Lara clutched the stolen envelope firmly to make sure it didn’t slip out of her invisible fingers.
She closed the door behind her and sagged against the building, heart pounding. She was furious with Spiro for getting her involved in a harebrained adventure. She was thrilled at the most exciting thing she had ever done. She was proud of herself and ashamed of herself and scared of going to jail. She wanted to cry and laughed instead.
She looked down at the tufts of weed poking through cracks in the asphalt where her feet ought to be. Being invisible was the best part of the caper but she hoped Spiro’s programming would remove the effect soon. It was going to be hard to move on a city street if no one could see her coming.
She peered around the trash bins and looked down the alley. No one was in sight. Spiro had done what he called a “reconnaissance mission” a few days earlier, meaning he walked around to the back of the store to make sure there were no cameras. Spiro’s invisibility routine was clever but it had no effect on security cameras. Lara and Spiro had solemnly agreed that high resolution video showing her strolling away with the stolen goods would undercut the whole “perfect crime” vibe. Also possibly land both of them in jail.
Lara fumbled to tuck the envelope in her backpack purse, then pulled off the latex gloves by feel and dropped them on the ground beside her, where they instantly appeared out of nowhere as they left the screen that was keeping her out of sight. They looked sad, like deflated cow udder balloons, and perhaps they were filled with fingernail DNA, if that was a thing, so she picked them back up and stuffed them into the purse.
Out of habit she felt around for her hand lotion and squeezed a dollop out into her palm by feel. Rubbing her hands together helped calm her nerves.
She could hear sirens in the distance coming closer. Time to move.
Something wasn’t right. She shook her head, trying to work out why she had a nagging feeling that something was missing as she walked down the alley past the overflowing trash bin behind the diaper delivery service.
It finally came to her: she couldn’t smell her lotion, the distinctive odor of blown out candle that was her long time favorite. She raised her hands and sniffed and smelled nothing.
Strange, she thought. Maybe the propane smell a few minutes before had stunned her nose in some way.
She straightened up, looked out on the main street to be sure no one would run into her by accident, and then walked down the sidewalk briskly. She didn’t want to be late for her next appointment.
The tiny sorcerer looked around frantically, then leaped behind a tiny stone wall and watched the tiny fireball whiz over his tiny head.
“Ow,” said Spiro. The others looked at him. “I hit my hand on the desk when I jumped,” he said. One of his teammates explained briefly about situational awareness, then they bent back over the game.
The situation was dire for the Arrgle team. Two swordswomen dressed in midnight black were advancing towards them, glowing weapons at the ready. The other team’s wizard was preparing another fireball. A transformer was disappearing into a dungeon, presumably to change into a dragon or kaiju or oral surgeon or something equally terrifying.
Spiro waved his hand in front of his face, trying to dislodge the ad that was blocking his view of the game. He looked around the table and said, “We have to make some healing potions. Anybody have any wolf entrails? Anybody have a wolf? Any animals of any kind that might have an entrail? Anyone sure what an entrail is?”
The other players shrugged. One of them made his tiny soldier reach into his Big Bag O’ Holding and pull out a swallow. The three-inch tall soldier held it up to the players around the table with a questioning look. Spiro consulted the potion recipe and nodded in agreement. “Swallow entrails are on the list, as long as it’s an African swallow.”
Kaitlin’s tiny barbarian was flexing her muscles and hitting the ground with her club occasionally. Kaitlin said, “We’re playing the Apple marketing team. We’re engineers, so they’re inferior human beings by definition. This should be easy. Are you sure about this plan?”
Spiro said, “Kaitlin, you have to trust me. I mean, you literally have to trust me. You’re the head of our division and your job depends on believing that I’m roughly the most brilliant programmer in history.” The other two at the table started miming chokes and coughs that sounded quite a lot like “bullshit.” Spiro grinned at them, then turned back to Kaitlin. “That’s why I’m the Sorcerer in the game. And you’re the Berserker – we must have all done type-casting for ourselves when we chose our characters.”
Kaitlin said, “You’re going to make me invisible?”
“You’ll be able to walk right into the Apple camp and swap the fake Holy Hand Grenade for the real one. They won’t know anything happened until they try to use it against us and it explodes into a colorful rainbow of swirling particles that holds them entranced. Then dark and gloomy clouds will gather and vaguely bat-like shapes will swoop down from overhead and gouge out their eyes and reduce them to smoking piles of ash.”
Kaitlin stared at him. “Did you just say the words ‘colorful rainbow of swirling particles’? Wow. You are a very strange person. Who talks like that? Never mind. Go back to the invisibility part. You have to make me invisible in order for my character to disappear in the game? I thought we couldn’t do that.”
“We can’t. There are strict rules against programming for invisibility. I will be deeply ashamed and guilty about it. I wouldn’t even consider it if I didn’t have an understanding division head who will cover for me without hesitation because she’s a co-conspirator. Why, that’s you!”
“Good point. I’ve never been invisible before. Seems a shame to use it for just a game. Maybe we’ll talk later about spying on my husband and stealing art from Sothebys.”
The Arrgle team created a stockpile of healing potions and Staffs Of Almost-But-Not-Completely-Ultimate-Power. The battle that followed began with a very satisfying collection of bloodcurdling shrieks and clanging of swords and volleys of arrows and explosions and . . .
Spiro paused and said, “Volleys of arrows? We don’t have any archers. Does the Apple team have an archer?” The others shook their heads, intent on the tiny combat. Spiro chewed his lip thoughtfully. A game bug? He would have to check the logs later.
. . . and hacking and thrusting and rending of garments and severing of limbs and the unexpected but somehow completely expected appearance of Cthulhu.
Kaitlin said, “Now is the time to send me in. Spiro, do your invisibility dance.”
Spiro left the game and brought up his main command menu and poked at it until Kaitlin faded away, disappearing from tableside along with the tiny berserker in the game.
Kaitlin’s voice came out of the air. “This is so cool!” She called her husband into the home office where she was playing. The others could hear him exclaiming at the oddness of a voice emerging from thin air. A moment later the fake Holy Hand Grenade disappeared from their arsenal as her invisible barbarian took it with her. Less than two minutes later, she said, “I’m done. Spiro, bring me back.”
Spiro gestured, Kaitlin reappeared, the battle was rejoined with cries of anger, carnage, blood, viciousness, the usual fun.
When the other team’s sorcerer came out holding aloft the fabled holy hand grenade. Spiro, Kaitlin, and the other Arrgle players held their breath until the moment when something quite like a colorful rainbow of swirling particles turned into clouds and bats. Much eye-gouging ensued. Four ash piles smoked gently where the Apple warriors had been standing.
The teams grumbled and boasted to each other. The Apple marketers were clearly confused about what had happened. They promised revenge and signed off.
Spiro couldn’t ignore the blinking lantern that appeared to be attached to the stone wall of the dank dungeon surrounding him. He made a mental note to reprogram the dungeon to make the lantern flicker instead of blink. He said, “That’s it for today. I’ve got to get back to work. Are we on for Sunday morning?” The others nodded and winked away.
The game wasn’t over. The teams would leave the tabletop behind over the weekend and meet outdoors with avatars matching their miniature counterparts. Each person would switch on a game filter that would make their neighborhoods look like a collection of decaying Gothic mansions, trees dripping with lacy lichen, mist clinging to the ground. Sword fights were impractical since some of the players were in different cities. Instead the players would scamper about, crouching behind crumbling stone walls, sprinting for cover behind a rotting log, peering out long enough to aim spells and launch fireballs.
Since none of that was visible to anyone who wasn’t running the same game, the players appeared to be cavorting about and waving their arms due to some horrible muscular disorder or possibly severe alcoholism. But no one took any particular notice. It was commonplace for people to be inhabiting private worlds visible only to them, even when they were in the outside world, and the polite thing was not to pay attention.
– – O – –
Spiro stared at the trampled grass and scorched castle walls on the tiny battleground for a moment, then said, “Yo Arrgle.” The borders of his vision got the familiar shimmer that meant his system was waiting for instructions. He said, “Turn on the office. ”
The dungeon disappeared. He was sitting in a tastefully decorated 12 foot square office, with a swivel chair behind an executive desk that was exactly the same size as the battlefield a moment before. There was a picture of his wife Lara on the desk, along with a picture of Milford Sound in New Zealand, which he had never visited in real life. He had read once that successful people should have an aspirational picture on their desk. Spiro decided a travel picture would be easier to explain to Lara than a picture of a rare comic book, although Lara would have understood the comic book. She had known him a long time.
The office had generic framed pictures and a window on one wall that looked out over a vineyard and creek. Insects buzzed gently outside. A bird chirped occasionally. The feeling in the office was bucolic and peaceful, so conducive to focusing that Spiro found it incredibly distracting. He said, “Yo, Arrgle, turn off all background.”
Now he saw the reality of the room without any special effects. Almost every home had a room or two like it for augmented reality – a square room with bare walls, no windows, a plain table in the middle of the room with one chair, and cameras in each corner. The images of photos on the desk and the pictures on the wall were gone. The standard size and layout meant the servers could create the appearance of several people in the same place, stitching each person’s feed together so a work group could appear to be sitting at a conference room table, or a classroom could have rows of desks filled with students, with no visual artifacts to disturb the illusion.
Within a few seconds, an advertisement appeared on one wall for cheap packages to decorate bare rooms. There were almost always at least a few ads that couldn’t be turned off. Spiro was frequently frustrated that the advertising AI wasn’t as smart as the tech companies promised. He shrugged. Not his department.
And the notification light was still flashing on the wall. Now it looked like an LED instead of a lantern but it was still impossible to ignore. Spiro swiped at the notifications. His boss at Arrgle, Barry, had been trying to reach Spiro for twenty minutes. An emergency? Unlikely, thought Spiro. Probably more annoying chores, trying to make Spiro’s life a bit more miserable. For the thousandth time, nay, the ten thousandth time, Spiro wished there was a way to change his chain of command so he wouldn’t be in Barry’s department. But Spiro would endure working with Barry if necessary to let him keep writing SML code. He loved writing SML code.
Spiro thought for a moment and said, “Yo Arrgle, turn on the tiki bar.” The table became a bamboo bar, tiki statues appeared in the corners, and the lighting dimmed to match the tiki torches. A drink shaped like a coconut with a jaunty umbrella rested nearby. Spiro smiled. He hadn’t used the tiki bar for a while. He knew Barry would hate it. Spiro chose to appear to be dressed in a hula skirt, just for the hell of it, and punched the floating reply button to connect to Barry.
– – O – –
Barry appeared across from Spiro on the other side of the bamboo bar. Arrgle’s servers tried without much success to match up the edges where the tiki bar blurred into Barry’s office background. Barry stared around at the tiki bar, shook his head, muttered “Cute,” and let his body slump to convey the burden of being an Arrgle manager and specifically Spiro’s manager.
Barry was trying to look threatening, although the effect was more like the expression of someone with a familiar but still difficult stomach disorder. “Where the hell have you been?”
Spiro said, “Aww, I missed you too. I was in a meeting with Kaitlin. It ran long.”
Kaitlin was Barry’s boss. As always, he looked as if it was a personal slight that he had been left out of a conversation. “Anything I should know about?”
Spiro enjoyed seeing Barry’s discomfort. Spiro and Kaitlin got along famously, which interfered with Barry’s plans to terrorize Spiro. “Just going over some details so marketing and PR can finish their SML presentation next month. We’ll probably work on it some more this weekend.”
“Should I sit in?” Barry asked.
“You would need to bring your own sword,” Spiro said. He relented when he saw Barry had no idea what he was talking about and said, “No, no worries, it’s all routine.”
“Routine? Nothing about this is routine,” Barry shot back. “You’re in so far over your head you can’t even see that the ice is cracking on this project.”
Spiro frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“If there’s ice, then I couldn’t get in over my head. How would I get under the surface? I would have plenty of time to get out before it froze over. Unless I fell in an ice fishing hole. Did I fall in a hole?” He stopped when he saw Barry’s expression but then couldn’t resist. “Barry, I’m concerned for your well-being. There are little heat lines emanating from the top of your head. That might be why the ice is melting.”
“Shut up!” Barry clearly wanted to do more shouting but wrestled himself back to spitting out sentences through clenched lips. “Shut. Up. You’re going to take the fall for the bugs in this project. It’s not ready. I’m going to make sure everyone knows who was responsible for every mistake and side effect.”
Spiro had come up with the key ideas behind new technology that could change what people smelled. He had presented it to Barry a year earlier and Barry had immediately understood that it would be an important project for the company and had the potential to change the world, which is why it made him so angry that Spiro had conceived it and would get the credit.
“Now, now, be calm, find your quiet place. We’re past that now. I’ve got most of the syntax working properly – chocolate smells like chocolate now instead of barbeque grills, that was weird. And I’ve gotten most of the bugs out of the location triggers. We can get people smelling apple pie when they get near a bakery, no real pies needed. And we can trigger smells system-wide, if there’s some reason to do that, which is a little hard to imagine.”
Barry seethed. “You can’t think this will roll out smoothly. Just testing it might cause some unexpected public health crisis.” Spiro looked at him impassively, waiting for the fit to pass. Barry gave up. “Never mind. Marketing and legal are going to be talking about the timetable for public testing. What do you think?”
“Definitely ready sometime between next week and six years from now, possibly never.”
Barry made a strangled noise. “You’re a pain in the ass, you know that, Spiro?”
“Yeah, but I’m the best programmer you’ve got. And you secretly love me, so I know you’re wrestling with that, too.”
Barry looked disgusted, reached up in the air for his command menu, and disappeared.
– – O – –
Spiro closed the game logs with a frustrated sigh. He still didn’t know why arrows were flying during the tiny battle. He shut down his computer with a wave of his hand and the monitor and keyboard winked out.
He pushed back his chair and went downstairs to where Lara was preparing dinner. Spiro’s AR automatically synced with hers so they saw the same effects. Most people did that in shared living spaces. It was confusing to have conversations when one person saw a painting on the wall and the other saw a window looking out on a lake. Or Mars, or a monster truck rally – people had unpredictable taste.
Spiro and Lara rarely changed their decor. The floor was real wood, the comfy sofa looked quite a lot like the real comfy sofa, although an effect made it look a bit newer than the real thing and the stain from the popcorn butter didn’t show. Some of the art was real, some came from an impulse purchase years earlier when they saw an ad for a virtual art collection with a 25% off coupon. The window was a real window and looked out on the real tree-covered hills outside San Rafael in their quiet neighborhood.
Spiro happily breathed in the aromas of lemon and garlic and butter. He gave Lara a kiss on the back of the head as she bent over the stove, a spatula in each hand, focused like a drummer playing complicated polyrhythms. He said, “Hi sweetie. That smells amazing! What are you preparing?” He could see the recipe floating above the stove along with ads around it for cooking shows, exotic ingredients, and an ad for antacid tablets, which seemed kind of rude.
Lara looked up and said, “Chicken piccata. With real piccatas. Mmm, you look sexy in a very peculiar sort of way.”
Spiro looked down. He was still dressed in a hula skirt. “Like it? A little something special I put on to excite you.” He reached up to his command menu and switched off the outfit, going back to the jeans and quarter zip that he was wearing in real life. “Actually, I had a meeting with Barry a couple of hours ago and thought if I dressed up special he would like me more. He reacted as if I was trying to provoke him, a thought which, of course, had never crossed my mind. I was shocked and disappointed that my effort went unrewarded. Anyway, he’s in a troubled mood lately. This project makes him uncomfortable.”
Lara shot him a questioning look. “What is it with this project? It seems to have everybody on edge. When are you going to be able to talk to me about it?”
“I don’t know,” Spiro answered. “My guess is a few weeks before I can say anything to anyone, and even then you’ll have to sign an NDA. Until then I’m bound by eldritch blood oaths of secrecy. You have to take it on faith that I’m a hero and the smartest programmer on the block and the master of the universe.”
Lara gave him a loving smile. “Yes, dear. In your dreams, all those things are true. Go away so I can finish dinner. Look at recipes – it’s your turn tomorrow.”
Spiro retreated to his den with Foobar, their pet spaniel, hopping along behind him on his three legs, hoping for a lap to jump into.
– – O – –
The den was a windowless vault lined with neat boxes and bookshelves. There was a small stack of comics on the coffee table waiting to be cataloged, transferred into acid-free bags, backed with cardboard, and filed in the right boxes. Oh, and possibly Spiro would read them along the way, very carefully, making sure not to crease the cover or tear a page.
Spiro didn’t know he was a comics collector when he was ten years old. He just felt that it was important that he buy every issue in each series he decided to follow, and store them in neat piles in drawers in his childhood bedroom. He had always instinctively observed the three cardinal rules: never write in a comic book; never fold a page; and never, ever let your mother throw away your old comics. It had evolved from a childhood habit to a hobby and eventually an obsession.
He breathed deep, luxuriating in the familiar smell of ink, the acid odor of decaying paper wafting up from older titles, and the distinctive scent of the China clay coating used after 2000. Sniffing the air brought back memories of walking into comic shops when he was a kid filled with wonder and anticipation.
Collecting is a gentle madness. It crosses over into veneration of objects – comics, books, paintings, stained glass windows – more for their place in the collection than for anything mundane like what they actually say or what they look like.
A week earlier Spiro had been talking about the passion of collectors with Livre, the young clerk at Cataclysm Comics in downtown San Rafael. The store had recently expanded again and a dozen people were browsing on a Saturday afternoon.
“I’m kind of weirded out by how popular this stuff is,” she confided to Spiro. “It’s almost all available online. Better quality, too. I mean, look at this.” She reached up to her command menu and opened a copy of Marvel Interior Dialogues #42 and shared it with Spiro so he could see it floating above the counter. She zoomed in. “See? That’s way more detailed than the paper copy. And cheaper.”
Spiro thought for a moment. “You’re a youngster. I’m an old man of 36 and I remember what things were like before AR. A lot of these people are here for the same reason I am – nostalgia for physical objects. I read comics on a computer when I was in grade school but it wasn’t the same as sitting in my room with magazines that I could touch.”
Livre chuckled. “That was a long time ago, grandpa. There are a lot of things that people did back then that you’ve probably given up by now. I doubt if you’re driving a car or sending text messages with your thumbs.”
Spiro nodded. “There is an emotional component to ownership of physical items. My father was a book collector. He would spend hours every week scouring sale listings to fill holes in the collection that only he could see. I would ask him about a random book on the shelf and he would light up and immediately be able to tell me everything about the publishing history and how many copies were printed and show me the author’s signature. Then he would go back to moving the books around on the shelves in a pattern that only he knew. Because in the end a collector can really only talk to another collector.”
Livre gestured around the shop. “All these people didn’t have book collecting fathers. Wait a minute, maybe they did. Are these all your brothers and sisters?”
“Mom and dad loved each other very much, and quite often.” Livre snorted. “No, there’s something else. I work on augmented reality for Arrgle. It has obviously had a huge impact on the world – it’s how we communicate and get entertainment and even dress ourselves.” He gestured at the outfits that he and Livre appeared to be wearing. “But an increasing number of people are rediscovering the importance of physical objects. Touching something in the real world has a different emotional impact than something that we see and hear as a result of waving our hands around, no matter how real something appears to be in AR.”
Livre nodded. “Yeah, I get that, I guess. God knows we sell a lot of comic books. Seems like more all the time.”
“Hobby collecting is back on the upswing,” Spiro agreed. “That’s not all. Sales of high end clothes are increasing – real clothes, not purchases in wardrobe apps. Grocery deliveries are down because more people are shopping in physical stores so they can evaluate the fruit by touching it.”
Livre said, “Wow, you keep up with this stuff. You work at Arrgle. Are you a billionaire that I should recognize?”
Spiro put a fierce expression on his face and looked around. “Damn! Where’s my advance team? You’re supposed to have been fully briefed.” He uncrinkled his eyes and turned back. “No, not even a millionaire. But someday when I’m rich and famous, you’ll look back on this day and tell your friends about how you sold me this copy of Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer.”
Livre said, “Oh, I promise, I’ll never forget this moment. At least not today.”
– – O – –
Spiro still had comics that he had bought when he was ten years old. He had kept them in neat piles on the shelves of his childhood bedroom, carefully sorted, with a running inventory in his mind of missing numbers and when the next month’s issues would arrive. Other parents might have worried about a child that carefully straightened a stack of comics when one was knocked askew, but it was accepted as normal behavior in Spiro’s household. The books in his father’s collection were alphabetized and filed by genre and always lined up neatly on the shelves.
The collection was still pristine. Neat grey cardboard boxes lined the den walls, labeled with publisher, titles, and dates (“DC Comics, Gilligan’s Island Of The Dead, 2045-47.”) Shelves with hardcover and paperback reprints were arranged by color and height, which Spiro believed was whimsical. A few framed strips and panels hung on the walls, signed by the artists at comic conventions Spiro had attended in his twenties. And there were special display stands for some of the treasured rarities – the limited edition first issue of a series about Yoruba warrior Irete, this time fighting against climate refugee slavers in the 2040s; an early issue of Marvel’s series about Cory Doctorow as a superhero, signed by the man himself.
Spiro’s father had described visiting used bookstores when he traveled with Spiro’s mom, looking for rare treasures. Today Spiro could get a digital copy of almost any collectible comic with a few clicks. That was sufficient for many people but it left Spiro with a nagging dissatisfied feeling and he frequently wound up buying the paper copy of the same comic to make his collection complete. And he haunted comics stores, especially Cataclysm Comics, which had earned a national reputation for the surprising rare comics that could be found in its stacks.
Like any collector, Spiro was haunted by holes in the collection that only he could see. No one would ever know that he didn’t have issue number 2 of Pandemic Ninja, but he felt it like a missing tooth.
Lara’s chat icon popped up in the corner of his vision. He tapped on it. She said, “I hate to interrupt if you’re doing something important like saving humanity or reading Comic Crap” – he could always hear the uppercase letters – “but dinner is ready. Set the table or we’re eating with our hands again.”
Spiro said, “Yo, Arrgle, turn off the den lights,” as he headed for the door.
“You’re fourteen now,” Lara’s mom said. “Shall we make an appointment for your Arrgle shot?”
Lara looked up from her phone and pretended to be bored. “Yeah, whatever.”
Her mom knew better than to be baited. “No, I can see you’re not interested. Let’s wait until a better time, like when you turn 21.”
“Mom!” Lara wailed. “I’m ready, I guess. All my friends have Arrgle already. I feel so stupid with this old phone. It seems like Arrgle bots are pretty cool. They tell me it’s way better than the glasses. It seems so weird to put little machines into my body. Christine’s mom won’t let her get bots because she says they’ll cause scurvy or they’re radioactive or something, she’s a little vague about the details. Don’t you and dad worry about side effects?”
Her mom softened her tone and said, “We feel completely safe. The science says the nanobots are pretty miraculous. I know, strange to think about miniature machines not much bigger than molecules.”
Lara looked impatient and said, “We got all that in biology last year, they clamp onto nerves and send signals directly to the brain, I get it. But isn’t it weird that Arrgle is giving these shots away for free?”
Mom said, “It is amazing, isn’t it? The FDA says the Arrgle bots are literally identical to the Apple bots. Same technology, just running the business differently. Apple makes money by selling expensive tech and locking customers into a walled garden.”
Lara looked down at her Android phone and said, “Yeah, some of my friends can’t message me any more because they have Apple bots.”
“Arrgle is giving away its bots to anybody for free. There will be some ads but so far your dad and I haven’t been bothered by them. Did you see the announcement last month? Apple is changing its bot programming so it works with Arrgle.” She called her husband in the other room. “Honey, what’s the word for the Arrgle standard?”
Her dad came in from the living room. “Beats me. It’s a programming thing. Protocols? Something like that.”
Lara said, “Arrgle is going to be a big deal, isn’t it?”
“If your mom had told me to buy Arrgle stock ten years ago, we would be taking a private jet to our vacation home in Bora Bora. Not that I’m bitter.”
Her mom said, “You should thank me. It’s a constant hassle to find parts to repair a yacht and the air conditioning bills for a mansion would be astronomical.”
”Probably right,” her dad agreed. “Anyway, the early Arrgle investors have probably bought up all the castles with the best views. A lot of people didn’t think anybody would dislodge Apple and Google. But Arrgle might have found a way to take over the world.”
– – O – –
Lara waited in the exam room, with its familiar disinfectant smells. When the doctor came in, Lara said, “I think I’m going to get my Arrgle shot today.”
The doctor said, “Good. It’s great technology. You’ll like it.”
Lara said, “I’ve heard all the ads that say everything is private. Some of my friends’ parents say the bots let the government monitor people’s thoughts. What do you think?”
“Good news – no one can read your mind, with or without bots. But privacy is confusing and sometimes it can seem like the big companies are inside your head. The big tech companies track your location, whether you wear glasses or have bots, because they have to know where you are in order to show you effects when you get someplace. AR tech listens to everything you hear, that’s how you can talk to your friends. And it sees everything you see. Not all of that info is sent to Arrgle but some of it is.”
Lara said, “So nothing is private, right?”
“It takes a little faith but there’s a good chance everything is private. DOPPA has real teeth. You know DOPPA, right?”
“Data Online Privacy Protection Act. We studied it.”
The doctor nodded. “It goes back to the days of the first augmented reality glasses. People freaked out that somebody might have a camera in a bathroom without their consent. So when AR glasses began to catch on, DOPPA came together pretty quickly – the first thing some of the politicians back then had agreed on in a long time.”
Lara said, “So they’re not supposed to watch or listen. Do you think that’s true?”
The doctor said, “It’s been studied to death by everybody and the tech companies are taking it all very seriously. If anybody finds that Apple or Arrgle has recorded even a single sentence or that they’re logging anything you see, they’ll be facing massive fines and maybe even be put out of business. So the tech companies are shutting down everything that analyzes that kind of data. Google is going a bit nuts, since a big chunk of their business was built on sucking up personal data.”
Lara shifted uneasily. “It’s scary. No matter what the rules are today, Arrgle might be working on something different tomorrow. How do we know?”
“That’s part of what we have to take on faith. The bots are permanent.”
“Do you think I should get an Arrgle shot?”
The doctor said, “I can’t give you that kind of advice. You have to decide. But I can tell you that medically I’m not aware of any reason for you to avoid it. And for what it’s worth, virtually all of my patients have gotten the shot already. I got mine last year. That’s why my eyes keep moving to the side – I can see your chart beside your left ear.”
Lara involuntarily looked left. There was nothing there. “Ooookay. I think I’ll get my shot.”
– – O – –
As promised, Lara’s vision was occasionally blurred for the next week as the nanobots swam around her bloodstream and latched onto the right nerves. At some point overnight they finished their work and synced up with the Arrgle network. Lara woke up that morning and a small menu icon appeared to be hanging in the air two feet in front of her, in the upper right corner of her vision. That was nothing new – it was similar to the menu she saw when she put on her Apple glasses. She reached up and tapped the menu and saw the icons that Arrgle had been promoting in its advertising ever since the FDA approval. She could start a chat, turn an AR layer on or off, do a search for AR events like her morning classes, activate an AR keyboard, and more – all with no glasses.
Lara squealed. She couldn’t help it. She wasn’t normally a squealing person but this was fun. She said, “Yo, Arrgle,” and saw the shimmer that meant the system was listening. She tried calling her best friend, the one with her favorite online user name: “Call #adalovelace.”
A friendly woman’s voice that sounded like someone standing off to one side said, “Your contact list is empty. Would you like to call the Computer History Museum?”
Lara said, “Crap. Cancel. How do I import my contacts?”
A disembodied hand appeared in the air and moved toward the command menu as the woman’s voice began to explain how it worked. Lara was fourteen years old so she cut off the tutorial as soon as she got just enough information to know where to start. She began speaking commands and jabbing at the air.
The next time she tried to connect, her friend Siobhan – #adalovelace – appeared in the room full size, apparently standing on the floor next to the bed. Her avatar was modeled on the real Ada Lovelace as she might have looked in her teens if she had worn more comfortable clothes than were common in 1830 and was kind of a badass. “Hey,” said Siobhan. “What are you doing awake? I’m making breakfast. What happened to your avatar? It looks like it went back to the default, the goofy one with the too big smile and no boobs.”
Lara said, “My Arrgle just kicked in. I don’t have glasses on. This is so cool!”
“Right on!” said Siobhan. “About time. You don’t have to worry about your avatar for school, you’ll have cameras, but don’t forget to get it customized for later or Constance will tear you apart.”
“Got it. See you in class.” Lara reached out and disconnected. She instinctively reached for her phone and glasses on the way out of the room, then paused, thought a moment, and left them behind. She wouldn’t need them any more.
– – O – –
Twenty years later, Lara still had misgivings about the Arrgle technology in her bloodstream, but it had stopped being dinner table conversation many years before. Early in their relationship she and Spiro had talked for hours about the effect that AR glasses were having on the world and possible downsides of Arrgle’s nanobot technology. Lara could never get Spiro to share her concern about the social side effects of technology. He had been excited by the programming opportunities and had never lost that enthusiasm.
Lara gazed lovingly at Spiro as he cleared the ex-piccata plates. She had met Spiro in college, then reconnected with him when they both wound up in northern California after graduate school, more by coincidence than design. By that time Lara had been through a short marriage that was inexplicable in hindsight, so she saw qualities in Spiro that she might have dismissed a few years earlier in college. He still had the same look, slightly pudgy but not quite overweight and looks that were on the verge of being handsome without ever making it there. He was frequently oblivious to the world around him, focused on his programming, and had a list of nerdly obsessive interests that were endearing in part because he didn’t try to press them on her.
Mostly, though, Spiro was unfailingly nice. His evenness would occasionally drive her crazy but she had learned that his feelings were sincere and he genuinely loved her, and for the most part that was enough. She sometimes missed the excitement that came along with a bit of danger in a relationship, the flare-ups that come with emotions that are closer to the surface, but those days were behind her. It was good to be married to a nice guy.
Lara had a satisfying career as a marketing executive, currently working with a small cosmetics manufacturer nominally based in Europe. There was an address in Paris and perhaps even an office there but employees were scattered all over the world and manufacturing and packaging was done in Asia. The company’s European identity was largely a branding exercise. Lara and Spiro’s house looked like a delivery truck filled with samples of lotions and skin creams had overturned nearby, some tubes sent to her for testing, some because she had become obsessive about skin care.
Spiro finished the dishes and joined Lara in the living room. The world was filled with immersive AR entertainment – multi-player games with full-size avatars; movies that could be experienced as much as watched by walking around the characters and observing from all angles; audience participation events of all kinds. But Lara and Spiro frequently unwound from work by sitting on the couch and watching a traditional hour of scripted entertainment on a large screen in the living room. They finished an episode of the Great British Bed Racing Show, with very polite contestants pushing beds through an obstacle course, and Spiro made his way to sleep.
Lara loved their routine. Spiro turned in early. She could always join him when the evening called for cuddling, but she was a night owl and frequently ended with a few hours to herself for reading, watching a series that he wasn’t interested in, or going online for research or chat or last minute work. Spiro got up early and had morning hours to himself to work – it was usually work – while Lara slept.
The one thing they almost never did was talk about Spiro’s work. She got what she could about office gossip from him, although he was never good about remembering details about other people’s lives, which was what interested her most. But he strictly observed the prohibition imposed on engineers to prevent them from discussing work projects with anyone, including spouses. Other Arrgle spouses were in the same position, finding out only in hindsight what their partner had been working on. “This app that was announced today? That’s what I’ve been working on for two years.” It wasn’t worth being angry about it. It was just the rules.
Lara absently picked up a test lotion from the side table and rubbed some on her hands. She winced at the scent, “Grilled Onions.” She was baffled by the choice of (for no lotion manufacturer ought to choose, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions.
“Onions?” Lara said out loud in puzzlement. She’d have to send a note to product development. She settled back on the couch and waved her hands to turn on the screen and watch the latest episode of Enderby, the British comedy about a dyspeptic poet implicated in the murder of rocker Yod Crewsey. Strange concept, but the accents were lovely.
Barry had already been in a foul mood on the day of the fateful hackathon.
Internal hackathons were an opportunity for Arrgle programmers and designers to gain backing for their projects. It was also a rare chance to interact with executives and managers outside the normal communication channels.
Barry hated hackathons. A bunch of low level engineers with no context, no understanding of the market, and no appreciation of proper channels, showing their pathetic ideas to product managers and division heads.
Barry was part of the entourage following Kaitlin as she proceeded from one group to the next. The noise level was high in the cavernous auditorium, which looked to Barry like a parody of a science fiction spaceliner, full of overly tasteful swooping curves and too much stainless steel. Rows of desks snaked across the floor, half occupied by people present in real life, half designated for virtual teams from other cities. The only way to tell which teams were virtual was a sign listing the city or country of origin.
Kaitlin eagerly talked to each group, trying to find a diamond in the rough. Barry didn’t see diamonds, he saw coal. She seemed to revel in these things and made an effort to connect personally with the engineers, which seemed pointless to Barry. He expected to be disappointed when women took management positions and Kaitlin was no exception.
Barry’s tolerance for this event had a lifespan of about another ten minutes. At the rate Kaitlin was going, she would finish talking to each group long after everyone in the room was deceased. “Should we move to the next project? Your staff meeting is in about 20 minutes,“ Barry prompted, trying to sound bright and cheerful.
Kaitlin barely glanced in his direction. “My whole staff is here. This is more important.”
Barry nodded and forced a smile and tried to imagine something pleasant like a 16 ton weight falling from the rafters on top of Kaitlin. He looked up and was disappointed to see that there were no rafters. Just like the modern world, he thought, there’s never a 16 ton weight when you need one.
Then he heard something unexpected. He wasn’t sure what hackles were but he was sure if he looked it up, he would find that his hackles were rising. A few steps ahead Kaitlin was saying, “Hi Spiro! Been a little while since we’ve chatted. What do you have for us today?”
Spiro was standing in one of the exhibit spaces. What was he doing there? He hadn’t cleared anything ahead of time.
Spiro said, “I’ve been doing research that extends our nanobots in a unique and interesting way. It’s possible to create and manipulate digital odors with our existing bots, using programming hooks into the olfactory bulb and thalamus. The effect is similar to modification of visual and auditory nerves.” He gestured proudly at the display hanging in the air.
Spiro paused to let Kaitlin catch up.
Kaitlin’s eyes hadn’t quite rolled up into her head while her brain’s processing center went into overdrive, but the look on her face suggested it wasn’t far off.
She said slowly, thoughtfully, “You can change what people smell?”
The managers behind Kaitlin craned their necks to read the proposal over her shoulder. Barry tried to keep his fury from boiling over. He had given Spiro strict orders not to talk about this.
“That’s correct,” Spiro said. “It’s not part of the original specs for the bots. Our sense of smell uses different pathways than vision or hearing to communicate directly with the limbic system. I discovered a way to insert signals into those nerves with our existing mechanisms.”
Kaitlin gestured around the room. “If I’m following you, then you’re claiming to have done something that almost everyone in this room would tell me is impossible. Is that right?” Spiro nodded happily. “Is Apple working on anything like this?”
“Not to my knowledge. I’ve done some things that aren’t in the literature. We might be able to manipulate taste and touch too, but I’ve run into roadblocks with those so far.”
Kaitlin focused on Spiro. “Don’t go into the details right now, let’s just assume the technology works. Tell me your thoughts about applications and revenue potential.”
“I call it SML, Sensory Markup Language. It can tap into all the usual AR context, like where you are and who and what is nearby. Using SML, we can then add smells when the right conditions exist. If you are walking across the street from a baker, we could trigger fresh bread odors that would grab your attention and lure you into the store. And the bakery would pay for that.”
Kaitlin studied the diagram, then turned her attention back to Spiro, eyes narrowed with laser-like intensity. Spiro was in the zone where everything else fades away and the only thing remaining is the presentation: finding the right words to be convincing, judging the mood of the audience, anticipating objections, telling everything but leaving them wanting more. He gave his pitch, answered questions, described marketing opportunities and flooded their senses with smells of new cars, sweet roses, and cinnamon buns, because of course there had to be cinnamon buns.
Kaitlin made eye contact with Barry and her heads of product, marketing, and legal. “This is extraordinary. It could be a huge differentiator in the market. There is synergy with our other products, it uses tech that’s a step ahead of Apple, and I can already see huge revenue potential.”
Kaitlin turned to Barry and said, “Why am I just seeing this now?”
Barry had been distracted by a difficult problem: if he tied Spiro in a canvas bag and dropped him in Lake Tahoe, what kind of knot would be best to keep the bag closed? He tried to collect his thoughts. “We wanted to get a compelling demo together and this seemed like the best forum,” he lied.
Kaitlin cocked her head and stared at him for a minute as if she wished there was time for a few followup questions, then let it pass and swung into action. “We have more due diligence to do, of course, but I’m going to make this Level Zero priority, with Maximum Confidentiality. You’ll be Tech Lead/Manager.”
Barry tried to conceal his dismay. Nothing was higher or more urgent than Level Zero. The designation guaranteed long work weeks and lost weekends. And there were elaborate security rules for MC projects – Maximum Confidentiality – so too many hours would be spent working at the office instead of at home. Spiro had just shut down Barry’s social life for the foreseeable future.
His mental checklist had two items: (1) act like a loyal soldier and try to find a way to profit from this debacle, preferably at someone else’s expense; and (2) refrain from leaping on Spiro and attempting to stuff his digital presentation down his throat, despite the tremendous personal satisfaction it would give him, because being incarcerated would make the first checklist item more difficult. He tried to sound enthused. “I’m on it. The two of us will work up a draft of a first product document.” He looked at the other members of the staff. “I’ll need each of you to name somebody to our MC group.”
Kaitlin was looking at Spiro, obviously still coming to grips with the enormity of what she had seen, and spoke dismissively to Barry. “I’ll expect updates in my staff meetings. You’ll get whatever resources you need.” She spun and left, the rest of her entourage trailing behind her.
Barry hissed at Spiro, ““We’ll talk about this later. I can’t believe you did that to me.”
Spiro looked puzzled and shrugged.
– – O – –
Barry was a corporate pro. He was so mad he was mad about being mad, but he cycled appropriate expressions on his face – engaged, happy, thoughtful, an occasional moue of discontent at particularly useless pitches – as the hackathon went on interminably. He decided it was possible time was moving at a different speed for him than everyone else, as no one appeared to be aware that years were passing inside the auditorium with nearly infinite slowness.
Even the acronyms irritated him despite all his years in the corporate trenches. Spiro’s “Sensory Markup Language” was too cute by half, but no programmer nerd could resist a pun like “SML.” Barry thought the whole thing stank to high heaven. Then he realized that thoughts about “stinking” were just buying into the whole SML joke and it made him even angrier.
When he was finally able to escape, he stalked out into the landscaped park where employees could have lunch when they were onsite. It was the ultimate tech industry perk to have a garden with real plants and flowers, although Barry suspected some enhancements were at work – the birdsong was a little too cheerful, the bees were perhaps too picturesque. Barry kicked the discreet ad for running shoes down at grass level at the beginning of the walking path. His foot passed through it and he kicked a lovely real flower behind the AR sign instead.
Barry had been working with Spiro for several years, ever since he had stolen the job as department manager. He knew Spiro was a good programmer but Barry didn’t trust the programming language that Spiro had come up with to make people smell odors that weren’t really in the air. Barry couldn’t imagine that it could ever be polished up to the level of reliability that would be required.
The ethics of Arrgle’s business were starting to weigh on Barry, too, especially after the strange events that had ended his marriage a few years earlier. It was hard to ignore the steadily increasing number of reasonably normal people who were drifting away from reality. Changing what consumers smelled – that would be like catnip for advertisers who were always looking for another way to fool consumers into buying their products. Apparently Arrgle would be able to make the marketing pitch literally smell like catnip, or fine scotch, or whatever would make advertisers sign up. The point was that adding another level of unreality to people’s lives did not seem wise.
He thought, “Crap! I told Spiro to keep a lid on this. And he went to a goddamn hackathon with it? For the last couple of months he’s been looking smug and not breathing a word about being a venomous little snake. It should have been me presenting this to Kaitlin and getting the credit for it. It was his idea and he did the programming but I’m the goddamned manager, this should have been mine.”
As Barry walked to burn off steam, he thought about his options. Everything about this project bothered him. This was going to put him personally at risk if the SML project collapsed in a heap of Congressional investigations and finger-pointing. And it was clear he was going to be stuck working with Spiro for the foreseeable future – Spiro, harmless Spiro, lovable Spiro, the quintessential pudgy oblivious nerd, everybody loves them, right? Pah.
Barry went back inside and found Spiro chatting with other engineers. He put on a fake smile and broke in to say, “Spiro, could we have a word? Let’s grab one of the private rooms. Now.” He spun and headed for one of the glass doors where a room was unoccupied.
As Spiro made his way over, Barry swiped through the command menu to launch his IntimidatarPro app, dialing it up to 8. It made him taller, wider, with thicker eyebrows for better scowling, and gave him a subtle red aura. It was a little old-fashioned – it had been over-used by managers, HR, and baristas who were tired of backtalk – but it matched his mood.
Spiro looked bemused when he walked in. “What’s up?”
“What the froomb, Spiro? We talked about this. Under no circumstances were you to talk to anybody about SML. My judgment – me, your boss, remember? – is that there is too much risk to escalate this to the rest of the company yet. The tech on it is nowhere near ready. Just working on this by yourself might have already put us in jeopardy – we should have gotten a private opinion from Legal long ago. I thought we still had some time. This puts us – you, me – in the line of fire for all the blame if this goes sideways. Now look at what you did. A Level Zero MC!”
He stopped. Spiro’s attention was elsewhere. “Are you even listening to me?”
Spiro said, “Sorry, I was trying to see what app you were using. Is it IntimidatarPro? You should consider switching to AngerEnhancer. It’s less obvious and has fewer bugs. Hang on a minute, you’ll like this, it’s an app named YesSir. It targets employees trying to curry favor and husbands who are losing arguments.” He gestured and in a moment he started to appear smaller and his eyes got slightly rounder, making him look just a bit like a cute puppy.
Barry took a moment to express a well-reasoned, thoughtful opinion of goddamn Spiro and the goddamn YesSir app and gently suggested that Spiro pay goddamn attention to what he was saying.
Spiro said, “Barry, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you would react so forcefully. It’s important to have wider consideration of SML. The hackathon seemed like an opportunity to have it considered by higher-level managers. I certainly didn’t intend to undermine your authority.”
“We’ve been working together for, what, 4 years? You’re a talented programmer, but this SML project has the potential to end both of our careers. I think it will cause a new round of regulatory issues for Arrgle, and we’ll end up with the blame. Both of us. I don’t know about you but I have lots of Arrgle stock that I haven’t sold yet, and having it go under water would wipe me out. And who knows what they’ll do to misuse the tech once we give it to them?”
Spiro asked, “Who are ‘they’ in that question? The marketing department? Hackers? The military? Terrorists? The Illuminati? The NSA?”
“You’re missing the point. SML may wind up harming our customers, not helping them.”
Spiro did not look properly abashed. “I think creative programmers will use it to enhance peoples’ lives.”
Barry was almost shouting with frustration. “I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but AR is tearing the world apart. Users can’t believe what their eyes and ears tell them. There’s a new surge in conspiracy theories and downright weird behavior. If we confuse another sense, that could literally tip society over the edge into madness. And we’d be to blame! Remember what happened to Facebook? Meta, whatever? It was a long time ago but it was misinformation that took them down, that’s all. They never even got to AR. And they paid the price!”
“The underlying technology is solid. We just need to keep the product and marketing folks under control so it isn’t rushed out and oversold.”
“You’re almost endearingly naive. You think engineering can keep product and marketing in line?” Barry’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “I’ve seen Kaitlin in action before. She’s just like all women – she’ll let her emotions take over and she’ll be pushing like crazy. You may think you have ‘won’,” he said with scare quotes, “but trust me, you’re going to wish you never learned how to smell in the first place. Go back and get to work on that product doc. I’m going to try to salvage this debacle.”
He stomped off.
Amazed that anybody could stomp in tennis shoes, Spiro shook his head and sauntered back to his cube. This was going to be fun!
VOICE-OF-REALITY sighed deeply and steeled herself to dive into the conspiracy pits on Seenit, the most active online forum. “VOICE-OF-REALITY” was the avatar name she used in the online forums. She wasn’t sure it was accurate but screen names weren’t supposed to mean anything – at least hers wasn’t obscene or a bad pun.
She had spent long fruitless hours over the last few months trying to get information about Arrgle’s product development. The Seenit forums were a last resort, mostly filled with nonsense posted by trolls, but also a place where serious conversations happened. Occasionally Seenit’s anonymity would draw a whistleblower or someone with inside information looking to vent.
She logged in to Seenit and the forum appeared in the room around her. The walls of the room were faded but visible, to keep her from walking into them. Arrayed in front of her was the entrance to the forums, a plain group of what looked like wooden doors with a string leading to each one. She tugged on the string connected to the door with AR-DEBATE on the nameplate. The door swung towards her and passed over her as if she was walking through it. On the other side was a gallery filled with picture frames, each one containing the head and shoulders of avatars who were participating in online chat that evening.
Seenit was intimidating for newcomers – live chats, messages, side conversations, animations, memes, ads, all jostling for attention, splintering and multiplying nonstop.
VOICE-OF-REALITY tended to avoid the live chats. It seemed to be a law of human nature that they would devolve into shouting matches within minutes, almost invariably with a reference to Nazis at some point.
Today she was back in the most active forum devoted to discussion of Arrgle and AR tech as she continued her search for information about Arrgle’s research projects. She tugged on the closest string.
Posted by Truth-Will-Tell 34 minutes ago
An apology to the anti-AR community
I have defended AR here but I was wrong. Arrgle is always listening and recording everything we see. Yesterday I walked by a store selling vintage AR glasses and I thought about buying a pair. Ever since then I’ve been seeing ads for Nintendo glasses everywhere. In my online class last night, it looked like everyone in the room was wearing a pair. It even looked like I had a pair on. I hadn’t said anything to anyone about wanting some for myself. Arrgle must have recorded what I saw in the store window.
Posted by My-Brain-Hurts 32 minutes ago
C’mon, bro, don’t you get it? The bots are attached to your brain, they’re reading your damn thoughts! Happens to me all the time. Arrgle forced me to buy new golf clubs last week, my wife was so pissed, she doesn’t get that Arrgle’s got control of all of us.
Posted by States-Wrongs 31 minutes ago
That’s not quite right. Arrgle can’t read thoughts. It records everything you see and hear and its AI computers analyze it and they can predict exactly what you’re going to do. Then they send subliminal AR signals to make you think you want to buy something. My brother is a professor, he told me all about it – he says it’s not really mindreading but it sure seems like it sometimes.
Posted by My-Brain-Hurts 30 minutes ago
Your brother doesn’t know shit. Arrgle’s in my damn mind.
Conversations like this had been going on for decades. Truth-Will-Tell was less crazy than most of the online voices. She tugged on another string.
Posted by Steamboat’s-Willie 28 minutes ago
Arrgle owns all the politicians. Everyone knows Arrgle records everything the pols do and blackmails them because it has recordings of all the payoffs and weird sex things. That’s why Arrgle doesn’t care about the privacy law – what judge will slam them if Arrgle has a video of the judge having sex with a priest?
VOICE-OF-REALITY grinned. Sometimes it seemed like people’s theories were based on their own secret fantasies. Sex with a priest was an oddly specific example.
Posted by Toad-Sucker 27 minutes ago
I have a friend in the navy whose son says there’s a building in Washington that doesn’t show up on Google Maps. Thousands of people work for the NSA watching the video that Arrgle sends them of what we’re doing all the time. The government has hidden all the evidence – it’s as if those people don’t exist.
Posted by Grok-Me 24 minutes ago
It’s not in Washington, it’s in Virginia, and it’s not the FBI, it’s the military, and it’s not thousands of people, it’s huge server farms that analyze the video and location info collected from Arrgle and store huge databases of where we go and what we do and they use artificial intelligence to predict what we’re going to think and they send subliminal messages with the bots to control us. They disappear people who might be threats to the elite and replace them with AR doubles.
Posted by Professor-Plato 25 minutes ago
Does anyone have a picture of the board in the Arrgle office where employees track our location in real time? Everybody’s saying that paparazzi pay Arrgle employees for inside info so they always know where Prince Quentin is, Lilibet’s kid. My brother was at a 12 step meeting with somebody who works at Arrgle and he said that Arrgle employees have one of those boards in the lunch room and they pick one of us to follow and they bet on where we’re gonna go. If it’s something embarrassing like a massage parlor or a divorce attorney, it’s like bingo – instant winner!
Posted by Quantum-Reality-Whisperer 21 minutes ago
MY reality is not the same as YOURS, and neither of ours are anything like that of the ELITES. AR drives us even FURTHER APART. We must RISE UP and pin our SOULS to reality ONCE MORE. We’re SPIRALING away into the infinities of QUANTUM REGIONS, where we will lose our very LIFEBLOOD and find our SPIRIT seeping away. SPRING into the light! Our QUINTESSENCE is at stake!
Posted by My-Brain-Hurts 17 minutes ago
WTF are you on about? Shut the fuck up. You are a fucking lunatic. I can’t think straight because of fucking Arrgle bots and you’re just fucking me up.
Posted by Moderator 16 minutes ago
Forum policy: Healthy communities are those where participants engage in good faith, and with an assumption of good faith for their co-collaborators. It’s not appropriate to attack your own users.
Posted by My-Brain-Hurts 15 minutes ago
(Comment removed by moderator)
Posted by My-Brain-Hurts 13 minutes ago
Moderation my ass! This is bullshit. How much does Arrgle pay you to control my thoughts? You know who moderated comments? Hitler.
And there it was, right on schedule.
VOICE-OF-REALITY was already bored with browsing. She decided it was time to post a comment of her own, her usual contribution – a tiny voice of sanity, just so she knew she had tried, and an attempt to reach someone who might talk about Arrgle’s internal work on secret projects.
Posted by Voice-Of-Reality 10 minutes ago
I have some Arrgle connections. The bots are always watching and tracking our location. That’s how they work. Nothing new, they’ve been doing that for twenty years. But I’ve talked to Arrgle employees and they all say that the privacy law is really a big deal. I’m not sure Arrgle is recording anything. We would have some proof of it by this time.
Posted by Truth-Will-Tell 8 minutes ago
What kind of Arrgle connections do you have?
Posted by Voice-Of-Reality 7 minutes ago
I can’t talk about my sources.
Posted by Truth-Will-Tell 5 minutes ago
What about the vintage glasses?
Posted by Voice-Of-Reality 4 minutes ago
Same thing happens to me – I see ads that make me think Arrgle is tracking everything we see. I’ve always wondered about that.
Posted by Truth-Will-Tell 2 minutes ago
The only answer that makes sense is the obvious one – they’re always watching.
Posted by Voice-Of-Reality 1 minute ago
What I want to know is, what else is Arrgle up to? Anybody have any leads on what it might be working on in the labs?
Barry’s first wife left him because she saw a ghost. And it was Barry’s fault.
For the brief period of their marriage, Barry had enjoyed showing up at company functions with Tiffani on his arm. She was just what he had thought he wanted, a lovely decoration. It had seemed sufficient that she had blonde hair, high cheekbones, a bright smile, and was willing to have sex with him. Once they were married, he quickly found her tedious to be around and he certainly didn’t have any respect for what she described as a career as a digital manicurist and spiritual advisor. He must have known about her job before they were married during the alcohol-fueled week in Vegas, but he had proceeded anyway, which in hindsight did not reflect well on his judgment.
He had just finished checking himself out in the mirror and was getting ready to go out when Tiffani came in looking upset, cheeks flushed, clearly ready either to cry or be angry. He’d never learned how to tell the difference. He found it usually became clear very quickly.
‘”WTF, Barry? My friend Ambar says she saw you in San Francisco on Monday night when you said you were off on a ‘business trip’ to Minneapolis.” She made exaggerated quote marks with her fingers for “business trip.”
Barry went to a medium level of alert. “I don’t know what she’s on about. I was out of town.”
“She was at Hotel Nikko for the seminar about how to get rich buying and selling custom avatars. You were getting on the elevator. Ambar’s met you, she knows what you look like. She’s seen you in plenty of pictures. She’s been following my Instagram feed ever since you and I hooked up.”
“Was she drinking? Maybe she was drinking. Where did you say this happened? Nickel Hotel? Never heard of it.”
For some reason that seemed to make Tiffani more irritated. “Jesus, Barry, no, she wasn’t drunk, she was there because she’s going to be rich soon, of course she’s going to stay straight. Maybe they were giving away champagne for the seminar but this was early. At most she would only have had a couple of.” Tiffany stopped, held up her hand, shook her head. “That doesn’t matter. You know the hotel, Hotel Nikko, right in the middle of downtown San Francisco. You were getting on the elevator and you didn’t see Ambar because you were totally focused on a blonde woman with a short skirt and big boobs and fuck-me shoes.”
Barry moved to a much higher level of alert. He put an interested expression on his face. “What are ‘fuck-me shoes’?”
“High heels, like the black ones with the ankle strap that I wore when we met for the first time on Tindar, you told me to keep them on even though we weren’t meeting in person, they tore my sheets, I don’t think I ever told you that. And then I have a beige pair, not really beige, more like tan, I wore them to dinner at, hold it.” She looked vexed with herself. “Stop it! Was that you at the hotel?”
Barry did some quick thinking. It would only take a minute for Tiffani to contact Ambar and have her appearing to stand beside them, pointing her finger at Barry and saying, “J’accuse!” Better to head that off.
He put on his most serious expression and leaned in as if he was about to divulge secrets. “Sweetie, this puts me in a difficult spot. You know I can’t tell you about my work. But nothing is more important than having you trust me, so I’m going to tell you about a hush hush project.”
Tiffani couldn’t stop herself from looking interested. Barry went on, “I’m doing some programming on a secret research project. It’s ultra-confidential.” He chewed his lip. “Can I trust you to keep it secret?” Tiffani nodded, eyes wide.
He paused and looked up as if he was trying to make a weighty decision, nodded, locked eyes with Tiffani, tried to look honest and trustworthy, took a moment to congratulate himself on the quality of his performance.
“Okay, if you’re sure. The scientists have found that paranormal activity is real. Under the right conditions, people with AR nanobots can see ghosts. Real ghosts, not special effects. Kind of like avatars but nobody is on the other end, they’re just ghosts. It’s possible that this explains ghost sightings through history. We think some people were sensitive to ghosts before the bots were invented and now somehow the bots increase our visual acuity for the sacred plane.”
He wondered if he was putting it on too thick. Tiffani’s eyes were unfocused as she concentrated. “Are you serious?”
“Super super serious.”
“Wow.” She got to the end of her thought process and lit up. “My god, Barry, I knew it! But I never thought there would be proof. This is unbelievable.”
Barry thought, yup, ‘unbelievable’ is almost exactly the right word. Okay, let’s see if this can be put to bed. So to speak.
“So Ambar is right. I was at Hotel Nikko on Monday. And I was getting on the elevator with Molly. That’s the name of the blonde woman.”
Tiffani started to react but Barry kept going quickly. “Here’s what you have to know. Molly isn’t real. She was murdered by her husband while she was getting dressed in room 1046 back in the 2030s. Her ghost has been wandering the halls of Hotel Nikko ever since. For years people reported hearing a faint voice on the elevator that said ‘Does this look okay? I’m almost ready. Are you sure I look okay?’ Now she’s starting to be visible to people with bots, always dressed in the same short skirt and tight top.”
Tiffany was captivated. Barry pressed on. “The hotel denies it publicly, of course. They won’t even admit they’ve even heard of Molly Barton. If you go to the 10th floor, you can’t find room 1046. The numbers don’t go that high. Everything has been hushed up.”
It almost made Barry a little nervous when he saw how eagerly Tiffani listened as he embroidered more details. She asked, “What happened when you got to the room?”
Barry said firmly, “Nothing! We went into the room and she walked over to the mirror, didn’t see her reflection, looked sad, and dematerialized. I spent the night in the room alone, sitting up in the chair, hoping she would come back. She never showed up. That’s why I was so tired when I got home the next day.”
Tiffani was wiggling with excitement. “That is so cool. You saw a real ghost. I’ve only known one other person who saw a ghost. In high school my best friend blah blah blah and she was carrying her own head under her arm blah blah blah.” Barry was pretty sure that Tiffani hadn’t actually said “blah blah blah” but he couldn’t have proved it either way because that would have required actually listening to her. The only thing that mattered was that he might be off the hook for the night at the Nikko. He had known that he shouldn’t operate too close to home, but the opportunity was there and the intern was so hot that she was like the Shadow, she clouded men’s minds.
– – O – –
A week later Tiffani met him after work with shining eyes. “I’ve been doing some research and OMG it’s amazing, you’re right, and there’s so much more!”
“What are you talking about?”
Tiffani said, “I’ve been talking to people on Seenit who have heard the same thing about ghosts. I talked to one guy who said his friend knew someone who had seen the crying lady in the Dakota apartment building in New York. And a lot of people have been camping and they’ve almost seen hook-handed killers.”
Oh my god, thought Barry.
“There’s another woman who heard that researchers are finding amazing things in suburban housing tracts built on Indian burial grounds.”
“I don’t know what to say. I’m literally speechless. Want to order dinner?”
“And everybody is saying that augmented reality is just a coverup. The government is hiding what’s really going on.
“What’s really going on?”
Tiffani got a pained expression on her face at Barry’s obtuseness. “Nobody knows for sure because the government is covering it up with AR. You got that, right?”
Barry quickly ran through his entire life to that very moment, trying to identify the sequence that led to him being in a room with a woman who talked like this so he could make a mental note never to do it again. He knew better but he couldn’t stop himself from asking, “Who says this stuff?”
“Everybody. I found the nicest people on Seenit. You know Seenit, right, the forums?”
Barry said drily, “I’ve heard of it, yeah. They’re talking about ghosts? I wouldn’t have expected that.” He really wouldn’t have expected that. He thought he made it up.
“Until I came on I guess not very many people had heard about using AR to see ghosts but they were so excited when I told them!” Tiffani looked concerned. “I know you said I wasn’t supposed to talk to anybody about the paranormal research but I didn’t give any details and I didn’t say that you work on AR, at least not directly. A lot of people felt like what I was saying made perfect sense and a bunch more people joined our chat room and they talked about a lot of super interesting things that I didn’t know about like the city that disappeared and buildings that you can’t see and how all the politicians are avatars and they’re going to tell me more and there’s a chat tonight and it might have already started and I have to go, you can order dinner, I’ll have whatever, bye.”
She disappeared into the AR room and closed the door.
Barry stared at the place where her eyes had been, wondering if there had ever been a brain behind them or if it had always been empty space.
– – O – –
Barry could tell that Tiffani was disappointed in him. She would describe something she had seen online, she’d be filled with excitement, and his flat response would cause her to deflate. As the weeks went by, she brought less and less to their conversations.
Which was a relief, because Barry thought what she said was complete nonsense. He couldn’t bring himself to look interested in conversations about the secret military operation that destroyed Palm Beach in Florida and replaced it with an exact duplicate, including replicas of the people. He almost felt bad asking questions. Almost. He didn’t have enough respect for this stuff to care. “Did they create replicas of the Burmese pythons? Because those were a big problem down there. Do the AR snakes eat the AR dogs?”
Tiffani pouted and eventually stopped talking to him. She started having dinner early and disappearing into Seenit behind a closed door when he got home. There were more nights when she wasn’t home and gave no explanation when she turned up, barely looking at him.
He walked in one day and Tiffani was sobbing on the couch. He sat by her and tentatively reached out and asked what was wrong. Tiffani tearfully explained that she was worried that her soul drops had already been harvested. She had a yearning look on her face, clearly hoping he would offer sympathy. He just couldn’t do it. He muttered, oh for gods sake, and moved away, leaving her looking hurt and lost.
So it was no surprise on the day that he opened the door and saw her suitcases and piles of clothes and bags of toiletries. He found her in the bathroom packing mystery vials and tubes. He wondered again why there were so many little containers of goo. Sometimes it had seemed like each and every one had needed to be opened and dabbed or brushed or smoothed on before they could leave the apartment. Amazing. “What’s going on?”
“I’m leaving. I’m growing and I don’t think you can handle it.”
Barry guessed that he would handle it just fine, although she might object to clinical words he would use like “devolving” or “brain melting.”
He was curious. “Is there someone else?”
She looked smug. “You think you’re so smart, you probably won’t believe me. I’ve been learning a lot of things from a ghost.”
“Really,” Barry drawled. “How does that work exactly? Is it an online ghost?”
“Oh no, he’s a real ghost. Remember how you met Molly? I’ve been meeting Stefan and he’s been teaching me about the way the government is using AR to cover up the alien invasion.”
“The alien invasion? Huh. And Stefan is a ghost?”
“He died five years ago in the secret labs under Lake Superior. But his spirit isn’t linked to one place so he can go anywhere. We’ve been meeting at the Amazon Marriott.”
“Uh huh. And he’s a ghost?”
“I told you, yes, he’s an ectoplasmic spirit. But everybody can see him so he gets a room like everybody else, that way he doesn’t have to worry about frightening anyone.”
“Does he have any substance? Does your arm pass right through him? Can he lie on top of the bed without falling through it? Are you guys having sexy seances?”
Tiffani reddened and turned back to filling her bags. “That is none of your beeswax! And his body is quite solid, thank you very much!”
Barry stopped for a minute. Offhand he couldn’t think of any reason to stop her from leaving. Obviously she was being scammed but he couldn’t save her and didn’t particularly want to. He shook his head and went in to do routine paperwork, locking down bank accounts so she only had access to enough money that it wouldn’t be embarrassing if there was a court battle later.
Tiffani’s departure was a bit of a relief and caused far less disruption than the kerfuffle at Apple about his affair with the intern. Fortunately it led to a confidential settlement with Apple and no one pressed charges. He wound up in a better job at Arrgle, with no Tiffani and no interns threatening lawsuits. Sure, he had a woman for a boss, but he knew that if he played his cards right, he’d be in her job someday. Something would happen that reflected poorly on Kaitlin. It didn’t matter what that was as long as he was ready to take advantage of the opportunity – and as long as nothing could be traced back to him.
Spiro woke up early the next morning, ignored the ads in the mirror while he was shaving. Brylcreem? Really? Did everything have to be retro? He left for the office after giving Lara a kiss which she might or might not remember when she woke up three hours later. It had been nearly a year since the hackathon and Spiro was obsessed with finishing his code and squashing bugs.
Arrgle had a local office in San Rafael, one of many Arrgle office buildings around the world. Most Arrgle employees could work from home and many chose to stay in their home offices most of the time. There was no way to distinguish where someone was in an AR meeting, San Rafael or Austin or Zurich – every location was blended to fit seamlessly together and look identical.
Still, many employees came to the office at least occasionally, just as they had been doing in between each pandemic for thirty years. In-person office chat fulfilled an important social need for many people, and there was an undeniable synergy that came from running into people casually in the halls or elevators. It was common to be brushed by someone’s outstretched hand as they checked without thinking to see if you were real or virtual while you chatted.
Spiro had a more important reason to work at the office. Arrgle was obsessed with security. When Kaitlin made SML an MC project – “Maximum Confidentiality” – everything about the project came under the company’s highest security levels. SML programming could only be done inside the physical office network, sitting at a physical monitor and keyboard, with multiple security checks. Barry and Spiro had known right away that they would be spending less time at home and more long hours at the office.
Spiro pulled open the door of the Arrgle building, which appeared to be an historic 1940s brick building in downtown San Rafael. The illusion didn’t last long as he walked into the lobby, a sleek contemporary timeless design with tasteful landscape watercolors that might or might not really be on the walls. The distinguishing characteristic was the absence of ads; Arrgle offices were some of the very few locations in the world where the ad layer was suppressed, a relaxing change from the nonstop ads hectoring everyone outside. Once he was safely inside, Spiro looked back at the spaceship that had been badgering him on the sidewalk, advertising some AR series or another. It was hovering outside the glass doors, bumping into them as if it was sad that it couldn’t get in. Spiro turned and walked toward the security checkpoint.
– – O – –
Spiro sat at his desk in the deeply focused programming zone where distractions fade away and the world becomes a complex web of code and symbols. Some programmers imagine that they are like a composer writing a symphony, or an author expanding and revising a complex work, with references and allusions to previous works. Spiro had always felt like a builder designing a castle. He held the entire castle in the air, examining it from all angles, imagining how to add a room to it just there, maybe hallways with rooms, whole wings of the castle, spaces that could be expanded arbitrarily. Then he would lean forward and translate that insight into code as fast as he could type. Spiro shared a quirk with many other programmers – he might not remember people’s names but Spiro remembered details of all the code he had written over the years.
Other people were working on SML now but Spiro still had the deepest knowledge of what made the code work. In his mind, smells were relatively simple. Spiro thought he could probably make people taste things on command someday, too.
Touch, though – that was far more difficult! There were nerves all over the body, inside and out, capable of feeling a wide range of sensations. He had talked to other programmers about creating a programming language for touch. They told him it was impossible, trying to convince him with analogies involving all the grains of sand in all the beaches of the world. Spiro wasn’t sure why it would be helpful to touch all the grains of sand in the world. It was possible he didn’t understand that analogy very well. Anyway, it was a very hard problem.
Scents are well understood down to the molecular level. Organic chemists have been studying the way humans process odors for more than a hundred years. The goal of the SML project was to convince the brain that it had smelled a particular odor just by sending digital signals to tiny nanobots inside the body. Arrgle’s tech would be able to send a subtle perfume just to a particular individual, or send the smell of a particular brand of dish soap to everyone walking down a grocery store aisle, or send the same odor to everyone in a city.
Arrgle had been getting some inconsistent results in tests of the SML technology. In one session, most testers said they could smell cut grass, but a few people reported that they didn’t smell anything special but all the objects in the room had turned blue. Spiro had been working through bug reports like that for months, trying to get everything stable.
Spiro had the tantalizing feeling that he was about to figure out the issue when Barry burst in without warning. “Spiro, I’ve just been going through the open bug reports from last week. This kludgy monster you’ve created is supposed to be ready in a month and I’m not seeing it. Convince me we’re not totally fucked.”
The castle crashed to the floor. The orchestra playing the symphony dissolved into dissonant chaos. Spiro hated being interrupted. Barry knew that; Spiro suspected that was why Barry barged in so often instead of sending a chat notice like everyone else. It always took time to regain the hard-won focus and start to make forward progress again. And this was where mistakes happened.
There was no point in letting Barry get under his skin. Spiro reached out and tapped the command menu and brought up the bug reports. It had been a while since Barry had written production code but he was still a decent code ninja. Barry and Spiro spent the next half hour analyzing the trends, with Spiro trying to convince Barry that they could get it done in a month. They argued and compared progress to previous projects, with screens and whiteboards appearing and disappearing around them as they gestured.
– – O – –
Spiro was surprised when a meeting with the government was set up on short notice. It had only been a couple of days since his Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information classification had come in from the Department of Defense. He felt honored and special to be recognized as a Sensitive and Compartmentalized person but the long bureaucratic exercise had been exhausting.
Kaitlin had told him to apply for high level clearance not long after the SML project had been approved. She made it clear that she didn’t know why senior management was demanding it but she was going through the process herself in addition to Barry and Spiro and several others in their department.
Spiro had spent hours going through dense checklists about his mental health and alcohol habits. He reviewed some of his proposed answers with Lara and she had suggested that perhaps he should pause, take a moment, do some deep thinking, and mull over the remote possibility that government intelligence questionnaires were not a good place to make jokes. After reflection, he reassured her that she was correct, in fact he was not a complete moron, and revised a number of his answers. Then he went through hundreds of entries about arrests, financial delinquencies, military service, alien abductions, membership in organizations that secretly rule the world, fetishes, bribes given or received, affairs past or in progress, relatives kidnapped by foreign powers, and oh so much more.
It was a wonderful thing to have a simple life. Spiro filled out question after question with NONE or N/A and sent in the applications and forms. Apparently there was some reason to expedite the applications because the approvals came in for Spiro, Kaitlin, Barry and the rest within eight months, which he was assured was lightning speed.
He joined the meeting and was introduced to Col. Evander, a military liaison officer working with Arrgle.
“Hello,” said Spiro. “My name is Spiro.”
Apparently he was the last one to join, because Col. Evander launched the meeting immediately.
“Thank you for coming today. We appreciate the effort you put into working with the DOD to obtain your TS/SCI clearances on short notice. We’re going to be asking for your help to interface with government programmers on Operation EFFLUVIOUS, which started as a cooperative R&D agreement between Arrgle and the DOD but has now been expanded to a classified joint project between the DOD, NSA, and DHS.”
“Hello,” said Spiro. “My name is Spiro.”
The officer looked at him blankly. Spiro said, “You just said a lot of words, many of which seemed to involve individual letters. Is it important if I understand them? If it is, then I will likely need a glossary and quite a lot of extra time. I think I got the part that you want me to talk to other programmers. Perhaps that’s all I need to know. Do you think it is?”
Col. Evander looked at Kaitlin, who nodded. He turned back to Spiro and said, “Based on the information I was given about you before this meeting, I think the answer is yes, that’s all you need to know. I would ask you to stay focused in case any other phrases are meaningful to you.”
Spiro nodded and sank back in his chair. Col. Evander went on. “As part of its information-assurance mission, we work with commercial partners to ensure the availability of secure tailored solutions for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. I think you know that Arrgle already has a strong working relationship with the military and NSA using Operation HOARD for information gathering and Project DISSEMBLE for AR manipulation.”
Kaitlin, Barry and Spiro exchanged glances. Kaitlin raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Col. Evander didn’t appear to notice.
“We have an agreement with Arrgle to be notified about developing technology. When we learned about the SML protocol, we reached an agreement to collaborate actively during development so we can incorporate the technology in products that result from Operation EFFLUVIOUS.”
Spiro translated as best he could: the military and the Department of Homeland Security wanted to use SML for their own purposes. He guessed that DHS probably did not want to make terrorists and unruly demonstrators smell fresh bread.
This was . . . unexpected. He knew Arrgle was basically an advertising company and used technology to make ads more effective. That was fine with him. He could program with a clear conscience.
But having the military manipulate people’s sense of smell – he wasn’t sure how that would be used but he guessed he would be uncomfortable if he got more details. He could not talk about this with Lara, since everything about this meeting was buried under layer after layer of confidentiality agreements and covenants and threats of disembowelment, but he guessed she would hate it.
Col. Evander went on to explain procedural details about the collaboration – who would reach out, what kind of help was requested, what channels of communication were permitted. Spiro mostly wondered if EFFLUVIOUS was an acronym. It was long but it wasn’t impossible – F could be fragrance, O for odor, S for smell, let’s see, E could be “enhanced” . . .
He still wasn’t sure about the acronym, or most of what had been said in the last twenty minutes, when the meeting ended. Before signing off, Kaitlin had set up a quick side chat with Spiro and said, “Let’s talk tomorrow.” Spiro nodded and left the meeting.
Kaitlin leaned against the doorway in Spiro’s office and looked into the distance, waiting for Spiro to hit a breaking point and return to the everyday world. After a few minutes, he shook himself and focused on Kaitlin and said, “Hello, Kaitlin. I’m clearing bug reports.”
Without moving, Kaitlin said into the air, “Does the SML project bother you at all? Even a little bit?”
Spiro looked quizzical. “I’m not sure I understand your question. Is there something about it that causes concern?”
“Sometimes I think tech pushes people too far too fast. It feels like reality is breaking down for some people and it’s our tech that sends people over the edge.”
Spiro shook his head. “There are always crazy people who can’t handle new technology. There were superstitious people who thought Gutenberg’s printing press was Satan’s work because all the copies were uniform. When they saw a printer’s apprentice, they called him “the printer’s devil.” People thought the Internet should be shut down in the 90s because it was addictive and filled with predators. There are still people who think that vaccines come from aliens, even today after decades of pandemics.”
Kaitlin said, “No, that’s not what I mean. It seems like people are losing touch with each other or misreading the world – and they’d be healthy if they didn’t have Arrgle bots.”
Spiro looked skeptical and was about to respond when Kaitlin held up her hand. “Tell you what. Let’s go get some coffee and look around outside.” Spiro looked at his work queue and winced, then looked at Kaitlin and did a quick assessment of the chain of authority. He shut down his desk and unplugged the security key.
As they walked out into the sunshine, Kaitlin said, “Let’s go to the new place, Frankenbrew.” She pointed across the street at an ad for Frankenbrew, apparently a neon display with a pulsing cup of coffee and the slogan, “Being sleepy is a monster. Frankenbrew is the doctor.” Kaitlin gestured. “It’s a few blocks. This isn’t the most direct route but walk up this way.”
They had just passed the San Rafael mission when Kaitlin said, “Hang on. Take a look around.”
Spiro looked at the neighborhood – a few 20th century office buildings across the street, older homes just visible up the hill. “Okay. What am I looking for?”
Kaitlin said, “You’ve got your base AR layer turned on, right? Turn it off.”
Spiro reached up, activated the command menu, and gestured to turn off all effects. He involuntarily started and backed up a step. The wall next to the sidewalk had disappeared. He was standing next to a small homeless camp, a couple of tattered tents and a grizzled gentleman sleeping in the sun.
“You didn’t see him, did you?” Spiro shook his head. “That’s because you installed the Neighborhood Cleanup app that came out a couple of years ago, then forgot about it. It was wildly popular in the Bay Area. I’ll bet half the people who installed it don’t realize it’s on.”
Kaitlin could see Spiro waving his hand and looking in the near distance with the unfocused gaze that everyone had when they were giving commands to the system. She guessed that Spiro was scrolling through his list of installed apps. “Yes, there it is,” Spiro said. “Are there a lot of homeless people?”
“Exactly my point!” Kaitlin said. “This is part of the reason the numbers are skewed in San Francisco about how to handle the homeless. Too many people think the problem is nearly solved because they literally don’t see the homeless people. Their reality is different from the reality of people who don’t have the app. It’s worse in the South. More than half the population with bots have installed reality blockers so they don’t see things they don’t approve of: gender reassignment clinics or solar farms or whatever. They think those things don’t exist any more.”
Spiro shook his head, sad at the sight of the damaged person on the sidewalk, and said, “We’ve always had a problem with people understanding the homeless issue. The only difference is that people averted their eyes back then, now they’ve got something doing it for them.”
Kaitlin said, “No, you’re missing the point. It’s more than that. Turn your AR back on.” Spiro flipped the system on, gave a long look at the wall that was now back in place, and they kept going, with the usual ads flashing on as they approached retail stores, then turning off or stopping the animations after they went by. Kaitlin stopped a couple of blocks later and told Spiro to look around again.
There was nothing remarkable about the neighborhood, the usual mix of small businesses and cafes. They were across the street from a sad looking antique store, the kind of place that everyone ignores.
“Okay, same thing. Flip off the system,” Kaitlin said. Spiro was startled to see a modern four story office building where the single story antique shop had been. He turned the system on: antique store. He turned it off: big building.
“I’ve seen demos of building replacement but I didn’t know this had been released to production. The blending in the sky and background is visible once you know where to look for it, but overall the programming is quite good.” He kept flipping his AR on, off, on, off, smiling an engineer’s smile at the technical perfection of the illusion. “But what is it doing in the middle of San Rafael?”
Kaitlin said, “It’s a local office for the Federalist party. Since most people with bots leave the base layer running, the building is only visible to people who have installed the Federalist app. Their explanation is that it’s protection against protestors. But I’m with the people who say the Federalists are a big part of why we’re splintering into different realities in the US. The Snidely affair made things a lot worse.”
Spiro nodded. The Federalist party had used an AR stand-in to try to conceal that the governor of Arizona had died. When the fraud had been uncovered, the Federalists had fought back with a barrage of faked evidence that many elected officials from all parties were actually digital constructs. None of it was true but faith in the system had been badly shaken.
Spiro started to respond but Kaitlin held up a finger. “Hang on. Here’s what I’m thinking about. Remember that New York Times series last year about societal breakdown? AR was a big part of the bad things they described – people breaking into tribes and clans and losing touch with non-members; all the bad effects of the constant flood of misinformation; people who stopped believing in politics. Now it’s gotten to the point that people are seeing different realities every time they go outside.”
Spiro said, “Whoa, slow down, Eeyore. You’re talking about a lot of things that started before AR was developed and you’re missing all the good things it has enabled.” He pointed across the street at kids racing around a playground, squealing as they tried to avoid being touched by a vaguely alien looking glowing blob. The blob ran into the tether ball pole, which appeared to explode, causing the kids to laugh hysterically, then start running again as the blob started bouncing toward them and the tether ball pole faded back into sight. “Right there is AR making the world better. Those kids are being chased by antimatter. It’s a science lesson plus some exercise.”
“No kidding? That’s cool. But look at the two kids over there.” She pointed at a pair who were apart from the group, tossing a ball without any real enthusiasm. “I wonder if they don’t have bots. We don’t think about it in the Bay Area because just about everybody has bots but there are still big groups of holdouts in other areas, and their reality is far different than ours.”
They started walking. “Our parents used to be able to take off their AR glasses. I bet 9 out of 10 people think they can turn off their effects with that button on the command menu that says ‘Turn off AR.’ They have no idea how much of it is persistent now on a layer they can’t turn off. But nobody turns it off for long now anyway. People are completely dependent on AR. You see what happens to people who don’t get the Arrgle shot and try to live off the grid. They’re cut off economically, socially, intellectually.”
Spiro nodded. “History repeats itself. This is the same thing that happened in after 2007 with phones. It took ten or fifteen years and then it was effectively impossible to live without one.”
They paused when they got in line for coffee. The barista looked a bit bored as a tiny elevated wooden platform appeared to be struck by lightning over their heads, then came down with the steaming cups on it. Cute. They sat down at a table outside and Spiro was about to start when he held up a hand and said, “Hang on, Lara is calling. Just a second.”
Kaitlin leaned back as Spiro’s voice faded out. Audio was muted for private chats. About half the tables in front of Frankenbrew were occupied by individuals in silent conversations with invisible partners. Kaitlin flipped off her AR for a moment and the volume level rose as she heard the nearby part of each conversation. Spiro was talking to Lara about shopping for dinner. Apparently they knew what to do with bok choy. Kaitlin flipped the AR back on and turned to look at the street.
About a third of the people walking by had turned on their anonymizer. They appeared to be shapeless, shifting blurs, colors shifting, gender obscured. The debate over privacy had led to the anonymizer, a private appearance that could not be turned off for anyone with Arrgle bots, even if they turned off the other layers. It wasn’t perfect – people with the anonymizer turned on were still perfectly visible to anyone who did not have the bots, of course. Most consumer cameras were set to observe the anonymity filter, but security cameras could cut through it.
There were ads everywhere. That was the price of AR. It wasn’t the nightmare scenario that some people had predicted when Arrgle got under way; zoning ordinances and local laws kept the worst ads away now, just as signs had been regulated in the early 2000s. Advertisers were not allowed to obscure your vision; many cities insisted that ads not reach above roof level. Kaitlin was used to ignoring the clamor. If she wasn’t in this conversation with Spiro, she would barely have registered the tufted chair walking up and down the sidewalk in front of the furniture store across the street, or the biplane that appeared to be towing a banner for a venture capital firm. Why would a VC advertise in the sky? Kaitlin didn’t understand the world sometimes.
Kaitlin flipped the AR off and on a couple of times. Almost every piece of urban property used effects to dress themselves up: paint was never peeling, landscape plants were always thriving, flowers were blooming in window boxes that disappeared when AR was turned off. San Rafael was a lovely town but a little more sad without the visual effects.
Spiro’s eyes focused on Kaitlin as he ended his chat. “Sorry. I’m cooking dinner tonight. Where were we?” He thought a minute. “Your comment about people who live off the grid – I think that’s actually my point. The reason life is so hard for them is because AR has done so much to improve the world. It’s only been a mainstream consumer technology for 20 years. It took at least that long to start to get a handle on how to use the Internet very well. Remember the old social networks? And the tech companies vacuuming up everyone’s personal data until DOPPA put a stop to it? That was intrusive and unfortunate.”
He paused for a minute. “But AR is starting to realize its true potential. Look what it has done to revolutionize education and medicine. Entertainment and gaming are practically powering the economy by themselves. Creativity is off the charts now that everyone can create worlds from scratch. And people using AR to be productive – do you remember what architecture was like before designs could be visualized in the real world? People in manufacturing plants didn’t have heads-up displays a couple of decades ago.”
“And that’s not all,” Spiro went on. “AR has helped bring the whole world together. You’ve seen what has happened in the developing world now that anyone can get Arrgle bots for free. They’re participating in the world economy in ways that weren’t possible before. More than that – we’ve built the real Babel Fish.” He pointed at a sign for a restaurant across the street. “I’d be willing to bet that if we switched off, that sign would be in Vietnamese.” Kaitlin reached up and gestured, then nodded. “We don’t even think about language any more. Signs are always in our native language and the translators make sure we always hear our own language.”
Spiro stopped when Kaitlin gestured and made a wooden crate appear by their table labeled “Soap Box.” He looked abashed and said, “Okay, I’ll climb down. But I mean it. How lucky are we? We get to work on something that’s making the world a better place. There are some things that don’t feel right about the way AR is used, but it’s given us a booming economy and it’s brought us together . . .”
“It’s driving us apart! That’s the point!” Kaitlin looked frustrated. “In the old days when people walked down the street, at least there was something real about what we saw. If I saw a building, I could ask the person next to me and they might not agree with me about anything else but at least they would say they saw a building too. Not now! You see a city that matches your personal views and promotes the advertisers targeting you. When I walk down the street, I might see a completely different city – different buildings, different signs. I see a wall, you see a doorway. And neither of us have any way to know that our realities are different.”
Spiro said, “The roots of that problem go back to the era before AR. There have been complaints about reality breaking down for people since the bad days of Facebook and the disinformation platform, Fox News.”
“Yeah, but when Arrgle took over people’s vision, we pushed it up to an entirely different level. And now we’re going to turn advertisers loose on people’s sense of smell. It will start off with happy optimistic ideas about people smelling something lovely as they walk past the diaper wipes and having a sign point them to a brand that has a cute miniature AR baby on every package. But what happens when one of our advertisers uses the system to make the competitors’ products smell worse? When a restaurant makes the place across the street smell just a bit like mop water and poo? When smells are used to panic crowds?”
Spiro said, “That will never . . .” He stopped, not sure if he believed what he was about to say.
Kaitlin stared off into space for a while. “What do you think the military wants to do with SML?”
“I was hoping you knew.” Kaitlin shook her head. “We’re tying into the brain in a fundamental way. SML could influence behavior at a deep level. If I had no constraints and wanted to change people’s behavior, I would probably start with the research on hexadecanal.” His eyes went up and to the left and his fingers began twitching over invisible controls. “There was a paper last year. I made a note about implications for SML. Give me a minute.”
Kaitlin snapped her fingers. “Spiro. Spiro! Eyes down here.”
He came back to the conversation reluctantly. “Do you know anything about the government projects that Col. Evander mentioned? Operation HOARD and Project DISSEMBLE?”
Kaitlin knit her brow. “I’ve heard rumors. You can imagine the uproar if Arrgle is supplying data to the NSA. People trust bots because they’ve been told their lives are still private because of DOPPA. There would be a huge backlash if it turns out the government has some secret exemption and is tracking our locations and seeing everything we see.”
Spiro said, “He said Project DISSEMBLE concerns AR manipulation. We have strict internal controls over AR layers to prevent hacking and stop the use of effects that might be dangerous or confusing. Is it possible the government can bypass those controls on demand?”
Kaitlin shook her head. “Not to my knowledge, but I’m starting to think there are a lot of things happening over my head.”
As they walked back to the office, Kaitlin sounded a bit wistful. “It’s too bad you’re not the department head. It would be nice to work directly with you. Barry has a very, very high opinion of Barry. That was a tough day when you missed the interview and got the senior VP so mad at you. You would have gotten the job if you had been there.”
Spiro said, “My absence was unavoidable. I heard she was very angry at me.”
“She gets angry at lots of things.”
“I would rather be programming. Being a manager involves a lot of things that I don’t feel are my strengths, like communicating with others and remembering people’s names.”
Kaitlin smiled. “I think you’ve done quite well today. If you’re like every other introvert I know, you’ll be able to recover from this conversation within a week or two. And remember, my name is Kaitlin.”
Spiro grinned, snapped his fingers and said, “Ah! Got it.” He turned into his office and was lost in thought, remembering where he had left off, building his castle, before he finished logging in.
VOICE-OF-REALITY still thought there was a possibility that she could get helpful information on Seenit. She couldn’t get past her obsession with finding out what the big tech companies were working on. Will the next tech advance make the world better or worse? Do the tech companies have any ethical concerns about the effect of AR on society? There were so many crazy people ranting about AR, but it was hard to know how to interpret that – there are always people who react hysterically to change.
All she needed was a disgruntled employee who would talk off the record, someone lurking on the forum hoping for a reasonable person to talk to. Or perhaps a vendor or advertiser with inside information on the companies’ plans. She didn’t have a grand plan, she just wanted to satisfy her curiosity. The tech companies were surrounded by high walls of secrecy and she wasn’t sure how to get past them.
She made sure she was using an anonymous avatar and logged in. The forum was active as always, with frames stretching off into the distance. She did a quick scan and tugged one of the strings.
Posted by Aging-With-Dignity 57 minutes ago
I met a high school friend for lunch yesterday, he was in town, it was in person. But I realized I have no idea what he really looks like now. I turned off my AR and he said he did too but he looked way younger than me and I bet he gained weight but it didn’t show. I would have had to hug him to find out.
Posted by Still-Haven’t-Found 54 minutes ago
OMG you must not be dating! It’s impossible to be sure what anyone looks like any more. We’ve all been tweaking our bods in AR sessions, nothing new there, but when I was younger you could at least think you were seeing what somebody really looked like when you met in the real world. But the latest Apple packs are so good at changing body shape – I can’t tell you how many guys have looked like they’re pretty fit but then when the time comes at the end of the night there’s a lot of stomach even though you can’t see it. That’s not all! The body packs can make things look bigger that are actually really small. I went out with one guy and when we were back at my place and getting into it I was really surprised when I reached down and
Nope, no need to go there. VOICE-OF-REALITY tugged on another string.
Posted by Look-A-Squirrel 49 minutes ago
One of my friends is in a steampunk clan. He hasn’t turned off his clan layer for a couple of years. I don’t really mind when we have an online chat but we met in person and it was weird, I think anybody who’s not in the clan looks to him like they’re a servant or a thief or a clockwork orange or something. It was hard to talk to him. The conversation would go dead and I’d look at him and he’d be gesturing to somebody that to me looked like a typical anonymous avatar. But it must have been a clan member and he was seeing something different. His mouth would be moving but I couldn’t hear him any more. I think there’s a clan audio channel that non-clan members can’t hear.
Posted by World-Of-Chance 46 minutes ago
That happened to me with a friend who got obsessed with an Old Man’s War clan, from the Scalzi movies. He started to believe he really had a BrainPal and a genetically engineered body – not the gene editing we really do now for diseases but the science fiction kind that makes you super strong. He gave himself green skin and cat eyes, like in the movies. That’s no big thing, we all do stuff like that sometimes, but he started to believe that was what he really looked like.
Posted by Look-A-Squirrel 44 minutes ago
My steampunk friend wound up ditching me. We were walking down the street and he turned and walked into a wall and he was gone. I found out later it was a store that’s only visible to people who belong to certain clans. I don’t know what kind of store – I couldn’t see it. It’s like we’re living in different cities that are overlaid on top of each other.
At least these people weren’t crazy, just genuinely confused about the real world. VOICE-OF-REALITY tugged on a string to pull another frame forward.
Posted by Quantum-Reality-Whisperer 36 minutes ago
DO you not SEE? The QUINTESSENCE of our REALITY is that we SHARE it. Our very INNERMOST BEING is in MORTAL PERIL. This insane PERVERSION of our COMMUNAL COSMOS will pollute the very DROPS of our SOULS. SET yourself FREE! PURGE these MICROSCOPIC VAMPIRES from your PLASMA before it is TOO LATE!!!!!!!
Posted by My-Brain-Hurts 34 minutes ago
I swear to fucking god, I’m going to find out where you live and send a horde of AR zombies to give you a fucking heart attack. I’m starting to see your goddamn squid avatar standing next to the beer case when I order groceries. Get out of my fucking eyes!
Posted by Moderator 33 minutes ago
Forum policy: Healthy communities . . .
Were the same crazies online every day? Maybe this was a waste of time. She tugged a string to try one more time.
Posted by The-Jokes-On-Us 39 minutes ago
We’re all basically slaves. The super-rich are living right beside us but they keep themselves tuned so they’re invisible to us and we can’t see their mansions and the private schools for their kids and they probably have their own hospitals but we can’t see them either.
VOICE-OF-REALITY paused. That actually . . . wasn’t impossible? She wondered if journalists had ever tried to expose the AR world of the super-rich. They’d have to find people to talk to off the record. Maybe employees would talk to a reporter if they knew they wouldn’t be exposed.
Wait a minute.
An employee in a tech company might be reading the forum but they would never post anything meaningful, no matter how much she asked. They’d be afraid of bringing out the crazies, and they probably would worry about being exposed. When DOPPA passed, the tech companies had stopped collecting a lot of the data they had been scooping up, so most people assumed they were anonymous online now as long as they stayed in their homes and used an anonymous avatar. But anybody who was really security conscious knew that law enforcement still had access to enough digital records to trace people using online forums. That’s what had led to the high-profile terrorist arrests in the 2040s, when the feds had broken up a Russian gang that tried to hack into the Arrgle system and make all Americans look fat and ugly. Most people thought it sounded silly but VOICE-OF-REALITY knew it had been a sophisticated plan that came close to succeeding.
There were always digital trails to follow, and the world was full of cameras that cut through AR effects, at least for the police. But if she could convince someone to talk to her on a burner phone, completely off the grid, they might feel safe enough to confide some secrets. Inexpensive phones were readily available for privacy and paranoia. You could buy them anonymously, exchange numbers with someone, talk securely with no digital trail, then throw them away so they wouldn’t be traced back to you. It wasn’t just for drug dealers any more; it had become the preferred way to have an affair so your spouse wouldn’t find out, or even to handle sensitive medical issues without alerting parents or relatives.
A tech company employee wouldn’t talk to a complete stranger, burner phone or not. What if they thought they were talking to a reporter? Not just any reporter. That word barely meant anything any more – everybody was a “reporter” now. Traditional news had crumbled in the last fifty years as the internet had switched from Information Everywhere to Too Much Information.
There was, however, one last surviving institution that was trusted by – well, not everyone, that’s for sure, but still, its reputation for seriousness was still mostly intact.
She was going to pretend to be a New York Times reporter.
Posted by Voice-Of-Reality 24 minutes ago
I’m doing research for a story about ethical issues in current and future AR deployment. If you’re an employee, vendor, or advertiser with information about uses of AR that are not widely known or well understood, I can guarantee complete confidentiality. We think an examination of the effect of AR on society will be news that is fit to print. If you can help, send a DM to arrange a private chat.
She was going to attract a few crazies. Perhaps more than a few. But maybe, just maybe, she would be able to talk to someone with real information who could help her understand where things were going.
Barry was working on one of the most exciting tech projects in history, a development that would change the world and empower creators and make money for his company.
“This is hell,” he said to his mirror. “I’ve got to get out.”
Before he left the bathroom he took a moment to admire his manly physique, although if he was being brutally honest he would have to admit it was getting pretty fleshy around the edges. He made a mental note not to be brutally honest ever again. An ad appeared beside the mirror for a discount clinic that promised it could use gene editing to blast belly fat. Barry cursed at it, waved the lights off, and went out to the bedroom to get his base clothing layer.
He sat on the bed browsing through clothes apps to choose the day’s office outfit, but he couldn’t stop thinking about SML, or, as he usually phrased it in his mind, “the goddamn Spiro problem.”
Spiro had begun working on SML shortly after Barry became department head. When he presented his preliminary work on smell modification, Barry had given it almost fifteen seconds of due consideration before he recoiled as if his foot had been about to land on a king cobra. It was attractive at first glance, even hypnotic, but struck Barry as extremely dangerous.
It hadn’t been a good meeting.
“Of all the brilliant engineers in all the best research centers in the world, you think you’re the one who can figure out how to program the sense of smell, considered to be one of the most difficult technical problems in computing history.”
Spiro considered and nodded, yes, that was exactly what he thought.
“You want me to permit you to pursue this pipe dream even though our department does not have any budget for moon shots and this would suck time from the assigned work that determines our bonuses and promotions.”
Spiro looked thoughtfully at the ceiling, then nodded again.
“No.” Barry ostentatiously swiveled his attention to virtual lists on his desk as if the meeting was over.
Spiro blinked. “I need some clarification.”
Barry turned back with a glare. “No, you may not work on smell modification. No, you may not have comp time to work on it independently. No, you may not approach anyone to review this decision. You’ve got a stack of bug reports a mile high to get our augmented furniture app to stop crashing. That’s what you should be working on.”
Spiro looked sideways for a minute, then said, “There would be more than fifteen million eight hundred thousand pieces of paper in a stack that is a mile high. It would be a waste of paper if there was only one bug report per sheet of paper but even if we take that as the premise -”
Barry held up a hand, flat, palm facing Spiro, the classic gesture to stop, and yet somehow also conveying how quickly it could start glowing with the mystical power of Iron Fist. “I sometimes wonder whether you are aware how painful it is to talk to you. Perhaps you have weaponized conversation in an effective and devious way. Then I realize I don’t want to know the answer to that question at all, I just want you to stop.”
Spiro waited impassively. Barry went on, “This project has zero chance of success and very high odds of harming my career. Probably yours too but I don’t care about that. You’re not a good enough programmer and you don’t have enough depth of knowledge to accomplish what you claim. It can’t be tested on human subjects because of the tremendous risk of permanent harm when it fails. If by some miracle you were able to develop this to the point that the company released it, there would almost certainly be misuse that would deeply damage the world. Society has become accustomed to digital enhancements to sight and hearing but reality is already dissolving for too many people. There is research showing that new types of augmentation could make significant numbers of people either mentally ill or emotionally unstable. Do you need more?”
Spiro nodded. Barry groaned.
“Diverting the attention of a programmer who for reasons that I don’t understand is held in high regard – that’s you – would harm our department and likely keep me from getting the promotion that I deeply deserve. That’s the best case scenario. The worst case – which is far more likely – is that this would explode into a whirlpool of finger-pointing, recriminations, lawsuits, protests, Congressional investigations, and the end of the careers of everyone involved with the project. There would be widespread agreement that the people who should take the fall for hubris and poor judgment would be you and me.”
Spiro started to say, “An explosion that creates a whirlpool seems unlikely.”
Barry cut him off with a snarl. “That’s what I meant by ‘no.’ Don’t work on it. Don’t talk about it. Do your job.”
Spiro had kept working on SML, of course. Barry knew he would. Spiro was methodical and determined and obsessive and a pain in the ass to manage. It made him predictable. Barry had used that to his advantage when he came up with the plan to steal Spiro’s promotion by kidnapping his dog. That had worked out as planned and Barry had enjoyed the extra pay and the stock options that came from being department head, but it meant he had to be Spiro’s manager. There were days when he wasn’t sure it was worth it.
– – O – –
Nearly a year after the hackathon where SML had been elevated to an all-hands-on-deck company priority, Barry’s distaste for SML had only grown. It didn’t make it any easier that Spiro’s work was brilliant. Barry still expected the project to crash and burn at any time. In Barry’s view, it was a collection of hacks and workarounds that had no business working as well as it did. Spiro kept solving problems and avoiding obstacles and moving things forward, which pissed Barry off no end.
Barry knew the success of the project so far was due to his brilliant management, but he was aware that Spiro and Kaitlin were becoming fast friends, which in Barry’s mind meant his contributions would be overlooked if SML succeeded. If it collapsed, on the other hand and subpoenas started flying, Barry was sure his name would be on them. Corporate department heads seldom go to jail but Barry was unhappy about the word “seldom” in that sentence, because it suggested a number that was not “zero” and might someday include Barry. Then Barry would have to kill Spiro in a fit of murderous rage, which would mean a longer time in jail.
Everything pointed to the same conclusion, which started to be an obsession for Barry: he had to get off the SML project.
It had to be a reassignment within Arrgle. His ego wouldn’t let him quit. He pictured a walk of shame if he resigned, leaving the building with head hung low while co-workers and potential employers tut-tutted about his inability to handle responsibility and pelted him with smelly spoiled mackerel from expired tins.
That was a disturbingly precise daydream. He shook himself and went back to preparing for the meeting with Kaitlin that would determine his future.
Arrgle’s bureaucracy was methodical and the rules were well defined. His best opportunity to be reassigned was in Kaitlin’s office during his annual assessment. Barry had spent hours on the self-assessment and upgrade request, using all of his corporate jargon skills to craft arguments for moving him to a different division that were compelling, undeniable, irresistible, persuasive. It was such a sure thing, thought Barry, that there was little point in actually attending the meeting. Kaitlin could just notify the other division that their dreams were going to be answered and send him on his way.
– – O – –
“No,” said Kaitlin. “You’re not going to be reassigned.”
Barry looked startled. He had been ready to talk about his new title, his new compensation, what level of stock would be included in his new options, and whether he could be assigned to the division working on new AI applications for augmented reality, which had been hiring smoking hot interns coming out of graduate school.
He wasn’t ready to deal with complete rejection.
“I don’t think you understand,” he said. “Maybe you didn’t have time to read my self-assessment. I can submit some backup material if you had trouble following anything in it.”
Kaitlin stared at him. Had her eyes always had thin black vertical slits? Her expression wasn’t unfriendly but it conveyed clearly that he should deeply consider his next words. Barry swallowed and decided he would wait for a better time to say his next words, possibly until the following week.
Kaitlin said, “SML is high priority. We’re a month out from making decisions about public testing and we’re in the final stages of code review. You’re the manager with full knowledge of project details. No one else can come up to speed in time to take over. If you left, it would cause a serious schedule disruption in a project that has attracted the attention of Very Important People. Your best career move is to ask me not to tell anyone about your request to bail out at a crucial time.”
He had to try. “I would be fully involved during the transition.”
“That’s a sweet and generous offer that’s also required as a condition of your employment contract. It doesn’t change anything.”
“I just feel I could be more effective in another department.” Damn, he was whining.
“That’s possible. I’m worried about whether you’re in over your head. Am I right that your relationship with Spiro is sometimes strained? Is that making it difficult for you to do your job?”
Barry looked around at the blasted heath that surrounded him. There were landmines in every direction. A misstep could be fatal. “I might have given the wrong impression. We’re firing on all cylinders.”
“Good.” Kaitlin looked at her notes. “I’ve given you a performance grade of 3 out of 5, solidly over-performing. You might get a 4 and all the perks that go with it at the next review, but that will depend on the project going public and hitting its numbers.”
Barry sulked. “You made me team lead. That’s above my current pay grade.”
“Because SML is still underway, your salary upgrade request wasn’t approved either. Similar reasoning. We complete SML, blow our engagement and ad numbers out of the water, and the whole conversation is different. Upgrades happen after sustained performance, not before.”
“When can we revisit this?”
“We don’t have to wait a year. I’m optimistic that you’ll produce a solid product and the sales and marketing teams will be gearing up in six months. Let’s plan on sitting down then. If you and Spiro can make this work, it will be good for all of us. I’ll support your reassignment to, where was it, Pleasure Island? Whatever you decide.”
Six months. He could be shuttling between a jail cell and depositions by teams of government torturers in six months.
– – O – –
Barry couldn’t sleep that night. He didn’t know what to do next and he couldn’t talk to anyone. If he slipped up and said disparaging things with people who didn’t have clearance, he would be fired before he woke up. Security was so tight that he wasn’t sure he could talk to himself. Funny joke! It might not be a joke.
He got up, grabbed a beer, and wandered into his AR room. He set the background to an evening tropical scene, and mechanically ran through news feeds, social networks, short videos, entertainment channels, porn. He wasn’t paying attention. His mind kept churning about SML. Was he involved in the most exciting project of his life, the one that would elevate his career into the stratosphere? Or was he going to jail? He felt like both were equally likely.
He stared into space, finishing the first beer and starting another, trying to think of ways to minimize his risk and maximize his rewards from the project. Forget Arrgle. What’s best for Barry?
He needed a delay, long enough to work out a strategy to avoid being caught in the crossfire when SML collapsed. Better yet would be if the whole project was derailed long enough for him to get clear of it.
As long as the project was secret, it would proceed with full speed, like a locomotive with no one at the helm. Locomotives don’t have helms. Or did they? How would he know? He had been six when he visited the railroad museum. He started another beer. SML was going with full speed like, like, like a light beam, fixed speed, 186,000 something something, 8 minutes from the sun, maybe he could send Spiro into the sun. He started another beer.
Lightbulb moment! If SML wasn’t secret, that would likely slow it down. Damn, he was smart. What SML really needed was voices from outside, a public debate over the next step in AR that covered more than Arrgle’s immediate financial return. Of course! It was obvious.
Barry turned off his cameras, turned on the anonymizer, and looked at the Seenit login panel in the air in front of him. He tapped on the avatar he had set up for anonymous browsing and logged in as GOD-AMONG-MEN. He pulled the door to AR-DEBATE toward him and stepped in.
Posted by 19th-Nervous-Breakdown 44 minutes ago
It’s the only answer that makes sense. Aliens have been visiting for thousands of years. They invented the bots. That’s how they’re going to control us.
Posted by Fester-Bestertester 42 minutes ago
The aliens are able to move around freely now. They use AR to keep themselves concealed. Do you ever have that feeling that you’re being watched but there’s no one there? Lizard creatures.
Posted by Time-For-Panic 41 minutes ago
You can’t see them – that’s how you know they’re there.
Posted by Darwin-Goes-Backwards-Too 39 minutes ago
My podiatrist says they need human DNA for experiments. That’s where socks go when they disappear.
Barry knew this was gibberish but it was good entertainment. He tapped on the link for “lizard creatures.”
Posted by Don’t-Tread-On-Me 52 minutes ago
Researchers at Johns Hopkins found out that the nanobots are stealing our souls. They harvest soul-drops and store them in our lymph nodes. The research paper was suppressed and there’s no trace of it if you look online. That’s how you know it exists – they wouldn’t hide it that thoroughly if it wasn’t real.
Posted by Everything-Is-True 48 minutes ago
That’s why ultra-rich people live longer than the rest of us – they buy soul-drops from the lizard creatures. It keeps them young. A lot of people say that anyone who sees the lizard people without their AR cloaking goes insane.
Posted by Don’t-Tread-On-Me 43 minutes ago
The CDC harvests soul-drops for the lizard people. Whenever the CDC says it has “vaccinated” more people, what it means is that it harvested their soul-drops. If you ever get caught in a CDC sweep, you’re likely to have your soul stolen.
Posted by Han-Tyumi 38 minutes ago
I’m not sure about that. My cousin lives in Minnesota and she’s seen some weird shit. There are lights in the sky and nobody will talk about them, and lots of cars on the road that look like regular cars except people without bots say they’re actually unmarked trucks. What she’s heard is that there’s a huge facility underneath Lake Superior where they harvest the soul-drops. Nobody can see the entrance because it’s got AR cloaking but if you don’t have AR then it looks like a gas station. Or maybe that’s what it looks like with AR. Something like that. Anyway, it’s real.
Posted by Quantum-Reality-Whisperer 32 minutes ago
SOME of you start to SEE! The DROPS of your SOULS are being REAPED! Not just for EARTHLY ELITES, no, but for the EXALTED all across this ISLAND UNIVERSE! HOW do you think we PAY for those VAMPIRE nanos brought to our PARADISE by DIABOLICAL INVADERS from BEYOND?!?!?!
Okay, so the forums were odd. Barry kept browsing, just for grins. There were reasonable, thoughtful people trying to debunk the conspiracy theories and stick to facts. He had pinned a few of them to the frame of the AR-DEBATE door – PARTY-LIKE-ITS-2099, VOICE-OF-REALITY, a few others. Barry spent the next half-hour reading through threads they were involved in, which tended to start reasonably but then be hijacked by conspiracy theorists and crazy people. How could he have a safe conversation with anyone?
A couple of years before, an Arrgle manager had leaked information about a project investigating whether Arrgle bots could influence – or even take over – people’s dreams. The manager had been upset that testing was continuing after some disturbing test results. In one of the tests, a volunteer continued to see Mr. Snuffleupagus for several days after it had appeared in his dreams, even after turning off all AR layers. Barry remembered the story well. It had sounded funny at first. Later, reenactments made it obvious how terrifying it would be to believe that a ten foot tall cross between a woolly mammoth and an octopus is chasing you in real life down the street, with a deranged yellow bird sitting astride it yelling, “Cabbage! You can’t leave until you eat your CABBAGE!”
Management had tried to stifle the reports and told the group they were taking it very seriously and would the group keep testing, please?
The manager had contacted the New York Times, which was still doing the best investigative journalism after more than two hundred years. The coverage was damaging and the project was shelved. Although the manager had taken precautions, Arrgle security had still managed to trace the leak. Almost any online communication leaves digital trails; determined investigators were able to dig into logs and stored videos and local caches of supposedly encrypted conversations and get a lead back to the manager. But the final clues had been obtained by old-fashioned techniques: Arrgle’s internal security broke into the manager’s house and found his handwritten notes about conversations with a reporter and instructions for how to transmit Arrgle documents securely.
It hadn’t gone well with the manager. Leaks were discouraged.
The memories were still fresh but Barry found himself wondering, just as an intellectual exercise, certainly for no particular reason, if it was possible to get information out of Arrgle without anyone finding out. Keeping handwritten notes – that was a rookie mistake. Sending confidential information over the AR channel in his home, even using an app that is supposed to be encrypted – again, no surprise that the logs had records of those chats.
What would it take to get material into the public eye without being discovered? Theoretically.
Spiro got out of bed without disturbing Lara and went into the kitchen for his morning coffee ritual. He brushed aside the ad floating above the coffee bean container and measured out dark roast beans on a scale. The high end grinder was set to produce exactly the right consistency of powder. Spiro weighed the beans and ground one more to get exactly the correct number of grams. The water was brought to a carefully calibrated temperature. He set the cup on a scale, arranged the filter, and started Dave Brubeck’s Take Five while he poured the first bloom, waited, then did the second, third, and fourth pours. He had set up a template so the cup lit up with a soft blue glow when it was time for the next pour to start, synced with Blue Rondo a la Turk. The familiarity of the routine made the coffee taste better.
As he breathed in the aroma of a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, he wondered if it would still be as special when it was available to anyone. Once SML was available, Spiro guessed that one of the companies that make cheap coffee makers would sell an AR add-on that would improve the smell of brewing coffee. A big appliance manufacturer would have the budget and it would be a competitive advantage if they could say – completely truthfully – that coffee from their machines smells better than other brands.
It wasn’t Spiro’s problem. He did the programming. Other people figured out what to do with his work. And the best beans would still smell great as he poured over the hot water.
He took the cup and walked into his den. Seeing the neat shelves and carefully stacked boxes full of comics was relaxing. He’d been distracted by work but even in the last year he started most mornings with at least a few minutes staying up to date on his collection.
Collecting comics was like collecting books or odd Japanese novelties or anything else that you could touch. There was something quaint and old-fashioned about owning physical goods in an AR world, since you could get almost anything as a virtual item for a fraction of the price.
When Spiro’s budget had been tight in college and AR was still a novelty, he had subscribed to virtual comics. He still had them in the collection. One shelf in front of him was empty in the physical world so he could display his virtual comics, currently filled with his complete set of Augmented Jesus, a controversial comic from the 2030s. He reached for the command menu and switched the display to the twenty-issue run of Tardigrade Wrath, about millions of adorable microscopic animals that became terrifying when they coalesced into a single 50 foot tall superpowered hell beast that still looked adorable.
He reached out and pulled the first issue from the shelf. The appearance of pulling a virtual comic from the shelf and reading it was exactly the same as a paper comic, but your hands weren’t actually touching anything, no matter how much it looked like they were. You didn’t get the sensation of feeling the paper and smelling the distinctive odor that comic books develop as they age.
More important was the idea of owning a tangible thing – and not just one thing but a complete collection of every version of that thing that existed. Spiro had always been a completist. He couldn’t explain that to anyone who didn’t have the same compulsion, but he knew the desire to own complete sets was common in many collectors. If someone collected Norwegian trolls produced by a particular small factory in the 2030s, it wouldn’t be enough to own almost all of the different figures. It would gnaw at a completist if they couldn’t get, say, the laughing mountain troll that was recalled because the bulge of the axe handle in his pants was easily misunderstood.
Spiro didn’t know anything about Norwegian trolls. But he knew about the missing items from his comic collections. He could list them from memory. The gaps that held his interest were the ones that were hard to find, of course. As AR became more popular, interest in collecting had surged as a kind of nostalgic backlash. Most things could be purchased simply by going online and finding them for sale. But there were always obscure items that seldom came on the market, sought after by the relatively small number of people who shared an interest in some category.
Spiro sat in the comfy chair, enjoying the smell of real leather, and began the morning ritual of checking collectors’ forums for the latest chat about discoveries in dusty corners of second-hand shops. Collectors all knew the feeling of excitement mixed with jealousy for the phrase, “I don’t think the owner knew the value of what she was selling.” The frames for each conversation stretched off into the distance.
He visited the most active sales sites and scrolled through his saved searches, looking for new listings. Was he missing issue number 48 of Sanu, the series about the Ugandan superhero? He tapped his database and a box along one wall glowed green. Good, he already owned it. But wait – there was a new listing for issue number 2 of the Rolling Stones spinoff comic Zombie Richards. It folded after ten issues since Keith Richards was still alive and there was no way to draw him that was more horrifying than the way he actually looked. The comic was available at a decent price from a shop in Australia. Spiro winced – the cost of shipping would be punishing – but he pushed the Buy button before someone else could snatch it up.
He enjoyed his coffee and scrolled through his personalized news feed, which appeared on a panel in the air in front of him. He looked at one headline, moved on, frowned, scrolled back, and punched into the article.
A copy of the first issue of Howard The Duck had emerged from the estate of a private collector in the Bay Area. It was going to be sold at auction in two months. Until the auction, it was being held by the local store, Cataclysm Comics.
Howard The Duck number one! That was a rare find indeed. Marvel Comics had given Howard the Duck his own comic almost eighty years earlier, in 1976. Howard the Duck comic books were an unclassifiable mashup of parody, horror, and crossover with other Marvel superheroes – Spiderman made a guest appearance on the cover of the first issue. The comics were eccentric and not for everyone but true believers thought Howard was one of Marvel’s finest creations.
Howard the Duck’s momentum had been slowed by a poorly received movie adaption in 1986, but comic books sporadically appeared until 2016. Spiro had fallen in love with the Howard comics in his teens, drawn to the eccentric humor and the retro nature of comic books, the static art frozen on a page in a world that was becoming obsessed with AR, a sort of nerd’s rebellion against the modern world.
That’s how Spiro found himself unexpectedly ahead of the curve when Howard the Duck was developed into a series of AR entertainments in the 2040s that became worldwide hits. The old comic books sharply appreciated in value. It helped Spiro maintain the fiction beloved by all collectors that the obsession isn’t an emotional problem that needs therapy – it’s an investment, it must be, because look at all the high prices being paid for these things they own. The reality is that most collectors would never sell a single item from their collection, but the purported value of the collection justifies the obsession.
Spiro had spent more than fifteen years painstakingly acquiring all of the Howard the Duck comic books, all the reboots and digests and appearances in other Marvel comics. He could remember the day a copy of issue number three had turned up on an auction site devoted to old magazine advertisements, clearly being sold by someone who did not know its true value. Issue number two – Spiro could remember the excitement of finding it in the back of a used bookstore in Santa Barbara when Spiro and Lara were dating.
But the first issue was special, of course. Spiro did not need the reminder but he reached up to highlight the Howard shelves and boxes in his collection. The earliest issues glowed green on the center of one wall. He walked over and took issue number 1 out of its mylar bag. It was pristine, with the Comics Code Authority stamp in one corner and 25 cent price in the other corner. Howard is chomping on a cigar and wielding a sword and not wearing pants – this was before the spat with Disney about Donald Duck. The cover has the first appearance of the famous tagline, “Trapped in a world he never made!” And beside the drawing, Marvel’s words were meant as a joke: “Because you demanded it . . . the fabulous FIRST ISSUE of Marvel’s most sensational new SUPER-STAR!”
Spiro was holding a paper comic, not a virtual copy, but it wasn’t the real first issue. He turned to the first page. At the bottom in very small print was the disclosure that it was a facsimile printed in August 2019, an exact duplicate of the original – the same weight of paper, the same size, the same ads (“An Atlas body in 7 days!” “25 live sea horses $2.98!”)
The single facsimile notice was the only difference between the reproduction and the original.
Almost no one knew about Spiro’s collection, outside of a few online collectors that Spiro did not know personally. No one knew that he had issues two and three. No one knew that issue one was a facsimile.
But Spiro knew.
Lara met Spiro when she was a junior at the UC Berkeley business school. The professor was outlining the semester project for ‘Social, Political, and Ethical Environment of Business.’
She took another look at the board in the air describing the project. A few students without Arrgle bots or AR glasses were fumbling with laptop computers, trying to find the right link.
The professor said, “This will be done in teams of two. You’ve been matched randomly with a partner. You’ll have discretion about how to allocate the work and what kind of presentation to make at the end of the semester.”
Lara stared around the classroom. The university was still insisting on in-person classes so there were almost forty people looking for their partners. Across the room she could see a social card glowing yellow over a slightly pudgy figure. As she made her way across, she could read the info on the card: Spiro Littlefuss, EE-CS, BS 2040. He was not quite handsome, dressed in jeans and a Swamp Thing t-shirt – clean, she noticed, always a good sign – and completely focused on something in the air that he was poking at.
She waited a moment, cleared her throat, waited another moment, and said, “Spiro?”
He gestured one more time, then focused on her. “Sorry. I was trying to figure out what software is running the assignment board. It’s not the same one that most of the professors use.” His eyes flicked up, then back to hers. “Lara?” He looked a bit panicked and broke eye contact, looking carefully at his shoes as if they might help him with his end of the conversation.
“We’re assigned to work on the project together, I think. Is my social yellow?” She pointed above her head.
Spiro looked up and nodded frantically. “Yes! Yes. Yes it is. Is that what it means? I wasn’t tuned in for the last few minutes.”
Lara was running through the possibilities in her mind. Clearly she had been matched with a complete nerd. Computer sciences with a Bachelor of Science degree – that was pretty far down the geek path. His manner led her to think that he would be distracted by an activity with a real live girl. This wouldn’t be at all like a project with another business major.
On the other hand, nerds were usually harmless. And he was probably smart, although it remained an open question whether his smarts could be channeled into something mundane like a marketing class.
Nothing to be done. She smiled and said, “It’s an interesting assignment. Want to get some coffee and talk about it?
Spiro looked grateful that she was taking over the next step. “Umm. I’ve got. Never mind. Sure! Where shall we. Do you have. Umm. Like, now?”
Lara looked at him expressionless, shook her head slightly, and said, “Yeah, if that works for you.” She turned and started out of the classroom, guessing that he would follow.
– – O – –
Spiro sipped his coffee and pursed his lips in distaste. Lara looked quizzical. “What’s the matter?”
“Umm. It’s. I’m. They poured it too quickly. And it’s not the right grind. But that’s not.” He looked away, regrouped, came back. “Are you a business major?” He glanced up at her social. “Oh, you are.” He appeared to be baffled about what to say next.
“Yeah, I’m biz, a junior. You’re Computer Science BS? And a senior? How come you’re in a business ethics course?”
“I’m in the joint degree program. CS and business. I really like the CS classes.” He lapsed and stared hard at his coffee, as if it might help him with the conversation.
“What do you like?”
Spiro brightened. “Programming for AR is interesting! When I was in high school I programmed in arglebargle, but the AR languages are really elegant and the way they’re evolving sparkle glitzbomb blubber . . .” Lara had no idea what he was talking about. Some but not all of the words appeared to be in English but mostly he had drifted into deep nerd.
His enthusiasm was endearing. He looked animated as he described programming languages and routines and sprites. She was amused by his obliviousness, completely missing that she was a spectator instead of a participant in the conversation, but that was nothing new about talking to men. At least Spiro didn’t seem to have quite the narcissistic edge that most guys had.
She interrupted gently when he offered to show her something particularly cool about sorghum blast wiggle, or whatever the words were for something or other. “Hang on, I only have a few minutes before I have to get to another class. Do you have any ideas for our project?”
Spiro reverted to looking like a trapped animal. “I’m outside my normal range. I probably should have signed up for a class with more statistics. Business ethics is based on concepts that I haven’t thought through extensively.”
“There are tons of ethical issues with AR. We could go through the literature about mental health and depression, the whole depersonalization side.” Spiro stared at his coffee. “Or there are all the issues that are in the news now about public spaces getting hijacked by advertisers, and whether companies should be able to augment private property. Like that layer that Zillow could pop up over roofs with property value and square footage.” Spiro’s gaze shifted to his shoes.
She tried again. “Then there’s all the stuff about how AR is getting more realistic and people might not be able to tell the difference between AR and the real world. We could do something about whether there ought to be something visual to let people know when there’s an AR layer. Now that everybody is getting the bots, there are lots of things to work out so people don’t wind up losing touch with reality.”
Spiro had been brightening as she spoke, even making eye contact. “I very much enjoy making effects that are hyper-realistic. Hang on.” He gestured, then swept his hand towards her. “Here, let me share this with you.”
Lara saw the share invitation in the air and tapped on it. Nothing seemed to happen. Spiro looked proud. He pointed and said, “Look.”
A frog was peering out of her cappuccino. It croaked softly.
Lara stared at it, then bent over and looked closely at the way its head was sticking out above the froth. On the one hand, it was an amazingly detailed frog and it was perfectly integrated with the foam and liquid. On the other hand, she was sitting with someone who had sent her a frog during their first meeting. Had she been paired with a very smart six year old? Possibly.
“That’s very, mmm, realistic,” she said.
– – O – –
Lara wasn’t surprised that she did most of the research that semester. Spiro had decided early on that he would do the programming for the presentation and had spent most of their virtual sessions muttering to himself and making notes in the air.
Most of the students presenting their projects so far had used Powerpoint AR or Sheets AR for their templates, with AR whiteboards and 3D erasers. Standard stuff.
On the day of their presentation, Spiro and Lara went down the steps to the front of the classroom. Spiro sat on one side, Lara walked to the lectern. “If everyone would put on their glasses or turn on their AR layer? Thanks. We’ve been working with Professor Kalpana on our project and we’d like to ask her to do the presentation.”
The door at the rear of the classroom opened and the sunny day framed the entrance of an Indian woman in her 30s, striding in and down to the lectern at the front. “Thank you! I’ll be talking about ‘Mandatory Disclosure Of AR Development Paths’ for Lara Kurio and Spiro Littlefuss, presenting social, moral and ethical imperatives for transparency in research that may affect AR modalities.”
The professor began delivering Lara’s presentation, a well-researched and organized argument focused on the social consequences of a loss of shared reality. As she spoke, the usual AR accessories came and went, with the professor bringing up virtual whiteboards and 3D arrows and the usual visual effects.
It didn’t take long before a few of the students began whispering, lowering their glasses or making the gestures to turn their AR off and on. The professor was an AR projection, not a real person. That wasn’t unusual; AR meetings were commonplace. But the integration with the real environment was seamless for the professor, who gave no visual indication that she was not present in the room – edges were sharp, shadows were perfectly blended with the lectern and the ground, the professor paced from one side to another with no glitches or visual distortion. It was impressive programming, a step above the basic chat program provided by Arrgle.
As the professor went on, talking about rumors of research that could make AR less distinguishable from the real world, some of the students began to catch on to the change in the professor’s appearance. Professor Kalpana was aging. She had appeared to be in her 30s when she began, but her body had thickened and her face had developed the mature lines of a woman in her 50s. Students took off their glasses: the professor disappeared, just Spiro and Lara sitting up front. Put on glasses: professor appeared, now with age lines around her eyes and wrinkles in her forehead, probably in her 60s.
“For these reasons, we argue that it should be directed by legislative or regulatory policy that changes in AR technology be disclosed during development to a regulatory agency for review. Further, the agency should communicate proposed changes to the public, even if the technology is not yet ready for public testing or release, and even if it is unlikely ever to be made public. Finally, companies should not be able to develop or test AR technology unless and until it is disclosed to the reviewing agency.”
Professor Kalpana delivered the conclusion in a quavering voice, nearly a whisper. She had lost six inches in height as her body aged and curled, her face collapsing into wrinkles. She smiled weakly and said, “Thank you,” straightened as much as she could, then disappeared into a cloud that settled to the floor as a pile of ash.
The students sat silent for a moment. Then Spiro stood up, turned to face the class, and said, “Umm. We want to thank Professor Kalpana. We have one more thing to show you to give you an idea of what it will mean to lose a sense of shared reality.”
He walked up the stairs to the back of the room. The students swiveled to watch him. He went to a blank section of wall next to the door and grabbed a paint brush from the nearby can, helpfully labeled “PAINT.” He quickly painted a half circle in inky black, just taller than his head. He put the brush in the can, then walked into the tunnel, body getting smaller as he walked away until he disappeared in the darkness. Some students looked confused, since Spiro had been quite real and present in the classroom when he walked up the stairs.
A moment later a light appeared in the distance, getting larger as the students began to hear the sound of an approaching train. A moment later a steam train burst out of the tunnel, bell ringing, engine thundering, disappearing into the white board on the other side of the room. The crumpled figure of Wile E. Coyote was lying on the tracks, holding a sign that said, “Help.”
When the train was gone and the noise died away, Lara stood up at the front and said, “We have a last word outside. Make sure your glasses are on and you have AR turned on and let’s meet out there.”
The students stood up and turned to walk up to the exits. The tunnel was gone. The back of the classroom was back to normal, two doors and a blank wall between them. The students from the back row moved out and walked over to the door and stopped when they reached for the door handle and banged their hands instead. Students behind them piled up in confusion.
The students tried a few more times, reaching out for the doors and feeling nothing but wall. A couple of them flipped their glasses up and did a double take. Each door was three feet to the right of where it appeared to be.
Spiro stood outside, waiting for all the students and the class professor to finish filing outside after they found the doors. “We think AR technology will advance quickly but we don’t know what to expect because Arrgle and Google and Apple keep everything secret until it’s ready to be released. That increases the chance of social problems.”
Lara continued. “The rate of AR adoption has been on an upward curve for more than ten years, especially since the introduction of Arrgle bots, and people’s time spent with AR turned on is rapidly approaching 100% for many people. As AR effects become more realistic, people will literally forget that AR is engaged.”
Spiro finished up. “Right now we think of AR as something we use for certain discrete parts of life – chatting, playing games, entertainment, movies. But the next generation of AR will have people living in an AR world. It will be left on and people will forget about it. Today you were expecting AR effects so it was interesting but not shocking to see the professor age in front of your eyes. In other contexts people may not be able to tell what’s real, and perhaps won’t even know what’s possible because they haven’t heard of the technology. They’ll feel like there’s something wrong with the world, kind of like how you felt when you couldn’t find the door. Instead of helping us, AR may wind up increasing anxiety, depression, conspiracy theories, misinformation, and mental illness.”
He looked around and smiled. “But the underlying technology will be wonderful.”
– – O – –
Lara and Spiro sat at a corner table at the coffee house after the presentation. Lara rubbed some lotion on her hands – cinnamon bun scent, a traditional favorite – while Spiro was supervising the student barista making his cup of coffee. When he was finally happy and came over, Lara said, “Wow! That was amazing. The professor said he’d never seen anything like it. You didn’t see him after you left but he was laughing when you walked down the tunnel and falling off his chair when the train came out. He told me he’s old enough to remember Looney Tunes cartoons. But he looked really thoughtful when the kids couldn’t find the doors. He got the point.”
Spiro looked happy. “He was impressed by your research, too. He’s going to give your paper to some of the other professors. You did great work. I didn’t know a lot of the information you found about secret projects.”
A few more students walked up to them, chattering about the presentation and sending AR emojis of applauding hands and dancing hearts. Spiro and Lara had spent fifteen minutes outside the classroom surrounded by students asking questions about the paper and the tech that Spiro had used.
A private message arrived for the two of them as the kids walked away. Spiro confirmed that Lara also had a flashing light, then the two of them punched it. A recording of the professor appeared nearby, looking slightly sideways at the camera, and said, “Nicely done. Full marks for the project, of course. I’m going to incorporate a few ideas into the class next semester. Lara, I want to talk to you later about a position as a research assistant. The two of you made a good team. Thanks.” He reached out and switched off.
They exchanged looks with each other. “I don’t know about you but I’ve never gotten feedback like that before for, for, for anything,” Lara said. Spiro nodded in agreement. “Oh, I know what I wanted to ask. I like the way Professor Kalpana came out. Now I understand why you were filming my friend Dhriti. How did you do the aging effect?”
“Hollywood has been using software to change the ages of actors for a long time,” Spiro said. “An open source version came out last year. I did a couple of things to improve it.”
“I thought it was something like that. But you never showed me the ending so I haven’t figured out how you got out of the room.”
Spiro laughed. “I just walked out the door. I had already made it look like the door moved and blanked out the real door so I could paint the tunnel. I filmed myself walking away so I could switch to that and it would look like I was walking down a tunnel. Was it convincing?”
“It worked beautifully. And the looks on the kids’ faces when they couldn’t open the door at the end – that was great.”
Spiro said, “Your work on the research was first rate. It was interesting and provocative. I’m not sure I agree with what we said but it made a really good project.”
They exchanged a few more comments about the work they had done, thanked each other, and walked off to their next classes.
Lara didn’t see Spiro again for six years.
– – O – –
Lara finished graduate school and launched into her first job as a marketing coordinator with an East Coast lotion manufacturer, doing competitive analysis and sales forecasting. She enjoyed the work and felt comfortable with the marketing team, other than Kathy, who was a bitch, but isn’t there always one? She got a couple of small promotions, learned useful tricks for media campaigns, and got a lot of sample lotions.
Her personal life, though – ah, that hadn’t been completely smooth. She went through a couple of long-term college and grad school relationships, pretty obviously not destined to be lifetime partnerships. One guy decided after a year that it would be fun to go to Cabo San Lucas with her best friend. Another took a job that required him to be physically present in New York, to both of their evident relief.
She still found it hard to imagine why it had seemed like a good idea to get married to the guy she met on a vacation in Mexico not long before she graduated. She needed support at a demanding time, when she was finishing her thesis and last few classes and trying to line up the job that would start her career. Mehmet was handsome, buff, funny, and a bit of a bad boy at a time when that still seemed like a good idea for a partner. In hindsight, it became clear that no one admired Mehmet more than he did, and a bad boy will continue to think that drinking and playing AR games is a way of life long after the vacation is over and it’s time to take life seriously.
The marriage lasted barely eighteen months. She felt happy to be able to get away cleanly, no children, his debts clearly on his shoulders, neither of them looking back.
Every advance in technology makes it harder to meet new people. There were an infinite number of ways to make shallow connections, online communities of people gathered for politics or shared interests or culture, but Lara found it awkward to try to extend one of those encounters into a new friendship, much less a relationship.
And AR dating was a nightmare. There were hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of sex-themed companies and AR layers built on the novelty of realistic safe encounters, anonymous if desired. Mutual masturbatory fantasies were easy to come by. Many companies tried to create safe ways to meet single people but AR didn’t help cut through people’s untruths and deceptions and narcissism and ickiness.
Lara’s ex-husband had packed and moved out of their Oakland apartment a few months earlier and she was starting to recover her emotional equilibrium. She ended an afternoon meeting with the marketing staff and walked out to stretch her legs and get coffee. The world was in between epidemics, the weather was blessedly pleasant – on that spring afternoon, the Bay Area was in between atmospheric rivers and scorching sun – and Lara was in between relationships and feeling happy about it. She stood in line at Blue Bottle and did a double-take when she looked over to the sidewalk table and saw Spiro sitting by himself, staring at the air and poking at invisible controls.
She picked up her latte and made her way past the ads with dancing coffee cups to Spiro’s table. She stood next to him for a moment and waited a beat to see if his eyes would refocus on their own. They didn’t. She tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Spiro?” It only took a moment for him to return from whatever he had been staring at and focus on her, and slightly longer than you’d expect for his face to light up with recognition.
“Lara? Lara! Wow, I didn’t expect. Where did? Hi! Umm. How are you?” He looked up at her, then remembered that it would be a good idea to stand up and hug briefly. “Are you, do you want to sit down?” He gestured vaguely at a chair.
He looked better than she remembered, a little more fit, dressed more like a professional out for coffee and less like a college student. As they chatted and brought each other up to date, Lara found herself remembering their business school project fondly. Spiro had been perpetually distracted but he was always cheerful and had always done work he promised to do, something she could not say about many of her other partners in school or work projects.
“It’s ironic that I wound up at Arrgle,” Spiro was explaining. “It’s the most secret company in the world. I can barely talk about where my office is.” He looked confused. “Actually I can, it’s down the street. But I mean it’s not transparent about projects. I can’t talk about what I’m working on or what plans they have for AR. It doesn’t really match what our class project said.”
“Yeah, but I knew what we suggested was never going to become policy in the real world. That would have required lawmakers to agree on something and that never seems to happen.”
“It was exciting to work on that with you. I did some other good work in school, my thesis turned out well, but that train coming out of the tunnel was the most fun I had in college. Let me make sure that’s true.” He thought for a few seconds. “Yes, it was my favorite college experience. And I really liked working with you.” His face lit up. “Hang on, hang on, I think I know where to find this, just a second.”
Spiro’s focus drifted up and his hands moved around for a few minutes. Then he looked happy, poked a couple of times and said, “Look!”
Lara looked around for a minute, then followed Spiro’s gaze to her coffee cup, where a frog was contentedly poking its head out of the liquid and hanging onto the edge. Lara burst out laughing. “You did that the first day we met!”
“I remember. I’ve had it filed away ever since. I loved your reaction to it.”
“Well, it is a fine looking frog. Now make it go away, I want to drink.”
Spiro nodded, the frog vanished, and they continued talking. While they ran through the greatest hits of graduate school and what they had done to start careers, Lara unconsciously pulled out some lotion for her hands and started rubbing it in. Spiro looked down and happily said, “I remember that! You always had lotion for your hands that smelled interesting. I always wondered what smell you were using when we were in virtual meetings. What is it today?”
Lara held up her hand a little self-consciously so Spiro could take it and smell. He sniffed, looked off in the distance, then said, “I recognize it but I can’t place it.”
“That’s everyone’s reaction. The smell is Inflatable Pool Toy.”
Spiro snapped his fingers. “Of course! What an interesting choice. It’s good. I like it.” Spiro gave a last sniff and Lara wondered if he had perhaps held her hand one extra second longer than he really had to.
Lara found herself more comfortable than she had been in a long time. Spiro had a ready smile, which she remembered from their work together years before. She couldn’t recall ever seeing him without it. And today he had asked her about herself and appeared to be interested in her answers, which was quite a change from the way Spiro had been six years earlier. In fact, it was such a change from virtually every other man she had been around that it quite stood out.
They parted an hour later, exchanging contact info and promising to stay in touch. When Spiro reached out the next day and suggested they have dinner, Lara was surprised how much she was looking forward to it.
– – O – –
Lara and Spiro were married a year later on the beach in Hawaii as the sun went down over Hanalei Bay. Twenty family members and close friends attended in person and a couple of hundred friends, relatives and co-workers joined them in AR. Everyone was dressed stylishly but all barefoot at Lara’s request, with AR guests staring with amusement at sand between their toes that they could see but not feel.
The wedding industry was deep into its transition to augmented reality. Florists complained that virtual flowers might look the same as real flowers but wasn’t it worth any price to be able to lean over and smell them? Most people looked at the price tags and decided virtual flowers for a tiny fraction of the price were just fine, thank you very much. Fewer people were attending events in person, reducing catering bills and furniture rentals, and even clothing was increasingly being handled in AR. Why buy an exorbitantly-priced gown for one-time use when guests with AR can see you dressed in Queen Victoria’s wedding dress?
They rented off-the-shelf AR wedding setups for decorations, flowers, and the arch over their heads as they said their vows. In the months before the wedding, Spiro programmed some extra effects, so the sunset was perfectly timed and caused oohs and ahhs as the clouds turned golden and the water shimmered. A perfect rainbow stretched across the bay, which technically didn’t fit the weather but made for great photographs.
Many of the virtual guests stayed for the toasts, sincere and loving. Spiro pretended to be startled at the end of his toast when two AR cherubs came flying in holding a banner that said “Spyro & Laura 4EVER XX000X.” They dropped the banner, tripped over a champagne bottle when they flew down to the wedding table to retrieve it, and ran around on the table quarreling with each other and knocking over glasses. The scene ended with the cherubs flying into the air, saying “Spiro loves you forever!,” then bending over and inserting long trumpets into their bums and playing a heavenly fart crescendo. Lara laughed so hard that champagne came out of her nose. They danced to AR bands, ending with the Count Basie Orchestra playing April In Paris on the sand.
They took two weeks off for the honeymoon, then came back to their Oakland apartment and got back to work.
Being married to a genuinely nice person was good for Lara’s soul. Spiro was dependable and loyal and seemed to be a little surprised each day when he woke up and she was still there. He was ambitious for his career but not obsessed by it, and he never appeared threatened by her successes as she was steadily promoted. Life decisions came easily without drama and usually without hard feelings.
Shortly after they married, they stretched their budget and bought a modest house in San Rafael, just a few minutes from downtown but a world away from big city life in ways that made both of them happy. For the first time they had two AR rooms with cameras so each could work from home and join meetings without using avatars.
They had long conversations about their dreams of parenthood but agreed to wait a few years before trying to have children. Lara had reservations about whether Spiro would be an equal contributor to raising kids – he would be a loving parent but she wasn’t confident that he would, say, wake up and take care of things occasionally, just occasionally, during the first four or five hundred nights after bringing a baby home. Obliviousness was a handicap when a toddler was sticking forks into outlets.
Not long after they were settled in the new house, Lara looked up from dinner and said, “Have you ever thought about getting a dog?”
She was a little surprised that Spiro’s face lit up. “Remember my parents’ dogs? There was always one in the house when I was growing up, and they always got the same breed, a schipperke. You’ve seen the pictures, all black, no tail, and completely devoid of any personality. It would be exciting to have a dog. Can we not get a schipperke?”
Lara solemnly agreed they should not get a schipperke.
“You’re proposing a real dog, right? The ones that poop and shed and chew things and need attention roughly every minute of every day? Because there are AR dogs that are already quite good and I could probably improve their programming if I could get access to the admin controls.”
Lara cut him off. “Real dog, flesh, blood, weight on your lap when it jumps up, not quite purring because that’s cats but the kind of dog that makes you think it would purr if it could.”
Lara listened to Spiro’s jokes about mentally ill shih-tzu-phrenics and how a small white dog left outside in the winter would bichon frise. He smiled at his cleverness and Lara firmly crossed each one off so she would never have to hear that joke again. They settled on a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Spiro said he thought a breed with four names was bound to be better than a breed with a measly one or two words in its name.
She watched happily as Spiro opened his heart to the puppy. They got the dog chipped and Spiro ordered a collar with contact info and the name he thought they had agreed on, “Qwerty.” Within a few days it was clear that Lara had not been consulted on the name Qwerty and did not agree it was a good name and didn’t want to say “stupid” because that’s too harsh so let’s say “poorly chosen,” shall we? Spiro nodded gravely.
They kept the collar but settled on the name “Foobar,” which Lara could live with and Spiro thought was wonderful. He told her more than she wanted to know about its origin in a 1930s comic book and all the ways it had been used as a programming term. Quite a lot more than she wanted to know.
Foobar spent his days in the fenced yard. Spiro would take him on walks and marvel at the neighbor who took the time to open her door to let a digital dog into the front yard. Her poodle would gambol up to the fence and bark at Foobar, and Foobar would ignore it because the poodle was digital and Foobar couldn’t see it or hear it.
A couple of happy years passed. Spiro programmed. Lara sold lotion. Foobar barked at birds and butterflies and shafts of light and air molecules, but never at strangers, who were always welcomed with rapturous happiness. Spiro developed an interest in cooking when he discovered it could be thought of as a specialized type of science project. Lara baked. Spiro and Lara traveled. They decorated the house. They spent too much time working. Life was paradisiacal.
– – O – –
There is a moment in paradise where it’s impossible to ignore flaws any longer, where niggling issues deserve attention before they become bigger problems. Lara was increasingly frustrated by a couple of things and couldn’t put them out of her mind.
Spiro couldn’t talk to her about his work. She had never imagined life with a partner whose career was off-limits as a topic of conversation. She spoke to other spouses in the tech industry and learned that Spiro was not unique. The industry was built on levels of confidentiality that were ingrained and treated with complete seriousness. The rules were strict, the consequences for breaking them were severe. There was no pillow talk about Spiro’s job.
Their college paper had studied the negative effects of tech company secrecy on society. She hadn’t expected to wind up sleeping next to a living example of corporate secrecy.
Even removed from the details, she knew Spiro was doing good work. He described his assessments, always glowing, and opportunities came up for him to become a manager and move up in the Arrgle hierarchy. People liked working with him. He was cheerful and honest and treated people fairly and shared the credit for successes with his team.
Spiro knew all of that. He was self-effacing but he wasn’t stupid. He knew he would be a good manager. When Lara tried to motivate him to step up to more responsibility and more money, quite a lot more money, he would look thoughtful and chew his lip as if he was giving it deep thought. Then he would gently explain that he loved being a programmer and felt less joy as a manager. Then he would try to look regretful for her benefit. She couldn’t move him forward. He was most content when he could sink into the focused zone where people faded out of his consciousness and cosmic symbols danced around his head in a science fiction swirl, or whatever he saw in there.
Matters came to a head on the day Foobar disappeared. They got their dog back but Spiro didn’t get a promotion.
– – O – –
Arrgle was creating a new department for complex AR programming projects, under Kaitlin’s direction as division head. Spiro and Barry were going to be part of the group, and interviews were proceeding for department manager. Lara had been working on motivating Spiro to take the position seriously, seek it, apply for it, dream of greatness, step up, feel the magic of advancing his career and making his life partner proud. He hadn’t actively resisted or fought with her about it. He was just inert, leaving her frustrated that she was dragging him up the hill of his own career.
The final decision would be made by a senior VP after an in-person interview. Lara kissed Spiro goodbye and left for an overnight trip to Los Angeles for a company rah-rah team building exercise. Spiro assured her that he would be a star at his interview.
When she got back late the next afternoon, Foobar was in the hospital and Spiro wasn’t a manager.
Spiro was stressed and tired as he told her the story that night. “I walked Foobar in the morning, fed him, put him in the backyard, went in to get ready for work, opened the door to let him in the house. He was gone! I looked everywhere. I looked behind all the bushes to see if he had dug his way out. The gate was closed like always. Foobar was just missing.”
“What did you do?”
“The obvious thing, I did a search for ‘ten best things to do when your pet is missing.’ Then I loaded treats in my pocket and went out in the neighborhood on foot, calling his name. I created a map and set up a search pattern. I spent most of the morning using a simple grid pattern to walk the nearby blocks. Then I got tired and got a car and set up a radiating swirl pattern, overlapping so I went by each area twice, widening the search area over time. There wasn’t a sign of him.”
Lara was a little hurt. “You didn’t tell me!”
“There wasn’t anything you could do and I didn’t want to worry you. I kept thinking I would find him. The clinic finally contacted me when he was brought in. They got the contact info from the collar, told me that Qwerty was going to be okay. It took me a minute to remember that’s the name on the collar.”
“How badly is he hurt?”
Spiro winced. “He was five miles away from the house when he was hit by the car. It was a soft impact. I’ve seen the car’s camera footage, it wasn’t moving fast and it started braking as soon as he ran out, but he’s going to have some permanent damage to his left rear leg and paw.” He started to cry. “I can’t figure it out. Maybe it was my fault. It had to be my fault. I feel terrible. I don’t know what happened.”
At some point a couple of hours later, after they had visited Foobar in the clinic, tail wagging weakly through the sedation, Lara said, “What about the interview?”
During the next year, she would revisit that day in her mind, wondering what their life would have been like if Spiro had a different answer to that question. The look of surprise on his face seemed quite genuine when he stopped and stared at her in dismay and said, “I forgot about it.”
They learned later that the senior VP was an irritable woman who felt disrespected by an employee who failed to appear for an interview and didn’t respond to pings. Barry became department head and Spiro was appointed programming minister without portfolio, as near as Lara could tell.
Lara was left wondering if Spiro had really truly been so overwhelmed that it never occurred to him to check in with the office that day. And how did Foobar wind up five miles away from the house?
– – O – –
Lara was getting her nails done a couple of months later. AR could supply colors and moving stars and glittering sparkles on toes and fingers, but underneath there were still real nails that grew and needed attention.
She overheard a snatch of conversation from the next chair and leaned over to the chatty woman in the next chair. “Did I hear you talking about Barry, a guy who works at Arrgle?”
Tiffani turned toward her and said, “I was married to him for a while. Do you know him?”
“My husband works in his department. I’ve only met Barry once or twice but I hear about him all the time. I don’t want to say anything bad, I just met you, but I’ve gotten the impression that he’s kind of a . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“Prick? Scumbag? Asshole?” Tiffani laughed. “Oh, girl, you have no idea. I ran into him last week and he was even more full of himself than ever, bragging about his promotion and how important he is now and how much money he’s making. He was trying to make me feel bad about leaving him and probably also trying to pick me up because did I mention the scumbag asshole part?”
Lara grinned back. Tiffani was funny, flipping her blonde hair around and waving her hands, much to the frustration of the stylist who was trying to work on her nails. Lara said, “The part about the promotion is true. He beat out my husband, Spiro, and now he’s a department head.”
Tiffany knitted her brow and said, “He said something about that. He ‘made sure that bastard Spiro didn’t get the job’ or something like that.”
Lara was puzzled. “Barry interviewed and must have done well, and my husband didn’t . . . well, it doesn’t matter. Are the two of you divorced?”
They chatted for a few minutes. Tiffani’s face lit up as she told Lara about her research on Seenit and how she knew that ghosts were real and her upcoming trip to Lake Superior to find the place where the government pedophiles were harvesting soul drops. Lara confessed that she had no idea what Tiffani was talking about and thought it sounded crazy, but Tiffani didn’t seem to mind. She chattered away and swept out of the shop with a cheery wave.
Lara slipped her sandals on a few minutes later and turned on a modest color for her nails, then went home to work and watch Foobar struggle to walk on three legs, wagging his tail and breaking her heart.
Chapter 12 of Uncommon Scents is online for your reading pleasure, featuring a bad pun about a shih-tzu-phrenic, the day Foobar went missing, and a meaningful conversation during a manicure.
Not long after they were settled in the new house, Lara looked up from dinner and said, “Have you ever thought about getting a dog?”
She was a little surprised that Spiro’s face lit up. “Remember my parents’ dogs? There was always one in the house when I was growing up, and they always got the same breed, a schipperke. You’ve seen the pictures, all black, no tail, and completely devoid of any personality. It would be exciting to have a dog. Can we not get a schipperke?”
Lara solemnly agreed they should not get a schipperke.
They settled on a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Spiro said he thought a breed with four names was bound to be better than a breed with a measly one or two words in its name.
She watched happily as Spiro opened his heart to the puppy. They got the dog chipped and Spiro ordered a collar with contact info and the name he thought they had agreed on, “Qwerty.” Within a few days it was clear that Lara had not been consulted on the name Qwerty and did not agree it was a good name and didn’t want to say “stupid” because that’s too harsh so let’s say “poorly chosen,” shall we? Spiro nodded gravely.
They kept the collar but settled on the name “Foobar,” which Lara could live with and Spiro thought was wonderful. He told her more than she wanted to know about its origin in a 1930s comic book and all the ways it had been used as a programming term. Quite a lot more than she wanted to know.