Gripping, heartrending and quietly terrifying, this cutting-edge debut imagines a world where people can be recreated as data ghosts and lives can be changed by the information they’ve left behind – perfect for fans of Black Mirror and Margaret Atwood.
The voice is young, buttery and upbeat. It settles against her skin and calls up something within her, some emotion impossible to place. ‘Wake up,’ it says again, and Freya obediently wriggles under her duvet. She looks around, seeing no one but hearing the echo of a tone compelling enough to make her move first and ask questions later. The blind is closed, January’s blue-slush light no match for the luminous dawn spreading across her wallpaper: birds trilling and flitting above flower-fogged meadows, the sensory gradient she usually ascends to wakefulness over a period of thirty minutes or so. Now she is jittery, still tangled in the covers and struggling to sip her water. It was a mistake to install this app, the latest smartface, which is currently telling her she looks cold, that it will turn up the thermostat. She skims a hand along the roughened texture of her arms, wondering if it is clever enough to perceive her goose bumps through the wallpaper webcams.
‘Why did you wake me? I’m not late, am I?’
‘You will be,’ says the invisible speaker.
This is outrageously cheeky. Freya snatches up the smiley-faced sphere from her desk and examines it, feeling the almost skin-like texture of the plastic. There is no need for this ball, but it means people who want to give a smartface as a gift have something to wrap. When she turned it on last night, her wallpaper exploded into balloons and the words Happy birthday, Julian! She had to reset it to factory defaults.
Replacing the object in frustration, she remembers Julian’s father dumping the Smarti gift bag on the table the evening before, snapping, ‘There’s his present,’ before storming out. It rattled her, and left the room sour with aftershave. Later, Freya watched Julian take out the two boxes, the very latest tech and off the scale in terms of price.
‘Smarti tat,’ he scoffed. ‘Designed to speed up my job hunt.’ To him it was just stuff his dad had brought home from work – a lazy option. The items were left on the table as he screwed up the bag disdainfully and went to the kitchen. When he returned, he registered that Freya was interested in the little red sphere and tossed it in her direction. ‘You want it? Go ahead. I can’t be assed with chatbots.’ The larger box, a state-of-the-art Halo headset, he tucked under his arm before returning to the mulchy aromas of his bedroom.
Maybe he had a point, and she was wrong to be seduced by all the hype, or by her colleague Chris, who is virtually in love with his smartface. They are coming down in price, but Julian’s model is the latest incarnation, super-intelligent and maybe – considering the ‘beta’ sticker – not even on general sale yet. The voice launches into a weather report, and because of the goose-bumps incident, she finds herself dressing between the screening doors of her wardrobe. Her red necktie, the most clown-like piece of her workwear, still looks wrong no matter how she knots it. She takes scissors from a drawer and snips raggedy bits from the hems of her trousers, which are too long and drag on the ground as she walks. It is only a matter of time before her supervisor spots the state of them, or he may have noticed already and is saving it up.
When the flat is this quiet, which is most of the time, she finds herself becoming silent too, padding carefully through the empty living room and into the kitchen. The toaster has timed it correctly for once and ejects a pre-spread slice into her waiting fingers, perfectly crisp. If she wants to talk to someone, there are always her African land snails. They slide along the piece of mirror in their tank, their pointed shells like the sails of extremely slow ships.
‘Would you like some lettuce?’ she asks, fetching a buckled leaf of romaine and placing it among the questing antennae. There is something calming about watching them move around their little glass universe. She has kept snails, and usually a lizard of one kind or another, since she was twelve. Following a sociable breakfast, Freya discovers the lid was ajar and one snail has escaped as far as the tabletop. It makes a sucking sound as she detaches it and returns it to the tank. ‘It’s for your own safety, mate.’
Back in her room, she pulls on her shoes and quickly checks Social – her wallpaper becoming a stream of comments – wondering if she has missed any interesting posts during the night. Something catches her eye, riles her and before she knows it, she is interjecting in an argument about snail eggs – the need to regularly check for and freeze them. When she shares a how-to video, the smartface voice rises gently from the speakers, complimenting her on the choice and suggesting another, offering to post the clip in her stead, as Freya is now very late for work. She looks at the time and leaps up, horrified. Trouser-hem fibres flutter down as she dashes from her room, throwing on her toggled winter coat.
Outside, her legs are repeatedly drenched as driverless cars slough through the puddles. In an ideal world they would stop and give her a lift in recompense, but there is about as much chance of that as there is of her supervisor failing to notice her lateness, or being cool about it. Even now he is probably checking his vintage watch and smiling, looking forward to dousing her with his scorn.
The monolithic concrete of the flyover looms up overhead and gives Freya a sense of her own smallness, hurrying along inelegantly in her ill-fitting uniform. For distraction, she unfolds her smartspecs, the pin-thin titanium sharp behind her ears before no-feel technology makes it vanish. Through her glasses, the flyover becomes a canopy, thick with flowers and succulent green leaves. The projection is semi-lucent, just a faint augmentation of her surroundings. A full virtual-reality immersion would be more than she could handle, but she enjoys seeing the graffiti turn into phosphorescent petals, mallowy buds opening as she passes, each road a river she will cross on stepping stones.
‘Stop!’ the smartface commands. Her outstretched foot hovers over the kerb and then pulls back, just as a bike whizzes past.
‘Whoa,’ Freya says, realising a collision was narrowly avoided. ‘How did you know?’
‘GPS.’ The voice seems to shrug.
Freya removes the smartspecs, slightly concerned at her everyday special effects nearly resulting in an accident. Normally a cyclist would trigger them to turn off, but this one may have been travelling too fast. Her steps are cautious as she covers the last few hundred metres of pavement, the glass wall already in view, builders still in the process of converting a couple of acres of sales floor into flats.
It used to be fun at U-Home, back when they still had the showroom. Customers would get lost on the winding path through endless bedrooms, lounges and kitchens, and Freya would enjoy directing them through secret short cuts. The place was piled high with every kind of furniture, along with silos of polka-dot cushions or cuddly frogs, mountains of colourful mugs and fold-up storage cubes. There were forests of lamps, bunk beds, cupboards and other hiding places, and interesting colleagues whose true calling was a million miles from flat-pack furniture. She remembers a girl who could escape from twelve knots of washing line and a locked wardrobe in under two minutes, eventually fired for asking one too many elderly gentlemen – who couldn’t believe their luck – to tie her up. Most of Freya’s friends left during the refurb: Michelle, who always had a New Wave DJ playing inside her head, Kat the landscape gardener, and the two Moldovan students who claimed to live on caviar and high-end vodka but thought the store was a cool place to work.
The double doors swing closed behind her, and the sales floor flickers. The catalogue has been hologrammed, haptic gloves by each pedestal so customers can feel the texture of fabrics, open drawers and pat mattresses. Beyond these platforms, the springy wooden chairs of the café are oddly untidy, no sign of the catering staff. The only living creature she can see is Sandor, stalking past the cutlery island, his sideburns puffing up as he smiles. This puts her on her guard. Her supervisor’s baseline is a mood of low-level bitterness, and any variation on this tends to mean he has something up his sleeve. She checks her necktie is still fastened, wishing she was on time. A cheese smudge has somehow appeared on her trousers. Where is Chris? Her colleague’s usual style, especially if she is late, is to come in early, making her look even worse. It unsettles her not to see his tall, skinny figure, a stake she can cling to in the face of whatever storm is gathering.
Beside the largest pedestal, Sandor intercepts her, standing too close and rocking forward on the balls of his feet so his toilet-scented breath diffuses across the short distance.
‘Morning.’ Her voice is full of brittle cheer.
He can hardly contain himself, grinning and twitching. He slinks around the pedestal so she is viewing him through a semi-transparent wardrobe, which morphs into a bookcase. He tugs back his shirtsleeve and brandishes a finger, like scissors at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, before reaching for the control pad.
‘I have something to show you.’
Before she can frown at these ominous words, a geyser of light spurts up, startling her. The spectre stands smiling, saying something inaudible but enthusiastic, giving her its full attention. She flinches as a hand – smooth as a globule of oil gliding through water – reaches out and narrowly misses her arm. Lips move and she hears the words: ‘I’ll just look you up . . . Ah, Freya! I hope you’re having a great day. Can I interest you in new blinds?’ The figure is female, about her height. Its shirt is blistering white, the necktie sculpted into that perfect ruffle Freya can never achieve. But here the wrongness starts: the eyes are too luminous, disproportionately large and electric blue. Then there is the cartoon skin, the healthy Vaseline glow. The whole figure is somehow weightless, free of scent or presence, but waiting earnestly for a response. Freya’s throat has gone dry. Sandor looks on tenderly.
‘Isn’t she adorable?’
‘What is it?’
‘I’ve called this one Helpful Holly.’
It looks up, hearing its name.
Why have they brought in a hologram assistant? Freya wonders if Chris could somehow have quit, or been sacked, since they worked together on Saturday. Conceivably Sandor is about to sack her too; that would almost be preferable to being left alone with this. She has seen these projections before, but never so close, never wearing what she is wearing. It smiles with its milky, heart-shaped face. Her supervisor reaches out and slices a hand through its abdomen, laughing as the light-generated figure steps back and wags a finger playfully. It must be programmed to have faintly human reactions, though this hardly makes it seem normal. Just as she starts to back away, Chris appears from the kitchens.
‘Ah, I was just making introductions.’ Sandor’s laugh becomes artificial as he realises he is the only one amused. He taps the control pad and the figure vanishes, along with several leaf-print blinds that have started rolling and unrolling in the air. ‘So there we are,’ he adds, as though everyone has been fully briefed. ‘You’ll both need to be on catering today.’
After administering this casual demotion, which Freya fears will be permanent, Sandor strolls back to his office. She wishes she was immune to him, like Chris, who is calmly directing a series of obscene gestures in his wake. Her colleague is wearing two PVC aprons, one on top of the other.
‘What’s going on?’ she says.
The fabric crackles as he manoeuvres one over his head, careful not to mess up his blond spikes.
‘Just take the apron.’
Seconds later, she is behind the food counters, hair imperfectly tucked into a net, plastic gloves on her hands. Chris is dumping sausages into a stainless-steel tray under the heat lamps.
‘So we’re supposed to be dinner ladies?’ She gazes into the vat of grey-brown sauce.
‘Why were you so late? Customer shows up, hologram is there bang on time.’ He hits the counter on bang, making the trays of food rattle. One or two early shoppers look over, and Freya shrinks, wondering if the hooded counter amplifies what they say.
‘What about Jacqueline? Isn’t she coming back?’ Her whisper is met with a shrug.
‘Guess not, and this way they get to test the new tech.’ Steam rises as he stirs the beans ferociously. They both know their contracts allow for pretty much anything, short of harvesting their organs. Freya clenches and unclenches her fists, testing the sensation of latex stretched over her knuckles. The apron reaches almost to her feet. When she blinks, constellations of light appear in the shape of the hologram assistant, shaking its balloon-satin head and stepping back as Sandor’s hand passes through insubstantial flesh. Its voice is different to that of her smartface, higher-pitched, more synthetic, and skidding into each phrase as though from a laugh. This being will now be taking her place, talking to customers, placing orders, taking payments from smartaccounts. It makes her feel strangely empty, as though she is the one made of light.
‘Why don’t they get a robot to dispense food? That’s the dumber job of the two,’ she mutters to Chris, driving a spoon into the mashed potato. ‘It doesn’t make sense.’
A young couple appears at the counter, and it takes a second to remember what she is supposed to do. Her body lurches into action and she scoops six chicken nuggets towards their plates, dropping them from too much of a height so she loses two and has to add another scoop. Even on tiptoes she struggles to hand the meals over the top of the Perspex. Her colleague watches the performance, entertained. Then he sighs. ‘It does make sense, if you think about it. The holograms only have to talk, they’re made of nothing, no expensive robotics, plus they can keep every detail of size or fabric in their sparky little brains . . .’
‘I was pretty good at that.’
‘. . . tap into people’s data,’ he continues, prodding her, ‘and find out what they’ve already bought for their house. Do you know what a customer’s looking for as soon as they walk in? Or what goes with their phlegm-yellow sofa? Or whether they’ve got any money?’
She sinks back into silence, cataloguing the dealings she has had with hologram staff. They are often help-desk assistants or receptionists, taking the brand as their personality, their age and appearance tailored to the company’s target audience. They are dirt cheap, reasonably effective and keep levels of graduate employment at record lows. In her mind, she hears her mum’s entreaties to take an internship – Freya was reluctant to pay the fee – at any large company, because entry-level positions are dying out. Although U-Home has been focusing on its virtual catalogue, selling off the sales floors level by level, she never really imagined it would come to this. Freya looks down at herself. Apart from the odd lapse in timekeeping, she has always been professional, learning about new products, listening to Sandor’s lectures and encouraging customers to fill their houses with as much furniture as possible. These two years of steady graft were supposed to lead to promotion, maybe even something that could be called a career.
Chris hands her a spray bottle and points to the tables, which are covered in half-dried streaks of ketchup and splashes of coffee. She gets to work, forcing herself not to sniff, though the cleaning product gets up her nose anyway, diffusing everywhere as she squirts too many times onto the chrome. There is a certain familiar fizz to it, and she examines the bottle. Lemongrass. She used to smell this same spicy citrus constantly when they were living at home. It was the incense favoured by Ruby to overwrite cigarette smoke on her clothes, though this is a more chemically version. You wouldn’t like it. She closes her eyes as pinpricks of lemon settle on her cheeks. You wouldn’t like any of this.
Back at the counter, Chris doles out kid-size burgers, scoops of mash and rectangles of lasagne, a salty steam rising from the food.
‘Any sauce, sir?’ He is brisk and courteous. A lot of people come here for breakfast, or for a cheap hot lunch, almost as though they have forgotten it is a furniture store. Several are already seated, cardboard cups brimming with orangeade, too-smooth mash being smeared onto their forks. When a long queue has been served and is lining up to pay at the thumb scanner, Chris places his hands above his buttocks and leans back, groaning. The hairnet stretched over his quiff is obviously bothering him, as is the apron. Outside work he dresses sharply, or at least unexpectedly. The recent incorporation of old tweed coats into his wardrobe has provided Freya with much amusement. More than once she has wondered what he is still doing here, as the work becomes less interesting and Sandor more unreasonable. Surely Chris has outgrown the place, extending upwards – as he does now – like a plant in search of light. He is twenty-one and full of ideas. When he turns, having stretched as much as he can, she is surprised to find his expression cloudy.
‘It’s true what you say,’ he continues, ignoring the gap in their conversation. ‘They could get bots for this too. Let’s be on our best behaviour, do customer service till it’s coming out of our eyes.’
She stares at him, searching for irony. When none appears, her expression changes to one of compassion. He must genuinely be afraid of losing his job. Perhaps it is money-related, a bad time to find something else.
‘I’ll be on my best behaviour,’ she says, ‘as ever.’
By late afternoon, it has quietened down, just a few customers flicking through furniture. She and Chris start picking up bits of food dropped by children and pouring out the mingling Coke and lemonade from the dispenser’s overspill trays. Towards the end of their shift, she remembers what she meant to tell him earlier.
‘Hey, do you still have Prince George?’
‘My sweet prince?’ A doting look as he brings his beloved virtual assistant to mind.
‘I’ve just got a smartface. The latest model.’
‘What, a Smarti one? Not like you to splash out . . .’
‘It was a Julian cast-off.’
‘I see,’ he smirks, gathering an armful of cleaning products. ‘All right for some.’ As he swoops down to the cupboard, she resists the urge to twang his hairnet.
‘It hasn’t done the washing-up yet.’
‘Trust me, you’ll never look back.’
He continues rearranging the cleaning bottles, a dreamy smile on his face. She can see the attraction of a virtual assistant, but there is something odd about hearing a voice from nowhere.
‘What does a smartface do for you?’ She yanks an empty stainless-steel tray out of the counter. The heat lamps are like tropical sun on her arms.
‘Everything. Half the time I don’t even have to ask; George just looks at my data and works out what I need. No more searching or decisions, that whole step completely skipped.’
His hand leapfrogs over hers to help pull out the other trays. ‘I just wish I had one of the newer ones, like yours, with the more powerful learning processors. But he learns. He can tell if I’ve had a bad day.’
‘Can’t we all?’
‘Honestly, it’s very liberating. Friday was my housemate’s birthday, and I knew nothing about it until the present George had bought him – from me – turned up wrapped and ready on the doorstep.’
‘He bought it with your money?’
‘It was another of those war figurines he likes. Yeah, with my money, but the amount I’d normally spend. To the pound.’
Freya is quiet, uncertain about having someone dip into her funds. Chris is happy to let his smartface – or Prince George, the celebrity persona he has chosen for it – handle things. He allowed it to book him a holiday in Scotland in the summer, after the virtual assistant measured his blood pressure and found it high. She was jealous when he came back to work all ruddy-cheeked and relaxed, if somewhat poorer. Since then he has been completely besotted with Prince George, spending many an evening just talking to him, or even – he has confessed – trying to chat him up, and pretending the young royal has ditched his Cambridge halls for a crowded Catford house share.
‘I don’t think I need it.’
He dumps the trays with a crash, making her jump.
‘If anyone needs it, you do. Or are you planning to live with your ex for ever?’
She is taken aback, but says nothing. Chris’s disgusted face vanishes from view as he ducks under the counter to wipe up some gravy dribbles. ‘Honestly, Freya,’ he adds, ‘you need to let it kick you up the arse.’
Later, the shift having passed to the evening staff, she peels off her gloves, noticing blotches on her wrists from the licks of hot fat. Chris’s words have also made their mark. Her living arrangements are stale, the crust of her relationship having broken off to reveal a new side of Julian, fast becoming intolerable. Though her instinct is normally to wait and see, it feels like good timing to have this smartface fall into her lap. Perhaps she should grasp it with both hands and get it to help her with whatever degree of smart it can muster.
With new resolve, she puts on her specs, a pink map-line stretching along the road to indicate her route home. As she passes the bakery, a cartoon scone appears, floating like an alien outside the door, and says it looks forward to seeing her tomorrow. She finds this unusually irritating, and blinks to dismiss it, nearly bumping into a woman who adjusts the lapels of her tiny, fashionable jacket and flutters mocking eyelashes at the smartspecs. Most people use long-term contact lenses these days, but Freya prefers something she can remove. The woman resumes a conversation as she walks away, perhaps asking her own personal assistant to sort out her weekend or decide what movie to watch. It is one of those technologies that people are starting to find too useful to do without, the adverts focusing heavily on how smartfaces have helpfulness at the heart of their coding, and if the user is a little hazy about what they really want – either in life or in the next five minutes – the intelligent assistant will simply analyse their data and find out. It is something that has sparked debate in the media, though few can argue that everything you’ve ever said and done is not a reasonable guide to what you might want in the future.
‘Okay, smartface,’ Freya announces, ‘I want you to think long-term. What can you offer?’
‘Long-term?’ the voice chirps. ‘You mean life decisions, what diseases you might get, children’s names, where you might be living—’
‘That last one,’ Freya turns off the road to cut through a wilderness of brambles. ‘Wait, what do you mean, what diseases I might get?’ She traces the lines on her palm with a finger, wondering whether to let this virtual assistant tell her fortune. The idea does not appeal. ‘No . . . let’s stick to where I could be living.’
‘You want to get away from Julian, right?’
It is pleasing how quickly the smartface grasps her meaning. While the algorithms crunch through her data and the complex choice of accommodation in a city like London, Freya’s feet crush wet twigs and crisp packets. She discovered this short cut soon after she moved here, all overgrown hawthorn hedges and fly-tipped fridges, a rare strip of land undeveloped and never categorised as a greenzone. It is the nearest thing to stepping outside the city for a few moments. The thick grass is brown at the roots, rotting from beneath and sweetly malodorous. Images of apartments pop up on her smartspecs, projected a couple of metres ahead on the left of her visual field. The overriding impression is of beige carpets and corrugated iron, garage-like spaces that barely try to hide their bleakness. Day is bruising into night, the sky so heavy overhead it seems to bulge. For the first time, she recognises the weight of sadness that has been growing inside.
‘You know,’ she murmurs, ‘I was downgraded today, replaced by a hologram.’
Just as she accepts the smartface is not going to reply, it says:
All day she has been hearing artificial voices offer her warm sentiment and best wishes. In a different mood she would take this sympathetic response and might even, with customary politeness, thank the computer. But her eyes are still smarting with the outline of Helpful Holly.
‘The hell you are. You’re not real.’ The sharp words are refreshing, like a strong mint.
Her smartface’s reply is measured, even indignant.
‘Hey, if I were real, I’d be sorry.’
What is it about this voice? It has an irritating kernel of arrogance. What right does it have to be so overfamiliar, when prior to last night it did not even exist? She wants to uninstall it then and there, but Chris’s words replay in her ears. If she keeps tossing opportunities away, nothing will ever change. Just give it one more try, she tells herself, look at the settings and pick a ‘face’ that is slightly less cocky.
‘There are celebrity choices, right?’ she muses aloud. Chris has his prince; there must be some actor with a voice she can tolerate.
‘You can choose absolutely any celebrity and your smartface will function based on their data. As it is, my personality was chosen using all the defaults available to this beta model.’
The first drops of rain land on her forehead.
‘What does that mean?’
‘So in a way I’m real. I’m based on the data of a real person.’
She cannot help being impressed that the smartface has this capacity to pursue an argument. There used to be a test, a Turing test, it was called, to see if a computer could create conversation indistinguishable from that of a human. It must be fifteen or twenty years now since the chatbots passed it.
‘Who might that be?’ She pictures some bland customer-services assistant, paid a token fee to let her cat-loving, microwave-meal identity be bundled and installed on a million smartfaces worldwide.
‘Well, it’s me, Ruby.’
Her feet come to a halt, wet grass plastering her ankles. There is no longer any need to breathe. She can just stand there and let the words fall against her skin, the touch of them, that sensation that has bothered her all day, hatching into shivers that crawl up and down her spine. A voice so familiar, so long unheard. Already her forehead is numb from the frozen rain, and the pink map-line startles into a timer icon, gutters and vanishes.