Michael showers and shaves, then snaps a few self-portraits in the mirror. He lifts his phone high, tilts his head and pouts. Click. He’s a substantial man, with ruddy jowls, a small, pleasant mouth and cheerful eyes. At sixty-seven his head is a gleaming dome. Most of his male friends are doing that ridiculous neo-combover thing: a few last pathetic hairs brushed down over one eye, emo-style. He prefers total baldness—chemo-style. Click.
Michael stands back and takes a coy full-length shot, half turned to hide his cock. He’s in good shape these days. He used to have to watch his weight, with all the dinner parties and long lunches, the breakfasts of salmon hollandaise eaten in bed with Margot. Click.
His smile is captured mid-collapse. He deletes the shot. These days he mostly steams a few vegetables. He really has lost a lot of weight. He thinks of it as a small, positive side effect of his wife’s death.
In the kitchen there’s no sign of Sophie. It’s half seven, and she has classes at eight. While Michael waits for coffee, morning images from friends blink up in his retina overlay. He’s intrigued, and mildly annoyed, that the system keeps choosing sequences from women his age. There’s more from a Bernadette. Her dyed black hair is glossy and tousled, and she holds one hand across her breasts. She looks wonderful at seventy, though the effect hasn’t been the same since her mastectomy.
These days, he thinks, we’re all a bit maimed.
There’s a knock at the front door. Michael blinks. Odd—nothing registers in his overlay. He hears Sophie’s bedroom door open, then the shower. He carries his coffee down the hall and opens the door.
He can’t see anyone there; just a jogger across the street, kids ambling off to school, two gaunt shanty-dwellers having their morning bucket bath on the footpath. Each of them appears in his overlay as a faint swarm of data, visible, available.
It’s Sophie’s friend Eloise, standing on the bottom step. He stares. She’s wearing an emerald headscarf that surrounds her face like a cowl. Is Sophie ready? she asks.
Surprise makes Michael abrupt. No, he says. What’s with the scarf?
I’ve taken the vow. Sophie didn’t tell you?
No. Come in.
He stands aside and sips his coffee to hide his distaste. He sees more kids wearing the scarves every day. To him, their cloistered faces look like they have something to hide. He wonders what her parents think. It was one of the few things he and Margot had argued about. He agreed with the papers: privacy led to unrest. Nonsense, Margot had said. They’ve got every right to disappear.
So you’re just—disconnected? Michael asks Eloise at the kitchen table. He finds it unnerving, talking to someone with zero data presence. It’s like sitting across from a small black hole.
We can still access everything, Eloise says. We’re just not sending anything out.
And what brought this on? Is it a religious thing?
No, it was History of Privacy. You should hear the lectures. People used to just give it up, for free. There was this thing called Facebook, where you—
Facebook. The word comes to him out of a dream.
You mean the website? he says.
Yeah. Have you heard of it?
I used to use it.
Eloise sits forward with a kind of excited repulsion. Really? You were one of them? So did you just give away your—everything?
That’s a personal question, he says. He’s joking, but she blushes anyway.
Sophie bangs into the kitchen, hair damp from the shower. Are you hassling Lou?
She’s hassling me, Michael says. About my time on Facebook.
Sophie looks dismayed. You were on Facebook?
I was. Your mother, too. We—
Michael trails off. He’s suddenly wide awake. He had completely forgotten: Margot was on Facebook.
Two years on, his natural memory of Margot is as frayed as old rope. He has a wealth of digital captures, but he’s exhausting them too. There was one he used to loop, of Margo singing in the shower. He went about his day with the hiss of water and her sweet, off-key high notes ghosting down the hall. Over time it had become background noise: a radio left on in another room.
But Margot was on Facebook. She would have posted videos and photos, decades ago. It’s like he’s discovered a forgotten chamber of his mind. The thought is exquisite.
Michael realises Sophie has asked him a question. Sorry? he says.
You do own your data, don’t you?
Absolutely not, he says. Everything’s out in the open. Why lock yourself away?
Eloise smiles at Sophie. PP, she murmurs. Sophie looks embarrassed.
What’s that? Michael says.
You’re PP, Eloise says. Post Privacy. We call it Publicly Promiscuous.
He laughs. The wall clock chimes eight.
Merde, Sophie says. We’re late.
They’re halfway down the hall when the thought strikes him.
Hey, girls, he calls. If I’m PP, what are you?
PPP, Eloise says. She flashes a small gold ring over her shoulder. Post Post Privacy. We’re saving our data for someone special.
Michael has no appointments in the morning. He calls his secretary. With your permission, he says, I’d like to engage in a little senile leisure time.
He sits at the desk in his study and thinks about Facebook. His retina and cortex are hardwired, like everyone else on his income, and the results come up in his overlay. There’s a wealth of historical analysis and old news items. Then he finds what he’s looking for. In a grey zone of southern Russia’s deep web, buried in the sediment of an archival server, is a copy of the Facebook data. A fossilised social network.
He’s not expecting much when his system attempts to connect, but a moment later, there it is: the homepage. It’s surprisingly familiar, right down to the precise shade of blue. At the top is a link: Recover your profile.
Not bloody likely, he says aloud. It’s been forty-odd years since he was on here. But he follows the link, skips the privacy statement and fills in a form. His overlay shows ancient code routines waking from sleep on the host server. Obsolete analytics grasping at new filaments of data. There’s another procedure too, shimmering just below the intelligible horizon, that his own system does not recognise.
While he waits, Michael crosses to the window. Another mainland family is building a tarpaulin shanty on the nature strip. The young father waves; he’s not too badly burned. Michael would have been about that age when social media took over his life. Twenty-three? Twenty-three and full of love, and full of himself. He remembers Margot teasing him about wasting his life self-promoting on Facebook. So much so that he deleted the thing…Shit. They both did. It felt like a spiritual breakthrough at the time. They deleted their profiles, went to Thailand, got married, got on with their lives, and now she’s dead.
Michael leaves the room. He’s in the kitchen, trying to summon enthusiasm for work, when it blinks up in his overlay. Profile reactivated. Welcome back.
Michael’s profile picture stares at him across the decades. His head is shaved, cocked to one side, lit with an insolent grin. It’s eerily similar to the picture he snapped this morning. He runs a hand over the wearied flesh of his face. What skin—what a pup!
Beneath his photo is a random-seeming list of things he’d claimed to like. Cormac McCarthy. Someone called Seamus Heaney. The Wire. It seems so archaic—that you would tell a system what you liked, rather than trusting it to tell you. There is an invitation to something called a Permablitzkrieg, and one to a Climate Action Rally, back when they thought they stood a chance. He didn’t want to think about it then, and he doesn’t want to think about it now. He scrolls down.
His heart lurches. There’s something from Margot.
It’s a photo, too small to properly make out, but she looks to be pulling a face. Below, it says: This content has been removed by the user.
Michael clicks through to her profile. That same line is repeated, time and again. He clicks through messages, events and comments, drumming his fingers in irritation. The same fuzzy avatar makes the same taunting declaration.He begins to feel like Margot removed herself just to spite him.
He scrolls through photos, hoping to glimpse her in other people’s shots, and before long he’s distracted. Long-dead friends beam their vitality through the years. They’re in and out of clubs, crammed in the back of cars, camped among valleys of tangled bush. He lingers over a shot of himself diving off the side of a boat at dawn. He is reaching down through the bright and liquid air, an instant before the surface is broken. He can’t find a single person crying, or angry. Everyone seems brand new.
Halfway down the page, Michael finds a sequence from a woman with an expressive, intelligent mouth and smoky eyes. It only takes a second to remember who she is.
June-Mee! he says aloud.
Michael clicks through to her profile. There’s a new entry at the top of the page, exactly the same as his own.
Profile reactivated. Welcome back.
Michael gradually becomes conscious of a rattling from the air purifier on the wall. He stretches over and gives it a whack that makes his hand sting. He can’t believe he’s found someone else on the network.
He loses an hour trawling through old photos. She’s lazing on a beach in Greece, hiking in the Yellow Mountains out past Shanghai. The images stir something in him. Curiosity, and nostalgia.
They’d met at a party. He’d walked into the crowded bathroom and she was reclined in the bathtub, laughing among the ice and beer, reciting some speech she was studying. Their eyes had met.
Free at last, she cried. Free at last!
On a whim, he sends her a message.
Later, he is propped in bed reading, still carefully on his own side of the bed, when a reply comes through.
Michael, what a surprise! Are you well?
He gives a wriggle of delight and kicks off the sheets. The chatter in his overlay is immediate and positive: eighty-eight per cent of his friends are intrigued. Sophie, studying in her room, sends a WTF. She turns up her music, and it seeps through their shared wall.
Michael starts each day searching for traces of Margot, and ends up chatting with June-Mee. He finds her quick and funny. It seems she’s the only other living person on Facebook, and he likes the irony: from a billion people down to two. She hints at a simple, affluent life. They both live in the leafy suburbs of Tasmania’s Greater Melbourne, and he gets the feeling she’s recently divorced. He doesn’t ask for details. He mentions Margot’s death and Sophie’s presence, in passing. They talk as if they’re still twenty-one.
June-Mee recalls a night when they took ecstasy in his bedroom, then cried with laughter through a dinner with scandalised friends. She had a boyfriend who lived interstate. He recalls the sexual tension of their nights out, a gaunt stranger in a club asking if they were lovers. They weren’t—but if he’s honest, he wishes they had been.
Michael wakes a few days later with a good restlessness in him. He catches Sophie at the breakfast table. Her hair is getting long, and she’s taken to wearing it pulled across her face. She ignores his questions about school. She won’t be drawn on the History of Privacy. Finally, he stops trying to sidle up to the conversation.
I discovered an old friend on Facebook, he says.
I know, she says. It’s creepy. Don’t you think it’s weird how she just found you?
I found her. June-Mee is a lovely woman. She makes me feel—
Just don’t, she says. It’s private.
It’s not private, he says, amused. I want to share it with you.
Sophie stares into her coffee mug. You’ve already shared it with anyone who’ll listen.
It’s worth sharing.
You think brushing your teeth is worth sharing. Eloise says you make your life cheap by just giving it away.
That’s ridiculous, he says. What does it cost you to be open about your life?
Rubbish. It costs to be private. Fine if you’re loaded like Eloise’s parents. They can afford to let her turn off her—
He catches himself.
Sorry, he says. Look, do you think this is disrespectful to your mother? To have dinner with June-Mee?
Maybe, Sophie says. Yes. And to you. Couldn’t you just do something for yourself?
You mean, do something private? he says.
Turn everything off?
Well, Michael says. I guess.
Michael showers and shaves, and slips into his old dinner jacket. He lifts his phone. Click.
The jacket is far too big. More than that, it reminds him overwhelmingly of Margot. The feeling of buttoning it up in the mirror, the tang of aftershave, the anticipation of good food: he is dragged so sharply back to their shared life that he is forced to leave the jacket on the bed.
On the way into town his overlay briefly takes over the driving. The doors lock and the car cuts west, through the vast shadowed slums of New Brunswick to a boutique overlooking the city’s western firebreak. The staff have a simple but expensive blazer picked out when he arrives, precisely to his taste and cut. He knows he doesn’t need to check it in the mirror.
Outside the restaurant Michael stops to turn off his phone. It’s a symbolic act, because most of the hardware is carried under his skin. But he mutes it all, and one by one the chattering streams of data that have accompanied his adult life fade away. His overlay is gone. The streetscape and the passing crowds flatten into surface and light.
There is a man beside the restaurant door, hand out, begging. The faint swarm of data around him winks out, and Michael finds himself staring at the man’s face: two bloodshot blue eyes, without lids, gazing back at him from a mask of flesh so badly burned it wears no recognisable human expression. Air sucks and blows from two small holes. Michael fumbles a note into the man’s hand, and pushes open the restaurant door.
There are two women sitting by themselves, both with their backs to him. As he approaches the first he sees straight away that she is too young. Her hair spills long and dark down her back. He passes the table and fixes his attention on the next woman, sitting alone with a book and a glass of wine. His pulse quickens.
A voice calls to him from behind. Michael?
He turns. It is June-Mee sitting at the first table, after all. She rises in greeting and a shock goes through him. She is twenty-three or twenty-four. Thirty at most. Her skin, beneath the lightest dusting of make-up, is flawless. When she smiles, he sees the same strong teeth that bit his bottom lip when they kissed on his doorstep, that one and only time.
Michael, she says again. It’s me. June-Mee.
Hello, he says. You look—lovely.
She searches his face, affectionate and curious. How are you? she says.
I’m good, he says. I’m great. And you?
They dive into conversation. Michael talks and laughs, but he’s on autopilot. His mind grasps for clarification. He turns to his overlay and the datasphere and his friends, but they’re gone. Soup comes, he eats it, the waiter removes the bowls. He tastes none of it. Is this her daughter? Has she had surgery? It can’t be her, and yet it is, unmistakeably, the woman he knew some forty years ago. The way she talks, excited and playful and sharp, and her ready laugh, even the way her elbows tuck to her sides when she walks to the bathroom: it’s her.
When she returns he fumbles towards the question. So, what have you been doing for the last forty years? How come you look so—good?
You remember I went to France? June-Mee says. I started a fashion label, skirts madefrom vintage men’s suits. Like the one I wore to—
The conversation swings back to the past and they’re off again, reminiscing and laughing. The next time he tries, she turns the conversation to him. He finds himself talking about Sophie.
She insisted I meet you in private, he says. I was going to turn up in a green headscarf.
He talks about his fears, his hopes. It floods out of him. June-Mee asks perceptive questions, and follows his answers, even when he wanders into the dull maze of his professional life. She laughs at his tales of how he avoided the horrors of the thirties, and reaches across to cuff him when he grows cheeky with wine. He avoids talking about Margot.
After the dessert plates are cleared, and the two of them are standing out in the street, wrapped in their coats with the taste of coffee on their lips, while Michael is summoning the courage to ask her, once and for all, what’s going on, he realises he can’t handle this by himself.
He’s desperate for clarification. But it’s more than that: he has to share this feeling. It means nothing if he keeps it to himself. A maimed beggar cannot be his only witness. Michael switches everything on, and as the real world comes swarming in, June-Mee kisses him on the mouth.
Her lips are soft and yet firm. As different from his own clumsy lips as can be. He can’t believe how good it feels. It’s been decades since he’s had a kiss like this. June-Mee doesn’t have to reach up like Margot did. She simply presses into him, her body lithe against the swell of his belly. As the moment—its image, its imprint, its strange reality—flows outwards through the datasphere, he feels joy blooming inside him, ruthless and swift.
She bites his bottom lip, and is gone.
Michael showers, long and vague beneath the scalding water. He doesn’t bother shaving. A hangover beats on his skull. He raises his phone and snaps off the morning’s shots. Click.
It’s all there in his face. Guilt hangs in the shadows under his eyes. But there’s more: the conflicted intimation of a smile. He needs coffee. Sophie will already be at school. He makes his way slowly down the hall in just his towel.
Sophie is waiting for him in the kitchen. The first thing he sees is the emerald headscarf pulled low over her brow. He scans her data in a panic. Total blackout. She looks furious.
Are you going to pay? she says.
What? What are you doing wearing—
You haven’t even looked at it, have you? Here.
She blinks, and his overlay fills with Cyrillic characters. He dimly remembers seeing it when he woke.
That’s the bill, she says.
You went on a date with a twenty-four-year-old woman from your past, she says.
I don’t understand, he says.
No shit. Did she know exactly what you liked?
Did she have an unbelievable memory?
She was pretty much perfect, right?
And you don’t own your own data?
I told you, Michael says. Of course not.
See, that’s how they do it! After you shared your disgusting little moment with the world, I looked it up.
Michael sits at the table. The towel rides up around his thighs. He tugs it down. You’re going to have to spell this out, he says.
You’ve let them log everything you’ve ever done, she says. They know what you’ve watched and bought and clicked. They even know what porn you like—they use that too. It’s in the fine print when you reactivate your Facebook account. You’re liable for premium services.
She’s not real? he says feebly.
She’s a premium service, Dad. They used to send emails from Natalya in Russia, wanting to meet for a good time. This is just the latest version of the scam. Wait, what’s the woman’s name again?
June-Mee, he says. June-Mee Kim.
Sophie blinks, accessing her own data. Hang on, she says. Yes, here. Did you even check outside Facebook? Jesus, she died twenty-five years ago.
She sees his expression, and the righteousness fades from her face.
Dad, she says. I know you’ve been lonely. But so do they; they know how you’re feeling better than you do. It’s total manipulation.
They’ve built this—woman—out of everything I’ve ever said and done?
Michael is quiet for a long time. And you’ve taken the vow? he says.
Sophie places her hand on the table, and he sees the small gold ring. She tilts her chin defiantly. Yes, she says. Eloise came over last night.
He tries her data stream one more time. Nothing. She’s beyond him now, encrypted to hell. He thinks of Margot, their life, their shared history, and how it is all beyond him too. Then he thinks of June-Mee, and the kiss, and how June-Mee is right here. Michael looks at the bill. He can afford it.
Arms Race is available from all good book selling places and from Text.