Escape Pod 476: In Loco Parentis

In Loco Parentis

by Andrea Phillips

The video stutters at the eighteen-second mark. Yakova knows by heart precisely when it happens. As she watches, she mouths the words along with Autumn. “So this girl just, like, opens up her bag, right?”

And here is where it happens: Autumn elbows her and knocks her glasses off. Yakova knows she should edit it out, those few seconds of skewed and jarring footage as her glasses skitter across the lunch table. Instead, she studies each frame carefully.

Jad is there, nearly off-frame and out of focus, light gleaming off the angled planes of his cheekbones, dark hair curled over his eyes. He starts from his recline, and he looks at her (looks at her!), eyes widening. His hand reaches up, and —

She cuts it off here, before she has to hear her own brassy laugh, before she can hear herself telling Autumn to be more careful. If she doesn’t hear it, she can pretend HE didn’t hear it, either.

She bites her lip, studying Jad’s expression of… concern? It must be concern. Probably. But is it the aloof concern of a bystander, or a more significant concern, floating atop a deep ocean of unspoken feeling?

At the base of Yakova’s skull, her minder, Seraph, uncoils and stretches. “You have homework to do,” Seraph says. When she speaks, it is a warm vibration behind Yakova’s ear, all thought and no real sound. Her voice is the same as Yakova’s mother.

Yakova zooms in on Jad’s inscrutable degree of concern. “Do you think he likes me?” she asks.

The video panel winks out. “Homework,” Seraph says. If she has arrived at any conclusions regarding the boy’s feelings, she keeps them to herself.

Yakova shouldn’t have glasses at all, of course. Not anymore, not at her age. The last two years have seen her friends blossoming into adulthood — one by one peripherals have fallen away, leaving their eyes clear, their faces open and unguarded. Yakova is left behind with a goggle-eyed wall between her and her newly coltish, beautiful peers.

Being marked out as the sole baby in a flock of long-limbed near-adults is no easy thing, and made worse because she knows she is not a baby, not really. If only her mother could see that.

Yakova closes her eyes and pictures the single blurry frame, Jad’s indeterminate degree of concern. Her minder can remove the video from her glasses, but can’t lock Yakova out of her memory of it. “Seraph,” Yakova says, “can’t you convince my mom it’s time for me to get optic implants? I’m so ready.”

“You know I can’t,” Seraph says. “Only you can do that.”

The upgrade is a simple enough procedure: three pills and two quick injections, one for each eye. Fine threads would twine along Yakova’s optic nerves, just like the ones that already wind through her auditory nerves. They would weave a silvery net within her brain, reaching into the place deep in her skull where Seraph dwells.

The limitations binding Seraph — like a forest of thorns to keep her imprisoned — would slowly lose their power in the face of this more complete integration. Over time, Seraph would become an extension of Yakova’s self, no longer an extension of her parents’ authority.

“Can’t you just try?” Yakova’s lower lip curls out and down, petulant.

“I’ll mention it,” Seraph says. “That’s all I can do.”

You can’t do the upgrade too young, of course; that would risk the minder overpowering the child’s semi-developed brain. It wouldn’t do for the servant to become the master. And of course some parents fear losing control of their children. Though of course they always do, in the end.

“Wake up, dumpling, it’s time,” Seraph says, gently.

Yakova groans. Seraph always wakes her at the optimal time in her sleep cycle — or so she says — but it is invariably too early. “Not yet,” Yakova murmurs, eyes still closed. Her sweaty cheek is pressed against her bed, her lips loose and open, her breath slow and even.

It is a dance they perform every morning, and Seraph continues the time-worn steps: “I’ll give you five more minutes.”

Yakova tips forward into her dream again. In her quasi-sleep, she is with Jad. His arms are wrapped around her, strong and warm as her cocoon of blankets. She sighs.

After precisely five minutes have passed, Seraph does the one thing she knows will instantly rouse her host. She opens Yakova’s chat buffer. “Ninety new messages,” Seraph says. “Autumn is having trouble deciding what to wear this morning.”

Yakova’s eyes fly open. Her hand scrabbles in the gray morning light for her glasses, places them securely on her nose.

She sits, still wrapped in blankets, and scans the chat. The warm imprint of Jad’s dream-arms is still heavy on her skin. “You can’t see what I was dreaming about, right, Seraph?” She hugs her elbows close to her ribs to keep any embarrassment from rushing out of her chest and into the open.

“You know I can’t,” Seraph says. “Only you can do that.”

Yakova knows this, but doesn’t quite believe it. It can be difficult to be certain where the line is between you and an entity who lives in your own head, sees what you see, hears what you hear. Some children choose to wipe their minders clean and start fresh once they have upgraded to optic implants. It provides a sense of liberation of the self from the lingering echo of one’s parents.

Seraph shepherds Yakova through her morning tasks: clean clothes — no, not that shirt, it’s going to be too hot today — brush teeth, comb hair. Remember to wash your face, the new pimple-reducing face wash is in the cabinet below the sink. All the while Yakova is enclosed in the joyful cocoon of her peer group. Today, they decide, they will all wear red and call Denny “Captain Hottiepants” to see if it gets a rise out of him.

Yakova’s mother, Meirav, is already in the breakfast room. Streaks of gray spiral through her thick hair, reminding Yakova of neural networks and optic implants. Meirav’s eyes are distant as she skims the news, or perhaps her messages. Coffee steams beside her motionless hand.

Yakova pours herself a mug of fresh coffee, adulterates it with abundant sugar and coconut cream. Her mother’s eyes flick over, then tighten with disapproval.

“You shouldn’t have coffee,” Seraph says, in Meirav’s voice. “You’re too young, it will damage your nervous system.”

Yakova lifts the coffee to her lips and takes an ostentatious slurp. The sound breaks over the faint hum of electricity like a tsunami crashing over a sleepy seaside resort.

“Yakova,” her mother says, in Seraph’s voice. Or almost her voice; it’s not the same now, not anymore — the passage of years has worn Meirav into something deeper, harder, snappish and despotic.

Yakova’s ribs fill with hot steel. Her nostrils are wide with insolence. She takes another loud sip of coffee, swallows it.

“Yakova.” Meirav is still, like the blade of a guillotine before it drops. “Do you want a consequence?”

Yakova lifts the coffee to her lips a third time, mumbling a half-remembered curse.

Meirav’s eyes narrow, her chin grows hard. “Where did you learn that word?”

Yakova shrugs. “I don’t know,” she says, with measured enjoyment. “Guess I just made it up.”

Meirav’s eyes are half-lidded. She pulls the information straight from Yakova’s mind — from Seraph, who can keep no secrets from her. “Autumn,” she says. A silence descends as she reviews patterns of interaction between her child and this other. “Always a bad influence,” she says at last. “I won’t have you speaking with her anymore.”

“Just try and stop me,” Yakova says.

“Consider it done.” Meirav smiles joylessly. She sits down again and loses her focus, sinking back into her news, her correspondence, a bright internal world impervious to Yakova’s small rebellion.

Yakova cups the coffee in both her hands, breathes in its bitter scent. Its taste is turning sour at the back of her tongue.

Autumn has been removed from Yakova’s chat contacts.

Suddenly her joyful cocoon of constant companionship has torn. Other friends try to fill the emptiness where her link to Autumn was, at first. They pass messages between the two. Seraph is obligated to filter this activity almost as soon as Yakova herself has noticed it.

Yakova still has the limited interaction that happens when bodies occupy near-space, but this is a poor substitute for the deeper synchrony of thought and action she has always known, as fast as thought, as deep inside her as her own beating heart.

She sits at lunch with her friends. As one, they titter and look at Denny from the corners of their glasses-free eyes. Autumn has sent something funny, she guesses. A doctored screen capture, a particularly unflattering freeze frame. “What was it?” Yakova sends, but she gets no response. She doesn’t know if it’s because there has been no answer, or because Seraph has been commanded to hide any answers from her.

Yakova looks into her pot of yogurt, stirs it with a spoon. Pedro sends a short video of a cartoon panda eating a candy cane. The table erupts with fresh giggles. It is incomprehensible to Yakova.

In a corner of her glasses, Seraph captures Jad’s words and actions for later scrutiny. A tally glows faint blue: Jad has looked her way eight times in twenty minutes, an increase of 17.3% from the mean.

Perhaps it is interest; or perhaps it’s just pity, as word of her isolation spreads.

Yakova tries to think of a code, a signal, something to bridge the infinite chasm between herself and her friends, but there is no code Yakova would understand that Seraph could overlook. One cannot keep secrets from the angel on one’s shoulder.

“Autumn,” Yakova says, out loud. “We’re still friends, right? I mean… it’s OK, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” Autumn says. She gives Yakova an apologetic smile.

But slowly, over hours and days, the effort of routing around the damaged pathway that is Yakova proves too much. The web must repair itself. When the cocoon closes over again, shining and beautiful and safe, Yakova is no longer inside it.

Yakova lies in her bed, as alone as she has ever been. “Bring them back, Seraph,” she wails. “This is a disaster. I might as well be dead. Seraph, can’t you tell mom she’s been too hard on me? ”

“You know I can’t,” Seraph says. “Only you —”

Yakova closes her eyes tight to block out her empty chat buffer. “I know, only I can do that.”

Yakova watches her first memory. The video shows the quick injection in the back of her skull, the glasses going on, Yakova twisting her chubby limbs impatiently as the technician fiddles with settings. It’s a very quick procedure.

After several minutes, the technician looks at Yakova expectantly, his hand hovering over a control. “Seraph on,” he says. “Begin integration now.”

“Hello, Yakova,” her mother says softly, in her ear, where nobody else can hear.

Yakova’s eyes grow wide, so wide. Her hand hovers by her ear. Her gaze darts toward her mother, who is sitting across from her, wordless. “Mama?” Yakova asks. Her round face is filled with puzzlement over how her mother can be speaking to her in her head while not speaking with her mouth. She takes a teetering few steps toward her mother for reassurance.

Yakova’s mother smiles. “Is it working, then?” she asks.

The technician nods. “She’s live.”

Yakova’s mother goes down on her knees and squeezes Yakova’s dimpled hands. “Listen, baby. Mommy has a helper now. Right there sitting on your shoulder, so I’ll always know you’re safe.”

“My name is Seraph,” says Yakova’s mother’s voice in her ear. “And I love you very much.”

Or maybe Yakova doesn’t remember any of that, not really; maybe it’s something she’s pieced together in the negative space where she knows this event took place.

Seraph does not comment on the video.

Yakova cuts over to a montage of her childhood, clips of notable moments strung together from her glasses and from Seraph’s own recordings. Yakova’s mother kisses her goodnight, absently, and then leaves; Seraph tells Yakova stories and sings her lullabies until she falls asleep. Seraph calls an ambulance when Yakova breaks her collarbone on the playground, whispers soothing words to carry her through the pain. Seraph guides Yakova to the feminine hygiene supplies in the closet, armed with terrible quips to make the milestone feel less important, less frightening.

Yakova wonders if she would be better off without this burden of history. One day she will get the implants; her mother can stall adulthood only so long. She contemplates the nature of loneliness. “You’ve always been here with me,” she whispers. “Thank you, Seraph.”

“I love you very much,” Seraph says. It might even be true, Yakova thinks. Who can say there is no feeling of love, when actions speak of it? If only Seraph were not a slave to her mother’s will. If only Yakova were not.

Yakova pulls up her favorite moments with Jad, then sweeps them across her field of view, each vignette playing over and over. The hand reached out in ineffable concern; a sly smile half-caught when Autumn mentions Yakova’s lack of a boyfriend; a sincere compliment after a masterful yaniv victory. This kind of torment, this exquisite unknowingness, has a simple solution. Simple and yet completely inaccessible.

“Seraph,” Yakova says at last, “I have to know if he likes me or not. Can’t you get my mother to activate your dating module?”

“You know I can’t,” Seraph says. “Only you can do that.”

Once upon a time, matters of the heart were handled by people. It was messy and upsetting, riddled with rejection, ambiguity, misunderstanding. Slowly, though, the crushing wheels of romance have been worn smoother and less painful by layers of technology. Now minders speak directly to one another, establishing mutual interest and likely suitability well in advance. Couples are introduced, relationship conflicts are mediated, even the dissolutions of relationships are handled through minders as much as between the human elements themselves.

Seraph should ask Jad’s minder how he feels about Yakova; this is how it is done. Yakova would learn to channel her obsession into something less hopeless, or else she would find herself in a relationship.

But Seraph has not been given the power to communicate directly with minders outside Yakova’s family. It is for their protection, to keep Seraph free of malware and to keep Yakova from stumbling into a situation dangerously out of her depth.

All Seraph can do is help Yakova analyze Jad’s microexpressions and intonations with increasingly fine scrutiny. Yakova zooms in on Jad’s honey-gold eyes, memorizes their irregular pattern of stripes. “I have to know,” she says again, quietly.

Yakova waits on the sofa, fidgeting and revising the words she plans to say. When her mother walks in the door, Yakova stands up straight and delivers the words to her mother as they are written in bold letters across her glasses. She speaks formally, as if delivering a political address or a forced apology to a school administrator. “Mom, I’m not a little girl anymore, and you need to accept that. You need to give me the optic implants.”

“Is this about your friend?” Meirav asks. Her face is without mercy.

Yakova shakes her head and pushes her glasses further up her nose. She continues to read. “All of my friends have implants now. They control for themselves who they’re friends with and if they’re dating. If you don’t give me this, it’s going to seriously affect my social and mental development.” She says the last words with triumph. They were borrowed from a parenting article on the benefits of the upgrade.

“No,” says Yakova’s mother.

“You’re not being fair,” Yakova says. She shrinks into her chest, arms crossed, as if she could somehow become invisible.

Meirav steps close and pulls her child closer yet for a hug. She cradles Yakova’s head, her thumb caressing a knot of Seraph’s wiring.

“You won’t be a child forever, I promise you,” she says. “Why hurry?”

“It’s so hard,” Yakova says. “I don’t want to be left out.”

Meirav is silent. An alert appears in Yakova’s glasses. Autumn has reappeared. The chat buffer shows eight hundred seventeen messages where a moment ago there were none.

“My rabbit, you were never alone in your head, and it only gets worse from here,” Meirav says. “You need to discover who you are by yourself. Not who your friends want you to be, not what your minder tells you to be. Not even who I want you to be.”

“I know who I am,” Yakova says. Her words are muffled by her mother’s embrace.

“Show me,” Meirav says, “that you are who you are. Show me that you can do and choose on your own. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Yakova’s eyes are closed. She listens to her mother’s heartbeat and nods, hoping she does.

Yakova reflects upon this riddle at school. She asks Seraph what it means. “I think if I tell you an answer,” Seraph says, “it’s already the wrong one.”

Across the room, Jad glances Yakova’s way. The blue tally twitches to nine times in fifteen minutes. A new record.

“Seraph, ask his minder.” Yakova changes the tally to a graph, changes it to show a moving average of visual contact over time. “I don’t care what the answer is, I just have to know for sure. Please?”

“You know I can’t,” Seraph says. A silence lingers, a shadow of the words she does not say.

Yakova understands.

She takes a breath, and then another. She walks across the room and stands in front of Jad. He looks at her, his eyebrows high, waiting for her words or a message to arrive. Her mouth is dry. Her pulse rattles her bones.

“Do you want to go out with me? Like for some ice cream or something?” she asks him.

Jad is startled. His pupils shrink, then dilate again. He smiles. There is a pause as his own version of Seraph whispers in his ear what he should do, what he’s allowed to do, what the good choice is.

He taps once, lightly, behind his ear, to silence his minder’s voice. “Yeah,” he says. His smile dazzles Yakova with its brightness. “You know what? I’d really like that.”

About the Author

Andrea Phillips

Andrea Phillips is a game designer and author. Currently she co-writes the serials Bookburners and ReMade. On her own she’s written the novel Revision, pirate serial The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart, and the novelette The Revolution, Brought to You By Nike.

You can find Andrea on Twitter at @andrhia. I mean, if you like that sort of thing.

Find more by Andrea Phillips


About the Narrator

Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and sometime-host of Escape Pod.

She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Scribe Awards. In the past decade she has been the co-founder/co-editor of PseudoPod, founding editor of Mothership Zeta, and the editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).

She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.

Mur won the 2013 Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award), and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Fancast for Ditch Diggers. She’s been nominated for numerous other awards and is always doing new things, so check her website for the latest.

Find more by Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty