io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “The Independence Patch” by Bryan Camp. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
The Independence Patch
It is exam week, and Donny is 14 years 10 months 15 days 10 hours 16 minutes old. He is bored and hungry and his scalp itches and he hates school more than he’s ever hated anything before in his life. He hates exams in particular, and he hates his math exam most of all.
54 minutes and 20 seconds are left before he can leave, before he can take the damned dunce cap off and be himself again. Seniors are allowed to leave as soon as they finish the test, but juniors have to wait out the whole allotted time, which is as stupid as it is unfair. Even though he spent more time pretending to erase mistakes he hadn’t made and retracing his way through equations he got right the first time than actually taking the test, even though he literally does this stuff in his sleep and he’ll never have to use this in life, like, ever, he’s got to keep up appearances and sit in this uncomfortable desk in this stifling hot room, ravenous and dunce capped and bored like a prisoner in a hell right out of Kafka.
He’s got a book open on the desk, but it’s almost impossible to concentrate—even as great as Vonnegut is—with half the icons in the corner of his vision glaring red. It’s like Mrs. Leymon took a red pen to Cat’s Cradle. Which she totally would, because she’s as much a fascist as Mr. Kripke, his hateful math teacher. Why, Donny thinks, would you even become a teacher if you’re obviously such an inveterate misanthrope?
An ache begins to twist behind his eyeballs. Donny flips the book shut and presses the heels of his hands against his temples. If he doesn’t get out of here soon he’ll work himself into a full-on migraine. Already the smell of the room is starting to become intense, nauseatingly so. Amazingly, Tricky Kripke lets him go to the bathroom.
Stepping into the men’s room is like storm clouds rolling overhead, sudden shade and a drop in temperature. As soon as Donny has the privacy of the nearest stall, he pulls the dunce cap off. Before the wire mesh woven into the knit Saints hat is completely off his head, wifi and cell connections are back, and the images in the corner of his vision flicker from red to green and then vanish. Donny’s tried to explain to his parents and his friends the feeling of relief that comes with removing the d-cap and can’t. It’s like turning off speakers that have been making a high-pitched whine in your ears, or stretching after you’ve been cramped in a car for hours, except it’s not really like either of those things. It’s more like being able to remember something you know you’ve forgotten but can’t quite put your finger on, except multiplied by a few hundred, but that ignores the almost painful physical sensation that goes along with the d-cap.
It’s especially pointless for him to have to wear this thing at all during a math exam. It’s not like his math notes and his calculator app aren’t already stored in his head. It’s not like he couldn’t record the whole exam and post it later, if that’s what he was going to do. No, it’s just discrimination. It’s just acoustics worried that the Andy freak is going to cheat and get better grades than them and get into better schools than them. Like he’s going to spend one second in school longer than he’s got to. In 3 years 1 month 13 days 12 hours and 45 minutes, Donny will be able to download the Independence patch from the government server and make his own decisions about his own destiny.
Screw it. Donny takes his other Saints cap out of his back pocket, the one without the Faraday cage sewn into its lining, and pulls it onto his sweat-damp hair. He checks his messages, and of course there aren’t any, since anyone who would send him anything is currently taking one exam or another, and then pushes everything out of his field of vision. His teachers have gotten good at noticing the little eye-flicks that show when he’s paying attention to something other than their stupid classwork. No sense pissing off Tricky Kripke.
Back in the classroom, Donny gets a few more pages into Cat’s Cradle before he gives in and swings his icons back into his field of vision. Kripke won’t notice the difference between reading his book and checking a few blogs. Doctorow’s got a new article up on The Guardian site. There’s a teaser trailer for the latest Abrams movie. Branched is going crazy because some actor he’s never heard of just died. There are about a dozen news alerts that are neither news, nor alerting. The whole time he’s flicking through the minutia of online life, a flashing blue icon demands his attention.
He opens it up, and has to stifle a laugh. It’s a Bluetooth connection. An open Bluetooth connection. He follows it and sneaks it with ReBound, wondering who would be stupid enough not to set a password, and the sweat along his scalp is suddenly cold. It’s Kripke’s phone.
Mr. Kripke would have locked this down if there was anything on here, Donny thinks, even as he displays the contents and proves himself wrong. School email, personal email, bank account app, social accounts, cloud storage. Thirty seconds open like this could ruin this guy’s month, Donny thinks. Thirty minutes could ruin his life. Donny knows a bunch of people on campus have ReBound on their phones, and a couple of them are real douchebags. It was fun when the app first came out, stealing connections to wireless keyboards in coffee shops or headphones at the gym, but after about a month, even adults got wise and started password protecting their all their outgoing wifi and Bluetooth connections.
Everyone except for inept high school math teachers, apparently.
Donny considers just leaving it alone, or turning off Kripke’s Bluetooth, but what happens if his phone is still open next week, after one of the aforementioned douchebags gets the email that says he just failed his math exam? Tricky Kripke sucks at life, but he doesn’t deserve to get bent like that. Donny opens up Kripke’s school email and addresses it to itself, so it’ll be anonymous. The message is brief, just a link to an article about the ReBound app and security issues, and the text: Secure your connections, from Your Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman. He needs something else, though, something that proves he was actually in the phone and not just his email. Donny flips through his options, opens MemoryCrate, and there it is. The exam he just took along with the key. He attaches the file and sends it. He closes everything down and turns off Kripke’s Bluetooth.
Achievement Unlocked: Good Samaritan, Donny thinks. I just wish I could see his face when he—
A new email notification blinks into view, from firstname.lastname@example.org. Donny looks, but the teacher is still pacing up and down the aisles, his phone still in his pocket or his bag or wherever he keeps it. Donny’s lips go numb and his head suddenly feels too heavy for his neck. He opens the email, but already knows what happened. Sure enough, it got sent to Krikpe’s directory, not just the teacher. The whole damned school.
Who’s bent now? he thinks.
It is lunchtime, and Donny is 4 years 6 months 9 days 4 hours and 11 minutes old. He is walking with his parents through the mall. He can read now, and is showing off his new skill on signs, t-shirts, advertisements, anything he can see and sound out. “Two dollars off any large smoothie,” he says. “You are here. New Orleans Saints. Upgrade your life today. Life’s a bitch.”
He clasps a hand to his mouth when he realizes what was written on the man’s shirt, what it just made him say. “Bitch” is one of Dad’s words that he’s not allowed to use until he’s older. He turns, slowly, but Dad is laughing, Mom is smiling and shaking her head. Donny laughs, too, though he’s not sure what makes this time funny, but saying it about his Aunt Lisa got him a time out.
Donny goes away for a while, trying to puzzle out the difference. He’s partly aware of telling his mom what he wants to eat (a hamburger without onions, onions are gross), or telling his dad that he doesn’t have to go to the bathroom, but really he’s in the big, quiet place in his thoughts where he goes to figure things out. They explained to him that it was embarrassing for them and for Aunt Lisa when he said that word. But why weren’t they embarrassed when he said it in front of a bunch of strangers? He thinks about it for almost an hour.
Donny comes back when he decides that “bitch” must be a mean word when you use it about someone, but funny any other time. When he pays attention to what’s happening, he’s in a store, and his mom is pushing his foot into a stiff, all-black uniform shoe. He starts school next month and one of the rules for this school is that everybody has to wear the same shoes and the same clothes. His mom couldn’t explain the rules, said he just had to live with them. She is moving his foot and ankle into the shoe like he’s a toy, like she knows he went away to figure something out. He is about to tell her that he’s figured the word out when he hears laughing.
He looks up from where his mom is struggling with his shoe and sees a group of older boys. They are pointing at him and laughing. One of them is moving in abrupt jerks, like his joints are stiff, like he is made of plastic, like he is a cheap toy robot. His mom sees him watching the boys, turns to see what they are doing. When she sees them, she says a few of Dad’s words all at once. Then she says them louder. The boys run off, one still pretending to be a robot. His mom is crying.
Donny goes away again. He knows he is different. Sometimes he sees numbers that aren’t really there. Sometimes he hears people talking in strange languages, or saying things he doesn’t understand. Sometimes it’s just noise. He has had salt-and-pepper gray in his hair since he was born, but of course the gray hairs aren’t really hairs. He goes away to think about things, and he goes away so he doesn’t have to hear his mom crying.
When he comes back, he is at home in his bed. He is 4 years 6 months 10 days 8 hours and 7 minutes old. Things seem different to him, like at Christmas when he recognized his mom’s handwriting on a present from Santa and knew, all in one strange instant, the truth. He decides that, if his mom asks, he will say he was away thinking about the word bitch the whole time. “These uniform shoes hurt like a bitch,” he will say, to show her that he understands.
It is ice cold outside the assistant principal’s office, and Donny is 14 years 10 months 15 days 13 hours 12 minutes old. He can hear Mr. Garner and Mr. Kripke talking through the door. Yelling, really. The words “email,” and “expulsion,” and Donny’s full name are what Donny hears most. The dunce cap is back on, and he’s sitting on his hands to keep from pulling it off involuntarily.
Red is smeared all over his peripheral vision, and he feels like his insides are all scooped out, sacrificed in the effort to keep his emotions (anger at himself, anger at authority, fear of what will happen when he’s called inside, anger at his fear, frustration at the whole damned mess) from spilling from his eyes.
He can’t decide if it will be worse if his mom or his dad shows up, and then he hears his mom’s voice, which sounds as angry and as frustrated as he feels, and realizes, yeah, it will definitely be worse if she’s here. He can’t hear what she’s saying until she turns the corner from the front office, and by then it’s him she’s talking to. Yelling, really.
“Why didn’t you answer me?” she asks, still twenty feet away. Why does she do that? If she’s going to scold him, can’t she wait until no one else can hear? Of course she’s been sending him texts since they called her, probably leaving voicemails, too. If Donny doesn’t answer one of her messages right away, she carpet-bombs him. Standard operating mom procedure. As she gets closer, Donny’s fleeting hope that she might be on his side vanishes. Her nostrils are flaring the way they only do when she’s super pissed. Awesome.
“Well,” she asks, “what have you got to say for yourself?” She’s glaring down at him, but before Donny can answer, her face shifts all around. Her eyes open wider, and her tense facial muscles relax. Donny tries to see if there’s a match for it in the FBI interrogation handbook, forgetting about the d-cap until another red icon pops up to tell him he doesn’t have access to that file at the moment. “Donny, honey, what’s wrong?”
“No good deed goes unpunished,” Donny says. Or he tries to, but the words come out slurred.
His mom looks up at the dunce cap, and then her face is furious again. She yanks it from his head, and despite the pinpricks of some of his hair coming away with it, the relief is intense. In spite of his best efforts, his eyes betray him and tear up. Donny’s mother takes his face in her hands and forces him to look into her eyes.
“Are you okay?” she asks. “Is it Hiro-bad?”
“No,” Donny says, and he’s not just being brave or anything. It’s nowhere near Hiro-bad. He’s definitely on the way to a major migraine, though. He closes his eyes so his alerts will stop pinging him. “I’m fine, really. It’s just going to be a bad headache tonight.”
“Bastards,” his mom mutters, just as the door opens.
“Who are you—Ah, Mrs. Collodi,” Mr. Garner says, first in Donny’s direction and then at his mother. “Thank you for coming in. Obviously, I wish it were under other circumstances.”
“Don’t we all,” she says, taking his offered hand and smiling without showing her teeth. When the disciplinarian ushers her into his office, she gestures for Donny to follow her. Garner leans onto his desk and presses his fingertips together, waiting for them to settle into the thick leather chairs before he begins talking, but just barely.
“Mrs. Collodi,” Mr. Garner says, “I’m not sure what you were told on the phone, but we’ve called you in today because of a very serious breach of school policy.”
Donny’s mother tosses the dunce cap onto Garner’s desk, turned inside out so that the copper mesh of the Faraday cage is clearly visible. “Is this part of the school policy you’d like to discuss? Because I’d love to talk about that.”
Garner and Kripke exchange a glance, too quick for Donny to read. The math teacher starts to say something, but Garner holds up a finger to silence him. “Actually, yes, Mrs. Collodi, use of disconnect capable headwear during all exams is school policy according to ANDREA laws, which I’m sure you’re familiar with.” Donny doesn’t need to see his mom’s face to know that she rolls her eyes when Garner says ANDREA. She hates that bitch, as she often likes to say.
“Not that your son actually wore it,” Kripke says, producing Donny’s Saints cap from wherever he’d been hiding it and dropping it onto the desk next to the dunce cap. “He brought a fake.” Kripke doesn’t actually say, “Boom,” but Donny can sense the implication. He actually seems surprised when his argumentative pimp-slap is ignored.
“Are you telling me that this is not the first time you’ve put that thing on my son’s head?”
Great, Donny thinks. This gets better and better. Now his parents get to find out that he’s been screening school emails for the last two years. They’ll never understand, his mother especially, why he would rather endure the petty degradations and minor tortures of being someone like him in a school taught by, and for, acoustics. They’ll never get why the last thing in the world he wants is his privacy rights activist/social justice hacker mommy swooping in and demanding her precious robot baby be treated like the delicate jewel that he is.
He contemplates, briefly, just screaming “Fire!” and bolting from the room. Wouldn’t make it far. Mom’s got the findme app on her phone. The conversation cycles for a minute or two, Garner sticking to his “school policy” guns and his mom hammering him for specifics, when Kripke blurts out that it “was never a problem for any of his other Andy students.” Ohhhh shit, Donny thinks. ANDREA was bad enough. Tricky Kripke just dropped the a-bomb.
Donny’s mom swivels in her chair, locking eyes with his math teacher. “That,” she says, the word a sentence on its own. “That right there is the whole problem here.”
Kripke takes a breath, his frustration written all over his face. “Your son is the—”
“Andy is short for android, Mr. Kripke. My son, whatever you were about to finish saying, is not an android. Do you know why?” Both the math teacher and the disciplinarian begin to respond, but his mother doesn’t really want an answer. “Because they don’t exist. Androids are entirely synthetic. Robots with robot brains. My son is a human being, a person, with technology integrated into his brain. He’s technically a cyborg, but that sounds ridiculous to say out loud, doesn’t it?”
She turns back to Garner, and Donny can see that she’s smiling without showing her teeth again. “Which is why,” she continues, “I take such issue with ANDREA. It’s an education law which impacts my son and calls him an android at the same time. Which is also a bit ridiculous, wouldn’t you say?”
There’s a good ten seconds of awkward silence, which sounds sweeter to Donny than the first brass band at Mardi Gras.
Then Kripke ruins it. “I apologize,” he says, “for using that term, Mrs. Collodi. I had no idea it was such a trigger.” His voice, though still tinged with anger, is also quieter. Maybe the apology is sincere? “But it doesn’t change what happened during my exam. Not in the slightest.” Maybe not. “Your son disobeyed school policy, not only with his deception,” he says, pointing at the dunce cap on the desk, “but also by violating faculty email and potentially cheating on his midterm exam. Any one of these infractions comes with serious consequences.”
Great, Donny wants to say, expel me and get it over with. I can finish my coursework by summer and escape this place a year early. He says nothing, though, because he knows that it won’t matter. It doesn’t matter how tall he gets, or what grades he makes, or how strongly and eloquently he argues his point. Until he installs the Independence patch onto his firmware, what he thinks and wants and believes will always be secondary to everyone around him. 3 years 1 month 13 days 9 hours and 9 minutes.
As though reading his mind, Garner says, “Before we get into that, let’s give Mr. Collodi a chance to explain. Donny, how’s about you tell us your side of things?”
Donny’s head is starting to pound from the time in the dunce cap, so the words pour out of him with little restraint. “It’s not like Kr—like Mr. Kripke is saying. I didn’t cheat. And I had the d-cap on during the whole exam. At least, the whole time I was taking it.”
Kripke lets out a little cough of a laugh, and then all the adults are talking at once. His mother demands to know what Kripke finds funny, and Garner says “Edgar!” like he’s a dog who just pissed the floor, and the math teacher says, “Didn’t I tell you he’d deny it?” Maybe it’s because Donny can see it’s all about to turn ugly, in a “my word against his” argument that goes around and around and gets nowhere, or maybe it’s because he was already thinking about it, at least tangentially, or maybe it’s some logic crunching subroutine in an integrated part of his brain that’s been working on the problem subconsciously, but suddenly the answer flashes in Donny’s head and comes out of his mouth at once.
“I can prove it,” he says.
Everyone turns to look at him, surprised, even his mother, who is as knowledgeable about his brain as she is ignorant of his mind, and so Donny breaks the silence that follows by clarifying. “I can prove that I was disconnected,” he says, looking her in the eyes, “but I need open access.” His mother’s face shifts into an expression of distrust more intense than he’s ever seen. The FBI handbook says she might be expecting betrayal and to proceed with caution. “I mean, I could tell you how to do it, but it’ll be quicker if I just show you.” He almost says that she can set the access right back, but she knows that already, and saying it just shows that he’s considered the possibility of not giving up the access.
She shakes her head, but at the same time she pulls her phone out of her pocket. She looks into the scanner to unlock it, and her finger swirls around the screen. In less than a minute, she turns it around so that he can see that all of her parental controls are unlocked. Just like that, he’s free. There’s no physical sensation, no ping from a server bot, just sudden, complete control of his own destiny. His head swims with the potential, until he realizes that it’s all an illusion. He still doesn’t have access to his own firmware or to the adult account. There are about half a dozen safeguards, some technical and some legal, that will restore the authority he possesses for the next few moments back in his parent’s hands, if he should try to hang on to it.
He hopes, in the brief instant that all of this is occurring to him, that he isn’t letting it show on his face. He reaches out to his mom’s phone through its connection to the school hotspots, and quickly navigates through the metric butt-ton of data that his dedicated server compiles about him from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. He focuses her app on the connection log for today, and then gestures at her phone. “There,” he says. Just like Kripke, he leaves his mic drop implied.
His mom looks at it, frowns, and shows it to the two men. “You can see for yourselves,” she says, “he’s telling the truth. And once you put that thing on his head, he can’t be held accountable for anything he does afterwards.”
She holds up her hands when Kripke and Garner both start to protest, and launches into the whole explanation. She tells them everything. She tells them about Donny’s integration, how it’s far more pervasive than most other Integrates, that it’s hard to tell sometimes whether Donny’s thoughts occur in his organic parts, his synthetic parts, or even in cloud storage somewhere. She tells them about the worst week of Donny’s life: Hurricane Hiro. She reminds them how most of the city was without power for a few days, including cell towers, and that while for most people it meant no air conditioning and a need to empty the fridge before food spoiled, for Donny it was like a three-day lobotomy, and how losing connection to the internet for any length of time put him at an increasing risk of permanent brain damage. She even tells them about the super expensive satphone he’d gotten after Hiro, his Christmas and birthday presents both for that year, just in case he ever lost cell reception again.
When she’s finished, both Garner and Kripke turn these looks of intense pity towards him, and he knows he’s not getting expelled. He just wishes he had those cyberoptic implants he’s read about, so he could record their expressions for later, when she asks him why he kept the dunce cap from her. It’s bad enough being a freak, he doesn’t need people looking at him like one, too.
Later, on the ride home, she’ll ground him for three weeks. It won’t be for getting in trouble at school. It will be because he used the internet to resolve a problem instead of talking to his math teacher. His mother is worried that he’s going to turn out like some Integrates do, mute and distant and handling everything through a text message.
She will explain her reasoning in a terse email which he will save to post on the Parental Irony blog when he’s got access again.
It is dark in Rowena’s dorm room, and Donny is 17 years 7 months 4 days 23 hours 14 minutes old. He is no longer a virgin. He’s surprised, mostly, at how fundamentally unchanged he feels by the experience. This is supposed to be the biological equivalent of the Indie patch, isn’t it? So why doesn’t he feel any more mature than he did yesterday? Is it because of the integration, or is it because the whole idea is bullshit? Could the Indie patch be bullshit, too?
Rowena shifts around in the crook of his arm, interrupting any logical thought with the sheer fucking awesomeness of being in bed with a naked girl. He leans in to wake her all the way up with a kiss, when he stops, realizing how awful his breath feels in his mouth, some combination of the worst parts of beer and morning funk. She settles into a new position, and her breathing deepens once again, vanquishing Donny’s momentary fantasy that she would awaken wanting him again, like something out of a movie. His erection, sudden and insistent, now feels awkward and silly. He relaxes back onto the pillow, something in the detergent Rowena uses tickling at his allergies.
Please don’t let me sneeze on her and poke her with my boner, he thinks. She’ll never want to see me again.
He breathes through his mouth until the feeling, thankfully, passes. 5:17 a.m., and he hasn’t slept at all. There’s no way he’s going to make it to his eight a.m. class, not without being that special kind of asshole that sneaks out after getting laid. He swings his .edu account into his vision so he can send an email to his professor, his fingers twitching out Dear Prof. Simon, on the comforter before a glance to his periphery reminds him that tomorrow, today actually, is Saturday. No class. Nothing at all on his calendar. Maybe Rowena will want to spend some more time in bed when she wakes up after all.
He stares up into the darkness, into the quiet, thinking. It occurs to him after a few moments that this darkness is too empty, the silence too complete. He looks over at her desk, compares it to that of Ahad, his roommate. Ahad’s desk at night is lit up like an airport runway, the steady glow of charging lights on his laptop and his iSpecks, the constant pulse of incoming message lights from his phone, red and blue and green, the occasional flash of his tablet coming to life when something updates. There are noises, too, the whir of a cooling fan, the brrt-brrt of the phone against the desk.
Rowena’s desk is as devoid of technology and as filled with books as Donny’s own. He is struck by a sudden stab of hope. Could she be? He rubs a coil of her thick, dark hair between his fingertips. Most Integrates try to blend in. Donny trims his own hair as often as he shaves, every other day, shearing as close to his scalp as he can while still retaining a connection. Some Integrates, girls mostly, dye theirs, and some wash with a shampoo that stunts nanowire growth, but those are risky. Rowena’s hair, or as much as he can reach without fear of waking her, is as soft and lush as a cat’s fur.
If she was, he thinks, wouldn’t I know? Wouldn’t I have seen it in her eyes when we were— memories, unbidden, flit through his mind, and he grins. What other reason could there be? No computer, no cell phone, nothing electronic in her room but the alarm—
The clock. The only light in the room that isn’t filtered through the blinds from outside. He’s had a clock in his head for as long as he can remember. Longer. Why does she need a clock? Maybe she shut that function off when she downloaded the Indie patch. She said she was nineteen, and everything he’s read online says that the patch gives you the option to turn off pretty much anything you want.
He ticks off a few more possibilities before it occurs to him to check the time on Rowena’s clock. He’s never really paid attention to the actual digits before, just relied on his unerring internal rhythms, and presumed that everyone else’s was as accurate as his. The one on Ahad’s nightstand syncs with his class schedule and the music stored in his cloud server, much less the Atomic clock page.
Rowena’s is two minutes and thirteen seconds wrong.
The truth is hard to swallow. She’s not connected to the internet through her brain. She’s not connected to the internet at all. Donny’s heard of this—a quick search brings up the name, Glendinningists—a group of no-technology advocates, like the Amish but without the religion or the beards. He scans through the wiki entry with a growing sense of dread. Homeschooled, mostly, so she might have never met an Integrate before. Most of them weren’t full on zealots, they believed in Western medicine and responsible technology use, but always localized and green. Hazy memories of their flirtation at the party comes back to Donny then, things she’d said that he’d thought he misheard because he was half-drunk, but which make sense now, comments about how great it was to talk to someone without them checking their phone every five seconds, or who actually read books printed on paper.
She’d said more than once that she liked older guys, running her hand along the bristles of salt and pepper hair that he’d neglected to trim.
He understands now the clichés about swallowing lumps and sinking hearts, as shame and guilt mingle in a very physical sensation, like forcing something solid and nauseating down his throat. When Donny’s father had given him “the talk” after he’d been caught trying to bypass the adult content filters on his search engines, most of the conversation had been about a man’s responsibility. His father taught him that tricking a woman into bed was as bad as forcing her, that as a man, the responsibility always fell on what he did, and not what he thought. “It takes two to tango,” he hears his dad saying, “but you gotta ask her to dance, first.”
Ask. Not lie. Not even if that lie was one of omission. It will be 5 months 27 days 12 hours and 48 minutes before he can download the Indie patch. If what he’s read is right, when that happens he can shut down just about everything inorganic in his head. Anything he needs to function can be saved on an internal drive his med-dots will build in his collarbone. He can be the man she thinks he is.
That’s just another kind of lie, he thinks, and he can’t tell whether the voice in his head is his or his father’s.
He decides to wait until she wakes on her own to tell her, certain that once he does, she’ll never want to speak to him again. He tightens his grip on her smooth, perfect shoulder, but the chill in the air has invaded the cocoon of warmth their bodies generated beneath her down comforter. It makes her skin feel like plastic.
It is cold and unpleasant and strange, and Donny is 24 seconds old. The doctor shows him to his parents, a tight smile on her face, before handing Donny off to the nurses. One of the nurses clips his umbilical cord, while another carefully slices open the caul that covers Donny’s head, clear amniotic fluid spilling out. It looks like black spiderweb, this sheath, wispy and clinging to Donny’s tiny face. When it has been cut away, Donny is fully revealed to his father, his scalp covered with a shocking amount of hair, dark and wet and peppered with gray. These gray hairs are not hairs at all, they are wires, antennas, and a nurse is already positioning a clear plastic dome over his head to facilitate his first connection, even as another is sucking mucus from his mouth and nose. Donny sucks in his first breath and lets it out as a warbling cry.
It is this moment, seeing Donny born first of his mother and then of this second womb, that will inspire Donny’s father to name him Dionysus, after the Greek god who was twice-born.
Donny will not learn this until much later. Now he is only a bundle of sensations, brightness and cold and empty space, and an almost blank pocket server all the way in Baton Rouge, government issued, which clicked on and began recording as soon as the nurses enabled the connection.
Donny is placed in his mother’s arms and is soothed and sleeps. Part of his brain that he will never be aware of is already exchanging data with a government-hosted system at two gigs per second. He is 1 minute 54 seconds old.
It is his turn to pay for dinner, and Donny is 17 years 11 months 18 days 10 hours 12 minutes old. It’s his first real relationship, so he’s not sure, but he’s pretty sure Rowena is about to break up with him. She’s been distant for the last week or so, and even though she says it’s just stress over finals, when she stops talking to him, it’s never because she’s studying. He’s been finding her just staring out the window, like she’s doing now, the menu slack in her hands, a vacant expression in those big, brown eyes. From where he’s sitting, the light falls across her face in just the right way, making her irises seem to glow. He knows that she doesn’t like the color of her eyes, that she finds brown to be plain, but to him, in that moment, they’re a rich, deep chestnut, like a rocking chair or bookshelves, something hand-crafted and lovingly polished until it shines. He wants to articulate this to her, to tell her that he believes that everything about her—from her smile to her temper to her disdain for society’s reliance on technology to her love of spiders to her beautiful brown eyes—has been built by some unseen hand to match him perfectly.
What he says is, “Your eyes look really pretty today.” She blinks and turns to him, her eyes darkening when they slip out of the light. She frowns, looks up and away.
“Will you please take those things off while we eat?” she says.
“Right, sorry. I forgot,” Donny says, pulling off the iSpecks frames. He hadn’t forgotten. The glasses, or more specifically, the camera and wireless connection imbedded in them, are part of his final project in Prof. Lamarr’s class. He’s supposed to augment or dampen one of his senses and write an essay about it. Everyone expected the Integrate in the class to write about shutting off his internet connection. But his roommate Ahad had removed the lenses for a project of his own in an engineering class, some working model of a superhero’s helmet, and playing with the camera had given Donny an idea.
He folds the temples of the glasses and slides them into his shirt pocket. Making sure to keep his hands busy by unfolding his napkin, he activates the camera and flicks it open, just to be sure that it’s still uncovered. There’s a second of vertigo, as he’s suddenly looking out of his chest instead of his eyes, but it passes. He’s tried a dozen different ways to get at this project, using the night-vision function to go jogging in Audubon Park on a moonless night, putting them on backwards to see behind him, tying them to a kite, having Ahad wear them while they played chess, but nothing inspired him. Mostly he just got headaches from the doubled vision.
The paper’s due at midnight, and he’s got nothing, and he’s about to get dumped. He switches the modes back and forth, now the world’s in color, now it’s in sepia tones, now it’s the uniform greens of low-light mode, now it’s infrared, vibrant blues and purples and reds.
In this light, Rowena’s soft skin smolders. Normally a brown tone just a few shades lighter than her eyes, it’s now a reddish-orange, the embers of a campfire that’s no longer burning.
“D,” she says, “we need to talk.”
Donny stifles a groan with the cliché of it, wonders if she’s going to follow it up with the rest of the classics, “it’s not you it’s me,” and “we should just be friends.” This has got to be hard on her, too, he thinks. Don’t be an asshole.
“Shouldn’t we eat first?” he asks, wincing at the petulant tone in his voice.
“No,” she says. “I want to get this out now before I change my mind.” She takes a breath, and Donny braces himself for impact. “This just isn’t working out,” she says.
There it is. The words are out there and they can’t go back. Won’t go back, even if he wants them to. This sucks and it hurts and he’s so glad he’s looking at her through the infrared camera because it doesn’t look like his girlfriend doing this to him but like some alien that’s stolen her shape. And because his eyes burn like tears are about to form and he doesn’t want to see her face blur if he actually starts to cry.
They go back and forth for a few moments, him trying to feel out whether she actually wants to split up with him or if this is just a fight, her saying the same thing in different ways, hesitating each time like she doesn’t want to hurt him, not really. Finally he asks the question, the real question, the one he knows isn’t fair to ask but then none of this is fair, is it?
“Is this because of something about me,” he asks, “or is about something inside me?”
Donny taps the side of his head as he says this, and even as he does it something twists in his stomach and he knows it was an ugly, shitty thing to do. Her colors shift around, from dark shades of orange to brighter ones, her face going all the way yellow as her temperature spikes, and he knows before she opens her mouth that she’s about to lie.
“It’s not you at all,” she says. “I’m just not ready for a serious relationship, and you obviously want that.” It’s then that Donny remembers that she started to get distant when he suggested that once classes were over for the summer she could come meet his parents.
It’s really me meeting her parents that she’s afraid of, he thinks. Guess whose technological abomination is coming to dinner?
“I gotta go,” she says, sliding out of the booth. “I really am sorry.”
And because he’s seeing the world in infrared, he can’t tell if she’s crying or not when she goes, and he can’t decide if he wants her to be or not. The warmth she left behind is a slowly fading blur of color on the seat across from him. He wonders what he’s going to say when the waiter comes back to take his order, and he wonders if the Indie patch will have an option to delete the way he feels right now, and he wonders if he shut it all off if she would give them another chance.
He turns the camera off and for a blissful, fleeting moment, he can’t see the empty space Rowena left, but can still smell her shampoo. He sighs and opens his word processor, deciding to stay and eat, at least, while he works. It’s the last thing he wants to do, but he’s figured out, at least, what he’s going to write about for Prof. Lamarr’s assignment.
It is downloading, and Donny is 18 years 0 months 0 days 0 hours 0 minutes 38 seconds old. Ten percent downloaded. Fifteen. He opens the readme file, and scans through the options, his heart pounding so hard that his med-dots ping him. There are functions, he knows, which he won’t be able to shut off even if he wants to, parts of himself that are too integral to his identity, too integrated. He can turn off his GPS, though, shut down his mom’s access to the findme app. Thirty-six percent. Thirty-seven.
The lists of privacy restrictions he can impose go on for pages and pages, and a prickle races across his skin when he realizes the implications, that few of these restrictions are currently in place, that the data he knew was compiled about his every thought, not what he was thinking so much as how he thought it, has been available to the government and to researchers and to a sickening number of advertisers his whole life.
His mom had volunteered for the program for this very reason, he knows, to ensure from the inside that Integrates were treated as people first, with as many civil liberties and as much freedom as possible. The government had hoped for better soldiers, of course, better communication and intel in the field. The researchers had hoped for cures to whatever particular thing they studied, congenital blindness or Parkinson’s or epilepsy. The corporations wanted (hope was too kind a word) what they always wanted. More.
His mother, Donny believed, just wanted people to be better, to treat each other with justice and compassion. It’s what she does, along with some white-hat hacking, and it’s why she’s going to be so disappointed when he tells her that he’s declared History and Classics as his major, instead of Poly Sci or Information Technology, like she’d hoped. Fifty-one percent. Fifty-three.
He looks, but there’s no option for turning off the way he feels when he thinks about disappointing his mom. There’s no toggle to shift his resentment and loneliness whenever he thinks about Rowena splitting up with him into aloofness or understanding. There’s no application he can run that will help him connect with his father, no setup protocol that will help him bridge the awkward gap that he can’t define, much less span. There’s no system file that he can delete to make the gray wires that grow from his scalp blend in better with the human hairs around them. Sixty-four percent, sixty-seven.
Donny closes the readme and lays back on his bed, his eyes itching from lack of sleep, watching the status bar slowly fill up. He decides to leave it all the way it is for now, to leave even the findme app running; his mother can’t help the fact that she worries. He wonders if anyone, even another Integrate, might understand how he feels in this moment. There are so many things he can do, so many connections he can make with just his thoughts and his will. So many things he can control. Ninety-eight percent, ninety-nine, complete. Anything but what really matters.
He sighs and forces himself out of bed, the Independence patch installing in the back of his head while he gets dressed. Birthday texts and emails start pinging. Donny is 18 years, 0 months 0 days 0 hours and 15 minutes old, and if he doesn’t hurry, he’s going to be late for class.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bryan Camp is a graduate of the University of New Orleans MFA program and the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. He is a fan of the Saints, mythology, and the Oxford comma. When he’s not translating ancient languages or restoring antique motorcycles, he spends his time making up lies about himself in author bios. His first novel, The City of Lost Fortunes, will be published by John Joseph Adams Books in April 2018. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and their three cats, one of whom is named after a superhero. He can be found at: bryancamp.com and on Twitter: @bryancamp.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the March 2018 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Seanan McGuire, A. Merc Rustad, Jeremiah Tolbert, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.