The Event Horizon
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.
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Daniel M. Bensen