It wasn’t the content of the email that froze Ogden in his tracks, but the fact that the sender, Tim Novak, had been dead for six years. The message itself was unremarkable — a shameless but understandable attempt to maintain what had never been more than a tenuous acquaintance in the first place, just in case there might one day be something to be gained from it:
It’s been a while since we last got together, so I thought I’d drop you a line to see how you’re doing. I really value our friendship and hope we can meet up again soon. Send me a message when you get a chance.
Despite Tim’s being dead, there was really no mystery. Like so many others, Tim had set his email client to send out computer-generated notes periodically to maintain his connections, and they were still going out. Probably no one had noticed yet because their own email clients were composing and sending automatic responses before any of the sentiments had a chance to reach human eyes. Who knew how many utterly soulless exchanges had taken place over the years?
Ogden read the message again and thought for a moment. It occurred to him that perhaps he should notify someone of Tim’s death and get his account closed; but to do that, he would have to contact some kind of customer service agency, and maybe even talk to someone. Shaking his head, he decided to mark the message as spam instead. That way, the next one would go straight to his junk folder, and he wouldn’t have to deal with it again.
There was always more than one way to solve a problem.
Feeling satisfied with himself, Ogden started walking again and stumbled blindly into his bathroom — blindly, because he was focused on the images that now danced on the lenses of his iGlasses, where Tim’s message had been displayed just moments earlier. With eye movements, Ogden had closed his email app and reopened his advertisement feed.
It was with only the vaguest level of awareness that he unzipped his pants and started urinating. Going to the bathroom had long since turned into a background task, something his subconscious mind managed while the part of him that supposedly possessed awareness remained helplessly latched onto the teat of commercial entertainment.
As the urine arced from his body into the toilet, a stupid chuckle burst from Ogden’s lips every few seconds. The advertisements were undeniably funny: There was one that showed a squirrel getting hit by a car — that one was for insurance — and another that showed a guy falling down a flight of stairs. Also for insurance, probably. Ogden wasn’t always sure what the ads were for, and he didn’t really care.
Occasionally, between advertisements, an episode of one show or another would come on. Those only lasted about a minute, and they were usually reruns. They were still pretty good, though. Sherlock Holmes standing over a dead body, looking around the room and then identifying the killer. A guy asking a girl out on a date and hooking up with her in his apartment thirty seconds later. It was all very entertaining stuff; producers these days really knew how to keep an audience engaged.
A warm splatter on Ogden’s bare feet wrenched his attention away from the ads. Muttering a curse, he tapped the side of his iGlasses, and the right lens went clear while the programming continued on the left one. He looked down at his feet, and through the image of a gray-haired man (who was pretending to be Hispanic) coolly drinking from a bottle of Dos Equis while being fed grapes by a harem of horny, bikini-clad women, Ogden saw another image: brown water trickling over the side of the toilet bowl and dripping onto the floor — and his feet.
God damn it.
Clearly, the auto-flush mechanism was broken again. It had probably failed days ago, judging by how full the bowl was, and Ogden just hadn’t noticed since he never actually looked at the toilet while he was using it. He cleared the other lens and waited a few seconds for his brain to merge the images from his left and right eyes. His depth perception kicked in just in time to see a turd break the surface of the water like the head of the Loch Ness monster.
For a while, Ogden simply stared, wondering what to do. He could wait for his wife to get home and see if she had any ideas. Jana was usually pretty good with things like this. On the other hand, she would be pissed if he didn’t try anything at all. It was his toilet, after all; she had her own in the other bathroom.
He tapped his iGlasses again, and a window popped up, prompting him for a password. He looked it up, entered it, and was taken to a menu of services. What the hell was it called again? He couldn’t remember, but he knew that he would recognize the word when he saw it. Yes. There it was: plumber. He selected it and then sat down on the edge of the tub with a sigh. It felt good to get something done.
With the plumber on the way, Ogden rinsed his feet off and started to get dressed, watching more advertisements with his left eye and picking out clothes with his right. It would be time to go to work soon. In the meantime, he would have a few minutes to kill while he waited for the plumber to arrive. He decided to use them to continue checking his email.
Most of the messages were spam, as usual. It was getting harder and harder to tell, though. It used to be that you could recognize emails from real people because they were shorter, choppier, and less coherent, whereas spam was written with complete sentences and correct spelling. But the spam bots were getting better at imitating the way real people wrote. Ogden was only vaguely aware of this trend.
He deleted ten messages in succession and then stopped when he saw one from Jana. It contained a picture of her holding a big glass capsule with a fetus in it. He recognized the fetus — insomuch as one could recognize a fetus — as his daughter. Jana had gone to the clinic to check on the development of their baby, and she had evidently had the nurse take a picture of her with it. She probably expected him to think that it was romantic or something.
“Cute!” he wrote back without thinking.
Then, as he was closing the message, it registered in Ogden’s mind that Jana was pointing at her belly with a goofy grin on her face. And he knew what she was thinking. They had talked and laughed about it: Some women actually still let babies grow inside of their bodies. How ridiculous was that?
There was a knock at the front door.
Ogden got up, entered a password, and opened the door to find a man in a gray uniform standing outside. He was staring blankly into his own iGlasses, doubtless watching advertisements or checking his own email, and he appeared unaware that the door on which he had just knocked was now open.
“What is it?” Ogden asked.
The man started with a jolt. “You called for a plumber?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Ogden.
Ogden opened the door wider to let the man in, and before he closed it, he saw a stack of credit card applications and coupons sitting on the porch. So the mail drone had come. It seemed stupid that people still used paper mail for some things. Ogden would have to throw it all into the recycling bin later, if he remembered.
“What’s the problem?” the plumber asked.
“Let me show you.”
Ogden led the man to the bathroom, and when they got there, the plumber stood looking down at the toilet for a minute. He didn’t even seem to notice the floating turds. He had probably seen much worse.
“It looks like the sensor’s covered,” he said at last.
He moved a hand towel that had been draped over the chrome assembly connecting the toilet to the wall, and immediately the toilet flushed. A smug grin began to spread across the plumber’s face, but then the shit-water surged upward and poured out onto the floor.
“Son of a bitch,” the plumber muttered. “It’s clogged, too.”
Ogden cursed as the puddle grew, soaking mercilessly into his rug. Now he was going to have to get somebody to come clean that up too. While opening another menu in his iGlasses to begin looking for a suitable cleaning service, he turned half his attention back to the plumber.
“Well, can you fix it?” he asked.
Without saying more, the plumber reached behind the toilet and retrieved a plunger that had been resting there, covered with dust. He thrust it into the foul water, heaved violently a few times, and then withdrew it. With a sickening gurgle, the brown, sludgy water drained from the bowl.
“There,” he said. “And just so you know, you can always flush the toilet manually by pushing that lever on the side.” He reached over and pushed the lever to demonstrate. The toilet flushed again, and this time it didn’t run over. The water was almost clear now, though the inside of the bowl had shit-smears all over it.
“How about that,” Ogden said. “How much do I owe you?”
“Ten thousand dollars.”
Ogden logged into his bank account and started entering passwords. The plumber stood, watching ads while Ogden waited for a drone to deliver a strip of paper that contained a passkey that had to be combined with another code that had been sent to his iGlasses.
The plumber laughed suddenly. “That squirrel!” he said. “Gets me every time!”
“I know, right?” Ogden said. “I sent the payment. Did you get it?”
The plumber had barely left when Ogden received a reminder saying that it was time to leave for work. He sighed. The whole morning had been wasted, and the bathroom floor was still a mess. With luck, though, Jana would take care of it when she got home.
Ogden’s car was a one-seater, a typical commuter model. Linked to the Cloud like all the other cars on the road, it drove itself — or rather, the Traffic Management System drove it. Ogden sat watching ads, excising another dull moment out of his life so that he might as well never have lived it. It was what everyone did. No one seemed to notice just how little was left.
The car let Ogden off right in front of his office building, but it took him another half hour to reach his desk. He had to enter a password at each door and then at the elevator, which was further delayed because it was undergoing an automatic software update. Then he had to enter another password to log into his computer. At the last keystroke, his time clock began counting down.
For the first ten seconds, Ogden studied the big digital numbers as they changed. He remembered when the fifteen-minute workweek had first been instituted three years ago. Everyone had been excited about the prospect of having so much more time for their own lives; but now it seemed that the week dragged on as much as it ever had.
Ogden gave himself a shake and got started. His job was to delete spam and enter passwords. That was what 96% of the employees at the company did. And with over 1.2 million people, they were one of the biggest energy companies in the world. All in all, it was a pretty good place to work.
There were people there who did other things. Ogden had once met a man who designed equipment that extracted oil from the ground. The guy had whispered that he spent most of his time keeping his fingers crossed, hoping that the drilling equipment the previous generation of engineers had built would keep functioning smoothly.
Ten minutes into his shift, Ogden went to the bathroom. On his way back, he got a donut and a cup of coffee from the break room, and when he returned to his computer, there were only forty-three seconds left on the clock. He deleted one more message, entered another password, and then sat back, twiddling his thumbs while the last fifteen seconds ticked by.
A bell rang, and Ogden shut the computer down and got up to leave, glad to have completed another week’s worth of work. On his way out, he sent a command for his car to come pick him up. A few months ago, he had figured out how to set the car to come automatically after each shift, but since then the operating system had been updated, and the setting had been cleared.
The car was waiting for him at the curb. He entered a password, got in, and sent Jana a text saying that he was on his way back. She was home now, and she had sent a message with a picture of his shit-covered bathroom rug.
Ogden began composing a reply — he would have to word it carefully — but his dictation was interrupted when the car lurched violently.
It was no routine bump; something was wrong.
The car accelerated, and soon Ogden was being tossed from side to side as he careened in and out of traffic. He reached up to tap his iGlasses, and between his own trembling and the erratic swerving of the car, it took him three tries to make the lenses go clear. When they finally did, he pressed his hands against the side of the dome and looked outside.
Other people’s faces in the surrounding cars were clearly visible. But none of them had even seen him. They were staring, dead-eyed, watching advertisements, oblivious that a car right beside them had been hijacked.
“It’s some God damn twelve-year-old kid,” Ogden snarled to the air.
That was usually the case. Some kid hacking into the Traffic Management System and messing around with one of the cars. The kids didn’t mean any harm. They were only playing a prank. But people often ended up dying in those pranks.
Ogden tried telling himself to stay calm, but it didn’t help much. The other possibilities he could think of weren’t very comforting. Terrorism came to mind. Were a group of jihadists going to use him as a weapon? No, it was much more likely a kid. He looked out the window again, trying to see whether any other cars around him were affected as well. If lots of cars were malfunctioning, then this was likely something much bigger than a kid’s prank.
The year before, everyone’s car had suddenly stopped. It had turned out that China was taking over. They had hacked into all the networks and shut everything down. The military had had no way to respond. Their drones and missile systems, which had supposedly been on separate, isolated networks, had been hacked as well. In two days, the President had surrendered.
The memory of the takeover played through Ogden’s mind as he continued to be jostled about, and he recalled that he was technically a Chinese citizen now. It had actually been relatively peaceful. Those two days had been pretty crazy, though. No power. No water. No food delivery services. Ogden and Jana had gotten hungry and thirsty — on both days — and they’d had to walk half a mile to an old grocery store and pick up some bottles of water and canned food. It had been ridiculous. But then everything had started working again, and everyone was officially Chinese.
Ogden’s car was speeding along an elevated ramp now. He was pressed back in his seat, and the car was accelerating to the limit. He tried to open his messenger program to send texts to Jana and the police, but he knew that he wouldn’t have time to enter his password. He was at the mercy of his hijacker.
Then he was floating. The car had flown off the side of the ramp, two hundred feet in the air, and he was in free fall. His stomach heaved, and his heart clenched. In slow motion, the car — and Ogden with it — turned upside down. Through the dome, he saw the ground coming up to meet him. He was going to hit the pavement head first.
Strangely, the last thought that occurred to him was this: One day, the world would end — or, at any rate, life would be wiped out — but maybe all these systems that people had created would keep running on their own, just like Tim Novak’s emails. The earth would continue to bustle with activity, a thing that looked alive but wasn’t, a mere empty machine, the magnum opus of humanity.
And that was it.
As a result of Ogden’s death, Jana ended up having to clean the shit off of the bathroom floor herself; the capsule with the fetus in it was dumped into a receptacle for biohazardous waste; and somewhere in India, a fourteen-year-old kid — not twelve — got in trouble for hacking into the Chinese Traffic Management System. But otherwise, things kept on running as usual.
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