As Nature Intended
I am sick of being watched.
And I’m sick of being listened upon. I’m sick of being monitored, traced, tracked, sensed, known about.
Parents are like that – I realize this. They want to know where you are and what you are doing every minute because they are concerned, because that’s their job, because they love you. Where are you, where were you, where are you going?
My parents love me, I have no doubt, because I have it in writing. I have ten different types of electronic communication informing me that both of my parents do, in fact, love me, and how much. I have archived all of these. .
So, I’m just home from school, standing outside my bedroom door, and I don’t want to go in. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fine, fine room. The best you can buy. It’s just that I don’t feel like being hounded. I want to slip in, flop out, and neither transmit nor receive any communication for a little while.
But that ain’t gonna happen. It’s not that my parents are in my room – it’s worse.
I finally surrender after five minutes with my forehead pressed against the nameplate on my door. I’m sure I have ZANE embedded into my headskin now like a license plate, telling everybody my name backward whether I want them to know it or not. Though maybe if I become ENAZ, things will be different.
I turn the knob and step over the threshold, and it’s like kicking a trip wire into some heavily guarded vault except the alarm is less of a siren thing and more of an arcade/disco/television newsroom.
Zane…Welcome, Zane…Welcome home…You have a message, Zane…How are you?…Why are you late?…You’re awfully warm, are you unwell?
Can I tell you how much I hate that my room knows my temperature?
Very much, that’s how much.
The whole place is buzzing and bleeping because my room is the buzzingest, bleepingest place you can imagine. I don’t have decorations on my walls, no pictures, no wallpaper – I barely even have walls. I have screens. I have projections.
All of my electronic communication apparatus gets kicked on by my simply entering the room. I am wired by my anklet, into the drumming, humming heart of my family’s central control system. My little black band, strapped to my leg and connected with a wire that goes right under my skin and on into who knows what depths of me, runs my whole life. Without even asking me.
So when I step into the room, the computer comes on, the radioweb comes on, the televisual walls come on, split into a multitude of screens that can beam the world’s hot spots right to me. Sometimes I get close-ups of my driveway. Sometimes I get the real-time view of my school gates. Sometimes I get all the action of my cat hunting out in the garden. I get music and sports scoreboards – even though I don’t like sports – and Spanish lessons synchronized to what I am working on in school.
The first panel on the wall, just as I walk in, is my personal barometer. Just numbers and letters blinking on a screen, keeping a running tab on my physical status. In addition to my temperature – which happens now to be 98.7, so really, why the nagging, Room? – it shows my heart rate and blood pressure and glucose levels. The barometer also monitors all variety of vitamins, minerals, chemicals, and microscopic bio-organisms that mean nothing to me, but apparently it’s all important for keeping me alive. My calcium and vitamin A are down at the moment, which means my dinner menu is already being polluted with cauliflower and stinky cheese sauce. Then there’s my personal favorite stat, which I like to call the JohnMon. Please, have a peek:
Anticipated next necessary lavatory visit: seven minutes.
Isn’t that nice of Wall? Thank you, Wall. Just watch. Come seven minutes, I’m holding it, just for spite.
They talk to each other, my anklet and the central control system, not to me. They talk about me, around me. And the results explode all over my walls.
It’s no wonder I get fuzzy sometimes, on where it all ends and I begin.
The screens also provide me with the family unit. My mother is on the televisual wall. Not just here, but on other people’s televisuals, too. She’s a Newsmama. My father is That Voice on the national radioweb, explaining the modern world to itself with a massive authority that makes everyone believe him. And he is so popular his radioweb program is on the televisual at the same time. It doesn’t make for gripping televisuals, watching him talk into a mic, but his ratings are great because, I guess, people just need to be reassured that he actually exists behind That Voice.
So I get to watch my parents work on screens two and four. And then, on screen five, I get a personal greeting from my mother, running right alongside professional Mom, asking me about my day and telling me to burn some ticks out of my dog, Hugo. Screen six has my stupid face, because wherever I go in here, it follows me. Presumably this is my folks’ makeup call for not providing any actual siblings for me to play with, but really I can‘t help noticing there is a difference.
Their other response was animals. In the early days, every birthday, holiday, rainy day, slow news day, I’d get a new pet to keep me company, bring me out of my shell, and emotionally subdue me so I didn’t become too much of a pain. At some point they must have decided that plan wasn’t working since I guess I remained shell-bound and emotionally shapeless. They switched tack, stopped with the pets – though, funny enough, they all still hang around – and went techno on me. They were taking no chances – if I didn’t connect sufficiently with the beasts, I’d be connected by a good old wiring-up. Hello, Room.
It’s very lively and conversational, my room. A voice comes out of nowhere –well not nowhere, exactly, but the giant speaker that is my ceiling – to gently tell me things I need to know. I can even program it to speak in the voice of my choice: my dad’s, my mom’s, even my own. Right now I have it set to scramble, which is random bits of the thousands of voices it knows, chipped together in no particular order. It’s kind of freaky, but it doesn’t get monotonous.
You have a communiqué, Speaker says. Speaker can be very snotty.
“You mean I have a message, Speaker? A message, is that what you mean? Communiqué sounds like a dessert. It’s not time for dessert. Do you mean a message, or is dinner served backward tonight?”
Speaker does not like repeating itself.
I go to my desk, to my actual old-fashioned computer. The thing is almost as big as my bathtub, and just about as versatile. It is madly out-of-date, but it does what I need when all I need is to read or write. My parents fight hard to have the old embarrassment dragged away during our every-six-month technology overhaul, but this is the one place where I hold my ground. I have had it since I was old enough to foul the keys with my peanut butter fingers, and it has sentimental value for me. The background on the screen is an undoctored photo of Hugo’s amazing face, which looks as if I drew him by making dots and lines in the snow. I’ve had Hugo and the computer for exactly the same amount of time, and my parents don’t get my attachment to either.
They don’t understand, because I don’t really tell them. I don’t tell them because they wouldn’t understand. This old box computer is the constant, the thing that when I wake up (and when I wake up, the whole room wakes up), it connects me. To me six months ago, and six months before that. It’s the only piece of gear in the place, actually, that I feel some control over. I feel I am the one working it, instead of it working me.
I slump over at the words on the screen.
Then Speaker nags at me from above. Back straight. Shoulders square, spine straight at the keyboard at all times.
I straighten up. But the slouch is tempting still. My parents like to call me Zany, even though there is nothing zany about me. I am, in fact, very levelheaded.
Anyway, it’s my dad onscreen. He knows I’m home and he has messaged me because he can’t contain himself any longer.
So what do you think? Have you opened it? Do you love it?
That’s when I notice the box on the desk. It’s about the size of a handipak of tissues.
How great is that? he says, and for my dad this is pretty excited.
I open it up and pull it apart, and though I don’t know every in and out of the technology, I know one thing before he even says it, but anyway he says it.
Now you are total is how he puts it. This is the gizmo that pulls it all together, that coordinates all of our communications into one little package so that we can be in touch with each other, with the entire intellectual and emotional universe, at every second of the day. You only have to THINK about talking to your dad, and – poof! – you will be talking to him. No more of this unwieldy, archaic, and frankly embarrassing arrangement where you have to be in your room to access the full power of your life. This is sizzling hot, right off the line, Zane, and you are one of the first to have it anywhere. What do you say to all that?
What do I say? I am staring at the gizmo in my hand, which is, in fact, called, the Gizzard™, “the handheld that comes straight from the center of YOU!” With it comes a tiny wireless earpiece that looks and feels like a hunk of dark blue, well-cooked elbow macaroni.
You’re speechless! Dad says.
When he whips out the exclamation marks, you really need to get out of his way. Anyhow, I figure the best way to agree is to remain speechless.
Good! Great! I am so glad I was able to be here to share this with you!
Only, he’s not here with me. But he’s not far off, either. He is about as close as he gets, which is three doors down the hall in his study/office/zone/studio/contemplation station. I have heard it is a lovely place.
You just get yourself set up there while I go back to work. We’ll talk later. See you, Zany.
I hit the seventh minute and my bladder tells me that, yet again, the wall knew just what it was talking about. I don’t fight it. I do get tempted sometimes, out of pigheadedness. But really, I only embarrass myself.
I press the POWER button on the Gizzard™ and leave it there on the desk.
When I get back, I find it has programmed itself. It’s instantly made itself a member of the team by nagging me.
Password? the little screen blinks at me. Password? Password?
Oh, but there is competition. My mother’s afternoon televisual broadcast has just burst onto the scene. One of her specialty moves is the “In-Depth Celebrity Interview” with some uncelebrated celebrity who turns out to have no depth at all. She treats them very nice, though, because my mother is about the nicest hologram a kid could have.
I swing around in my desk chair to watch my mother, so I can have some material to include later when I write to her that she has done a good job.
Gizzard™ doesn’t like to be ignored, apparently. It beeps. It beeps again. I turn and pick it up to find it has got Password? written all over its neurotic little face. It’s in different fonts and sizes and colors and languages, and it is scrolling itself endlessly down the page.
“Sheesh,” I say, and take it along with me as I wheel-walk myself in my desk chair, closer to my mother’s interview. “And sheesh again,” I say when I see who she is interviewing.
The Vet. Not a heroic war-scarred vet. Our vet, Dr. Gristle. He works on our many pets. In fairness, he is probably as celebrated as a vet can get, since he is a sort of snob society doc who makes you wait a month and a half to get shots unless you happen to be a successful Newsmama who can tell the world how fascinating and brilliant he is. It was one of his appearances with my mother that got him “discovered” by the government. They decided the good doctor was onto something with his electro-animal antics. They were right – he is onto something. And up to something, and behind something as well.
While to me this is the stuff of nightmares, somebody big decided Dr. Gristle was the future, and made him Superundersecretary of State for Animal Bothering and General Creepy Weirdness. I think that’s his title. What I know is that he is a regular vet the same way the CIA is just another phone service provider.
We saw him just the other day, as it happens, to get some kind of microchip shot into Hugo. It was the second time Hugo had been chipped by the guy, in addition to his annual vaccinations, so he doesn’t seem to find him fascinating or brilliant at all. The first chip – known to most of the public as the Gristle Chip, named by you-know-who after himself – was the universal that all pets get, carrying all their data, and code that allows us to control their basic movements from the central command system the way air traffic control does with planes. But this second chip – the Gristle 2.0 – is a kind of trial thing. Dr. Gristle asked if he could put it in, because it was part of his new big scheme for diagnosis and interactivity. The concept is that Hugo’s own body system will communicate directly with his doctor down at the office, and every medical need will be anticipated by the system, with proper treatment planned before the pet’s owners even know anything’s gone goofy. Basically, Hugo will have a barometer just like mine. I might even know when he’s about to precipitate, which would be helpful.
“So, you see, Cynthia,” the big toothy vet is saying now to my mother and the world. “If my work is successful, we will have bridged one of the oldest and most vexing communication problems people face – having their animals tell them, in effect, when something is bothering them.”
Dr. Gristle stares, all big face and eager, right into the camera, like he is expecting an ear scratch and a crunchy treat.
Beep, is what Gizzard™ has to say about it all. Beep, and beep, and beep. Password? Password? Password…
“Fine,” I say, and establish my new all-controlling password without a second’s thought. H-U-G-O, I type.
Gizzard™ kicks into gear, starts computing, controlling, and settling itself into the team. It’s like Room and Speaker have just made a new friend. Now they can all talk about me.
Hugo comes trotting in, sits beside me, and stares. He’s a white hodgepodge of terrier, with a thick, little body and a round, wide whiskery face. It’s like an eclipse of everything in the room when he goes into full stare on me. His face is Westie, though there is some bristly schnauzer floating around in there, and midget Yorkshire and some stout puggish something to boot. No two of his legs are the same length….
“I hate it when you do that,” I say, brushing him away. “It’s like you’re trying to force a confession out of me.”
I turn back to the interview.
“…and it will lead us out of the dark ages of interspecies misunderstanding,” Dr. Gristle says. He is getting very worked up, gesturing toward the sky for some reason, then pointing at the viewers at home, almost jumping out of his chair. “The day will come soon when any pet that does not have The Gristle 2.0 communicator chip inside him will in effect be exiled by his owners to a place of darkness where he cannot be reached by anyone, a cyber no-man’s-land, sentenced to Cyberia, if you will. But with my chip in there…”
Gizzard™ beeps at me, and I look down.
Where is this wonderful Cyberia? Can we go there?
I stare at the message. I look around the room.
Dad? I type.
No answer. I look around again. Up at the screen, where Dr. Gristle is getting further and further animated, while my mother tries to keep him in the chair. I look down at Hugo, who is not staring at me now but instead is watching the show.
Doctor Fathead Vet Jerk. I really wish I’d chewed his fingers off when I had the chance.
That doesn’t sound at all like my father. Or something the Gizzard™ would say on its own.
A double chill runs through me, down my spine and up again, as I stare at the most powerful man in veterinary medicine up on the big screen, then look down and over at my dog.
Hugo is staring at me full-on again. His big, white, hairy circle of a face is like the center of all energy now, and I am drawn to it completely.
Now I can see why you don’t like it when I stare at you. It looks pitiful. Cut it out.
I jump up out of my chair and head for the door. I pass the panel with my vital statistics and find my temperature is now 99, and my blood pressure could launch a satellite.
I rush through the door and slam it behind me. I lean with my back to the door and my dog – or whatever it is – on the other side. From the panting I am doing, you would think the positions were reversed.
Humans have wanted to talk to the animals for thousands of years. You finally get your chance and you run and hide behind the door. Lame.
Fine, he’s got a point, but I’m still frozen.
“He knows my name,” I blurt.
What do I look like, a springer spaniel? I’ve lived here for four years – of course I know your name. You don’t know mine, though.
“That’s ridiculous. Your name is Hugo.”
There you go, pure human arrogance. That’s the name you gave me. My real name, given to me by my own mother, is Narfuffnarfnuffn.
“This is crazy. This isn’t happening, Narf…Nuffin…”
Call me Hugo. Now, get back in the room. We need to talk.
“But you can’t talk – that’s the point. Why is this happening to me now?”
I’ve always been able to talk. You just haven’t been able to listen. Now we’re hooked up. Isn’t that great?
“I don’t know. Is it? Is it great? I do know that you didn’t scare me before, but you sure do now.”
There is a pause. My dog has stopped talking to me. How should a person feel about that? Has anyone even said that before?
I stop leaning against the door, turn, and slowly open it a crack.
There it is. His big Hugo face practically blocking out his little Hugo body. It is so broad and round and white, he looks like a pie pan filled up with whipped cream. He is staring right up at me, tilting his head in the same questioning way he always used before he could actually question.
This is the first time I have been able to put words to that look.
I have to laugh.
Excerpted from CYBERIA © Copyright 2011 by Chris Lynch. Reprinted with permission by Scholastic Paperbacks, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc. All rights reserved.
- Genres: Science Fiction
- paperback: 160 pages
- Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks
- ISBN-10: 0545027969
- ISBN-13: 9780545027960