Wednesday, 7:30 AM PT
Oreste Pax hovered, motionless, at the radial center of a giant, dark sphere. Fifty feet away in any direction, faint white lines of latitude and longitude partitioned it into hundreds of rectangular sections. Pax’s eyes scanned the inner walls and came to rest on a section with an icon of stacked sheets of paper. A moment later, a pair of disembodied green eyes materialized above it. They glowered at him, and there was a deep rumble, so low he felt it more than heard it. While still staring at the eyes, Pax touched his right thumb and forefinger together.
Instantly, the section with the icon disappeared, and a terrible roar filled the air. The eyes disappeared, and a massive white tentacle exploded out of the hole left behind. As it hurtled toward him, Pax noticed the tip was flat, with markings on it that looked like...text.
A foot before it would have smashed into his face, the front of the tentacle suddenly froze, and an enormous electric crackling drowned out the roar. Pax saw the tentacle was, in fact, a long line of thousands of virtual documents, which now crashed into the invisible force field surrounding him, engulfing him in a paper cocoon. The roar turned into an agonized shriek, and the papers suddenly retracted, snapping back into a well-formed line. The far end was still connected to the hole in the sphere, while the document in front hovered, motionless, a foot away from his face. The rest swayed gently, like a strand of giant kelp in the ocean. The only sound was a faint, pitiful whimpering.
Ten years earlier, Pax had gotten quite a kick out of this effect, as had more than a hundred million other Univiz customers. The Alien Zoo was the first virtual environment he’d ever created, and he’d chosen it that morning in hopes of cheering himself up a bit. Today, however, it hadn’t even raised his heart rate. He was still somewhat conscious of the real world outside his virtual one, the one in which he was currently being driven by his black mFarad auto-electric sedan down the I-5 south in San Diego. But the vast majority of his attention was fixed on the fact that unless that morning’s user testing for Project Simon produced some unexpectedly spectacular results, he would soon lose his job as CEO of Omnitech Industries. All because of three quarters of missed earnings and the misfortune of having an asshole like Morgan Granville be the company’s largest minority shareholder.
Purely out of habit, Pax glanced at the first message, a text from his VP of Investor Relations. The message took up almost the whole page, but a single-sentence summary at the top, added by the UV’s content analyzer, told him all he needed to know. Namely, that the board of directors had reluctantly given final approval to Granville’s petition for the annual shareholder’s meeting to be in person. Pax sighed. That meant he and the rest of the executive team would have to sweat it out on stage while Granville and others ostentatiously demanded to know why Omnitech wasn’t making them as filthy rich this year as it had every year before.
Pax flicked the tip of his middle finger against his thumb. The document flew up and, with a faint poof, burst into a cloud of dust. The dust turned into sparkles which drifted down like the aftermath of a fireworks explosion before disappearing.
Before he could look at the next document, a soft, synthesized doodoodoo filled Pax’s ears. A picture of an overly tanned man with extremely white teeth materialized in front of the line of documents, with “Russell Murphy—Executive Vice President, Marketing and Sales” displayed underneath. The picture slid to the right, and the system’s estimated probabilities for the topics Murphy was calling to discuss appeared on the left.
Chinese delegation meeting: 93%
China market opportunity: 79%
Request raise: 41%
Omnitech 10-year anniversary: 34%
Pax groaned. Murphy had been hired as a marketing vice-president five years earlier, promoted to senior vice-president two years later, then executive vice-president just two months ago. Pax hadn’t realized until just before the latest promotion that Murphy had at some point along the way become a stooge of Granville’s, but at that point, it was too late to do anything about it. Pax avoided him as much as possible because, topic probabilities notwithstanding, he knew Murphy’s real aim was to gather evidence Granville could use against him.
The placid, pedantic voice of Pax’s virtual assistant, Gabe, sounded in his ears. “Sir, Russell Murphy is calling. Should I make up another pathetic excuse as to why you won't talk to him?"
Pax's face cracked into a smile. "I'm liking this new personality profile of yours, Gabe.”
“I’m not surprised. I always knew you were a masochist.”
Pax laughed. ”How many excuses have we given him since the last time I talked to him?”
“Indeed. And by the way, there’s no we in this scenario. You’ve become a sniveling coward all on your own.”
Pax chuckled but didn’t reply. Instead, he let three more ringtones pass before giving a long sigh. "He's not going away, is he?"
“Apparently not. Looks like your ‘duck and cower’ strategy isn't going to work this time.“
“All right, all right. Put him on."
“Very good, sir. Please remember to take your thumb out of your mouth before speaking.”
Pax started to laugh but quickly choked it off as a doodeep sound indicated the call was live. He cleared his throat and said, “Hello, Murphy. What's up?"
Russell Murphy’s avatar morphed into a video feed from a camera somewhere in his home office. His teeth were even bigger and whiter on video than on his profile picture.
“Oreste!” Murphy boomed. “Whaddya know, you answered! To what do I owe this great honor?” He followed this up with several loud guffaws. Pax was reminded it had been a significant oversight on his part not to enable users to virtually assault the 3-D image of someone they were talking to, should they find it therapeutic to do so.
"I just decided to answer every tenth call I get today,” Pax said, “and you were lucky caller number 20."
"Super! But I think you should change your criteria to always take calls from your executive vice-presidents, and take every tenth call from everyone else.”
“I’ll take it under consideration. Now, let me ask again, what’s up?”
“I just got a call from our pals at the State Department. They’d like some color commentary about what happened in the meeting you had with the Chinese delegation. Apparently, they were a little miffed about the reception you gave them.”
Pax felt a flash of anger. God, why won’t the government show a little backbone when it comes to the Chinese? “All I did was tell them we weren’t going to agree to their stupid information restriction request,” he mumbled.
“Right. Well, the issue has to do with the fact that you actually used the word ‘stupid.’ Not sure how many times you’ve been to China, but that phrasing’s considered just as rude there as it is in the rest of the world.”
“Yeah, well, that government of theirs is going the way of the dinosaurs anyway.”
“Perhaps. But I imagine you’d rather not be remembered as the guy who started WWIII due to being an impolitic son-of-a-bitch.”
Pax closed his eyes and massaged his forehead. His refusal to sell the Univiz in China, along with other countries suffering under repressive dictatorships, was at the crux of the shareholder revolt. The as-yet untapped potential of those markets would more than cover the slowing growth rates in Omnitech’s existing core business. Consequently, Pax’s stance on the matter didn’t sit well with bipedal leeches like Granville, who only cared about their bottom line.
“Look, Murph, just make up something about it being an idiom that got messed up in translation. Like when Kennedy tried to tell the Germans he was one of them but called himself a jelly doughnut instead."
“That's actually an urban legend. Kennedy said it correctly."
"Oh. Well, anyway, just get our translation department on it and say the translator at the meeting made a hash of it.”
“Look, Oreste, that’s not gonna…”
“Oops, gotta go, another call coming in,” Pax lied while making a fist and rotating it downward in a ‘hang up’ gesture. Murphy’s image dissolved, but as Pax began to look at the next document in line, he realized the last thing he felt like doing was dealing with was his inbox. What was the point, anyway? Unless that morning’s testing produced a miracle, he would be out on his ass in a week or two. “Clear display,” he said.
The virtual world disappeared, and sunlight flooded his eyes. The UV’s eye sensor detected the sudden constriction of Pax’s pupils, and a tiny electric current was immediately applied to the polycarbonic resin on the exterior surface of his UV’s lenses to shade them. The lenses were encased in cobalt blue amorphous aluminum frames which connected to temples that ran down both sides of his head. The temples bowed outward slightly over his ears before continuing to the back of his head, their tips connected in a perpetual magnetic kiss. Microscopic servo motors on the inside of the bulge in each temple had optimized the angle and depth of insertion of two elasticone earbuds into Pax’s ear canals. Three millimeters of spongy Durafoam lined the underside of the metal to keep it from chafing his skin.
Inside the car were five other seats, all of them empty. The audio preprocessor in Pax’s UV was set to “Focus” mode, which automatically removed irrelevant environmental noises such as the hum of the electric engine and the drone of the tires on the road. The result was a crypt-like silence that made the real world seem like the false one. Looking ahead out the right-side windows, he saw the tops of a clump of several buildings in the distance. They stood clearly above the buildings surrounding them, and text displayed beneath them in his UV display read “Omnitech World Headquarters - 1.9 mi. | 5 minutes.”
A glance to the right identified the car nearest him as containing “Agent Roger Walton, Omnitech Security.” Pax’s mFarad, along with the eight Omnitech security vehicles surrounding it, was ensconced in an endless latticework of self-driving vehicles on the freeway, their positions all coordinated in real time by the California Transportation Monitoring Service. Pax was one of a very small number of people whose public status granted him priority over other riders and supported deviating from the positioning criteria the CTMS normally used, in order to accommodate his accompaniment by private security.
As Pax looked at the Omnitech campus he wondered how many more times he would make this drive as CEO. He tried once again to wrap his mind around the manifest unjustness of a reality in which a sniveling snot like Morgan Granville could ooze his way into a position of being able to wrest control of Pax’s company from him. His company, that he had created, based on his invention.
Never mind that the preceding 37 quarters represented a corporate ascendancy so breathtaking the fiscal punditry had exhausted all superlatives in their attempts to characterize it. Never mind that in less than a decade Omnitech had become the most profitable company of all time, with an annual net income of more than $100 billion. No, all Wall Street cared about was Omnitech had missed it numbers for three quarters in a row, and now here he was, about to be told to walk the plank.
A positive result on the testing for Project Simon was his only real chance to win enough support to hold off Granville and his minions. But harboring such a hope, he knew, was nothing more than a sign of how desperate his situation had become. His friend Cevis had succinctly summarized the problem the last time they had met. “The truth is, Oreste,” Cevis had said, in his typical flat monotone, “although what you are trying to accomplish with Project Simon is very impressive, it’s still fundamentally an add-on to the Univiz itself.”
If it had been anyone other than Cevis, Pax would have told them to piss off and go integrate a brain-computer interface with a Univiz themselves if they thought it was so damned easy. But Cevis was a polymath who knew more about most fields of science than almost any expert in those fields. Pax had relied heavily on Cevis’ advice ever since they’d become friends in college, and he needed his help now more than ever.
Plus, as always, Cevis was right. Although the Univiz had rendered desktop and mobile computers obsolete almost overnight, everything Pax and Omnitech had done since then had been an extension of the massive ecosystem that had sprung up around it. Project Simon’s goal was to enable people to interact faster with a Univiz through a combination of sight and thought, rather than sight with gestures or voice. But while it sounded cool, the team working on it had predicted at most a 15-20 percent increase in the speed of interaction. Pax knew Wall Street well enough to know that improvements in efficiency weren’t going to appease a group of unhappy investors, especially when the solution required brain surgery.
Pax thought back to the first time he’d seen a BCI in action at a tech conference a year and a half earlier. The former first chair violin for the London Philharmonic, who had lost both of her arms in a car accident a year earlier, played a solo from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons using two robotic arms and a BCI from a hot startup called CortiTrak. He had immediately felt there was some sort of kinetic potential in a UV-BCI integration he couldn’t quite articulate. But the last time he’d had a similar feeling was when he’d come up with the design for the original Univiz. Omnitech had purchased CortiTrak three months later.
The test that morning would be the first attempt to have people use the BCI to control objects in a Univiz virtual environment. A reasonable expectation would be for it to take two to three years to integrate the two systems effectively, if it could be done at all. But he was out of time. He needed his hunch to materialize into something now.
But the memory injected Pax with a sliver of hope. “Resume dashboard!” he barked.
The sunlight dissipated, and two identical clouds of miniaturized graphics displayed on the inside of the lenses of Pax’s Univiz once again. The images were radially offset from the centerline of each pupil by 1.25 millimeters and refreshed at 2,000 Hz, once again fooling his stereoscopically predisposed brain into perceiving them as a single three-dimensional environment. The audio processor switched to 360-degree SupraReal audio synchronized to within 0.05 milliseconds of the display, and Pax was immersed in the aurocular confines of the virtual world once more.
He began gesturing rapidly with his fingers and thumbs. Every flick, tap, and swipe was captured by pinhole camera lenses on the front of the UV and translated instantly into actions. Today he deleted or delegated everything, even though he knew he was hopelessly overloading several of the people on his senior leadership team. But today he had no choice.
Not two minutes later, however, he was interrupted again by another doodoodoo. For a moment Pax felt a surge of anger that Gabe hadn’t realized he didn’t want to be disturbed. But when the image of a man with a dour face appeared in his display, his mood changed to one of relief. “Accept call,” he said. After another doodeep he cleared his throat again and said, “Hello, Cevis.”