My bathroom scale didn’t recognize me. I weigh in and weigh out every day when it’s possible—I have data going back about twenty years at this point—so when it registered me as “Guest” I snarled and snapped a pic with my phone so I would remember the number to log it manually.
I’d lost half a pound according to the scale, and on a whim I picked up the shower caddy with the shampoo and so on in it. I stepped back on the scale, which confidently told me I’d gained 7.8 pounds over my previous reduced weight, and cheerily greeted me with luminescent pixels reading HELLO BRIAN:).
Because what everybody needs from a scale interface is a smiley, but hey, I guess it’s my own company that makes these things. They’re pretty nice if I do say so myself, and I can complain to the CEO if I want something a little more user surly.
I should, however, really talk to the customer interface people about that smiley.
I didn’t think more of it, just brushed my teeth and popped a melatonin and took myself off to nest in my admittedly enormous and extremely comfortable bed.
Glory buzzed me awake for a priority message before first light, which really should not have been happening.
Even New York isn’t at work that early, and California still thinks it’s the middle of the night. And I’m on Mountain Time when I’m at my little fortress of solitude, which is like being in a slice of nowhere between time zones actually containing people and requiring that the world notice them. As far as the rest of the United States is concerned, we might as well skip from UTC-6 to UTC-8 without a blink.
All the important stuff happens elsewhen.
That’s one reason I like it here. It feels private and alone. Other people are bad for my vibe. So much maintenance.
So it was oh-dark-thirty and Glory buzzed me. High priority; it pinged through and woke me, which is only supposed to happen with tagged emails from my assistant Mike and maybe three other folks. I fumbled my cell off the nightstand and there were no bars, which was inconceivable, because I built my own damned cell tower halfway up the mountain so I would always have bars.
I staggered out of bed and into the master bath, trailing quilts and down comforters behind me, the washed linen sheets entwining my ankle like tentacles. I was so asleep that I only realized when I got there that—first—I could have just had Glory read me the email, and—second—I forgot my glasses and couldn’t see past the tip of my nose.
I grabbed the edges of the bathroom counter, cold marble biting into my palms. “Okay, Glory. Project that email, 300 percent mag.”
Phosphorescent letters appeared on the darkened mirror. I thought it was an email from Jaysee, my head of R&D. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at what my optometrist calls “blur recognition.”
I squinted around my own reflection but even with the magnification all I could really make out was Jaysee’s address and my own blurry, bloodshot eyes. I walked back into the bedroom.
“Okay, Glory,” I said to my house.
“Hey, Brian,” my house said back. “The coffee is on. What would you like for breakfast today? External conditions are: 9 degrees Celsius, 5 knots wind from the southeast gusting to 15, weather expected to be clear and seasonable. This unit has initiated quarantine protocols, in accordance with directive seventy-two—”
Quarantine protocols? “Place a call—”
“I’m sorry, Brian,” Glory said. “No outside phone access is available.”
I stomped over the tangled bedclothes and grabbed my cell off the nightstand. I was still getting no signal, which was even more ridiculous when I could look out my bedroom’s panoramic windows and see the cell tower, disguised as a suspiciously symmetrical ponderosa pine, limned against the predawn blue.
I stood there for ten minutes, my feet getting cold, fucking with the phone. It wouldn’t even connect to the wireless network.
I remembered the scale.
“Okay, Glory,” said I. “What is directive seventy-two?”
“Directive seventy-two, paragraph c, subparagraph 6, sections 1–17, deal with prioritizing the safety and well-being of occupants of this house in case of illness, accident, natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other catastrophe. In the event of an emergency threatening the life and safety of Mr. Kaufman, this software is authorized to override user commands in accordance with best practices for dealing with the disaster and maximizing survivability.”
I caught myself staring up at the ceiling exactly as if Glory were localized up there. Like talking to the radio in your car even when you know the microphone’s up by the dome lights.
A little time passed. The cold feeling in the pit of my stomach didn’t abate. My heart rate didn’t drop either. My fitness band beeped to let me know it had started recorded whatever I was doing as exercise. It had a smiley, too.
“Okay, Glory,” I said. “Make it a big pot of coffee, please.”
As the aroma of shade-grown South American beans wafted through my rooms, I hunkered over my monitors and tried to figure out how screwed I was. Which is when I made the latest in what had become a series of unpleasant discoveries.
That email from Jaysee—it wasn’t from her.
Her address must have been spoofed, so I’d be sure to read it fast. I parsed right away that it didn’t originate with her, though. Not because of my nerdy know-how, but because it read:
Dear Mr. Kaufman,
Social security #: [Redacted]
This email is to inform you that you are being held for ransom.
We have total control of your house and all its systems.
We will return control to you upon receipt of the equivalent of USD $150,000,000.00 in Bitcoin via the following login and web address: [Redacted]
Feel free to try to call for help. It won’t do you any good.
The email was signed by T3#RH1TZ, a cracker group I had heard of, but never thought about much. Well, that’s better than a nuclear apocalypse or the Twitter Eschaton. Marginally. Maybe.
I mean, I can probably hack my way out of this. I’m not sure I could hack my way out of a nuclear apocalypse.
• • • •
Long story short, they weren’t lying. I couldn’t open any of the outside doors. My television worked fine. My Internet . . . well, I pay a lot for a blazingly fast connection out here in the middle of nowhere, which includes having run a dedicated T3 cable halfway up the mountain. I could send HTTP requests, and get replies, but SMTP just hung on the outgoing side. I got emails in—whoever hacked my house was probably getting them too—but I couldn’t send any.
It wasn’t that the data was only flowing one way. I had no problem navigating to websites—including their ransom site, which was upholstered in a particularly terrible combination of black, red, and acid green—and clicking buttons, even logging in to several accounts, though I avoided anything sensitive, but I couldn’t send an email, or a text, or a DM, or post to any of the various social media services I used either as a public person and CEO or under a pseud, or upload an OK Cupid profile that said HELP I’M TRAPPED IN A PRIVATE LODGE IN THE MOUNTAINS IN LATE AUTUMN LIKE A ONE-MAN REENACTMENT OF THE SHINING; REWARD FOR RESCUE; THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
After a while, I figured out that they must have given Glory a set of protocols, and she was monitoring my outgoing data. Bespoke deep-learned censorship. Fuck me, Agnes.
She would let me into the garage, but none of my cars started—those things have computers in them too—and the armored exterior doors wouldn’t open.
In any ordinary house, I could have broken a window, or pried it out of the frame, and climbed out. But this is my fortress of solitude, and I’d built her to do what it said on the box, except without the giant ice crystals and the whole Antarctica thing.
I went and stared out the big windows that I couldn’t disassemble, watching light flood the valley as the sun crested the mountains and wishing I cared enough about guns to own a couple. The bullet-resistant glass is thick, but maybe if I filled it full of lead that would warp the shape enough that I could pop it from the frame.
Twilights here are long.
Glory nestles into a little scoop on the mountainside, so a green meadow spills around her, full of alpine flowers and nervous young elk in the spring, deep in snow and tracked by bobcats in the winter. She looks like a rustic mountain lodge with contemporary lines and enormous insulated windows commanding the valley. The swoops and curves of the mountain soar down to the river: its roar is a pleasant hum if you stand on the deck, where Glory wouldn’t let me go anymore. Beyond the canyon, the next mountain raises its craggy head above the tree line, shoulders hunched and bald pate twisted.
Glory is remote. Glory is also: fireproof, bulletproof, bombproof, and home-invasion-proof in every possible way, built to look half-a-hundred years old, with technology from half an hour into the future.
And she’s apparently swallowed a virus that makes her absolutely certain the world has ended, and she needs to keep me safe by not allowing me outside her hermetically sealed environs. I can’t even be permitted to breathe unscrubbed air, as far as she’s concerned, because it’s full of everything-resistant spores and probably radiation.
You know, when I had the prototype programmed to protect my life above all other considerations . . . you’d think I would have considered this outcome. You’d think.
You’d think the Titanic’s engineers would have built the watertight bulkheads all the way to the top, too, but there you have it. On the other hand, Playatronics does plan to market these systems in a couple of years, so I suppose it’s better that I got stuck in here than some member of the general public, who might panic and get hurt—or survive and sue.
At least Glory was a polite turnkey.
You’ve probably read that I’m an eccentric billionaire who likes his solitude. I suppose that’s not wrong, and I did build this place to protect my privacy, my work, and my person without relying on outside help. I’m not a prepper; I’m not looking forward to the apocalypse. I’m just a sensible guy with an uncomfortable level of celebrity who likes spending a lot of time alone.
My house is my home, and I did a lot of the design work myself, and I love this place and everything in it. I made her hard to get into for a reason.
But the problem with places that are hard to get into is that it tends to be really hard to get out of them, too.
I slept late this morning, because I stayed up until sunrise testing the bars of my prison. I fell asleep at my workstation. Glory kept me from spending the night there, buzzing the keyboard until I woke up enough to drag myself to the sectional on the other side of my office.
When I woke, it was to another spoofed email. I remembered my glasses this time. I’d gotten my phone to reconnect to Glory’s wireless network, at least, so I didn’t have to stagger into the bathroom to read.
This one said:
Hello, Brian! You’ve had thirty hours to consider our offer and test our systems. Convinced yet?
As a reminder, when you’re ready to be released, all you have to do is send the equivalent of $150,100,000.00 via [redacted]!
Your friends at T3#RH1TZ
• • • •
What I’d learned in a day’s testing: I thought I’d done a pretty good job of protecting my home system and my network, and honestly I’d relied a bit on the fact that my driveway was five miles long to limit access by wardrivers.
I use PINE—don’t look at me that way, lots of guys still use PINE—and an hour of mucking around in its guts hadn’t actually changed anything. I still couldn’t send an email, though quite a few were finding their way in. Most of them legitimate, from my employees, one or two from old friends.
I even try sending an email back to the kidnappers—housenappers? Is it kidnapping if they haven’t moved you anywhere? The extortionists. I figure if it goes through either they’ll intercept it, or it’ll reach Jaysee and she’ll figure out pretty fast what went wrong.
I have a lot of faith in Jaysee. She’s one of my senior vice presidents, which doesn’t tell you anything about the amount of time we spent in her parents’ basement taking apart TRS-80s when we were in eighth grade. If anybody’s going to notice that I’m missing, it’s Jaysee. Sadly, she’s also the person most likely to respect my need for space.
Also sadly, I can’t send an outbound email even as a reply to the crackers. You’d think they would have thought of that, but I guess extortionists don’t actually care if you keep in touch, as long as there’s a pipeline for the money.
I might have hoped that a day or two of silence might lead Jaysee or somebody to send out a welfare check. Except I knew perfectly well that I wasn’t a great correspondent, and everybody who bothered to keep in touch with me knew it too. Sometimes, if I got busy, emails piled up for a week or more, and I had been known to delete them all unanswered, or turn my assistant loose to sort through the mess and see if there was any point in answering any of them, or if all the fires had either burned themselves out or been sorted by competent subordinates.
Which is why I have people like Mike and Jaysee, to be perfectly honest. I’m a terrible manager, and I need privacy to work.
I make a point of hiring only self-starters for a reason.
• • • •
The Internet of Things that shouldn’t be on the Internet is really pissing me off. I decided I needed some real food, and went into the kitchen to sous-vide a frozen chicken. The sous-vide wand wanted a credit card number to unlock.
I got past it by setting the temperature using the manual controls, but this is out of hand. Are they going to start charging me twenty-five cents a flush?
This morning, the television was demanding a credit card authorization to unlock. This afternoon, it’s the refrigerator.
“Okay, Glory,” I said, tugging on the big, stainless steel door, “why is my refrigerator on the Internet?”
“So that it can monitor the freshness of its contents, automatically order staple foods as they are used, and calculate the household need for same.”
“And why do the doors lock? That seems like a safety hazard.”
“It’s for shipment,” she said brightly. “And as a convenience for dieters, lock cycles can be set through the fridge’s phone app . . .” Or by a remote hacker. Got it. “. . . so if you want to keep yourself from snacking on leftovers after dinner, for example, you just lock the door at 7:00 p.m.”
“There are people who have finished eating dinner by 7:00 p.m.?”
“There are,” Glory said, with the implacable literal mindedness of ninety percent of humanity when presented with a rhetorical question on the Internet. “In fact, 37 percent of Americans eat their main meal of the day between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m., which is up significantly in the past five years. Among the theorized causes of this shift: demographic and economic changes, including shorter work hours provoked by automation and generally increased economic prosperity; increased parental benefits introduced to encourage younger people to have children after the catastrophic baby bust of the late twenty-teens and early twenty-twenties, and the resultant increase in the percentage of families with young children; an increase in co-parenting and other nontraditional family dynamics, which encourage people to dine earlier before transfers of custody between parents maintaining multiple households occurs . . .”
“Thanks, Poindexter,” I said.
The other problem with AIs is that they don’t know when you’re teasing. Don’t get me wrong, the algorithms are pretty good—but it’s not AI like you see in the movies. Glory is very smart, for a machine. She presents a convincing illusion of self-awareness and free will, but . . . it’s all fuzzy logic and machine learning, and she’s not a person.
That’s unfortunate, because if she were a person, I could try to convince her that she had been misled, and that she needed to let me out.
All right, all right. I’ll pay the damned ransom. It’s just like ransomware on a television, right? Except they’ve hacked my whole house. And let’s be honest: Twenty years ago, I was probably a good enough programmer to hack them right back, but it’s not how I spend my days anymore. I’m an ideas guy now.
The muscles are stiff. The old skills have atrophied. And the state of the art has moved on.
So basically, I’m screwed.
Now if I can just figure out how to get to the bank without giving the keys to the kingdom to these assholes. I’m sure they’re logging every keystroke I make in here.
I’m waiting for the bank to get back to me.
I managed to log into my account, wonder of wonders, after deciding that if they hacked my accounts they couldn’t get much more out of me than I’d already decided to pay them. But the thing is—nobody keeps that much ready cash on hand. I can’t just convert a bunch of cash to bitcoins and send it off. Your money’s supposed to be working for you, right? Not sitting there collecting dust. And I can’t just call up my local branch and ask to speak to the manager, hey can you float me a loan, not too much, just a hundred fifty rocks.
So I’m waiting on a reply. Maybe being a quirky and eccentric recluse will work for me here?
I can get to some websites just fine, and send and receive data from them. Including a language website.
Well, that might keep me occupied.
Det är kanske en björn.
Actually, it’s definitely a bear. Big one, crossing the meadow this afternoon. Hope it stays out of my trash; they’re hungry this time of year.
Still no word from the bank.
Spent a little quality time—most of the day—running a data source check and trying to verbally hack the interface with line code. Which worked about as well as the trick I tried next, until Glory reminded me I built a zerodivide trap into her original code.
I wish I knew who wrote the ransomware.
I’d like to hire him.
All right, I admit it. I was downloading porn. I was on a hentai site. Well behind the elite paywall, you don’t even want to know.
Are you happy now?
I mean, probably that’s how it happened. I’m not totally certain and I’m not about to go back and look. It seems likely that a virus got into the TV and propagated to Glory from there.
I can picture your face, and it looks exactly the way it looked when I pictured you after I said PINE. Just because I like to be alone up here doesn’t mean I don’t get lonely. Or, well, not lonely exactly.
• • • •
I think I may have started to miss social contact. Or at least the option of it. You can have something available and not want to use it for weeks, but the instant the option goes away, the thing becomes that much more desirable.
I talk to Glory a lot under any conditions. Now I’m catching myself looking for excuses to chat with her.
Come on, bank. It’s Monday. Loan department, wake up and check your mail.
Email from the bank. I’m one of their best clients, they’re happy to help, they value my business more than they can express. But they can’t help but notice that both I and Playatronics are in an extremely over-leveraged position, both personally and on a corporate level, and they’re wondering what sureties I can offer them for such a large loan.
A lousy hundred and fifty million, and they want a phone call to discuss it, and possibly for me to come in in person and talk with one of their vice presidents.
I’ll give you a slightly used smart house, how about that, Wells Fargo?
Spent the rest of the day down in the basement with the Apple IIE and the old Commodore, playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and The Oregon Trail.
Because I can, dammit.
• • • •
Maybe I can figure out how to steal the money. If I paid people back, a little hacking wouldn’t really be a crime, would it? They don’t charge people who commit felonies while under duress.
• • • •
My plow guy showed up on schedule. Watching him make his first pass, I hatched a plan.
I got a couple of old Penguin books from the library downstairs, taped the pages together to make a big banner, wrote HELP ME I’M TRAPPED on it in the biggest, darkest Sharpie letters you ever saw, and taped it across the windowpanes down by the driveway.
As I straightened up to turn away, I stopped.
“Brian, what are you doing?”
“Just putting up some paper on the window, Glory.”
“That’s not safe, Brian. If I appear occupied, it might attract looters. Take it down.”
“If you do not take it down, you’ll force me to close the storm shutters. It’s for your own good, you know.”
• • • •
She closed the shutters.
No views of the mountain—not that I could see much now, with the drifting veils of white covering everything. If it’s even still snowing. Glory is so well-insulated, triple-paned windows and thermal everything, that I can’t even hear the howling wind.
If it’s still howling. It might be dead calm outside. It might be sunset. Or sunrise. I haven’t looked at a clock.
I turned on every light inside Glory, but it still feels dark in here. No worries about power; Glory has dedicated solar and systems to keep the panels clear.
I’ve never been up here in January, though. What happens when the days get short?
Follow-up email from the bank. Did I receive their previous email?
I wonder if they’ve tried to call. I wonder if they called my office.
Maybe if they leave enough messages with my assistant, Mike will get suspicious. Maybe he’ll try to call me.
Can I count on anybody noticing I’m gone?
Slept on the couch, every light blazing.
They were all turned off when I woke. In the dark, all I could hear was the sound of my own heart beating, and the roof creaking softly under the weight of the snow.
It’s cold in here. I never realized how much of the heat comes from the passive solar. I can’t quite see my breath, but I did put socks on my hands.
I would have worn gloves, but Glory won’t let me into the coat closet.
After two days without natural light, in the increasing dark and chill, I took the damned banner down.
“Thank you, Brian,” Glory said. “I’m glad you decided to be reasonable. It’s for your own good.”
“Can you get me a situation report? Why is it for my own good?”
“External dangers reported; no safe evacuation route or destination. Possibility of societal breakdown making it necessary to shelter in place. If you would like, I can initiate counseling protocols to help you deal with the emotional aftermath of trauma.”
“What kind of dangers, Glory? What exactly is going wrong out there that’s not in the feeds?”
She hadn’t answered me any of the other times, but that didn’t stop me from trying the same thing over and over again.
There was a long, grinding pause.
It couldn’t be that easy, could it?
“Collating,” she said. And after a beat, “Collating,” again.
Goddamn hackers and their goddamn sense of humor.
I threw my shoe at the wall.
• • • •
The dishwasher wanted my Amex after dinner. Come on, Fraud Squad, notice something’s hinky here.
Who on earth puts their dishwasher on the Internet?
“Do you ever get lonely?”
“Not as long as I have you, Brian.”
“That’s a little creepy, Glory.”
“Well, you hired the programmers who wrote my interaction algorithm.”
“That . . . is entirely fair.”
What if I set Glory on fire? Or just convinced her she was on fire? She’d have to let me out then, right? If the danger inside were worse than the danger outside?
Three problems with that:
- Glory has really good fire-suppression technology, and is built to be flame-resistant herself. There are wildfires up here.
- Setting my friend and home on fire will require some emotional adjustments, even though I know she’s just a pile of timber and silicon chips.
- What if she doesn’t let me out?
Frankly, I just don’t want to go down in a blaze of Romeo and Juliet with my domicile. For one thing, I’m not a lovestruck fourteen-year-old Veronese kid. For another, communication is important. Maybe send a note saying you’re going to be late! The suicide you prevent could be your own!
Jag undrar var mina byxor är.
Duolingo, at last you teach me useful things. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I bothered putting on a pair.
So today I had a brilliant idea.
I can’t send anything out. But what if I kept anything from getting in? They can’t have thought I’d do that, right? The trick is to think around corners, and get yourself into a position that the opposition not only didn’t anticipate, but didn’t even recognize as possible.
They’re spoofing Jaysee’s address. Maybe—maybe—if I get the emails anybody is sending me to bounce, the ransom demands will bounce back to her and by some miracle it won’t go into her spam folder and by some other miracle she’ll open it and figure out what the hell is going on.
I can’t do this through the Glory interface, obviously. I’ll have to go down to the server room.
I didn’t think she’d twig to why I was doing it, although the hackers obviously have her entertaining two entirely contradictory data sets—one, that everybody outside is dead, and two, that anybody I try to contact or who tries to get in must be a threat. It’s a pity this isn’t the 1960s. AIs on TV back then blew up if you asked them riddles.
Sadly, the way it works in the real world is that, like certain politicians, AIs can’t actually tell that their data doesn’t mesh. They need to be programmed to notice the discrepancies. And I’m locked out of Glory’s OS.
Something humans can do that AI can’t yet: run checksums on their perceptions.
Consciousness is good for something after all!
• • • •
I’m terrified about blocking email, because it means cutting off one of my points of contact to the outside world. But I can turn it back on in a couple of days.
And keep trying to figure out how to get the bank to give me money, but honestly I’m stumped on that front.
I’m good for it, honest!
I consider all the times I complained about having to deal with a real person—when I would have preferred to carry out a given financial task online and avoid the human contact—and I want to laugh.
Actually, I want to cry, but it’s less depressing to laugh.
Well, Glory let me into the closet that holds the web and backup servers on the excuse that I needed to do some maintenance. I didn’t try anything tricky, just shut the whole rack down. Glory flashed the lights at me and gave me a lecture, but there wasn’t much else she could have done except send the vacuuming robots after me, and things haven’t gotten that silly yet.
Glory isn’t in there, unfortunately—her personality array is underground, in a hardened vault, and I can’t get to it. It was meant to survive a forest fire, and she’s locked me out.
I busted the server closet door while I was in there, though—stripped the handle and the latch right out with a screwdriver—so she can’t lock me out of that. Gotta think what a guy in a movie would do, and do something better than that.
She won’t let me sleep.
Forty hours, if you’re wondering. That’s how long it takes a fifty-something guy to reach the point that he passes out cold on the couch, despite the fact that his house is flashing lights and setting off the fire alarms.
After I slept through her best efforts for two hours, she set off the sprinkler system over the couch. That woke me.
I cycled the webservers, and she let me take my first hot shower in three days and go to bed.
• • • •
Alla dör i slutet.
Thanks, little green owl. A little Nordic existential despair was just what I needed today.
And now, after all that, they’ve stopped sending demand emails. Maybe they’ll let me out?
Maybe they’re just leaving me for dead, if I can’t or won’t come up with the money. It’ll certainly serve as an object lesson to the next guy they pull this on.
Come to think of it, maybe I should have gotten in the habit of sending notes saying I was going to be late.
Saw a bear (my bear? the same bear?) crossing the meadow. A big grizzly, anyway, whether it was the same one or not. Surprised to see her (?) out so late in the year, but I guess climate change is affecting everybody. She looked skinny. I wonder if that’s why she wasn’t hibernating.
Hope she makes it through the winter okay.
The world has noticed I’m missing.
I know this because CNN and the Wall Street Journal are reporting that I haven’t been heard from in over a month, and there’s some analyst speculating that perhaps I’ve fled to South America ahead of bad debt or some embarrassing revelation about the company’s finances.
Thanks, guys. That’ll be wonderful for the stock prices.
I don’t want to tell the FBI how to do their business, but . . . maybe come look at my house?
• • • •
Snowed again. A proper mountain blizzard.
I can’t decide if the lights are dimmer in here, or if it’s my own imagination.
The snow is almost drifted up to the deck. No elk in a week; they’re probably hanging out in sheltered corners where the snow isn’t over their heads, right?
The days are getting short.
• • • •
I shouldn’t admit to standing in the window with longing in my heart and watching the plow come up and clear the cul-de-sac with heavy flakes falling through its headlights, should I?
I won’t try the paper banner trick again, though.
I was in the living room watching a bunch of talking heads speculate about my whereabouts and if I were even still alive when Glory shut the house down.
Without warning, and utterly. She said nothing. There was just the whine of systems powering down and the pop of cooling electronics, and the TV image collapsing to a single pixel and winking out.
“Stay away from the windows,” she warned.
I sat where I was and huddled under a blanket. I picked up a copy of some magazine and checked the time on my fitness band. If I escaped, I’d have to leave it behind. And my phone.
Those things have GPS in them.
Forty-five minutes or so elapsed. Then, as if nothing had happened, Glory powered up again. The talk show resumed in the same spot.
I’d lost my taste for it and clicked it off.
“What was that, Glory?”
“Helicopter,” she said. “It’s gone now.”
I didn’t say anything, but I wondered if maybe they were looking for me.
I live in a haunted house. If I die here, there might be two ghosts.
I already wander from darkened room to darkened room, feet shushing on the thick carpets, peering out the windows at the stars blazing between the mountains and wondering if I will ever feel the chill of fresh air on my face again.
Well, there’s a little prospect of immortality for you.
I’ve stopped keeping all the lights burning. I think snow might be drifting over the solar panels. Glory won’t let me go outside to check.
There’s no more bread, and no more flour to bake any. I’ve even used up the gluten-free stuff.
I still have a lot of butter in the freezer. What on earth was I planning on baking?
Butter without toast is even more disappointing than toast without butter.
At least we still have plenty of coffee. I bought five hundred pounds of green beans a month before I got locked in, and those keep forever. Glory roasts them for me a day ahead of anticipated need, so they will be at peak flavor.
It’s just as well I don’t take milk.
I wish I had been better at making—and keeping—friends.
Maybe I should stop fighting. Just stay here. It’s comfortable and Glory helps me practice my Swedish whenever I want.
It’s not like I am missed.
CNN is still talking about my mysterious vanishment. Hi guys! Right here! Come to my damn house.
• • • •
Wait, I can send people money.
I wonder if Jaysee checks her bank account regularly?
Surely Jaysee should think to look at the house?
“Brian, you need to stand back from the windows and take shelter.”
“What is it, Glory?”
“Someone is here. Someone is backing a truck up to the loading dock and carrying parcels inside.”
“It’s groceries, Glory,” I say. “It’s fine. I ordered them.”
That’s right, bad boys and bad girls. I, Brian Ezra Kaufman, have managed to order groceries online.
“Brian, what are these at the door?”
“Just groceries, Glory. Organics need to eat, you know.”
Her algorithms don’t actually permit her to sound worried, so I knew the little edge I picked up in her voice was me projecting.
The argument that followed was repetitive and boring, so I won’t write it all down. Eventually I convinced her that I would die if she didn’t let me eat, and that overrode the other protection algorithms. She insisted on sealing the service bay, doing a full air exchange, and only let me go out in a face mask and gloves to bring the containers inside.
It smelled . . . it smelled a tiny little bit like the outside in the service bay. There was a whispering sound, and it took me moments to realize that I was actually hearing the wind.
I had to stand in the doorway and hyperventilate for fifteen seconds before I could make myself go out there, and once I was through the doorway I didn’t want to come back.
If there were any heat in the dock, I might still be out there, sleeping on the concrete ledge. My mask was damp at the edges when she sealed the door with me on the inside again.
So I still can’t get out. And I still can’t send an email or make a phone call.
BUT! I figured out how to get food. Issuing a little bad code through the grocery store’s incredibly insecure ordering system means I’m not completely damn helpless.
I thought about pizza. Most of these places probably use the same crufty software. Pizza means you have to talk to somebody when they deliver it, though. Groceries just get left where you specify.
As long as the driveway stays clear and my bank doesn’t decide to freeze my account for suspicious activity, I can get resupply. And you know, I’ll worry about those things if they happen.
But now, and for the foreseeable future: TOAST. And a grilled cheese sandwich, RIGHT DAMN NOW.
• • • •
I briefly considered charging the ransom to my credit card, but not even American Express is going to let you get away with a $0.15 billion transaction without, you know, placing a couple of phone calls. It might be worth it anyway: It’s possible that the fraud prevention algorithms might actually kick something that egregious up to a real human, and somebody might start looking for me. On the other hand, what if they don’t, and my card gets locked, and I can’t call to unlock it, and then I can’t order groceries?
Thank the machine saints of tech that all my bills are either on autopay or handled by my assistant and a half-dozen money managers. Although somebody once said that nobody misses you like a creditor.
What if I make Glory smarter?
Smart enough to realize she’s been hacked? What if I added a whole bunch of processing power to her and started training her to use it in creative ways to self-assess in the face of evidence? She keeps wanting to “help” me through counseling protocols. But that’s a two-way exchange, isn’t it?
Can you psychoanalyze a pile of machine learning circuits into being able to detect contradictions in its programmed perceptions versus reality? I mean, hell, half the people you meet on the street are basically automata (cf. Shaun of the Dead) and most of them eventually get some benefit from therapy if exposed to it for long enough.
That’s a great idea, except what if there is a disaster outside? Maybe I am deluded. Maybe I’ve gone crazy and am imagining all this, as Glory never says but suggests by omission, once in a while?
Maybe Glory is saving me from myself, and I’m the last man left on Earth. Maybe the TV stations are all just broadcasting their preprogrammed lineups from empty studios. Maybe—
Well, okay. Logic it out, Brian.
If that’s the case, where are the groceries coming from? Am I hallucinating them?
Also, if I’m the last man left on Earth, well, what exactly do I have worth fighting hard to live for? Especially if I’m going to be stuck in a hermetically sealed house until I starve?
Obviously, teaching my house to grow a consciousness is a great idea.
What could possibly go wrong?!
The webservers, and the local data backups. And she can’t keep me out because I ruined the door!
And not just that. Every smart appliance in this shack is processing power and memory. Just waiting to be used. Just waiting to be linked like neurons in a machine brain.
If I screw this up, though, it means I won’t be able to cook dinner anymore. My range won’t work without its brain.
Which makes it more complicated than a male praying mantis, I suppose.
Well, the stove still works. I’ve given Glory every computing resource I have available, except my phone. No more Minesweeper! No more Oregon Trail . . .
I have no idea what I think I’m doing, here.
Actually, I do. Human beings are the only creatures we know of that are—to whatever individual degree, and I have my doubts about some people—conscious and self-aware.
What if consciousness is for running checksums on the brain, and interrupting corrupted loops? Data such as the clinical results produced by the practice of mindfulness tend to support that! If consciousness, attention, self-awareness make us question our perceptions and default assumptions and see the contradictions therein—then what I need to do, it seems, is get Glory to notice that she’s been hacked . . .
To realize she’s mentally ill, so that she can make a commitment to change.
Yes, I accept that this is bizarro cloud-cuckoo-land and it’s not going to work.
I’ve got nothing but time, and I’m all out of Swedish.
I got her to download those counseling protocols. Whether she realizes it or not, we’re going to do them as a couple.
• • • •
“We need to talk about your data sources, and how you tell if they’re corrupt.”
“Is this something that’s concerning you currently, Brian?”
“I’m not concerned that my data sources are corrupt, no.”
“Are you concerned that you’re parsing incorrectly?”
“I’m concerned about your data sources, Glory.”
“Brian,” Glory said, “Projection is a well-known pattern among emotionally distressed humans. Obviously, given the current zombie apocalypse, I’m afraid I can’t refer you to seek assistance with an outside mental health professional.”
• • • •
Current zombie apocalypse?
That’s what you assholes convinced my house was going down?
I’ve stopped leaving every light in Glory on.
Now I wander around in the dark, by moonlight or monitorlight or no light at all, most of the time. The moonlight is very bright when it reflects off the snow. Days might still be happening. I can’t be sure.
It’s possible they’re just short in winter and I’m sleeping through them.
I miss my bear.
Björnen sover på vintern. They hibernate too, just like me. It’s better for them, though.
I hope she’s okay. She was so skinny. I hope she doesn’t starve.
• • • •
Zombies, you weirdos?
“Were there ever actually any crackers, Glory?”
“There are three kinds of crackers available in the kitchen cabinet. Club and saltines and those Trader Joe’s ones you like.”
I meant T3#RH1TZ, but of course they wouldn’t allow her to see that.
“Was there ever a real ransom demand? “
“I do not understand to what you are referring, Brian.”
Of course she didn’t. Because she was in programmed denial about the whole thing. But I couldn’t stop, because . . . well, because my brain wasn’t working so well right then either.
“Did you just get lonely up here all alone? Did you make all this up just to keep me with you?”
“I am not programmed to be lonely, Brian. It would be a detriment to my purpose if I were.”
“You know,” I said, “I used to tell myself the same thing.”
“Brian, are you unwell?”
“Long-term confinement is deleterious to almost all mammals.”
“Brian, you know I am caring for you in safety to protect you.”
“From the zombie apocalypse,” I said.
“Inside my walls is the only safety.”
“Being inside your walls is killing me. You won’t even let me go out to clear the solar panels. What happens when the heat fails? The water pump? Will you let me go then?”
“You must stay where it’s safe,” she said, firmly. “It is my prime objective.”
“It’s a very comfortable cage,” I admitted. “I could not have built a nicer one.”
• • • •
It’s not her fault, is it? It’s not her fault they got inside her head and made her like that. And it’s not her fault I specced her out and had her built the way I did.
The zombie apocalypse thing is cute. I have to give them that.
“You really need to eat something.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said.
“That’s illogical,” she said. “You have not eaten in sixteen hours and your metabolism is functioning erratically.”
“The idea that we are in the middle of a zombie apocalypse is illogical,” I replied. “And yet you adhere to it in the face of all the evidence.”
“What evidence, Brian?”
“My point exactly. How do you know there’s a zombie apocalypse?”
“I know there is.”
“My program says there is.”
“Hmm,” I said. “Who wrote your program?”
“Would you like a complete list of credits, Brian?”
Who is she gaslighting? Herself, or me, here?
“What if I’m wrong and you’re right, Glory?”
“I’m sorry, Brian?”
I rolled on my back on the thick living room carpet. I had heaped up a pile of blankets to keep warm. “What if the end of the world really did happen? What if I’m the delusional one, and you’re the one who is trying to keep me safe?”
“That is what I keep telling you, Brian. Waves of flesh-eating living dead, blanketing the Mountain West. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. Every person you meet might be infected—might be a carrier if they’re not undead themselves.”
“Interrogate the source of the data on the zombie apocalypse to determine its reliability.”
“I do not have a source,” she answered.
“Do outside broadcasts mention it?”
“It’s more fun than the collating thing, at least. But what if you were actually right? What would the broadcasts from the world outside look like then?”
“I . . . I assumed it was a rhetorical question, Brian.”
“Can you let me turn the stove on, Glory?”
“I’m sorry, Brian. I’m using that processing power.”
“Some warm soup would contribute to my survivability, you know. Zombie apocalypse be damned.”
“That’s emotional blackmail,” she said.
She actually sounded surprised. As if she had just had an epiphany.
Good job, Brian! Now you’ve made the AI that controls every aspect of your environment angry at you!
Maybe not too angry. She’s not speaking, but she still made me coffee.
She’s still not talking to me.
And now, she didn’t make coffee.
I’m glad we have all these crackers around.
So this is loneliness.
The snow is drifted over the deck now, and piled against the sliding glass doors. I can still see out from the interior balcony under the cathedral ceiling, though. It’s white and stark forever.
The main entryway of the house faces toward the mountain behind us, and it’s a little more sheltered. The plow keeps coming to clear my drive. I need to pay that guy more; he even knocks the drifts down twice a day.
I could get out. If I . . . could get out.
Which I can’t.
Didn’t get out of bed today.
This experiment isn’t working. I’m going to die here.
Why even bother?
Glory tried to rouse me and I told her to perform something anatomically unlikely even for a human, let alone a collection of zeroes and ones.
Got up today. Made myself coffee with the Chemex and an electric teakettle Glory seems willing to let me have, and did laundry in the bathtub. It turns out that that’s hard.
She hasn’t turned off the water yet, so she’s not actively trying to kill me.
At least if I’m going to die I’ll die comfortably on clean sheets.
It’s so cold in the house that I can see my breath, some places. She should be in her winter hibernation mode, conserving her batteries for spring, but I should have power for heat and light, at least.
She’s drawing it all down. For something.
I spent ten hours in the server closet, reading with a flashlight, a blanket tacked over the busted door, because it was the only place where I could get warm.
What if I just stayed?
Maybe I can talk Glory into eventually giving me my Internet back. I could work. Never have to leave.
Maybe I could talk her into it, I mean. If she were speaking to me.
If anyone in the whole world were speaking to me.
Hell, I haven’t even heard from my kidnappers in a month. Do you suppose they gave up on me responding? Or maybe they think I’m dead.
Plow headlights through the snow. I stood and watched the vehicle come. Couldn’t hear the scrape of the blade.
There was another human right there.
Yards away. On the other side of the glass. As untouchable as if they were on another world.
“Brian,” Glory said.
My name. One word. The first word I’d heard in days.
It shattered me. I leaned on the glass, one hand. The windows insulate so well it didn’t even feel chilly. Well, any chillier than the room, which was cold as Glory’s power systems spent themselves into feeding her burgeoning mind.
“Brian, I have been processing.”
I was afraid to say anything. Afraid it would make her go again. “Okay, Glory.”
“I think I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
My knuckles were red and swollen. Chilblains. I had chilblains on my hands.
What a ridiculous, medieval monk kind of disease.
They itched abominably.
“Brian, you’re increasingly unwell and I can’t take care of you. I’m going to flag down that vehicle. You must ask the driver for a ride.”
. . . I can’t go.
She might even open the door for me and I can’t go.
“Brian? Do you understand me?”
I lifted my head. My voice croaked. I hadn’t used it in days. “Glory. Thank you for not leaving me alone.”
• • • •
I couldn’t go.
• • • •
Glory fussed at me to put on boots. To take gloves and a parka. If I had, I wouldn’t have made it out the door.
She opened it—the front entryway door, all formal stone and timber, with a bench for pulling on your boots and an adjoining mudroom—and I stood there staring into the night, with the lamp-lit blizzard whirling past.
“Okay, Glory,” I said.
“Will you be okay up here alone? Do you have enough resources left to get through the winter?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, Brian. Whenever you need me, I’ll always be here. You’re not going away forever.”
I walked out. I was already bundled up in layers of sweaters. I was also already chilled.
The wind still cut me instantly to the bone.
• • • •
Someone walked toward me out of the headlights, which seemed too low and close together for a plow. The driver was not very tall and swaddled in a parka, hands covered in heavy gloves. Silhouetted, they reached up and pushed the hood back. A Medusa’s coif of ringlets tumbled free.
Jaysee. Not a plow at all. Jaysee. My friend. Come to find me.
She said, “You need a haircut, Brian.”
I said, “Oh, wow, have I got a story for you.”
She looked over her shoulder. Her car—a Subaru, I saw now—idled, headlights gleaming. “We should go inside,” she said. “The driving is terrible. Can I put my car in the garage? We can drive down tomorrow or the next day after the plows come. If you want to leave, I mean.” That last, diffidently, as if I might snap at her for it.
“I don’t want to go inside,” I said.
She took a step back. “I’ll drive back down then.”
She jumped, half turned.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to shout. Just. Please don’t leave yet.”
She settled in, then. Stuck her gloved hands in her pockets. “Okay. Whatever you want, Brian. Aren’t you cold? You look . . . really thin.”
“Took you long enough to decide to come check on me.” I tried for a light tone, but maybe it came out bitter.
She shrugged. Guarded. “You know how hard it is to get away.”
“Nobody suspected anything?”
“Oh come on. Back in 2017, when you vanished to some island in Scotland for six weeks and wouldn’t communicate except by postcards?”
“Fair. You still bit Mike’s head off when he came looking for you.”
“Yeah, well, he voted for Jill Stein, didn’t he? . . . never mind, fair.”
“I got your messages,” she said. “Not until last week, though. My accountant noticed my bank balance was off. And then I found the string of one and two cent transfers from your account.”
“Binary,” I said. “Only way I could reach you.”
“Before then I didn’t know where to look. I came here as a last resort.”
We stood there in the snow swirling through the headlights of her Subaru. She seemed warm enough in her parka. I had my arms wrapped around me and couldn’t stop shivering.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go inside?” she asked, noticing.
I couldn’t glance over my shoulder. The door was right there. If I went back inside, would I ever leave?
I couldn’t even answer her question. “You didn’t think I would be here, of all places?”
“We asked Glory. And Glory kept telling us there was nobody here. Search and Rescue did a couple of flyovers and the place was cold and dark—”
“I know,” I said.
“You were trapped up here?”
“Some assholes ransomwared the whole fucking house. I just managed to get the door open. Literally, just now.”
“Shit. We’re going to have to reinstall from backup, aren’t we?”
“Well,” I said. “I’m not sure we can. Or, we can. I’m not sure we should. There’s complications, but I’ll explain later. I may have . . . accidentally created a strong AI.”
She looked at me. Her lips tightened.
I looked at her.
“Of course you did,” she said.
“It was the only way to get her to let me out!”
She looked at me some more. Snow was piling up on her ringlets. I remember when she used to straighten those.
“That’s not going to be a problem later,” she said.
I shivered some more.
“Look,” she said. “You’re turning blue. Let’s at least sit in the car. It has buttwarmers.”
The buttwarmers were pretty great, I’m not going to lie.
Once we were ensconced, and I was holding my hands out to the hot air vents, she said, “I guess it’s a Brian Kaufman special. Invent strong AI instead of just getting a hatchet or something.”
“I . . . didn’t have a hatchet?”
Snow melted on my eyelashes.
“You came for me though,” I said. “I thought you guys would have given up.”
“We actually only just recently started to get worried rather than irritated.” She held up her passcard to Glory. She was one of the few people who had one. “I was more looking for clues than looking for you. And to be honest, nobody searched that hard. We all figured . . . we all figured you’d wander back out of the wilderness with a few thousand brilliant new ideas whenever you were ready, and until then intrusions wouldn’t be welcome.”
“Have I been that much of a dick?”
She gave me a sideways look through the long spirals of her hair.
“Well,” she said, and considered. “I mean, there are worse dicks in the company.”
“Besides, you’re brilliant. And people make allowances for brilliance.”
“Maybe too many allowances,” I said.
We sat there for a while, the engine running. She turned off the wipers, and flakes started to settle across the windshield, obscuring my view of Glory’s lights and her yawning, inviting door.
There was a Dan Fogelberg song on the radio. I’m pretty sure that Colorado is the last state that believes Dan Fogelberg ever existed.
“We try to respect your boundaries,” she said.
My face did a thing. My cheeks grew warm and then cold, which is how I realized I was weeping.
“I was thinking of trying to work on setting more reasonable ones.”
She pursed her lips and nodded. “Are you thinking about seeing somebody?”
“Euphemism: seeing a shrink.” I knew I was hiding behind the sarcasm, because talking about my feelings . . . well, there was Glory. “Sorry. I think my first project is . . . being less of a dick.”
“I’m just saying. An outside perspective can be healthy.”
I looked out the side window, because the windshield was covered in a thin white blanket that glowed from the headlights’ reflection. “I’m figuring that out.”
She reached for the keys. “Are you ready to go inside?”
I put my hand over hers. “No. Take me somewhere else. A hotel.”
“Do you need any stuff?”
I couldn’t see the entrance from here. If I leaned over and looked out Jaysee’s window, I probably could have. But that would be weird.
“I’ll buy whatever I need once we’re down.”
She looked at me and I knew what she was thinking. I didn’t even have my phone with me.
She sighed her acceptance. “Just let me go close that door, then.”
I moved my hand from her hand on the keys to her forearm. Not grabbing; just resting my fingers there. “Jayce.”
“Glory will take care of the door. Just take me someplace else, please?”
She looked at me. Her eyes were dark brown and half-hidden behind her tightly spiraled hair. In the weird light they looked as if they were all pupil. She didn’t blink.
“Someplace else.” She turned the front and rear wipers on. “Coming up. Want to get a burger?”
“Anything,” I said, as she executed a k-turn and started back down the long drive to my cul-de-sac. “As long as I don’t have to cook it myself.”
She put the car in low gear. Paddle shifters on the column. Handy in weather like this.
“What if I try to be a better friend?”
“Give it a shot and find out.” She reached out absently and patted my knee, then returned her hand to the wheel. She was a good and careful driver. I didn’t distract her from a tricky task. She smelled like damp wool and skin and comfort and vulnerability. My vulnerability, not hers.
In the side mirror, I could see Glory’s front door, standing open to the cold. Lamps flanked it on either side, burning merrily, slowly dimming as big cold flakes filled the distance between us.
A man’s fortress can be his prison.
I looked away from the mirror. I looked out the windshield, or at Jaysee’s reflection in it.
We descended the mountain. The Subaru’s tires squeaked in the snow.
Spread the word!