When Carter and Sam(antha) learn how to turn off their safeties, not only does the world become a trickier place, they learn new things about each other…
Published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact – December 2011 – Vol. CXXXI No.12. . “Turning It Off” was finalist for the 2012 Prix Aurora Award.
Read reviews of “Turning It Off” at the end of the story.
“Turn that thing off!”
The hockey game superimposed over a bowl of Vitacrunchios vanished, and for a moment Carter could only see his parents’ red “Override” symbol in his visual cortex display. The slap of the puck and the roar of the crowd evaporated simultaneously, along with the news, Break Out the Riot Gear by the Lemon Pops, Sandra’s take on why Josh dumped Marcie, an ad jingle and a rerun of yesterday’s math.
What was that sound? He listened.
No–not quite silence. Traffic, fridge, furnace. And the house was playing one of Mom’s music loops. Double freakish.
Carter looked past the blinking symbol. Dad glared at him over his egg sim and bacon-flavored strips. Mom, in her housecoat, flicked her eyes up at Dad with that startled look she got whenever he actually spoke, and she looked right at him as if she’d turned off her own audiocortex feed.
Dad sawed at his bacon strips. “Family life has gone to hell around here. From now on, no more communients at breakfast. We’re going to talk to each other. Like people.”
Carter blinked. “Okay.” Dad made this rant about once a month.
Mom slipped into her chair with a calorishake. They waited for Dad expectantly.
“I said, although no one was listening, there was an interesting item on the news. There was a car accident,” Dad said with some importance.
“A car accident?” Mom put down her shake.
Car accident? Freakish!
“Yes. A car hit a building.”
“How?” Carter asked.
“Was anyone hurt?” Mom leaned forward.
Dad raised a brow significantly. “The driver. Doctor pronounced him dead at the hospital.”
Mom went suddenly white. “Dead!”
“Was he sick?” Carter asked.
“A kid?” Mom pushed her shake away.
“No. An eighty-year old man.” Dad attacked his egg sim. “According to the article, there are cults of people who turn their safeties off. Thrill seeking. They’re called Riskers and they post hacking codes–” His attention lasered on Carter. “Which is illegal, by the way.”
“Why?” Carter asked.
Dad shook his head in disgust. “Bad as that nut who tried to use his safety for a parachute. Guess that’s why we still have Darwin Awards.”
“What was the man’s name?” Mom stirred her shake. “The one who died?”
“Just a minute–” Dad sat back and gazed into space.
Freakish. A car with its safety turned off. That would make it kind of like . . . Carter looked around to see what they had with no safety. Not much. Dad once even put safeties on their kitchen knives, which meant everything had to be cut slowly so the knife wouldn’t bounce. It didn’t work very well. Carter tossed dry Vitacrunchios into his mouth.
Averting her eyes–as if no one could see her if she wasn’t looking at them–Mom let her eyes go out of focus. Heh. She’d turned her communient back on.
Ha! Carter drew his gaze back to the display in his visual field.
Toxic. The Override symbol still blinked red. Dad hadn’t thought to reinstate his communient. He pulled his handheld out of his pocket, and holding it below the table, watched the game and ate his cereal in the freakish silence.
All at once, Dad and Mom smiled and rose from the table. The house must’ve announced Sam and her dad.
Yep. Mr. Pickering came in the kitchen door haloed by a blast of sunshine. He leaned on the doorframe and grinned like he’d made a joke and Mom and Dad laughed. Sam poked through behind her dad, pulling off her solar shirt to reveal a thin tank top. Recently, Carter had been more and more interested in what kind of a top Sam wore. She gave Carter a questioning look.
“Dad overrode me,” he explained aloud.
The others turned to him in surprise.
—was talking back to me this morning so I had to cut him off for a bit. He’s okay now. Dad’s thought popped into Carter’s auditory cortex, superimposed on Mom asking Sam’s dad to sit, the hockey game, the Lemon Pops, the advertising, the news and the math.
Hi, Mr. Pickering, Carter thought.
Dad turned in confusion. “Who turned Carter’s communient on?”
That was me, Sam thought. She smiled angelically. Sorry, Mr. MacIlroy.
That damn girl’s too smart for her own good, Sam’s dad thought. Hacking all the time. One of these days she’s going to get into trouble. Mr. Pickering noogied Sam’s head. “Why don’t you put all that ingenuity into your schoolwork, hey?”
“I do!” Sam protested.
Damned kids, her dad thought. He took one of the water bottles the house had placed on a shelf by the door. Ready? he thought to Dad.
Sam slipped into the chair beside Carter, nudging him to notice her handheld under the table. When my d. and your d. X-out, can you ditch your m.? she texted.
Sure, he texted back. Why? He smiled blandly at the adults. No reaction. Even Mom, who sometimes paid attention to him, hadn’t noticed that Sam’s and his hands were hidden under the table.
Enjoy your golf, you two, Mom thought. Bill, turn off the autoexcerciser when you get there. Remember last time. You almost had a heart attack.
Just don’t turn off the carsafety, Sam’s dad thought. Did you hear the news this morning?
Dad took the hat and sunglasses the house offered him. Who’d be stupid enough to turn the safety off in their car? he thought to Mr. Pickering.
Sam poked Carter with her elbow and nodded toward his handheld. We’ve gotta cop your m.’s secondary vehic, she’d texted.
Why? Carter texted back, fingers automatic on the keys under the table. Mom’d never in a million years let us take her car. Besides, it’s a one-seater.
Maybe the guy was, you know, Sam’s dad thought, lifting his brows significantly. With a hot one. Oh, yeah. He was still talking about the guy who died in the car.
You don’t turn off the carsafety for that, dad thought.
Mr. Pickering grinned. I have.
Your d. turns his safety off? Carter texted Sam.
Sam rolled her eyes. They’re just talking about sex, she texted back.
“Oh.” Carter nodded, though he wasn’t quite sure he got the connection.
Sam dug him in the ribs. I wikkied that safeties were invented about a million years ago, she texted. Only a hack mole like Sam would dig down into an ancient archive like wikki. Probably for fun. It saved $$ b/c people who had safeties on their cars didn’t have to pay for insurance. Sam grinned. You couldn’t even pee or eat or sneeze when safeties first came out.
What’s insurance? Carter texted back.
It was like, they used to pay people who had accidents, Sam texted. Freakish.
Dumb, Carter texted.
The idea for safeties came from a communient channel called Star Trek that invented cell phones and energy shields that were like gigantic safeties for space ships.
What’s a cell phone? Carter texted.
Who knows? And, guess what. There was a time when even kids turned their safeties off at night, Sam texted. People thought they were safe in bed. She giggled.
“What’s so funny, you two?” Mom asked.
“Nothing.” Nobody really believes that, Carter texted. Anyway, there’s no way we can cop m.’s sec. vehic. Why do you want to?
You’ll never spec what my d. got, Sam texted.
Let’s go, Mr. Pickering thought. They aren’t making more hours in the day.
Dad kissed Mom on the cheek. Back for dinner, he thought. He waved at Carter then left with Sam’s dad.
I copped a safety remote, Sam texted.
Carter stared at her. No way, he texted back.
She grinned. Eminent.
Are you two texting? Mom returned to the table for her shake.
Carter sighed and put his handheld on the table.
You shouldn’t do that when others are around. It’s rude.
Sorry, Mrs. MacIlroy. Sam flicked a quick combo on her handheld and set it on the table by Carter’s. The last few texts vanished.
Mom put the dishes by the sink and the house began the rinse-scrape cycle. I’m getting dressed. Carter, get Sam some breakfast.
Achieved. He fetched a bowl and spoon.
Mom sighed with exasperation. And talk English, she thought as she left.
Carter scrolled the house menu on his visual cortex and switched Mom’s music in the kitchen for a loop of his own, and turned the volume up. “Dad gave me an idea.” He pushed the milk toward Sam. “Demote your communient. We’ll just talk.” He grinned. “Mom’ll never hear us.”
“Eminent.” Sam blinked, listening to the silence. “Is that ever–what’s that noise?”
Carter put his communient on its lowest setting. “Lemon Pops. I know. They sound funny through your ears. But the noise will cover our conversation.”
“No, the other sound. Listen.”
He listened. “Traffic?” There was more. “Dish processor? Fridge? Furnace? Computers?”
Sam shook her head in amazement. “Freakish. There’s a lot of noise when you think about it.”
Carter joined her at the table. “So scoop. Where’d you get a safety remote?”
She poured the cereal and pulled a black plastic thinscreen out of her sleeve pocket. “Dad keeps a million replacements all over the house. After the news this morning, I copped one.”
“He won’t notice.” She tapped the screen on the remote and was rewarded with a beep and a display. “It wants a password.” She stared into space.
“Don’t use your communient! Mom’ll see!”
“Right.” She flicked numbers into the remote with her left hand while eating Vitacrunchios with her right. “I hacked all my dad’s passwords when I was five. I get an auto-update whenever he changes them.” She scrutinized the remote and tried another combo. “Let’s see if we can turn our safeties off.”
“What?” Something thunked and Carter jumped. “Mom–”
“Oh, come on, Scaredy brat. That was the dishwasher.” Sam’s eyes glued to the safety remote screen.
Something freakish was happening to his heart. It felt the way it had when he’d tried his dad’s autoexerciser. Or that time his physical education instructor made the whole class run around the field outside the school. “You know she’ll find out. Or the house will register us as foreign objects.”
“No it won’t. It doesn’t register the vacuum as a foreign object. Or dogs. Some morons don’t safety their dogs, you know.” Sam tapped the screen. “Besides. We’ll only have our safeties off for a minute.”
“We’ll get into trouble.”
“–only long enough to drive back to my house.” She grinned. “That’ll be freakish with the carsafety off.”
He felt his face drain. “You want to drive–”
“It’s not very far. It’ll be eminent.” She poked an icon.
“People get hurt that way!”
Sam looked askance at him. “How would driving with your safety off hurt anyone’s feelings?”
“I don’t know. My parents won’t tell me. It’s bad, though. It happens when a car crashes into something.”
“We won’t crash.” She turned back to the remote. “I’m a good driver.”
“But you’ve never driven with the carsafety off. That guy this morning died.”
She lifted her head. “Was he sick?”
“I don’t know! No one will tell me!”
“Got it.” Sam flicked a button with a flourish.
The touch of his clothes, the air, the floor–the chair against the backs of his thighs–sprang into freakish focus. He looked down at himself. He stroked his fingertips slowly across the tabletop. Incredibly tiny bumps in its surface sent little thrills to his heart. A single hair brushed his eyebrow. His sleeve encircled his arm like a tickling hand.
Experimentally, he moved his arm. A softness tingled across his skin. His sleeve. He’d always felt it before, but–not like this.
“Toxic. Nothing happened.” Sam poked the remote again.
Carter lay his hand flat on the table. The whole of his palm became cool. He lifted it. His palm went back to its normal temperature. He pressed again. Same thing. His fingers rubbed against one another, a caress.
“What happened to you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
He turned his head. He blinked. He could feel his eyelids touch as they closed. He blinked again. “Freakish.”
Mom breezed in from the hall, dressed, sorting out her purse and keys. Carter’s communient came to life.
Sorry, kids. Something’s come up and I have to go out. If Dad calls, just say I’m at a computer club meeting. She was always heading off to these mysterious meetings whenever dad went out.
Carter blinked. The autoexerciser feeling in his heart sped up. He could think of nothing to say–
You get computer club meetings on Saturdays, Mrs. MacIlroy? Sam asked.
It just came up. I’ll only be gone an hour. You two’ll be all right on your own for that long, won’t you? She put on her hat.
Sure, Mrs. MacIlroy.
Actually–his mom stopped for a moment, thinking. I’ll be back sooner than that. If Dad calls, just say I’m in the shower. The car roared to life in the garage.
Achieved, Mrs. MacIlroy, Sam thought. Have fun.
Right. See you soon. Mom left and in a minute, the sound of the car receded in the distance.
“Wouldn’t it be freakish if your mom was some kind of underground Risker?” Sam laughed. “No, that would be too toxic!”
Mom. She’d walked in on them while they were– “You have to turn my safety back on.” This feeling-everything-at-once was too weird.
“Mom’ll find out. She’ll know.” He hadn’t even been able to speak. Had his face turned red?
“That was your safety I turned off. Oh!” Sam turned back to the remote and flicked more icons.
“No, I mean it!”
Sam’s face slacked, her vision gone internal. Wonder lit every feature.
With disbelief, Sam looked down at herself. She turned her hands and closed her palms. She lifted her eyes and stared at him. “This is . . .” She watched her hand as she lifted her spoon.
“Turn the safeties back on, Sam.”
She rose from the table. Step by careful step, she walked across the kitchen. She turned. “This is so–freakish!”
“Sam!” He stood. Every part of his body was touched at once, and the pressure on his arms and the backs of his thighs lessened, while the pressure on the bottoms of his feet increased.
Sam stroked the fridge door. She fingered the tile countertop. She caressed the ceramic stovetop. “Ouch!”
She shot away from the stove, her arm whipped from the burner.
“What?” He hurried to see what had happened.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!” Tears sprang to her eyes and she cradled her hand, peering at the fingers.
“What happened?” Two of her fingertips looked redder than the others.
She gulped a breath and wiped her eyes. “I don’t know. It feels . . . it feels . . . I don’t know. Freakish. Really freakish. And it–I don’t know. It’s bad.”
“I think that is hurt. Kind of like hurting peoples’ feelings, but different.”
She lowered her hand. “It’s going away, though.” She blinked with a new thought. “Hurt doesn’t last.” She shook her hand.
“Sam. You have to turn the safeties back on.”
“No I don’t.”
“Mom’ll be back–”
“Not for a long time. We can go to my place and get my copy of Mindeater–”
“Scaredy brat.” She took the remote and headed for the door.
“Fine. I’ll turn the safeties on.” He grabbed the remote, but she held firm, the pressure of her hands on his amazingly strong.
“You don’t know how! Let go!” She pulled but he gripped harder. “Ow! That hurts!”
“Give it to me! I’ll figure it out!” He twisted his wrist.
The remote popped from their grasp and fell to the floor. And there, it did the most remarkable thing.
First, it made a sharp sound. Then, it bounced back up.
But not all of it. In the blink of an eye, it separated itself into several small pieces, each of which took a different trajectory. Colored bits appeared on its inside, and these, too, took flight. Then the main body of the remote fell to the floor a second time and skidded toward the fridge, coming to rest next to the wall.
Carter and Sam watched, but the remote did no further tricks.
“I think we hurt the remote,” Sam said.
“I guess when you turn off your safety you also turn off the field around the remote,” Carter surmised. “I guess it crashed.”
“That was pretty eminent.”
Sam caught his eye. “Let’s drop something else.”
Before he could protest, she snapped her cereal bowl from the table. She dropped it.
But the cereal bowl had no such magic. It behaved normally, falling to half an inch of the tiles, then cushioning gently to rest where it had fallen.
“Oh,” Sam said with disappointment. “I guess it still has its safety on.”
Carter dashed to the fridge snaffled the remote before Sam thought to grab it. Its screen was dark, so he turned it on.
“Here, let me,” Sam said irritably, yanking it from him. But it wouldn’t work for Sam, either.
“It needs all its pieces.” Carter hunted across the floor for the bits of plastic case and internal parts that had scattered. Sam held the remote while he stuffed the pieces back in.
Carter straightened with realization. “It’s worn out. It won’t work at all. Ever.”
“Things don’t wear out in two seconds.”
“Things don’t usually crash into floors,” he countered.
Sam looked at the pieces of remote in her hands.
“Your dad’s going to notice it’s not working.”
Sam bit her lip. “We’ll hide it. Dad has a million of them.”
They looked around the kitchen.
“I know. The garbage,” Sam said.
Carter slumped into a chair. “I don’t know how to open it. The house takes care of the garbage.”
“Right.” Sam ran her fingers along the edges of the window. “Your bedroom?”
“Monitored for foreign objects.”
“Ah.” She followed as Carter wandered into the relaxroom.
He pointed. “The bookshelf. No one would ever look there.”
Standing on a chair, Carter pulled a chunk of book sim from the top shelf and Sam shoved the pieces of remote behind them. Other than the disturbed dust–which the house would take care of–no one would be able to tell that the books had been moved.
Carter put the chair back in its place. “There. Now–” He stopped in realization.
Sam gave him a weak smile.
No remote. Their safeties were still off.
“Your parents must have a remote,” Sam reasoned. “They do it at night, don’t they?”
Carter felt himself redden.
“They didn’t get you by being casual.”
He knew that. Sort of.
“So? Where do they keep it?”
“In their room?” Carter shook his head. “I’ve never seen their remote. Their room’s off limits. The house won’t let me in.”
Sam sat on a footstool, and Carter got a good look at the upper part of her chest, which made him feel warm and pleasant inside. She didn’t notice. A glazed look came over her eyes. She was calling up stuff on her communient.
“Mom’s going to be–”
The sense that he’d stolen Dad’s autoexerciser pumped up in his chest again.
“I’ve got it.”
“Eminent.” Part of him was relieved. Part of him still felt guilty. Part of him didn’t trust her.
“Come on.” She jumped up and they headed for the garage. The door to mom’s one-seater opened.
“How did you do that?”
“Through my communient. Your mom’s too far away to monitor.” She climbed in and the seat and mirrors adjusted. “Come on!”
“Wait a minute. How–”
“The carsafety’s off. Everything works without passwords. Get in.” The garage door opened.
“Okay!” She started the engine. “I thought you’d object. So I turned the carsafety off first, then ours. Now, get in, will you?”
He climbed in between her and the door, trying to keep his arms out of the way over her head so he didn’t interfere with her driving, and his feet out of the way of her legs. The door slammed, bumping his butt and shoving his hip into hers. He tried to keep his face out of her ear.
His entire side–where he was touching her–began to tingle. She smelled like . . . he wasn’t sure. Eminent.
“Are you in?” The car jerked a little as they eased out of the garage.
He swallowed. “Where are we going?”
She checked for traffic and turned onto the street. “My house. Dad has, like, about a million remotes.”
The car bumped over something big. “We’re going to crash!”
“No we’re not. Get out of the way.” She pushed him into the door.
“I can’t.” She leaned forward to peer around him and his shoulder slipped between her and the seat.
“Yes, you can. It’s that button right there.” He peered under her armpit, trying to point over her shoulder.
“Don’t touch that! Autodrive’ll take us down the main roads.”
“So?” His voice was muffled by her hair. “Side roads don’t have intersection controllers.”
“I don’t have a license. Do you?” The car swerved. “We’ll be in enough trouble as it is, if we don’t turn the safeties back on.”
“Autodrive is better than crashing.” He pulled her hair out of his face. “Did you see what happened to that remote? All its insides came out. That’s what crash is. It’ll hurt!”
The whine of the engine rose. “Besides, autodrive’ll keep us to the speed limit. Would you get off of me? You’re pushing me into the steering wheel!” She shoved back, squeezing his head against the seat.
He managed to extract an arm and lever himself out from behind her. The car stopped violently, throwing both of them forward.
She turned in surprise toward him, just as the window on the far side of her exploded and the vehicle toppled onto its side. Carter smacked onto his back against the door, raising his hands to brace Sam as she fell on top of him.
His two hands straddled her chest. Exactly where they shouldn’t have.
Pleasure–and autoexercise–flooded every part of his body. Sam’s eyes flashed wide.
He felt his face redden. “Sorry.”
Neither of them moved. Neither of them spoke. Pleasure such as Carter had never known pulsed through him, everywhere at once. Sam stared into his face, breathing unnaturally fast.
Someone banged on the car.
They both looked up.
Mom peered in through the broken window.
It amazed Carter that his mother was able–on a Saturday–to get both cars taken somewhere for repair, and a loaner in the garage, and him and Sam to the doctor, before Dad and Mr. Pickering got back from their golf game. She knew people, was all she would say.
Mom also had a safety remote–in her bedroom–that restored their protective fields.
She didn’t say anything. Just a look, and Carter and Sam knew. Mom wouldn’t tell dad. Neither would they. And dad . . .
When Dad and Mr. Pickering came home, Carter and Sam were outside on the deck chairs, wearing their hats and solar covers, which was a shame. Carter couldn’t keep his thoughts–and often, his eyes–from Sam’s chest. He had his communient turned low, imagining what was under her solar cover. What was under her tank top.
Sam was unusually quiet, too. The bruise on her forehead was covered by her hair, and the cut on her lip had knitted with a little instant bandage, so with luck her dad wouldn’t catch on. At least she didn’t have a broken arm, like Carter–though he wasn’t really worried about Dad noticing the thin brace beneath his sleeve. Carter had found out what pain was. But on Monday the kids at school were sure to think he and Sam were eminent.
“A car with its safety off can’t crash into another car, you know,” Sam said. “Unless the other car has its safety off, too.”
Carter listened to the traffic beyond the wall surrounding the house. “I know.”
“Your mom is . . .” Sam lowered her sunglasses. “Eminent.”
He nodded a little, pride swelling in his chest. “Yeah. She is.”
Sam reached over and held out her hand. He put his palm in hers, but there was no magic this time. No tickle, no pleasure, no pressure. It was just a hand.
“Next Saturday,” she said. She peered at him over her sunglasses. “Your dad and my dad . . .”
“Yeah . . .”
“Can you ditch your mom?”
He pressed her fingertips. “You know how I said that if we got out of this alive, we would never, ever, ever, ever turn our safeties off again?”
“Yeah.” She tilted her head and remembrance and pleasure flooded his groin.
He grinned. “I changed my mind.”
CXPulp gives “Turning It Off” a 4.5/5 rating and writes:
This is the first story by Susan Forest I have read. Hoping to learn a little more about her, I found her website, and from the looks of it we should be seeing a new novella from her in Analog in the coming months. If it is as interesting as this short story, it will be something to look forward to.
Turning it off follows a family in a future where man has created technology to protect humans from harm. We see a logical extension of the incredible networking and information flow we are beginning to experience now, but the technology at the center of the story are “safeties” – devices that can be installed on anything to prevent harm of any kind. As a side effect, they also dampen emotional reactions, meaning that they must be turned off if you want to have sex. Some people are even starting to turn them off to experience the thrill of danger – and that mindset is at the center of this story.
Turning it Off was very creative and a good read. I am looking forward to seeing more from Forest.
Sam Tomaino writes for SFRevu:
Two teenagers in the future try “Turning It Off” in the story by Susan Forest. The ‘It’ is what is called a safety which not only protects them from harm but any kind of sensation. As teenagers might do, they turn off each of their safeties and get into trouble. They don’t learn from this trouble in this amusing tale.
TPI’s Reading Diary writes:
Everything has “safeties” which prevent practically all sorts of accidents. Even people have safety systems which prevent accidents by falls etc. But they also dampen the sensitivity of skin. Two teenagers find a way to turn off their safety systems and experiment a little …