IN THE END, NOTHING WORKS
1296 words by Stanley Lieber
In spite of his back, Thomas was up early the next morning. It hurt to be out of bed. He slipped on his robe and dialed a reasonable temperature for his bones. The floor felt cold under his feet. A draft tickled his scrotum as he dragged himself down the hallway, robe swishing freely between his legs.
Thomas found no paper on the front step.
Therefore, he reasoned, no newspaper could actually exist.
The number of people required to produce such an artifact could, quite simply, never be forced together, never be entrusted to bring such a project to fruition. Thomas dismissed the idea as self-evident lunacy. As with other would-be conspiracies, this "newspaper" business, if it were ever truly attempted, would immediately run afoul of man's signal inability to cooperate effectively. The whole endeavor would end in disaster. Thomas pictured a management team showing up at the office and attempting to corral the so-called "newsmen" into some semblance of order. Let's put this edition to bed, the managers would say. Sure, their subordinates would reply, we'll get right on top of that, boss. And then they would go to lunch. The whole concept of a metropolis of workers, each synchronizing his movements to the other, all in some effort to compile a grand codex of halftoned words and photographs... Ostensibly a periodical source of news and sports-related information... Implausible wasn't the word. The idea was like something that would come out of a liberal arts college. Thomas understood that in the end, nothing really worked. Thus it followed that no newspaper would or could be delivered to Thomas' door, on this or any other morning.
Thomas looked down. Perhaps he was surprised to see that the newspaper still wasn't where it should have been. He wiped the condensation from the front of his visor and planted his feet in the doorway, fixing his gaze upon the concrete stoop. Why was he here? He meant specifically. His eyes focused on a rough patch of masonry, shaped, vaguely, like a copy of The New York Times. He was slowly becoming aware that his lips had chapped.
He tried to remember why he was standing there, holding the door open, facing out onto the street. Nothing came to mind, save for an awareness of the relentless, frozen sheets of air that were blowing past his face. After several moments, he became enticed by the sounds emanating from inside the house, and so he retreated back into the living room. He sat down by the fireplace and started to pull on the hair that protruded from his chin. He would often affect this pose whenever he found himself confused.
Presently, Eva came in with the tea.
Thomas regarded her suspiciously, conjecturing that she must have prepared this tea herself, not simply poured it, pre-mixed, from a jug or a bottle delivered by the government truck. It would later prove that his suppositions had been correct. But at present, Eva refused to discuss her inspiration. Why organic tea? He wrinkled his eyebrows with palpable irritation and stared at her, knowing perfectly well that his tendency towards interpreting simple results as the fruit of complex machinations should not distract him so long that his tea would go cold. I'm being silly, he thought to himself. Next, he'd be accusing her of inventing, then hiding, and finally denying the existence of, his daily newspaper.
He resolved not to say anything about it for now.
The feed to his visor had gone dark, sometime, he thought, in the past week. The boys down at the switching station had gotten so wrapped up in their chatter and practical jokes that the feed had ceased to be maintained. This group of teenage boys had allowed any number of feed pools to become irretrievably poisoned. Obviously, the problem had yet to be amended. The cause of the service disruption was the logical result of leaving unsupervised boys in charge of the running system. There. Blunt common sense. No conspiracy required.
Though it could have been sabotage.
From the perspective behind Thomas' visor, everything had simply gone black. Neighborhood residents were skeptical that the city's plans for replacing the youths with middle-aged housewives would yield a network any more reliable than the one that already existed. The real problem was that this new technology simply didn't scale. You couldn't expect everyone to get online at the same time without ramping up the system's capacity. Unsupervised boys or no. Thomas doubted if any demographic could keep the thing running without the assistance of authorized Green technicians. Of course, that would cost money. On a related note, did the Green Consortium really think that these middle-aged women would subject themselves to working for lower wages than what they could make staying at home? Like the aforementioned "newspaper" idea, the scheme simply didn't wash.
How the networks had ever been built in the first place was also a damned mystery. The secrets of net construction had apparently passed into the realm of myth -- an area where Thomas carefully abstained from treading. Just what had inspired Jeff Bezos to invent the Netscape browser? The world might never know for sure. To be certain, claims had been staked out by all of the usual suspects: Church leaders, government agencies, atheist intellectuals -- the full gamut of unreliable sources. But Thomas was confident he knew the real score. He had realized early in life that they all made up stories -- lies, in fact -- that weren't supported by the available evidence. Anyone who advanced a positive claim was merely covering an angle. No one knew the real history of the Green. Or, at the very least, he was certain there had been mistakes in the recording.
Just as well, then, that young people not be misled by any wild tales of human beings working together towards a collective goal. It might make for a ripping yarn, fine, but this sort of cooperation just wasn't going to happen. Not that he could see. In his experience, human beings were incapable of effective organization, even if sometimes his mind liked to hallucinate collaboration amongst his enemies. It would make more sense if the networks had simply grown themselves.
You had to market your trash to the trash men, or else they would stubbornly refuse to take it away. Thomas knew this to be true, but still he couldn't find the time to arrange his various bags and receptacles pleasantly enough to attract their attention. Instead, garbage would pile up for several weeks before he'd finally be forced to trudge down to the edge of the yard, spit on the road, and go to work creating a minimally effective layout. These city trash men thought they were critics. Thomas knew full well that as insiders to the waste reclamation industry, their own garbage would never be subjected to the ridicule of their peers. Instead, a trash man's refuse would be hauled off periodically, sight-unseen. Thomas resented the situation because it just wasn't fair. He could feel his hate for the double-standard solidifying in his back. Why did consumers let the government get away with this?
Thomas spied his friend Gordon coming up the road.
"What up, G?" he asked.
"I dunno, man. Field trip around the sun, I guess."
Thomas fingered his visor until the face of his friend came into focus. Gordon had that look about him, as if he'd just been slipped counterfeit money. (Money. Another conspiratorial delusion. Thomas was undecided as to whether this particular fiction yieled sufficient utility to warrant his playing along. Convenient, since he was usually broke.)
"What are you doing to your face," asked Gordon.
"What do you mean?"
"There, your face. Why are you moving your hand around as if you were manipulating some sort of device, or making some sort of minute adjustments to your eyebrows. There's nothing there. Just that wrinkly old skin wrapped around your skull."
Thomas moved to punch Gordon in the arm. Just then, he slipped off of the stairs and toppled to the ground. He felt his hip shift out of its socket as he struck the hard stone beneath him. Resigned to the pain, he put his hand down in the snow and groaned.
"Can you help me up, please?" he said. "My damn ass is broken."
Perversely, Thomas' visor clicked through its boot-up sequence and once again resumed service.
Click. Click. Click.
But the settings were futzed. Thomas could see through Gordon's pants.
"Nice briefs," he said.