So, here it is. A story for the new year. Thank you to everyone who sent me key words to get things going.
I’ve not written much in the way of short stories for a long time. I’m rusty and it took a long time for the characters to start telling me what would happen. It’s not the story I thought I would write, but I seem to have bossy characters and little choice when they start dictating the course of events.
I’ve highlighted the word suggestions in red. They’re not hyperlinks – mush as we like to click on different coloured text, they won’t go anywhere. But it might help you find your word if you added one to the list. I didn’t use all of the words in the end, so apologies to any I missed out.
For better or worse here it is. Maybe not high literature, but writing things like this makes me think in a different way.
Early on new years eve I sat in my chair listening to the kitchen screen tell me about ways to improve my life. I thought about how the delivery systems changed a great deal, but the content not so much. I had the visuals switched off so that I will take it in like radio used to be.
When I look back, I can’t remember a single thing that played out of that screen apart from the calls. Given the way things turned out, I probably should have known, but I doubt there would have been a way to create a change.
I winced as a hangover fought my painkillers for control and some young thing from last night’s party bungled his way around the flat toward me. I couldn’t for the life of me remember his name, so I tried to think of a pleasant way to get him to leave.
“Hey Mrs P,” he muttered, stumbling in and ruffling his hair. He wasn’t even dressed and for a moment, I marvelled at the human body in peak condition.
“Hi..” I began the cue to exit conversation, but the kitchen screen blinked and beeped with a call. Marco was on the line.
I smiled, and decided to let my companion stay for the call. I opened the screen in video so that Marco could see the whole kitchen.
“Good morning, what can I do for you?” I asked, probably looking a little smug.
Marco considered his view and licked his top lip. It was a tell I recognised, one that showed if managed to get under his skin.
“Cassandra,” he said. I toasted him by raising my coffee cup and managed a superhuman effort not to wince at the porcupine still raving in my brain.
“Can you come to my office today? I have something you might find interesting.”
Through the painful haze in my mind, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go. Our past working rivalry has always been entertaining, but I would much rather pass on this irritating invitation to nurse my killer hangover. But, the passive aggressive game of chess we played for so many years took precedence and I had already made a show of being ‘oh so fine and well’.
“Sure,” I said,smiling. “I can be there at two.”
“Please be here at eleven and no, the lift does not work.” He cut the call without saying goodbye. But that was something I had learned to expect.
I looked at the clock on the kitchen screen, it was 9am. I turned to the visitor at my table, “I think it’s…”
“Yeah I know.” He got up with a weak smile and headed back to the bedroom to get dressed.
I wondered if I actually managed to complete a conversational sentence with him at all.
Risking frostbite in the entrance to the building where Marco had rented his office forever, I glared at the elevator with its maintenance sign and tapped the wheel rim on my chair.
The sign was a piece of paper scrawled on in Marco’s handwriting. I’d put money on him not having called anyone to repair it at all.
An idea occurred to me. I headed over and pressed the elevator button. It would be just like him to do something like this.
Nothing happened, but as I turned the paper fluttered and I saw that there was writing on the back. “It’s actually broken.” I sighed, acknowledging he would have thought of that too.
I pushed over to the stairs and hit the button on my prosthetics. A couple of lights flashed and settled on the ankles. I changed my mind to focus on getting up.
I use both methods to get around as I please. Some have always questioned why I don’t get rid of my chair, but it’s been a part of me for so long that I prefer to keep it around. It’s also a blessing when you’re hungover, or drunk for that matter.
I picked up speed as I worked with the legs and then forgot about them on the way up three flights. The door to Marco’s office was already open. Given it’s usually monitored with an electronic lock and video, he must have seen me arrive.
As ever, Marco’s office irked me. Glossy obsidian surfaces, like some cheesy sci-fi set. At least he never took to underlighting everything. I changed the settings in my lenses to take out the reflection and brighten the corners. He might not be willing to change, but at least I could alter my view.
There was no sign of Marco. Usually he could be seen at his ridiculous light up desk behind the glass wall that divides the reception from his workspace.
I started to wonder where he was when an old scent hit me. Something from so early in my memory that it took me a moment to identify it. Cigar smoke.
I walked into his workspace, following the smell. It wasn’t unpleasant, but the associations now were enough to make it less appealing.
Behind Marco’s desk there was usually a set of shelves, but these had been moved aside. I smiled. So like him, a secret room. I should have known.
What I could not have predicted was the content of that room, the sensory overload that nearly took me as I strode in. As I crossed the threshold my confidence drained and I was immobilized by what I saw.
Marco was sitting in a chair. It looked like it was made of leather. Around him were shelves, with old style paper books on them. To one side, covered in stacks of apparently real paper was a desk that looked as though it was made of real wood.
I could smell the paper, feel a warmth in the room that was being drawn from my memory. There must have been a thousand books in that room, all of them with paper pages. He must have been collecting them for most of his life.
“Hair of the dog?”, he asked waving a bottle in one hand and spewing forth cigar smoke.
I joined him in a chair and touched the arm as I sat. It was real leather. As I sat back I could smell it. It felt alien after years of synthetic development. Nothing was made from leather any more.
I glanced around the room. In the few spaces on the walls not taken up with books, paintings had been hung. Some works sat on the floor leaning against furniture.
The one nearest me showed a man in a kilt gazing off into thunderous skies with some determination lost to time. Another showed a monkey of sorts, grasped by a woman in a non-functional dress. It must have been 200 years old at least.
Marco handed me a glass which contained an amber liquid. The glass was heavier than those presented even in the finest restaurants.
“What is this?” I asked giving it a sniff and weighing the glass in my hand.
“It’s whisky, in a crystal tumbler. I have rum too if you’d rather.”
I took a sip, and was good. “Where’d you get all of this?” I asked him, by now unable to cover the wonder.
“I collected it as I saw it go out of fashion and even disappear from recyclers,” he said.
“Is that a real cigar?”
“Yes,” he puffed. “Can I get you one?”
“No,” I muttered with disgust. “Why are you drinking real alcohol, smoking real cigars. Don’t you want to live?” I ask him. “We have all of this without the damage now you know,” I add with sarcasm.
“Because very soon it won’t matter,” he replied in a matter of fact tone.
I look around the room and finally got up to touch the books on the shelves. I had to admit, they were beautiful. It was so expensive to make them this way, took so long to create the covers and each printed page.
I stared at a title, “Nog” by Rudolph Wurlitzer. It didn’t mean anything to me but for a moment I thought that it should. I hadn’t read a document on paper since I was a child.
My sense returned to me as I thought about what it would take to collect all of this, let alone keeping it a secret for so many years. I felt cheated that I didn’t know until that day.
I was also worried, thoroughly beaten by this revelation and to make this kind of move after so long, must mean that something was about to happen that neither of us would like.
“Why am I here?” I asked him. I was starting to get angry now, I couldn’t win against a move like this and I had nothing to guess at as to what Marco was up to.
“Because I asked you,” he said, smiling.
“Very funny Marco. This is very good, you kept a secret room from me for years and you’re proud of it. I have to go now, real world things to do.” I waved a hand at the room. “Not historical research or finding ways to be stuck in the past.”
I crossed the room and put my glass down on the table next to him, but he grabbed my arm.
We looked at each other and for a second, a lifetime of knowing each other showed me that he had something I would not be able to understand. His face seemed tired and profoundly sad.
“There is something I need to show you. I found what I was looking for, the proof,” he said.
He got up and we walked back out to his workspace. He called up a display in front of our faces that showed his network monitoring programs. They were wider ranging than I had thought, especially as I had been watching his business tricks for so long. There was access to closed areas that could not be bought for the highest prices. Trust Marco to go the extra mile.
On the map of lights and labels, billions of people moved around. Geographically, digitally, financially. Their DNA, their secrets, messages, images, projections, medical details and interactions.
Behind the top layer, machines conversed across the networks too, with people and with each other. The whole intricate map was beautiful. It reminded me of old images of Earth taken from space. Looking at the teeming life stirred me. So many lives.
“Your map is almost complete,” I observed.
“More than enough to see it.”
“The Entity. The presence.”
I sighed. Back to this.
“I thought you had given up on your ‘Entity’?”
He turned and smiled at me sadly. Then sipped his whisky and looked back at the map.
“You were never open to this one,” he said.
“On the contrary Marco. I was open to all of your crazy ideas, they even encouraged my own wild visions, but there is no Entity. Not here.”
“I thought you would have dismissed it when you left.”
“It’s hard to kill an idea.”
“No. Not ‘exactly’,” I was starting to get defensive, not wanting to go over old debates from more hurtful times. “It’s not an entity or a character. Not even a vague spirit. This ghost in the machine, is a folk tale. You even know the roots better than most.”
“So if you keep thinking about it, what do you think it is?” he asked.
I looked at my hands. I had thought about it a lot. It was like a familiar mental exercise. A problem it was always okay not to solve.
“Quiddity,” I replied.
“Of a network?” he laughed.
“Is that so different to your bloody spirit machine? It’s the nearest I could come up with.”
“I knew you would still be working on it.”
“I haven’t been working on it, I just consider it sometimes.”
“I know,” he looks evasive. The penny drops.
“You’re monitoring me that closely?” I would be cross, but I’m starting to feel a kind of grief. Marco would never show me his history room, reveal the network that runs his business, let alone admit to mental surveillance.
I tried to think back to the last time we had argued about his theory that the network was growing its own consciousness. Probably the day I left him.
“You took an imprint back then?”
In answer he pulled up another screen in the air and showed me his surveillance. Brain patterns relating to that date and time. The emotional levels were all over the place – an argument. He stripped down the emotional interference and isolated a specific pattern. Then he searched through more of my files.
“This is so far beyond illegal…” I couldn’t finish the line. At that point it wasn’t worth it.
The pattern repeated many times over the year, growing stronger paths along my neurons, establishing itself and at one point expanding. I nodded, tracing the timeline of images.
“That’s where I started working on Empathy,” I commented. “How did you refine the isolation?”
“We’ll never read minds, but I can log a status and see if it repeats at best. It was a hunch,” he explained.
“All of your best work always was.”
As I follow the shapes along, there were gaps where I was preoccupied by the development of Empathy and its release to market, but here and there, the original shapes appeared. Right up to the date today where the shape shone brightly, right there on my mind in real-time.
“Empathy is doing well, not far off this scan,” he notes, pointing at my thoughts laid out.
“At least it’s legal,” I noted archly.
Empathy was the product that eventually crushed a lot of Marco’s business and expanded mine to levels I had barely thought of. It tracked the emotional states and reactions of network content. Sounds, visions, moods in old texts and aggregated them.
The products initially were rollercoasters for emotion. Non sequiturs strung together in a way that manipulated the viewer consciously or otherwise. Eventually we refined it to create distilled narratives that could be consumed like a persistence of vision. Something you could barely see but manipulated the emotional state.
It sold everywhere, psychologists were using it in therapy, advertisers subscribed at phenomenal prices for subconscious influence campaigns. The military worked with the few human field technicians it used beyond robotics.
We even weathered government scrutiny in various territories after it became known that our domestic release was putting users at risk of addiction.
Changing their mental state without the need for chemical change or surgery had a mass appeal. The concern was that blowback from these altered states would bring a risk to a much wider population. But so far, there had been no proof.
It was clear looking at my brain maps that Empathy was closely linked to Marco’s Entity theory.
“So what do you want?” I asked. “Are you going to try to sue me for coming up with an idea that related to your crackpot theorising? You’d go under first for illegal surveillance.”
“No,” he replied. “But I want access to Empathy’s stacks.”
I laughed. “You’re ridiculous. Why would you even ask? What? You showed me yours and now it’s my turn? What’s the matter with you?”
It was absurd. I wondered if Marco had been drinking too much real alcohol, but something about his sadness, lack of the usual bitter remarks was starting to worry me.
“Why?” I asked him.
“Because I think it’s how the Entity grows.”
“Human emotion? But you know it’s not in there,” I say, pointing to the network map. “It’s in the users, the humans. You need to return the input to a similar receptor to get the required response. We don’t get the same results with animals, or even between cultures half the time. There needs to be a context.”
“The Entity is context. All contexts.”
I rubbed my face with both hands and pushed them back through my hair.
“Marco. It won’t work. I know that Empathy was not something I discussed with you under development and I can’t share it with you now either, it’s too valuable. Just because it’s new and unknown to you, doesn’t mean it’s going to be the key you were looking for.”
“Do you still listen to the network?” he asked me.
“You used to say it helped you sleep,” he smiled softly.
When we first started working together on the network as a whole, it was possible to tune into the currents and frequencies of the data. Changing the sample pattern meant that sometimes words would come through, but I would turn it up to a level like white noise and it would send me to sleep.
“I could never reach you when you were listening,” he said. “I’d look at your face and see your breathing slow. I always wondered what it was telling you.”
“Nothing,” I said firmly. “It told me nothing Marco, there’s nothing in there that can tell any of us anything without our own manipulation.”
I searched his eyes and saw that he was done trying to convince me. I felt miserable. Even in our most painful fights I never saw him give up. To looked into the eyes of this phenom and see him retreat was like witnessing a heart break.
In all of our battles, with our scars and hard memories, I realised I had won. I would never believe him and he had stopped trying. My mouth went dry, I felt hollow. We divorced many years ago, but this seemed to be the real departure.
He turned and walked back into his hidden treasure trove. I looked at the network map and tried to see what he saw. But the tiny lights and nodes looked the same to me. A digital atheist. No matter how I tried to at least understand, I was not a witness and I didn’t believe.
Before I got home, I was called by my office. We had been running a skeleton staff over the run up to new year, it was so odd to hear from them.
“Mrs P, something is happening to Empathy.” It was Si, my assistant, she sounded stressed.
“Something like what?”
“Was there ever an easter egg in the program?”
“Does that sound like me?”
“Well, no, but there’s something here now that probably shouldn’t be and it’s spreading.”
“Spreading? How far?”
“We think around 1000 files in the first seconds but it’s hard to track.”
I couldn’t think of what would start from inside our software, let alone anything that could get in to compromise it. I turned the car around, “I’m on my way,” I told Si.
By the time I arrived Si and much of the core team were gathered around a bank of monitors but no one was doing anything.
“No work to do?” I asked dryly.
They looked uncomfortable. “There’s not much we can do,” said Si. “Each time we try something, it disappears and then pops up somewhere else. We can’t see the pattern in the way it’s choosing files.”
“What happens when it does choose a file?”
“It’s reading them.”
“Reading them?” I moved around her to get a better look. On several servers there were signs of files being accessed, but where from was unknown. At each instance there was a symmetry. I touched the keyboard to get to the directory and all of the movement stopped. Then it reappeared in different places to start again.
“Maybe it’s making copies,” I muttered.
“It’s only in the data aggregators,” noted Si. “But we create new ones all the time and it’s mostly reading the older ones.”
I looked at the monitors, she was right. Data files of varied emotions, grief, love, lust and terror replicators, each file opened and then closed but not corrupted.
My phone rang in my ear, I answered it irritably.
“Yes” I didn’t recognise the voice and the number was not coming up in my vision..
“Inspector Rakin. This is a courtesy call and one to verify a detail,” the voice explained.
“How can I help?” I wondered if it was related to the activity that held my attention on the screens.
“Were you just at the home of your ex husband?” he asked.
My focus switched entirely to the call. “Marco? Yes. Why?”
There was a pause. The kind that tells you everything in a breath.
“I’m terribly sorry. An alarm went off at his offices and when we went to answer the call, we found that he had passed away.”
I struggled to think.
“Passed away how?” I asked.
“The initial scans say that it was his heart,” said the Inspector. I nodded, realising he would not be able to hear this and not really caring.
“Is there something you need me to do?” I asked flatly.
“No. We were just verifying that you are okay. We found your wheelchair in the building. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you.”
I looked down at my feet, I hadn’t thought about my chair at all since I stepped out of it to climb the stairs.
I had very little to say to the inspector. I could hear more phones ringing around our office and members of the team started to talk around me. “Thank you,” I said to Rakin, and I dropped the call.
I felt like I was underwater until Si stood in my line of vision. “The networks are full of rumours about our systems being compromised. I’ve called in PR to manage the queries but it’s flaring up pretty badly.”
“Rumours?” I asked. “I thought you said this appeared inside our system?”
“Yeah, well now it’s out. All of our firewalls are down and whoever is doing this just pasted copies of the first emotion files in the wild.”
“But there’s no proprietary software in that and no personal details,” I said.
“No, but that doesn’t stop people thinking our guts are going to be spilled any moment now.” Si went back to her desk to make more calls.
I trusted my team to deal with crisis management. They were all chosen to be independent when I needed time to think. I walked into my office and closed the door. ‘It never rains’, I thought.
I called up a screen and looked at the spread of the problem. Was it a virus? I recalled logs that would show me the initial appearance and spread within our own files.
Watching the shapes grow and repeat on the screen as various files were chosen, I thought about Marco. I wished that I had said anything different, something worthwhile.
I recalled him telling me he’d watch me sleep as I opened another screen to see the network and where our problem was spreading.
Across different platforms, through all kinds of connections the same shapes were appearing. I stared at the screen, zooming in on open databases first to see the same pattern as files were read. In the back of my mind I could hear Marco’s voice, “I always wondered what it was telling you.”
Finally the shape was familiar. I grabbed a headset and tuned it to the wider network. It was noisy as ever and the repeat pattern was creating a new rhythm I had never heard before. The pattern was becoming clear. It was the brain scan Marco showed me, my brain pattern for Quiddity.
But Marco was gone and something here was out of control on the open networks. For now it seemed benign, but who knew what intelligence he might have written into it.
I gazed into the network, losing focus on its nodes and listening to the rush and rhythm. “Marco,” I breathed.
A whisper in my ears grew and I started to feel faint. A billion voices rushed back at me, laughing.