I can’t afford no-nanotech clothing yet. But I can afford high-nanotech clothing now. It’s supposed to be less glitchy.
But that doesn’t make sense, does it? Something that’s more complicated. Something with more components, more functions, more restrictions, more…just more. How could it be less glitchy?
When I started finding my new high-nanotech jacket lying all over the apartment even though I was sure I’d hung it in the closet, I didn’t suspect the jacket.
I thought my roommate was messing with me. It did seem out of character, or at least as far as I knew her character. It’s not as if I’d spent the past several months avoiding banana peels and whoopee cushions, or finding myself glued to various objects. But it had to be her. So I asked her about it one day, several weeks after finding the jacket on the floor one time, at the foot of my bed another time, and even tangled in my sheets. I asked in the most non-confrontational way possible. I even offered to do a show-and-tell, and demonstrate the jacket’s functions, thinking that maybe she was curious, but was too shy to approach me directly.
She denied ever touching my jacket. And she refused my offer of a show-and-tell, claiming she had no interest in my jacket or any of my things.
I was left wondering if I had just alienated a person who had been a model roommate until then, keeping to herself, keeping to her room, never stealing my food, never touching my things.
But I was also left wondering, assuming I believed her, how and why was my jacket moving around?
I’m old enough to remember a time when nanotech was not embedded in every piece of clothing we own, which is a weird thing to say because that was only about fifteen years ago. I took my little niece shopping the other day for a fun back-to-school outfit, and she was perplexed by my constant grumbling about how none of it was tech-free.
She warned me against turning into one of those “rich crazies” who spend tens of thousands of dollars on no-nanotech clothing. And I neglected to tell her that I had a sub-account at my bank in which I was saving for just that.
It started as a good thing, I explained to her, having nanotech weaved into the fabric of our clothing. It started as a way to charge our devices using the energy of our motion, to track our health status without us having to wear extraneous devices like fitness trackers or heart monitors, a way to keep us cool in hot weather, and warm enough in cold weather. But it became obtrusive to our privacy when it began to be used—naturally—for advertising by corporations and for spying by nations. But because it transitioned so quickly from being a luxury to a necessity, almost all clothes eventually became embedded with nanotech. Underground markets for non-nanotech clothing emerged. Recognizing the problem, many governments legalized the production and sale of non-nanotech clothing. But because there were so many hurdles to overcome, such clothing became expensive to produce. So, people either had to save up extravagant sums to buy it, or they had to be rich, and only the richest of the rich could have a closet full of the stuff.
The next best alternative was to purchase clothing that contained the latest nanotech—high nano-tech—from companies claiming they added “privacy protective” features like “auto-block,” which blocked things like obtrusive monitoring, and “anchorless,” which meant that the clothing could become untethered from the company’s own tracking (assuming one trusted this).
My niece had lost all interest by the time I finished. At the same moment I started decrying the trust issues with companies claiming they were revealing a line of untethered nanotech clothing, she gasped and dashed toward a pair of glider sneakers.
She held them up to me.
“Do you think I could walk on walls with these?” she asked, her eyes wide and expectant. She didn’t expect me to buy her the sneakers. She expected me to respond to her mild teasing.
And while she was teasing, maybe she hoped to tease out a strand of hope in her ranting auntie. Hope that a future pair of sneakers would indeed allow us to walk on walls (with the help of some kind of suit, of course, to lift the rest of our bodies).
I smiled. “Not those, but…maybe by the time you’re my age.”
Her smile faded, but her eyes remained wide. “I can’t wait that long.” Then she stuck her tongue out me, spun around, placed the sneakers back on the display, and dashed ahead to the next thing. She wanted to make a round of the store before deciding what she would have me buy her.
I followed her, wearing the jacket, the jacket I’d bought a few weeks prior as a stop-gap, a holdover, until I could get a complete no-nanotech outfit. The jacket was supposed to be anchorless. It was supposed to be completely open, but only to the user for which it was configured. Other people could wear it, but if I lent it out, the jacket would be on constant auto-mode, subtly adjusting to the environment of the generic user. I, on the other hand, could control it, could customize the level of warmth I felt on a chilly day, or the snugness I preferred. The colors could shift to a certain degree. The material could feel lighter or heavier to a certain degree. And of course, I could turn on or off all of the monitoring and communication features.
Now…all of that, I had aready known about and expected. What I hadn’t really thought about were the luxury functions, like massage and tingle. Some common clothes had similar functions, but they were weak compared to this jacket. This jacket had something called “embrace mode.” I remember rolling my eyes at the description when I first considered buying the jacket. Embrace mode makes it feel like you’re getting a hug. I wasn’t averse to feeling cozy in a jacket. But a jacket that could hug you just seemed corny at best and creepy at worst. But when I tried it for the first time, it just felt…like an extension of the comfort I’d feel when wearing a puffer jacket (I’d always adored puffer jackets because they felt like wearable pillows). Only it was better, this hug. It was almost as if it were holding me in place so I wouldn’t be buffeted by the storm winds of change in my life.
It wasn’t a bad time in my life. On the contrary, a lot of things were going well. But that was just it. There were a lot of things. A lot to juggle. And that juggling could be stressful at times. So I didn’t necessarily need friends, family, or therapy. I just needed some kind of positive feedback, a little boost. Embrace mode. It seemed to activate right when I needed it. When I dragged in the afternoon and threw the jacket on to take a walk during my break. When my shoulders began to droop.
I had to admit that I was enjoying my new jacket. When I first got it, I had intended to turn on auto-block and leave it at that, just let it be a normal jacket. Then one night, I was out later than I intended with friends, and it was cold and blustery. And as I shivered, everyone kept goading me to turn the temp controls on, so I did. And it was only the temp controls at first, but then, one by one, I decided to just “test drive” some of the other features, and I got lazy about turning them off when I wasn’t actively using them. And it only took a few weeks for me to be sold on the product I’d already bought.
Then, the curious “migration” problem started.
Maybe the jacket was always glitchy, but I only started seeing it when I turned all the functions on. Maybe that was the mistake I’d made. So, of course, the first thing I did was to turn it all off. Lesson learned. I wanted a no-nanotech jacket, then that’s what I had to make my jacket, as much as possible. I even turned off the blocking function that allowed the jacket to block the nanotech in any clothing within a certain distance.
And for about a week, it worked. Then I woke one night and found the jacket lying atop my bedsheets even though I was one hundred percent certain I had put it away in the closet, and shut the closet door. The closet door was open. My jacket was on top of the bedsheets, and my roommate was out of town. But I still wasn’t willing to take the jacket in for service.
I waited a few days, and watched the jacket. And it did nothing out of the ordinary.
When my roommate returned, I apologized to her and explained that I’d observed the “migrating jacket” phenomenon in her absence.
“It’s just trying to fulfill its function,” she said. “Trying to be worn.”
“Well, it’s trying a little too hard for my comfort.”
I’d been looking forward to the quarterly service appointments for my new jacket. I’d seen the waiting room when I went to go pick the jacket up. They had diner-style booths, but made for one, where I could sit and read, or catch up with things and not be bothered. Just like it used to be at home. It wasn’t that my roommate—or lessee I should perhaps say—bothered me. It was just that I’d gotten used to having my own space. Clearing out and subletting the second bedroom had seemed like a brilliant idea for quickly saving up to get upgraded clothes. But I changed my mind the minute my roommate moved in. I realized I needed my own living space all to myself. But I would have to live with my decision, at least until her lease was up. I couldn’t wait. It would not be too soon before I could reclaim my space. In the meantime, I valued any situation in which I could be in my own bubble. And I’d also started wondering what kinds of free or inexpensive upgrades I would be offered for my jacket.
I didn’t relish the thought of going into my first service visit with a complaint already.
So I tried to give it a bit more time to confirm that the jacket really was glitchy, and that the incidents I’d witnessed weren’t flukes.
Then one winter day, I was strolling through the park near my apartment with the heat function activated, and the jacket started overheating. So much so that I had to take it off and set it on a park bench. Steam rose from the jacket.
“Trying to bake me?” I commented, as passersby glanced in curiosity at my jacket. I put my hands on my hips, in full scolding pose, and glared at the steaming jacket. “That’s not your function.”
I’d been wearing a thick quarter-sleeve shirt underneath, so the skin of my arms from elbow down, was exposed directly to the jacket. The skin turned red and was sensitive for a day. But I didn’t get burned. I called the company help line, but they wouldn’t help me over the phone because they classified the incident as a safety hazard. They urged me to immediately take the jacket in for repair.
That evening, before going to bed, I put the jacket over the sofa arm in the living room, so I could grab it on my way out.
The next morning, I woke to find the jacket in bed with me, wrapped around my left arm. Snugly wrapped. But when I pulled it off, it gave no resistance. So it only felt mildly creepy. After all, the jacket’s “behavior” made sense. It was fulfilling its function and trying to be worn.
I checked to see if I’d accidentally left embrace mode on.
I hadn’t. But then it occurred to me. What would have happened if I had forgotten to turn it off, and the jacket went overboard with its embrace, like it did with the heating function…
I had purchased a lifetime warranty on the jacket, the full service package. I took it in after work, to get it repaired or replaced, though the latter option was a last resort. When replacement happened, it was a rarity of rarities, since all high-nanotech items were custom-fit in every way.
I waited a few hours. I sat in the soothing diner-like booth made for one. I read a book I’d been meaning to read for weeks, but hadn’t gotten to yet. I almost forgot about the problems with the jacket. Then a team member came to fetch me and brought me over to a table where the technician who’d been working on my jacket was sitting and waiting for me.
She smiled politely as she explained to me all the steps she had taken to troubleshoot the issues. At the end of it all, after much head-nodding and uncertain expressions of “okay” from me, she strongly recommended that I send the jacket to their corporate office.
“Do you need more time?” I asked. “I don’t mind leaving it here.”
“We’ve done all we can actually. The corporate office has people with deep expertise, engineers who have clearance to know more about the product than we do here at the satellite offices,” she said. “All the ‘proprietary info’ stuff.”
“Sure, let’s do that,” I said.
She slid the jacket toward me. “If you go to our checkout window, we’ll get you a box, labels, everything you need.”
I frowned. “Can you send it to them?”
“I’m afraid the customer has to be the one who sends it in. We’re not authorized. Liability issues.”
“Okay…Hey, do you think I overdid it with the ’embrace mode’?”
“Well, the jacket is designed to be continuously on if the wearer wants that, so probably not. Were you turning it off and on?”
I nodded. “Could that be the problem? Would it have been better if I just left it all on?”
“Has anyone else had any similar problems with this model?”
The technician narrowed her eyes as if trying to recall. “I’m not aware of any similar complaints. But I can look it up and get back to you.”
I put my hand on the jacket and swore I felt a spark of something—something that wasn’t just static electricity—pass through the surface of my palm. “Sure,” I said, absently, staring at my jacket, wondering if it had just tried to tell me something.
I shook my head at myself. Of course it was trying to tell me something. The tech had probably reset the jacket and it was connecting to my personal communications. Someone had probably sent me a message. Or maybe it was just static electricity.
The tech cleared her throat as we both rose from the table. “We do have a line of undergarments available for intimate uses—with auto-disable functions when you’re in public spaces. In case you’re interested in something stronger than ’embrace mode.'”
I sighed, checking the jacket’s settings. “No thanks. I just need for my jacket to stop being so…needy.”
I went home that night too tired to do anything but drop into bed, even though I’d told myself I’d check all the jacket’s functions and made sure they were turned off. The next morning, the jacket was where I’d left it.
“So you’re behaving?” I asked it. “Because you know I’m about to send you off?”
And I left it lying at the foot of my bed as I went off to work.
That night, I checked the jacket to make sure it was completely shut down and untethered. The tech had already shut it down. That’s probably why the jacket had “behaved” the night before. I boxed it up, slapped on all the labels, checked the box and the labels, then left the box by the door so I would remember to grab it on my way out the next day. In truth, I wouldn’t have forgotten. I just didn’t want to keep the box in my room. I wanted a closed door between me and the jacket. I had all these crazy notions that the jacket might be sad, disappointed—even angry—that I was sending it off, that I had betrayed it.
The next morning, I got up, got ready for work, and when I stepped into the living room, I stopped short and gasped.
The jacket was lying on the floor, halfway between the front door and where I was standing. My gaze traveled to the front door and spotted the box. The top of it was torn open. Bits of the foil-reinforced cardboard were scattered all around the box and stuck to the jacket.
I frowned and looked behind me to the door of my roommate’s bedroom. She’d seen me boxing the jacket up the night before.
This is going too far, I thought.
I couldn’t figure what kind of twisted prank she was trying to play, but enough was enough. Maybe enough for me to consider her lease broken.
I began to turn around back into the hallway toward the bedrooms.
And that’s when I heard it.
In the quiet of the morning, the sound was quite loud.
The sound of fabric moving against fabric.
I glanced ahead again and spotted the jacket.
It was moving, writhing…crawling. It was crawling toward me.
My eyes widened as the jacket stopped and the right arm reached toward me.
I held out my hand.
“Stop!” I commanded.
The jacket stopped and suddenly collapsed into a pile.
I watched it for a moment. “Are you angry?” I asked both myself and my jacket. “Are you trying to hurt me?” I frowned. “That’s not your function.”
I hesitated a moment, took a deep breath, and slowly approached the jacket.
It stirred. I stopped and gasped again.
The jacket started crawling toward me, again.
“Stop!” I said.
But this time, the jacket wouldn’t stop.
I glanced around. There were a few things in the living room heavy enough to stop the jacket from moving no matter how much strength enhancement it had. I tried to push one of the bookcases on my own. But I couldn’t budge it.
I ran over to my roommate’s door and started banging on it, calling her name to wake her. She kept late hours. I hoped she would hear me. I tried her door. It was locked, as usual. I banged and yelled her name, glancing back down the hallway and into the living room, at the jacket that was still crawling toward me.
I couldn’t call anyone else for help. Even through my panic, I knew how ridiculous it would sound to tell an emergency operator that my jacket was coming after me.
I thought about calling the corporate office. Maybe they could tell me about some secret shut-off that the public wasn’t supposed to know about. But could I convince them that my life was in danger?
I reached for my phone just as my roommate’s door opened.
I spun around. “I need your help!” I said to her startled expression, as she slipped out of her room and closed the door. I pointed back behind me. “My jacket is after me. Help me push a bookcase onto it. Pin it place, while I call for help.”
She looked past me, and her eyes narrowed. She frowned. Her hand suddenly went to the doorknob of her room.
“Why the weird game with your jacket?” she asked.
I frowned in confusion and glanced back. The jacket had stopped moving. It was lying still. Of course. It was playing dead in her presence.
“You know,” she said. “You know, don’t you?”
“What?” I turned to face her and blinked.
My roommate’s expression went blank. “Trying to get inside? Find some proof?”
Suddenly I wasn’t sure what was going on. Suddenly, I wondered if I were still asleep, having a bizarre nightmare, while my jacket still lay inside a neatly sealed and labeled box next to my front door.
I couldn’t help it. My eyes moved by instinct and I glanced at her door before returning my gaze to her face.
“You’ve always been good at minding your own business,” she said, taking a step toward me, as I stepped back. “But I knew you’d be trouble eventually the minute you accused me of messing with your precious jacket.”
She stepped forward again. I stepped back, back toward the living room.
“Must be something about me,” she said, and her lips rose in a lazy smile. “Something that even the most oblivious person can sniff out. But I’m not leaving this time.” She pulled something out of the pocket of her robe. It was a switchblade. “We’re going to renegotiate my lease…right?”
A sudden terror gripped me. There was a killer living with me? What was in her room? Or who? I pictured it. Even now she had someone trapped in that room…those huge duffel bags she lugged around, those were filled with body parts not gym clothes.
But I had vetted her. Through and through. I had done my homework.
Who had I let into my home?
I took another step back and held up my hands. “Well, how about…?” I cleared my throat of the mucus that had gotten caught there, and gulped. “How about you just go and I keep this all to myself.” And I said this having no idea what “this all” entailed.
All I knew was that I now had a real emergency on my hands, and in my hands, I had my phone. I’d forgotten. I’d just forgotten when I raised my hands to appease her.
She saw the phone.
Her brows contracted into a frown. Her mouth turned down into a sneer. Her eyes flashed with rage. With a swipe of her hand, she knocked the phone out of my hand. She surged toward me, and I stumbled back.
My heel caught on something. I tripped, and I fell back.
I had tripped on my jacket. It lay under my legs. I scrambled back as my roommate raised her blade. She swiped and it missed me by a fair margin. I didn’t think she had missed on purpose. That was a warning. The blade wasn’t for show. As she stepped toward me, I saw it happen.
My jacket’s right arm reached toward her ankle. It hooked around her ankle and pulled, sweeping her off her feet. She landed hard on the floor with a curse. The switchblade was still in her hands. And I’d have to crawl past her to get to my phone.
I couldn’t. I wanted to move, but I couldn’t. Every time I put my hand on the floor, to brace myself to rise, my muscles turned to jelly.
I cried out in frustration, and fear.
My jacket’s right arm wrapped over my roommate’s left, pinning her arm to her side. She swore again and flipped her blade around in her hand. She stabbed through the jacket, tearing it. The jacket was tear-resistant, but it couldn’t completely withstand a direct slice from a knife. It began to tear.
But I understood by then. I understood that my jacket might be the only way I was going to survive. It was holding my roommate off, so I could get to safety. My jacket’s left arm pushed my roommate’s free arm away.
My muscles tightened. I rose and I glanced at my phone and at my jacket. She had torn it in three places now, including the seam that connected the left arm to the main torso. I approached her. She swiped at my legs with the knife. I jumped out of the way, then stomped on her wrist.
She cried out, and I stomped again. This time, I’d managed to crush her hand. But she still didn’t let go of the blade. I stomped again. Hard. With my heel.
Her fist relaxed. Her fingers flexed open. I kicked the knife away. And as I did, my jacket’s torn left arm slithered over her right arm, pulled it toward her body, and pinned it to her side. The jacket’s torso was taut around her torso.
It looked as if the jacket was embracing her.
I looked at her hand as I retrieved my phone. The hand I had stomped on. It was bleeding.
I felt sick.
I called the emergency operator.
In the days that followed, the pieces of the puzzle around my jacket came together.
My roommate, as it turned out, was not a killer. She was a skilled thief, who stole high-end stuff. But she did have a history of violence. She’d never killed anyone, but she’d come close once. The police confiscated all the stolen goods in her room, took my statement, and informed me that they probably wouldn’t need for me to testify. Despite the risk of being found out, she tended to live with unsuspecting roommates, the type of people who respected others’ privacy, maybe to a fault. I told them the truth. Other than wanting the place back to myself, I’d never had any problems with or suspicions about my roommate.
At least, not consciously.
But maybe some part of me knew…something. Maybe that part of me sent some kind of signal to my jacket, a signal that it fed back to me through its responses.
My attempts to get the jacket fixed, added to the attempts of others’ complaints, had trigged an investigation at the company. It turned out I wasn’t the only one who noticed strange things about my jacket after all. It didn’t take too long for the company to uncover sabotage once they went searching for it, and once they began to receive and study the jackets from the other complaints, which they’d started doing even before I’d started to notice anything weird about my particular jacket. They traced the sabotage to a small batch from a larger lot, just a few hundred jackets. They sent recall letters to everyone who owned a jacket from the batch.
I don’t know if my roommate would have killed me, or if she would have beaten me up. But I did know that I would be shaken for a good long time to come. And I did know that I was thankful to be alive. What I didn’t know was how to feel about the way I was saved. Someone meant harm by that sabotage. They disabled the safety features in the selected batch. That resulted in my jacket going overboard with its protective features, trying to keep me too warm on a cold day, trying to embrace me with itself in case my roommate came for me in the night.
In my case, the malfunction meant to embarrass the company ended up saving my life.
My jacket was confiscated as evidence. There was a moment, in the precinct, when an officer let me see the jacket. It was still bagged up as evidence then.
“Thank you,” I said to the jacket. “For saving me. I’m sorry I can’t do the same for you.”
I contacted the company, and begged them to send my jacket back to me once it was no longer needed for any investigation. But I knew the jacket would be dismantled and destroyed.
And jackets are jackets. My particular jacket was built with protective features, but not self-preservation features. It wouldn’t “care” that it was being destroyed.
But there was someone who might care.
The company was still trying to identify the saboteur. But someone who’d been clever enough to sabotage high-nanotech clothing, clothing that went through rigorous safety and quality control procedures, was clever enough to remain hidden. The person might be long-gone. Or they might still be at the company. Both the company and the police were still investigating.
In the meantime, I asked the company if I could do something. I sent them a letter and asked that it be shared in the hopes of reaching the person who did the sabotage. In my letter, I thanked the saboteur for the weird accident that saved my life, but then I entreated the person to turn themselves in, because it could have turned out differently. Because I had thought it was my jacket that was a danger to me. And the next time, that might be true. The next time, someone could lose their life, and it wasn’t worth it. The end goal of technology was to serve humanity. And because technology was created by humans, the ultimate end goal was for humans to serve humanity.
You didn’t mean to, I wrote to the saboteur, but you saved my life. Please think about that. If you’re capable of saving someone once, you’re capable of doing it again.
I didn’t expect the company to publish the letter. But they did, at least internally, to every single employee. No one, including myself, expected it to work.
But it did.
A few days after my letter was sent out, the saboteur turned himself in, along with proof that he was indeed the culprit. He insisted that he was careful to make sure the sabotage would not end up hurting anyone, that it would just annoy the consumers and anger them enough to badmouth the product and the company, turn to competitors…that sort of thing.
The company, in gratitude, sent me a new jacket, one they assured had been quality-checked for any tampering. My friends and family joked about my becoming a new spokesperson, but naturally, the company wouldn’t pursue that for many reasons. The story would always remind consumers of the sabotage and the terrible account of my former roommate’s attack. And the company didn’t want to build an expectation in consumers that their products could serve as security systems, saving people from violence.
I avoided the new jacket for a few days, still conflicted, still haunted by weird dreams where my old jacket did creepy things and heartwarming things. But one day, I put the new jacket on and went to my support group meeting.
“There are dangers all around, but a person’s got to live,” I said, as I put my hands in my pockets and strode down the street. “I need help figuring all this out. And for that you’re not enough. It’s okay though. It’s okay. That’s not your function.”
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel