Weekend Fiction: Update 13.0
I was at home, sitting on the sofa with my wife when it happened. We were watching some mindless cooking programme on the television after what felt like a long day. Since returning from work, we hadn’t said much to each other, which had become the usual state of affairs. Every now and then I’d mention something, which would be returned with a brief nod or the beginnings of a sentence, which trailed away as her attention was diverted.
I blamed myself – I was the one who had bought Molly the damn phone - beforehand she’d had a brick of a thing, so on her last birthday I’d presented her with a new one, top of the range. It hadn’t been a gradual process - it had only taken a few weeks for the phone to creep between us. Now, she was always on it, checking her social media, reading emails, following news stories.
Even when we went out for dinner, the phone was on the table, next to her. As soon as she’d finished eating, she’d pick it up and lose herself, sometimes mid conversation. I spent hours in restaurants, feeling alone, even though Molly was there, opposite me. But when I looked around, everyone else was the same, eyes dancing over screens; I was the exception, the weirdo without a phone. Even in bed at night, I’d fall asleep with the ghostly screen-illuminated glow of her face next to me. The more she used her phone, the more I gave up on my own device - in the vague hope that if one of us remained in this real world, our marriage might be saved.
So, there we were on the sofa, watching some non-edifying programme. Or at least I was. Molly was half-watching, whilst fiddling with the phone as usual - a state of affairs which I’d read created so much dopamine in the brain, it had been likened to having a hit of heroin. And was thus just as addictive. I’d pointed this out to her, but she’d only nodded, lost in the pixel juice.
After a while she muttered something about a software update and then, for the first time in months, put the phone down and looked at me. The next twenty minutes or so, I felt like I was getting her back. Conversation was suddenly bidirectional. She laughed at a few of my jokes, her green eyes holding me in their thrall for the first time in a long while. But even so, she kept returning to the phone, checking the status of the update.
‘You remember what I said about dopamine?’ I started.
‘Vaguely,’ she replied.
‘When you flick between the television and your phone like that, it creates an unnatural combination of brain chemicals.’
‘So what? Everyone does it.’
‘Look, I just feel that the damn phone has come between us. I want us to interact like normal people.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Not this again. Please.’
‘Maybe we could try having a few evenings without it. Interact normally,’ I reinstated.
‘You are a hypocrite. I’ve seen you with your phone,’ she retorted.
‘Not recently, though. But then again, you haven’t seen anything recently, have you.’
But the last barb was lost on her, as the update finished. I felt bitterness, resentment building up in me. I returned to the remains of our TV pizza dinner, avoiding looking at her.
Moments later she began to scream.
The anger was still there, bubbling away, slowing down my thoughts, so it took me a few moments to register what had happened.
The phone was on her face, covering her eyes and she was trying to prise it away. I could smell ozone and, more faintly, something burning.
‘Get this bloody thing off me,’ she hollered.
‘What the…,’ I started, still confused.
‘It’s stuck to me. Get it off!’
‘Hang on a minute,’ I replied, standing up and bending over her. I tried, like she had, to remove the phone from her face, but something odd had happened. The structure of the phone seemed to have somehow merged with her tissue. As I pulled, the protective cover came loose, but the unit itself seemed glued in place; its casing felt hot to the touch. I pulled harder and beads of blood began to form at the join between phone and skin, causing her to scream louder.
‘That hurts!’ she yelled.
‘I’m trying my best,’ I returned.
The more I tried, the more the phone seemed to meld itself in place, what had been the screen moulding to cover all the periorbital tissue. Thick fibres of growth now stretched between the skin and the glass.
‘I can’t see,’ she wailed.
‘Jesus, how did this happen?’
‘I was just doing the update…’
The update. Could that have caused this, I wondered.
‘I’m taking you to A&E,’ I said, running for my car keys, pulling my shoes on. I guided her to the car, her body shaking with fear. There were no tears, the interface now making this biological function impossible.
Accident and Emergency was chaos. Mind you, it always had been since the private providers moved in. Where you’d been met by a nurse a few years ago, now you were met by an ‘insurance facilitator’. But amongst these officious administrative types, sat the patients. Most were quiet, stunned, like Molly. A few were screaming. But they all had one thing in common: the phone stuck to their face, concealing their eyes.
We waited for hours, but no-one came to see us. Instead, the cramped waiting room became busier and busier, until there were lines outside: almost everyone suffering the same affliction. There were a handful of people, like myself, who were holding onto the hands of their loved ones. A few were talking about what had happened, how it seemed Update 13.0 was responsible.
‘I’m going to try Jim, see if he can help us,’ I said. Jim was a doctor friend, a big bear like chap, who worked in the hospital. My one worry was that he was a technophile - he loved his phone, although not quite to the point of distraction, like Molly. Working in a busy hospital breaks up the hits of phone use. I hoped he wouldn’t have done the update.
I ran through my phone’s contact list, wary of its screen and careful to keep the LCD glow away from my face - it was running older software, but I didn’t want to risk it.
‘Jim is a kidney doctor, isn’t he? I need an eye doctor!’
‘He might be able to help us,’ I replied, as the ringing tone began to bleat in my ear.
Moments later, Jim answered: ‘G–. Not a good time.’
‘I need your help, Jim. Are you in the hospital?’ I asked.
‘Yep. They’ve called us all in. At least those who are able. You do the update?’
‘No, Molly did though.’
‘Since the disaster of Update 11.5, I’ve always waited. Checked the feeds.
‘Thank God for that. We’re in A&E.’
‘I’ll try and get along as soon as I can. Hang up now. Don’t touch your phone again.’
I switched the phone off, put it phone in my pocket, and turned back to Molly. The skin around the phone looked pink and new.
‘How are you feeling?’ I asked.
‘The pain has gone,’ Molly replied. ‘And I can see something, a faint light…’
I reached up and placed my finger over the external phone camera.
‘Is it still there?’
‘No! What are you doing?’ Molly replied.
Outside, the hospital corridors were lined with people. It seemed we’d been amongst the earliest to arrive, or at least Molly had been one of the first with the update. A television hung from the ceiling at one corner, warning against people updating their phones. Pictures flashed up on the screen of a hospital in Manchester, mobbed by people, many of them young, their eyes replaced by a bar of metal.
I led Molly through the throng, back to where the car was parked. But it had been blocked in. In fact the entire car park was overflowing.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Molly.
I described the state of the concrete multistorey, the selfish parking of those in distress. It looked like quite a few cars had been damaged.
‘I think we’ll have to walk home,’ I replied. It wasn’t far, a mere two miles.
‘I’m tired,’ replied Molly. As was I, emotionally exhausted. But I kept telling myself that despite the contraption on her face, she was still Molly. Imagine if she is wearing sunglasses. But it wasn’t the same.
On the way home, threading through lines of stationary traffic and abandoned vehicles around the hospital, we talked about what Jim had told us. About the scans they’d done on the first few patients. How it was apparent that not only had the phone melded with the layers of the skin, but part of it went deeper, tendrils reaching out to merge with the optic nerves. And how there was nothing that could yet be done.
And by the time we arrived home, Molly could see again. The 3D camera on the phone was acting as an eye. But better than a human eye, it could focus both on near and far at the same time.
‘Everything is so clear. Like when I first got glasses,’ Molly remarked.
The next morning, the worldwide panic that seemed to come with Update 13.0 seemed to subside slightly when people realised that they hadn’t actually lost their sight. In fact some people were reported to have uploaded Update 13.0 on purpose, just to create the interface. Molly told me that it was a different way of seeing. She hadn’t slept, of course, and seemed almost jittery with nervous excitement.
Later that day, I reached for my phone, and felt a strange sensation tickling up my hand. The phone felt different, as if it was reaching out for me. I took the phone outside and smashed it to pieces with a hammer. I hit the pieces repeatedly, crushing them into smaller and smaller fragments. When I was done, I turned to go back inside, and saw Molly in standing in the window, observing what had just happened. In that instant, I knew she had been responsible.
I tore back inside, yelling. ‘Why did you do it?’
‘G–, you are scaring me…’
‘Explain!’ I yelled.
‘Please put down the hammer.’
‘Oh, right. Sorry,’ I said.
‘No, it is me who should be sorry. I don’t know what came over me. It was almost as if something was telling me to do it.’
I seized the hammer and went back out in the garden, continued to beat away at the fragments of phone, until it resembled sand. And I was still angry until it became clear this wasn’t an isolated incident. That there was some suggestive meme in the Update which helped it spread. Jim wasn’t as lucky as me; his wife had succumbed and when he returned home after a long shift, she tried the same thing as Molly had; unlucky for him, it worked.
Over the next few weeks, they began calling the converted FonePhaces. Some media wag had done this. Outside, civilisation seemed to have been turned on its head. There were now two tribes of people: those with the FonePhace and those without; and statistics showed that there was a bias in the former group to youth.
Sleep became an issue for Molly. The night mode didn’t cut it. Her sleep would be more like a daze, which was cut through by an alert for some email or another. It wasn’t possible to just turn the phone off, and what was more, it never seemed to run out of power. With sleep deprivation, the FonePhaces became more and more liked zombies. But another update allowed some form of zone related sleep; the developers didn’t want their subjects to lose their minds.
And a few weeks later, the augmentations began. Reality for those with a FonePhace began to warp, as images were superimposed on what they saw through the 3D camera. I remember Molly describing a huge cartoon dragon, lumbering along the street next to us. And then a human we passed in the street labelled as a sexual offender. We passed a homeless man in the street, which she seemed surprised about, as he had been edited out of her augmented reality. This was all before the adverts began, and that was really what did it for Molly: the constant bombardment of the sensorium with stuff to buy, I think drove her a little crazy.
Jim had helped us when Molly finally made up her mind. He knew Mr Darit from medical school. Not only that, he was reputedly one of the best, and one of the few remaining NHS surgeons. Not that the insurance would have covered it. In fact, the numerous claims due to the FonePhace had destroyed much of the medical insurance system in the UK. The NHS seemed to be rising up from the ashes of privatisation like a phoenix. Which was possibly the only positive element to come out of Update 13.0.
The operation was never going to be completely successful. The interface was so intertwined with the optic nerve, that even through careful microdissection, the nerves would be damaged. Thankfully, in Molly’s case, Mr Darit informed us that the infiltration stopped at something called the optic chiasm; then he told us of others who weren’t so lucky, where the process had extended deeper and into the brain.
Where she had seen the world crystal clear, now she just sees a kind of blind light. A blur of white, which she says is similar to when the Update first happened. So when we go out, I describe things to her. And she listens to my words, her head cocked gently to one side. As I remember she used to when we first met, before any of this happened.
Her attention is no longer drawn away from me, or the things around her. As we walk through the gardens, she runs her hands along the bark of a tree, tells me she wishes she could see it. On the beach, the sand runs through her fingers like the time we lost; cold waves lap gently at her feet. She now feels this more than I can.
We talk about how the world is changing. How it appears that there are now two separate groups of humans, those that accept the FonePhace, and those who don’t. Disturbingly, it seems that those in power are in the latter group. Conspiracies abound.
But most of all, we talk. We talk and talk. And we listen to each other. Life can never be the same again. But through love, it moves onwards.
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