Short Fiction


Laston Kirkland
December 1, 2012

Ronald hated his job, sometimes.

Sure it was a necessary thing but even so.  He hated this part.

She was not wearing her diagnostics patch.  She had refused to come in for evaluation, and the sensors in her car were reporting it rarely moved.  He did check with the house cloud, using his override code, and it reported that SOMEONE was definitely moving around in there.  Water and power fluctuated on the meters.   

She had set her communications to private.  She wore old AR glasses.  Those old glasses didn’t have any responder signals.  All he could tell was they moved around the house and grounds.

A whole house and a garden.  Wealthy.  Part of his job would be to catalog and assess the value and arrange to distribute the assets.

He sometimes wished the medical privacy act of ‘36 had never occurred, or he would have been able to just check her records to see what work had been done, then run an inference program.  But no medical device except a patch was allowed to transmit and no medical information could be stored.  It did cut down on prejudice, but now you needed the patch.  Especially on old people.  He could run illegal applications as a lot of people did but he was official.  Not allowed.  As an official, everything he saw while on duty was automatically filed.  His vision registered in public records attached to his serial number.

Officially, you had to patch people.  It was the law.

Since she wouldn't talk to anyone online, someone had to go and check up on her and see if she counted.  Her son and grandson were lost years ago and she had no other family.  It was up to him to determine what was next for her.

The sidewalk came right up to the front of the house.  It was free of dirt or decay, but that just meant it had probably been coated with a hydrophobe.  Nothing really got dirty anymore.  Or rusty.  Or weathered.

On the step, he checked his map, two on tall building perches, and five in hover patterns.  There were seven police drones within call range if he needed help.  She could be a rogue or something.  If she was, he’d need all the help he could get.

He rang the doorbell, waited, knocked loudly, waited, and knocked again.  No response.  He sighed.  This might be a bad one.  “Mrs. Wilson! I know you are home.” He wasn’t really expecting an answer.  He scanned the area with his new eyes, infrared and ultraviolet.  He frowned as his UV app glitched out a bit.  Pixelation.  Unheard of.  He might need an adjustment to his eyes.  He hoped that it wouldn’t take long.  He’d pop in later to a hospishop and get it done.

“Go away!”

The voice startled Ronald, it was strong and firm and much closer than he had expected.  Still, a good sign.  She certainly sounded like she was healthy and aware.

“Mrs. Wilson.  I’m Ronald Danner.  I’m your caseworker.” He felt a little awkward talking through the door.

“Jacob Wassisname is my caseworker.”

“No, Jacob Weisse quit over a year ago.  I picked up his caseload, and have sent you multiple  messages which you ignored, and two physical certified letters, which you refused to sign for.” He made a mental note that the name of her caseworker was forgotten.  Another good sign, actually, unless this was deliberate fraud.

“Fine fine.  So you’re my caseworker.  Go away!”

“Mrs. Wilson, I have to run an evaluation, I need you to wear a patch and I have to vouch for you.”

“I’m fine.  Lost the patch somewhere, slip the damn thing in the mail slot, and I’ll put it on.”

“No, Mrs. Wilson, I have to run a series of tests, I have to.  If you don’t cooperate, I’ll be forced to call for police.   Now, unlock your door, and we will do the evaluation that way, OK?  You are a hundred and twenty six years old.  We have to do an evaluation every year now.  Your house is covered by the Honored Elders Act, as are the grounds and all your possessions.  But part of the deal is we have to do the evaluation."

“I’m talking to you.  Why do you need more proof than that?”

Ronald looked up at the sky, “Because my voicemail can have THIS conversation, Mrs. Wilson.  We’ve had vocal response software for decades.  "He sighed again.  This is why he hated this part.  “It’s the law Mrs. Wilson.  I have to.  I have to prove you are still human.” Ronald paused, “And still alive.”

For the longest time, there was silence.  Just as Ronald was reaching up to gesture for a drone and run a lock override–––the door opened.

Mrs. Wilson was standing there, neatly dressed and clean which Ronald thought was another good sign.  She still cared what she looked like.

She had that slightly grey-blue skin tone of those who had been rejuvenated.  Very smooth.  No wrinkles.  Her AR glasses were old, the kind that had a set of digital eyes projected onto the front, a common trick twenty years ago.  Most AR gear were implants nowadays.  It was a one percent operation and everyone did it.  His own eyes were top-of-the-line.

He could already tell she would pass the tests.  She didn’t look more than ten percent–––tops.

“Do I look dead to you?”

“No ma’am, but a visual inspection doesn’t fly, not since the the Shade Tree Retirement Village scam of ‘43.”  

Ronald had helped document that one.  Sixty branch offices, four hundred retirement communities, ten thousand walking dead–––so many of them were over 90 percent–––dead ten years or more.  He would have shuddered if he could.  Some of the lawsuits were still being processed to this day.  The case was integral to the Fifty Percent Inheritance and Social Security Reform Act.

“Imagine that.  You with your shiny skin and big bug eyes!  Making me have to prove I’m human.  Fine, do your tests.”

“Out here?”

She stepped back and gestured to the dining room.

As he walked inside Ronald was appalled at how much STUFF old people had.  Shelves full of physical things that served no purpose other than decoration or to trigger memories.  There were TWO blankets on the couch and images behind physical glass were stuck to all the walls.  She kept FOUR chairs around the table, even though Ronald knew he was likely the first person in the home in years.  It made a lot more sense just to print the chairs when you needed them, as many as you need and recycle them later.  She probably had a dozen cups and plates and glasses and eating utensils.  Old people always did that.  He didn’t understand why.

She sat quietly as he administered the tests even though she was glaring at him.  The patch on her clavicle was applied easily enough.  He checked the readings.  It measured heart rate, oxygen levels, DNA, the chemicals present in her sweat and skin.  Her electrical impulses mapped to exquisite detail.  She had magnetic resonance, sonogram, and passive x-ray.

Her lungs had at one point been replaced but were full biological, grown from her own cells.  That must have cost a fortune.  One of her kidneys was mechanical.  A functioning organ that worked well, so replacing it with bio made little sense, and cost so much.  Her skin had been replaced, that was obvious.  It caused the grey color, but removed all the wrinkles, blemishes, and any sagging.  A little nano in the blood, probably just respirocytes and hyper whites, very common.  Only a few failing organs that would need replacing in a year or two and she might want to add a little nano to her bones, some osteoporosis that needed reversing.  OK.  Things were looking OK.

Looks like she was only eight percent cyborg.  That was well within accepted range.  Ronald wouldn’t need to do anything.  Great news.  Ronald himself was thirty percent.  He’d replaced his skin years ago for a composite of silicon and tungsten with a digital layer allowing high resolution pigmentation and projection.  Looked great, better than bio.  And he didn’t have a heart beat having replaced his heart with a continuous flow pump.  With that and a good pair of augmentation eyes, a memory implant and a meshlink?  He had the same quality make and model respirocytes Mrs. Wilson did and so he knew they both were good to go for a long, long time.

He was careful, not anywhere near fifty percent.  He was smart not to swap out too much of his brain.  Everyone knew the legal limits.  Get near those numbers?  You might lose the ability to call yourself human anymore.  Not Ronald, no way!  Iinheritance rules took immediate effect, estate sales were done, taxes collected.  Of course only the VERY wealthy could afford bio.  But if you were careful, good replacements almost never wore out.

And what was the worst that could happen anyway?  Most cyborgs considered it a fair trade.  Immortality vs. the loss of material possessions?  He’d deal with that when he got there.  But it was strange how some people thought it was so important.  OK, this was a good day.  No need for any changes.  Ronald was satisfied.  She’d be keeping her stuff.  He checked her patch.  It was working fine.  Time to get on with the next job.

He was glad things had worked out.  He hated having to tell some people they didn’t count as human anymore.  Some just didn’t take it very well.

Or worse, there were those who had extensive modifications, including memory and speech implants.  It was hard trying to convince a cyborg that they had died!  They tended to just go through the motions, following subroutines that had once been habits.  Dead, but moving around.  Zombies, really.

On those days, Ronald would have to find out if any personality or autonomous thought still existed in the cyborg corpse.  If not, then he might have to call for some back-up.  Rare.  Then it was pretty easy.  Just upload a control program and walk with the body to an assessment center, where they would determine if the cyborg parts could or should be recycled.  He could file the paperwork in his sleep he’d done it so many times and just go about recovering and redistributing any assets they had.  In the old days, it was even easier, they used to bury them intact.  But other people were digging them up for spare parts.  That’s when the Graverobber Act of ‘40 made it illegal to bury recoverable augmentation.  Just made common sense.  Why waste a perfectly good silicon and tungsten?  That stuff was NOT cheap!

His toughest days were if he found autonomous thought in someone over fifty percent, then the cyborg would be declared sentient but no longer human.  Ronald tried not to think about those days.  It would be sent to join an enclave of other AI’s, its personality merged with many others to keep it from going rogue and becoming an anomaly danger.  Lucky for him, that was not his job.  Ronald turned when the patch program, “dinged.”  

Job was done, time to go.  No danger of Cyborg or death with Mrs. Wilson.  As he logged out of the diagnostics, he looked around the amazing clutter of the house and idly asked her,  “Why don’t you go outside anymore Mrs. Wilson?”

“Oh, I hate it out there, everyone a cyborg, silver and gold, weird looking.  Clothes painted on and everyone everywhere connected and talking to each other but never out loud.  Nope, I’m staying in my house.”

“So what do you do all day?”

She glared at him defiantly, “I play with my grandson, Jim.”

Ronald went quiet, his display was showing him that Jim Wilson had died at the age of sixteen.  “Excuse me?”

“I spend at least two hours each day playing with Jim.  Usually longer.  I raised him when his father died.”

Ronald checked the patch, no tell tale signs of dementia, schizophrenia, or hallucinogens.  She had no brain implants and the EEG readings indicated normal patterns.

He looked up at her, intrigued.  “Explain.”

“Your fancy eyes do old-school wimax four transfers?”  

Ronald checked.  “Yes, it’s supported.”

“My son David was very into AR back when it was new.  We were the first people to get these glasses and we put cameras up in every room.  David and his wife died when Jim was still a baby.  This is May 16th, 2019, when Jim took his first steps.”

Ronald accepted the signal and gasped.  Suddenly the entire house looked brand new.  Crawling on the floor, surrounded by cloth and plastic toys, was a baby.  Looking and sounding real.

He was quite used to video feeds, but for the last thirty years or so, such signals were deliberately translucent and off color, to aid in differentiating reality from imagery.  These old glasses were displaying a level of quality that had been illegal for years.  Ever since the AR virus attacks of the '40’s, it was absolutely forbidden to make any sensory recording indistinguishable from reality.  By the end of that decade only illegal equipment even had the capability.  This legacy stuff was the most valuable tech he’d ever seen before.  But it wasn’t illegal, not if you bought it when it came out.  Still.

The baby stood up from the toys, cooed, looked directly at Ronald and wobbled very slowly toward him.  Just before he toppled over onto the wooden floor, Ronald reached out to catch him.  The baby fell right through his hands.  It had been a long time since he’d even seen a baby.  They were so rare.  The licensing requirements alone were so expensive.

Mrs. Wilson picked the crying child up or at least pretended to, holding her hands as if she was carrying the squalling child and began to croon to him.  He quieted down and then the baby laughed.  Now there was a sound you don’t hear every day, Ronald thought.  She stopped suddenly and looked directly at Ronald.  With a gesture the room was back to its slightly dilapidated and aged state.

Ronald blinked again.  He wasn’t used to this level of detail.

“Wow!”  Ronald looked at her.  He was going to tell her how much all this legacy stuff was worth but before he could speak, she interrupted him––

“Let me show you July 3rd, 2021, fireworks.”

A small boy, blonde with curly hair, was jumping up and down and looking up at Ronald with wide eyes,  “Firewoks! Gramma! I hear pop pop pop.”  And so did Ronald, a staccato sizzling sound from outside.

Mrs. Wilson smiled and said in exact lip sync to the projected image, “Yes Jim, but the real fireworks happen tomorrow.”  A loud explosion happened nearby making Ronald jump.  Jim squealed and clapped his hands, running to the window, “Firewoks!”

Ronald walked over to the window, marvelling at how seamless the video was, matching his every movement.   Jim was perfect, even as he moved to angle his vision in unusual ways, looking for some evidence of rendering.     When he looked out the window, he could see the same fireworks going off in the distance.  A dozen people firing explosives into the air in an empty lot across the street.  That had been outlawed forever.  He’d never seen such a thing.

Again the child vanished.  Across the street where the lot used to be was an apartment hostel, two hundred identical twenty by twenty by ten rooms.  Arranged in three floors.  Ronald lived in one very much like them.

Mrs. WIlson looked at Ronald, “There were sixty-five cameras in the house and another twenty-six in the back yard.  I’ve recorded and stored every moment I had with Jim.” Mrs. WIlson took her glasses off for a moment, showing ancient and sunken eyes.  Skin transplants never seemed to really work around the eyes.  The patch had pointed out that they worked fine but, aesthetically, Ronald thought she might want to get them replaced.   “Let’s go into the garden.”

As they walked into the backyard, Ronald could see ancient fruit trees surrounded by patches of dozens of different herbs and perennial vegetables, walking paths of brick and ground-cover.  This was an old garden, full of lots of hybrids and heritages.  Ronald spotted at least ten hexapod robots tending the plants, none of them larger than a cat.  It smelled wonderful.  “You know, you might want to get a DNA catalog done of this place, you could have an unregistered gene sequence, if they find one, you could be wealthy.”

Mrs. Wilson just gave him an annoyed look.  “I did that twenty years ago.  I had thirty seven new catalog entries, one viable enough that it was sold to one of the colonies.  They grow my cucumbers on the moon.”

She made the same gesture as before and Ronald accepted another input.  Mrs. Wilson said, “This was September 25th, 2027.”  

Again the sudden shift in reality.  A young boy hung upside down on a much younger apple tree, “Gramma I’ll get you a good one!”

“You be careful now,” came a sound that seemed to come out of Ronald, but echoed by Mrs. Wilson, standing by him.

Jim monkeyed up the tree in total fearlessness, grabbing apples and tossing them down.  Ronald watched as slender arms coming out of his own chest caught them and put them in a basket.  He took a step to the left, and Jim adjusted his aim, throwing the apples to him.  Ronald started to shuffle and dodge.  Jim giggled, and threw harder, again the slender arms of a younger Mrs. Wilson caught each and every one.

Jim slipped and fell, bouncing off branches on the way down, thumping down in a crashing, flailing chaos of arms and legs.  Ronald moved toward Jim in unison with the image super imposed upon him.   

Jim recovered on the last branch and landed with his legs under him.  He tucked into a roll and popped up with a, “Tada!”

Ronald felt something like relief.  Mrs. Wilson’s scolding words came out of his mouth.

She led him from one room to another, in and out of the backyard, showing bits and snatches of her life with Jim.  Helping him with schoolwork, his first date, playing board games, arguing over chores, whispering secrets.

She explained that she had enough footage of Jim, in so much detail, that the computers embedded in her home could even easily render situations and scenarios that never actually happened.  So, she could pick a day, any day, and have any number of encounters with Jim, mixed and looped and rendered.

Finally, she showed him an image of a young confident man, smiling as he waved behind him, “Don’t wait up, Gramma, gonna be awhile before I come home.”  With that, Jim left the house with a spring in his step.

“Jim died in a violent attack, twenty minutes later.  An explosive.  It wasn’t targeted at him.  The bomber was protesting against the loss of jobs to robots.”

“No footage of Jim exists after that, of course.”  Ronald knew from the file that the damage rendered Jim over sixty percent cyborg, including a good chunk of his brain.  Almost no memory or perception, but the rest was good enough to continue functions so he’d been sent out to merge.  Ronald could not remember where.

“He’s part of a gestalt in New Mexico now, sharing consciousness with some six hundred other cyborgs.  He may be still walking, but Jim died that day.  I even went to see him once.  He didn’t recognize me, of course.  As part of a collective he doesn’t really think, he’s just a mobile platform really.  He’s over 90 percent now.  They just kept the brain stem.”

She continued, “Any rendering I try doesn’t feel right past that point.  So I can have Jim at any moment in his life up until that moment.“

“As you can see, Ronald Danner, I’m perfectly fine.  My health is good.  I don’t leave the house much anymore because Jim can’t come with me.  I have not modified my mind or my body too much and I still count as human.”

Ronald nodded as he left, “You most certainly do, Mrs. Wilson.  You most certainly do.  Thank you, it was really quite pleasant playing with Jim.  I enjoyed this very much.  Life was so very different back then.  Have a good day.”

Ronald loved his job, sometimes.

He wondered if he could request the time be removed from public records, he could maybe sell his afternoon with Jim and Mrs. Wilson.  It sure was a rare experience to have had such high quality AR that wasn’t illegal as hell.  He’d call it, “Playing with Jim.”  Maybe it wasn’t legal, he’d have to check it out.

As soon as Mrs. Wilson closed the door, her image shimmered and faded.  A desiccated husk stood there.    Tubes pumping nutrients into various mechanical components, very little flesh remained.  A full ninety percent cyborg.  The brain long ago devoid of thought.  Used only for processing now.

Jim, now the house computer, did the AI equivalent of a sigh.  Cameras watched Ronald walk away.  He’d been preparing for this visit since Ronald first overrode his first level of security to scan for movement.

It was getting harder to hack the video streams of visitors.  Lucky for Jim, Ronald Danner had full video and auditory implants.  Jim had tracked his public feed down and replicated it.  Then managed to intercept the feed of Ron’s eyes just in time.  The real problem is faking the UV spectrum, but other than that, he had no trouble.

After that it didn’t matter anymore what Ronald saw.  Jim got to the patch just in time to synthesize correct results for all of the data on his grandmother.  He had to keep Ronald unaware and physically present while he processed it all.  He had to build a fully virtual patch that would happily upload signal for years to come of Mrs. Wilson, in perfect health.  Then get Ronald to accept the new inputs.

If he had not done that, then social inspector/insurance claims adjuster Danner would have taken her away and dismantled her.  And then he would have dismantled the house, redistributing the assets.  Then he would have merged Jim’s AI personality with others to prevent anomalies.

He needed the house.  It was important.  If they took it away, how could he play with his grandmother?

Laston Kirkland

Laston lives in a small two bedroom apartment with his wife, three daughters and an old cat. He writes with one hand, gently holding the rest of the world at bay with the other.  He's fond of tabletop boardgames and all things nerdy. 

Note on PhotoSculpturist Pépé Grégoire:

Photosculpture: The manufacture of photo sculptures is an intensive and laborious creative process. The detached 3D shapes in stainless steel or aluminum plate and equipped with one from photo-fragments existing skin. These fragments are based on color, content and form selected so that a kaleidoscopic collage created. There is no single integrated picture to see, there are only parts of the photography used to them in conjunction with other fragments a new meaning. With this painterly act is sculpture to photography united.

                                                                                                                 ––Pépé Grégoire         

How to contact the artist:  Send email to Drs. Eva Mennes, Aesthetics Editor, The Journal for Social Era Knowledge

Eva Mennes <>

The photosculpture on this page is entitled, 'Jaws 4.'  

    Available in height 100 cm and 200 cm 

    PhotoSculpture - material aluminum / photo collage

    To be seen at the studio of Pépé Grégoire in Laren, The Netherlands.