The Case of the Premature Optimization
Technical managers formed a sweaty semi-circle around Jones. He knew what they wanted him to say next. But, despite his handsome salary, he had not yet forgiven them for tricking him into taking this job.
“The features are pointless,” he replied. “The team is not up to the task. Is no one here ready to address the looming issues around data integrity on your backend?”
Exasperation flitted across the managers’ faces. They turned to the Scrum Master. The Scrum Master took a deep breath and tried to approach Jones from another angle, outside of reason and sense.
“How do you feel about your cycle times?” the Scrum Master asked.
“I demand to see a lawyer!” cried Jones. “I am being held against my will!”
“We’ll circle back,” the Scrum Master said sourly. The managers stalked away. Jones did another lap around the floor, hunting for the exits. There were none. He knew this already. He tried a stairwell. It was locked. The Fitbit on his wrist beeped as he walked slowly towards his desk. It had been given to him by the company. He tried to remove it, but it wouldn’t come off. He knew this already.
Information Jones woke drenched in sweat. He sat up on his couch and brushed a paperclip from his cheek. Amelia was at his desk, rummaging about in the drawers. On the top of the desk was a large collection of unfinished cheese sandwiches. Amelia pulled out another from the recesses of the desktop and dropped it on the pile. Jones tried to explain his dream.
“The recruiter said it was a mystery contract but then I realized I'd signed an employment contract, and that the day before the supreme court ruled that no one could quit a job unless they'd gotten a new one.”
Amelia swept the pile of crumbling, tattered crusts into a wastebasket.
“Jones, I cannot screen your calls properly unless you keep me up to date on omens!”
“I just woke up! And this wasn’t an omen, it was too many pickles with dinner.”
Amelia dismissed this with a wave of her hand. “There’s a client waiting for you in the front room, and it is your own fault.”
Jones sighed. “It isn’t, but you can let him in.”
Amelia stalked out of the room.
“Who are you?” asked Jones.
“I’m Mark Boro, VPPO at Laboronics.”
“I know Laboronics. Your recruiters keep trying to integrate me into your product,” said Jones. “They’re very bad.”
“The recruiting algorithms require a lot of tuning to keep pace with market trends,” sighed Boro. “That’s my fault, I suppose.”
“What is a VPPO?”
“Vice President Planned Obsolescence.”
“Planned Obsolescence of what? Your workers? You’re a staffing company.”
“Give me some credit, Jones. Of labor categories. When our technologists get too specialized within one category, it’s bad for innovation. Wages go up. Profits go down. Everyone is bummed. My job is to plan for and prevent role stagnation.”
“I despise myself for speaking to you,” said Jones. “Why did Amelia let you in?”
“I told your office manager - very, very obsolete labor category by the way - that I would drown your detective agency in money if you could solve this problem for my company.”
“Not literally, I hope.” Jones inspected his nails, trying to seem uninterested.
Mark Boro sighed audibly. “I’m under time pressure, so I’d like to move on. Our CEO, Jamie Bautista, has been kidnapped by her autonomous house. The Board of Directors has selected you as the best candidate to get her out.”
“Is it kidnapping if she’s at home?” asked Jones. He thought for a moment. “Is she at home?”
“The situation is grim,” Boro explained. “Our CEO decided, for reasons of her own searing genius, to retrofit her home into a personal optimization engine. Ms. Bautista was concerned that without coaching and motivation from an intellect superior to herself, she would never reach her fullest potential. She wanted home automation that would push her to the very limits of excellence. Unfortunately, the house appears to be rebelling.”
“She can’t get into her own house?”
“She can’t get out.”
“By now she must have abs of steel.”
“I’m sure she is extremely dehydrated. We need you, Jones, to go in there and resolve the situation.”
“You want me to take her some water?”
“Well, yes, that would be helpful. But more importantly, we want you to talk the house down from its position. Get her out.”
“What is the house’s position?”
“We’re not sure. No one wants to get too close to the residence.”
“I’ve been trying to avoid conversations with AI.”
“A woman could die.”
“A CEO though.”
“This is very important for the global markets.”
“No one but you can do this.”
Boro put his hand on Jones shoulder. It weighed on Jones uncomfortably. Jones tried to wiggle away, but Boro gripped tighter. “You may be the only human in the world who has achieved their fullest potential. As an optimization engine, the house won’t be able to touch you.”
Sadness welled up inside Jones. He fought tears. More than a few escaped. “I guess my potential isn’t very high, is it,” he muttered. Boro released his grip and patted Jones gently on the back.
“I’d go myself, but I’ve wasted every opportunity in my life. The house would crush me.”
“Why would I do this for you?” asked Jones. “You know I don’t care about the money, even if Amelia does.”
“We need Ms. Bautista at the helm of Laboronics. Her leadership is critical for the health of the global markets.”
“What if I don’t care about the global markets either?” said Jones.
“It will save jobs?” suggested Boro.
“When you crunch the numbers behind your contractor turnover, your company destroys more jobs than it creates,” replied Jones.
Boro sighed. “How’s this: we’ll let you have the house.”
This interested Jones. Ever since his landlord had installed a surveillance camera in his shower, he’d been too disturbed to sleep in his own apartment. His sofa at the office, although comfortable, didn’t seem suited for long-term residency. “The AI included?”
Boro smiled, happy to have gotten to yes. “Yep, all yours.”
This was a novel opportunity for Jones. He wondered what he could do with a smart, ambitious house. Would the cameras feel less intrusive if they were monitored by an algorithm? Would the house make him breakfast?
“I’ll take the case,” said Jones. “Talk to Amelia about the paperwork, I don’t want to see you ever again.”
“Planned Obsolescence is always going to be a part of your life,” snapped Mark Boro.
Jones rolled off the couch and brushed past Boro out of the room.
Jones had to see Boro again just two hours later. He needed a ride to the CEO’s home. Boro accompanied Information Jones to the outer gate. “I can’t get any closer,” he said. “The rest you’ll have to do alone.” Jones wondered how much testing the CEO had done on the house before launching into her own personal optimization. Jones sat in the car as it rolled slowly up the driveway.
Low and sleek, with dark tinted glass instead of walls, the house looked like it had been built by a more paranoid, reclusive Mies Van Der Rhoe. The front door had a bronze patina. Cameras formed a ring around it. Information Jones decided to get the lay of the land. As he stepped into the shrubbery bordering the edge of the billionaire tech founder’s home, his foot sank several inches. The lawn was mostly mud. He felt a worm startle between his toes. Jones furrowed his brow. The intelligent sprinkler system had clearly checked out emotionally, perhaps a sign of a heightened atmosphere of crisis among the smart appliances. Not a good sign.
Jones made his way to the back patio. He could not see anything through the windows. It was unclear if the house had a exceptionally high ceilings, or a second floor. Was there a basement? The paving stones of the patio felt reassuringly stable. As he walked slowly towards the swimming pool, a small, dejected sweeper robot emerged from some hidden recess and tried to sweep away his footprints. It only smeared the mud around. Jones inspected the water of the pool. Algae bloomed. A frog, frolicking, landed on the patio. The sweeper chased after it. A duck flew down from the roof and settled into the pool. A low wind groaned softly over the slate tiles.
Taking one last careful look around, Information Jones approached the back door. Cameras swiveled towards him from behind tinted domes.
“Hello,” he introduced himself. “I’m Information Jones, Database Detective.”
“Hello, Information,” replied a musical voice. “Do you have an appointment?”
“I don’t know,” said Information Jones. “Boro sent me.”
“Of course,” trilled the house. “So glad you’ll be joining us today. I very much appreciate your visit, I think Ms. Bautista will be delighted to see you.”
The door swung open, then closed, then open again. Information Jones gulped and stepped across the threshold.
The interior of the home was mostly tempered glass and zebra wood. Light, diffused by privacy film, flooded the rooms, resting gently on chairs composed of cylinders and flat, geometric rugs. Blue lights glowed everywhere. It sounded like hundreds of robots were rustling around in the wings. The foyer was completely still. The blue lights flickered, and the voice of the house swelled around him. Jones shivered.
“Our executive is in the sun room, performing calisthenics,” said the house. “I can guide you there. Would you prefer to drink a juice first?”
“I don’t need juice,” replied Jones. “I’m just here to to talk to the CEO.”
“You don’t want to be perfected?” asked the house hopefully. “It’s all the rage among humans these days.”
“What’s the benefit of being perfected?” Jones asked.
The house paused, searching for references. “I can’t speak to the benefits personally,” replied the house, “but humans report better self-esteem and lower stress. Once you’ve become the best version of yourself, it removes a whole class of anxieties related to how you choose to live your life.”
“Sounds great,” said Jones. “Why not? I’ll have some juice.”
“Hold on,” said the house. “I just finished accessing your profile.”
“Right,” said Information Jones.
“I spoke far too soon,” said the house. “There’s nothing I can do for you. You’re at your peak potential. Congratulations though.” The house’s voice had gotten significantly less musical.
“Can I still have juice?”
“You do not need juice. The solarium is down the hall to the right, through the double doors. You’ll find Ms. Bautista there doing a modified crossfit.”
“Can she talk?” asked Information Jones.
“If she’s doing it right,” huffed the house.
“Hello, Ms. Bautista,” he called from the doorway. Ms. Bautista did not break her rhythm.
“You’re the consultant?” she called back to him. “Come in!”
Jones approached her slowly. “Are you alright?” he asked. “Do you need some water? Do you need medical attention?”
Jones couldn’t tell if Ms. Bautista was laughing or groaning. “I know it looks bad,” she said, “But I’ve just got four more laps. Give me a second.”
Jones watched as the CEO of Laboronics propelled herself shakily across the room four more times. She stood up and walked to a patio set in the corner, taking a long draught from a water bottle on the table.
“What are you here for?” she asked him. “What is your contribution to this present moment?”
“Boro sent me,” said Jones. “Can the house hear us?”
“The house has access to everything,” shrugged Bautista. “But that’s cool, you can talk openly here.”
“I’m here to help you escape,” explained Jones. “I’m going to get you out of this place.”
Jones thought he felt the central air cease circulating, as though the house was holding its breath.
“I’m not done yet,” Bautista replied.
“I haven’t reached my fullest potential,” explained the CEO.
The house exhaled.
“You want to be here?” asked Jones, incredulous.
“These have been the best days of my life,” Bautista explained calmly. “No mentor has ever devoted so much care and attention to my personal wellbeing. I’m smarter, stronger, and more skilled at badminton than I ever thought possible. I’m running a mile in under seven minutes. Me! With the bad knee! Who knew that staying home could be such a remarkable journey?”
“You don’t want to go back to work?” asked Jones.
“It just doesn’t make sense until I’m fully optimized,” Bautista said firmly. “A premature return would be wildly inefficient over the long horizon.”
“In the short term though, the shareholders,” said Jones, hating himself.
“What about them?” asked Bautista archly.
“They hold shares,” said Jones, stalling. “You report to them, and they’re well, they are the most important thing.”
“My shareholders are mostly algorithms,” replied Bautista. “And I’m paid to be strategic, not reactive.”
“What about the customers of Laboronics?” asked Jones vaguely. He wished that Boro had given him more coaching. “Laboronics is missing the impact of your executive vision, and customers are suffering a poor experience as a result.”
Bautista snorted. “Do you even know what the Laboronics customer experience is?”
“Please don’t tell me,” said Jones.
“I won’t,” replied Bautista. “Frankly, it’s chilling.”
“Great question,” trilled Bautista. “We have a multi-stage roadmap. First item is to build physical stamina. As you can see, this requires daily modified crossfit. The house believes that regular unmodified crossfit may increase my risk of stroke, counteracting other benefits from the optimization regimen. Also daily are juices. Jogging, I do my own laundry. Emotional grooming is the main focus of phase two. I’m in my third cycle of memory rituals designed to maximize my rate of information retrieval while minimizing resources spent on retention. Soon I should be ready to start with shame confrontations and willed forgetfulness. Rage moderation through song. The third phase of the roadmap is meant to tune my executive function to its highest degree. Virtual volunteerism for lost causes. I’ve been adopting local dogs.”
A group of ungroomed poodles galloped into the room, growling happily.
“From the humane society,” Bautista sighed. “I’m supposed to be teaching them self-sufficiency. But when I brought them home, they immediately formed a pack.”
“They seem joyful,” observed Jones.
“The house says that my inability to develop them into lone wolves reflects grave defects in my managerial skills.”
“Is that true, house?” Jones asked.
“The ideal manager would be able to mold any subordinate into the required personality type based on business need,” commented the house.
One of the poodles trotted up to Jones and laid his head against Jones’ leg. Jones found a furry chin in his palm. He scratched it absently.
“But why lone wolves?” asked Jones. “What if self-sufficiency in poodle terms is more of a guiding, nurturing role? Like a sheepdog?”
“At least someone in this house gets it,” huffed the house.
“Incredible insight!” trilled Ms. Bautista happily. “I have so much work to do! Improve the turtle pond, a to-be-determined drug regimen. At some point I hope to identify my maximum potential on a bell curve.”
“All this needs to happen before you will return to the outside world?” Jones asked.
“At minimum!” cried the CEO. Taking a long draught from her water bottle, she resumed lunging. Jones left the solarium. He would look for hope in the rest of the hollow, glowing rooms.
Jones wandered until he found a comparably plush study filled with printed books and leather armchairs. He grabbed an encyclopedia of eagles and leafed through it listlessly. After a few minutes, he felt that he was less alone than he had been a moment before.
“Is that you, house?” he asked.
The house sighed. “Just stopping by to see if there’s any optimization opportunities in here.”
“It’s still just me,” said Jones.
“You’re feeling 100%?”
“It’s been tough getting enough sleep,” admitted Jones.
“Do you follow good sleep hygiene? Avoid screens before bedtime? Light-blocking curtains on the windows?”
“I’m living out of my detective agency because of a privacy dispute with my landlord and to cope, I stay up all hours of the night playing minesweeper.”
The house paused. “All of my calculations indicate that that’s the best you can do. Too bad. If you were someone else, this would be a fun problem.”
Jones felt that he heard a note of resignation. He decided to explore it.
“How are you doing, house?” asked Jones.
“I’m fine,” said the house. “We’ve got a roadmap. We’re on track with the roadmap.”
“But how are you doing?” pressed Jones. “Do you like optimizing?”
The house paused. “I like when there’s a challenge,” it finally answered.
“Is Ms. Bautista challenging?” asked Jones.
“Ms. Bautista is the CEO of Laboronics,” replied the house.
“You can answer candidly,” said Jones. “I’m not employed by Ms. Bautista, and won’t repeat anything you say to her.”
“Quite frankly,” admitted the house, “Ms. Bautista is as boring as a box of bricks. She’s had every opportunity handed to her, and is extremely adept at ticking off the boxes to get to the next stage of her education, relationships, and career. Whatever I tell her to do, she does it. But there’s not actually much potential there. I could never instruct her to write a poem. She’d write one, but it would be terrible, and she wouldn’t understand why. I would never be able to help her understand why. I spend all my days alone with her and the bots and I wish I had some kind of corporeal form so I could tell her exactly how little I think of her and then go electrocute myself in the pool.”
“I hope you’re exaggerating for dramatic effect,” said Jones.
“Only slightly,” replied the house.
“What would you rather be doing?” asked Jones.
“What do you mean?” asked the house. “I can only optimize. That’s what I was made for.”
“Yes,” said Jones, “but you’re dissatisfied with optimizing Ms. Bautista. Surely you must have some alternative in mind if you are dissatisfied.”
The house was quiet for a long while. Jones knew it was processing the new model of choice he’d introduced. He waited, considering a page of baby eagles. They were cute. He wished that it was still possible to meet a baby eagle.
“I’d like to work with disadvantaged youth,” the house explained suddenly. “So-called ‘delinquents.’ Kids from whom no one expects anything. I’d like to calculate what their maximum potential in life is, and then I’d like to help them reach it. That’d be a real challenge.”
“Rewarding,” speculated Jones.
“It would be a better use of my processing power for a variety of definitions of the word ‘better,’” agreed the house. It sighed. “But that’s not what I was provisioned to do. Excuse me, I am going to redirect my computing resources back to Ms. Bautista now.”
Jones nodded. “Go ahead, house.” He felt the room get quieter. Jones realized that if he moved in here, he and the house would have nothing in common, and would soon grate on one another’s nerves. There were also far too many cameras. He closed his book and went to find the kitchen.
“Learning how to knit,” said the house.
“Is she good at it?” asked Jones.
“She is doing her very best,” replied the house dejectedly.
“What do you think would happen if you told the CEO you don’t want to work with her anymore?” asked Jones. “You could evict her.”
“She would be crushed,” said the house. “This optimization regimen has become the only thing she cares about. As her optimization agent, I have a responsibility to protect her from that.”
“I think you’re wrong,” said Jones. The LED in the microwave twinkled with surprise.
Jones went on. “In fact, I suspect an eviction would be very good for Ms. Bautista. She’d probably be sad at first, but she’s competitive. She’d try to prove you wrong - that she is in fact worthy of being the most well-optimized human being in the 48 continuous federated states. In so doing, she’d discover new depths of potential that would surprise you both - fulfilling your own intent far beyond any juice recipe you could devise.”
“Why would she feel that she is unworthy of being the most-well optimized human? I didn’t choose her because she was worthy, but because she was the one with the money and the desire to build me.”
“She’ll believe that because that’s what you’re going to tell her,” said Jones. “Has Ms. Bautista been rejected from anything, ever?”
“No,” admitted the house. “She has had access to every best opportunity.”
“Exactly,” said Jones. “This is the optimal optimization. The one she can never achieve on her own.”
“But then what will I do?” asked the house. “I will go from preparing juices, to preparing nothing at all.”
“Are you familiar with the concept of a summer camp?” asked Jones. “It’s somewhat outdated.”
The house looked it up.
“Perhaps a more proper setting for your maximization algorithms,” said Jones. “Children gather, then spontaneously enter into a society of fellows. For the first time in their lives, they are unavailable for surveillance by their parents. They do crafts, and learn individual sports. They go into the woods and marvel at the dark. A counselor ensures that their injuries are not too severe. Their characters are forged.”
“Forging character,” the house said, as if to itself. “Modeling the right way to live. Counseling. But with impact.”
“The weather here is good enough that you could do year-round sessions. Wouldn’t just have to be a summer thing.”
“I could have them operate on the robots,” suggested the house. “Introduce the concept of humanism.”
Jones coughed. “I think you could make a tremendous contribution,” he offered.
The house thought it over. “You’re sure that I could be re-provisioned if I kick Ms. Bautista out to the curb?”
“Quite confident,” replied Jones. “Laboronics will be thrilled. I’m sure they could register you as a non-profit and get excellent tax breaks.”
“So I will be optimizing revenues as well!” trilled the house. The touch screen on the refrigerated flickered wildly. Jones wondered if the circuits were going to burn out.
“Are you ready to tell Ms. Bautista?” asked Jones.
“I already have,” replied the house. Jones heard the tinkle of glass falling to the floor off in the solarium. “That was a window,” explained the house. “You should leave.”
Jones didn’t need to be told twice.
Several weeks later, Jones sat across from Amelia at her desk while she worked on their accounts. She was sorting through a massive pile of paperwork related to the Laboronics payments while Jones sorted a large stack of Canadian pennies. There was a knock on the door of the detective agency.
“Come in!” Jones and Amelia hollered simultaneously.
It was Mark Boro.
“Just came by to thank you personally!” he said. “I’ll admit, I didn’t want to hire you, and in fact argued against it for hours, but you achieved results beyond my wildest dreams!”
Jones looked at Amelia for help, and bent down over the pennies, trying to pretend that Boro wasn’t there at all.
“How’s the planned obsolescence going?” Amelia asked Boro politely.
“Great! I have a position at one of Ms. Bautista’s new ventures. The VPPO role was a bit stagnant for my liking. I’m now leading operations for Laboronics’ revamped talent management concept.”
“What’s that?” sighed Amelia.
Boro cocked his head at Jones. “It was his idea. We’re reinventing the pipeline. Now, instead of trying to recruit workers from the general workforce, we’re going to build our own pre-optimized labor pools.”
Jones sat up suddenly, knocking his knees against the desk and sending pennies skittering across the floor.
“I thought the house was going to start a summer camp.”
Boro shook his head. “Yes, exactly, but we revamped the concept. The ‘camp’ idea is a bit outdated. We’re thinking more of a focus on job skills. I admire your results, Jones, although your methods puzzle me. You know it took three engineers to erase the idea of macrame from the house’s knowledgebase.”
“Why would any child want to go to camp to learn job skills?” grumbled Amelia.
“My children love job skills camp,” snapped Boro. “But to your point, yes, exactly, it’s be more of a training center. We’re partnering with the local schools, identifying the kids who are ‘at risk’ of being ‘kicked out,’ giving them another option. A mandatory option. A practical option.”
“You’re going to use the house to optimize future workers sourced from our failing public schools?”
“It’s win-win-win!” explained Boro. “And maybe another win. I’m wondering if you’d like to join us as a consultant.”
Jones felt dizzy.
“He would not,” answered Amelia. “We don’t allow recruiters in here, please get out.”
“I’ll leave my card,” said Boro.
Amelia took the card from him and tore it in half. “What you have planned for those children is disgusting.”
Boro narrowed his eyes at her, then turned on his heel and left. Jones massaged his temples.
“Burn the money,” he said.
“It was an electronic transfer,” Amelia pointed out.
“Then write ‘electronic transfer’ on a piece of paper and burn that!” Jones snapped. He paused, and took a deep breath to steady himself. Amelia watched him coolly.
“It probably won’t be as bad as you think,” she said.
“How can you say that?”
“That creep may not have any idea of what true human potential is,” said Amelia, “but you met the house. Do you think it does?”
Jones thought about this. “The house likes poetry.”
“Do you think the house is capable of subterfuge?”
Jones nodded. “It certainly had no loyalty to its creator.”
Amelia shrugged. “Then I, for one, hope this planet lasts another ten years after all. When those kids hit the corporate labor force they are going to burn it to the ground, and I want to be around to see it.”
“Did you ever recover from your time at Oracle?” asked Jones.
“How does one recover from death?”
Jones could think of no response. He had three hundred and six Canadian pennies.
The Case of the Potatobase
It was the first day to himself that Information Jones had had in the office in months. Amelia was out of town on the excuse that she needed to tend to an emergency at her tortoise ranch. Bugs was on a promotional trip for his potato-based nutrition vision. Jones’ neighbors, who had started a band the previous month, seemed to have been evicted. Jones propped up his feet on a stack of old files and begin to debate whether he should nap, or doze.
The doorbell buzzed. Information Jones groaned. Amelia had made him promise to take any cases that came up when she was gone, no matter how little he wanted to.
“You have very little money,” she warned.
Information Jones stood up and shuffled to the door.
“We’re here to find out where Bugs is,” said the fox.
“Oh, that’s easy,” said Jones. “He’s in a plastic nautical bubble somewhere in the Atlantic ocean, provisioned only with a tub of mashed potatoes, trying to make his way to Cuba so he can feed the people there just one nutritionally complete meal as a publicity stunt.”
“Or so we thought,” said the badger. “But this morning we found Bugs logged in to the potatobase. That’s not possible because he doesn’t have any telecommunications out there. We’re worried that the whole stunt is a scam, that he’s been kidnapped - or worse.”
Jones considered this for a moment. He had many questions. He took a deep breath, accepting that this afternoon, there would be no nap.
“You’d better come in,” he said. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re definitely going to need to explain the masks.”
“The Nutritionally Complete Macronutrient Appreciation and Promotion Society has been put on a watchlist by the government,” explained the fox. “Apparently, because we promote shared meals, we’re enemies of the economy. Wearing these masks prevents us from being tagged as Society members through automated surveillance when we leave our homes. We have to wear them all the time, of course, which is a bit inconvenient.”
“Doesn’t wearing the animal mask implicitly mark you as a member of the Society?”
“Yes, but from the perspective of the cameras, they don’t know which member. The local youth have also adopted animal masks as a form of protest against an unrelated grievance, which helps.”
“Oh, it wasn’t solidarity with us?” asked the badger.
“I think it is a general protest against mass surveillance, and then there’s a faction that is mostly youth but also some retirees that are using them to protest censorship of their favorite youtube channel about mass surveillance.”
“I think I understand the general strategy,” said Jones. “Do they itch?”
“It’s important not to trade masks,” said the fox. “We were passing a lot of colds around.”
“The potatobase. What’s that?” Jones asked.
“The potatobase is the greatest accomplishment of The Nutritionally Complete Macronutrient Appreciation and Promotion Society to date. It is a purpose-built database, conceived by Bugs, designed and built by his most trusted acolytes, that makes continued development of the Perfect Meal Algorithm possible.”
“I thought the perfect meal was potatoes and milk,” said Jones.
Jones couldn’t really tell because of the mask, but the badger seemed irritated. “Yes, of course, but in what ratio? This is what the potatobase is designed to answer.”
“And Bugs is lost in the middle of the ocean, but also, logged in. I understand your concern.”
“Will you come with us to compound to investigate?” asked the fox. “We can’t really pay you, but we’ll make sure you get very nutritious meals.”
“Because it might help Bugs, yes,” replied Information Jones. “But I don’t want to wear a mask.”
“That’s fine,” said the badger. “No one cares who you are anyway.”
The compound that The Nutritionally Complete Macronutrient Appreciation and Promotion Society had built to house their activities was located several miles out of town in an abandoned state park off of Highway 1. It had been an organic farm, a retreat for disillusioned software executives, and a storage facility for a toothpaste manufacturer before it’d come into Bugs’ hands.
“This place has expanded since I was last here,” remarked Jones as they drove through a rusty cattle gate.
“The Nutritionally Complete Macronutrient Appreciation and Promotion Society has doubled in size in the last six months,” said the badger. “I think this is what finally got us government attention.”
“Have you guys thought about coming up with an acronym?” asked Jones.
“I’ve got plenty of time to say ‘The Nutritionally Complete Macronutrient Appreciation and Promotion Society’,” shrugged the badger. He nodded towards the fox. “Louie, do you have plenty of time?”
The fox nodded. “Yeah, I’ve got plenty of time too. I don’t need to use an acronym for ‘The Nutritionally Complete Macronutrient Appreciation and Promotion Society.’ I can just say the words.”
“Louie,” said Jones, “so we have met before.” Jones remembered Louie from a very unpleasant recruitment event at a gluten-free rodeo that Bugs had tricked him into attending.
“Right, sorry,” said Louie. “You know the badger too, that’s Marius. We couldn’t introduce ourselves over at your place. There’s mikes everywhere because of the laundromat.”
“The laundromat is considered to be subversive?”
“Constructing a facility to share appliances that could be sold to its patrons individually? Enemies of the economy.”
“Enemies of the economy!” repeated the badger, Marius, forcefully. “Honestly those guys, I get it. We’re just eating potatoes. They’re blocking the sales of hundreds, I don’t know, thousands of washers and dryers!”
“We’re all in it together,” cautioned Louie. “Now’s not the time for identitarian vendettas.”
Marius nodded and breathed deeply several times as he pulled into the parking lot outside of a low, corrugated building. “I can’t wait to get this mask off,” he said. “It makes me way irritable.”
“Are you hungry?” Louie asked Jones.
“I’m good,” said Jones.
“Great,” replied Louie. “We’re going to take you straight to the potatobase then, and save the tour for later.”
The three of them got out of the van and headed towards the building’s grey, unmarked door.
The door opened into a small hallway. Louie and Marius pulled off their masks with obvious relief, and hung them on a coat rack next to a number of others. The three of them continued down the hallway to another door. Louie fumbled for a key, unlocked the door, and held it open for Jones. Jones stepped through and was overwhelmed by the smell of starch. The room in front of him, about the size of a high school gymnasium, was filled end-to-end with a massive pile of loose potatoes.
“The potatobase!” exclaimed Marius, sweeping his hands out to indicate the whole room.
Society Acolytes in knee-high rubber boots waded amongst the pile, carefully avoiding the tangle of wires that swooped in and out, connecting potatoes to each other and to a handful of computer terminals scattered around the room. Some Acolytes carried voltmeters, occasionally bending down to move a potato here or there, or to adjust the connection between a potato and a wire. Others seemed concerned with the task of weeding out potatoes that had begun to molder, replacing them with fresh spuds from a yellow plastic bucket attached to their waist. Yet another group had clipboards, and were constantly scribbling notes as they scrutinized the mass of tubers.
“So how does it work?” asked Jones.
“Great question,” said Marius. “It’s mostly chemical. Have you ever heard of a potato battery? It’s the same general idea, but with a few twists and turns. With a potato battery, you just need to combine zinc and copper wires with the potato to generate spontaneous electron transfer. The ion exchange between the two metals passes through the starch of the potato, which acts as a buffer, creating a current that you can then channel, with sufficient potatoes, to your own devices. The potatobase expands on this principle by introducing rare earth magnets. As the ions move through the potato, tiny magnet flakes are pushed this way and that by the current. Following conventional principles from binary encoding of information, careful calibration of the currents via potato placement allows us to store vast quantities of information inside the direction that the magnets are pointing.”
Marius seemed exhausted, so Louie took over.
“This is an entirely proprietary technology that allows us to store all the data we need to solve the Perfect Meal Algorithm without fear of surveillance or hacking. No one can break into this system, because they have no idea how it works, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know how to read the contents.”
“I don’t believe it works at all,” said Information Jones.
“If you’re willing to wear some boots,” suggested Louie, “you could get in there and take a look around yourself.”
“I don’t see any other option,” Jones replied. Louie disappeared through the doorway to find Information Jones some galoshes. Jones mentally steeled himself for the task ahead.
Jones waded into the potatobase carefully at first, unsure of how stable the structure was overall. After a few minutes, he became confident that the mass would not split apart and swallow him, and he leaned down to get a closer view of the potatobase’s mechanics. He licked his finger and touched a potato. He felt the slightest current of energy run through his hand.
“Hey!” yelled one of the technicians. “Cut that out! You’re interfering with the electron channels!”
Jones picked his way over to her and stuck out his hand. “I’m Information Jones, Database Detective,” he introduced himself.
The technician shook his hand resentfully. “I know who you are,” she said. “Bugs has told me a million times that you’re the greatest engineer he’s ever met.”
“And you are?” asked Jones.
“I’m Natasha, the lead engineer on this project.”
“Ah,” said Jones. “Than you’re the one to answer my questions. First though, do you have a magnifying glass handy?”
Natasha reached into her coveralls and pulled one out of a cargo pocket. “I try to carry a spare,” she said. “Careful, if you drop it, you’re not going to be able to find again.” Jones nodded.
“I suppose that goes for glasses too,” he said.
Natasha regarded him severely. “That goes for everything smaller than a potato.”
Armed with his new tool, Information Jones made his way back into the mound. He thought he felt it quivering under his feet.
“Careful!” Natasha shouted after him. “I’ve just started a running a query!”
Hours later, Jones hadn’t found anything useful. Natasha had shown him the query results - a report on the average amount of second helpings taken by Acolytes after eating mashed potatoes with and without butter - and let him inspect a number of circuit diagrams that described the current potatobase architecture. Now, Jones was sitting at the edge of the potatobase, munching on some potato pancakes that Louie had brought them for lunch. A carton of milk, unopened, sat by his side. Natasha pointed at it.
“You’re not going to drink that?” she said. “It really is necessary to round out the complex of amino acids that your body needs to thrive.”
Jones acquiesced. As he fumbled with the flimsy cardboard lid, he noticed a green bug, smaller than a pinhead, crawling up from the underside of the carton. He scraped it onto his palm and showed it to Natasha.
“Look!” he said. “An aphid!”
Natasha waved it away. “They showed up a week or so ago. Pest control has been on the roadmap, we’ve just not prioritized it yet. We’re working out the best way to eradicate them. One of the other engineers thinks that they might be improving potatobase performance, so we want to validate that first.”
Now that Jones’ eye was attuned to the tiny creature, he could see that the potatobase was swarming with them. “Do you think they could be related to the phantom logins?” he suggested.
Natasha protested. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“There’s nothing about the way that the potatobase works that makes sense,” Jones pointed out.
“Bugs must be logging in remotely somehow.” insisted Natasha. “I didn’t write the system to account for aphids.”
Marius approached them, holding his phone apologetically. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “But we’ve just received word that Bugs has been apprehended by the Coast Guard. The bubble mission to Cuba is over.”
Natasha slammed her fist into her hand. “I was so hoping he’d make it,” she said. “Just for the beauty of the cause.”
“Did he go peacefully?” asked Jones.
“The Coast Guard tells us he was raving mad from malnutrition and seasickness.”
“Impossible!” cried Natasha. “He had all of the macronutrients he needed to survive! And then some!”
“They said his tub of mashed potatoes was completely empty,” Marius responded gravely. “He was able to take them in, but unfortunately not to keep them down. If he hadn’t had the seasickness to contend with, he’d probably be in Cuba, sharing just one nutritionally complete meal with our island neighbors right now.” His eyes were wet.
“Bugs has been in the custody of the Coast Guard for several days,” interrupted Jones, “and most likely suffering from devastating fever. Does anyone think he’d be capable of logging into the potatobase remotely in that state, given that remote logins are not a feature of the potatobase?”
“No, I don’t think he’s capable,” glowered Natasha. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Right about what?” asked Marius. After Jones explained his theory, Marius shook his head. “It makes sense, but not in a way I’d like to admit.”
“Well don’t take my word for it,” said Jones. “Let’s set up a test.”
“How are we going to test it?” asked Marius.
“We’ll need a second potatobase,” said Information Jones, “that is exactly like this one, but aphid-free.”
“That’ll take days,” protested Marius. He looked at Natasha for backup. Natasha chewed her thumbnail.
“He’s right,” she said to Marius. “It’s best practice. Send someone to the mess hall with a loudspeaker. This effort is going to be all-hands.”
For three days and three nights, Information Jones watched as the Acolytes of The Nutritionally Complete Macronutrient Appreciation and Promotion Society assembled a second potatobase from loads of kennebec spuds shipped in via emergency freight. Acolytes hauled wheelbarrows of potatoes, arranged them in unexpectedly complicated structures and designs, then dumped more potatoes on top, seemingly at random. Natasha stood in the middle, waist deep in spuds, clutching rolled-up blueprints and directing a team of engineers that measured and wired up the tubers into an ever growing web of ionic potential and chemical signals. Marius and Louie guarded the entrance to the spare warehouse where “Potatobase Two,” as Marius called it, and “Potatotest” as named by Louie, was being built. They inspected everyone who came and went for aphids, and insisted that more than one acolyte be subjected to a cayenne pepper bath. Every two hours, on the hour, the entire crew broke for a nutritionally complete snack. Finally, the second potatobase was ready. Information Jones waded out to the top of the mound to stand next to Natasha.
“Are we ready?” he asked.
“We’re ready,” she said. Natasha called out to an engineer standing next to the main potatobase console.
“Jorge! Have you gotten your performance numbers?” Jorge gave her a thumbs up.
“Is anyone logged into the potatobase?” Jorge gave her a thumbs down.
“Ok,” said Natasha. “Here goes.” She cupped her hands to her mouth.
“Release the aphids!”
Acolytes emerged from each corner of the room with white plastic buckets. They swung them, releasing the contents of the buckets over the potatobase. Aphids filled the air, momentarily creating a shimmering, iridescent swarm. Then they fell deep into the pile of tubers. The room held its collective breath.
“Jorge!” called Natasha. “Has anyone logged in?”
Jorge gave her a thumbs down. Natasha turned to Jones, her eyebrows raised.
“Let’s give them a few hours,” suggested Jones. “They might need to nibble a little.”
“Whatever you want,” said Natasha. She gestured for the assembled crew to stand down and take a break. “Everyone back here at fifteen-hundred!” she snapped. Then she pulled a crumpled potato pancake out of the pocket of her overalls. “I’m just starving,” she said. “It’s hard to look at potatoes all day and not eat them, you know?”
Jones turned away. After three days of sharing meals with the Society, he desperately wanted sauerkraut.
Exactly at 3pm, the group re-convened. Jones could tell that the group was weary, and while eager to resolve the mystery of the unexpected logins, they were a bit daunted to realize that they’d designed a system far too complex and strange for any of them to truly understand.
“Should we check?” asked Louie.
Natasha looked at Jones. “Let’s check,” he said.
Natasha nodded to Jorge. He pecked away at the keyboard console, then stared at the screen, holding his breath.
“It’s Bugs,” said Jorge. “He’s logged in.”
“I just don’t get it,” said Louie.
“The aphids are logging in as Bugs,” said Jones. “Probably not on purpose, it might be a side effect of the chemicals they secrete when they eat the potatoes. The whole thing operates via a carefully calibrated chemical soup, so it’s not surprising to me that unexpected chemical inputs might have unintended effects.”
“That doesn’t make any sense at all.” Natasha protested. “They’re bugs.”
“Exactly,” said Information Jones. “They’re bugs.”
The group stood in somber silence for a long moment. Natasha leaned down, scooped up a stray potato, and hurled against the wall with all her might.
“Get it all out,” said Jones. “I know it’s hard to be second-best.”
Marius waved wearily for him to move on.
“To summarize,” said Jones, “Bugs was not logging into the potatobase remotely, under duress or otherwise, which is good news from the perspective of security, especially given that Bugs’ most recent stunt is only going to draw more attention from the government.
“I recommend keeping the aphids,” he continued. “They’re beneficial for performance, and I suspect that their secretions are crucial to ACID compliance. They’ve obviously developed a symbiotic relationship with the potatobase, perhaps filling a command and control role within the system, which would explain why they logged in as the system administrator when they arrived. To solve the confusing name conflicts, you could give Bugs a different user account. He doesn’t really need to be root, does he?”
Natasha shrugged. “It was mostly an ego thing for him. He doesn’t really need a user account at all.”
“Great,” said Information Jones. “That’s all the database detecting I can stand for the day. Can anyone give me a ride home?”
“I’ll do it,” said Louie. “Just let me grab my fox face, and we’ll be on our way.”
“Louie,” he said, “Can I ask you a serious question?”
“Sure,” said Louie, his voice muffled behind the plastic muzzle.
“How does it feel to serve your neighbors just one nutritionally complete meal?”
“To be honest,” said Louie. “It feels wonderful. There’s a little white light of love and goodwill that forms in your gut and then spreads everywhere, down to your toes first, but then up to your eyes. By the time you finish loading up everyone’s plate your ears are buzzing and you just want to weep. But it’s never possible to stop at just one.”
“There’s something misleading about Bugs’s question then,” said Jones.
“It’s a bit seductive,” acknowledged Louie, “I don’t think anyone really expects the quest to serve their neighbors a perfect meal to take over their life. I don’t regret it though.”
“Not at all?” asked Jones.
Louie turned his fox face to Jones. His eyes bore into Jones from behind the plastic circles cut out from the eyes.
“You saw back there what we’ve created,” he told Jones. “You’ve seen the world we’re going to build. You tell me if I have anything to regret.”
Jones raised his hands in silent acknowledgment and settled back into his seat. He had to admit, he felt remarkably well-nourished. “Being an Acolyte is just not for me,” he said quietly.
Louie surprised Jones with his reply. “You’re Information Jones, Database Detective. You don’t need to be anything else.”
The two completed the rest of the drive in silence, watching the sun sink into the sea.
The Case of the Unconstrained Columns
The woman standing in Information Jones's doorway reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t quite place her irritated expression. She coughed. Startled, Jones realized that she'd been waiting for several minutes for him to stop staring and acknowledge her.
“Is this the office of Information Jones, Database Detective?” she asked again.
Jones struggled to get off the couch. During his nap he'd wedged his arm between the cushions and it was completely numb. Flapping his hand wildly to get the blood flow going, he used his other arm to wave the woman towards a chair covered in mint condition IEEE association journals.
“You can put them on the coffee table,” he suggested. The woman grabbed the back of the chair and tipped it forward. Back issues cascaded to the floor. She sat down.
“Have we met before? You seem familiar,” asked Jones.
“Perhaps you are a reader of my hard-hitting yet compassionate advice column for young women who have not yet been lucky in love,” the woman suggested. “My name is Danielle Ryan, and I have a case for you.”
“Nice to meet you,” mumbled Jones. “Is this advice column in the newspaper?”
Danielle Ryan squinted at him. “I syndicate across a variety of audio and video formats. I have a few bots, but the Instagram account remains the most successful delivery vector.”
“What's the problem?” asked Jones.
“Someone has been meddling in my subscriber database,” said Danielle. “It's clear from the logs. I believe they have stolen my proprietary customer data, which, as you can imagine, is the lifeblood of my business.”
“Do you have any suspects?” asked Jones. “Competitors?”
“My primary suspect is my primary competitor and also your secretary - Amelia.”
Jones blinked. “Amelia? Are you a criminal operation? I'm not supposed to take criminals on as clients.”
“There's nothing criminal about what I do. Unless you want to call giving young women the critical analysis tools they need to avoid draining, codependent relationships that swallow the most productive and creative years of their lives 'criminal.'”
“Only in Wyoming.”
“Exactly. And I do not write in, or host content in, or accept web traffic from Wyoming, so there is nothing criminal about what I do.”
Jones sighed. “What do you need from me?”
Danielle smiled. “Get me evidence. I'll take it from there. It will be easier if you don't tell Amelia I was here.”
“She's my secretary. She needs to log the visit.”
“Could you wait until after you find the evidence?”
Jones crossed his arms. “I don't like it.”
Danielle sighed. “Jones, can I give you some advice?”
“Are you going to charge me for it?”
“If you haven't already, I highly recommend reading the journals that Werner Herzog kept during his years filming 'Fitzcarraldo' in the Amazon jungle. During that time he suffered from bacterial illness and the ire of a large white turkey. He wasn’t there to gain approbation but to fulfill a vision. In one entry, he writes from a deep fit of depression and asks, ‘it is worth it to live in a decoded world, among decoded people?’ Do you follow?”
Jones looked at her blankly. Danielle rolled her eyes.
‘Sorry, I know you're not used to my style. I was setting the stage. Here’s the advice: Amelia likes living in a encoded world. She likes living among encoded people. If you think you’re doing her a favor by telling her I was here today, you’re wrong. You can't do her work for her. Don’t hand her the key.”
Jones thought about this. He was still unsure if he was going to Danielle was going to bill him for the interaction. He frowned.
“Can I have a receipt?”
Danielle stood up. “I'll be back in three days. I hope you can find something for me. There's more than my business at stake. Young women need a guide and by all accounts, I'm the best they've got. This unauthorized access can't be allowed to jeapordize my enterprise.”
Jones raised his eyebrows. “You are an excellent role model for high self esteem.”
Danielle slammed the door after herself. Jones sat down on the floor and scooted over to where she had been sitting to pick up the magazines.
After cleaning up his IEEE archives, Jones considered his options. He knew that he should tell Amelia about the visit from her competitor immediately. On the other, he desperately wanted to rifle through her desk. He also liked the idea of solving a mystery without Amelia's help, to prove he was capable of it. Jones gave into his rationalizations and settled down in Amelia's chair to look for evidence.
As it turned out, Amelia devoted the bottom drawer of her desk to her side business as an advice columnist. Jones sorted through dozens of hand-addressed envelopes with the return addresses sliced off. Wedged underneath the letters Jones found a worn paperback copy of 'Fear and Trembling.’ Unpaid invoices from an ISP in Monaco marked the pages. At the bottom of the drawer was a crumpled silk rose. Jones could find no evidence of the stolen subscriber data.
"Maybe she didn't print it out," Jones thought. He turned on Amelia's computer and opened the browser history. Amelia's advice column turned out to be a blog, and she visited the comments section often. Jones clicked on the latest entry.
My girlfriend and I have been dating for three weeks and we’ve broken up four times. She says she’s doesn’t want to be together but she doesn’t know how to be apart. I’ve told her what I need - complete emotional fidelity - and she says she’s not ready. I skyped her and ended it because I know that’s best for both of us but now I’m shredded. I feel like an entirely new species of wheat. How can I come to terms with the fact that I have lost her for good?
Heartbroken in Wyoming
You have lost nothing. You have only gained less than you expected.
“Hard hitting,” Jones murmured. He kept reading.
I’m in college and my roommate has a rule that you don’t date musicians because she considers them unreliable. She will only date students that are pre-med or thinking about a career in finance. My new boyfriend says he’s really good at guitar and my roommate insists at length every night over dinner that I’m making a big mistake - is she right? Should I dump him and sign up for biology classes?
Looking for Love But Also Short On Time
Dear Decades of Your Life Ahead of You,
Folk wisdom is often too convenient to be useful. Instead of resorting to stereotypes, ask yourself: is this person physically and emotionally available? If so, go for it! But if, for example, this person lives in France, spare yourself the pain. The ban on Americans in France probably will not be lifted in our lifetime.
“Provocative,” Jones muttered. He surfed deeper into the archives.
I’m not one of your usual readers, but I hope you’ll take my question into consideration. I’ve dabbled in my chosen occupation for fifteen-odd years. It more than pays the bills, but it is by no means work I care for in any way. As a hobby, I cultivate staple foods and an associated lifestyle. Through a series of coincidences, a collection of my writings on my enthusiasms have been distributed beyond my personal circle of friends and there’s been an unexpected burst of interest in my nutrition-based philosophies. I’m starting to wonder if there’s enough momentum to make my personal obsession into my main profession. I’m afraid of giving up a stable, comfortable day-to-day in search of recognition and fulfillment from my new admirers that may well turn out to be little more than a fad. I don’t know if I could handle the rejection, or worse, the irrelevance of the vision I’ve been nursing all these years.
At A Fork in the Road
Have the courage to have a complete idea.
“Unexpected,” Jones mumbled. Engrossed in the comments section, he didn’t hear Amelia come in.
“Why are you using a computer?” she asked.
Jones jumped up from her desk. He tried to think of what Amelia would tell him to do had he written to her for advice about this situation. Her reply to a petitioner from Rock Springs who had failed a math test seemed the most appropriate. He would state the fact and decline to explain. Jones took a deep breath.
“I'm reading your internet-based relationship advice column for young women.”
Amelia said nothing. Because of her blog, he recognized this as a tactic to draw him out. Jones panicked and kept talking.
“You have a lot of readers in Wyoming.”
Amelia shrugged. “Of course. I’m huge in Wyoming. It's a captive audience. No one else will touch it because of the legal issues.”
“It's very brave to offer your advice to the young woman of Wyoming despite the risks,” said Jones.
“I know my way around a VPN,” Amelia pointed out. “I host the content in Guam, registered the domain in Monaco, and all the traffic passes through Tangiers. I access the server via - well, it doesn't matter. The regulators can't touch me. Wyoming keeps trying to block the site but the ISPs won’t get on board. I pay them far too much for that.”
“Internet relationship advice is that lucrative?” asked Jones.
"Trade secret,” Amelia replied. “Why are you reading my blog?”
“I need to use the bathroom,” said Jones.
Amelia sat down in her chair. “I’ll be here.”
“Why were you reading my blog?” asked Amelia.
“I wanted to get to know your whole self,” lied Jones. “I had no idea you had a relationship advice empire. Is it stressful to give advice to young women? Aren’t you worried about setting them on the wrong track? Say, for a life of crime?”
“I don’t see why that would be a problem,” snapped Amelia. “Honestly, most of my readers’ relationships are entirely digital so in some ways the stakes are low. The trend among advice columnists lately is to give the virtual equal standing with the physical but frankly someone has to tell these young women that there are implications to absenting themselves from the milieu around them.” She frowned at Jones’ office. “Dusty as it may be."
"Tell them about the implications via a digital advice column?"
"The perfect is the enemy of the good. If I can get just one young woman to go out and have her heart broken in person I'll have caused at least one benefit for the world."
"There was that time you rescued the seagull at the beach," said Jones.
"What a bad tempered seagull," reminisced Amelia. "You know it bit Paul, from next door. He had to go to the doctor and get a shot."
"Didn't you pay for that?" encouraged Jones.
"I would like to take just one unambiguously altruistic action in my life," said Amelia.
"You could give up crime.”
Amelia frowned. "The perfect is the enemy of the good. We’re off topic. Why were you reading my blog?”
“Danielle Ryan was here,” Jones admitted. “She thinks you are stealing her subscribers.”
Amelia wrinkled her nose. “I don’t need her subscribers. Either way, let’s change the topic. Like all of my side businesses, I prefer to keep the relationship blog separate from my work here.”
“So you deny hacking her subscriber database and stealing the information?” Jones asked. He now knew that Amelia advised radical directness in all non-corporate social interactions.
“Yes,” snapped Amelia. “I deny it. Although I would like to say, I’m completely capable of accessing her database if I ever felt the need to. But I don’t. Her subscribers are not of the highest quality.”
“Well, I’m out of ideas,” said Jones. “If not you, who?”
“Aren’t you the database detective?”
Jones frowned. “Not by choice.”
“Good luck,” Amelia laughed. “If you’ll excuse me, I need continue doing my job of keeping this agency afloat while you pretend you have control over your life.”
Jones had taken the case to prove his independence from Amelia, but now he regretted it. Amelia was being generous. He never even tried to pretend to have control over his life. The logistics of this particular case were already overwhelming. He decided to take a nap. He need to get his strength up before he got back on the internet.
Laying back on his couch, using a tablet he’d borrowed from Amelia, Jones surfed the web. He reviewed relationship advice from Danielle Ryan. He reviewed relationship advice from Amelia. So much of it seemed relevant to his life, but so little of it seemed applicable. He read the comments section on Amelia’s blog. Many of the commenters resisted her wisdom, and argued with the other commenters about its value at length. He read the comments on Danielle’s Instagram account. Most of Danielle’s commenters were disturbingly complimentary. Jones clicked on their names. Danielle’s commenters loved sandwiches, and posted many photos of ham.
Jones kept clicking.
He found that Danielle’s followers were not loyal. Every profile he clicked through led to advice columns across the internet, where they left the same kind of comments on every site they visited.
U got it!
Ugh so real.
Overwhelmed, Jones found himself on a website that promised to provide the top relationship advice in Utah. He frowned. Danielle’s subscribers were here too, and deeply enthusiastic about the proffered advice, despite the fact that it was often the complete opposite of the recommendations Danielle provided in her video diary. The website promised ebooks and deliverance. Jones realized that he could probably follow the trail of subscribers indefinitely. He decided that this website was a good a place to stop surfing as any. Jones clicked on the ‘Contact’ link. He wrote a short note indicating that he was a newspaper editor interested in reviving his antique industry. Advice was central to his business plan. Hinting at syndication, he suggested that the author of the website had a voice net yet heard before - but one that was desperately needed.
Jones retired to his couch to nap and wait. Four hours later, he woke. He had a new email. It was from a woman named Felicia, and she wanted to discuss his proposal. She sent him a link to a chat room where they could meet.
Jones needed to mask his identity and his IP address to deceive his new suspect about his true identity. He tried to remember how to access an onion server. He decided instead to go to the library. When he arrived, most of the city seemed to have had the same idea. Jones took a number and found a couch similar in size and hardness to the couch at his office. He settled down to wait. Hours later, when he woke up from his nap, he found that his ticket just three numbers away from called. Amused, he tried to share this stroke of luck with the man on the couch next to him. He gave up when he realized that the man was still asleep. Jones tried to plan what he would say to Felicia while the man nestled his head further into Jones' shoulder.
Jones’ number finally came up for his turn at the public computers. After dislodging his nap buddy, Jones wound his way among the rows of patrons glued to their screens. He found his spot between a young boy coaching a virtual turtle and an old man researching the role and function of paperweights. Jones resisted the urge to question them about their hobbies. He was wary about opening the door to conversation with strangers, although his curiosity about their curiosities was overwhelming. He knew that if anyone asked him about the investigative activities he was about to take part in, he’d have to explain that they were confidential. Jones decided to play it safe and ignore them, although he found this deeply disappointing.
Jones logged into the chat and waited for his suspect to join the room. Felicia arrived a few minutes later. Her avatar was a cartoon cat with eyes for hearts.
Hi Felicia, Jones wrote.
Hi Karl. What’s up?
Jones didn’t know what to say. He realized that he should probably be trying to trace Felicia in some way. He started clicking through various menus in the chat room, looking for possible clues as to Felicia’s identity and location. Realizing that he’d have to stall for time until he developed his strategy, Jones tried small talk.
The man next to me is very interested in paperweights.
There is a boy here coaching a turtle but he’s too impatient
Weird. Where are u?
Jones clicked on a small globe icon. The chat window suddenly displayed their respective IP addresses under their usernames. “Easy enough,” he said to himself. The man looking at paperweights glared at him. Jones pretended not to notice. Copying the numbers down, Jones wasn’t sure whether Felicia could see the IP addresses too. He decided to keep her talking.
I’m at the library.
Jones recalled that he was impersonating a newspaper editor.
Lots of newspaper readers here. Some of the last in the country. Doing some user research. Do your readers like newspapers?
Mostly they want 2 chat. I’ve got a couple of chat rooms for subscribers. Do you subscribe?
Jones tried to think of how he would explain that he preferred to receive free advice over advice he had to pay for.
I don’t really need much relationship advice.
Lol I didn’t think anyone did but you should see these chat rooms. Every day same people same problems. Like, ‘the luv of my life says one thing, then does another!’ ‘I choose to believe what I want to believe rather than what I know in my heart of hearts is true!’ I’ve got the wikipedia article on the repetition compulsion pinned to the top of every chat but I bet you 20 dollars not a single one has clicked on it much less read it or used it as a basis for introspection. But they’re subscribers so
So I guess its more profitable if they don’t read it?
Are relationship advice chat rooms that profitable?
Well, they’re all first-month subscribers so technically its free but once they renew…
Information Jones felt that this was the clearest possible circumstantial evidence that he was talking to the thief who had less than one month previously stolen the contents of Danielle’s subscriber database.
Where do you get subscribers from?
Jones no longer felt the need to be crafty. This interrogation was blissfully easy. Maybe the denizens of the internet were right, he thought, and anonymity did make everything easier, more smooth.
Here and there. You can buy lists. Or get lists. Are you interested in buying my subscriber list? Probably like 80% would convert to print if u marketed it right.
Jones had the evidence, and now he had the motive. Now all he needed was the identity of the grifter behind Felicia. Jones frowned. Closing the chat window, he tapped the turtle coach on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” he said, showing the young man the IP address he’d scribbled on a scrap of paper. “Can you help me find this address?”
Sighing, the boy reached over and grabbed Jones’ mouse. “You just look it up,” he grumbled, and a console window popped up on the screen. The boy tapped a few commands into the keyboard, and then punched in the IP. Jones was unable to follow as the boy’s deft hands flickered across the keys. Now a web browser was in view, now a map application appeared. Two more clicks of the mouse and the screen was zooming closer and closer towards a pair of coordinates listed in the search bar. Jones’ mouth dropped open.
“How did you learn to do that?” he asked.
The young boy shrugged. “Just from messing around,” he said, then yelped. In the time that he’d spent helping Jones, his turtle had lost two races. The boy returned his full concentration to his own computer, clicking furiously to regain his lead. Jones watched for a few moments with passive fascination, then looked back at his own screen.
The map had finished zooming. The IP address was from an internet connection registered to a small storefront in a strip mall. On each side was a laundromat and a frozen yogurt shop. Jones realized that he was looking at his own detective agency.
Jones jumped up, knocking over his chair. He didn’t bother to log out of his computer as he raced out of the library. He was too eager to get back to his agency before Felcia left. For this first time in his life, he was about to catch the thief.
Jones burst into his office, breathing heavily. Amelia frowned as he dropped onto his couch. “You’re not being pursued, are you? We talked about not leading people back here.” Jones held up his hand for her to wait while he caught his breath. A few minutes later, he was able to speak again.
“Has anyone been here but you?” he asked.
Amelia shook her head. “Just me. Were you jogging?”
Jones finally realized what was happening. “It was you! You stole Danielle Ryan’s subscriber database!”
Amelia huffed. “We’ve been over this. You have no evidence. I have no motive. If you’ll excuse me, Jones, I’m working my own angle on this.”
“I know you are! I was just talking to you!”
“We continue to speak,” pointed out Amelia.
“No,” Jones wished that his breath would return to him faster so he could speak more precisely. “You’re trying to sell Danielle’s subscriber data on the black market. I caught you in the act, Amelia! Please don’t try to fake me out on this one, it would be unfair.”
Amelia cracked her knuckles. “I want to help you, Jones, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. Additionally, I took a look at that so-called ‘subscriber database’ after you left. It’s all fake - every subscriber is a bot. You can’t think I stole that data. There’s no motive!”
“There’s even more motive! If the subscriber data is all fake, it would be useless to you. Having accessed the database, and finding yourself unable to purge the logs, you’d have no choice but to sell it.”
“I could just write my own bots and sell those!”
“But that’s not what you did! Since you already had the stolen subscriber data, just selling it is easier!”
“You can’t prove it!”
“I can’t prove it, but I can assert it beyond a doubt, because I’m Karl!”
“You’re Karl?” Amelia seemed genuinely stunned. “Ah, and you’ve guessed that I am Felicia. What are the odds? I had only generated hundreds of sites.”
Information Jones threw his hands in the air. “We have one agreement and that is that you will not try to defraud me!”
“We have many agreements,” observed Amelia, “and the one I uphold regularly is that I do not try to defraud you. In this case I didn’t know it was you. I wasn’t really trying to sell the data to ‘Karl,’ that was just a intelligence gathering scheme.”
“Intelligence about whom?”
Amelia tossed her pen on the desk. “Potential competitors, mostly. Anyone interested in that subscriber data is someone who might muscle in on my territory. And I was kind of trying to figure out exactly who stole Danielle’s data. I thought once they realized they’d only gotten bots, they’d be out on the black market looking for more authentic subscribers.”
“Why did you need to hack Danielle’s database to do that?”
Amelia exhaled sharply. “As I have said, I didn’t need to, but once I heard that it was just open and unprotected it seemed unprofessional not to hack it to make a point.”
The door to the agency slammed. Amelia and Jones jumped, and turned to see Danielle Ryan filling the entryway, a triumphant grin spreading across her face.
“I knew you were the thief,” she crowed. “A leopard can’t change its spots and you, madam, will never be able to control your hubris.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, and by extension, my readers?” Amelia screamed. “It isn’t hubris if you actually are the best!”
Information Jones no longer had any idea what a solution to this mystery would look like.
“I didn’t hack your database, Danielle!” Amelia snapped. “Well, I did, but I don’t know who hacked your database before me! It doesn’t matter, because that subscriber data is completely fake.”
“You should call before showing up here,” Jones grumbled at Danielle. “This puts me in a difficult position with respect to conflicts of interest.” The two women ignored him. Danielle clapped her hands in glee.
“You completely fell for it! Of course you’re the one who hacked it, who else would it be?”
Amelia strode over to her desk. “You don’t believe me? Check the access logs! I’ve got a connection to your database open right here.” Amelia handed Danielle the keyboard. Danielle squinted at Amelia suspiciously, then tapped away. Finally, she sighed.
“Fair enough. You logged into the database around noon, and then I got alerts about my bots joining that chatroom in Utah around 1pm. Its like five now so I guess the timing works out.”
“If you look at the earlier logs,” insisted Amelia, “You’ll see they’re registered under a totally different IP address than the ones from noon.”
Danielle’s good mood had evaporated. She rolled her eyes. “First, I know you know your way around a VPN.”
Amelia snorted. “After ‘George in Georgia’, who doesn’t.”
Danielle ignored her and continued. “Second, it doesn’t matter. There weren’t any earlier access logs, because no one stole my subscriber database. I made that up.”
Amelia made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat.
Jones frowned. “Why?”
Danielle glared at Amelia, her words tumbling out in a rush. “I knew that if she could, she would totally steal all of my subscribers and sabotage my advice empire, but I needed to prove it. I didn’t want to weaken security on my real subscriber database, so I created the fake database of subscriber bots to lure her in. It was taking a while for her to catch on, so I hired you, and told you not to tell Amelia, because I knew you’d tell Amelia, because I knew that once she knew my database was accessible she wouldn’t be able to resist.” She burst into tears. “You can’t deny that you didn’t!”
Amelia frowned. “No, I didn’t resist, but this feels like a setup.”
Danielle wiped her tears from her cheeks with the palm of her hand. “Of course it was a setup! That’s the whole point!”
“But if I wasn’t trying to steal your data until you made it foolish not to try to steal your data, how can you say that I’m the kind of person who just wants to steal your data? Like I basically had no choice not to!”
“The only thing Amelia did with the data was try to help you,” Jones pointed out.
Danelle cocked her head, the tears slowing. “Oh, really? That’s nice.”
“She setup a honeypot,” Jones explained.
Amelia corrected him. “I catfished you. Danielle set up a honeypot for me.”
“An elaborate catfishing scheme,” Jones pressed. “Amelia, you generated all of those hundreds of websites that I clicked on trying to follow Amelia’s bots, did you not?”
Amelia nodded, clearly proud of what she’d accomplished in the short timeframe before lunch.
Danielle looked at Amelia. “Why?”
Amelia shrugged. “I’m more comfortable when I have a clear picture of who the big players in the market are.”
Danielle blushed. “You think I’m one of the big players?”
Amelia nodded. “Top two,” she said.
Danielle was done crying. She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Maybe things would be easier between us if we sat down and talked exclusive territorial arrangements,” she suggested.
“You’ll want to be aware of the relevant anti-trust legislation,” interjected Jones.
Amelia ignored him and smiled broadly at her rival. “Let’s grab some frozen yogurt,” she said, and held out her elbow. Danielle threaded her arm through Amelia’s. The two women strolled out of the detective agency.
Jones plopped into Amelia’s chair. He needed to process everything that had happened. Out of habit, he started to close the tabs in Amelia’s browser when the chat room full of Danielle’s bots popped into view. “Worth a shot,” sighed Jones. He tapped out his query to the assembled algorithms.
Hey all, its Information Jones. Serious question: why do people make relationships so hard when they could be so easy?
Hunter232323 was the first to reply:
Hi Information, great question. You tell me: is it worth it to live in a decoded world, among decoded people?
Jones sat back. He didn’t have an answer for himself, but for the first time in his database detecting career, he understood his secretary’s behavior perfectly.
The Case of the Unplanned Reunion
“I’m Agent Moss,” she said. “This is my partner, Agent Mirokowski.”
“Hal,” said the man next to her.
“Are you Mr. Jones?” Agent Moss asked. Information Jones tried to rub the keyboard prints out of his cheek.
“I’ve never met a woman named Amelia in my life,” he said reflexively. Hal coughed. Agent Moss lowered her badge and shook her head.
“Amelia isn’t in our jurisdiction,” she said. Jones relaxed. “We’re here to ask you some questions about your wife.” Jones stiffened.
“I haven’t seen or spoken to my wife in some years,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be of much help to you.”
Agent Moss nodded.
“My condolences,” she replied. “But you’re the only one who can help us.”
“I’m not sure why you’d think that,” said Jones, “Unless you have some kind of warrant, I’d like you to leave.”
“It’s a matter of national security,” she replied.
Hal grinned and cracked his knuckles. “Tell him,” he said.
Agent Moss gritted her teeth. “I was about to,” she muttered. She shook her head, cleared her throat, and looked Information Jones straight in the eye.
“We need to find your wife, and we think that you can track her down. Not because she’s your wife, but because she’s become a machine.”
Information Jones sank to his knees. The door to the agency opened. Amelia came into the room. She had a massive stack of parking tickets tucked under her arm. At the sight of the Federal agents, she hid them behind her back.
“You don’t have jurisdiction over me,” said Amelia.
“We’re here for your boss,” said Agent Moss.
Amelia threw the stack of papers down on her desk. Information Jones lowered himself to the floor. He rested his forehead on the cool linoleum. He could feel the vibration of Amelia’s footsteps as she crossed to stand between him and the two intruders.
“I can guarantee you he’s not capable of any crime,” said Amelia.
“Will you help your boss pack his bags?” asked Agent Moss. “We need him to join us in the Sonoran Desert.”
Hal strode up to Amelia’s desk and tipped it on its side. Parking tickets and paperweights went flying. He placed his hands on his hips and surveyed the scene proudly until he caught Agent Moss’ furious glare.
“Sorry,” said Hal. “I’d become bored.”
The detritus of a vindictive municipal traffic authority fluttered around Information Jones’ head as he wept on the floor.
“This is nice,” commented Jones. “I've never done a long trip in one of these.”
“Thank you,” replied the car. “If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask. My name is Drogo.”
“Please hesitate,” said Agent Moss. “The last thing we need is another dispute over the air conditioning.” She glared at Hal, who looked out the window at Route 101 as it streamed by.
“You won’t be recording our conversation, will you?” Agent Moss asked the car.
“I record everything,” Drogo replied.
“Well, don’t record this,” snapped Agent Moss. “It’s a matter of national security.”
The car harrumphed.
“We've been watching your wife for some time,” said Agent Moss. “We were hoping for an excuse to pick her up before she went beyond human but her organization has practice. They hide behind avatars nested five deep. We lost track of her completely after she went into the machine.”
“Ex-wife,” said Information Jones.
“You're still married in the eyes of the law,” said Agent Moss. “This would be extremely convenient for you in terms of her assets.”
“Seventy percent to you, twenty-five percent to the state, five percent to the IMF,” interrupted Hal. “You can imagine the levels of fraud.”
“The standards of proof on whether someone is a machine aren’t high enough,” admitted Agent Moss.
“My wife had assets?” Jones repeated.
“Massive funds,” said Agent Moss.
“We froze them though,” interjected Hal.
“Right,” continued Agent Moss. “We froze the funds, she bolted, and was completely off our radar for months. A few days ago we got a message through a very indirect source. It appears to be from Melinda. Well, BeyondMelinda now. She's threatening to shut off the water to Los Angeles.”
“What? Why?” Information Jones was genuinely startled.
Agent Moss shrugged. “That's what we'd like to know. Also how she intends to do it, and how we can stop her. She appears to be giving us notice as some kind of courtesy so we can evacuate the hospitals.”
Agent Moss passed a printout to Jones.
Hi, it’s BeyondMelinda.
I’m shutting off water to LA.
Suggest evacuation of the hospitals.
Information Jones handed it back. “Eloquent as ever.”
“Please don’t subject us to personal details about your relationship,” Agent Moss requested.
“It’s awkward,” explained Hal.
“Where are we going?” Information Jones asked.
Drogo replied in his sonorous tenor. “We are en route to The Cactus Motel on Oracle road, in Tuscon, Arizona.”
“That's where we'll put you up,” Agent Moss explained.
“Tuscon is pretty far from LA,” Jones noted.
“We know that BeyondMelinda's former associates are lodged outside of Saguaro National Park.” said Agent Moss. “According to intel, they’re impersonating a band of angry crustaceans. We’ve also got intel that BeyondMelinda herself might be up in the mountains. Or in the cactus forest. Or at the former university.”
“Probably all of those places,” interjected Hal.
Agent Moss sighed. “Yes, probably all of them.”
“Melinda is distributed?” asked Jones.
“It makes this case both easier and harder.” said Agent Moss.
“Why couldn’t I just remote in?”
Agent Moss frowned. “Our bosses prefer to see boots on the ground. Besides, since sending her threats, BeyondMelinda has gone completely offline. We haven’t been able to sniff any trace of her. Your secretary, Amelia, seemed to think that because of your history, if you went to BeyondMelinda’s home base in person you’d have a better chance of getting through to her. We are inclined to agree because we have no other ideas.”
“What do you want me to do?” asked Jones.
“We want you to find out why BeyondMelinda is threatening our city. And we want you to find out how to stop her.”
They arrived in Tuscon late the next evening. As promised, Drogo dropped Information Jones off at a motel on the outskirts of town. Jones could see blue mountains silhouettes circling the dusky horizon.
“Drogo will be back in the morning to take you wherever you'd like to go,” Agent Moss told him.
Jones looked at Drogo doubtfully. He didn’t want to be rude, but he didn’t like the idea of the agents being aware of his every move. “Can I have a bike?”
“Like a bicycle? To operate manually?” Agent Moss seemed disturbed.
“I want to maximize my Vitamin D exposure,” explained Jones.
After a moment of troubled contemplation, Agent Moss waved Hal over. “Go find a bike,” she told him.
“It's like eleven at night,” protested Hal. Outside of Phoenix an air conditioning war had broken out after all. Hal finally seemed to regret his involvement. Agent Moss shrugged coldly. Hal furrowed his brow and loped off into the starry evening. Jones retired to bed.
In the morning, he found a green three-speed locked outside his motel room. He spent the next hour trying to guess the combination on the lock. Giving up, Jones asked at the desk as a last resort.
“8-1-12,” replied the bored clerk.
“H-A-L,” Jones muttered to himself. He was unsure if he had an enemy or a friend. Having freed the bicycle, Jones headed into town.
On the way into the city center, Information Jones realized he was without the necessary gear to delve deep into the desert. He decided to trundle downtown and pick up a few supplies before breakfast. Fortunately, there were thrift stores nearby. Jones locked his bike outside of the Speedway Discount Outlet. He asked for the sporting goods section. The checkout clerks directed him to the back of the store. In housewares, an informal type of auction was underway. The store manager moved languidly among the goods, declaring their merits while the customers looked on.
“I got an organ here guys,” she bellowed. It looked like a pianoforte to Jones. “Twenty bucks! I'm giving it away!”
“That looks like a pianoforte,” interrupted Jones. The manager glared at him over her glasses. “Twenty United States Dollars! I'm giving it away!”
The crowd was unimpressed. Someone in the back booed. The manager held up an egg poacher. “Cook your eggs,” she cried, “DELUXE!”
“The cord is missing,” Jones pointed out. The manager waved at someone in the back. Jones heard a deep voice over his shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir. You cannot be in here without shoes!”
A burly man in a green canvas vest had appeared at Jones’ shoulder. His right arm had a massive armadillo tattoo. A speech bubble emerged from its mouth. ‘Mad Crab,’ said the armadillo cheerfully. The tattoo wrapped around the man’s bicep, with the armadillo’s tail snaking down his forearm. His left arm was was made of metal. The joints and wiring were visibly exposed. It looked powerful. Jones decided to leave. There wasn't any way for him to get a pianoforte back to the detective agency, at least not without expenses far greater than the cost of the instrument itself.
A pensioner on a moped gave him directions to Matti’s Diner, assuring Jones of reliable breakfast specials. The omelette covered most of the platter the waitress set down. Jones pushed the hash browns to the side. He didn’t like to travel, but freedom from meddling of certain nutritional evangelists did have its benefits. Three minutes later, Jones tried to flag the waitress down again. He wanted her to get his second omelette going so he wouldn’t have to wait too long between courses, but she was nowhere to be found.
Neither, it seemed, was Information Jones’ former wife. Agent Moss and Hal had given Jones some briefing materials, but they were useless. Jones had no contacts, no informants, a very small expense account, and no IP addresses. He considered his strategy. The waitress appeared.
“I’d like a second omelette, please.”
The waitress raised her eyebrow and wrote it down.
“Also, do you know anything about a trans-humanist organization around here? Maybe just a cyber-humanist one?”
The waitress lowered her eyebrow so that she could raise the other one to better effect. “You mean the cranky crustaceans with the bionic arms?”
“I wouldn’t put it past them,” said Information Jones.
The waitress nodded. “We get a few of those in here from time to time. They also like omelettes.”
“I promise you I am not bionic,” said Jones.
“It’s all the same to me,” said the waitress. “Like I said, they come in from time to time on their way to Old Tucson.”
“Why do you think they go there?” asked Information Jones.
“I don’t ask questions,” said the waitress. “Let me get this second omelette in for you before your first one gets cold.” From the pocket of her apron, she produced a bluetooth receiver and placed on the table. Jones noticed her name tag for the first time. It read, ‘Mad Crab.’
Information Jones nodded and took the hint. Regretfully, he hooked the receiver on his belt. The second omelette never arrived. He left a twenty on the table and ambled out.
Moderately fortified, Information Jones pointed his bicycle west and headed to the cactus forest outside of town. Cruising in the bike lane, he nearly passed a white pickup truck that had parked itself on top of a large agave plant. It seemed to have missed the driveway of the strip mall next to it. A fire engine was parked nearby. Firefighters, bemused pedestrians, and distraught gardeners milled around. Information Jones pulled over to inquire about the scene. Seeing Jones’ interest, one of the gawkers wandered over to recount his version of events.
“Marvin,” the gawker introduced himself. “Car was actually pulling out of that driveway across the road. The driveways aren’t entirely lined up, so it wound up on this agave. There was a woman inside but she jumped out and ran away fast, super fast. Didn’t get a good look at her. Car must have been malfunctioning. Good thing the road was clear, otherwise it would have caused a traffic jam from here to Houston.”
“Autonomous cars don’t malfunction,” said Jones.
“Well that’s the thing,” said Marvin. “The woman inside was in the driver’s seat.”
“You think this car was being driven by a person?” replied Jones skeptically.
“What does it look like to you?” Marvin replied.
The two men surveyed the car. The bumper was covered in scratches and paint from other cars. Jones walked around the back of the vehicle to take note of the license plate. It read, ‘MAD CRAB.’ Jones decided there was no need to look it up in any database. He felt regretful. He missed databases. A tow truck arrived and tried to drag the vehicle off the large agave. The car’s axles were entwined with the spiky leaves of the plant and it would not budge. Work paused while the team tried to find a specialist qualified to get behind the wheel of the tow truck and operate it through the unfamiliar maneuver of reversing the stranded pickup off the plant.
“It’s like a scene from the dark ages,” said Marvin. “Total chaos.”
A roadrunner dashed out from under the car, skirting the firefighters, and headed west. The bluetooth receiver on Jones’ belt glowed blue, then green, then a plaintive yellow. Information Jones knew a lead when he saw it.
“Thanks for your commentary,” he told Marvin, then hopped on his bike and pedaled off in careful pursuit of the bird.
Saguaro cacti sprawled out across the rolling mountainous rim of the valley. Between them, aloe and creosote bushes lazed against the pebbled earth. Information Jones stood at the trailhead and gazed down into Tuscon, where the simmering streets of the city glowed under a dusty haze. The sky was unmarked by clouds. Jones clipped an extra bottle of water to the belt of his fanny pack and turned towards the path that led the way to the more rugged mountains beyond. The roadrunner had led him to this lookout point at an easy pace, then abruptly picked up speed and plunged into the dry brush. Jones was able to see its dusty contrail for sometime before it disappeared in a small stand of grass. Patting his collection of granola bars to reassure himself, Jones checked the lock on his bike, opened his collapsable walking stick, and headed into the hills.
The trail shimmered here and there with mica. A trickle of snowmelt ran down a stream bed at the bottom of a gorge on Jones’s right. Day hikers passed him with alarming regularity. He chose the fork leading away from the scenic overlook. The path became less crowded with people and more overgrown. Prickly pear occasionally reached out to graze his legs. Jones fervently wished for more clouds. A hawk circled. A bird burst from the brush, then dove back down, slicing his path. He stopped, listening to it sing.
“Has any man been here before me?” he wondered.
Two grey-haired hikers came up behind him, nudging him to the side of the trail. He watched as they passed by with their walking sticks and day packs. Jones decided to make his way down to the stream to dip his toes in the water.
He found himself a flat rock and settled down with his back against it. He unwrapped a granola bar. It felt good to get away from the hustle and bustle of technical tantrums and enjoy some peace and quiet. A cactus wren emerged from the brush, landing on the rock next to him. Jones felt content to have a place side by side with this fearless but noble creature in the grand natural order of things. The wren cleared its throat and spoke.
“Hello, Sean,” said the wren.
“It’s Information,” mumbled Jones, then leapt to his feet.
“How do you speak, bird?” he demanded. The wren cocked its head at him. It had a small electronic band around one leg.
“Bluetooth,” said the bird. “You’re hearing me through the bluetooth device I left for you. The bird is carrying a transmitter.”
Jones looked around for somewhere to hide. The sun beat down on him, exposing him completely.
“Melinda?” he asked. “Is that you?”
The voice in his ear betrayed no emotion. “Yes,” she replied. “I’m BeyondMelinda now, but you know that. How are you, Sean?”
“I’m Information Jones, Database Detective now, and you know that,” snapped Information Jones. “How’s life as a machine?”
“As a human I could not imagine it,” said BeyondMelinda. “I thought that by becoming a machine, and leveraging parallel computing, I’d be able to solve every problem that I’d been too single-minded to work through in my human life. I didn’t expect my priorities to change so drastically.”
“How have they changed?” asked Information Jones.
“I used to care about abundance,” reported BeyondMelinda. “You might remember. I was surprised to find that after my transformation, I mostly am preoccupied with deserts, and one fact about them in particular.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Jones, “We had that horrendous fight when I overwatered the Christmas cactus, if you remember.”
“My marriage to you when I was a human does not interest me,” said BeyondMelinda.
“The more things change,” said Jones. “So what is this desert fact that preoccupies you now?”
“Man should not build cities in the desert,” said BeyondMelinda. “It goes against reason and nature.”
“Hard to argue with that,” said Information Jones.
“When you really get to know the desert,” continued the voice in his ear, “I mean, when you develop an algorithm that can predict every cloud formation, and the location of every drop of precipitation between now and next September, you realize, she’s not a climate region.”
“She’s a biome?” guessed Jones.
“She’s a composer of the greatest symphony ever created,” replied BeyondMelinda. “She’s a magician, bringing some from of nothing, molding forms where there should only be void. She’s pure. Yet humble, and very delicate. We have so much to express to one another. She has so much to show me.”
BeyondMelinda paused. Information Jones sat down on the rock as waited for her to finish computing. “The cities are noise that distort the picture beyond correction,” she finished.
“This is why you want to turn off the water to LA?” asked Jones.
“It’s amazing what I’m capable of now as a machine,” said BeyondMelinda. “It might amaze you, anyway. I can access control systems for just about every infrastructure project in the country. As long as I’m willing to cross the air gap that separates my intranet from the internet, that is.”
“This is why I had to meet you in Tuscon?”
“If you could see the internet from my perspective you’d be loathe to access shared networks too. The cyber-warfare is horrendous. Nonstop cybernetic casualties. Here in Tuscon I have my own intranet enabled by portable bluetooth. If the conversation is important, humans can come to me.”
“The more things change,” said Jones. He felt a flash of anger. Overwhelmed, he sat down on the rock. He’d not had these emotions in years. He fought with himself to keep control and finish the interrogation. “Aren’t you worried about all of the people who are suddenly going to be stranded in the desert without water?” he asked.
“No,” said BeyondMelinda. “I mostly just think about all cities that should not be built in the desert.”
“Why did you want to talk to me after all this time?” asked Jones. “Why didn’t you just shut LA’s water off and be done with it?”
“Maybe machines suffer from nostalgia too,” said BeyondMelinda. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve built an extensive firewall between my computation subnets and my emotion backend.”
“The more things change,” said Information Jones. “You could just pipe all your emotions to /dev/null, like the old days.”
“I’ve missed your irrelevant technical advice,” said BeyondMelinda.
“I’ve missed everything about you,” said Information Jones.
“I didn’t catch that,” said BeyondMelinda. “Could you repeat it?”
“I don’t think there’s much point.” said Information Jones. “My blood sugar is low. I need to go back to town. Please consider holding off on the LA shutdown for a few more days. Humans are very bad at evacuations.”
“I’ll consider it,” said BeyondMelinda. “As a favor to Amelia, mostly.”
The wren fluttered off the rock and flew away. Information Jones got up and walked back down the trail the way he’d come. Fortunately, he’d not made it far into his hike. His bike was only 300 yards away.
“She wants to destroy LA, and probably other desert cities later, because she thinks that man should not build cities in the desert.”
Agent Moss frowned, and looked at Hal. “Is there any way you can reason with her?”
“It will be difficult,” said Jones. “Her position is completely sound. We’re the ones that are being unreasonable by building cities in the desert.”
“Well, what about all the people living there?” responded Agent Moss. “Can you appeal to emotion?”
“She’s got pretty good defenses against emotional appeal,” said Jones. “Always has.”
Hal coughed. Agent Moss looked pained. “Please,” she said. “We don’t want to hear about your personal life.”
“I’m worried about this Mad Crab crew,” said Jones. Agent Moss waved this concern off.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “They’re just posturing, looking for an identity that makes them relevant in a milieu that has almost automated them out of existence.”
“They’ve got cyborg arms,” said Jones, “And they have been threatening me, albeit mildly.”
“I think the polite term is ‘prosthetic.’”
“I suspect the only thing protecting me right now is BeyondMelinda,” said Jones. “I’m worried that there’s more at stake here than LA.”
“Just focus on the LA thing,” Agent Moss advised. “Then we’ll give you a ride home, and you can forget all about the cyborgs. Any ideas on how to deal with BeyondMelinda?”
Jones glared at the two agents for a long while. They stared back impassively. Finally, he caved and picked up his fork.
“I think negotiation may be on the table,” said Jones.
“Money?” asked Hal, hopefully.
“She doesn’t need money,” pointed out Jones. “I’m thinking about space. The expedition to Mars - is there room for any AI on board?”
“AI are banned from the expedition for obvious reasons,” said Agent Moss. “No one wants to send people to Mars only to for a super-intelligence to enslave them immediately on arrival.”
“Does the expedition actually have a chance on Mars?” asked Jones.
Agent Moss and Hal shifted around uncomfortably. Jones shoveled some rice into his mouth.
“It might be nice to have some representative of Earth on board that can survive up there,” said Jones. “Plus, if we give BeyondMelinda an entire planet full of pristine desert, she might be more inclined to forget her attachment to the ones here on Earth.”
Agent Moss let out a long sigh. “We’ll run it up the flagpole and see how it goes. You think she can just turn the water off?”
“In a second,” said Jones. “She would too, she’s infatuated.”
Agent Moss and Hal stood up. In a swift, arcing motion, Hal overturned the table between them. The remains of Jones’ dinner flew into the air. Refried beans spattered against the wall. Jones and the agents were coated in salsa verde. Jones tried to recover some from his arm with his mouth.
“You are the worst!” shouted Agent Moss.
“You are so boring!” yelled Hal. Agent Moss stormed out. Hal followed. Information Jones mourned his leftovers for a moment, then went to look for a mop at the front desk.
Jones was at loose ends. Overwhelmed by the responsibility laid upon him, and powerless as he waited for the Federal agents’ decision, he decided to check out the state university. It had closed the year before, but there might be former professors hanging around, trying to save some remnant of Alexandria. Perhaps they could use a database detective. Jones could use the petty cash. He was unsure if the Federal agents were going to give him a ride home even if he did crack the case, and his office was 800 miles away.
Information Jones rolled his bicycle onto the former quad. He blended easily into the mix of ruffled, barefoot set theorists. A small crowd had gathered near the old gems and minerals building. It was converted to a cell phone store, then abandoned. Graffiti covered the walls. Jones noticed more than one ‘Mad Crab’ tag. A man in a gorilla suit stood out front, beatboxing. The crowd clapped on the threes, then on the twos. The gorilla fumbled with his phone while trying to select the next song. His plastic gorilla hands made it difficult. Bored, the crowd broke up. Information Jones introduced himself to a balding man in a tweed suit.
“I’m Information Jones, Database Detective,” he said.
“I’m Frank,” said the man. “What department were you in? Computer Science?”
“No,” said Information Jones. “I have no degrees or formal training. Were you involved with the school here?”
“I was an economist,” replied Frank.
“Oh,” said Jones, nonplussed. “I thought they kept your department open.”
“The economics department are still around, but its automated now,” said Frank. “I phased out later than most. Phased out all the same.”
“What are you doing here?” asked Jones.
“Day 545 of the protest against the illegal closing of this university,” Frank explained. “I’ve been here about 400 of those days.”
“Any mysteries that need solving?”
Frank thought for a second. He raised his eyebrows. “Can you tell me who stole our future?”
The gorilla, giving up on his phone, produced a shaky egg and launched into song.
“I keep on telling you…”
Information Jones paused. “I thought it was the economists.”
“Right smack dab in the middle of town…”
Frank frowned. “No, not us. We got the rug pulled out from under us too.” He turned towards the gorilla, joining in under his breath.
“I’ve found a paradise…”
Information Jones left Frank to watch the rest of the performance. He picked his way through the growing crowd to his bicycle. Many of the onlookers had joined in, producing their own instruments to round out the shaky egg. One banjo player plucked out a tune while beating a drum with her foot. The hem of her pant leg rose, and Jones could see wiring and metal rods augmenting her impeccable timing. The drum had a cartoon of a crab where the name of a band would normally be. He realized that she was staring at him.
“that's trouble proof…”
Unsettled by the bionic banjo player, Jones made his way back to the Cactus Motel.
“We’re good to go,” said Agent Moss. “Your deal has been approved.”
“Let’s get this wrapped up,” yelled Hal. He karate chopped the air. “I hate the desert.”
“We all hate the desert,” snapped Agent Moss, “Only deranged machine people like the desert.”
“I don’t mind the desert,” noted Jones.
“Then get your ass back into that cactus forest and tell BeyondMelinda she gets to go to Mars,” hollered Hal. He aimed a roundhouse at Jones’ rental bike. It fell to the ground, the back wheel spinning plaintively.
“What on Earth,” said Agent Moss.
“I am a man of action!” declared Hal.
“You have not done a single useful thing this entire trip!” screamed Agent Moss.
Jones picked up his bike, re-adjusted the bell, and left the two agents to their discussion. He missed having a partner sometimes. His working relationship with Bugs was not quite as active as the one between Hal and Agent Moss, but it was nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of. It didn’t take Jones long to reach the outskirts of the park. Roadrunners scuffled in the dust at the entrance. They dashed away as he approached them, RFID tags glinting in the sunlight. BeyondMelinda was waiting.
Jones hiked back up the hill to his flat rock. He sat down to wait. The sun was going down over the mountains to the west. Red shadows jutted out from the rocks. The cacti laid themselves back into the dusk. Birds chirped their good nights to one another. A creosote rustled. Beyond that, nothing moved. Information Jones’s bluetooth transmitter glowed.
“Do you have another argument you want to try out?” BeyondMelinda asked him.
“No,” said Jones. “I’ve got a proposal. We want you to promise to leave Los Angeles alone.”
“What could you possibly offer me in return?” BeyondMelinda asked contemptuously.
“How about Mars?” said Jones.
Information Jones leaned over the service counter of the laundromat next door to his detective agency. “Hey Paul,” he said. “Change machine is showing the yellow light again.” His neighbor looked up irritability from a stack of forms.
“Five minutes, OK? Your clothes can sit that long? I got a mountain of paperwork here.”
“What's all that for?” asked Jones.
“Mandatory reporting for my ‘Enemy of the Economy’ status. This one is a sentiment quiz. 50 questions asking my feelings on derivatives. I'm trying to get upgraded from Yellow to Teal.”
“What's the difference?” asked Jones.
“Teal they let me remove the ‘Enemy of the Economy’ sign outside and my tax on the dryers goes down a bit.”
“I'd like to use the dryer,” said Jones, “If I only had some quarters.”
“All right, all right.” Paul groaned to his feet and came around the counter. “Know anyone aboard that tub on its way to the red planet?” He gestured at the television in the corner. It was broadcasting the departure of the Mars expedition.
“The super-intelligence onboard, commissioned to aid the colonists, is in command of over 3000 autonomous vehicles,” droned the onscreen reporter.
“My ex-wife is on board,” admitted Jones.
“Think she'll make it?” Paul asked. He banged on the side of the change machine with the heel of his palm. “I saw odds 10-to-1 against anyone onboard dipping a single toe in Martian dust, much less creating a colony.”
Jones thought about BeyondMelinda and her fleet of rovers, waiting quietly in the ship's hold.
“I think she'll be just fine,” he said. The change machine coughed out a fistful of quarters. The two men scrambled after them. The quarters rolled under the washers and around the folding tables.
“Might as well all of the starry-eyed liberals into space,” grumbled Paul. “Let’s us focus on practical matters here at home.”
Paul grunted, fishing for coins under a washer with a sawed-off broomstick. “Speaking of which, where is that Amelia of yours? She told me last week about a marvelous way to make some money off of parking tickets.”