Isis, p.1Matt Sayer
By Matt Sayer
Copyright 2014 Matt Sayer
Silence. The voice of emptiness. A lonely whisper ever present, lurking beneath all Grayl’s attempts to dispel it. Music, movies, videogames: they offered but temporary reprieve from the reality that had haunted him for so many years now. Alone, running in a hamster wheel of unrewarding routine, stuck in a job that made dung farming seem mentally stimulating. There’d probably be less shit involved, too.
Sometimes he felt like he had spent his entire life going nowhere at the speed of light, watching friends and family find purpose in chasing dreams. In contrast, the loftiest ambitions he could conjure were fantasy and happenstance: winning the lottery or discovering some heretofore unknown superpower in himself that would elevate him above his mundane existence and into a life of unfettered pleasure.
Even he had to admit they were pretty naive notions. But, with twenty-six years of experience behind him, Grayl was just too set in his ways to change now. And he was happy, for the most part. Well, content at least. Maybe life wasn’t perfect, maybe his lack of aspiration really was luring him to an unmarked grave, as his mother had so lovingly put it. But what could he do about it now? Two decades on cruise control wasn’t something you could switch off overnight. It would involve completely reprogramming his life: finding a new job, giving up or at least limiting his time spent slothing it on the couch, going out and socialising with—urgh—strangers. He’d have to abandon his whole least-effort approach and start taking care of himself, probably cleaning his apartment more than once every six months and changing his diet from instant gratification to something that wouldn’t fill him up with shame thirty minutes later.
So much work. Even just the thought of it exhausted Grayl to his very core. And would it even achieve anything? Past attempts at ‘fixing’ his life had resulted in a fat load of nothing. Worse than that, they had made Grayl even more miserable. Job rejections—We’re looking for someone with a little more...passion—shunned social circles—We didn’t invite you because, well, you’re kind of a buzz killer—a thrice-used exercise bike buried beneath several layers of crusted clothes in the laundry. Failure only made it harder to try again. And really, he already knew what the outcome would be. He’d have better luck sitting around and waiting for a miracle to knock at his door...
The inquiring eyes tracked up from the digital clipboard to meet his own. More than the obvious question lurked behind those pale emerald moons, but a lifetime of awkward introductions had equipped Grayl with an ample supply of witty repartees.
“Yeah, my parents were big fans of Monty Python,” Grayl replied sarcastically, a sly smile stealing across his lips.
The pools of jade opposite him cracked amidst hearty laughter, the ice shattered in one fell swoop. Grayl’s tendency to poke fun at himself never failed to endear.
Grayl pulled the front door of his apartment fully open and waved in the two deliverymen. He didn’t need to ask them who they were, didn’t even need to glance at the logo on their uniforms; he had been eagerly anticipating this day for weeks now. Besides, if it had been one of his usual deliveries from Amazon or some other site, they would have just knocked and left it outside his door. He always made sure to leave the ‘Signature Required?’ box unchecked.
The primary deliveryman, older and considerably more well-fed than his partner, took a moment to survey the entry of the sizable apartment before spinning on his heels and handing the clipboard to Grayl.
“Rightio, sign here please.”
Grayl took the clipboard and briefly skimmed the delivery receipt and grandiose liability waiver. He had already agreed to a novel’s worth of legal mumbo-jumbo when he applied for participation in the beta, and the subscript paragraphs here reiterated the various rights he had signed away. All EULAs followed the same template these days anyway: bloated lists of edge cases and ridiculous hypotheticals designed to prevent intrepid conmen from exploiting loopholes to bleed a company to bankruptcy.
He traced his looping signature across the digital pad.
“Beauty!” The heavyset deliveryman clapped his hands together enthusiastically. “Alright Sammy, let’s get this thing set up!”
The other deliveryman, Sammy, stepped back outside and rolled a long steel dolly into the apartment. Cardboard boxes ranging in size from Rubik’s cubes to a slightly engorged pizza box were stacked like a wooden block puzzle pieces on top of the squeaking dolly.
Once inside, the boxes were quickly disassembled, unveiling a vast array of shiny gadgets. Grayl fought back the temptation to dive into the mass of sleek, glimmering technology, and left the experts to finish unpacking the bubble wrap while he watched on like a kid at someone else’s birthday party.
Oh well. He’d only mess things up anyway. His dexterous typing fingers were wont to become limp sausages when operating a screwdriver or a power tool, and his digitally honed reflexes seemed to vanish entirely whenever he tried to hammer a nail or pry apart a malfunctioning device. Sure, he’d had no trouble setting up his wireless network or his home entertainment system, but those had involved nothing more complex than connecting a few cables and paging through an installation manual.
The technical foundations of mechanics and engineering had always eluded Grayl’s comprehension, a fact that chewed at his ego yet never prevented him from enjoying the bounty of technology. Systems nowadays were usually designed for the lowest common denominator, anyway.
As he watched, the two deliverymen carefully divided the feast of technology into separate categories: wide-lens cameras, compact black matchboxes, partially-exposed circuit boards with multi-coloured cables dangling like the entrails of a rainbow. Though unfamiliar with much of it, he inferred its purpose from size, shape, and his recall of the capabilities that iSYS touted.
Those are probably the motion sensors, those would be the infrared sensors, and I’d say that’s a temperature sensor given the small LCD display. I wonder what all those black pillboxes are for though…
Once the equipment had been neatly segregated, the two technicians set about mounting the cameras at vertex points in each room of the apartment, sans the bathroom—seeing his flabby, paunchy body reflected in the mirror each morning was bad enough for Grayl’s self-esteem; he didn’t need a camera scanning every inch of his pasty flesh too.
After the cameras had been set and tested, the technicians scooped up a handful of the black pillboxes and split off to separate rooms of the apartment. Grayl moved into the kitchen with the first technician, observing him keenly as he unplugged the coffee machine from the wall outlet and flicked a toggle on the black box, exposing a pass-through socket. He plugged the coffee machine into the pass-through, then the pass-through into the wall, creating a power flow regulator. He pulled out his phone and poked at it, nodding with apparent satisfaction.
Grayl knotted his fingers together in barely-contained excitement.
Man, this is going to be so awesome! I still can’t believe they picked me!
The technician moved on to installing activation triggers for the individual controls on the coffee machine. Grayl wondered—not for the first time—whether his selection into the beta had been based on him meeting specific criteria, or whether it had all been Lady Luck’s doing.
The competition entry page on the iSYS website had been singularly vague regarding that topic, neglecting to mention on what basis the one thousand beta participants would be chosen. Nor, after the contest had closed, did iSYS reveal how many people had actually applied for the beta. Grayl expected the number to be somewhere in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions. He had stumbled across the competition on the ever-popular gaming site Kotaku, w
For the first time in his life, Grayl would be privy to the very bleeding-edge of consumer technology, a meagre ambition he had secretly held ever since high-school mechanics class. He could still recall with vivid clarity the moment he had traded a life of creation for one of consumption.
Year 9. Standing up the front of the mechanics lab, shuffling his feet and avoiding the skewering eyes of his watching classmates. Mr Collins holding up Grayl’s splintered abomination of a motorised car to the rest of the class.
“Grayl, this is the single most incompetent display of fundamental mechanics that I have ever seen. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust you to build a wall out of Lego.”
An explosion of hot laughter whipping Grayl’s face and drawing tears from his eyes. Ridicule. Humiliation. Never again.
But Grayl had made peace with his (in)abilities long ago. Surrounding himself with Smart TVs and programmable fridges, iPads and iPods, NAS boxes and surround sound speakers and Alienware gaming PCs kept him content. Surfing the wave of technological progress was just as satisfying as being the wind that drove it onwards.
In fact, it was this creative complacency that had led to his current employment in possibly the most oppressively mundane career in existence: financial reporting.
Year-to-date taxable income and lists of feasible deductions, recent and predicted interest-rate fluctuations, revenue distributions from multiple share portfolios; all of it dressed down as reams upon reams of monotonous figures, so horrendously mind-numbing that Grayl often found the numbers undulating before his weary eyes. If he was lucky, a report would require a line-chart—or, god forbid, a pie-chart—to serve as immediate gratification for sales targets obtained, but even those were painfully bland in their colourless greyscale.
As such, when Outlook popped up a tiny email notification in the corner of his computer screen, Grayl had pounced on it as an oasis of distraction in the desert of lifeless numbers. All dolorous thoughts of symbols and figures were forgotten as his eyes scanned over the first paragraph of the message.
Congratulations! Your application for the beta phase of the iSYS Adaptive Care System (ACS) has been successful! Very soon, you will be privy to an experience man has dreamt of since the dawn of the computer age. No longer are we limited to technology that merely facilitates our needs; here at iSYS we have taken the next step and developed a system that predicts and pre-empts your desires, even before you’re aware of them!
The email went on to describe the specific capabilities and current limitations of the revolutionary smart-home system, as well as listing the pertinent details of Grayl’s imminent delivery and installation. The beta phase would last for eight weeks, after which his feedback would be collected and combined with the system’s comprehensive logs to help direct the final stage of development. As reward for his valuable contribution, Grayl would receive a complimentary install of the final product, come release.
Grayl’s heart fluttered in giddy anticipation as he watched the older deliveryman test the remote activation switches he had just finished installing on the toaster. He tapped a command into his phone and two slices of untoasted bread launched skyward, snatched out of the air at the last minute and carefully placed back into the open bag of bread sitting on the kitchen bench. Nodding to himself, he shifted his attention to the fridge.
Without warning, the piercing whine of electric machinery erupted from the other side of the apartment. Grayl rushed out of the kitchen, confusion twisting his face into an abstract Picasso painting. He barrelled down the hall and skidded to a halt in the living room doorway.
The younger technician stood beside the couch, drilling screws into a metal mounting bracket on the wall. The whine of the electric drill faded, and the technician tested the stability of the bracket with a two-handed chokehold grip. Grunting his approval, he lifted a large rectangular screen and clipped it into place, jostling it until it too had been deemed stable.
With a swipe of his hand the technician brought life to the screen. Grayl carefully edged around the picnic of naked hardware still spread across the floor to get a closer look. The iSYS logo—two half-moons book-ending the blue eye of a camera lens—glowed briefly before the screen exploded in a bloom of vibrant colour, rainbow fragments coalescing into a menu of bouncing bubbles.
Grayl sidled up next to the technician and peered excitedly at the display.
The terminal flashed through the menu options in a seizure-inducing slideshow of fathomless splendour. He caught glimpses of weather forecasts, a map interface with a sidebar of traffic conditions, and a dense wall of text he recognised as a system log. The technician finally settled on a split-screen view of video feeds from the cameras they had just installed.
By tapping various icons in a row on the bottom of the screen, the technician cycled the feeds through a range of visual filters: infrared, ultra-violet, high-contrast, and one that looked like something from an animation studio, with stick figures superimposed over Grayl and the two deliverymen, aping their movements without a hint of processing lag.
After several minutes spent switching between the camera feeds and a dense log of impenetrable techno-jargon, the technician stepped aside and motioned for Grayl to take the helm. With a few directions here and there, he steered Grayl through the system interface, showing him how to tap into each of its mechanical senses: seeing what it saw, hearing what it heard, even reading pseudo-code summaries of its control logic.
They plunged deep into the system’s configuration settings, exposing the individual parameters that drove its behaviour: a mind-bogglingly comprehensive list of options for the physical and mental characteristics of registered and non-registered users, their hobbies and interests, typical nuts-and-bolts system preferences, and much, much more.
“Hey, these are all blank.” Grayl frowned. “I’m not going to have to go through and set each one manually, am I?”
“No, no,” the technician chuckled. “The initialisation wizard will take care of most of ‘em, and the behavioural profile will build itself as it gets to know your routine. Which reminds me: try to use the touch screen on this thing as little as possible. The system’s designed for voice control, and the more you talk to it, the better it’ll get at parsing your speech into actionable commands.”
“Talk to it?” A swarm of butterflies buffeted Grayl’s stomach. “Uhh, okay…”
“Ah, it’s easy,” said the technician, noticing Grayl’s nerves. “Here, I’ll show you.”
The technician beckoned Grayl to follow and led the way down the hall to the kitchen, stopping in front of the lone window overlooking a sunburnt carpark.
“Kitchen window, maximum opacity.”
The window pane shimmered, fading to black like an LCD activating power-saver mode.
Grayl’s eyes lit up and he whistled appreciatively. The transition completed and darkness swallowed the kitchen, but it did not linger. Grayl couldn’t help himself; he lifted his head to the ceiling and issued his own command.
“Kitchen window, maximum transparency!”
The window flitted back to its former panorama of mundane cityscape, basking the room in an amber glow. Grayl grinned excitedly, biting back the torrent of other commands screaming to be tested. He wanted an empty apartment before he indulged his every geeky, sci-fi-driven urge.
The technician cleared his throat. “Of course, once you’ve run through the setup wizard, it will only take direct voice commands from you. If you want to authorise other users, you’ll have to run them through the wizard too.”
Afternoon came and went, and the sky outside darkened to the blueberry hue of early evening. The technicians continued to fit and test the various system components, working with a breezy confidence that Grayl couldn’t help but envy. Eventually, they attached the last of the
“And here’s the manual override switch,” said the older man, pointing to a pinhole button camouflaged into the top hinge. “Just in case ya suffer a blackout longer than the backup battery can handle.”
“Or if the system crashes,” suggested Grayl.
The two technicians looked at each other and laughed.
“Not bloody likely, mate. Our internal installations have been running on 100% uptime over the last six months. And that includes firmware updates and network reboots.”
“Wow,” said Grayl. “Uhh, that’s impressive.”
He thanked the two technicians for their service, and they packed up their tools and rolled the dolly out the front door. Smiling eagerly, he waited for the lift doors at the end of the hall to clatter shut behind them before stepping back inside.
With a rocket-powered spring in his step, he skipped over to the terminal touch screen and tapped on the notification icon the technician had indicated, calling up the initialisation wizard. A warm melody greeted him.
“Welcome,” sung a soothing female voice.
“Awesome,” Grayl whispered reverentially.
A splash screen popped up, reminding him to vocalise his responses as much as possible so the system could start building his speech profile. Apparently, the subtle patterns and nuances in his voice were as unique as his fingerprints and as telling as the words themselves.
He advanced through the wizard with practiced ease. Basic details like gender, age, and address gave way to questions of favourite past-times and preferred cuisine, progressing on to employment information and educational accolades. There was even a section utilising the ten point agree/disagree scale, presenting a collection of odd statements regarding morals and ethics with no obvious relevance.
With the survey complete, the system prompted him to link his social media accounts. He entered his credentials for Facebook, Twitter, and a few other networks he had not yet abandoned. Voice-controlled tweeting wasn’t exactly new—Grayl had used his phone to dictate tweets on occasion—but that didn’t make the prospect of live-tweeting videogame and movie marathons without lifting a finger seem any less futuristic.
Isis by Matt Sayer / Science Fiction have rating 4.5 out of 5 / Based on18 votes