The fan on his desk is the small, industrial kind – steel and gray and unreasonably loud – but Victor, like all his coworkers, keeps it on for the heat in the office. He is fairly certain someone has put in a request for quieter ones. He is also fairly certain he is starting to get another migraine.
The document in question is produced just before five o’clock.
His process is as follows: the randomization is created on a central server and sent to his desktop computer. If he determines it to be garbage (as nearly all of them are) he just deletes it. If it’s mostly comprehensible, though, he clicks advance and it goes to a higher-level analyst – one who decides if the idea itself makes any sense and to what sort of expert reader it should be passed on to if it does. Victor is averaging a little less than four documents advanced per day (out of nearly a thousand he sees), which is about right for readers at the lowest level.
This text, though, is different. Victor reads it twice and then blinks at the screen for a little bit.
He prints it out and clicks delete.
The idea in the end was called Intentional Serendipity, and it went like this: let’s fake discovery. You’ll grant that most scientific advances can be expressed in a couple paragraphs, and who could imagine how valuable even a single page of a medical journal from one hundred years in the future would be to us now? So let’s fake it, let’s just fake the whole thing. Let’s make computers generate random strings of words and see if they make any sense. Sure, the ideas still need a little testing, but for every few million non-sensical paragraphs that are generated there is always that one that makes it to the real expert, who looks down his glasses at it and say, “you know, I think this would work.”
And we got our breakthroughs, that’s the thing. The nature of the process meant that a great deal of them were military – a field that was evidently lacking in creativity more than anything – but we cured a few diseases along the way, we came up with some new and innovative economic policies. According to a sociological test invented with the help of randomization number 7A4892F, we discovered that overall quality of life had improved since Intentional Serendipity had been implemented. There were even some published short stories written originally and completely by the computers – lyrical ones, flat ones, sad ones – and of course a wide range of visionary mathematical proofs. The human race had quit using what little light it had in trying to navigate the darkness of its existence, choosing instead to sprint through the night, eyes squeezed tight, hoping to bump into something that felt like it might help.
TO: HUMANITY C/O VICTOR RHODES, PRIMARY RANDOMIZATION EDITOR
FROM: THE LORD YOUR GOD IN HEAVEN RULER OF THE UNIVERSE
THIS PROCESS IS FLAWED AND WILL CONSUME YOU.
On the train, Victor reads and re-reads the document, giving nervous glances to the other passengers every couple of minutes. It isn’t very long – by design, of course – but it doesn’t need to be.
Here’s the thing, though: statistically speaking something like this was bound to happen. Victor isn’t a religious man, but this - this?
At home, Victor puts the paper on his fridge and tries to put it out of his mind for a little bit. He makes a couple hot dogs and thinks about calling Hannah at her conference, but it’ll be just after midnight in Hong Kong and it’s probably not worth waking her up. If she were here she’d know what to do, he’s sure, but maybe it’s for the best that he makes this decision on his own. It’s not going to be a secret police job or anything like that, but making this public in any significant way means he loses his job for sure. With the economy the way it is and Hannah still in school he wonders if it’s worth it.
For the first time in two decades, Victor prays before he gets in bed. It’s sweaty and embarrassed and about half of it is plagiarized from movies and television, but it’s a prayer, at least.
Victor worked in a lab before.
I mean he’s not bitter or anything because things worked out for the best – I mean, sure, he liked his old job. The thing is his mom was pretty sick so he went into research pretty much right away, but then when I.S. came around the lab shut down and his mom died, which was unrelated, he knows, but still.
And a couple months later – a couple months of Hannah waitressing to support them both – I.S. found a cure out of one of the randomization offices in the Midwest. It got passed up by a reader named Barton and in the very middle of the paragraph there was the word badger, but if you ignored that, I mean, it made sense and it was exactly right. The story got published all over, and always ended the same way, about how more low-level readers were needed. When Victor read it he cried, and then he applied for the job.
In his dream, at the kitchen table with his mother and God.
Victor asks his mother: Why me?
His mother smiles and shakes her head in the way she used to.
Victor looks at God.
God clears his throat and takes a sip of water.
At lunch, Victor talks with the office’s administrative assistant. Her name is Gladys and she’s like a thousand years old. Victor thinks she might have powers.
“Gladys, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, dear, what is it?”
He appreciates this term of endearment.
“If you got a letter that wasn’t addressed to you, you’d forward it to the right person, right? Or at least try to?”
“Sure, of course.”
Victor taps the table with the very tips of his fingers.
“But let’s say this letter - let’s say you read it by accident, and it had some stuff in it that you thought might be wrong. Stuff that, like, might even cause trouble. What would you do then?”
Gladys eats a thoughtful bite of her bran muffin. “Gee, that’s a toughy. The letter wasn’t addressed to me, though? Well, I guess then I would ask my husband Edwin what he would do.”
“But say you couldn’t ask him,” Victor says, “what would you do if you had to figure this out by yourself?”
“Well gosh, I just don’t know.” She sort of trails off in a way that makes Victor think she might come up with something, but then she smiles at him as if expecting another question.
He packs up his stuff. “Yeah, nevermind. Thanks, Gladys.”
Disaster strikes just after lunch, when Victor moves the paper on his desk and it gets caught up in the fan’s draft - up, around, and then violently through the back of the blades. Victor sits dismayed as the holy confetti quietly settles around his cubicle. He then decides this is a good time to take a smoke break.
Outside with his boss Nick, Victor lights up and looks up at the sun as if he might be able to figure out what time it is.
“Hey, Nick, you were a botanist before I.S., right?”
“Mmmhmm.” Nick nods.
“And then what’s your take on all this?” Victor asks, “How do you feel about quitting your job as a scientist for a career in middle management?”
Nick looks across the street. “I feel okay about it.”
“Yeah?” Victor says.
“Yeah,” Nick says.
There is a brief silence.
“Because I was in it for the discovery,” Nick says, “I wanted to figure out stuff about the world, and now we’re doing it this different way. I’m still helping. We’re all still helping.”
Victor squints at him. He takes a drag on his cigarette.
“If I deleted a document by accident, is there a way to get it back? If I just clicked the wrong button, I mean.”
“You clicked the wrong button? Your job is to click one of two buttons and you clicked the wrong one?”
Victor just stares.
“If you go to the server on your computer I believe there are records,” Nick says, “It’s so an employee can’t steal a good idea, if that’s what you’re thinking.” He puts out his smoke and turns to go inside.
Victor says, “Hey, Nick.”
Nick says, “What.”
Victor says, “We need new fans.”