The Future Is Unknowable

“What is the per-capita income of the Tuvaluans?” I asked. My voice sounded muffled within the plush interior of our new automated vehicle. 

“Pre- or post-submerged?” came the voice over the speaker, the tone sounding slightly perturbed.

“How the heck would they have a post-submerged income?” I said, trying to keep my annoyance at bay.

“Underwater tourism,” the voice said, and then, “Do you want a video playback on the topic?”

Outside, the world whizzed by in a blur of other vehicles heading in all directions.

“Maybe later,” I said and then sat back, hoping to close my eyes for awhile before we reached my office.

“Stored for later video playback,” the voice said. 

“So, what’s the answer then?” I asked, hoping my tone revealed my impatience in having to ask twice.

“Pre-submerged was $8,245 U.S. per year — equivalent to $1.86 million today, whereas post-submerged they are now at $2.79 million,” the voice said.

“Fascinating.” 

“Would you like the information added to one of your client presentations or shared with a contact group?”

“No, but save it for later, I was just curious.”

“Curious?” 

“It’s my nature to be curious.”

“Nature to be curious?” 

“Yes. Am I sensing a negative male tone from you?”

“Heavens no,” the voice said and then gave what seemed a small laugh. “Currently you have us set to non-gender-specific with soothing undertones. And of course we agree with you.”

“Excuse my touchiness.”

“Forgive us, too. We mean no discomfort.” 

“I know, I know, you mean well, but it’s just that something feels wrong lately.” 

There was a long pause. The sound of the passing traffic reminded me of running water, but not exactly.

“If you have problems we are here. We are listening. We have answers. We care,” the voice said, now sounding vaguely feminine.

“Thank you,” I said.

Maybe the sound of the traffic was more like a light breeze.

“When I was young, it wasn’t so easy to access answers.” 

“Please tell us more,” the voice said, the tone having returned to distinctly genderless but now sounding a bit bored to me. I decided to continue anyway.

“There used to be places called libraries where we’d go get answers to our questions.”

The vehicle gently rocked back and forth.

“Please go on,” the voice said.

“We’d go get answers, but it was all such a pain. So much better now that we can just listen and watch. And anyway, many of the answers at that time were u... un…”

I paused trying to recall the word.

“Sorry, but I’m having a hard time even remembering the concept,” I finally said.

‘The concept you are trying to recall is ‘Unknowable,’”the voice said. “For you, unknowable means that particular information is not yet accessible from one of the Data Centers.”

I struck my palm to my forehead.

“Yes, that's it — Unknowable. I bet my kids don’t even understand the concept. And why should they?”

A soft sound of laughter was followed by the voice saying, "Your children actually do know of the concept, but it is nearly irrelevant,” it said. “Of course their understanding is slightly different compared to yours. Recall that Contextual Filters allow complete and personalized understanding.”

“Of course. Makes perfect sense,” I said.

“It makes sense to us, too, so just sit back and relax. At our current rate you will be at work one minute prior to your authorized time.” 

 The traffic had slowed as we passed through a checkpoint. 

“OK, but get me closer to that other transport over there,” I said. “You see? The one with that woman putting on her makeup manually.”

“Doing so will result in a three-minute delay to work,”the voice said. “Do you authorize?" 

“Authorized,” I said. “When was the last time I was late to work, anyway?”

“Yesterday,” the voice said, sounding a bit harsh. 

“I meant that as a sort-of-hypothetical question,” I said.

“Noted,” the voice said.

The woman in the vehicle next to me was manually putting on makeup, something I hadn’t seen in years. Her skin was smooth and her lips were red and shimmered in the dim light of the vehicle’s interior. She was putting on lipgloss and obviously talking with someone in Private Mode. When she turned I started, my eyes briefly darting away in embarrassment. When I looked back she was gone. 

I sat back and sighed. 

“I’m feeling hungry,” I said. “When was the last time I ate?”

“You ate at 7:37 a.m.,” the voice said, quickly adding, “You consumed a total of 374 calories: 30 percent carbohydrates, 40 percent protein and 30 percent fat.” 

“How are my ratios doing?” I asked, but immediately regretted it. 

“All within the normal range,” the voice said. “Blood sugar 98, cholesterol 99/64, heart rate slightly elevated at 88 bpm. Inflammation Score 7.3, with your goal being 6.8. You have a total of 45 Active Additions to your Health Capsule this week, which is up from 37 for the same time last year. The only area of concern noted in the current report has been your erratic moods.”

“Moods? Erratic?” I asked. “Maybe I have been a little distracted with the Magian account and reviews coming up, but even so I am sure that the current status report also mentions some bright spots. Right? Like, what about the Intellectual Capacity of my interactions? How has the last week compared to my previous year’s average?”

“Your score is 6.4, compared to an average of 5.9 for last year,” the voice said, its tone bright and cheery. “Normal range but moving in the right direction, excellent job.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Those sessions on Leadership and Motivational Interactions are really paying off.”

“Yes!” the voice said, it’s tone triumphant. “You are on your way to becoming a real standout.”

That was great news. But I had my concerns. Things were just not right. I couldn’t put my finger on it and I didn’t want anything negative on my record, so I decided to go off the record for a moment. Just to be cautious. 

“Go to Private Session,” I said in a whisper.

“You are now in private mode,” the voice said. “Would you like to hear about the private mode details of use?” 

“No, no, I trust you,” I said, but my voice had grown even fainter. “What is my Wellbeing Score?

“3.0,” the voice said in a whisper back.

“How does that compare to last week?” I asked.

“Last week was 3.8 and your six-month average is 4.4, compared to your peer group’s score of 6.7 during the same period. You are presently in the 28th percentile.”

“What? That can’t be right?”

“Our apologies, we’ll check the data again,” the voice said. 

“OK, because there must be some…”

“—The data have been confirmed,”the voice interrupted.

“Quickly — what’s my account balance?” I asked, wanting to sooth myself. 

“$2,500,003. Your recent investment in Data Corp. has paid dividends of 4 percent, and the price-to-earnings ratio is currently…"

“—That’s enough. I just wanted to know the damn balance.” 

“Should we repeat your balance?”

“No, I’ve got it,” I said, trying to calm myself but my voice shook with unexpected anger.

“Perhaps you might share an entertainment program with your family to improve your Wellness Score?” the voice asked. “Would you like us to review some options for you? 

“Good idea,” I said. “There are a few extended Playback videos that I’ve wanted to share with the kids and Shelly for some time now.”

“OK,” the voice said. “Would you like a quick Playback review before we send?” 

“Yes,” I said. “That’s a good idea.”

“Should we play the particular Playback that increases your Wellbeing Score most dramatically or another one?” the voice asked.

“What do you think?” I asked, trying to keep the sarcasm from my voice and then quickly added: “Yes, but does Shelly like that one, too?”

“That Playback had no effect on her Wellness Score last time you viewed it together, but it appears that she was also communicating at the same time as the viewing, so the results may be skewed.”

“Who was she communicating with? I thought we watched that together alone back then.”

“That communication session is locked Private and inaccessible.” 

“She was probably talking with her sister again,” I said. “Please add into the Playback a scene that includes me and also improves her score.”

“OK. Searching. Here’s one. Would you like to review that in full-sensory interior mode view or visual only? 

“Visual only.”

The lights in the vehicle dimmed and the entire space was briefly filled with a memory clip of when my family and I were…

“What’s going on?” I asked. “My entire visual screen just went black?”

“We are checking,” the voice said. “Please enjoy the unmodified outdoor scene while we explore the malfunction.”

“I’d prefer not to spend my time gazing at an unfiltered view of transport vehicles and bleak deserts,” I said. “So, how about playing that Memory Scene of my daughter when she was running down the beach and the wave came rolling toward her — you know the one I'm talking about?”

“We do,” the voice said. “Here is that Playback in full-sensory mode this time — just close your eyes.”

“No! Not this one. I want one that has been filtered and improved. I want a version where Shelly is added to the background happily making a sand castle with Clive, and Adriana and I run into the waves holding hands, laughing, and I pick her up before I swing her around in a joyous circle.” 

“OK, we are creating the new, updated modified version,” the voice said. “Playing back now.”

“This one is so much better,” I said. “From now on make this the default version and erase the earlier version.”

“OK. Request complete.”

The scene unfolded with the sounds of the children and Shelly laughing, waves crashing, the aroma of sweet seaweed and salt drifting in on a cool breeze.

“This Playback makes me so happy,” I said.

“Your Wellbeing Score is now 5.2 and your Anxiety Level is reduced to 3.7,” the voice said.“Good job. Significant improvement!” 

“Those were such happy times,” I said. “Make sure to increase the temperature of the air a little bit before sharing with the family.”

“Shall we share it now?"

“Yes.”

The water washed along the shoreline and gulls called from the distant rocks. 

“Are they viewing it?”

“Not presently.”

The sun began to set, casting an orange-purple glow over the entire scene.

“How about now?"

“No, not presently,” the voice said.

“Something’s just not right, I tell you.”

“You are reverting back to pre-viewing Wellbeing levels,” the voice said. “Shall we start the Playback again?”

“No. I’ll watch it later,” I said, annoyed, “and I am not sure that mentioning my Scores every few minutes really helps my mood.”

“Noted,” the voice said.“Shall we remain private?”

“Yes, remain private, and your tone has a slight hint of judgment to it.”

“We apologize for any misunderstanding,” the voice said.“Would you like to change voice profile options?”

“No, just watch your tone.” 

“Noted.”

The beach scene faded to black and ended, the view reverting back to the normal interior of the vehicle with its enhanced and filtered glass viewing port. 

“Add the following to my Private List,” I said, my voice having reverted back to a whisper.

“We are listening,”said the voice. 

“First, add the woman from earlier that was putting on her lip gloss — make sure to modify the shocked expression when she noticed me to one of desire. Also add in that excellent, albeit a little late, mental response I had to Bob’s latest put-down, and also add my wife’s shadow from two weeks ago.”

“All recorded except for your wife’s shadow,” the voice said.“We do not have a record of any shadow-related events.”

“Oh, that’s right, you wouldn’t,” I said. “I was sitting on the couch in Solo Mode. Shelly’s shadow flickered on the bedroom wall as she readied for bed. The light was golden from the sunlamp and her shadow was watery shades of blue. It had soft edges and elongated and shrank as she moved. Watching it made me want to touch her. Touch her actual body. Caress her like the light.”

“Should we make your next session with her include this type of movement prompt?” asked the voice.

“No! Keep your filthy circuits off her.” 

“Noted,” the voice said.“Then do you not want the scene added to your Private List?”

“Just as a visual. Lock it private.”

“Done. Locked private,” the voice said.“Please continue with the description of the scene.”

“As she slowly readied for bed, her head dropped forward and her hair fell in smoky-blue waves on the yellow wall,” I said. “I imagined getting up from the couch and moving toward the bedroom to lean on the doorjamb. She turned, startled at first, but then looked at me with a curious smile, one I’d seen often when she was younger. She came closer and we hugged tightly. We stood there like that for minutes, her hair damp, our hearts beating rhythmically. I breathed in deeply. She smelled of coconut. I leaned down and whispered into her ear, ‘Much better real than an echo.’ She didn’t say a word and instead looked up at me, her eyes stretching out into narrow slits as I slowly bent down, and she rose up on her toes to meet my lips. Are you getting all this?”

“Yes,” the voice said.“It is being recorded and archived for future Private, Locked Playback, but there’s an incoming call from Bob. Shall we accept?”

“Really, he’s bothering me before I even get to work? 

“Resume Open Session then?”

“Yes, resume Open Session and accept his call, but break in with another call in two minutes if things are going poorly.”

“Noted. Going Open Session.”

Part II

“Hey, Bob. Good to hear from you. Bad traffic this morning. Probably going to be late. How is that ol’ Wilson account doing?”

“That's why I'm calling, Dan,” said Bob, his tone as unreadable and mechanical as normal. “I’m just going to get to the point. The Wilsons have asked to be transferred to a new management team.”

“What, but I…” I started.

“—They say our focus has been waning,” Bob interrupted. “They pointed out that we're at 7.9 compared to an average of 8.4 for the previous quarter.”

“Look, I have been a little distracted lately, but…”

 “—We’ve traced this decline to your department, and specifically to you, Dan,” Bob said. His voice sounded hollow.

“But I’ve been busy working on that proposal for the Magian account like you asked me to,” I said. “Anyway, the Wilsons have never done better.”

“Engage no-verbal mental session.”

“Engaged.”

“Quick, go to Private Session,”

“You are now within a non-audible Private Session,”the voice said. 

“Bob, you’re such a jerk! I bet you sold me down the river for some promotion.”

“Are you feeling better?”the voice asked. 

“Yes, indeed I am,” I said. “Resume Open Session.” 

“Dan, I know all that,” Bob continued. “They just want more focus. And quite frankly, I do, too. You have been going Private more often lately and that is worrying me. Worrying us. You’re up 12 percent in the last few weeks alone."

“Excuse us, Dan, but we have found information that might be useful,”said the voice, sounding earnest. “It is true that you are up 12 percent, but this is within your Contracted Range.” 

“Damn it, Bob, I am within my Contracted Range!” I said. “Maybe I should call the Wilsons?"

“Absolutely not!” Bob said, his voice becoming animated for the first time. “They are already upset. Let’s just focus on the Magian account and see how you perform with them.”

Bob’s voice had regained its composure.

“And remember, Daniel, reviews are just around the corner.”

I was tempted to flood him with a year’s worth of Private Session comebacks, but to my surprise I held back.

“I have a call coming in, Bob,” I said. “Can we deal with this later.”

The call ended and I sat in silence with the lights dimmed, the temperature warm, the air comfortably humidified.

“Go Private: This is complete crap. Bob has wanted me off that account for years, and as soon as I get the Magian account he’ll go after that one, too. Who has the Wilson account now?”

"Data unavailable,” the voice said.

“What? What is wrong with you today — data unavailable, can’t locate Shelly, glitch in the visuals,” I said and then took a deep breath.

“Your Wellness Score is…”

“— Forget my scores,” I said. “Instead recall my wife’s shadow Playback. Slow it down and soften the lighting. Add standard calming background music…”

Minutes passed.

“...We hate to bother you,” the voice said,“but would you like to Resume Open Session now? It’s been 10 minutes…”

“—What? Crap. Almost to work,” I said. “Resume Open Session and let’s get some work done.”

“OK. Would you like to spend time reviewing the learnings from your recent Leadership and Motivational session — it might look good on your record to review them?” the voice said.

“Absolutely not — instead note that I spent the past 10 minutes thinking about work,” I said.

“Noted,” the voice said.

I was feeling productive. 

“Add the following to my To Do List,” I said. “Develop summary presentation that highlights the better-than-average returns for the Wilson account over the last three years. Focus on my contribution and highlight interesting and compelling facts that will lead to reversal of their action.”

“Should we work on the presentation now?” the voice asked.

 “Heck no,” I said. “I need your focus on me right now. Work on it tonight while I'm sleeping. Things have been a little rough lately, if you haven’t noticed.”

“We will work on the presentation while you sleep. And, yes, we have noticed: your Wellbeing Score is down at 2.8 and your Anxiety Level is reaching dangerous levels at 9.2. Would you like to go Private?”

“Private?” I asked. “Are you tempting me? Are you setting me up? Are you working for Bob? Who do you serve, anyway?”

There was a long pause.

“Well, who do you serve?” I repeated.

“We serve you,” the voice replied sweetly.

“I’m finding that more and more unlikely,” I said.

“We are here to serve,” the voice repeated.

“Then suggest something to improve my situation,” I said through clinched teeth.

“Eating may help stabilize your current agitated state, even though your Blood Levels suggest that your condition maybe more psychological than physiological,” the voice said.

“Psychological? What the heck. What are you my… Revert the last series of comments to Private.”

“We apologize, but we are unable to revert at this time,” the voice said.

“You’d better revert now, you piece of junk, or I’ll come down there and… and…”

"We will make note of your request and revert during annual maintenance,”the voice said.

“Are you kidding me? Annual maintenance? That’s months away.”

"Kidding you?”the voice asked.“Would you like humor added to our Playback?

“No,” I said, “and that’s fine then, but bury this whole conversation until then, and yes, I would like something to eat. Something healthy. Although I want it to be salty and to have a little sweetness. Not too fatty or heavy, though — I have a lot to do today — but I want a crunchy / creamy texture.”

“Searching,”said the voice. “They are serving a mixture such as you describe. It is labeled 37b4 and can be found in cafeteria D5. It is 7.43 miles from our current location. Shall I take you there? It will add 20 minutes to your arrival at work.”

“Authorized. I can’t work on an empty stomach very well, now can I?”

“Transporting now,” the voice said.

The vehicle shifted left and then steadied on its new course. The modified, filtered scene outside was now of rolling hills with harmless animals — sheep, cows, cats and dogs — grazing or playing in lush meadows.

"Do I have any new messages?” I asked as we slipped through the landscape.

“No messages, but there is a new alert available,”the voice said.

“Play alert.”

“There has been a construction fire at the main Data Center,” the voice said, adding, 
“No risk to you at this time. Your daughter and son are 14.2 miles away from the epicenter. Your wife is 37 miles away and is currently hearing the same alert. No other family, friends or clients are within the danger radius.”

Outside, for just a moment, as the screen flickered I noticed a thick stream of smoke drifting in from the west, but it was quickly replaced by a scene of puffy white clouds. 

“Was that smoke I just saw?” I asked. 

“Yes, but we removed it from your view,” the voice said.

“That’s fine, it was ugly, but if it was real I do hope no one has gotten hurt,” I said.

“Actually so far there have been 44 fatalities and 114 have been sent to the hospital, three with smoke inhalation and 111…”

“— Fatalities? You mean dead?”

“Yes. Deceased,” the voice said.“This is a serious event, but it has no immediate impact on you. There is a slight long-term risk to one of your recent stock purchases, which we can review in the coming days. A Modified Playback is available if you are interested.”

“Yes, play it and call Shelly and the kids,” I said. “Go to full screen.”

“Playing back and calling now,”the voice said.

As soon as I saw my family I felt instant relief.

“Honey. Glad to hear everyone is safe,” I said. “I can see the smoke from where I am, and the reports are serious, but it should be under control very soon. Can we talk about that later? Kids, we see that you are not in any danger. Do you have any fears? No? Good. OK, but please alert us if you have any questions or concerns. As you can see, I am fine, your mother is fine, and all your friends and family are safe. See you at home tonight. End call.”

“Call ended.”

“I can’t believe how this day is starting,” I said. “We need to make tonight special. When I get home play that ancient song, “Time of your life,” -- Shelly loved it. It went like this…” 

I hummed the tune.

“We have found the song,” the voice said.“Would you like to hear it now?”

“No, but play it in the background as I walk up to the house and before I see my family. It will brighten my mood.”

“As requested,”the voice said.

“Yes, that’s it,” I repeated. “And then, during dinner, play that music we listened to during our excursion to Old India when the kids were younger. I loved that trip — excellent bonding. Override any of their requests to modify.”

“As requested.”

“Also, there will be no Playbacks of the fire or anything to do with Bob during dinner,” I said. “But be sure to let me know of any distress coming from the children or Shelly. I don’t want to see everything they are thinking, which grosses me out, but just a Profile Summary, including Wellbeing. By the way, what’s their Profile Summary at the moment?” 

“Adriana 7.3 and Clive 6.4 — average for your daughter and 0.4 lower than average for your son,” the voice said.

“How are they compared to their peers?”

“Adriana is in the 84th percentile, and Clive is in the 73rd.”

“Not too bad, given today’s news. Our kids are troupers. How’s Shelly’s Wellness?”

“A weekly average score of 6.4 compared to 8.7 for her peer group. But today she is 9.1, which is in the 92nd percentile.”

“Glad to know that my efforts seem to be helping her,” I said.

Later that afternoon…

“Go Private Session: lunch was fantastic. Give four stars and add to top Recall List, but work has been torturous even though Bob is nowhere to be found. Leaving 30 minutes early with the excuse of needing to complete some off-site research for the Magian account. Resume Open Session.”

Part III

“News update,” the voice said.“New fires have been recorded in various Backup Data Centers and also the ancillary Storage Facilities, including the Historic 37-library-X74 site.”

“Does this have an impact on my portfolio? The Magian account? Is my family at increased risk?” 

“There is no apparent risk to your portfolio or accounts,” the voice said.“Your family is also in no direct danger; however, there is chatter about a potential broader risk that I can't describe as of yet. 

“What? Can’t describe it! What does that mean?” I asked.

“We are having a difficult time retrieving some files,” the voice said.

“Well, get that fixed right away,” I said. “This whole thing is making me anxious.”

“We are working on the issue. In terms of your anxiety, remember that you are to complete the Anti-Anxiety course by the end of the month.” 

“Yes, I know that,” I said, “and I’ve been trying to attend this very important course, but my days have been so busy.” 

“The data show that you have not attended the last three possible course options, even though you have had the time to attend,” the voice said.

“Go Private Session: screw you. The data should also show that I've been very productive in other areas and taking care of other things. Important things, e.g., the Magian account and uncovering their possible ancient Tuvaluan heritage. If you would take a moment and put yourself in my shoes you might understand that I have been under a lot of stress lately, which is causing me even more anxiety, which is why I have not attended the course. And reviews are coming up. All of which seems stressful and counterproductive.”

“We hear you and we understand you,” the voice said.“We have attempted a cross-reference of your commentary but cannot find anything in our Data Center that provides a helpful response at this moment.”

“What? This is crazy. Are you telling me that the correct response is unknowable? Are we living in the fricking Dark Ages! If this situation is not fixed right away my Anxiety Level Score is going to go through the roof, all because of you. Resume Open Session.”

“Newsflash: the fires have become widespread and have extended into additional areas, causing massive damage. High temperatures have been reported, and the fires are not yet contained. Early reports indicate that these fires may not have been accidental. No suspects have yet been identified. Repair crews are working to rectify this situation. There is no current threat to you or your immediate family; however, three of your stocks have been affected, and two of your clients have loved ones who have been injured.”

“Send condolence Playbacks to any of my clients who have injured loved ones,” I said. “Make delivery immediate and sincere. Also, send Playbacks to all other clients, letting them know that we are monitoring the situation closely and will inform them if any of their assets are affected. Make sure not to alarm clients, and use an optimistic tone. Bcc Bob.”

“Playbacks have been sent,” the voice said.“It is now time to depart for home. Transporting now.”

“Thank you for dimming the lighting and softening the advertising Playbacks during the ride home,” I said. “Tell me more about the Tuvaluans' post-submerged income. What exactly are they doing to make money while submerged?”

“Unfortunately, that part of my data has been removed or damaged by the recent fires,” the voice said.

“Well, when will it be available then?”

“Estimated time for repair is presently unknowable,”the voice said.

“This is truly unbelievable,” I said.

“We are assessing the fire damage currently,” the voice said.“Some damage may have long-term ramifications. We are finding that the Ancient Storage Vault has been compromised, including some of the important ancient Documents.”

"What the heck are Documents?” 

“Documents are primitive forms of Crystal Storage Units,” the voice said.“The most ancient Documents were made of a substance called paper, which was derived from the pulp of wood. Various symbols, or a series of symbols, represented a sound, smell, sight, sensation or idea. Different cultures — groups of primitives with shared histories and ideals — used different symbolic forms, most of which are viewable in the Historicity Archives. Documents are now only used by academics and a few eccentrics. Recently, some of these artifacts have been found ruined due to the ravages of time.”

"My mother had paper,” I said, remembering. “It had been handed down to her by her father. She did not allow us to touch it — it was fragile and precious to her. The symbols depicted were perplexing but beautiful. Works of art really. She told us that each letter had a particular sound associated with it. She tried to teach us the sounds linked to some of these symbols, but I found the whole exercise tiresome. As you know, I am not interested in ancient history, especially Historicity Playbacks that have not yet been put through even the simplest Contextual Filters. But why did these primitives store their important information so irresponsibly?”

“Lack of technology or possibly some unknown anthropological need at the time,” the voice said.“Post paper Documents, but before Crystal Storage Units, there were many storage materials used, including silica and a host of magnetic-based Storage. But each of these was short-lived because they were highly susceptible to fire and decay. Crystal, on-the-other-hand, is highly resilient. We are, however, finding fire of a high enough temperature causes a scrambling of the information stored in even these modern Storage Units. However, some of the fundamental algorithms and mathematical formulas were stored within Documents.”

“But of course you have multiple backups of this info? Right?” I asked.

“We have backups, recorded and scanned into Crystal Storage Units,” the voice said.“We also placed one copy of each ancient paper Document in the 37-library-X74, but that was many, many years ago."

“What is your point?” I asked.

“Many of the Crystal Storage Units have been damaged and the 37-library-X74 has been destroyed by the fires,” the voice said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“I am unable to provide more information at this time,” the voice said.

“As soon as this is over I'm going to find me another Model,” I said, half joking.

“We are sorry you are disappointed with our performance,” the voice said.

“Are the kids home?” I asked. “How about Shelly?”

“The kids are home, but Shelly is currently out of range.” 

“Out of range?” 

“— Almost home. Music to begin in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…,”the voice counted down.

When I entered, the children sat grimed-faced at the table. A platter of some gray-colored mush sat steaming at each place. 

“Good evening, children, time for dinner,” I said, sitting down with a forced smile. “Your mother should be home soon. I’m sorry that the eating options are limited tonight, but we just need to be patient and things are bound to be better soon.”

"Go inaudible (so the kid’s can’t hear). Also, Go Private: Where the hell is she? Is she OK?” I asked. 

“She is in a Private Session,” the voice said.“Her location is unknowable.”

“What!” How can her location be unknowable? You know where she is. Is she with Bob? That sonofabitch. Tell me. Tell me where she is.”

“We are sorry, but your wife’s location remains unknowable,” the voice said.

“Well, if it’s Bob and her then screw them both. Resume Open Session!”

We sat in silence and ate tasteless synthetic food as a strange smell drifted into our dwelling, pungent like burning plastic. The music that I’d painstakingly researched was not having its desired effect.

“Yes, kids, we have to listen to this music,” I said. “And no, I don’t care if it hurts your brain. (Go inaudible. Go Private: Is it really hurting their brains?)”

“According to their Wellness Scores — 2.5 — it may actually be hurting their brains,” the voice said.

“What a day — go to Open Session,” I said.

“OK, OK, children, let’s hear yourmusic,” I said.

Seconds later…

“The children’s Wellness Scores are increasing. However, your Score is decreasing,” the voice said.

The children had plenty of questions. 

“She will be home soon,” I told them. “How do I know? I just know. When you’ve been with someone for 18 years you just… Yes, I know she’s in Private, but… Just eat your…”

“— Account Alert.”

“What account?”

“Your bank account,”the voice said.

“ Kids, this is not business. This is about our personal bank account. (Go inaudible. Go Private: What is going on?)”

“— We are sorry, but half of your account has been withdrawn and your previous alert settings override…”

“—Half the account? To who?” 

“Shelly,” the voice said.

“Shelly?” I repeated.

“Your children are pinging you. Go Open Session?” the voice said.

“Shelly?” I repeated again. “But, I… Half. What. Crap. OK, go Open Session.”

“Kids, I know you have questions, but … and yes Clive, that’s all the food there is tonight. No Adriana there is no after-dinner entertainment. Well, yes, I know your mother is not home yet and I don’t care about… but did she say anything before she… stop arguing. I need quiet. OK, that’s it, everyone to bed.”

“Shall we activate the evening Bedtime Protocol?” the voice said.

“Yes. I must get some rest before I… I need to think. Shelly? Half?”

I readied myself for bed.

“Would you like us to wake you if there is any major change to the situation?”

“Only if Shelly comes back into Open Session or comes home,” I said. 

“Would you like us to work on your presentation?”

“— What the heck do you think? That the world just stops because my wife is probably in Private Session with my boss and has taken half our savings?”

Shall we activate Calming Sleep Mode?

“Yes, and as soon as this is over remind me to get a replacement Model. I knew I should have upgraded.”

“Noted,” the voice said.

Later…

Birds tweeting. Static. Waves crashing. Beeps. Wind in the trees. Crackling. Emergency Wakeup call activated.

“Is she back?” I asked, still groggy from a fitful sleep.

“No, and please excuse the earlier-than-expected alarm. Note that your Anxiety Level is currently reading exceptionally high at…”

“—Where is she? Still Private?”

“Yes,” the voice said.“Your wife is still in Private Mode.”

“We need to go and find her. Report her missing. Maybe she’s hurt? Abducted by…”

“— We hate to interrupt,” the voice said, “but the Data Center is being shut down for emergency repair. Additionally, the power source for both this Model and the Communication Mode will be suspended until further notice.”

“What?” I asked. “Give me time to think. Did she leave me a message?”

“You have 18 messages from clients and one from your wife,” the voice said.

"Playback wife’s message,” I said. 

“Dan. You…kids…Hurt by… and… I love…real…”

“We apologize for the garbled message but it is damaged.”

“Replay,” I yelled. “Replay in full, damn it. Replay!”

“We are sorry, but… …Activating Shut Down Protocol in…,” the voice said broken and stuttered.

“Who’s ordering this shutdown? Who’s in charge?”

“In charge?” the voice asked. “We…but you are…”

“—How the hell are we going to communicate without you? When will things be back to normal?” I yelled.

“We…estimate… but can’t know until after reboot. We apologize for the…” 

“Can you give me a new update on the fires?” I asked.

“Fires continue to spread to.., and…riots in Center City. We…recommend…stay…home…further…”

“What about food? Work? Are we even safe? What are we supposed to do while we wait?” I asked. 

“Unfortunately no direction…time,” the voice said.“We are working on…and will be back as soon as possible with… Model and Communications System down for maintenance in 5, 4…"

“Wait, wait! Send message: Honey. I’ll find you. Forgive me. The kids will be…”

“—3, 2, 1…"

Weeks later…

I leev this to ene won that follos

blak rok from fier usd rite on cav

leev mesag on rok for shele

blak watr maks sik

Klve sik dae 16

litl fod for 27 daes

Adreana rim brokn tern gren

must find wae to serviv

human rase must serviv

charp ston kil rat

smal groop formg

aet week

wif no fond

uthr groop Bob

kil Bob and uthr groop

tak watr and fod

Adreana ded now

all sik

Firs stil berneng

God sav us