The world can’t seem to go a week without a soul shattering tragedy. The news is getting harder to take, while the methods for viewing it are only getting easier. Imagine a future where tragedies are worse and updates come as easily as thinking. Would you be able to resist filling your head with all the bad news?
The words 1 SEARCH RESULT projected on the wall.
I flung my tablet on the pillow, threw my fists up in victory, and jumped on the bed. My cat, Loki, saw my excitement as a threat and fled the room.
The page loaded. The logo filled the wall from the ceiling to the dresser: the pyramid, the all seeing eye, and the finger applying the contact lens to it. The perfect emblem for the holy grail of wearable technologies.
I caught the tablet before it fell off the mattress. I’d filled several columns with letter combinations and put checkmarks next to the ones whose searches produced nothing. I was finally able to circle one: Fern_Rep_Coy_Release.
The price hovering above my cactus was one grand.
I craned my neck. “Alfred, open my wallet.”
A refined English accent boomed over the surround system. “Which card would you prefer sir?”
Projections of four credit cards spread out over my action figure collection, three glowed red. One glowed green. I pointed to the green one, “Let’s go with the MasterCard.”
“Very well, sir.”
The price tag for the Fern_Rep_Coy_Release flipped around to PURCHASED.
I was on a darknet market called Brand_At_Con. Brand At Con seemed like an innocent title, but it had nothing to do with marketers attending comic conventions. The name was an anagram for Contraband. This was a place to buy and sell rare tech without the original manufacturers shutting the sale down.
Fern_Rep_Coy_Release was an anagram too (one of many I’d tried) for Oracle Eyes Pre-Nerf.
Nerfed was a term tech-traders used to describe a device that had been downgraded from a tool to a toy. Oracle Eyes were available at a fraction of this price, but the pre-Nerfed version were the stuff of legend.
The Oracle Eyes on the market were your standard augmented reality wearable technology from the early 2030s. They gave users directions around college campuses, allowed them to see through buildings to find friends, and gave them visual dictionaries for intelligent conversations. You know, kid’s stuff.
The ones I’d ordered were prototypes from before the FCC’s decision to make every pair glow bright blue when they were in use. I know I know, the resolution was intended to protect women from the male gaze, especially when it was recording. The Nerfed versions wouldn’t let pervs use facial recognition to find strangers’ home addresses. They also pixelated human forms from a distance to prevent oglers from zooming in.
I didn’t mind the cataracts in place of women. I was never a telephoto peeping Tom.
What bothered me was that whenever I sat down for mixed-media meditation, read a volume from my augmented library, or opened a notification, my eyes glowed blue too.
Developers sold this limitation as a feature. One advertisement showed a rock star performing for a colosseum of glowing cat eyes. The standing room fans looked like a horde of zombies reaching out to eat him.
There was a buzz outside the window. The delivery drone was already here! I ran through the living room. Loki dove under the couch. I threw the door open in time to see the little quadcopter fly away.
I picked the box up, tore it open with my teeth, and there they were: a pair of lenses that could feed me information without my irises alerting anyone. A thousand bucks well spent.
I was in line with my fellow employees, waiting to pass through the metal detector, holding my shoes in one hand and my cellphone in the other. I slunk forward with my pockets turned out like an orphan begging for gruel.
My employers did however let me keep my watch. We were encouraged to invest in those old-timey tickers. Which is why I bought one off the darknet. It was the size of a silver dollar and had a hidden compartment for the drive that did the bulk of the Oracle Eyes’ processing.
Joseph, the guard ahead, set cellphones in a bin, gave claim tickets, and waved his wand over every employee’s face. Oracle Eyes glowed under black lights, powered down or not. I’d read the prototypes weren’t coated in the same luminescent substance.
I was about to find out if Wikipedia needed updating.
My office had a ban on smart contact lenses. Our corporate overlords feared employees would take snap shots of trade secrets, which was funny considering how few competitors there were left in our line of work.
I was a contractor for a firm that built applications for a dying medium: personal computers, those physical interface fossils that needed to be tethered to walls, and anchored their users to ergonomic chairs. We catered to those carpel tunnel sufferers still clinging to their mousepads, keyboards, and monitors.
The marketing department called these tactile surface traditionalists “Pro users.”
I set my shoes, coat, watch, and wallet, on the conveyer belt. Exchanged my phone for a ticket, and waited to see if I’d done something that would cost my contract.
Joseph scanned my fingerprint and raised his wand. It slowed at the bridge of my nose. Beads of sweat trickled down my cheeks.
I couldn’t see Joseph’s eyes behind his shades, but based on the way he furrowed his brow I could tell he was squinting.
“Did it get really muggy all of sudden?”
I shrugged. “It’s the hottest year on record. I’d say it stayed that way.”
Then came the eye exam. I could feel the sweat pooling in the cleft of my chin. I tried not to blink, to draw attention to what I was smuggling in, but like an itch that I couldn’t help but scratch my eyelids kept fluttering.
I’d inspected the lenses in the mirror. They were slightly larger than my iris. I prayed the guard wouldn’t notice.
Joseph lowered his shades, cocked his head, and flagged me through.
Wikipedia need not be updated just yet.
I struggled to catch my breath at the time-clock terminal.
The company’s payment system was as archaic as the platform we worked on. I was payed hourly. This meant the more efficient I was the less hours I worked. To earn a living wage I had to code as slowly as possible.
I spent the first third of my shifts programing, the second staring at my desk, memorizing the maplewood pattern, and the third counting the tiles on the ceiling: 18. Management might call this time theft. I called it solitary confinement.
I needed to fill the empty space I was staring in with something.
I squeezed my eyes shut until I saw the three blinking dots that signified the lenses were booting.
I’d always liked the Oracle Eyes startup animation. I couldn’t wait to see those blue warp-drive lines whiz through my work environment, followed by the slogan Oracle Eyes: See into the future.
What I saw was something different.
A green fluid seeped out from my work terminal, streaking downing my monitor like slime. I reached out to touch it only to feel a dry spot. The fluid spilled over the terminal, drowned the keyboard, and trickled over the desk. The floor filled with foam and boiled over. I was ankle deep in what I was seeing, but my socks were as dry as a bone.
Emerald bubbles rose from the flood of sludge. They shot out of every cubicle, filled the meeting rooms, the corner offices, and my vision. The slogan read Oracle Eyes: Double Double Toil and Trouble; Fire burn and Cauldron Bubble.
I could see why this startup animation didn’t test well.
The first time I tried on a pair of Oracle Eyes was at a technology expo in Vegas. The presenter, I think her name was Alyssa, had spilled eye drops down my collar.
Alyssa cupped her hands over her mouth. “Oh my God, it looks like you’re bleeding through your tie.”
I was already asking my phone for the nearest dry cleaner when I felt Alyssa’s hand on my shoulder.
“Come on. Don’t be like that. Trust me, after you try these on a stain on your tie will be the last thing on your mind.”
I followed Alyssa back to the booth where she used an instrument to measure the distance between my upper and lower eyelid.
“Well, bright eyes. Looks like we’re going to need a 15mm.”
Alyssa opened her drawer and set a chrome case on the counter. It looked like it housed a miniature missile launcher. She flipped the case open and dipped a finger into the solution.
“Keep your eyes open for me.”
It was a strange sensation feeling pressure on my eyes, being suddenly aware of their curvature.
A Cheshire Cat smile stretched across Alyssa’s face. “Now these have a micro gyroscope, which means they know what direction you’re facing. Your applications will remain in the same place you were when you turned them on.”
Alyssa guided me toward the window, to the orange and blue backdrop of Vegas at sunset.
I nodded. “And how do I turn them on?”
Alyssa whispered over my shoulder.
“Close your eyes. Click your heels together and say, ‘There’s no place like home.’”
I squeezed my eyes shut, click my heels, and muttered.
“It doesn’t work if you whisper. You have to really mean it.”
I cracked a smile. “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”
Alyssa giggled. “Yeah, they don’t have a microphone.”
The home screen appeared over the Nevada skyline. The applications appeared on a grid of 3D orbs. They looked like hot air balloons floating over the horizon. I turned my head back and forth, but the apps stayed fixed like they were really there in the space.
Alyssa raised an eyebrow. “Oh you haven’t seen anything yet.”
“Why don’t they move with me?”
Alyssa held her hands out in front of her like she was framing a picture. It became clear she was wearing a pair herself. “You can move your home screen wherever you like just by squeezing your eyes shut three times. The apps stay fixed to make it easier to pick the one you want.”
I turned back around to weigh my options. There were: BROWSER, MAPS, PHOTOS, and NEWS. I reached out for the red orb that said NEWS.
Alyssa chuckled. “You’re cute, but that like’s trying reach for the sun.”
“Then how do you do it?”
“You see how the orbs enlarge as you scan over them?”
“Just squint at the one you want to open.”
I squinted at the word NEWS.
The headline NEVEDA AXES SPEED LIMITS FOR DRIVERLESS CARS floated over my head.
The last of the bubbles in my office popped. The green sludge evaporated from the keyboard. Steam rose off of my desk as the applications loaded. These were not the balloons I’d seen in Vegas. They were stones. They didn’t enlarge, but rather, they spun as I scanned them, like I was casting runes in some digital divination.
The application icons were etched into the stones like glyphs. There was a tree with a vast network of roots for the web browser, a carrier pigeon for the mail client, and a sundial for the clock.
The etchings didn’t enlarge when I squinted. They ignited.
I’d read one of the biggest problems augmented reality developers faced was creating objects that users knew didn’t belong in the space. While most designers resorted to using cartoonish models others experimented with the fantastical.
Veiviser, the company that manufactured Oracles Eyes was Norwegian. Perhaps they thought bubbling cauldrons and rune stones were kitsch where they came from. Here in America we took our superstitions seriously. It was 2036 and the ancient rite of exorcism was a rising trend.
In the states technology changed faster than our taboos did.
I looked to a rune stone with a crude scroll etched in. The word NEWS appeared beneath it. I squinted until the scroll burned as bright as the sun. I shut my eyes, but the lens flare effect continued on. Images rushed out of the blinding light: flashes of mourners kneeling at makeshift memorials, militants raising guns to the sky, and politicians behind podiums. I pressed my eyelids hoping to weaken the strobe effect.
When I opened my eyes I saw the Freedom Tower engulfed in flames.
Three volcanic explosions shoot out of it: one at the base, one at the center, and one near the roof. Clouds of fire loomed over the skyline, raining glass in all directions. The photo was busy with smoke, embers, shards. The only reason I recognized the building was that the spire was still standing.
Debris fell like fireworks into the park bellow, right onto the square footprints where the original Twin Towers had been.
The headline read:
3 JETS DESTROY ONE WORLD TRADE CENTER
TERROR RETURNS TO NEW YORK
I sat at my desk with my mouth a gap. I inhaled as much air as possible, stuttered, through each labored breath, and shivered from my shoulders to my lungs.
I wanted my tears to wash the lenses out of my eyes, but the damn things were built to endure them. I spun my chair around but I could still feel that ghastly sight towering behind me. I wanted to fall out of my seat and land in a heap on the carpet, but then I’d have to explain to someone what happened and how I knew about it.
My coworkers had no idea what was going on. How could they? Their web access was restricted and their phones were in bins.
Deb, one of the managers with a corner office, covered her mouth at the sight of something on her monitor. Looks like her Internet didn’t have any filters. When Deb went to close the blinds her eyes were already red.
Out the window, the bank across the street was lowering their flag to half-mast.
Beyond the highway, a commercial jet took off only to perform a U-turn and go back in for a landing. The planes were grounded again just like my father told me they were before I was born.
I kept watching that corner office, expecting Deb to come out and make an announcement, but she didn’t.
I turned around and read as much as I could stomach.
There were no hijackers this time, no boxcutters, or suicidal pilots. None of the passengers called loved ones to speak of a hostage situation.
While the planes looped around the island of Manhattan the pilot of flight 13 demanded air traffic control, “Turn off the automated landing system.”
He figured a glitch was bringing the planes back in. The truth was the flights were hijacked from afar. A hacker exploited a vulnerability in the emergency remote-controls and turned three airbuses into drones.
One WTC was designed with a two-hundred-foot concrete base to absorb a terrorist attack, but not three at once, not crafts of those sizes, carrying that much fuel, coming in that fast. No skyscraper in the world was built for that.
There were reports that everyone from the jihadists to the white nationalists were taking credit for the attack, but none of them could explain how they did it. Each group promised further destruction, but their threats were as empty as their claims. They were like those nut jobs that turned themselves in for murders they didn’t commit for the sheer glory of it.
I don’t know why I though it was weird the attack happened just after I booted my Oracle Eyes for the first time. I kept telling myself that correlation did not imply causation, that my little act of rebellion had nothing to do with that great big one, but I was wrong.
To be continued next week in Newsreelmancer PART 2
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Bad news is depression fuel. The last few months have been tough on everyone. I got sucked into the 24-hour news cycle and spent an unhealthy amount of time watching CNN, filling my eyes with things I can’t unsee.
I wanted to write a story about someone who was struggling to cope with all this bad information.
I realized if I set the Newsreelmancer in the present it would become a story about guns, politics, and modern terrorists. Fertile subjects for discussion, but I didn’t want any of them to take over my theme. So I set Newsreelmancer in the not too distant future, where I imagine bad news will take many different forms.
Follow the blog to read Newsreelmancer PART 2 and find out how the narrator’s news addiction directly relates to stories he’s reading.