Scott Danner stood exactly five-foot-ten, with a thatch of wavy chestnut hair, feminine lips and a prominent chin, like a boxer, though his wiry frame suggested he had once been a soccer player. He entered the conference room wearing a white t-shirt, navy sport coat, a pair of expensive designer jeans and black brushed-leather Prada Oxfords.
His phone was nowhere to be seen, which indicated to Ellen that this meeting would be much different than his recent Senate subcommittee testimony, the one and only time she had seen him in a suit. There, C-SPAN caught him repeatedly checking his phone and posting to multiple social media platforms in real time what he considered humorous anecdotes. The cable-TV-news political pundits considered this behavior a mockery of the proceedings and our fair system. Danner’s Big Tech counterparts loved it.
The government didn’t know shit about software, Danner had literally told Wired. These frowning lackeys to a broken system didn’t even know what questions to ask. In other words, they didn’t know enough to know they didn’t know. Be that as it may, why shouldn’t tech pave the way for unbridled free-market capitalism, and his company, Eratere Corporation, be its bellwether?
Ellen had watched the C-SPAN coverage with a jaundiced eye and today expected irreverence, a man who was above and beyond a meeting with a mere print journalist, even though she had recently been given her very own column in her national paper, called Pivotal Signals. She imagined a man-child in a Stanford hoodie and flip-flops, which is what he was wearing in the pages of Wired.
She had been wrong.
“Ellen, hi,” Danner said with a capped-tooth smile as he approached the conference room table, bowed out on the long sides. He covered her offered hand with both of his. The palms felt smooth, almost like silk, as if he had just washed and dried them with a Dyson Airblade.
“Hello, Mr. Danner,” she replied, now feeling a little underdressed in her pedestrian navy pantsuit and a pair of sensible flats. Even her wedding band seemed undersized.
“Look, within these walls,” he said, holding up his arms and swiveling his hips, “just call me Scott. If all goes well today, we’ll be working closely together soon.”
There was no hint of sarcasm, or even irony. He was there to interview her, instead of sitting for an exclusive, no-holds-barred engagement for the first installment of Ellen’s new column.
How do you respond to that? Ellen thought, already wishing she was in D.C. or any other place than Eratere headquarters in the heart of Silicon Valley. There were a thousand other worthy column topics, the most important nouns of our time—people, places, things, issues, events.
But she had requested this interview. He had done nothing to orchestrate this, no matter his subterfuge.
Ellen pulled out her iPhone, opened the Voice Memos app, and set it on the table. Danner looked at her, then broke into a slight smirk as he gazed upon the iPhone.
“Let’s just talk first,” he said, sliding his hand across the table with the intention of seizing the device, but Ellen beat him to it, using her middle two fingers to clasp the seam of the Otterbox and pull it away. A few moments of uncomfortable silence ensued.
“I’d like to ask some questions first,” she finally said, now wondering why an Eratere corporate communications wonk wasn’t sitting in on this meeting. Virtually every interview she had conducted with people of Danner’s stature included a sniveling VP wannabee who would subtly signal to their lord and master yea or nay regarding addressing the topic at hand.
Instead, Danner was on his own. But he seemed comfortable.
The joust for control had ensued.
“I knew you were coming, even before you scheduled this meeting,” he said with a satisfied, confident air. “Do you know how I know you’d be here?”
Ellen simply stared at him, mute. He was handsome, without doubt, about seven or eight years Ellen’s junior, with marble eyes as chocolate as his hair.
Danner stared back, then nodded toward the glass of water that sat next to Ellen’s iPhone.
She frowned. What was he saying, exactly?
“Did you know that seventy-five percent of freshwater withdrawn annually in the U.S. comes from reservoirs, lakes and even rivers, with the rest coming from underground aquifers?” he said.
“With respect, Mr. Danner, I didn’t request this meeting to talk about our country’s water supply,” Ellen responded in a curt tone that she instantly regretted. He could have her shown out, and that might sink Pivotal Signals before it even launched. Her editors were relying on the subject of her debut column for instant clickbait.
Danner simply grinned and said, “Remember, in here, it’s Scott. Just hear me out.”
He went on to toss out statistics like how most of the freshwater used in America—some eighty percent—was used to cool electric power plants and for irrigation.
“That means, hypothetically, a good portion of what’s left we use for showers, cooking, toilets, washing…and drinking,” he said, then gestured to the water glass on the table once again. “You took a sip, didn’t you?”
Ellen was compelled to nod. She had gotten a late start that morning at the hotel and missed breakfast. As she waited for Danner in the conference room, she got thirsty.
“Let me show you something,” he said, and rose, brushing invisible fuzz from his sport coat. He turned toward the conference room door and beckoned Ellen to follow. She grabbed her iPhone and her briefcase, but Danner responded by saying, “Your things will be safe here. I’d rather you come alone, at least for now.”
“Mr. Danner, I would feel more comfortable carrying my briefcase, if that’s okay?” She said this in a way that, while not a demand, was a point for which she wouldn’t budge.
Danner didn’t like it, his brow furrowing, but in seconds he had let it go with a light smile.
“Suit yourself. We’re going to head to the darkest bowels of this company to see what will no doubt be,” and here he put up both hands with mock quotes, “then next big thing.”
He stepped to one of the teak-paneled walls parallel to the conference room table, waved his hand at an almost imperceptible dot, and the panel slid open in silence. Within was a cylindrical platform with a plexiglass barrier, which had opened simultaneously.
“This is how you know we’re serious about our work here at Eratere,” Danner said, stepping into the platform. “It’s a secret passage. Da-da-da-dum.”
In closed quarters, Danner’s cologne had musky, woody hints. While not overpowering, the scent was enough to make Ellen realize that whatever it was, it was both sensual and expensive. She wondered if this was by design, if he was trying to appeal to her femininity. She then thought of her husband, Tim, a couple of thousand miles away in D.C., with the girls, Danielle and Michaela.
“Where are we going?” she said after a few moments, the platform’s descent as disorienting as any elevator.
At first, Danner didn’t respond, but then apparently changed his mind, and said, “Few in this company are aware of where we are going. What it is, is our…skunkworks, for lack of a better phrase. You know what skunkworks is, right? Area 51 and all that crap? This is the Eratere version. What’s in that glass of water you drank from came out of here.”
Ah yes, the water, Ellen thought. She had covered enough presidents and CEOs and chairmen of the board to realize that what they termed innovation was usually a major letdown, often a new riff on existing technology. Obviously, Danner and Eratere had found some way to improve water, perhaps a more cost-effective way to filter it.
It was probably garbage, with a big buildup to get Ellen to write nice things about it in her new column, which would (hopefully) get a lot of eyeballs and clicks when it launched next week.
But this was Scott Danner, brash and uncompromising.
The platform came to a smooth landing, and the plexiglass barrier slid open with nary a sound, like the elevator door. In a faux sense of chivalry, Danner said, “Ladies first, of course,” and allowed Ellen to pass.
The room was dark and chilly, and her nipples immediately hardened. Ahead of Ellen was an eighty-inch high-definition screen with green computer code flitting across it, reminding her of the film The Matrix. A balding man in a sky-blue lab coat sat in a captain’s chair with his back to her, and he seemed to be typing.
This is it? Ellen thought. This is what was so important?
“Now, I know what you’re thinking, and when I say that, I really know,” Danner said. “Mr. Quib, will you do the honors?”
With a few keystrokes, the green computer code disappeared, replaced by text:
This is it? This is what was so important?
Whoa, Ellen thought. That word then appeared on the screen.
“You’re looking at the future of democracy,” Danner said, crossing his arms as if in triumph. “Whether it’s a group of guys ordering a pizza, or a presidential election, what we’ve done here is nothing less than purity of thought.”
Now Ellen was conscious of her every thought. Every time she didn’t want to think, words appeared on the screen.
How did he do this?
What exactly is it?
“Let me tell you a little bit about this,” Danner said, that winning smile reappearing. “We’ve designed software that can be ingested through a microscopic device developed by an unnamed partner of Eratere’s. These devices tap into a human’s frontal lobe, the location of the brain responsible for decision-making, and is able to relay a signal to any nearby cell tower. In turn, that signal ends up here, where it is aggregated with everyone else’s.”
“Yep,” he said. “The results can be transmitted back to any mobile phone, which can obviously be viewed and finalize a group decision. So, in our pizza example, one of the guys suggests ordering. But from where? Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Domino’s? Some local joint? Within seconds, the consensus pops up on each guy’s mobile phone. Nifty, isn’t it?”
Scary is more like it.
What about elections and…
“That’s the pure democracy aspect,” he said, holding his fist in front of him. “Think of it. Voting will never again require someone to go to their village hall or a school gym. They can simply ‘think’ about their decision, and when election day arrives, our software will essentially determine the winner by collecting opinions and broadcasting overall consensus. And this isn’t just for presidential elections. It can be used for any election, from mayor to village board president to school boards.”
“You violated me,” Ellen spat. “You put that…that device in that glass of water and I drank it.”
Each of those words appeared on the screen, along with:
Can I sue this guy?
“Oh no, there will be no legal repercussions,” Danner replied. “And it’s only partly true that our device was in that glass of water upstairs. It was, but they are already in every lake, river, stream, reservoir and aquifer in the country. Billions of them, because they are made at scale with our software embedded. So if you drank a bottled water, like you did at the hotel, you pop up here. But you were already in our system, which is how I knew you were planning to come here to write your lame column.”
What in the actual…?
Danner stared at the screen, grinning, awaiting the next thought, which didn’t come.
“Now, you may be wondering why you’re here, really,” he said. “Truth is, I needed to find a way to introduce this whole concept to the world, because that’s where this is going…global, that is. With the devices already in the water for a few months, and the fact that they are working exactly as planned, we need to influence the feds, and the public, that this is a good thing. Which it is, I might add. Then it’s on the U.N.”
No, no, no, no, no.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Danner replied, almost cackling. “Here’s a compliment for you. You’re a very talented reporter, and your new column will be a hit. We need that first column, the one that will aggregate so, so many eyeballs, to tell the world what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
“I won’t do it,” Ellen replied. Once again, her words appeared on the screen.
“You will,” Danner said, “and I know this because of two reasons. Money’s tight at home, and I’m prepared to pay you ten million large to write exactly what I want people to read. You’ll do the writing, of course, but I will have final approval of the copy.”
Ellen already knew the other reason.
“I’m sad to learn that your marriage is in trouble,” he went on. “It’s too bad that you find it necessary to find solace in the arms of another man.”
Her editor. The one that gave her Pivotal Signals.
No, no, no, no, no.
“It would be a shame for your husband and daughters to find out your secret life,” Danner said, the words floating in the air like stench.
After a pause, he added, “But there’s more. You’re a powerful influencer, like I said, and your first column will be your last column. You’re going to come here and work for me. You’ll be attached to our corporate communications department, but work directly with me to manage and massage communications with Congress, lobbyists and the like. Since our new concept is now in place and can’t be undone, we’ll need someone with your unique talent to weave fact and opinion together to get even those with the harshest objections to acquiesce. Of course, we’ll have ‘the dirt’ on all of them already, so your job shouldn’t be that challenging.”
“I won’t do it,” Ellen said again with a firmness she didn’t truly feel.
Danner shook his head.
“What’s the problem, Ellen?” he said. “Like I said, this is already in place and you’re going to get paid handsomely. I’ll even let your tryst with Bryce slide.”
He’s a lunatic.
He’s the antichrist.
“I’m neither,” he said. “I’m non-partisan. I’m simply here to make our walk on Earth more…efficient. Elegant design—of the software, the device, but most importantly the concept—will improve things on this sad planet we occupy. You’ll see.”
The bile began creeping up Ellen’s esophagus without warning. She swallowed, then swallowed harder to slow its advance. But it was no use. She vomited a liquid that looked brackish onto the glossy black floor. Some of it spattered in Danner’s direction and he jumped away, presumably so his expensive shoes wouldn’t be tarnished.
Ellen felt another heave coming on and swallowed profusely, before Danner said, “Mr. Quib…what’s the matter?”
Another voice, this time mealy-mouthed, responded, “I don’t know. Her vomiting must have disrupted the signal.”
“Get it back!”
Ellen looked up at the screen and it was true. The green Matrix code had returned.
“I can’t, sir. Her devices may have been short-circuited, or even destroyed.”
“There is a lot about this technology that we can’t know without proper testing, done in an FDA lab,” Quib said.
Danner tiptoed around the vomit, arrived behind Quib, pushed him out of the way and began typing, pounding the keys. This provided opportunity for Ellen.
She felt inside her briefcase to make sure her iPhone was still there, then ran across the floor and onto the plexiglass platform. Instantly the barrier closed, as did the elevator door.
“Hey!” was the last thing she heard before being propelled upward.
She reached the conference room and proceeded to leave it, walking with purpose to the main set of elevators across an expansive commons area. The only person there was a hippie-ish guy with a goatee, man bun and a flannel shirt.
Ignoring him, and the elevators, she continued down the hallway until she found a door that led to a set of stairs. She entered the stairwell, hesitated, then went up.
Five flights later, now on the forty-fifth floor, she was in an electric closet, hunched between several boxes.
Out of sight, out of mind? she thought. Doubtful.
There were klaxons now, cutting through the fetid air of the electrical room. They lasted about five minutes. When they ceased, she could hear running outside the door. But the footsteps, too, dissipated, providing a new opportunity. She grabbed her phone, dialed Bryce, and spoke to him in a hushed tone for seventeen minutes.
“They’re going to find me, Bryce, and they’re going to kill me,” she concluded. “Tell Tim I’m sorry. Tell the girls I’m sorry. But take what I told you and run with it. Get the feds involved. Get an army of reporters involved. Find out what’s going on here. Then nail Danner.”
After a pause, she added, “Do me a favor and write my one and only column about all of this.”
“I’ll do it,” came the soft response, “all of it.”
She pressed the red button that ended the call, hid her phone inside one of the boxes, then stepped into the hallway and strode to the main set of elevators, which she entered and traveled to the ground floor. As the doors slid open, there was Danner, along with a sizable navy-shirted building security contingent.
“You’ve displeased me,” a frowning Danner said, as a burly member of the security detail grabbed her arm. With his other hand, he handed Danner a sizeable black gun, who placed the barrel at her temple.
“We could have been so good together,” he said, a resounding click the last thing Ellen ever heard.