El Matador has never known a house (or world) without Alexa. By the time he was born, Alexa was almost two years old, and in his first half-year of life, she has been a constant companion, assistant, and soothing voice. Although he can’t interact with Alexa directly, he does hear her voice, and he hears us talking to her, which leads me to wonder how his relationship with this technology will progress.
From the day we brought Matador home, we’ve asked Alexa for help. It was simple stuff at first:
Alexa, turn on the bedroom. (via Hue bulbs)
Alexa, turn on the noise machine. (via Belkin wemo)
Alexa, set the AC to 73 degrees (via Nest thermostat)
Unsurprisingly, Alexa’s real contribution was allowing us to do things hands-free, since our hands are either covered in baby or holding a poop. Wait, that doesn’t sound right.
At six months, we still make use of the home automation, but now we’ve added other skills to the mix:
Alexa, play Caspar Babypants (via Music Unlimited)
Alexa, set the nursery to 20 percent (via Hue bulbs)
Alexa, play Paper Planes by M.I.A. (to time diaper changes)
Alexa, how’s the weather?
Alexa, pause the TV.
For the longest time, I didn’t consider how aware Matador was of Alexa, until one day about a month ago, I asked her to play Run, Baby, Run, which is Matador’s favorite song. As soon as I said the words, a mild look a recognition came over his face, but it was nothing compared to when Alexa said:
Playing Run, Baby, Run by Caspar Babypants…
Just hearing Alexa speaking causes Matador to smile. He recognizes her. He looks in her direction, which is probably confusing, since there’s no face there. Maybe I should put a face there. Huh.
He hears her name so often, I wonder if his first word will be Alexa. Babies can start psuedo-talking at six months… how long before he’s able to talk to her directly?
I love technology, but I love the fact that my son will grow up in a world where he simply has to ask for something, and the audio recording of his voice will be sent to Amazon via the FBI where it will be converted into words, evaluated, and responded to.
As a child, I spent the better half of a day rigging up a pulley system that enabled me to turn on the lights in my room without getting out of bed (because monsters). Matador will simply ask Alexa to do it.
Unlike when you introduced Alexa to your kids, she won’t be a novelty to him. She will have always been there–an integrated part of his life that he will assume is natural.
I’ll be keeping an eye on how this relationship progresses. Alexa is getting smarter every day, but so is Matador. Just yesterday, he learned what a cold is. And his parents learned that babies can’t blow their noses on their own.
Alexa, suck the snot out of my baby’s nose with this tube apparatus.
Danny looked up from his palette and surveyed the landscape through the Audi Q7’s tinted windows. The SUV was creeping along the elevated lanes of the 130 tollway; a sign indicated an exit for the 290 tollway. Although they had passed Austin proper, the proximity of Old Downtown meant an influx of traffic coming from Houston, mostly old beaters without toll tags who would rather chance a run-in with the police than sit on the access roads for hours.
“There wasn’t even a toll road then.”
“What?” asked Danny.
The driver looked at him in the rearview mirror. “It was just empty. Austin didn’t extend this far out. When they first built the toll road, you could bypass 35 for a flat ten bucks. Save you a good hour or two on the worst days.”
“Sorry,” said Danny, lifting his palette in explanation. “I’m trying to prepare for a meeting.”
“Ah,” said the driver, nodding. “Apologies. I’ll leave you to it.”
Danny nodded and swiped at his palette. A small dot flew up from the bottom of the screen, hit a couple of squares, and then exploded in a dizzying array of pixelated fire. The squares quivered and disappeared. With the last of the squares cleared, the field reset and the next level appeared.
The last thing Danny needed was a history lesson on Austin, Texas. He knew the city’s love-hate relationship with the tech companies that had built it up only to abandon it in its time of need. He knew hundreds of disheveled engineers showed up on its doorstep every day with their student loans and CCNA certificates hoping for a job with one of the few tech companies that remained. They flocked to the campuses of Dell, Pattrn, and Nixle Chronos, but more often than not ended up in Old Downtown with all the rest of the unused talent.
Network Engineers worked the serving line at Subway.
Developers wrote code for lighting systems at cyberpunk night clubs.
IT guys worked backend systems at VR brothels.
There were still a few tech jobs to be found outside of the Big Three, but the startup culture that had quenched Austin’s thirst during its period of growth had mostly dried up, leaving the city parched. The few startups that did try to break through the concrete soil rarely passed the Vinestead benchmark; that is, they were either acquired or run out of business when Vinestead stole their ideas.
Danny thought about the streets of Old Downtown, its potholes and long-abandoned construction signs, its abundance of zombie-like pedestrians shuffling from one synth fix to the next. What the city really needed was a day of MotoSlaughter, a one-time event to help rid Old Downtown of its infection. The skyscrapers that had been built there in there 90s were still standing strong. Places like the Austonian and Monarch could be used again if the right people came in.
Not that that was likely.
Nobody bought home computers anymore, and though Dell had tried to shift into consumer-grade immersion rigs, it seemed to be following in the footsteps of IBM and HP. Pattrn was new and growing, but social media itself was a dying industry now that feeds were the primary form of sharing. And if Nixle Chronos’ augmented reality tech was going to take off, it would have done so already.
Austin was dying, and in some wonderful way, that gave the city a small-town feel. Local businesses outpaced the national chains by 5 to 1. Corporate didn’t sell in Austin, and that suited Danny just fine.
“Would you like me to take the Express lane?” asked the driver. “I don’t think we’ll make eight o’clock without it. There’s a small uncharge.”
“That’s fine,” said Danny.
The Audi lurched to the left, cutting in front of an eighteen-wheeler that was doing its best to maintain a constant speed. The blast of its airhorn hadn’t even died out by the time the SUV slipped into the far left Express lane. The small surcharge the driver had mentioned came in the form of dynamic tolls that rose and fell depending on the traffic. Electronic signs set along the toll road updated like stock tickers, showing times and distances and costs.
Time to ABIA: 28 minutes.
Express Lane to ABIA: 4 minutes.
Express Lane charge: $19.22/mi.
With less traffic in front of them, the driver pushed the Audi up to the 90 mph speed limit and hugged the left shoulder in case some distracted commuter decided to cut into the lane. Gas stations and rest stops scrolled by, as did burned-out husks of cars that had been foolish enough to pull over and stay overnight. Nobody knew how or why abandoned cars got torched, but they were a common sight and had been readily assimilated into Austin’s lore.
Danny felt his body lean as the SUV took a banking right turn towards the airport. The Express lane carried them over the main toll road, over the fools on the free roads, right to the entrance to ABIA.
“It’s a private hanger,” said Danny. “Whichever one has the jet with the flames painted on the sides.”
The driver navigated the narrow roads and took a hard right at the cell phone lot. They passed through a secure gate where the SUV was checked for explosives, and onto a private tarmac where the morning sun was already boiling the accumulated rubber. In the second hangar, a fire-red Gulfstream idled just inside the massive doors. The driver pulled up to a shaded area and put the SUV in park.
Danny stepped out as his door opened.
“I shouldn’t be too long,” he said.
The driver nodded and returned to the front seat.
Two men in black suits with thin ties approached Danny. They were tall, thin, and much like Pyrosius, very Asian.
That wasn’t just Danny’s assessment. Years ago before they had ever met in person, Guns had asked Pyrosius what he looked like, to which the flame-winged hacker had replied, “very Asian.” In reality, Pyrosius was Asian (Chinese, to be exact), but there was nothing over-the-top about it. His bodyguards, on the other hand, were quite the sci-fi trope, with slick-backed hair and dark sunglasses.
They greeted Danny with a slight bow and led him to the open stairs at the front of the jet. There, standing in the threshold, was the very Asian hacker himself.
In virtual reality, Pyrosius imagined himself as a god of fire and often mixed elements of the mythical Phoenix with old-world Chinese imagery. His avatar stood nine feet tall in most constructs, though when he was on a private server, he dialed himself down to a respectable six foot even. In reality, Pyrosius was five foot four at the most. He wore wire-frame glasses and a long ponytail that reached down the middle of his back.
He wore his typical outfit: a starched white button-down tucked messily into black slacks.
Few would have guessed his net-worth rivaled that of an NFL star or a rapper.
“I’m not coming down there,” said Pyrosius. “These shoes do not set foot on Austin soil. Come inside and have a drink. And if you tell me what time it is, I’ll punch you in the nuts.”
Danny climbed the steps in the Gulfstream and turned away from the cockpit. Pyrosius stood near a table with a small cardboard box and gestured to its contents.
“I can’t remember how you take it, so I just got one of everything.” He read off a few entires from the Starbucks menu before Danny stopped him.
“Nothing for me.”
Pyrosius shrugged, extended his hand. “Thanks for coming, Guns.”
Danny nodded, sat down on one of the plush leather seats facing the table. The chair was more comfortable than anything in his condo.
“I’ll be brief. We’re wheels up in forty minutes.”
“Roger, captain,” said Danny. “Forty mikes for chow and muster.”
Pyrosius sat down opposite Danny and folded his hands on the table. His eyes narrowed, as if he were peering directly into Danny’s soul.
“How are things?” he asked.
“Make with the ask, Pyro. I’ve got things to do today.”
“I want to talk about the work you did for Benny Coker.”
Danny shook his head. “Who said I did work for Benny Coker?”
“He did,” said Pyrosius, smiling. “Said you helped him recover some photos an employee had stolen from his wife.”
In truth, Eileen Coker had been having an affair with Dylan Carter and when she tried to break it off, Dylan threatened to sell an extensive photo catalog of their private moments to a rival media feed. It had been Danny’s job to make sure every last copy of those photos was erased.
“An easy seek and destroy job,” said Danny. “I used off-the-shelf code to hunt down the signatures on his drives.”
“And,” said Pyrosius, tapping his head, “up here, too, right?”
“You think I hacked his brain?”
“Well, no, but his biochip, right? Margate third generation? That level of encryption is supposed to stop even the spooks in Langley. But you got through it. How?”
“Fine,” said Pyrosius. He reached for a cup from the box and pulled out what looked like a frappucino. “But that means you have to do this job for me.”
“Who said I wasn’t?”
“Huh, I don’t know. I guess I thought you’d be reluctant. You know, dick me around for more details or money, refuse to do it so I’d have to beg you, that sort of thing.”
Danny shook his head. “Not really my style. You’ve got work. It pays money. I like money. Simple.”
“Good, good,” said Pyrosius, turning on the palette.
“But I do have some demands.”
“You don’t even know what the job is yet.”
“I know it’s something beneath you. You said you didn’t have time for it, so it must be some kind of shit-work owed to some rich elite who needs you to make a problem go away.”
It was always the same thing for celebrity hackers. They started out doing what interested them, then what benefited them, and finally what benefitted those who could afford them.
“You’re half-right,” said Pyrosius. “The client is an elite, but he’s a nice guy. A small-grade philanthropist.”
“No elite is a nice guy.”
“You need to expand your world-view. Maybe this job will help you do that. In any case, his ‘problem’ as you call it is actually quite interesting. Two days ago, a person or group of persons unknown broke into the Orange County Municipal Morgue #17 at 3 o’clock in the morning. The official report says they were looking for augments and to that end, many of the corpses had been rummaged through. The police aren’t sure how much the thieves made off with.”
“One of the smaller cipher dens, LA Knights, I think. It doesn’t matter. They were busted trying to unload their haul at the swap, and among the items recovered, police found six biochips.”
Danny frowned. “They ripped out their chips?”
“No, it was a professional removal, probably by the morgue doctors. All the grow-wire had been snipped and the chip was clean. I don’t know what they thought they were going to do with used biochips, but my client ended up with them. He brought them to me, and now I’m handing them off to you.”
The questions about the Benny Coker job suddenly made sense.
“You can’t get into them, can you?” asked Danny.
“Into? Yes. But there’s data there that we can’t seem to touch. Something extra. I need someone who’s adept at breaking encryption. I don’t know how you do it, but you’re the best in the field.”
“No, you’re the best. I just don’t get why you’re bringing this to me.”
Pyrosius leaned back in his chair, smiled.
“Johnny already said no, didn’t he?”
“He said he was working on something big,” said Pyrosius. “Wouldn’t tell me what it was. Wouldn’t even take my call, just sent me a text saying not interested.”
Danny chuckled. If there was one thing you could count on with Johnny San Vito, it was his unbreakable focus in the face of even the most attractive distractions. Whatever he was working on, it had to be worth more than the intrigue and the paycheck of what Pyrosius had to offer.
“Did you bring the chips?”
No,” said Pyrosius, shaking his head. “Those don’t leave LA. My client has them in a secure building. You’d have to travel.”
Danny looked around the cabin. “You gonna give me a lift?”
“I’m not going to LA, but my client—.”
“What’s the client’s name?”
Pyrosius seemed to hesitate, but he knew as well as anyone that Danny would eventually figure out who was financing the job.
“His name is Frank. He runs the Kagan Group out of Los Angeles. One of the biochips belonged to his son.”
“Oh,” said Danny.
“So it’s personal, huh? If this Kagan guy is connected, then I don’t really have a choice, do I? This is gonna be lucrative.”
“Mid six figures if you can decrypt the data,” said Pyrosius. “Double that if you can figure out how the kid died.”
“And your cut?”
“Zero. I’m doing this as a favor… to both of you.”
Danny nodded, reached for a random cup in the box. He took a sip of something foul and resisted the urge to spit.
“Get me a proper drink, and I’m in.”
“Deal,” he replied. “I told the client you’d meet with him in Los Angeles tomorrow night. I’ll message you all the details.”
Goddamn Pyrosius. Always thinking he knew the future.
So I got a frantic call from my BFF who said, Daniel, your Science Fiction novels are so good. Can you help me fix my website? This BFF obviously knows how to preface a question, so I agreed to take a look. What I found was both confusing and arousing, and after fixing it, I said to myself, Daniel, your Science Fiction novels are so good, but you’re never going to remember how to fix this. That brings us to this blog post, wherein I tell you how to stop your WordPress website from redirecting to a shitty spam site, specifically when accessed via a mobile device.
The redirect was taking me to a .bid site, so I grepped for that word in the WordPress install but didn’t find it there either. A quick Google search turned up a lot of advice about looking for encoded PHP in the theme files, but they were all clean. Then I turned my attention to the uploads folder.
I found this file and couldn’t figure out what it did.
Almost as soon as I call a novel finished and ready for publication, I start on the next one. I think everyone does. And like a lot of other writers, I don’t really have a new story in mind. It’s just an idea. One of hundreds. And each one needs to be investigated to see if it contains a story. For months, a year, maybe more, I investigate each of these slivers of ideas and try to stretch them like a ball of dough into something resembling a pizza. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes it is hard to tell when I’m not good enough to write the story, if I’m just being lazy, or if there simply isn’t a story there. I try to stay pragmatic, not get too overexcited, but at some point, you just can’t deny you’ve got the beginning of a novel on your hands.
In my experience and humble opinion, there is no more vital milestone than the completion of 1/3 of Draft Zero. For my books, that’s about 20 chapters at 2,000 words apiece. Everything before this moment is just the cobbling of ideas, pushing them together to see how they fit. But once you reach this point, the story takes on new life. The rules have been established. The characters are in the proper positions.
Everything is primed. The story can now write itself.
At this stage of what I generously call my writing career, I can write 2,000 words on anything. Any story. Any idea. You want 2,000 words? Give me a couple hours. Or give me Red Bull and candy if you need it sooner. The fiction I post on this blog are examples of this daily “scratch writing,” which I do after a novel to find the next one.
It’s harder to stretch an idea to 10,000 words. If really pressed, by sheer force of will, I could do 20,000. The number of ideas that live past 20,000 are shockingly low. As I mentioned, it could just be that I’m lazy or not skilled enough to stretch the story, but to keep my ego on life-support, I tell myself there just wasn’t a story there.
It’s a cruel game sometimes. You think you have something. You write several chapters, and then it just fizzles out. Or you try and try but just can’t hit that sweet spot. Because really, it’s not just about getting to 20 chapters; it’s also about properly positioning the people, settings, technology, and conflicts.
I’ve gotten ideas to 1/3 of Draft Zero exactly four times in the past. All four became novels.
How’s that for a jinx?
So that’s why I’m excited today. That’s why I’m posting this nonsense on my blog, even though it is likely of little interest to anyone else. I, on the other hand, love to learn about how other writers do it.
So for those of you who write: how do you know when you’ve got a novel?
When he was fifteen years old, Johnny San Vito logged into a military-sponsored, virtual reality BBS using his dad’s account and threatened to beat the shit out of an Airman who went by the ultra-cool handle Raw Dawg. I was right there along with him too, using my dad’s account, but to this day I’m ninety percent sure it was Johnny who started the whole mess. And when Raw Dawg went crying to his superiors, it was our dads who got called in for disciplinary meetings. I don’t know how or if Johnny ever got punished for getting his dad in trouble, but I had my immersion rig taken away for three months.
I was so pissed at Johnny that first month offline. In the second month, I turned that anger towards myself, and finally, as my punishment came to an end, I seethed with rage at Raw Dawg for being a little bitch.
Ultimately, it was our stupidity that got us in trouble. We thought because we were using our dads’ accounts that we were anonymous, when in fact, it was quite the opposite. Not only were our dads’ names attached to the accounts, but since we were on a military base, it was trivial to find them if someone lodged a complaint. We realized that we’d taken a shortcut in getting access to the BBS, and that the next time we threatened to kick someone’s ass, we’d do it behind the veil of true anonymity.
That was the second stupidest thing we (but mostly Johnny) had ever done. The topper was Johnny actually creating a true Dead Man’s Loop, or DML, a program that would automatically delete all of his personal files and transfer his assets to a specified target, which turned out to be me. The loop could only be triggered by Johnny’s death, since it relied on the biochip embedded in his neck. If an hourly ping went unanswered for twenty-four intervals, the code—distributed throughout VNet and various darknet servers—would activate.
Johnny had always been fascinated with the idea of a Dead Man’s Loop even when we were kids, though I bet he never though he’d actually use it. The topic first came up a year after the Raw Dawg incident, when we stumbled upon the number for an 18+ BBS that had a sizable stash of VR porn shot in first person and with 360-degree head tracking. It lacked much of the sensory input that would come later with the higher bandwidth of the Net, but at the time, it was better than swiping through Victoria’s Secret ads on our palettes. For a time there, we spent most of our night in those simulations—separately, of course—marveling at the naked women who stared into the camera, into our eyes, with a lust we had never seen in real life before.
It became necessary to hide all that porn; after all, they weren’t magazines to be hidden under my mattress. And in a pinch, we needed to be able to dump the incriminating evidence directly into the ether. Overwrite the bits. Zero everything out.
We worked together on the first iterations of the DML, which at the time were simply triggered by a duress password. If our parents ever asked us for the password, we could just give them a special passphrase like tacotime92 and the computer would know to dump all the data in /home/danny/jubs. It wasn’t until we got older and started messing around with a tougher crowd that we began discussing what would happen if we actually died.
I don’t remember ever reaching an agreement on the subject. My intention was to dump every piece of data I had into a sea of cleansing zeroes and leave all of my money to my wife. The wife never materialized, and for the last decade my accounts have been payable on death to my mom. Moving the money to someone else, that I understood. If it went unclaimed, it would just end up in the hands of the government to be spent on building the border wall with the MX. But the data, all my documents, photos, music, and yes, pornography… that wasn’t meant for anyone else.
Evidently, Johnny San Vito considered all of his data to be of vital importance. I knew this because when the Dead Man’s Loop triggered while I was in bed with Jane, it dumped a lifetime of happy hackery directly into my Syzygy biochip.
I remembered holding Jane, kissing her lips, smelling her faint perfume, when everything just went white. The Syzygy does so much to regulate everyday functions that when it gets overloaded—which is rare—it shuts down all non-essential functions. The problem with Johnny dumping his entire databank into my biochip is that the Syzygy was never designed to hold that much information. When the data started coming in, the biochip tried offloading it to a secondary host, which meant bandwidth in both directions went to 100-percent utilization.
A denial service attack on my biochip. Only Johnny would accidentally invent something like that. Perhaps if he knew how much pain—true, physical pain—it would cause, he would have left me out of it, or better still, dumped the data to a respository and simply sent me a username and password.
As it happened, I writhed on the floor for a good ten minutes, gritting my teeth against the pain in my head and blubbering like a lost child. I wasn’t embarrassed to be crying in front of Jane; whether she judged me or not, she would never say anything openly about it. It wasn’t unprecedented for me to shed tears at pain; I’d hurt my back a few years before and to date, that had been the most painful thing I experienced.
This was pain from another layer of reality, and the only way through it was to wait until enough data had been offloaded so it could resume its normal functions. I did have the option of cutting it off completely, but at the cost of all the data living in RAM. No, my only choice was to weather the storm and hope I didn’t go insane from the flashes of photos and text popping in from the periphery.
It took Jane some time to realize I wasn’t crying because Johnny was dead—or supposedly dead, at any rate. Once she did, however, she switched roles from counselor to nurse.
“Are you alright?” she asked, placing her hand on my forehead. She was kneeling beside me at the foot of the bed. The lights were low but I could see her face plainly, see the concern in her eyes. “Should I call someone?” She reached for my left arm, for the sliver embedded in my wrist.
“No,” I said, taking her hand instead. The Syzygy drove the sliver anyway, so there was no guarantee she would be able to use it to call for help. And it didn’t matter; there was nothing a standard hospital could do for me. If we were in Umbra surrounded by gray market butchers then maybe. But here in Vail where the rich and powerful owned million-dollar homes they only used two weeks out of the year? No way.
“Your forehead’s on fire. Let me get you something.” Jane ran to the bathroom, grabbed a washcloth from the shelves by the shower, and then held it under the faucet.
I felt my eyes wander over her body, which was good because it meant some of my normal functions were coming back, but the moment was short-lived. I couldn’t even appreciate her naked form as it hurried through the darkened cabin to my side.
The cold cloth barely made a dent; there was nothing but heat all around me.
“How do you know your friend is dead?” she asked.
“Johnny. You said he was dead.”
I shook my head, felt needles prick my neck. “I don’t know if he’s dead.”
It always felt hollow explaining technical things to Jane. As I laid out the details of the Dead Man’s Loop in simple terminology, she remained engaged and even nodded every once in a while. But at her core, I knew none of the information was sticking. And I wouldn’t have expected it to. Her interest in computers and technology was superficial, an add-on feature chosen via a check-box on a web form.
“Maybe it was an accident?” she suggested. “Like, he was just cleaning it and it went off in his hands.”
“Maybe,” I replied. “Maybe. Could you—” I paused as a hot needle passed through my eyes—first one, then the other. “Could you grab my palette from the bar?”
She got up without replying, grabbing her Spurs shirt on the way to the kitchen. I rolled onto my stomach and sat back against the bed.
So much data.
Every time I closed my eyes, I saw more if it streaming past me like the Millennium Falcon jumping to hyperspace, only these weren’t stars but rather complex equations cycling through letters and numbers, trying to find a sequence that made sense. The Syzygy’s on-the-fly decryption couldn’t keep up with the incoming stream, and it looked like there were some batches of data that it couldn’t even touch. Others were simpler though, bits of meta attached to files and photos, with names that were almost recognizable as words, except that they flew by too quickly, deforming at the speed of light.
Jane returned with the palette and handed it to me. She sat down on the bed, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“At least you can sit up,” she said.
I nodded, unable to unclench my jaw to speak. The palette woke at my touch and presented a grid of applications. I brought up an app I’d put together to manage my personal servers—most of them were in-house, with redundant backups buried beneath the foundation of the cabin. A select few were located offsite in a darknet, protected by firewalls and honeypots and generally inaccessible to all but the most elite hackers.
My first task was to follow my biochip’s lead and cut all non-essential programs—anything that would eat CPU or fill up the pipe. I shut down a farm of VMs that were running integration tests for Lucas Cotton’s MESH project. It would be a pain in the ass to restart all the tests, but I didn’t really have a choice. I took the house offline as well, shut down transcoding services that were pulling movies from supposedly secure servers owned by Paramount, Lion’s Gate, and the newly reborn New Line Cinema. Every feed aggregator and parser in my arsenal went silent, and the cabin followed suit.
Upstairs, the fans on my suite of video cards slowed to an inaudible hum, bringing a quiet to the cabin that even Jane noticed.
She looked up, as if suddenly aware of the world again. I wanted to tell her what was happening, but at that moment, it was if someone had pulled the plug in the bathtub of my agony. I felt the data seep out, faster and faster, as the Syzygy used the full breadth of available bandwidth to chunk out the dump to local servers. I leaned my head back, felt Jane’s hand on my forehead.
“Better now?” she asked.
“Getting there.” And it was true. With every terabyte the Syzygy offloaded, its utilization fell by a small fraction. “Just give me a few minutes.”
“Sure,” she replied. “You want some water?”
Jane pushed herself off the bed and walked to the lower dresser separating the bedroom from the living room. She opened her drawer, and after rifling through the contents for a minute, extracted a sheer pair of black underwear.
“That Johnny,” she said, her tone suggesting she actually knew my friend personally and not just through my stories. “It’s just like him to interrupt us at the worst time, right? I mean, you could have been watching TV or playing a video game. For the last six months, you’ve sat here alone with your toys.”
She paused as her head disappeared into the fridge.
“But no, he waits ’til I get here, waits ’til we’re in the throes of passion, and then gives you the headache to end all headaches. Some friend.”
I took the water bottle when she held it out to me and ripped the cap off. Between sips, I told her, “Johnny’s more than a friend. He saved my life. I saved his. We did time together, did you know that?”
Jane shook her head.
“Folsom Minimum Security in 2007. We got jumped by a group of former MX soldados that had overflowed from Max. Neither of us were great fighters, but we stuck together and came out of it on the other side.” I laughed. “I remember Johnny saying to me, and it was funny because he had a mouth full of gauze, but he said we’re connected now… brothers. He said it like we hadn’t been friends since junior high.”
The Syzygy snapped back online. According to a monitor app on my palette, it had reduced the data dump’s memory footprint to a manageable size. Most of the data had been offloaded, and now the biochip was going line-by-line trying to decrypt the data. I adjusted a few sliders to kill the decryption process and focused energy on managing my body.
It wasn’t as if the Syzygy wasn’t up for the job, but a decryption task as big as this one needed a proper environment, like a self-contained construct in VR where the server and my immersion rig could double-team the data.
The headache began to subside, only to replaced by intense fatigue. I climbed up the foot of the bed, and Jane followed me back to the pillows. She pulled the covers over me as I stretched out, my forehead still covered in sweat.
“Good,” she said, patting me on the chest. “You need some rest.”
“I just need to send a quick message.”
The sliver in my wrist had come back online, and I noticed there were no keyword alerts for Johnny San Vito—a search I’d had running for nearly a decade now, just so I could always keep tabs on him. Johnny didn’t always share the details on every job he took; sometimes I learned about a new hack from the feeds, and it would only be later in a protected construct that I would get the full story.
I used the quick keys to compose a simple message to Johnny.
What the fuck?
It disappeared into the ether, and I used the same arm to reach above my head for the box full of code cards. Jane snagged it before I could.
“What do you want?”
She shuffled to the back of the box and examined the labels on the cards. Finally, she pulled out a sleek silver card with a wisp of light pearl running its length.
“Turn your head.”
I did as I was told, turning my gaze to the clear walls of the bathroom and the serene forest beyond. Snow fell in the moonlight, as it had all winter, and the world turned, as it had for all of human history.
Jane pressed the card to the back of my neck, initiating a wireless transfer of synth code directly into the Syzygy. Vanilla Sky was a cocktail of synthetic sleep aides that came on quickly but softly. Within a few blinks, I would be asleep.
I turned back to her, watched her climb beneath the sheets before pressing the card to the back of her neck. She smiled at me, mouthed the words, “Sweet dreams.”
The cabin began to fall away, but a light buzzing in my wrist kept me from going over the edge into sleep. I lifted my arm, hoping to see a message from Johnny.
What the fuck? asked my sliver.
It was my own message. Not bounced, not returned. It was forwarded.
Vanilla Sky pulled me down, but not before I understood the gravity of the situation. The messaging service wasn’t some random account Johnny owned; it was tied to his core identity and hidden from most of the world. It was the way he communicated with his best friends and most treasured contacts.
It was a basic part of Johnny.
He could do without his data for a couple of hours, and the money could be easily returned, but if he was still alive, he wouldn’t have waited for me to return his messaging account.
To understand the scope of Applied Harmonics’ work, you have to look at the startup scene in Austin, Texas around the mid-90’s, back before the scene itself had a name. Around that time, Austin was seeing an influx of Californian money, most of it by way of rich West Coasters who fled the high cost of living for the laid back, BBQ and beer lifestyle of the Live Music Capital of the World. They took the foundations of Silicon Valley and started rebuilding it here.
Austin never achieved Silicon Valley 2 status, but we did have our share of success. Dell, which sold personal computing devices to the common man, began its life just up the road from us. The city attracted giants like Borland, SolarWinds, and Tivoli Software. AMD, Intel, and Samsung had a huge semiconductor presence as well. Couple all of this technology with the University of Texas, and you’ve got a city ripe for cutting-edge theoretical research.
Applied Harmonics (abbreviated AHI thanks to a tacked-on “Inc.”), started as a thesis project by a UT student named Arthur Rubens. One of the major shortcomings of string theory at the time was that it didn’t explain particle behavior in all circumstances. In terms of gravity, the model behaved one way. In terms of space-time, there were gaps that just couldn’t be explained. Rubens, in his own words, stumbled upon a unified string theory after a night of heavy drinking during which he overwrote his boson equations with fermion equations on the same whiteboard.
History was never the same. Our history, anyway. Evidently, you people can create technological wonders that boggle the mind, but string theory is a bridge too far.
I don’t pretend to know anything about string theory, though perhaps if I did, I could return home a la Sam Beckett. All I know is that in the fall of 2016, Rubens and his team had a breakthrough, which would ultimately lead to the destruction of countless universes.
A little about November 2016. Life as an American in my world was about separating the micro from the macro. Our media companies weren’t as pervasive (and invasive) as yours, but they were no less harmful. Owned by rich, entitled white dudes who themselves were owned by political parties and larger companies, skewed the news to push whatever agenda they deemed most profitable. And when they had the opportunity to keep a self-proclaimed bigot and sexual predator from being elected president, they failed miserably. Protests, hate-crimes, and general anxiety pervaded the landscape.
For most of us, we kept watch on things closer to home: our family, our friends, our cozy little job and cozy little car. I was never the protesting type, nor was I someone who believed a president could do much of anything except drag us into another recession, for which my positions were prepared anyway.
All of this is to say that no one was really paying attention to the things that mattered: science, technology, medical developments, etc. They were too focused on a buffoon demanding security clearance for his children, as if his nepotism was a surprise to anyone.
That year, I’d been married to Maisie for about five years, and had worked at AHI for more than ten. My focus had been on her, on our attempts to start a family, and our never-ending quest to lose weight. At work, Monroe and I kept busy writing scripts to parse the massive amounts of data Rubens was pulling in from what he called other “shades” of universes. These shades had to be compared to ours on the atomic level, which meant our best computers (tinker toys compared to yours) needed to be told how to make that comparison.
Monroe had only been with the company about four years. He’d replaced a sharp guy named Han who quit to move back to Korea to take advantage of their burgeoning tech scene (of which I was completely unaware). Monroe and I became fast friends, mostly due to our hatred of Austin drivers and mutual love of the Dallas Cowboys football team. That year, they had been on a hot streak behind two new rookies, which meant Monroe and I would spend most of Monday reliving the highlights from the previous day’s play.
A little about Monroe. He’s the coolest black dude I’ve ever met, and though he prides himself in being a bad-ass mother who don’t take no crap off of nobody, he looks like a strong gust of wind might carry him off at any moment. I guess that’s why he wears his gold chains, to weigh him down. None of that matters though, because Monroe always has a smile for everyone. He’s a genuinely nice guy in front of the suits.
But in the lab? When the doors are closed? He’s just as depraved as the rest of us.
It was Monday, November 14, if I recall correctly. The week before Thanksgiving. Maisie and I had been dreading the holidays since both of our families were getting a little too pushy with their demands of grandchildren. The Cowboys had just pulled off an insane back-and-forth victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers and I couldn’t wait for Monroe to get in.
It was after nine before he finally rolled in complaining about the traffic.
“She saw me put my blinker on,” he said, dropping his backpack onto his desk, “and she sped up anyway. What the hell is wrong with people?”
“At least the Cowboys won,” I replied.
“Hells yes!” Monroe leaned over for a high five. “My man Zeke is killin’ it!”
I won’t bore you with the specifics of the conversation, but suffice it to say it ended with us agreeing that Jason Witten was the best thing since sliced bread. By the time we’d watched all the replays and discussed the playoff picture, it was close to ten.
“I’m gonna get some coffee before the data pushes,” he announced. “You want anything?”
“I’m good,” I told him, turning my attention back to my computer. I had a bunch of browser tabs open to various sport sites, so after one more replay of Ezekiel Elliot slicing through the Steeler defense, I closed the entire browser and launched SecureCRT.
Buried deep under the rolling Lakewood hills, AHI’s server cluster churned in the LED twilight. Environmental systems kept the cavernous data center at a brisk 64 degrees. The racks were protected by steel cages, and only a small team of engineers were allowed physical access. Everyone else had to go through multi-factor authentication to get command-line access.
I typed in my various passwords, consulted my keyfob a few times, and eventually got access to Pylon 18, which was due for a data push at exactly 1000 hours.
When I joined the company in 2006, Rubens and company were running tests manually, compiling the data by hand, and then offloading it to the software devs for analysis. Ten years later, the tests were all automated, and ran 24/7 but favored the evening hours when electricity was cheaper. Sometimes, Monroe and I could hear the Tuner in the next room popping on and off as it pushed particles from our universe into the infinite void.
They came back changed, and it was up to us to figure out exactly how.
Pylon 18 was running slower than usual that morning, though “top” didn’t show anything out of the ordinary. I finally figured out it was the disks. Despite having SSDs in a RAID array, the network throughput was overwhelming the file system, slowing down the entire server. I changed into the newest directory and watched a tar.gz file grow with every refresh.
Tests typically generated between 6 to 8 gigabytes of data per Pylon, but the archive file I was watching was already well over three hundred gigs. At five hundred it split (what developer saw that scenario coming?) and began writing a new file.
By the time Monroe returned with his coffee, Pylon 18 had sixteen archives, comprising just over 7.3 terabytes of data.
“Sweet Lady Gaga,” said Monroe, as an alert flashed on his screen. “You seeing this? Pylon 17 just absorbed an 8 terabyte dump. I didn’t know it could take a punch like that.”
“Yeah,” I told him. “18 just got the same. What the hell happened overnight?”
Monroe had no idea, and there was nothing in the logs, but as we began to comb through the data, certain anomalies began to emerge. We shared the same general library of scripts, but Monroe and I were always trying to outdo each other when it came to making a discovery. I ran my scripts, setting off a dozen of them in unison now that the server was running faster.
“Offset,” said Monroe.
I tabbed through my screen session until I found the offset script. It was generating a rudimentary scatter plot with standard deviations showing all of the harmonic offsets from previous tests.
Harmonic offsets aren’t hard to understand if you think of them in terms of piano keys. In the middle of the keyboard, A is defined at 440 Hz. One half-step up is B-flat at 466.2 Hz. Think of the keys as universes. A tone in universe A vibrates at 440 times per second. In universe B-flat, it vibrates at 466.2 times per second. If you could reach into a grand piano and deform the string, you could push the A key into the B-flat range.
That’s essentially what the Tuner does. It deforms the harmonic frequency of matter, pushing it from our dimension to another.
“Someone keyed this in wrong,” said Monroe. “I thought offsets were supposed to be plus ones.”
We’d figure this all out later, but what we were seeing at the time was a scatter plot of harmonic offsets between 1 and 1,000. On the very left of the graph, as an obvious outlier, was the offset from the previous night’s test.
“That’s…” I had to pause to do the math, but I wanted to start talking before Monroe shouted out the answer. “Two by ten to negative sixteenth power. That’s almost nothing.”
If it helps, you can think of a tiny–nearly microscopic–key between the A and B-flat key on the piano. You can’t see it, and God only knows how you’d press it, but it does produce a tone that is distinct–at some level–from the A.
I looked over at Monroe; he was staring back at me, some kind of freakish smile on his face.
“I want to send the email,” he said.
“We don’t even know what we have yet,” I reminded him. “Just because someone fat-fingered the offset doesn’t mean the experiment worked. It could just be an anomaly.”
Monroe stood and walked to the interior window. He stared at the Tuner in the other room.
“No, it’s not an anomaly. It’s like just like I said. The offset was too high. They were pushing too far too fast.”
That got me laughing. “Like you knew.”
“I’m the smartest motherfucker you know, and I saw this shit coming a mile away. White people and their manifest destiny mindsets can’t settle for anything less than a grand slam. But you know what, man? Sometimes a single is all you need. Bunt that shit, and go from there.”
“We should really wait for the scripts to run. Let the computers tell us if there’s anything worth passing on to the suits.”
Monroe shook his head. “Thirty-six Pylons. Six to eight terabytes each. Two hundred and fifty terabytes total. That’s gonna put us into overtime. What are we gonna tell them when their results don’t show up in their inboxes at COB?”
He had a point. If Rubens had truly broken through to a new dimension, it wasn’t something we wanted to sit on. The prospect of raising a false alarm was nil in the face of the greatest discovery our universe had ever known.
“Let’s see where we are in a couple hours,” I said. “If anything looks promising, you can send out the email.”
“Fuck yes. I’m gonna bring the other Pylons online.”
I left him to his work and started thinking about the day to come. I’d been too excited from the football game the day before to get any real sleep, which meant I hadn’t worked out in the morning like I’d wanted to. My body was tired and already achy.
Sensing a late night, I texted Maisie to let her know she might be on her own for dinner tonight. She wrote back that if I ordered food in, I should get something healthy. I sent her an emoji of pizza and fried chicken.
“The Monroe-Ortega Offset,” muttered Monroe. “Discovery of the century.”
I backed out of the conversation with Maisie and found the thread with Elena below it. I asked her if Angel had watched the game yesterday and whether she finally understood why men loved Jason Witten. She wrote back and implied that I was a homosexual.
On the screen, output from my scripts scrolled in thin columns.
$200. That’s how much I pay in tolls in an average month. $200. That’s how much I would pay per hour for a therapist with my insurance. We’ll come back to these figures later.
There was a time in my life when driving made me extremely angry. Whether it was the slow-pokes in the left lane or the stop-signs-don’t-apply-to-me people, everything everyone did made me throw up my hands and scream. Drivers shouldn’t do that unless you have Lane Keep Assist or a Tesla. My driving motto at the time was I hate you and I hate the way you drive. It got to the point where I didn’t want to drive at all. I tried listening to classical music. I tried to make excuses for other drivers. None of it worked.
Anger became the norm, and I just lived with it.
Then, the other day, I realized that my anger and hatred of other drivers had dulled considerably. Not gone away, mind you, just dulled. Suddenly I couldn’t remember the last time I got really angry in traffic. I started to rack my brain to figure out what had changed. How long ago was my last rage-fueled steering wheel slapping incident?
The answer? Two and a half years ago, right before we moved into the new house. You see, the new house changed my route to work. Instead of driving down surface streets, I now take 45 and MoPac (which is part toll as well). Once I leave my neighborhood, I don’t hit another stoplight until Gateway Plaza on the other side of the city from where I live.
All of this means there is relatively low traffic on a majority of my route. Sure, there are still people who want to go 55 in the fast lane of a 75 zone, but there are plenty of empty lanes on the tollways and it’s easy to get around them.
I didn’t realize how great I had it until last week when I had to go out of my way to gas up my car because Austinites thought the world was coming to an end. The detour required me to drive surface streets back to my house and deal with slow drivers, possibly drunk drivers, buses, construction, last-minute lane changers, stop lights, confusing four-way stops, bicyclists who just don’t give a damn, and so on and so on.
All of the anger came back. All of it.
Over the last couple of years, the topic of reducing our reliance on toll roads has come up as a way to save some money. After last week’s experience, I think it’s pretty clear it’s a wash.
Either I spend $200 a month on tolls, or I spend $200 an hour on therapy.