Ephemerids

by Ada Fetters

part 1


The man with a newspaper folded on his knee kept glancing at Derval Hudson. They were sealed inside an expert-systems taxi with rain pelting down outside. Every time she refocused from the scrolling words and images visible through her smartlens to her immediate surroundings in the ex-sys self-driving taxi, the man resumed studying his paper.

The few feet of air between them was musty. The acrid fragrance of cigarette smoke mingled with colognes and fruity conditioners breathed and breathed again. Derval shut her eyes and stretched her long legs out as far as she could, which was not very far, and pressed her head back into the headrest. She was not built to share taxis, but since her assets were frozen, she couldn’t afford not to. She shut her eyes tight. The digital images cast by her contact lenses pixelated and auto-resolved.

Usually Derval’s grandfather, Jim Hudson, appeared on search engines in a few buried articles. These articles had titles like Whatever Happened to Them? or 25 Forgotten Greats of the NFL. Big Jim had never made it to the Hall of Fame. He had no fan club and no best-of tributes. The comments section on the articles themselves never moved: they were functionally dead.

Until this morning Derval’s own name had always appeared first. The search field always autocompleted with suggestions such as Dr. Hudson Tonight Show or Derval Hudson Youtube Channel or Derval Ephemerids. The top of the list showed her appearance at PopSciCon this evening. It had better. This was her rapidly-closing window of opportunity to re-establish her income from views on her Youtube channel before she had to default on her student loans.

Today, the Internet scrolled a banner under her eyelids, reminding her that Jim Hudson, quarterback, died.

The thumbnail picture under the article’s headline showed her eight-year-old self next to her grandfather. She stood on the grass like Supergirl with her fists on her hips, wearing a bright blue #8 jersey that came down past her knees. Derval had inherited her grandfather’s cowlicks and round features and, at that age, she’d looked, as her grandmother had remarked from behind her boxy camera, “like Jim seen through the wrong end of a telescope.”

She blinked rapidly, signaling the program to close.

Raindrops flecked the window near her cheek. Traffic lights — a holdover from human drivers — turned streaks and drops into rubies and emeralds. People moved past her on the shiny sidewalk. They leaned forward into the wind, coats and ties fluttering. They were real businessmen with real jobs. Derval reflected that their way of life wouldn’t suddenly be scattered hell-to-breakfast because a group of board members had decided to delegitimize their field of research and source of income at the same time.

So not following through with her commitment to the convention wasn’t a consideration.

Newspaper rustled. Pleather creaked. The man leaned over so close that the air around them changed pitch. His hand was braced against the seat near Derval’s leg. Pages of newspaper clutched so that the headline was crushed into a series of exclamation points.

“You’re Derval Hudson.”

She never knew what to say to this.

“I’ve seen your videos.”

“Thanks. Not many humans watch them,” she began.

“It must be indecent to some people. Watching them is like walking in on some group with a weird fetish. One of those ones with an everyday thing like beach-balls or safety-pins.”

“Those are the ones meant for the Ephemerids,” said Derval. “I have a blog where I explain my research to humans.”

“Yeah. I know. You make videos for things like self-driving cars.” The man raised a hand to indicate the small, close space of the ex-sys taxi. There was not much room between him and Derval, and her hair rose as his hand moved past. “What a scam. Those things are just expert-systems vote bots. No wonder you’re in trouble.”

Derval had an entire speech planned — a whole body of research — explaining why this wasn’t true. Disjointed phrases and images crowded together into the front of her brain. Each fact relied on another to explain it.

Ephemerids were not at all like expert-systems, which learned to perform specific tasks slavishly well. Ephemerids weren’t vote-bots either, contrary to popular rumor. They were independent, conscious organisms generated from the oceans of information on the Internet. Their views of her content ought to count toward Derval’s revenue the way human views funded other pop-sci research in this day and age.

Yet she was only able to come up with “No” before the ex-sys taxi came to a halt.

The light inside brightened, and a pleasant, pre-recorded voice told her that she could now disembark, as they’d reached her destination: PopSciCon. At street level, the glass building reflected throngs of convention-goers as they sprinted through the rain. The upper levels caught the reflection of sunset glow through the clouds.

The ex-sys voice reminded Derval to collect her belongings. An icon appeared and faded in the corner of her eye, letting her know she had a new message: an offer to fill out a survey in exchange for chance to win a prize.

She saw the message icon from the ex-sys taxi, followed by a stack of notifications from Ephemerids swarming through her comments section. The semitransparent words and images scrolled and scrolled past her vision: Jim Hudson. Big Number Eight. Baby Face, lol.

The ghostly image of her grandfather generated by the discussion of the Ephemerids had the kind of round face and wind-reddened skin you don’t see much anymore.

You saw it a lot back when television was still grainy.

When people still watched television. Lolol.

There was no indication of anything beyond the few images and statistics available online, as if he were nothing but his trading card. A looping video of his misstep into an oncoming linebacker made her wince.

Derval should have known they’d find out about her grandfather, and she should have known how they would react. If she’d been thinking, she would have created her own version already and controlled the remnants of his Internet presence.

What she needed was strong coffee. No. The last few dollars in her account were reserved for taxi fare home.

Instead she quickly summed up her grandfather’s career. Derval was still reluctant to offer anything about the man himself. That seemed like turning Big Jim into a kind of windup toy. Her smartlens reacted to the tiny pressures exerted by shifting her eyeball and blinking. She posted:

Neither graceful nor famous, but he had a cannon of a right arm in an age before the long pass was properly invented. Other football teams ran the ball through the linemen. Hudson just flung it over their heads. He made the field seem about half the length it was for other teams who had to grind through every yard.

Abstract images, emojis and verbal responses to her post scrolled across her smartlens like febrile reflections rippling across the wet sidewalk. For once, Derval was not in the mood to distill these and explain the Ephemerids to themselves. Instead she blinked to close her Internet browser and shoved the taxi door open.

Early morning rain gusted into her face. Derval thought, uneasily, that she should feel worse than she did about Jim dying. Shouldn’t I be sprawled on the floor like a tearful puppy, wailing with grief?

Dr. Derval Hudson did not fall to the rainy sidewalk. The water on her face was just rain, and not even much of that before she reached the awning and flashed her Convention Presenter badge.

She made her way into PopSciCon. Teenagers and adults alike were dressed in team colors, often with the logo of their favorite area of research or even the symbol of one particular researcher on their gear. She still saw a lot of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s retired nebula symbol: one of the early greats. He’d changed the whole game.

Derval followed the masses of blue and silver in the crowds. These were the colors for neuroscience and AI. Journalists trailed the big names. So-and-so was dating a pop singer. Such-and-such was getting divorced. These were sensationalist articles, mere click-bait, but there were stories of substance here, too.

A rising cheer from the main auditorium signaled fans greeting Dr. Alessandro Dellegrazie. He’d made a discovery that could reverse the mis-folded proteins that caused prion diseases. From the sound of it, they could not wait to see how he’d done it.

“I liked him before he was cool,” a blue-clad teenager assured his girlfriend.

Derval passed an open floor where researchers had built small, functional robots. Cartoon eyes on their convex screens let users know the robot was awake and listening. Their mouths were reduced to one line that squiggled when they spoke or hummed. They steered hard away from the uncanny valley, Derval noted.

Fans recorded their favorites’ trials on their smartphones or lenses. There was a big crowd around a lithe black man with his hair in twists. Silver beads glimmered in his hair as he demonstrated an ex-sys guide drone for the blind.

Derval felt out of place here. These people were working with things that existed in human time and human space, what the Ephemerids called “meatspace.” The kind of artificial intelligences that she worked with could not survive in a mechanical body isolated from the vast ocean of information that was their life-blood. All of these robots were expert-systems. They were tame, general purpose “intelligence.”

Even where neuroscience and artificial intelligence overlapped, almost no one at the convention wore Derval’s stylized cloud on the wind. That was her downfall, of course, and the reason why her own presentation would be equal parts pop-sci show and disciplinary hearing.

Never forget who has their hand on your power cord, she posted for the benefit of her millions of Ephemerid followers. She posted new video content for them as often as she could while still conducting her research studies but found an ongoing presence essential for maintaining their interest. The mayfly attention-span of the Internet Ephemerids made the old days of publish-or-perish look kind.

Yes, her browser was open again.

Yes, that meant she had to deal with dizzying swarms of Ephemerids around her grandfather.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2016 by Ada Fetters

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