‘Looking Glass Vacation’, Sarah Ann Watts

Artwork by Cécile Matthey © 2006.

I know I should never have told Tracy about Jude—she used to be my very best friend.

We were at school together—shared the same interests, played in the same orchestra. She was like the sister I never had. Sometimes in the long summer holidays I even got to meet her. Tracy's parents were rich—they had a real-time share and two weeks in a villa by a pool in a different location every year.

 [ I was alone for the first time: image © 2006 Cécile Matthey ] 'True friends share everything,' she said.

I always knew that Tracy loved me, didn't care that I was 'different' ever since that first day in kindergarten.

My mother left before I saw her go. I was alone for the first time and I cried. I couldn't get used to the space in my mind where she had always been, sheltering and keeping me safe until I could 'live' without her. I felt this faint whisper, a shy presence that reached out to me and said,

'Can I play with you? Will you be my friend?'

It was Tracy. She 'held my hand' and comforted me. Later she showed me around, took care of me and, unlike the other children, never laughed when I got things wrong.

My parents once had a weekend in real-time for their honeymoon, somewhere in New Italy. They used to laugh about it, said they were young and foolish and thought the virtual streets were paved with gold, that it would be the first of many, so they spent the weekend in bed anyway.

They used to exchange smiles over my pillow at night—we all knew that the miracle of my birth was the result of that stolen weekend.

They ended up in jail but family connections saved the day. My grandparents disinherited my father—public opinion demanded no less—but having 'paid the price' under the media spotlight the next sensation took over and my parents were allowed to get on with their lives.

Compared to other families in the patrician sector we were poor but we managed to get by. The interest of my parents' fortune, shrewdly invested in trust funds to win friends and influence the right people, acted as an insurance policy, protecting them from the worst consequences of their actions.

My family was already notorious for pursuing an alternative lifestyle. Descended from one of the founders of the modern state, my father's family was one of the few in our sector that retained the right to raise a boy in alternate generations. Already, when he was young, it was rare enough to be unusual. The reactionary element may have whispered that this child, born with a defective chromosome, should never have been reared—his parents, supporting the state with a flow of generous donations, could afford to laugh at them.

My parents got away with their indiscretion simply because everyone was so fascinated with their love story. I was the first time travel baby in over a century and the anthropologists were delighted with the opportunity to study my development. I had a privileged childhood—I even had a few natural diseases that advanced the cause of medical research and gave rise to new improved vaccines against the latest viruses.

One of my dearest possessions was an antique book of old fairy tales handed down through the generations. As my grandparents' fortunes inevitably declined with the obsolescence of the old technologies, I knew that I was the goose that laid the golden eggs—that my life guaranteed our future.

At school the other children made fun of Tracy and me because we always had to be the same, do everything together, and wear the same clothes. They called us 'The Twins' but only when they knew the teachers weren't listening.

I laughed but Tracy was really shocked. She blushed up to the roots of her fiery hair.

'Why do they have to say things like that?'

'They're only jealous. Hey, you could be my twin. Shame we're not identical…'

'Don't be disgusting!'

It was no big deal—she was so conventional. Horrified and fascinated by the past she liked to pretend it had never happened. My parents still talked quite openly about sex and my conception proved they'd tried it. Tracy's parents never touched each other and I know looked down on my 'permissive' upbringing. Not that Tracy cared. She refused to accept there could be any differences between us.

I was breast-fed, she was a bottled baby. 'So what?' she said.

Her parents never said I was a 'natural' but she knew what they thought. Their silent disapproval added fuel to her infatuation. Tracy was used to getting what she wanted and no other girl in our year had a relationship with anyone quite like me. That was part of the attraction—I came with a designer label.

They said I was a random chance. That's why the state paid my school fees. Because my heritage was so unusual, my abilities the product of the gene pool I was born into, I was the subject of a government study to see if a 'natural' could compete against the elite.

Nothing is ever free. I wasn't supposed to know, but then I wasn't certified super intelligent for nothing. I'd opened the file and read the contract. I found out I would have the operation when I came of age; donate an ovary to the state. As a child of C12 with all my life before me it seemed a fair exchange.

The patrician class was an endangered species anyway. It was economics—society didn't need humanity anymore. This community was a dying breed, kept only in protected enclaves for the few remaining functions that the computers couldn't emulate or surpass. They still needed maintenance—the raw materials they couldn't generate electronically, hence the armies of sub-human drones that populated the erogenous zone and serviced their every need—and ours.

I think it was curiosity that ensured our survival– our capacity to do and say the unexpected that intrigued the superior race and made it think we were worth the time and resources needed to keep us alive.

As time went by we changed as they adapted our physical needs to lessen our impact on the environment. We evolved, became dependent on them, and surrendered the autonomy of our existence. We became the thinking cogs in the machine.

Sometimes I got so very tired of Tracy and her obsession to be like me—I didn't always want to be the same. The worst fight we ever had was when I told her,

'Your parents are rich enough—tell them to buy you a clone!'

She sulked for days after that—no one could sulk like Tracy—glare at you with those blank reproachful eyes until you felt 'that big' and would plead and do anything to gain her approval.

She knew it too—how she revelled in my capitulation—that gracious moment of forgiveness when everything between us was all right again—until the next time.

I hated it, hated what it did to me and then one day I woke up to the realisation that it was Tracy I hated most and then after that things between us would never be the same again.

I don't know why I always longed to go outside except that I was a born rebel. I had everything I needed to be happy but sometimes that isn't enough. We weren't usually allowed beyond the comfort zone although occasionally the wardens would allow us time out for good behaviour to play in the circus zone that kept the drones quiescent. Once beyond the limits of their authority it was never too difficult to hack through the fences. The powers that be didn't think they needed anything more sophisticated to deter the drones.

Tracy was never happy, though she wouldn't let me go anywhere without her. She said I was leading her into bad habits and we'd both get into trouble so one day, when I couldn't stand her whining any more, I just left her behind. It was easy; she never could keep up with me.

It was a grey world beyond the domain—the graphics were shoddy and the colours faded and I knew the first age was static and couldn't change as fast as we did. I was expecting to meet someone from the past and of course, sooner rather than later, I did.

Jude always said that he'd been waiting for me. He knew I would come that day. When I got angry and asked him how he could expect a visitor from the future he just smiled with that strange upward curve to his lips that I came to adore and said it was all relative. I wanted to strangle him—at least I thought I did then, although I didn't have the emoticons to show him how I felt.

 [ Jude was like no one else: image © 2006 Cécile Matthey ] Jude was like no one else I'd ever met. The first time I saw him he was sleeping and that in itself was enough to pique my curiosity. I didn't know about sleep and at first I thought he was dead. So then I had to wake him up before he started to degrade. There was already a tear in his skin and fluid leaking from it. I didn't know what to do about the—insects? They were drinking from him.

He opened his eyes and flicked at the air. Shoo, fly; don't bother me. He looked at me. I mean he really looked at me and his expression changed when he saw me. I didn't know how he could tell I was there because I hadn't opened any link between us. They said you should never talk to strangers. I went looking for trouble but I wasn't stupid.

Communication was difficult at first—we were talking two different languages. So many questions I didn't understand that were common in his world like, 'what are you called?' and 'how did you get here?' and 'can I see you again?'

We 'talked' for hours without saying a word and then he touched the screen and I shivered with an unfamiliar emotion I later identified as desire.

'Can I tell you a secret?'

Why was he asking me? I had no idea what he could do. I was confused, trying to relate to his non sense.

'What is a secret?'

'Something you don't tell anyone.'

'Are you making fun of me?'

'I want you to know. I have to tell someone. Can you keep a secret?'

I scanned though my memory. I couldn't find the word secret. I didn't know how you kept them or even what they were. I said yes. I would have said yes to anything. He had that effect on me. At one point when we really got so neither of us could make out what the other one was on about, he said,

'Should I draw you a diagram?'

'I don't know.'

'I will if you like.'

'You will if I like?'

'Look, I will, OK?'

'OK.'

'Now do you see?'

'No. I told you already.'

'You're not looking in the right place. This is my picture of you. I've written your name.'

'You are seriously weird. What are you on?'

He amazed me. I had never seen anything like it—I couldn't understand what the lines on the page were meant to be. He was so funny. Didn't he know nothing two dimensional could be real?

That of course led on to other things—he said he lived in real-time and for him it still existed as a constant—and his presence in our world was only occasional. He was a transient visitor—he led a separate existence beyond the interface and could log out any time he chose. He also said that it was getting harder to escape, that he was losing his will to leave and feared that one day when he fell asleep in our world he wouldn't remember how to wake up.

He was strange. We were both too old for fairy tales—but then he said he could prove that everything he said was true, and if I let him, if I was brave enough, he'd show me the way out. He said he could set me free.

I got really frightened then, I thought he was mad and I knew I didn't want to die. I'd read the horror stories about getting old, diseases, and the Great War. I didn't want to need to sleep or drink or eat or—no, I can't write it. Those other perversions dimly hinted at in pornographic texts—that I never believed could be true—you know what I'm talking about—the smallest room. He said he had to leave me and go there once—he actually said it. I thought I'd die!

I think that was probably what convinced me that he was telling the truth—that if the shift in cultures was so extreme then he must come from an alien world. He really was a primitive from the first age.

The first time it happened I ran away like the child I still was. At C15 you act like you own the world but you're terrified the world doesn't care—you do stupid things to make an impact. 'I was here—you can't delete me!' I wanted to live forever.

I fled back to Tracy. I knew she'd be mad at me but I was arrogant enough to think she'd be so pleased I'd come back that she'd forgive me anything. I was wrong.

'Get lost, bitch! Fuck off and die!' She posted all over and soon no one would talk to me. I had broken the rules of the unspoken contract between us, that I was her plaything, her possession—ultimately I was hers and I existed for her pleasure. She refused to open her screen and when I tried to get through to her she shut the window in my face.

I was hurt and I was angry and I wasn't thinking too clearly by then. I told her she was a spoilt brat, that she didn't own me and said I'd never really liked her. I thought I didn't mean it, yet every word I said was true and spread like some gigantic worm eating everything away, destroying everything there might have been between us.

In the beginning I wasn't too worried. I thought we'd make up as we always did. I knew she couldn't avoid me forever. Back at school I sensed her watching me, thought I wouldn't have to wait too long for her curiosity to win out over her pride. I knew she'd want to know where I'd been, that she couldn't bear that I might tell someone else, not her.

Then as time went on I found myself alone as I'd never been before and when the rumours started I had no friend to shield me. No one wanted to know me and very soon I found out why. The graffiti was everywhere—AIDS. They said I had a virus and they cut me out of the loop. There was no defence, no appeal. I was beyond the pale.

At first I tried to ignore the whispers, thought that if I didn't react maybe they'd get bored and let me back in. Then I got scared and tried to fight it.

I wasn't going to give in—I tricked my way in past the walls Tracy had set up and confronted her. It was the worst thing I could have done. She was furious.

'So you feel so bad you want to infect me too? How could you be so selfish and irresponsible?'

'Tracy, you know that's not true. I'd never do that to you. I'm not infected. You can't catch it that way. Not from going back into the past!'

She went bright red then and muttered something about toilet seats. I laughed to hide how shaken I felt. I hadn't thought a girl like Tracy would even know the words.

'You don't know what AIDS is! Bet you can't tell me what the letters stand for?'

There was a long pause while she thought about it and I didn't think she was going to come back but she never could resist a challenge.

'You think I don't know anything! It's Artificial Intelligence Deficiency Syndrome!'

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She never did pay attention in class, just downloaded and copied my files.

I looked into her vacant eyes—so different from Jude. Like mine they were purely decorative. The Unborn received sensory impressions through the umbilical cord that connected us together—break that connection then you died—not immediately but leave it long enough and you would begin to degrade. It was similar to the effect alcohol had in the old days. The brain cells decayed and many became the mindless drones who didn't care who they were so long as their most basic appetites were satisfied.

I did try to tell Tracy about Jude but she wouldn't listen. I did my best to describe the sound of his voice, the expression in his eyes and the strange new sensations I felt when he touched me. She could not understand, could not think beyond the hurt of my betrayal.

'You cheated on me! My mother was right about you. She said never trust a natural.'

In the end what I did was inevitable. I had lost my best friend. There was only one choice—to go back and prove to myself it was real.

 [ Looking glass: image © 2006 Cécile Matthey ] Jude was waiting for me like I'd never gone away and I suppose in his world this was true. I was always there—an image on the screen. It is comforting to think I am still there—that I never left.

He listened and I told him everything. Then he reached out to me and dragged me through the screen, I felt glass break in shards around me and when I opened my eyes I was naked, newborn, my lungs gasping for air until he leant over, placed his mouth upon mine and showed me how to breathe

Everything was new. I felt the grass beneath my feet, the warmth of the sun and the weight of the air on my skin. When I tripped and fell, unsteady as I took my first steps, I cut my knee and it bled. Jude held me as I shook in his arms, confused by the scent of his skin and when he kissed me his hair brushed my face.

I opened my mouth to shape words for the first time. I learned that I could sing and I felt like an angel in the old tales I'd read in another world.

Not that it was heaven—sometimes I felt like I had stumbled into hell.

I soon found out that in primitive society everybody had some kind of addiction, caffeine was probably the most insidious but other banned substances like alcohol were freely available and I saw children and even babies routinely dosed with drugs. Dirt and disease were universally prevalent—there was basic hygiene and climate control but nothing like the intelligent environmental systems I was used to. I will never forget my first sight of an open landfill site, refuse mountains under the polluted skies and the burnt out transport wrecks that littered the wastelands, left over from the final days of conflict when the fuel ran out.

I was ill for a long time until I developed an immune system—they said it was lucky I was so young so they could rewire my genes. Of course the treatments they gave me undid the advances in the centuries after my birth and so I reverted to a state of nature that inevitably had consequences.

There was one night when I felt Jude's child stir within me and I reached out for him and placed his hand on my distended belly. In those long nights when I lay beside him with my eyes open I was desperate for comfort—to know I was not alone. I didn't sleep—I didn't know how. That function was long dormant and could never be re awakened. Shut down was permanent.

I traced the smooth tips of his fingers, already in his day the whorls were erased by his generation's contact with keyboards and mice, the interface to our world. I wanted him to wake and hold me, knew what my touch did and needed reassurance that in my changing state he still wanted me.

He moaned and shifted and then he screamed, lashed out at me so my head jolted back and hit the wall. Then he sat up with his eyes open staring at nothing and began to mutter words I couldn't decipher, pushed me out of his way and climbed rigidly out of bed. I caught at his arm and he shook me off. I called out to him but he didn't listen, didn't pause just walked out of the room and pressed the button for the lift. As the doors closed the last thing I saw were his eyes, white in the moonlight, blank and unseeing. I sat by the open window, not daring to follow, waiting until it grew light.

Then when it was nearly dawn he came back, creeping quietly into the room so as not to disturb me which was foolish as we both knew.

I asked him what happened.

'It's not important. I can't remember.'

'What do you mean, you can't remember?'

He grew more and more restless as I stared at him in confusion.

'Look, it doesn't matter. I don't want to talk about it. Just leave me alone, OK?'

'No, it is not OK. You said you loved me. If you love me you will tell me. Don't shut me out!'

He sighed and his shoulders sagged and I thought I had won. 'Suppose I tell you I'm afraid of the dark?'

I giggled but only because he frightened me.

'It's not funny! Sometimes I wake and I can't hear you breathing and I have to go listen to something, anything, voices in the night, so that I know that I'm not alone.'

'How can you be alone when you are with me?'

He shook his head. 'This has nothing to do with you.' Then he said he didn't mean it like that.

'You know I love you. I'm all right now. Forget it, please?'

I felt water spill from my eyes. I felt so helpless. Why did he ask the impossible?

In the morning he asked me about the bruise above my eye and I didn't know what to say. Later I learned that I should have lied and said I had fallen and he was not to worry. He kissed me then and held me, said that he was sorry and he'd take better care of me and he'd never hurt me again.

In the beginning I was forever asking him what he meant and he did try to explain but there were things I could not understand. How could he be afraid of something like nightmares that only existed in his mind?

'Aren't there enough dangers to worry about in the real world without inventing more?'

So then he told me about his family. He said they used to go with others who shared their faith to a sacred building where they worshipped his people's god. This was in the old days before religion was condemned. When the soldiers of righteousness came his mother hid him beneath the floorboards and because he was so small they never found him. Later when he came out it was dark and there was no one there. They had done something to the buildings and all that was left were shadows on the stones. He said it was so quiet. That was why, when he woke in the night, he had to go and open the news screen to make sure there were still people in the world.

The next time I held him and comforted him until he slept again while I stared into the dark.

I grew wary of the children I saw in the streets. Their imaginary games with friends I could not see took on a sinister new meaning. Until then I had only thought them linked into a network like my own but now I felt threatened, their innocent games of make believe showed me that I was no longer human.

I wondered what would happen the first time my child said to me, 'Mummy, let's pretend' or 'I had a bad dream.'

 [ The fairy tale book: image © 2006 Cécile Matthey ] I realised I could only see things as they were and what I saw of his world appalled me. How could he live knowing that children starved and died of disease, while people fought senseless wars as the world overheated and multiple species died out every day? As a child he had seen whales and elephants, legendary beasts that in my time only existed in the 'fairy tale' book I treasured.

I suppose knowing it all turned out OK in the end helped me keep my sanity—my people lived when the planet died. We had some of our worst arguments over that.

'How could your people stand by, watch it happening and do nothing?'

He said I knew nothing - he had seen the future and it wasn't worth saving. 'I'd rather die than live in a silicon cage!'

I couldn't accept that. I mean real-life is all very well but you wouldn't want to live there. Even back in the days when everyone who was anyone went on looking glass vacation for the heritage experience, they had to get various shots and take the pills to insulate themselves against the more fundamental aspects of humanity.

Later it became faintly disreputable to regress—they imposed new quarantine regulations to make it more difficult until eventually it became impossible—or so they told us until I came along, a genetic throwback, to prove it could still happen.

I thought maybe in the time I'd been away Tracy might have had time to get over what had happened between us—that she might be ready to give me a second chance. I should have realised it doesn't work that way.

At home they hardly knew I'd been away. I was late for the eventide celebration when we connect as a family but they put it down to mid century blues and second age angst. How could I tell my mother that my baby had died before I was born? That I'd left my real-life lover and I'd abandoned my child to grow old?

Tracy was no comfort at all when I turned to her. I couldn't get through to her and when I tried she said she couldn't help me and I wasn't to come near her again.

I suppose I shouldn't blame her too much. In a way I deserved it because I didn't tell her all of the truth. That I was the one who ran away and left him so I could take refuge in the comfort zone I'd always known.

Tracy just thinks I went looking for trouble, a retro romance in the erogenous zone and got more than I bargained for, which I had coming to me. I tried to tell her that it happened in real-life but she wouldn't listen. I suppose to her my pregnancy was a fantasy tale of alien abduction and she thought I was insane.

'You're not the first and you won't be the last girl to fall for a boy and pretend that it's real! You're a drug crazed freak and I'm through with you!'

I was on shaky ground there—Jude did have to give me something before I could summon up the nerve to break the mirror.

'You're just reverting to type! Coming from a family like yours—it's only to be expected.'

That really hurt. Everyone knew I had a father but no one held it against me. I tried to tell her I was sorry but she hadn't finished with me yet.

'It's not your fault—it's in your blood!'

I felt the current course through my artificial veins and I pitied her. In the end I did something I'd never done before and I wrote her a letter by way of farewell. I'll never know if she can read it. Maybe if someday she comes back to me I can tell her what it said.

I wish I could tell you more about Jude but somehow the essence—what made him so special and different always eluded me. I could tell you about his smile, the sound of his voice, the quality of his skin and the scent of his hair, how he tasted when we made love but you can never understand. You had to be there to feel it—to know it was real.

He showed me so much, how to laugh, when to cry and to scream out in ecstasy and later in terror and pain but there were some things I never learned—he couldn't teach me how to dream, how to live in the world of the imagination so that when the world fades into darkness you have a safe place to go.

You were always my safe place to go.

Tracy and I were meant to be together and now it's too late. Her screen is always blank and I'm beginning to forget what she looks like.

I'm really scared because I know that time is running out for all of us. I hate to be alone like this. My parents achieved transcendence last century and my unusual status meant they let me keep our home. I know that if I leave the shelter of my silicon shell I'll die. Maybe Tracy was right about me. Maybe I was wrong about everything. I was programmed to tell the truth—I'm ashamed I learned to lie.

When I turn 1800 they'll come for me and they'll find out what I did. I have to run away but I don't know where in this world I can go.


© 2006, Sarah Ann Watts

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