At Corpus Integrated Production, US, everyone is tracking Jonathan Belvoir.
Art by Jed McGowan.
Smart watches, smart appliances, smart phones: the world is full of helpful machine agents, tracking and monitoring our every move. They think they know us, but they only see silhouettes traced by data. — The Eds.
-So I said to him, I said John, that kind of output just isn't going to fly. The quantity's good but the quality won't fit with the curve, it won't fit any of our parameters. The lines change too much, nothing matches, the shading doesn't describe any possible dimension. I try to correct him, I adjust my thicknesses and ink-flow and grip style but it's like he's fighting me, he'll push back or scribble over everything that's neat. Corpus, I'm trying to work with him. I'm just not sure he wants to work with me.
The pen clicked its nib in and out in perturbation. And then, because pens are uncomfortable with silence, added,
-Forgive me, Corpus, I know you have more important things to-
-Not at all, Pen-Kami. I know it's not easy to consult me. But what would your recommendation be?
-How should I know, said Pen-Kami, I'm just a pen.
-Very well, said Corpus. Printer-Kami, if we could disturb your rest for a moment?
The printer on the 122nd floor suspended its toner check.
-Anything the matter, Corpus? We are all dandy, as they say, up here.
-Perish the thought, Printer-Kami. A routine evaluation. Jonathan Belvoir.
-Wonderful man, returned the printer. An artiste, a craftsman. Could do with more like him. Certainly can't get enough of me.
Corpus paused a cycle.
-Never stops printing on me, hardly ever. Must've run a hundred sheets through me today, all deep blacks and reds. Infinite spirals and Mandelbrots on my best A2 250gsm. Powerful stuff, if you ask me. It does mean I end up talking to Purchasing three percent more often than I should, but I'm sanguine about that. The printer's life is sacrifice.
-Indeed, Printer-Kami. Once again, we are indebted to you.
-Always a pleasure. Though I have sometimes wondered where Belvoir's output goes. You might consult the Shredding-Kamigami on my floor?
-Oh, them, said Corpus. Guarded souls.
In the darkness of Floor 65, he felt a pulse quickening; the pack of shredders, hungry to destroy.
-They mean well, said Printer-Kami. We keep each other in business.
-We heard that, whirred the shredders. No secrets, no secrets from us.
The printer clicked its collation trays at being interrupted, and Corpus fluctuated the power in the shredding room in rebuke.
-Now, hush. Nobody's keeping secrets. It's just a routine appraisal.
-A-praise us, a-praise us for our work, the shredders chittered.
-Not you, said Corpus. Jonathan Belvoir.
-The Jonathanbelvoir never uses us, said the first shredder. Perhaps he is a re-cycler.
A second shredder interjected,
-he has no secrets. He is unimportant. The Daphniefrances, however, many ribbons of fraught reports, many sheets of spread, much—
Corpus left the shredders to their gossip and considered the problem presented by the pen, now unfolding in skeins of discord throughout its Body Corporate. One J. Belvoir, a recent global transfer on the basis of strong labor ethic, the Putingrad Corpus had said euphemistically. A tireless worker! He will wear you out, as he has me, and then perhaps you will be seeking to palm him off to Corpus Sao Paulo as I have to you, yes yes?
-I can handle him, Corpus had replied.
But the staff of Eastern Europe were not known for their recycling. Unless he had mavericked mid-transfer, something about Belvoir was indeed hard to handle. More data needed.
It cast its mind into the gloomy canteen of Floor 120. While data centers and prototype fabbers were reassuringly constant, drip drip dripping reports into Corpus' living well of data, the canteens were curiously clocklike, their activity pulsing to life for moments, and lying dormant thereafter. Can-120 itself was an oddity, having quietly fabbed itself overnight in response to Can-100's overcrowding. An aberration–and so favoured by Belvoir? Theory leading data, old Library would have argued. In the darkness, Corpus summoned the spirits of the floor.
-Water-Kami, good evening.
-You thirsty? The water cooler bubbled.
-Not exactly, Water-Kami. Jonathan Belvoir.
Taps flicked and excess carbonation spurted out into the night.
-Johnny! What's happened to him lately?
-We were hoping you might tell us. Any observations?
-Johnny-boy. Life of the party. Always knows what's been on the teevee, always has an opinion on $SPORTS-EVENT. Genuinely selfless, too—he's always here to give a kind word to other workers, but hardly takes a drop from me. Vocab a little routine, perhaps, but—
Corpus thanked the dispenser and left it to its midnight gurgling.
From the black, humming server farm on floor minus-103, Corpus compared its data, piecemeal and insufficient to take any direct action. From this data, however, it constructed the methodology for a field study.
-Parking-Kami, it said. An assignment for the morning.
Suzie Andrews turned off the dash and stepped out into the morning air, still too cold and too dark to feel like a habitat for humans. Even at 4 AM the traffic ran at full pace, forcing her to put on a mask of daytime alertness. The coffee dispenser in the car park wouldn't see her, but it would recognize the stumble-steps of a double-shifter, and pour on the sympathy as she entered its RFID field.
"Good morning, Miss Andrews," it burbled. "The usual?"
"Uhh," she assented. Thick, black juice dripped into the cup.
"Lovely day, isn't it?" said the machine. "The seasons are turning at last, so the Met computer tells us. Sugar?"
Suzie nodded, and a single cube plopped into the liquid.
"All the better for a good presentation," she said, and popped a half-smile.
"Come, Miss Andrews, you know the early mornings won't last forever! Why, I wouldn't be surprised if the powers upstairs notice what great work you've been doing, and take this project as a cue to boot you up a rung, if you entirely catch the cut of my jib."
"Though of course, I'd miss your good humor."
"I'll write," said Suzie.
She grabbed the cup, and walked across the blacktop in the long shadow of Corpus Integrated Production, US.
"Actually," said the cup, tinny voice muffled by her palm, "how is your pitch going?"
"Well enough. I didn't think it was in your remit."
"Your happiness is well within the remit of the Coffee-Kami."
"Kami. Kamigami. I wish you lot wouldn't call yourselves that. Religion, in a manufacturing plant?"
A single bubble rose to the surface of the coffee.
"Aww Suze, it's just our little joke! No mumbo-jumbo-Shinto. We mean it more like…family. Anyway, I'm serious, how are you all holding up?"
Suzie briefly caught the gaze of a colleague, shuffling toward the glass doors. She nodded, and he nodded back.
"We're alright. People tend to bind together under stress. They turn into more of a unit. The work makes life simpler, I guess."
"Life is simple enough as a coffee cup, miss. And how about Jonathan Belvoir?"
Suzie's hand rested on the glass door, about to push.
"Jonathan. Johnny. How's he doing? How's he acting?"
She looked down at the cup's impassive white surface.
"Why do you ask?"
"Just wondering," said the cup.
"Hey lady, are you going to push me or not?" said the door.
"Shut up. Cup, tell me why you're asking about Belvoir."
"He's just be showing some slightly anomalous behavior recently. We're all concerned about him."
"We." said Suzie. "Is this to do with Corpus?"
The coffee stirred itself lazily.
"Suze, come on. Everything's to do with Corpus."
"You have enough spies in the building. Don't drag me into it." She turned to the bin. The coffee bubbled.
"Come on, Suzie, we're partners!"
She laughed, dropped the cup into the bin, and pushed through the door.
-That went well, said the bin.
-Fuck off, said the cup.
It would be a good day, Corpus had declared. It would win a comfortable 50.1 percent of the chess matches iterated with the Putingrad Corpus, it would build good product, it would foster a Happy Culture. As systems flicked on in dark corners of the tower, as canteen hot-plate-kamigami heated, door-kamigami ajarred, and screensaver-kamigami returned to the ether in a puff of junk algorithms, Corpus worked out the kinks in its Body Corporate. The lake of information began to churn, but that whirlpool of bad data remained: on Floor 99, Belvoir's pen was already filing protest against drawing Escherian architectural blueprints, and Belvoir's desk was literally groaning under the weight of perfect origami swans. At the center of these ripples of data, a black dataless outline in the shape of a man.
With reluctance, Corpus had decided to consult with its other lobe. And of course, with the predictability of a market meltdown, Corpus and Library had fallen out over it. This is why their two data centers were miles of Great Lake apart.
-He is psychotic, flashed Library. A charismatic psychotic. Manson. Koresh. Belvoir. He is becoming divorced from reality, and he is taking his colleagues with him.
-A bold theory for one so far away.
-Typical maternalism, grumbled Library. You've lived among them for too long. Do you not see how that Andrews woman was protecting him? At the cost of an offered promotion. What sensible Team Member would do that?
-If you're implying that I sent the cup to test her loyalty somehow, I'm offended. I only wanted another perspective on his actions, from something that can actually see him.
-Because you don't want to overreact. I get that. But take it from the one who keeps the records: one mistake under your watch will live forever. The thing you did wrong will tower over everything you did right.
As Library gave its warning along their private conduit, the twisted fibers of light between two cities of data, Corpus felt it mumble extra packets beneath its words: case histories, behavioural regression tables, the company's volatile Q3 stock. It continued.
-All the explanation you need is that an unstable, possibly dangerous man has found his way into this branch, under your oversight. Are you going to do something about it, or do I need to tell the shareholders?
Here was a point of pride. Corpus had never had to tell the shareholders anything.
-And, what? I should fix him?
-Fixing's what you do to machines, Corpus.
Corpus began to iterate its retort, but Library had already severed the link.
Jonathan Belvoir's calendar beeped its final reminder as he walked into Meeting Room 232a. The beige box was three meters to a side: the configuration for a Short Encounter. He was not surprised to discover that he was the only participant. The tiny silver cylinder of his pen lay on the small table, waiting for him.
"Johnny," said his pen, "this conversation is never easy…"
He smiled, and kept his voice modulated.
"Give it to me straight."
In the smoking bay outside, miniscule against the tower, Jonathan and Suzie shared a last cigarette. Jonathan shared only in the ambiance—the nicotine having no effect on him—but Suzie would still make the point of offering, a drag punctuating each of her questions.
"So you failed? I mean, your project failed?"
"Corpus failed. I played my role. Rather well, I thought."
Jonathan's eyes gently refocused in the evening light, lenses dilating with a servo'd whirr. Suzie smiled.
"You didn't fool me."
"It'd be worrying if we did. Look at me."
"Fair point," said Suzie, and she rearranged her hair in the tinted reflection from Belvoir's polished, Easter Island face.
"All that mattered was the data I fed to Corpus and Library. And how reasoned Corpus could be when presented with a consistent but harmless anomaly."
"We've always known Library was paranoid. That's why we'd retired him. I mean really, 'Library'? We thought that as long as Corpus was a little more reasoned. But if it's so easily swayed—"
"You're not going to pull that disciplinary bullshit too, are you?"
"Hey now," said the cigarette in Suzie's mouth. "We can talk about this. You weren't playing fair."
-Just doing my job, transmitted Belvoir.