I had to explain to Shiloh that he'd been raped. That's a fun conversation, talking through a rube just come to campus without a socwise clue. Godd! You'd think everybody would know what from what in this day and age. It's not like you can't soc down on the farm or wherever the hell big dumb Shiloh'd come from. But some show up for college prepared only to learn. And that's not enough to survive.
"No..." Shiloh said, disbelieving.
I suppressed the urge to smack him upside. I'm not an official counselor, just another student, but somehow this task had fallen to me, and not for the first time. Carefully I showed him how the violation had occurred and what the aftereffects were.
Shiloh was still shaking his head, flyaway hair swaying back and forth across his wide forehead. He had a handsome face. "But Aleea seemed so nice," he said.
At least he believed me now. I'd shown him on his own pair of socgoggles what had been done to his socprez. Aleea, after Shiloh himself had invited her past his codes, had gone into his history and appropriated for herself those bibs and bobs of biography she found interesting, and left his defiled 'prez by the roadside. Since he had volunteered his codes, no crime had been committed.
I put an arm around his strapping shoulders. He'd come to my dorm. When he started to weep, I kissed him. He looked startled and actually said: "I've never done anything with a dude before." Like I couldn't tell, even from the tatters of his socprez. It was also obvious, even if not to him, that he was open to this sort of thing. What we did at least got his mind off of Aleea, a notorious campus predator. This thing wasn't over, though.
* * *
I had a life. There were physical interests, sex among them. I even paid some attention to my schoolwork. And of course, my personal socpresence needed tending to.
If humans are the sum of their experience, then those experiences are precious commodities. They are duly recorded, marked, made permanent. And afterward, they go on display so that people see you for what you are. But if you don't safeguard your personal bio, someone is going to ransack it and take all your best stuff.
This was the Social Presence 101 course I ran for poor Shiloh before booting him out of bed.
"But I still did all the stuff I did," he said a little petulantly, fumbling on his jeans.
"Prove it." I had put on my socgoggles and had a lensful of content. "You went to Manhattan and rode the gondolas through the watery streets when you were twelve." He'd told me so. "Prove that to me. Show me the post you made of that event."
"That's right. Because you don't give some slut your godd-damn codes."
"Aleea's not a slut."
"She is. So am I. If I asked to go inside your prez, you're supposed to tell me to go fuck myself." I thought of making him say the words, but he just looked miserable. I let him slink off, and drowsed awhile with my 'goggles. Everything and nothing was going on in the world. Just like always.
I roused myself and went outside, onto the campus, making my dutiful contributions to my socprez.
I ran the steps in the empty bleachers. My twenty-year-old self was spry and healthy. They say you'll dip this content more than anything when you're older, when joints tighten and basically everything in your body hurts; but I can't believe I'll ever get that way.
At the cafeteria I flirted with a woman in the manner her 'prez indicated she would like. She flirted back.
I went to the gardens. I followed a hummingbird for five minutes, close enough sometimes to catch the thrum of the hyper-fast wings.
I posted all of it. The status bars in my socgoggles indicated I was hovering right there in my comfortable percentages. Enough people were dipping my stuff, even just blink-throughs, to give credence to my social reality.
It was after my last class of the day--as I said, now and then I did school stuff--that I met Jez. Actually, I didn't meet her. In fact, I very much didn't meet her. I saw her, at a distance, but close enough that my natural, hormonally based senses perked up.
She sported a haircut right out of punk prehistory, all gelled spikes and peevish dyes. Her shape was lean but not starved, with the sort of musculature which comes from swimming or dancing, something not quite explicitly a bodybuilding activity.
With easy swinging steps she was pacing off a section of the quad.
I wanted to know her, of course. I still had my socgoggles on so it would be easy to satisfy my curiosity about her, as I was sure I'd never seen her before on the campus. I blinked up a search on my 'goggles and waited for my lenses to fill up with her identity and displays.
But she wasn't there.
There wasn't anything wrong with my gear. I scoped out people on either side of me--more were gathering--and everybody registered, just like they should. Socpresences. I looked back at the woman with the punk-funk hair: nothing. Absolutely no 'prez.
She'd drawn a crowd. A void can fascinate as much as a startling substantiality.
I didn't go any nearer. I watched her pace. Her ease of movement captivated me; or else I was being willingly distracted by her pleasing physical reality so that I wouldn't have to wonder why someone would have no socpresence. It wasn't totally unheard of not to have a socprez, of course. It wasn't mandatory, after all. There was even a retired professor, still guest-lecturing here at the university, who didn't have a 'prez.
But someone of student age...someone who'd apparently just arrived at the school. That blankness was far more troubling than Shiloh's rustic naiveté.
I stared and stared at her blankness. I watched her while other onlookers assembled, traded incredulous looks amongst themselves, then dispersed. No one approached her. She was an anomaly, to be sure. But people had their own lives, and after a while everybody had already posted about this curiosity and moved on.
Slowly, a smile crept onto my face. I felt a strange appreciation for this woman, whatever her motives for not participating in the most ecumenical of social rites. She had shaken up my day. I knew nothing about her. Literally, nothing. And that was an incredible, outlandish, disturbing experience. It made the hunting down of her name all the more rewarding.
* * *
It wasn't much of a hunt, actually. I went in person to the registrar's office, astonishing the secretary on duty. The old man quickly warmed to the task, however. I gave him her description, and he found her file. He was quite tickled with himself, and I offered up my heartfelt thanks to make him stop hovering. Lots of people of his generation had filler jobs like this. They weren't engaged socwise, so they just puttered about. It seemed a lousy way to see out one's life.
I studied the screen he'd handed me. Jez Hassick. Where and when born, previous schooling, medical history...
It was, I realized, a worthless biography. This told me nothing about her. I couldn't infer her predilections, her aversions, her tastes. There were no cherished posts from childhood, no content concerning past romances. People displayed this stuff matter-of-factly.
The screen-sheet darkened as I rolled it up and handed it back to the secretary, who no doubt would later on have plenty to say to his fellow oldsters about his workday. At least I had her name. It had never quite occurred to me before how real a name was, how material. It gave me a point of contact with this woman, even if I knew next to nothing else.
Still, I'd seen what classes she was taking, and this wasn't a huge campus. I would see her again, soon enough.
I didn't even ask myself why I was so interested in her. I'd never really had to pursue anybody before. Most people exhibited their sex histories along with everything else, and even if they were bashful, you could deduce from other information what and who and how they liked it, and if they were worth your time.
Jez could be anything. Anyone. That scared me and drew me.
* * *
I walked toward Jez Hassick. She was out on the quad again, in what was becoming her private little corner since nobody else came when she was occupying it. The day was bright, the shadows straight down. She strode, swung about, started back.
We halted at the same time, facing each other.
Only this close did I see she had an old-fashioned earbud inserted in her right ear. For days I'd been thinking she was just walking back and forth, alone with her thoughts, pacing like a convict.
But it gave me something to say. "What're you listening to?"
She blinked at me. But it was just regular blinking; she didn't wear 'goggles and wasn't doing anything normal like accessing information on me, though my 'prez was right there for all to see.
"Hi," she said, voice a little cautious.
I'd forgotten to make a greeting. Who said hi anymore? Who needed to? "Hi," I responded. Then I could only think to ask again, "What's that you're listening to?"
"Lecture. Early twenty-first century philo stuff."
I felt awkward in every way, standing there. My posture seemed wrong. My mind wasn't quite connected to my tongue. So much of regular social interaction depended on socpresence. There was so much I should already know about her. Still, she'd given me a piece of information. I absorbed it.
"Philosophy, huh? Is that what you're studying?" She hadn't told me she was a student, but I figured I could presume that. Had I skipped over any other crucial business?
"What's your name?" she asked.
I almost told her I already knew, but I sensed--or thought I sensed--that it might disturb her. After all, I'd sought out information on her when it was glaringly plain she didn't intend to broadcast her identity. It was probably even against some arcane rule to access her student file like I had, but not even that elderly secretary had minded. Nobody cared about such privacy issues anymore.
I hadn't said anything further. I realized I was in danger of second-guessing myself into paralysis.
"It's nice to meet you," I said. Blurted, really. The phrase jumped out of some back brain archive, probably something I'd seen in an old-time movie.
Jez, who'd worn a cautious look all this while, gave me a smile. "It's nice to meet you too, Stuart."
And I realized that we truly were meeting, in a manner unfamiliar but curiously charming. Even though I'd known her name and she hadn't conveyed much of anything, I felt a little closer to her; and it was a good feeling.
With a bit more of my customary confidence, I asked, "So, what's the philosophy?"
"He never called himself that."
"It's what you get called, though, that matters."
"Even if most people are wrong about you?"
"Maybe it's even more significant, then." I'd automatically blinked up a piece on Sol McCord. I glanced at a synopsis of a synopsis on the philosopher, and it was what I already knew so I said, "He wasn't in favor of...social media." I managed not to giggle at the obsolete term.
"No. He wasn't. He said we were losing something in the process."
"Unfiltered human interaction?" Like what we were having. I felt clever, thinking that while having the restraint not to bluntly say it.
"Not quite so sophomoric," Jez said, tone wry.
She'd pocketed the earbud. It still felt weird flying blind like this, but I was actually enjoying myself now. "How, then?"
She had deep-set eyes, soft brown. They held on my face a moment, and all she was doing was seeing me, nothing else. Again: weird. "Do you think I'd like to go for a drink with you this evening?"
I tried to see where the elliptical question was going. Or even where it'd begun. But I was stumped. What was she asking...?
Jez laughed, a laugh as soft and searching as her eyes. It drew a smile out of me and raised gooseflesh on my arms.
"See?" she said. "That instant, that unknown. Right then when I asked, you didn't know. You have no way of knowing if I would go get a drink with you. You've got no profile to consult, no advance warning. Do you know how you'd have to find out? Do you, Stuart?"
My mouth had gone dry, but I had the solution. Suddenly my heart was beating fast.
I said, enunciating very clearly, "Will you come out for a drink with me this evening, Jez?"
Because I had to ask. It was the only way to get an answer.
* * *
It was also necessary to tell her about myself, and that was burdensome. I just wasn't used to it. In fact, I had to reconfigure my every instinct and assumption with regard to social interaction with this woman. Getting to know each other was a chore, a labor. And I wondered if it was worth the extraordinary effort. It felt like attrition, erosion, some slow process for which humans had no built-in patience.
But she intrigued the hell out of me, and not just because she had no socprez. She was physically alluring. I like her face, her shape, that wild hair. Without access to deeper information, I was left to study these details and to heed carefully what she said about herself. She spoke intelligently, and doled out smiles and laughs when appropriate.
We'd gone to an off-campus bar, one not usually frequented by students. That had been my idea. I wasn't embarrassed to be seen with Jez; I just didn't want the gawking from our peer group. There was enough of it from the lushes inhabiting this somewhat seedy dive, but at least the lighting was gloomy and the old booze-mumblers kept to themselves.
We were both sipping alga-juices. We'd each been surprised the other didn't drink alcohol. We had found that out at the same moment, when the bartender with the gray stubble and big-knuckled hands came over to ask what we wanted.
We talked about school, our common ground. She listened well. It was something else I wasn't used to. Half the time a person is paying attention out of one eye, with the other lens dipping content. I wasn't wearing my 'goggles. Sitting with her, what was the point?
Finally, when I thought--hoped--the time was right, I asked, "Can I ask why you don't have a social presence?" As when she'd prompted me to ask her out for this drink, the moment felt breathless and perilous.
"Okay." She took a long pull on her alga-juice, as if it really were some fortifying beverage. "Okay. I don't have a socprez because I deleted my entire biography."
I would have sworn the surly muttering going on throughout the divey bar paused all at once just then, but it must have been shock pushing all sound briefly out of my head. Nothing rang inside my skull but an overpowering disbelief. I had never met anyone ever who'd done what she said she had done.
"Your bio wasn't stolen?" I eventually asked, but I already knew she wasn't like Shiloh, who had given away his codes and lost crucial life experiences.
Jez shook her head.
"Was it...some kind of religio-cult godd thing?"
Again, the head shake. Her comely face was composed.
"But--but why would you do that!" The whole notion flabbergasted me. What she'd said meant she had once had a 'prez, just like any normal person, but she had deliberately, intentionally, willfully given it up. All that accumulated biographical data, all those episodes and events, big and small, which made up a lifetime: gone. Just...gone.
"It's two minutes to nine o'clock," she said, setting aside her glass. "We should go."
I didn't get the significance of the hour, but I got up and followed her out, steps numb. The dingy bar seemed to whirl a bit as we went outside; and I thought I heard, behind, the first sounds of commotion, of alarm, even.
It was a few blocks back to the campus. A breeze stirred the street, leaves shivering overhead.
"McCord said people would stop knowing one another." Jez's voice trailed back to me. I stayed a few strides behind her. "He said that without discovery, knowledge didn't mean a whole lot. Soon--this was early in the century he was saying this--soon we would know instantly and automatically everything about every other person we met in the world. No secrets. No mystery. He feared what would happen to, well...romance, frankly. He foresaw a future of a preordained hookups and unearned sex. Now, Sol McCord was no prude. In fact, he was quite the libertine. But he understood as few of his philosophical contemporaries did that without effort, love meant nothing."
I wasn't really listening, but some part of me took in her words, kept them, preserved them.
At the moment, though, those words were mostly calm counterpoint to the terrible bustle I heard rising in the night. There was noise ahead, from the campus. We approached, and stepped cautiously up to the edge of the tumult.
People were outside, lots of them. Too many. They were running up and down the paths. Some were yelling. They stood and gestured wildly at each other and generally behaved like a poorly organized riot were underway.
Next to me, Jez observed the scene with an air of serenity, as if she were still discoursing on Sol McCord. She didn't seem surprised by the spectacle.
Finally, she turned to me. When her soft brown eyes met mine, something connected. It was like we had--I don't quite know--a...rapport or something. I suddenly knew what I had to do.
I put on my socgoggles and surveyed my boisterous schoolmates.
There came a sensation of falling, of claustrophobic enclosure, of strangulation and a hundred other visceral disturbances. I was stunned. Stopped dead.
"No one's got a 'prez...." The whispered words floated past my lips. I wanted to convey my disbelief, my resounding shock, but there wasn't anything in my vocabulary, in my life experience, to impart the terror and trauma I was feeling.
My statement was fact, though. Absolutely nobody within sight had a socpresence. Every person registered null. There were no histories on display, no biographical tidbits exhibited. I still had normal informational access through my 'goggles. The net was still there. But individuals--at least the ones I was able to perceive before me--were no longer broadcasting personal data. They were as blank as Jez, beside me.
I understood the general uproar. I felt the pull of panic. It was as though a sense had been abruptly stripped from all these people. They couldn'tsee each other, not the way they were used to, not how they'd perceived one another all their lives. Without 'presences, people were like ghosts.
Yet I recognized faces. I did know these students, sort of. I had interacted with many of them.
Campus security was on the scene now, but they looked as lost as everyone else.
Jez reached over and took my hand into hers. I squeezed back. That felt good, that feeling of flesh, of solidity, connected to an identity I knew. Jez Hassick. It probably helped that I'd already been dealing with her as blank. I'd had to get to know her.
"We should go and try to help."
I realized only later that I had been the one to say that. Together we walked forward, to try to calm down the panicked crowd. We were just entering the outer part of the fray when a cry rang out, above all the other clamor. It was a roar of rage, of furious incredulity. I turned to try and figure out where it was coming from, and as I did, Jez's hand slipped out of mine.
"I want it back!"
This was the cry I heard, more articulate now but just as ferocious. I spun and saw the figure sprinting toward us--toward Jez, actually. The person held a bludgeon of some kind, what would turn out to be a cricket bat. And yes, where the hell did she find that?
"Your fault! Your fault!" Aleea, the blunt instrument slicing downward toward Jez's skull as she dived at her, had evidently made up her mind who was to blame for tonight's catastrophe. The witch was discovered. Now it was only left to destroy her.
I was nimble and agile and twenty years old, but even as I leapt, I didn't think I would get there in time. Yet, somehow, I did. I knocked Jez out of the way and reached up and caught Aleea's wrists, and then we both hit the ground and went tumbling. The cricket bat clattered away, and two other people helped me pin Aleea down. She was raving. She looked like she'd had a psychotic break.
I thought of all the poor souls she'd violated on campus, tricking them out of their histories. Aleea had never even tried to pass those experiences off on her own. She simply wore them on her 'prez like trophies captured in battle.
She was a sick bitch, and now the total rape of her social presence had bent her mind.
But she wasn't the only one affected. I wondered for the first time how widespread this wipeout was. I reached out toward Jez again, a little dazed from my impact with the ground. Her hand fell into mine once more, the connection real, our relationship now tangible.
Once more, we went to see who we could help.
* * *
Jez keeps things from me. Major things. I still don't know if she was definitely associated with the movement which blanked so many social presences across the face of the world that night. Is she really a Neo-Neo-Luddite? Is there actually any such underground conspiracy? Maybe the global government did this, aware that socpresences were undermining society at some fundamental level. Maybe it was all a prank. No one who knows--really knows--is saying.
But it's interesting that she showed up on campus just before Blank Night. Someone with a deleted socprez. As if she were there to guide the rest. And after that night she did counsel others through their considerable traumas.
The histories are gone, our biographies erased. Of course, we can start over. The virus which attacked prezzes was amazingly specific and powerful. Everything else still works, though, all the other ethereal machinery of the world. There are still telecommunications and the media and the net. And there are still people, interacting however they can manage. Imagine that.
I haven't yet started to build a new 'presence for myself. I have experiences, but afterwards I merely remember them, rather than make them a display. Jez is still a blank. She remains a student, and we're still together, as we've been since Blank Night. I love her. When I want her to know that, I tell her. Or let her know even more directly.