Geoff slammed the crumpled door again. It failed to click, jammed as it was from when that bastard in the Mercedes crunched it in a parking lot. Geoff wanted to get the damned thing repaired, but he also wanted to pay his rent, so the door remained a metallic mess, looking like the foil you might take off a turkey and ball up. Geoff pressed against the door with his back, finally hearing the click.
It wasn't that his car was anything special; it was just an old electric Volvo, one of the first generation, built in the old days of “range anxiety,” before the nation’s highways had been fully outfitted with charging stations. It had been his mother's car, and there was some sentimental value there. It had also been this car in which he'd snuck off to the woods with his buddy Eric to eat psilocybin mushrooms and talk to the faces in the trees. Later he and Eric had discovered a mutual attraction that went way beyond the spiritual connection provided by the shrooms, and had ended up steaming up the windows as they explored that connection in the backseat of the Volvo.
But that was more than a decade ago, during the fragile and frenetic years of his stumbling adolescence, and had nothing to do with today's mission.
Today Geoff and the Volvo were engaged in a glorious project - getting Geoff his dream job, one that would allow him both rent money and cash to fix the car's door. Geoff smoothed down his rumpled corduroy blazer and made sure the crease in his pants was neatly crisp, that his black wingtips were shiny. He took a deep breath, ran his hands through his thinning blond hair, and started to walk toward the gleaming obsidian spike in the center of the white stone plaza.
Geoff didn't want to have to work his way up some corporate ladder, going from tedious menial nonsense of one type to tedious menial nonsense of a slightly more important type, all in the vague buzzwordy mission of some faceless conglomerate whose true purpose was obscured behind layers of whatever the hell corporations actually did these days.
No, today Geoff would stride through the glass doors of the skyscraper in front of him and speak to a man called Symon at a company called Augmented International, who promised him "fame and fortune and everything that goes with it," which were lyrics to a very old Queen song that was on a playlist that his grandparents had put on at Christmas sometimes for reasons that they'd never adequately explained, in exchange for "certain services of a mutually beneficial, and entirely legal, nature." The specifics were vague, in that there were no specifics, and the whole thing smelled entirely like a scam. But Geoff was curious.
He strode through the glass doors, the pounding heat outside extinguished by cold air conditioning. The black lobby was illuminated by steel torchieres along both walls, and fronted by a black desk lit by a single steel desk lamp, where a blond woman sat and smiled at him. She wore digital lipstick set to rainbow mode, which was a little disconcerting, and as she smiled her mouth went from green to orange.
"I'm Geoff Besson, here to see Symon Brooks?" He pronounced his last name the French way, because he was tired of people thinking it was BESS-un.
She nodded and typed something into a screen embedded into her desk, and then pointed at a row of Mies Van Der Rohe Bauhaus chairs sitting along one black wall. Geoff hadn't noticed them before because they were black on black, which seemed a bit...much. He sat down in one of them and fidgeted.
The cavernous lobby absorbed sound in a way that it shouldn't have. He'd have expected to hear his footsteps ricocheting about the place, but they were muffled, subdued somehow, dampened.
The weirdness of the situation was beginning to increase. Geoff saw no elevators leading to the hundred floors above him - just this huge lobby, black on black with black accents, like an enormous corporate tomb, or an office of vampires? Surely not.
Geoff sat for a half hour waiting for someone to tell him what to do, unconsciously bouncing his left leg up and down, fidgeting with his hands, wishing for an ebook or a toy or something to fiddle with. He had always been terrible at sitting still for more than a few minutes, especially without anything to entertain him, and staring at a black, featureless room was not helping. He had the urge to pace, an urge that got worse with every passing second. A million thoughts bounced around in his idle mind, each one commanding a tiny sliver of his attention, but none of them actually getting through in any coherent way. He worried about whether he'd remembered to pay the cybernet bill this month, or if it was buried in his email that he occasionally went through in a panic when something was about to get cut off. He worried about whether that guy from the bar would actually show up for their date at the nice Italian place tonight. The guy had been cute as hell, and he and Geoff had hit it off rather well, at least Geoff thought so. He worried about the prospect of this new job, which seemed to consist of sitting in a black room being incredibly bored.
Finally the woman at the desk signaled for him to come to her with a subtle wave of one hand. Her mouth went from purple to green. He stood and walked over. She handed him a black piece of plastic the size of a hotel key card, and then pointed at a spot on the back wall that looked as blank as the rest of the room. A sliver of light appeared and grew, and Geoff realized he was looking at the interior of an elevator.
"Thanks," he said, the sound of his voice disappearing as soon as it came out of his mouth. The woman nodded.
Geoff entered the elevator, wondering what he was supposed to do with the black plastic thing. Then he noticed a spot on the featureless white wall of the elevator was pulsing red in the shape of the card. Geoff placed the card over the pulsing spot, and the elevator doors slid closed. There was very little sensation of movement, other than the requisite changes in gravity that told him he was headed up.
And headed up he was, all the way to the top. The elevator doors opened.
Geoff was struck with paralyzing terror as he stared at a room made entirely of fully transparent glass. It looked as if, when he stepped out of the elevator, he'd be stepping into open space 100 stories above the ground. Acrophobia curled him into a quivering ball at the back of the elevator, hyperventilating, palms actually dripping sweat, unable to move.
A tall, bald man floated above his own certain death on that glass floor and crouched down outside the elevator to look at Geoff. His face was pale crags and white teeth, his mouth a little bigger than it should be.
"This isn't exactly a way to show confidence to a potential employer, Geoff." The voice was clipped, like a manicured lawn surrounding a stately New England manor.
Geoff couldn't find a response - he gasped, panicking, terrified, paralyzed, at the back of the elevator.
"Come on, you. If you're going to work for us you'll have to get used to being uncomfortable." The man walked into the elevator and held a hand out for Geoff to grasp. Then he changed his mind, giving Geoff a "wait a minute" finger, and walked back out of the elevator onto that impossible glass surface.
Geoff remembered that the peculiar architecture of this building meant that the top floor jutted out like a pyramidal hat from the rest of the building, allowing for this office to exist, and to terrify.
The man returned with a fluffy white hand towel and handed it to Geoff.
"Wipe the sweat off y/our palms, Geoff, and then let's go."
Geoff wiped his hands off and then grasped the man's wrist. The man helped Geoff up and pulled him across the impossible threshold. Geoff immediately collapsed again, unable to move. He stared down 100 stories to his own inevitable death, and whimpered a little.
The man grabbed Geoff under the arms and hoisted him up, and then set him down in a black leather chair across from a steel desk at one corner of the room. He handed Geoff a pill and a glass of water.
"What's this?" Geoff was able to gasp.
"Valium. Take it."
Geoff swallowed the pill, his overarching terror letting slip the question of why exactly Symon had Valium ready and waiting for him, along with any question of whether it was actually Valium. His hand shook as he drained the glass of water. The man took the glass from him and set it on the desk.
"Now. Look, let's not let that little display of cowardice ruin our meeting. I'm Symon Brooks.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Geoff managed in a quaver.
Geoff of course knew Symon Brooks, hailed as the Next Harry Pendergrast, who, a long time ago, had been dubbed the Next Steve Jobs. Geoff didn’t really understand why people had to be the “next” anyone. What happened to being the “right now yourself?”
Brooks was the head of Augmented International, and he'd been the first to develop a computer that had passed every Turing test the techno-philosopher crowd could throw at it. He'd named it Wintermute, after the AI in a visionary science fiction tale from a long time ago, and it was said that Symon and Wintermute had regular discussions about life, the Universe, and everything.
Symon Brooks said, “We've actually had our eye on you for a while, which is why I was so pleased that you accepted this meeting. Of course, there was no way to know about your acrophobia. Sorry about that. Still, I always say the best way to get over a fear is to stare it in the face every single day.”
Geoff was taking deep breaths and waiting for the Valium to kick in.
“With due respect, let's get to the point, and then I'd like very much to leave this room," he said, his voice trembling in such a way that he was sure it’d show up on a Richter scale.
"The point. Ok. I am keen on developing both hardware and software with personalities based on real people. We'd like to model consciousness in the digital world."
“You want to up your AI game.”
Symon nodded. “What we’re talking about is true virtual consciousness, nay, virtual sentience, virtual sapience, a computer that can not only pass a Turing test, but one that can write its own version, and will think to do that on its own. This isn’t the computer in your fridge that tells you when to buy milk. This is way beyond that.”
“So what is the primary mission?”
“The Holy Grail. An intelligent database - something that can chew up the Internet and spit out exactly the information you want, instantaneously, intuitively, without any noise, spam, or nonsense.”
The Valium was beginning to take effect, and Geoff began to relax a little. “Cool. So how do you do that?”
“Well, let’s have a few questions and answers first, eh?”
“Ok,” said Geoff.
“Tell me about your schooling. Your resume says you got a degree in analytics from Purdue.”
“Yes, that's right.”
“Well, tech has always interested me, but when I went to college I had only kind of a vague awareness of what I actually wanted to do with it. Analytics seemed a good starting point.”
Symon nodded. “So you studied trends, numbers, the kind of macro picture of the internet, right?”
“Yeah, and how to build architectures to analyze the metrics I was studying.”
“So what have you done with it so far?”
Geoff blinked. Not a whole hell of a lot, he didn't say. “I've mostly been trying to get myself established in a career that -”
“Yeah, that's a non-answer, Geoff. I know your job history. Mostly low-level programming stuff. But I know more than that, right? I know about Echelon.”
“Echelon? I...that's not even in alpha yet. It's more of a vague idea than-- ”
“Yes, but it's exactly the kind of thing that brought you to our attention.” Symon leaned forward in his chair. “Although the name's dumb.”
“The name. It's dumb. But the idea is sound. Collating cellular network structures to build a massive multi-user open meta-database?”
“Yes. That's exactly what we want to do. So we'd like to buy Echelon. But we'd also like to buy your brain.”
Geoff cocked his head, unsure he'd heard Symon correctly. “Excuse me?”
“Your brain. I'd like to buy your brain. Quite literally. I want to take your Echelon project, upload your brain into it, and create a self-aware metanetwork that can cross-reference everything on the Internet simultaneously and come up with exactly the result a user wants. No more million Boogle results. No more voice-activated idiot robots that think you want to order pizza when you wanted to call your friend Peter. No more bullshit.”
“Huh,” said Geoff. The valium was really kicking in now, and he rode the waves like a pro surfer.
“But there's another angle to this project,” said Symon.
“A current generation algorithm goes through someone's email looking to tailor ads to the user's email content. One of this person’s emails mentions the burger chain Flappy Burgers. What would that algorithm do?”
“Place an ad for Flappy Burgers, obviously.”
Symon leaned forward. “Ah, but the full text of the person’s email says ‘I hate Flappy Burgers.’”
“So…we'd need to somehow tell the algorithm to place an ad for one of Flappy Burger’s competitors?”
Symon nodded. “Bingo. See, we still haven’t got to the point where natural language processing can truly parse the contextual meaning of something like that. It sees Flappy Burgers, it’s going to try and sell you Flappy Burgers.”
Geoff took another sip of water. “So you want to build a better ad bot?”
Symon laughed. “More than that. Here's another example. Now let’s say you’re looking for a restaurant that serves a particular kind of gin, has gluten-free options, is open on a Sunday, and is quiet.”
“Well I mean, Yalp will find most of that.”
“Will it though? You’ll have to sift through a restaurant’s reviews, and maybe nobody mentions the kind of gin you want, or whether the restaurant is quiet. You’d have to go to a lot of different places all over the web to find all of that information, wouldn’t you?”
“I could just call a few restaurants.”
“You spend twenty minutes on the phone and manage speak to two restaurants, neither of which fits your criteria. Several others simply don’t answer the phone. Meanwhile, you’ve got five people coming over in an hour who are very particular about those criteria. You need a dependable place to take them.”
“Eek. Well, I’d start to panic, I think.” But the Valium was telling him he wouldn’t actually panic, that everything would be fine, that the world was a vast ocean and he was just riding the waves.
“What if you had unfettered access to a vast database that could cross-reference every email, blog, webpage, video, text message, voicemail, forum posting, social media rant and chat transcript?”
“Well, I’d wonder who the hell has that kind of access, and why. But then, assuming I liked the answer to that question, I mean, then it’s just a question of …but you’d have to start searching each type of medium for each search term, then score and correlate the matches, and hopefully come up with the name of a restaurant that meets the requirements, using some kind of natural language algorithm, right?”
Geoff’s mind was crouched on a surfboard in the middle of a perfect tube, the foam and water curling around him in slow-motion. “Ok. So…”
“So that's why we want to upload your brain and join it up with your Echelon project. We want you to literally be that algorithm."
"What, like Max Headroom?"
“Whoa, that’s a reference I haven't head for a while.” Symon grinned. “Before your time, isn't it?”
“Before yours too, I’d imagine,” Geoff said.
“Still, if we’re doing very old pop culture references, think Max Headroom meets Skynet, but not evil. We’d like to create a self-aware database that can perform searches using instinct and intuition, that understands the context of human language in ways that no computer ever has."
“I suppose I should ask the obligatory question about privacy concerns.”
“No, you really shouldn’t.”
“Ask me about the compensation.”
What’s the compensation?"
“$500,000 annual base salary, plus a percentage of ad revenue. In exchange, we get exclusive rights to Echelon and your uploaded mind.”
It was more money than Geoff had ever hoped to see in his life. Symon had been correct about Geoff not needing to ask about privacy concerns.
Symon stood and walked back across the desk to where Geoff was struggling to stand, a roiling combination of vertigo and Valium making it difficult to figure out how to use his various limbs.
“Now, I’ll email you the rest of the contract, and you can look that over at your leisure.”
Symon grabbed Geoff under one arm and helped him back to the elevator, where Geoff cowered in the far corner.
"We'll meet again tomorrow, same time," said Symon, "in my downstairs office. It's entirely enclosed, you'll be happy to know."
Geoff nodded. "Thanks. I'll look the contract over tonight.”
As the elevator doors closed, Symon said, “That was aspirin, by the way.”