Callum left Oakville for college without any intention of returning.
Instead, he found himself back in Oakville outside of his mother’s house. No one wanted to hire a new graduate without experience. He lacked the connections to land a job in this market.
If no one gave him a chance then only one option remained. Create the future he wanted before he lost everything!
There’d been a time when no one would have picked Oakville, Washington, home of the Acorns, as the next hub of the technological revolution. That would have been Seattle and its surrounding hubs like Bellevue or Everett. Not a town without a stoplight straddling Highway 12, with decaying and empty storefronts. A town where the abandoned and decaying general store proclaimed, with faded and chipped paint on the window, “50 years in business!”
That all changed with Callum Danville’s return to Oakville after having attended the University of Washington. Saddled with outrageous student debt and no prospects of paying it off working a minimum wage job at a retail giant, Callum found himself standing again outside his parent’s faded blue-gray house. Over the years the color had changed until it nearly matched the frequent cloudy skies.
In all other ways, the house was equally in disrepair. Thick carpets of green moss crowded the edges of the asphalt shingles on the street-facing, north side of the house. The front yard was nothing except tall, somewhat-dried grass stalks moving stiffly in the breeze. The surviving rose bushes at the front of the property line suffocated under the weight of vines from years past. A crab apple had grown, and half collapsed across the porch roof.
Between that and the tall weeds on the drive, the rusted end of the Ford pick-up at the side of the house, and the pile of moldering newspapers stacked next to a cracked green plastic trash can, it looked as if the owners had up and left. Or died and no one had bothered to come check on them.
Callum scratched at two days of stubble and briefly considered just going back and waiting for the next bus. He was a young man born to older parents, and his dad had already passed away during his second year leaving his mother nothing. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his mother, seeing the place like this sent a fresh stab of guilt through his heart. The last thing she needed was another burden, his dad had been enough of that in his last year fighting cancer that had stripped him away to a bitter and penniless wreck.
The door never repainted from when Callum’s dog had scratched it with muddy paws (now buried in the back yard), opened and proved the place wasn’t quite as abandoned as it looked.
For a couple faltering heartbeats, Callum didn’t recognize the old woman that waddled out onto the porch in faded and stained once-pink stretch pants and an equally worn cloud-gray sweatshirt. She still had his mother’s eyes though, rapidly filling with tears as her hands fluttered like birds trying to escape her grasp.
“Callum!” Her voice was a harsh wheezing noise like air squeezed from a worn tire.
Truth was, Callum didn’t have any place else to go, and now it was too late anyway. He couldn’t leave things like this. He picked his way up the faint path through the tall grass to the porch.
“Hi ya, Mom.” Callum bent down to enfold her in a hug.
It was like hugging a bony pillow, as if her flesh was melting down over her bones. He was much taller, always a big, athletic-looking boy and now appeared as an athletic man. The Acorns’ coach up at the high school had never understood why Callum wasn’t willing to play football or basketball. In a town where that was the biggest thing going on, why did he insist on spending his time at the dinky public library in the city hall meeting room? Looking big and athletic didn’t do a thing to change Callum’s geeky heart. He was far more at home studying physics and engineering or reading science fiction, than going out for the football team.
“You came home, look at you! I hardly recognized you,” Mom said. “Such a thing, not recognizing your own son. I couldn’t figure out why a good-looking young man was standing out there looking at the house. I thought maybe you worked for public works or something. I was going to call over to city hall and ask about it when I realized it was you!”
She laughed as if it was the funniest thing she had heard in a long time.
Callum stepped back and just looked at Mom. Through the years and the weight she had gained, it was still her. The guilt rose up again like bile as he realized the last time he had seen her was at Dad’s funeral. They’d talked on the phone, he posted on Facebook, he was just always busy in school, so it was strange to feel like he had been in touch only to realize that she never really shared anything about her life. No selfies, no real posts except comments on what he posted. Two years!
Mom smiled and patted his arm. “You’re here now, come on in. You must be tired after riding the bus all those hours.”
On the way down from Tacoma, the bus had only had standing room. It was full of desperation, plus several crying babies. He had hung onto the seat backs and tried not to look down the cleavage of the teenage mother in the seat, although he couldn’t escape her milky smell, a bit sour and sweet.
“It was fine,” Callum said, following her into the house.
If bears lived in houses, it would probably be like this dim, cool cave. Reflective curtains kept out the sunlight. No air-conditioning, not with the carbon taxes. Who could afford it? Blocking the windows during the day and opening the windows at night had to serve.
Although he had lived here before college, it hardly looked familiar. It was emptier for one thing. Dad kept stuff, all sorts of things from DVDs, books, and magazines to all sorts of toys and gadgets. They’d shared a love for how things worked. This, though, was a Spartan environment. A basic wood couch with thin burgundy cushions, the left scalloped and shaped from being sat on while the others looked dusty but unworn. No more shelves, no knick-knacks, or coffee table. Just a dusty wall-mounted tv-pc and a tiny wireless keyboard on the single end-table.
“I had a clean-out,” Mom said. “After your father was gone, I sent you a box, didn’t I? I didn’t know if it was anything you wanted or not.”
It wasn’t, not really. Just junk that Dad had collected. Like Mom, he hadn’t had room in his life for it.
“I couldn’t look it all after he was gone. I wanted things simpler.”
“It looks great, Mom.”
She smiled at him and leaned into his side, wrapping him in a hug again. She smelled like butter and sugar, cookies. She loved cookies, Dad used to call her that, Cookie.
Hot sun baked Callum’s shoulders, and sweat ran down over his chest toward his belly button. He swung the push mower around and shoved it back into the tall grass. The spinning blades chopped into it and stopped. He yanked it back and took another run at them. Half the yard already looked like a kid with a bad spiky haircut, but it would get easier if he stayed on top of it. Almost a week past already, and the prospect of any job looked bleak.
The grass bent and didn’t cut. He yanked the mower back and ran at it again.
Thanks to Mom, he had a roof over his head. He wasn’t out on the street asking for handouts because he was taking them from her. Risking her state assistance, if they got wind that she was supporting someone undocumented, her benefits could get cut. He hadn’t even used the tv-pc to go online because that would only help the bill collectors find his location quicker.
The grass bent before the mower, and he stopped and mopped at his face with the rag from his pocket.
Before he was tracked down, he needed to get a job. Or move on. Hit the road. Lots of people drifted these days, the disconnected by choice or necessity. Getting his degree was supposed to prevent that from happening, but no one wanted to hire someone right out of school. They wanted to see that you’d already done the job first, but you couldn’t get the experience unless someone gave you a chance.
He had used his tablet offline, noodling around on concepts and ideas that he couldn’t fully develop. Not without time, and when you’re spending nearly every waking moment just trying to survive, how was he supposed to invent anything? The best he could do was work in bits and pieces, but the whole process was going to take forever.
Sort of like trying to shove the mower through the tall stubborn grass. The thick outer stems looked dry, but the interior contained enough moisture that the grass bent instead of cutting.
Callum pulled back the mower and ran at the grass again. It’d be better if he didn’t have to waste time and energy on simple chores like mowing grass, but there was no way he was lying around Mom’s house, eating her food and doing nothing to help out. Even if an argument could be made that focusing on his inventions might help them both in the long run, there was no telling how long it would be.
If only there was a way to take care of the mindless chores while he focused on the important stuff. Sort of like how the body worked. Breathing, heart pumping blood, digesting food, he didn’t have to think about any of that consciously. Even taking a crap was less about thinking how to do it than getting to the can in time.
What if chores could be automated the way the body worked? There were expensive solar robots to mow perfectly manicured lawns using random behavior to eventually get the job done, but it was hardly efficient. It’d be better if he could just do the mowing intelligently, while still be free to work on more intellectual pursuits. True multi-tasking, not the task switching that most people called multi-tasking when they wasted time switching back and forth between different things.
The mower cut through a stubborn club of grass. The air was thick with the smell of fresh cut grass, and a couple flies buzzed lazily through the air.
What if the two were combined? What if he could control a robot with part of his brain, but without having to think about it consciously? Like breathing. It just happened, but if he focused he could change his breathing.
Thought-controlled interfaces were common enough, but they all required conscious focus and were non-specific. If he could find a way to relegate it to a more autonomic sort of function, though, then he could have all sorts of bots doing what he wanted while leaving him free to focus.
His pulse increased. Maybe there was something to the idea. If he ever got a chance to figure it out.
Callum resisted the urge to fiddle with the tie wrapped constrictor-like around his neck. It wasn’t going to choke him, and he didn’t want to appear nervous when he walked into the meeting room. He was too nervous to take a seat on any of the shiny leather couches in the reception area. He stood instead, pretending to look at the art on the wall. It actually was pretty cool, a large spaceship flying between two stars, one pulling material off the other. It looked familiar, maybe from a science fiction novel cover, but it also looked like an original.
Auspicious Ventures was located in a huge skyscraper in downtown Seattle. It’d taken him twenty minutes to find a place to park his share car and then he had to nearly run to get here in time for the meeting. If it went well, these people could help provide the initial capital that he needed to get his project off the ground.
The demonstration was simple enough. If it worked. If it didn’t, he was going to look foolish, but he had to be confident.
Behind the reception desk, the young man who had greeted him was busy working on something on his computer. Jim. That was his name. Jim looked up and saw Callum looking at him.
“You’re sure I couldn’t get you anything Mr. Danville?” Jim said. “Latte? Coffee? Water? Soda?”
Callum chuckled. “No, thank you. Mind if I ask you something?”
Jim was probably Callum’s age, within a few years. It looked like this was probably a pretty decent job. Auspicious Ventures had an expensive space in the building, good taste in art, and a great sci-fi rocket swoosh sort of logo that had caught his eye when he started looking for a venture capital firm.
“Do you ever wish you could do more than one thing at a time? Or be in more than one place at a time?”
“Sure,” Jim said. “All the time.”
Callum nodded. “Thanks.”
“That was it?”
“Yep, I just needed to hear that.”
Jim grinned. “You’ve got something cool, don’t you?”
Callum grinned as well. “I think so.”
“Mr. Danville?” A woman said behind him. “We’re ready for you.”
He turned around, and his heart nearly stopped. It wasn’t that she was beautiful. Attractive, yes, but it was all in how she stood and looked at him. She was a brunette, with short hair styled so that it parted the left side of her hair, with miniature dream-catcher earrings. She wore a shimmery, colorful scarf over a black dress and her quirky sort of smile just did him in.
She was walking toward him, her hand out. “I’m Aquilina Kentucky, but call me Lina, everyone does.”
He shook her hand, warm, firm grip. Her eyes were brown as well. “Callum. It’s nice to meet you.”
She winked. “Don’t be nervous. Your pitch has us intrigued. Let’s go see what we can do together.”
Several things came to mind, none of them appropriate to the situation. Callum pushed the thought away, he could ask her out later, maybe, if things went well. Or not.
He followed her into the meeting room. A big space, with folding tables pushed together to create a bigger table at the center. Mesh chairs on wheels arranged around it. Out the windows, there was even a view of downtown Seattle and a glimpse of the Space Needle.
He expected a room full of people in suits and was surprised when he found the room was empty. There were chairs for a dozen people around the tables, but it was only him and Ms. Kentucky in the room.
“Are there more people coming?” He asked.
She smiled and gestured to the chairs. “Nope. Just us, Callum. Our firm trusts our partners to make good judgments about our investments.”
“And if you make mistakes?”
“Mistakes are one thing. We support the creation of new innovation here, and with that comes a certain measure of risk. We do expect our partners both in the firm and those we chose to work with to succeed more than they fail. The successes pave the way for future successes.”
Her eyes focused on the case he held. “I assume you brought something to show me?”
A dry mouth and a racing heart were the least of his problems. Out of all of the firms he had approached, this was the only one to ask to see more. Creditors were already after him about the student loans. Mom’s benefits were cut and just paying the property taxes on the house was going to be tough. He needed this to work, or they’d both be out drifting, and Mom couldn’t take that.
Callum placed the case on the table. “I do. Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure.” Lina crossed her arms and watched him.
“Do you ever wish you could really multitask? Not switch from one thing to another, but really do several things at the same time?”
“Of course,” Lina said. “Your pitch raised the question, but I’ll admit I’m skeptical. Software agents are great, but they can’t take the place of real human judgment.”
Callum snapped open the latches on the case. “Of course not, but I’m not talking about software agents.”
He shook his head and lifted the lid. “I’m not. I’m talking about Swarm Think.”
Several small shiny orbs floated up from inside the case. Each was packed with scrounged up electronics taken from discarded gaming devices, silent fans from recycled cooling systems, and dozens of other parts from digital cameras, smartphones, and tablets. The cool silvery spherical bodies came from decorations with the top and bottoms cut off. He’d made four of them with what he could pull together, and they floated up around him.
Lina smiled. “Those are cute.”
One zipped off toward the door. The doors whooshed open to let the sphere through.
“Where’s that one going?”
“To ask Jim to bring me a mocha after all,” Callum said.
A second flew around behind her. Lina turned, trying to watch it as it flew near the window. “And that one?”
“Just admiring the view.”
The other two flew out over the table and the lasers he’d managed to pack in projected a holographic display above the table with his presentation. His voice came out of the spheres.
“What you see here are multiple drones controlled by me, not software agents.”
Her eyes narrow as she looked at him, but his mouth wasn’t moving.
“That’s right,” his voice said from the spheres. “I’m not talking.”
In fact, Callum, heart-pounding, turned and walked to the end of the table. He pulled out the chair and sat down. Then he reached into his case and brought out a tablet and opened up one of his e-books and started to read.
“I’m not trying to be rude,” Callum’s voice said from the spheres. “Please don’t take it that way.”
“I’m not,” Lina said. “I’m intrigued. Go on.”
The door opened, and Jim walked in carrying two steaming mugs. The sphere flew past him and took up a position hovering near Callum.
He accepted the mocha from Jim and savored the rich chocolatey smell. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.” Jim pointed to the spheres. “What are those?”
“Part of a client demonstration,” Lina said. “If you’ll excuse us?”
Jim grinned. “Sure. Of course.”
After Jim was out of the room, while Callum sipped the hot mocha and read his book, the spheres said, “As I said, these aren’t controlled by software agents. They’re all me.”
“How is that possible?”
“It’s easier than you might think. Do you remember your dreams, Lina?”
“Sure,” she said. She laughed and looked at him. “This looks like a nifty ventriloquism trick.”
He lifted the mocha and took a drink as the spheres showed diagrams of the process. “Thought waves, transmitted to the spheres control what is happening. In your dreams are there other people?”
“People you talk to, interact with? Maybe dance with, or kiss or fight?”
Lina nodded. “Yes, of course. They’re dreams. Anything can happen.”
“Do you ever think about who is controlling those characters? When you’re talking to someone in your dream, do you think about the fact that you’re talking to yourself? You can be a whole party of characters interacting, and all of it is your brain talking to itself.”
“I guess so. I’ve never thought much about it.”
Callum put down the tablet and stood back up. He’d made his point already. He said, “That’s what this is. Your brain controls the drones. They do what you want to do, but without requiring your conscious control. You can focus on other things while your drones are busy doing all of the things you need them to do. A drone can be anything. A computer. A lawn mower. Camera. Whatever you need, and it will take care of things.”
The hologram between the drones shifted. It showed a video of a solar lawn mower moving across the grass at his mother’s house.
It didn’t look like the house he had seen when he first got home. The yard and flower beds were immaculate. The lawn mower moved across the lawn in a tight back and forth organized pattern. No random moving around the yard without a brain.
“I’m mowing the lawn. I’m talking to you. I’m working on an email. All of it is controlled by me, thanks to Swarm Think.”
Callum turned his head so that she could see the small sensor nets and fine circuitry tattooed onto his neck behind his ears. The spheres displayed the tech.
“Painless, removable, the net interfaces and gives you control over your swarm.”
Her smile was gone. She crossed her arms tighter and took a deep breath. Callum’s gut sank.
Lina shook her head. “Thank you, Callum. I wish you all the best, but I don’t think that this is something that Auspicious Ventures will support.”
His voice echoed from all of the spheres when he spoke. “What?”
Callum continued with just him speaking. “Would you be willing to give me some feedback? Is there anything I could do to improve the technology so that it would be more appealing?”
Lina pressed her hands together. “We have to weigh everything about our potential partners very carefully, Callum, I’m sure you understand. And what the implications are for whatever they are presenting. Autonomous agents controlled by your subconscious, it sounds dangerous. That, along with your financial situation, makes this investment too risky. We like some measure of risk, but you have to see that the first time one of these swarm robots injured someone how liable the company would be?”
“They won’t do anything you don’t want them to do,” Callum said. “It’s like breathing. They’ll do their jobs without you having to think about it, but if you do focus on them, then you have conscious control.”
Lina was shaking her head before he finished. “I’m sure that’s true, and it doesn’t matter. All someone has to do was claim that it acted against his or her unconscious wishes and they’d have a case. How do we prove otherwise? None of us are perfect, we sometimes have unkind thoughts, but what happens if this technology acts on those subconscious impulses?”
“It won’t,” Callum said. “I considered that and—”
“I’m sorry,” Lina said. She held out her hand. “Thank you for sharing your vision with me. I wish you the best of luck with it.”
She wasn’t going to be convinced. He liked her and got the sense that she liked him too, but obviously that wasn’t enough.
“Okay, thank you for taking the time.” He shook her hand, and at the same time the swarm spheres and flew back into the case and settled into their slots.
He released her hand and snapped the case closed, then picked it up. “Have a good day.”
As jobs went being a publisher wasn’t bad. Callum’s work paid the bills for the house to take care of him and his mother. Thanks to his swarm, he could handle working on multiple tasks at the same time. Right now he was laying out an interior file, searching image databases for appropriate pictures for another project, and handling uploads to various retailers of his latest project.
While all of that was going on, he worked his way through his emails, those left after the swarm think agent had already processed the messages. It left him with the messages from new and existing clients that required that extra conscious touch.
Which wasn’t that many.
That was the trouble. He was bored. Busy, his brain was used to juggling a half-dozen different tasks these days, but his conscious mind wasn’t engaged in anything the way it had been when he first developed the swarm think technology last year. After the failed attempt to secure funding, he had used the technology to start his own freelancing business. Publishing was straight-forward enough now, shifting through the slush pile was the biggest chore and something easily shoved off onto the swarm think agents.
The biggest problem he had was figuring out a way to develop the swarm think technology for the market. It worked great, Swarm Press was proof of that, but he still didn’t have an answer to Lina’s concern. He didn’t believe that it could do something without the person behind it wanting it to happen. People had built-in checks on their behavior. They might write a hateful email but then would delete it instead of sending it.
Except sometimes they did send the hate email, or post nasty comments, or do much worse things. So if someone that would do something worse did it with swarm think, then couldn’t they claim that the agents had done it without their conscious permission? He’d gotten so focused on the impossibility of it, he neglected the one simple fact that people lie.
Lina was right. One person claiming it would trigger an avalanche of other claims. He had a technology that would multiply the productivity of a single worker, and he couldn’t use it.
Even without the potential risks, there was the other side of the coin. Doing everything he was doing, even at this scale, would take at least a dozen people and he could do it all. The labor organizations weren’t going to look favorably on that sort of thing. With different sorts of robotic agents, a single person could be the brains behind dozens of agents, all working perfectly together to get jobs done. Worth a lot, but it wasn’t something the world was going to accept easily, especially not with unemployment at record highs.
At least he had the advantage of the swarm to help him get more done. It was the reason that he had managed to keep them above water.
Mom walked in, one of his original swarm spheres floating along behind her. In her hands, she carried a plate of fresh chocolate chip cookies. The smell was heavenly.
“You wanted cookies?”
“Thank you,” he said.
She was looking much better than the first day when he had shown up outside. She was getting out more, walking, and reading the books that he published. As fast as he could publish them, she was reading them.
“How’s it going?”
Callum gestured at the screens arrayed around him. Documents and other work flowed across the screen. On one he was making copy-edit corrects to the text of a fantasy novel. Editing hadn’t been a skill he had, but with swarm think helping it had given him the time he needed to study while he worked on other things.
“It’s going well. Everything is working fine.”
“That’s good. I’m so proud of you.” She said, repeating herself since she said it at least once per day.
“Thanks, Mom.” Callum picked up one of the chocolate chip cookies and took a bite. Hot melted chocolate dissolved in his mouth. “Delicious. I’m just trying to figure out what I do now.”
“What do you mean? I thought everything was going fine.”
“It is,” Callum said. “But I hadn’t planned on running a publishing business. I wanted to invent things to change the world for the better. Swarm Think should give people the time to explore and do what they want. Instead of being stuck doing a job all day, people could let their swarms do the work while they learn and find answers to problems. People always say they wish they could be three places at once and with this they can—I just can’t figure out how to let them have it without costing us everything.”
“What if you did let them have it?” Mom said. “We would still have our publishing business, right?”
“You mean just give it away?”
“Well, you could publish it, couldn’t you? Write a DIY manual on Swarm Think. What do you call it, open source hardware?”
Callum was stunned. It was obvious, but he hadn’t thought about it. He smiled until it hurt and jumped to his feet. He wrapped his arms around his mother, gently, and kissed the top of your head.
At the worksite, the workers were busy playing games, reading, studying, and sharing stories. Callum walked through the site, noticing the laughter and good cheer. These men and women were having a good time while Swarm Think robots built by the workers climbed, flew, and slithered around the building as they built the new Swarm Press headquarters in downtown Oakville.
Lina stopped at the edge of the construction site and accepted the sunshine yellow hardhat that one of Callum’s drones offered her. She put it on her head, grinned and waved at him.
Callum reached her and offered her his hand. “Thank you for coming out. I wanted you to see this first hand.”
She gazed at the site, noting the workers gathered around their tables beneath the awning. “It looks more like a party than a work group.”
“But each one of those workers is also working on the building.” Callum pointed at the busy hive of activity. “Not only that, but they assembled their own drones. Strictly DIY.”
“Clever,” Lina said. “You don’t make any of the drones, then?”
“Nope. You can thank my mother for that idea. Swarm Press publishes the manuals, design specs, and sells parts to hobbyists and large orders to businesses, but we don’t manufacture anything. That all comes from other suppliers.”
“So anyone manufacturing Swarm Think drones is liable for their use.”
“And we’ve published dozens of articles, funded research that shows that the drones won’t act independently of the controller’s wishes. If someone uses a drone or software agent to commit a crime, the research is going to show that they’re responsible.”
Lina smiled up at him. “You’ve done it on your own, but that begs the question why you wanted me to see it? It doesn’t sound like you need Auspicious Ventures help. It wasn’t to rub my nose in it, I hope?”
Callum laughed and shook his head. “No, not at all. Lina, would you care to have dinner with me?”
Her eyes widened with surprise that quickly turned into a nod of acceptance, and for one moment his swarm paused as all of his attention focused on her widening smile.
This story is the 99th short story release, written in May 2014.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Egg Hunt.
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.