Future Tense

“Domestic Violence”

A new short story from science-fiction writer and futurist Madeline Ashby.

Illustration: woman wearing mask, man screaming behind glass.
Lisa Larson-Walker

Each month in 2018, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—will publish a story on a theme. The theme for January–March 2018: Home.

I’m sorry; I had some trouble getting out of the house,” Janae said to Kristen.

Janae’s frustration was obvious. It manifested as raw cuticles that she couldn’t help picking as their meeting continued.

Kristin frowned. “Couldn’t find your fob?”

“No, I mean I couldn’t get out of the house,” Janae said. “The house—well, I mean, the condo—wouldn’t let me out. The door wouldn’t open.”

“Literally?”

“Literally. I thought it was stuck, like jammed or something, but it just wouldn’t open.”

Kristen examined Janae. They were here to talk about Janae’s recent tardiness, her distractedness, the fact that she hadn’t delivered on her deliverables, hadn’t actioned her action items. As Wuv’s chief of staff, it was Kristen’s job to learn what workplace issues existed and deal with them. At least, that’s how she had explained the meeting to the company’s co-founder. Privately, she had her own suspicions about what was really happening.

“Maybe she’s knocked up,” was Sumter’s contribution to the conversation.

“If she were, it wouldn’t be our business,” Kristen had reminded him. “Legally speaking.”

Sumter heaved a very put-upon sigh. “Well, yeah. But you’re a girl, you can get it out of her.”

Kristen had blinked, but otherwise allowed no other reaction to surface on her features or in her affect. “You want me to get her an abortion?”

“Jesus Christ, Kiki, no. Just find out what the fuck is going on, and then fix it.” And with that he dismissed her from his office.

Now she and Janae sat together in her own office, the question between them—or what passed for an office, in Wuv’s spacious loft. A delineation of clear sheets of acrylic and projected light and ambient sound. Today the lights projected a quiet jungle clearing. Softly rustling palm fronds, carefully calibrated to be seizure-proof. It felt intimate. It felt hidden. It felt secure. Kristen believed it was important for the employees at Wuv to feel safe in the cocoon that was her space. It helped them open up.

“You couldn’t leave the condo,” Kristen said. It helped to repeat things, sometimes. She’d learned that particular tactic from a succession of psychiatrists. Each of them had their tics and tells, but this was a common technique. When Janae said nothing, Kirsten acted more interested in the specifics: “What finally made the door open?”

“I had to do the chicken dance. It started playing the song and then I started dancing, and then the door opened. I think maybe some kid in the building hacked the door.”

“Has that happened before?”

Janae frowned delicately. She was a delicate woman. Coltish. That used to be the word. All knees and elbows and knuckles. Once upon a time, she did doll-hairstyling videos online, her careful hands combing tiny brushes through pink and purple hair. They were classics in their genre; she was so well-recognized that children and their parents followed her sponsored updates to local toy stores and asked for photos and autographs and hugs. She’d had surgery since then. Few vestiges of her childhood face remained. Even neural networks couldn’t match her old face to her current one. Her plastic surgeon, she claimed, had won some sort of award for his work restructuring her skull.

“It’s something Craig used to do,” Janae said, “when we were first dating. He would make up a riddle, and I’d have to solve it before the door to his place would open to let me out. It’s the kind of trick people use to grant access to the home, but he reconfigured it. It’s really easy; there were tutorials for it. He told the story at our wedding.”

“I see,” Kristen said.

Kristen let Janae off with a warning. She preferred a gentle approach, at first. It was part of why Sumter hired her—she could make his employees feel only the velvet glove without any hint of the iron fist beneath. Kristen pretended that the whole meeting was just a kindly check-in, that Janae wasn’t at all in trouble, that no one else had noticed anything. It built the narrative of Kristen as a thoughtful chief of staff. If she was correct about the particular scenario Janae had landed herself in, it would behoove the entire company if Kristen were understanding and supportive. It wouldn’t do for them to be anything else. Not if they wanted to survive a civil suit.

Finally, it was time for her to go home. It was well past time by the third tank of pink smoke that Sumter insisted on buying her. It tasted of rosewater and almonds, and melted into icy mist on the tongue. He wiped down the mask himself, before offering it to her, so that the first thing she smelled was his custom strain of sanitizer. They were supposed to be going over the projects she would manage in his absence. They weren’t. They were talking about him. And Janae.

“Did she tell you anything?” Sumter asked.

Kristen shrugged. “She told me enough. I’m handling it.”

“Whatever that means,” he said, adjusting the flavors on his own tank. “I wish you were coming to Dallas.”

“It’s too hot for me. And they don’t like it when men and women travel together.”

“That’s Kansas,” he said.

“And Ohio. I think.”

“I’m not going through U.S. Customs with you again, is my point.”

Sumter took a brief inhale from his tank and grimaced. He’d gotten rosemary-sumac-spruce. It was a little strong. Too strong for him, anyway.

“We could get married,” Sumter said. “You know. For travel purposes.”

Kristen inhaled. She held the cold mist in her lungs for as long as possible. She imagined the cold permeating her entire being. She pictured her blood slowing, her organs frosting over in delicate flowers. Sumter had been making more of these attempts, lately. That’s what they were, little conversational pen-tests. They felt like nerdy in-jokes about some obscure series that she hadn’t seen yet.

“But then we would have to get divorced,” Kristen said. “And if you think I’m a bitch now … ”

Sumter grinned. He took a deep gulp of smoke and shook his head. “You wouldn’t divorce me, Kiki. I wouldn’t let you get away.”

Kristen slid off her barstool. “Guess I’d just have to poison you, then.”

Home was Wuv Shack 1.0, a sprawling Parkdale Victorian that was once a nod-off and then became the home of home-improvement stars. The house was Sumter’s, and before that it belonged to his parents. He’d since moved into his own space, but kept the place where he’d co-founded the company, and leased out the rooms to new or migratory employees for what in Toronto passed for a competitive market rate.

Kristen kept a camera-zapper in her room and slept under dazzle-patterned sheets that kept her solo explorations secret.

In her mail slot, she found a courier’s envelope. Inside was a key fob and a piece of hotel stationery. “HERE FOR 48 HOURS” it read.

“Damn it,” Kristen whispered, and hurried outside the building. It was raining, now, and she almost slipped on the greasy streets. The jitney came and she didn’t have long to wait; the hotel was a new one, surprisingly close by. She waved her fob at the door and an elevator chimed open for her. When it arrived at the proper floor, the fob flashed a room number at her.

Inside, in the dark, she heard the shower running. She slipped off her shoes, unzipped her dress, found a hanger, and hung it in the hall closet. She threw her underclothes in a drawer in the closet and crossed into the bathroom. He stood motionless under the stream of water, seemingly asleep. Antony was the only man she knew who didn’t have tattoos. It was refreshing. Elegant. Analog. Kristen stepped in behind him and wrapped her arms around him.

“Sorry I’m late.”

“You’re not,” he said. “I had them send the fob when I landed.”

She smiled into his skin. He turned around and kissed her. It took a moment; he liked to assess the terrain first. It had been a month since the last time, maybe more, and she watched him take in all the details that might have changed before descending. He held her face in his hands, covering her ears, and for a moment she was not under a stream of water but under waves, far away, in a place that was very dark and very warm. He kept his eyes ever so slightly open. It was the only time she remembered enjoying the sensation of being watched.

When he pulled away, he started pulling her hair out of its tie. “How was your day?”

“My boss asked me to marry him.”

“Of course he did,” Antony said. “Will you report him to HR?”

“I am HR.”

He pointed upward at some invisible point over her head. “That’s the joke.” He knelt down and started scrubbing her from the toes up. She braced herself on the tile and watched the smart meter on the shower ticking down to the red zone where Antony or his employer would have to start paying extra for hot water.

“Do you think he was serious?”

Kristen looked down at him. He’d set her foot on his knee and was scrubbing in circles up her calf. “Are you jealous?”

He worked his way up to her knee and under her thigh.“Not in any way that violates our terms.”

She tilted her head. “But?”

“But, he seems more aggressive, lately. To hear you tell it.”

Kristen snorted. “I can handle it.”

“Oh, I have no doubt of that,” he said, and put her foot back down on the floor of the shower. “Can I do the next part hands-free?”

She checked the timer. “You better work fast.”

“Well, you know what they say,” he said, pushing her gently against the wall. “You can have it fast, good, or cheap. Pick two.”

She came awake with her throat sore from a swallowed scream. Antony had curled around her. He spoke into her neck. “Bad dream?”

She nodded and pulled his arm tighter over her.

“What happened?”

Kristen wiped her eyes and exhaled a shuddering breath. She refused to speak until her breathing had calmed down. “Something else happened at work. And I guess it dislodged something, sort of. Mentally.”

“Something else Sumter did?”

“No.” She rolled over and spoke to him directly. “Someone at my work is in trouble. I think.”

“Will you have to fire someone?”

She shook her head. “Not that kind of trouble. Well, it is, but that’s not what I mean. There’s something else going on, something causing their problems at work.”

“Something at home?”

“I think so. But it’s hard to ask. I don’t even know if she thinks it’s a problem. I don’t really know how she feels about it. Maybe she doesn’t know how she feels, either. It might be nothing.”

“What do you think it is?”

Kristen sighed. “Can I see your device? I need to check some blueprints on a non-work machine.”

Antony’s devices were very dumb. They used minimal storage and processing, and didn’t even wear a brand name. That just meant it was probably some special boutique brand that Kristen had never heard of. It was a delightfully retrograde little thing; all it did was take calls and pictures. Even the photos required an extra kit to download. It felt like playing with Lego.

He handed her a scroll and she resolved a relationship with the hotel network, then looked up Janae and her husband’s condo. She didn’t recall the exact address, but searching “tampon-shaped monstrosity Toronto” actually worked.

“This is where they live. Her husband locked her in, today. Yesterday. Whatever. She was late because he locked her in.”

“You know it happened because he locked her in? She wasn’t just late? It wasn’t just an error?”

Kristen made an elaborate shrug. “No? But she as much as told me it could have happened.”

“She as much as told you, or she told you?”

“She told me it was something he used to do. When they were dating. Refusing to let her out until she did the thing he wanted. Like a rat in a maze, performing for pellets.”

“So. Marriage.” Antony took back the scroll and opened a set of floor-plans the building had advertised. “Which one do they live in?”

Kristen peered over his shoulder and fingered the surface. “That one, I think. Based on the photos she’s shared, anyway. I’ve never been there.”

He summoned the floor-plan and copied a serial number at the bottom of the screen, then fed the number into another tab. A bunch of press releases came up, most of them for gadgeteers, real estate developers, and interior decorators. But the first hit was for the manufacturer of a smart locking system.

The locking system was part of the whole condo’s suite of smart services. It was the big selling point of the building itself: Living there was like living in a fairy-tale castle where every piece of the structure was alive and enchanted to serve the needs of its inhabitants. The showers remembered how warm you liked the wáter and at what intensity, and balanced your usage with that of the other residents. The fridges told you when a neighbor in the kitchen network had the buttermilk you needed for that special salad dressing. The windows and lights got information about your alpha patterns and darkened to start sleep cycles on schedule. The smart locking systems recognized residents and their visitors, over time, and even introduced them to each other when their profiles matched. Membership in the building came with special pricing from affiliated brands on everything from home goods to auto-rental to nannying and tutoring. The more purchase points you accrued, the more rewards you amassed, which could also be applied to the price of maintenance or utilities. And a massive and very public data leakage from the network supplying this building and many others ensured that the developers had to offer almost unheard-of interest rates, which tempted buyers who might never have managed, otherwise.

“Oh look, they have a bot,” Antony murmured.

He opened the chat and after the niceties, typed: I THINK MY HUSBAND HAS HACKED THE DOOR.

“No, wait,” Kristen protested. “If you send that, they’ll ask for your location. If you don’t give it, they’ll start pinging the machine. And once they find it, they’ll call the police. The bots have a whole protocol for smart homes when that happens.”

“Do they?” Antony asked. “How do you know?”

But Kristen had already taken the clamshell out of his hands. She grabbed a pillow and jammed it under the clamshell to protect her skin. It would take a trickier question to get the information she wanted. She started typing: CAN I USE MY SMART LOCKING SYSTEM TO KEEP MY KIDS SAFE?

The bot asked for more information. It was very polite, double-plus Canadian, and it wanted to know what she meant. MY CHILD IS A SLEEPWALKER AND I WANT TO MAKE SURE HE STAYS INDOORS AT NIGHT, she typed.

The bot agreed that this was a natural concern, and informed her that the best mechanism for keeping her kids indoors was to adjust their individual account privileges. The camera in the door would recognize each child, and the door itself would check against the child’s settings. There was a default mode for after-school play, nighttime, mornings, and so on. But the programming itself was fairly granular: You could tune it to certain days (the days you had custody, for example) or get the door to stop admitting certain people (pervy uncles, your daughter’s ex). All you had to do was change the nature of the invitation.

“Like with vampires,” Antony said.

“You said it,” Kristen said. “I bet he did something really simple, like changing her age on the account. If he made her a minor, she’d lose editorial access to the defaults. She wouldn’t be able to log in and make changes, even if she had the right password. And then he could custom-tune it anytime he wanted. In the meantime, she’s solving puzzles and showing up late for work.”

Antony rose and moved to the fridge. “If I mix you something, will you drink it?”

“Make that sound less threatening,” Kristen said.

“They have rye and ginger. That’s deeply unthreatening.”

“Don’t you have a meeting tomorrow? Today, I mean?”

He shrugged. “At 10. It’s 4. I’ll make screwdrivers instead.”

“Your funeral,” Kristen said.

He came back with drinks and settled in behind her. He pulled her hair to one side and pressed his sweating glass against the back of her neck. “What was your dream about?”

She leaned forward. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”

“It was enough to warrant this little investigation.”

“That wasn’t my dream. It’s just what’s happening to Janae. From work. Or what I think is happening to her. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

He kept the ice off her neck but played with her hair instead. Like the drink, it was probably a ploy to help her relax enough to reconsider sleep, and she knew it. Kristen let him do it anyway. He raked careful fingers from her scalp down to the ends, separating the little snags and catches as he went. “Why can’t you stop thinking about it?”

Kristen twisted to face him over her shoulder. “I just have a bad feeling about it. And I want to know if I’m right, or if it’s nothing to worry about.”

“And if you are right? What then?”

Kristen frowned. Antony had a way of keeping his face and voice entirely neutral that made her want to fill the silence. There was no judgment, and therefore no warning signal that she should stop. It was hard to know if he was annoyed or bemused at her sudden instinct to chase this down.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We can just go back to sleep. I just woke up with it on my mind.”

“That’s not what’s bothering me. I’m jet lagged; I’d be up in an hour anyway.”

“Something is bothering you, though.”

“What’s bothering me is that something’s bothering you, and you’re not telling me what it is.”

Kristen sighed. She turned fully around and folded her legs. “Something did happen to me, a long time ago. A version of this, I guess. But it’s over, now. I haven’t thought about it in a long time.”

“But this situation reminds you of it.”

She nodded. “And I guess it’s getting to me.”

He burrowed a bit deeper into the pillows and stretched his legs out so they hemmed her in. “How long ago was a long time ago?”

“University.”

“And are you still in contact with this person?”

She laughed. “What? No. Why? Are you gonna go beat him up, or something? It was years ago.”

Antony didn’t answer. His head lolled on the pillows. He held her gaze just long enough to make things uncomfortable. In their encounters, she had never known him to be violent, or even very angry. He expressed displeasure and annoyance, but never fury. But this moment felt different: His total lack of affect made it seem like he was hiding something.

“I thought we agreed to keep things … ” She struggled with the proper wording. “I barely know anything about you. I don’t know where you work. I don’t know who your clients are. I don’t know who else you sleep with. And you’re the one who wanted it that way. You said it would help avoid complications. I thought you didn’t want to know anything … personal. So why do you want to know about this?”

Antony sipped his drink. The clink of the ice and the movement of his throat carried in the perfect early morning silence of the hotel room. Kristen heard no showers running, no toilets flushing, no anxious footsteps on other floors. For a single moment she wondered if he’d taken control of the whole floor, the whole building, the whole street. She didn’t know who he worked for—who paid for the trips—but they clearly had the money to throw around. She knew it had to be something mundane, even boring, but at times like this she wondered.

“I just want to know if there’s someone to watch out for,” Antony said, finally. “For all I know, he’s profoundly jealous and stalking us both.”

“You don’t even live in this city. And your visits aren’t regular enough for anyone to predict. Besides, I don’t use any channels to contact you that any of my other connections are familiar with. And I never make any reference to you, anywhere. That’s also what we agreed to, and I’ve stuck to my end of the bargain. You’re fine. No one that I know even knows you exist. I thought that’s how we both wanted it.”

She looked at the scroll. The bot was going to log out. For the moment, she had what she needed. She could always do more research later. And Janae might have more to say, if she gave it some more time. She turned back to Antony. “Do you want to renegotiate?”

“Do you?”

“I don’t know! You’re the one who’s asking all this personal stuff; I’ve just been trying to follow the rules.” She squared her shoulders and decided to just say it out loud: “Even if they’re totally insane rules that make you sound like some kind of professional killer or something.”

The corners of his lips pricked up. “Professional killer. I like that. I think we should go with that. I think you should just assume that, from now on.”

She fixed him with a look. “Antony. You work in venture capital. We all know that’s way worse than murder.”

Before heading in for work, Kristen needed to stop by the Wuv Shack 1.0 for fresh clothes. At seven in the morning the house was still mostly asleep. To her surprise she found Janae standing in the kitchen, making coffee. She looked like she’d been crying. Kristen decided then and there to give Janae the day off. The woman was in no shape to work.

“You get locked out?” Kristen asked.

Janae didn’t answer. She just filled another mug and slid it in Kristen’s direction. “I didn’t know where else to go. I texted Mohinder and he let me in. There was a couch open.”

Kristen felt a momentary pang that she hadn’t been paying attention; she could have let Janae into her empty bedroom and given her more than a sofa to sleep on. On the other hand, maybe a night exiled from her own home would loosen Janae’s lips a little. She already looked brittle. Ready to crack.

“Have you talked to Craig about it?”

Janae made a gesture that indicated a species of futility. “He’s up north, scouting an abandoned diamond mine. The signal’s terrible.”

Kristen had her doubts about that. One of the first things any real resource-extraction firm did up north was build fast, reliable networks and extend them to the neighboring towns and reserves. It was a make-good for all the other damage, a facet of revised treaty agreements. Either Janae was lying about trying to broach the topic, or Craig was lying about being able to reach her.

“When does he get back?”

“Tomorrow. Maybe. It’s an unpiloted aircraft, though, so sometimes the flight path can change when they shuttle actual pilots between airports. It costs less, but you wait longer because it’s more like a standby.”

Kristen filed away the information to a safe corner of her mind, and said: “I had a problem like that, once. With a door, I mean.”

Janae’s gaze darted up at Kristen mid-sip. She gulped audibly. Kristen had a sneaking suspicion that Janae had been doing some research into this particular problem and the men commonly attached to it. Her eyes were a sleepless red, the kind of red that meant long nights questioning certain choices.

“What did you do?” Janae asked.

“Well, it wasn’t my house,” Kristen said. “I had some problems with my roommate, and my friend let me stay with him in his fancy new smart home. It started with one night, and then another, and then a weekend, and then somehow I just ended up spending the rest of term there. You know?”

Janae nodded.

“And a funny thing happened,” Kristen continued. “I started noticing that every time I changed my clothes, I couldn’t leave the room. The door would stick. Unless I got completely naked and started from nothing. I think he’d rigged up a recognition algorithm to lock the door unless it saw a totally naked body. The house was smarter than he was, I guess.”

Janae’s eyes were wide. “He was filming you.”

Kristen shrugged. “Probably. But I could never prove it. And I needed a place to stay.”

“So what happened?”

Kristen smiled and refilled both cups. “I played a prank on him, so he figured out that I knew what he was doing.”

Janae beamed. “Oh yeah? What?”

For a moment, all Kristen could smell was exhaust. She could see his hands on the glass so clearly, could see glass splintering away from his weakening fist.

“Oh, just kid stuff,” she said. “Now, why don’t you go upstairs and have a nap? You can take my room. I’ll be gone all night.”

That night, Antony returned to the hotel smelling vaguely of cigars. He was in the shower a long time, and returned to find her on the scroll.

“That’s a good car service,” he said. “Secure. They don’t save the data.”

“Is it the fancy one they send when they want to impress you?”

“When they want to impress me, they pick me up themselves.” He slid between the sheets and started kissing down her outstretched thigh. “Do I want to know about this little project of yours?”

“I’ll be done soon,” she said. “I just need to make a reservation.”

“For your boss? I mean your husband?”

She reached over and scratched her fingers along his scalp affectionately. “Don’t insult me.”

Antony laid his cheek on her knee. “How was your co-worker today?”

Kristen pressed a confirmation button and rolled the scroell shut. “Fragile.”

“And how are you?”

“Hungry.”

He looked up at her through his lashes. “Whatever for?”

Antony left the next day. But he extended the hotel reservation a little longer so Kristen could stay a few more nights, leaving her room free for Janae. “It gets me into preferred customer status,” he said when Kristen protested. “I’ll just use the points on my next visit.”

Kristen held herself back from asking when that would be. It wasn’t precisely against the rules, but it would rather ruin the surprise. It was enough to emerge from a mid-week holiday pleasantly sore and well-breakfasted. Her schedule couldn’t really accommodate the type of capital-R Relationship that led to arrangements like Janae’s. Thank God.

Janae herself was gone from work for three more days. There was the day she took off at Kristen’s behest, and then the other two days were spent searching for her husband. Upon his return, Craig, it seemed, had gotten into a car that flashed his incredibly generic name at the airport taxi stand at Pearson. But it clearly hadn’t been meant for him: It drove him not to Janae and the tampon-shaped condo tower in Toronto, but to an old cobalt mine near Temagami, Ontario.

IT CRASHED, Janae’s texts read. IT DROVE RIGHT INTO THE PIT.

Kristen expressed shocked surprise. The company sent flowers. But Craig would be fine. He would just need some traction and some injectables for a while. And of course he’d be stuck at home. Alone. For hours. Waiting for Janae to come home. Dependent on her for everything.

Apparently there was another Craig in Toronto with the same name, who also had a returning flight arriving that same day. He had posted on his social media about his flight and how much he was looking forward to coming home. Just the month before, that Craig had been returning from another trip, and posted a glowing review of the car service he’d used. The service’s customer retention algorithms, Janae said, must have associated the information and then sent a comped car as a part of their marketing outreach. At least, that was what the police had said must have happened. The car’s records were scrubbed every 24 hours, and it had taken Janae’s Craig so long to be found. Even when he called for help, he couldn’t identify the model of the car or the license plate number. He had been trapped for hours, helpless.

“It sounds awful,” Kristen said.

“It was,” Janae agreed, once she returned to work. “He’s terrified. Says he can’t go back to another mine again. I can’t leave any lights off. He was in perfect darkness for hours and hours.”

On the weekend, Antony called. “I’ve been thinking about your stalker,” he said, after they’d spoken in great detail about how exactly she had used the hotel room, how many times, and with which hand.

“He never stalked me,” Kristen said.

“So he’s really not a problem?”

“He’s really not.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

She could almost hear him screwing up the courage for vulnerability. “Because you can tell me, if—”

Kristen laughed. She rose from her desk, catching Sumter’s eye. He grinned at her and she waved back. Outside, it was snowing. Just a few tiny flakes under a leaden sky. “It’s sweet of you to be so concerned, Antony. But please don’t worry. He’s dead.”

Read a response essay from Ian Harris, who works on technology issues with the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Previously in Future Tense Fiction:

• “Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
• “Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
• “The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
• “Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor

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Madeline Ashby is a futurist and science fiction writer in Toronto. Her most recent novel is Company Town.