The stories in this volume remain the copyright of the individual authors. Contact through needleinthehay.net
Authors: Sean Crawley, Lydia Trethewey, Jeanette Stampone, Andrew Szemeredy.
Cover art: Martin De Biasi
Edited by: Martin De Biasi
Table of Contents
The Poke The Mango Award shortlist saw four authors show down over augmented reality and real world problems. While Andrew Szemeredy was relatively new to the shortlist, Lydia, Jeanette and Sean are all seasoned writers, making for a compelling contest.
In the end it was Jeanette Stampone’s Not-So-Imaginary Friend that took out first place by no more than a point. That said, all for stories are interesting reads, with wildly different takes on the prompt.
Augmented Reality Games are here, and nothing quite defines that like the popular rise of Pokémon Go. But what happens when the things you need… Food, water, shelter, clothes… are augmented as well?
Write a piece of fiction with augmented reality at the crux of the drama, tension or comedy. It could be set in current times, 5 years from now, or in the far flung future. The augmentation could be through a phone, screen, glasses, contact lenses or some other way. Questions that might arise:
Who has access to this technology?
What are some of the benefits of this tech?
What possible drawbacks?
This was the question we posed to the authors at Needle In The hay on July 15 2016. Four authors made the shortlist, which ran from July 26-August 2 2016. Now, to the stories.
Most of the people in my village have no empathy for the Bolters, as they are called. They say, “Let them suffer, let them see how their technology serves them in the real world.” But I had been a Bolter myself, I knew there is no real choice to refuse the TE6 implant. It’s done at the age of two, I would tell them.
With the help of Verm and Kiak, I had set up a clinic down by the fiord. Verm helps me with the surgery needed to remove the TE6 and to open up the sealed eyelids which accompanies this latest version of augmentation. Ironically, TE stands for third eye, now it is the only eye. Kiak does the hard work and nurses the patients – slowly introducing them to light and a world devoid of the constant directions and warnings given by the internal voice of the TE6. It’s always surprising that the natural world of beautiful vistas illuminated by sun and moon, and the aural landscape of voices and birdsong, and rushing wind and falling water, can be so disturbing for a human.
And that’s why I admire these Bolters. We know that the TE6 generates images of an impenetrable landscape populated with dangerous monsters to anyone daring to approach the city limits. Most people turn back. With a lifetime of trusting the world view presented solely by the implant, courtesy of its finely crafted crystal lens and clever virtual reality coding, why would anyone doubt what they experience as they walk towards the edge of Tendo Capital. I at least did not have my eyes stitched closed when I made my escape.
Ryder, a recent patient at our clinic told me how she made it out. “I had been told in the secret Otherworld Forum that if you got down on your hands and knees you could feel your way and crawl straight off the edge of the cliff. It was a weird sensation feeling solid ground beneath you when all you could see was a three hundred metre drop down onto sharp rocks and a boiling sea. I also knew that the images of threatening raptors and aliens were just that, images.”
Ryder’s voice was weak and her enunciation was strange. It is so rare for citizens to use their real voices once they have been implanted. I remember the first time I tried to talk a full sentence when I first encountered people outside of the city.
Once our patients can handle full light, we take them into the village. It can be quite humorous at times. They ask questions like, “How did you know how to find your way to the food hall?” It seems so obvious for us to use memory. It is hard for those never augmented to imagine that every decision is informed, in the immediate present, by a machine. But I get it, I lived in Tendo Capital for the first thirty years of my life. My first implant was the TE2 and by the time I was twenty eight I had, operation after operation, been upgraded to the TE5. When the decree came for all citizens to sign up for the TE6 with its requisite permanent eye closing, my father, once a fervent champion of augmentation, told me to bolt.
“It has gone too far, way too far,” he cried that night he came with me to the outskirts of Tendo Capital. “Go my son, and forgive me for allowing this to happen. I was fooled, and to think it all started with a game of Pokemon.”
He would not come with me. He said he needed to save others, it would be his only chance at redemption. I have since learned that he is the master moderator of Otherworld Forum.
After the village celebrations of the spring equinox, Ryder comes to my cabin. We had been dancing and drinking nectar wine to enhance nature’s display of the southern lights. At least the enhancement is not an electronic signal from an integrated circuited implanted on the forehead between the eyes, I justify to myself. The intoxication, I argue, is a natural gift of life on Earth, and the invigoration of dance and human connection an absolute necessity for fulfillment. Ryder’s wound is healing well and her spirit is expanding, thank you Verm and Kiak.
“Thank you, for taking me in,” she whispers in my ear. “I may be one of the last to come, and though I am grateful to have made it out, I feel guilty to be so happy and free while so many others will be trapped forever.”
“What do you mean,” I ask.
“I have heard that the TE7 is nearly ready. It has been heralded as a quantum leap ahead for human progress. But word in Otherworld Forum is that the TE7 will be able to induce pain and evoke fear through its expansion into the dorsal posterior insula and the hypothalamus.”
I know now, what I have dreaded for some time; I must return to Tendo Capital.
Sean Crawley on In Tendo Capital
“ Poke The Mango Award prompt was a nice challenge for me as I’ve never played Pokemon, let alone Pokemon Go. I did read a news report about two men who fell off an ocean bluff while hunting Pokemon with their phones. This was not such a surprise as the sight of people heads down in their phones is hardly unusual these days. I extrapolated the reliance on augmented reality to the point of a person not needing their eyes at all. I mixed this in with a dystopian society keen to keep its citizens within the city borders. My writing method often involves just getting a start and letting it happen. I had no idea there would be a fiord, southern lights and a makeshift surgical clinic. And please don’t ask me about the names Verm and Kiak – perhaps I have been augmented with a cast of virtual characters ready and waiting to appear in my stories. Oh, the joy of writing. “
White blood sprites dance in my eyes. My eyelids flutter open onto a long blade of fluorescent light, a high-pitched whine stroking my brain. I lie prone on the metal sheets, lipless ghosts drifting above me. Thin splinter of metal like the proboscis of a butterfly, comes closer. Somebody’s sculpting circles into my retinas.
Shut my eyes; grit and salt slide between the lenses.
Open again. Warm afternoon sunlight caresses the soft pillow and eddies around the hospital bed. It tastes like butter. My mouth smells of moss and haemoglobin.
The door opens, peeling back my nerves, and the doctor walks in. He has wiry spectacles and carries a clipboard.
“Good to see you’re awake, Mr Wilkins,” he says. As he speaks a burgundy ink blot spreads out from his midriff, obscuring half of his body. “The operation was a complete success. You may experience some mild synaesthesia as your body adapts to being able to ‘see’ chemical excretions. It should pass in a day or two.”
“Thank you,” I say, my voice starched cotton.
He walks around to the foot of the bed and the burgundy stain dissipates. “So,” he says, tapping a pen against the clipboard “when is your deployment?”
Saturday 30th December, 6.04am
“I can’t sense anything over this,” Joel says.
We crouch low in the scraggly acacias, boots crunching on pebbles of glass.
“The whole place reeks of fear,” he says, shaking his head and lowering his rifle. “It’s like a swamp of pheromones.”
I blink slowly.
Fear is contagious here, spreading from person to person, drowning us in psychological odours. I look down at the concrete pad on which we squat, perhaps a hospital once, maybe a luxury resort. Now even the foundations are crumbling under the pressure of weeds. Back home they call this a ghost-town, but the phantoms here are flesh and blood. I see them fleeing in my nightmares.
“Kyle?” Joel says, looking over at me.
Joel has a faint orange beard and the delicate fingers of a violinist. He stares at me through the filter of his lenses and I know that he can see the chemical insignias of my weariness.
“Why did we ever agree to this, Joel.”
Colours sweat out through his pores, a detailed heat map of his emotions. I try not to look.
“Someone has to do it,” he says. “These people need our help. We’ll return home as heroes.”
The edges of my lips twitch. A mosquito lands on my knee. “We’ll return home as soldiers,” I say.
Joel opens his mouth.
Bullets zip through the air. We flatten against the concrete pad, following a ritualised movement to our guns. Bright yellow adrenaline leaks from our bodies, like a cloud of urine blotting out the sun.
Monday, 24th September, 2.15pm
“What’s wrong?” Cynthia asks.
I lie on my back staring up at the fan. It slices a void through the air, inert plastic, no hormones, no visual dissonance.
Cynthia sits down on the mattress beside me. “You’ve changed,” she says, “I have noticed. When you came back from Kamenka you went blank. Now you won’t even talk.”
Soft blue wisps cling to her skin. I shut my eyes. White blood cells dance, the empty spaces along my capillary paths.
“Don’t block me out, Kyle,” she says, bleach in her throat.
The bed is mud, stale pheromones excreted into its fabric.
“Fine,” she says, standing up. “But just remember that I waited for you. I didn’t have to, but I did.”
The door slams.
I remember when emotions were hidden, mysterious. I feel like a pervert, peering into her inner sanctum, making her transparent. Chemical excretions turned to colours in my enhanced eyes, a pattern I can decipher. Fear, arousal, pain. I’ve made her the same as an animal.
I turn off the fan.
Cynthia creeps back in, remorse glowing along the sweat on her arms. “I’m sorry,” she says. She sits by the window, looking out. Her eyes slide towards me, watchful like a deer. “I heard about a new treatment…” she says slowly.
I close my eyes.
“They can reverse the augmentation, remove the lenses without damaging your brain.”
Words crack in my throat. “There’s no point,” I say. “I was deployed with this guy, Joel, he had the reversal treatment. Made the world go limp, he said, dull. Said everything felt muted. He jumped in front of a train.”
Cynthia doesn’t respond. Her lethargy is tangible. I roll off the bed and walk over to her, put my hands on her shoulders. Something indistinct flickers beneath the resignation and fatigue.
Down on the street clouds of chemicals drift along, a technicolour fog.
Lydia Trethewey on Synthesis
“The idea of human-computer interfaces as sensory augmentation got me thinking about how technology could be returned to the service of something more primal, animal. Chemicals and pheromones are present to us as theoretical concepts, but are also felt. How does the skin become an interface with the world? In a way Synthesis pushes back against the idea of bodily augmentation without a cultural framework in which to understand it. Kyle’s amplified experience of his world leaves him isolated and discordant.
I had been reading about synaesthesia, and it seemed consonant with sensory augmentation as an idiosyncratic experience of reality. It seemed to highlight the impossibility of imagining things beyond the limits of our senses. Metaphors – the warm sunlight tastes like butter, my voice is starched cotton – become literal descriptions”.
“You can’t catch me!” Rosie says, bolting into the office and glancing back to the nothingness behind her. I sit in the armchair opposite Dr Henderson and we watch in silence for a moment.
Rosie stops abruptly, her eyes turning towards a pile of crayons in the corner of the room. “Come on,” she says. “Let’s do some drawing.” She plonks herself on the ground and grabs an orange crayon from the pile. “This is my favourite colour,” she says, staring at the wall. “What’s yours?” A look of concentration crosses her face, as if she is listening intently. “Purple? Oh yes, I love purple too.”
I move my chair closer to Dr Henderson. “This imaginary friend thing was cute to start with, but now it’s getting a little creepy,” I whisper.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Dr Henderson replies with a reassuring smile. “Have you still got the AR Buddy Program installed?”
I frown. “Yes.”
We had been visiting Dr Henderson ever since Rosie’s father, Frank walked out on us six months ago. He simply told me that he had found someone else. That was it. I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming. So naive, so stupid.
After that, Rosie became withdrawn and clingy. I couldn’t leave her for a minute without her crying. We became trapped in our own home, isolated. In desperation, I contacted the Digital Health Clinic.
That’s when we met Dr Henderson and he prescribed the Augmented Reality Buddy Program. “Clinical trials have shown that this type of therapy can help patients significantly,” he said. “The Buddy Program is particularly successful in allowing patients to share their feelings, without fear of judgment.”
As I listened, I screwed up my face. “You’re prescribing an imaginary friend?”
Dr Henderson chuckled. “Yes, I guess you could call it that! But in the medical industry, we refer to it as an AR hologram. We can program their age, gender, likes and dislikes. The image and sound is transmitted through a pair of glasses.”
Despite my misgivings, life changed dramatically over the next few weeks. I found Rosie constantly chatting – having actual conversations with thin air. She seemed happier though. Full of energy and playing again, just like a normal four year old.
But today, as I sit watching Rosie in Dr Henderson’s office, I shiver. She stands in the corner of the room with her hands over her eyes.
“Eight, nine, ten! Ready or not, here I come!” she says, before racing through the office, peeking under tables and behind curtains.
“I don’t like her being like this,” I say. “Yes, she seems happier, but it’s getting a bit weird. I think the therapy is affecting her.”
“She’s coping just fine,” Dr Henderson says with a smile. “But it is time to start reducing the therapy. Long-term use can become addictive and patients tend to get emotionally attached to their buddy. It’s a gradual process. We won’t just take it away in an instant.”
My stomach churns and I grip the armrest. “So, when will this reduction begin?” I ask.
“How about we give it a try now? The friend’s name? Jodie wasn’t it?”
“We’ll say goodbye to Jodie for just an hour to start with. It’s a simple case of removing the glasses.”
Tears prick my eyes. I stare at Rosie in her carefree world, squealing with laughter as she squeezes under a chair.
“Found you!” she shrieks.
“OK,” I say. “Let’s try.”
Looking up, I smile at the woman stood beside me. Her blue eyes gaze back. I know that she is nothing more than an electronic image; a creation of the AR Buddy Program who responds to my emotional needs as she is programmed. But to me, she is more than that. She is my friend, my lifesaver. When I thought I had no-one, she was there to talk to, every day.
“Bye Jodie,” I say.
Jodie waves. “Bye. Don’t be sad. You’re stronger now.”
I remove the glasses and blink at the void beside me. I wait for the sense of emptiness to return, but instead, there is warmth, a calmness. My eyes flick to my daughter, who has returned to her spot on the floor. Crayons lay scattered around her and she draws a wobbly rainbow, stopping momentarily to whisper and giggle.
“What about Rosie?” I ask Dr Henderson. “She’s been acting like this since I started the therapy.”
“She’s just imitating you,” he says. “Your daughter created an imaginary friend. It’s probably helped her to cope in exactly the same way. And just like Jodie, it will disappear when she’s ready.”
As I watch Rosie laugh, her eyes sparkle with happiness. Dr Henderson leans towards me. “As adults, we use AR to enhance our perception of the world,” he whispers, “but a child just needs their imagination.”
Jeanette Stampone on The Not-So-Imaginary Friend
“With a background in community services work, I have come into contact with a number of people experiencing mental health issues. It has created an interest and empathy, which I enjoy exploring through my writing. This inspired the idea of AR Therapy and the hope that in the future, mental health issues can be treated without medication.
While this award was about augmented reality, I still wanted to make the story believable and develop a concept relating to present-day issues. I played with a few different therapy ideas, finally settling on the need for the character to share their feelings, without being judged.”
Giles turned on his microepisode controller. He tuned in to “swimming pool”. He lowered himself gingerly into the water… it was cool at the first touch, for his toe, but by the time his torso got immersed, it took on the temperature of a pleasant beach water.
He swam around the water for a short period, then he tuned the microepisode controller to “breakfast”. He sat down to the table racked with bacon, all imaginable fruits (some of which were not real, but still imaginable), toast, cereal, milk, honey, and a special drink that had been unknown to his people, which he called “orange juice”.
He burped, after a healthy helping of the breakfast food, and stood on the scale, which he had just tuned there at a moment’s notice on his micro controller, and lo and behold, he lost four pounds by eating his breakfast.
He turned the microepisode controller off, got dressed, and headed for work.
Giles worked for the self-tying shoelace company B-135/c. He enjoyed his job; which was to sweep up, to keep the jellyfish well supplied with food, and to watch the monitors of the washroom stalls, to make sure no employee would do something other than eliminating their human waste.
He was watching the monitors, and was unaware that he was watched as well. So when Lucretia, the blonde bombshell of the office went into a cubicle, and pulled up her skirt, and took out one of her breasts, and fixed to turn her microepisode controller on, Giles heard his boss’s voice bellow at him, “TURN THAT THING OFF.” Giles looked around the room, but saw nobody. He shrugged his shoulders, and kept on watching Lucretia’s passing the time. “TURN THAT OFF THIS INSTANT, YOU FOOL,” Giles heard his boss once again. He glanced at his microepisode controller, and sure enough, it was “on”. He switched if off, and Lucretia instantly became a scrawny dowager, with wrinkles under her eyes, and flushing the toilet.
“Oh, reality; what a Gyp,” thought Giles, not aware of the fact that this thought included an idiom referring to racist times when being a “Gyp” meant a thief.
Giles started to sweep the floor, only for Lucretia to walk all over the cleaned tiles with her boots, mud stuck onto them. “It only looks like mud,” laughed Lucretia, “smell it, ole’ boy, smell it,” and she laughed a maniacal laughter.
“Your microepisode controller is on,” said Giles reproachfully. Lucretia’s joy got instantly deflated. “Oh, pits. Was it that obvious?” The two did not get along. Not in the past, not in that present.
“Ya no,” said Giles, “that my grandmother married my grandfather?” “Which one?” asked Lucretia, “on your mom’s, or on your dad’s side?” “Both sides,” said Giles, “if you don’t want to hear the story just say so. No need to be sarcastic.” “But I don’t know sarcasm if it bit me in the leg,” said Lucretia. “I’M SARCASM”, said Giles, and started to chase the constantly screaming and laughing Lucretia, occasionally snipping and biting at her ankles. “Cut that out,” said the boss’s voice, “you’re not in grade three any more.”
Giles looked at his microepisode controller. It was off. So was Lucretia’s.
At that point Lucretia and Giles were facing each other, and he grabbed her by the upper arms, pulled her close, and kissed wildly, passionately, fully existentially, in the present, which kiss she fully returned.
Andrew Szemeredy on Microepisode of Major Love
“I wrote my piece on a whiff; like all my better efforts, it also came out almost automatically, without much or any thinking by me.
Once the initial idea of a machine which creates perceived reality out of imagination solidified into an instrument with an “on-off” switch and possibly (implied in the writing but not spelled out) having an interface with the operator’s mind, I applied the idea to the most mundane, everyday life of a person, taken randomly of a boring day, and somehow my subconscious, muse-kissed mind channeled and transformed this boring, drudge of a day into one brilliant outstanding day for the hero.
I would like to say that this was intentional, but it was only created by me, yet not intentionally; for my pen was guided by my “muse”, I only needed to hold the instrument in my hand. I am one of the many writers and creators who, I surmise, like me, get into the creative mood on a level of thinking and planning that is done in recesses of our minds which we don’t have in the forefront of the conscious.
There is an entire philosophy of how creation and problem-solving works which philosophy I needed to create in order to explain this phenomenon, which more-or-less coincides with the phenomenon that has been described since ancient times as “being kissed by the muse”.
This concludes the Poke The Mango shorrlist. Congratulations to Jeanette Stampone on taking out first place and all the authors for a successful contest.
Inspired by PokÃ©mon Go, four authors riff on themes of augmented reality, where virtual desires blend with real needs. One topic, four authors, four very different stories: Sean Crawley - Sean's In Tendo Capital takes us to a grim future where citizens must fight for what's real. Lydia Trethewey - Synthesis deals with post war trauma for soldiers who see chemical in colour. Jeanette Stampone - Mother and child cope with loneliness and anxiety in different ways Andrew Szemeredy - Love finds a way of breaking down barriers in Microepisode of Major Love