Category Archives: Fiction

Several Options (fiction)

She checked the map as she left the nursing home where she worked part time after school. There was a COVID hot spot flaring up across town, but her neighborhood and favorite bakery were clean. She messaged her grandfather that she was on her way to pick him up. When she was a child, she had nearly lost him in the first wave of COVID and then she fell ill herself. She had recovered, but her best friend ended up with severe lung damage.

In the beginning there wasn’t a clear divide between people. There were careful people who were trying to minimize the spread of the disease, and those who were not trying at all, and people somewhere in between. There were people who could work from home via computer. They had clean homes and clean jobs. There were people whose jobs it was to deal with the public or to work on the front lines, and there were vulnerable people who had no chance of survival if they were infected.

Over time the situation evolved. The virus mutated rapidly, and vaccines were only partially effective. The incubation period was 14 days and there were asymptomatic carriers. The spread of the disease was managed with contact tracing, which was voluntary.

Wrist worns had developed advanced sensing capabilities. The devices detected pulse, blood oxygen saturation, body temperature, and activity level, and could detect the phones and wrist worns of other people through short range wireless radios. Wrist worn sensor data became the basis for detecting the onset of sickness. The devices sent data to medical authorities so that statistics could be collected for disease tracking. First responders were called automatically if blood oxygen saturation fell too low. The wrist worn, along with a phone, supported 2-factor biometric authentication. Facial recognition validated by synchronous heart rate measured from the two devices ensured the authenticity of contact tracing data.

Data had started to be collected in the year after the first onset. With years’ worth of data and advanced machine learning, data scientists developed predictive models of when and where COVID would hit next. Outbreaks could be forecast like the weather.

Records were kept on the transmission and severity of the disease. Every person had something like a credit score of potential risk of spreading the disease. Anyone could improve their COVID risk score with a strict 14-day self-quarantine and by submitting to wrist worn contact tracing. They could be verified as low risk, or clean. Some people were required to improve their risk score in order to qualify for certain jobs. Others didn’t even bother to try, though they wanted to, because their life circumstances created an impossible and hopeless situation.

There was a type of freedom and relief reserved for those who could verify their risk level. Being able to freely hug a vulnerable friend or to laugh joyfully in each other’s faces became a kind of luxury. Risk scores inevitably shaped social circles and gathering places.

She pulled up to her grandfather’s home and got out of the car to give him a warm hug and kiss on the cheek. She loved his stories about the past and he loved to hear about her dreams and aspirations. They arrived at their favorite bakery, which catered to vulnerable people, scanned their wrist worns at the entry, and sat down at a table. Her face lit up as she exclaimed that she had heard back from the colleges she had applied to, including one that had in-person classes and only admitted low risk students. She had several options to choose from.

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The Charm (fiction)

It was a gift for Christmas. Two nearly identical bracelets came in a box ready to share. His granddaughter had given him a bracelet and a charm, and she got the other bracelet, a smaller one but with an identical charm. The charm was something that she could tap, like a tap on the shoulder, a little sign to let him know that she was thinking of him. He could respond to her tap with a little squeeze that would trigger her charm to light up and blink at the rate of his heartbeat. The two friendship bracelets would help them feel closer to one another.

The bracelets were simple and rugged, and with a periodic change of a coin cell battery, kept them in touch. On her first day in junior high and before every competition or concert that she was playing in he would send a tap and she would return a squeeze. On road trips away from home she would send a tap to let him know she was thinking of him and he would return a squeeze.

Through these little gadgets they created metaphors for physical connection that they took for granted. They got the feeling that they were in touch.

After the first wave of the pandemic he was isolated at home. He could only visit with his granddaughter through a webcam. They still wore their bracelets, even as dated and worn as they were, and now it felt even more important to stay in touch. Sometimes she’d tap her bracelet just to solicit his response. And he would return with a squeeze that lit her bracelet up with his heartbeat. It was the only physical interaction that they could have, better than nothing at all.

The pandemic subsided in the summer but returned in the fall with more severity, spreading faster and killing more swiftly. This time the disease did not discriminate by age. For the young the time from infection to death was fast, sometimes only a few days.

He was unlucky enough to contract the disease even in isolation. It still wasn’t well understood how the disease spread despite the lock down. Even though the hospitals were prepared with beds, ventilators, and PPE for front line workers, his chances were slim. As his condition rapidly worsened his granddaughter would tap him several times a day, every few hours, to check on him. He always responded by squeezing the charm on his bracelet. Her charm would light up with his heartbeat.

Before they sedated him and put him on the ventilator, he squeezed his charm as hard as he could, sending his heartbeat her way. She saw his heartbeat flash by in a moment and then lost touch with him.

For days she tapped with an empty hope that he might respond by sending his heartbeat. Sometimes she would wonder when she had last changed the battery in his bracelet. Was it a long time ago? Would he ever respond?

His blood oxygen levels started to improve. He woke up and was finally breathing on his own. He didn’t know how much time had passed and couldn’t find the bracelet with the charm. He saw it by the side of his bed and asked the nurse’s aide to give it to him. He squeezed the charm to send his heartbeat. There was no response, nothing happened. He tapped and waited.

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