Thanks to my friend and colleague Craig Grannell, I’ve been reminded of a short story I wrote for tech site Wareable.com in (I think) 2016. I can’t find it online any more so I’m reposting it here. It’s called The Girl Who Lost Her Glasses.
Kara didn’t notice at first. The apartment temperature was just right. The coffee was ready at the usual time. The shower was hot, but not too hot. Siri told her it’d be a sunny day and that her first lecture was at 10am. But when she stood on the scales, half-expecting bad news after a bit too much pizza last night, nothing happened. The white wall stayed white.
Kara sighed, took off her glasses, pressed the tiny reset button and popped them back on again. “Hello” hovered briefly in front of her eyes, then disappeared. She stood on the scales again.
No weight, no BMI, no body fat composition. No Chart Of Shame gently chiding her about her lack of exercise recently. Nothing.
She popped open the mirrored cabinet and focused on a moisturiser, waiting for the ingredients and warnings to appear. Nothing.
“Hey Siri, can you check my glasses please?”
“Of course, Kara,” the disembodied voice replied. “Your glasses are fully functional.”
“Then why aren’t they working?”
“I’m sorry, Kara, but your eyeCloud account has been suspended.”
“Suspended? What for?”
Kara groaned. She’d meant to pay the sub the other day. Money was always tight but she always paid eventually. She’d never been cut off before.
“Well,” she said. “That sucks.”
It’s funny what you take for granted, she thought. The apartment walls were featureless, painted in neutral colours. The bright wallpaper she’d ben so delighted with wasn’t overlaid any more; the Wall of GIFs that made her laugh most mornings was just a plain wall. The floating heads of Facebook friends and Instagram frenemies were gone too, trapped behind the glass of her phone screen. They still moved and smiled and joked when she tapped on them, of course. But tapping a phone wasn’t the same as waving to somebody in front of you or flipping the bird at an unsuspecting oversharer. It was like trying to communicate with butterflies in a box.
A reminder from Siri: time to leave for college. Kara grabbed her backpack, swiped the lock and headed outside. And after three blocks she realised that she didn’t have the faintest idea where she was.
It was as if somebody had run around the entire town, taking down every shop sign, emptying every shopfront, turning off every advertising billboard. The smells were still there, of course, the ground coffee and the stale beer and the dubious aromas of last night’s revellers. But every building looked the same as every other one. She’d normally follow the luminous Maps arrow past the tattoo parlour and the tablet repair shop, cutting left – or was it right? She couldn’t quite recall – past the impulse supermarket towards the centre of town and the college. But she couldn’t see the tattoo parlour, or the tablet repair shop, or the supermarket. Just endless blank frontages pained the same shades of off-white, street signs faded, missing and occasionally peppered with what looked like small bullet holes.
“Siri, get me an Uber.” She thanked the Lord for the three-day delay between taking the ride and Uber taking payments. She’d have cash by then.
It took Kara a minute to realise she was looking in the wrong place. The familiar Uber indicator wasn’t going to appear in the sky to show where her ride was coming from and how long it’d be. She peered at the tiny car icons on her phone, feeling like Gulliver in a world of tiny cars.
The Uber pod rolled to a halt beside her and opened a side door. She climbed in and waited for the show to start, the so-bad-it’s-good parade of adverts for local businesses, viral hits and quirky news headlines that kept boredom at bay (and at night, kept the passengers awake when they’d had a bit to drink). Nothing. Just bare white walls. Boring, boring white walls.
Great, Kara thought. Just when the day couldn’t get any more crappy I’ve got to sit with a bucket on my head. It wasn’t really a bucket, but it sure felt like one. It was the only spare headset available, it was absolutely ancient and it had clearly been through the wars: it didn’t sit quite right and it kept glitching, the image shearing as the prof talked everyone through the various bits of the human brain. Without it Kara wouldn’t have seen anything. With it, she was beginning to get what promised to be a major headache.
Kara tried to look on the bright side. With no lenses the usual riot of colour in the college hallways wasn’t there to make her headache worse. The advertising that usually inhabited every flat surface floated just out of punching distance was nowhere to be seen.
But neither were the avatars. Walking through campus was usually funny and occasionally disturbing, people presenting with dragon wings or fiery haloes or extra limbs or different genders. Some of the students turned themselves into living works of art; others just chose interesting patterns for skirts or shoes. AR fashion was so fast it could change in a single day, offered up by influencers on Instagram and instantly adopted as avatars. But not today. Without AR, everybody was wearing the same stuff in the same neutral colours, just as Kara was. It was weird seeing people strutting but not what they were strutting about: she passed a half-dozen identically dressed students congratulating one another on their apparently fierce new looks. Apparently beige was the new black: whatever looks they were rocking only existed in their contact lenses.
Kara realised that something else was missing. Information. Normally you’d look at somebody and see their Facebook or Insta, maybe a Tinder icon or a mood indicator or a do not disturb. You’d be able to get the name of their kids or see their great passion or what they’re listening to. Same with vending machines and products in supermarkets: focus, blink, and you see the calories and maybe a serving suggestion and guides to the other things you need for the recipe. But you need your lenses for that.
Kara made it home via another Uber, her phone desperately short of juice: it usually sat in her bag, silently communicating with her glasses. She hardly ever used the screen, but today she’d been reliant on it. She was irritated. Surely it wasn’t too much to ask for a phone to work all day?
She grabbed a bite to eat and sat down for some Netflix. Nope. White wall, no virtual cinema screen until she got her eyeCloud account back online.
Even the dog was missing. Normally she’d be greeted with puppy madness, the kind of joy you only get from animals who think every time you go out you’re never coming back. But Effie was a PerfectPet®, a virtual labrador who didn’t shed, didn’t need fed and wasn’t banned from apartments. No glasses, no Effie.
And that meant no Julie either, or at least not Julie as Kara normally saw her, lounging in an armchair with that husky laugh of hers. They’d set the world to rights later, but with Julie trapped behind the glass of her tablet instead of larger than life over there.
Two days, she thought. Two days before the money’s in and I can get my account back online. Two days. 48 hours. 2,880 minutes. 172,800 seconds.
Just 172,800 seconds to kill.
“Hey, Siri,” she said. “Tell me a story.”
It was going to be a long two days.