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Online Reunion

A story from Better Worlds, our science fiction project about hope

Illustrations by Marcin Wolski

It feels like this year has been a hundred months long.

The image of Falyne at the water park with the Jamies, wearing the black and white swimsuit i bought for our trip to Tree World, is dated june 13, and i know that’s the first time we fought about her picture feed, but it feels like history.

Lately when i check her feed i can’t really believe i was there for so much of it. It’s like i’m rewinding… i start with recent falyne, mostly without me, and flip back, until my face crops up among her images like blooms of mold. I go back and back until I see Falyne before me, but she has different eyes then.

no matter how much I scroll I can’t figure out when the change happened

I wonder when she’ll come home. The program says I first started recovery on October 29. That feels like five years ago.

Jean woke with a spasm of panic, the meat of her hand throbbing with an occult pain. She dully realized that she’d fallen asleep with her hand device attached once again.

There was nothing from Falyne, nothing new in Falyne’s feed. But rereading their most recent messages or looking through her feed often gave Jean the sense of peering through a door, one she could still get through. If she read things out of order, she could assemble a new story about the future, with no beautiful strangers called Jamie in it at all.

FEELING, one of Falyne’s messages had demanded in stark capitals that lingered at the corner of her mind’s eye like a migraine aura. AND LISTENING.

Jean flexed away the ache in her hand but did not remove her device. A grim resolution stirred inside her, and she got out of bed and crossed her neglected apartment to the big display, a familiar rut. Going to work, she would joke when there was an audience.

“Jean,” said Sarrapere, her boss, his face filling the display as the call connected. “Jean the Machine. Dean and Jean Ween. Jean Genie. How you feeling?”

“Great,” she said. “You’ve been asking me every day. I’m great. I’ve got story pitches.”

“You know I love your pitches, but today I need some bullshit that’s gonna make people cry at the end,” he said, leaning away from the display as if to refuse her preemptively. “Real tears, kiddo. Imagine the advertisers reading adrenal results. That level. Do you really think that’s your thing?”


“I can do one like that,” Jean said. “Listen to this: got a lady in her 70s who lives in a mini-con and takes care of vintage virtual pets. Remember that service called Petzr?”

“Petzr, Petzr,” he mused to himself, as if articulating a search term.

While Sarrapere thoughtfully fisted his eyes, Jean’s gaze wandered to Falyne’s suitcases, still huddled in the corner where they had been for days, or weeks.

“She thinks she’s going to meet her dead husband in this old virtual pet world.”

“This woman in her 70s,” Jean insisted. “She’s applying for a special instance permit because she thinks she’s going to meet her dead husband in this old virtual pet world from decades ago.”

“All I see here is that she wants to research some old pets game,” Sarrapere said. “She’s an academic. Where’d you get the dead husband?”

“I got clearance on her entire footprint,” she said. “Husband died in the war when she was 24. Looks like she started taking care of his virtual pet around then, and she’s been doing it ever since.”

“So what, Kid?” Sarrapere liked Jean the most, but he still had several other content creators to talk to after her.

“So, her application is for the anniversary of the husband’s death,” said Jean. “I bet she’s grieving, and she’ll do the piece because we can fast-track her permit. I’ll make it work. People love those stupid emotional game stories. Remember the one about the kid whose mom was still the player two, even after she died?”

“Yeah, but an academic? She’ll suck the life out of it,” said Sarrapere. He muttered “virtual ghost, virtual pet, virtual ghost, virtual pet” to himself as if testing it, biting off each consonant. Then, he shook his head. “I’m not feeling anything. No.”

She couldn’t say whether she had been staring furiously at the display for 10 minutes or 10 days

Jean’s gut rolled suddenly, and an abstract icon of a clock blinked red on her hand device. But she held still, letting the front of her mind be jerked forward, as if through a door someone else had failed to lock.


“Just trust me,” she pleaded. “You know I can dredge up some saddo dead husband shit. Imagine the tie-ins you can pitch to the Marketeers! The Neutrality Office will definitely fast-track Marchenstamp’s permit. She’s totally going to cry. We’ll video it. Everyone will cry, hundred percent cry.”

Sarrapere sized her up anew, as if they hadn’t, in fact, worked together for over 10 years. “Of course I trust you,” he sighed. “You’re the Jean Genie.”

“Thanks, Chief,” she said, betraying nothing.

But just as they were disconnecting, he said, “One more thing, Jean. Take it slow.”

It struck her that Sarrapere had taken pity on her. Because of the time sickness or maybe because of the trial separation or maybe just the gross color and the puffiness of her under eyes, which looked like the belly of a frog.

Sudden rage throttled her capacity to think clearly. When at last it ebbed, she couldn’t say whether she had been staring furiously at the display for 10 minutes or 10 days.

She came back last night.

I almost missed it, I almost disconnected and went to sleep. But then at some strange hour she messaged me, and when I went down to the lobby and saw her there in her horrible tiger print coat, I thought I would faint, my chest hurt so bad. She was calling my name and crying, and thank fuck I hadn’t disconnected and missed that.

It could have been my only chance, knowing her.

She must be moving back in for good this time. She brought all her suitcases, why else would she bring all her suitcases?

Falyne rarely showed more than a superficial interest in the details of Jean’s work. Especially these days, while Falyne was taking space, interacting with her felt like prizing bright coins from a deep well. But Jean messaged Falyne about the new assignment automatically, adding in some details about the virtual pets world that she hoped would provoke longer replies.

Falyne replied: Good luck with the interview!!!!!!!!!!! xxxXXX

It was almost enough. That was how bright and golden Falyne was and how raw and alien Jean always felt beside her, like an eldritch root unearthed by accident. She had spent even their best years holding still, watching for truths in Falyne’s face as if for a rare bird.

If this Marchenstamp story went well, though, it could be made into a show, and Jean would clean the apartment and invite everyone. The loathsome, beautiful Jamies would sit eagerly on the floor in front of the display, their upturned faces illuminated and impressed, and Falyne would be wearing her powder blue velvet, making drinks and smiling her golden smile. It would go late. She would stay over.

If Jean accessed her hand device in the next four hours and 37 minutes, her recovery app would know

Jean took a deep, committed breath and then reset her recovery app. If she accessed her hand device in the next — she tilted her palm to check it — four hours and 37 minutes, it would know.

She took mindfulness breaths all during the cab ride to Marchenstamp’s mini-con. She lived in one of several public housing blocks owned by TenTen Corp, which was exceptionally strict about services. There was no chance of the old lady getting her instance permit without this kind of collaboration between the media and the Neutrality Office.

“You found it,” sang Marchenstamp, flinging open the door. A wave of sensory stimuli surged out amid the egg carton uniformity of the mini-con complex, surprising Jean with the urge to flee. But the old lady, wiry and hunched, was already waving her in. Her hands were oddly soft, and Jean prayed she would not be offered any unfamiliar foods.

“Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Mrs. Marchenstamp,” Jean said, dazed in the claustrophobic entryway, jammed with prewar junk and mysterious edges. “We’re working on getting your expedited permissions down from the N.O.”

Had the old lady lost her marbles with grief?

But instead of seeming pleased, Marchenstamp frowned. Jean felt a flash of irritation. Had the old lady lost her marbles with grief, tottering around this shrine with her virtual pets? Didn’t she know what was good for her?

Then, Marchenstamp smiled brightly. “Wonderful. Come and sit down.”

In the living area loomed a plump velvet sofa the color of a lung. It looked ancient, and the very idea of sitting on it was horrifying. On the wall, Jean spotted a portrait of a uniformed man she took to be the dead husband, plus a wedding picture of the two of them. She found the latter particularly grotesque. One of those white dresses and everything! Jean couldn’t look.

There was also something unknown yet familiar on the wall: a little wooden house with what looked like a clock on the front. Above the clock, two tiny doors were shut.

“It’s a cuckoo clock,” Marchenstamp offered.

A vague understanding stirred in Jean. “When does the bird come out?”

“It’s a very old machine,” Marchenstamp said. “So whenever it wants. Just like me!”

Jean felt the urge to ask if the cuckoo clock had to do with the dead husband. Already she was longing to get this over with, unsettled by the clutter and femininity. But Marchenstamp kept talking.

“They told me you’re recovering from time sickness.”

“They told me you’re recovering from time sickness,” she said, as if it were nothing.

“Who did?” said Jean, unmoving. Nothing on the hand device had given her away.

“Maybe we’ll find out,” Marchenstamp demurred. Her back was turned as she washed two identical white teacups at the kitchen sink. “Don’t worry, though, I’m not a skeptic. In fact, I did my dissertation on some brain markers in early digital citizens that may have helped form our knowledge base on time sickness. Did you go to a center, or are you using a program?”

“Program,” Jean said curtly, nodding at her hand. She hadn’t been expecting talk of dissertations, and it also irked her that Mrs. Marchenstamp saw her as someone who could afford a recovery center. But opening up was always useful in an interview. “I’m down to six checks a day,” she grudgingly added.

“That’s good, hon.” Mrs. Marchenstamp sounded genuine. “Were you bad?”

“I was full immersive interface, for days,” Jean acknowledged, twirling her finger back and forth between her hand device and her temple, a weary loop that resembled an unhinged timepiece.

“Jeez,” the old lady said, which Jean found endearing.

“I’m doing better,” Jean said. “Let’s talk about why you want a permit in time for your anniversary. This is a preliminary interview. Then, I’ll build the story around when you run your instance. Sound good?”

“Are you the writer as well as the narrative designer?” Mrs. Marchenstamp asked, a little cryptically. Jean said yes, but saw no reaction.

“So you know about Petzr?” She went on.

“Yes,” said Jean. “It standardized virtual pets across different services before the big data collapse, right?”

“The pets themselves wanted to avoid the collapse.”

“To protect them,” Marchenstamp nodded. “But to say that the company led the standardization is somewhat untrue. The pets themselves wanted to avoid the collapse.”

Jean accepted the tea, looking anxiously around the living room. There were hardware objects that looked like they should be in a museum gathering dust.

“It was the subject of my group’s research at the time, how the pets’ AI had mutated, voluntarily gathering metadata about their users — even outside of the service!” She looked expectantly at Jean before continuing. “For example, I knew my sister-in-law was ill even before she knew because my late husband’s virtual pet told me.”

“What?” said Jean, panic rising. Sarrapere would surely throw these quotes out.


“Unfortunately, there were a lot of disputes about how to credit the research,” Marchenstamp went on. “And we weren’t just colleagues. We were all wonderful girlfriends as well, so plenty of bitterness went around, I’m sure you’re familiar with how things go in the institution. Words were said both online and off. What I mean to say is I’m hardly proud of how I conducted myself personally, and since then, the years just got away. We lost our sense of—”

“Tell me about your husband,” Jean interrupted. “You still have his virtual pet?”

“Does caring for Alfie’s virtual pet make you feel closer to him?”

“Alfie?” Mrs. Marchenstamp asked. To Jean’s great irritation, she sounded surprised. “Yes, he named his ‘Cloud.’ Isn’t that funny!”

“Does caring for Alfie’s virtual pet — Cloud — make you feel closer to him? Like you’ll always have a piece of him there?”

“Oh, not really,” she frowned. “He made the account, but he never really played it before he went away. I don’t think he cared much about poor Cloud. Don’t you want to sit down?”

“He went to the war, didn’t he?” Jean said. She felt creeping nausea, no doubt caused by the smell of old upholstery, and it made her careless. “Do you believe some part of his consciousness can return for an anniversary visit if you get this permit?”

Mrs. Marchenstamp’s expression was veiled by the teacup, but the silvery eyes then fixed on her shrewdly. She was much smarter than Jean had guessed, and the misjudgment would now cost.

“A virtual reunion. What a tearjerker of a story that would be.”

“A virtual reunion. What a tearjerker of a story that would be,” Marchenstamp chortled, suddenly opaque. “Is that the angle we’re doing? Does the N.O. determine that?”

“Of course I haven’t decided on the angle yet,” Jean said calmly.

“That’s wonderful to hear,” said Mrs. Marchenstamp. Then she went to get more tea, even though Jean hadn’t touched hers.

Argument again re devices and checking. She said she’d ask for money from her mother so I could go to a center, which is bullshit, because when I asked her to chip in for Tree World it was such an issue for her.

The program works fine. I only relapse if something happens that I fucking have to check, like if she says she’ll be home from karaoke by 12 and it’s 2am and all she sends is ‘Xxxxxxxxxxxxxx’.

I said to her like “I’m not the one who doesn’t know what time is,” and it was the way she said “there’s a lot you don’t know” that really threw me into a bad weekend.

Not that it’s her fault, but she could help if she wanted.

Fuming, Jean went to a bar after the interview to wait out the timer until her next device check. The transcript was a mess. Worthless rambling.

There was the part about ancient metadata surfacing in systems like dreams. There was a particularly inscrutable part about a digital collective unconscious readable by self-directed learning algorithms, especially those created to identify and anticipate individuals in megadata streams. There was a lot about scale, which, according to Marchenstamp, was part of why society had been so blindsided by the onset of time sickness, so unprepared to treat it, since we had never tested the capacity of brains to scale or something.

Jean had stopped transcribing at that part. The note’s file name, REUNION, represented a frustrated wish.

During all of this, Mrs. Marchenstamp had repeatedly waggled her hands at Jean, enthusiastically announcing, “Now here it is! Now, here’s your story!”

Did that dazzling feeling ever go away, even if you got all your microtasking completely under control?

“What’s your poison, Mack?” asked the robot butler, juddering down the bar toward her. This particular bar was part of an aging retrofuturist theme chain called Cyberpunk 20XX. It was embarrassing, but there was nowhere else in TenTen to sit and check.

Jean ordered something forgettable, and, at long last, submerged herself in the hand device. It felt like it had been weeks, even months since last she checked it, her attentions spangling toward every horizon. Did that dazzling feeling ever go away, even if you got all your checking and microtasking behaviors completely under control?

She flicked through her messages in the same way she would stamp in newly fallen snow. The N.O. had given their permission for the instance — and several other related ones. Sovereign Sensitive Data had already signed on for an ad deal using the “reunion” footage. Some middling content network was sure to reach out about an adaptation soon, even though there was no real story there. Jean felt nothing.

She messaged Falyne: Were you ever into virtual pets.

What did Falyne remember about Genie the virtual pet?

Jean was not expecting the instantaneous reply. Don’t u remember Genie on Club Pets! When I met you I named Genie after u kinda! <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Jean’s heart accelerated. Falyne caring for a virtual pet, naming it after her. How could she have forgotten something like that? She kept messaging, pressing for details under the guise of professional curiosity. For the story.

What did Falyne remember about Genie the virtual pet? Had she been excited to take care of Genie, as if nurturing a new love? Did she miss Genie? Would she like to have Genie again? Wouldn’t that be a cool surprise, Jean messaged.

Falyne replied, YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1xXXXXXXXXXxxxx

Jean’s scalp crawled enticingly, as if she were growing hairs inside her skull. She could do a different story, one that still fit the theme of “reunion,” that Sovereign Sensitive Data could still build an ad campaign around, that the Marketeers would lose their shit over.

“How Virtual Pets Saved My Relationship,” Jean whispered

“How Virtual Pets Saved My Relationship,” Jean whispered, tasting it.

There could be a deal with a major dating show brand, like TapMe or Holo Night. Falyne would twirl in the abundant rain of social capital. She would call Jean “wife” again.

“That’ll be six Earth Credits, Mack,” said the robot butler.

Well she caught me wearing her device

Not proud or anything but it’s been at least 10000 days of recovery and she has been LOVING every minute that i have to report to her and show data to her and apologize to her about the way i am, believe me.

meanwhile she’s brainstem deep in other people’s messages and other people’s profiles and picture streams. there are two people BOTH named Jamie (?????????) and they live on the river, and that’s where she took her bags and went tonight.

I dont actually care who she’s with i just want to know what she’s doing and thinking. I sent her that, but no reply yet.

When Jean returned to Marchenstamp’s mini-con the following week, it was with two videographers from the ad agency, which was contracted to shoot “moving and incredible” clips for Sovereign Sensitive Data and “unbelievable, cute and retro” clips for one of the stock footage firms. Marchenstamp seemed to have dressed for the occasion, her rangy pewter hair rolled into twin dumplings on either side of her head. She grinned at Jean when she opened the door.

“Is there any way we could look for a specific pet?” Jean said immediately. “From a particular service, like Club Pets?”

“Oh sure, sure, after the reunion!” She waved her hands blithely at Jean and the crew, urging them all inside.

To Jean’s horror, the disgusting bride photo had been moved. It now sat on the kitchen table, next to a box of flowers. The death anniversary! Jean felt again like the world was pitched forward, like she could tumble straight through the house and into the giant velvet sofa, which would open like a mouth and eat her.

“You told me there was no reunion,” Jean said, rankled.

“Is that what I said?” Marchenstamp mused, her back to Jean. “Well, you’re the one with the transcript!”

As they picked their way through the living room toward the bedroom where the big display must be, Jean saw the dreaded sofa was no longer in its place. Through the open bedroom door was a minimalist, impeccably modern space with a desk, a single bed, and a beautiful display that took up almost the whole wall. Marchenstamp must have gotten money when her husband died.

The sofa now faced the display. Jean would have to sit on it.

On the display, the pet world looked unexpectedly appealing

“There’s no regulation about playing a disconnected version,” Marchenstamp said. “But today, we’ll let them play in the world. Thank you for your help with the N.O. permit, Jean.”

On the display, the pet world looked unexpectedly appealing, a cerulean-and-rose limbo showing all the voxel stress of its long-ago era. Balloon-like letters that spelled PETZR! floated away as soon as Marchenstamp sat down. In the pastel dimension before them, two little creatures were already on the screen.

“Sit down already, hon,” she said. “You’ll be able to see it all happen.”

The crunch of old velvet against Jean’s leggings was sickening. She pressed her tongue to her teeth to try to dispel the sensation, but the shudder only grew. When she stole a glance to see if Marchenstamp had noticed, she found the old lady looking at her hand device. Jean jerked it away reflexively, and they both quickly cut their eyes to the display.

“Which one is Cloud?” Jean asked, sitting stiffly as if afraid to be swallowed.

Marchenstamp gave no answer. She was doing inexplicable things with the two pets, hovering, checking, clearing, wittering. The emotive way Marchenstamp often waggled her hands had been defined in this space, Jean realized. That could be good for the story.

“When we met, my girlfriend and I raised a virtual pet together,” said Jean.

“I know that,” Mrs. Marchenstamp said, watering the pets.

“My girlfriend,” Jean repeated. She must not have heard. How could she know?

But Marchenstamp only smiled that keen smile, no interruption in the strange and tiny obeisances she was making to the display. “Shall we see now who’s coming to join us?”

The ghost! Jean thought, feeling a thrill of hope. Here it comes, the story! Jean’s device hand floated up from the virulent sofa, prepared to transcribe, and she glanced over her shoulder to be sure the ad agency kids were still filming.

“All of my friends are online. At the same time!”

A text window that read KendallMarch (Host) appeared. Then, there was a tinny, machine-like sound effect of a door opening, and a garish collage of unnatural creatures proliferated on the screen one after another, as if someone were pounding an ancient stamp. The text window filled with lines like HeraSword09218 has signed on. CountWokeula has signed on. DocHolly22 has signed on. MxMystery0 has signed on. xXSephirothXx has signed on.

“It works,” Marchenstamp laughed, her face transformed by joy. “All of my friends are online. At the same time! For the first time since—”

“What friends?”

“Weren’t you listening in the interview? This is the day we apologize to each other,” she sighed, riveted by the activities of the foreign pets, readable only to her. Marchenstamp’s face was fixed in a warm, conversational expression aimed at someone other than Jean. In a sense, she was gone from the room.

“The pets decided to bring us all back together.”

“The pets decided to bring us all back together,” she murmured. “Which, funnily enough, proves which of us was right! Some of these citations, however, we must discuss… ”

Jean’s throat and tongue felt furred with pale velvet spores. Her head ached. A red clock symbol appeared on her hand device. The two film lackeys continued to shoot impassively, filling the doorway behind her.

“I can’t do a story about how virtual pets from 50 years ago use metadata to read minds and solve conflicts,” she blurted, a strained note pleading. “That’s not the story. I can’t do anything with this. I need you to look for—”

“Of course you can,” Mrs. Marchenstamp said. “Don’t you know someone has come here to see you, too?”

The other pets moved aside. A strange creature was there, like a squirt of aquamarine foam with rabbit ears, floating in place, looking at Jean. There was life in the shiny black eyes, and Jean felt a sharp tug in the front of her mind, as if, all along, the pet had been generating the gravitational pull threatening to crush her in this house. Cold fear of Marchenstamp dawned like divine awe. Jean looked at the pet and suddenly knew what it came to express, just as she knew, with a certainty that seemed impossible, that the cartoon nameplate that appeared when she hovered over it would say GENIE.

In that moment, Jean knew for certain that Falyne was never coming back.

And she knew she was not getting better, not at all.

From the living room came the sound of a mechanism, a synthetic bird slamming through the shutters of its clock, whistling madly. Jean’s hand ached sharply. “Isn’t it magic?” murmured Mrs. Marchenstamp. “They’re such smart machines. They just know.”

The certainty was so fresh, so rare. It had been so long since Jean had felt such a thing.

Marchenstamp calmly turned away from her display to face Jean on the velvet sofa. “Don’t you find it beautiful, to have this way of knowing? Just feel and listen.”

“I don’t want to,” Jean said.

“You can get well,” the old lady said, taking Jean’s device hand in both of hers. “But data is full of mysteries, and you have to invite the truth in.”

Smiling pets drifted around the display. Jean watched them, stricken with nostalgia for something she could not understand or remember, something that had nothing to do with Falyne at all.

“There,” Marchenstamp added, “Let’s just take this off you for a bit.”

She spoke with a gentleness that ached, a softness Jean was not strong enough now to reject. Jean felt her hand device disengaging, and then the old woman was holding her hand tenderly, rubbing with her thumb at the aching pinprick where the interface entered the vein.

Jean began to cry. And cry, and cry.  

“There you go,” Mrs. Marchenstamp said. “There’s your story.”

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