This story is by Amy Lynn Hardy and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Samerah!” Gigi called through the house. “Samerah!”
Oh boy. Hastily, Samerah clicked ‘end session’ in the virtual field in front of her, blinking off her SmartLens.
“Coming!” she shouted and scooted off her bed, padding through the hallway towards her great-grandmother’s voice. Gigi and technology—what would she need this time? Grinning, Samerah entered the living room to Gigi frenziedly waving her hands in the space before her.
“What’s wrong, Gigi?”
“I can’t seem to… oh jeeze… I was just reading on here, and somehow, ugh, I jumped ahead. Now I can’t go back or find my home screen.”
“Remember,” Samerah started, “with a page jump, close your eyes and state the desired page number. To turn one page, you move your eyes from right to left once…”
“That’s what I did!”
“In order to access your home screen,” Samerah continued, “just look down and say ‘return to home screen.’”
Gigi would never fully understand this technology, and, although Samerah had tried to talk her great-grandmother out of getting the SmartLens attached to her corneas, Gigi still went ahead with the procedure anyway.
Let me see what all the fuss is about, too! she’d stammered.
In spite of the frustration the SmartLens caused, Samerah sympathized with her great-grandmother. It must be hard to be ninety years old and have to adapt to things like mandatory chipping and SmartLens technology. For younger people, it was customary. For Gigi’s generation: complicated—even if the entire planet now implemented it.
“Return to home screen,” Gigi grumbled, making a clumsy tapping motion in the air. “I suppose I’ll just read a real book then.”
A paper book, Samerah laughed inwardly and kissed Gigi’s forehead, “I have class in a minute. I gotta go.”
She returned to her bedroom, plopped down at her SmartTable and blinked twice.
“Access NYU: Cultural Anthropology 201, Professor Gültekin.”
The system scanned her retina before opening the virtual door to her seminar. Her avatar entered and took a seat at her reserved spot. With a glance around, she observed other classmates’ avatars dropping in as well. She connected her sound chip to the audio and opened her note-taking software. A virtual pen and paper appeared before her.
Dr. Gültekin’s avatar beamed in, greeted them, and commenced his lecture on The Great Digitalization of the 2020’s, which he claimed was catalyzed by the COVID-19 Pandemic.
First it was Zoom conferences, then virtual classrooms, then more and more AR: augmented reality. Nowadays, essentially everything was AR, facilitated by the SmartLens.
It must have been so strange though, acclimating to the rapidly evolving technology back then. Gigi was twenty when COVID hit. How bizarre, everything she must’ve watched turn obsolete and disappear in her lifetime: newspapers, microwaves, receptionists. In moments of desperation, Gigi labeled digitalization ‘the great tragedy.’
Tragedy… or fortune? Samerah sighed. Technology had served as the world’s saving grace, right?
Later, whilst heating her evening meal, Samerah glanced out the window, immediately doing a double take and gasping.
“Gigi,” she called. “Gigi!”
The tap of her cane and measured footsteps preceded her. “What’s wrong, bubula?”
“Look out the window. Is that…?”
Gigi squinted into the darkness, a smile curling up her lips. “Snow.”
“Hasn’t it been, like, fifty years?”
It never snowed in New York anymore. Hell, it rarely went below forty degrees. Nowadays all the precipitation they got was acid rain and a recommendation to stay indoors.
“We have to celebrate,” Samerah exclaimed. “Let’s make a virtual campfire. I have the nature simulator app—”
Gigi’s laugh rang out across the kitchen.
“What?” Samerah’s brow knitted.
“Goodness child, we can make a real fire in our fireplace. That’s what it’s for, after all.”
“But… isn’t a simulated fire just as good? Or better? No smoke or ash or dirt. Plus: ARCaDE.”
The Act to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions of 2055 gave them regulations to live by. They were allowed to make a fire, but the neighbors’ dirty looks the next day were enough to deter Samerah’s actions. And the simulated fire was so beautiful: could glow different colors, sparkle, be any size they wanted, or anywhere they wanted…
“Just this once,” Gigi winked. “Old world style.”
“But before you do anything else, bubula, get your tuchus outside and catch some snowflakes!”
The trees swayed in sync with the flurries, silently accumulating snow.
“Take video,” Samerah commanded, and her SmartLens began recording. She listened to the peaceful rustle surrounding her. The air smelled different, too: damp, fresh, like… pine needles. When snowflakes landed on her face, she shivered and burst into laughter.
Cold. Wet. Exhilarating. What a joyful sensation!
“End video and upload to cloud.”
She gathered a bucket of dried logs from the garage and hauled them back into the house, where Gigi was rummaging through artifacts from her ‘chest of memories,’ as she called it.
“Matches,” she said, striking one against the package. It illuminated the room. Gradually, a fire surged to life, flames dancing in their eyes.
“Better than a simulation?”
The warmth caressed Samerah’s skin. “Different.”
“I want to show you something,” Gigi said, pulling out a small box.
Samerah opened it. Inside were photographs—actual printed ones. With a quizzical expression, she shuffled through them: marble columns, amphitheaters, temples with slanted roofs, snow-capped mountains. Interesting. Nobody traveled anymore because it wasn’t necessary. Gigi was amongst the last generation who really did so—a living travelogue, perhaps—but Samerah rarely asked about her adventures, mostly because she’d already experienced them herself in augmented reality.
“Gigi, I’ve seen these places, too…”
“Perhaps, but have you ever stroked the rough hide of an elephant? Or dipped your toes into the Sea of Japan? Or made s’mores around a campfire in Yellowstone?”
Samerah bit her lip. No, but her class had gone on a virtual safari in Botswana and learned the history of the Shogun Empire through reality composing software. That counted, right? Why would she need to actually travel if she had planetary access with three blinks and a download? And what were s’mores?
“Is it really that different, Gigi?”
“Oh, undeniably.” Shadows danced across Gigi’s wizened face as she rustled in the chest and pulled out two more items. “Try this on.”
Samerah reached for the object and rotated it in her fingers. “I thought… I mean, didn’t the government confiscate all the metals—”
“Bubula,” Gigi exhaled, “there are some belongings a person should never part with, whether necessary for the greater good of technology or not. My wedding ring is one of those such things.”
Samerah nodded and slipped it onto her finger, admiring how the gold and diamond glimmered in the flames. People didn’t exchange wedding rings anymore; in fact, the whole institution of marriage was considered passé. Nowadays people paired up based on genome and pheromone testing. In her anthropology classes they debated the archaic notions of marriage and monogamy. Some people still went through with it, but it was all so… outdated. Nevertheless, picturing Gigi falling in love without knowing whether Gipa’s genes were suitable for hers pulled on Samerah’s heartstrings.
How frivolous! How rash! How… wonderfully, inimitably human.
In secret moments, she also dreamt about falling in love or being swept off her feet, regardless of physiological compatibility. Were there others out there imagining the same?
“The ring suits you,” Gigi said, beaming. “Lovely!”
“Thanks,” Samerah mumbled, embarrassed that she agreed.
“Now, there’s one more thing. I know you’ve learned about the extinction of bees—poor creatures never stood a chance against all those signals in the air—and I know they’ve been replaced by those ridiculous Smartbot bees, but,” Gigi’s face distorted into a melancholic expression, “robot bees cannot make this.”
Taking her eyes off of the jewel, Samerah studied the jar in her great-grandmother’s hand.
“Honey? Real honey? You saved it all these years?”
“Try it, bubala.”
“It’s still edible?”
“Funny thing: honey never expires.”
Gingerly, skeptically, Samerah took the jar, and with a twist, it opened. She dipped her finger into the viscous, golden syrup and tasted it. Its flavor flowed along her tongue, diluted by a rush of saliva, sending a wave of sweet, liquid warmth through her body. In it she could almost perceive the brilliant wildflowers and their bursts of color, the honeycomb, the bees she’d read about who’d tirelessly carried pollen back to their hives.
Was this like dipping her toes into the Sea of Japan?
Samerah found herself lost in the flames, unexpectedly saddened by the snow and ring and honey and the beautiful planet she would never truly know, scattered around her in a pile of photographs. In a fingertip of honey, she’d tasted the sweet mourning of this lost world, imperfect as it may have been.
Tragedy, she thought for the first time. Tragedy.
And against the flickering light, she saw her great-grandmother as a young woman, a relic of that world, much like the bees, the snowflakes: a delicate, disappearing species.