The wall in front of Harry Bo faded to an impossibly imperceptible black. That was enough to catch his attention; just seconds earlier it had been covered with a dozen ads all flashing and flapping for his attention. He stopped to stare at the empty space, Karen pausing at his side before wandering off, her attention focused on something else visible only to her.
As he stared into the emptiness, he saw a tiny twinkle emerge from the centre of the vast black canvas, a gold and white flash cycling every second like a distant lighthouse. He leant in for a closer look at the tiny object, his eyes squinting an inch from the wall. It was spinning towards him, slowly growing from the size of a grain of rice until it reached something like life size. It was a woman’s engagement ring, gold with a large solitaire diamond. Harry moved back as it grew to the size of a basketball, the giant ring following him before floating stationary in the space in front of his chest. It cast shadows against the ground from the overhead lights of the night-time cityscape, perfectly rendered to fit the space despite being so obviously out of place.
He cast a surprised look in Karen’s direction. She was intently watching whatever was being fed into her sensory augmentor. Harry couldn’t see what she could see—his own aug had shut down all other visible advertising and had left him with only the slowly spinning giant ring. Whatever she saw had her attention while he was left to the ring.
A voice spoke to Harry from the direction of the blank wall.
‘Harry, isn’t it time you asked the question?’
The ring was now shrinking and moving back to the wall. A life-sized man was standing in a space inside the wall and he held out his hand as the ring, back to its normal size, floated into his hand. A jewellery shop materialised around the man, the name, Huang’s Jewellers, featuring prominently. It matched the name tag on the jeweller’s jacket.
The door to the store opened and Harry was startled to see himself walk inside. He watched as the simulated Harry strode over to Mr Huang, firmly shaking his hand before being shown to the counter. The jeweller opened a velvet-lined case and Harry quickly and confidently picked out a ring. Mr Huang nodded approvingly before placing the ring in a box and handing it back to Harry, sealing the transaction with a second handshake and a warm smile.
Harry watched himself walk away from the jeweller and make his way towards the door. As he did, the shop faded and he was in a park. His twin walked a short distance and sat beside Karen on a blanket with a picnic lunch, the scene a near-perfect re-creation of their second date. It looked identical to the framed picture she kept on her bedside table except that Karen’s dark hair, worn as a short bob at the time, was shown grown out to its current length. As Karen turned away and took a drink from her wine glass, Harry reached into his pocket to retrieve the ring, moving until he was on one knee, just in time to catch her as she turned back to face him. Her face expressed a perfect mix of joy and excitement and surprise as she looked up at him, her hand over her mouth as she caught her breath and took stock of the situation. Harry watched himself in a state of nervous excitement morphing to relief and happiness as Karen gave a fast series of joyous nods. She threw herself at him in a violent embrace which knocked him on his back, her enthusiastic kiss confirming her acceptance of the proposal.
Karen disappeared and the wall again faded to black, the virtual Harry the only object remaining. He stood up and dusted himself off as his clothing changed into a formal suit. He was then in a change room and Vic was there, similarly dressed, adjusting Harry’s bow tie with the expected meticulous precision. Vic inspected him and gave a nod in approval as Harry silently gestured towards him, Vic patting at his chest to indicate that whatever he had was in his top pocket. Harry sighed nervously before indicating he was ready.
They were then in the altar of a church, family and friends seated before them, all attentively waiting for the bride to enter. Karen entered, perfect in white, her tall, slim body gliding slowly up the aisle. She faced Harry in front of the priest, her eyes locked on her soon-to-be husband. The priest’s mouth moved in a few seconds of quick words before silently gesturing to Harry for the rings. Vic handed them over and they were exchanged as silent vows danced on the lips of the bride and groom. The priest held up his hands in an appeal to god before returning his gaze to Harry and Karen, motioning them together with wide arms. With a kiss the ceremony was over, and the bride and groom found themselves standing on the steps in front of the church.
Family and friends were pressed by the photographer to gather around. Harry saw them all, his mother, his sister, aunties, uncles and cousins, all forming on his side, Karen’s family all present on hers. His friends were there too, the ones close to him at least, grinning and joking as they moved into position. His uncle Richard was standing behind the photographer, obstinately refusing to move into frame despite Aunt Ruth’s insistence, her resolve fading into angry acceptance before she put on a smile for the camera.
The photographer’s flash washed over the gathered crowd and they began to move about and engage in conversation with one another. Harry the saw the groom look to the right and watched as a gentle smile crept across his doppelganger’s face. He followed the direction of the gaze until he saw the ghostly apparition of his long-dead father standing under a tree. The ghost beamed with pride and happiness and gave the gentlest of nods to his son. The groom smiled and returned the nod before focusing his attention back on his bride.
Harry didn’t spot Mr Huang until he had walked over to appear next to him in the street.
‘Harry, when the time comes, trust Huang’s Jewellers to provide the perfect ring for your perfect day.’ Mr Huang bowed beneficently before slowly fading from view. As Harry looked back to the wall, he saw it was once again an empty black space.
It was amazing work, the best he had seen. Harry turned to Karen and motioned towards her in an effort to get her impression of what had just happened. He remembered though, she hadn’t seen what he had seen. Instead, her aug had fed her an unknowable alternate stream of sights and sounds.
Karen was lost in the play of images projected in front of her, the tailored reality of whatever the advertisers thought would get her attention holding her in its information-powered fist. Harry focused his attention on her, her mouth slightly opened in a gentle, amused smile.
She was beautiful. And he was certainly a good fit. But marriage? It was as though his augmentor had read the subconscious thoughts that had just begun to creep into his mind. That was impossible, the thoughts weren’t there as far as he knew, but what had he done, he who was always so careful about expressing his intentions, that led to the telco figuring out that marriage had become an option?
He was in trouble. The algorithm, whatever it was, had clearly concluded that it was approaching the time when he and Karen would be thinking about marriage. The signs could be invisible to him, his perspective limited as it was to his own point of view. The aggregated data of hundreds of millions of users was available to the marketing analysts, and clearly someone had built a signature out of the patterns in the metadata, which determined where he and Karen were at in their relationship.
He hadn’t said anything to anyone, not even to Vic, and there had been no hints from any of his friends or family that it was time. Time of course could have been a factor, how long they had been together. The eighteen months of monogamous romantic entanglement could be a marker on a probability scale of relationship seriousness. It could also be combined with the gradual overlapping of their social-network graphs as their lives became more intertwined. Or the proportion of nights spent together as opposed to sleeping alone. The increase or decrease in the exchange of gifts. The types of dates they were going on. How comfortable each was with displaying themselves in the real in front of one another. Any of a number of things. But more likely a combination of them all. Mr Huang had clearly spent money on this ad and whoever peddled it to him had put together a very sophisticated algorithm which had picked up on those first subtle hints that Karen might well be the one.
For all his knowledge and attempts to hide his intentions from the all-seeing eye linked to his sensory system, Harry had been caught out. His cleverness had not been enough—he was a human and in matters of the heart most people followed a well-worn path from awkward introduction to adjacent burial plots. But caught out in what? His mind wasn’t made up, there were no intentions for the aug to read.
Karen turned to look at him. ‘Hey,’ she said. ‘What are you staring at?’
‘You. You look fantastic tonight,’ Harry said.
Karen twirled, delighted. ‘Thank you,’ she said, finishing the movement with an exaggerated courtesy. ‘Do you notice anything different?’
‘I dunno, let me take a proper look.’ Harry took a step back until she filled his view. As he did, his aug whispered quietly ‘launch pattern matcher?’ to him. Harry double blinked and the app launched as he slowly scanned her body.
‘I’ve seen those shoes before, you wore them a month ago. Legs are the same, good to see them out.’
She let out a small laugh.
As his eyes tracked upwards, he caught sight of the short red dress billowing out from her slender waist. His aug had beaten him to it, the dress was outlined in his vision, it was new.
‘It’s the dress. I don’t think I’ve seen the dress before.’
‘The dress is new but it’s not the dress,’ she said. ‘Look harder.’
‘Your breasts look bigger, but that might just because I haven’t seen them for so long.’
She squealed as she hit him in the shoulder.
Harry looked up to catch the smile, her perfect white teeth shining brightly against her fair skin, long dark hair wildly framing her face. His aug had noticed something though and had drawn a small translucent circle around each eye.
‘Harry,’ his aug whispered in his ear, ‘it appears that Karen has changed her eye colour.’
Harry mouthed the word ‘off’ before leaning in for a closer look. Those wonderful, unique olive eyes he’d stared into a thousand times were now blue.
‘You’re wearing new eyes.’
‘Yes!’ she said. ‘I’ve always wanted to give it a go, but I’ve finally taken the plunge. Do you like it?’
‘Yeah, they’re great,’ Harry said in his most enthusiastic tone.
His aug knew that it was not. As Harry responded to the question his aug picked up on the downward shift of his eyes, a slight backwards lean, hands moving towards one another. The aug responded by changing his facial mask, the face seen by everyone else, to cover the micromovements and hide the lie. If Karen had been running an analytic suite, she might have noticed something in the microseconds between his first movements and the aug’s response, but she clearly wasn’t. She beamed at Harry’s response.
‘It’s not permanent of course, it’s just a three-week contract, more like picking a makeup line than a proper change to my baseline appearance. But who knows? After that I might stick with it.’
‘I can’t believe I didn’t notice before, I’m so sorry,’ he said.
‘I could say something about you looking at me everywhere but my face, but truth is I only switched while we were in the taxi. You were so entranced by whatever you were watching when we stepped out that I had to be a little less subtle.’
‘I appreciate the help,’ Harry said. The initial surprise had worn down, his first response now over, the aug returning his public face to a truer reflection of his current emotional state. The whole exchange occurred between the augs in the heads of all the people who could see Harry, and he had no awareness of the charade taking place on his behalf. ‘Shall we walk for a bit? The restaurant is this way.’
‘Yeah.’ Karen hugged Harry’s arm and they moved off slowly.
The city at night was a feast of colour. A new installation in front of the Caleton building was a giant Greek warrior made from a fountain of rising mist, the colours shifting from bright blue as it erupted from two spouts below his ankles before moving through the spectrum until it faded to the softest of pinks as it evaporated high above his head. A dog ran through the warrior’s legs and tried to bite the coloured mist, the coloured air swirling visibly around him. The child giving chase was imploring it to stop.
Harry thought about what he had seen. It was a masterpiece of advertising. In four minutes he had been taken on an ultra-realistic ride through his own future featuring all of the people dearest to him. The advertisement had picked out his and Karen’s tastes and habits to create and flawlessly present a perfect proposal and wedding day. It had captured the mannerisms of the supporting cast from Vic’s fastidiousness to Uncle Richard’s aversion to anything which put him in the frame. And it had topped all of this off with the vision of his father, the person who Harry would most want to be present, proudly approving of his union with Karen from beyond the grave.
His second thought was that it must have cost them a lot to put the ad together. The agency responsible must have, at the very least, paid for full profiles of both himself and Karen as well as summaries for the friends who appeared as invited guests. This meant it had come from a specialist agency, one tasked with finding consumers for high-value items designed to meet their specific needs.
As he thought about it the whole thing made more sense. A marriage was one of the most expensive events in a young adult’s life and investing in advertising early made sense if your portfolio included clients across the range of wedding services. They would all pay for privileged access to consumers before their competitors. Harry realised that he could expect follow-ups from the full range of wedding products over subsequent weeks and that they would all flow from the agency that had bought the rights to advertise exclusively to him.
It was also one of only a few moments in a consumer’s life where brand loyalty was up for grabs, where dramatic changes in circumstances led to changes in patterns of consumption. He’d been through one five years earlier, when he’d moved out of home, and in the year between leaving the nest and settling into his habits in his own apartment he’d been subjected to a barrage of tailored ads for things he never knew he needed. There was, however, nothing in that experience which prepared him for this.
It struck him that this was all predicated by a conclusion which he had not yet formed: that he planned to propose to Karen sometime in the near future. While he had been with her for a long time and planned to continue, he certainly hadn’t discussed the possibility of marriage with her or anyone else. He couldn’t point to any specific event that could have been sent through his aug to the telco that would lead an algorithm to conclude that he was thinking about marriage. The fact that he had no such plans made that a certainty.
It had to have been something subtler. From his own work, he knew that these types of conclusions were based on probabilities built from observations of human behaviour. Even if the thought was yet to materialise in his own mind, he was surely set on the path well-trodden by so many others.
‘I’m getting hungry,’ Karen said. ‘You are planning on feeding me tonight, aren’t you?’
‘Of course, my darling.’ He leant in and kissed her on the temple. ‘Just working up your appetite. We’re almost there.’
‘We’re going to Sarah’s, right?’
‘Yeah, if that’s ok with you?’
‘Perfect,’ she said. ‘And close, which is more important right now.’
Sarah’s was a favourite of theirs, a mix of quality and atmosphere without any pretence of a fine-dining experience. They compromised a distinct theme for range, their menu was among the most comprehensive in town but lacked any heritage, real or contrived.
‘Ah, Harry, Karen, good to see you back again,’ said the man Harry’s aug told him was named George.
‘You too, George,’ Harry said. He couldn’t remember meeting the man before. ‘Just a table for the two of us.’
‘Of course, this way.’ He motioned the two of them to a table by the window and they took their seats.
As they sat, Karen set to work on the menu straight away. Her mouth issued silent commands making dishes appear in front of her. She swiped the starters away as they appeared in front of her until stopping on a bowl of vegetable soup.
‘Can we order the starters straight away? I’m starving.’
‘Absolutely.’ Harry issued his own commands until a bowl of cheesy fries was projected in front of him. ‘Easy done, an old favourite.’
‘You know that’s not good for you,’ Karen said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘That. It’s all cheese and potatoes. It’s not good for you.’
‘But it’s not cheese and potatoes, it’s made of the same goop every meal is. The nutrient content is the same, it’s just the appearance and flavour and smell that’s changed.’
‘Yeah, but the brain senses the difference. Your metabolism responds differently when it senses fatty and excessively sweet foods and builds fat.’
Harry’s brow grew heavier. ‘I’m not an expert but I don’t really see how that’s possible. There needs to be a mechanism that would allow that and I don’t think there is one. I’m pretty sure that the aug calculates your dietary needs for the day and interfaces with wherever you’re getting food to dish out what you need for the day. The taste and appearance and all is just the aug interacting with your senses, all that the prepper does is control temperature and shape and texture. Oh, and of course nutrient content based on what you need and what you’ve eaten.’
‘I don’t dispute that,’ Karen said. ‘I know how it works, I studied biology when I was at university, remember? But there is this new idea, one which is getting support from a lot of people, which looks at the sensory cues and what your brain expects to be eating. So, if you eat, for example, cheesy fries, your brain expects you to be eating fat and prepares the body hormonally to produce body fat. When it doesn’t get what it is expecting, it affects your health.’
‘Maybe. But I doubt it. I’ve been eating cheesy fries all my life and put nothing into my body except perfectly nutritionally balanced food in line with scientifically established guidelines. If my brain were building up a correlation between what it’s sensing and what goes into my body, it still wouldn’t work.’
‘It goes back further than that though, back to the parts of us that evolved when we were cavemen. We haven’t changed that much since then.’
‘I’m not sure our caveman ancestors were big eaters of cheesy fries.’
That was a mistake. Her new eyes widened and her mouth puckered. She made no attempt to hide her response as she stared straight at him.
‘Sorry, my bad. It’s ok, I’ll order something else, I can see that this is important to you.’
Her face softened in relief. Harry messaged George through his aug and he came over. Karen got her soup, and Harry ordered a salad.
The awkward silence that followed was something Harry was starting to get used to. They’d gotten along so well for the first year, it was only these last six months where they were settling into one another that the differences had started to flare up. Maybe that was it, the aug picking up on the increase in arguments, the two of them hitting some threshold in disagreements which marked a transition to something serious. It was an intriguing idea, and Harry started musing on the mechanisms behind the algorithm. It couldn’t be anything picked out of the conversation: they were protected by the old privacy laws and none of the content got back to the telcos. If someone had built a signature for arguments, it must have been something in the emotional response markers sent in the metadata streams and some sort of locational correlation between the two of them. It was certainly a candidate.
Karen broke the silence.
‘So, what are you thinking about for the main?’ she asked.
‘Um, maybe the chicken breast?’
‘It’s ok, Harry, you can have what you want, I don’t want to argue.’
‘No, it’s my fault, I know you spend a lot of time reading up on this sort of thing. At the very least eating healthier isn’t going to do me any harm.’
Karen smiled at that. ‘I’ll send you some links you can take a look at, check out both sides of the argument before making your mind up.’ She reached over and took his hand.
George came back with the entrees and wine and took their orders for the main. Harry’s salad was unsatisfying, but he put up a good show of enjoying it. After all, it was all the same goop, just rearranged and flavoured.
The night went better from then on. Harry thought about it and realised he could compromise on diet if it came to that. She was after all a fantastic catch, maybe even too good for him. In the beginning he’d wondered what she’d seen in him. Whatever it was she hadn’t wavered, even for a moment, and he appreciated that.
‘How’s this for a compromise,’ Karen said after they finished their meal. ‘Chocolate cake for both of us.’
Harry made a show of considering the proposition carefully before he gave a gentle nod. ‘I think that’s probably a good idea.’
‘It’s settled then.’ She called George back over and ordered for them both.
‘So are you coming back to mine tonight?’ Harry asked after George had left.
‘I can’t, sorry,’ Karen replied. ‘You know, early start tomorrow, for the show on Saturday. I know it’s been a long time, but I’ve been busy.’
Maybe that was it, the aug had detected that the sex had dried up and marriage had become inevitable.
‘Oh, I meant to tell you, I have ordered a tuxedo for you, I’ll send it through now.’
Karen mouthed silent commands and her eyes flickered before an icon appeared in Harry’s vision, his aug telling him that the suit had arrived. He filed it away for Saturday night.
‘Got it,’ he said. Their cake arrived and he attacked it greedily. It was the first thing he’d enjoyed eating that night.
‘I hope you don’t mind but I think I should head straight back home.’
‘It’s all good, I understand.’
‘Thank you, Harry.’ Her new eyes could still cut straight to his core.
Harry signalled George for his bill and the figure popped up in his vision. His augmentor prepared a review for him based on his experience which he approved and he passed on a tip to George based on what it told him was appropriate. He took Karen’s hand and they walked out into the street.
‘You know, I think that while we’re in the mood to compromise you should at least let me keep you company on the ride back to your place.’
Karen bit her lip as the taxi pulled up beside them. ‘I think I can do that for you,’ she said.