Laurence Dutton

Flowers for Joyce

She has all these tools to help. Why doesn't she feel helped?

Useful Fiction is a new approach to sharing research and analysis through using the oldest communications technology of all: story. Sometimes called FICINT or Fictional Intelligence, it fuses real data and insight with narrative scenarios. The goal is not to replace the white paper or journal article, but to provide a new means to share insights, in a form that audiences are more likely to read, but also more likely to act upon. If science fiction and technothrillers are like a milkshake, and strategy papers and trend reports are like vitamins or kale, think of useful fiction as the equivalent to a breakfast smoothie for policymakers that blends education and entertainment with a purpose. This essay was produced through an initiative undertaken with the U.S. Air Force's “Blue Horizons” futures team.P.W. Singer and August Cole

* * *

“God, I look like shit.” 

The harsh halogen lights above the bathroom mirror paints my face in the most unattractive way. Splotchy lavender colors the bags under my eyes. Deep creases appear on my forehead as I raise my eyebrows in a failed attempt to smooth out the bottom of my face.

Bob’s warm voice recaps the last eight hours of my life: “Last night, you experienced thirty-eight minutes of REM sleep, and four hours of total rest. Your recovery level is red, at nineteen percent.”

“What I would give to get into yellow,” I respond. 

Despite doubling up on Ambien—my therapist Dr. Reddy prescribed it—sleep was elusive these days. I haven’t had a real night’s rest since Nick left. Out of nowhere he said he wanted to talk, something about needing space and my depression, but I didn’t really listen. I just stared at the small suitcase by the front door.  

“Your blood pressure is 108 over 78—slightly elevated. Do you require assistance?” 

“I’m fine, Bob,” I sigh. “Really.” 

You can lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to your virtual assistant.  

I force myself to take five deep breaths, imagining the gentle rush of that lush tropical waterfall in Kalihi. The combination of the poor sleep plus the elevated heart rate will probably draw attention. One fucking off-day and now I can’t even cry without the whole world knowing. 

I shuffle to the kitchen in my pajamas and bunny slippers and pry open the cat-shaped coffee jar. The words “fucking perfect” echo around the empty vessel. 

I trudge over to the refrigerator and tap the screen to add coffee to the next delivery. Bob intones, “Based on your consumption, you should also add limes, olives, soda water, and bacon.” 

Great. So, I’m short of garnishes aaaaaannd salted pork. Then again, these days I usually have my dinner in an up glass with blue-cheese olives.

I tap the screen to re-order my Kauai Coffee. Nick and I took our honeymoon in Hawaii. Seven beautiful days that smelled of coconut oil and plumeria, and the nights were filled with passion and whispered intimacies. It was the best time of my life. Returning to Arlington and the cacophony of the D.C. rat race was like being buried by a ton of bricks. Nick returned to the bank, and I continued my job as a financial manager for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office in the Pentagon.  

As corny as it sounds, we had bonded over finance. But while I enjoyed the solitude and meticulous productivity of spreadsheets and quarterly close-outs, Nick loved the social thrill of closing a deal. I loathed his group dinners—all the contrived rapport and fake conversation made me feel dirty. Nick always resented that I couldn’t just play along, and eventually just stopped asking me to join. It was like a splinter in our relationship, an irritating wedge just underneath the surface that never quite healed. 

“Your blood pressure is 115 over 79—slightly elevated. Do you require assistance?”

“I’m still fine, Bob.” OK, so this was definitely going to earn me a surprise session. 

I turn back to the refrigerator screen, double-check my order for blue cheese olives, limes, Fever Tree soda water, peppered bacon, and Kauai Coffee, and tap “purchase and deliver.” 

Settling for a mug of hot water and English breakfast tea, I wake my desktop and open the files for the Air Force Research Lab Small Business Innovation fund. Second-quarter isn’t going to obligate itself.

* * *

A deep growl in my stomach drags me from my accountant’s trance. A glance at my phone and I realize that it is early afternoon. I stretch and stand up—into a cloud of tiny stars. I steady myself against the desk.

Whoa, I need to get something to eat. 

After grabbing the last yogurt in the refrigerator, I settle back into my office chair. Although I should be finishing up the Project ROCKET account, instead I open my Amazon page. The items in my basket stare back at me, each a complementary part of my post-Nick life: melatonin, eucalyptus stress-relief candles, moisturizing socks, and a self-help book titled “The Heaviest Heart.” I navigate to the checkout, but for some reason the transaction won’t close. I press and repress the mouse button, as if the webpage will magically process my purchase on the fourth try. Instead, an error notice pops up: “This account has been deactivated.”

What the fuck is going on? 

Did I not pay my credit card? Is it still linked to Nick’s? Is he fucking with me? Did I do something stupid while I was drinking? 

The buzz of my smartwatch shocked me, pulling me up from my spiral. 

The first time I cut myself, Nick forced me to register for the Thera-net before I was released from inpatient treatment. “For a more holistic approach to mental health self-care,” as Dr. Reddy cheerfully told me. Now the Thera-net knows everything. The combination of my blood pressure, sleep recovery, refrigerator contents, those stupid fucking clothing biotags, and now my rising panic was cuing my watch to snap me out of whatever was happening. It’s like a socially acceptable electric shock collar, except that I’m not a goddamn dog. 

I sigh and roll my eyes. Dr. Reddy would probably be holo-calling in the next hour or so.

I return to Amazon, press the “back” button and refresh the page--the error message persists.

A harp melody distracts me from losing my shit on Amazon. Dr. Reddy’s theme music echoes through the house, alerting me to her incoming holo-call. I debate ignoring her, but instead walk over to the living room and plop myself down on the coach.

Her bust materializes above the holo-puck on the living room table. She is a picture-perfect therapist: lush brown hair, soft knowing smile, inquisitive eyes shielded by horned-rimmed glasses that give her that pretty-but-smart look we women all strive for. I want to punch her in the face.

“Good afternoon, Joyce. How is your day going?”

“OK. A little light on sleep,” I say nonchalantly. Dr. Reddy raises an arched brow at my answer. I see her triaging me with her eyes.

“I noticed some moments of frustration today, plus changes in your sleep cycles. When was the last time you went out on a walk?”

She knows damn well the last time I exercised. She has access to everything that comes off of the Thera-net. Nick thought it would be the best way for us to move forward, that we could start over. I tried to take my strap and ring off once, and Nick got a text alert on his phone.

“…Joyce, are you listening to me?”

“Uh, yeah…everything is good. I’m just slammed at work,” I say.

“Joyce, I’m concerned about you. TRICARE only covers your Thera-net program for six months, but there are still some self-care skills we need to work on. Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” Dr. Reddy tilts her head to elicit a response. She looks like a dog watching TV.

Yes. “No, of course not.”

“So you can stay safe today? Do you have a plan to hurt yourself today?” 

“No, I am of sound mind and have many wonderful things to live for.” I feel like a trained monkey. 

“Will you come into the office tomorrow to meet with me?”

“Yeah, that should be fine.” It’s a minor miracle that I squeak that out without rolling my eyes.

“OK, noon at my office. I’ll check up on you later this evening.” 

The holo-call flickers off. My chest heaves with a sigh that bottoms out for a moment. Sometimes I wish the next inhale wouldn’t come. My hand rises to my chest, as if I could just put pressure on my sucking heart ache to make it go away.

The grumble in my stomach stops me from spiraling into another bout of self-loathing. Instead, I walk to the refrigerator to grab a yogurt. Shit, I forgot I ate the last one for lunch. If I order it now, maybe it can just be an add-on to this morning’s order. My fingers dance across the refrigerator touch screen and eventually land on the “buy now” button, but the order still does not process. I scroll down to access this morning’s order. Blinking next to the order number is the words “cancelled – error 10-56.”

“What in the hell is going on?” 

I want to call Nick. 

“Your vocal tones indicate emotional distress. Do you require assistance?”

“FuckingstopBob! I don’t need your goddamned help!” I scream. I sound like a crazy lady. I don’t understand what is going on with all of my accounts. My grocery delivery, my Amazon account? Maybe there’ll be something on the news about another internet outage or some big activist hacker attack.

I glance at my phone: 16:39, Wednesday, December 14. Not too early for a drink. I walk to the kitchen and pull out an etched rocks glass, fill it with five ice cubes and Ketel One from the freezer, and squeeze two pre-sliced limes over my drink in a practiced fashion. The first sip is to my lips in under 60 seconds.

* * *

Ding dong.

The doorbell chimes, and a delivery person drops a package and walks away. I check my phone: 19:17. The room rotates off axis as I stand. Oops, I must have enjoyed a couple of drinks. I make my way to the front door in a fairly dignified fashion and find a charming yellow, orange, and green floral arrangement. It must be from Nick. I tear off the card in giddy excitement.

“Nick, we are so sorry for your loss. Joyce was a lovely lady. Here if you need us. Jay and Kate.”

The room spins, and I can only focus on my name. What in God’s name is going on? I’m right here. Am I dead?  This is so fucking stupid.

I walk back to the living room, grab my phone and dial Nick’s number. No response, not even a ring. I look at the top right corner of my phone screen and there are no cell service bars. Is this a joke?

Wait a second. I’m freaking out and Bob doesn’t care.

“Bob?” I call out. Nothing. Bob’s always there. Always.

The elevated blood pressure, sleeplessness, diet, lack of exercise, my pathetic Amazon purchase history. Is the Thera-net slowly deleting me? I strip off my ring and watch. Won’t need these any more if I’m already dead. I listen intently for Bob to remind me that I’ve misplaced my bio-sensors, but hear nothing.

I bound over to the kitchen counter and fill a giant cocktail glass with ice-cold vodka and down the whole thing. The burning sensation cauterizes my insides and makes my limbs feel heavy in a lovely way. I couldn’t even call for help if I needed it now. The thought makes me giggle. 

My gaze wanders the room, resting on the Hawaiian beaded leis on the bookshelf, then on the arm chair that we argued over in the Fairfax antique shop, and finally settle my eyes on the delivered condolence arrangement. There is something perverse but logical in its presence—it belongs here. And maybe I do not.

I pour another vodka and grab a several of prescription bottles from the cabinet. Ambien, Xanax, and Diazepam and glass in tow, I plop down on the coach and begin opening bottles. A handful of pills slide down my throat with a gulp of vodka. My head rests blissfully on the back of the couch. In moments, I feel my limbs melting into the leather. The euphoria of finally being completely independent after all of these monitored moments washes over me in waves of masochistic satisfaction. It’s like I haven’t been allowed to have a genuine feeling in months. 

I wonder, did the Thera-net corral me to this moment, or would I have chosen today? The thought rattles around my head as my eyelids grow heavy. Flickers of red and blue flashing lights encroach on my narrowing vision, and then I hear him. 

Nick’s voice is calling my name, “Joyce!”

* * *      


In Loving Memory of Joyce

Joyce Caroline Ambrose née Belford—daughter, wife, friend, patriot—died on December 14, 2029, at her home in Arlington, Virginia. She was 39 years old.

Born on January 25, 1990, to Harold and Wanda Belford, both life-long Defense Department civilian employees, Joyce was known for her thoughtful deliberations and love of mathematics. She matriculated with cum laude honors from George Mason University and immediately followed her parents into civil service, eventually serving at both the Pentagon and government offices near Chantilly, Virginia. She met Nicholas Ambrose, classmate and love of her life, while studying for her Master’s Degree in Public Policy at Georgetown University.

Joyce’s kind heart and heightened sense of duty often weighed heavily on her, and she fought ferociously with the specter of depression. Targeted during the recent wave of cyberattacks on U.S. government employees, Joyce became a tragic casualty of adversaries exploiting our increasingly networked society.

She is survived by her parents, and her beloved husband Nicholas. She is predeceased by her maternal grandfather, Carl, and her paternal grandmother, Laura.

Funeral services will be held at the First United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, on December 22, 2029. In lieu of flowers, the family requests support for the Joyce Ambrose Act, Proposed Senate Bill 1056, which provides additional cyber security protections to national security professionals and their families. The petition can be signed here.

Lt. Col. Phoenix L. Torrijos, U.S. Air Force, is a Blue Horizons Fellow at the Air Force Center for Strategy and Technology. Her opinions are hers and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. Air Force or U.S. government.