Ian R MacLeod
Buy. And buy again. Then sell. Yes. Sell.
My trading floor is a glass smartcube on the second floor of my house set amid the pines and crags of the Cascade Mountains, here in Washington State. A river races beneath, but for now the roar of water is replaced by the clamour of voices, and some of them are still human, and a very few — a trickle of sharing — belong to the other members of my group. We may not know each other well in the traditional sense, but the trust we share on the trading floor is deep and implicit. The hunches, the impulses, the decisions which arise are as natural, and as innately feral, as a kitten’s when it plays with a ball of wool.
So we shed our shares in Neurosat when the market still seems to think they’re on the up, and gobble up some more of Xenocon at a plummeting price when all the so-called smart money — which these days mostly means bank-bots — is desperate to sell. We shift and we shuffle. The numbers spin and swirl. We deal.
Which brings us to the puzzle of our continued investment in the shares of a company called Canco, which have been bouncing along the bottom for several days now — aeons in market terms — and still show no sign of going up. A small tussle of wills ensues between the stickers and the sellers, although it’s not that uncommon for our group to split briefly into divergent mode. But why did we buy these shares if something positive wasn’t going to happen? It makes no sense. And wasn’t there, the dim thought arises, some kind of rumour on the feeds? Or at least, there soon will be. So not just stick. No. Not just hold. But push forward and buy and buy while we still have the chance. At the end of this frenzy, we have invested the best part of four hundred million dollars in a basket-case mining corporation based in the People’s Republic of the Congo. Not a huge investment by our standards — perhaps a quarter of our free assets — but nevertheless a significant one, and I feel a small flush of triumph, almost as if I’m the one who’s pushed this through, although that’s never how this works.
Then we’re done, and the fizz, the buzz, fades from my smartcube like the lost thrill of orgasm as the sense of sharing runs out. Better than sex? Perhaps. Far more profitable, as well. The roar of the river is returning, along with the loom of the mist-swirled pines. But I’m still just standing here as the final connections dwindle, and it’s briefly as if there is no smartglass, no ceiling or walls, no group and no protection, and I’m falling through whiteness — impossibly cold and alone.
“Went okay, did it, Samuel?” Luke is fixing breakfast in the kitchen, his still slightly sleep-tumescent cock swaying against the Hermes robe I bought him back when we were staying at that neat little place in Saint Germain-des-Prés. He neatly balances a tray of croissants, coffee and orange juice on the crook of his arm as he shuts the fridge door.
“Of course it did,” I snap. “How else do you think I got all of this?” Unfortunately, my gesture encompasses not only this kitchen, this view, and the late-period Jackson Pollack on the wall, but Luke as well.
“Just asking.” His hand trembles slightly as he pours my coffee and juice. He’s so delicate, so gentle, so sensitive, despite the pecks, the abs, the cock. It was what I used to like about him so much. No, I correct myself, still like.
“Sorry, Luke. It may not seem like much. But, in its way, it’s hard work.”
He smiles. “I’m sure it is.”
“No. Come on. I know there are people starving, babies dying, as we speak. But it’s commerce, and it’s what I do, and I take a pride in it, and it leaves me drained.”
He leans over. Brushes his fingers across the stubble of my throat. Then down. I shiver. I can’t help myself. But it isn’t his touch. And it isn’t the group, either. It’s something more. Something else…
I’m still considering what that something might be as I shower while Luke sees to the dogs, and the puzzle lingers even as we set out on a long, brisk hike to make the most of this time before the fine autumn weather runs out. The yelps of Joe, Adolph and Mao ring along the canyon as they bound ahead. Luke calls and whistles after them. The air is brutally bright and cold.
People might wonder what someone as effortlessly rich and successful as I am actually does to fill up their days. I sometimes wonder about it myself, at least in an abstract sense, but hour by hour, and lover by lover, and city by city, and acquisition by acquisition, it’s never been a problem. The truth is that great wealth, at least if you have a modicum of intelligence, looks and health — which can all usually be bought — never grows stale. At least, it hasn’t for me. And there’s always the group, my smartcube, the thrill of the trading floor. And there are days like this with Luke and the dogs, as well.
We climb to a high ridge with a fine drop from a platform of rock looking down and across an arrangement of forest and mountain I don’t think I’ve ever seen this way before. Luke unfolds his backpack and lays out a rug, then delicious, steaming, combinations of hearty yet delicate food. The Araujo Syrah, of course, matches it perfectly; he knows my cellar by now far better than I do myself. The dogs vanish for a while, but then they come racing up, shaggy and wet, with blood bearding their grinning muzzels. They must have tracked and killed a deer, somewhere down there in the forest, and the thought strikes me that Joe, Adolph and Mao make up a kind of gestalt of their own, they’re so instinctively and effortlessly good at what they do. They run off again after Luke has thrown them a few scraps. Then he packs things away, but leaves out the rug, and touches my thigh, my arm, in quiet invitation, but I shiver again, and shake my head, and gaze out across the vast, shaded drop.
That feeling. It was there, or at least somewhere, back on the dealing floor and in my smartcube as the rest of the group were withdrawing into their separate lives. A chilly sense, to use a very old-fashioned phrase, as if someone was walking over my grave. I smile. Shake my head. This is so blatantly ridiculous, I could almost share it with Luke. But of course I can’t.
The sun is already setting by the time we get back to the house, which looks like some strange fractal lantern on its promontory high above the river. Inside, though, all is warmth, and Luke and I kiss and snuggle to make up for my earlier coldness as we eat toast beside the fire, and I call up some Monteverdi and he pours out a couple of glasses of ice-cool Imana Soave while the dogs loll around us and I page absently through today’s feeds.
All the usual stuff. Society scandals and political fudges. Atrocities and wars. That, and floods and all the other natural disasters we don’t think of as natural any more. It’s important that I keep up with this kind of stuff, but also that I try not to engage or develop any kind of conscious expertise. Or, heaven forbid, search out market tips and trends. Still, I’m almost expecting some kind of story to be emerging from the Congo, perhaps a big new mining strike, but nothing comes. Soon, I’m simply drowsing in the heat of the fire and the soothing presence of Luke and the dogs. My group. Our group. Far away from those fizzing figures on the trading floor. When Luke finally nudges me, I jump.
“Hey…” My spine seems to crawl as he kisses my mouth, my ear. “Weren’t we supposed to be going down to the city tonight to see that friend of yours on her yacht?”
About time we took the Maserati out on a run, and it’s Luke’s turn to drive. Which he does well. He’s a sportsman, I think, at heart; he’s certainly built like one. Except, as he confessed when we first met back in Bruges two years ago, he’s only really world class at one particular, and generally non-competitive, physical activity. Seemed a neat come-on at the time, but now it feels rather sad. Dressed as he is now in that new tux I got for him last winter when we were staying at the Four Seasons in New York, and driving this car as expertly as he does, he could be the new James Bond. But all he does is hang out with me, and work out, and fuck. That, and I suppose he sees to the dogs, stocks my cellar, keep an eye on the house, and cooks all those excellent meals. Quite a lot, really, come to think of it, and he certainly knows how to charm. But I still feel rather sorry for him as the glow of the Maserati’s displays show off his noble profile to such good effect. And I know that feeling sorry for whoever I’m with is generally a bad sign. I should nurture him more. Get him to develop fresh interests, friends, skills…
“Penny for them.”
“Sure,” I say. Then add, although I hate myself even before the words have come out. “Although they’re worth a great deal more than that.”
The forest falls away as the road winds down toward the glow of Seattle and the glitter of Puget Sound.
There’s a motorised skiff, if that’s the right term, to bear us across the water to Bea Comyn’s yacht. More of a tall ship, really, a vast white clipper blown in from days of yore which she uses as a base to roam the world, although tonight it’s all hands on deck to dish out canapés and the champagne. A band is playing. Some beards-and-beads combination of North African and Celtic. Bea probably owns them, inasmuch as it’s possible to own people. She’s a collector, a connoisseur, an aquisitor. We all are.
I mingle, listen, talk. An investor, yes, in the world markets, and it still surprises me how people don’t greet that statement with more distaste. After all, it’s basically just gambling. Or it would be, if our group didn’t do what we do. Instead, they ask me if I’ve got any hot tips, and I waggle my smile at them, and shrug. Better just to drift, wander, absorb. Be me. Whatever and whoever that is.
I linger at the fringes of an argument over some upcoming cage fight where both participants are so enhanced they can scarcely be thought of as human, so what does it matter if one of them dies? I indulge in a flirtations conversation with a woman in a green dress that shows off the pink tops of her nipples to good effect about the best lobster restaurant in Pike Place. Uptown highrise Seattle is bathed, ghostly as tombstones, in the light of the moon.
No sign yet of Bea, and I can’t find Luke, either. Then I see him at the deck’s far end — what do you call it? upship? forecastle? —engaging in surprisingly animated conversation with a tall, bald, muscular, black-skinned man in colourful clothes. Good looking, as well. I feel a little envious. When did Luke have something to say to me that mattered as much as whatever he’s saying to this guy? But a voice calls my name just as I wonder whether I should barge in.
I turn, and it’s Bea Comyn, wearing the sort of tweedy two-piece that used to be favoured by the old Queen of England and Angela Merkel. She doesn’t care about looks. She flaunts her jowls, and hasn’t even get rid of the grey in her short, brittle hair. But Bea loves beauty. I mean, look at this scene, and everything else she does and owns. She draws me away with a firm but wrinkled hand, and I notice Luke noticing our departure as we turn. But it’s okay that Bea and I are seen together. We have several legitimate, above-board, connections. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here at all.
Now, we’re in a cabin, and she calls up some music — it’s even more of an ethnic mishmash than what’s playing outside — as she closes the door. It’s all varnish and portholes down here. Briskly, elegantly, shipshape, with dark old whaling paintings on the panelled walls. It seems only appropriate that she should pour us both a Mount Gay rum, although I refuse the offered cigar. She shakes her head as if I’ve made a deeply unwise decision, and clips one for herself. The cloud of aromatic smoke she exhales takes me to her campus office in Edinburgh, when she was a mere professor of Psychology and Psychometrics, and I was just a humble postgrad, and it still feels a little that way as we sit down on opposite leather chairs and I find, when I try to adjust my position, that they’re screwed down. Then the ship, perhaps caught by nothing more than the waves of a passing ferry, seems to stir. Whatever it is, I get that brief, cold tingle again. Here in this maritime setting, it feels more the harbinger of a vast, approaching storm.
Bea’s a methodical sort, and whatever it is she really wants to share with me is prefaced by a chat about our mutual interest in racehorses. If nothing else, it’s a useful and tax efficient way of throwing excess money down the drain. But it’s also engaging, and fun. He’s such a handsome beast, she says at one point about a yearling we’ve invested in as a prospect for the Longines Hong Kong Mile, and I’m reminded that she once said the same thing about my Luke, and wish she’d cut to the chase.
“I’ve been speaking directly to other members of our group,” she says through the haze of cigar smoke and our second tot of rum. “I mean, since we convened in our smartcubes on the trading floor this morning, western seaboard time.”
“Oh,” I say. And add, before I can bite it off, “Is anything wrong?”
“I thought I’d save you until this evening, Samuel, seeing as I knew you’d be here at my little soirée.”
Meaning she’s already spoken to everyone else.
“The question is…” She leans forward. Looks up at me through her uneven fringe with bruised oyster eyes. “Did you notice anything?”
“Well, the extra investment in the Congo did seem a little leftfield.”
“But that’s what we do, isn’t it? We see above and beyond the normal tides of the market. That’s what our group is for.”
I nod, feeling more that even as if I’m back at university, and I’ve made some schoolboy error in my thesis.
“In fact,” she puts down the stub of her cigar and waves up a screen from the low table between us, “some fresh reports were coming in just as this party started. There’s a warlord called Learnmore Wallace — I know, these African names — who’s said to be making a move to secure the Canco copper seam. This guy…” She calls up the image of an angry-looking man in kaki and military boots standing in the unlikely setting of the lobby of an upmarket hotel. “Is said to be pragmatic, consensual, business-friendly… Which, of course, means he simply wants power and money once he’s finished slitting the throats of his rivals and raping their wives. But at least it’s better than all that Lord’s Resistance Army apocalyptic nonsense. And, of course, the world is screaming out for all that copper that’s still stuck in the ground.”
“You think that maybe the Chinese, the Russians, or the CIA might — ”
She waves my words and the screen away. “Doesn’t matter. The main thing about all of this from our point of view is that we’re ahead of the curve.”
“Or it will be,” she corrects me, “when confidence actually starts to go up. But meanwhile, and until his forces actually make their move, our friend Learnmore simply amounts to more instability. Hard though you might find it to believe, and despite all our recent buying activity, share prices in Canco have actually headed down.”
“But nevertheless — ”
“Yes, Samuel, nevertheless. But didn’t you notice anything else?”
“About this morning. About how the gestalt de-convergence went.”
“Not exactly, no.”
“So I’ll take that as a yes, shall I? That, at least, was how all the rest of us felt.”
“If you mean, just as the link was phasing out?”
“How would you describe it?”
“I’m not sure I could. It just felt a little odd, a little wrong. A little…” Ominous, or something like it, is the kind of word I’m trying hard not to use.
“Of course,” she concedes, leaning back a little, as if to give me some room, “the underlying science is still desperately short of terms. But I’ve looked at the waveforms, I’ve studied the graphs of individual response, and I can confirm there was definitely an anomaly in the usual wave patterns of communion across the group. And it was something I don’t think we’ve see before.”
“Is, isn’t it? And the other thing, the thing which both the data and the reported experiences of the group are clearly telling me, is that the response, the anomaly, whatever you choose to call it, originated from you.”
“Maybe the equipment — “
“ — that was the first thing I checked.”
“Or we’ve been hacked?”
“No. Definitely not.”
“Which leaves, in your opinion.”
She sighs. Pings her glass with a ragged fingernail. “I really don’t know.”
“At least it’s out there now.”
“Indeed.” She leans forward. Pours me more rum. “And there’s still a chance it could be nothing. It’s outside our established dataset, for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s telling us anything meaningful. The science of the gestalt is still so new, and it remains ours alone — at least, as far as we know. And, of course, we want to keep it that way. I sincerely hope that absolute secrecy’s the one thing we can all agree on, in or out of the wisdom of the group…”
When we re-emerge, the party is still going, and the Space Needle looks as if it’s just about ready to blast off. I could do with some drugs, or at least something, to combat this day and Bea’s rum, but I know myself well enough to know I’m better off with nothing at all. So I find Luke, who’s dancing with a group of mutual admirers with his tuxedo off and his frilled shirt wide open to show off his torso, although there’s no sign of the African guy. I join in for a while, manage a few grinds and whoops, but my heart isn’t in it, and I decide I want to go home.
“It’s barely two in the morning!” Luke laughs, until he realises I’m serious. Drink and tiredness, or maybe it’s my advancing years, make the business of getting from yacht to motorised skiff and then back to dry land a little less elegant than I’d have liked. But I’m the one with the keys to the Maserati, and it’s definitely my turn to drive.
“Shouldn’t you at least put it on autoguide?” Luke asks as he belts up.
“I thought I was the one who was supposed to be the killjoy?” I floor the accelerator. The tyres squeal.
I feel exhilarated at first as I take the roads out of Seattle. I’m enjoying how the car handles, and the way Luke is clinging to the edges of his seat.
“Who was he?”
“Who was who?”
“That bald, good-looking black guy you were talking to.”
“He was just some fellow who happened to be at the party, just as we were. But he had some interesting opinions.”
“Interesting. Right. And aren’t you going to ask me what I was up to, seeing as we scarcely saw each other all night.”
“That’s exactly what parties are for. We can speak to each other yesterday, tomorrow, right now. But you were with the host, weren’t you? That Comyn woman who owns the yacht. You have horses together, or something, don’t you?”
“Fact is…” I ease up on the accelerator. I’m feeling slightly queasy. “She used to be one of my professors, back when I was at university in Edinburgh.”
“And then she got seriously rich?”
“And you did as well.”
“Isn’t that what higher education’s supposed to be about?”
Luke laughs. As I recall, he studied something sensible and practical in Brussels; a skill that had been supplanted by algorithms and bots by the time he needed work. But why did I have to mention my connection with Bea going so far back, when I’ve never said anything about it before? It already feels like a loose thread in the weave I’ve woven to protect myself from the world. And why, when I glance over at him, does he look so smug and unsurprised? But I decide that it’s my cautious driving that’s letting me down far more than my big mouth. That, and I should be acting much more drunk. So I push the accelerator. Swallow hard. After all, if I was going to die tonight, tumble off this hairpin and dissolve in a ball of flame, wouldn’t I already know?
The house glows out from the dark, and Joe, Adolph and Mao greet us with yelps, grins, thrashing tails. I drink some electrolytes, and massage my scalp as the shower runs hot, then ball-tingling minty cold. Luke’s already out for the count, sprawled and snoring, by the time I’ve dried myself and called off the lights. I lie there beside him and count my heartbeats, the fading seconds of my life, as I stare up at the dark and sleep cackles from the from the furthest corner of my consciousness like a demented, tropic bird. After all, what do I know or care about copper mining in the Congo? Something slides, a long, cold anaconda of doubt — although I’m almost sure anacondas are from the jungles of South American — through my ribs. But then the dripping fronds part, and I’m in a bland, concrete corridor, and there’s a smell of laser toner and cheap coffee. And, faintly, of cigars. Not that Professor Comyn ever smokes them on campus, but they’re part of her aura. She looks up when I enter her office. Tells me to close the door and does that thing with her mouth which passes for a smile. She has a fearsome reputation which belies her dumpy appearance, and I’m fully expecting some kind of reprimand. But no. This is, very much, something else.
Truth is, I’m not even sure why I’m studying psychology. It’s all come to seem like a prolonged extension of a scam Freud came up with to make money out of the problems of a few rich Jews in pre-war Vienna. But I’m no big fan of modern neuroscience, either. All those pretty three-dee models of the brain, and they still haven’t got a proper handle on consciousness, or isolated a single, significant mental disease. These conclusions, and a lucky bursary, and perhaps an innate lack of personal drive, have somehow led me to Edinburgh and the orbit of Professor Comyn, who’s well known for her unfashionably reductive approach. What counts, she argues, almost like the behavioural psychologists of the 1960s, is to cut through all the speculative crap and concentrate on what can be provably, externally, repeatably and reliably observed. Think of the brain as a black box, concentrate on input and output, and all the rest will take care of itself. It’s certainly hard, sitting here in her Spartan campus office, to have any idea of what’s going on inside the confines of her considerable mind.
I’ve been in Edinburgh for a couple of terms by now, and have occasionally helped her out with one of those seemingly minor, unfunded projects that most academics like to have going on under the radar. She’s amassed data from a series of online tests where people are invited to make quick, hunch-like guesses on seemingly random subjects. As well as taking part in the survey myself, I’ve done some of the donkey work of systems and web-maintenance using the skills from a previous degree, although she’s kept the actual results very much under wraps.
It’s long been known that the seemingly random guesses of large groups can be surprisingly accurate. At the start of the twentieth century, the great statistician Francis Galton noted that the average of all the entries in “guess the weight of a bull” competitions which were then popular at rural fairs were far more accurate than the estimates of the supposed agricultural experts. Plato, who was also in on this, called this odd phenomena The Wisdom of Crowds.
All of this I already know as Bea Comyn sits me down in her office. I also know that she’s recently asked me to close down all the sites linked to this area of research, and encrypt the data so it can’t be accessed by anyone other than herself. I’ve even heard it said that this is because she’s drawn what would be for her an uncharacteristic blank. But what she begins to tell me that first afternoon — for the process is characteristically cautious and gradual — is startling. Not only has she been able to amass more information on this subject than any previous project, but she’s also managed to grind that data down to something startling and new.
Sure, mass-conjectures have a statistically significant level of accuracy, but that simply means they’re marginally more right than wrong — a small, dark, clump in the fizzing white noise of chance. But it turns out that some people are significantly better than others at doing this kind of thing. Not once, but repeatedly — guess after guess and time after time. This isn’t a matter of specialist knowledge. In fact, the opposite, just as Galton and many other researchers have discovered. Nor is it a question of IQ. In fact, Bea Comyn freely admits to me as she sits there in her office with the door closed and some weird, wailing music playing in the background, she still has no idea what the true source of this phenomena is. But it exists, right? Something clear, measurable and verifiable is occurring. Which, at the end of the day, and beyond all the surmise and bullshit, is exactly what matters. Data being data, and results always being results. Especially, in this case, where those results can be refined and re-used as a basis for further, deeper and far more significant research.
So what would happen if the participants were filtered down to those whose hunches had consistently higher-than-average levels of accuracy? And then, after further tests and refinements, that group was quietly narrowed down even more. Now, and especially when these so-called super-predictors are allowed a few moments of collaboration, it turns out that the white noise of chance disappears almost entirely. Their wild stabs-in-the-dark on matters as obtuse as the annual fish harvest in the Bearing Straits or the number of people passing hourly through Times Square are amazingly, consistently, accurate. Even when the group-conclusions initially seem to be incorrect, it generally turns out that it’s the base-figures themselves that are wrong. Not only that, Samuel, Bea Comyn adds, but these group-guesses have a stochastic element. They can tell not only how things are, but how they will be, at least over a short timescale. In case you’re wondering, she adds with one of her famous non-smiles, I’m a super-predictor myself. So — which is why I’m sharing this — are you.
Not so much a small, under-the-radar project, but a big and surprisingly ambitious one which she’s been using the dumb donkey work of postgrads like me to provide a plausible camouflage for. Looking at things as they are now, I can’t help but wonder if my late arrival into the core group Bea had already created and primed wasn’t a bad omen, but at the time I simply felt as if I was being invited to join something special, exciting and rare.
The secrecy, the sense of feeling chosen, not to mention encrypting the new data so the University security guardians didn’t pick up on it, and borrowing stray bits of equipment and bandwidth, and throwing out false leads and dealing with the increasingly complex issues of financing this project, all added to the fun. Bea had already set up beta-versions of what ended up as our smartcubes using a variety of commercially available virtual gaming and pornography hardware and software. The system sensed patterns of eye movement, minute changes of breath, posture and skin resistance, so that we in the group, when confronted with some data, didn’t even need to consciously think about it, let alone physically converse. Subliminal dialectical bootstrapping being Bea’s technical term for this form of interaction, and the general hunch, the combined seat-of-the-pants surmise — the feeling you don’t even know you’re actually feeling until after you’ve felt it — being all.
Of course, in those early days we used to meet up occasionally and in person at a variety of discreet locations in order to work out the many practical issues, and discuss who was supposed to be doing what. But, outside of the gestalt, we made an ill-assorted bunch, a bickering baker’s dozen of ages, races and attitudes, scattered across languages, cultures and continents. We might be intuitively loyal to the group, and fiercely protective of all that it’s brought us, but that doesn’t mean that, as separate people, we ever had anything else in common, or cared for each other, or even got on.
I crawl out of bed with what feels less like a hangover than a vast, existential and physiological malaise. Luke looks beautiful, though, carved out of innocent and sleep, as I unblank the windows and grey morning pours in.
My head is roaring, and so is the river. Steam from the coffee-maker fills the kitchen. There’s frost and mist outside amid the trees. I break the habit of almost a lifetime and stir several spoonfuls of sugar into my cup. Then, seeing as Luke isn’t yet conscious, and probably won’t be for several hours, I buzz the can-opener and hold my breath as I spoon out slabs of glistening offal for the drooling dogs. Time, then to do my — the group’s — regular, daily thing.
I step into my cube. Snap the glass into smart mode, so that where I am fizzes away. No sign, yet, of any of the others. But that’s okay. We span time zones, chaos states, pogrom democracies and righteous caliphates, here in this modern world where the only true international currency is greed. Marlene in Estonia, in her autistic white box of a home, and Omar in what’s now called Constantinople again. And dull Vicktoria in Siberia, who still seems to have no idea of what to do with all her money, but wants it nevertheless. We all do.
Money, after all, was what our group needed to establish itself. Money was the oil which could be laid over all kinds of troubled waters, and a simple and reliable measure of our success. Yui in Tokyo had some useful skills as an investment analyst, it’s true, which helped us to work out to spread and disguise our profits across a wide range of markets. And Mia out in Sydney, Australia, being a communication specialist, did a great job in creating a multiple-redundancy network. And I had a bit of a background in web-engineering, and course Bea knows almost everything that’s ever been known. But expertise, conscious knowledge, opinion, has never been what our group is about. Not for Hilda in Jerusalem with her near psychotic intolerances, or Maxim in Ukraine, with his background in people-smuggling. What counts isn’t I, but us.
My fingers and my scalp tingle as the data rains in. Yes. And yes again. The smartcube, filled with all of Bea’s clever sensors and codes, knows me far better than I do myself. But still no sign of any of the others, here at the future’s raw edge. I occupy myself with calling up the latest feeds. There’s a new sports enhancement product which could rewrite the NBA and the English Premier League, or turn out to have disastrous side-effects and be worth nothing at all. You never know. And here’s a performance artist who’s crowd-funding her own crucifixion, and a bad storm is causing problems in the South China Sea. All the usual blah, and what I, individually, know and think about these things is worthless, and I’m still waiting to feel any connection from the rest of the group. So I tunnel down through further layers of opinion and catastrophe until I find — what’s this? — news at least two hours stale out of Kinshasa, which used to be called Leopoldville, in the not particularly Democratic Republic of the Congo. What’s left of Learnmore Wallace has been found hanging from a lamppost in a cloud of flies, and the dripping meat of his corpse looks like what Joe, Adolph and Mao had for breakfast.
Our prediction was correct. Of course it was. No doubt with the backing of some external power-broker, his forces attempted to take the Congolese mining hills and lay some copper-bottomed dollars across the country’s ruinous spreadsheet before the whole thing fizzled out into bloody chaos. But it was a group decision, right? I may have pushed a little harder than some of the others, and of course a few were against increasing our stake in Canco, or wanted to sell, but that’s exactly how the gestalt works. We’ll recoup. Of course we will. After all, and when we’ve already made so much money, and so consistently, a loss of four hundred million dollars scarcely counts. So why do I feel this strong need to explain myself? And why am I still alone?
I kill the smartcube. Pull back and out. But I still feel as if I’m in a hissing field of pure white emptiness. Of course, it’s just the cascading river, the steam, the frost, the mist, but my skin prickles, my testicles withdraw. They’re out there somewhere, the group, and I’m not with them, and I’ve never felt so lost and alone. Something flashes amid the far trees, perhaps a sniper’s scope. I cringe. Duck. But this is getting ridiculous, and I’m running much too far ahead of whatever this really is.
Back in the kitchen, Adolph, who’s always been the most sensitive of my little pack, backs off from me and gives a growling, fang-revealing, bark. Joe and Mao soon join in and the sound is enough to wake the dead. Although not, of course, Luke. I make myself some more coffee. I check the feeds again, but Learnmore Wallace and his ragged little army are still as dead as the price of Canco shares.
I check the time. By now, the group will have convened, decided, parted, moved on. And now I’m on the outside. Part of the dumb, unknowing world which these modern oracles see beyond. Should I be expecting condolences? Flowers? Messages of support? Of course, no one’s died, but the pack, the heard, the group, has always walked away from the old, the stupid, the lame. Left them for the predators and the flies to take care of, just like poor old Learnmore Wallace. This is exactly how nature has always worked.
I have to do something. I can’t just wait. So I call up a screen, and call Bea. Without preliminaries or hesitation — as if, in fact, she’s been expecting me to do exactly this at this precise moment — her grey face looms up at me from above the kitchen counter.
“You cut me out.”
“It seemed like the best thing to do. At least, for now.”
“All because of one bad investment, which I’m sure we’ll recoup.”
“I’m sure we will. But it isn’t that alone.”
“What the hell is it, then?”
“At the end of the day, Samuel, it’s the very thing our group is about. It’s a gestalt hunch. Something that, by its very nature, and its stochastic dimensions, can’t be explained in linear, synchronic, probabilistic terms.”
“Cut the college crap, Bea.”
She gives me a deeply disappointed smile. “The rapid loss we made with the Canco shares may be a symptom, but there appears to be a deeper abnormality. You agreed you felt it when we talked last night. And it’s confirmed by the data. There was a brief, atypical waveform just before you broke connection with us. A loss of… mutual synchronicity, I think, might be the closest term.”
“Meaning what? That I’m not to be trusted?”
“Not that, either, I don’t think. I don’t like using the word premonition, Samuel, but I’m not sure our language in this field has yet advanced sufficiently for there to be a better one. So we, the group, surmised this morning that you need to exercise caution. Consider what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with. Don’t take any risks.”
“You’re saying you think I’m in danger?”
“Put simply, yes.”
“For how long?”
“You know the gestalt only has a short-term temporally predictive field of significant accuracy. A day or two at most.”
“And after that?”
“We’ll see, won’t we?”
“But you were in the group when you went over this half an hour ago. You must have some better idea of what this is.”
She sighs. “If I knew more, don’t you think I’d tell you?”
“You know what — I don’t think you fucking would!”
I kill the screen, and Bea’s face fades, an ugly Cheshire cat, leaving nothing but a faint, sour whiff of cigar smoke.
The dogs are still stirred up, prowling the kitchen, claws clicking the hardwood floor. I grab some fresh steak from the fridge in the hope that it will distract them, chopping it up into chunks and tossing it into their bowls, but of course it only agitates them even more.
My thoughts are prowling as well. After all, this isn’t the first time we’ve had problems in the group, going all the way back to the basic question of what, exactly we were for. Money, yes, money, not only to set this thing up and give us the lives we wanted, but to provide the necessary levels of secrecy and generate the backstories to explain our new wealth. From the start, it was evident that our combined hunches, guesses, only had a short-term viability, and that binary yes/no decisions were manageable, whereas more complex, multi-pathway choices soon dissolved back into that dreaded statistical noise. Hence our trading in stocks and shares, seeing as outright gambling was far too blatant, and none of us could think of another reliable way to make our investments work.
But there had to be something else, something more, that we could do with our powers, if only to prove to ourselves that we weren’t just greedy bastards in it for nothing but the dough. Predicting trainwrecks and natural disasters, for instance. Giorgio Magarelli, I remember, a lapsed Catholic from southern Italy whose grandparents had died in an earthquake, was particularly strong on this point. So we agreed that we would incorporate some geological data into our regular trading floor feeds, and see what transpired. Less than a month later we were able to intuit that something was imminent in the Sichuan province in Southwest China. Of course, we’re not gods. We can’t hold back the tides or wrestle the chains of the earth. Neither could we expose ourselves by issuing a public warning, even if such a thing would be believed. But Mia in Sydney was able to hack into the portals of the worldwide seismic monitoring system, and insert some unequivocal pre-tremor data to warn the authorities to take immediate steps. We, Giorgio especially, were more than pleased. But there were no announcements, no evacuations, and upwards of five thousand people died in the earthquake that followed less than twenty four hours later. Along, as the feeds soon reported, with the twelve members of the seismological monitoring team at nearby Chengdu University, who were summarily shot.
Maybe there was a lesson there. That was what we tried to tell Giorgio. Better to stick to finance, eh? That way no one gets hurt. But Giorgio grew withdrawn and morose, and — just as we were starting to wonder what on earth to do with him — was found by his housekeeper in his Tuscan palace with his wrists slit in his Carrara marble bath. And so our baker’s dozen became an apostolic twelve.
Other problems? Well, not that many, really. After all, we’re a group. There was an accountant in São Paulo who’d acted as a staging post for some of our early dealings, and was somehow able to pick up on what we were up to. He insisted he didn’t want our money, and that this wasn’t blackmail. All he wanted was to join us. A simple request, but of course impossible to accede to, seeing as he lacked our oh-so-special skills. Bea agreed to handle the matter, and travelled to Brazil, where I believe she arranged for the man to be discreetly killed.
Now it’s me they don’t trust, and are afraid of. Which means I should be mistrustful and afraid of them. Something’s gone wrong, something’s messed with my prescience, and I’m pretty sure I know who and what it is. Maybe it’s still just a hunch, or maybe he’s worked things out like that accountant using fancy probability curves. Or perhaps he’s from that other group of super-predictors we’ve always feared is out there, or a some government agency or underworld cabal.
I run back over how Luke and I first met. The easy affinity. The even easier sex. Come live with me in the Cascade Mountains? Yes, why not? With, handily, no other commitments, and no real questions, let alone answers, as to what else he was planning to do with his time. And then all the cooking, and the housekeeping, the no-questions-asked acceptance. Which only a fool would take for affection. Let alone love.
If only I had something more solid. If only I could shake myself free of the present and find out what lies beyond. They’d have me back then, wouldn’t they, my group, the deed done, the point proved, the bad thing happened, the prophecy fulfilled, with open arms?
“Hey there…” Luke wanders in, Hermes dressing gown agape. “How about some breakfast?”
He’s not expecting me to make it, of course. He opens cupboards. He leans into the fridge. He pats, absently, at the dogs. “Ah! You fed them. And you’ve already done your work?”
“Same as every other day.”
“Don’t you want to know anything more?”
“Yes. More. I mean, about what I do.”
“Sure.” He reaches for the big frying pan on its hook, and I try not to cringe. “But the few times I’ve asked, you’ve acted like it’s none of my business. Which…” He cracks some eggs. Fat sizzles. “It probably isn’t.”
“Are you from Belgium? I mean, no one’s really from Belgium, are they?”
“How about Rene Magritte? Cesar Frank? Audrey Hepburn? Then there’s the guy who invented Bakelite, and tons of great soccer players. Not to mention, although I know they’re fictional, good old Tin Tin and Hercule Poirot.”
“You don’t even have an accent.”
“Thanks…” He slots in some bread to make toast. Puts the butter in the microwave to warm it slightly. “…for complementing me on my excellent English in that slightly roundabout way. And you know how, sometimes, when we’re making love, you like me to talk to you in French?”
“But I don’t understand what you’re saying. For all I know, you’re just quoting songs.”
With delicate precision, he flips the eggs. “There are a lot of things I’m not understanding right now.” His eye travel toward the sink, where the Sabatier knife I used to cut up that meat for the dogs lies in a pink pool.
“Who are you, Luke?”
“Who am I?”
“And who were you speaking to last night on Bea Comyn’s boat?”
“Oh.” He gives a relieved, so-this-is-what-this-is-about nod. “You mean Claude! He’s a fascinating guy, a South African, and an ecological rights lawyer who also happens to know a lot about wine. But that’s all I know about him, although I’ll concede he was very good looking.”
“Nothing to do with copper mining in the People’s Democratic Republic of the Congo?”
“What? In the where?”
“You heard. The Congo. Famous for its political instability and wasted natural resources. The place you Belgiums occupied when your King Leopold was arrogant and stupid enough to think he could build himself an African empire.”
“Is this some old colonial guilt trip you’re suddenly expecting me to be feeling?” He butters his toast. Then mine. He doesn’t even seem that bothered. “In which case, I think you Brits have a fair bit to answer for, too.”
“That’s…” I take a mental step back. My ears, my teeth, are tingling. White flecks dance before my eyes. “Probably true. Frankly, I’ve got a hangover, and I’ve had a bad morning on the trading floor.”
“Let me guess.” Luke catches a dribble of egg yoke before it escapes his mouth. “Something to do with the Congo? Isn’t there a warlord who just got killed out there? Last chance for something like stability and prosperity. Of course, when it comes to these places, we’ve all heard it a million times before. I’m sorry if it messed with your investments, Samuel, but you’ll get over it — bounce back. I mean, look at this place and all that you’ve achieved. Frankly, you’re an amazing guy, and if you want to share more of what you do, just say the word. Maybe we could even make a positive difference somewhere instead of just making money. I’m not saying that would be easy, but you never know.”
I suppose I should be surprised that he’s found the time to catch up on the feeds this morning, let alone notice an obscure item about the Congo, but somehow I’m not. After all, he takes an interest in the world, and has a quick, able mind. It was one of the things I first liked about him. That, and his inherent kindness and compassion. But now everything, the way he looks and how he breathes and holds his fork, and the considerate way I know he’s going to treat me today because he understands I’m frayed and upset, just makes me feel impossibly sad.
“Look, Luke — why don’t we go for a long walk?”
“Didn’t we do that yesterday?”
“Sure. But it’s a fine, beautiful morning, and there won’t be many more.”
Everything is gunshot sharp. Our, and the dogs’, breath plumes, and the clouds are like concrete; a hard, grey roof over the world. Luke is slightly puzzled, but predictably, cheerily compliant, when I insist we repeat yesterday’s hike to that high viewpoint. Watching the powerful, innocent sway of his body — and how, of course, his backpack is a great deal heavier than mine — makes me decide that, now it’s too late, I probably do love him after all.
We climb. And climb. The dogs vanish, then re-emerge. The view from the overlook is more sombre today. Reminds me of those dark gothic paintings by Casper David Friedrich. The Wanderer. Monastery Graveyard in the Snow. Perhaps I should try to acquire one when all this is finished, although I can’t see it replacing the Pollack in the kitchen, and I’m not sure where else it would go. Perhaps I need a new house as well.
Luke unrolls the rug on the rock platform. Pours the wine — it’s mulled, today, dark red and softly steaming. Sets out our meal. He touches my arm as we settle down.
“Yes, thanks. Much, much better.”
He kisses me lingeringly on the lips. A last, sweet farewell. There’s a rich venison stew, with rice dotted with porcini mushrooms and caraway seeds. I watch as he eats, and study the dark horizons for the flash of a sniper’s scope. But that won’t be needed. No. Not now. The hunch, the premonition, the binary negative, will be fulfilled. And I will be welcomed, open-armed, to rejoin the group. The prodigal returned.
“You’ve scarcely touched your food, Samuel. Haven’t even tried the wine.”
“I thought you liked me to make mulled wine for our picnics when it’s cold.”
“Well, cheers, then.”
Still, I just watch him drink. “Just the hangover, I guess.”
“Absolutely. And it is pretty strong stuff.”
My hand is steady as I pour the contents of my cup into his. And, dutifully, jauntily, reddening his lips, he knocks it back. Then pours himself some more. “As long as you’re prepared to put up with the consequences. You know what I’m like when I’m drunk.”
“I think I can deal with that.”
Then we fall silent, and the wind sighs softly through the trees like the sound of emptiness itself, and Luke finishes the wine and most of the food, and clears up the stuff.
“Where are the dogs?”
He goes to the edge of the platform and gives a whistling call. I hadn’t planned on exactly this — in truth, I haven’t planned anything at all. I’d simply known that a moment such as this would come. I pick up a log that lies near the rug, heft its weight in my hands, and move quietly toward him as he stands looking out over the drop.
There’s no reason why he should glance back. But, though some weird sixth sense, and just as I raise the log to strike him, he does.
“I was…” I’m still holding the log, maybe expecting the kind of clifftop tussle you used to see in old films, but Luke steps quickly sideways and away from me, his eyes wide with sudden fear.
“Look…” The dropped log rolls between us. “It was just a silly joke.”
“But it wasn’t, wasn’t it? You really need to see someone. Your behaviour isn’t… normal. And I don’t mean just now.”
“Of course I’m not normal. Why the fuck should I be normal?”
“I’m leaving. I can’t stand this. You should get treatment, Samuel. Seriously. I mean it. And you need to think hard about what you’re doing with your life, and the kind of people you hang out with.”
“Fuck off, then. And take the fucking Maserati as well.”
“I will — I’ve got to get out of this place somehow! But I’ll leave it for you to pick up at the airport so you can keep it with all the rest of your precious toys. I seriously, seriously, don’t want your money, and I never bloody did!”
With that, he grabs his backpack, and runs, crashes, off down the slope into the forest. Leaving me alone.
I slump down for a timeless period. The clouds, the landscape, the sighing wind, have all fallen darker and colder, although I have no real idea how late the day has grown. I stand up. Collect myself. Feel the tingle of blood in my fingers and chest and lungs. I really do feel better, now that this thing that the group intuited is finally gone. Not even a false reading as it turns out, but merely a falsely read one. The death of nothing more serious than love.
I make my way back down the way we came. Toward my changed life, my empty home. But these things happen. Relationships end. Time, the world, my group, moves on. Then something twists my right boot as I set it down in my regular stride, maybe a raised root or a frozen rut, and I’m tumbling sideways before I can catch my balance, and even then, as the trees tilt and the sky comes up, I’m reassuring myself that the slope I’m falling down can’t be that severe. But the jolts and shocks continue for far longer than seems reasonable. Then comes a sudden, grinding, halt.
Ah. Yes. I’d like to try to sit up, but, even before my body’s worked out what exactly the problem is, it tells me that sitting up isn’t a good idea. Not that the main problem is my left elbow, although it hurts like hell, or this dripping cut on the palm of my hand. Nor even how terribly cold I feel, although that’s something to be put away for future reference: a symptom of some greater malaise. Then, when I finally manage to raise my head and look down at myself, I see that my left leg is canted sideways over a deadfall branch just below the knee, with something white jutting out through a spreading red tear in the fabric of my hiking pants, and the pain, as it it’s always been there, and waiting for this precise moment, comes roaring in.
I pass out. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking. Anyway, things become less clear. The day is darkening already — no doubt about it — and bitterly cold. Then, heavens, I hear a soft creaking amid the surrounding undergrowth, and I think for a moment that Luke’s returned. But no. Of course. It’s Joe, Adolph and Mao.
They sniff, circle, and back away from me with semi-playful growls as it begins to snow.