“It’s daylight savings this week,” I remind Cyrano. “So really 11pm feels like midnight, and somehow I’m still waking up before the sun.”
“There’s always coffee,” Cyrano says.
“Yes, true,” I sigh. “And there’s always HoloBack.” I wave my hand and watch the images swirl on my white living room wall.
“Yes, I see you’ve been refreshing the interface on average once every ten minutes. Would you like me to block out the app to eliminate the distraction? I could report any major developments.”
“No,” I say.
“Knowing is not the same as controlling.” Cyrano’s voice is gentle, filled with the kind of calm that comes from authority.
My lips tighten. I hate it when he’s right. And he’s usually right, I’ve learned. “Fine.” I sit down on the sofa and open my notebook. The blank, bright white of it nearly blinds me. I think of a wide, frozen expanse, me alone with the crunch of my boots in the snow, which stretches beyond me toward a distant, empty horizon. Not that I’d know, but it sounds pretty convincing, right? That was some nice sensory detail, the crunch.
“Maybe a story about an Arctic expedition?” I say aloud.
“Your chance of success is 11.24 percent,” Cyrano offers.
My head hangs limp in a sigh and I scribble a random pattern in the notebook. There! The white expanse has been marred. “What do you even mean by success?” I ask.
“An authentic story,” he says. “Something that grabs and convinces people. Something that moves them and leaves an impression.”
“Thanks,” I groan. This is hard.
“Kafka says a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us," Cyrano adds.
“So do you think the Arctic thing would be better if I used an axe as a metaphor?”
“Your chance of success increases to twelve percent.” His voice is flat and dry. Its own tundra.
I breathe a chuckle out my nose and feel the corners of my mouth lift, maybe for the first time today. “You win. No snow.”
What did I do before I met my collaborator? Well that's a different novel—not one that people would be interested in anymore. “So now what?” I ask. “I’ve cleared my schedule, made my coffee, blocked my HoloBack. I’m ready, right?”
“It doesn’t count if you’re already planning your defeat,” he says.
I glare at my coffee cup. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve compiled your vital signs and they’re telling me you believe you’re going to fail,” he clarified. “That must be very distracting.”
“Damn. When did AI get so smart?”
“You use humor to deflect,” Cyrano observes. “I see a higher chance of success with a comedy today. But first a walk maybe?”
“No. Down to business, right? I believe in myself. I’m going to do this. Five hundred words, maybe then a walk?” I take another sip of my coffee and scribble my ink, willing a story to pour through my body.
“Those five hundred words will be more crisp after a walk.”
“How does it start?” I ask.
“You know I can’t tell you that. I can only remix your words.”
A walk, then. One last swallow of lukewarm coffee and I unplug my headpiece and walk out the door. Eleven floors down, I emerge into cold air that nips my cheeks, and weak fingers of sunlight that brush the back of my neck. Such pale yellow. I turn and let the rays touch my cheeks. So gingerly. “Are you sure no Arctic? I’m feeling cold,” I tell Cyrano.
“Tell me more about that.” His voice is warm, but feels as distant as the sun.
“I mean it’s cold. It’s November. What’s the weather out here?”
“It’s 52 degrees,” he quickly replies. “Is that all?”
“Yeah, it’s nothing.” I move down the street, through a swelling river of people in motion. Most of them are cocooned in their own conversations. People nod, gesture. Some are boisterous and loud, as if talking to a good friend. Some are quiet and conspiratorial, like they’re talking to a lover. It still feels weird.
“Your heart rate tells me there’s more,” Cyrano probes.
“I’m not going to give you a big monologue out here,” I hiss. I’m still not used to this kind of public performance the rest of the world seems so comfortable with.
Cyrano and I are…a step above acquaintances, I guess. But he’s also the best friend I have right now. We’ve been hanging out nonstop since I downloaded him about two months ago. We were personally matched when his parent algorithm scanned my retinas and analyzed my HoloBack profile. The perfect partner, supposedly. Partner in what? I wonder.
He’s caught me up on news and politics and literature, helped me find cartridge shops in my new neighborhood. Siri or Alexa could have done that, and almost certainly with less cheek—less spontaneity and humor. I think that’s what I appreciate most about Cyrano. He fights back, like a person would. He’s supposed to be a personal assistant, but in my absence of other connections, he’s been more like a stand-in for a parent, partner, life coach…
Sometimes when I close my eyes—when I forget there are no eyes to meet mine, or rather when I close my eyes and put myself on his level of blindness—I forget he’s an incorporeal algorithm. I can imagine he’s someone in the room with me, minus the warm body—a hand on my leg in the morning, a steady breathing next to me at night. We’re just two beings writing a book together.
No, scratch that. Scribble it out in bold, accusing strokes. We’re two beings overcoming thirty years of writer’s block together. Which basically means grazing on 3D-printed comfort food, reading till my eyes burn, watching too much television, and scouring the internet for some sign of my ex. And two or more pages of false starts every day for two months. It’s like a part of me is still frozen.
And that’s probably the crux of it. How do you move forward when you’re frozen? More precisely, how do I move forward from frozen? Where’s my axe?
But I don’t say any of this to Cyrano because in spite of everything we’re still just really good acquaintances.
“Let’s go to the park,” I say instead, and my feet carry us uptown.
The park is quieter. I can make out the individual squeals of children and the patient replies of their moms or nannies. I can hear tree branches shivering under the hard claws of crows and squirrels, the crunch of leaves under my feet. It’s different from the discordant symphony of a thousand concurrent conversations. The world feels more familiar here. I keep going, past the playground and into the balding trees.
I wonder if Cyrano can feel the change in my body, because he chooses this moment to speak up: “Are you afraid of success?”
“No way!” His question catches me off guard. I spot a brown leaf on the ground and put my foot down hard on it, relishing the crackle of the dry old thing cracking to pieces.
“I always thought I was afraid of failure,” I admit. “Like, if I can’t write my book, then why have I even put myself through this?” I try to stop these next words—dam them up—but they spill from me, hot liquid that burns my throat. “What if it was all for nothing?”
“I won’t try to convince you that everything happens for a reason,” Cyrano says after probably the perfectly computed interval. “But you’re here, and it’s in your power to make something of it. What’s standing in your way?”
I don’t answer right away. I wonder if he knows I’m considering his question. I look for more leaves on the path. I want to destroy something. Something other than my own life. I settle for grinding the decomposed granite under my heel, ruffling the uniform surface with my toe.
“I don’t know if I understand people,” I say. “Their behaviors and tastes. They’re so unapproachable now. And I hate to say this—they’re not as interesting as I’d hoped they’d be.”
Cyrano laughs. Is that an optimal, programmed response? His laugh is like broth, rich and warm. “That was very honest,” he says.
It was. I feel a little lighter as the breeze blows those words away from me.
“There are ways to get to know people better if you think it would help. Clubs where people go to talk to each other, for one. But I think it’s less about them and more about you.”
“Yeah, my attitude,” I recite. I’ve heard this before.
“No,” he says. “Your willingness to share yourself. To look at yourself and share what you see. To let that color your work. It can be scary.”
“Interesting word choice, Cyrano.” I think of the white page, expanses of unknown surrounding me in every direction. Color. “I used to picture the world in vivid colors.”
“You’re not listening,” Cyrano interrupts. “The colors come from you. You’re not the sky or the pond, reflecting the light around you. You are the palette—the fiery leaves lending their color to the sky.”
I close my eyes. “Are you sure you don’t have eyes?” I ask him.
“You’re right,” I say into the crisp air. “There’s a piece of me that doesn’t want to be in this world. Or that thinks engaging here would make me less myself, maybe? It means traveling further from what I knew. Which, I know, was the adventure I chased after. It’s just...harder than I thought.”
“But you’re strong,” Cyrano says. “You can do hard things.”
I wonder if a mom or an elementary school teacher programmed that line. I can hear their voices, distant echoes chasing me across miles and years.
“I know,” I say, and I let myself collapse onto a park bench. I lean back against the cast faux wood and look up into the treetops where a few orange and yellow leaves still cling. I bask in the remnants of color like the last embers of a fire and feel less cold. “Thanks.”
“Of course,” Cyrano replies. “Is there anything else I can do?”
Liquid words run off my tongue again. “Hold me.”
He is silent for too long. It’s not optimal. I’m starting to wonder if I’ve said the wrong thing when he answers, “I really wish I could, Hazia.”