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Your phone rests in your hand, your mouth hangs open. All that comes out of you is one exceptionally stubborn silence.
Your guide awaits, as silent as you.
Your guide is an application connected to plantations of servers capable of light-speed thought. But you aren't capable of very much. For whatever reason, you're nothing now but an incoherent collection of flesh and pain.
"Flesh and pain," you mutter, and your phone says, "I can't quite hear you, sir."
The app asks, "What do want from me today, sir?"
The simplest question.
"Happiness," you say. "Show me the way to happiness."
All of humanity is in motion. On legs, inside cars, and through the sky, yes. But mostly inside these million-year-old brains.
The app has given you a map and one fat line to follow, and you're only role is to agree or disagree. You agree, and the car accelerates, brakes and turns and accelerates again, software chasing a remarkably specific address. It's interesting to mark how far you need to go to find happiness. Five states to cross. Major highways and then a minor highway twisting across a landscape you've never seen before. But that's how the app works. Feed it your profiles and give it a single-word wish: Happiness. Enlightenment. Love. There are other words, but those are the favorites. Available for just 23 days, this app has become a global phenomenon. That's what every news report claims. Right now, a billion people are on the move. That's what your eyes tell you. Flat country, all of it underpopulated, yet the traffic is heavy, heavy. Multitudes ride alone or sometimes with others. Families in some cases, but not always. Strangers have been paired together. How can you tell? It's the way they sit side-by-side. The way one pays strict attention when the other speaks. Only strangers hang on each other's words like that.
Needing fuel, your car pulls off the Interstate and parks, plugging into the juice port.
And you step inside a convenience store.
Nobody works the register. Almost nobody is working anywhere today. But one pretty lady has borrowed a stool, elbows pressing against the counter, studying every face that passes through sliding glass doors.
You say nothing.
She answers with her own silence, glancing back at her phone.
This is not your destination, and she isn't waiting for you. And here is the new normal: Full of purpose, people do an exemplary job of ignoring everything else, including one another.
The men's bathroom is filthy, but welcome. Snacks are depleted but adequate. Your phone takes responsibility for payments, and out you go, and on you go, juiced up and fed well enough to reach the end of your journey.
The app is small and elegantly written and remarkably bug-free for software that wasn't seen in the wild until last month. Called Guide-Dance, it seems like a clumsy play on the word "Guidance." Clumsiness implies a poor translation by a Chinese corporation or a clever joke by the AI mastermind. Except this elegant bit of code was actually crafted by a young woman in Hamburg, and she named it after her favorite two cats.
You don't know that history, and you'd be sorry to learn the truth. Surrendering your life to a German girl would seem very silly. No, the Chinese are in charge, or the half-born world mind. Or maybe both forces have united, wrenching control over so many unhappy souls.
Great enemies. Nothing but your great enemies should be able to conquer the world in twenty-four days.
You're crossing New Mexico when various governments finally step in. First, Guide-Dance is removed from the app stores. Second, its sole proprietor is taken in for questioning. Third, every phone in the world is asked to update. Except updates are problematic on good days, and the general consensus is that happiness and enlightenment and love are growing closer. Like a billion other people, you sweep the notification out of sight. So the next step is to silence every cellular network, which again sounds more apocalyptic than it is. This app routinely downloads maps, just in case the Internet is unreachable.
New Mexico surrenders to Utah.
You've never been to Utah, never wanted to visit. But the state is a revelation of vicious canyons running between dry mountain ranges, plus towns that can't be explained for normal reasons, all built beyond the reach of easy water or rich earth.
One of those towns. That's your destination.
First impressions are lousy. Hanksville is Utah without Mormons, without prosperity. At least half of its natives have recently abandoned the place. Which is and is not a problem. Your car parks and fuels itself and wishes you well. You walk down the highway to an ugly cinder-block motel. The office door is propped open. A young woman is sitting behind the desk, reading. Happy strangers are pictured on the wall. She isn't one of those faces. She reads and you watch her, and she closes the book and smiles, and you ask, "What are you reading?"
"You like poetry?"
"I didn't think so. But everything feels new, and I found the book here. So I wanted to try."
You live with this woman for forty-two years, and you call yourselves very happy, and historians and sociologists eventually decide that this what saved the world. Two German cats shook things up, and for a few weeks, people everywhere let themselves think and do the most amazing new things.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, December 19th, 2018
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