I was fortunate enough to meet Ani Paoletti via Twitter when she noted she was providing free book covers for writers during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve been searching for an artist to help me with cover are for a long time through Twitter and DeviantArt with no luck to date. I sent a note to Ani and she helped put together the cover below for my short story, HUMAN – which originally appeared in Kyanite Press last year. This cover exceeded my expectations and I wanted to share it.
I’ll be doing an interview with Ani in the coming weeks, serving as another entry in the Interviews from the Void series.
Read on to explore the world of HUMAN. I hope you enjoy it. Be sure to reach out to Ani if you need cover art assistance.
In the near future, we’ve overcome the limitations of non homogeneous communication. A man lost in his life and career hopes to get the latest HUMAN-SIM upgrade and get promoted at work, with unexpected consequences…
My brain processor lagged.
Susan – the barista who always took my order – told me the price for my regular, black coffee. It was always $9.56. My Human-SIM integrator card already released $9.56 from my account and transferred it to the café.
Yet something was wrong.
“Scott, I’m afraid prices went up today.”
“They did?” I asked after a brief delay. Maybe I had a poor connection to the network. The café was one of the older buildings in the city – still made from 20th Century brick – which sometimes blocked signals to our Human-SIM cards, but I didn’t think that was the problem. EnterpriseGlobal, the monopolistic manufacturer of the Human-SIM cards and the associated network, would’ve ensured the common places of the city – such as cafes – had coverage.
“Yes, I just said that,” Susan said, her smile shifting into annoyance – perhaps showing more than she intended. I felt small, realizing I was the source of her irritation.
Then I realized the problem: it took me an additional two milliseconds to fragment the new pieces of information in the conversation. My Human-SIM card was too slow for Susan’s conversation rate, causing my mind to take longer to process the new price.
“I’m sorry,” I said, then transferred the remaining cents. I took my coffee from the counter, feeling eyes on me as I exited the café back to the city streets.
It rained outside. I didn’t shrug my shoulders against the drops falling upon me. I sighed, sipped my coffee and tried not to think about the conversation inside the café. I focused instead on the sound of the rain. The city seemed to sing as raindrops clanged off the metal panels enclosing almost every building lining the street.
I just said that.
Susan’s voice popped back into my mind. My mental processing lag was embarrassing. Something was wrong with me.
Then an advertisement came in like a distracted thought.
“Process conversations faster. Don’t be left behind.”
In exchange for discounted fees, I had given EnterpriseGlobal permission to monitor my conscious thoughts and use the information to improve their systems. This was the downside: when they thought a new product of theirs would benefit me – based on their automated review of my thoughts – they would politely provide an advertisement for a new upgrade or product. Normally I could suppress it with ease, but today the advertisement caught me with my guard down.
“Be the smart one in the group.”
I looked up at the many digital billboards lining the street. Several of them played the video associated with the mental advertisement. The scene showed a woman at a table with her friends in a fancy restaurant. Each of her friends bent close to her, listening intently as she shared some knowledge that she was able to access over the network faster than the others at the table.
Then an image of a smiling woman appeared from behind the scene of the girls at the table. The woman was shaking a man’s hand. The new Human-SIM card appeared between them, spinning slowly in the background of the smiling man and woman.
“Upgrade to the new Human-10 card. Call today and receive a 10% discount.”
“There’s no way I can afford that,” I said to myself, loathing that I wasn’t one of those smiling people in the ad.
“And we’re proud to announce that EnterpriseGlobal now accepts payment plans when you upgrade from Version 8 or older.”
Version 10 had recently been released. My wife also had 7. Most of my friends were 8 or 9.
I realized I still stood outside the café. I needed to get to work. Letting myself get so involved in an advertisement only added to my growing mountain of shame. As I walked to my office in the rain, I pushed the feelings of self-doubt down into the dark abyss of my mind.
As I continued my walk to work, I looked up at the buildings as they reached into the clouds high above. The city seemed to glisten and shine, even under the cover of storm clouds. Automated transports moved quietly through the center of the street corridors between the buildings, the sound of their electric motors inaudible under the rain. I turned a corner, feeling another advertisement coming, but I was more aware this time. I refused to acknowledge it and the visions of Human-10 dissipated as I entered my building.
My first meeting of the day was a big one. I had been preparing for it the past two weeks. I dropped my bag at my desk then carried my papers into the large conference room. It was already full of people I didn’t recognize. Even though I was fifteen minutes early, I felt late. I walked around the table, introducing myself. Then I sat and took one last sip of my coffee. The dark roast gave me a warmth I hadn’t felt all day.
I started the meeting. I got through two minutes of material before someone asked a question. Suddenly everyone was talking over one another. I couldn’t keep track of the conversation – correction, conversations – but somehow everyone seemed to understand one another. What started as a side conversation between my boss’s boss and one of our vice presidents turned into a discussion including everyone at the table.
Except for me. My brain was stuck on a question someone asked earlier, but the question was forgotten when the side conversation quickly became more interesting than what I brought to the meeting. I searched and searched using all the bandwidth I could gather, but I couldn’t find an answer.
There I was, in a meeting with my superiors, trying to keep up mentally while portraying myself in a good light; hoping everyone at the table thought I deserved to be there. I felt like a failure. Everyone in the room seemed to speak another language; a version of English I didn’t understand.
A version of English understood by those with Human-10, I realized. Before someone finished his or her sentence, another cut them off, immediately knowing how the sentence would finish. No one seemed offended by being interrupted.
This was the moment I started to consider an upgrade from 7 to 10 more seriously. I didn’t have the latest firmware to be able to keep up with these kinds of conversations – in a room full of Human-10 upgrades. My version of the processor was out of date.
I was out of date.
I went through my accounts while the conversational mayhem carried on. I’d have to spend most of my family’s savings to upgrade to Human-10.
Suddenly the room was quiet. The conversation had ended and everyone was looking at me as if I was an alien. I certainly felt like one.
“Scott, no additional thoughts? What do you think?”
Someone had asked me a question. I didn’t know who. How long ago had it been asked? A millisecond? A second? The room was now full of impatient looks as everyone waited for me to respond. I was nowhere near ready to give a response. Not only had I been lost in my own thoughts, I was still stuck on that question from the beginning. I couldn’t bring that up or ask for clarification. It would make me seem even more like the under-performer I was afraid of being perceived as.
Milliseconds went by like years. I was wasting everyone’s time. There was a lot of money in that room being lost in those tiny chunks of time; money in the form of presidents and vice presidents of my employer, slowly disintegrating out of the fabric of the universe.
“You are the experts,” I said, taking a huge conversational risk. “I’m here to present the information and defer to you and your expertise on how you want to handle the situation.”
More silence followed. My response was a defensive conversational wall. Neither would it portray me as a failure – because I was deferring to their expertise and thus feeding their egos – nor would I be taking charge or trying to make someone think I understood the concept when in truth I didn’t.
Then they were all talking again. I had succeeded in remaining just as I was: no upward or downward movement. Whether this outcome was good or bad, I leave to someone else much wiser than I to decide.
The meeting ended. I left the office, walking again in the rain. I was tired; tired of feeling like I was always behind. I wasn’t trying to get ahead anymore. I was merely trying to keep up. Yet someone else was always ahead of me, having a new piece of information that would be readily listened to.
Down the street from my office was a bar where I met friends once a week. I entered, seeing them already at our usual table in the back corner.
“Hey guys,” I said as I sat down to join them. Two of them didn’t look at me – they were in a deep debate about a recent study on time – but I received a mental notification that they acknowledged my presence. My third friend looked at me, making eye contact and smiling.
“Hey, Scott. Longer day today?”
“Yeah. My meeting was horrible.” I took a drink from my beer which had been waiting all day for me and I for it. The taste was soothing; the crispness of the bubbles refreshing. I wondered what it would be like if I had more mental capacity to process taste. I bet that came with Human-10. How would taste be enhanced if I had more bandwidth?
My third friend and I listened in on the conversation between my other friends.
“Time is moving faster,” one said.
“There’s no proof in the study,” the other replied. I started to search for information on the topic. My connection to the network here was strong, thus I thought I’d find something interesting to share with them.
“I found this article,” one of them began. He shared it with all of us. It was the same article I had been looking for. How did he find it faster than me? My third friend saw the confused look on my face.
“They both have Human-10,” he said in a hushed tone. That explained everything. I lost track of their conversation in that millisecond and I was out of it forever.
I left shortly thereafter feeling frustrated. I felt unimportant in every situation I’d been in that day.
“Keep up with your friends!”
I walked by that advertisement again and the slogans were back in my mind.
“Be the one who knows it all!”
“Be the best conversationalist!”
“Tackle more at work!”
“Human-10 allows you to sleep one less hour each night!”
“Impress your boss!”
“Do more with less sleep and provide more for your family!”
The last one got me.
“Provide more for your family!”
Human-10 would improve my performance at work. Maybe I could get a raise. And that extra hour per night at home would be great for my wife and I.
I started calculating. With a raise of 5% – just one promotion – I could pay off the upgrade in three years. As I started to justify my pending decision, my thoughts ran rampant. I’ll get it on my way home tomorrow. I’ll surprise her. She’ll be so happy. Review time was approaching at work. My boss will think better of me. He’ll give me more responsibility.
“Sign up today and get a 10% discount!”
I couldn’t wait for tomorrow. I needed to get the upgrade now.
I connected to the phone number from the advertisement.
“Mr. Allenson,” a voice said. “Thank you for calling EnterpriseGlobal. How may I help you?”
I’d like to say I stopped there; that I didn’t go through with it. I wish I could say I didn’t spend three quarters of my family’s savings for Human-10. I needed to think faster if I was to be more successful at work and support my family. My wife deserved better than what my current bandwidth could offer. Human-10 would allow me to be more patient with my son.
“I’d like to come in for Human-10,” I said.
“Please stop into one of our remote offices and they will help you there. The upgrade is too large to send over our networks.”
It wasn’t much later that I was at one of EnterpriseGlobal’s remote offices near my home.
“Scott, Human-10 is a permanent upgrade. Before we replace the hardware, we need verbal confirmation from you that you understand and agree you can’t restore to a previous version.”
“I agree,” I said.
“Thank you,” a voice said. “Also, you won’t see the new updates until tomorrow morning. We implant the new hardware here, then we perform a remote reset over the network while you sleep. It’s a lot of data to process.”
“I understand,” I said.
“Here we go.”
I heard a click. Then my mind was off. It was strange to think of nothing. Even though my eyes could see, nothing processed in my brain as my mind fluttered. I saw the desk in front of me with a half-full cup of vitamin liquids. I watched my hands twitch during the brief out-of-body experience.
It was over quickly. I felt the same as I did before. I wanted to feel something different. The same sense of daily dread was like drowning underwater, watching everyone above on the surface as they processed task after task, never noticing me when I fell overboard.
I entered the door to our home. It was warm and dry. There was a sunny feeling to it. A fire illuminated the living room. Our new baby boy sat at the table, smiling and cooing as I entered the kitchen. His face was a battlefield of smashed dinner. He nose-dived a spoon full of gravy into the table, laughing.
“Hi, my love,” my wife said. I hugged her. She sighed, falling into me, saying: “I’ve been waiting to hug you all day.”
“Me too,” I said, but my mind was elsewhere. I kept thinking about the conversations I might have tomorrow at work. I smelled food, but I didn’t know what it was. All my bandwidth was still theorizing about tomorrow. When would I tell her I spent all our money? How would I say it? There was never a good time for these types of things. That’s when it became clear I hadn’t thought this through all the way. Only if I would have had Human-10, I could have planned for this conversation. I added the thought to my growing list of justifications.
“Will you sit down with me?” she said. There was concern in her expression. Something was wrong.
“Sure,” I said slowly. We sat at the table on the corner opposite our son. She reached for my hand and held it.
“Our doctor’s visit,” she started, looking into my eyes.
My stomach churned as if I swallowed a rock. I’d forgotten about our son’s appointment. I again blamed my current Human-SIM card with Version 7.
“What happened?” I asked, my mental focus shifting like a 20th Century manual automobile.
“He has leukemia,” she said. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Honey,” I said, holding her close over the corner of the table, but I looked far away. Past the walls of our home and beyond. There was one problem now which made my decision earlier to upgrade to Human-10 even worse: doctor’s bills and hospital stays weren’t free.
What should I tell her? I thought. My wife continued speaking but the words didn’t register. Human-7 didn’t allow me to process two things at once very well.
What if I didn’t tell her?
Our eyes met.
I didn’t tell her.
I woke at 4am. One hour earlier than my alarm. I blinked. My eyes didn’t fight back. I felt rested even though I had less sleep. I didn’t have the lazy limbs I felt each morning. I had new vigor and motivation.
I got dressed and ate breakfast, focused on the day ahead and already forgetting the previous night; the conversations and disappointments buried under my excitement.
I had Human-10.
I made my daily stop for coffee, hoping to avoid another irritated Susan. The coffee tasted different. I asked her if it was the same.
“Yes,” she said, and the familiar look of annoyance returned. I left the café, sipping my usual dark roast, wondering if the taste would grow on me. It seemed watery. I tossed the coffee in a waste basket outside my building.
There were more follow-up meetings at work. The discussions were an opportunity for me to present additional material showing how we can improve several internal processes. I felt valued. After the last meeting of the day, my boss called me into his office.
“You did really well today,” he said. “What you presented will save the company a lot of money.”
“Thank you,” I said.
A block of text entered my mind. I consumed it all at once. No longer did I have to sequentially read each word. Human-10 allowed me to process the entire chunk.
I’d got a promotion.
“You’ve earned it,” my boss said.
My son screamed. I researched everything I could on the network; as fast as Human-10 allowed me. With the world at my fingertips, I was unable to discern what my child needed. I tried everything. Nothing seemed to work.
I didn’t get coffee today. There was something about it I couldn’t stomach anymore.
It was my weekly happy hour. Myself and my two friends who also had Human-10 ate our food as fast as it was put in front of us. We wanted to get back to our conversation. Our other friend – who still had Human-7 – took much longer to finish his meal.
“Did you guys even taste your food?” he asked.
I don’t remember the taste.
“You seem irritated,” my wife said. “What’s going on?”
I didn’t have the guts to say what needed to be said. She was too slow for me now. My mind moved faster than her words could come out of her mouth. It was frustrating. I thought I would be able to deal with it, but I couldn’t. The processing speed of Human-10 was far greater than my patience.
“I upgraded to Human-10,” I said. My wife didn’t respond, but I felt a sudden change in our home. The fire continued to glow, but the red-hot flames morphed from warm and welcoming to the dreadful heat of a burning building. The silence of the room was no longer a peaceful silence. Instead, it was the silence of something after death.
I expected words to come to me faster, but they didn’t. I have Human-10, I thought. What am I missing?
“So,” she said slowly. “That’s why our funds were locked today. We’re out of money.” My wife’s words were no longer the slow sip of wine they used to be. My mind processed the words so fast I couldn’t savor them. Just like my morning coffee.
“I couldn’t wait,” I said. “I was going to fail at work if I didn’t do it.”
She looked at me. Face blank. No emotion. Nothing.
“I was so sick of feeling behind everyone else,” I continued. I could see her mind processing my words. I’d never seen her look like this before. In an instant with my new Human-10 bandwidth, I processed every look she’d had for as long as I knew her. In the same instant, Human-10 searched every portion of anthropologic history for the meaning of her expression. It came back with nothing. Why? I wondered. Every piece of information was available to me within milliseconds and I couldn’t read the expression on my wife’s face.
“In your impatience to get ahead,” she whispered, “you left us behind. And now our son can’t get what he needs. How could you?”
We looked at each other, neither of us knowing if we should speak or not. My wife continued: “My whole life. This life. Our life. My rock has cracked. My bandwidth was never enough for you.”
Human-10 didn’t tell me how to respond.
“We want to thank you for being one of our valued customers,” the woman said. I was back at EnterpriseGlobal’s remote office. “We are aware of the glitches you’ve encountered. We will take care of your concerns.”
We entered a room with the number “41” above the door. The black and bold letters stood out against bare white walls. The inside of the room was the same as the one I’d been in before. I sat down before a familiar glass table.
“How much will it cost me?” I asked. “I gave you all I had for this upgrade.”
“We’re so sorry that Human-10 didn’t meet your expectations. That’s why we’ve asked you to come in today. We’re going to give you a free upgrade to Human-11.”
“Yes, sir. You heard correctly. We’re giving all users of Human-10 a free upgrade to Human-11. And, as a bonus, your immediate family members can also get the upgrade free of charge.”
I was speechless.
“I can’t believe this,” I said.
“I know. It’s a big surprise for our customers, but we’re happy to do it.”
“I…” I started. “I don’t have any immediate family.”
“But our records show you’re married to –”
I cut her off.
“We separated this morning.”
“Mr. McGregor,” the woman greeted as she entered his office.
“Yes,” McGregor said, turning in his chair to face her. “I want to hear a few more details about the problems with Human- 10.”
“As you know, one of the most significant problems we’ve encountered is taste. The bandwidth is too fast for the chips to allow the brain to process taste.”
“So, what you’re saying,” McGregor inquired, “is that our chips eliminate our customer’s sense of taste?”
“Yes, we need to perform more calibration in the next version.”
“How was this not caught during testing?”
“We didn’t test it on all food products. There are specific foods which we are having issues with.”
McGregor looked at the empty coffee cup on his desk, suddenly realizing there was something different about it.
“And you’ve been updated on all the other concerns?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” McGregor said.
“What are the next steps?”
McGregor sighed, knowing the consequences.
“We’re bringing everyone up to 11,” he began. “Finance tells me we will have a 22% loss in revenue over the next two years, but we’ll make it up after our release of Human-12.”
“May I make a recommendation?”
“Let’s not call it Human-12,” she said. “What if we had a new software entirely, starting back at 1 again?”
“If we keep counting, it may hurt our marketing perception. We would hate to have our competitor and our customers tell us it took twelve tries to get it right.”
“Well put,” McGregor said. “Also, as we move up to Human-11, ensure we close all accounts with previous versions. Every one of our customers will be at Human-11 until we release the new chip.”
“Just so I understand, we’re rending all previous versions obsolete?”
“Yes,” McGregor said. “That’s correct.”