Gut Feelings

Illustration by Mathew Borrett

They can’t quite get the bloodstains off the pavement.

Not for want of trying. Not that they aren’t trying still. It’s been a good twenty minutes — fifteen since the ambulance has been and gone — and the bots and drones are still at it, rotary brushes scrubbing at a blur, nozzles spritzing iridescent chemicals onto the sidewalk. But the cement is just too porous, or the blood is just too stubborn, or Google’s custodial drones just don’t live up to the ad copy.

Out, damned spot. Marius Ghazali stares out through the window, allows himself a small sick smile. His knuckles sting at his sides, raw and oozing.

Everyone’s still out there. If anything there are more of them now, accreting around that first sparse smattering of onlookers who stood by while he vented his rage. The plastic barricades, thrown into place in the wake of his — episode — are keeping them at bay, but the gaps behind are filling. This could be an honest-to-God crowd before long even though there’s nothing to see here, not any more, move along, move along. One of the bystanders spies him through the glass, nudges her friend. Both flash him a thumbs-up.

His calf knots as the last vestiges of the taser charge tug at his motor nerves. He staggers, braces against the glass: floor to ceiling, wall to wall, a glorious invisible intelligent insulative ecofriendly solar-energy-collecting barrier that fits in perfectly with the garbage-collecting robots and the omnipresent cameras and the ubiquitous underground sensors infesting every square meter of this perfect creepy community in the heart of the city. A Bit of Heaven in the Depths of Hell — at least, that was the slogan doing the rounds at Quayside Management until someone with an actual conscience leaked the memo to the Oakville Beaver.

The Google logo towers above it all — atop this very building, in fact, in letters three meters high. Ghazali’s pretty sure it’s directly above him. He can’t see it from in here, but it — sticks in his mind.

It almost seemed to be smiling down at him the whole time.

His fangirls are shouting at him. Their mouths are moving, at least. Window must be soundproof in addition to its other miraculous properties. He turns away, surveys more immediate surroundings. He’s in some kind of conference room. Two doors: the one they dragged him in through (locked), the other leading to a tiny bathroom (ajar); an inactive smartpaint display on the wall between. A standing table dominates centre stage, a flat ovoid stretched along the room’s longitudinal axis at waist height. A Google Gamium sits on its polished surface like a plastic skull.

Not a fucking chair to be seen anywhere.

“Mr. Ghazali.”

The door’s already closing behind her as he turns. White, whippet-thin, maybe 180 centimeters. Startling green eyes under a brunette cap (chloroplast injections, Ghazali guesses). She waves one hand, and the window frosts magically to bright opacity. No more witnesses.

(But of course there are always witnesses, these days.)

“I’m Selma Hancock.” She carries an old-fashioned tablet in the crook of one arm, which seems a bit superfluous in light of the smart specs wrapped around her head, the glittering streams of data reflected in her eyes. “They want me to ask you some questions.”

“You police?”

She shakes her head. “Parameterization specialist. Here at Google.”

“You have a black belt or something?”

“Why do you ask?” Her voice level. Restrained.

“Just seems odd they’d send someone like you in alone with…” Ghazali closes his eyes. Sees blood and teeth and one wide, terrified eye fixed on his descending fist. Opens them.

“…someone like me,” he finishes.

But that wasn’t me. It wasn’t.

Until it was.

“We’re not alone,” she says. “Not really. You should probably keep that in mind.”

Ghazali takes a breath. “I think I should see a lawyer before I talk to anyone.”

“I understand your reluctance, Marius. May I call you Marius?” The corners of her mouth tighten; her eyes remain fixed on the tablet. She taps the earpiece on her specs. “They’re telling me to be informal.”

“I just beat the shit out of one of your employees. I’m not really in a position to take offence over boundary issues.”

She doesn’t smile. “His name’s Travis, in case you’re interested. Good guy. Friend of mine.”

I’m sorry, Ghazali wants to say, but what kind of sense would that make? “Is he okay?”

Hancock keeps her eyes on the tablet. “How could he be? You beat him half to death. Someone you didn’t even know. A complete stranger.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“You ordered Thai two nights ago. Off the back of a Rosa’s truck. Crispy prawns, krill massaman, pork satay. Yeah, we’re sure.”

“Chicken satay,” Ghazali says. “Your spybots fucked up.” A half-hearted half-assed reminder that guilt goes both ways, but he doesn’t even believe it himself at this point.

“We weren’t watching, if that’s what you mean. SocNet algos predicted it from the upstream tertiaries eight hours in advance.” Finally she lifts her eyes. “They were wrong about the satay?”

“What — ”

“Listen. Marius. Big tough boy like you must know the depth of the shit you’re in. What might surprise you is how easily you could get out of it again. We may be able to keep the police out of it entirely.”

He blinks. “Why would you want to do that?”

I don’t, necessarily. They send me in here, they tell me to make you an offer. There might be extenuating circumstances.”

“They.”

“My bosses. Their algos. If you cooperate.” She grabs the Gamium off the table, holds it out. “No promises.”

He eyes the helmet, keeps his hands pointedly at his sides. “You want me to play games.”

“We want to understand what happened. What was — going through your mind.”

“That thing reads minds?”

“That’s how it works.”

“What it says in the manual,” Ghazali remembers (everyone has a Gamium), “is that it works by pushing pixels around in response to arbitrary brainwave patterns. And you have to train it first.”

“In default mode, sure. But it’s easy enough to rewrite the firmware remotely, and the hardware’s got horsepower to spare. It’s how we keep our upgrades so affordable.” She effects a small, brittle smile. “Sony makes you buy a whole new rig.”

He takes the helmet, turns it over. Its inner surface is lined with spiderwebs. Tiny washers bead the interstices. “So it’s what, now? Lie detector?”

“We could use it that way, if you wanted to deny doing something that’s been documented in realtime hi-def from six different angles. But we’re really less interested in what you say than your emotional responses when you say it.”

This does not make sense. In what kind of alternate fantasy world does an unemployed brother from the Cinder Block get to beat the shit out of a white collar for the price of some half-assed MRI scan?

In Googleville, apparently.

The Gamium prickles slightly as he sets it on his scalp, like a sweater afflicted with static cling.

“So.” Hancock’s tablet brightens in her hand. “You were just — passing through. On your way to meet Ezra Keogh, over at St. Lawrence Market.”

“How— ” Never mind…

“You ran into Travis going the other way, and you attacked him. Why?”

Ghazali tries to summon some echo of the astonishing rage Travis provoked in him. All he finds is a sort of clammy, ball-clenching horror at his own actions. I could spend the next ten years in jail.

But Hancock says there’s a way out, so he takes a breath and plays along. “You steal our personal lives. You sell us to the highest bidder. You — ”

“Let me stop you right there.” She holds up her free hand. “We know the spiel. We’ve been dealing with a surge in anti-Google sentiment ever since Doctor Mayor started whipping up the base with her warmed-over Big Brother hysteria. You were probably too busy to notice, but at least three upstanding citizens of Toronto the Good stood by cheering today while you kicked Travis’ ribs in.”

This is news to Ghazali.

“But you— ” she fixes him with a hard green stare — “You’ve just taken it to a whole new level. So when I ask why you’ve started beating people half to death, I would like to hear something beyond the same old talking points out of City Hall.”

She knows. Of course she knows.

She’s Google. She knows everything.

Ghazali sighs. “I had a friend too, once. Deon Rizk.”

Her eyes flicker across some invisible datascape. “Our cops didn’t kill him.”

“Not your cops. Your apps. Google Fitness showed Dee running 15K four times a week. Google Fitness showed him doing 30 chin-ups at a stretch. Google fucking Fitness showed reflexes and fast-twitch muscle response consistent with a middleweight practitioner of Mixed Martial Arts. Oh, and apparently Google Assistant overheard him expressing anti-police sentiments, which was enough to disable his privacy settings under the ATA. So poor little Officer Neukamp feared for her life. Murdered Dee because he was — how’d she put it — assuming an aggressive posture. Didn’t even bother trotting out ‘thought he had a gun.’”

Hancock doesn’t say anything for a few seconds. “I’m sorry. If I were in your shoes, I’d be pissed too.”

Ghazali snorts.

“What I wouldn’t have done,” Hancock continues, “is wait three years, then beat some random stranger to a pulp.”

“He works for Google.”

“Which makes him personally responsible for — ”

“He knew what side he was choosing.”

That face. That stupid fucking Travis face. That stupid Google baseball cap. Oh, he chose sides all right. Guy signs up to work for the spooks and the suits and fucking ICE-9, you don’t let him walk because he’s only the janitor.

That rage.

“I see what you did there,” Hancock murmurs, and Ghazali almost responds before he realizes that she isn’t talking to him; she’s talking to her tablet, to the little coruscating false-color silhouette writhing there. Gamium data.

She’s talking to something in his brain.

But now she sets the tablet aside and meets his eyes. “And I’m sorry, but I still don’t buy it. That level of anger, that — fury — our algos are too good to have missed it. You’re not even a Quayside resident, you’re a third-order downstream variable and they still knew what you were going to order off that truck before you even thought about eating out.”

“They fucked up the satay,” Ghazali reminds her.

And they shouldn’t have. That’s exactly my point. Any more than they should have let a human pressure cooker walk up to one of our people on a public street and hammer him into a coma. If you were going to go berserker you would have done it three years ago, and you didn’t. These things do not come out of nowhere, Marius. They are predictable.” There’s an intensity behind the smartspec eyeshine, an anger, at any reality with the temerity to defy expectation…

Something thumps against the window. Ghazali turns, glimpses a small dark blur plastered for just an instant on the other side of the frosted glass.

“Bird.” Hancock says. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Bird?”

“The polarizing mesh messes with their magnetic sense or something. When we blank the windows.”

“Your ecofriendly miracle windows kill birds.”

She shrugs. “We’ve got half a dozen drones on collection duty. Send the bodies to FLAP for barcoding. Nothing gets wasted. If we could get back to— ”

Over on the conference table, the abandoned tablet flickers. Something in Marius Ghazali just snaps.

Maybe it’s the condescension she’s been radiating from the moment she stepped into the fucking room. Maybe it’s her entitlement, the casual power she waves in his face like a red flag: oh aren’t I the generous one, not calling the police just so long as you jump through my hoops like a good little lab rat. Maybe it’s this smug white cunt’s obvious default assumption that of course he’ll do what she says, she just has to say the word and he’ll jump on command and dance his black ass all over her database. Maybe maybe maybe.

All Marius Ghazali knows in this moment is: he’s going wipe the smirk off this bitch’s face until she doesn’t have a face left to smirk out of. She sees it, too; suddenly her eyes are wide as satellite dishes, her mouth gapes like some hilarious gasping carp as she stumbles back into the table and the tablet tips and falls and lands face-down on that oh-so-tasteful-and-expensive carpet and Ghazali brings up his fists and —

— and the rage passes through him like a wave, and dissipates.

He stops. Frowns. Tries to get the feeling back. Wonders why, in the next instant.

Hancock’s backed into a corner with one hand raised, palm out: No. Stay away. Stay back. But that palm isn’t raised against him; it’s aimed at a far corner of the ceiling, at a tiny black bead that glistens there like a bird’s eye. Ghazali never noticed it before.

He lowers his fists. “I’m — sorry. I don’t know what…”

She emerges from the corner. Takes a few shaky steps toward the desk.

“I just — something took me, there. It was like — ” He shakes his head, trying to clear it. “Maybe you better call the police after all.”

She bends down and retrieves the fallen tablet. Checks a setting. Looks back up at him.

“What? What is it?” Ghazali asks.

“Someone forked an image onto my screen.” She does some magic to bring it back: the Google logo on a featureless black background.

There it is. There’s the rage he’s been missing, there’s that welcome white-hot face-smashing —

Hancock swipes a finger across the display and the logo disappears. Ghazali’s fury evaporates a moment later.

He staggers, blinks. “That’s interesting.”

She nods. “Isn’t it, though.”

“What the fuck,” Ghazali whispers.

Hancock stares at the tablet. “Someone knew my pass — Marrano?” She raises her eyes and her voice. “This another one of your judgment calls?”

I’m a weapon, he thinks. I’m a wrecking ball. The hammer falls and I just — lose control.

Hancock’s on her way out, tablet in hand. “Excuse me for a moment. I’ll be right back.” The door opens at her approach; in the open-concept office space beyond, two people are peeling off their shirts and another sweeps assorted bits of desktop detritus into a garbage pail.

Someone did this to me….

The door hisses shut.

Too late, he lunges for it. Tries the doorknob anyway, finds it locked. He can hear a burble of faint voices beyond, indecipherable but for their overtones: anger, accusation. Soothing calm. Defensiveness.

Another bird hits the window. Ghazali wanders over, cups hands around eyes, leans against the glass and squints. It’s like trying to see through wax paper. He puts one ear to the pane. Maybe he almost hears something like voices out there. Maybe a siren, thin as a thread.

Maybe it’s just his imagination. Maybe the whole damn city has fallen silent.

The soundproofing must be really good.

She storms back in like a green-eyed thundercloud, tablet still in one hand, a small brown bag in the other. She thrusts it at him. “They want a stool sample.”

“What? Why?” He looks inside. “This is someone’s lunch box.”

“You think we keep fecal kits in the broom closet? We’re getting some droned over from Staples, but deliveries are backed up. We’re making do in the meantime.”

“What’s the hurry?”

She hesitates. Cocks her head, as though listening to — listening for — some inner voice. “I have to remind, you, Marius, this whole no-police thing is contingent on your co-operation.”

The penny drops.

“I’m — I’m not the only one.” He tries the words out, feels the truth of them.

Hancock’s eyes flicker.

“I bet I’m not even the first….”

Her shoulders shift. Something in her posture says Fuck it.

“You’re the fourth. That I know of.”

Shit.”

“First civilian, though. For whatever that’s worth.”

“Civilian?”

“Couple of hours ago some code monkey up in ATAP just — went crazy. Started attacking people, hitting anything that moved, a few things that didn’t. Wild, undirected rage.” She hesitates, looks around as if expecting something to happen. Nothing does. “Security tazed him and dragged him off, and I don’t know if anyone’s even talked to him yet. Half-hour later, someone else over in Stroop. Same thing.”

“Office environment,” Ghazali says.

She nods.

“Surrounded by letterheads and screensavers and shit.”

“We didn’t make that connection. Can’t swing a cat without hitting a logo, nobody — and then you happened to wander by outside, and your rage was anything but undirected. And someone did make the connection.”

“This Marrano dude.”

“Had a hunch. Tried it out.”

“Without telling you?”

“Said he had to seize the moment. Didn’t want me chickening out, flipping the pad over. Thought I’d ruin the experiment.” She snorts softly, adopts some nasal sing-song Marrano-voice: “I turned it right off after a couple of seconds, you were never in any danger…

Ghazali shakes his head. “Asshole.”

“Yeah.” She offers up a bitter smile, points it at the birds-eye in the corner. “Real management material.”

He looks back to the bag in his hand. “He thinks it’s something I ate?”

“Oh, that’s not Marrano. That’s just some algorithm.”

“An algorithm thinks it’s— ”

“How should I know?”

“You’re the — parameterization specialist.”

“Marius.” She takes a breath. “The thing about deep-learning networks is, they’re — opaque. Too many layers. We train them on these huge data sets and they always seem to serve up the right answers, but nobody really knows how, exactly.”

“So an algo wants me to shit into someone’s Tupperware. Because that’ll explain why the Google logo suddenly turns me into…”

Hancock spreads her hands. “Honestly, I don’t know. They don’t tell me anything.”

“And you’re good with that?”

She doesn’t answer.

“You could always try finding out for yourself.” He taps imaginary smart specs at his temple. “Unless, of course, Marrano would disapprove…”

Something hardens in her expression. “Actually, I haven’t heard a peep from that asshole since I came back in here.”

Beyond the door, a murmur of low worried voices. The sound of large objects being moved.

Ghazali smiles grimly. “I think he has other things on his mind.”

“Something you ate. Start with that.”

She reawakens the tablet (Ghazali flinches, but the logo doesn’t reappear), scrolls back through the time-series. “Just before you snapped. This thing here, this nerve, lit up.”

He leans in, squints at a translucent 3D image of his own brain. A strand of bright tinsel hangs off the bottom and fades to black. Hancock taps it, brings up a label.

“Vagus nerve,” she says. “Connects the gut brain to the head brain.”

“Gut brain?”

“Neural net wrapped around the GI tract. Smart as a cat, if you go by the synapse count.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“Says here it’s programmed by gut flor — huh. You can literally change someone’s personality with a fecal transplant. Even cure bipolar disorder.” Hancock’s green eyes flicker madly back and forth: tiny snowstorms swirl across their irises. She’s immersed in rapid-fire AR now: “Gut bugs — yeah, gut bugs influence memory formation. Send neuroinhibitors to the prefrontal cortex and amyg — ooh, Marius. The amygdala. Fear. Anger. All that nasty id stuff. D’you know you can increase aggression by tweaking gut bacteria?”

I do now. The sting of raw knuckles reawakens at the thought.

“Hey Marius, know what else the cortex and the amygdala have in common? Pattern-matching macros. Colors. Shapes.” Maybe she’s not even Selma Hancock any more, he muses. Maybe she’s just a vessel now, a mouthpiece for some all-seeing all-knowing entity that spans the globe in a web of correlates and false-positives. “So gut bugs talk to gut brain. Gut brain talks to head brain. Gut bugs program head brain. But — ” She fixes him with a bright manic data-stare. “What programs gut brain? Weaponized yoghurt? Chicken satay?”

“That’s bullshit. How would gut bugs even know what Google looks like?”

Brain knows what Google looks like. They spent millions making sure your brain jizzes out its own special cocktail whenever it sees that special Fisher-Price template. You ask me, bugs’re keying on the cocktail.”

Another thump on the window. Big one, Ghazali thinks. Seagull at the very least.

“GTA database.” Hancock lifts her hands. Her fingers tap the air. “Face morphometrics associated with felony assault in proximity to Google iconography, stratified Voronoi. Cross with faces capped entering public eating establishments over the past, say — what’s a reasonable incubation period?”

Ghazali shrugs. “No idea.”

“Two weeks,” Hancock says — “Two weeks is good,” — and wiggles her fingers as though casting a spell. “Euler correlation.”

Amen, he thinks.

“Run,” she says, and lowers her arms. Her eyes dim.

“Wouldn’t your algos have done this already?” Ghazali wonders.

“If someone told them to. They wouldn’t notice it on their own unless you got up over 80, 90 incidents.”

“Seems like kind of a blind spot.”

She shrugs. “Our sample sizes run into the billions. Anything that shows up in less than a hundred’s almost bound to be an artifact. I’m pushing it as it is. Ah.” Her eyes reignite. “There we go.”

It took less than ten seconds, he realizes.

“Twenty more cases in the past hour.” She grunts. “Yeah, there you are. You do like eating out of Rosa’s, don’t you?”

“Yeah. So?”

“So did at least three other hits. Wonder if they had the satay.”

“I know the Rosa guys. They wouldn’t — ”

“Wouldn’t what, Marius?”

“They’re just some mom’n’pop operation that — ”

“Mom’s wife has a friend with a Master’s in plasmid vector architecture, did you know that?”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.”

“Well, regional distributor, anyway.” She grunts. “Both within the past three days, though. Too recent. We need Patient Zero. Maybe two weeks wasn’t long enough. Or maybe — ”

It’s not a bird this time. It crashes low into the window with a crack, births a jagged spiderweb across the pane. Ghazali jumps. The window flickers around the damage, a small patch of heat lightning in an overcast sky.

“Uh…”

“ — maybe widen the focus,” Hancock’s saying.

Ghazali crouches, puts one eye to point of impact. It’s no longer like trying to see through wax paper; it’s like staring into a strobe light. He can make out vague shapes through the flicker, though. The green blur of the lawn. Something yellow, maybe the size of a bowling ball, off to the left. Motion in the middle distance; a forest of legs, on the wrong side of the barrier. Closer than they should be. He hears a sound like the roar of an ocean a continent away.

“We’re talking way more than twenty cases,” he says.

“Yeah, well. Takes a while for the data sets to refresh.” Fingers still in motion, eyes still on fire, hot on some trail. She doesn’t seem to have noticed the rock.

He tries again. “You know that giant Google sign you’ve got up on the roof?”

“Shhh.”

“I think it might be — drawing them in — ”

Shhh!

The next missile hits above and to the left of the first: another web of cracks, another fractured flickering aperture. Ghazali’s almost certain he can hear sirens, now.

Fuck this. He heads for the door.

Hancock’s hand claps down on his shoulder as his hand grasps the knob. “You don’t want to do that.”

He tries anyway. “Still locked.”

“Just as well.”

He puts his ear against the door. “I can’t hear anything out there.”

“Even so.”

Her eyes have died.

“Network’s down,” she says. “All over, I think.”

“Selma. There’s a mob out there.”

She doesn’t answer. She holds up the tablet that used to hold his brain; now it shows a frame grab from a security camera somewhere.

“Do you know where this is?” she asks.

It looks almost staged: attacker and defender facing each other on a tiled floor. The defender’s hands thrown wide against his assailant; staggered, off-balance, he collides with the shoulder of some armoured machine bolted to the floor. Blood courses down his face onto his navy-blue mall-cop uniform.

His attacker stands with back to camera, right fist arcing toward his face. Black denim pants, white cotton tee with a vaguely familiar command stencilled across the shoulder blades. Ghazali reads it aloud: “Don’t Be Evil.”

“Used to be Google’s corporate motto,” Hancock says. “Until it wasn’t.”

“Where’s the logo?”

“That’s not a victim, Marius. That’s the fucking perpetrator.” She jabs the tablet with one finger. “But I only got a time stamp and an IP address before the network went down. This happened five days ago. Do you know where?

It’s maddeningly familiar: the way the shadows dice the sunlight on the polished red tiles, the retro-deco struts and pylons that speak of high ceilings and quaint architecture. The curve of that squat gray-green machine, that hulking…

Pump head.

“Harris treatment plant,” he tells her. “End of the Boardwalk. Supplies drinking water to half the GTA.” He sucks in breath. “We gotta tell someone.”

“I told you. Network’s down.” Hancock turns away. She doesn’t even glance at the damaged window.

“There have to be other networks.” She regards him as though he’s retarded. “You’re Google for fuck’s sake! You’ve got satellites! Solar drones! You run a whole separate Internet off weather balloons!”

“Marius. Google knows already.”

She sags to the floor. Leans her back against a table leg.

“I squeezed that signal out of the noise in, what. Ten minutes? Once I knew what to look for. You really think no one else did? You think eight billion lines of code wouldn’t have figured it out a gajillion times faster?”

“Then — wait, you’re saying someone let — ”

“Someone. Something.” Her shoulders rise, fall. “Maybe even started it.”

Why?

She looks up at him: Weary. Disillusioned.

Empty, somehow.

“Because you hate us, Marius. Because we steal your secret lives and sell them to the highest bidder. We’re the bad guys in every screed anyone ever wrote about the Panopticon, we’re the one thing the Libtards and the Altzis agree on. Only not any more, right? We’ve just gone from villain to victim. The brutalized innocents. It’s actually pretty fucking brilliant, as Hail-Mary PR strategies go.” She stares down at the floor. “With any luck we’ll be running this burg when the dust clears. If only we’d had a bit more data we could have seen this coming. If only we’d had in-ground sensors and automatic face recognition throughout the GTA like we do in Quayside. Think of the lives we could have saved if your antiquated notions of privacy hadn’t held us back…

“No.” He shakes his head. “There’s got to be something we can do.”

A row of bullet holes hemstitches across the window in a jagged diagonal. The pane flickers, fails, falls under the onslaught; a thousand shards drop like icicles. Outside bursts In like a pile driver, a deafening blast of shouts and crashes and sirens. Black smoke and burning rubber. Bullets and bullhorns. A colony creature with a thousand limbs, tearing itself to pieces on the road. A self-driving Tesla hurtles across the lawn, straight as an arrow, flames guttering and leaping from its bright shiny carbon-neutral grille.

“You could always take off that stupid helmet,” she says before it reaches them. “It makes you look like an idiot.”

About Peter Watts