Hutch left Manchester with a uni degree and a broken heart, took the vac shuttle southward across the sea into Egypt, then wound up homeless and hungry in the Cairo souk, only half-listening as a large woman in a pink headscarf tried to interest him in her wares.
The glasses were Oakley-Samsungs, used and overpriced, but Hutch felt he had to have them.
“Four-fifty,” he said, in Arabic.
The Cairene woman held up her palms and then shook her head, almost imperceptibly. The card on the table read, LE 1,000.
“My watch, too,” Hutch suggested, pointing to the Fossil timepiece on his wrist. A gift, and an antique, but the thing no longer kept time accurately anyway. What the hell, he thought.
“Five hundred,” she said, eyebrows raised, “and the watch. But it’s not a fair deal.”
“This thing is a collector’s dream,” Hutch said as he unfastened the watch and handed it over, forcing a smile.
The merchant scanned his card for the five hundred, slipped the specs into a cloth carrying sleeve, and gave them to him.
At last, connection with the whole of the world.
He’d been offline for most of the past three years, studying philosophy and then painting at a largely antitechnology institution, and in the meantime had somehow lost touch with who he was, his sense of identity.
Hutch slid the glasses back out of the sleeve and examined them in the sunlight, then tried them on. They self-adjusted to subdue the glare of the midday sun. “Thank you,” he said, and bade the woman farewell.
The whispered caress of wind and sand hastened him on down the street, toward the mosque at the corner of the nearest intersection.
The number one recommended app was a hybridized workhorse: memory extension, cloud data analysis, and cognitive enhancement courtesy of algorithmic game theory. Its developers had dubbed the program Empyreal.
Installation was quick enough. Silent in the midst of a bustling crowd, Hutch kept near the walls to avoid colliding with the sea of worshipers as he calibrated the unfamiliar software.
He wouldn’t go so far as to say that a certain level of aimlessness had landed him here in the Middle East; no, more like . . . an illness of the mind. Obsession, perhaps.
Agatha, the young woman he’d pledged his love to at the university, the first girl to ever hear the word pass his lips, had been killed the week of graduation. Days before she would’ve received her diploma in politics and gone on to face the world and its troubles.
Various associations between the places that surrounded him in the United Kingdom and the memorable events of their affair had for some time rendered Hutch agoraphobic, utterly crippled by depression.
Whenever someone asked, he attributed his anxieties to a newfound sense of the fragility of life, but he knew that there was more to his pain. He had glimpsed the horrifying truth of the universe: Chaos and randomicity were the forces that ultimately drove all life, progress, and motion.
There had been no plan for Agatha. No predetermined path.
So now here he was, riding the ripples of the tragedy ever outward and taking every whimsical detour that presented itself, hoping to one day wash ashore someplace sane.
Hoping to forget.
Much to his amazement, the authorities didn’t disturb Hutch after tourist hours were up. He just sat with his back against the cool stone wall, his legs spread out before him on the smooth marble, and tried for a moment to apprehend the wisdom of the shadows that crept about the mosque after sunset.
Hutch shuddered, felt the too-familiar warmth softening his face. A dull ache in his chest that warned of the coming implosion. He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. An amateur Buddhist at school had once tried to teach him meditation, to center the mind and focus on an object or place of serenity. But for Hutch, the idea of peace now meant the increasingly distant past; it was becoming elusive, almost unimaginable.
His mind raced. Fragments of the underlying anguish, like an iceberg knifing its way through his consciousness. He donned his new spectacles, and their lenses amplified the scarce moon- and starlight, drenching his sight in a glow of surrealistic blue.
While the night passed in a series of windstorms that rattled the streetlamps and signposts outside, he went to work dictating the gaps in his life’s story for the glasses and organizing other personal data into a coherent narrative for the web of social media he’d ignored for so long.
The digital universe asked, and he answered. What better way to pass the time?
His new pair of Oakley-Samsungs worked better than any tablet he’d ever owned, and their interface was surprisingly intuitive. A small camera behind the bridge tracked eye movement for navigation, while neurofeedback sensors along the temple arms responded to the affirmative or more complex commands with a mere effortless thought.
Based on the data he inputted, and the web’s autonomous extrapolation of it, the glasses fed him a continual stream of suggestions for improving his quality of life.
First, they noted that his mental health had been in steady decline following his departure from the University of Manchester. Second, Hutch had three options, given his dwindling account balance: seek counseling and drug therapy at a licensed tranquility clinic, and thereby cure his anxiety disorder; remain in Cairo, seek entry-level employment at the city’s growing medical complex, and risk further emotional deterioration; or enlist for two years of voluntary service in the Egyptian Army, which in all likelihood — ninety percent, the specs estimated — would just exacerbate his situation. Or get him killed.
He amended his public resume to reflect the specifics of his education, including his double-major in philosophy and fine arts, and the glasses displayed an amendment of their own: His option to seek employment in the medical field was no longer viable.
It was either war, or the clinic.
The luminous alphanumerics rearranged themselves to fill his field of vision with these two remaining choices, and Hutch stood up and walked out into the Cairene night and its flow of shuffling denizens beneath a glittering blue-black sky.
She looks to be a few years younger than he, sitting alone on the campus lawn with a pouch of water and a print copy of Dandelion Wine, her feathered pixie cut gleaming in the afternoon sun. Her eyes flick upward from the yellowed pages, and she catches him staring.
“Bradbury, is it?” he says.
There’s a long pause. “He’s the best.” She lifts her head, squinting against the sunlight.
“Certainly one of the best. I’ve always preferred Something Wicked, myself.”
She bites her lip, then says, “That’s probably the only book of his I’ve never read.” She indicates the grass beside her with an upturned palm. “You can have a seat, if you’d like. I left room in my schedule today for strange boys to come by and bother me.”
He can only laugh. Her honesty and sense of humor are attractive enough, to say nothing of her physical beauty. The gravity between them draws him closer, and he sits down next to her.
“I’m Agatha,” she says, offering her hand.
He shakes it, taking great care to be gentle. He can’t help but notice the softness of her skin. “Hutch.”
She laughs, as if it’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard.
“Finals giving you hell yet?” he asks.
“Oh, yes.” She sets her book aside and sits up, elbows on her knees. “That’s why I really should be studying. But of course reading that isn’t assigned by a professor is so much more . . . well, you know how it is. I like to come outdoors to get away from my roommate and catch a breath of freedom. That’s my dorm,” she says, nodding toward the centuries-old brick building over her shoulder.
He smiles and nods, genuinely interested. “What are you studying?”
“Politics. With a Religions and Theology minor.”
“So,” he jokes, “you’re an Orthodox Christian . . . with a gun enthusiast for a father.”
She wrinkles her nose, but fails to hide the smile in her eyes.
“Not quite,” she says.
“All right, then. You tell me about yourself.”
The nurse rolled up his sleeve a few inches, and sterilized the skin on the side of his arm. The smell of alcohol stung his nostrils as she drove a syringe into his triceps.
Hutch felt no pain from the injection itself. The fluid — an engineered cocktail of PKMzeta inhibitors — was transparent, but the dosage looked to be at least ten milliliters. He grew lightheaded as it spread through him like a cool venom; then drew in a slow, deep breath to keep from fainting.
“The first treatment will hit you the hardest,” the nurse explained, in careful English. “You may have trouble sleeping, or even weird nightmares. It’s normal. But the second and final doses won’t affect you much at all.”
He let out the breath he’d been holding. “How many counseling sessions, after today’s?”
“Two. Same drill each time: blood test, drug administration, and then you tell Doctor Sedki your story as best you can.”
“Sounds reasonable,” he said, satisfied. His heart was beating faster. Probably just nerves.
“Take care of yourself,” the nurse said, and then smiled at him. “The therapist will come get you in a moment, if you’ll just head back to the waiting room.”
Hutch stood up and reached for the door.
“Oh,” she said, “and please leave your phone or any other electronic devices at the receptionist’s desk.”
He’s walking back to the dormitory with Duncan and Finlay, and a couple girls they just met at the pub, and the rain is weighing him down like a lead blanket. Too much to drink, he realizes. Way too much.
Finlay’s got a cigarette hanging from his lips, trailing noxious smoke, and as they enter the building and part ways halfway up the staircase, where the second-floor hallway begins, his mates wave goodnight and shuffle down the corridor without a word. He waves back to them, pivots with a squeak of his heel, and staggers up to the third floor.
No one is in his room, so he collapses in a graceless heap without bothering to lock the door. The earth seems to shift beneath him as he falls, and the void opens up inside his head. . . .
She didn’t answer his call, so they went to the pub without her. Just him and the mates. He wonders whether she’s ignoring him intentionally, or if maybe she’s involved with some campus organization he doesn’t know about. Another guy, even. Nothing would surprise him; she is a total mystery, and that is why he thinks of her every moment of every day since the first time he saw her, reading Bradbury on the lawn like some impossibly lovely sprite born of his dreams.
How can a girl like that not have a boyfriend already? As far as he’s concerned, she is utterly perfect.
Hutch can’t quite shake the dizzying confusion. He remembers that two, possibly three faceless girls were with them at the pub — so was she in fact there with him the whole time, and too many pints of Guinness have just burnt her out of the memory?
Yet he does recall a face, pixelated and two-dimensional; a talk via the campus’s spyware-monitored vidphone network. A pair of glossy pink lips mouths something about uni being infested with needless, unwanted chaperones.
And there’s another distant image: an expanse of bare flesh stretched out beneath him in the semidarkness, like some vast snowy landscape viewed from an airship’s cabin. She’s whispering in his ear — half-remembered promises about the world they’ll see together, the one they’ll create — and he’s saying that he loves her and he can’t believe anyone could be so lucky.
This all comes in a blur as he lies drunk and alone in the shadows, ill with the ebb and flow of uncertainty. Wondering whether she was ever there at all.
A moment later, he realizes he’s been humming the melody from a Beatles tune without explanation, something saccharine and hypnotic, but before he can identify which one he falls asleep.
Having examined your revised medical documentation, the specs reported in scrolling neutral blue text, it is clear that the therapy sessions are improving your state of mind. But note the risk of omitting your relationship with Agatha Lee in your global public empyreal.net profile: If there is no record of your love for her, save in your own memory, there exists the possibility that you may forget her entirely. That is what the drug therapy is intended to do, after repeated treatments.
Hutch removed the glasses, and massaged the bridge of his nose.
“So, you’re saying . . . that’s their goal. That’s what Sedki’s hoping for?” He read the lenses without putting them back on, as if they were a dim, unfocused LED screen.
Technically, the doctor is seeking only an improvement in your mental health. And your continued satisfaction with the stress elimination therapy. His data indicate a solid financial and moral standing, and therefore you have no reason to expect anything but the most humane care from him.
Hutch nodded, and took a sip of coffee that scalded the tip of his tongue. He winced.
“Say I don’t,” he whispered. “What then? If I just leave my relationship history with Agatha incomplete forever.”
Then there is a ninety percent probability that you will have no recollection of her whatsoever, pending results from your final session at the tranquility clinic.
One more time, he reflected. Then he would be free of the agony that threatened to tear him apart.
The waiting room doors slid open, and the nurse entered with a smile on her face, but didn’t make eye contact with him. Just said, “Doctor Sedki is ready for you, Mister Hootchins.” He didn’t correct her for butchering his last name.
Instead he told her, “Thank you. I’ll just be a second.” And then set to work trying to find a way to restore the Oakley-Samsungs to their factory-default settings and uninstall Empyreal.
He is standing outdoors by himself in front of the campus library — he doesn’t know why. He faces the road.
Perhaps there’s someone he knows en route to the nearby bus stop; perhaps he’s waiting for them. Driverless cars speed by on shushing tires. Double-deckers trundle noisily past, obscuring entire buildings on the opposite side of the street.
A book he’s been reading on and off for weeks illuminates the tablet in his hand. He sits down on the stone wall encircling the lawn and finds his place in the text.
No more than a heartbeat later, he hears a university coach screech to a stop at the curb across the street. Students in red-and-white attire of various fashions file out onto the sidewalk, each headed toward his or her own destination.
His eyes are drawn involuntarily to one girl in particular: feathered pixie cut, gilded in the sunlight; dressed in a white tunic and black jeans; carrying a tattered paper book, the cover of which he doesn’t recognize.
For a moment their glances meet, and then she steps out to cross the road in his direction.
But she can’t see past the enormous bus beside her as a car swerves to miss it and — before she can even begin to react — crashes into her side, tossing her skyward and striking her a second time in the temple.
The car’s windshield splinters from the force, and her blood traces the cracks. . . .
She falls, helpless, and then disappears behind the vehicle’s globular front end.
After a quick check for more oncoming traffic, Hutch runs into the street, driven by a sudden fierce urgency, and collapses at the young woman’s side.
Blood flows from a gash in her forehead, and her back arches in the first of several violent convulsions. Hutch places his hand gently on the girl’s shoulder, to let her know that she is still among the living. That she’s not been left alone to die.
She fights to lift her head forward, and gazes up at him. Into him. There’s a glimmer of recognition in her pale oceanic eyes, as though she has seen him once or twice before.
The thought unsettles him, cuts at some raw nerve deep in the innermost chamber of his thundering heart. Whoever you are, he thinks, you’re someone’s daughter. Undoubtedly you’re also someone’s lover; maybe the would-be mother of his children.
And she is beautiful, even as she heaves short, quick, panicked breaths.
Hutch reaches down for her hand, seizes it, and she reciprocates his thoughtless grasp. It’s as if she fears the pavement underneath her might fall away at any moment, and he is her only hope for hanging on to the world. But of course she isn’t thinking that; she no longer fears anything.
Shock has rid her of the pain of her injuries, and he feels the strength leaving her fingers.
Her eyes turn away, as if looking heavenward, and despite this Hutch admits to himself that he has never beheld a sight so hellish. So — so final.
Whoever she is, she is gone and will never love or feel or dislike anything, or anyone, ever again. Whoever she might have been . . . will never be, at least not on this plane of existence. Not on this coolly uncaring earth.
He can’t summon the strength for tears, or the breath for words. Instead he vows silently never to forget this moment. To preserve the tragic sense that for the time being he is alive, while others suffer and fight and fade forever from being according to the chaotic whims of all matter and motion, from one fleeting instant to the next.
What I wouldn’t give, he thinks, just to have known you.
About the Author
Alex Kane lives in west-central Illinois, where he works as a freelancer, plays too many first-person shooters, and blogs about culture and technology in his spare time. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, his stories have appeared in Omni, Spark, Digital Science Fiction, and the YA anthology Futuredaze, among other places. Follow him on Twitter @alexjkane.
This story originally appeared in Spark: A Creative Anthology, Vol. IV, Brian Lewis, ed., Empire & Great Jones, January 2014. If you enjoyed it, please consider paying what you wish for it via a PayPal tip to firstname.lastname@example.org.