On the morning of September 22, 2033, Amanda Allan was awakened a full half-hour before sunrise — not by her customized birdsong of choice (35% Marsh Warbler, 25% Eurasian Skylark, 40% Common Nightingale), but rather by the chainsaw-to-the-brain wail of Jaden McNally-Homsi, bawling for his binky. Amanda sighed and removed her iEye. She moistened it with a few iEye drops and popped it back in. Her valet, Beale — an anthropomorphic brown bear — greeted her with a smile.
“Good morning, Amanda. Shall I cancel your seven a.m. alarm?”
“Black Americano and kefir #3 at seven-twenty am?”
“No, I’m up, so…double espresso and kefir #3 at six-fifty if no one’s using the Brekky.”
“Okay. Got it.”
“Light sleep: 2.6 hours. Deep sleep: 38 minutes. REM: 7 minutes.”
“Fuck.” An ad for SleepWell appeared before her: a woman conked in a king-size bed with a dreamy smile on her face. “For the best sleep of your lif — “Amanda swiped the ad shut. She didn’t want meds. What she wanted was to not be roused around midnight by the sound of Maggie and Jamil bonking in the bedroom across the hall — “Are you ready for it?” snarled Jamil over and over until Amanda wanted to shout: “Yes! We’re all more than ready for it, please get on with it!” She hoped Maggie had been ready for it with some contraception, since Jamil was still one of the fully-fertile. Amanda loved Maggie and Jamil, but she had loved them more before she and Michael had let them take Rachel and Priya’s place in their retrofit. And she’d loved them far more before they’d birthed wailing Jaden.
“Messages?” she asked Beale.
“Thirty. One urgent from ‘Mom’.”
Thirty? She had cleared them at four a.m. “Open Mom message.”
Amanda’s mom appeared in a purple housecoat. “Hi, Sweetie, there’s a Health-Canada recall on Protein-Pal cricket flour. I don’t know if you use that brand —” Amanda deleted the message. She didn’t use that brand. An ad from Protein-Pal hopped in from the left. Amanda flicked it away.
“Weight: 139.6 pounds, 26.8% fat. Waking blood pressure: 139 over 89 — elevated, scheduled check in two hours. Microbiome within optimal range; however, Methanobrevibacter smithii is 27% lower than average.”
An ad for Practivate appeared. A laughing woman bounded down a beach with a golden retriever by her side. A voice said: “Every shot of Practivate contains a quarter billion CFU of M. smithii!” Amanda ordered a bottle.
“Heat alert for the GTA,” said Beale. “High of 39 degrees Celsius with a Humidex of up to 50.”
“Uch!” One degree shy of Lily’s school trip being cancelled. It seemed like every other day of Grade three was a field trip. The year had just begun, and Lily’s class had already gone to Mars, the Arctic Circle, and the Battle of Hastings. But those were OCU-Ed trips, which Amanda preferred for safety reasons. Pioneer Village was one of the few locations the younger kids had to actually travel to, which is why she had volunteered to chaperone even though she was totally choked with work. The idea of the Village made her uneasy. Even with cooling wands, it was going to be stupidly hot, and there were a lot of real trees up there and farm animals too. Who knows what gross bacteria or viruses lurked? Lyme for sure. Probably VRSA in the soil. And what if there was a power failure on the way there or back? During the heat wave of ’27, dozens of schoolchildren had been nearly cooked to death in the Crosstown LRT when it lost power in a tunnel. They said it couldn’t happen again, but Amanda wasn’t going to risk it. She would accompany Lily to the Village and work whenever she could grab a moment.
Amanda got out of bed and headed to the bathroom. Miraculously, it was unoccupied, though a matted hunk of Maggie’s red hair sat in the middle of the floor like a taunt. Amanda kicked it behind the toilet, then took a piss and checked the TruNews headlines. France was still burning, and so was California. It seemed like half the world was on fire, and the other half was flooded. There were a dozen unexplained CrispR-baby deaths in China, a dangerous escalation in the West Bank water war, dust storms in India, and complete chaos in Chile after another round of landslides. God. The only good news was that King Charles had received his new liver and was doing well. “Shut feed, start shower,” said Amanda, trying not to think about Chile. Against warnings from Michael, she had watched live feeds of the tsunami that followed the earthquake. Now she couldn’t get the images out of her brain. Michael wanted her to have them reconsolidated, but she felt funny about that. She was old-school when it came to memory.
“Sorry, Amanda,” said Beale. “Household shower limit has been reached for this morning.”
“What? No, that’s not possible.” But of course it was. It had happened multiple times since Maggie and Jamil had moved in. One or the other of them had used twice their share, ostensibly by accident — something that had never happened with Rachel and Priya. Not once. Oh how Amanda missed them, especially Rachel, who had been her friend since junior high. “Don’t remember me this way,” she’d whispered in the final stages of the O-virus, curled fetal in the hospital bed, all bones and blisters.
Amanda sighed and washed her armpits in the sink. An urgent message from the CRA appeared, informing her that she had made an error on her tax return and needed to remit $4,800 and all business income receipts by October 15th. “What the fuck?!” she screamed, batting it away before retrieving and saving the message. Amanda’s blood pressure alert flashed yellow. She blinked it off and went to get dressed.
The LRT was crowded and smelled unfresh, like sweat and a panoply of cheap deodorants to mask it. Lily was fencing with her cousin from Montreal, her right arm twirling and jabbing in the air, much to the annoyance of the commuter in front of her, whose only riposte was a dirty look.
Amanda should have been working, but instead watched an exposé that one of her Sphere peeps had copied from the Deep Web, about how major corporations and even universities were using DNA to discriminate against anyone with Jewish ancestry. This was because of the Olympic virus, which they believed had targeted Israeli athletes before mistakenly spreading to the general population. Amanda’s stomach clenched. Michael was half-Jewish and had been unable to find work for months. If he didn’t get something before the end of the year, they’d be screwed. And Lily was a quarter Jewish. So now Amanda didn’t just have to worry about viruses specifically designed to attack her daughter, she also had to worry about an entire society shunning her because of it? She instinctively reached out and touched Lily’s arm.
“Mom!” she said, somehow managing to add several syllables to the word. “I’m in the middle of a match!”
“Sorry, Baby.” Amanda felt acid rise from her gut and sizzle against her esophagus. Her heart-PH alert flashed red. She chewed some Tums, then went swimming with dolphins for a few minutes to try to calm down.
Amanda hadn’t been to Pioneer Village since she was a kid on an elementary-school field trip. It was remarkably unchanged, apart from cooling wands (cleverly disguised as sunflowers or old-timey objects) and, of course, the vast parking lot, which had been repurposed. Half was now vegetable garden, with the remainder turned into an interactive hologram of a day-in-the-life of a Canadian family, starting with the Stongs, who had settled there 200 years ago, then jumping decade by decade to the present. It was pretty cool. Amanda had been wending her way through quickly, but surprised herself by lingering in the 1980s and inexplicably fighting back tears in the 1990s. Something about seeing things she hadn’t looked at since she was a kid triggered the strange response. Touch-tone phones and tamagotchis, a whole family gathered around a television, watching the same thing (Friends), the view out the window of a grass lawn and a driveway with two cars, and beyond that the strip-malls and farmers’ fields that used to lie north of Steeles Avenue. Mortified, Amanda fled the exhibit and waited at the exit, catching up on work until Lily’s class emerged. She scheduled a session with her online shrink for that evening. She hadn’t slept properly for months — years, actually, since Rachel died. Clearly, she was getting squirrely.
Michael was probably right. She probably needed meds.
“Hot enough for ya?”
Oh God, thought Amanda. She pasted a smile on her face as the exhausting mother of Patricia Thomas approached her outside the weaver’s shop. “It’s not bad by the wands,” said Amanda.
“You working?” said the exhausting mother of Patricia.
No, thought Amanda, I’m just sitting here waving my hands in the air. “Yup,” she said, using FACE to find Patricia’s mom’s name, which was Beatrice. Beatrice had taken a few Continuing-Studies design courses and always wanted to talk to Amanda about the business. “What’s up with you, Beatrice?”
“You didn’t see my post on Sphere?”
“No,” said Amanda. If she was even peeps with Beatrice, it would be the outermost Sphere.
“Oh! Well, remember you mentioned that City of Toronto contest to design the new amphitheatre in High Park?”
“Oh! Wow! Congrats!” How is that possible? “When was it announced?”
“This morning!” said Beatrice. “I’m so pumped!”
“Cool!” said Amanda.
Lily’s class started streaming out of the weaver’s shop. Amanda and Beatrice followed along the path to the blacksmith’s.
“Your firm entered a design, right?” said Beatrice, with a faux-sympathetic smile.
“Um, no,” lied Amanda.
“Really?” said Beatrice, trying to surreptitiously blink on her LiEye-detector. But Amanda noticed and blinked on her blocker.
“Oh. I thought that’s how it came up — I asked you about what you were working on.”
“Yeah, I was considering it, but was too busy with actual paid commissions.”
“Ah,” said Beatrice. “Well, check out my design when you have a sec. I’d love to know what you think!”
I think it’s almost certainly a rip-off of a real designer’s work, like everything you do, thought Amanda. But she smiled and said: “Definitely!”
“Whoa!” said Beatrice, pausing at the entrance to the blacksmith’s shop. “It’s a thousand degrees in there! Want to go to the water station?” She held up her thermos.
“No, I’m gonna — I’m curious,” said Amanda, stepping into the dark shop to get away from Beatrice. It was unbearably hot inside. The climate control wasn’t working, and the forge was heaped high with red embers. It took a moment for Amanda’s eyes to adjust to the light. She saw a blacksmith, slick with sweat, pumping hard on the bellows. His linen shirt was soaked through, revealing a thick, muscled body behind the leather apron. Amanda felt a twinge of desire as she watched him work. She moved to the front of the group with the idea of posting a clip of the blacksmith on her PIX scroll with the caption: Hottie! Literally! But as she got close — straining up against the chain that cordoned off the forge at a supposedly safe distance — the blacksmith placed an iron rod on the anvil and struck it hard with his hammer, sending a white-hot coal fragment directly into Amanda’s eye. She screamed as her iEye took the impact and instantly melted.
“Are you OK?!” said Mr. Fofana, Lily’s teacher.
Amanda plucked out the lens and blinked a few times, refocusing. “I’m fine,” she said, surveying the shrivelled mass in the palm of her hand, “but my iEye is toast!”
“May I see?” said the blacksmith.
Amanda held out the device, but the man stepped close and peered into her right eye, his hand moving instinctively toward her cheek. She swatted it away. “I’m fine!” said Amanda, rattled by his proximity and look of concern. For the second time that day, she found herself tamping down tears.
“Then those are good for something,” muttered the blacksmith, glancing at the ruined iEye. He returned to the forge and thrust the iron back into the embers.
“Seriously?” said Amanda. “An apology might be nice.”
“She could have been blinded!” said Mr. Fofana.
“Not to mention that I was supposed to be working all day,” said Amanda.
“Then you should thank me,” said the blacksmith, wiping sweat from his neck. He had vivid blue eyes with a thick limbal ring around each iris. There was intelligence there. And arrogance.
“All right, kids, let’s vanny. Too hot in here,” said Mr. Fofana, glaring at the blacksmith. “And this is not safe!” He lifted the heavy handmade chain and let it drop. “You should have a barrier here.”
“It’s safe if you stand behind it and don’t push a foot past it,” said the blacksmith.
“Plexiglas!” said Mr. Fofana.
“You’re lucky you had your iEye in,” said Lily, as they left the shop.
Lucky, thought Amanda, mulling the replacement cost of a new iEye, the fact that she had no way to finish her overdue work, that she owed the CRA $4,800, and that a faintly talented dabbler had just surpassed her in a design competition. She removed her now-useless earpiece and dropped it into the pocket of her dress. “Are you having a good time?” said Amanda.
Lily shrugged. “It’s so weird here,” she said. “We have everything, and they have nothing.”
“Okay, people,” said Mr. Fofana, herding the children toward the dining pavilion. “We’ll hit the water station and then break for lunch.”
“Oh my gosh,” said Beatrice, grabbing Amanda’s elbow. “I just heard what happened! I hope that wasn’t a new iEye!”
“No, it was an IX-8.”
“Oh!” Beatrice looked shocked. “Well, I guess the universe is telling you to upgrade.” She laughed loud and staccato.
“I’m gonna…find a washroom,” said Amanda, slipping away from the group. She didn’t want lunch. She was hot and nauseated and tired and depressed. But the farther she got from Beatrice, the better she felt. She had an urge to return to the 1990s living room, but there’d be nothing to see without her iEye. She headed instead toward the mill. That had been her favourite building when she was little. She’d like to watch the big water-wheel turn. As she passed the old–fashioned general store, another group of schoolchildren spilled out across the pathway. Amanda veered onto the lawn of the doctor’s house to avoid them. She cut through the back garden — marigolds, runner beans, tufts of lettuce in neat rows — and exited through a rear gate into a field that led down to the mill.
The field gradually became meadow, all damp and fragrant and alive with bumblebee buzz. Amanda couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen or heard a real bee. She moved through the nodding wildflowers, wary of the bacteria in the soil, but relishing the sweet humid air. She took a deep breath and held it in her lungs.
When she reached the mill, she was sorry to see that the wheel no longer turned. The water in the river had dried up, and the wheel was sun-bleached and cracked. She started to ask Beale when this had occurred, but there was no Beale. Her right eye kept blinking, and her fingers kept twitching — her brain triggering her to check alerts and messages every few seconds.
Feeling restless, she moved back to the main path. That’s when she spied the blacksmith. He had doffed his leather apron and was walking toward a log house at the end of the road. On impulse, Amanda followed.
When she reached the tiny cabin, the blacksmith was already inside. Amanda hesitated for a moment on the threshold, and then entered. It was dark and smelled heavily of wood smoke and fresh baking. Amanda moved through the windowless main room — embers heaped and glowing in a small stone hearth — to the kitchen, where the blacksmith stood, eating a hunk of bread. The jaw working. An old pioneer woman was seated by the window, doing needlepoint. She wore a yellow bonnet and reminded Amanda of a daffodil. “Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” said Amanda.
“I’m going up,” said the blacksmith to the daffodil, but he was looking squarely at Amanda. He disappeared into a stairwell in the corner of the kitchen that was roped off with a piece of twine. She heard his footfalls as he climbed to the second floor.
The pioneer woman concentrated on her stitching.
There were butter tarts cooling atop linen tea-towels on a thick pine table. The window glass was warped and wavy. Bundles of dried herbs lined the sill.
“It’s so peaceful here.”
“Yes,” said the daffodil. She stood and removed her bonnet. “You can peek upstairs, if you like. I’m taking my lunch now.” She smiled at Amanda and exited the cabin.
Amanda stood motionless in the kitchen for several minutes. Then she ducked under the twine and climbed the steep and deeply worn stairs to the second floor. There was a spinning wheel on a landing that separated two small bedrooms. She peeked into the one on the right — a child’s room, with a braided rug, a narrow cot, and an antique ragdoll. The blacksmith was in the room on the left, stretched out on a sagging double bed with an iron headboard and a faded patchwork quilt.
She surveyed him from the doorway. “You destroyed a very expensive piece of tech,” she said with a quaver in her voice. He didn’t say anything. But he moved to the far edge of the bed, making a space for her. She felt her finger twitch — if only she could scan him on FACE. She had no data on this person at all.
Amanda entered and pressed gingerly on the bed. Sturdy. She sat on the edge and ran her hand over the quilt, which was worn and soft. They blacksmith lay on his back with his eyes closed. Amanda slipped her sandals off and stretched out. She breathed in the dusty scent of the quilt, the healthy sweat smell of the blacksmith, the wood-smoke and bread.
The blacksmith turned to look at her. He looked at her for a long moment before moving toward her. She tensed, expecting his mouth on hers, but the blacksmith took her face in rough hands and kissed the eye he had nearly injured. It was the most intimate thing Amanda had experienced in years and she had to stifle a sob. She thought about sex with Michael, how they always used Skinz and never, ever had sex as themselves with their own real bodies.
Amanda stared into the naked eyes of the blacksmith.
“I take my break here,” he said. “Every day at noon.”
Amanda nodded. The blacksmith wiped the tears that were snaking down her face, then reclined on his back and closed his eyes. Amanda sighed. Soon she would have to go find Lily and her classmates, who would be finishing lunch and continuing their tour. But for now…
The room was still and quiet.
Amanda heard nothing but long, slow breaths. The blacksmith pulled her close, and she rested her head on his chest. She stared out the small bedroom window. She watched clouds skim by behind the rippled glass. She watched dust motes float through a triangle of sun.
Then, for the first time in a very long time, Amanda fell into a deep and restful sleep.