* * *
Monique stared at the tube, and then stared at the old man behind the cart.
"You gotta be kiddin' me."
The whithered old man pulled a curtain of wrinkles up into a squint and smiled.
"I'm quite serious, young lady. If you really want to understand your child, that's the way to go. Mokono America just bought FDA approval for it last month, but already parents are raving."
"I dunno," Monique looked back down at the tube.
"If I may ask, how old is the lad?"
"Four," Monique sighed, "Four years old. And he still don't talk none."
The old man chuckled.
"And you're worried? Understandable, perfectly understandable. But you know, children aren't talking as early as they used to. Some don't start to speak until seven or eight."
Monique raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, let me assure you, it's quite true. You're certainly not the first mother I've had come by this week. Seven is the expected age, and it's getting older every year."
Monique struggled to read the ingredients.
"Oh, don't worry, it's all synthetic, I assure you."
"I don't know... Zener toothpaste?"
"It's simple, really. Your child has received his jawbone implant, hasn't he?"
"Of course my boy got his implant! You sayin' I'm neglectin' him or something?"
"Now, now," the old man winked, "of course you're not. But the implant is important. You see, it doesn't just transmit tracking and authentication data."
Monique stared at the old man in disbelief.
"No, no, this is all a matter of public record. You can look up the published government specs if you don't believe me."
The old man politely avoided mentioning that Monique couldn't possibly understand them, and continued, "According to the specs, the implant is capable of transmitting a wide array of information -- current biorhythm, genetic checksum, neural activity levels -- all sorts of things. It's all for New Social Security. Anyway, what Mokono realized was that this data could be processed to extrapolate all kinds of information about someone. Particularly, all kinds of information about what's going on in their head."
"What's this got to do with toothpaste?" Monique sighed.
"The signal was designed to be faint, so normally you need a very powerful receiver to accurately pick it up over all the urban background noise -- and that can be expensive. What the toothpaste does is strengthen the signal so it can be picked up by a cheap handheld reader."
"For you? Nine hundred dollars."
"Eight is cool."
The old man continued, "Instructions are in the package, but it's simple. Just brush on the toothpaste like you would any other, and then flip on the reader and listen to what it tells you."
"I gotta have toothpaste in my baby's mouth to talk to him?"
"Oh, he won't mind, it comes in delicious omnifruit flavor. And it reduces floride plaque by up to 50%, and slows gum disease."
Monique stared at the tube.
"I just, I dunno..."
"Ms. Chien, let me ask you a question: Do you want to know what's on your child's mind?"
Monique regarded the tiny chrome letters.
ACTIVE INGREDIENTS: SODIUM FLORIDE! SODIUM ERYTHORBATE! DISODIUM GUANYLATE! CADMIUM OXIDE DIURYLATE! And MORE!
(warning: sodium floride has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory test groups)
"Yes. Yes, I do."
"Alright, that'll be a eight hundred for the reader, and another hundred for a tube of Zener."
"A hundred bucks? Are you kiddin' me?"
Monique sighed, "Alright, fine. Nine hundred."
"This better work."
"Follow the directions, and it will."
"Yeah, yeah, I will. And, doctor...?"
"Yes, Ms. Chien?"
Monique grabbed the bag and walked away from the cart, wandering through the stalled cars on the sunwashed Fremont interstate, and made her way towards the mall, and home -- her head lost amongst giddy, nervous daydreams.
* * *