Human Readable
Written by Cory Doctorow
Narrated by Spider Robinson

 

She got the boy breathing and ended up with more puke on her face, on Rainer's jacket, in her hair. His pulse was thready but there. She turned to the swimmer and saw that he was a muscular surfer dude in board shorts with a couple of bitchun tatts and a decent body-paint job. He was breathing, too, but his heart was erratic as hell. She pressed two fingers to his throat.

"What happened?" she said. "Who saw it happen?"

One of the aunts stepped forward and said, "My son says they were playing --"

She held up her hand. "Where's your son?" she said.

"He's back at the house," the aunt said, startling back.

"Send someone for him, then tell me what happened."

The aunt looked like she'd been slapped, but the other Relatives were staring at her and so she had to talk, and then the boy arrived and he told it again and it was pretty much the same story, but she was able to get more details, as she began to examine both the boy and the surfer's bodies for cuts, bruises, breaks and punctures. She gave the boy's clothes the same treatment she'd given her own, gently but forcefully tearing them off, using a seashell to start the tears at first, then a pocket-knife that someone put in her hand.

The story was that the kids had been playing when they'd seen the surfer floating in the breakers, and they'd dared each other to fish him out, and the undertow had sucked them out to sea. One had gotten away, the other had ended out beyond the waves, and meanwhile, the surfer had beached himself on his own.

"Right," she said. "Blankets and pillows. Elevate their feet and wrap them up good." She stood up and staggered a step or two before Rainer caught her, and the crowd made a noise that was at once approving and scandalized.

"Get me to the sea," she said. "I need to soak my head."

So he walked her into the water, he still in his suit-pants and dress shirt and tie, and held onto her while she dunked her head and swirled a mouthful of salt water in her mouth.

"Where are the fucking paramedics?" she said, as she sloshed back out with him.

"There," he said, and pointed at the horizon, where a Coast Guard clipper was zooming for the shore. "The cell-phone was dead, so I fired up a couple flares. You didn't hear them?"

"No," she said. He could have set off a cannon and she wouldn't have noticed it.

She got back to the shore just in time to see the surfer convulse. She was on him in a second, kneeling at his side, doing airway-breathing-circulation checks, finding no pulse, and slamming him onto his back and beginning CPR.

Some time later, she was lifted off him and two paramedics went to work on him. Someone put a robe over her shoulders and a cup of juice in her hands. She dropped the juice in the sand and sticky liquid and beach sand covered her legs, which she realized now that she hadn't depilated in a week, and that made her realize that she'd spent a pretty crucial amount of time prancing around naked in front of her date's family, and that that was probably not on the timetable until the fifteenth date at least.

She looked up at Rainer, who was still in his shoes and as she was in bare feet loomed over her. "God," she said, "Rainer --"

He kissed her. "I love you, Patricia," he said.

"Ooh," she said, with a weak smile. "You're breaking the rules!"

"Can you let it go this once?"

She made her scrunchy thinky face and then nodded. "Just don't make a habit of it, you lunk."

#

It would have been perfect if only the surfer hadn't died.

They didn't get home until well after midnight. Parts of LA appeared to be on fire as they inched their way along the freeway. It was weird to see LA at this speed. They were used to clipping along at 60 or 70 -- over 80 if the traffic was light -- flying over the freeway so fast that the scenery was just a blur. Only the year before, the New Yorker had run a 40-page paean to LA, a public apology declaring it the most livable city in America, now that it had licked its traffic problems. It balanced lots of personal space with thorough urbanization and urbanity. It was why they both lived there.

Now they seemed to have traveled back 50 years in time, to the bad old traffic-jam-and-smog days. Looters danced below, torching stores, and the traffic moved so slowly that some people were apparently abandoning their cars to walk home -- which made the traffic even worse. The smoke from the fires turned the sunset into a watercolor of reds and mustards and golds, tones that had blown away with the smog when the last gas-sucking Detroitmobile was retired for a plastic Nickel-Metal Hydride jellybean, and all the lanes were repainted to cut them in half.

It was nightmarish. When they got off the ramp at Studio City, they found homeless guys directing traffic with gas-tubes they'd torn out of the bus-shelters. The tubes glowed in the presence of microwave radio-frequency radiation, and as each of the trillions of invisible ants in the system attempted to connect with its neighbors and get the traffic set to rights again, the RF noise made the tubes glow like sodium lamps.

They coasted into Trish's driveway and collapsed in her living room.

"You were wonderful, darling," Rainer said, peeling off the tracksuit that one of his cousins had scrounged from the gym-bag in her trunk and donated to Trish. Her skin was gritted with sand and streaked with stripes of sunburn.

"God," Trish said, lolling back on the sofa, just letting him gently brush away the sand and rub lotion into her skin. "You spoil me," she said.

"You're unspoilable," he said. "Wonderful girl. You saved their lives," he said.

"What a fucking day," she said. "You think that my lifeguard training made up for my scandalous undergarments in your family's minds?"

He snorted and she felt his breath tickle the fine hairs on her tummy. "You're kidding. My mom told me that if I didn't marry you, she'd have me killed and then fix you up with someone else from the family -- told me it was my duty to see to it that you didn't get away, just in case someone else fell in the ocean."

He looked around at the blank walls. "Creepy not to have any news at all," he said.

"There's a TV in the garage," she said. "Or maybe the attic. You could find it and plug it in and find out that no one else knows what's going on, if you feel like it."

"Or I could escort you to the bathtub and we could scrub each other clean and then I could give you a massage," he said.

"Yes, or you could do that."

"Where did you say the television was?" he said.

"You are going to be: In. So. Much. Trouble." She twined her fingers in his hair and pulled him up to kiss her.

#

2. Progress pilgrims

It took three days for even the thinnest crawls to return to the walls. In the meantime, people dug out old one-to-many devices like radios and televisions and set them up on their lawns so they could keep track of the aftermath of The Downtime.

He slept over those three nights, because no one was going anywhere, anyway, and they had a running argument over how many dates this counted as, but truth be told, they had a wonderful time, making omelets for one-another, washing each other's backs in the shower, stealing moments of sex in the living room at two in the afternoon without worrying about being interrupted by a chime, ringer, bell or vibe.

When they weren't enjoying each other, they took coolers of fizzy drinks onto the lawn and watched the neighbor's TV set and saw the pundits describing The Downtime. The news-shows were having a drunken ball with this one: as the only game in town, they were free to bring a level of craft to their newsmongering that hadn't been seen since Trish's parents' day, when news-networks turned catastrophes into light operas, complete with soundtracks, brand-identities, logo-marks and intermissions where buffoons worked the audience for laughs.

"Oh, she's your favorite, isn't she?" Trish asked, goosing Rainer's bicep and taking a sip of his peach ginger-ade. The pundit had been in heavy rotation since the TV went back on the air. She was a Norwegian academic mathematician who wrote books of popular philosophy. She was a collection of trademark affectations: a jacket with built-up shoulders, a monocle, a string tie, nipple tassels, and tattooed cross-hatching on her face that made her look like a woodcut of a Victorian counting-house clerk. Rainer loathed her -- she'd been on the committee to which he'd defended his Philosophy of Networks thesis, and she'd busted his balls so hard that they still ached a decade later when he saw her on the tube.

The pundit explained the packet-switching, using trains versus automobiles as a metaphor: "In a circuit uniwerse, every communication gets its own dedicated line, like a train on a track. Ven I vant to talk to you, ve build a circuit -- a train track -- betveen our dewices. No one else can use those tracks, even if ve're not talking. But packet-svitching is like a freevay. Ve break the information up into packets and ve give every packet its own little car, and it finds its own vay to the other end. If vun car doesn't arrive, ve make a copy of its information and send it again. The cars have brakes and steering veels, and so they can all share the same road vithout too much trouble."

Rainer grit his teeth and hissed at the set. "She's faking the accent," he said. "She thinks that Americans believe that anyone with a European accent is smarter than we are. She can pronounce vee and doubleyou perfectly well when she wants to -- she speaks better English than I do! Besides, she stole that line from me," he said, "from my thesis," he said, his face scrunching up again.

"Shh, shh," Trish said, laughing at him. He wasn't really angry-angry, she knew. Just a little stir crazy. He was a networking guy -- he should have been out there trying to make the network go again, but he was on sabbatical and no one at UCLA wanted to hear from him just then.

And then the pundit was off onto ants -- networks modeled on ant-colonies that use virtual pheromones to explore all possible routes in realtime and emerge a solution to the problem of getting everything, everywhere, in shortest time. Rainer kept barking at the TV, and Trish knew he was doing it to entertain her as much as for any reason, so she laughed more and egged him on.

The TV cut back to the news-dude, who was a very cuddly ewok who'd made his name hosting a wheel-of-fortune, jumping up and down and squeaking excitedly and adorably whenever a contestant won the grand prize, his fur-plugs quivering. He cupped his paws to his cheeks and grinned.

"But ants aren't perfect, are they?" the ewok said.

"He's feeding her!" Rainer said. "She's going to go off on her stupid walking-in-circles bit --"

"The thing about using wirtual ants to map out the vorld and make routing recommendations is that ve can't really tell the difference betveen a good solution and a bad vun, without trying it. Sometimes, ants end up valking in circles, reinforcing their scent, until they starve to death. Ve might find that our cars tell us that the best vay from San Francisco to San Jose is via a 1500 mile detour to Las Wegas. It may be true -- if all the traffic eweryvhere else is bad enough, that might be the fastest vay, but it may just be the ants going in circles."

"God, talk about taking a metaphor too far," he said. Trish thought that Rainer was perfectly happy to think about the ants as ants, except when someone raised a point like this, but she didn't see any reason to raise that point just then.

The ewok turned to the camera: "One scientist says we should expect more Downtimes to come. When we come back from this break, we'll talk to a University of Waterloo researcher who claims that this is just the first of many more Downtimes to come."

The screen cut over to a beautiful, operatic advertisement for some Brazilian brand of coca-cola, wittily written, brilliantly shot, with an original score by a woman who'd won three grammies at the Independent Music Awards in Kamchatka the year before. They watched it with mild attention, and Trish absently fished another bottle out of the cooler and chewed the lid off with her side-molars.

She looked at Rainer. He was gripping the arm-rests of his inflatable chair tightly, dimpling the hard plastic. She held the bottle to his lips and he took it, then she rubbed at his shoulders while he took a swallow.

"Let's go back inside and play," she said. "They won't have anything new to tell us for days."

#

The crawls were alive the next morning, exuberantly tracking across the walls and over the mirror and down the stairs. They picked out the important ones and trailed them to convenient spots with a fingertip and devoured them, reading interesting bits aloud to one another.

Soon the crawls had been tamed and only a few personal messages remained. Trish dragged hers over to the tabletop, next to her cereal bowl, and opened them up while she ate. Outside, she could hear the whisper of cars speeding down the road, and she supposed with a mingling of regret and relief that she should probably go in to her office.

She opened her personal mail. It had been three days since she'd read it, but for all that, a surprisingly small amount had accumulated. Of course -- everyone else had been without connectivity, too. This was mostly stuff from the east coast and Europe, people who'd been awake for a couple hours.

She read, filed and forwarded, tapping out the occasional one-word answer to simple questions or bouncing back messages with a form letter.

Then she came to the note from the Coast Guard medic. He didn't mince words. It was in the first sentence: the surfer dude she'd rescued had had a second cardiac arrest on the boat. They'd tried what they could, but he hadn't recovered. He was a freak statistic of The Downtime, another person who'd lost his life when the ants spazzed out. They'd recovered his board and found its black-box. The accelerometer and GPS recorded the spill he'd taken after the loss of climate and wave-condition data from the other surfers strung out on the coast. He'd stayed up for about ten seconds before going under.

She stared numbly at the note, the spoon halfway to her mouth, and then she dropped the spoon into the bowl, not noticing that it splashed milk down her blouse.

She got up from the table and went into the kitchen. Rainer was there, in a change of clothes they'd bought from a mom-n-pop gap at the mall on the corner that had been taking IOUs from anyone who could show a driver's license with a local address. She grabbed his wrist, making him slosh starbucks down his front, she took the cup out of his hand and set it down on the counter, then put her arms around his chest and hugged him. He didn't protest or ask any questions, he just put his arms around her and hugged back.

Eventually, she cried. Then she told him what she was crying about. She let him tell her that she was a hero, that she'd saved Jory's life and almost saved the surfer's life, and she let him tell her that it wasn't her fault for sloshing into the ocean to rinse off the barf, and she let him tell her that he loved her, and she cried until she thought she was cried out, and then she started again.

He took her upstairs and he laid her down on the bed. He undressed her, and she let him. He put her in fluffy jammies, and she let him. He wiped away her makeup and her hot tears with a cool face-cloth, and she let him. He took her hand and ran his fingers over her fingernails, squeezing each one a little, the way she liked, and she let him.

"You're going to have a nice lie-down for a couple hours, and I'm going to be right beside you. I'll call the department secretary and tell him you're taking a personal day and will be in tomorrow. Then we're going to go see Jory and his family, so that you can see the boy whose life you saved, and then we are going to go for a walk in the hills, and then I'm going to put you to bed. When you get up in the morning, you can make an appointment to see a grief counsellor or not. Today, I'm in charge, all right?"

Her heart swelled with love and she felt a tear slip down her cheek. "Rainer," she said, "you're a wonder."

"You inspire me, darling," he said, and kissed her eyelids shut.

#

Their thirty-fifth date was their last.

"You're going back to Washington," he said, when he saw the boxes in her office.

"Yes," she said.

He stood in the doorway of her office. Trish was painfully aware of the other faculty members in the corridor watching him. Their romance was no secret, of course. Everyone in the law department knew about him, all the network engineers knew about her, and they both took a substantial amount of ribbing about "mixed marriages" and "interfaith dating."

Trish realized with a pang that it was likely that everyone in the law department knew that she'd decided to go back to the Hill but that he'd only suspected it until this instant.

"Well, good for you," he said, putting on a brave face that was belied by the Fret wrinkles in his forehead.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I should have told you once I decided, but I didn't want to do it over the phone --"

"I'm glad you didn't," he said, holding up his hand. "Do you want to come out for dinner with me anyway?"

She gestured at the half-packed office. "The movers are coming in the morning."

"Well then, do you suppose you could use some help? I could get some burger king or taco bell."

She looked at him for a long moment, swallowing the knob in her throat. "That would be lovely. Mexican. I mean, 'taco bell,'" she said. "Thank you."

He let her pay for it -- "You're making the big bucks now," he said -- and he was a surprisingly conscientious packer, padding her framed pictures carefully and wrapping her knick-knacks in individual sheets of spun fiber.

"Well then," he said, once he'd finished writing out a description of his latest box's contents on its outside, "you always told me that Hill Rats were Hill Rats for life, I suppose."

"Yeah," she said. She knew she should explain, but they'd had the argument about it three times since the new PAC had contacted her and offered her the executive director position. The explanation wouldn't get any better now that she'd made up her mind.

The new PAC, The Association for a Human-Readable World, was the brainchild of some people she'd worked with while she was on the Hill. They'd asked her to hire a team, to scout an office, and then to camp out in the offices of various important committee chairmen until they passed a law limiting the scope of emergent networking meshes. The Europeans had enacted legislation requiring cops, hydroelectric agencies, banks, hospitals and aviation authorities to use "interrogatable" networks within ten days of The Downtime. With fifteen thousand dead in Western Europe alone, with Florence in flames and Amsterdam under two meters of water, it was an easy call. The US had scoffed at them and pointed to the economic efficiencies of a self-governing network, but the people who were funding Human-Readable World wanted to know where old concepts like "transparency" and "accountability" and "consent of the governed" fit in when the world's essential infrastructure was being managed by nonsentient ant-colony simulations.

"Be gentle with us, OK?" he said.

"Oh, I wish I had your confidence in my abilities," she said, sucking on her big-gulp of coke.

He put down his food and looked hard at her. He stared longer than was polite, even for (ex-) lovers, and she began to squirm.

"What?" she said.

"You're not putting me on. Amazing. Patricia Lourdes McCavity, you have felled an empire and you are setting yourself up to fell another -- and it's one that I'm pretty heavily invested in, both professionally and financially."

"Come on," she said. "I'm good, but I'm not superwoman. I was part of a team."

"I've read your briefs. Position papers. Opinions. Speeches. Hell, your press-releases. They were the most cogent, convincing explanations for intellectual property reform I'd ever read. You weren't the judge, but you were his clerk. You weren't the committee chairman, but you were her head staffer. Taco Bell underestimated you. Coke underestimated you. Starbucks underestimated you. Disney underestimated you. Vivendi and Sony underestimated you. Now you're running your own organization, and it's pointed at me, and I'm scared shitless, you want to know the truth. I'm not underestimating you." He'd drawn his dark eyebrows together while he spoke, and lowered his head, so that he was looking up at her from under his brow, looking intense as the day they'd met, when he was delivering a brilliant lecture on ant-colony optimization to a large lay audience at the law-school, fielding the Q&A with such convulsive humor and scalding lucidity that he'd melted her heart.

She felt herself blushing, then wondered if she was flushing. She still loved him and still craved the feeling of his skin on hers, wanted nothing more than another lost weekend with him, taking turns being the strong one and being the one who surrendered, soothing each other and spoiling each other. Thinking of that first meeting brought back all those feelings with keen intensity that made her breasts ache and her hands flutter on the box she was eating off of.

"Rainer," she began, then stopped. She took a couple deep breaths. "I'm not gunning for you, you know. You and I want the same thing: a world that we can be proud to live in. Your family's company has contributed more to the public good than any of us can really appreciate --"

He blushed now, too. She never talked about his father's role in the earliest build-outs of ant-based emergent routing algorithms, about the family fortune that he'd amassed through the company that bore his name still, 30 years after he'd stepped down as Chairman of the Board. Rainer was a genius in his own right, she knew, and his own contributions to the field were as important as his father's, but he was haunted by the idea that his esteem in the field was due more to his surname than his research. He waved his hands at her and she waved hers back.

"Shush. I'm trying to explain something to you. Between your father and you, the world has increased its capacity and improved its quality of life by an order of magnitude. You've beaten back Malthus for at least another century. That makes you heroes.

"But your field has been co-opted by corrupt interests. When you study the distributions, you can see it clearly: the rich and the powerful get to their destinations more quickly; the poor are routed through franchise ghettoes and onto toll-roads; the more important you are, the fewer number of connections you have to make when you fly, the better the chance that you'll get a kidney when you need it. The evidence is there for anyone to see, if only you look. We need standards for this -- we need to be able to interrogate the system and find out why it does what it does. That's an achievable goal, and a modest one: we're just asking for the same checks and balances that we rely on in the real world."

He looked away and set down his taco. "Trish, I have a lot of respect for you. Please remember that when I tell you this. You are talking nonsense. The network is, by definition, above corruption. You simply can't direct it to give your cronies a better deal than the rest of the world. The system is too complex to game. Its behavior can't be predicted -- how could it possibly be guided? Statistics can be manipulated to 'prove' anything, but everyone who has any clue about this understands that this is just paranoid raving --"

She narrowed her eyes and sucked in a breath, and he clamped his lips shut, breathed heavily through his nose, and went on.

"Sorry. It's just wrong, is all. Science isn't like law. You deal with shades of grey all the time, make compromises, seek out balance. I'm talking about mathematical truths here, not human-created political constructs. There's no one to compromise with -- a human-readable emergent network just doesn't exist. Can't exist. It doesn't make sense to say it. It's like asking for me to make Pi equal three. Pi means something, and what it means isn't three. Emergent networks mean not-human-readable. "

She looked at him, and he looked at her, and they looked at each other. She felt a sad smile in the corners of her lips, and saw one tug at his, and then they both broke out in grins.

"We're going to be seeing a lot of each other," she said.

"Oh yes, we are," he said.

"Across a committee room."

"A podium."

"On talk-shows."

"Opposite sides."

"Right."

"No fighting dirty, OK?" he said, raising his eyebrows and showing her his big brown eyes. She snorted.

"Give me a hug and go home," she said. "I'll see you at the hearings when they introduce my bill."

He hugged her, and she smelled him, thinking, this is the last time I'll smell this smell.

"Rainer," she said, holding him at arm's length.

"Yes?" he said.

"I'm going to call you, when I have questions about ant-colony optimization, all right?"

He looked at her.

"I need the best expertise I can get. It's in your interest to see to it that I'm well-informed."

Slowly, he nodded. "Yes, you're right. I'd like that. I'll call you when I have questions about policy, all right?"

"You're on," she said, and they hugged again, fiercely.

Once he was gone, she permitted herself the briefest of tears. She knew that she was right and that she was going to make a fool out of him, but she didn't want to think of that right then. She felt the place behind her ear where he'd kissed her before going home and looked around her office, five years of her life in thirty banker's boxes ready to be shipped across the country tomorrow, according to a route that would be governed from moment to moment by invisible, notional, ridiculous insects.

She ate more taco bell. The logo was a pretty one, really, and now that it had been adopted by every mom-and-pop burrito joint in the world, they'd really levelled the playing field. She thought about the old Taco Bell mystery-meat and plastic cheese and took a bite of the ground beef and sharp Monterey Jack that had come from her favorite little place on the corner, and permitted herself to believe, for a second, anyway, that she'd made that possible.

She was going to kick ant ass on the Hill.