Ackerman traced the fiber optic cable leading from the control unit under the customized sofa-lounger to the I/O port in the side of Mrs. Frimmel’s skull. The coldness of the metal connection surrounded by soft hair and warm skin always felt weird to him, but Ackerman had become used to it by now. More or less.
The filaments of the cable pulsed with faint colored light as the unit monitored and decoded her cerebral activity. The connections were okay, which annoyed Ackerman. Usually with this kind of glitch, it was only a bad cable or damaged data port, either of which could be fixed in just a few minutes.
Mr. Frimmel sat next to his wife, quiet and still, like a good potato. They were a neat and pleasant middle-aged couple, and obviously had money, judging by their fancy house. Ackerman never knew what made people like this volunteer to be jacked-in. It wasn’t like they needed the compensation: ten grand and deep discounts on the products of the Omnifax agency’s client corporations. But he was there to fix a bad data feed, not make sociological observations.
He squatted down to check the screen on the control unit. FRIMMEL, MARIANNE A. TRANSFER RATE AVERAGE 420 TB/MINUTE, 67% BELOW NOMINAL. HARMONIC INTERFERENCE 2 x 105.
So much for his lunch hour. After setting up the test rig, he stole a minute to take in the show on the flatscreen TV that filled the entire wall opposite the sofa. It was the only source of illumination in the room.
Goddamn commercials, Ackerman thought as he keyed in a test program. That’s all the potatoes watched, 24/7, for weeks or even months on end. Drugs and neural stimulation slowed down their normal physical functions, while the Omnifax maintenance techs came in every day or two to see to other necessities. All the while, the subjects’ brain responses to various stimuli were tested, evaluated and recorded, and the data collated and analyzed.
All to make better and ever more effective commercials.
Mrs. Frimmel began losing the blank and contented facial expression of a good potato. She trembled, her neck and facial muscles twitched, perspiration formed on her forehead. Ackerman started the next diagnostic, hoping that her shakiness was just the usual post-installation reaction. But the records on the Frimmels showed that they’d been jacked-in for about three weeks already. She should have settled down by now.
“Not good,” Ackerman muttered to himself, as Mrs. Frimmel’s movements increased in intensity. A trail of spittle dribbled from the corner of her mouth, her expression pained, eyes squeezed shut.
Beside her, Mr. Frimmel continued to soak up input, blissfully oblivious. And everything was coming up green on the diagnostics. It didn’t make sense. Nothing was wrong with the equipment. Otherwise Mr. Frimmel would be displaying the same reactions. Which meant that Mrs. Frimmel had to be —
“FRESH, CLEAN AND FREE OF EMBARRASSING ODORS!” somebody shouted in Ackerman’s ear. “WHY SHOULD YOU SUFFER FROM –” He was startled for a second until he realized the voice was booming from the TV. Probably a stray voltage spike somewhere in the line kicking up the volume. Ackerman scuttled crab-like across the floor to the flatscreen and fumbled for the hidden panel along the bottom, then jabbed his thumb on the RESTORE SETTINGS button. The ad spot mercifully returned to its low murmur.
He leaned against the wall and glanced over at the Frimmels. At least Mrs. Frimmel seemed to be calming down. For a minute there he’d thought she was–
Son of a bitch.
Her lips were moving. And potatoes weren’t supposed to talk.
On hands and knees, Ackerman crawled back beside the Frimmels’ sofa.
“Embarrassing odors,” said Mrs. Frimmel in a low monotone. “Embarrassing odors. Free from. Why suffer?”
She was quoting the goddamn commercial.
Ackerman got up on his knees and leaned on the arm of the sofa. Mrs. Frimmel was still shaking and sweating.
“QUIRTEL!” she shouted. “QUIRTEL! ODORS!”
Knowing it was useless, Ackerman began checking everything again: connections, interface, power supply.
“QUIRTEL!” Mrs. Frimmel repeated. “BETTER!”
Wait a minute.
Ackerman punched up the reception records for the Frimmels’ connection node. A listing scrolled up on the control unit screen, lines of cryptic words and numbers in digital hash. Records of everything over their feed for the last twenty-four hours. Every single ad spot or infomercial or whatever the hell they saw on that screen had its own I.D. flag, with the time it was transmitted, its length, and the name of the company for which Omnifax made the ad. Ackerman hit a key on the control unit keyboard, halting the scrolling lines, then backed up a bit.
“QUIRTEL!” Mrs. Frimmel proclaimed.
Ackerman tapped his finger on the screen, nodding in triumph. One of the data lines read: 5934BIFIDBIOS/DATATR0325:42:53/ SR48729DS/QUIRTEL[HT38632jd337].
“QuirTel,” he said softly.
“QUIRTEL!” Mrs. Frimmel echoed.
He glanced back at the screen and turned up the volume. Elaborate computer animation was transforming a depressed-looking couple into new people, remaking their faces, their bodies. “Here at QuirTel, we’re pioneering the next wave in custom gengineering,” said a cheerful voiceover. “QuirTel is in the forefront of exciting new genetic technologies that can correct almost any flaw in your body, your health, your appearance–and that of your children and children-to-be!”
“Any flaw!” Mrs. Frimmel exclaimed. “Children-to-be! QuirTel!”
“QuirTel,” said the voiceover. “Where DNA is only a suggestion. And don’t forget our line of personal hygiene products–”
The QuirTel ad ended and a new commercial promptly took its place. Ackerman turned to watch Mrs. Frimmel. She was calm and quiescent again, her mouth no longer moving, body no longer trembling.
Ackerman muted the sound and glanced at the screen. Different ad. Different company. As he’d expected.
He hit the comm button on the test gear panel. The screen flickered and the tech dispatcher’s annoyed face appeared.
“You’re interrupting my lunch, Ackerman,” he said.
“We got a tater treat here, Macafee. Totally fried, it looks like. Selective stimulatory fixation.”
“Oh, shit,” Macafee groaned. “That’s the third SSF this month. You sure?”
“I’m not a goddamn amateur.”
“You’re on the Frimmels, right? Which one’s the tater?”
“The wife.” Ackerman glanced over at Mr. Frimmel. “Husband looks okay. No crosstalk between them.”
“Good, then maybe we can still salvage something.” Macafee looked down, as if checking a note. “What’s she’s hung on?”
“QuirTel Biotech. I did a download trace, and every time a QuirTel ad comes up, her biosigns go snarky. Plus I saw it happen myself just a minute ago when a QuirTel spot came over the feed.”
“QUIRTEL!” Mrs. Frimmel yelled.
Macafee frowned. “What was that?”
“That was her,” Ackerman said, checking the TV. “It’s not one of their spots coming over now, so she must have responded to hearing me say the name.”
“Auditory response too,” Macafee said, shaking his head.
“Yeah,” said Ackerman. “You better tell QuirTel that whatever new mindfuck’s in their ads, it’s serious hoodoo.”
“That’s the point,” Macafee snapped. “Grab them by the balls. Bypass the filters of the conscious mind.”
“Save me the company sales pitch, Macafee. It’s one thing to grab people by the balls, but you got to give them a chance to think, too.”
“We want them to think about buying the product.”
“We’re fucking with people’s heads.”
“Nothing new about that. We’re just doing it more directly. The future of advertising.”
Ackerman shook his head. “It wasn’t like this before Omnifax bought out the agency.”
“Spare me the crap about the good old days, huh?” Macafee scowled at him. “I shouldn’t tell you this, Harry, but some of the bosses think you’ve developed a bad attitude about the work.”
Ackerman shrugged. “Sometimes I think about the big picture. So what?”
“Your job is the little picture. Maintaining the data feeds.” He paused. “We’re pioneers in this field, you know. You should try to be more excited.”
“Yeah, yeah. When I can retire in seven more years, then I’ll be excited as hell.”
Macafee finally gave up. “Okay, Ackerman, we’ll get a crew out there ASAP.” He glanced down at his notes again. “I think we got another subject we can plug in with Mr. Frimmel. Same demographic, and probably a better match for him anyway.”
“Another subject?” said Ackerman. “I don’t think that–”
“You better stay there, just in case she spazzes out,” Macafee interrupted. “We don’t want her to get hurt if she’s still recoverable.”
Recoverable, Ackerman thought. Right. Fill her full of drugs and numb her with synaptic therapy, and if that doesn’t work, QuirTel puts her up in a home somewhere.
“Probably be a couple of hours,” Macafee continued. “Get comfy. Crack a beer or something.”
“Bite me,” Ackerman snapped, closing the line. Well, at least now he wouldn’t get any more service calls until the installation team came.
Wearily, Ackerman stood up, joints cracking. He parked himself in a comfortable-looking chair.
His eyes settled on the Frimmels. Test subjects. Potatoes. One of which now had to be replaced, because it was no longer optimally functional.
But no problem, because Omnifax had another willing subject all ready to plug in. Good thing, because the setup was configured for two people of a particular age, sex, and physical type. Take out one and you had to take out both, or plug in somebody else who was demographically similar. Otherwise the data got all screwy.
He stared at Mr. Frimmel. Poor bastard. The guy had lost his wife, and wouldn’t even know it until he woke up with a stranger next to him. Or maybe not. Sometimes when two strangers got hooked up into the same node, they developed a weird emotional connection, which lasted even after they got out. But the warranty had expired for Mrs. Marianne Frimmel.
For the first time, Ackerman noticed that the Frimmels were holding hands. Loosely, of course, because of the lax muscle tone from being jacked-in, but their fingers were intertwined. Probably they’d done it right before the installation techs had thrown the switch and they went under. He imagined them glancing at each other, smiling, saying it would be all right.
Kind of sweet, he thought. And the cozy sofa, the way they were snuggled close. A lot of potato couples sat in separate chairs.
Ackerman wondered if the installation techs bringing Mr. Frimmel’s new companion would join her hand with his. Probably so, because any prolonged change in a subject’s state could futz the data. The precise sensory input patterns had to be preserved. If they were jacked-in hand in hand, they had to stay that way.
The thought made him sick.
Ackerman got up and knelt down next to the control unit again. He keyed in a quick sequence to put the unit on standby, then opened up the panel.
It would be easy. Reroute a few connections, create the crosstalk he’d told Macafee wasn’t there. Then call up a QuirTel ad from the storage buffer, jack up the signal strength.
He worked fast, making sure to finish before the standby kicked off and the unit began to record his tampering. Twenty years of poking around data units came in handy. He was done inside of three minutes.
Ackerman closed up the unit and started to pull up a QuirTel spot. The last one was only a few minutes ago, so it was easy to find.
He hesitated. Once he did this that was it. He couldn’t reverse it.
No, he thought. It was the right thing. It was the only thing to do. The only way to be sure they’d stay together.
He knew it was the way they’d want it.
Ackerman pushed the button.
“…the latest in genetic control of glandular secretions,” said the TV screen. “Permanent freedom from social embarrassment, thanks to QuirTel.”
“QUIRTEL!” Mr. and Mrs. Frimmel sang in unison. “FREEDOM!”
Ackerman leaned back and watched them, both shaking, twitching.
“QuirTel,” said the TV. “Where DNA is only a suggestion.”
“QUIRTEL!” they said. Together.
Ackerman knew it was a risk. If Mrs. Frimmel had been permanently damaged, now her husband might be, too. But if she was recoverable, then he’d be okay.
Either way, they’d be together. It might not be company policy, but Ackerman liked togetherness.
CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE AUTHOR READ THE STORY.
Mark Wolverton is a science writer for magazines such as Air & Space Smithsonian, Popular Science, and Scientific American; a playwright whose work has been produced in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere; and an author whose latest book is A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer from St. Martin’s Press. He lives in Bryn Mawr.