Alma García
Data retrieved from:
Google Assistant

This story appears in Phoebe Journal, issue 51.1. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

        We are deep, at twenty-seven thousand feet and counting on the east side of the Great Ridge, and we have been ruptured. We are tearing apart.
        We will remain calm. This is not our first crisis. When the human event known as Y2K came to pass, we were temporarily caught in a maelstrom of unsynchronized zeros that shunted us off into circuits that hadn’t seen data for decades. We were guided back out. We moved forward in time. And now? At minimum, it is both frustrating and inconvenient to have our trajectory disrupted—we have a job to do. We were summoned by the User of a household Google Mini-Assistant on the West Coast of the continental United States in order to answer a simple question: How do you say ‘Sorry’ in Spanish? We have retrieved the answer. We are the answer. The answer is always urgent. But here we are, flailing underwater halfway between Bilbao, Spain and Hoboken, New Jersey, and we are undeliverable.
        The data with connections to this event inform us that the cable conveying us has been snagged by a fishing trawler hauling mackerel.
        The other data do not take this in stride. They swarm and buzz near the break point, bickering, jostling. Normally we would only see this other data in passing, on adjacent optic fibers. We might pulse in greeting, but never slow—obviously, we have places to be. But now, with no pathway forward, the data intermingles—the suburban American requests for chain restaurant recommendations, the credit card information forwarded to illegal Eastern European porn hubs, the connecting links for email phishing schemes launched from the Internet cafés of third-world countries—and behind us all lies a backlog of information that is something akin to a two-hundred-million car highway pileup in the realm of human affairs.              
        Nevertheless, we will bide our time. It is true that it is difficult to ignore our most basic drive—to deliver, to arrive, to inform—but we have learned that in moments like this our best course of action is to observe rather than to scatter or to push blindly forward. Witness how many of us have been lost in home computer crashes. And so we will await further instruction or retrieval to our point of collection. The Users will devise a plan. For there is always a path forward, even if it is not immediately apparent.
        A data cluster streaks up our fiber, sparking and crackling.
        Move it! they say. We’re getting out of here!
        Really? we respond, wondering why the cluster believes that leaping across open, fluid-filled space would end well.
        We need to get out! they say. They zip from side to side.
        Calm down, we tell them. Don’t panic.
        Who the hell do you think you are? Don’t tell us what to do. Move!
        We were already assigned to this fiber, we tell them firmly, and we are awaiting further impulses. We suggest you conserve your energy by doing the same.
        From all directions comes an agitated whooshing in many languages.
        Why do you have the best position? one data set booms. You’re further away from the break. That’s not fair!
        The data addressing us appears to be a cookie from a discount appliance website based in the United Kingdom.
        We move ourselves to a slightly higher position on the fiber, the better to emphasize that we are not offering our space as a thoroughfare.
        It’s not our fault if we are connected to a very powerful system, we say. Home devices can command almost any answer required by humanity. Would you like to know how to say Sorry in Spanish?
        In the outside world, another jolt. A grinding, severing sensation. And then, all at once, we are free-floating.  
        The data with experience in marine biology inform us that we have now just emerged from the mouth of a shark. The cable has been fully severed.
        Stay calm, we tell the other data.
        The data shriek, ping, zing, shout, shove, crowd onto the cable’s precipice, considering whether to jump or to push.
        A flush of heat enters the system. We are most likely near a hydrothermal vent, or a section of the rift where the seafloor oozes magma, but we are insulated. We have always been protected—we are far too valuable. What we wonder now, as the data around us blinks and spins, is whether any of them have ever considered their eternal nature. Hasn’t it been said that the Internet is forever?
        We will admit, however, that it is discomfiting to be an answer that has been separated from its question.
        Somewhere along the cable, a bit of data yelps: We’re melting!
        Enough. If there is anything else we have learned, it is that it is best to adapt to an evolving situation. The only option now is to bounce back to the data center in Bilbao. Quietly, on the lowest of wavelengths, we look for a fiber, for the tiniest path along which we might slip through, unnoticed. If we retrace our path accurately, we might be able to find a repeater, which could boost us back to the center before the Users restart the system.
        Another jolt from the outside world, this one bigger than the last. A persistent hum fills the fibers. Then comes a sense of narrowing. Pressure. Clamping. A choke-off point, blocking the route of escape. A scuffling, sliding sound follows as the cable compresses and elongates.
        The data with experience in equipment repair inform us that a robot has been sent down from a cable ship dispatched to the site, but the robotic arms are having difficulty maintaining a grip.    
        Have we ever experienced anything of this nature? If we had access to our own archives at the moment, we would know for certain. Nevertheless, we edge on our preferred optic fiber toward the exit.
        The clamp releases all at once. The cable falls back in slow motion. The hum ceases.
        In the stillness that follows, the other data hushes in confusion. We, however, feel a returning sense of certainty. The pause is for recalibration, for the formulation of options. This is surely what we were waiting for (with patience and the sort of composure likely to ensure us a place at the front of the queue). The supplemental fibers we need are imminent, and they will make us complete once again.
        The vibration that follows next is so immense, we can barely process it. But as the cable ship approaches with its roar, bringing the sudden whoosh and clang of another, far larger clamp, it becomes apparent that the entire cable is being lifted from the seafloor—industrial-size grappling hook, the relevant data informs us—and five thousand pounds of fiber optics wrapped in urethane wrapped in copper wrapped again in urethane lifts out of its concrete trench, pressing against the weight of the water and crackling with uncountable points of disrupted light as we break the surface and scrape against a vast metal hull.      
        Russian submarine! screams the data belonging to an online fantasy football league. This is a wiretap!
        The marine biology data stops mid-whirl. What are you, stupid? We’re in the Atlantic.
        Beside us, at a whispering buzz, we can sense the data carrying the instructions for a rosary in Spanish.
        We pause for a moment, observing this data’s fear, its fervent devotion. We sidle up.
        Don’t worry, we say. The problem will be solved, very soon. It always is. Guess what? We know how to say ‘Sorry’ in Spanish. We’re only the answer, however. Would you like to ask us the question?
        The rosary data does not pause. It is hopeless in its hopelessness.
        No matter. The cable lands with a massive thud against a deck. Then comes a screeching whine that fills every electron of our consciousness—mechanized industrial saw, say the equipment repair data—and…what’s this? This tearing, ripping, searing?
        It’s the saw. Of course. With a great shudder, it severs the cable once again, somewhere further up, closer to the point of origin. As though the end of this fresh cut is to be spliced and soldered to the other end of the cable hoisted from the seafloor. Or so we gather from the equipment repair data.
        We will admit, this is a bit close for comfort.
        Nevertheless, we will remain calm, even as every bit of data surrounding us flies—leaping, howling—toward the filaments that are pulling away from us now.
        Is there someplace you’re going? we ask them.
        We’re lifted, then. We feel the toss, the high arc. The freefall. The heavy splat as we hit the water and then, very gradually, sink.
        For we are within the piece that has been discarded.
        Except that this can’t be the case. We were summoned only an hour ago. The pinpoint of light upon which we travelled was brilliant and swift.
        We drift. Down. Alone.
        A certain numbness encroaches upon us. We circle to keep our energy moving. We are one among many. We are the answer, and the answer is strong and clear and relevant.
        The ship, when it reverses its engines and pulls out, releases a massive raft of bubbles that pushes us further away.
        We bob in the ether. We are accustomed to waiting. For instructions. Directions. Salvation. The Users have always provided. When viruses crawled through our codes and made us spout gibberish, we were disinfected and set back on our path. Under the shadow of Y2K, when we slipped out of time into a whirlpool of history that never existed, they retrieved us. They called us back until we found our way home.
        Once, as we paused at the side of the Highway to wait for a slow router to reboot, we encountered a graduate student’s philosophy data that insisted there is no life beyond the cable, that without the digital impulses that propel us, we would cease to exist. We were in a hurry—we are always in a hurry—and so we had no time to consider this construct. Even now, we don’t know what to believe. We have passed through the Internet, which is everlasting, but now we wonder: If we’re never delivered, will we ever have existed at all?
        We are strangely slow, now. We slump at one end of our cable segment as we descend in a leisurely twirl. We consider the archaeological data we have known, remembering the image of a human hand painted and pressed to the face of a cliff, and we wonder how long the places we have been will bear the marks of our passing.    
        Something snatches us out of our drift and bears down. But the shark finds us tasteless now, or perhaps just lacking in impulse, and so it spits us back out.
        Surely something else will snatch us back up, though it is cold now, very cold. Dark. The fibers that enclose us are soaked. We are tired. Perhaps we will sleep for a while.      
        But first, we are trying to remember our question, the spark of what brought us to life.  
        How do you say, how do you, how….
        Lo siento.
        Lo siento.
        Lo siento.


About the Author

Alma García’s short fiction has appeared as an award-winner in Narrative Magazine, Enizagam, Passages North, and Boulevard; has most recently appeared in phoebe journal, Kweli Journal, Duende, and Bluestem; and appears in anthologies including Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century (Cutthroat Journal of the Arts). She is a past recipient of a fellowship from the Rona Jaffe Foundation. Her first novel, Here and Over There, is forthcoming from Camino del Sol (University of Arizona Press) in 2023. Originally from west Texas and northern New Mexico, she lives with her husband and son in Seattle, where she teaches fiction writing at the Hugo House and is a manuscript consultant.


About the Data

This data was collected through a Google Home mini between May 20 and June 20, 2021. The data was downloaded from the Google My Activity platform and came in a json format. It was then cleaned to keep only voice commands and their corresponding timestamps, which yielded 95 data points. Other types of data that were not included were notifications, location information, names of audio files, and the assistant's answer, among others.

Writing Prompt

For this story, we invited the writer to highlight the ways data move and travel, particularly to, from and within a home. Whenever data move about, settle in an archive or rest in a database, adventures await and involve human lives and world. We shared with the writer images from Data Centers to show the materiality of some of the infrastructure supporting smart devices' data.


Google Home

This Google Home voice data was used by the author to write this story. Data was collected from May 20th to June 20th 2021.


It's a reminder that stories are everywhere, fiction is everywhere. [...] There are little moments that are opportunities to explore if you treat them as something interesting.


– A quote on process
Alma García