The despondent professor watched her students file out of the classroom. When the last one disappeared into the hallway crowd, she turned to the scrawled equations on the blackboard, arms crossed.
Big O notation, algorithmic complexity. As far as ultimate lessons go, she thought, she could’ve done much worse. Her eyes followed the mathematical expressions downward to their beautiful conclusions. She sighed, wiped the board clean.
Marinne sat down, stooped over her desk, when a gentle knock came on the door frame.
“Come in.” She removed her glasses, scrubbed the lenses with her blouse before replacing them.
“You okay?” Sviatlana entered on tiptoe.
“Yeah.” A wry smile. “Most of my stuff is already home. Couple of books left.”
A window rattled, flung open, letting a cold breeze carry into the room the scent of wet leaves. Marinne got up to close it. She looked out at the yard three stories below, where in warmer weather students lay on blankets between flowerbeds or under tree shades; now, it was empty save for one tardy student, striding across the footpath, taking nervous drags on his cigarette and exhaling puffs the color of the overcast sky.
When she returned to her desk, anger boiled inside her. “I’m not going down without a fight,” she said.
Sviatlana placed a hand on her shoulder. “Of course not. You’ll gather your evidence and be back teaching in no time.”
“Teaching here again—” she shook her head “—ain’t gonna happen. This has become a PR affair, S. I’m a goner. But that bastard isn’t getting what he wants easily, either.” Gnashing her teeth.
“You have four weeks to mount your defense, which is ample time to prove him wrong.” Sviatlana held up four fingers as if evidence to her claim. “Many of us are on your side anyway; you won’t have to go it alone.”
“I don’t want to bore anybody—”
“Oh, stop it.” Dimples appeared in Sviatlana’s narrow cheeks as she smiled.
Marinne leaned back into her chair. After a moment, she smiled back.
“You know,” she said, “I can cook something…if you and Mikhail feel like coming over tonight.” The windows hummed as a fierce wind blew past. The treetops swayed left, shivering, then snapped upright again. Blushing, she added, “I could use some company.”
Textbooks pressed against her chest, Marinne walked the path flanked by chestnut trees, her boots picking up and dropping off wet foliage along the way.
When she reached the campus gates, an impulse tugged at her, turning her around.
In the arcade of the university, Georges stood leaning on a column, the wind buffeting his overcoat, his sapphire eyes grayed by dim daylight locked onto her.
She regarded his ghostly figure for a moment, resembling an imprint of a human, more of a man-shaped dent on the surrounding world than flesh and blood. The corner of his mouth twitched, making one half of a smile.
Angered by his nerve, she turned, hastened to exit the campus grounds. By the time she made her way to the bus stop, it had begun to rain.
Swiveling in her padded workroom chair, one leg folded beneath the other, Marinne reread the official suspension letter, signed by the Dean and effective immediately, excluding her from academic life without pay. Following several hearings before an expert commission, the letter said, she would either return to work provided she cleared her name of plagiarism, or be fired and barred from submitting to university-linked peer-reviewed journals for an as of yet undecided duration if she didn’t.
She threw her head back to gulp down the drink.
She crumpled the letter and binned it, then went to pour herself another glass. Rain drummed sideways against the kitchen windows, the water splotches blossoming into sunflowers on the panes as they caught the chandelier light. She sipped, listened to the patter.
Halfway to the bottom of her drink, the bell rang.
On the patio, Sviatlana and Mikhail hugged under a downpour-deformed umbrella. She ushered them in, shivered in the cold breeze, then closed and locked the door swiftly as if to keep the mud-colored sky from squeezing in along with her guests.
“Sorry for being late,” Mikhail said, wiping his shoes and removing his windbreaker. “Horrible weather.”
They left their dripping clothes and umbrella by the entrance and settled in the comfortable living room chairs. Marinne took out glasses for the whiskey they’d brought, set them on coasters on the low table, poured two fingers in each one.
When everybody had had a few sips, Mikhail glanced briefly at his wife for approval before saying, “I hear there’s a bit of commotion in your department.”
Marinne raised her glass. “Quite the clusterfuck.” She drank.
He gave off a squeaky laugh. Hastily he lifted his drink to his mouth. “Is there something we can do?”
“Yes,” Marinne said. “Beat Georges Latour to a bloody pulp.” She giggled. Her guests didn’t. She cleared her throat, shifted in her chair, said, “I’ll figure something out.”
“Surely you can reason with him.”
Sviatlana said, “Nobody can.”
“Especially,” Marinne said, waving her drink to point around with her forefinger, “when he gets jealous. At the end of the day it’s all about ego, Mikhail. He’s pissed I published my research first.” She took a large sip, smacked her lips.
“But he can’t claim you ripped him off,” said Mikhail, “when Sviatlana tells me he hadn’t divulged his work. Has he talked with you?”
“Never,” she said. “I had no idea he researched sorting algos, too. How can I prove it, though? From the commission’s perspective it’ll be suspicious as all hell—two professors coming up with an identical algorithm, independently, when they work door to door. Ludicrous.”
Sviatlana said, “Has the journal editor reacted?”
Marinne nodded. “Said she couldn’t involve them in this mess, so they’re backpedaling, pulling my paper out until we resolve the problem internally.” She looked in turn at Sviatlana and her husband. “Nobody wants to take risks. Therefore, I’m guilty until proven innocent.”
She brought out the hors d’oeuvres then, and the conversation veered toward other topics, such as Mikhail’s current obligations at the university’s physics department, the renovations of their new, roomier apartment, and the copious amount of paperwork required to finish the couple’s adoption procedure. Sviatlana fished out a photograph from her pocket of their daughter-to-be.
“She’ll make a fine engineer,” she said, handing it to Marinne.
“Theoretical physicist,” Mikhail said, and his wife gave him a mock elbow jab.
The grinning two-year-old was pulling her pigtails down the sides of her face. “She’s gorgeous,” Marinne said.
“Our little Newton,” Mikhail said when she handed back the photograph, then his smile waned, and he scratched his beard as his eyes swept the ceiling. “Actually, Marinne, maybe two people coming up with an idea independently isn’t as ludicrous as you think.”
“What do you mean?” She stabbed a piece of cantaloupe with her fork.
“Well, it has happened before. The formulation of calculus, disputed between Newton and Leibniz. Nowadays, it is widely accepted that they both discovered it.”
She chewed. “Yeah, but Georges and I don’t live a thousand miles from one another.”
“True,” he said, giving his salt-and-pepper beard another scratch, “but it’s not unprecedented. Come to think of it, it’s happened several times. Off the top of my head I can recall a few other examples, like the discovery of helium.”
Sviatlana helped herself to the hors d’oeuvres. “Wasn’t Darwin’s theory of evolution mired in some such controversy, too?”
Counting along his fingers, her husband said, “You’re right, it was. Discovery of oxygen is another example.” Wiggling a fourth finger.
“Uh, Occam says hi.” Marinne waved a hand. “I can’t compare myself to scientists from centuries ago who lived on opposite sides of a continent, when Georges can say I’d overheard him talking at the cafeteria and be done with it.”
Mikhail raised his hands in a placatory gesture. “I’m just thinking out loud.”
“He might be on to something, Marinne,” Sviatlana said. “The burden of proof is on Georges. If he can’t show with absolute certainty that you’ve known of his algorithms, all the while you make a case that simultaneous discoveries aren’t uncommon…” She shrugged noncommittally.
Marinne uncorked the half-empty bottle, poured herself more of the amber liquid. She offered it to her guests but they both shook their heads, palms on stomachs. “Listen, thank you, really, for trying to help,” she said, “but quaint history-of-science anecdotes won’t do the trick. In our profession once a finger is pointed at you, guilty or not, you’re fucking through. Allow me to worry about my quagmire, and please, let’s just enjoy the evening.”
They didn’t talk about it anymore.
Once they finished dinner—eggplant parmigiana, zucchini puree—they drank a cup of tea, discussing politics, and at around midnight, Mikhail and Sviatlana got up to leave.
At the door, waving her guests goodbye, Marinne saw that the rain had stopped. She stood there for a moment in the cold, sharp air, a thousand fingers pinching her face. The plants in her garden were gnarled and twisted, the petunias beaten down, drooped, made to face the muddy ground.
She glanced up—
At a void, as if somebody had pulled the color off the sky like a tablecloth, in one deft motion, leaving behind naked black. She got in and went straight to bed.
Nursing her hangover with cold coffee, she clicked her television remote until the flipping channels blurred into a whole, as frames of a singular, post-modern masterpiece. It was past eleven on a weekday, and she lay on her sofa, blanket pulled up to her chest. She had never felt worse.
The outside mist seeped in through her windows, crawled to every corner, suffusing the house in a milky glow. A lonely, unshaken snow globe home.
She left the TV on some midday talk show, muted the cackling host, got up to fetch her laptop. Her head swam as she padded to her workroom and back, and when she dove into her blanket again, setting the computer on her stomach, it took her several bitter coffee gulps to stabilize.
She logged into an empty inbox. Her colleagues had surely heard of her predicament by now, which meant they either didn’t want to broach the sensitive subject via email, or were too cautious for their own hard-won academic positions, given Georges’ influence with the Dean.
Nobody was ambivalent about Georges. Many hated his guts—most notably, Marinne’s close circle of colleagues—but he’d endeared himself to a lot, too, including a sizable portion of the university’s senior staff.
Skimming through the day’s news, she recalled her drunk discussion from the previous night, and more to pass time than anything else, she decided to check the facts.
Mikhail had mentioned Newton and Leibniz.
She looked up documents about the history of calculus, which she was already quite familiar with, and went on from there. Clicking about, soaking in all she could dredge up, all that her sobering, semi-functional brain could process.
Before long she’d finished her coffee and had made herself another cup, her eyes flitting across the laptop screen.
What surprised her were all the other incidents of multiple discovery, as the phenomenon was known, which had occurred throughout the advancement of science, yet she’d never heard of—logarithms, decimal fractions, light bulbs, the polio vaccine, the first airplane, the jet engine, the typewriter, color photography. Even the telephone wasn’t wholly Alexander Bell’s.
All inventions claimed by multiple inventors, thought up independently and unknowingly of one another. Mikhail’s count had been surprisingly pessimistic.
Immersed in the articles, Marinne realized that what she’d referred to as quaint anecdotes were in fact a field of study, albeit a minor one, and the more she read, the more the whole notion of a lone genius inventor seemed unrealistic, romanticized, outdated. In fact, according to some theoreticians, multiple discovery was the rule, not the exception. The main pattern of scientific development.
She took a snack break, and armed with more iced coffee, she delved into lectures on the patterns of technology. Patterns, observed but unexplained, that technology tended to follow regardless of era. The discovery of fire had happened independently across a wide range of primitive societies, preceding the burial ritual, which in turn preceded welding. Multiple hominids scattered across Africa, Europe and Asia created hunting tools at the same time. Peoples of China, India, the Americas, and the Fertile Crescent independently developed agriculture.
Technology, never appearing out of order, pell-mell, but following a well-traced path with one discovery always and unmistakably leading to another.
Before she could finish reading a text on irrigation, her phone rang. She buried her hands in her blanket, feeling for the source of the muffled buzz. When she found it, her screen told her it was her mother calling.
She hesitated before picking up. “Hey, Mom.”
“Oh, Marinne, thank God.” A heavy sigh. “Are you okay? You’re at work? I was worried out of my mind.”
She set her laptop on the table to stand up. “Yeah, Mom, I’m fine. I’m home, felt a bit under the weather.” She paced around the room, stretched her legs. “What’s the matter?”
“Good, good, good,” her mother said. “I was so frightened, Marinne. Thought you had maybe taken a stroll downtown, I don’t know…” As her mother spoke, Marinne’s eyes caught the pictures on the muted TV—helicopter shots of a general disarray in the city center, the caption breaking news plastered near the station’s logo. People in tears and distress, wrapped in blankets, speaking to reporters. Cut to a man in uniform. Police. Pushing the camera away. Then, amateur footage from the main square showing, with much shaking, clothes—no, bodies—scattered around, wriggling like severed salamander tails, pale and limp and numerous.
She froze. “What happened?” Barely a whisper.
“They don’t know,” her mother said. “Terrorists. Nerve gas. They don’t know.”
She held the phone pressed against her ear for her mother’s comforting voice as she watched chaos unfold.
She didn’t dare unmute the television.
Stepping out of her house. Slow, measured steps forward on the flagstone path which bisected her garden. Swinging the little green door to her front yard open—hinges creaking—setting foot on the street pavement for the first time in a week.
Marinne looked at her neighborhood, at the houses wrapped in a coat of thick fog on both sides of the two-lane street, their roofs invisible as if plucked out by a hand from the sky. She thought of darting back, bolting the front door shut, and staying home forever, safe and warm and preoccupied with research, but then she remembered how much her friend had pleaded her to come out and how disappointed she’d be, so she stuffed her fists in her parka’s pockets and headed toward the bus stop.
The street sloped downward; the suffused, foreboding red of traffic lights cut through the fog from straight ahead as Marinne trudged along the sidewalk. There were no cars, no pedestrians to obey them. The air, thick as cotton and vile as smog, required an effort to breathe.
There were three other people on the bus, all with distant, forlorn stares. She sat in the back, watched through a grimy window as the city emerged, rolled by, and dove back into the fog behind them.
The attack had dampened the whole country’s mood. It wasn’t just the sheer brutality, but the unanswered questions too, the lack of comforting explanation. Nobody had taken responsibility for it—two fundamentalist Christian fringe groups did, initially, but further investigation proved that they’d lacked all capacity for it and had piggybacked on the horror for publicity—and the government remained tight-lipped, releasing only the vaguest of statements to the public. There had been no casualties, but the undisclosed injured victims were kept under quarantine, far from the eager eyes and ears of the public.
A feeling of helplessness prevailed, a childish vulnerability that Marinne could read on every fleeting face she saw outside, her forehead propped on the chilled, humming window.
A sharp turn, then the bus rattled to a halt. She hopped off before it lurched forward, carrying the only passenger left further down its route. The fog had gradually cleared, until only the foul smog stench remained downtown.
At the café, Sviatlana sat in a corner booth. They hugged without smiling.
Holding her at arm’s length, Sviatlana said, “How are you holding up?”
“Well, I guess.” Taking a seat. She took off her parka, bunched up her scarf and stuffed it in a sleeve. “You and Mikhail okay?”
Sviatlana nodded, tucked her chin inside her white turtleneck. “We manage.”
The waiter drifted to them, took their orders, and they sat in silence for a moment before he glided back, carrying two cups with saucers and a porcelain kettle of steaming mint tea. Gingerly, he lifted each item off his tray in turn, set it on the table with shaky hands.
“I’ve been busying myself with research lately,” Marinne said when the waiter darted back toward the counter. Squeezing a slice of lemon into her cup, she added, “Takes my mind off this mess.”
Marinne gave her a quick rundown, summarizing her two notebooks filled with notes, historical events, dates, scientists’ names. Told her she’d combed through the public data from the patent office, she’d read meta-analyses claiming a staggering amount of similar patents were filed each day due to the simultaneous thinking up of inventions, and how most of the patent-related lawsuits were due to multiple discovery, instead of plagiarism.
As if inventions would’ve appeared regardless of inventor; as if technology had a mind of its own, a trajectory, a purpose.
But what had set the trajectory, what was that ineluctable force which drove it forward? Was it an extension of human nature?
Or was it perhaps older than the hominids? Because technology wasn’t exclusive to humanity—primates used stones to break open walnuts, beavers built dams, cephalopods had learned to carry pieces of their environment with them as shelter, as a portable home…
“Do you think you can use this against Georges?”
Holding the cup before her lips, she said, “I don’t know. At this point I’m just collecting data and wildly speculating. Whether I can produce a coherent argument remains to be seen.” She sipped.
“If there’s anything we can do to help—”
“Oh, no, thanks. Burying my head in work is almost therapeutic, considering the reality.” She made an all-encompassing gesture, shrugged.
“Tell me about it. In class I get to worry about maths and mechanics, but Mikha, he can’t even afford the luxury of taking refuge in his work.” Again, she lowered her chin into her turtleneck, her eyes looking straight into Marinne’s.
“What do you mean?”
She spoke quietly. “Agents came to the university asking for help. Apparently they need physicists.”
Marinne furrowed her brow. “What for?”
“I don’t know, he doesn’t tell. All I know is that—” her voice lowered to a whisper “—that cowardly act wasn’t biological or chemical, because only Mikha’s department is at it.”
Marinne dropped her cup into the saucer with a loud clang, prompting the waiter to look up from the counter. She shook her head at him. She turned toward Sviatlana, bending forward. “He’s researching the attack?”
“Shh.” Sviatlana glanced around furtively even though there was nobody around them. “Yes,” she said. “But like I said, he tells nothing.”
“What do you know?”
“Besides biochem, we can also rule out radioactivity. Nuclear physicists aren’t involved. Apparently, they’d swept the scene with Geigers the first day, but now I see most of them in the canteen at lunchtime.”
“What the hell was it then?”
“I don’t know.” A shadow passed over her face, draped itself over the table, spread inward to the rest of the café. Looking out through the windows they saw a dark cloud waltz across the sky, a black beast against a whiter backdrop.
Marinne shuddered, realizing then that nobody, not even the government, had any idea of the nature of the attack. Suddenly, she longed to be home.
“Let’s leave,” she said.
They motioned to the waiter, paid the bill and left. Outside there was no sign of the inkblot cloud; the sky was back to its foggy whiteness, the sun nowhere to be seen.
They made their way through a meager crowd to a park nearby. Under a tawny canopy they walked, solemn. There were dead flowerbeds on both sides of the footpath, made up of mulch and sparse, wild vegetation.
“When he comes home he’s too tired to talk,” Sviatlana said, picking up where they’d left off. “And when he does talk, he says nothing about his department’s work. I don’t want to push him, he’s completely drained.” She bit her lower lip, added, “I caught him taking clonazepam the other day.”
Dead leaves lay scattered on the path which cut through the park, shades darker than the amber treetops above their heads. They walked abreast with arms locked, gravel crunching under their boots.
Sviatlana shook her head. “Doesn’t make sense. Why would they need theoretical physicists?”
“Perhaps it was some new weapon.” Marinne smiled wanly. “Your head was buried in SF paperbacks for most of college, can’t you think of any quark-gluon plasma bomb or something?”
They got to a bench in the middle of the park, sprinkled with rain drops. Marinne wiped them off with a sleeve, and they sat on the slick surface. Several benches were arranged in a circle around a mildewed fountain, its basin filled with rainwater, reminding Marinne of a pigs’ trough.
Sviatlana’s stare was distant, eyes unfocused. “A new weapon,” she repeated. “Maybe. Who knows?”
Marinne began to code.
Theoretical research was important, but she needed to tackle the problem as a computer scientist, too. Get her hands dirty.
A crawler emerged after three days of coding—gently swinging from one web strand to another of the largest public code repository in the world, scraping its numerous projects for snippets of algorithmic use, grouping them by type and complexity.
She was doing a worldwide study, as fast and as extensively as her hardware allowed, on algorithmic trends.
Pacing back and forth in the vacant room, Marinne flailed her arms around, talking briskly to an imagined audience.
“Allow me to go back to the telephone,” she said, “and Elisha Gray v. Alexander Graham Bell.” She bent over the table, leafed through a sheaf of papers, plucked out the one with the relevant notes.
“At the heart of the dispute between the two inventors is the same issue I brought up in discussing the Wright brothers v. Glenn Curtiss. Patent lawyers, and the general populace, at the time held the view that inventions belong to the lone, genius inventor. A person struggling in the dark of their laboratory to come up with a solution that nobody else could’ve thought up.”
She held up the recto side of the paper toward the empty couch. “As many researchers theorize nowadays, this is vehemently wrong. We seem to ignore the fact that invention is decidedly not pulling a virgin idea out of thin air, but an incremental improvement over previous work, work done by others’ incremental improvements in their respective areas of expertize.”
Marinne’s notebook lay split open on the table among the scattered notes. She flipped through a few pages until she reached a passage written in black ink. She read, “Scientific progress marches on, regardless of individuality, and we are but vehicles for its relentless push forward into complexity. Invention is social, not individual. As such, it is viable to pop up in many places at the same time, governed under a non-stochastic schedule.”
She straightened up, looked at each imaginary member of the commission in turn. “So, as the numbers show,” she said, addressing them in a dignified tone, “this case which we seem to be making a big deal of, is in fact, a common occurrence. This underlying pattern of development, this force which shapes and governs our thoughts, force we tap into—”
Marinne stopped mid-sentence. She let her hands drop. “Force we tap into,” she muttered. “How very New Age.” She stomped her feet on the ground. “Fuck.”
She sat down on the couch, stooped over the low table and began scribbling corrections in her notes, cursing under her breath. The first hearing was scheduled to take place two weeks hence, and she felt as unprepared as ever.
Once she’d made the necessary corrections, she flattened the stack of notes on the table with a few taps, and got up to resume her closing talk.
She was about to open her mouth for the rehearsal when a soft ping came from the laptop which served as paperweight on the table. A new email.
She sat back down to check her inbox, hoping it was one of her friends, only to find a message from the local news station, summarizing the day’s events. Marinne started toward the read later icon by habit, but then she saw the subject line. Attack victim released from quarantine. Watch the exclusive interview.
Her head tingled with curiosity.
She’d worked hard all morning, she thought. She deserved a small break. She opened the message.
Marinne followed the links to a video box which popped up, loading the content. It framed the pallid face of a thirty-something-year-old woman, lank dark hair, eyes beady and focused slightly to the side. The bottom caption read, Claudia J. Frank.
“Where were you held, Ms. Frank?” said the caring off-camera journalist. “And for how long?”
“At St. Lucas Hospital,” the woman said. “Twelve days. Didn’t let my family come visit. Just doctors, nurses, doctors, nurses, all day long. And men in suits. Couldn’t even see their faces, they had those masks on the whole time.”
“Were you told why you were held?”
“The suits, I mean the government men, told me I was a safety hazard. Thought I was gonna—” Her eyes welled up, she pursed her lips. “I was sure I was going to die, then.”
“What did they do to you?”
“Test after test after test. Must’ve drained a bucketful of blood from my arm. Alligator clips to my chest, neck, feet. They ran me through countless machines, made me narrate the … uh … experience again and again.”
“Yeah.” She went through her greasy hair with a hand. “What happened that day, you know.”
“Care to share it with me?”
She paused, her eyes darting across the room, and Marinne knew it wasn’t for dramatic effect. The woman was scrambling to put to words something important.
“It was…weird,” Claudia said, her tone a touch heavier than before. “Unlike anything I’ve experienced. The sky brightened…you know how the weather’s been shit for weeks? Well, it changed, in an instant. It cleared. We breathed fresh air. Everything stopped.” Her eyes bulged out. “I looked at the folks around me, and somehow, I knew what they were thinking. Little trivial stuff like, take the kids to the piano teacher. Like that. It’s like we could hear each other’s thoughts. And not just in a telepathic way…this is hard to explain…but ’cause we were all thinking the same thing. We were all…I know this sounds stupid…we were all one mind. Like even if I have no children of my own, I think about kids and their piano class, you know? That is all I remember. It was overwhelming, I must’ve blacked out. Next thing I know, I’m in bed in some hospital with Doctor Face Mask flashing light in my eyes.”
The journalist thanked her, wished her a speedy recovery, and wrapped up the interview with a recap of the known information about the attack. The video segued into a commercial, then ended.
Marinne gaped at the black rectangle on her screen. She let what she’d heard sink in, then she forwarded the email to Sviatlana, adding, This might interest you guys. Trauma hallucinations? Super weird, anyhow. M.
Curiosity sated, she closed the laptop lid to prevent further distractions before returning to more pressing matters.
The crawler evolved over the course of the next weeks. It had learned to systematically weed out code that had no general use outside of its own project, all the while preserving bits which were universal. So the various sorting algos, the data structures, the networking libraries, all were being copied into Marinne’s computer, stored and graphed and charted.
The crawler located, downloaded, and cataloged code like a diligent librarian.
“Want me to come pick you up?”
“No, thanks.” Marinne held the phone with her shoulder, rummaging through her closet with both hands. She pulled out her parka. “Did they say if it’s gonna rain?”
“I don’t know,” Sviatlana said. “Think not.”
Marinne leaned out of her living room window to stare into the cotton-white sky. The air was cold, but dry. “Seems like it won’t,” she said, and replaced the parka in her closet, pulling out her beige jacket instead.
“You sure you don’t want me to come?”
Marinne studied her reflection in the hallway mirror; she wore her newly pressed gray pants, short lacquered shoes, and a white, collared shirt, buttoned up to her neck.
“I think I’ll walk,” she said, hunting for any makeup mishaps in her mirrored face. “Get my thoughts into order, you know?”
“Sure.” Sviatlana took a deep breath. “Well, good luck, then. I’m convinced you’ll kick some academic ass.” She laughed.
“Me too,” Marinne said, and hung up, beaming at the mirror.
Briefcase in hand, packed with her laptop and a sheaf of additional notes, she flew out the door into the cold morning. Her entire neighborhood lay sprawled across the hill, its numerous houses flowing downslope to both sides to meet the rest of the city. To the west, they grew smaller, grubbier, gradually turning into chipped, flaking buildings as they merged with a poorer residential quarter; to the east, at the leveling of the slope, the two-storied, chimneyed homes flattened out abruptly into large shopping malls, parking spaces, fast-food restaurants. Beyond that, the business part of town began.
The university was three blocks northeast from the business district, or fifty minutes on foot. She had twice that time until the first hearing was scheduled to begin, though she walked briskly, pumped with stage fright. She’d barely slept the previous night, going through her opening remarks, rehearsing the best way to drive her point home, thinking of Georges’ stupid face as he realized she wouldn’t cave in to his pressure but was determined to fight to the bitter end.
Feeling pugnacious and pleased with her research, she picked up her step; she believed she might have a chance of clearing her name, of reverting the Dean’s unfair decision by showing that smug bunch that they were capable of being wrong. She had good arguments, and she had given her all.
Her crawler had produced no usable results, though. Marinne had hoped to pluck out from the cacophony of data one or two identical uses of a complex, though unique, algorithm to prove that multiple discovery was commonplace among algorithmic invention, too.
Her hardware had turned out too frail for the computation required, and she’d failed to disentangle such code from the heaps of mined data, but she’d discovered something else, a curious detail which had emerged almost as a side note.
The crawler’s charts showed a significant increase, over the past few weeks, of general similarity in algorithm use. An upward curve indicating that programmers had been thinking gradually more alike with each passing day of the last month, had used similar concepts, had employed the same tools from their mathematical toolkits. As if people’s tastes had coalesced into a narrower palate.
Marinne had no idea what to do with that data, so she’d shelved it for later study.
As she neared the financial district with its towers of glass reflecting a drab, sunless city, a crowd had begun to form on the sidewalks, yammering into phones, munching on fast food, elbowing their way, excusing themselves and slipping through. She melted into the throng, letting their chatter drown out her inner harangue.
She emerged from the district into Market St., with its stalls of produce arrayed in a row of raucous sellers and haggling buyers. Pungent aroma wafted down the closed street; rubbish crunched under Marinne’s shoes when she crossed over to a sidewalk strewn with watermelon rind, cabbage morsels, and discarded paper bags.
Several long steps further, the ruckus simmered down, then vanished altogether, as a cold breeze blew down the length of Hill Rd., carrying the scent of snow from the distant mountains, along with sounds, buzzing loud into Marinne’s ear like chirping magpies, inchoate at first, collapsing into coherence an eyeblink later—
some of these people Jesus how stupid do you think how about fifty dollars whatever man just buy it I don’t think it could last long yeah you need room to breathe not another stifling what the hell is going on I can’t feel my pulse veins throbbing…
All around Marinne people were slowed down to a crawling pace. One man’s look of agony at the wind’s whispers frozen on his face, his phone an inch away from his ear like it had been trying to bite it off. Two women in an arrested conversation, eyes vacant. An elderly lady forking over cash to an Asian stallholder, paused midway in an incomplete holding-hands gesture. A young, pudgy teenager, pale-faced and looking stoned, checking his pulse.
When the first wave swept over her, another came, and another.
…what if he’s wrong I have no idea the square root of minus one is an imaginary I don’t think I have that book should he she says Mary’s on her way and even if not I’ll make dinner for myself strawberry fields is hell is dormant repent…
Her eyes shifted left and right, taking in the people-statues. She looked down at her hands; thoughts crossed her head about hands, about doing things with hands—making pie or strangling John or building toy trains—but whose thoughts were they?
The gale tugged at her, pulling her in a slipstream of thought. She made a tentative step forward. Her leg moved. She made another step.
Nobody else budged from their initial spot. Poised on the brink of terror, rooted to their starting positions.
It was borderline torture, that moving against the stream, but she managed. Looking down at her feet, as they planted themselves on the bitumen, up and down, stepping on a discarded candy wrapper, then up again, down again, on the curb, on the pavement. Away from Market St.
She felt like a ballerina swaying now left, now right, dancing further from the eye of the storm.
…It’s not like I’m cheating I think I’ll have a big cheese what if there’s life on Mars or the end is near holy shit boss is going to kill me but his hookers habit the wedding pictures they are ruined why did the Chinese ever build that long big cup of coffee thank you very much…
She ran in slow-mo, her body buffeted by the thoughtstream, when shafts of light pierced the air. She tore her eyes off her shoes to look up; the sky was a clear blue, beautiful.
A step further and the sky broke, as if the halves of two separate postcards had been scotch-taped together. One side was clear, blue, immutable; the other white, cloudy, fast and swirling.
With one last effort she managed to wrench herself from the storm. The slow-motion running broke into a real-time sprint; she ran, breathing heavily, her glasses fogging up, fearing the storm might follow, no time to process what had happened, swinging her briefcase back and forth. When she’d run two blocks, she stopped, exhausted, fell to her knees, and dared to glance back.
In the distant Market St., people flapped on the ground like beached fish.
Marinne sat propped on the red brick wall of a bank building, clutching her leather briefcase, strap buckles pressing against her breasts. She heard the wail of sirens, saw firefighters and police approach from uptown, swooshing past her, their sirens dopplering down Hill Rd. toward the scene of the attack.
The attack. She reflected on what had just happened. Thoughts jostled in her head, fought for conscious attention.
The first to emerge out of that mess was a question. Why was she only marginally affected? She’d been able to escape. To swim out of that viscous soup of thought that had swept everybody off their feet, turned them into pathetic, wriggling little things on the concrete.
Perhaps because she’d been better prepared, she thought, hugging her briefcase tighter. Because she’d been intimately and unknowingly researching that very same force the past few weeks. Had been subconsciously aware of it.
She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes.
Like an afterglow from the storm, an idea popped in her head. Confusion cleared.
Marinne got up and headed for the university.
Before her was the ornamental brass gates of campus, the university’s building, shaped like an angular C, like an open mouth, ready to swallow ambition and naivety and spit out stone-hearted, by-the-book academics.
It had done that to her, too.
She followed the snaking path through the grassy yard, chestnut trees to its sides. Students mingled in the arcade among the glistening marble columns, trading textbooks, gossip or cigarettes. Some recognized her when she neared, quieted down while their erstwhile professor passed, only to resume their chatting with greater intensity after she’d entered the building.
The cold atrium hummed with echoes of activity, the clacking of heels on marble, screeching of shoes, the exaggerated whispers and magnified sounds. Two hallways radiated from it. She dove toward the south.
Passing classrooms, hearing her colleagues teaching their respective subjects through closed doors, she felt a twinge of nostalgia for her profession. When she got to the quiet classroom where the hearing was to take place, though, the feeling quickly passed.
Inside were two of the three commissioners, seated in the front row. A bespectacled woman with jet-black hair, older than Marinne by a decade at least, and a slightly younger, balding bureaucrat in a tweed jacket. She greeted them warmly.
“Don’t worry,” she told them. “This won’t take long.”
The woman smiled, revealing white teeth and an excessive amount of gum. The bureaucrat gaped at her, stolid.
When the Dean—the third member of the commission—and Georges walked in, the others stood to greet them. Marinne gazed out the window at the yard.
“I am afraid I carry bad news,” the Dean began. “I was informed that there’s been another attack on our city. Happened not fifteen minutes ago.”
The bureaucrat gasped.
“In light of this, I suggest we postpone our hearing until further notice. Please contact your close ones, see if everybody’s okay.”
The two commissioners fumbled for their coats and bags, getting ready to leave.
“We’ll be in touch, Michael,” said the bureaucrat, putting a hand through a sleeve of his overcoat.
Marinne, gazing at the sway of the bare trees, said, “There’s no need.”
The Dean said, “No need for what?”
“For another hearing.” She turned to face them. Georges looked at her with squinting eyes, as if X-raying her head for her secret scheme. “Really,” she continued, raising her hands in a surrender. “You’ll get my resignation tomorrow, Dean. Georges wins. I give up. The algos are not really mine.” They’re not really his, either, she wanted to say, but didn’t.
The Dean said, “What sort of game is this?”
But she was already leaving the classroom, briefcase in hand, pacing the hallway toward the atrium, onto the campus yard, past the snickering students, and out the brass gates, away from that wretched palace of hubris.
The hotspots had multiplied. The event—she couldn’t think of it as an attack anymore—had occurred the world over. From continental Europe to the scattered isles of the Pacific, people had felt the mind-shattering boom.
Back in her house, she lay on the couch, a printout of the crawler’s results in her hand, the TV parroting the breaking news in the background.
She followed the smoothly growing curve with her eyes to its peak. The present.
The world was on the cusp of monumental change as that ineluctable force which hadn’t emerged out of humanity but had existed in spite of it pushed on, multiplying these bizarre occurrences, intensifying, until—
“Congratulations.” She hugged the couple. She couldn’t think of anyone more deserving than the two of them.
She stepped into the new apartment, which was twice as big as their last, and before they had had a chance to get a word in edgewise she asked, “Can I see her?”
Sviatlana smiled. “Of course.”
They tiptoed to the door of Julia’s room. Sviatlana turned the knob, opened the door halfway.
Inside, the little girl slept facing them, thumb in mouth, the remnant of a smile on her gorgeous face. Crescent moons hung from the ceiling, bathing her in a pale fluorescence. Marinne’s eyes welled up—she thought of the kind of world her friends’ daughter would grow up in, a world where ideas ruled instead of egos, where borders between individuals were being smudged, erased, where soon everybody was going to know, was going to be, everybody else.
Sviatlana closed the door.
“She’s beautiful,” Marinne said, wiping her eyes.
Mikhail wrapped his arms around his wife, smiling. The adoption had exhausted them, Mikhail’s work—now more demanding than ever—had strained their marriage, but they had held together, had pulled through.
“What are you planning to do now?” Sviatlana asked when they’d moved to the roomy kitchen for dinner, a tinge of concern in her voice.
Marinne hadn’t revealed to them the big surprise of her research, just that she’d been defeated at the hearing. They would find out soon, anyhow.
“Right now,” she said, holding up the champagne she’d brought, “I plan to celebrate.”