He sees her sitting at a beachside bar on a warm night at the end of the world. She wears her oversized sunglasses and a fashionable scarf tied over her head. But still, he recognizes her.
“I’ve never gotten the chance to buy a Best Actress winner a drink before,” he says, finding a seat next to her. “It would be an honor.”
Her eyes are on her phone.
“I don’t suppose you’ve ever bought a winner of any Oscar a drink before?” she replies. Moonlight gleams on her exposed shoulders.
“Daniel Day-Lewis once. Bought him a daiquiri at an Applebee’s in Santa Monica. I don’t think he cared for it because he turned it away. To be perfectly honest, I can’t be certain he even was Daniel Day-Lewis.”
She turns to him, a look of mild amusement crossing her face.
I have her attention, he remembers thinking. Don’t blow it.
“Daniel Day-Lewis is a striking figure, very tall, hard to mistake. Don’t you think?” she asks. “And I suspect he doesn’t go to Applebee’s.”
“Also not nearly as pretty as you, while we’re at it. So let’s just say you’ll be the first Oscar winner I buy a drink for. That’s a better story for me to tell.”
His gaze lingers on her lips perhaps a second too long. He can’t help it. It sucks the air out of him just being next to her. Every inch of her—the way her red bangs fall over her forehead, the freckles across the bridge of her pale nose—is captivating. The whole room is hers. It is a marvel to him that anyone standing next to Charlotte Boone can even breathe.
“I was just leaving, I’m afraid,” she says, rising from her seat. “It’s late.”
“You should have won the Golden Globe too, that year,” he ventures, straining his limited memory of that year’s awards coverage. “That was all political. And you probably should have gotten a producer’s credit for Ruins of Eden, given all the work you did. But I bet they were able to write you off because you were young and a woman, and Hollywood really isn’t as forward thinking as it likes to think it is, is it?”
Charlotte studies him and then slowly sits back down. A slight wind ruffles his sandy hair, and there is boyish mischief in his eyes. He has a strong jaw, and his chest looks firm under a worn linen shirt. She would tell him later there was something about that smile—one part roguish, two parts trusting—that made him feel just safe enough.
“I’ll admit that no one’s ever tried to pick me up at a bar before by talking to me about my career. I’m intrigued. Did you read all that in a People magazine once in a dentist’s office?”
“I pick things up here and there. And I figured if I ever had a chance to talk with Charlotte Boone, it would have to be here, at the ends of the earth,” he remarks, motioning to the moonlit beach, to the Indian Ocean that stretches on unimpeded to the shores of Asia and Australia. “Because really, what are the odds of finding Hollywood royalty out here?”
“About the same as finding someone who would try hitting on a famous actress with a joke involving Applebee’s.”
“Is it working so far?”
“It’s not not working.”
He introduces himself.
“Gin and tonic,” she replies, raising her empty glass. And then she takes off her sunglasses and gives him a smile as the fabric of her scarf floats on the cool, night breeze. He is almost already in love with her.
She won’t remember it though.
She won’t remember the bar by the beach, or how his smile made her feel, or those nights of early love spent together in a hotel room flooded with the roar of ocean waves.
Cat once thought her life was over. Crushed by forces far too big. Forces that had lied, and with their lies, had nearly buried her.
But this is a new day. This is a day to forget about the team of Silicon Valley engineers who brought about the end of the world with a rogue smoothie maker. Today she would reclaim her humanity.
She is nervous though.
Cat runs her fingers through her hair, and her hands tremble. She tries to slow her breathing to calm herself, but it comes out all rattled. Then she puts on her headset and logs into the Sharebox network, just like she did in the old days. The start screen beckons, letters floating in the space in front of her.
Welcome To Sharebox – A Place Made Just For You
“I can do this,” she mutters. “I can do this. I can do this.”
Being brave was never really her thing. But she’s trying.
She swipes the words away, and finds herself in a town with tidy white buildings and smooth grey roads. Everything here seems different now.
It’s just a social media platform. That’s all. A natural evolution of the kind of websites and apps everyone previously used to stare at on their phones. Users can build avatars and walk through the default area—the place called Homepad. There are photos and video galleries and alleyways leading to fresh articles and comment walls. Meeting lounges sit on either side of the main thoroughfare for chatting with the avatars of friends or family or acquaintances from all corners of your life, connected by whatever possessed you to accept a friend request in the first place.
It is, generally, an uncontroversial and wholesome place where you can climb into a video of your old college roommate taping his infant son’s first steps. You can be inside the restaurant where your sister just took a few photos of her pad thai. A collage of those wedding photos from that guy-from-high-school-you-don’t-really-even-remember becomes a lively, immersive experience. Artificial intelligence, the AI, takes your friends’ two-dimensional photos and videos and stitches together elements that are not explicitly pictured using databases and guesswork to create a fully fleshed scene for you, and it feels like you’re living it. It feels like you’re at that rustic-but-elegant country wedding on that perfect Tennessee summer afternoon.
All that rich imagery—that feeling of being there, being engaged with your friends living all around the world—was so rich and so novel and thrilling at first. It was the final word in social media. And there was no fear of missing out on anything anymore because everything your friends did that was worth experiencing was recorded and ready for you.
But everyone got used to it eventually—that immersive phenomenon that felt so novel, so life changing, at first. It became normal.
That’s just human nature. We’re not capable of being awed forever.
It was addicting though. Critics complained television was addicting when it first spread to the American home, but they never witnessed the experience of being fully immersed, sound and sight, into a reality built exclusively using their own loves, dreams and prejudices by an intelligence that knew their preferences better than their own moms ever could.
Homepad is full of streets Cat does not recognize, and the new sights make her stomach flutter—for a moment. The AI builds a unique experience composed of her friends’ pet photos and political diatribes with computing power sleeplessly crunched from massive server farms, rows and rows of machines, in Wisconsin and India and the Philippines. And that intelligence feels quite confident—as it always does—about what Cat will like to see.
First a video appears of the day that Teresa, a dear friend from childhood, got a new puppy a year ago. That video got an above average amount of likes. Very above average.
But the raven-haired girl passes it by—Cat does not even blink at it. She walks further into the main road leading through Homepad. The AI is surprised by this, but it is not deterred. It reaches further back and finds a series of photos from the time that an old college buddy, Janet, decided to quit her job and travel the world. Janet took photos of herself meditating on a beach in Bali at sunrise. Those photos and videos were just so...cool. They had so many likes. Tons of likes. And there were lots of comments that the AI clustered as “inspiring” and “affirming.” So the AI broadcasts them like a floating billboard along Cat’s path.
“Fuck off,” Cat mutters, swiping the projection away.
Her heart pounds in her chest, her real chest. But here her avatar walks on calmly, quickly. On a mission. She walks to the central transit hub, where it’s busier. There are other avatars zipping off to gaming communities, entertainment hubs or the red-light districts. Since it’s the morning, the great majority are heading to the News Cities where pundits and reporters will vie for their attention from a hundred different billboards.
That is where she will go, too. The AI won’t follow her there. Not to those unregulated places.
Many other commuters see Cat at the hub at this point. They stop, and their mouths drop. She has not been seen here or anywhere in a very long time. Before they can say anything or cry out in alarm, she taps a choice from a hanging menu and blinks across the digital space to the Patriot Palace.
The Patriot Palace is nothing like Homepad. Where the streets and buildings of Homepad are orderly and unobtrusive, the Palace is an assault on the senses. The ground shakes with the sound of a country band playing at the city gates. Overhead, there is a thunderclap when a lifelike display of fighter jets fly low overhead. The sky above looks ordinary except there is a faint, almost transparent flag that envelops the metropolis and stretches to all horizons.
There are ads, certainly. Lots of ads. The algorithms here have determined that Cat is at least middle class—or she was once, anyway—so they offer her moving billboards for jewelry and cars and high fashion clothes. And they all want to speak to her; she has only to make eye contact with them, and their words and jingles will ring in her ears. The advertisers have even combed photos of her family. She sees her father hawking a deli sandwich, and her sister offering a sale on leather handbags.
The buildings themselves are less sensible than a real city. Their architecture encompasses all eras and styles. Beauty was not important to the owners here. They only wanted to build fast. And safety is no issue because no one here can die or get hurt. Some of the roads even curved upwards straight into the sky, and in other places, they abruptly shifted downwards into vast corridors.
Cat walks down the road surrounded by throngs of people into the center of the Patriot Palace. News commentary plays on all screens. If she wished it, she could climb into any of those videos. Avatars can watch events from the White House Press Room or get lost in a virtual Q&A with the author of a new book. People can spend all day in the Palace, commenting, engaging, watching. There are lounges in the high rises with links to other communities with similar, though often more extreme, interests.
Now there are people following Cat. The news has spread fast from Homepad. She is back on Sharebox. But why now? And why here? It does not take long for gossip to spread in the network.
A paparazzo is there. A red light glows over his head, indicating that he has begun recording her.
“Miss, Miss,” he says, trying to push his way to the front of the growing crowd. “It’s really quite...” he hesitates, looking for a diplomatic word, “...an event to see you today. Are you here to make some kind of statement?”
A statement, Cat thinks. Interesting choice of words. Her avatar smiles—almost involuntary as her lips twist at the corners of her real face. It’s not a warm smile.
Indeed, she is going to make a statement.
Amidst the center of the Patriot Palace, in that buzzing hive of blaring news reports and cheap advertising being projected on the surface of every storefront, lecture hall, museum, and luxury apartment complex, Cat reaches her hands into the air. She wraps her mind around the edges and utmost corners of the skyline of that loud and obnoxious place, and she closes her eyes.
No one is going to get hurt. She doesn’t want that, even if that were possible here.
This place is almost as old as the network itself. It’s an archive of false histories, an engine of manufacturable outrage. It’s a fortress. It’s an empire.
We should have known it would turn out this way. When the first search engines came out, people were finally able to retrieve the answer to almost any question they could dream with the click of a few buttons. But then everyone employed that awesome power for discovering celebrity sex clips, finding five-star reviewed Chinese restaurants, and whiling away their work hours with cat videos. We should have known then that new technology is always a reflection of our worst habits, not our best instincts.
Deletion is better. That hits the company and the Patriot Palace and all the owners where it hurts the most anyway. The data is where the money is.
Cat can almost feel the buildings underneath her fingertips. She holds them lightly at first. And then she squeezes.
There are only a few shouts of alarm at first as the City begins to collapse. People don’t know what they’re seeing. They think it’s some kind of clever visual trick or an ambitious advertisement. But then the buildings start falling into each other with a deafening roar, the steel and stone crash on top of people, and then the struck avatars disappear. And with them, all their lives on Sharebox are gone forever.
For some people, a virtual death can seem almost as painful as a real one. No one has ever seen anything like that before.
And it feels good to Cat. It feels real good.
Forget that damn smoothie maker. Forget the day the world started to fall apart. If you can’t fix things at this point, you can at least score a few punches, right? No one would ever call Catalina Fernandez a coward.
The paparazzo is still there, his legs crushed under some rubble but his avatar not yet succumbing to deletion. “Why?” he asks her, reaching up to her with a free hand, his smooth pixelated hair sooted with rendered dust. “Why are you doing this?”
Cat blinks down at him.
“I’m just cleaning my slate,” she says.
Then she closes her eyes as the remaining structures come down, but she can still hear the sound of crashing everywhere like the world is ending once and for all.