Off The Dot
by Kevin R. O’Hara
It is amazing how much your life can change for the worse or better with the loss of one little piece of technology you had come to rely upon.
It all began yesterday when I had arrived in Prague, the city of a hundred spires. From the plane window, I marveled at all of the red tiled roofs, cathedrals, and towers, anxious to delve into its wonders and mysteries. After a brief trip through the Old Town and a full hour at Orloj, the massive and magnificent astronomical clock with its periodic parade of wooden figures, I decided to check into my hotel early and start my vacation refreshed in the morning. The flight had been short and uneventful, but different time zones always messed me up.
The hotel was deliciously old fashioned and may not have had any serious upgrades since its independence from the Soviet states over four decades ago. As an avid collector of antiquities, there were few better delights than staying a couple nights in a place steeped in the past.
The valet spoke in Czech, but I had set my Dot to translate so there was no issue in understanding him. Some people liked to have the language converted to audio in their native tongue and played through their jawbone. I found hearing two voices at once both distracting and somewhat disrespectful as your attention focused more on the translator voice than the actual person speaking. Instead, I would have my Dot project translated text subtitled in front of the person so I could still maintain eye contact and enjoy the linguistic flavor of the individual I was talking to. Not wanting to mangle foreign pronunciation, I responded in English as he likely employed a similar translator, or perhaps understood my language but preferred to speak in his native Czech.
The valet, Petyr, showed me up the narrow stairs and into my room. Heavy velvet curtains and a tall single bed filled the space. All of the furniture was hand worked wood with intricate, though worn, detail. The ceiling was ribbed with large wooden beams covered in painted red flowers and greenish-gold leaves. The modern lights were probably the only unauthentic aspect of the suite.
My head just touched the pillow when my Dot alerted me with two messages. The first informing me that Melissa Hillard was within a half mile proximity and the second being directly from Melissa saying essentially the same thing. Her words contained a giddy excitement and sense of destiny.
“Ren! When did you get to Prague? Didn’t you know I live here now? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? We MUST have dinner tonight! If you’re available, and want to see me, that is. Message me back!”
I had not seriously thought of Melissa in a number of years. The breakup had been kind, well, as kind as the cessation of an intimate relationship could be. We had promised to stay friends and had done so to a reasonable amount for several months, but her relocation and my need to move on eventually caused our communication to dwindle. I missed her from time to time but had mostly forgotten what had caused the fall out in the first place.
It is with a degree of embarrassment that I asked Dot to bring up her and my last communication and when that revealed no notes of importance, I shuffled back to our communication in the previous winter. With stinging clarity, the details and emotions were presented as if the event happened mere weeks ago. Melissa had grown tired of our routines and found excitement in the arms of another. Our relationship allowed for seeking connection with other people so the trouble wasn’t that she was enamored with someone else again, but that it had made it clear she was no longer enamored with me. Relationships can be complex and sometimes exist and cease to for seemingly intangible reasons.
Normally I would chastise myself for dredging through communications from the distant past, but I remember Melissa well enough to know she would be doing the same thing and I hated being at a disadvantage.
I sent a quick reply, “I did not know you were here until this moment. Give me a half hour to freshen up.”
I picked myself back up and went to the WC to relieve myself and splash water on my face. As I brushed my teeth, her response showed up. I gave myself smile of melancholy as I read the message transposed over my own visage in the mirror.
“Unless you’ve aged horribly I’m sure it won’t take you that long to freshen up. Meet me at Restaurace Kafka’s at 8:30!”
I looked myself over. My sandy hair was still full and had very little signs of graying. My jaw retained its characteristic square cut that she had found so appealing. My light brown eyes were certainly tired but clear. I had, I decided, not aged horribly.
Her message included Dot directions to the restaurant as well as the menu. I used my Dot to browse the selections. It was strange that it displayed a special for roast pork dumplings and sauerkraut as my filters usually kept me from having to see selections containing pork, a meat I never found a taste for. This must be a specialty of the house; with a high enough customer rating unique dishes can sometimes override filters in hopes that maybe this is the one dish that will change my mind about pork. I don’t chance it and order the chicken schnitzel and also send them my time of arrival and companion’s name.
While I have my own attention in the mirror, I ask myself aloud, “What are you hoping for here, Ren? Your life is complicated enough already. That’s the whole reason I’m on this vacation.” I should have left my Dot back in the States.
I immediately wondered why I thought that last part instead of speaking it. Was I afraid of hurting my Dot’s feelings, I mused.
* * *
I was a tiny bit disappointed when I arrived at the restaurant; it definitely carried the gothic architectural influences of the surrounding neighborhood but was clearly a newer building and business. I’m certain the food would be first rate, but I came to Prague to experience the rich history of over one thousand years of different and magnificent cultures in one of the most dynamic cities in the world. Oh well, there would be plenty of time to wander and see all things Bohemian, High Gothic, Baroque, and Soviet era. As I entered, the waiter greeted me cordially, “Welcome Mr. Flock, your table is ready and I will have your dinner out in about a minute.” He spoke perfect English. Dot displayed his name above his head for me along with how long he had worked at this establishment and his favorite football team.
“Thank you, Oskar,” I replied and followed him to the circular cherry wood table. I settled into the wooden seat and nodded my thanks again.
I thought back to the first time, many years ago, that a waiter whom I didn’t know greeted me by name. I chuckled to myself thinking how unnerved I was back then that someone had some secret advantage over me. How did they know me? What else did they know about me? Suspicion and paranoia. To tell the truth it took years for that feeling to go away even as I became more comfortable with the technology. But now it would just feel weird if a waiter didn’t greet me by my name. It was comforting to have the basics of human communication accounted for. Plus current software was much better at making sure people saw the information you wanted them to see and would alert you if they were searching for anything inappropriate. They could still snoop and learn all kinds of things about you, but it simply wasn’t polite and wasn’t always trustworthy anyways. Unless you had any huge red flags on you, most people would rather look at how you perceived yourself.
I focused my brain on the overlaid time display and noticed an update that Melissa was just a block away now. It was nice of her to broadcast her location to me, though I sometimes missed the days of running into good friends unexpectedly while out and about.
In the center of the table was a drink display. Food I always ordered on the way to the restaurant as that is when I am most hungry, but the drink I would usually wait until I arrived at my destination so I could let my current mood dictate my decision. In any event, I knew I would order a beer on my first night in Prague.
As if on cue, Oskar showed up at my table and took my drink order in person. Despite how easy technology made things, there was always room for pleasant human interaction.
“So, what the hell are you doing in Prague?” I heard right before being hugged from behind.
I turned to face her and got up to return the embrace. Melissa was only slightly shorter than me, which was pretty tall for a woman. Her face had not changed much except for a couple of wisdom lines around the forehead and eyes. Her once long blonde hair was now in a fashionable cut below her chin and something of a deep maroon color. Her smile was just as bright as I had remembered but her eyes seemed more strikingly green.
“I could ask you the same thing,” I replied.
“Been living here for going on two years now. One of those great career opportunities that offered foreign adventures and a big ass paycheck.”
I had forgotten the slight fluty note to her voice when she got excited. It was one of the things I had found most endearing about her, but no recording I had of her was ever able to pick it up. Strange how a subtle vocal characteristic can be almost undetectable yet bring such a rush of mixed emotion, a thrill of finding something cherished that was lost and a cold stab of being suddenly yanked back to another life that had ended in pain.
She sat down and spaced out for a second. The subtle hand motion on the sensor on her wrist betrayed that she was silently ordering a drink from a menu likely overlaid on her contact lens. A moment later she resumed her warm look towards me, waiting for my reply.
“An archiving project with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts just ended and I have a couple weeks before my team starts preparations for the next one with the De Young. I’m not sure if you knew, but I got divorced six months ago. It messed me up a little, but I’m mostly over it. So it was finally time for me to get out of here,” I tapped at my forehead, “and get out here,” I gestured with my arms open to convey the wider world.
I expected her to react to learning about my divorce, but in typical Melissa fashion she let that go. Her eyes had narrowed slightly when I pointed at my forehead and a smile came over her face.
“Is that the Eight?” she beamed with recognition.
“Is what the what?”
“You waited overnight to be first in line to get the Dot 8, didn’t you, you dwerb?” She stared intently at the slight bump over my right eyebrow. “You can hardly even see it.”
The new Dot came with skin matching technology so it was virtually invisible compared to previous models. Melissa had the Dot 6 on her left cheek; it looked like a small ruby with the tiny camera eye in the middle and gave her the appearance of a pin-up model with a perfectly placed mole. The 6 interfaced with a contact lens and a control pad that was usually stuck to the inner wrist.
“Yeah, I’m not sure I like that aspect. I don’t want people to assume I’m a Luddite. They tend to trust you more when they can see what technology you are using.”
“How is the brain wave sensor? Does it feel weird? Does it get confused by your random ass thoughts? Is it always displaying boobs for you?”
“It doesn’t feel like anything,” I answered ignoring her last question, “It doesn’t intrude on your thoughts. It just overlays images similar to the contact lens but always in focus regardless of where you are looking. It actually takes a little practice to get it to know when you are using it. You have to, how do I put it, basically put out the intention to speak.”
“I wouldn’t mind not having to use the wrist sensor anymore, but I don’t want all my secrets slipping out, ” she joked.
“You know when old televisions first came out, people were all afraid they could be used by the government for spying and mind control.”
“Weren’t they?” she laughed, “Yeah, I remember when we first got second gen Dots. Everybody was all panicked about privacy and being hacked into and being fed subliminal messages.”
“There are still some people fighting the privacy battle. But it is funny, how most people shifted their views so dramatically from being paranoid of people knowing too much about them to being paranoid about people who they didn’t know anything about. The tech was all scary until people got used to it and then felt like they couldn’t live without it.”
“What was life like before Dots?” Melissa playfully mused.
“Well, I was lost all of the time and you were late to everything,” I smiled.
She laughed, and then smiled up at Oskar as he set down our drinks and meals. She had ordered the dumplings and I must admit they did smell good but I was still happy with the look of the schnitzel. We had a quick, silent toast before she got the mischievous expression once more.
“Hey, do you remember, Ren, when we first got that virtual threesome sex augmentation and you messed up installing it? The look on your face was priceless when you were seeing the guy and I had the girl in my version.”
“I was just surprised, that’s all. I was expecting the other way around. You didn’t seem to mind the girl version that much, if I remember correctly.”
“She was pretty hot, even with the other weird glitches in that early virtual shit. It felt like we were doing it with a ghost.”
I nodded knowingly before she suddenly changed her tone, “I heard about the divorce, Ren. I’m sorry you had to go through that. You deserve better.”
“I’ll agree with you there. But it wasn’t all her. I needed to work on being more in the moment. Sad thing for her is I think I was really making progress on coming out of my comfort zone.”
“That’s obvious to me. You are here after all. You might have kept me if you had wanted to travel more,” she chided.
“Here’s to traveling out of one’s comfort zone.” I lifted my beer.
We toasted old times and spent the next couple hours reminiscing about our past, discussing our poor luck in recent relationships, and sharing lackluster gossip on what formerly mutual friends were up to. The hours slipped away as we toured a bit of the Prague nightlife and visited one of her favorite bars before deciding to call it a night.
* * *
I was lost. At first I was just lost in thought, thinking of the nature of my relationship with Melissa, on whether this was just a chance meeting or an opportunity to re-open a long closed door. But soon I realized I was actually lost. My natural sense of direction, what little there was left of it after decades of relying more on technology than on actual memory, failed me; I had not headed back towards my hotel but found myself closer to the Vltava river in a side alley that felt removed from the main roads of the tourist part of Prague. I must have been so deep in thought about Melissa that I ignored the subtle reminder markers that tried to guide me back to my hotel. I should have switched to the active setting so that it would actually give me the sensation of a physical tap when I was heading the wrong way, but I had turned that off upon entering the city with the express purpose of not having anyone, including my own itinerary, telling me what to do. So instead, it just displayed subtle arrows in my peripheral vision, easy to ignore and apparently I had done so because here I was in an ill-lit alley in a foreign city that was not known for its safety.
It would be simple for Dot to bring up the city map with my location and the exact amount of time it would take me to get back to the hotel, but my first thought was to instead bring up Dot’s messenger and compose a note to Melissa.
“It was great seeing you again. More than great, in fact. I’ve missed you, so much that I just got myself lost in your city thinking about our conversation. I want to see you again tomorrow. I think it was a mistake...” My concentration was broken by a scuffling sound around the corner near me.
I reread the giant letters of the tele-note before me. It would be a mistake to send this, I thought to myself. I didn’t need to bring this much confusion on me, or her for that matter. But before I could delete everything except for the first sentence, the sound got louder and more startling. Someone yelped.
Concerned, I rounded the corner just in time to see a dark haired man plunge a knife deep into the belly of a heavy set man with a black burn mark across his forehead. The yelp became a wheezing scream, and the dark haired man stabbed again.
I froze as my brain went through all the options before me, trying to process the horrifying scene and evaluate the survivability of intervening versus running. I was puzzled by not seeing a name floating above either man. It was at this moment that I cursed the processing speed of my Dot. It only took a half conscious moment for me to activate the camera resulting in a bright flash going off from the rim of the tiny device on my forehead. Not wanting to miss out on any vacation photos, I had it set to a hair trigger. My instinct to capture the event had surpassed by brain’s ability to weigh out the potentially dire ramifications of doing so. Shit.
The dark haired man looked directly up at me as the flash went off. Cool rage flared in his deep blue eyes. His harsh features grimaced at me and he spoke with a distinctive British accent as the other man slumped to the ground in a growing pool of dark blood.
“I’m not alone,” was all he said.
I couldn’t tell if he was warning me that someone else was behind him or myself in the alley or if he was being rhetorical. The expression on his face clearly indicated he was listening to an unheard response, likely from his earpiece phone. He wasn’t talking to himself or me.
I raised my hands defensively as I backed up. As long as I had his picture and perhaps not much time to act, I quickly instructed Dot to contact the local police department so I could send the evidence and my location. Dot responded that it was searching for that information. Had I been in America, that type of data would already be stored in Dot’s memory.
The man could see that I wasn’t merely freezing in place and quickly pulled an object from his coat pocket. He aimed it at me but not with the precision of a gun. In less than a second, an arc of blue light crackled from the item and hit my head and torso. I stepped back in pain as electricity jolted through me. The heads up information of my Dot suddenly brightened with a thousand random bits of information like menus, friends’ addresses, weather forecasts, and pornographic images, and then it went black. Well, not black actually, it just ceased to be.
For the first time since I upgraded my Dot, my peripheral vision had no extra information. You don’t realize how much you accept and eventually tune out until it is all gone. No indicator of how many messages I have or my current heart rate (which looked like it was dramatically rising a few moments ago). No background news headlines or sports stories. No music track or open book page. It was dead.
I shook my head and regained my bearings. The shock had not hurt me that badly, it was likely meant to disrupt technology and it did just that spectacularly. The man was rapidly approaching with knife held out before him. It was time to act, or to be his second victim of the night.
He was too relaxed, likely anticipating I was still stunned. I let him get closer then moved in towards him and quickly stepped back. The motion surprised him and forced him to lunge sooner than he was ready. I let his momentum carry him as I stepped to the side punched into his exposed ribs. I didn’t have much experience in fights beyond some basic combat simulation virtual games, but my instincts told me I had little other options at this point than to avoid the sharp end and attack wherever I could see vulnerability.
He shrugged off the blow and regained his footing. I think he started to laugh, as if he was not going to underestimate me again, but it was too late, I kicked as hard as I could into his stomach. Not a wise move as his instinctual reaction was to stab down with the knife. It sliced my leg but he also fell into an empty chair by a back door. This caused him to tumbled to the ground and grunt.
Without looking to see how affected he was, I turned and ran. I rounded the corner and found the nearest next street to dart into. My plan was just to get out of line of sight as quickly as possible. No thought of direction or destination entered my mind. The streets were cobblestone at this point, but I valued speed more than finesse and was lucky not to twist my ankle in the darkness.
After a minute or so, I entered a dead end. I stared dumbly at it knowing that I would have easily avoided it had my Dot been giving me directional indicators. I was about to double back when I heard the sound of pursuit and it wasn’t of just one man.
The two buildings in the dead end did not line up perfectly and I spotted a space between them. It did not go all the way through and was extremely narrow, but I could just wedge myself in and out of view, provided they didn’t come within a few feet of it.
I sucked in a large breath and held it.
I could hear that at least two men met up at the entrance to this side alley. They were out of breath as well.
“Did you see him?” grunted the British dark haired man.
The other man had a higher voice. He spoke English but it was clearly not his native tongue. “No, he did not pass me by. Are you certain he saw your face?”
“He took my bloody picture!”
“Dead. I told Grant to come take care of the body. I’m ruddy certain that I disrupted this bloke’s Dot.”
There was a pause while both men fully caught their breath. The second one spoke again, “Good. He shouldn’t be too hard to track down then. I’ll cut him off if he heads towards the police station. You and Michele grid the area. Go!”
* * *
It was probably five full minutes before I stuck my head outside of my hidden crevice to make sure they were gone. I would have stayed there for hours, but the implications of a “grid” disturbed me. It would only be a matter of time before they could track me down.
The dark haired man had an Earlert which is similar to a Dot but from a different company and based more on audio information than direct brainwave. With a small contact lens mod, which everyone seemed to have these days, users could also get a type of augmented display. I envisioned them using it to quickly determine all of my possible escape routes through the city along with my maximum speed on foot. Or perhaps they would be smart enough to enhance detection on the color red and my blood trail would appear to glow as bright as phosphorus to their eyes. Hell, for all I know they could have a pocket drone hovering over the streets right now giving them a bird’s eye view on my movement in the neighborhood.
For all practical purposes, I was blind and at a tremendous disadvantage. I hated being at a disadvantage.
Of course, there were many times in the last few years that I have had my Dot turned off. It wasn’t as lonely or scary as some people joke. But right now, all of that extra information was not just a matter of efficiency; it was about survival.
I didn’t know how they were going to track me, but I knew the longer I stayed still and away from other people, the lower my odds of making it out of this night alive.
I used a bit of cloth I found on the ground to bind up my leg and bolted out of the alley.
The streets became a maze of nonsense as the Old Town crudely met up with more modern development. It’s like they decided to build an entirely new city at some point and left this zone as brackish water. I needed to get over the lost of Dot and think with my brain. This had been a heavily toured city for centuries. It shouldn’t be hard to locate major landmarks like Prague Castle or the Zizkov TV Tower with its creepy crawling baby sculptures. It would at least point me to more populated areas.
I crossed a street and saw a man coming out of what might have been a closed restaurant. The owner, perhaps, was finally leaving after cleaning up for the night. On seeing him, I almost ran the other way fearing that he could have been with the murderous crew, but his body language indicated only a tired man, ready to head home.
I likely startled him as I approached wildly.
“Help me!” I half whispered and half shouted.
He said something in Czech and I could instantly tell that he could not understand me and saw me as a threat. Without some form of translator, I was at a loss. He fumbled his push button key and stumbled back inside, quickly slamming the door. The noise of it echoed down the street.
I considered banging on the door in hopes that he would be able to differentiate between someone in distress and an attacker, but I also remembered reading how crime rate had risen in this part of the world and there was a fair chance the man inside was preparing to defend himself in some lethal manner.
I hate feeling a slave to technology, but my mind flooded with ways in which my Dot could have helped me now. Translation, communication, maps, noise detection, hell self-defense tips, all projected in my mind overlaying the dark streets and comforting me with options. All that I take for granted is not only unavailable to me but likely being taken full advantage of by my pursuers.
As if on cue, the dark British man appeared at the end of the street. He recognized me instantly and grinned menacingly.
I took two steps back and then saw another man appear from the other direction. I started to yell to him and then knew he must have been the man’s compatriot, Michele.
Michele raised a pistol as he walked towards me.
“It’s over, mate,” said my enemy with the knife. “No where to run. No one that even cares.”
I put my back to the restaurant door so I could see both of the approaching men.
“Don’t do it. I won’t tell,” was all that I could say. “You destroyed my Dot. There is no proof. I’ll leave the city tonight.”
The man laughed. He enjoyed his position of power and ending the game of cat and mouse.
“It’s over, mate,” he repeated calmly and nodded to Michele.
Michele aimed his gun at my head, his expression unchanging.
A bright light hit the street from above. Several heavily armored police officers slid down ropes from a silent hovering vehicle. Sirens then blared at an uncomfortable decibel. An officer shouted something in Czech that the two men clearly understood.
The armed officers surrounded us with automatic weapons trained on my pursuers. Michele glanced at the other man as if for instructions, but the British man had already dropped his knife and dropped to his knees with his hands in the air.
The police quickly swarmed and apprehended both of them without incident. A tall officer with a long mustache barked at me, “ Mister Flock, are you okay?”
“Good. Come with us. You are safe now.”
“How did you know?” I asked.
“Your girlfriend sent us a picture you took of the crime scene. We’ve been searching for you. Clearly your transmitter was destroyed as we couldn’t track you down until one of our air drones spotted you.”
* * *
It would be four to six weeks before I get a replacement for my ruined Dot. I was almost sad when I peeled off the charred tiny device, thinking of how the EMP burst caused it to send that last message to Melissa with the photo I had taken of poor Mr. Federspiel. I had assumed he was the victim of an international political assassination, but the police informed me that it was just a local crime gang that targeted a wealthy traveler; amazing how common technology empowered everyone to be more than they are, criminals included.
The local hospital cleaned up my leg cut so well that within hours there was hardly a visible scratch.
I was surprised to run into Melissa as I left the tan hospital building. This may have been the first time I bumped into her without first knowing she was coming since we first met. I liked the pleasant feeling of surprise.
“I owe you my life.” I smiled as she hugged me.
“It was a mistake,” she whispered in my ear.
“What?” I puzzled.
“Your message. You said it was a mistake. I’m assuming you meant it was a mistake we broke up years ago. I took for granted that you would always be a message away from me back then, but last night I almost lost you for real. I sent that horrible image to the police as soon as I got it, but then I spent hours trying to figure out your actual message to me. I think we should try it again, Ren.”
I smiled back at her. I had gotten two second chances given to me last night. Thank you, Dot.
Kevin R. O’Hara - Kevin R. O’Hara enjoys employment as a Creative Director in the video game industry. He originally hails from Spencerport, New York but promptly moved to the west coast after graduating from Ithaca College’s film school. He has worked various roles in the film and video game industry over the years, most of which involved creative writing and game design. He currently resides near Seattle, Washington with his lovely wife, awe-inspiring daughter, and energetic keeshond. Find him on Twitter @JoltedKev