Home Hardware & Rentals

By Zeb Carter

sfgenreJon sighed deeply, rolled up the holofilm. No matter how he tried, scrolling backwards and here and there and expanding the print, reading the daily newscast was just too hard. He felt a light touch on his shoulder; a kind voice said: “Jon, you've put up with this for long enough.” Jean, his wife of forty years, took a long breath. “I think it's time we made another trip to Home Hardware and Rentals.”

Jon twisted a little on the wooden kitchen chair, peered up at his wife, her edges blurred. “But Jean, we can't afford any more — ”

Jean cut him off. “Jon, I've been putting a little aside each week too.” More firmly, she said, “There's no point saving for a rainy day if you can't live in the meantime.”Face set, she untied her apron and messaged for an auto-cab from the kitchen infopanel.

***

Not twenty minutes later, Jean steered her husband into the local Home Hardware and Rentals showroom. Never before had the adage 'something for everyone' been more appropriate. There were rat-catchers that looked like cats, meowed like cats, and purred when patted just as cats would, but underneath the synthofur, they were cogs, wires, and microcircuits. Nearby, robobutlers demonstrated their cleaning and cooking prowess, and a robohandy crafted a beautiful kitchen table, its chisel fingers a blur.

The smell of the wood shavings caused Jon to linger. He'd enjoyed carpentry when he was younger, his fingers steadier. He couldn't even follow a pencil line now. But who knows, he wondered, perhaps after his eyes were fixed?

Jean seemed to read his thoughts, squeezed his hand gently. “If we get a move on, the Body Shop might be able to get you in before lunch. Then, when we get home, you might even feel like pottering around the shed while I fix something nice for us to eat.”

Jon grunted, but only half-heartedly. The Body Shop hall seemed more like a chop shop. All around were new, mostly disconnected body parts. There were plastic lungs and hearts breathing and pumping on their own; various hip (two of which he had already), shoulder, knee and finger joints, gleaming with titanium and ceramo-alloy reflections; while others were remarkably life-like, if not more so: “It will go all night,” the holo-blurb said, “and take you and your partner along for the ride!” Jon squinted, leaned closer.

“One of our most popular products,” announced a hovering voice behind Jon. “Want to feel like you're eighteen again?”

Jean unconsciously straightened her blouse with the appearance of the young clean-cut salesman, an actual real person, whose sharply pressed green suit had an almost military cut and style.

Jon coughed, gestured in the direction of the new blur. “No, but I could use a pair of new eyes. You see, I have a disease — ”

The salesman cut him off. Beaming at the prospect of his next commission, he almost barked, “Step over here, sir,” and taking Jon by the arm, pointed to rows of different eyes, some with special features, such as x-ray vision and zoom lenses: “You can see the craters on the moon with those,” said the salesman, “and for a small extra charge, take pictures as well.”

“Just a standard set, thank you...in grey, if that is not too much to ask.”

“Very good, sir. Now, while one of our demonstrator robobutlers escorts you to a work-booth, I'll be happy to discuss payment options with your lovely wife.” He glanced at his work-pad, tapped it busily. Jon and Jean's personal and financial details automatically downloaded and flowed across the screen, their life condensed to a fast flowing digital stream. Then, to Jean, “Jon should be ready in about twenty minutes, so we need to get cracking on the rental plan.”

***

As Jean soon learned, the cost of rental over the initial provisional five-year plan was significantly more expensive than buying the eyes outright, but who nowadays could afford that sort of money up front? The salesman certainly knew they couldn't.

Jean watched with glazed eyes as the fine print of the terms and conditions rushed across the screen, then pressed her thumb against the work-pad. She barely noticed the prick as a droplet of blood was taken, tagged, her DNA scanned.

***

Jon’s new eyes took some getting used to. The data-inputs from the cyborg devices did not — could not — of course, exactly match their natural organic counterparts. The result was that, at first, images tended to take on a cheap arcade-game quality. Had Jon not possessed vision prior to the implants, he would not have known the difference. But with a lifetime of visual memories laid up in his brain, it took the occipital lobe of his cortex some time to make the necessary adjustments as new cortical algorithms took form, smoothing the new inputs to better match existing memories. As marvellous as the new eyes were — and they did look completely natural — it was Jon's brain that eventually gave him back the vision he was used to.

More or less, anyway.

While Jean was now indistinguishable from the devoted wife of memory, and he could now enjoy a sunset or a shaft of summer sun blinking through the foliage in his back yard, it seemed there were new, unexpected, inputs.

The first of these occurred the very day that the acclimation process was complete. Jon wasn't sure how they — HH&R — had managed it that way, but it seemed that the new eyes must be maintaining a link with the company that had installed them. Jon had been renewing his acquaintance with the carpentry tools down in the backyard shed, his private getaway from the world. Amidst the rows of work benches, neatly racked tools, various dog-eared calendars and an old-fashioned plasma screen (“it's an antique, Jean — you'll see — be worth quite a bit one day...”) linked to an even older tape player, Jon had been planning his first new project in several years: a sideboard for the kitchen. Jean's few foibles included collecting inexpensive china pieces, and whilst Jon had no interest in them himself, his devoted wife would appreciate the additional display space. And whatever kept her happy in the kitchen could only benefit his stomach! Anyway, he had his shed to retire to and while away his spare hours, strictly without disturbance.

With the plans sketched out on the shed's infopanel, Jon had requested a parts inventory, and the 'panel obligingly listed the necessary wood, screws and finishes, categorised with prices for 'hobby', 'cottage' and 'premium' levels. Premium was never a consideration; but John barely hesitated choosing cottage over hobby. Jean was worth it, and were it not for her prodding, he would not be back in the shed at all. Trouble was, even HH&R's cottage level prices made him wince. There was only one other option — Jon cancelled the HH&R default search setting and allowed the screen to flood with cheaper imports. He figured brand loyalty and purchase credit points only went so far. But just as he began to scan the new listings, the 'panel died. At least, that's what it seemed, until a personal message appeared over it:

Sorry Jon, but this image is not HH&R friendly!

It was bright yellow and somehow appeared to float in three dimensional relief over the screen. As John had never upgraded to one of the newer ThreeD 'panels, this confounded him. Then, when he turned to call for Jean, the message floated with him, unmoving in his field of vision.

“What is it, Jon?” Jean asked from the shed door, still wearing her flour-dusted apron.

“Infopanel's on the fritz, and there's this bloody HH&R message floating in the air!” he bellowed. But fear tinged his anger.

Jean went to the 'panel. “It's fine, Jon, just a list of prices.” Puzzled, she turned to her husband. “What's this floating thing you're talking about?”

But before Jon could reply, the message changed:

Sorry, Jon, but this image is not HH&R friendly!

Please tap the infopanel anywhere to
return to the previous page!

 

Realisation came quickly; thickly and darkly. With an ugly grimace, Jon strode back to the 'panel, thumped the apparently blank screen. Immediately, the original page reappeared with the HH&R prices. Simultaneously, the floating message dissolved from his vision.

“They're trying to tell me what I can look at,” Jon explained.

Jean glanced at the old calendars with their faded models. Instinctively, she placed an arm across her chest. Voice quivering, she said, “But Jon, if they know what you're looking at, does that mean that they're seeing what you're seeing? Or do they just keep tabs on the intranet, and newscasts?”

“I guess I'll find out soon enough,” he replied.

He didn't have to wait long. Two nights later, Jon and Jean were watching the evening newscast when the anchorman announced an important 'breaking news' update. Due to unforeseen circumstances (weren't they always that way, Jon marvelled sourly) involving slumps in the prices of trillions of dollars of offshore assets that had no physical reality, the world stock market had slumped. There was nothing for the mums and dads to worry about, though, the anchorman insisted, as only those local corporations with the greatest investment in these intangibles were affected, of course, and the next screenshot listed them. Jon started to work down the list, but the instant he got to Home Hardware & Rentals, the screen, for him at least, went blank, replaced by

Sorry Jon, but this image is not HH&R friendly!

followed by

Please change the channel on your viewing screen!

 

After complying, Jon explained to Jean what had just happened to him. He added, “I reckon the new c-eyes are linked into all the standard intranet channels.” He patted his wife's arm, consoling her. “It makes sense: for people like me, at least, they couldn't justify the bandwidth to watch every single thing I looked at all day. I'm just not important enough. But when a competitor's page loads on an infopanel, the page identifier automatically activates the warning in my c-eyes. They probably have a list of page identifiers that gets updated to the eyes throughout the day. ” He shrugged. “After all, the eyes would be chipped just like every other consumer product. I'm not a techy, but I reckon it would only take a simple program to scan for competitors’ names and so on.”

“But how does that explain what happened with the newscast just now?” Jean asked.

Patiently, he said, “Well, I reckon if a news item on the 'cast gets a black flag from HH&R — you know, they probably have an AI or perhaps even an actual person watching in real time — they just activate a special warning signal that goes directly to the c-eyes.” He continued gently, as though to a child, “They,” he looked at the ceiling, lifted his palms as though in prayer, “already know what we watch or search for, what we buy and where we go, because our implanted body-chips are linked to just about everything. That's how the front door recognises us and lets us in when we get home, why the toaster works at all, and how the public infopanels recognise us when we go out. It's also how the merchants and salesfolk know what we can afford to buy.”

Jean sighed, pursed her lips. “Of course I know all that, now that you bring it up, but it's so easy to forget it. It happens, but you just don't see it.”

The irony of her last words was not missed. “Well, I have,” Jon answered grimly, “and I'm going to make a complaint. Consumers must still have some rights...” 

***

Three days later, whilst pottering in his shed, and putting the finishing touches on Jean's new sideboard, Jon received a visit from two representatives from Home Hardware & Rentals. Jon was doubly pleased — a final coat of stain, and the sideboard would be ready; plus, it looked as though his recent complaints had not been in vain.

Jon recognised one of the reps straight away — the salesman in the green suit who had sold him the c-eyes. Well, that was an appropriate touch, he thought. Jon scratched his chin: the other rep was a mystery, though, wearing a grey body-smock and carrying a thick briefcase instead of a work-pad.

“Mr Johanson,” said the salesman, his tone formal, “I'm sorry to have to visit you under, ah, such difficult circumstances.”

Jon waved the apology away, relieved that his complaint had been answered. “It's Jon, remember? Well, it's nice to see that you've come out here in person! Not everyone has forgotten the old-fashioned ways.” A half chuckle, “After three days, I was starting to think I'd have to take formal steps — ”

The salesman cut him off. “Mr Johanson, you're probably aware of the recent economic blip? The media have covered it quite extensively. Well, you might also be aware that house values have also been affected.”

Confused, “Oh, I'm up on my payments....now, about my complaint?”

Unperturbed, “Yes, well, in point of fact, the issue is that your line of credit that was approved should you default on your latest rental — your c-eyes — was predicated upon your home's value. That is, its value prior to that recent and most unfortunate, not to mention completely unexpected, economic blip.”

Jon blurted, “I don't see how your fiscal problems have anything to do with me. I saw HH&R listed on the news the other night, when they spoke of the downturn overseas and who was affected locally.” He continued smugly, “Your censor wasn't quite quick enough!”

“Thank you for that feedback, Mr Johanson.” A few quick taps on the work-pad. “We pride ourselves on being a learning corporation; we continually strive to improve our services for our customers.” He looked up again. “The problem we have to deal with, Mr Johanson, is that Home Hardware & Rentals in fact also own the credit provider that originally financed your home mortgage. We bought them outright just last year and invested heavily in several others on the wave of our offshore investment profits. With that being the case, our current fiscal problems, as you refer them, are your mortgage provider's problems as well. And yours, personally.”

He tapped again at the work-pad, projected a 3D holo-image. In stark relief, a black line representing his home's value over the years crawled slowly upwards, before taking a sudden drop below a horizontal red line. Underneath, the words: “Credit Rescinded: Contract Invalid”.

“I'm sorry, Mr Johanson, but the eyes have to go back to the showroom.” Then, “There will be an additional cleaning and refurbishment fee, naturally.”

Jon slumped against a work bench. His world had just turned upside down, inside out. An errant thought surfaced: he would never finish the sideboard now. The salesman was saying something again, and when Jon didn't answer — nothing was making sense to him any more — the smock-wearing representative placed his briefcase on the same workbench and opened it. Inside, Jon saw shiny chrome tools, none of which he properly recognised.

“I guess I'll be able to watch whatever I want now,” Jon mumbled, hysteria edging into his voice.

“Oh yes, of course, Mr Johanson. You can watch whatever you want now,” the salesman said without the slightest trace of irony.

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About The Author

Zeb Carter

Zeb writes:

Last week, on a whim I submitted some of my own musings to ‘Nuke’, and when I checked back today — my time in my ‘verse, which is plus six years comparative to you — I saw that he had published some of them! I wasn’t even sure the contrived email and attachment would get through, let alone end up published on your internet of things. (BTW - We have nothing quite like your ‘net, but we’ve gone far further into the solar system than you have. Figure that!)Now that I know a connection is possible, I thought I’d tell you a little more about myself and where I’m from. So, from the beginning…

Hi. My name is Zebuline Carter — that’s Zeb for my friends or Zeb-you-leen if you want to get formal — and I’m a forty-two year old former astronaut now working as an administrator at Farside, on Luna. Farside is a research base, where innerscopes are just starting to peel back layers of our sheath of the local multiverse. Because our work is so sensitive to em influences, Farside is situated within a one hundred klom diameter exclusion zone.

In my late teens I earned a double major in aerospace and business but passed over grad school for civilian astronaut training. As a kid I collected coupons from cereal boxes until I had enough for my first telescope, and built scale models of all the commercial shuttles and orbiters. Growing up, I’d always felt slightly out of place, like I was meant to to be somewhere else and part of me already was — until, that is, I had my first trip into low orbit aboard a high-riding intercont-cruiser, or ICC. That was a high-school graduation present from my Uncle Jim, and during the fifteen minutes of freefall I found that other part of myself, grabbed it tight, and never let go since.

Did I also mention I’m 180 cents tall with bobbed chestnut hair? Or that because of heart damage from a bad landing, I’m also marooned in low gravity? But heh, there are now six bases around Luna, supporting a permanent population of around twelve thousand Lunans, and a transient population of several thousand tourists and stopovers returning form the outer system, so it never gets boring and I don’t get lonely. And living in low G means I won’t age or sag as fast, either.

Until next time —

aus25grn

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The Australian Science Fiction Foundation (ASFF) is pleased to welcome entries in the Norma K Hemming Award for works published in 2016 and 2017. Designed to recognise excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class or disability in a published speculative fiction work, the Norma K Hemming Award is now open for entries. The award is open to short fiction, novellas, novels, anthologies, collections, graphic novels and stage plays, and makes allowances for serialised work.  For more information:  <https://normakhemmingaward.org/2017/11/08/entries-are-now-open-for-the-2018-norma-k-hemming-award/>.

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