The freshly fallen snow, right before it all started, almost made it all worth it. But he found a way to ruin even that.
Earl knew this would be a different kind of job when he discovered the company wasn’t willing to fly him out there, or put him up. Also weird was that they physically bought the ticket, which means they picked the seat he was to sit in for the next four hours, but they stopped short of the billing process to give him a chance to put his card info in the required fields (all to be comped later, of course). They picked his seat, then, but to be fair they couldn’t have possibly known he would be seated next to, not just two fourteen-year-old girls, but probably the dullest, shrillest girls to ever grow standing on the earth as it turned around the sun fourteen times. From the moment he sat down until he waved them to go ahead of him on the aisle they never stopped talking to each other, and yet he couldn’t have told you a single thing they talked about, as the continuous chatter coalesced into a blurry monolith of noise (when people bemoan cell phones and how they cut people off from humanity, look no further than a pair of dull fourteen year old girls for a counterpoint (and of course one of the wires on his headphones shorted, which meant they were always one step ahead of the pleasant ambient music playlist he compiled before the trip)). He had some miles left over, but he was saving them up for a trip to Istanbul, which he now probably had to postpone to next year or the year after. Even so, he still needed his card to pay the balance, which, while not maxing it out entirely, put just enough on his limit so that once he got to the rental station he had to wait another four hours for his sister to get home from work and fax the rental place a signed agreement to be responsible for the credit deposit on one of her cards. They only had a stick-shift available, which was fine since he learned how to drive stick for exactly these situations, but the brake that stopped the car on hills apparently didn’t work, so every time he was stopped in front of a light or another driver on the very hilly route he always thought he was going to roll backwards into whatever was behind him. The rental took four hours, and the drive, in good weather, took another two. Oh yes, there was the snowstorm too, which added another three to the drive over. Luckily, since the company not only refused to put him in a hotel but actually forbade him to stay anywhere and instead instructed him to go straight to the man’s house once he landed, the delay at the rental place and the drive and the weather eventually brought him there just as the snow was letting up and just as the sun was rising to a new day.
The walk from where he eventually had to park the rental, past the dense pine trees and all the way up to his cabin was a slog, of course. He tripped over maybe three or so rocks hidden by the snow, and small hills beneath it made it tough for him to keep his footing. But once he reached the cabin, and he took in his surroundings, some of the trees long cleared away and so no longer dense woods, he was struck by its beauty. There was a serenity to the untouched snow covering the cabin and the sparse field around it, a gentle white blanket covering all the difficulties of his trip in warmth. He took in deep breaths, and it was finally quiet enough for him to hear his own breathing.
But then the front door of the cabin creaked open, and he came out. Back at the offices they called him “the Apple Fuck.” Only a few people even knew his name or what he looked like, and those few did not include Earl, who until this doubted he was even real. When people claimed that their older phones felt like they were being throttled after a software upgrade, the kooks in tinfoil hats saying it was the company’s way of nudging them toward a purchase of a newer model, Earl and many other skeptics would roll their eyes and say sure, the Apple Fuck’s slowing down your phone. Sure guys, the Apple Fuck makes the UI infantilized so that everyone in the world can use them, and when the power user complains that it’s too restrictive, it’s the Apple Fuck wagging his finger at you like a nanny, saying electronically you don’t really need those capabilities, do you?
But this was the mission. He couldn’t believe it when he got the memo: he was to fly out to the company’s official Consultant on Technical Procedures to Induce Sales Retention, and await instructions. Jesus, a title like that, had to be the Apple Fuck. And there he was. A roly-poly man, imagine the chunky awkward bespectacled nerds of a Far Side comic, imagine that kid in his late forties, with a pale, freckled face with the punchability of Martin Shkreli, and you had the man coming out of the cabin to meet him. Knowing what he was up against, Earl expected the man to walk through the snow, his waddling steps smush-smushing the fresh white blanket that gave him so much calm and serenity. What he didn’t expect, however, and what happened next, was that the man, wearing a full snow-suit, collapsed to one side, and rolled… Jesus, rolled, all the way down the stairs, across the field and up to where Earl stood. He held out a sausage-fingered hand, as if expecting help up from the ground without asking, and when Earl eventually helped him to his feet (what choice did he have?), he shook off snow like a dog who just took a bath, off himself and onto Earl.
—Mornin, company man. Had a good flight, sleep well?
—Well, in fact I just…
—Don’t actually care. Follow me.
Earl slowly followed the man as he waddled back to the cabin. The cabin seemed much bigger inside than out (and since Earl worked in tech he figured he could indulge in this little nerdism to himself), with a room full of servers, more servers than he’d ever seen in his life, immediately greeting him upon entering. His guide waved him along, and they passed by a room with a sign posted on the door: DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT ENTERING THIS ROOM, (AND I HAVE PICKED UP A LOT FROM NSA CONTACTS ENOUGH TO STATISTICALLY GUESS WITH NEAR-PERFECT ACCURACY IF YOU ARE THINKING IT). He gave a chuckle and pointed a thumb toward it.
—Never guess what’s in there?
—Um, maybe a…
—Told you you’d never guess. Ever heard of bitcoin?
—Yeah, though a few people tried to tell me how it works and I still really don’t get it.
—Yeah, I don’t care about that either. All I know is, the servers that they need to power all the available bitcoin in the world, takes as much power as the entire nation of Ireland uses. The servers in that room? That’s Dublin, baby.
—So… You don’t have any of the things of value in that equation? You just… own the thing that lets people have them while harming the earth?
He answered Earl with a laugh and a hard jab of his elbow to the ribs.
—I’m looking to expand. If I get enough bonuses, that’ll give me what I need to add on a couple wings to the cabin. Today Dublin, tomorrow Japan.
Earl let out a sigh, not realizing how irritable the conversation was making him, or that maybe he could pick up on it.
—Why not China?
—That’s the dream, my man…
They reached what was most likely the man’s man cave, full of blinking monitors, terminals, and also non-blinking empty pizza boxes and aluminum cans. It was impossible to take a step in the room without disturbing some piece of garbage on the floor. Earl noticed the main computer he used made his back face the door; I guess, he thought, all the litter is a low-rent security system if someone wants to sneak up behind and strangle him.
—Alright, company man. Gimme your phone.
Earl hesitantly reached in his pocket, and stalled for a moment as the man in front of him reached out five outstretched sausage fingers. He eventually relented and placed his own phone flat on his hand. The man in response flipped another phone in the air, which Earl caught with his free hand.
—That’s an old model with the new OS installed. You are holding the only phone with it installed, by the way. Here’s the mission: the company sends me checks with a whole bunch of zeros on it to find ways to throttle the speeds on old models so people buy new phones before their contracts are up. You are going to use that phone like it’s yours, until you can’t stand it anymore. If you figure out what it’s doing, you win, and you get your bonus. If you don’t, and you give up like a little bitch, like all the other bitch customers, I win, and you go home. Any questions?
—…so it’s true then, what they say?
The man only laughed, and motioned to Earl to keep following him. He led him to an abandoned garden shack out in the back of the cabin, with nothing but a sleeping bag and a memory-foam airplane neck-pillow next to an outlet, with a charger and a cable plugged into it.
—This is the guest room. Lights went out in here last week, but that shouldn’t be a problem, I hear the LCD gets pretty bright on that thing. The wifi account is “dontusemywifi”, the password is “yesthatmeansyoucompanyman.” Text if you need anything, I usually cut myself off when I code so don’t be alarmed if it takes me more than a few hours to respond.
Nothing fucking worked on that phone. No social media pages loaded their posts, no streaming services downloaded his favorite shows, even on what should have been lightning-speed wifi account for this man, never mind the ominous name. Even when he finally got to download one twenty-minute episode of his favorite podcast about design he was one hundred seventy episodes into, the podcatcher app wouldn’t even play the downloaded file. Earl’s nights were spent in pitch darkness, in freezing cold, staring at a bright white screen that could do nothing for him, until it gave him a headache from eyesore. His head hurt so much, which the memory-foam pillow on hardwood floor did nothing to help, and the room was so cold, which the paper-thin sleeping bag on the hardwood floor did nothing to help, that no matter how sore his eyes got he couldn’t try to sleep anyway. Better to wreck my eyes and try not think about how freezing and sleep-deprived I am, Earl thought.
Days when the sun came up were no better. The Apple Fuck only served one thing, and it wasn’t apples. Every day, at around 1:30 pm, he would come in to his kitchen, wearing nothing but a tattered terry cloth robe and tighty-whities, and make “breakfast” for Earl and himself. It was beef patties fried up and broken into chunks, served with leftover elbow pasta and mixed with melted American cheese. It was the most disgusting thing Earl had ever eaten in his life. Even though forcing down half a bowl of the stuff was a Herculean effort, there were some days where Earl preferred human contact, even contact with the Apple Fuck and his meat sludge, over staring into a device that could at this point do little more than shine a too-bright blue light directly into his eyes and damage them.
Over one such meal, the Apple Fuck noticed Earl had gagged down his beef chum a little earlier than usual, and took it upon himself to refill his bowl with some more.
—How’s it coming along with the old model?
—Well, I gotta say…
—Yeah, you’ll never get it. I spent a lot of time living in New York City before I came out here, more than I should have. It inspired me in ways I wouldn’t have even thought of if I followed all the other Silicon Valley geeks right out of school. You’ve lived there too, right?
—How did you…
—Oh, you tried logging in to a social media site, I have everything on you now. Oh don’t worry, I’m not going to use any of it, and I pretty much won’t exist once you leave, but still, nice to know you still got it.
The man reached behind his tight-fitting underwear and pulled out a pack of bubble gum.
—Want a piece of gum?
Even though Earl just saw where he kept it, the taste of meat and cheese vomit was still deep in his throat, and maybe a piece of gum could at least temporarily alleviate him until the man finally shuts up and gives him and chance to run his mouth under the freezing cold tap water. He nodded yes, and the man popped another piece in his own mouth.
—But think back to your days in the city. Think back to delays on the train, half-hour long delays, and the conductors giving you useless updates that the train’s being momentarily held and they’ll be moving shortly, every five minutes, when all you want them to tell you is hey, we finally found the accelerator, let’s get going, and little do you know they’re waiting because a dead rat fell on a train control sensor that’s over a hundred years old, and they have no choice but to interpret it as a train is still ahead of them waiting. Then you’re off the train, and you’re still shoulder to shoulder, you’re actually waiting in line to go up a flight of stairs, a crowd that could fit five whole lines, waiting for their turn to go up a staircase that can fit one person going up and another going down, because they were built in an era when the city didn’t have nine million people. And if that’s not enough, you have to wait for people on the sidewalk, fat, slow tourists walking abreast, covering the whole sidewalk, and cars speeding by you so you can’t cut across on the street, and what are they looking at? It’s not even a cool looking billboard, why are they taking a picture of that? Want a piece of gum?
Earl reached out his hand again, and the man stuffed it in his own mouth again.
—But you’re not going to leave, not ever. Your place, it’s rent-controlled. You’ve already found a decent job. You’re comfortable. You’re willing to put up with a lot… until one day you don’t. You snap and say I’ve had enough already. You capitulate, you buy a newer model, so to speak. You’re not even really helping yourself when you do, it’s just so you can hopefully not notice the truth starting right at you: that the world was not built for you. Your home, your city, the people around you, everything, is your enemy. Want some gum?
Earl shook his head no. The man stuffed three more pieces in his mouth.
—Itsh like the ghuy who buysh thoo many grotheriesh, and livsh in a walk-up, and triesh to carry them all upf the shtairsh, but he can’t becush they’re too heafy, so he hash to walk up the stairsh carrying each bagth one by one. That khind uf angher, when you realish you have thoo many grotheriesh to carry all th way up the shtairsh, that khind of rethighnashion, I made up a word fhor it. Whant thom ghum?
Earl shook his head no again, and he stuffed even more in his mouth. The word he coined, for the specific kind of anger you experience when you have too many groceries to carry them all the way up the stairs at once, sounded, through the wad of gum, something like “grumbulgery.”
—Naaao phay atthenshion, hherth what I hhafth thay.
He then stuffed the entire pack in his mouth. His face was a rictus of swelled-up puffy freckled cheeks and buck teeth gnawing on a bloated pink bolus, strawberry-flavored spittle blowing through the gaps.
—thhhegh ghreeethg themnegh ghfnrk themerr fseerhng teethrgrhee dddthoorffgth thhtek theesd reeeoff thheeo ehhr ceerttrdfh dddeerrottt ddhtheeo ttheen… theeedthr.
The Apple Fuck unhinged his jaw like a boa constrictor and spat out the mushy sugary ball into his sink.
—Did you get all that? Cause I’m not gonna say it again.
It was a little after four in the morning. Earl knocked on the Apple Fuck’s man-cave door, and knew for a fact he wasn’t waking him up, and not caring even a little bit if he disturbed him. He gave up.
—What the hell did you do to this? Not a single app works, not a single website loads. I tried just cataloging each of the programs that fail before giving that up. I ran diagnostics, deleted cache, factory resets, everything. And the CPU is barely using any memory, let alone hogging it for a throttled service! Tell me, for God’s sake. What the hell did you do?
The Apple Fuck smiled and motioned for Earl to come hither to his main computer.
—You’re looking for the wrong thing. I didn’t have to throttle anything. Here’s what the new OS does: when it installs, it does a quick scan of the user’s phone. Not just apps, but also analyzes everything, browsing habits, bank statements, emails, you name it. From that data it gathers a stockpile of everything the user uses on his phone, and also may use over time. Then, when the user uses that program, it does this.
He pushed some buttons, and Earl saw… well, he had to admit, it was the man’s masterpiece. A huge array of loading animations. Spinning circles for every possible app, every website, every service a person could every conceivably want to use.
—Hidden deep in the phone’s hard drive, in that murky area called “system data” that you can’t fuck with if you don’t want to mess up your phone, is a loading animation for anything you try to use. Each individual one isn’t even that big, maybe a quarter of a meg. But if you try to use that app, the animation starts up, and loops. Over and over again. And it stops right at the point you are statistically most likely to close it and try another. For every app. Until you give up. Or, of course, until you buy another model.
Earl couldn’t say anything. The man had a point. He didn’t see it as failing, as losing the bonus he would have gotten had he not cracked under the Apple Fuck’s pressure. No, he was simply using that potential bonus to buy his way out, out of the freezing cabin, away from beef sludge bowls and gum, away from the forever-spinning Ouroboros that was the loading animation of every single thing he tried to accomplish on that brick with a lightscreen, that spinning circle that bored into his eyes so deep that he saw it even in his brief nightmares, away from the Apple Fuck forever. Fuck it, he was buying a new model.
The journey back to the plane was pleasant enough, and as the plane started its gentle roll onto the runway he had minutes before the flight attendants told him to turn his phone to airplane mode. With those precious moments of data before liftoff, he saw something, well, alarming:
The fuck?! The fucking shit is this, Earl raged to himself. What in the hell did I spend the last week with the worst man in the world for, eating his goddamn c-grade beef and science-cheese mush every day, shivering in that linen sheet of a sleeping bag on a hardwood floor, nearly catching pneumonia, staring at what I soon came to learn was the same less-than-a-meg animation of a spinning circle? And what did they say they did it for? The battery? You can’t even get the battery changed anyway! It’s not what you think, the headline said. Of course it’s what you think! I suffered the business trip from hell and all I brought back was proof fucking positive that it is what you think! You could put a hundred new batteries in there and the Apple Fuck’s little circle animations will still get you in the end.
Earl seethed for a while. So is that what their endgame was? Deny the rumors, placate the masses with a bogus excuse, and then inflict on them a plague of endless circles? What made me any different from those masses? I work for them, damn it. I’m not just a guinea pig. I’m not just a mark who needs an upgrade… He began drafting his letter of resignation, effective immediately, in his head, when his phone buzzed suddenly, and Earl, puzzled since he did change it to airplane mode (he might be bitter but he’s not an asshole), checked it and was shocked to find a text had gone through nonetheless. There was an attachment, a screenshot of a statement from his personal checking account. The company had just deposited $300,000.
WOOOO! PAYDIRT, COMPANY MAN! LOOKS LIKE THEY WERE AS GOOD TO YOU AS THEY ARE TO ME! WASN’T SURE IF YOU WERE ALREADY FLYING SO I SENT THE PIC JUST IN CASE.
TODAY, JAPAN, TOMORROW CHINA!