base.
Flash – Silky smooth.
Flash – Krakatoa.
“What do you see outside?” I say. She ambles to window, limping slightly. She shrugs.
“Nothing,” she says.
“Thank you Ava. You can go.” I sigh.
When she leaves, I message Dsense corp. Five seconds later (poof) they project a representative over the intercerebral computer.
“It’s not an error with the iPerceive app. It must be a problem with your operating system ma’am,” she says. “Turn iPerceive off.”
“You can do that?”
“Turn iPerceive off,” I say. She winks.
“You'd be surprised how many people don't know that. But then again, why in God's name, would you want to turn it off? Anyway, if you have it on while it’s glitching, it can be dangerous.”
“Yes, just between you and me, a client jumped in Niagara Falls last year thinking the water was cotton candy. Anyway, have the InComp run an update tonight while you sleep. That should solve the problem.”
“I'm not paying for services this month,” I say. She is as sweet as strawberries.
“Here at Dsense corp customer satisfaction is key. You won’t be charged for services for the next two months. Plus we'll...” She pauses, scanning through her records, trying to find an app or addon that I don't have. “...we'll unlock AllGourmet level 5 for two months.”
“Fine,” I say.
I stare out the window. The shadows of concrete monstrosities darken the streets below. It’s depressing, like being smothered with a soiled pillow.
“Serotonin levels decreasing. Go ahead and take the day off,” advises LifeCoach app. It’s good advice, and I should follow it. Since subscribing to LifeCoach my self-satisfaction levels have increased 523%, according to LifeCoach app. A message blinks from the dark streets:
@rickstock538: U buy?
I exhale, and LifeCoach tells me about the dangers of critically low neurotransmitters.
@laurenvankamp923: Technical problems, Plz take account till 2morrow! #vactionday
I board a transporter. Without iPerceive, darkness fills streets where sunlight formerly shone. There are considerably fewer flowers than usual, considerably fewer birds too, in fact no birds and no flowers; it's all trash and beggars, concrete and darkness.
I get home, and in the place of the #operasingingfirehydrant is a beggar. He's young, the left half of his face is scar tissue, his eyes are sunken, and his cheek bones are too sharp. Instead of singing opera, he's begging. He wants food. A wave of crumminess sweeps over me. LifeCoach calmly informs me about dangerous levels of something or other. I flip iPerceive back on.
Flash - The Barber of Seville.
Flash - homeless beggar.
Flash - Count Almaviva.
Flash - beggar.
iDentify kicks in:
*Ping - Sergeant Steven Johnson, 32, earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart in the second battle of Pyongyang...
I interrupt the facial recognition app. Wait, a second battle of Pyongyang? When did that happen?
*Ping - The Second battle of Pyongyang began on April...
I interrupt WikiSearch app. On second thought, I really don't need to know.
Sergeant Johnson looks at me. He cocks his head like some kind of intelligent bird. It’s clicked. He knows that I see him.
“Please,” he says reaching out. I walk past. He follows. “I'm hungry,” he says. I keep walking. He reaches to touch my shoulder. I jump away and he screams, grabbing his head. I exhale. At least ProTect app is still functional.
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you,” says the beggar, but I am up the stairs and in the building.
I lay on the sofa, head spinning, waiting for sleep. I post #badday and there is a wave of #sosorrys, what's wrong?s, #poorbabys, Kitten pix, Puppy pix, Frowny faces, inspirational quotes, and #feels on my wall. An email pings in. It’s from my mother. Subj: Opportunity/joys of motherhood. There’s an attachment, an advertisement for a surrogacy firm.
#notreadymom. I need updates. I turn DreamWell, and (poof) I'm out, dreaming an archived file.
The shop is old. My grandfather picks up something large and square. Dust flies, and I sneeze. “I remember these. My grandfather had these,” he says chuckling. “Watch this.” He pulls a black circle from the rectangle, puts it on something and flips a switch. The circle spins around and around. There's a noise like fingernails on wood. Then, music starts. There’s no digital fixing, no lyrical translation, no tempo control; it’s scratchy and all treble, the woman's voice is too shrill and in language that I don't understand. The song melancholy but joyous, sober but whimsical, flawed but... (poof) DreamWell pulls me into the next archived file. But there’s something about the song, and I want to linger, to listen. DreamWell won’t let me. Dwelling in files leads to obsession, and obsession leads to bad sleep, and bad sleep leads to low levels of something or other. LifeCoach works in concert with DreamWell and I’m pulled into the next archived file, then the next and the next, until I wake up in the morning, fully refreshed
I roll off of the sofa, LifeCoach playing a light piano ditty in the background. “You have 165 new notifications, none of them urgent,” it says. “Have patience, you can check the notification underway to work. For now, enjoy the perfect morning.” I look out the window. Sun glints off of a pristine layer of snow coving my Art Deco wonderland.
#snow #newyork1950s #pureperfection
ProGusto has huevos rancheros ready and waiting in the kitchen.
AllGourmet level 5, #wow #pureperfection #timeforwork
Opening the door, I see people passing on the sidewalk, their feet leaving no impressions in the immaculate whiteness. I listen to the virgin snow, crunch, crunch, crunching beneath my feet as I walk down the stairs. It’s the only sound in this muted, winter wonderland, and...
And something is missing, something that was here yesterday, but not today.
I find the crisply painted fire hydrant tucked into a corner of the alcove.
“Hello?” I say. It doesn't respond. “The snow is beautiful. Why aren't you singing today?” I ask. The hydrant remains silent. There's something wrong. It should be singing, moving, doing something.
“Hey,” I say. “Hey?”
“Everything alright?” interrupts a voice from above me.
*Ping - Juan da Silva Torrão, 47, lives in apartment 12J.
He peers down into the alcove at me. I know what he’s thinking.
“Yeah. I just dropped something,” I say.
“Okay,” he says and walks down the stairs, foot prints disappearing as he goes.
The fire hydrant remains still, just sitting there as if frozen stiff.
But it's not that cold, is it?
“Heart rate increasing, blood pressure rising. Time for a break,” says LifeCoach. It starts playing a light piano ditty again. The best choice is to just walk away. Don't get involved, I think. Just call the city. They'll send someone out in a jiffy to pick it up.
I take a step away from the fire hydrant.
Crunch, goes my foot into the immaculate white sheet.
A second crunch.
Five more. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. I turn. My foot prints are gone. There’s only virgin snow between the fire hydrant and me. No trail of incrimination. I could leave now. When I come home later, (poof) the problem will simply disappear as readily as my footsteps.
I interrupt LifeCoach. Is he really frozen or just acting? It this some pity game he’s playing to get free food? Before yesterday, I didn’t know he existed. But now I’ve seen. Now I know I what’s in that corner, cold and not moving. Oh God.
But I have to.
As iPerceive shuts down, sunlight turns to shadow, pure snow turns to trodden slush and the silent hydrant turns to a shivering man, curled under a blanket in the only dry corner, and I...
“Your heart rate is...” I interrupt LifeCoach and run to him.
“Hey...” I say. I’ve forgotten his name. He looks at me.
*Ping - Sergeant Steven Johnson
“Hey Steven,” I say. “You’re freezing,” He nods. “You need help.” He nods. “Okay, okay, okay, okay,” I say.
“Epinephrine and norepinephrine critical. Anxiety is a health hazard. Relax, put your feet up. Imagine a happy place,” says LifeCoach and starts a steel-drum-Caribbean ditty.
“Go to hell,” I say, but the steel-drum ditty keeps playing. Sergeant Johnson's eyes widen. “No, no, no, not you. Don’t go to hell. I was talking to LifeCoach,” I say.
“L-l-l-i-i-f-f?” he stammers.
“Never mind,” I say. But I still don’t know what to do.
*Ping - Treatment of hypothermia. Bring the victim to a warm place. Remove wet clothing. Wrap the victim in a blanket. Bring the victim a warm drink...
I drape St. Johnson over my shoulder and wretch, twice. I’ve never smelled anything like him. My knees buckle as I take the first stair. I take the next two with my hand on the concrete.
Three stairs up, I hear:
“Lauren, I was just going by on my way to the office.” I turn. Who is this bald man speaking to me? “Listen, I wanted to talk to you,” he says. “I was able to catch the tail the action, but we missed out on most of the profit from the merger yesterday.”
*Ping – Rick Stock. Business Associate. Twitter: @rickstock538
It’s Rick, but it’s not Rick. It’s like Rick’s chubby older brother.
“Okay, yeah. The merger,” I grunt. Why doesn’t he offer to help?
“Well, the problem is that this mistake is probably going to cost the company a pretty penny. This might be reflected in your bonus and...” I stumble. He cocks his head, “Is this a bad time?”
“I think that I need another day off,” I say. Rick peers at the homeless man on my shoulder, opens his mouth and then closes it.
“Alright,” he finally says. “It’s your bonus, not mine.” He turns to go and then stops. “Just out of curiosity, is this some kind of modern art or something?”
“Modern art?” I say, the steel-drum ditty in my head still going de-dada, da-da-da, do-do-do-do-do, de-de da-da-da.
“The fire hydrant,” he says pointing at my shoulder.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “Modern art.”
“You know that there’s a new neo-perfectionist exhibit that you might be interested in. It’s over on... (*Ping) ...Kinnickinnic Avenue,” he says.
“Great, I’ll check it out,” I say.
“Alright,” he says. “Enjoy your day off. See you tomorrow.” Then, he trots down the slushy, dark sidewalk, cheerily whistling the same steel-drum-Caribbean ditty playing in my head.
Inside, I put Sergeant Johnson on the sofa.
*Ping - Remove wet clothing. Wrap victim in a blanket.
I do what WikiSearch tells me to. It’s, well...unpleasant.
*Ping - Bring victim a warm drink.
I run to the kitchen. AutoBev pours a nice cup of, water?
I asked for hot coco. Okay then, tea.
Coffee = water.
Mulled wine = water.
Merlot = water.
Beer = water.
Coco loco = water.
Talk about timing. My AutoBev is broken. I’m halfway through a message to the repair department when it hits me.
Suddenly, the kitchen is a gustatory wonderland, full of multicolored hot/cold/sweet/bitter/fizzy/flat/flamboyant drinks. I sip the vodka.
I gulp it down, the whole cup. It’s exactly what I need right now. There’s a pleasant tingling in my stomach and fingers. My head drifts off like a balloon.
“Excuse me?” I hear from the other room.
iPerceive off. My head is clear as a bell.
On, off, on, off, on/off/on/off/on/off.
“Hello?” calls Sergeant Johnson.
“Just a minute,” I call back, grabbing the hot cocoa/water. Oh yeah, it’s not even warm. It gets dumped in the disposal. I run to the bathroom, shove the cup under the shower head and hope. Yes! It’s warm.
Stg. Johnson is sitting on my sofa, shivering. I hold out the cup and he takes it.
“Thank you,” he says. “There’s no need to panic. I’ll be fine. I’ve seen worse.” He looks at me, and sees me shaking worse than he is. “Really, I’ll be fine,” he adds.
“Look,” I say. “This isn’t a free ride. You can stay and get warm. I’ll even get you something to eat, but then you have to go somewhere else.”
“Where?” he says.
“I don’t know. I’ll find for you a place at a shelter or something. Is there anything else I can do for you right now?” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “Tell me your name.”
He must not have any apps. Not even a rudimentary like iDentify.
“Lauren Van Kamp,” I say.
“Thank you Ms. Van Kamp,” he says and then lies back down on the sofa.
While he sleeps, I InComp the city shelter. (Poof) Suddenly I’m standing in a concert hall sized room. It’s stacked from floor to ceiling with occupied beds.
“Hello,” says a worker. He’s grey-haired and has bags under his eyes. iDentify tells me his name. I ask him if there’s a free bed. He says no. I offer a small bribe. He says no. I offer a moderate bribe. “That’s enough to afford LifeCoach. It looks like you could use it,” I say. He laughs, then says that it doesn’t matter how much I offer. The shelter is full. He clarifies:
#wayovercapacity, actually. He takes me outside and shows me a crowd of hundreds of people. They’re all waiting for a meal.
When did this happen?
*Ping - Poverty has been on a steady incline since...
I interrupt WikiSearch. This is another one of those things that I really don’t need to know. Fuck, why haven’t I seen this before. I flip iPerceive on.
A flock of storks...
#jesuschrist, that’s why.
I flip iPerceive off. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do,” says the grey-haired man.
“Goodbye,” I say, hanging up and shaking my head.
Sitting in my living room, I bury my head in my hands. LifeCoach tells me of my serotonin levels, suggest a day at the spa, offers wonderful holidays, real and virtual, and tells me that my self-satisfaction levels have dropped 452%, in a single hour. They’re the lowest since I have gotten the app. I can’t think, so I shut it off. I’d give anything for an #operasingingfirehydrant, for my #newyork1950s, for my #pureperfection, to forget.
I search the Dsense corp app store. There it is: GuiltFree. It promises to erase most of the last two days, but it’s out of my price range. Maybe with my bonus...
I missed the merger, which means goodbye bonus.
For lunch, my ProGusto cooks filet mignon with mashed potatoes. The two dishes are actually some type of grey protein slurry, just with different constancies.
Sergeant Johnson is up and off of the couch. He’s in a good mood and wolfs the protein slurry down like it really is filet mignon. I turn on iPerceive and pick at my food while watching the crisply-painted fire hydrant across the table from me. It’s not moving, but the food slowly disappears.
The fire hydrant starts singing. “Huh,” I say, turning iPerceive off.
“Is it supposed to be cold tonight?” he asks.
Very cold, but I don’t tell him that. It’s one of those things that he doesn’t need to know. Instead, I say:
“There’s no room at the shelter.”
“Yeah,” he says.
“And I can’t keep you here,” I say.
“I know,” he says. He finishes his meal, gets up and slowly walks to the door, dragging his feet. He opens the door, turns and says, “Thank you.” Then he smiles, scarred lip peeling back to reveal missing and rotten teeth. And there’s something about the smile. It's not ugly. It’s like the song, the one from my DreamWell archive, the one my grandfather played on the disc in the antique shop, melancholy but joyous, sober but whimsical, flawed but...real, something that I could touch, something I could feel, something created, existing only for a moment, shared between two human beings. It’s not perfect; it’s beautiful. Sergeant Johnson turns and leaves, shutting the door behind him.
I sit on the couch thinking about Sergeant Johnson. I play with iPerceive, flipping it on, turning it off, turning it back on, then back off. On, off, on, off, on/off/on. Now I’m at the door, now outside; now it’s snowing again, cold and getting colder. I turn iPerceive off. I follow muddy tracks in the virgin snow.
This story originally appeared in Shoreline of Infinity.