INCORPORATION: The Strangler Fig
The dream was gone and that only made it worse.
Since early childhood Jonathon had experienced a vivid recurring vision in which he drifted slowly over the treetops of a great jungle. The trees reached out to the horizons. He bathed in the rich and complex bouquet of damp earth, blooming flowers, decay and thousands of animals and insects. The miasma of life and death in the jungle was something he drank. It sustained him in his dream.
When he grew into a teenager the bookshelf in his bedroom overflowed with thick volumes about jungles. He fixated on lush picture books, travelogues, studies of indigenous tribes and even the occasional novel. He was trapped in Indiana and his family was not rich, so he knew that he would never see the jungle in person. He lived as a voyeur. It did not satisfy him. Only in his dreams did he truly understand and experience that jungle.
Then the jungle was gone. He slept, he rested, but there were no dreams. He begged God for them to return. He prayed for closure. Let the jungle burn. Let it fester and dissolve in disease. There was no ending, just a disappearance. An absence.
Jonathon went to doctors and psychologists in total secrecy. They prescribed vitamins and sleeping pills and told him to avoid sugar and caffeine. They coached him on breathing exercises and lucid dreaming techniques.
When he left for college the only concession to his vague hope that the dream might return was a meditation crystal set into silver on a chain around his neck. He forgot why he wore it. He graduated with a Bachelor's degree in consumer forecasting and returned home. His books about the jungle were in a box in the basement. He left them to the mold.
Omni TrendPro was hiring consumer forecasters in Toledo. Politics were the buzz at the time. Voter metrics and consumer pattern overlap. Old parties and old divisions were melting away. The geopolitical topography had shifted. The nation was purple. It was the dawn of the age of Total Democracy.
Jonathon Fortune found his way to an entry level position at TrendPro running local processing cycles on satellite output. His job title was "junior forecasting technician." He was just a babysitter for algorithms designed to take the mathematical data predictions from Satellite Hub 48 "Amanda" and integrate these predictions into a set of targeted consumer predictions. It was a simple process.
Amanda predicts wheat shortages in the Ukraine, a 9% increase in the sale of Nike tennis shoes in Kentucky, reduced infant mortality in Thailand for Q3 and one new single from Kaiser Frank expected to hit #3 on the British pop charts. Jonathon Fortune runs his algorithm and discovers that all of this seemingly unconnected information indicates a .7% increased wholesale demand for vat-grown bio-plastics from NatPlat. He takes the output to his boss, Neil Treadwell. Neil Treadwell either gives that prediction to someone else higher up the food chain or he goes straight to NatPlat and makes the pitch.
That was how the routine worked at first. That was how it worked for everyone else.
Most of Jonathon's peers in Omni's junior forecasting cluster were doomed to move sideways. They ran the algorithms and filed their reports, but they were content being babysitters. A few with good interpersonal skills might move over to group management. One or two might find their way to sales. The rest would either spend their entire career running algorithms or they would leave the company.
The raw data from Amanda was too much for a single man to consciously interpret. Senior analysts used advanced custom software suites and thousands of spreadsheets and they were still just nudging algorithms in the right direction or doing a few lines of coding every week. Jonathon didn't bother with that sort of thing. He would never understand on a supply chain level how saffron harvesting shortfalls in Bahrain could cause a fractional decrease in the cost of Colorado rolled tungsten.
He abandoned the how and why of the equation to the algorithms, but Jonathon gained an intuitive understanding of the relationships. One day, with no warning or premonition, his above average understanding of the predictions blossomed into his own organic prediction process. Jonathon could forecast like the algorithms or the satellite, but purely on instinct.
He was a synaesthetic savant and he experienced his predications as a multi-sensory fugue. Shifting colors, smells, sounds and even objects represented people, places, things and numbers. The way they moved, their size and their intensity represented the flow of action. In this fugue state Jonathon would navigate a landscape of his imagining, but it was not alien to him, it was all locked tight in a self-made logic that allowed him to beat the software. He never knew whether his brain was simply guessing with incredible accuracy or if, on some obscured and deeply subconscious level, it was performing the staggering calculations usually reserved for dedicated computers.
Jonathon came to know as well as any block of code that 97 minute traffic delays on the Bloomberg in New York would result in a .03 percent increase in the cost of a wedding cake in Brooklyn. If the wedding cake cost rose in conjunction with a maintenance stoppage at Bermuda Deep Refining Platform 6, Jonathon could tell you without looking at the algorithm output that a woman's fall jacket from Lau Sai Textile Amalgamated would cost two RMB less in Beijing for the next 48 hours.
Jonathon kept his ability a secret for a number of years. He knew his peers would either hate him or dump their workload on him without a full understanding of his talent. He quietly ran sidebars with the algorithm outputs and watched in amazement as his predictions regularly beat the software. He was also exponentially faster. After seven years he could assemble the jigsaws of links in the Amanda output almost instantly. He would speed-read through the screens and by the time he hit the last Page Down on his keyboard he had his predictions. The computers - even the new quantum units - had to laboriously run every possible variable individually.
Nine years and ten months after Jonathon stopped dreaming of the jungle, his strange secret escaped.***************
Amanda maintained Molniya orbit over the surface of the earth. She was manufactured in 2003 by Elliptical Enterprises and remote-upgraded by the maintenance satellite Centipede in 2011. She was a broadband communications satellite built around 16 articulated directional dishes and a Neutron III logic processor. Amanda was responsible for monitoring encrypted and open signals from 4,896 sources around the globe. She orbited the earth every 12 hours and collected burst transmissions like a girl picking flowers. She filled her basket. She pressed them between pages. Once per orbital cycle she encrypted her processed data, focused her transmission dish and sent a 93-second broadband squirt to the receiver on the roof of the Omni TrendPro office in Toledo, Ohio.
Beneath Amanda was the incomparable marvel of the earth, but she could not look. For 12 hours per earth rotation the brilliant glow of the sun was at her back, but she could not look. On April 2nd at 09:04:34.34 GMT the sun ejected the largest coronal mass since 1989. Protons and electrons sped towards the fragile gem beneath her. Amanda was oblivious. She carried on listening, as always, to the chatter of her 4,896 friends.
The coronal mass smashed into the earth's magnetosphere and a tempest grew, invisible and deadly. The magnetosphere distended like a water balloon and bled out on the night side of the earth into a raging cyclone. Electrons and ions filled the darkness. The aurora surged with unearthly color. At 09:33:20.21 GMT Amanda plunged into the funnel of particles. An indicator blinked yellow on a technician's LCD screen at Canberra Station 3, but Amanda was oblivious. She was shielded against blasts of cosmic radiation and self-sealing against micro-meteors, but she was old and metal by satellite standards. Hair-thin whips of particles lashed her body and she began to build up differential charges.
A tremor passed through her data. The voices went silent. Amanda fumbled to hear them. She tuned her dishes. She wrung her hands. Electricity arced and flashed. She went numb on one side like a stroke victim. Electricity arced again and her logic processor reset. She died an instant later. An indicator blinked red at Canberra 3. Amanda screamed one last time; a desperate and agonized 3-second burst dump of her buffer files.
Amanda fell and burned and became a data point in another satellite's stream of predictions. Her epitaph was part of a .004 percent Q4 sales downturn for a malt liquor company in St. Louis, Missouri making beer flavored with chemically imitated Kool-Aid.
In Toledo, the system collapsed. Head Office in City One said it would take three hours to relocate one of the geosynchronous satellites. A pause that long in data collection meant a much longer interruption in accurate predictions. Events were interconnected. You couldn't just cut a full cycle and then some out of the middle and expect the frayed ends to tie up nice and neat. A lapse in data coverage would mean a month or more before full accuracy was restored.
Neil Treadwell called all of the senior and junior analysts into the conference room and explained the situation. There would be millions in lost revenue and there would be dozens of lost jobs. Word from Head Office was that if the losses were bad enough the Toledo office might be folded into the Detroit office.
"We could get past the three hour outage," Treadwell explained, "but all we have for today's coverage is a raw dump from the satellite. Unfiltered buffer. Absolutely useless."
Treadwell tossed the cards containing Amanda's buffer transmission onto the table. The junior analysts grumbled and hung their heads. The senior analysts clustered around Treadwell and spoke in hushed tones, each trying to explain why their job was vital to the company.
Jonathon Fortune surreptitiously scooped the buffer cards into his hand and shuffled out of the meeting room. An hour later Treadwell told everyone they could go home for the day.
"Update your resume," he advised.
Jonathon set to work in the darkened office. The data was garbled. It took him an hour just to sort it chronologically and another to decipher the numeric location codes that were normally stripped out of the predictions. That gave him a list of events; purchases, accidents, sicknesses, deaths, births, natural disasters and thousands of seemingly mundane incidents.
Each incident was described in plain text with names and detailed statistics. There was security footage of a car hitting the rear bumper of a utility van in Leeds and causing minor damage. There was a recording of a cell phone conversation interrupted by a woman cursing and saying she dropped a quarter down a storm sewer. There was a wireless baby monitor transmitting the choking and gasping of an infant suffocating in its crib.
There were also thousands of purely environmental or natural data points. There was a web of information from oceanic weather buoys, deep sea coal extraction rigs, upper-atmospheric balloons, weather stations and rain catches. Every resource that mankind monitored was caught in a snapshot by Amanda's buffer.
The number of recorded incidents was staggering and strange. Many originated from bizarre or unclear sources. There were hundreds of thousands of financial transactions. The daily flow of commerce accounted for the vast majority of records in the buffer.
The data populated the strange imagery of Jonathon's predictive fugue. He explored this new landscape. He mapped its contours and scaled its peaks. After more than hour, sweating and red-eyed, Jonathon eased back into his office chair and began typing out the predictions.***************
"We're really going to miss you." Meghan exhaled tequila on Jonathon's face and smacked a sloppy wet kiss on his mouth.
A few of the girls from sales whistled with glee at the drunken show of affection. Meghan sauntered back to her clique and they giggled amongst themselves. Kyle from HR had been put in charge of the going-away party and he had been a bit too free with petty cash at the liquor store.
"City One." Raj, one of Jonathon's fellow junior analysts, shook his head and took a gulp from his cup. "You've made the big time, my man."
"It's not that great," Jonathon countered. "Just a little raise and a new office."
"Tell that to the senior analysts."
Raj draped his arm around Jonathon's shoulder and turned him in the direction of the nook the senior analysts had staked out as their turf for the duration of the party. Several of them were glaring and the rest were obviously muttering.
"They do look pissed." Jonathon laughed.
"And isn't that the most important thing?"
Later, as the party was wrapping up and the drunks were staggering out to catch the bus or hail a cab, Neil Treadwell called Jonathon into his office. He gestured to a chair.
"Congratulations." Treadwell smiled and slid a package across the desk.
Jonathon opened it and was surprised to find an expensive executive assistant pad. It sang to life when he tapped the stylus.
"This is too much, Mr. Treadwell."
"No, no." Treadwell shook his head. "You beat the odds. Hell, you beat the house. You're moving up and you're special."
"I'm sure you'll get promoted in-"
Treadwell waved away Jonathon's consolation.
"This is my place, Jonathon. I've been working in the Toledo office for thirty years. I'm regional upper-management material and I'm happy with that."
"You do a good job," offered Jonathon.
"I do a good job here in Toledo." Treadwell agreed with good humor. "You, on the other hand, are just starting your rise to the top. There was another person who went to Head Office about two years before you started here, a gal by the name of Nora Easley. She had a head like yours for the game. Of course it was a lot different back then, but I think you'll hit it off with her if you get in touch. She was in charge of data acquisition for the region, back before Head Office handled all of that. She was the one feeding satellites. I put her name and office number in that planner. Give her a call when you get to City One."
"I'll do that, Mr. Treadwell."
They shook hands and Treadwell gave Jonathon a paternal pat on the back. Jonathon didn't look back as he carried his meager box of possessions out into the TrendPro parking lot.
The halogen lights buzzed orange and the night moths cast strange fluttering shadows across the asphalt. Jonathon's gaze was drawn across the street to the red and blue strobe of a police car's lights flashing against an immense concrete parking structure. A young man and a young woman in desert camouflage jackets and knit caps sat cuffed on the curb. One police officer leaned lazily against the passenger side of the cruiser. Another cop stood near the parking structure's wall shining his Maglite at a patch of graffiti.
"FIGHT THE FUTURE!" The graffiti proclaimed in red, white and blue paint. "RESIST! SUBVERT!"
Jonathon averted his eyes as he walked past them to the plastic enclosure of the bus stop. Once inside he studied his shoes, looking over only once as the doors slammed shut and the cruiser pulled away with an amplified burble of its siren.
The sun burned through the floor-to-ceiling window of the meeting room and warmed Jonathon's face. He looked down on the old monuments of Washington from the 188th floor of Unity Tower. The monuments were hard to spot, carefully tended and maintained, but hemmed in by the future of progress. The new ranks of cherry blossom trees in Park One looked like puffs of cotton at this distance. He imagined their smell.
"You're early, Wunderkind."
Jonathon turned and faced Milton Powell, the head of Global Metrics and Jonathon's direct superior.
"I thought I would get a feel for the place," Jonathon shrugged with forced nonchalance.
The wealth and power of the TrendPro offices in Unity Tower intimidated him. Walls were paneled in polished teak, logos were cast in pure silver and desks were made from colored glass. Even the computers used showy TrueD screens that looked like oversized shoebox dioramas and made text difficult to read. He had to buy new shoes after his first day because his cheap loafers scuffed the marble floor mosaics. Milton Powell had simply handed him a company card with unlimited credit and told him to buy what he needed.
Milton joined Jonathon at the window and sipped his cup of coffee.
"Quite a view."
"Yes, sir." Jonathon replied. "I'd never been to City One."
"That's not City One." Milton waved his hand at the glass. "Those are ruins with caretakers. Twilight of the Idols, Jon. City One is in here."
Milton made a vague gesture that Jonathon took to be some ridiculous notion of the ideals of Total Democracy living in the hearts of all free men. Then he realized that Milton meant Unity Tower.
"Out there it's just ghosts." Milton sipped his coffee and then continued. "Have you watched C-SPAN lately?"
Jonathon shook his head.
"No one even bothers to run the government anymore. Hell, 82 of the senators vote based on algorithms written in this very office."
Milton read the confusion on Jonathon's face.
"They're dead, Jon. We get the consent of their families, of course. It's all above-board. Then we run their old TV spots with some new music, get the bloggers going, maybe generate some attack ads and seed some op-eds. They get reelected and our software takes over from there. It votes like they did, with a few tweaks here and there when we feel it's necessary."
"What about the other 24?" Jonathon felt it was the best question, but Milton just laughed.
"The 24 living senators? Running scared right to the hospital. Most of them are on so much life support they might as well be our software. They think living on as software is somehow ignoble, but they're wrong. It's a legacy. It's their ideals being carried out in perpetuity."
"With a few tweaks here and there." Jonathon looked back out at the cherry blossoms.
Milton raised his coffee cup in a salute.
"Ross and Kummel are going to be at the meeting today, so look sharp." Milton drained the last of his coffee. "They're not running things but they sometimes like to think they are and they can be pretty demanding. Whatever they ask for, just say 'yes' and we'll figure out if we have to turn them down later."
"President Ross?" Jonathon felt nauseas.
"And Lianna Kummel from the EU." Milton dragged his finger down the window and it darkened to opaque black with a hiss. "She's been riding us for a yearly forecast. I want you to tell her you can do it."
"A yearly forecast…of what exactly?"
"Everything. We had some predictions in Q1 that disappointed the EU and now they want the big picture all at once. Namely, we advised them that if they denied aid to China after that earthquake it would cause a 3% increase in steel revenue. It fell through and the EU looked like assholes with nothing to show for it."
"You told them to deny aid to China after an earthquake?"
"Is there an echo in here?" Milton snapped back. "It was the wrong call, we don't promise to always give them the right call, but don't get indignant on me. That's how the game works, Jon. We're talking level four forecasting here. We give them the forecasts and it's up to them to figure out how to nudge the predictions to get the results they want."
Heels clicked smartly on the marble floor. An older woman in the season's business feminine strode into the meeting room.
"They're all here." The woman looked exasperated. "Ross is already glancing at his watch."
"Bring them in." Milton sent her away and inclined his head towards Jonathon. "Shine for me."
Jonathon felt like throwing up.***************
++ JONATHON FORTUNE WILL MURDER THE PRESIDENT IN EIGHT DAYS.
Jonathon checked the satellite predictions and rechecked the algorithm output. He requested and received a raw dump from Satellite Hub 6 "Icarus" and came away with the same answer. Jonathon Fortune will murder the president in eight days.
Jonathon had never taken a life. He couldn't fathom a motivation for killing someone. He could barely comprehend the magnitude of killing a person; truncating everything they ever would or could be. Jonathon had never willingly taken the life of something larger than an insect and even then he felt vague pangs of guilt.
Seeing his name in the prediction was nearly as big a shock to Jonathon as the prediction itself. Predications occasionally cropped up that addressed individuals. Jonathon vividly remembered an incident a year ago when the name "Michael Sparrow" came up three times. Michael Sparrow will fly from Palo Alto to Tokyo in three days. Michael Sparrow's ADM-40 Manta will crash into the Pacific Ocean in nineteen hours. Michael Sparrow will die of dehydration-related organ failure in three days. TrendPro sold the last snippet of data to Sparrow's family for half a million dollars. Japanese rescue teams found his baked corpse in an emergency raft a week later.
Could there be another Jonathon Fortune?
It seemed plausible. He took the elevator down to the third sub-floor archives and set two logic routines searching for various permutations of his name. After a lunch in the cafeteria that was unusually unpalatable he found himself fighting eyestrain to read the results of his search on his TrueD screen. There were other Jonathon Fortunes, they just weren't alive anymore.
With reluctance and a strange sense of guilt, Jonathon methodically deleted all of the references to himself. The satellites could make mistakes. The algorithms could make mistakes. Jonathon could make mistakes. No matter how much he tried to convince himself that the prediction was wrong, he couldn't believe that the mistake could be made on all three levels. The only logical explanation remaining was that one of the data points was incorrect.
He called up a telephone directory for the TrendPro offices in Unity Tower. He had never spoken to anyone responsible for modifying the sensors that transmitted data to the satellite hubs. He wasn't even sure which department to contact or what exactly the sensors were. Maintenance took him to an automated system to request repair services for satellite receivers and transmitters. Press one for services in Unity Tower, press two for terrestrial maintenance, press three for orbital maintenance. Jonathon continued to scroll through the directory listings.
Monitoring Management was a department in the darkest depths of the sub-floors that kept track of bandwidth usage and stability. A call to Cosmic Predicative Telemetry transferred Jonathon to a tracking station somewhere in the Andes that was trying to forecast cosmic events that might impact TrendPro's satellite fleet. The guy on the other end did nothing but complain about his budget being cut.
"Fuck. Head. Office." The executive in the Andes slammed down the telephone.
Data Acquisition. The department's name was familiar, but the line was listed with an arcane security clearance code. When he dialed the number an automated system requested Jonathon's employee ID number and personal employee pin number. Jonathon dutifully entered the information, but was returned to a message apologizing that his clearance was inadequate.
Jonathon opened the executive assistant pad to make a note to ask Milton about Data Acquisition. No sooner had Jonathon heard the jangle of the pad's startup than he remembered how he knew the department's name. He tapped the stylus and the contact information for Nora Easley resolved on the screen. His fingers fumbled with anxiety and he had to redial the number twice.
"This line is no longer in service. Omni TrendPro apologizes for the inconvenience. This line is-."
Jonathon hung up and dialed Nora's personal phone number. Three rings were followed by a strange clicking noise.
"Hello." A man answered.
"Is this Nora Easley's number?"
The line went dead. Jonathon redialed, but there was no answer.
Jonathon stared at a framed reproduction of Vermeer's The Geographer that someone had selected for his office. He squeezed the stylus in his hand until the plastic creaked with strain. Cold fear rattled his teeth.
He snapped out of his stupor and pawed at the speed dial on his phone.
"This is Milton."
"Mr. Powell, I'm feeling a bit ill. I think I need to take the afternoon off."
"Jonnnnnn." Milton stretched the name into a sentence. "You've only been here six weeks and you're already taking afternoons off? Well, I'd like to join you on the green, but some of us actually work."
"I'm sorry, I…I suppose I could-"
"Come on," Milton interrupted, "I'm just giving you a hard time. Take the rest of the day off. No big deal."***************
Jonathon's shaking subsided on the high-speed rail line to Unity Plaza 33. Jonathon liked to think of Plaza 33 as sub-luxury apartments. The facility had the trappings of luxury, but the apartments were small and bare. He fumbled with his trendy retro keys at the door. When he found the right key and pressed it against the deadbolt the door fell open a few inches. He pushed into the foyer and flipped on the lights.
He was slammed against the wall so hard that the LED strip above him flickered for an instant. Jonathon struggled to breathe and blinked away spots that burst in his vision. A dark shape loomed. Something hard and metal pressed against the soft flesh behind his chin and his head was forced back until he was looking at the ceiling.
"How do you know Nora Easley?" The voice was deep and seasoned with rock salt and whiskey.
"I-I don't." Jonathon gasped.
"How did you get her number?"
"N-n-neil, Neil Treadwell."
A few seconds passed in silence. There was a patting sound and the metallic pressure eased. The arm pinning him against the wall relaxed its grip. His attacker was a neckless bulldog of a man with a lumpy and crooked nose and dark eyes shaded from the foyer light by a City One Sentinels baseball cap.
"You're the guy?" It was a woman's voice.
Nora Easley was only a year or two his senior and she looked the part of a TrendPro executive. She wore her skirt short, her blouse starched and high-collared and her jacket from a designer so exclusive as to be unknown outside of Europe. Her smile was kind but her eyes were tempered steel behind rimless glasses.
"Hilarious." Her tone suggested that the revelation was anything but hilarious. "I figured you would at least put up a fight."
"Wh-what do you mean?" Jonathon massaged the spot under his chin where the bruiser had thrust the barrel of his pistol.
"Sic Semper Tyrannis." She tossed one of Jonathon's notebooks onto the futon. "You're our little assassin, Jonnie Fortune."
"I am not going to kill President Ross." Jonathon blurted.
Nora exchanged a glance with her cohort and her bewildered chuckle was laced with acid.
"President Ross?" She shook her head. "Why would you want to kill him?"
"I-I, I don't want-"
"You're going to kill the President of TrendPro." Nora bit her lower lip and sized Jonathon up. "And I'm going to help you do it."
Before Jonathon could verbalize his shock, the bruiser grabbed him by his shirt and dragged him into the living room. He shoved Jonathon down onto the futon. Nora sat primly on Jonathon's lap and absently played with his hair as she explained the way in which he would bring down the world.To be concluded on Friday.
Artwork by Josh Hass