SFReader 2009 Story Contest
Third Place Winner
I was sitting on a bench enjoying the spring day in the park when a man walked into the “No Parking” sign across the path and fell down. I got up to see if he was okay.
“Are you hurt?” I asked.
“Only my dignity,” he responded without looking up.
“Well, that’ll grow back, Dan.”
He looked up. “Glenn!”
“You used to do that in college. You’ve got to leave enough RAM to operate the system while you’re girl-watching.”
He looked back at the jogger and held up a hand for me to pull him up. “She was spectacular, wasn’t she?”
I pulled him to his feet. “She was hot. What are you doing here?”
He dusted himself off. He didn’t look much different than he had in college, khakis, oxford cloth shirt and a haircut he must have done himself. “I never left. I was in the middle of getting my Master’s and some guys and I were talking one day and the next thing I knew, we’d started our own company.”
“What do you do?”
“Come on, I’ll show you. It’s pretty cool.”
He led me out of the park and we talked about people we knew in college and what they were doing now. We crossed the street and went into an anonymous reclaimed industrial building and took the elevator to the second floor. At the end of the hall he opened a door with a sign that said “Infinite Fashion”. I had my doubts. Dan Winters knew less about fashion than a cow does quantum physics.
A big old room with all the trappings of a high tech start-up: partitions separating work areas decorated with the latest sci-fi hot interests, lots of guys in their early 20’s walking around in casual clothes carrying coffee cups and energy drinks, a few hunched over work stations, a few young women scattered around. Dan led me to a separate room with his name on the door; he was a mover and shaker, not a grunt.
He had a metal desk with three screens and two keyboards, pads, pens and coffee cups. The only real oddity in the room was a tailor’s dummy near the big windows. I had to ask.
“Why the dummy?”
Dan was already at his desk banging keys. He came back from wherever he was in the computer. “Huh? Oh, that’s a mannequin. Technically, female ones are mannequins and the males are dummies.”
“And the reason you have one in your office is ?..?”
He came back from outer space. “Here, I’ll show you. Come here.”
He walked over to the mannequin and made a sweeping gesture from the floor up. “Look.”
I went over and looked at his hand, then looked closer. There was a slight unusual sheen around his hand. I reached out and felt something slick on his hand.
“Remember that Japanese company that invented a poncho that made you invisible? You could see what was behind the person wearing it. A cloak of invisibility.” He cackled. Of course, he had been into role-playing games.
“There are much better materials now than what they were using for it. I was talking to some engineers who were working on similar stuff and we started kicking around what else we could do with it. We decided fashion was perfect. Here, let me show you.” He went back to the keyboard and started banging away. He nodded toward the mannequin.
The mannequin was wearing a business suit, then a cocktail dress. The cocktail dress changed color, fabric, cut, and design, as Dan hit the Down key and Return. He nodded toward it and said, “Take a look.”
I got closer and walked around it, then leaned over until my nose was almost pressed to the fabric. The illusion wasn’t perfect only because I knew it was there. “Wow.”
“It has photo-receptors built into the fabric. The Japanese one captures what’s on one side and projects in on the other. This captures a pattern and projects it onto the cloth, taking into account the shape underneath it. In that way, it’s a little like motion capture.
“I took some of the stuff I did in designing games and brought it to the party, bit-mapping and the like. We have to account for different lighting, textures, and fabrics as well as the design changes.
“The great thing is that it’s down-loadable from a cell phone. Want the latest design out of New York or Italy? A few taps on your phone and you’re wearing it. We’ve got deals with almost fifty designers and signing up more every day.”
“Aren’t they cutting into their own profits?”
“What they’re cutting out are expenses. No ordering five hundred bolts of fabric and having the design die. Same cost for a success and a failure, but you can reach a lot more buyers. They can put the money they save into advertising and reach more people.”
“How much does it cost?” I asked.
He told me and it was a jolt. “We may sell it at a loss, the same way they sell safety razors. The money’s in the downloads. We’ll start with a hundred or so designs, a hundred fabrics and a thousand colors. The wearer can even modify the download herself. They can have a thousand outfits at their fingertips.”
Dan was right, it was a revolution. After the initial introduction, he started licensing it out and there was an explosion of variety. He took the company public and made money by the truckload.
I didn’t get this from him personally, I followed his exploits on the net and magazine covers, with supplemental information from mutual friends. I wished him well.
The next time I was in the neighborhood, I was doing some serious girl-watching and wondered how many of Dan’s garments I was seeing. I had some time and decided to see if he was still in his same office.
He was but the place was different. A designer had gone through the place and before the blitzkrieg was over, the office was a marvel of modern design, with leather, wood, fabrics and metal accents. I introduced myself to the receptionist, another marvel of the latest in Scandinavian design. She gave me a look from the area of the Arctic Circle but let me by after buzzing Dan.
He gave me the big hello and we spent time catching up on “Have you seen?.” And “Did you hear about?..” He’d had a makeover similar to the one the office had had, from fabulous suit to expensive haircut. Since his life was his work, it didn’t take him long to start bubbling about his latest project.
“Version 2.0 has multiple layers. Remember those toys you used to get as a kid, a little card, you turned it one way and it was the Statue of Liberty and the other way, it was a dog?”
“Yeah, they’ve been around forever.”
“But not for clothes. Helga, the receptionist,” he nodded toward the front of the building, “gave me the idea. She convinced me to wear a suit when I’m talking to the backers, the money guys, but I spend most of my time with the tech guys. To them, a suit means somebody from the last century. I’d get no respect.”
He looked constipated, until I remembered he looked that way whenever he talked about areas outside his area of expertise. Like girls, for example.
“People judge you by your clothes. Suppose you have an engineer and a banker in the same room. How do you keep credibility with both of them at the same time?” He dug his phone out of his pocket, punched buttons and he was dressed in khakis and an oxford cloth shirt. I noticed he’d included a pocket protector for the classic look.
“It’s cute, but I don’t think it’s quite the game changer of your last invention.”
“Oh, I think it could be bigger.” He hit some more keys and I was treated to a view of two pencils and a pad at a very close range. He took a pair of glasses off his desk and the view on the screen swooped as he replaced his own glasses. I was looking at myself on the screen. I raised a hand and the wrong hand went up on the screen.
“The glasses are wifi. It’s a way to demonstrate the effect for the suits.” He punched another button on his phone and said, “Helga, would you bring me those cost estimates on production? Thanks.”
“Have you ever heard a parent say to their kid, ‘You aren’t leaving this house dressed like that’? Problem solved. One of the things parents worry about is some dirty old man ogling their kid. You know, like us.
“This has levels: stranger, friend, whatever number you want to punch in. It works with people who are less than one degree apart. With everybody having a cell phone, the system identifies a body in the immediate area and pings the phone. If it gets a ‘friend’ number in response, it changes the display. It takes less than a second.”
The door opened and Helga came in with some manila folders. She gave me a cool nod, Dan a smile that came from a much warmer climate and asked him if he was going out for lunch. While they were discussing it, I glanced down at the screen and my elbow slipped off the arm of the chair. I wondered what other settings there were beyond stranger and friend. My guesses were Brazilian Beach or Las Vegas Nightclub. She left and I managed to get my eyes off the screen. Dan had turned an iridescent pink.
“I think she likes me,” he said. “It keeps me going.”
She liked him well enough to marry him. Later, it became apparent she was more fond of his money than him. The half of her that wasn’t Scandinavian was 100% shark and she hired one of her relatives as a lawyer for the divorce. Dan had to sell his share of the business to get rid of her, so others benefited more from the boom in his products than he did. Mutual friends started referring to him as ‘poor Dan’ after his capital disappeared in a couple of failed start-ups on other people’s ideas.
I found him in the park, his laptop next to him. It was a beautiful summer day and the place was filled with strolling workers and joggers, all taking in the warmth of the day.
He’d been staring off into space and struggled back to give me a distracted welcome. He was wearing his old uniform of khakis and long sleeved blue shirt. I think he’d gone back to cutting his own hair.
We made awkward hellos. I expressed what sympathy I could for his misfortune, which wasn’t a lot. Guys aren’t good at that, there’s not a lot of social convention on the subject.
“I’ve become a cynic,” he said.
“You had a rotten divorce. That’s gotta color your outlook.”
He shook his head. “That just made me a skeptic. I finally figured out I’ve always been a romantic. I wanted a woman to love me for myself, for the contents of my head, quirks and all.
“Do you know Polynesian women used to wear a flower in front of one ear if they were married and in front of the other ear if they were available? Version 2.0 created that here. It’s helpful for guys, we aren’t good at subtle clues, or even obvious ones. I spent two hours hitting on a girl in college only to have someone tell me later she was gay. Wasted my time and probably annoyed her.
“Some background. A couple of years ago, when I had money, I thought Helga would be impressed if I bought a sports car. I went into a dealership and they were all over me. I was wearing my usually clothes, bad haircut, I looked like the guy that came to fix the copying machine. I couldn’t understand why and pressured the salesman to tell me how he knew I could afford the car.
“He had a gadget that pinged the newcomer’s phone, looks them up and does a credit scan. He knew how much money I had before the door closed behind me.”
“Dan, everybody knows how much money you had. It was in Forbes.”
He smiled but his heart wasn’t in it. “I sat in this park when the divorce decree came through and hit the button that transferred the money to Helga. I was looking at a couple of girls across the way. Within 15 minutes, both of their outfits changed from casual and attractive to business formal.
“I’d fallen out of the category of Men They Were Interested In to Men They Would Sell Something To. The app that detects income has gone wide. I didn’t make enough money for them to be interested.”
He looked over my shoulder and said, “What’s that girl wearing?” I heard him typing as I turned to look.
“Bicycle shorts and a tube top,” I said as I turned back.
The girl passed us and he flipped his computer around so I could see her jogging away wearing her sweat suit.
“Everybody makes choices about who’s an appropriate partner. That’s who they’re interested in, not the rest of the crowd. They may be too tall, too short, wrong ethnic background, wrong social status, not enough money.
“I’ve invented the burka.” He snapped his laptop closed. He looked depressed. “I should just join a monastery.”Share