TWENTY FIFTY THREE

Tess Barber

I was sitting in the snow. My legs crossed beneath me. I'd been there for hours. Only it wasn't snow, because I couldn't get it right. It was floating, not falling, and more like icy dust than snow flakes. And maybe it didn't matter anyway, but I knew the difference.

The tree stood in front of me. It was covered, as always, with clumps of icy-dust building on its clawed branches. I wanted to shake one, but knew it wouldn't fall right and would make me more frustrated. So, instead I glared off into the distance. There was nothing but white, floating white.

I wondered about programming the entire homescape again, from scratch. I'd never even been to the snow; I should've started with something I knew.

There was a shift in the scape then, like something giving way. As if magnetised, everything in the scape pulled toward a point behind the tree. Dream-like, a figure came into focus. As they became clearer against the floating snow-dust I realised they were approaching.

The snow stopped floating.

***

By the time I reached the end of her street I'd already stopped twice to smoke, and although I was late, considered stopping again. The summer was at its unbearable peak. I'd taken to connecting to the Network late at night when it was too hot to sleep, and during the middle of the day, and just whenever I couldn't handle the heat anymore. So I was connecting a lot. Having dinner with her housemates was good in a way – it forced me to spend time unplugged.

I wandered down the middle of the street. Noticing which houses had been remodelled, which ones looked uninhabited, which had cared-for gardens. Noticing how stark the red of the bricks, and green of the trees seemed. How the evening sun caused everything to shift and throb – a carbon saturated lens, or maybe it was the nicotine...

Eventually I made it to her door. She answered immediately.

"You took a while."

"Ah..." I started with an excuse.

"It'll be fine, just don't say anything provoking."

"I never say anything provoking."

But she'd already turned down the hallway, calling "Indi's here!"

I followed her down the dark, narrow hallway. As always everything smelt mouldy, as if the thick stagnant air was growing. I hoped we'd go outside, but then, there was no breeze outside either. There'd never be a breeze again. Just endless heat: thick, dark and fungal smelling forever. All the nicotine I'd just inhaled hit me – panic gave me a blood-rush, and sweat trickled down my back. We paused at the staircase and I stared at the back of her neck. Silently I asked her to turn around. She did.

"It's a bit hot, right?" Her dark eyes surveyed my face. I knew she was making a joke, but I couldn't respond.

"Can we go outside?" I asked.

"Sure." She called up to the others, "We'll be outside when you're hungry."

We moved through the hallway, which became a dark lounge room and reached the still sunny courtyard. I took a seat at the table.

"Are you okay?" She sat down next to me, folding her arms on the table and resting her closely shaved head on them. She was wearing an orange-blue cloth that crossed over her chest and back, and flowed from her waist, sometimes seeming like pants, sometimes a skirt. Her skin had deepened to a rich brown from the summer sun.

"Just tired – I haven't been sleeping."

"Still too hot?"

Just then, a small person appeared in the doorway. She had dark wire-like hair, tied out of her face haphazardly, and intent green-blue eyes that surveyed me.

"Hello," she spoke low and slowly, each syllable deliberate.

At the sound Jessie sat up and looked around. "Hey Therri, this is Indi."

"Hey Therri," I said.

"Hey Indi," Therri said.

"Therri's a good name, is it short for something?"

"No."

"Cool."

"Therri's an horticulturalist," Jessie said, even though I knew this already.

"Cool, what's you favourite plant?" I asked.

Therri just looked at me.

"Therri's researching symbiotic plant relationships," Jessie explained; I knew this too.

"Cool." I'd never said cool so many times in my life.

Thankfully Jules appeared behind Therri in the doorway. I'd met Jules a couple of times now and we had built a rapport of nods and exchanges.

"Jules," I nodded.

"Indi," Jules nodded, taking a seat on the bench opposite me.

And that was our rapport.

"I'll get some drinks," Jessie said.

As she was getting the beer from the household's cellar, Therri turned to me. "Jessie says you work at a library." She sat down next to Jules, crossing her legs up under her. "Which one?"

"The Network-library for Parramatta Uni."

"So, you don't work with actual books?"

"It depends on who's using it. Some people still read in the traditional sense."

"Yeah but they're just reading a program, right? Not an actual book?"

"It's more like, they're given the memory of reading the book."

"So you don't work with actual books."

I looked at Therri, unsure how much to engage. Jessie cut in then, returning from the cellar. "Don't get started on the Network-reading thing, Indi and I have already over-talked it." She put two glasses of amber beer on the table before leaving again.

"So Indi, what's your favourite program?" Therri's eyes watched me.

Something in her tone told me she was joking, so I laughed, hoping I'd got it right.

"At the moment I'm into sympathy design."

"What's that?" Jules asked.

"Ordinarily programs will just simulate information, so just the memory of learning the facts. But with sympathy design, you can simulate a response to those facts. So if it's a sad program, you'll have a memory of responding with sadness."

Jules paused mid-sip. "Programming emotion?"

"That's messed up," Therri's sharp features sharpened more. Jessie showed up again with two more beers, and gave me one before sitting down.

"It is if you stumble over the wrong sort of program." Why did I let this conversation get started? I didn't want to be a spokesperson for EPR use.

"Or if you buy the wrong sort from a programming company," Therri was zoned in on me, eyes hard. A tuft of her hair had come loose, and stuck out at the side.

I tried to focus on that as I said, "That's a risk yes, but there are mechanisms in place to stop industry from misusing it."

"What about all those people being attacked? What mechanisms were in place to stop that?"

"Do you mean the New Hacking?" I asked, thinking back to 2051, when over a hundred people had their homescapes broken into simultaneously. It was the largest co-ordinated EPR hack ever; the amount of damage done, the memories and programming lost or copied, would never be known. Evidently people were still talking about it.

"Yes."

"There weren't enough in place, Metrix Labs was an upstart company; they didn't know what they were doing." I looked at Jessie, to see if I was in dangerous-conversation territory. But she only stared out at the courtyard and the monstrous tangle of plants that reinvented the term garden. In the late evening light it was difficult to make heads and tails of what was fern, fruit or vine; but to be fair – the daylight wouldn't help me. The plants grew in a cultivated complexity, intricate food, water and companion systems that I would never understand. It was another world, with Therri its emissary, perhaps.

"But someone knew what they were doing, enough to hurt all those people," Jules pointed out.

"Someone did," I agreed, "that's why learning more about the technology is important. To stop it happening again."

Therri shook her head. "The nature of the Network means it will always happen," she said, "it's designed to exploit vulnerable people."

"People prey on other people – if it's not through the EP-Network it'll be through something else," I said. "You're careful going about Sydney, right? Why wouldn't you be in the Network?"

"That's over simplifying it," Therri insisted. "Other people create the Network – the power is all theirs. They allow the hackings."

"That's not how it works."

"How would you know?" The words whipped from Therri.

My self-preservation battled with my ego and lost. "Because it happened to me."

"What do you mean?" Jessie said, finally turning to the conversation.

"It happened to me. When I was fifteen – someone hacked my homescape."

There was silence. It felt like I was listening to everyone re-adjust their assessments of me: complacent user to victim. I debated between leaving, changing the subject or saying I was joking. Instead I just sat there.

"I guess you'd know a lot about it then," Jessie said with finality.

***

"You didn't tell me," she would later say. She was sitting against the wall, looking down at me. Her bed was just a mattress on the floor – it was meant to be cooler down there, but it didn't seem to make a difference.

"Would you prefer we don't talk about it?" she asked when I didn't say anything.

I let the air out of my chest, not realising I'd been keeping it there. "No, it's okay." I spoke to the slanting roof, keeping my voice flat. We were in the dark to save on the solar battery, but my eyes had adjusted enough to see where the wall became roof. "There just isn't much to talk about. It happened a while ago and I try to not let it be part of my life now. That's probably why I haven't mentioned it – it just feels so separate, like it happened to a different person."

"Not because you didn't want me to know?"

"No, I hadn't really put much thought into it."

"Do you think you'd have told me eventually?"

"I guess so," I said. "If it came up."

"Okay," she said slowly, thoughtfully.

I sat up then and looked at her shadowy face. "Why?" I asked. "Should I have told you?"

She took her time answering; laying her words out carefully in the dark room once she'd found them. "It's yours to tell. And, understandably, it's not something you can just drop into conversation..."

"As we all learnt tonight," I said with a dry laugh.

"Not the best dinner topic," she agreed, a smile in her tone. "But we've been doing this for a while now."

"Doing what?" I asked.

"This... what we're doing." She gave a vague gesture to the dark.

"Oh."

"And I still feel like there's a lot I don't know about you. We don't talk about your time connected. Like, at all really. And it's a big part of your life. And now there's this..."

"This isn't a big thing though," I tried to explain.

"I know enough about hacking to know that's not true." Her eyes found mine in the dark. "Was much taken?"

"There's a fair bit missing." I wasn't sure how much detail she wanted. "It's hard to tell exactly: you don't know whether a memory was taken or whether it was forgotten."

"Can you tell if something's copied?"

"I don't think anything was copied. I don't know for sure, but this was a while ago: EP-technology was recent still. I think the hacker didn't really know what they were doing. That's why it was so messy." I lay back, and she reached down to run her fingers through my hair.

"Messy?"

"There was a lot of neural damage," I explained. "I took therapy for a couple of years, relearning things like talking and reading. That doesn't happen these days. Unless it's intended."

"Could therapy help get the missing memories back?"

I shook my head. "But if you can't remember it, you don't know what you're missing out on." I paused, "and I've got new memories now."

She continued stroking my hair.

"I'm sorry I brought it up the way I did," I said up to her.

"Therri shouldn't have baited you." She shuffled to lay down next me, careful to keep her body a little apart from mine, but I could feel the extra heat. "Still, you made them think. It can get insular out here in the East – we don't come across a lot that makes us question things. Not like the CBD."

I shook my head. "It's the same in Parramatta." I turned over to wrap my arm over her chest.

She paused, as she waiting for me to say more? I looked at the roof.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"It's okay," I replied, not sure what we were referring to. But soon her breathing slowed as she was drifting to sleep.

I lay awake in the heat long after she had gone to sleep wishing I could connect just for a moment. It wasn't until some early hour, when the sky gave up and thick summer rain fell over the city, that I was finally able to go to sleep.

***

I'm sitting cross-legged in the snow. Only it's not snow; I've never been to the snow, so I can't get the program right. The field and tree are covered in the white powder. Fluffy stuff that's chilly to touch, but floats somewhat like dust particles and feels like sand to sit on. I'm aware that I've been here for hours. But I'm reluctant to disconnect and feel the effects of staying in the Network for too long. If I could just get the snow to fall, not float.

In the distance, past the tree, I can see a figure approaching. There's nothing else for as far as my visual goes, just the tree, the white, and now this figure. Somehow, my fifteen-year-old self knows they're not meant to be there.

"Hey! What are you doing?"

They just keep approaching so I get to my feet.

"Hey! I'm talking to you, get out of here."

Maybe my vocal isn't working; I've never had to test it in my homescape before. But you shouldn't ever need it in your homescape. There shouldn't be anyone else here.

They're walking parallel now, as if they meant to walk past all along.

"That's right. Move along."

But they're all the while looking at me. So I look down and head towards my tree as if I've had enough of them – I've got things to get on with. I'm watching them through the corner of my eye when they stop walking.

I feel sick. Please keep walking, keep walking.

But they don't, they just watch.

Should I exit? But this is my homescape, what if they don't leave? Will they still be here when I connect again? What if they come back later? I need to know they're gone.

I reach the tree, and can't see them in the corner of my visual anymore. So I look up.

I can't see them.

"Indi."

My head jerks to the side. And she's there, next to the tree, next to me.