Future Tense

“The Only Innocent Man”

Read a new short story about the right to be forgotten.

A figure, illustrated in blue, sits with their back turned. A hand holding scissors cuts their shoulder, length hair.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

On the Friday before April break, Charlie discovered his new worst fear: He had an acute anxiety, bordering on panic, that one of his students would track down his personal website from his own teenage years—what used to be called a blog before social media was social media; years that were now actual, complete decades ago—and identify Charlie as the site’s creator.

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Zeke delivered this fresh, life-derailing terror in the last five minutes of their one-on-one tutoring block. Zeke had been suspiciously productive on his lab report and uncharacteristically alert, motivated to clear all obstacles to his still-hidden agenda.

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“There is something,” Zeke said, and took a moment or two to collect himself, drawing a long breath and exhaling through his nose. He seemed even more fragile than usual, like he might be startled out of his chair by any sudden movement. Still, Charlie was proud of Zeke and the work they had done together; the kid had come a long way from his constant, instantaneous meltdowns.

“OK,” Zeke announced at last.

“OK?”

“OK. I am OK.”

“You are, yes.”

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“Also! Also … there is something.”

“Yeah? What is it? I’m listening.”

“OK. Here is something: I like your stories, Mr. Bravo. That’s the thing.”

“Aw, thank you, Zeke.” Teaching had given Charlie a habit of using people’s names more often than necessary. “I’m glad to hear it. Was there an example in class that connected some dots for you?”

Charlie smiled stupidly, a naive fool unaware that he was about to lose all firsthand experience of peace. Though he would later revise that self-narrative, redacting “stupidly” in favor of “ignorantly.” He was trying to remove value-laden words like stupid from his vocabulary. Smart, too. Smartness was a construct of private property only possessable through scarcity. Property was a thorny issue for him. It was best to leave all of that behind, if possible.

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“No. No … your old ones,” Zeke said, almost whispering. His giant eyes went glassy, and there was something in his posture, too, and the flushless paste of his acne-stricken skin, his complexion like that of a wax figure about to liquefy.

“Oh yeah? Which ones are those?” Charlie had forgotten just this once: Don’t ask questions that you don’t want answers to. And Zeke described, in alarming detail, the softcore romance stories which Charlie once wrote on commission for strangers on the internet.

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Back then, Charlie had developed a formula based on feedback from his clientele, who were, from what he could discern, mostly other trans boys and men—more closeted ones who were navigating rhetorical traps such as: What did it mean that they were a little afraid of cis men, yet attracted to cis men, and wanted to be a man among men romantically? What it meant was that they were gay men, but try telling that to anyone who has already drunk deeply of the same swill of gender essentialism that we’re all bathed in, and told to take it for primordial lifeblood. Someone has to be a victim and someone else their oppressor. Someone has to be innocent and someone has to be guilty. But in the meantime, Charlie got himself a little spending money out of these tensions. He made enough to afford groceries and the odd slice of fun for a while, before he decided to become an educator and deleted—so he believed—his entire online presence.

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Charlie’s formula went as such: The narrator explained his situation in the tradition of an advice column letter. He was a cis man who had discovered himself falling suddenly, bashfully, and chastely in love with a trans man—usually following a particular stereotyped social or biomedical turning point in transition, such as having come out yesterday or developing a perfect beard overnight. The social transition was always hard but undeterred; the biomedical transition was always remarkably rapid and uncomplicated. There were no idiosyncratic details to either man’s personality—nothing that would make them feel like a specific person who might actually exist. Both men were no older than 29, but the cis man was always at least a year older. Neither party was actively hooking up with anyone else.

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The cis man and the trans man were sometimes childhood friends, sometimes college roommates; one time, Charlie had been asked to put them in an arranged marriage. (That one had been very popular.) Sometimes there was a marriage plot motivated by immigration or health insurance. Sometimes the men were coworkers on a business trip and there was only one bed in the hotel room. One way or another, these two were forced in proximity and stuck there. They must never, at first, actively choose to be together.

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The trans man had no intra-community drama or didn’t seem to know any other trans people, which he was somehow fine with, if he noticed at all (he shouldn’t). There were no unending toils with care providers, no unflattering habits, no substance abuse, no emergent libidinal changes. There were hardly any sexual concerns at all, beyond the novelty of the cis protagonist developing a crush on a person he simply hadn’t considered before. His attraction was a surprise, but it never scared or repulsed him. Homophobia and transphobia existed vaguely, or in the past tense. In the end, the fictional cis man only wanted to know how to tell his trans man love interest how he felt.

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Charlie’s signature detail was the haircut. At some point in every commissioned story, the cis man would give the trans man a haircut, or take him to a men’s barber shop, or give him “permission” to cut his hair, or run a hand along his new fade. A haircut was always involved; it had started as an individual client’s request and proved so popular that Charlie eventually advertised it as a core feature of his work. He never fully understood why the hair thing was so important and potent—maybe as a stand-in for sex? An act of intimate, bodily, masculine mentorship and solidarity without all that icky, AIDS-y fluid exchange. Whatever the reason, it brought him massive success within his little niche.

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In retrospect, it was foolish to think deleting the website could undo its outsized impact. Several of his commissions went viral, mistaken for the genuine article, and had circulated across the internet of yore with treacly commentary: The tales were just so wholesome.
These dudes might have held the social or physical power to harm, as they were dudes (gross), but all they did was hyuck and guffaw (phew). They might have been The Bad Gender, but they weren’t oppressing anyone here, no sirree. They exhibited themselves for voyeuristic gratification, which was basically a feminist act. The stories reassured their patrons: Yes, you can want all of this and still be good. These fake, tender bros might be you-know-what-British-slang-for-cigarettes, but they, alone among their kind, were blameless.

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“Zeke, uh …” After Zeke stammered through an excruciatingly thorough description of the formula’s generalities, Charlie thought through his response carefully. Was this an overture of stalking, or blackmail, or both? “What makes you think I wrote things like that, Zeke?”

Zeke struggled to explain, but eventually described a central feature of the website: There at the top of any given page were Teenage Charlie’s core political identities. He had once assembled and published, presented as his “about me,” something like a taxonomy of his gender, sexuality, cognitive and physical disabilities, race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, regional dialect of spoken English, socioeconomic class of origin, socioeconomic class of aspiration, degree of introversion/extroversion, Myers-Briggs type, Enneagram number, astrological sign, sero-status for both HIV and—for some reason—Lyme disease, favorite color, most humiliating childhood memory, and how he preferred to enjoy his coffee and tea. Thankfully, he stopped short of including his mother’s maiden name, the street he grew up on, and the name of his first pet. This sort of hyper-disclosed and itemized micro-biography was all the rage at the time; people would pick fights if you didn’t offer up where and how you compared with them along every imaginable axis.

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He really didn’t know yet, as a youngster, how to discern that which was secret from that which was private.

“Ah, well …” Charlie stalled. Had he completely misunderstood and underestimated his student? Journeying this deep into ancient cyberspace was equal parts impressive and unnerving. “OK, Zeke, suppose you’re right. Let’s say you got me. Then I would have to ask you, and this is very serious now, how did you find all of that?”

Zeke struggled to answer Charlie’s question. Glisters of moisture beaded all over the boy’s body: detectably nervous sweat, wells of proto-tears, the gurgle of mucus rising in the nose and throat. A gelatinous state all around.

“It … It found me,” Zeke mumbled. “In a vision …”

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“A vision, Zeke? Where did you have a vision?”

“I had it …” Zeke practiced his breathing again and spoke up loud and clear. “In the Computer Lab.”

If something like this were going to happen, it should have been from one of the nosier and “extremely online” kids. Zeke was a drooping dandelion of a boy-creature whose parents may or may not have been in a cult and absolutely did not permit things like technology or shampoo in their home. Strive Academy’s slogan was “today’s misfits, tomorrow’s mavericks.” It was a micro-charter which boasted “bespoke learning for young minds who have been unable to find success in traditional educational environments,” and though Zeke had some of the more acutely apparent needs of Charlie’s students, he had no official record to speak of, much less an IEP. Charlie had guessed that he’d been home-schooled before coming to Strive Academy, but also didn’t want to be too sure of that guess, because he didn’t want to reinforce his own negative biases about home-schooling.

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Zeke wasn’t trying to blackmail Charlie. This was his secret, too. Now they both knew something about one another that they weren’t supposed to—something nobody, ideally, was supposed to know. It would’ve almost been touching, almost a moment of unlikely trust and mentorship amid the demoralizing, warehousing realities of school, if it weren’t also a massive threat to Charlie’s job.

If Zeke could find this, anyone could, and even if that person possessed an unusually liberated mind, there in the header, just flapping in the breeze, were all the ways in which Charlie might be found “a controversial issue” by parents and school administrators.

“Ah, Zeke, we’re out of time, but we should probably talk about this more, OK? Don’t, uh …” Charlie searched for the words. One must never tell someone else’s child to keep anything secret from their parents or other adults generally, even if they should. Bad precedent as well as bad optics. “Is it OK if we put this aside until after the vacation week? We can pick back up right where we left off.”

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Zeke nodded, sort of. It was more of a rocking, self-soothing motion that started in his head and shimmied down to his heels, but it still expressed acquiescence. Once he finally left, Charlie wrote in his classroom notes, “Zeke was very focused on his lab report today. Showed improvement in abstract thinking and conceptual grasp of material.”

Charlie met with his co-worker Keith over lunch to plan a professional development day they were supposed to lead over April break, but Charlie kept losing the thread of the discussion. He couldn’t stop thinking about who or what was maintaining backups of his old website.

Keith sat opposite him with his compartmentalized lunchbox of raw ingredients; Keith only ever described the actions he performed on food as “meal prep,” perhaps because cooking involved a willingness to adapt and surprise oneself. Charlie stabbed mindlessly at his corner-store Cobb salad, and by the second time he asked Keith to repeat something he’d just said, Keith’s expression sank into sharp suspicion.

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“Charlie, come on,” Keith said, but somewhat to Charlie’s relief, Keith wasn’t reading Charlie’s mind and judging his salacious past. He glared at the plastic fork wedged between Charlie’s knuckles, hovering over a gray-tinged hard-boiled egg. “We have a whole tray of metal ones.”

The break room was a microwave atop a mini-fridge next to a water bubbler beside a conference table, in full view of the administrative offices. And while there was a whole stack of “loaner” silverware jumbled next to the mini-fridge, Charlie didn’t trust his colleagues’ standards of food-safe sanitation.

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As if intuiting this objection, Keith added, “At least grab a compostable one from somewhere.”

“Those are, uh, cost extra,” Charlie shrugged.

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Keith the nosy nagging henpecker, Charlie thought, then immediately reconsidered. Could one man call another a henpecker? Did it still count as misgendering when the man in question was cisgender, or was it garden-variety heterosexism? Charlie searched for a masculine equivalent to the epithet, but “cockpecker” sounded like something else entirely, too fun to capture the essence of Keith’s tendency to carp over Charlie’s habits.

“I would just be worried, you know, about what it meant,” Keith continued. “Or how it might look, if I were in your position, running an Environmental Studies module while relying on single-use resources. Just speaking for myself, personally, I could see how it might be misunderstood. But I could be wrong, of course!” Keith always did this when he was annoyed at someone, like he could neither pick his battles nor openly commit to them.

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Perhaps being hassled by younger people was the cost of finally looking his age. Keith was only 23 and in his second year as an instructor, but in that short time he’d managed to overshare enough details about his relationship with his father that Charlie, more than twice his age, didn’t want to escalate their dynamic into a parent-child proxy drama. He looked the part: Charlie’s baby face hadn’t so much filled out as it had begun to sink, one jowl at a time, in the manner of so many men experiencing the softening and swelling of middle age. Once upon a time he’d wanted “more of a chin,” and here he was with more of a neck.

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He should worry less about this sort of thing, even if it made twentysomethings think he was a bumbling patriarch. Keith was a brat who took his cheekbones for granted, but he was also at a vulnerable point in his career. They both were: Charlie was ascending steadily through midlife without a retirement plan.

There were a number of ways to explain the situation: serial recessions, gig economies, wage gaps, real-estate bubbles, medical-debt balloons, student-loan sharks, familial transphobia, generational trauma, executive dysfunction, pathological demand avoidance, the death knells of late-capitalist imperialism, and a barely suppressed fatalism that he might not live long enough to see retirement, anyway. But he had some good working years ahead of him yet, and possibly even a few good living ones. If he were able to stick around Strive long enough, they’d cover a small portion of his health-insurance premiums.

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“Oh, true,” he finally responded, after so much calculation, like it had never occurred to him. “You make a good point.”

He forced himself to pay attention after that. He’d have to investigate Zeke’s discovery later. Besides, just for the sake of the professional development, of course, Charlie wanted Keith to feel cooperative.

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Charlie ran a close inspection of the Strive computer lab after classes let out and found nothing which might explain a teenaged vision quest leading to his old smut. He would conduct the bulk of his research at home, anyway, safely veiled behind a VPN.

Charlie lived in a one-bedroom apartment above a barber shop on North Street, the so-called main drag of 20th-century buildings occupied by thrift shops, bars, a hardware store, a nail salon, and a bunch of city buildings, like the old wooden post office and brick fire station.

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As he arrived home, he made eye contact with Sis, the barber, while he searched his pockets for the key. Sis gave him a half-smile and a nod, which he returned as she swept hair off her floor and prepared to lock up for the night. During the week, the shop typically opened after Charlie left for work and closed before he returned, so it was as good as living above an empty garage. On weekends, he woke up to the smell of Barbasol and the sounds of electric buzzers and men idling and arguing for hours. Most of the Talbye town police were regulars, as well as a lot of tradesmen and contractors, or at least a general milieu of impatient and squinty-eyed guys who drove pickup trucks. The more they complained, the longer they lingered; conflict was the heart of intimacy in their shared ritual. Local gossip was rampant; Charlie could’ve run a weekly newspaper from his bedroom just eavesdropping through the floorboards.

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Sis was a grizzled woman who held her own among the men because she knew more about sports than any of them and still provided a feminine sounding board for their personal problems. Sometimes the men’s wives and girlfriends got it twisted and came by to make a scene, but Sis was unflappable.

She also held some beliefs that Charlie wished he didn’t know about. He’d had his hair cut there once or twice because she could actually wrangle curls and texture, but never without commentary about “ethnic hair.” He hadn’t called her out yet because she had a tendency to drop her worst opinions as her scissors grazed his ears. And Sis wasn’t really the receptive type for a righteous lecture. Plus, Charlie found it difficult to justify traveling to get his hair cut somewhere else. Sis wildly undercharged for her talents, and how would one go about seeking a “progressive” or even a “less racist” barber shop in small-town New England? And what if he were just subconsciously holding her to higher standards as a woman in a historically male-dominated role?

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But all of his hesitations and self-serving evasions were just quotidian spoils of a white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, Charlie knew. That was how they got you comfortable with the status quo. He’d have to find somewhere else, POC-owned, to balance things out. Eventually.

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Charlie ascended up the creaky, carpet-tiled stairs to his apartment as casually as he could, and waited out Sis’s lingering presence below. He hung up his bag and coat, put away his shoes, folded his slacks and changed into shorts, and set water to boil for dinner. This sort of specialized research required solitude.

Plus, he’d been thinking uncharitable things about someone in her presence, and he felt like this invited telepathic levels of scrutiny. He didn’t believe in things like that, not really, but superstition and anxiety were close relatives, sometimes.

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He sat and watched his water boil and observed his distorted thoughts: The racist lady barber wasn’t thinking about him at all; she was probably thinking about hockey and didn’t even remember his name. Was that reassuring? Or did he actually want her to notice him? To find him memorable, worthy of her trouble? To, figuratively, adopt him only to disown him? Could this have something to do with his relationship to his mother?

He meditated on these questions, but thankfully didn’t have to answer them. Soon Sis left, and the water boiled, and there was dinner to fix, and Charlie always found his way back to his body when it was time to eat.

As a teenager, Charlie used to scare the neighborhood children he babysat by telling them about 56k dial-up internet. They couldn’t believe such things ever took place over a phone line, that someone could break your connection simply by picking up the kitchen phone. The kids were sure this was another one of those urban legends which teenagers, who seem like children to adults and like adults to children, use to intimidate or dazzle those just outside their own generation.

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He might have said to them, flashlight to his chin around a campfire: Imagine yourself lost in a dense forest where everything moves slowly and looks terrible, which is what makes it perfect. You encounter two devils in these woods: the one you know and the one you don’t. Desiring to express yourselves and connect with others, you and millions of people enter their most personal thoughts, feelings, and life events into databases. Everything you create is private property, and you are not its owner. And so either your information belongs to a successful company as their intellectual property forever and ever, amen, or else your information belongs to an unsuccessful company and disappears (or is sold to an invisible, inscrutable third party) when their shady technology or culture or funding stream implodes. Choose your devil carefully, and be aware that if you die in the cloud—which is only, after all, someone else’s computer—you may die in real life.

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Nowadays, Charlie looks up anything of a personal nature by strictly encrypted means. The full phrases which he searched to track down the reanimated corpse of his old website were, technically, devoid of curses and genitals and references to illicit left-wing ideologies, but still. He hit more dead ends than he assumed he might, so whatever Zeke found had been buried deep, thank God. At first, all he could glean was that the website probably did exist as a complete mirror of the original, hosted or managed by something called The Queer Ephemera Project, “an anonymous collective of New Media necromancers, based out of Enfield Institute of Technology, committed to the study and preservation of orphaned digital works, applications, content facing deletion, and other aspects of virtual LGBTQAI+ online life.” Beyond that, there were few clues as to where and how the contents of this archive were accessible.

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Charlie used to be in favor of this kind of punk-tinged digital stewardship, until he met professional archivists and came to understand why all of them planned to have their own letters and diaries incinerated with their bodies when they died. This Queer Ephemera Project had something of his and Zeke had stumbled into it, somehow, and Charlie wanted it gone. Somehow.

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He considered sending a friendly message via the archive’s contact form, requesting a takedown. But wouldn’t they make him prove he was the original author, and wouldn’t this just further expose him, adding another digital paper trail? Would they argue with him, tell him that his squeamishness about emerging from the digital kink closet was contributing to the erasure of queer voices from the vibrant history of cyberculture?

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Only once he’d slipped back into overthinking did something change on the screen. The index of the archive appeared and began to filter and comb through itself, in pace with his unspoken questions, as if it could hear his longing, sense his desperation.

He had a growing hunch that The Queer Ephemera Project was more than a backup server of old trashy websites.

He might have asked Zeke, when he had the chance, what exactly he’d meant by comparing his experience to a vision, but the kid was stressed enough as it was, and might’ve withdrawn in frustration. No use lingering on regrets now, Charlie thought, but found himself unwilling to let go of some vague guilt anyway. It was so potent that it hit him like brainfreeze, and that’s when his old fics—all at once, just as Zeke had said—found him.

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Charlie knew that if he let his personal technology collect where he went and what he did and how he spent—and he was required to, to some extent, in order to use it at all—it all fed back into the advertisements he was made to endure to continue to use any given service. His less cautious friends gave away their faces, their voices, and who knew what other biometrics. It wasn’t like the five typical senses were the only measure of a user. The Queer Ephemera Project might have been curated by Gay-Straight Alliance volunteers at the college for all he knew, but the archive’s interactive research guide was maybe the most biometrically sensitive, highly sophisticated targeted ad campaign he’d ever seen, or else an A.I. model trained on the horniest corners of GeoCities and Xanga and the metadata he and countless others didn’t even know slipped through the digital cracks in their lives on a constant basis. He didn’t have to ask a search engine for anything; it seemed that if you were different, if you were lonely, this archive already knew what you were really looking for.

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It infuriated him. He had a right to be forgotten! (And not to be seen afresh by the archive, in all his current vulnerability.) A right to erase himself, to be nobody, to get lost, to refuse contextualization as an historical artifact whose actions, emotions, and experiences belonged to some public body for study, meaning, and influence. Did bodily autonomy not extend to the corpus of a text? Well, it should, Charlie thought. Anyone interested in protecting the present and future of marginalized people should know better than to document their past too closely. Preservation was also a form of surveillance. Especially with things like university endowments underwriting the whole effort, though he really didn’t want to have to, like, sue an entrenched institution. That would be tedious, and counterproductive, and gauche. Instead, he would deal with this like an adult.

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Charlie’s mother used to say 50 percent of life was just showing up. As she got older, that percentage got higher and higher, until at last, on her deathbed, it seemed to max out just shy of a unified field theory of loitering. She was, actually, still alive; she’d been on her self-described deathbed for the past 17 years, and she continued to leverage the solemnity of that position to proselytize.

“Ninety-nine percent of life is just showing up,” she said nowadays. “You’ll understand when you’re an old woman like me.”

“When I’m an old woman,” Charlie would repeat back to her, with as little affect as possible. Maybe someday she would hear how her own words sounded, perhaps consider their implications and impact on their listener, but it wasn’t likely. Mum’s perpetual hospice proved a stubborn ideological ground for her. Always in death’s downward pull, yet victoriously resilient year after year, she’d never been more certain of what she knew. Sometimes Charlie met her there with compassion. He considered how different her world was than his. How difficult her life had been, in ways he’d never have to experience. How many ways and chances a person could be given to get their head around certain things right in front of them—such as having a son and not a daughter—and still commit to denial.

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Either way, Charlie had been brushing off her advice since the percentage was a mere, modest half of all life.

He realized that he’d accepted his mother’s advice, after all, when he finally got out of his car outside the student center at the Enfield Institute of Technology. Somewhere on this campus, amid its sparse, confusing signage, within a glass cube named after a war criminal, behind a space-age facade panel, were the archive and its overseers: those responsible for exposing Charlie’s private history to the wider world. The plan was not to visit but specifically to trespass, locate, and demand direct access to The Queer Ephemera Project. Face-to-face interaction was the only meaningful way to exercise your agency, the only effective way to enact self-advocacy. Actual presence was, like, complex positive representation but for real life.

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Charlie waited outside the central library and pretended to fumble for an ID card. The whole place was strangely scentless: a spread of neo-brutalism and Faraday Cage Folly architecture, sterile sculptures studded with hostile textures, quasi-public outbuildings like amphitheaters and gazebos that were functionally useless and inaccessible. The buildings were numbered in chronological order based on when they were built, rather than where they were actually situated.

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He had planned his appearance to fit in: plain but expensive chinos and a fleece jacket over a simple, half-destroyed T-shirt; he let his glasses stay smudged, hair un-coiffed; he carried a messenger bag, which cocked his posture out of alignment. He hoped to pass for a doctoral candidate or an adjunct lecturer. After a few moments of faux-fumbling, an undergraduate rushed to his assistance.

Charlie could hardly believe the absentminded-professor shtick had worked so well. He’d half-hoped it wouldn’t work at all, so he’d have a reason to turn around and go home, faultless of any transgression but nobler for attempting one. The key, he reflected, was that he’d assumed the posture of simultaneous authority and helplessness which he’d spent most of his life trying to mask.

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As he paced the riot-proof innards of the campus buildings—all connected underground by walking tunnels!—he tried to maintain a brisk gait, as if he were headed to a known destination. Suppose he found what he was looking for? He began to rehearse what he might say to the person or persons responsible. Would it be a mousy undergraduate clinging to their heightened personal attachment to random men’s vintage internet projects? A faculty member who needed the material for a book? Maybe some kind of support staff, who could only show him to the same dead ends that they faced daily? He realized that he had assumed he would confront some white, yaoi-fed, media-poisoned young adult, likely a semi-out FTM, as in someone who would yell at him for using dated and problematic terms like FTM, as in someone who didn’t know that FTM had been reclaimed, actually, back when they were still in diapers and that it also stood for Fujoshi-to-Manic-Depressive. Someone who stood in surrogate for a self he had outgrown and disavowed, and therefore someone he could disavow. But maybe that was all the more reason to give this part of himself away. Was there a horseshoe theory of self-preservation that came all the way back around to secondhand embarrassment? What if this person was more marginalized than him?

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Charlie scanned each building’s directory as he passed through sections and cross-sections of tunnels beneath half-ground and basement levels. As he gave into his doubts and misgivings, he felt something like magnetism take hold of his body with each unanswerable question. The more psyched out and spaced out he became, the stronger the sensation grew, resolving the uncertainty of forks and bends in the tunnels, leading him to the maintenance and receiving dock of the Brain, Nerve, and Cognitive Sciences Building. This one had restricted levels above the lecture hall and admin offices, as well as a second bay of elevators and stairs which led to five tiers of subbasement.

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A sign beside that elevator read, “ACCESS TO STERILE DRY LABS ONLY: NO LIVE SPECIMENS ALLOWED BEYOND B1.” Ah, Charlie thought, so it must be those restricted upper floors where they poked monkeys in the eye. Below the sign, a cryptic letterboard directory listed “Q.E.P.” and something abbreviated to “C.E.C.C.” as the occupants of Sub-Basement Three.

What else could “Q.E.P.” be? His entire body had that pins-and-needles buzz, the warm part before it gets truly painful but after you’ve lost noticeable control of your appendages. Charlie was used to this feeling; a side-sleeper, he always passed out on his left arm and woke with a floppy, phantom limb.

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He stepped into the elevator and barely had to graze the SB3 button to activate it. No ID card needed for this one.

Sub-Basement Three was a long, bright corridor with a friendly textured entryway to the reception area for C.E.C.C.—Center for Experimental Collective Consciousness—and opposite, a heavy but otherwise nondescript utility door labeled with a simple, hand-drawn sign. From the distance of the elevator bay, Charlie thought it said “OOPS!” but as he got closer it was clearer that it did read “QEP!” Someone had colored in the void of the Q with whiteboard markers in over-saturated rainbow stripes; each line of ink bled into its neighbors and the boundaries of the letter, blotting out the tail of the Q.

There was no keypad, no ID card reader, not even a mechanical lock that the lowliest custodial closets tend to have on their door handles. The handle looked so clean, inviting to grab and twist, disrupt—like sliding a new bar of soap out of its crisp packaging.

Before grasping the doorknob, he rehearsed how he might explain the gist of this visit to campus security, who he was certain would appear at any moment. They would demand his campus ID, which he would be unable to produce. How to explain to security that yes, he meant to trespass, but no, he meant no harm, only the righteous correction of wrongs? That he’d only come to protect something vulnerable, that there need not be a guilty party?

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Inside the room was a single overhead pendant light casting a circle of visibility on the checkerboard linoleum floor and barnwood-paneled walls. It wasn’t clear how large the room was, how far back it went. The air was pleasantly mild and fresh, like a perfect spring day. There was no technology whatsoever which Charlie could observe, at least not in the conventional sense. He’d expected something slick and menacing: repeating racks of black metal, ribbons of CAT-5e cable, the blink of status lights on display panels, the idle hum of drives and fans—that placental noise, that static of activity without life, or before it begins.

He didn’t encounter any ambitious faculty members or overeager undergraduates or overworked graduate students, either. There was only a life-sized avatar of a perfect young man sitting in one of those black rehearsal chairs every theater program keeps knocking around. The avatar’s face seemed uncannily familiar, and then Charlie recognized its appearance as approximately Keith from work, crossed with the generic type from which heartthrobs of his youth like Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Leonardo DiCaprio emerged. He smelled like a 2000s shopping mall Abercrombie & Fitch.

Uncanny Keith shook his shaggy curtains of perfect hair and locked his empty holographic gaze with Charlie’s red, aging eyes—and God, he really felt like he was aging for the first time—and held out a pair of scissors. The avatar didn’t speak, but it didn’t need to. It tilted its milky neck to the side as Charlie took the scissors from it—they seemed real and solid enough, even if they were the “safety” kind with plastic handles that Charlie kept in his classroom, not the precision tool of a barber. Uncanny Keith had massive, muscular shoulders which prevented it from reaching the back of its own head, where the hair itched and chafed along its annoyingly upright spine. It was at once helpless, powerful, wild, and needing to be tamed by his touch. Charlie understood now. What those countless desperate fic patrons had come to him for, what reduced Zeke to salivary fits, and what the archive itself deduced about his own needs after everything he’d given to it, knowingly or not. He took a silkily rendered lock of the avatar’s hair between his fingers, and began to cut away.

Read a response essay by an expert on online privacy and fanfiction communities.

Read More From Future Tense Fiction

The Skeleton Crew,” by Janelle Shane
Collateral Damage,” by Justina Ireland
Beauty Surge,” by Laura Maylene Walter
The Wait,” by Andrea Chapela
Ride,” by Linda Nagata
If We Make It Through This Alive,” by A.T. Greenblatt
Good Job, Robin,” by JoeAnn Hart
Empathy Hour,” by Matt Bell
The Woman Who Wanted to Be Trees,” by Cat Rambo
Out of Ash,” by Brenda Cooper
This, but Again,” by David Iseron
All That Burns Unseen,” by Premee Mohamed

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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