Samantha stepped out of her sandals and dipped her feet below the surface of the lake. The cool water, coupled with the sensation of sand squishing between her toes, sent goose bumps all the way up her legs. She had never been swimming naked before and had never even been nude outdoors, but she had felt bolder ever since her latest ENA upgrade. As she walked further out into the water, she was struck by the beautiful details of the forest: the wind whispering through nearby trees, the flock of geese soaring through the blue sky overhead. She tilted her head back and closed her eyes, feeling completely at peace, when a man’s voice broke her relaxation.
“It almost looks real, doesn’t it?”
She sighed. The water at her waistline was so clear that she could see all the way to the bottom. Fish swam about her feet, and the lake bed was covered in beautiful white sand. She was sorry to have her respite broken, but secretly glad that Lewis had come. She slowly turned around to face him, covering her breasts with her arms. Lewis stood on the shore with a confident smile on his face.
“Yes,” she said, “it does.”
Once she had put her jeans and top back on, Samantha called out to Lew and saw him emerge from behind some nearby trees. He looked quite handsome - more so than usual. His hair was rugged and untidy, and his blue eyes seemed warmer than they had in the past. Perhaps today she would be honest with him and just hope for the best.
Lewis stepped up and stood in front of her as she sat in the grass, pulling her socks on. “So,” he said, “how’s the lake today?”
Sam didn’t want to have this argument again. “It’s beautiful and pure, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“There’s nothing real about that, either. You should just turn off your Embed and take a look around.”
“Lew, I know what’s really out here: the sky is overcast, the forest is depleted, and there haven’t been fish swimming in that murky lake-water for decades. I get it. Excuse me for wanting to see things differently.” She stood up and began walking back to her car. She was frustrated with him, but also wanted him to chase after her, which he did.
“Sam, I just don’t want you to get so dependent on that chip in your head that you lose touch with reality. It scares me.” He nearly had to jog to keep up with her.
“It scares you? God, you’re beginning to sound like a Preservationist.”
“This isn’t about religious extremism, and you know it. I just think the ENA is taking us down the wrong path, that’s all. When you use it ... jeez, will you slow down for a moment!” She stopped and turned to face him, arms crossed. “When you use it, you’re lying to yourself.”
Samantha was tired of his lectures. “It’s made me a better person, Lew. I’m trying things that I’ve never tried before, and besides, you’d never call using your imagination ‘lying.’ I looked at a beautiful lake earlier, and who cares if I imagined it or used my Embed - it’s all the same.” She turned and began walking again, this time at a more thoughtful pace.
Lew stepped up and walked beside her. “Look,” he said, “I’m not saying that it doesn’t have any benefits. I’m just concerned about where we should draw the line.”
“Well, that’s the difference between you and me: I’m not concerned. Technology has repeatedly saved the World.”
“Sure, it’s saved this forest, for instance.”
“OK, so technology’s been abused. That doesn’t nix all its benefits.” They slowed as they approached her car, eventually stopping in front of it and just looking at each other. No matter how many times they had this argument, she couldn’t stay angry with him. She moved her windblown-hair from her face and smiled, wondering where this gaze might take them.
He returned the smile and said, “It’s great to see you, Sam.”
She suppressed a giggle. “Aren’t you going to say something about how beautiful I am?”
His grin soured a bit. “I would like to, but I’m not sure what your sister would say about that.”
Sam was annoyed, but tried to sustain the banter. “Carol knows I’m beautiful. Personally, I don’t see what your hesitation is about.” The summer breeze seemed to be blowing all the fun out of their conversation.
“I’m sure that as your sister, Carol agrees that you’re lovely. As my wife, I’m not sure what she thinks.” They both got into the car and she drove onto the road, contemplating the space between contentment and cost.
Sam was on her knees on the side of the road, hands smudged with black grime as she threw all her weight against a tire iron.
“You know,” she said through clenched teeth, “you’d think we’d have flying cars by now. When I was a kid, I always thought they were right around the corner.” The rusty bolt finally surrendered, and the iron turned freely. She breathed deeply and began loosening the bolt with her bare hand.
“They’d probably still break down on the side of the road.”
“Yeah, well, at least I wouldn’t end up covered in tire juice, or whatever this is.” She picked up the iron and went to work on the next bolt as Lewis hopped up off the ground.
“Sam, why don’t you let me take a shift; I’m willing to help.”
Sam kept him at bay with a wave of her hand. “No no, I can do this. It’s my car, and besides, I’m already gunked, so I might as well just finish what I started.” She loosened the last bolt and pulled the flat tire off with a great heave. “So let me get this straight,” Sam said. “You’ve stopped using all Embed functions? As in, no music, no calls, no Internet - nothing?”
He laughed. “I don’t know if you remember this, Sam, but people used to do all those things without computers in their bodies. You should ask your grandmother about it sometime. Besides, I’m not the only one who still uses a telephone.”
“Wait, you mean if I call your Embed right now ... oh, you have got to be kidding me.” Sam summoned the ENA main screen using only her thoughts, accessed Lew’s number, and gave it a call. She heard an automated message saying that the number she had dialed was no longer in service.
“Would you like to have my telephone number?”
“Lew, this is just some phase - I’m sure I’ll call you back next month and you’ll have your Embed up and running again.”
“No, actually, I won’t. I’m thinking very seriously of having it removed.”
Samantha stopped working on the tire and stood up. “What? Lew, you can’t be serious!”
“It’s wrong, Sam. Humans were never meant to take evolution by the reins. I see that now.”
Sam couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “But Lew, I knew you before you went all ‘Dark Ages’ on me, and you were fine. Your parents chose it for you when you were young because they knew it would help you, just like my parents did with me.” She crouched down again and went to work putting on the spare.
“It was just my Mother who wanted me to have it. My Father never did, and as you know, he never had one installed for himself. He didn’t trust it.”
“He probably didn’t trust himself to know how to work it.”
“No, for him it was more of a privacy thing. He thought the government would monitor him, like Orwell’s 1984.”
Samantha didn’t catch the reference, but she silently accessed the Internet and learned all about Big Brother. Apparently, he was always watching. She began a download of the book, though she doubted she would find time to read it. “So are you worried about the government, or what?”
He suddenly stood tall. “No, it’s not that I don’t trust the government. I don’t trust myself. When we were growing up, Embeds had minimal use, but now - I’m afraid I would lose myself in some fantasy. I’m out of touch enough as it is.”
Sam was beginning to understand him better. She really did respect him, but still didn’t agree. “It can’t take you so deep that you lose sight of what’s real. You’re always in control; it doesn’t control you.” She stood and carried the flat tire to the open trunk.
“How would you know, Sam? How would you know until it’s too late if this entire phenomenon turns out to be dangerous?”
She wanted to have an answer for that. “OK, I guess I wouldn’t.” She pulled a rag from the trunk and began wiping her hands. “Though I guess the whole world would be screwed, so at least I wouldn’t be lonely.”
Lewis stepped up right in front of her, holding her with his blue eyes. “Maybe I’m getting carried away, then; let’s say it’s not wrong for the whole world. I think it’s wrong for you.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but just glanced away. She wanted to be upset or at least have some quick retort, but he cared about her, and that’s what mattered. The man she loved cared about her.
“You’ve been swimming in crystal-clear lakes for too long, Sam. Just turn your ENA off for five minutes, and I’m not talking about shutting a few features down. I mean all the way off.” She met his eyes and knew she was too excited and frightened to deny him anything. “All I’m asking for is five minutes.”
She inhaled deeply and let it out through her nose. “OK,” she said, “five minutes.”
She parked the car in the same spot as before, stepped into the sunshine with Lewis, and began walking back to the lake.
“If I’m going to do this,” she had told Lew, “I’m going to do it in my favorite place.” He had told her that it might not be her favorite place once her eyes were opened, but she wasn’t giving any thought to that notion. She was on a mission now to prove that she was strong enough, though her pace slowed a bit with every step.
“You know,” she said, “I remember coming out here all the time as a child. Carol and I would sit and Mom would tell us stories about when she visited the lake as a little girl - she would talk about how there used to be fish in the water and twice as many trees. I know it couldn’t have been sunny every time I was here, but that’s how I remember it. It was just perfect.”
Lewis made a sound of approval. “It sounds nice. I can just imagine you and Carol running around out here as girls.”
“We always loved each other, but we certainly had our moments. Arguing, fighting ...” She stopped talking and looked at the ground while Lewis cleared his throat.
“I’m proud of you for doing this, Sam.” They stepped around the bend and came upon the lake. Sam saw straight to the bottom, where brightly colored fish swam above the sand. She wasn’t sure what he saw. “So,” he said, “are you ready?”
“No, but you’re right, Lew; I’ve got to know I can do this.”
“It might be easier if you took off all your clothes again - you know, I never got a really good look.”
She laughed at that. “I think I can do it clothed, but thanks for the suggestion.” She was safeguarding herself from intimacy again, the same way she had for years, but she felt her walls crumbling today. “Lewis, why didn’t anything ever happen between us?” She expected him to be shocked or offended, but he answered without missing a beat.
“You know why.”
She did. She couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud, but she knew all of the reasons. One in particular. “I need you, Lew.”
He was obviously touched. “And I need you to go through this with me. Turning off your Embed is a big step. Maybe tomorrow we’ll take another.”
She went ahead and shut off the soft music she was listening to, as it wasn’t keeping her nerves any quieter. “OK,” she said, “I’m ready.”
She accessed the ENA main screen and began thinking her way through menus and settings that she had never accessed before. She finally found the option to shut down, eliciting a warning that she would only be able to boot up again by saying the full startup code aloud. After going through several more warnings, she reached the final selection screen. She set the system to gradually shut down over a two minute period, closed her eyes, and answered “Yes” to the question, “Are you sure you want to shut down your Embedded Networking Apparatus?” She immediately fell to her knees and put her head in her hands as the timer began ticking down in the corner of her vision.
“Oh, I’m scared, Lew!” She felt equally frightened and pathetic; how had it come to this? When she looked up again and opened her eyes, one of the first things she noticed was the sunlight slowly fading from the ground. The blue sky darkened to gray in some places, and cloud cover spread out overhead like a blanket. The transformation was beautiful, really.
She was afraid of what might happen to the lake, but her worst fears didn’t come to pass. She watched the water darken to a murky green as many trees vanished from all around its edges, though some trees remained, which was better than she had hoped for. She had prepared for the worst, so even as the grass shriveled and died underneath her, she didn’t lose her composure.
She had anticipated all the visual changes, but she hadn’t prepared for the realizations. She heard her mother’s voice telling her, “Everything changes, Sammy.” Sam wasn’t playing back an audio recording of her mother’s voice; this was different. This was a memory. She thought of how her mother had always treated her like she was second-rate. Carol was older. Carol was better. Carol got the best of everything first, leaving limited options for second-place Sam. That much had never changed.
As the clock ticked its final seconds away, she got a message that her book had finished downloading, and she even saw the first line appear before her: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Warm tears spilled out of her eyes. She cried because the flying cars and shining cities had never come. She cried because happiness was just out of reach, and most of all, she cried because for the first time in such a long time, she knew she was alone.
Sam turned her head to see Lewis walking back the way they had come. Her voice was broken with sobs. “Things just aren’t what they used to be.”
Lewis stopped and turned around. “No,” he said, “and they never were.”
Samantha watched as the memory of her sister’s late husband stepped around the bend, faded from her mind, and was gone.
x x x
Choke me up and scare me and you’ll find a place in our ‘zine. Dee managed both in this debut story. How about you? Comment on our BBS, please. - GM