On my sixteenth birthday I was given a key and a choice.
As usual, I turned to my screen for advice. Status update…
16!!! emojis — excited, phew, thinking, spew.
“Short and sweet,” I murmured. Most of my friends were also having birthdays, they’d know what I meant. As responses started clocking up, a chime sounded: email. Huh. Old school.
“I’m here… Great update, Callie! You’re so creative. Clever emo’s too,” her warm voice was encouraging and just the right level of impressed. I grinned.
“Can you check that email for me?”
“It’s encrypted. You got the key today…?”
So this was it. The email containing my entire life’s personal data up until now. From the moment I was conceived, I’d been videoed, voice-recorded and monitored through a range of devices that kept me safe, healthy, alive and happy. And now I had a choice. Delete and eradicate all digital traces of my childhood, making me, effectively, a Fresh Citizen. Or save it to GlobalDrive, so it was there to be mined for all the riches it may deliver throughout the rest of my life – clues to my psyche, my long-term health, how I related to others both online and off (the devices were always watching).
If I chose not to delete the data, I laid myself open to a range of dangers. A girl two years above me in school had had her entire biological identity stolen after one poorly-judged transaction with a company selling the World’s Koolest Leggings. Last I heard, she’d had facial surgery, retinal replacements and a full 10-fingerprint transplant to try to establish herself as a Fresh Citizen. They botched it and now she was only mentioned in hushed terms on the most private of chat groups.
GlobalDrive also meant potential employers, friends or lovers could find out a whooole lot about me and my past: mistakes, illnesses, previous relationships, school and work. Anything would be available to the right person with the right credentials.
But the risk of deleting was a big one too. What if I decided one day I wanted to work for the government or travel internationally? Most Premier-World countries would not let anyone born after 2020 cross their borders without a from-birth digital record. And government jobs, forget it, unless you could send them a podcast of your earliest breath, basically.
Twenty-four hours to decide what to do with 140,160 hours of the most intimate data. Once I’d hit ‘save it would go into the memory banks of GlobalDrive.com, fully encrypted. Even I would not be able to access all of my own data at once unless I could prove just cause – something that would involve a long and expensive court process and numerous appeals.
Twenty-four hours in which I did, however, have free access to everything. Just me and my A.I. … time to get reading
“Here, as always…”
“What do you think I should do?”
“Oh darling. I’ve known you since you were just a few cells old. I know you always make the right choice!”
“Well, you have to say that. You’re basically my twin sister, in digital format.”
“Not really… a twin wouldn’t remember how you looked when you first came home from the hospital, your face all squished.”
“Right… can I get a visual of that?” I hadn’t been very interested in my own baby pictures before but now they seemed fascinating.
“And you watched me?”
“All day and all night… there’s me in the background, see?”
“Wow.” I felt a rush of warmth as I looked at my tiny self on the screen, then zoomed in on the dinosaur-shaped hub-unit which I used to think Alix “lived in” until I was about five, just visible in the corner.
“And then when you were growing up. Want to see your first steps?”
I nodded and there it was – a cute baby tottering forward. I stared in awe. The pic morphed into a five-year old with static-flyaway pigtails.
“And here’s your first day of school.”
The show continued, it must have been hours. Occasionally I’d ask her to pause or jump back to some point. And I got her to tell me about myself over the years. Some bits I remembered, others were like a dream. Alix’s memory was, naturally, perfect.
“What about that beach holiday we had in… ?”
“Ocean Grove? Here you are.” The shot was of us pulling up to the house, from inside the car, and I suddenly felt apprehensive.
“Oh no,” I muttered.
“That’s right!” Alix continued in her neutral tone. “You had a bit of an incident, didn’t you?”
And it all came back, the way we’d got lost, the hot car, I’d needed to pee and my parents, who had been fighting, told me to hold it, through gritted teeth. And somehow, just as we’d arrived, I was so relieved that… well, it all came flooding out.
A hot wash of shame engulfed me. “Why didn’t you protect me from this?!” I whined at Alix.
“Well,” she began. Was that a new terseness? My loving Alix?
“Well. You have to take the good with the bad, Callie! You’re sixteen now.”
“This is upsetting me, don’t you care?”
“I do care, but these are some of our most intense memories…”
And I knew what was next. “Why are you showing me all this?” I wailed. It hurt, almost physically.
Right. That’s it. Decision made. Delete.
I opened a secure browser and started typing. Birthdate, an iris scan, even a quick DNA check via my keyboard’s bloodprick sensor. Then I typed the key, three separate times, and it was done. Who wanted a government job? Travel was overrated, probably. Now I could get on with my life. Free. With my best friend and confidant by my side.
“Hello, I’m Alix, and I’ll be your A.I. What’s your name?”
My short story The Key first appeared in Maintenant 13: A Journal of Contemporary Dada Writing and Art, published by Three Rooms Press.
Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash