A story written for Tales from the CyberSalon — #3 A Sense of Community
Her cluster of friends had been hushed. Her connection implants dialled down as close to zero as possible. Her panel displays blurred. She glanced at the fridge, switched off in her determination to avoid an accidental alert to anyone outside of her home. She relished the isolation stretching out in front of her and yet at the same time she longed for someone to break her veneer of solitary contentment. She wanted to be alone and she wanted to be wanted. What someone had once inaccurately nicknamed Schrödinger’s Friends.
She sat on her bed flicking her head in rhythmic jerks, moving from one pointless piece of click-bait to the next, and yet despite the attempt to keep the darkness at bay a crippling apathy for life enfolded her. She had a niggling feeling that something was wrong with her cluster buddy Jamie, but she pushed it to the back of her mind. She winked, she smiled and she blew kisses to comments from the online acquaintances she stumbled across in her wanderings. Gestures as pointless as the posts they praised.
There was an irritating thump, thump, thump in the hallway. She wandered to the front door and turned the full-length panel to its viewing setting. Next door’s kids were busy bouncing a ball against the wall. They waved. She switched the panel to one-way and watched them for ages. Until she got worried that they would start to appear on her day-to-day connections as proximities, mixed in with her chosen cluster. It was for that very reason that she avoided too much flesh contact with anyone.
Each one of the implants scattered across her body represented a friend, a member of her cluster. A cluster initially drawn together around a shared obsession with the obscure art movement, Vorticism. She knew who was who from the implant’s location and vaguely knew how they were feeling from the pattern of its vibrations. There was a beautiful harmony of frustration and comfort in being constantly aware that they were out there living their lives.
The implant that connected to Jamie was still worrying her. He was the only one of her cluster who lived close by and the only one she had flesh met and he was struggling with something, but she couldn’t summon the energy to find out what was wrong. It was selfish, she knew that. It was also about protecting herself from being swamped by whatever he had going on.
Back in her room, she sat and listened to the kids playing in the background. Now she knew what it was, the steady thump of their ball was comforting and their occasional laughter made her smile. She felt more in tune with the world and when Jamie’s distress increased another notch, she dialled her panels up to full. He appeared on the nearby street where the windows of the shops selling repurposed tech doubled-up as panels. Naked from the waist up, he was swaggering along unashamedly showing off his implants for anyone to see. God, he was sexy. It was brave, it was stupid, and it was typical of Jamie. Not the first time, and as ever likely to attract the wrong sort of attention. The display crystalised into a scene created from some of those in her cluster. She loved how it pieced together someone in their kitchen, someone in the street, someone on a train, and so on, into a collage that made it look as if they were all in the same space. Ten of her fifty-strong cluster were waving and shouting greetings.
Jamie’s distress, or was it excitement, increased again.
“What’s happening with Jamie?” she asked, hoping it wasn’t another system glitch her body would misread and react to in some unnecessary way. She could do without that.
They ignored her, instead asking how she was, and noting that she’d been absent for a while. Some sent probing messages directly to her ear bud asking how she ‘really’ was and why her vitals were so off, especially her gut bacteria. She told them not to worry and that she’d been getting some alone time, to which they responded with messages of empathy tinged with concern. She was pleased. It was nice to see them again, and soothing to be reminded that they cared. She decided that Jamie’s distress was most likely a sign of the adrenalin pumping around his body and relaxed into watching his promenade and waiting for the inevitable.
Sure enough, a bunch of anti-cluster thugs appeared and surrounded him, threatening him with scalpels and offering to relieve him of his weirdo implants. He was grinning while dodging from side-to-side. Each time he came into view he yelled for help.
“Shit. Why does he do this?” she muttered. “Call the police,” she shouted.
Her friend Tilly shouted back. “Done.”
She screamed at the thugs. “Leave him alone.”
Using the panel’s latest feature, she told it to face-recognise them and within seconds it had displayed their names and addresses. “Look you stupid idiots,” she shouted. “Look at the panel. We know who you are. Piss off or we will find you and — ”
The thugs stopped and stared at the ten faces hurling abuse at them. They turned to each other, hesitated, and then ran away shouting obscenities over their shoulders.
She was exhausted.
Back in bed with her panels blurred she connected directly with a few friends and just chatted. After a few reassuring bouts of banter, she felt better and propping herself up with her pillows she set her panels to a half-setting and relaxed. A day of having her cluster nearby without having to interact was what she had wanted, and most likely what she had needed all along.
The doorbell rang. She pulled herself out of bed and ambled to the door. Jamie was there, topless, with his big grin and a takeaway. She chuckled; he certainly knew how to press her buttons.