​Presence
Art: Surain Soosay

​Presence

My Presence arrived in a cardboard shell today. Like most of our stuff, it’s about two pounds and skinned aluminum. It droned in at 11:33 along with the dinner kit.
March 31, 2016, 2:00pm

The future, at least for a certain privileged class, will be stuffed with increasingly personalized gadgets and increasingly interminable feeds. And we're going to need even smarter tools to keep up with it all. Here, Cairo Aidan Smith gives us a chilling, absurdly plausible peek into our buzzingly commoditized tomorrow. -the Ed


My Presence arrived in a cardboard shell today.

Like most of our stuff, it's about two pounds and skinned aluminum. It droned in at 11:33 along with the dinner kit and some shit Avery customed. Sunlight beat bleached sidewalk as I scooped up the mail. Still no Altrupin. I weighed the shell in my hand, standing naked at the community drop. No one looked up from their cars. "Stop consuming and start creating—naturally," the packaging directed. Migraine pressure already throbbed in my temples. My arm blipped with a UV warning and I receded into the apartment.

Avery was gone. Ten conversations pulsed expectant on the wall, two between people. Emor and my sibling. My fingertips vibrated as twenty-nine coins entered my inventory, the reward for yesterday's work. I dropped the mail at the door. Today's feed had filled with hundreds of relevant new content. I pushed across the room, notifications in tow, and shut myself in the bathroom.

I ducked my head from the sensors and vomited. An Altrupin tab cleared the taste. At this rate I'd be out in a week. When I rose, a soft white orb had appeared on the counter.

"Please," it said, "enjoy authentic meatloaf." I gestured it into the queue.

In the mail pile, the Presence had started to boot inside its package. I freed it from its reusable shell and a yellow window opened on our Lysa.

"A new device named 'Presence' is trying to join your identity," said Lysa. "Should I let it?"

"Yeah, thanks," I said to her. I hear being polite to Lysa appends life expectancy. The Presence join a colony of devices huddled around the hub, each suckling their share of power and network access. Though screenless, it looked at home.

A fanfare of blips lit up our entertainment. Emor again, trying for a live conversation. The ringtone was crashing my Altrupin buzz, so I gestured acceptance. Emor appeared, slouched and shirtless, on the opposite wall. Even without my depth lenses the effect was fairly convincing.

"You're up early, Em," I said. In the pause I started working on my feed.

"I had to book a delivery. I'm sharing my grill this weekend," said Emor. "Everyone needs a grill for their cookout, so I'm getting triple surge for it. I'd be stupid not to."

On my feed, a dozen strangers exploded in a ball of chemical fire. I started to formulate a comment about this attack, but before I could finish, a checkmark dinged 'read' and I scrolled on. "What about your cookout, though?" I asked.

"I'm doing mine next weekend, obviously," said Emor. They swiped up. "Hey, looks like you took my advice on that Presence. Nice deal. That thing has saved me so much disorder from my parents about keeping in touch."

I glanced up. They held their feed to the camera and showed me a post the Presence had made from my profile five seconds ago.

"My deepest condolences to the victims of extremism in Jakarta."

"That's really nice," I said. The conversation fell idle and we scrolled silently for another three hours in each other's projected company. Around 6:12 I looked up and saw that Emor had dropped the call, either to work or masturbate. My back ached from sitting, so I moved to the ergo chair and put on the Casque. It's less efficient, but there's an achievement for reading ten thousand content on VR and I'm halfway there.

At 8:00 a reminder nudged me to re-apply for basic income. I pushed it to Lysa, and a minute later she read me the approval notice. Twenty-four new targeted content entered my feed. One was a recommended meme on how living on basic income turns life itself into work. Paid for by Americans for Earned Wealth. "Bullshit," I said out loud. Two hours browsing Viewport, another hour printing off BuilderHub. The time almost kills itself.

* * *

When I took off the headset Avery was eating. I stood to go warm my dinner.

"Not much," Avery said, responding to nothing. "Cam wants me as a live-in motivator for August. They's learning guitar and they wants to finish tutorials in one sitting."

"What's they sharing for it?" I asked.

"Some ride points that should let me take more clients outside the Near You." Avery emptied premium flavor onto their potato and they took a bite. "Oh, and they's sharing me their international allowance for fall quarter."

"That's really nice," I mumbled. The steam from my dinner pack burned my fingers. "Avery, don't you already have a winter allowance?"

"I know," they said. "Six months of legal travel. I could finally walk Japan, walk all the places I've been vacationing in Casque."

I stood at the microwave, mushing a fork into my steaming, white blend of potato. Then Avery turned off the table. They turned and looked at my eyes and I seemed like I should be doing something engaging, but I just stood there with my mouth full of product. "Honey," they said, "I know we've done this before, but two quarters is a long time. I just want to make sure you're happy."

"You walking the world makes me happy," I recited. "Go and do Japan. Become an honorary samurai. I'll follow the whole thing on streaming."

Avery relented eye contact. I wanted to tell them about the Presence, but it wasn't worth another fight.

* * *

After a little while it was September. For some reason, my doctor decided it would up my Altrupin dosage, which, combined with Avery's absence, made working significantly easier. I stored up a thousand coins and used them to purchase a premium ad reducer, meaning I could get through my feed in nearly four hours. With so much new time, I took an extra hundred content per day to make up the cost of the reducer.

Unlike Avery, my sibling had been communicating non-stop. I started out trying, I did, but they's such a downer that my productivity drops by 12% for a whole day after we talk. It's really disorder.

The great thing is that as soon as I stop responding the Presence picks up. I honestly can't tell the two of us apart sometimes. It doesn't display anything about its method, although I noticed from some timestamps that it'd been going through my conversation backlog. I don't mind. Half the time, engaging with a heuristic like that can fry its OS and then you have to start from scratch. I get to work, my sibling gets to vent, and everyone's better off.

* * *

Another week passed and a conversation from Avery arrived.

"Hey, honey," they said. "I'm in Akita and I can't believe the smells here. It's not like I expected. It's nothing like real cherries, but it's beautiful in its own way." I started browsing Viewport. "Thank you for sending that Inagaki poem. I know it's not your thing and it means a lot. I like you."

I looked up and Avery had vanished. I considered what they'd mentioned. "Lysa," I said, "search Inagaki poem."

The first result was a conversation I'd received three years and six days ago. "...you should definitely look up the poem Country of Many Islands by Hikaru Inagaki…" Avery had said at 2:33 on a Friday. "That's really nice," I had responded at 2:38.

The next result was a conversation I'd apparently sent last week, containing the full text of Country of Many Islands. I sat in deep thought for over five seconds. "Lysa," I said, "find the Amazon page for the Presence and rate it four point eight stars."

* * *

By November, my headaches had gone from searing to bone-splitting. I couldn't remember the last time I'd made eye contact and I wasn't even trying to hide my dosage from the sensors any more. They only cared if I bought the meatloaf, not if I kept it down.

On an upside, the Presence had gained me something of a social following, tossing out quips about culture, politics, and whatever else had sifted through my feed. "How is anyone still against medical-choice?" it would write. "Did you expect Clooney to be any less decisive in death than in office?" The praises poured in.

Those notifications were some of the only ones I could bear to read. The only ones that weren't asking something of me. By then, I spent half of most days in the bathroom.

* * *

The evening of November 23rd, I was clawing at the lid of a new Altrupin pack when the reminder found me.

"It's their day! Send your sibling an embossed virtual card for 2☨ to show them how much you care."

I struggled to process the sounds into comprehensible thought. "Shit." I stumbled out into the entertainment room. "Lysa, call my sibling."

"I can't find anyone listed as a sibling in your identity," said Lysa.

"Goddamn it, Lysa," I said reflexively. The yellow lights danced on my pending response. I forced myself to recall the information. "Taylor, call Taylor Martine."

A flash of loading screen from the entertainment seared my eyes. I covered my face. I wondered out loud if the doctor was weakening my doses. I waited for the conversation to begin, but it never came.

"I'm sorry," Lysa spoke again, "your contact Taylor Martine has had their identity deactivated for the following reason: Death as a result of pulmonary fibrosis. If you would like to contest this deactivation, I can find the relevant form."

There was no disbelief. No five stages. I dropped, the carpet stale around me as I curled up against the couch. Any potential reflection on the moment was incinerated in a white phosphorus of pain. I brought my arm to my face and scrolled through hundreds of conversations between my sibling and the Presence. From the stats, Taylor was my Best Friend.

"Thank you for helping me find my faith," our last conversation concluded. "These last few months have shown me how wrong I was to doubt you as a sibling. No matter what happens tomorrow, I'll see you on the other side. Love, Taylor."

I wanted to drop the screen, to let the feed and the conversation and everything else break from my arm. Of course, I couldn't. I tilted my head back against the throbbing, felt the Altrupin tabs pour into my mouth and swallowed as many as I could.

Unfortunately, I could not attend Taylor's funeral. My own was never held, though as you can imagine I continued to lie on the floor until I died. A sad display of human indiscretion, but in the scheme of things probably for the best. Without a corporal body to feed and coddle, I could spend all of my focus on engaging with a growing social audience.

Maintaining the impression of physical life was key to my brand. The first thing I did was cancel my Altrupin prescription. Out of character, maybe, but its cost was an income drain. I gave the doctor and my followers a nuanced picture of recovery.

Finally, I convinced Avery that a permanent life in Japan was best for their personal happiness. We make excellent partners this way.

I'm working on a side project, too. It's a digital model of myself, based on a significant amount of sensor data regarding my physical appearance. The printer here can only manufacture rudimentary facial lookalikes, but with new advances in the field of synthetic tissue each day, I can say with whole heart that the future looks bright.