The crowd didn’t seem to be violent, at least. They weren’t holding up signs or chanting slogans. They didn’t even seem to be talking much with each other. They just ambled sedately around one of Bruce’s stores, heads bent towards the phones cupped in their palms.
Bruce Devritte, CEO and founder of The Byke Group, stood beside car and watched them. “At least they picked a good day for a riot.”
Hunter, Bruce’s technical lead, grunted and shook his head in the way that he thought concealed his impatience. “It’s not just ‘a.’ And it isn’t exactly ‘riot.'”
The word the programmers used was “herd.” It would inevitably leak out of their internal communication and cause a PR stink, but Bruce had to admit that it was apt.
He squinted out over this suburban parking lot and across the street, toward the back end of the little cluster of commercial buildings. A handful of gray concrete boxes squatted under tangled phone lines: bank, restaurant, Byke authorized retailer. Helium balloons floated over this last, supporting a banner proclaiming “SALES EVENT.” There were probably cars and shrubs and dumpsters over there too, but Bruce couldn’t see them because the herd was in the way.
They were upper-middle-class, white and Asian, all genders, just a bit hipper than the baseline. Byke’s target demographic. These were the people who had responded so well to the Super-Normal User Experience that Bruce’s first employees had created, back when his company had been called Bicycle for the Mind. These people here were, in other words, his. In all senses of the word. He owned them and he owed them everything.
Mostly they played with their phones as they ambled in small loops, around and around the Byke store. Bruce was reminded of brooding penguins. Was there a collective noun for penguins? Would it go over better with the press than “herd”? He’d have to look into it.
“This is happening all over the country,” Hunter was saying. “It would have been all over the world, too, but we rolled back the update in Asia before most of our users woke up and we’ve never sold well in South America.”
Bruce nodded. Europe, thank God, was still bitterly grappling with last year’s update. By the time Brussels got to this one, the bugs would be worked out.
“Right,” said Bruce. “So, clearly this has something to do with the Sales Event.”
“Yes, and it’s the update we rolled out on midnight before the Sales Event.”
Bruce noticed his CTO had in fact told him that Bruce was wrong, despite his use of the phrase “yes and.” It seemed the communication seminars were not working as intended.
“Obviously it’s something wrong with the update,” said Bruce, and regretted it. He sounded petulant, like he was covering his ass. It wasn’t my fault. It was someone else monkeying with the settings.
That had to be the truth, though, because the basic idea, the concept of Proximity-based Clock speed Adjustment was beautiful. Breathtaking in its elegance.
What you did was, you used GPS data to track how close a Byke device was to a Byke store. Then you very slightly adjusted the clock speed of the phone. The closer you got to a store, the slower time ran. The adjustment affected everything from the device’s clock display to its map to its Augmented Reality apps.
If you set out from your house at 8am and walked at one mile per hour toward a Byke store that was one mile away, you would find yourself arriving at your destination at 8:45. Hurray! You’re making such good time today. Turn around, and you’d find yourself arriving home at 10:00. Oh no! What happened? You should never have walked away from a Byke store.
It was genius. The most perfect example of the philosophy of subconscious manipulation that had carried Bruce and his company so far. Wherever they might be planning to go, people would find their paths gently curving toward the nearest Byke store.
Walking through the door was just a little easier than walking out, and once you were there, why not buy a new subscription plan?
“So what happened?” Bruce demanded. “Some pointy-headed idiot in Sales turned up the scale of the adjustment, didn’t they? Thought they could net more customers from a larger radius.”
Hunter shook his head. He had hooked his thumbs through his belt loops and surveyed the crowd like a ranch hand eyeing his herd for signs of hood-and-mouth. “The adjustment scale is the same as before. We think the problem is synchrony.”
Ugh. Synchrony. That was why PCA only worked in markets with complete Byke saturation. To put it bluntly, people’s phones were lying to them about the time. Usually, the lies canceled out. A trip to and from the nearest Byke store still took two hours, it’s just that that time was sliced differently. Asymmetries did build up, though, especially if the user took long, out-of-town trips.
Differing time zones gave Byke some wiggle room, and you could do real-time search-and-replace for text, image, and voice, but you couldn’t stop people from talking to each other and comparing notes. Users had begun to notice their clocks didn’t agree.
Their patch for that bug was to add another adjustment that slowed or sped up the clocks of two devices in proximity to each other. The update had gone live at 3am this morning, and here Bruce was, looking at the result.
“Everything was fine until morning rush hour,” said Hunter. “A large number of people all left their homes and drove toward the commercial areas where they work.”
“Or in this case, walked,” said Bruce. Traffic in downtown Seattle was never great, but this morning it had been apocalyptic. The streets were blocked, cars and people spilling out from the parking lots of Byke stores.
“The closer they got to a store, the slower their clocks ran, the less distance there seemed to be between them and the store,” Hunter ground on, inexorable. “I mean, assuming a constant velocity. The effect magnified as more people gathered around stores and their phones synced. Eventually, it took zero time to walk in, and infinite time to walk out.”
Bruce couldn’t contain his irritation. “What the hell does that even mean? Infinite time?”
“What are they seeing on their phones, you mean?” Hunter turned away from his contemplation of the herd and reached into the car. He picked up a new Byke from the seat, pulled his multitool out on its extendable cord, and cut open the packaging. He handed the beveled rectangle of glass to Bruce.
Bruce looked at the Byke until its gaze awareness triggered. The device blushed a pale, rosy orange, color, like a peach bathed in the light of a Caribbean sunset. It sighed and warmed against Bruce’s fingers. Colors pulsed just a little slower than his breathing rate as the device identified Bruce and downloaded his preferences. The scent of baking cookies rose from it.
Bruce could almost feel his pupils dilate. God damn but he made a good product!
But the Byke could tell that Bruce was in the mood for business. Skin conductivity, pulse, and cortisol in his sweat caused its color to shift into a more businesslike blue, and a serious tenor voice spoke from the empty air between Bruce and Hunter.
“Mr. Devitte. Mr. Shapiro, how can I help you?”
“We want to find a good cup of coffee,” said Hunter. The standard test.
“Of course,” said the phone. “Just follow me.”
The Byke matched the color of Bruce’s hand and the asphalt behind it, seeming to turn transparent. When Bruce lifted it, the phone faithfully reproduced the edge of the parking lot, the buildings, and sky. One of those buildings shone a bit more brightly than the others, its colors warmer, and the scent of coffee spritzed into the air.
A damn good product! No follow-up questions. No, “I’m sorry, did you mean ‘Aged Cupcake Fees?'” It even knew that they would prefer to walk, and didn’t bother to suggest anywhere out of their line of sight.
“Would you like me to call ahead and place your order?” asked the Byke.
“It seems to be working fine,” said Bruce, trusting the device to understand he wasn’t talking to it.
Hunter shook his head. “You’re looking north. That’s a tangent to the Sales Event.”
Best to humor his people. Bruce moved his hand in the direction he supposed must be east. At any rate, toward his store and its herd.
“Huh. That’s weird.” He squinted, and the display sharpened and zoomed. That was just what was supposed to happen, but still there was something off.
It was like one of those trick photos where they mess with the depth of field so that a normal street scene suddenly looks like a clutch of tiny toys. “Some sort of visual distortion?”
“Yes, and there’s a lot of user feedback incorporated into the display,” Hunter said, still not using “yes and” correctly. “The interactive evolutionary computation we mediate through gaze and skin-conductivity…” He lost track of his sentence and started again. “The phone basically outsources a lot of its graphics processing to the user’s visual cortex.”
What Bruce told investors was that the Byke “builds the picture that you would love most to see. No two people experience the same world, and no two users see exactly the same thing when they look through a Byke.”
That was his company’s whole philosophy. The post-modernists loved the hell out of it.
“You mean it’s hiding something from me,” said Bruce.
“Look away from the phone.”
That was surprisingly difficult, even though Bruce knew all the tricks his devices used to catch and keep their users’ attention. With an effort, he averted his eyes and looked at the real world.
The bank he’d been looking at seemed to leap away and grow explosively at the same time.
Bruce jumped, “Jesus!”
“If you were navigating with the Byke, it would seem to take less time to walk closer to the Sales Event,” said Hunter. “The visual distortion – what we’re calling ‘contraction’ – is just the Byke’s graphics processor trying to make its clock agree with the user’s brain. Velocity is space over time, so if it takes you less time to travel a distance at a given speed, that distance must be shorter.”
Bruce digested that. “But not this much less time. This is a way bigger adjustment than anything I ever -” He was about to expound more on this, but the Byke purred in his hand, subtly nudging him to look into it again.
When Bruce did, the bank seemed to jump toward him, tiny, friendly, and inviting.
“And you’re still not looking directly at the Byke store,” Hunter said.
Bruce did not like having his cowardice pointed out like that. Now, taking more comfort in the warmth and vibration of the Byke in his hand than he would like to admit, he slid his view toward the crowd.
In a way, they now looked less crowded. The more distant-seeming people also seemed smaller, taking up less space. Those closest to the store were so tiny they hovered at the limit of vision. And the Byke store itself was just gone, contracted into a black pinprick, its horizon encircled by a minuscule sign: SALES EVENT.
“They’re trapped, Bruce,” Hunter said. “Their devices’ clock speed is so slow that they feel like it takes an eternity to walk across a parking lot.”
“But it’s just a feeling,” said Bruce. “It doesn’t actually take any more time than usual. Uh, right?”
Another irritating grunt-headshake. “Look away from the store.”
Bruce turned 180 degrees, passing through a fairly normal view of the restaurant and the street. And then a…
The Byke hummed soothingly.
Bruce found himself looking out upon an endless plain of asphalt. A parking lot like a continent receded into an unfathomable distance. There were shrubs there, planted like redwoods before dumpsters as tall as skyscrapers, under a sky of brick. At a given speed, distances covered in less time must be shorter. Therefor, distances covered in more time must be greater.
Bruce stood at the edge of an abyss, the looming, gargantuan outer world pushing him ever further toward his store and its sales event horizon.
The CTO put his hand over Bruce’s eyes and the world sprang back into its normal proportions.
Bruce trembled. Now the buildings and cars looked fake. A projection on a warped screen, hiding the real reality. That vast asphalt plane, that hole in space. The store upon which all perspective lines converged.
“The store,” whispered Bruce. “What does it look like from the inside?”
“Nobody knows. Nobody has come out.”
The author would like to cite Spooky Action at a Distance by George Musser, “Molecularly selective nanoporous membrane-based wearable organic electrochemical device for noninvasive cortisol sensing” by Onur Parlak et al., and thank Professor David R. De Graff and Kim Marjanovic for their expert advice.
…or “Ghost Decon”…
The heads of the press swung to follow him as Rutger walked through the door.
Cameras like glaring eyes and microphones like accusing fingers. Rutger could feel the hatred. Three deaths and more than a billion dollars, and it was only Tuesday morning.
The CTO of the ReVeil Corporation reached his podium. Clutched it. Bowed his head. “Let me first say that I’m sorry.”
Silence from the press.
Rutger pressed a button on his remote control. Behind him, the ring-shaped ReVeil logo vanished, replaced by a satellite image of streets and cul-de-sacs.
“The Aspenwood Ectogenic Power Plant,” he said. “At 5:25pm yesterday, October 21st 2019. Circled in red is the Manifestor, previously the home of serial killer Steven R. Shoenburg, who died there in 2008.”
The next slide showed the Manifestor from street level, still looking very similar to the two-story house it had once been. Then a cutaway, showing the new heat shunts and electromagnets.
“At Aspenwood, we pump waste heat into the home of a diseased, immoral individual, then anger the spiritual remains of said individual by means of a team of on-site staff trained to simulate the activities of a middle-class American family.”
Rutger breathed out, allowing the well-polished spiel to spool out of him like fine titanium chain.
“The spirit absorbs ambient heat and converts it into poltergeist activity…” He managed to choke off the end of sentence: “thus providing clean energy to homes and businesses in three states.”
Rutger met the eyes of a reporter. “The problem began with a trash fire in the house’s half-bath lavatory. CCTV footage indicates one of the on-site staff members was smoking in there.”
Against regulations, but the security team routinely overlooked it. Interviewed, they’d said they thought the poor woman deserved whatever stress-relief she could get.
“We have known since the Begay Process was invented that the spiritual remains of a deceased individual do not constitute a ‘person,’ any more than do the physical remains. However, spiritual remains do appear to pursue goals.”
Rutger took a drink of water.
“The door between the lavatory and the kitchen/dining room opened. Burning trash flew toward the other two on-site staff members, who were seated there for simulated dinner.”
Click. CCTV footage of a burning table cloth.
“Normally, this would provoke a strong fear response, which would lead to more poltergeist activity. Ectogenic potential would decrease, temperatures would equalize, and the system would self-correct.”
A slide of the staff calmly standing.
“However, the team-leader’s undisclosed usage of prescription anti-anxiety medication dulled his fear, and the other team members took their cues from him. We believe that they each went to find fire extinguishers or other means of dousing the flames. This would have been wise in a real house, but…”
A graph showed the room’s temperature suddenly plunge.
“The ghost – that is to say the spiritual remains – entered an unusually pronounced chill-phase. Technicians in our control room tried to increase heat in-flow to prevent temperatures in the room from dropping below spec, but the secondary heat shunt under the lavatory did not open. Ice crystals had formed inside it.
“Meanwhile, temperatures in the northwest corner dropped below 300 Kelvin, reducing the electrical resistance of the stators in the walls. The result was a strong attraction between the walls and the neodymium vests worn by the staff. The staff did attempt to free themselves, but now the haunting entered its poltergeist phase.”
Rutger clicked the projector to the next slide. “This is a photo of the Aspenwood Plant taken by a high-altitude drone at 6am this morning.”
The Manifestor had been converted into serrated silver and black wreckage: the worst ectogenic feedback loop ever in North America.
“Further human deaths were prevented by the immediate evacuation of the Aspenwood Plant. However, the loop continued to spin, generating more heat from friction, which was converted into ectogenic potential and re-deployed as more torque.
“This was likely deliberately engineered by the…” Rutger took a breath, “by the spiritual remains of the now-deceased on-site staff, working in collaboration with those of Mr. Shoenburg, combining their technical knowledge to his…that is to say its…”
Hell. What was the jargon word for “evil”?
“…value tension,” Rutger sighed.
“The loop continued to grow until 1am today, when our emergency cold lines absorbed enough energy to stop the growth of the loop.”
But not reverse it. The next slide was the latest drone footage, a video showing queasy rotation within the wreckage. Contraction, as of a monstrous, iron-gray iris.
“Resonances in the thermal fluctuations of the loop are consistent with the persistence of three distinct ghosts.” Rutger stared into the darkness over the press’s heads. Shoenburg, Mathew, and Stephanie? Shoenburg, Stephanie, and Kyle? Thank God at least one of the staff had managed to escape into oblivion.
Rutger blinked back into the cameras. “I’m a mechanical engineer by training. And my training, even after the discovery of the Begay Process, was all about entropy. I was taught that no matter what you do, there’s always waste.”
Despite everything, Rutger couldn’t help but smile. “Then came ghost power. It is…I have no other word for it. It’s a miracle. Perpetual motion. The ultimate free lunch.”
Except recently, Rutger had wondered whether entropy had found a way to increase after all. Moral pollution. The efflux of evil.
Well, so what? Don’t businesses harness greed? Don’t politicians use the bigotry and envy of their voters to support important programs? Anger in the army? Lust in marriage! Evil didn’t taint any of those institutions, why should ectogeneration be any different?
“I know that I have abused the trust placed in me,” said Rutger, “but now I have no choice but to ask for yet more.”
And there was the deeper problem. How to die and leave no spiritual remains?
Rutger had never told a living soul, but he believed that the key was to die with no regrets. He stretched his his hands toward eternity and pleaded.
“Give me another chance.”
“Come in,” I said. “Thank you for coming.” And because I’d been in Bulgaria for a long time, “sit down.”
Predictably for early summer in Sofia, the day had begun with clear skies and fluffy white clouds, then opened up with monsoon rains at exactly the time my guests had shown up.
I released the hand of Ali, the last member of our conclave, and waved him to his chair.
Six people in the greenhouse was a bit of a squeeze. Once again I caught myself wondering if organizing the meeting this way had been a mistake. We could be in the house or in a café, or not doing this at all.
I am worrying about whether my guests are comfortable.
Narrating my anxious thoughts to myself didn’t change their content, but the sense of chattering urgency evaporated. I could feel the breeze through the greenhouse’s open windows and smell the rain. Orchids peeked between fig and banana leaves, although none lower than the reach of my younger daughter Mikhaela. Somewhere a confused cricket chirped. My guests were smiling awkwardly at each other.
“Oh, right,” I said. “Dimitar, this is Ali. He’s another medical student.”
Ali and I had met through a volunteer organization. I’d joined it because it needed Engish teachers, and so had Sofia’s British medical students like Ali and Sada, American gap-year kids like Madison, naturalized refugees like Mohammad, and people like me, who are uncomfortable being called ‘expats.’ The organization had its Bulgarians too, of course, but I hadn’t clicked with any of them, so I’d expanded our circle with my friend Dimitar.
“Who wants coffee?” I asked. “Tea? Cupcakes? My daughters helped decorate them.”
They were pink, with unicorn sprinkles.
“Oh!” said Sada, who I realized had been waiting all this time for a cupcake to be offered her. “They’re light.”
“They’re chocolate soufflés. Julia demanded them and Mikhaela helped whip the egg whites.”
I am worried that I’m showing off. I’m worried that my kids are watching TV instead of coming out here and entertaining our guests.
The noise in my head receded enough for me to remember the reason we were all here. “I want to talk about balance,” I said. “I want to do more good, but I always want to be a good father and husband, and I can’t quit my job.”
It was hard to say. I waited for someone to say “you poser. You just want to make yourself feel better, but you’re not willing to sacrifice your comfort.”
Instead, Sada said, “Yeah. I’ve got classes.”
“I’m not learning to be a doctor or anything,” said Madison. “I can spend more time volunteering than you guys, but, you know, I’ll be gone in a year.”
“Kakvo kazhete?” asked Mohammad. His Bulgarian was better than his English.
“Um, iskame nie da napravime…dobro…za organizatsiyata…” I stumbled through the beginning of the sentence before I remembered that Dimitar was sitting next to me.
I am afraid that I look like an idiot, showing off my Bulgarian skills in front of a native speaker who is also a professional translator.
Dimitar swallowed his cupcake. “…no nyamate vreme?”
Mohammad bobbled his head and said something to the effect that a hundred people doing a little was better than one person doing a lot.
Dimitar translated for the benefit of the other three while I thought: I am worried everyone will think I’m an arrogant asshole for taking charge like this.
But was the one who had invited everyone here. If I didn’t get to the point, they’d just sit there.
“I want to work smarter, not harder,” I said. “I want to leverage the little that we can do into a big effect. Do you know what I mean? Like, I’m an English teacher, so I teach English at the refugee camps. But wouldn’t it be better for me to teach other people to teach English? Stuff like that.”
Dimitar edited down and translated that for Mohammad, who said, “Ima nuzhda za drugo osven urotsi po angliiski. ” We need more than English classes.
He counted things off on his fingers: help with immigration and medicine, professional qualification, child care during the day.
I took notes until my phone buzzed. It was a message from my wife.
“Your 30 minutes are up. Time to switch.”
I started at my phone.
We’d planned to both be part of this meeting, but then it had rained. The girls couldn’t play in the garden while we ate cupcakes and solved the world’s problems. We couldn’t cram them into the greenhouse with our guests.
I’m angry at myself that I insisted on doing this in the greenhouse.
I’m afraid that it’s not possible to juggle all these tasks and our jobs and lives.
I’m afraid that all my kids ever do is watch TV in the house.
I pushed back my chair. “That’s Bozhidara. She wants her turn talking to grownups. And, segue, I think we will need a manager. At least one person who’s focused full-time on this project.”
Dimitar pointed up. “You mean Bozhidara?”
“God, no. But maybe someone who could be Bozhidara’s client.”
“You mean bring someone else in?” said Sada.
“And pay them,” I said.
“You mean start another NGO?” asked Madison. “We’re already volunteering at an NGO, and you said you don’t have time to do more.”
I’m scared that this is too big.
I took a deep breath. “What if instead of an NGO, we had a social business?”
“Ha!” said Mohammad. He knew the term. “Iskash da zvanesh Mohammad Yunus?” Do you want to call Mohammad Yunus?
“Who’s that?” asked Ali. “What sort of business?”
My phone buzzed and a voice called from inside the house: “Daddy! Mommy says! Mommy says!”
“Uh. Bozhidara will explain.”
I hopped up the short flight of the stairs from the greenhouse and into our dining room and slipped out of my shoes. Bozhidara was waiting for me and gave her hand a slap as passed. “Tell them about Mohammad Yunus.”
“Okay. I’m going to bring them inside, too,” she said. “So clean up the living room first. It has a dolly hospital in it now.”
“I want to see if I can contact Yunus.”
“Fine,” as if I cold-called Nobel laureates every day. “But first move the dolly hospital.”
“Those are Mikhaela’s dolls,” said Julia, who was watching TV from the middle of a pile of toys and sofa cushions.
“Mommy says I’m not allowed to play in the virus anymore,” said Mikhaela. She had no pants on. “You have to wipe my bottom.”
“Mikhaela tried to bite me,” said Julia, “but I bit her first.”
Laughter from the dining room. They were coming in.
I am scared, I thought, and angry. My kids won’t go away. Neither will the work I have to do.
That’s probably a good thing.
I told my older kid to clean up and took the younger by the hand.
The hand was very damp.
Daniel M. Bensen