We sat atop Parliament Hill as the sun went down, London lapping at our feet, glass of wine in hand, a hard red line on the horizon fading not to black but the glow of LED streetlamps diffused through the humid breath of our ten million neighbours.
The distant whine quitened as the drones returned to their charging towers. The apartment buildings, shadowy, took over with their rumbling murmerations.
“That one,” said K—, and I followed her finger to one particular termite mound, apartment containers crawling over one another, a slowly seething self-stirring pile, reconfiguring according to the occupants’ preferences this week and the up-to-the-microsecond spot rent.
“There’s a patch of apartments that are blocked,” and indeed there was: a 3D mass at the heart of the mass, visible sometimes, not moving. A scab. A tumour.
Hunkered under the window sill. His is the first dead body I’ve seen. K— and I both muttering mantras to increase the depth of our breathing. Lack of oxygen leads to blood acidification leads to increased stress. There is a body centimeters from my toes. He is a cat in the sun, the low morning light on his back, a curve on his cheekbone and along his legs. Languid eyes, blind to my shock. Pallid skin. A departed soul.
“What do we do?” I said.
One day earlier K— met the Corn God. Whitechapel, while pushing her way through the crowds at the market. “Come with me,” he said. (This is what K— told me later.)
“I’ve seen your googles,” he said, “I’ve been waiting for someone else to notice.” So K— followed him snaking between stalls and food carts to a cafe where they ordered tea and sat down.
“The scabs are growing. There’s a floating point error in the yield pricing algorithm. All the apartments are attempting to optimise to the same location.”
“So nobody will move house.”
“Not correct,” said the Corn God. “When the scab has locked all the apartments, everyone will move house, all at once. Reset. Back to the point of manufacture.”
“I wouldn’t mind a holiday to China.”
“No Deliveroo on the container ships. You’d starve on the way. But more importantly the housing stock would crash. No houses left. Division by zero. The London landlords wiped out. Then an economy cascade. No food, no water. The city will die.”
K—: “A Y2K scenario. Update the firmware.” A sip of tea.
“But, oh. I see,” said K—. “The firmware flash takes the apartment off the market momentarily. A discontinuity in the price. The owner would be wiped out. No-one can afford to do it alone. All house admins need to run the patch simultaneously. You said this is already known?”
“I watch the searches,” said the Corn God, the stranger from the fields, the spirit of the vegetable life of the algorithms, native of the network that binds us all, or possibly just a man with privileged access to a cloud somewhere. “You’re not the only person to see this. There is another. He has the credibility to get the attention. He’s written a paper. He needs to publish it. I can’t make him.”
“We can use his retinas to get around the two-factor authentication.”
“What?” I said.
“I don’t know why he’s dead. It doesn’t matter. He’s a mathematician, he’s old, old people die. Even mathematicians. But he wrote a paper.”
“What?” I said. I was transfixed by the body.
“We need to get the paper published. If it gets published, it gets read. If it gets read, he has a name, it’ll get noticed, they’ll do something. Action something. They’ll coordinate a simultaneous firmware flash. The apartments won’t scab, the economy won’t crash, London will go on as normal.”
A cargo drone wheezed heavily past the window.
“This man is dead. You didn’t tell me,” I said.
“The paper is on his blog. But he left it in drafts. The Corn God gave me his password. Plus we can get to his retinas,” said K—.
“And then what? We hit publish in WordPress and save the world?”
“Exactly,” she said, “here, I need you to hold back his eyelid.”
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