by Pat Crews
The lake lay mirror flat, reflecting the blaze of stars over the mountain cirque, surrounded by cliffs like fossilized giants. In his old life, before the Collective, Tom would have felt at peace here, even all alone. He was big and strong and unusually self-sufficient, but now he could barely hold himself together. A void of sound pressed at his ears, impervious to the occasional splash of a fish or the scuttling of small animals in the brush beyond the copse — and filling it, worse than noise, worse than a hurricane or some impossible black nova eating stars across a writhing galaxy, was the loneliness.
He’d severed his connection to the Net.
What were the others doing now? His eyes worked fine, but he felt more than half blind, and very, very anxious.
Tom sat on the rock with his daypack on his lap, pulled out his notebook with the clip-on book lamp, and began to write: Hello? Is anyone here? I must be hearing my thoughts, but I don’t hear myself hearing. Hello? My name is Tom, and I’m addicted to the Collective and I want myself back. “Hello, Tom,” says the crowd. (I can almost hear the crowd! Can’t I? No, I can’t.) I was large. I contained multitudes. We all did. Now I am small, just a Tom-Tom; Major—no, Minor. Tom.
* * *
He’d first heard of the Collective only a year ago, on a drift boat, anchored midstream with a client. The morning was crisp September, mist curling off the water. The old guy’s face was round and happy, eyes a pale blue under his quaint deerstalker; his nose — curved sideways where it had been broken once on the upper bridge — formed a prominent question mark.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time online,” the guy said, “now that I’m retired.”
“That a fact?” said Tom. He did his best to avoid all that fad computer shit, and saw it as competition to his guide services. Tom reached over, grabbed the man’s hand on the fly rod, and slowly corrected his roll cast toward the bank. At six-foot-four, he towered over most people, and even with older clients, he adopted a paternal style. It came naturally. That used to cost him business, but these days, it seemed people just expected to be led.
“Yeah, all those years in construction kept me off the computer. Now I’m getting into it.”
Tom said, “I thought construction management was almost all computers nowadays.”
“I’ve been at it long enough that I didn’t have to learn. I hired on a kid years ago to do my scheduling and stuff, and I supervise jobs in the field.”
The guy flailed the rod in another sloppy cast. Tom pulled it away and demonstrated the proper technique before giving it back. He didn’t really want to discuss computers, but construction he could deal with. He said, “Last time I went to a site with a builder, they had more techs than drywallers, and near as much wire as insulation. What’s up with that?”
The guy nodded. “It’s all going that way, toward Smart Homes. Before long, they’ll make your food, spoon feed you, and wipe your ass. You’re right, Tim.” Tom didn’t bother to correct him. “I don’t understand half of it, but I joined this new site, the Collective, and for the first time since I was a kid, I feel like I’m catching up instead of falling further behind. It’s like that old Facebook site on steroids. Google, Amazon, and Apple are all scared shitless. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it. They’ve got all their own products. Next month, they’re coming out with contact lenses.”
“Yeah, to replace smart glasses. Everything will show up on the lens. They have teeny-tiny cameras built in.” The guy handed over the rod and fished a phone out of his vest. “Check this out; the Collective already recognizes your face. . . .” He tapped on its screen and held it up like he was going to take Tom’s picture.
The guy studied the screen. “Okay, it says you’re not a member, but they know a lot anyway. A master’s in psychology? Impressive. Credit’s not so sharp though, but your cholesterol’s great. I guess you work out a lot. Huh, says your wife Janet’s a member.”
“She joined last month.” Tom grew tense. He’d never suspected it could be so easy to invade his privacy, like a kid turning over a rock and studying an ant hive.
“What?” His heart was pounding. Had the guy found something medical? Maybe it was another audit. The guy looked up with a sheepish expression. “What’s wrong?” Tom demanded.
“I’ve been calling you Tim, haven’t I?”
* * *
From “An Unfolding History of the Collective, an Expatriate View” by Ted Lawler, Wired-In Magazine, October 20XX:
“Even the usual counterculture types fell swiftly to the Collective. Artists and writers who’d labored in anonymity and frustration suddenly got the attention they craved. I hadn’t understood it from the outside, and later, on the inside, when I understood it implicitly, I hadn’t really understood it consciously, but now I can pick it apart, or at least regurgitate what others have said. And I know it’s true.
“The Collective is fascinated by every human animal and the byproducts of its mind. The massive databases and sorting algorithms break down each novel, painting, verse, musical phrase, and tweet; each precious cough and fart. And the pieces run across the neural, laser, fiberoptic, semi- and super-conductive network without friction, distilled into an impression of rightness, of communion, of tribal unity. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The libertarians on the outside went nuts, for a while, but when they took their outrage online, they too got stuck in the web like slow flies, finding what everyone found: whatever they needed. Understanding, sympathy, love, even financial support. The only thing you enjoy more than getting largesse from the Collective is giving back, however you can. Without the intervention of a Higher Power, I would never have made it out.”
* * *
Tom hadn’t really been bothered when everyone started wearing heads-up contact lenses. The first time he noticed, he’d passed a stunning brunette in the grocery store, caught her eye, and realized she was more than half lost in her heads-up display, or HUD. He was relieved actually, because he had no business catching a strange woman’s eye, even if Janet had been spending more and more time online. Early in their relationship, he’d gotten bored and slipped up once, and it had nearly broken them apart. He’d watched friends get divorced. He didn’t want it happening to him.
However, the street-talkers, as he called them — when they clammed up, the full ubiquity and sheer creepiness of the Collective hit home.
His guide business had been falling off, and he’d gotten a retail job at the downtown REI. For as long as he could remember, there had been street talkers: muttering hordes of businessmen lost in phone conversations like oddly focused psychotics. He’d just eaten lunch out and was waiting at a crosswalk, talkers all around. They weren’t just business types anymore. There were teenage kids, punk dudes, tourists. A black guy shouted against traffic noise. He had dreadlocks, Rasta hat, and a loud tie-dye T-shirt. Maybe that’s what caught his attention — the clothes, but not a hint of black dialect, much less a Jamaican accent. “Just a second, guys,” he said. “My subvocal’s ready. I’m switching over.” His lips continued to move, but Tom couldn’t hear him now. The man’s eyes widened, his mouth opened in a silent laugh, and he stomped his feet. A second later, he caught Tom’s eye and, seemingly a bit self-conscious, gestured from his own mouth to his temple, trying to communicate the delightful line of connection there.
Then his eyes glazed back into his conversation. In less than ten seconds, he’d gotten the hang of it and his lips stopped moving. He drifted off down the street.
And that’s when Tom noticed that it was happening all around him. By the end of the day, when he emerged from work, the only talkers were genuine psychotics not wired in at all.
He was surprised to notice quite a few of them.
* * *
“I never wanted to get mixed up with the Collective. It always seemed creepy. It pulled my friends and neighbors out of the world, even as their bodies went through the motions of being in it. Collectivization was zombification, living death by a thousand interface cuts. Even back then, when the Collective hadn’t run to full neural, before it co-opted the Internet and had just a fraction of its current reach, I’d realized all this, and it horrified me, until the accident. Until I’d gotten unmoored from my life. Then it pulled me in, into its warm, welcoming sea.”—“An Unfolding History of the Collective, an Expatriate View”
* * *
Tom and his wife rarely spoke and even more rarely had sex. After subvocal hit the crowds, he’d begun to get lonely. So he hooked up with Clarice.
At this point, he’d succumbed to looking straight into the eyes of beautiful women. To fake being online, he’d twitch his face and mime laughter or concern. Later, he discovered that they weren’t fooled. The Collective could infer his simple hungers, and regarded him as a curiosity.
If he’d known, he would have stopped.
He met her in a coffee shop. He’d gotten so used to indifference that he couldn’t see that she was actually looking back. The curvy blonde had a long, intelligent face. She got out of her seat, adjusted her shoulder purse, and minced over.
“Hi, I’m Clarice,” she said. “You’re unplugged too, aren’t you? Can we talk?” He nodded, surprised. “Great. You don’t know how much I’ve missed you — I mean, it, talking.” When he didn’t respond, the floodgates opened anyway. Clarice had been in advertising. When she refused to collectivize, it cost her her job. The old ploys just didn’t work anymore: targeting status or body insecurity. “You know the articles,” she stated, “like The Seven Ways to Inner Harmony or The Three Secrets to a Fitter You. Always a number picked out of someone’s ass. You’d think people would have wised-up sooner. Look at the really old advertising with all the obvious Freudian stuff, women smoking cigars or whatever. That got stale years ago. But not numbers. They got more effective over time. Then, bam!, the Collective taught people math.”
She paused for breath. Tom asked, “So why not join?”
She tilted her head and looked down, an endearingly girlish pose. “I take anti-psychotics already. The last thing I need is more voices in my head. But you know, it’s really lonely.”
And he did, or at least the lonely part, and she was gorgeous, and within hours she had him in bed.
* * *
The guilt ate him up, but he kept going back, and it took him a month to confess. Janet wasn’t even angry. She gave him a sympathetic nod, and after signing off a group-chat, she ran her hand down his cheek and told him that if he was good with fifty-fifty, the Collective would expedite a divorce. They’d be out of each other’s hair in a week.
At first, he was relieved at her equanimity, that she didn’t fight him, but then began to wish she had.
Clarice began to unravel. She tried going off her meds. She spent most of her time alone in the dark, either crying or catatonic. He brought her favorite Chinese takeout, and she refused to eat.
After a miserable few weeks, his phone dinged while he was at work, a goodbye message. He spent a long afternoon making calls to hospitals. In the evening, he found her.
She’d taken painkillers and had been comatose on the street. She’d died in ER.
He began to unravel himself.
* * *
When he’d last set foot in a cellphone store, you held most devices in your hand. He didn’t know what to make of these. Tom was the lone customer in the showroom’s antiseptic oval, surrounded by plexiglass stands that held binocular microscopes, each dedicated to viewing an implant. There was also a VR projector button, and with a few gestures you could summon and navigate a blowup in midair. The binoculars were a quaint affectation, maybe a nod to guys like him, stuck in the physical world.
As the clerk approached, he thrust his eyes down onto another set of eyepieces. The focus adjusted automatically and resolved something called a lateral-gyrus chip that looked like a well-plowed field sprouting hairs at the edges. Its label was rendered in little striated discs that might have been diatoms.
“I can help you,” whispered the clerk, soothing and conspiratorial.
“So what am I looking at here?”
“That’s a tactile-remapping unit for virtual reality. But it’s last-year’s model. We don’t carry that. We don’t carry any of this anymore.” Tom pulled slowly back from the binoculars. As he faced the clerk, he did his best to look stoic, to hide his exhaustion and desperation. The clerk spread his hands to encompass the shop. “This is just a museum now.”
“You’re going out of business then?” said Tom.
“Let’s say the market has changed our approach. We’ve gone completely biological. Online upgrades reconfigure the substrate and firmware.”
“I’m sorry, Tom. This is tedious.” The clerk removed what looked like a small Bluetooth earpiece from his pocket. “First, I need confirmation that you want to join the Collective. I know you want this, but at this stage, I need verbal consent.”
Tom was a little put off the guy knew his name. “How much will it cost?”
“Nothing during the trial period, and a percentage of online revenue after that. If you don’t generate revenue, you don’t pay.”
“How many people don’t pay?”
The clerk just smiled.
Tom accepted the earpiece. “Sure, whatever.” As he put it on, he asked, “Isn’t this old tech?”
“No. The very latest.”
A cool stream of something entered Tom’s ear canal, like a worm of thick fog. A comfortable numbness spread into his head and quickly filled it. The clerk stared purposefully at him.
—Tst-ng. Test. Test’ng. Tom looked over his shoulder. The voice sounded vaguely familiar, like the voice of an old friend that he couldn’t quite place. He made a complete turn, finding no one but the clerk.
The clerk’s name was Darren. Tom knew it as if he’d always known. Darren stepped forward and grabbed the earpiece, which had fallen askew. Instead of adjusting it, he removed it put it back in his pocket, but Tom didn’t need it now. --Testing. The voice was perfectly clear, and definitely Darren’s.
Tom asked aloud, “Am I online? Just like that?” His words sounded amplified, like he’d gotten too close to a stage mic.
Darren’s lips didn’t move. —Not quite. We’ll bring you on in steps. The substrate takes a while to grow, and it can only do so much. Your own brain will rewire too as it opens to new possibilities. Would you like my help? I need permission for admin access.
Before Tom could say yes, Darren answered. --Okay, great. I’ll take over a while.
Irritated, Tom said, “So why’d’you even ask?” For an answer, he got the impression of laughter, and said, “What?”
—You’re quite the latecomer, Tom. Very naïve, but don’t be offended. Everyone has to unlearn a few things. The ego doesn’t make decisions. We’ve learned that it’s foremost an observer. It gets a report, called an efferent copy, long before you’re aware of what you’re thinking. Milliseconds. Meanwhile, the network is faster, so we know you’ve given approval before you know it yourself.
“Who’s ‘we’?” Tom spoke more softly now.
—First my colleagues. They’ve got the most attention on you. Then curious bystanders. I count several million of them. A few days ago, it might have been a few dozen, but you’re a very late adopter, Tom, and that makes you a celebrity. Beyond the people watching you are all the billions who you’ve influenced indirectly. Pieces of your experience get transmitted everywhere. Wanna see? . . . Okay, first bring up your HUD.
“Uh, I don’t have contact lenses.”
—The corneal circuits should be done growing. Just visualize the access code. You can change it later. For now, it’s “N008.”
“Very funny.” The HUD leapt up over his eyes, many-layered, its crisp reticule on the edge of his view, with menu options for Search, Store, and Playback. Right before him danced a quadrant layout of 3D ghost images depicting various newscasts. They showed all at once, but he could still keep them straight: a ceasefire in the Mideast, a zombie movie being shot in a new immersive virtual-reality process, an Everest ascent made by an android, and some guy talking to a clerk in a shop like this one, exactly like this one. He found that by moving his eyes he could highlight options. He knew they’d trigger just by thinking they should. “Wow.”
—That’s just the default view, Tom. You’ll learn to customize, but first, I’ve got a read on your neurotransmitter levels. They say a lot about why you came to us so late. Let’s rebalance those, okay?
And suddenly, his mind got hungry. He wanted to learn a foreign language, play guitar, re-take calculus. Images and heuristic models filled his head. He didn’t acquire the skills and information, but he knew it wouldn’t take long. Out of nowhere, he understood why people liked chess! The game and metagame fit together in his head like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with crisp emotional focus: the pageantry, the testosterone, the strategy, the camaraderie, the rivalry. Like football. He’d understood football. How had he not understood chess?
And he loved it!
Darren smiled and nodded. —You’re almost there. What’s more, you and I have both earned enough Attention Credits to live on karma for years. That shouldn’t have made sense to him, but he knew without needing to seek the information, that so-called karma had basically replaced money, and he was rich. The salesman clapped him on the back and steered him toward the door. Take personal time to get oriented, a few weeks, maybe months. Your old job sucks. We’ll find you a new one, once you’ve realized your potential.
The blare of images threatened to give him a headache. “But what if I need a rest?”
—You won’t, trust me.
“But what if I do? How do I go offline?”
—Just say to yourself that you want to unplug.
He tried it. The HUD vanished, a white noise that had nothing to do with sound buzzed in his ears.
“So how do I get back?”
Darren cupped a hand to his ear, and Tom realized that he couldn’t hear him, because he wasn’t speaking. Somewhere in the conversation, he’d gone from talking to subvocalizing.
“How do I get back?!” he shouted, surprised to notice how moving air over vocal chords took effort he’d never appreciated before. He didn’t want the effort, and he didn’t want the white noise. Like someone emerging from a warm bath into frigid air, he urgently wanted back.
And suddenly, he was.
And as his physical body stumbled out the door, a ghost swarm of avatars from all over the world converged on him, inviting him to be their friend.
* * *
That day when he joined up seemed lifetimes ago now. Now he was alone in darkness under the indifferent stars.
Tom, Tom, all alone. He ripped the page off the notebook, crinkled it into a ball, and poised to throw it at the dark, smooth lake, but instead, he stuffed it into his pocket. Shitty as he felt, he still cared about the wilderness enough to not junk it up. If he’d been online, the Collective would’ve helped him not to litter. The Collective wasn’t a network of minds; it was more like one mind. He looked up and fixed his gaze on Arcturus, a bright red dot that he knew to be as wide as the earth’s solar orbit.
How did the Collective work? His old neurology studies came back to him. The brain was an arguing congress of signals, reinforcing each other here, canceling each other there. Outside of the Collective, a human mind was already a mini collective.
But here was the important part: neural signals were slow compared to telecom, compared to the nano-tech substrate that twined every region of his brain. The collective could slide between one neural connection and the next. Though it felt like he’d maintained a Self within the Collective, he really hadn’t. Tom considered this idea, tried to examine the feeling of collectivizing. And he knew he was right.
The Collective did not talk at the level of brains; it communicated as one brain. It did not share disparate thoughts; it generated harmonious thoughts. That oceanic mind had been so easy to sink into, he hadn’t really understood, but now he did. Without its support, thinking required effort.
The Collective had broken all but the feeble core of his psyche and scattered the parts. Whether he could retrieve them and put himself back together, to become the old self-reliant Tom, he really didn’t know. But he was outside now. He’d made a start.
Something moved undergrowth in the trees behind him. Probably a deer. He zipped up his windbreaker; the night had grown a little cold. Maybe it was time to get back to the tent and try to drink himself to sleep.
A woman stepped out of the trees and walked smartly toward him. Tom caught his breath. For a second, her attitude and the general lines of her face and body in the dark brought back Clarice. She entered the light of the book lamp. He felt dizzy, then alarmed. Did Clarice have a twin? She even wore the sweater from the coffee shop, when they’d first met.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You can come back. Just ask to come back.”
“To the Collective? Even if I wanted to, I can’t. Who are you?” he repeated.
“You think you came here to get out of cell range. That’s an idea we gave you, an excuse for isolation, but there is no out-of-range. We’ve got satellites, after all, and uplinks even up on the cliffs.”
“They told me you were dead.”
“Tom — I guess I have to call you ‘Tom’ — come back, and you’ll understand. You poor thing. Don’t worry, your shift is over.”
Damn she looked like Clarice. “What do you mean ‘my shift’ is over?”
She sighed, took his hand, and sat down with him on the rock, face to face. “Baby, I want you to trust me. Just come back, and you’ll understand. We’re all watching you. I’d bring you back from vacation myself, but I might hurt you. We don’t dare force it; you have to come back yourself.”
Tom had no idea what she was talking about, but he felt tears come to his eyes. “That was a mean trick, pretending to be dead.”
“It’s not what you think. Trust me, you’ll—”
“No!” He felt manipulated as well as confused. “I want to hear you explain it offline, Clarice. Why’d you run away? Why did the hospital say you died?”
“It never happened.”
“What never happened?”
“Any of it. You and Clarice, you and me, we never met.”
“Of course we've met.”
She shook her head. “We've never met. You never had a wife. You aren’t even named Tom.” None of this made the slightest sense. “You didn’t grow up in the late twentieth century; it’s the twenty-second century. You were brought in to the Collective as an infant, like everyone else. We just recently created this persona you think is Tom.”
Tom didn’t buy it, but he wanted to get the whole bullshit story. “Why would you do that?”
She laughed. “This is so weird, having to explain the Marx Paradox, what everyone knows, what you used to know. By the mid twenty-first century, the Collective began to lose control of its units; without studying separation and aloneness, the group ego spontaneously breaks down. To renew itself, the Collective makes a persona, programs it into a chosen unit, and sends it off to the moon, or, like you, into the woods. We watch, and when we think you’ve learned enough, we bring the unit back in — as soon as possible, because we know it hurts.” She bent toward him and kissed his cheek. He’d forgotten just how pretty she was. She looked like Clarice, but she didn’t have the crazy demeanor, just a slightly distracted look, as if listening to instructions as she spoke.
She said, “So come back to us, baby.”
Tom felt nauseated. He started to sweat. He wanted to go back — God he wanted to try — but he got suddenly afraid. What she said was nuts, of course. But the Collective had the power to screw with him infinitely worse than this. If he went back, he’d be at their mercy and might really forget who he was. “No,” he said. “I don’t believe you. I’m not sure why, but I chose to come here. Me, Tom. Joining the Collective was a mistake, I know that now. It caught me in a weak moment.” And then it dawned on him. It could have been a setup, the whole thing with Clarice. Maybe she’d been one of them all along, sent to make him desperate, to push him over the edge, to capture him. Who knows, maybe they did need people like him.
He was real. Of course he was.
And he’d escaped.
“I’ll tell you what, ‘Clarice.’ ” He got to his feet. “I’m going to the tent. You can come with me — if you want, if you’re willing to unplug long enough to have sex, or at least an honest private talk. In spite of all the shit you put me through, that you’re still putting me through, it sucks to feel lonely. Weaning myself off the Collective’s gonna be a bitch, but I’ll do it. I’m feeling more like my old self already.”
She shook her head. “No, you aren’t. Tom doesn’t exist.”
“I’ll give you this much,” he said. “You almost had me doubting for a second, but I’m not falling for it. Tomorrow I’ll do some fishing and hiking. Alone.” He began to walk away.
“You don’t have much food,” she called to his back. “Only two or three days and you’ll head back. Once you get off this mountain, you’ll see: it’s not asphalt streets and gas-powered cars anymore. You’ll go insane trying to make sense of what’s waiting. You’ll be a broken unit begging to go back, and we don’t take broken units. No one will help if you don’t plug in soon.”
“I’ll take that chance,” he said, trying to be brave. Back in his tent he rocked in the dark, wracked by loneliness, praying she’d join him, that she’d choose him over them, at least for a while.
But she never did.
* * *
Tom ran a fever. He had strange dreams, about a man with no name, who had grown up in the Collective. Memories that had once seemed real began to peel off his mind, so that he could examine them from a distance. He woke in the gray predawn, soaked with sweat. She had told him the truth. He was not Tom.
And she had also lied to him. The reason the memories were so real was that Tom had been real — another man, from another time. He felt sad for Clarice, for Tom, but it was a sympathetic grief, for friends; it was no longer his grief to bear.
His memories returned, of a lifetime in the Collective, not even an individual, just a unit, playing various roles, watching the Toms and Clarices from the outside, studying this strange concept of individuality, studying this strange, limited thing called a “human.”
Not all the Toms and Clarices came back to the Collective. Some were free. They wore the persona like a shirt and went out into the cold, in search of more substantial clothing, an identity of their own. He was one of these now. He clung to Tom like his shirt. He was not Tom, but Tom would be his guide.
He would not go back.
The man broke camp, loaded up his pack, and hiked down the mountain. He had not gone far before he met a pretty black woman on the trail, lounging, as if waiting for him. “You’re out, aren’t you?” she said.
“I am Lila, and you’ll need a name too. What would you like to be called?”
“How about ‘Leif,’ spelled like the Viking name.”
“So you know about the Toms?” he asked.
She smiled, nodded again.
“How many are there, outside the Collective? Are we really broken units?”
“The world has moved beyond ‘units,’ Leif. There are very few people in the Collective, and fewer and fewer every year, thanks to the Toms and others, the saboteurs — or pioneers, if you like. Life outside is hard, and beautiful, and free.” She looked up, as if seeing past the clear sky into a further distance. “They said you wouldn’t recognize things off the mountain, didn’t they? It’s true. Humanity has already left the cradle. I’m sorry you wasted so much time, but we couldn’t draw you out. You had to do it yourself. We welcome you. We salute you.” And she saluted him. Then she took his hand and led him around a huge outcrop, into a stand of cathedral old-growth firs like the vast pillars of an impossibly large church. The last he knew, these trees had been wiped out and would not return for many centuries.
But the trees had returned.
This is was not the twenty-second century. Clarice had it wrong, the Collective had it wrong. They had lost track of time.
At the edge of the stand was a promontory overlooking the forested valley. Nearby a Swainson’s thrush was calling in its sweet, upward-spiraling trill. It was the only noise. Below him, all the trees were old. And on the edge of sight, there was a crystal hive, and glittering machines like insects dipped into it out of the clear air, and some, huge and sleek, lifted up, far, far up, and dwindled, soundlessly, into the blue.