The Button (part 1)

handPart 1 of 3

He stared absently into a nearly empty cup of coffee, observing grounds which stuck to the sides of the cardboard cup and formed a ring. As he rose from his seat at the Fortune Café, an automated female voice coolly announced the readiness of order 67. Sidestepping tables and chairs occupied by businessmen and women, each fixated on their glowing screens, he meandered towards the exit.

Out on the city streets, glass buildings burst forth from wet sidewalks and disappeared into the low clouds like conduits into another world. The drizzle didn’t bother Scott. He briefly considered taking the new high speed subway (still called “the T” by locals, though the sleek new cars which glide silently on magnetic fields held little resemblance to the boxy, rattling dinosaurs used up until 2019) before realizing he blew his last credit on an overpriced coffee.

A dirty, bearded, man dressed in layers of frayed and mismatched clothes stood in the middle of the sidewalk ahead. With not much of a crowd to blend into he felt obligated to respond to the poor fellow’s query.

“Can you spare any change, my man?”

He fished around in his pockets and only found a couple coins but dropped them into the man’s cup (which featured the palmistry-diagram logo of the café he just left).

“Thanks, my man! I knew it. I saw you comin’ and knew you’d help, my man.”

“Yeah you’re welcome I guess,” said Scott, setting off down the street while the man continued his thankful if not rambling monolog.

He walked the 30 minutes from the business district towards the waterfront, past monolithic government offices, past a knot of poncho-clad Japanese tourists on a guided bus tour, and finally to a nondescript brick warehouse on one of the wharfs. This part of town was nearly deserted. He tried the front door and found it locked, but then noticed a tiny silver plaque with the familiar name “Alhazen Corporation” engraved into it, and rang the pearlescent button.

Two weeks ago he was in the three bedroom apartment he shared, looking over job postings, feeling neither inspired nor encouraged. The words he read washed over him like a slow moving river. They didn’t feel like opportunities so much as dead ends. Scrolling back to the top of the page he tapped “Misc.,” the section where he had previously found paying ‘jobs’ as a practice patient for medical students as well as a sleep study participant. The usual pyramid schemes were listed, along with a sketchy request for a naked maid and a couple uncompensated writing gigs, but this time something new caught his eye. It was a post which simply read:

“Time is the substance I am made of.” – J.L. Borges; if interested visit the Alhazen Corporation.

So having nothing much to do one day, he did. The door buzzed unlocked and he grasped the handle, pulled, and stepped inside.

The Button (part 2)

data

Part 2 of 3

He sat on a minimalistic yet comfortable chair in a sparsely decorated office. After a minute of waiting, Mr. Snell – a tall, thin, man in his sixties wearing a suit and modern angular glasses – briskly strode in to the office and sat behind the desk. He opened the file and scanned the single sheet of paper in it with a few subtle nods.

“Why are you here?”

“Uh, the lady told me to wait –“

“No, I mean why are you here?” he repeated in a curious but not unfriendly manner before he began to answer his own question. “You see, Mr. Perkins (this surprised Scott as he had not told anyone there his last name), there were events going back to the beginning of time that led us to where we are now; from your walk from the coffee shop to your conception on your parent’s honeymoon in New Orleans, even all the way back to when a fish dragged itself from a primordial tide pool.”

“How do you know –“

“We experience time with directionality; we can reflect back on a fixed past or speculate on a malleable future. But this directionality is a human invention. The basic laws of physics are what I describe as time symmetrical. For instance, if one filmed the planets of our solar system from a great distance and played that film in reverse, the laws of physics would appear correct. Nothing, apart from our acquired knowledge of how the planets should move, would seem amiss. Now, what if I told you that we can apply that principle to our own lives, and that by mapping out the paths to how we got here we can predict where we are going?”

“I’d say…go on?” he said sounding intrigued.

“People have been flooding the world with,” Snell paused, his eyes brightened with enthusiasm and hands splayed open “massive amounts of data! And quite voluntarily I should add,” he said, sounding slightly defensive. “In its infancy, data mining was used for such pedestrian things as whom to target advertisements for say, eyeglasses. People began to build more complex algorithms  for everything from public health research to government espionage. But the level of sophistication today is unmatched. My team has created a neural network; the system is always learning, constantly stacking and layering. No, there was no eureka moment, it was just a matter of time before the data built up and technology caught up, that hidden patterns revealed themselves. The cities we move to, the cars we drive, the people we fall in love with…that was an easy one actually” he said with a slight laugh. “We deduce your “type” as they say from where your eyes linger on an online photo, from your social media contacts, from your family history. We know where you live, where you spend time, whom you’re likely to run into. The accuracy of our forecasts is remarkable. Quite remarkable,” he restated with a squint for emphasis. “You’re a bright fellow; you can see what I’m getting at.”

“Oh yeah,” he said even though he wasn’t sure about either statement.

“We at Alhazen Corporation are offering you a glimpse into your future. For a nominal fee, and by invite only,“ Mr. Snell smiled, chin slightly raised with self-satisfaction.

“Ok. But why not sell it, you could make a killing if you can do what you claim.”

“Excellent question! The wealthy already have every advantage: top pick of the gene pool, access to the best medical care, advantages in education, list goes on and on. I simply want to level the playing field. Predictive knowledge can be extremely helpful to have in your back pocket. I want to help balance the scales so to speak, which have gotten rather askew as I’m sure a man of your…station has noticed. To be quite frank,” Snell’s voice became quiet, “yes, it is true that I have found success and financial reward later in life. But this was not always the case. I come from quite humble means. We are an aggregate of our experiences, and mine have certainly shaped me. And that is not just an important life lesson, it is a core concept of our work here: Ex praeterito, futuro: From the past, the future!”

“Now,” pulling a stack of papers out of a drawer and sliding it over the desk “first you must sign these releases, non-disclosure forms, and so forth. This is Ms. Thea, she will be your personal guide.”

Right on cue, the office door opened to the sound of heels softly clacking. A young woman around Scott’s age walked and stood next to Mr. Snell. She was wearing a short-sleeved blouse and black knee-length skirt, her chestnut hair sleekly pulled into a ponytail.

“I must point out that one thing we cannot foresee is how you will react to the images you will be shown.” added Snell. “That is where Thea comes in. She will guide you through the process and help deal with any…aftermath of what you learn about your future. This is not for everyone. Please take a minute to consider if you really want to do this.”

The Button (part 3)

button

Part 3 of 3

Scott sat at a large hardwood table in a room barely lit by a single lamp above it. The perimeter of the room was in shadow but he got the impression of it being vast and empty, save for the table and chair. The sole item on the table is a low profile silver box, the housing seamless with rounded edges and corners, with a four inch pearl button on the top softly glowing. He became aware of the hum of electronic equipment emanating from the darkness, buzzing in frequencies at the limits of human perception.

Thea handed him a pair of wrap-around goggles, black with a tiny red LED blinking.

“Pressing the button activates the experience. Whenever you’re ready,” she said with one hand on the door.

“Did you press it?”

“Mr. Perkins, let’s stay focused on the matter at hand.”

“I was just curious…it might help me decide – you know, to get a different take on it.”

“It’s personal.”

“So that’s a yes? What did you see?”

“It’s…personal.”

She left the room and he was alone, gazing motionless at the opal iridescent object before him.

~

“Do you want to go over it one more time? In case you remember anything more you’d like to document while it’s fresh in your memory?”

She sat upright at her desk, her glasses now off, taking an occasional note while a tiny video camera on a gooseneck stand recorded the debriefing session.

“No…no, I think that’s all I can remember,” he said softly, as if just waking up from a dream. “The main stuff anyway.” He restated: “Lying in bed, in that room, and there was someone there in bed with me. I couldn’t see her face. The room was pretty nice, I must have done alright for myself.”

“The details are important. Sometimes the system has a strange way of revealing its predictions. Take as long as you need,” she said reassuringly.

“Wait, there’s something else. I just remembered. The person next to me…she started to roll over but all I could see was her shoulder. There was a…like a scar or something. It was shaped like an X.”

Thea began to make note of his comment, her pen became motionless then fell from her hand.

“What did you just say?”

“A scar. Like an X. On her shoulder.”

“That’s…not possible.”

He looked up and saw a look somewhere in between disbelief and alarm.

“Oh my god,” she said. “This can’t be happening.”

“Huh?”

Sliding her left sleeve up to her shoulder, she revealed the mark he described.

“My brother pushed me into a fence when I was seven.”

“Wow, that’s a weird coincidence. What are the odds!” And then he finally understood. “Oh. Wait…wow. So did you see me in your session? What did – “

“Just stop! Please.”

They sat in silence for a moment, neither of them sure what to say.

“So…what do we do now? Cause we know –“

“No,” she said, cutting him off again. “We don’t really know anything for sure. Maybe that’s just one possible path. It’s not 100% accurate. I think.”

“But maybe this is good news?”

“Good news? Look, everybody who comes in here, they all think they’re going to get a leg up in life. Like the future is some secret they suddenly they’re in on. But I see them struggle with what they’ve learned. It’s a gift that people don’t really understand, and it’s never what they want it to be. You don’t get answers, you just get more questions,” she stated wearily.

“Well what’s the point of it then?” asked Scott.

Sheepishly: “I don’t know.”

A longer pause this time. They both listened to the sheets of rain on the windows, which had picked up considerably.

“You should know, I have a boyfriend. I live with my boyfriend. We’re happy,” she said, aware of how hollow her voice sounded in the confined concrete office overlooking the harbor, where the spring rain blurred the distinction between sea and clouds. “If you don’t have anything else to document, then maybe our session is over.”

“Ok…” He felt like the moment called for a profound truth to be said, but all that came out was “Will I see you again?”

She stared at her desk for what seemed like a long time.

“Yeah,” she said with quiet resignation. “You probably will.”

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