by Greg Bossert
Illustration by Nel Pace
“He’s in,” Tess said, with a nod towards the end of the bar.
“Ya think?” Nate drawled.
We all leaned forward to look. The guy in question was hunched over his phone, scruffy beard and dreads black in the cold light, a glass of water unnoticed on the bar before him.
“Mobster,” J-Net agreed.
“Good thing we’re not as obvious,” Douglas said. “The bartender’s got to be hating this, everyone waiting and not drinking.”
Tess and J-Net exchanged amused looks. “Uh, Douglas? We are obvious.”
Which we were: Nate with his tweed jacket over a “re:WIRED” tee-shirt, Tess with her stormtrooper bike helmet and fluorescent hair, J-Net with her “Monster Women” lunchbox, and Douglas… well, Douglas was born obvious. And all of us with our phones in front of us; Douglas had two, and a tablet computer, and an e-paper display that Nate was using as a coaster.
Douglas blinked at me a few times, and prodded my battered cell with his stylus. “What about Harry? His phone doesn’t even have an LCD.”
Nate said, “Oh, I think Harry is pretty obvious.”
“Anyway, we’re buying drinks, so they like us,” added J-Net.
“They ought to,” Nate said, “compared to the usual type they get in here. Why we were sent to this dive, when the Z Lounge is right around the corner on Sutter…”
“They’re probably full, too,” Douglas said. “I’ll bet they’re staging people in every bar and cafe within three blocks of Union Square.”
“We don’t know for sure the target is Union Square,” Tess said.
“A smartmob headed for the plaza of the temples of retail, freshly branded for Crass-mas? Sure, what are the odds?” Nate said. What Tess saw in him beat me. Apart from the looks, that is, and the money, and the all-expenses international travel to trend-setting conferences. Never mind the rest of us: Nate was in.
“Oh, the odds are actually pretty–,” Douglas started, oblivious as always to sarcasm, when something bleeped over by the bar. We all reflexively checked our phones.
“Nothing,” Douglas grumbled.
“Anyway,” I said. “What I was saying is that it’s just like that fungus that infects ant brains, and makes them climb a branch to just the right level and clamp on until the fungus sprouts out of their heads.”
“That’s an urban legend, Harold,” Nate said. “Started by that museum down in Venice.”
“It’s an urban legend that it’s an urban legend,” I replied, maybe a bit smug, but opportunities to catch Nate out on hiply obscure facts were rare. And anyway, Tess looked interested, so I pressed the advantage. I pulled out my pen and started sketching on a napkin: a stick figure ant with a zombie leer. “The fungus exists, in Thailand, I think. What’s crazy is how incredibly precise it is in controlling the ants; once they’re infected, they find a leaf at exactly the right height, with the right temperature and humidity, and find a vein on the–”
“North side,” Douglas said, who’d been typing furiously on his laptop. He moved Nate’s beer and wiped the e-paper off with his sleeve, then flipped it around. The photo looked like an Nineteenth Century engraving on the monochromatic display: an ant clinging to a leaf, its head topped with a sort of antler fully twice as long as its body.
“God,” said Tess. “Is that the fungus coming out of its head?”
“Yup,” I said.
“It’s just happy to see you,” J-Net said.
“And there are tons of other examples of parasites that alter the behavior of their hosts in complex ways. There’s one that infects the tentacles of snails, makes them swell and pulse just like a maggot. It drives the snail out of the shadows, until a bird sees what looks like lunch…”
“Leucochloridium paradoxum,” Douglas said, keeping up with me on the wiki. The e-paper flickered into animation: a snail crawling along a branch, one tentacle fat and throbbing. Cut to a bird, head cocked, which suddenly lunged forward, and ripped the tentacle from the snail’s body. Everyone except Douglas said “Ew!”
Douglas scrolled through the wiki. “Here’s a good one, a nematomorph hairworm, makes grasshoppers drown themselves so they can reproduce. The worms, I mean.”
J-Net waved her hands in surrender. “Can we skip the zombie-making worms for–”
Our phones all went off at the same moment, as did those of half the people in the bar. It was an incoming text message:
“16:30 @ Grant & O’Farrell”
“That’s us,” Nate said. I swigged the remains of my beer, Douglas gave the e-paper another ineffective wipe and rolled it up, and we all joined the mob heading for the door.
Not everyone from the bar headed in the same direction. “Keeping us from clumping up, looking too suspicious,” Nate explained, self-appointed expert. He’d met Tess while researching the Critical Mass cyclists, part of a series of articles on flashmobs. Tess shared an apartment with J-Net, and J-Net was dating Douglas, not that either of them quite knew it. And I worked with Tess at the bookstore; she’d been a customer, buying and selling back books for a couple of years, until I pointed out that employees get discounts. J-Net and Tess and Douglas and I got together a lot. Though, when Nate was in town, I was a bit less likely to tag along; he had a way of turning people into a group, with ins and outs and distances measured from himself at the center.
Nate had flown in last night, but he’d emailed Tess a week ago and told her to reserve this evening for something special. “The next stage in the evolution of the distributed flash mob as a technologically-mediated collective direct action blah blah.” When he went on like that, his voice dropped about an octave from his usual high-strung New England twang; his podcasting voice, Tess called it, to which I added a knowing and hopefully scathing chuckle.
Mind you, Nate didn’t actually know anything about this event, beyond the date. Apparently, rumors had been spreading in the scene for a month: a mob on a international scale, a coming-out party for the post-global society. “Something rich and strange,” one of Nate’s contacts predicted. “Describes the guy to a tee,” Nate quipped. I rolled my eyes at Tess, and got a smile in return; she, at least, knew her Shakespeare.
We followed out phones into Union Square. Contrary to Nate prediction, the Square was not particularly crowded. There were the usual tourists looking at the brightly lighted stores, and a small crew attempting to wedge in a few more Christmas decorations. Douglas cocked his head at one of the decorators, did a double take, stepped back and knocked on a rung of the ladder.
“Hey, Gridley! What are you doing up there?”
The guy on the ladder did his own double-take, almost dropped the plastic box he was fastening to a wreath. “Douglas! We were gonna call you in, but Lino said that J-Net said you had plans. Oh, hey, J.”
“Howzit, Grids?” J-Net replied, with a wave.
Gridley gave one last tug on a cable tie, and clumped down the ladder. He had toolkits crossed bandolier-style over both shoulders and a tablet hung upside down around his neck.
“What’s that?” Douglas said, squinting up at the plastic box.
“Gateway. Check it out.” He pulled an identical box out of his bag, popped it open. It was filled with a hodgepodge of electronics laid out in little compartments and wired together in a tangle of ribbon cable.
“It’s a bento box for robots!” Tess said. J-Net giggled. Douglas and Gridley blinked blankly at them before turning back to the box.
“802-11px, bluetooth, GPLT, um, is that IR?”
“Yup, and a message store with crypto.”
Douglas gave a low whistle. “You do this?”
“The radio stuff. Dongle did the processor, and SMR did the integration, and we all assembly-lined the boxes. The guys from SlipSys did the server; that’s it, over there.” He gestured towards the center of the plaza, where a small group clustered around what looked like a giant kissing ball hung between two lampposts.
Douglas whistled again. “I heard they’ve been working on some crazy new routing algorithm this last month.”
“Yeah, Dongle says they’re expecting four new patents out of it.”
“What’s it do?” Nate asked.
“Uh, it routes,” Gridley replied, with a puzzled look.
“No, I mean the whole system, with your nodes there, and the server. What’s it for?”
Gridley gaped at Nate for a few seconds, then shrugged.
“Beats me,” he said. “I mean, down at our layers of the stack, it basically connects a lot of things to a lot of other things. But at the application layer, you know, where it gets used for something…” He shrugged again. “It’s some sort of contest. Or performance art thing. We’re just into the design, you know? It’s been the big topic in the Maker community for weeks now. There are build groups everywhere, like, world-wide.” He snapped the plastic box shut and waved it around at the wide world. “Our implementation is definitely the sweetest. Except maybe the Finns…”
Nate arched an eyebrow at us. “And this was all meant to be completed and installed tonight? Here in Union Square? Disguised as Christmas decorations?”
“Yeah,” Gridley said. “Full scale test. Need the camouflage, or someone might get all Homeland Security about the nodes and all. Though…” He tugged thoughtfully on his beard. “I forget whose idea it was to run the test here.”
Tess was hopping from one foot to another; she had thin leggings on under a miniskirt. “I’m sorry guys, can we get walking, or find a spot out of the wind?”
“Indeed,” Nate said. “We have a schedule to keep. And I suspect we’ll be seeing Mr. Gridley again before the night is through.”
“Oh, uh, cool,” said Gridley. “I gotta get the rest of these set up, anyway.”
“How many more do you have to do?” J-Net asked.
“Uh, I’m not sure; we just sort of split the pile up by eye.”
“Well, how many nodes were there in all?”
“Two thousand forty-eight.”
“Oh,” Tess said.
We all looked up at the decorations; they were strung in a dense web, all across the square and surrounding streets. Gridley shook his head, looking as surprised as we did for a moment, but the rattle of his gear seemed to recall him to duty.
“So, well, I should get back to…” He held the box up, like an offering.
“Cool. See ya, Grids,” J-Net said, and we went on our way.
The corner of Grant and O’Farrell had nothing to offer but knots of people and a damp, relentless wind. After a few minutes, during which the only thing shaking was Tess, Nate relented, and we retreated to a coffee shop on the edge of Union Square. The place was packed with mobsters, and a few confused tourists, so we found shelter in a nearby store entrance. Three stories of windows made a sort of plate-glass arcade, lined top to bottom with wide-screen displays. We didn’t notice the homeless guy standing there in the glare until he spoke.
“When I was a kid, this was all them little automatromical figures, you know? Mechanical reindeers and elves and crap? Now it’s all TVs.”
He waved an arm out at the square. He was right: just about every store lining Union Square had video monitors in their windows, looping scenes of happy families romping in the snow someplace far from California.
“I wouldn’t mind, if they were showing the game, but it’s all just people.” He snorted, and spat sideways through his thick mustache, still staring at the screens. “I see enough people in a day, ‘swhat I mean.” He was dressed in layers of tee-shirts and hoodies branded with the logos of half a dozen bankrupt tech companies and post-production houses. The outermost layer was a too tight tee-shirt covered in a Mondrian mosaic of fluorescent squares.
“Hey, is that a Shuffling Pixels shirt?” J-Net asked the guy.
“Hell, yeah, pixies. I’m the Pixie Pirate, know what I mean?”
“Um, no,” J-Net said. “Sorry.”
“They went out of business last month,” Nate said absently, staring at the monitors.
“Better believe it,” said the Pixie Pirate, and tugged the shirt flat.
The displays in front of us were showing squares and plazas from around the world. I recognized Trafalgar, and the entrance of the Louvre, and Times Square, amongst others. All had crowds milling about, except one that looked like a small New England town common, and held only shadows. The lighting varied from bright to dim; I did a quick calculation in my head, but Tess beat me to it.
“Do you think these are realtime? Look, it’s evening in New York, looks like the middle of the night in Europe, morning in Beijing and Tokyo…”
Nate frowned and nodded, his glasses shimmering, iridescent in the reflected light.
“Hey, maybe we’ll see one of the other flashmobs!” J-Net said.
“Smartmob,” Nate said, still staring.
“Now, I wouldn’t mind seein’ some flashers,” the Pixie Pirate said, with a sideways glance at Tess, “smart or otherwise.”
“What’s the difference?” asked J-Net. The Pirate opened his mouth, but shut it again when Nate answered.
“Didn’t Tess pass around my Times article? The terms, as I developed them there, are quite distinct, though often misused in the popular press.”
“Good thing you’re not that popular, then,” I said.
Nate rolled his eyes and continued. “A flashmob is a group of people that comes together in some public location, due to a distributed and often anonymous prompt, performs some action, and then disperses. The action is usually humorous or simply incongruous; a pillow fight, a round of applause, et cetera. These events are certainly intriguing, almost dada-esque, and without doubt a new and important branch of art.”
“Dada, Esquire,” the Pixie Pirate said. “Hell, that’s me!”
“I thought you were the Pixie Pirate,” J-Net said.
“That’s my Nom de Boom.”
Nate managed to turn his back to both me and the Pirate. “Smartmobs, while using the same mechanisms of self-structuring, highly distributed, anonymous planning–”
“Viral,” Tess said.
“Not a bad analogy, really, if rather overused these days,” Nate said.
“Fungal,” I suggested. The Pixie Pirate thought that was hilarious.
Nate sighed, and checked the monitors again. “The point is, a smartmob gathers to perform a particular task; direct action towards a practical goal, often social or political, that would be difficult to achieve via some more traditional, centrally organized mechanism.”
“Emergent behavior,” I said.
“That’s not quite what I mean,” Nate replied.
“No, that’s what I mean,” I said. “What I was getting at back at the bar. A fungus is pretty simple, compared to, say, an ant brain, but if it highjacks the brain’s own connections, it can produce sophisticated and totally unexpected behavior.”
“So you’re saying the flash messages are like the mold spores?” Tess asked, a bit dubiously.
“I’m just saying that when you put simple inputs into complex systems, the outcomes are very hard to predict. And a crowd of strangers is about as complex as you can get. Nate said none of his sources could trace this thing, right? Even though they’re the gurus of the whole flash mob thing? We don’t know who’s setting this thing up. It emerged out of nowhere.”
“Terrorists?” J-Net squeaked.
“Woah!” the Pirate said.
“You mean like an AI?” Douglas asked. “Developing on the net? Harry, that’s just, you know, bad science fiction. There aren’t nearly enough nodes, even counting phones and tablets and such.”
“It’s not the complexity of the nodes, it’s the complexity of the connections,” I said. “How many layers are Gridley and his pals there adding? World-wide, he said. Anyway, the real complexity isn’t in the electronics, it’s in the people. You get people together, you get talking–”
“Do tell,” said Nate.
“–and touching, all the social cues we don’t consciously notice, and under that, there’s pheromones. That’s complicated. Mobs were unpredictable enough, long before they got flash. And ‘smart’.”
Douglas blinked, considering. “That’s true. Biology is weird. But if something like that is happening, don’t you want to see what it is? I want… you know, it’s exciting…” he said trailed off, awkwardly.
“I want to be part of it,” J-Net said, and Tess nodded.
“You guys are just so obsessive about belonging,” I said.
That didn’t go over well.
“I mean, I feel it too; there’s some sort of draw. And it freaks me out.” I looked at down at Tess’s boots; there was a hole in her leggings a bit above her knee. “Things never seem to work out well in groups.”
Nate snorted. “Well, you certainly don’t need to be in this one. I didn’t invite you here.”
“No,” I said, “Tess did.”
“Guys!” Tess said, “Sheesh.” She bit her lip, looked at the monitors, then back at me. “Harry, I’m sorry, I guess I’m really not sure what you’re getting at with all this.”
“Me neither,” said J-Net, with an apologetic grimace. “I mean, are you saying some sort of online, um, thought-virus thing–”
“Meme,” Nate interjected. “You’re thinking of my article in the Atlantic on post-WWW interpretations of mimetics.”
“Uh, okay, some meme monster is sending us text messages so we’ll all get together and, you know, reproduce?”
“Oh yeah, I like that!” the Pixie Pirate said. “Way better than the terrorists!”
“No, J. It’s the parasite that reproduces. The ants, they’re driven to do what it takes to allow that. And then they die.”
Everyone looked at me for a beat. Then all hell broke loose as our phones, and every phone in earshot, signaled an incoming text message.
Douglas got to his first, of course. “17:25 @ Union Square,” he read.
Nate made a grand gesture towards the center of the square. “Shall we? Not that anyone should feel obliged.”
“Thanks, man, I’m staying here,” the Pixie Pirate said. “People, you know what I mean?”
Of course I went with them. If this thing really was as big as it seemed, then there was no way my future grandkids were learning about it from some article of Nate’s; they’d hear it from me and Grandma Tess, was what I was thinking.
And once we got wedged into the crowd, some of the adjacent mobsters joined into our debate. It was the right sort of crowd for an impromptu discussion of self-reproducing memes and emergent behavior; every tech-head, writer, student, professor, artist, special effects wizard, and self-proclaimed citizen of the future in the Bay Area was there. Tess, a veteran of a decade of mass bike rides, guesstimated the crowd at eight, maybe ten thousand. Everyone seemed half out of their heads with excitement, though no one we talked to seemed to have a clear idea why they were there. I really didn’t get it; at the end of the day, it was just a big bunch of people standing together.
“Every revolution has started with a bunch of people standing together,” Nate said.
“Yeah, but they had a purpose.”
“Maybe we’re here for a purpose,” J-Net said. “We just don’t know it yet.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” I said.
“Well, we’ll find out soon enough,” Douglas said, checking the time, with an eagerness that sent a chill down my spine.
It was pretty much dark by then, and the crowd was lit from above by Christmas lights, and from below by phones, and all around by the monitors in the windows. At 5:30 on the dot, the phones all triggered again. Mine displayed a line of what looked like random text; then it flickered, and went blank.
There were curses from all around me. Douglas had both phones out, and the tablet, and was poking vigorously at the latter. Tess was shaking hers. She caught my look. “Sometimes it works,” she said with a shrug, and then her phone flickered back to life. As did mine, and from the ripple that rolled through the crowd, so did everyone else’s.
But there was no text message. Some new app was running, full-screen video of a crowd. Our crowd, in fact; Union Square, shot from somewhere behind and over us.
“Hey, it’s us,” J-Net said, and waved a violet-mittened hand over her head; on the screen, a few purple pixels jittered back and forth.
“It’s real-time,” Tess said.
“Like the video we saw of the other sites,” I said.
“Some kind of virus,” Douglas said, and then glanced between Nate and me. “The software kind, I mean. Got both my phones, too… Wow! Whatever it is, it’s opened up connections on bluetooth, wireless, the cell net.”
“Go, Gridley!” J-Net said, but she was looking at her phone a bit suspiciously.
My phone, with its text-only display, was just flashing garbage, but the image on Tess’s phone dissolved into a different view: another crowd, shot from a lower angle, with a line of ornate buildings in the background, and a glass pyramid in the middle. Paris, then, and from the shimmering glow, the phones there were acting just as oddly.
A few seconds later, J-Net’s phone switched to the crowd in Times Square; the video billboards there themselves displaying crowds. From the murmurs, which merged in the distance to an earthquake-like rumble, all the phones here were switching views. And it wasn’t just limited to the phones; the monitors in the storefronts surround the square were flickering. We were too far away to see clearly, but I was sure they were showing the same shifting live feeds.
The changes seemed random at first, sporadically accompanied by the vibration and tone of a new incoming message. But after a few minutes, a pattern started emerging; more and more of the phones shifted images in sync, or almost so; the changes washed like waves from one side of the square to the other, trailed by the buzz and clang of ringtones and alert sounds. The waves began to bounce off the far side of the square, like ripples reflecting in a pool, and the pattern grew both more synchronized and more complex. I could feel the waves coming; people were leaning into them and swaying after them, a slow motion mosh pit.
The waves picked up speed, and the ripples grew more complex. I was having trouble tracking what I was seeing; the flashing light of the phones and the insistent rocking of the crowd was hypnotic, nauseating, hallucinatory.
“Let’s get closer,” Tess said. Her face flowed with the shifting lights, eyes glittering.
“Closer to what?” I said, and looked around. “Hey, where’s J-Net?”
“Here,” she said, from somewhere past Nate; all I could see was a pigtail sticking up. With each wave, the crowd was shifting, and we were being dispersed with Brownian efficiency, tea leaves in a boiling pot.
“Just in,” Tess said.
“Not much choice about it,” Douglas said; he’d drifted forward, past the group in front of us. He’d put away his tablet, or dropped it; he had a phone in each hand, on each side of his face, but seemed to be looking over the shoulder of the person in front of him.
“We should be in the center,” Nate said, not quite his podcaster voice; it was too urgent, and oddly wistful.
The people around me seemed to agree; the waves still shook us back and forth, but each pass seemed to pack us a bit tighter. The people who didn’t have their phones held up now risked having them pinned at their sides, but that wasn’t a problem; there were plenty of phones in view, and the store displays flickered from around the edges of the square.
I was staring to sweat, despite the cool air above my head, and that added to the feverish feeling. And then the air shifted too, a warm breeze that followed the waves of motion. Breath, I realized, synchronized to the pulsing, though that had become irregular, and fast; the wave folded in on itself until the pattern was too complicated to comprehend.
I’d lost sight of Douglas, now. Nate’s head was just visible, and J-Net’s pigtails had disappeared. Tess was about three feet away, though there were several people between us. I wanted to get up to her, no, I wanted to get passed her, I had to get to the center in time, if that meant burrowing through people. I wanted to be part of it.
That stopped me. I’d spent my entire adult life avoiding being part of things. With one exception, and she was drifting away from me with every wave of the crowd. I stepped on a foot, and shoved, and grabbed her sleeve. “Tess, this is crazy! We’ve got to get out of here”
She looked back at me, towards me, anyway; I doubt she was seeing anything but the wash of light. “Harry, can’t you feel it? It’s coming.”
And from beyond her, and faint, already turned away, Nate said, “It’s just ahead. We can still make it.”
A wave passed through–they were coming like whitecaps now, from all directions–and Tess slipped loose. I thought heard her once more, just a single word: “In“. And then another wave came, with a flare and a sigh, and she was gone.
I fought the crowd, then, heading towards where I’d last seen Tess and the others, trying to use the surrounding buildings to keep my bearings. But the harder I fought through the waves, fists and elbows, and eventually tooth and nail, the harder they pushed me away from the center. I might as well have fought the ocean. I had two choices; surrender to the flow and lose myself, or counter it and be rejected. Eventually I found myself washed up against a store front. A few other rejects stood there, or crouched against the windows. One lay sprawled in a puddle of shadow, motionless. A woman had somehow gotten up onto an awning, and was screaming “Jennifer! Jennifer!” out into the plaza.
The crowd in front of me was a single, solid mass, that seethed and spasmed with light like some sort of deep sea creature brought struggling to the surface. Only those creatures are cold; this was hot and shed a gust like a fevered breath with every pulse.
Despite my repulsion, I felt a sudden urge to throw myself back in, not to save Tess but because it was almost time and I had to be there. As I turned, the woman on the awning fell silent with a groan, and stepped forward. She dropped into the crowd, a dull, wet thud as her head struck another. She scrabbled blindly, grabbing fistfuls of hair, and began crawling over the crowd towards the center.
I shut my eyes, then, and fumbled along the store fronts, stumbling over bodies that moaned and struck out and some that didn’t move at all, until the air felt fresher and the lights beat a bit less bright against my eyelids and my knees hit something cold and hard.
It was a trashcan, at the edge of the store entrance in which we’d stood before. The monitors in the windows were flashing, no clear images anymore, just swirls of color, though I got the feeling if I stepped back and stared a pattern would emerge. I looked down instead. I was still clutching my phone. I had a vague memory of hitting out with it; it was streaked with blood and a clump of what might have been hair. I dropped it into the trash.
“I was wrong. I liked it better when it was people.” It was the Pixie Pirate, slumped down behind the trashcan. His reflection stared at me from the surrounding windows, half-obscured by the flickering screens.
?ere was great clash of sound that echoed off the buildings behind me; the arrival of one last message.
“Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go,” the Pirate was muttering. “Get something to fight with, man. Chainsaws and stuff. Get in it, you know?” But he stayed curled there behind his can, the roiling light from the monitors painting him in sharp green edges, dull red shadows.
In the reflections, that light was swirling up, out of the mob, and coalescing into a shape; it towered above them, complex and new and utterly alien. The manifold stench of its breath swept past me and down the street, and the soft wet sound of flesh on pavement. The desire to turn around was carnal, concupiscent, unbearable. I found the pen in my pocket, and for a single, mad moment I thought that if I jammed it into my eyes, my ears, then it would maybe I could find Tess wherever she had gone.
“I don’t want to be in,” I said, against the light.
And over my shoulder Tess said, in a voice like the sigh of something old and deep washed up against the rocks, “No, love, you do. Everybody does.”
Greg Bossert grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and currently lives across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco; his path between these points passed through Lisbon, Vienna, Northfield MN, NYC, Silicon Valley, and Berlin. He started writing in 2009 (on a dare over pizza and beer), attended the 2010 Clarion Writer’s Workshop, and has had several stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction and a Russian reprint in Esli Magazine. When not writing, he works on films, currently at LucasFilm. More information on his writing, films, and music is available at SuddenSound.com and on his blog GregoryNormanBossert.com. Check out our interview with the author.
Nel Pace was born and raised in Malta. Works include illustrations, murals, concept art and production design. Nel likes skulls, and other nice things.