Under the Blue Curve
Mark A. Rayner
When Elisa sat down for lunch, Henry Overduin had no idea how much she was going to change his world.
She and her colleagues from the Department of Corporate Oversight sat in Henry’s section, but he would have noticed her even if they hadn’t. There was something different and magnetic about Elisa Taper. The rest of the diners at Le Fou en Mer were unreserved cyborgs. Most of them wore their cranial implants in a showy style that was the vogue among the rich; Henry found the fashion tasteless. But Elisa’s jet black hair was cut in a bob that just covered her implant. It was elegant. Her eyes were a startling emerald green, and there was something about the intelligence in them that captured Henry’s attention.
She seemed completely natural — just like Henry.
Of course, he had no implants of any kind. Even on his waiter’s salary he could have afforded one, but there was no point, because Henry was noneact. He had been unable to access the datasphere his whole life. When he was young, the world had begun integrating with it, and now the world was the datasphere. The latest generation of implants let humans access sensory experiences as well as information. Apparently, it was more real than real, his regular customers told Henry. Henry never wanted to be a waiter — he wanted to tell stories. But he had no audience. Without the datasphere, he didn’t even have a medium. There were no books, no magazines, no newspapers. There wasn’t a real movie industry anymore — it had all been swallowed by one all-encompassing ubermedia. Even conversation had been subsumed by it. The irony was there was a desperate need for Henry’s originality in what the Germans called the weltgeschichte — the world story. But Henry’s tales weren’t part of it, because he couldn’t be heard.
At least, not beyond the routine of taking orders and fetching drinks. Henry tried not to resent his job. In some sense, he was lucky he was able to work at all. Le Fou en Mer wasn’t so expensive that a human chef ran the kitchen, but it was trendy enough that the clientele were all served by real humans. In addition to Henry, the other staff that day included two students from the city’s main academy. For them, the job was something they would remember fondly after they had graduated to work remotely, or dynamically in the datasphere, depending on their abilities.
But for Henry it was one of the few jobs that he could hold, all thanks to his faulty, noneactive mind.
He tried not to dwell on it, while he walked over to the table where Elisa sat with her colleagues. He let them know the chef’s specials that day, trying to be pleasant, and asked for their drink orders; it might have been obvious he found Elisa attractive, but he tried to disguise it. No matter, Elisa saw. She asked him his name, and was somewhat perturbed when he completely ignored her routine subvocal query.
Her colleagues received no answers to their questions about the specials, and one of them said, “I say, chappie. It’s kind of rude for you to be offline while you’re taking our orders.”
“I’m sorry sir,” Henry said, “I’m noneact, so I can’t hear your questions unless you physically ask me.” There was a moment of genuinely horrified silence when they realized that Henry did not have any cerebral implants, that he was fully and completely disconnected.
Elisa smiled warmly. “That’s fine — I was wondering what your name was?”
“Well, Henry. I’m Elisa, and I’d like a wine spritzer.”
The other diners mumbled their drink orders, avoiding Henry’s gaze, but he didn’t care. He only had eyes for Elisa.
By the time they became lovers, Elisa already knew that Henry liked to tell stories. She also knew that he was marvellous at it. She found his lack of eactive ability was compensated by the most incredible imagination. He could tell her about things that she’d never experienced in the datasphere — and you could experience so much there. She loved the strange sensation of listening to his smooth baritone with her eyes closed, and he delighted in finally finding an audience, even if it was an audience of one.
One night, Elisa said, “Henry dear, have you ever thought about using someone else as the conduit for your stories?”
“Me. I mean me. Why don’t you tell me the stories, and then I’ll find a way to get them produced.”
“Do you even know how to do that?”
“Produce an entertainment? Of course not, but I’ll find the people who do, and see if they’ll help me.”
“How about right now? Why don’t I see if someone would be interested in the story you told me last night — about the world where nobody can hear?”
“Well . . . okay.”
Her beautiful green eyes got that faraway look as she dove into the datasphere searching for the right people.
Watching her, Henry felt like he was a lower form of life — there was so much that he couldn’t know about society. He was a fish, cursed with the vague awareness that there was an atmosphere filled with interesting creatures and stories up there beyond the blue curve of his world, but he could never experience them. His limitation was not sentience, but knowledge. Abruptly, Elisa opened her eyes, and said, “I’ve found someone to produce the story. They love it!”
She was so excited, Henry so happy, they made love right there in her reclining access chair. In addition to finally getting a story heard, there was money. Though the credit for story and writing went to Elisa, she transferred all the receipts from the sale into Henry’s accounts.
Elisa was scrupulous about sending all the profits Henry’s way, even though she did have to do some adapting of the stories so that they would be suitable. But she was completely true to his vision, and that was why producers liked to work with her/him so much.
Henry was thrilled to finally have a wider audience, though he couldn’t really know what they thought of his stories, beyond the occasional snippet of actual conversation he heard in Le Fou en Mer.
“Did you experience the latest ElisaVision?” a customer said one day.
“It was divine. She has the most creative mind, and did you see —” the comment was clipped off as the patron switched to subvocal. But Henry was happy, even if he couldn’t hear the praise.
For the first time in his life, Henry started to feel like he belonged to something larger. He had Elisa’s love. They spent every night deep in conversation, and Henry would tell Elisa stories, while she listened raptly. Henry did not know that Elisa was recording these conversations so that she could resend the stories to her producers. They were ravenous for new material, and Elisa was developing quite a fan base.
And just as Henry’s love for her grew, Elisa developed a hunger for those fans.
Their affair blossomed, and it seemed natural that they should move in together. Henry’s home was tiny — even with the royalties pouring in from his stories — so he moved his things into Elisa’s place. Soon there was enough money for him to quit his job at Le Fou en Mer, though he was strangely sad the day he did. Elisa kept working at Department of Corporate Oversight, but they agreed that she should move into a part-time position so that she would have more time available to make important contacts in the entertainment industry. Henry wholeheartedly agreed that she should receive a portion of the royalties too.
In the mornings, they would wake up, and Henry would walk with Elisa to her office building downtown; most large organizations still preferred to have their employees in one place. Afterwards, he would stroll along the river for a while, and stop at a little café to scribble in his journal — an activity that always got a curious look or two.
A few months after they moved in together, on one of his walks Henry came across a derelict washing in the river. Henry knew the man was either a data-addict, unable to stop accessing free entertainments long enough to work, or he was noneact. He was a younger man, obviously sick and in need of help. Henry didn’t see any implants, so he approached him carefully. Most noneacts, unlike Henry, suffered from a variety of psychological problems.
“Hi,” Henry said as he approached, in what he thought was a friendly way, “my name is Henry.”
“I can hear you!” the young man yelled, “I can —” his shouts were broken by a spasm of coughing.
Resistant TB, Henry thought. For a brief shameful moment, Henry debated leaving the man there, but the coughing did not stop, and it was clear he was in real distress. There was no-one else around, so he used his datapad to call for an ambulance, and then walked over to help.
A trickle of blood ran down the man’s chin, as he slumped to the ground, almost sliding to the river. Henry pulled the derelict back from the water, and carried him over to a nearby bench that overlooked the river and the ancient parliament buildings beyond. The man was light, probably no more than 50 kilos, and Henry felt ashamed again for his earlier fear. The young man looked into Henry’s eyes with a mixture of hesitation and relief. For a moment, Henry felt a connection with him.
It was broken by the arrival of the ambulance; the medibots took the derelict from Henry’s arms. He rode in the back of the ambulance with the man, who had slipped into unconsciousness. Henry listened to the sound of the machines, the labored breathing of the derelict under the oxygen mask. En route to the public hospital, the young man regained consciousness. He slid the oxygen mask off his mouth.
“You know they can’t hear us, right?”
“The others. The eacts. They can’t hear our thoughts. Oh, they try to read our thoughts, but they can’t. Not like you. You have a glorious psyche Henry. Lovely stories, but they’re wasted on the —” the medibot put his mask on again, and the derelict slid it off. “They’re wasted on the eacts. It’s just mind-fuzz to them. It fills the void they’ve created. It —” the medibot put the mask back on, this time with rough annoyance, Henry thought, or was he anthropomorphizing?
The young man closed his eyes, and his breathing slowed down, and finally stopped with a horrible chattering intake that ended in a long sigh. The medibots tried to resuscitate the man, but Henry could see from the readouts that his frail body was giving out on him.
A tear trickled down Henry’s cheek, and he wondered what it all meant. And just at that moment, he heard a voice in his mind, say, “they can’t hear us, Henry. That’s what it means.”
The readouts deadlined, and the medibots stopped moving. Henry let himself out the ambulance when they arrived, while the bots prepped the young man’s body. He felt drained. He was terrified, not by the man’s death, but because of that voice in his head. So many noneacts lost their sanity, and Henry didn’t want to be one of them. There was an entire branch of psychological research devoted to the syndrome, and a small therapeutic community devoted to helping those unable to swim in the sea of the world’s information.
Surely hearing a voice in his head was a sign that his own sanity was slipping? He decided not to see a doctor. If they knew, they would put him on some kind of medication. Who knew what that would do to his ability to tell stories? Who knew how Elisa would react? That night, he told her a story about a man doomed to lose his identity in a world filled with people who had already lost theirs. Instead of becoming bitter, or angry, the man decided to live every moment to its fullest, to savor everything that life offered him, while he could. And when that fateful day came when he did finally forget who he was, the moment passed in peace, because he was happy.
Elisa thought it was beautiful, and wanted to sell it right away.
“Tomorrow,” Henry said. “It can wait for tomorrow.”
“No!” Elisa said. “It’s too good. That will touch people. Jay will love it.”
Jay was Elisa’s main producer. She used other people, but he seemed to be the one she mentioned most.
“No,” Henry said. “That one was just for you and me. Besides, I was hoping that we could go out on the veranda and look at the stars.”
“But you can’t see any stars but the brightest, hon. There’s too much light. It would be better to look at them in —” she cut herself short. Sometimes she forgot. Henry seemed so normal.
Henry knew what she was about to say, and forgave her instantly. “It’s okay. I know. You forget sometimes.” They embraced, and then Elisa pulled away.
“Okay, you go look at the stars for a while, and I’m going to talk with Jay.”
She left the room, though she was still sitting right there.
The story was a triumph. It was the most moving thing anybody in had ever experienced, though nobody could really say why. Elisa’s fame — and wealth — grew to the point that it was silly for her to continue working at the department, so she quit. They bought a beautiful house together near the river. Henry hoped they would have even more time together, but Elisa spent more and more time in the datasphere; Henry’s morning walks got longer and longer.
On these jaunts he would hear the occasional voice in his head, and over the next few months, Henry started to worry that his sanity might be slipping faster. Whenever he heard the voices, they talked about how the eactive were dead to the world. They couldn’t hear, the voices said. Henry figured that his long-time resentment of the eactive was finally catching up with him.
And on his morning walk, exactly a year after he met Elisa, a quiet female voice said to him: “you know that she’s having an affair — several affairs — right?”
The voice was so clear, so devoid of psychosis, that Henry stopped walking. A tiny old woman was sitting on the bench where Henry had carried the dying man just a few months before. It was the same spot, and he remembered the young man’s death. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
The woman was easily 100 years old, but her eyes were bright and alert. They regarded him sadly. “He was my grandson, you know. It was very nice what you did for him at the end.”
Henry was certain that the words were hers, but she had not spoken.
“Sit,” the voice said in his mind, so he did. The woman had blue eyes. Light blue ovals with flecks of dark blue in them that sparkled like sapphires. Her face was kind, and though her clothes were threadbare, she smelled wonderful, like freshly baked bread.
“Thank you,” the voice said in his mind. “You’re not bad yourself.”
“How —” Henry was a bit startled by the sound of his voice, “how, can I hear you?”
“The same way you hear everyone else in you mind, I guess.”
“So I’m not going crazy?”
“Well, I’m not qualified to judge that. But I’d say no. Unless you talk to a psychiatrist who doesn’t believe in telepathy.”
“But if there really is telepathy, why haven’t scientists explained it.”
“Who says they haven’t?” the old woman’s voice said. “Maybe they just haven’t let everyone know.”
“Why are you here?”
“You did a nice thing for my grandson. He was never able to accept the way things are, and he was unhappy — many of us are. But at least he had another mind with him when he died. You gave him that much humanity, and so much of it had been taken away. I didn’t want you to go on thinking you’re going nuts — as lovely and romantic as your “live every day like it’s the last” philosophy is.”
She stood up then, and Henry thought, “wait!”
She turned around and smiled at him.
“I need to know how to control this,” Henry thought at her. “I need to know what to do next!”
She winked at him and then walked away, and Henry jumped up from the bench, and cried out vocally: “at least tell me how you know Elisa’s having affairs!”
The old woman turned around again, and said aloud in a raspy voice: “because you think so, that’s why!”
Henry watched her walk away, and wondered if she’d just offered him a hope that he was sane, or convinced him that he was descending towards madness.
The week after that, Henry was sure that Elisa was not having an affair — at least, not one that was taking place in the physical world. He had no way of knowing if she was being unfaithful to him virtually, and he tried not to think of it. Even when they were together, more and more Henry sensed that she was really somewhere else. She responded to his conversation, but unless he was telling her a story, she never seemed truly engaged.
So he told her more stories. They came out of him frenetically, almost rapid fire, so much did he want to have her with him. But he had to stop talking sometime, and when he did, she was gone.
A part of Henry’s mind told him he really was losing it, that this obsessive behavior, this need for Elisa’s company, was a sure sign. Other parts — or was it voices — told him that it was because he still loved her, and that she was falling out of love with him. The voices told Henry that it wasn’t her fault, exactly. She was dead in a way, because she didn’t really live in the same world as him.
Henry thought about committing suicide, but the voices told him no. He thought he might do it anyway, but the voices always seemed more reasonable than him at those dark moments. Eventually, the inevitable happened.
“I’ve decided to leave you Henry,” Elisa said one night after his bed-time story.
The blow hurt, even though he had been expecting it. Henry felt his shoulders curl towards one another, his chest implode, and hot stabbing tears form in the blue curve of his eyes. His lips shook uncontrollably, but he did not cry. He waited.
“I’m going to leave you the house,” she explained. “And of course, the royalties for all the stories in production will still go to you, minus my percentage. I know this isn’t what you want Henry, but I can’t stay in good conscience. I’m in love with someone else.” There was a moment’s silence, and Elisa added: ” I still want us to be friends. And I really hope this won’t affect our working relationship.”
That almost broke him, but he bore up well. His heart was tissue paper, but he bore up well.
“We’ll see,” was all he could say. He wanted to tell her that the stories weren’t about his need to tell stories anymore, they were about his love for her. About how he needed her. But he knew there was no point in it. He’d lost her to the datasphere, or some dead fiction within it.
Strangely, the house seemed less empty when Elisa left. At first, that made Henry even more sad, but he resolved to recover. Before he’d met Elisa, Henry had been stuck in a dead-end job that he could barely stand. He’d never been lonelier. Now, he was alone, but not lonely. When Elisa left, he lost his connection with her, but not the feeling that he was part of something greater.
It was a mystery. Something he would need to figure out before he could move on in life.
He continued on his walks, and despite his loss of Elisa, his love and his audience, he started to feel better as each day passed. There were stabs of regret. Surely he could have done something to make her stay? But usually a voice — sometimes his, and sometimes another’s — would reassure him that it had been inevitable she would leave. When it was another’s voice, it usually reminded him that the eacts were dead to the real world.
Time passed, and the popularity of his stories that Elisa had sold continued to generate revenue. The house was paid for, and Henry knew he would never need to work again. Unless he wanted to.
A year after their break up, Elisa dropped by to chat with Henry.
“I was hoping that you’d be willing to tell me a story,” she said.
“Sure,” Henry said.
He told her about his walk that morning. How idyllic it was to be outside on a sunny fall day. The pleasure of watching crimson and gold maple leaves fall into the river. It was not the kind of story she could sell in the weltgeschichte. Its subtleties were lost on her.
Henry tried to engage her in conversation — to ask her about what was happening in the datasphere, but her answers seemed incomprehensible. People had taken to wearing other bodies that looked like aliens, or mythological creatures, and the latest rage was a game called phantromorph — the goal was to see who could change the fastest from their existing state to one determined by a programmable data-intelligence. She tried to describe it to him, but it was as if she was speaking through water; everything was garbled, muted and off-key.
“How are your productions going?” Henry asked her.
“Good. I’m still producing things with Jay,” she said.
Except it turned out that Elisa had lost much of her popularity since the stories Henry had told her ran out. Her own stories were hackneyed and predictable. She tried to find the voice that made Henry’s fiction so vital, and her attempts left her at sea.
“I don’t have any other stories for you right now,” Henry said. And it was true. He didn’t have any more stories for her.
But he had more stories to tell. He just needed to find someone else to tell them to.
“Well, if you have any more, I’m sure they’ll be well received, and you’ll make lots of money. Let me know.”
The old woman was at the river the next day, on the same bench where Henry had tried to save her grandson.
“So you’ve decided you don’t need her then?” she asked him.
“Don’t you ever just chit-chat?” Henry said.
“Ah, I’m too old for polite conversation. So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Henry said. “Find another audience, I guess. Do you want to hear a story?”
“Yes, please!” her voice said in his mind. “But say it aloud, it’s better that way.”
“Then you should use your voice too,” Henry said.
“I know,” she agreed. “Otherwise, they’ll start to suspect.”
“That we’re evolving,” her voice resonated in his mind, and suddenly Henry saw that these mental voices — the telepathy — was dangerous, not because they might be thought of as insane, but because eventually, the eactive world would feel threatened by it. “Now, how about that story?” she asked, aloud.
The next day, the old woman was there, and so were several other people, all of them noneact, all telepathic. Henry’s skill with his new talent was increasing, and he learned all about them in a flash of understanding. By common agreement, they spoke aloud in greeting, and then Henry told them a story.
They didn’t try to look into his mind to see what happened next. Part of the pleasure of Henry’s stories was the surprise of finding out what happened next.
After a few more days, the audience was too big for Henry to stand with his back to the river, so he got up on the embankment above the boardwalk, and told the story that way. He got better as a public speaker, learning how to project his voice, even when it was windy.
Most of his audience were noneacts, and that seemed natural. The eactive had their datasphere. They could keep it as far as Henry was concerned. His mental abilities were increasing to the point that he could see into people’s minds as they navigated the virtual world, and it seemed bewildering, futile. Barren as an empty horizon.
The thought of leaving Elisa trapped in it haunted him.
So he invited her out to one of the story times. The audience had grown to the point that Henry now told his tales in an amphitheater near the river. In the days before the weltgeschichte people had performed Shakespeare there in the summers. Of course, it was long-since overgrown with weeds, but within a week of Henry moving to the venue, some of his audience had cleaned it up, returned it to its former bucolic glory.
“Wow,” Elisa said, “look at all the people. I’ve never seen so many in one place . . . I mean, in the flesh.”
“They’re most noneactive, or too poor to own implants,” Henry explained.
“Do you mind if I uh, record, your story? Of course, if I sell it to my producer, I’ll split the revenue with you,” Elisa said.
“Jay?” Elisa asked. “Oh, no, I don’t work with him anymore. He’s retired. In fact, he’s spending all his time in the datasphere now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, there are a few people who are doing it. They are extremely wealthy, of course, because they need a staff of medical personnel to take care of their body while they’re minds are free.”
“Free?” Henry shuddered.
“Yes. He’ll never have to eat or sleep or walk around again.”
Henry didn’t have anything to say to that, but he could hear the old woman’s voice: “Yes, that sounds like hell to me too.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy the story.”
Henry got up on the stage, and told an old story, about a princess who was enchanted by an evil wizard. The princess was put into a sleep so deep that her dreams became her reality, and she was a captive. But there was no prince who could simply come and kiss her and so rescue her from her virtual prison. All he could do was whisper in her ear while she slept, and hope that she could hear. She would have to rescue herself.
As Elisa listened to Henry Overduin’s story, she realized that she was listening to great artist. He kept them all on the edge of their seats with nothing but his voice. She knew she was listening to something deep, and affecting, but she no idea how much this story was going to change the world.
Mark A. Rayner freely admits spending WAY too much time in the datasphere. When he’s not his digital self, he lives in London, Ontario (Canada) with his cat, dog and significant other, Heather. (Not necessarily in that order.) His first novel, THE AMADEUS NET is available from ENC Press, and a selection of his published short work is available at his website (along with a purely pro forma offer of cake): markarayner.com
Story © 2007 Mark A. Rayner. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish