My first instinct, to be honest, is always to break them. When Evan Chen and his latest holographic man appear near the entrance of the fruit aisle of Vegetale Market, my hand twitches on my tablet, my desire itching to the surface. I repress the sensation, always keeping my composure. Evan waves at me, twenty feet away. The grocery store is unusually packed for a Saturday night in Pacific Heights. Costumed children run in front of their parents, who are carrying green baskets full of last-minute organic Halloween candy. With each step, Evan’s petite frame keeps getting pushed back as though he is swimming against a current of zombies, clowns, presidents, and aliens. Finally, he gets close enough to me that I can observe his holographic man clearly, uninterrupted. In leather boots caked with mud, the holographic man clomps toward me and the banana rack. He releases patches of fake, glowing, translucent dirt with each step as though he has just emerged out of a grave, or rather, dug himself out of one. He reminds me of a skeleton. I can see his collarbones and ribs protruding from under his nearly-translucent skin, exposed by a loose collared shirt missing several buttons. He has a long, thin beard. He can’t be older than twenty-five, at least fifteen years younger than Evan and I.
“Good casting, great wardrobe,” I tell Evan.
Evan stands a good ten feet back, projecting the hologram from his belt buckle. With his hands resting on his hips and his elbows back behind him, he juts his crotch out toward me as though trying to say, check out my big dick energy. He hasn’t changed since we met at USC almost twenty years ago. Sometimes I think he followed me to the Bay when I first moved here after college. He stands shorter than the hologram by about a foot. His greasy salt and pepper hair sticks to his forehead.
To get a better look and get the hair out of my eyes, I put my long dark hair into a low ponytail. I inspect the hologram more closely. His thumbs remain hooked around the straps of a bag, which looks more like a large potato sack with straps than a backpack. The large metallic pans tied to his sack clang as he finally drops the bag at my feet.
“Wow,” I say. “Nice sound engineering.”
“Do you want to hear it again?” Evan asks and, before I can answer, he presses a button on his watch so that the hologram picks up the sack again and drops it down.
My instinct is always, how can I fool this machine?
Logically, I know that Evan is likely transmitting the sound from a device he’s wearing, his belt or watch, but the way the sound hits my ear enables my mind to play a trick on me and make my body believe that the sound is coming directly from the image right in front of me. I reach down to touch the sack, and my hand goes straight through it.
Sweat stains rim the shoulders of the hologram’s collarless, long-sleeved shirt, which remind me of long underwear. The man’s shirt is so abused it is difficult to tell what the original color had been. He wipes his face with a kerchief from his jeans pocket, the legacy brand Cohn’s broadly displayed.
A few customers pause to watch, and Evan smiles from ear to ear. An elderly customer tries to walk in front of him to grab some local grapes, and Evan blocks him, grabbing a bunch for him so that the projection of the hologram isn’t disrupted. In doing so, Evan sets off one of my sensors, and my holographic actor impersonating Cesar Chavez appears, flickering, projected from lights running along the ceiling of the grocery store. He was one of my first and few designs to go state-wide; I still remember filming that actor. My hologram clears his throat, “In 1965, eight hundred Filipino-American farm workers demanded a raise in hourly wages.” The actor’s voice, which emanates from speakers embedded in the fruit stand, sounds metallic and distant compared to Evan’s hologram. My digital recording already looks hazy and out-of-focus in comparison to Evan’s crisp design. It’s amazing how quickly the quality of recording technology improves, how fast former creations fall behind. I make a note on my tablet to look into it. I wave Evan to stand closer to me and Chavez suddenly disappears. For a split second after his departure, my signature watermark hangs in the air like smoke: DESIGNED EXCLUSIVELY FOR VEGETALE MARKET BY MIA DEZHNYOV.
“Check this out.” Evan hits a button on his wristwatch and the hologram opens his mouth, leaning his face upward. I have to get on my tippy-toes in order to inspect him as a dentist might. I am shorter than “the average person” Evan designed for; in other words, I am not one of Cohn’s male customers that he planned for. Given his own height, he should know better.
“Oh, oops.” Evan plays around with his watch until his hologram gazes down at me.
The hologram’s open mouth exposes a few missing teeth and one gold tooth. His face is dirt-lined, wrinkled, and sunburnt.
“Well, here’s the thing.” Evan lowers his deep, bass voice. “It’s not makeup.”
Evan whispers, “He’s unhoused. It’s part of the client’s social corporate responsibility campaign. All the actors were picked up off the street.”
“What?!” My jaw drops. My tablet slips out of my hands, falling onto the floor. My head is spinning. And I just examined him, inspecting his teeth the way a slave owner might have. I pick up my tablet. Before I can process the ethical implications of all this, Evan hits a button on his watch, and his hologram moves closer to me.
“Would you like to ask me some questions about my experiences as a miner during the Gold Rush?” His smoker’s voice is clear, a fresh recording, much higher quality than my holographic Chavez. He pauses, smiling, blinking unnaturally.
My desire to break him, to break both Evan’s latest prototype and Evan’s ego, increases. I answer the hologram, “Sure.”
But the hologram doesn’t hear me.
“Sure,” I say again, a little louder.
Evan furrows his eyebrows and glares down at his watch. “Wait, I’m not sure why—”
This happens all the time, especially with male engineers. It’s the kind of mistake that appeared in my grandfather’s prototypes. I roll my eyes. Lowering my voice register from soprano to baritone, I say again, “Sure.”
“Great.” The hologram suddenly looks in my direction, staring at my forehead, and begins moving more naturally again.
I look at Evan. “Speech Recognition Software 101: design for all voice registers, not just your own.”
Evan gazes down at his watch, tapping it as though taking notes. He shakes his head and mutters, “I knew you’d be the perfect person to test him on. You always did better in those classes than me.”
“What are your questions?” the hologram asks me.
The truth is, yes, I have genuine questions for a gold miner, which Evan has probably already intuited. What inspired me to work as a holographic programmer in the first place was an intense curiosity, a desire to communicate with the ghosts of the past. But this isn’t a ghost; this is a machine with the face of an actor—an unhoused actor—re-enacting the past. His script might have as much historical insight as a Gold Rush expert, or even a re-enactor, but he won’t know what it felt like to be there. My instinct is always, how can I fool this machine? What can I ask about that it won’t have an answer for? When a possibility comes to mind, I grin. Let the fun begin.
“What do you smell like?” I ask the holographic man in a lower register so he’ll understand me.
The hologram pauses, taking in my question, struggling to load, to find an answer. Engineers such as Evan train these holograms to recognize certain keywords and synthesize them with the client’s pre-authorized brand bible. But sometimes customers ask questions that don’t quite align with the messaging the clients want to give them. Just when I think I’ve stumped him, the hologram answers, “Wet soil, urine, tobacco, buckwheat, and B.O.”
“Wow,” I say to Evan, “you did your research when designing this one.”
He blushes. “Thanks, Mia.” He clicks a button on his watch and the hologram takes a little bow toward me. As he struggles to get the hologram to stand upright again, he says, “Remember in college how everyone was always modeling their senior projects after those lame concerts? Tupac at Coachella. Elvis Presley singing with Céline Dion. While you … you were spending every day at the Shoah Foundation studying Spielberg’s thirty-five-year-old recordings of Holocaust survivors. You took the work seriously from the start.” The hologram finally stands up straight again. “I’d love to share the roll-out plan with you over dinner—”
“But no one would ever really say that in a conversation, would they?” I interrupt him. “Imagine just coming out and saying to someone that you stink. And surely, the client doesn’t want anyone to think their jeans might stink either. If I had written it, I would have said, ‘None of your damn business.’ But then again, I’m sure that’s not in their brand bible and I’m not writing for this client.”
When I take too long in asking another question, the hologram dives into monologue. “I’m just another argonaut in search of El Dorado . . .” As the hologram talks, he takes out a small leather envelope from his pants pocket. He extracts a wrinkled, dirty piece of holographic paper and places it on his open-faced palm. Then he pinches out pieces of tobacco onto the paper. He starts rolling a cigarette, licking the seams shut. Then he takes out a cast iron box of matches with old, saloon style typeface that says, “SELF-CLOSING.”
My breath stops. I recognize that oddly specific prop. My grandfather bought it at an antique sale for me when I was in college, two decades ago. The store owner told us that they were used during the Civil War. The timing was perfect. My grandfather said that we could use it for my first hologram. I interrupt the hologram’s monologue. I say in my deep voice, “Who gave you those matches?”
The hologram pauses almost as though reloading. “Well, these here matches I bought from a peddler in Chinatown—”
The whole situation is copyright violation at worst, actual artificial intelligence at best.
“Evan,” I say in my normal voice, “Where did you see those matches?”
He looks away from me, down at his watch. “I-I must’ve just Googled them.”
I walk toward him until I’ve stepped through the talking hologram, and I am standing just a foot away from Evan. He backs away from me, step by step. When he gets too close to the ears of corn, a holographic Ohlone family appears pointing accusingly at a pale holographic Spanish missionary who kidnapped the holographic Indigenous child trembling beside him. We continue this odd tango, me forward, Evan and his hologram backward, until we have passed the corn and my display holograms disappear and my watermark appears in a puff of fake smoke. I stare at him until he meets my eyes.
“Okay, okay,” he says. “You know, your work influences me. It’s not ‘plagiarism’”—he uses air quotes—“or anything like that. I just saw it on one of your old holograms in North Beach recently.”
“One of mine?”
“It must’ve been yours. It had the watermark to prove it.”
“No, that’s impossible.” Once I signed my contract with Vegetale Market five years ago, all of my older designs were put out of commission, that was one of their stipulations: exclusivity.
“Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to steal your idea. I-I was just using him as inspiration.”
My first hologram, my senior thesis in college. I didn’t know any professional actors then, so I got my grandfather to act in the role assigned to me by my professor at random: an elderly nineteenth-century doctor. I knew my grandfather’s health was fading, and I wanted to create a hologram so that I could remember him forever, preserve his image before the end of his life. I recorded him just a year before his death. Either someone is operating the hologram illegally or he’s gone rogue. The former is sleezy but probable, the latter is highly unlikely but enough to pique my interest. The whole situation is copyright violation at worst, actual artificial intelligence at best. “Show me,” I tell Evan.
He switches off his holographic goldminer. His watermark—his name dancing from side to side—dangles in the air for a moment before disappearing. He smiles. “Sure. My car’s downstairs.”
I take off my apron, and we hustle down the stairs into the Vegetale Market garage. Evan hits a button on his phone and a self-driving gray Electride approaches us, lights on. Touching his watch, he unlocks and opens the front driver’s side door and the front passenger’s side door, which flap upward as wing doors. We quickly get inside. I move an empty bottle of kombucha off my seat and sit down, the doors closing automatically behind us. The car smells like green onions. He plugs the destination into the car’s navigation system and we are off, a fifteen-minute drive to North Beach. As I neatly fold my apron and place it in my back pocket, he turns on a “Dope Beats” playlist and the car rattles and shakes with each bass note. For a moment, I wonder if he has been lying to me and this was just some excuse to get me in his car with him. Around us are half-empty self-driving electric vehicles with drivers watching music videos and movies on the screens in front of them. Ash the size of snowflakes from a nearby fire slowly rains down onto the car. I watch the families in Halloween costumes walking on the sidewalk, wearing gas masks and respirators.
“I have a spare mask in the glove compartment.” He opens the compartment in front of me.
“Thanks.” I take out the translucent respirator with clear safety goggles attached.
The car drives to Stockton Street, getting caught in traffic in front of the subway station. Near the entrance, an entire holographic theater is on display. Holographic actors dressed as Jack London and Mark Twain talk to a family wearing respirators and I ♥ SF sweatshirts. The holograms look totally unaffected by the soot surrounding them. Twain’s white hair, white mustache, and white three-piece suit are so clean and bright that they are nearly blinding. I bet that keeps the neighbors up at night. This subway station has become an amusement park ride. I shift in my seat, uncomfortable. Every time I see them, I think: We are in Chinatown, in the Rose Pak Station. The new Bay Transit Authority couldn’t find a single Asian-American historical figure to feature here? Why does every station have the same holograms? These were the victors of history, the ones we already remember. When the family walks inside the station, the holograms disappear, replaced by the watermark DESIGNED EXCLUSIVELY FOR BTA BY WHITE & BUCHANAN, LLC. Unlike my watermark, the name doesn’t disappear in a puff of smoke. Instead, the name glows hotter and then dulls to a branding or burn mark before disappearing.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get the BTA deal. You deserved it. And hey, you were a finalist, right?” Evan asks me.
I nod. I had proposed that we interview elderly, living legends, before their deaths. We could feature a different figure at each station, who held historical significance for that neighborhood, to preserve their legacies. “Did you bid on it?” I ask him.
He chuckles. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure everyone we went to school with did.”
“What was your concept?” I ask him.
“Hippies”—he spreads his hands out like fans in front of him—“everywhere.” He rests his hands in his lap. “My great-grandparents were Deadheads. I wanted to dress up a bunch of actors in their old tie-dye. I didn’t make it to the second round. BTA said they wanted a cleaner image. They also said it was too broad; it wasn’t character-driven enough.” He pauses. “You know,” his tone changes to one of anger, resentment, “the greatest thing that differentiates holographic theater from real life is the belief that characters can actually drive their own stories, that they have some control.”
Ash the size of snowflakes from a nearby fire slowly rains down onto the car.
He has a point. Most of the time, we are mere observers, passive participants, figments of our circumstances and environment, pushed around by the waves of social context and history and the whims of powerful systems, not even individuals. We’re getting shuttled around in this Electride right now. That’s why when we tell stories, we capture moments where people acted of their own accord. In real life, Evan and I get rejected from one opportunity to the next, only to be accepted by one random client and that changes the course of our lives. Events happen to us beyond our control all the time in reality. I may not have even started creating holograms had it not been my grandfather’s job. He’d been a famous holographic designer. Had I not been exposed to equipment at an early age and received my family’s constant encouragement and extracurricular training, how would I have ever broken into this field? I always felt a responsibility to live up to my grandfather’s desire that I create a strong family legacy in this industry. Despite a tough exterior, I’m not a brave person. I’m an opinionated perfectionist, but I never set out on my own path, separate from my family. I like making clients happy. Being in control, making a decision is so rare. For any of us. Evan isn’t even driving his own car.
The traffic starts to dissipate, and the car turns right and then left. When the car finally slows at Broadway and Grant, we put on our masks and get out. The car will continue to circle the block until it finds parking or until we leave, whichever comes first. This afternoon, I hear at least ten different muffled languages on the street. Before the placement of holograms around the city, I was used to seeing a mixture of suits and slobs, techies and unhoused people, but this is different. Rounding the corner onto Columbus Ave., four holographic men in old Air Force uniforms talk to a holographic racehorse jockey in uniform carrying a whip. Ashes float through them. Their fresh and immaculate costumes remain unblemished. Outside City Lights, a holographic Lawrence Ferlinghetti is reading his poetry aloud. I had envisioned poetry readings by Tongo Eisen-Martin, Liala Zaray, and Thea Matthews for the BTA. Most had already died since the original pitch, so in a sense, I had lost on two fronts. I had lost to time, and BTA told me it was too expensive. The director wanted one mass, homogenous, clean distribution plan; one blazing-white portrait of the city; a San Francisco Disneyland. None of it made any sense, especially not for this city.
Evan points to me that we have to cross the street. “I saw him over there.” His voice sounds a little faint with his respirator on. We walk toward the Condor Club and Big Al’s. I watch Evan’s self-driving Electride continue to drive itself around the block in search of parking. For a moment, I wonder if my old holographic doctor is inside the strip club. I feel a sudden jolt of hope that perhaps my first hologram has become cognizant, and he’s just out having a good time. Once we arrive in front of the club, a swarm of holographic women in flapper dresses spill out of the taqueria next to the strip club. A man in green fatigues, who isn’t wearing a gas mask, walks behind them. His hair is greased back, and a cigarette balances behind his ear. The women adjust their movements so that he can get past, which makes me think that he is also a hologram until he bumps into me, and I realize that he is real. He resembles someone straight out of the fifties. It’s just a good Halloween costume, a strong performance of the past. He mutters, “¡Perdone!” and continues shuffling through the crowd of holograms and tourists ahead of me. I realize that the flappers reacted to his presence, they readjusted their movement so that he wouldn’t walk right through them. I’ve never seen holograms with such accurate spatial awareness before. The machines are always a little off. The flappers walk up the hill on Grant Ave. toward Caffe Trieste. I’ve heard of new technology that allows some holograms to have real-time reactions to the scenes around them, holograms triggered by real people and holograms that can trigger the actions of other holograms, but I haven’t observed them in person. North Beach seems to have become the new testing ground for these prototypes.
A holographic woman suddenly faints on the sidewalk in front of us, in front of the windows of the Condor Club. The woman’s hoop skirt reaches toward the sky, exposing white bloomers to everyone who passes. She appears trapped in her caged crinoline. Who would program her to act this way? I’m so sick of male engineers programming another damsel in distress. Or is she just acting, staying in character, genuinely reacting, as a woman from the late nineteenth century might, to a late twenty-first-century strip club? Several real topless tattooed dancers inside come out to catch what’s going on with the latest holographic installation. One of them hastily puts on a mask, but most of them don’t.
Perhaps triggered by the scream, a holographic horse-drawn ambulance cart drives by, and Evan’s real self-driving car, unsure if the cart is real or projected, swerves past it to avoid crashing into it. A holographic man—my grandfather—wearing a bowler hat and a long white coat gets out of the cart. It’s strange to discover him moving around in character after all of these years. For some reason at the sight of him, I have a sudden memory of his smell: Marlboro cigarettes and oranges. He loved both. My mind is playing with me. I pinch myself. Focus. A small leather case in hand, he runs over to the woman.
“Doctor!” I call out to him, waving my arms in front of his face, testing to find out how responsive the hologram will be, how accurate his facial recognition and spatial awareness will be. Has his code been altered by someone else? Is it true? Has he started running on his own, without human intervention? Am I looking at the first sentient hologram? Is he aware of who he is? My grandfather made millions creating the most realistic, cutting-edge holograms; he was an expert who trained other experts, and me. His legacy became my inheritance. I’ve always felt a duty to preserve the past and present for the future. In a moment of pure desperation, a desire deep inside of me erupts, and I shout, “Grandpa!”
Most of the time, we are mere observers, passive participants, figments of our circumstances and environment.
He completely ignores me, tending to the patient in front of him. I feel immobilized. All I can do is watch. On the sidewalk in front of the Condor Club, the holographic doctor takes out a small glass bottle with a corkscrew and a large injection needle from his leather bag. His image is hazy and slightly blurred compared to other holograms today, because of the old technology I’d originally used to record him, but he’s still there. I’m not the only one who is beginning to confuse the imagined past with present reality. His reaction and treatment seem drastic, unnecessary, and cruel given that the holographic woman merely fainted. But the scene also feels uncomfortably real. In college, I’d researched his character meticulously, and he hasn’t failed me in his veracity. Yes, yes, this is what a doctor would have done to a woman back then. One patient testimony I read had compared them to butchers treating patients as pieces of meat. I had wanted to show the truth. Perhaps that’s why at the time he had been so unpopular, and why, ultimately, I didn’t get the BTA deal. Yeah, Evan is right: All of my classmates at USC designed their work to reproduce dead celebrities. I’m tired of holographic designers excusing their work as nostalgia so they can lie about history. At least Spielberg’s holographic theater hadn’t been for the famous; it was for the victims of genocide, so we wouldn’t forget their stories. Long after his death, his work convinced me at an early age that we should be exposing people to what the past was really like, to remind people today that we should behave differently. The holographic doctor aims the needle toward the woman in the hoop skirt.
“Stop! Stop!” one of the maskless exotic dancers attempts to pull back his shoulder, intervene, stop him from touching the woman in the hoop skirt who has fainted, forgetting for a moment that none of this is real. The real woman’s hand just slips through the hologram’s body.
The holographic doctor in the bowler hat throws his hands up in the air. “Well, it’s either this or we try laudanum!” My grandfather’s voice sounds tinny, far away. I can hear traces of his Russian accent, his souvenir from fleeing the Soviet Union with his parents as a teenager in the late nineteen eighties, over eighty years ago. I remember filming him. It feels simultaneously far and close, stale and fresh. I recorded him twenty years ago, but it also feels as though it happened a day ago. I look around trying to locate the source of the light, trying to identify from where he and the cart are being projected.
Then the dancer yells at him, “Don’t move her! Don’t touch her! Leave her alone!” Tears stream from her eyes, and I can’t tell if it’s from the smoke.
The other dancers attempt to shoo the holographic doctor away from the unconscious holographic woman. The doctor finally gives up, snapping his leather bag shut. He stands up and lights a cigarette, using a match from the self-closing box. Evan points at it. Then he gets back into the horse-drawn cart, which, although not made of any real materials, remains stuck in the traffic jam that is now taking over the entirety of Columbus Ave. For a second, I wonder if he’ll go to the hospital to share his knowledge of archaic treatments with patients in the waiting room, but then I identify the stream of light coming from an open window in the building across the street. I realize that he’s not going anywhere. I point up to the top floor of the apartment building across the street, and Evan gawks at the building. The window is three stories above the New Sun Hong Kong Restaurant. Suddenly, the projection of the doctor and the horse-drawn ambulance cart switch off and they disappear, my watermark appearing. The window slams shut. Someone is inside, manually projecting my old design without my permission.
I run across the street toward the restaurant. I hear Evan’s footsteps running after me. On the right-hand side of the building, there is a small doorway with a pale blue and white neon sign overhead that says HOTEL. I open the door and see an old woman without a mask standing behind the counter.
She looks up. “Can I help you?” The woman flickers, and I realize that she is a hologram as well, working as the front desk attendant of this hotel. I run up the stairs. “Hey, wait! Stop!” she yells after me, but there is nothing she can do.
I run up the first flight of stairs, then the next, then the last. Out of breath, I stupidly take off my gas mask only to find it even more difficult to breathe, dust particles scattered around me. The smell of crab wafts into the hallway from the restaurant downstairs. I hear Evan below, trying to reassure the hologram at the front desk and then making his way more slowly up each creaking step. Gasping, my lungs filled with dust and ash particles leaking through the old windowsills, I stare at the hallway ahead. I feel dizzy, disoriented. I try to gauge my direction. Which of these rooms would have a window facing the street? The rooms to my left. I start with the first door. I try turning the handle, which is locked, of course, and then knocking loudly. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
When no one answers, I go to the next room, knocking loudly on the door. I’ve tried every door in the hall by the time that Evan has reached the top of the stairs. He takes off his mask, and I hear him panting as well. He bends over, placing his hands on his knees. An old man and a woman across the hall open their doors, peaking their heads into the hallway.
“Hologram?” I ask them. “Are you running a hologram? Do you know anyone running a hologram on this floor? Is there any other way to get out of the building from here?” I wonder if the projectionist has already snuck out on a fire escape without me knowing.
The guests look at me confused, and I try to look past the old man into his room, to see if I can spot any projection machines. I realize that this SRO hotel is his home. Evan begins to apologize to the two people in the hall in Mandarin. I spot a door at the end of the hall suddenly open, but no one comes out. The door just opens a crack and stays there as though someone has opened it for me to come inside, to follow them.
“Mia!” Evan calls after me. “Hold on!”
I push the door further open and walk over the threshold. I discover an old Yamaha digital desk in one corner of the small studio. An LED projector and a Cisco Telepresence speaker system stand next to one of the closed windows. I hear the door shut behind me, and I quickly turn around. Evan stands in front of the door, smiling. A lamp suddenly turns on, revealing an older man in a hoodie sitting in an armchair. “Thanks for your help, Evan. Welcome, Mia. Why don’t you take a seat?”
I don’t move. “What’s going on, Evan?”
“All I want is a conversation,” the man in the chair says.
For a moment, I wonder if I’m speaking to the CEO of Cohn’s, but I don’t recognize him. He seems older, with wrinkled hands. He holds his hands together and tents his fingers, touching them to his lips, waiting.
“Sorry for the smoke and mirrors. Just hear him out,” Evan says behind me. “This is a great opportunity.”
The man in the chair motions for me to sit on the edge of the bed near him. I don’t move.
The man clears his throat. “I apologize that I had to lure you out here with one of your old designs, but we needed to get your attention, quickly, and we wanted to meet in private, on neutral ground. This is strictly confidential, and I know that your current employer wouldn’t be thrilled with our meeting.”
“Who are you?”
“Phil Elystan. I’m the Chief Innovation Officer for Envirtual.”
Folding my arms across my chest, I lean against the wall, finally catching my breath. So he works for the largest virtual and augmented reality company in the U.S. With every passing second, I feel more disappointed. “What do you want, Phil?”
“We want you to come work for us.”
“That’s impossible, I’m under—”
“On the down low, of course. Not ‘officially,’ just in spirit. A ghostwriter of sorts. We know you’re under contract. Think of the role as a kind of anonymous advisor. Evan would be more than happy to serve as the front man. Isn’t that right, Evan?”
I quickly turn to look at Evan. When our eyes meet, he wipes the grin off his face.
“We want to build a virtual theme park,” Phil continues, “and we want you to design it.”
“A theme park?”
He looks out the window for a moment. “Not so different from what you saw today in the street.”
“I’m not interested in building a San Francisco Disneyland.”
“No.” Phil shakes his head. “This is a VR space that anyone can access from anywhere, where the past comes alive, but specifically, where you can visit the people that you love who have passed on.”
“Sounds like a cemetery.”
Evan chuckles. “What did I tell you?” he says to the man in the chair. “She’s the best.”
“It’s a VR cemetery?” I ask.
“It’s a full-service memory database,” Phil clarifies. “We complete digital scans and interviews while people are alive and then we store them along with all of their social media content, for a small price compared to their value, so that their relatives can come visit them anytime they like using our headsets. We create an AI chatbot that imitates the voice of each subject so that visitors can enjoy brief conversations. Isn’t that what drew you here? To see you grandfather? To interact with him one last time?”
“How did you—?”
“USC’s library archives keeps all of their students’ theses on file, and our facial recognition software spotted him right away. We have access to all of your old designs in fact. Evan here is a bit smarter than he looks and a decent systems hacker. Think about what it meant to you to see him again, to imagine interacting with him again. Wasn’t it powerful? Now monetize that sensation.”
What a manipulative leech. I turn away from him and begin walking toward the door.
I hear Phil tapping the Yamaha digital desk. My grandfather’s voice resonates in the speakers. “Mia,” he says.
I realize that Phil is plugging in a new script, modifying my old design.
“We’re all haunted by the past,” my grandfather’s voice says.
Phil pauses and watches me. “Think about the implications. This technology could be used in therapy, recovery. It could heal so many people tormented by time.”
It sounds more like he wants to torment people for his own benefit rather than heal them. I ignore him. “Thanks for the introduction, Evan.” Now that I know who he’s really been working for, it doesn’t surprise me at all that he’d take advantage of an unhoused person, manipulating him for his own gain.
Evan blocks my path, leaning his body against the door behind him.
Phil adds, “You’ll do what we ask or we’ll delete the original.”
I spin around and look at Phil. “You’ll what?”
“Isn’t that what drew you here? To see your grandfather? To interact with him one last time?”
“We’ll delete the original recording, erase him from the digital present. One less memory of your grandfather preserved. Gone. And then we’ll delete the others, your originals, your legacy. Everything you’ve ever worked toward, we’ll destroy it. With your body of work, you were probably hoping to donate it to a library one day. Well, we won’t stop coming after you until you do as you’re told.”
Evan puts his sweaty hand on my arm. “Mia, he’s serious.” He lowers his voice, “Look, I’m sorry, but don’t mess around with these guys.” I notice the hair on Evan’s arm is standing up, covered in dust. I wonder for a moment if they’ve threatened him as well to get to me. I get the sense they didn’t give him any choice.
I turn around and walk toward the table, listening to my grandfather’s voice as he recites his lines, the ones that I wrote for him. His performance was our sole collaboration. I gaze at a miniature model of his projection on the table in front of me. There was a version of me in the past, perhaps at the time when I filmed my grandfather, who would have listened to Phil’s offer and even accepted it, a version that was trained to be good and follow instructions and just took for granted that powerful men ran everything, and I would always be a pawn in their schemes. The lone woman breaking the curve on tests. The lone woman in pitch meetings. Now the lone woman designing an entire VR theme park. Isn’t that a type of victory? It’s being rewarded for going with the flow, the march of time, disguised as making a decision, driving an action.
Outside the window, I spot the sex workers across the street, walking back inside the strip club, putting their arms around each other. There is also a part of me, long buried, deeper down, a wild, undomesticated self that wasn’t trained, a self that was bossy, opinionated, and furiously clung to anything I could control in an uncontrollable world. This side of me is always eager to burn it all down. No, I don’t want to be remembered as the woman who played the game, who bent under pressure to a bunch of wealthy tech bros, who designed a cemetery theme park that made bank off of peoples’ mourning.
I place my fingertips on the table. My hands feel cold and numb. I can’t imagine losing him, again. There are so many things that I want to tell him about my career, about how technology has developed and changed since he’s been gone. I swivel his image to the left then the right. How strange that I can modify him now, play God in this position. My grandfather doesn’t belong here. He shouldn’t have to live on this table. I swallow, hard. In fact, he doesn’t live on this table at all. He lives on in my memories, which belong solely to me. I place my hand at the top right corner of the digital table and look up into Phil’s grinning face. I click “Delete.”
Thaïs Miller is the author of the novel Our Machinery (2008) and the short story collection The Subconscious Mutiny and Other Stories (2009). She is a Ph.D. candidate in literature, pursuing a creative/critical writing concentration, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she also teaches creative writing and literature.
Lead illustration by Tasnuva Elahi, with images from Dvo, Channarong Pherngjanda, and Sensvector / Shutterstock.