Summer, 2019 / No. 43
George Pfromm

Their packed lunches had been left in crisp brown bags outside the suite door by campus hospitality, an exact list of the organic ingredients stapled to the top fold.

“This is how they soften you up, right?” said Andrea, shoving the bags into the worn-out backpack she’d brought from Vancouver. “Flashing that tech cash.”

Lily ignored the comment as she tied her hiking boots, but Richard, sitting on the couch across from her, guffawed—too loudly for Lily.

“Wait till you see my pedicure,” he said, pulling off his wool sock and wiggling his toes until Andrea slapped his foot down. “You’re a cheap date, Dad.”

A light knock on the door gave Lily an excuse to distance herself from their easy intimacy.

“Chaperone’s here,” deadpanned Andrea behind her, and Richard chortled.

Lily had been the lukewarm audience to their buddy routine for a lifetime. Tense, she opened the door expecting a company representative who would escort them off-site. But it was her own Junior, Kevin, standing there.

“Good morning, Lily,” he said, stumbling. “They had someone else but she’s sick, and Teresa figured I know you and—”

“No need to explain,” said Lily. “It’s fine.” She did not think it was fine. She would write the Senior, Teresa, later. Kevin, all blond eyelashes, reddish beard, and tattooed biceps, oversaw Lily’s capture. His job was to replace Lily’s old C.G.I. dots, rearrange her props, and ask the questions someone else wrote for him as prompts. Lily did not want to see this person on her day off. Besides, Kevin had been getting under Lily’s skin, too often asking if she was eager to achieve 360, whether she was bored. All the Juniors probed. They watched for cracks. But Kevin added a sense of personal mission to his snooping. Lily now suspected his presence was Teresa’s way of letting her and Richard know the company was uneasy about Andrea’s visit.

For his part, Richard was not thinking through the angles. He was a child awaiting summer camp. He rose and grabbed Kevin’s hand, shaking it hard.

“You’ve been at Lily’s station—what is it? A few weeks now?”

“Reassignment’s in ten days, sir,” said Kevin.

“Ten days,” repeated Richard, looking meaningfully at Lily. She sighed, but knew he was right: soon Kevin would be a distant memory. HoloPro was always switching out Juniors, a strategy for keeping Capture fresh and for stifling any budding feelings between Models and these pretty young assistants. Lily approved. Richard had been tempted in far less intense circumstances.

“I know the trails well,” said Kevin, still compensating for his unwanted presence.

When Lily reacted with cool silence, Richard looked at her, this time beseechingly, his eyes asking if she was really going to ruin this, his hard-won time with Andrea. The outing that could make him reconsider. Lily was forced to smile and nod, to let it go. She noticed it was easy. Getting to 290 degrees had fortified her. She had learned to “be herself,” and “be natural,” as HoloPro encouraged the Models to be—which meant inhabiting a distilled version of herself. Lily had never fought her tendency to take charge, but the program had allowed her to internalize and amplify her public persona. She could easily envision a conference room somewhere across the world, sometime in the future, in which strangers would take notes as the hologram named Lily pressed a lecture point using this very smile. Richard, for one, was buying it. He perked up.

“Then we’re ready to rock!” he said, leaping toward the door in the most enthusiastic display Lily had seen from her husband in nine weeks.

Kevin laughed. “Rad,” he said, glancing at Andrea. Andrea just averted her gaze. This was for Lily’s benefit. It said Andrea wanted nothing to do with the company or its proxies. Then again, Andrea always found reasons to reject any man besides Richard. A response, perhaps, to having had foolishly young parents. At times, Richard played not just father but best friend and idol to Andrea, especially when Lily’s work made her Bad Mom. Lily foresaw Andrea’s likely future: no marriage, no money, a think-tank job producing ideas doomed to hover on the margins. The money from Lily and Richard’s 360s was going to be Andrea’s salvation—if Richard could stick it out.

Kevin took them in a company S.U.V. from the campus to a trailhead about fifteen kilometres away, and they hiked at a comfortable pace for about an hour, along an easy upward incline through thick woods. Amid the dappled greenery, Lily relaxed in a way she hadn’t realized she’d been missing. She had been so consumed with 360, every day the same: the slow degrees of Capture, incrementally adding to the data pool everything she knew, everything she was, punctuated by the campus luxuries that soothed away the weirdness. Mostly. Lily and Richard had been satisfied to join the on-site yoga class or use the pool, followed by a massage. But every day, upon entering the vast hangar where they were filmed carrying out the minutia of their work, speech patterns, habits, movements, and ideas, Lily had seen these mountains framed by an enormous wall of windows. She always felt a pang—a touch of the sublime—as she caught sight of the peaks probing at the sky. Maybe this had been an explicit architectural choice by the company: to inspire awe tinged with fear. For Richard, Lily knew, the peaks loomed too large, another symbol of the freedom he felt increasingly robbed of. Never mind that it had been his idea to sign up to become a Model for 360, or that it was his poor investments that had convinced Lily they needed the money.

Now, crisp air, the feel of rough land beneath her boots, the sounds of songbirds, and a light breeze shaking the bright, early leaves loosened something deep inside Lily. She had been lucky in her health. She had not had to take any advice about managing chronic disease. She would never need her own 360. Only headaches, brought on, she told herself, by overwork, were a problem. Nothing half a bottle of wine and warm eye compress couldn’t fix. Richard was another story. He seemed to have a physical correlate for every bad feeling—reactive skin, a weak stomach, trembling hands. All worsening by the day on the HoloPro campus.

It had been nearly two weeks since he’d announced over dinner at one of the elegant campus eateries that he wanted to abandon the program.

“They’ll keep us in court forever.”

“I don’t care,” said Richard. “I’ll go mad.”

He was handsome. Had been since Grade 10 homeroom. Now the sprinkling of grey stubble gave him a rugged look Lily loved. But listening to his over-dramatizations, Lily thought for the first time that her husband, on the cusp of forty, looked old.

They’d agreed that Richard would book a last-ditch meeting with Teresa. Lily liked their Senior. Teresa was energetic, exuding boundless faith in technology. Teresa had nodded, listening intently as Richard recounted his discomfort with the program, his revulsion at being corrected when failing to act enough like himself. Teresa had not mentioned HoloPro’s ironclad contract, or the unassailable accommodations. Instead, she’d leaned toward Richard with extreme solicitude and asked, “What could we do to make the next month more joyous?”

Lily, who’d been sitting quietly by Richard’s side, nearly choked. Joy? In her husband? The writer? But Richard had not blinked.

“It would be great to see our daughter—Andrea.”

Now, here they were. Good had come from bad. Lily reveled in her health and the freshness of the air. As her breath quickened with the effort of the hike, she really tried to imagine the version of herself that would eventually be marketed to nursing schools and educational institutions far away. Hair and makeup perfect. Outfit on point. Facial expression both variable and consistently “her.” Yet Lily might not like that person. This Lily was a realist. Her research focused on efficiencies in nursing care. Lily honestly believed the public health system was swollen, bleeding money. But how would her research program sound coming out of the mouth of that Lily? Callous? Cold? Did HoloPro care if it did? They could always create another Model to sell along with hers. Some social scientist who would make the case for more heath-care spending. Customers could bundle the two—Lily and her opposite—to market the whole spectrum of ideas. But it would still be Lily’s face out there. Lily’s words, voice, and gestures.

“Mom,” said Andrea, grabbing her arm. “Careful.”

Lily was about to put down her foot on something dark and round.

“Bear scat,” said Kevin.

Lily sidestepped and looked nervously at her daughter.

“They live around here,” said Kevin, shrugging. “That’s why I have this.” He held up an aerosol can. “Stops them cold. The new kind is easier on them. Ethical.”

He slid the can back into his pack and walked on.

About twenty minutes later, the group stopped on a rocky outcrop, where Kevin pointed out the HoloPro campus below them to the east.

“From here it looks so insignificant,” said Richard. Lily could see that he needed this—to be above 360 for the day, away from the repetition that underpinned data collection for a 3-D “whole self” hologram. Richard wanted a role change. Today he was “model father,” not “model writer.”

“Just think, Dad,” said Andrea. “Right now, down there, on some server, you’re gestating. Richard 2.0.”

Kevin smiled tightly.

“Sorry,” said Andrea, running an invisible zipper across her lips. “No shop talk.”

Lily remembered the day, nearly a year ago, when she and Richard had signed their contract. They’d both had doubts about the confidentiality clause. Lily knew it would be painful for Richard to be apart from Andrea for so long, and to be prohibited from sharing with her nearly anything about this strange project of turning his likeness and knowledge into marketable software. The company representatives had reiterated that their proprietary capture process had already been compromised once by hackers. They had to ensure that the institutions that bought these holographic packages had exclusive rights. They reminded Lily and Richard that these customers were mostly in the developing world, that every 360 was a vital teaching resource for thousands of people—young people who would otherwise be denied access to leaders in a given field of study. Lily’s 360 would forward the health policy agenda in far-flung countries. Richard would be a perpetual visiting scholar contributing to cultural development globally. Confidentiality was essential to achieving these goals and a key reason payment to Models was so high. Richard had been the first to sign.

About forty minutes later a set of cracking sounds made the group stop—Kevin ahead, in the lead, followed by Richard, then Lily and Andrea. Mother and daughter had dropped back and were just starting to warm up, the way they always needed time to do. Andrea was talking about her job. Lily encouraged her, not for the first time, to consider a Ph.D., but Andrea bristled, making clear she opposed specialization and credentialization, which she felt contributed to inequality. Lily was about to reply that her own credentials were the only thing that had ever got her out of nursing shoes and away from dirty bedpans. That’s when the cracking began.

Lily wanted to think it was two trees rubbing together. But she worried that it could be more—the bear she’d feared earlier. Or a moose or elk. She glanced over at Richard. He had crouched to examine something on the ground—an insect, maybe, or an unusual plant. In all but the realm of money, Richard was a details person. In nature, in books, in bed, he paid attention. It’s why Lily had assumed Richard would love 360. At some point in the past few weeks though, they’d switched. Lily had found her inner spokesperson and was getting into the nitty-gritty of her. Richard had seen his distilled self and, maybe, didn’t like him. He was turning away, wanted the freedom to “be himself”—whoever that was.

Then a flash of honey-coloured fur streaked into Lily’s field of vision. An animal was on Richard. He staggered, then fell hard on his right side. It was a cougar—lithe, muscular, its thick forelegs raised in attack.

“Dad!’ cried Andrea.

Lily tried to grab her daughter’s arm, but Andrea was gone, headed straight for her father and the animal. Kevin, on the other side of Richard, had his hands at his face, clearly panicked. Lily registered that Kevin would be useless, that the company had sent him to protect their investment, but Kevin was not capable of protecting even himself. Yet, Lily was no better. She was frozen. She saw that anonymous conference room again, her 360 locking up during a presentation, smile cemented in place: Lily was not responding.

The cougar locked its jaws on Richard’s head. Andrea was kicking the cat in a fearful, uncommitted way that made Lily flash to her daughter’s childhood tantrums, that heart-​rending impotent rage she had always directed at her mother. The pang of this snapped Lily from her locked state. She ran, grabbed Andrea, and pulled her back. Her daughter’s left arm had been swiped. Blood poured from four precise gashes.

Richard was left rolling back and forth under the force of the cougar’s movements. Lily sought out Richard’s his face and caught a glimpse of his eyelids pressed closed, a queasy fold under his hair. The animal began to drag Richard away, and Richard, moving his arms less now, allowed his head to bounce against some stones.

“Richard,” Lily said, her voice ragged, willing her feet closer to the man with whom she had shared a long and bumpy marriage, swinging her backpack at the cougar, smacking it hard along its back.

Someone ran up. Not Kevin, but another man, a stranger, the kind of person Lily had not seen since arriving at HoloPro. Cheap clothes. Hairy legs. Old boots. He howled wildly as he ran to the cougar. In his hand was a short knife, which he plunged deep into the animal’s fur. The cat screeched and whirled on him, but the man had already pulled the knife out and was sticking it in again. This time the cat turned away, releasing Richard’s head from its jaws. Sensing weakness, the man methodically stabbed the wild cat.

That’s when Kevin came to his senses. As the animal was dying. As Andrea bled. As Lily encircled her husband’s mangled shoulder with her arm. As the stranger, his massive frame heaving with fatigue, got to his knees. Kevin stepped in and emptied his can of ethical bear spray onto them all.

Lily could not see. She groped at the dirt for Richard, for Andrea. She had a strong urge to murder Kevin. She clearly heard the can drop and his heavy footsteps rush quickly across loose stones. She could almost laugh at the image of him at the high-security campus gate, explaining that he’d lost two Models: one, on the mountain, bleeding profusely, having found the cruelest loophole to his contract; another, in desperate need of her 360—Lily 2.0, the three-dimensional, projectable version with all the answers, with money and stamina to last beyond mortal life, convinced by her own words that any problem, however complex, can be solved.