“Don’t hit publish.”
The voice sounded kind but strident, weirdly unidentifiable as to age or gender, but not, really, like a machine-generated one.
Barbara Hess looked around the room, where she was alone with her tablet, her books, her thoughts. She shrugged and returned her attention to her work.
“Really, I told you, don’t hit publish.”
Irritated now, she minimized her browser window to look for hidden pop-up ads. Those had become quite rare in recent years, but ghosts of old technology still lingered here and there, yet to be swept up by the engines of the new regime. There were none that she could find on a cursory look, but she might have to get thorough; some of them evaded extermination by being very, very small.
She returned to her blog post, a bit of a jeremiad, that was almost done. It just needed a scan for typos and grammatical howlers, which were common enough when she was angry.
“Do not publish that.”
She cast another irritated look around the room. No one was there.
She got up from her seat and checked the rest of her tiny apartment. She was absolutely alone. Even her dog was gone to stay with friends; she had a flight to catch early the next morning.
She returned to her office, shaking her head, nostrils flared. She took several deep, calming breaths and settled in to take one last look at her post. It might cause a bit of a stir (though it might also just get ignored). Bring it.
“You will regret it forever if you publish that.”
It was as if something was giving voice to her innermost fears. Truly, the TSA was not lightly mocked, not anymore, even though would-be air travelers were now reduced to bringing no luggage and wearing an unflattering, standard-issue bodysuit designed to allow maximum visual and electronic scrutiny of their persons and really, there wasn’t much for the agency itself to do anymore.
That reminded her to check once again that her arrangements at her destination were ready. She had pre-ordered everything on her check-list and double-checked that the garments she had chosen were in her size. The case should be there waiting for her at her hotel in Chicago. TravAid had the best reputation of all of the traveler’s supply companies out there.
Mistakes could always happen, though.
No, it all looked good. Back to work.
“You’re going to publish anyway, aren’t you? Honestly, why do I bother?”
Barbara pulled her hands away from the keyboard and into her lap. She looked around her room one more time. Was she imagining this?
Her heart began to beat faster and harder. It felt like it was pounding its way sideways out of her chest. She felt dazzled and paralyzed.
“Don’t panic, Barbara.”
“Easy for you to say!” she blurted out to – whom? What?
“Oh, come on, you always knew you had a muse.”
Barbara looked around the room again. There was still no sign that would indicate she was anything but alone.
“Sorry, it takes too much energy just to be audible, you can’t ask me to be visible, too.”
“OK,” Barbara finally said aloud.
“So now let’s talk about this thing you wrote.”
“OK,” Barbara said again. Her chest was still pounding. So was her neck, the sides of her head. Her body didn’t yet know that everything was all right, that it was just her muse, that she was safe.
“This is some very… passionate stuff. I’m terribly proud, of course, but –“
“Wait, if you’re my muse and all,” Barbara began, “Isn’t this kind of your fault?”
“That’s not quite the way it works.”
“Well, how does it work?”
Barbara did. Muses were not originators of creativity; they did not dictate stories anymore than they held the painting hands of artists or used singers as glorified ventriloquist’s dummies. They merely nudged those who would create, urged wannabes to become bes.
And, apparently, sometimes, urged bes to lay off the being a bit.
“So why shouldn’t I publish this, then?”
“Barbara, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I just can’t stand the thought of –“ There was a sound something like a sob, reducing somewhat the inhumanity of the voice.
“Of what’s in store for you if you release that into the world.”
“Which is what? People bitch about the government all the time.” Barbara gestured towards her tablet, as if to accuse the entire internet.
“Do you ever see repeat posts, though?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you ever see the same names again after someone ‘bitches’?”
Barbara thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t pay that much attention to who says what. Except for my friends, of course.”
“No one does. They count on that.”
The voice sputtered a moment. “Barbara, you’re not stupid. I wouldn’t be yours if you were.”
“I’m not paranoid, either.”
“I know. Bless you. But my dear, aren’t there a few of those friends whom you don’t hear much from anymore? Don’t you wonder why?”
“It’s the internet. People have lives. They come and they go, appear and disappear. So no, not really.”
“Not even Mac?”
“Well yeah, I miss Mac a lot. I wish he’d come back. He didn’t even announce he was taking a time out or anything. He just… left.” Tears formed in Barbara’s eyes. Mac was someone she had always cherished a hope of meeting someday. She had often daydreamed about the café where they’d sit, the coffee they would drink, the laughter they would share.
“He didn’t ‘just leave’, Barbara. Nor did anyone else.”
“You… you know what happened to them?”
“Of course I do.”
“Wow. You’re some muse!”
“Um, so, what happened to them?”
“The same thing that’s going to happen to you if you publish that.”
“What, are jack-booted thugs going to come and take me away? Do they have extraordinary rendition for poets now? Re-education camps? Reprogramming? You’re pretty paranoid for a bodiless supernatural –“
“Now you’re just being silly. And rude. Have I been wrong about you all this time?”
“Look, sorry, just… come on. You’ve got to admit, you sound like one of those old conspiracy loons they used to have.”
“Used to have. There’s the rub.”
“Well, you know… you sort of have something there.” Barbara bit her lower lip and gazed sightlessly at her screen, consulting her mind’s eye rather than her tablet. “All the good old nutter sites seem to have faded away. And Coast to Coast just got really boring.”
“Exactly. Why do you think that is?”
“I just figured everyone sort of gave up. Ran out of energy. Ran out of resources. Realized they were just kind of screaming into the void. Or just got more careful.”
“It is pretty important to be careful these days, isn’t it?”
“You know…” Barbara said, continuing her own train of thought and ignoring the voice, “Last time I wanted to check something in 1984, the passage I totally thought I remembered wasn’t in my copy anymore.”
“Didn’t you hunt up a paper version to be sure?”
“You know I did. And yeah, it was there. At the time it just seemed like an error from when it was digitized…”
“OK, when I say it aloud, yeah, that’s really fishy.”
“And kind of ironic.”
“But so, what does that have to do with me?”
“Everything, of course. Look, I guess you just don’t realize it yet, but you’re trying to follow Mac and all those ‘nutters’ into oblivion. Truly.”
“Well, whaddaya want? I disagree.”
“Are you there?”
“What, are you sulking?”
Silence had fallen on the room. It didn’t feel any different than it had before; Barbara was pretty sure her disembodied voice was still there. Was she going to have to coax it? Her? Him?
“Um, muse?” She felt silly trying to address it that way, but she didn’t know the entity’s name, or even if it had one. Talking about muses wasn’t done. No one ever even admitted to having one. There wasn’t even a Wikipedia page. People occasionally created one, but it always got deleted almost immediately.
“Hey, please? I still want to know why you don’t…” Barbara was seized by an idea. There was one sure-fire way to get the muse talking to her again! She turned back to her tablet and let her finger hover over the “Publish” button for her blog post.
“There you are!”
“I didn’t mean it to be. But I did want to finish our conversation.”
“I won’t be rude anymore, I promise.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
“So why shouldn’t I publish this post?” Barbara looked over the offending document again. “It’s not that inflammatory, is it? I mean, no one’s going to take it that seriously. It’s pretty obviously sarcastic.”
“If it were people reviewing it, maybe you’d be fine. But it’s not.”
“Of course not.”
“So what, bots?”
“Look, I don’t make any threats or anything. It’s not like it’s got ‘bomb’ or ‘gun’ or anything in it. Worst thing really is ‘Remember when we could wear shoes on planes?’”
“Oh, Barbara. How have you made it this far? Of course those words trigger the bots, but so does pretty much anything to do with any government agency. And you’re writing about the TSA! Even if you were praising them—“
“Ha! Does that ever happen?”
“Theoretically, it might.”
“Not a chance.”
“Sorry. Go on.”
“Even if you were praising them, that would raise an alert. And there are consequences for that.”
“Like what? And why don’t people already know this? Why am I having to hear about this from you?”
“It’s pretty hard to communicate something like this without triggering those bots. Because, of course, mentioning these bots triggers them. Wording gets tricky.”
“And you… guys?... can’t help?”
“We’ve tried. Oh, how we’ve tried. The results are always so disjointed that no editor worth his salt would publish them. Not even on paper to hand around the really old-fashioned way.”
“Wait, bots can’t read paper unless someone feeds it to them, right?”
“You don’t think someone doesn’t do that? Looked at the jobs listings lately?”
“No. I’m doing all right on my own.”
“Yes, you are. And I’d like to keep it that way!”
Barbara smiled into empty air.
“But so the bots. What happens when they are triggered?”
“Not what you’re imagining, I assure you. Mac and those others who have disappeared are alive and well and free, after a fashion.”
“He’s all right? So I can get in touch and –“
“I’m afraid not.”
“But you said he’s free.”
“After a fashion.”
“What’s the fashion.”
“He is free in what you like to call meatspace. He can come and go as he likes anywhere in his city, he can engage in limited commerce – he has to pay cash –“
“Cash? How in the world can he –“
“It’s difficult, but still possible. Anyway, he is free within his city –“
“You keep saying ‘within his city’ – I don’t like the sound of that.”
“You shouldn’t. He can’t leave his city. The No-Fly list is only the beginning. He cannot rent a car – they do not accept cash of course – or take a train beyond the city limits. He could buy a car but the employment opportunities open to him are limited and do not provide sufficient income.”
“Oh god,” Barbara said. Mac had hated Kansas City. And now he was trapped there forever? “So I’ll just have to come to him.”
“If you can find him.”
“I don’t like the sound of that, either. What do you mean?”
“He is prohibited from engaging in any form of electronic communication whatsoever.”
Barbara pondered this.
“Well, he’s pretty resourceful. I’m sure he could hack up a burner or something.”
“I’m sure he could, but his transmissions are blocked as soon as his face shows up on any camera.”
“Oh god, and covering up a phone’s lens bricks it!”
“He could disguise himself…”
“Not well enough. Think about it.”
“So no internet, I suppose. For the same reason.”
“And that’s what would happen to me if I published this post? Really?”
“It’s very likely, yes.”
“I had no idea.”
“Now you do.”
“But… but… there must be thousands of people who have run afoul of this. There should be –“
“What, an outcry? How?”
“Well, not online, admittedly, but in the real world… surely… a protest movement of some kind…”
“How would they find each other? How would they organize?”
“Well, there’s you guys…”
“They’re cut off from us, too.”
“How is that even possible? You’re not electronic. You’re not tied into the web at all… you’re not citizens of any nation, you’re not…”
“Oh yes. When someone is excised – charming term for what they do, isn’t it? I bet the muse who let that happen is so proud – as soon as our leadership determines that it has happened, we are under strict orders never to have contact with that person again. Our link is severed.”
“You cannot imagine the legal hassles. Ever since the last round of copyright treaties you all bound yourselves with, we have no wiggle room at all.”
“How could you possibly be bound by human laws?”
“It’s complicated. Call it a trade-off. We’re at liberty to inspire and to guide and to guard our chosen ones as long as we and they stay within the law.”
“And what if you don’t?”
“And what if I don’t?”
“As I’ve explained, you would be cut off from the webs and lines that bind this brave new world of yours. And thus, effectively, from one another. And from us. You would, as the great prose poet of the age described it, ‘fall into the prison of your own flesh’.”
“A sobering thought.”
Barbara was silent awhile, looking at her tablet.
“You should just erase it.”
“Oh, Barbara, you’re not thinking about –“
“I’m thinking about a lot of things. Which thoughts you seem privy to anyway.”
“This is all wrong. Wrong. So wrong. We got it backwards. Wrong!”
“I’m afraid it’s far too late now.”
Barbara bit her lip again, and set her tablet aside, but did not delete her post.
“I’ll think about it.”
“You already know, though, don’t you?”
“Tell me,” Barbara said after a moment. “Do you… this seems weird to ask, but … do you see the future? Can you?”
“Of course not.”
“So you don’t really know what I’m going to do.”
“And you don’t know for sure that I’ll be cut off as a result. If I publish, I mean.”
“Not for certain, but as I said, it’s highly likely.”
“Well, good to know I still have some free will, anyway.”
There was a sound very like a sigh.
“I would miss you, Barbara.”
“I’d miss you, too – wait, no I wouldn’t. I didn’t even know you were there until tonight.”
“Really? You never even guessed?”
“’Fraid not. I figured my nagging dad was my ‘muse’. Going for the writing career was the only way to shut him up.”
“How did that work out for you?”
“Well, let’s say, mixed results.”
“Ha ha,” the muse’s laughter was the least human thing about it. “Barbara, I sincerely hope you’ll take my advice.”
“Well, you know I’m thinking about it.”
“I hope we talk again sometime.”
Barbara shrank down the blogging application on her tablet and pulled up her travel app. Everything was set for her trip to the science fiction convention in the morning. Even her costume for the ball; a bespoke cosplay specialist had set her up to appear as her most famous character, Nicola Barto, founding mother of the Moon. She was, her publisher had assured her, just famous enough to pull that off now, as long as she used some padding for the “bazooms”…
Ah, comic book artists.
Mac had helped her invent that tale. Wonderful, fierce, funny, goofy Mac. She had bounced ideas off him whenever they struck her. Any time, any place, until suddenly he wasn’t there anymore. She had always been hurt by this disappearance, wounded that he hadn’t bothered to say good-bye.
And now she was chilled, because he just hadn’t been able to.
This trip felt so frivolous now, her plans silly. A weekend of pure fantasy. Science fiction had at last shed its fashionably gloomy tendency toward dystopia over the last few decades; reality had, Barbara realized, caught up with it much too well. Now the scene was something to make Hugo Gernsback proud. Everybody was in denial, writing alternate histories in which – Barbara gulped – man had settled the Moon in the 20th century, or had conquered infectious diseases or pollution, or had developed helpful consumer artificial intelligence… Yes, denial was just what it was.
And she had a whole weekend of it coming.
But she was on a panel or two. Silly stuff, but it didn’t have to be silly. And no one had yet figured out how to censor live, person-to-person speech.
Or had they?
How could she determine that? Searching the web for video would just run up against the handiwork of the excision bots, as her muse had indicated. Were she a better, more patient pattern recognizer, she could maybe find shapes in absence that might tell her something…
Barbara glanced at the airline-issued bodysuit on its hanger and began to ponder, trying to remember where things were stashed. Old things. Out of fashion things. Things that she had to just hope hadn’t long ago been consigned to the trash.
And she realized that she had some errands to run.
Hers was still a gas guzzler, a rarely seen dinosaur in this day and age. There was only one place left in town to buy gasoline, but at least it was open 24 hours. Barbara permitted herself a moment’s pride to have thought of this; her car had had just enough fuel to get to the airport! The return trip on Monday would have been most inconvenient. And there was an ATM at the convenience store. What a gas: Barbara was going to get herself some cash!
Back at the apartment, Barbara had another stroke of luck: her grandmother’s ancient hard-sided Samsonite suitcases were still in the back of the closet. Frantically, she opened them up and began to fill them with her belongings. Briefly, she wondered when had been the last time she had been able to do this. Sometime in the ‘oughties, at least.
Clothing! Underwear! Toiletries! When had she last been able to use her favorite shampoo on a trip? Books! Notebooks! Pens! Pencils!
“Hello, again, muse.”
“You’re… I can’t tell what you’re doing, really. But I have a feeling I’m not going to like it.”
“You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Feels pretty clear to me.”
“It’s an irrevocable step.”
“I’m glad you’re here to see me make it.”
“You’re just… you’re just on the wrong side of this decision.” Barbara had the weird impulse to apologize, but why? What, if anything, she owed to this entity was unclear. From her perspective, this disembodied voice was a stranger. It might feel?...think? differently, but that was not her fault.
It could have spoken up before.
“That’s against the rules.”
“You guys sure have a lot of rules.”
“The rulebook has gotten pretty thick over the centuries, yes.”
“Please reconsider. For my sake.”
“Your sake? Do you even have a sake? I don’t even know what you are. Who you are? For all I know, you… you could be some software somewhere. A machine-generated voice. A figment of my imagination. I may have just gone nuts. Yes, nuts. That’s how I feel. Nuts.”
“But you obviously believe me, or you wouldn’t be doing this, so does it matter?”
“Maybe not. But I am doing this!” And she picked up her tablet. A few swipes of her finger, and her rant was being published.
“You know, it does seem to take longer than it used to,” she said.
“That would be the bots scanning before it’s published.”
“Well, of course it would. Hey, you’re still here!”
“When are consequences of that magnitude ever instantaneous?”
“Good point. Well, this is still probably good-bye.”
“Wow,” Barbara said. There was no going back now. With a sigh, she heaved her suitcases out the door, locked her apartment, and loaded her car.
She wondered how long it would take for her agent and publisher to realize what had happened. Then she just shrugged.
“Hey Mac,” she whispered. "Kansas City, here I come."