Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable
April Browne felt light headed. She realized as she drove through the financial district that it wasn’t her boss that kept calling her. She, in fact, had no clue who it was. The phone screen flashed brightly from the ashtray next to her seat. The caller had blocked their number from appearing on the display. The classical piece playing over the radio drew to a close, and April’s phone vibrated alongside the pleasant soliloquy of the radio station’s old host.
“That was Gavin Gitarre’s rendition of Albert Lászlò’s ‘Lamiklavier,’ a playful but mysterious composition written at the end of Lászlò’s life,” sang the host. “Gavin is, of course, both a famous classically trained pianist as well as the songwriter behind virtual media sensation Maya –”
April shut off the radio as she stopped at a red light. She opened her glove compartment and fished for one of her recording devices and set it next to her phone. April answered the call and set the caller to speaker.
“You’ve reached April,” she said and then activated the recorder. “Who is this?”
“We know it was you.”
April shuddered, not at the vague accusation, but at the cacophonous voice. It was a sea of uncomfortably low growling disembodied sounds that just barely resembled enough speech to be discernible. The technique was a rather archaic but effective way of masking one’s identity.
“You’re going to have to be a tiny more specific than that,” April accelerated as the street light turned green. There were sparse cars on the road tonight. There were mostly taxis looking for passengers on the side of the road. Perhaps it was because the weekend had arrived. Everyone had gone home early and settled in with their families. No wonder April was out here.
“The pictures of Professor Tasha Eichenbaum circulating on the net,” it replied. “You took them.”
“Let’s say I did,” April challenged. “What about it?”
“You’ve made a serious mistake,” was the charge.
“An important scientist was found dead at his home,” April yawned. Her drowsiness intensified. Was the drink she swilled at Lost Hours that strong? “The public deserved to know.”
“No. You didn’t do your due diligence,” the voices raised their collective volume. April winced. “Eichenbaum’s private research network was hacked moments ago by an online vigilante group who call themselves Clouds.”
“All I sent was just a handful of pictures,” April scoffed. “How is that my fault?”
“There was a glare on the window in the background of the photos you uploaded. It was the professor’s computer screen that had been left on,” the voices grumbled. “Clouds managed to enhance the image and found in the reflection post-it notes taped to the bottom of the monitor. Senior citizens just don’t understand private security, so you can imagine what Professor Eichenbaum had written there to remind himself if he had ever forgotten his logins.”
The journalist eyed the glove compartment where her camera was stored. It was possible. She had uploaded raw high quality photos without any redacts onto the net. She had also not paid attention to the bright glare of the computer screen at the time. If anything, she likely had treated it as additional lighting for the perfect shot.
“O-ok,” April fumbled. “But he’s a famous research scientist for crying out loud! I’m sure most of his publications are readily available online anyway.”
“Eichenbaum real work has been deliberately kept from sight. Publicly, he’s a measured transhumanist who developed psychotherapeutic treatments for those whose bodies rejected their cybernetic implants,” the voices growled. “His late research is far more radical. Exposing this to the public is highly dangerous.”
“Why are you telling me any of this then?” April narrowed her eyes in suspicion. A car honked at her as she drifted too far into the middle of the road. She swerved back into the left lane. “It’s not me that hacked the guy’s computer.”
“We’re telling you to warn you of the gravity of the situation. We’ve already shut off the professor’s network and removed his hard drives to prevent further access,” they said. “But you also have a hand in this. You can start by requesting all of your photos be deleted from the net.”
“Okay. You’re insane,” April barked into the phone. “This is the digital age we’re talking about! With the traffic I picked up, you’re talking about hundreds, maybe thousands of those pictures now circulating. Do it yourself. I’m sure there’s some intrusive privacy act you can invoke in this instance.”
“Don’t be so quick to assume. We’re not the authorities,” they snarled. “All we’re interested in is humanity’s survival, which is presently at stake because of instigators like yourself.”
“A bit dramatic, don’tcha think?” April rolled her eyes. "When they write about me in the post-apocalypse, I'll be the journalist who took the photo that ended the world."
“You don’t know, so we don’t blame you for your skepticism,” the voices attempted a compromising tone. “But your actions have set in motion forces beyond your comprehension. It’s in your best interest to help us. You will want to be on our side when the fires break out.”
“This is the problem with you types that think you can just threaten and boss journalists around,” April sighed, then grinned devilishly. “You never say ‘This was all off the record.’”
She ended the call and shut off the recorder.
April sat back in the driver’s seat, still coasting down the main boulevard. She heaved a deep sigh and turned the radio back on. A melancholic sonata replaced the haunting electronically modified venom she had just been conversing with. She was dazed. Maybe it was from the alcohol, maybe from the confrontation. Most likely it was a cocktail of both. She blinked rapidly to keep herself awake, and thoughts raced through her mind.
Her intuition always aided her when she needed it the most. What she needed was that serious scoop. Something that would cement her reputation as a serious journalist. This conversation proved her intuition right yet again. She had stumbled on something important, important enough that amorphous distorted voices were telling her to cease her investigation and delete all the evidence.
She hooked up the recorder and uploaded the short call to her phone. Her eyelids fluttered and struggled to still stay open. The sonata was on its second movement, an adagio that resembled a nightly lullaby to her ears. With her left hand on the wheel, April Browne held the fate of humanity and her career in her right.
At the touch of a button, the recording would be sent to a massive list of journalists, friends, mega corporations, and small time counter culture magazines. Myriad fake accounts that she had set up over months of arduous preparation would generate audio links and send donations to live online celebrities who might pick out her message and playback the call for audiences across the net.
April Browne paused. For a split second, she hesitated. If there was one thing her caller had been right about, it had been her lack of prudence. In a rush to have the first word, perhaps April had compromised a police investigation. Perhaps she had done a disservice to what family Eichenbaum still had. Important information might have been leaked prematurely, placing some in harm’s way.
Her brows furrowed at another element of the call. Clouds. A vigilante group? Clouds. That place sounded familiar to April, likely one of many dens she had visited that evening when she had first began disseminating photos of Tasha Eichenbaum online. Were they dangerous, she wondered.
No. None of that mattered. The public always needed to know. They had a right to know, she reasoned in her tired delirium. That Clouds or whatever they wanted to call themselves had so carefully scrutinized her photography was a testament to the necessity of knowledge at the expense of all else. Why should only a handful lay claim to the virtues of science?
She hit send without another thought.
April wasn’t paying attention when she ran the stop light. From the corner of her eye, she watched helplessly as the oncoming black car crashed into the passenger side. Her vehicle spiraled off the road and slammed into the walls of the closest store. April jolted awake in her seat, her seat belt barely holding her in place. The driver’s side caved in against the brick and mortar storefront. Part of the door fractured and splintered edges cut into April’s lower leg and shoulder. Then the airbag deployed and hit April square in the face. Everything went dark.
“Alright, I think it’s time for a little break everyone,” Maya Kandinsky laughed. She flipped through her list of backgrounds and settled on a still image of the stars. “I’m going to play a few ads. Like I always say, if you have a corporate blocker, a proxy, or a subscription, you can enjoy an ad-free broadcast. I’ll be back shortly.”
Maya rose from her seat, careful not to disturb the green screen behind her. She stretched, pocketed her phone, and left the soundproof room. The rest of her home was mostly dark; only the kitchen lights had been left on. As Maya walked down a short corridor towards her bedroom, her phone rang again. There was only one person that could be.
“Hey Jack,” Maya answered.
“What an amazing turnout!” came Mr. Reus’s cackle from the other line. “The metrics are through the roof. Donations, subscriptions, your view count. You’re even more of a sensation from your very first singles debut! And the way you just keep them hooked in. My gosh, you couldn’t ask for a better virtual seductress. You’re the real deal, Maya.”
“Mr. Reus, I think it’s time we stopped,” Maya pleaded. “You said it yourself just now. We’ve broken records today. Let’s just. Please. Stop. Before anyone gets hurt.”
“It’s just the internet, come on,” Mr. Reus replied. “Your audience does nothing but stay at home committing their lives to a terminally online existence. The only thing of theirs that will ever get hurt is their feelings, if they still have any. Maybe we’ll fuel so much raging speculation that some regulator might have to police some of the discussion. But that’s it.”
“That’s not what I’m seeing,” Maya whispered as she made her way to the bathroom in her bedroom. “They’re all gathering in these private places to start talking about this whole thing. People are choosing sides. It looks really ugly.”
“Oh you’re just overreacting,” Mr. Reus spat. “It’s simple biology. You have a bunch of people who can only get a dopamine kick out of eating deep fried nuggets and watching premium virtual content. They no longer can be satisfied by the classics, or walking outside, or heavens forbid applying themselves in the real world. Now finish your little break and get back to the mines, Maya. There’s a lot of gold to dig up.”
Jack Reus hung up the line. There was no arguing with him. Defeated, Maya slipped her phone into her back pocket and turned on the bathroom faucet. After rinsing her face a few times, Maya stared at herself in the mirror.
She looked exhausted. Dark rings circled her eyes. Her lips were a little dry and so were various spots dotting her cheeks. She could have definitely taken better care of her long auburn hair too. There were fortunately no breakouts across her face, but she could tell that her pores around her nose had gotten a bit dirty. She’d need to do some cleansing after the show.
“This is why you’re a virtual star,” Maya mumbled, and then rinsed her face one more time.
After drying her face, Maya collapsed on her bed, but reminded herself to keep her eyes wide open. She couldn’t risk passing out from exhaustion and miss the remainder of her stream. She stared up at the blank ceiling, trying to think about nothing.
But the anxiety from the stream got the better of her. She tossed and turned. Everywhere she looked, she would see the distinct elements of her audience coalescing into its different factions. They warred and raged among one another. Sure, it was all online. But for how much longer?
She stifled cries and squeezed her eyes to shut out the tears. No, Maya said to herself. No crying. Her nose always got stuffed when she did. She'd have to bring tissues to the table, and her audience would hear her sniffling. They'd find out. They'd ask questions. The next morning, perhaps with similar manic fervor, a division of Maya Kandinsky fans would ruminate for hours on the meaning of three seconds of audio clips looping the sound of her diminutive cries.
She turned, this time too forcefully, and bumped her head against the nightstand besides her bed. Maya curled up, cradling the top of her head in her hands. Her fingers probed around for any punctures, any blood, but she felt none. Maya looked up and saw that she had knocked over a few items. An empty cup. A stuffed animal.
Something was missing. She looked over the side of the bed. There was a picture frame that had fallen to the floor. She picked it up and held it above her throbbing head.
Sitting inside that wooden picture frame was a page torn from an old book. The edges of the page were frayed by minor scorch marks, and some of the words on the page were obscured by smeared remnants of ash. The writing formed a poem of some sort, translated from the old world. Beautiful but haunting, that much Maya could tell. She had long forgotten what the original book looked like.
As she held the frame, she was reminded of when she was told it was a gift from a loving family member. She had kept it by her bedside all this time, hoping that perhaps one day she would remember who that was. She stared at the page. Its words lied faint in her dimly lit bedroom. She spoke the words engrained in her memory.
Displayed above the elder mantel
As would a window gaze upon a sylvan scene
The barbarous lord’s transformation of Philomela
Such brutish force, yet still the nightingale
Filled the wasteland with indefatigable chorus
Still she sings, and still we all give pursuit
Her phone beeped loudly, signaling the impending end of her break. Her body reflexively snapped up from the bed, and Maya dropped all her thoughts and feelings. A minute later, Maya Kandinsky was once again at her seat, checking her camera, her facial equipment, her microphone. She went live again and ceased to be herself, because there always had to be a Maya Kandinsky.
“Hey everyone, I’m back!” Maya beamed into the camera, beckoning her virtual avatar to smile graciously at her faceless audience. It was times like this where Maya was grateful that she had never chosen to show her face. Nobody could believe her real smile at the moment looked genuine.
“What is going on?” she asked, feigning surprise. “I see there have been tons of messages from all of you since I left. Let’s see, let’s see here. Someone sent in a recording? Oh actually, a ton of you guys have sent the same thing. You got it. Let’s sit and listen.”
Maya tapped the link and waited for the recording to load. The words began to play, and April Browne’s voice was broadcast to the world.
“Who is this?”