Issue 91 – April 2014

2190 words, short story

The Cuckoo


April 1st, 2075, 9:15-9:23am

More than one thousand commuters traveling via d-mat arrive at their destinations wearing red clown noses; they weren’t wearing them when they left. The global matter-transmission network is rebooted, source of the glitch unknown. All the clown noses are destroyed except for three retained by private collectors.

April 1st, 2076, 10pm precisely

One year later, every d-mat booth in the world opens at exactly the same moment, releasing a powerful scent of roses. Peacekeepers analyzing the fumes find no evidence of toxicity. People begin to talk about the existence of a new, anonymous art-prankster in the vein of Bekhisisa Uteku or Banksy, who turns 100 this year.

April 1st, 2077

At random times throughout the day, eight hundred and sixty nine booths each deliver a single page on which are typed twenty three different words from William S. Burroughs’ cut up novel The Soft Machine.

May 23, 2077

Professor Eme Marburg, 53, of New Leiden University begins investigating the activities of “The Fool,” as she dubs the prankster on her blog. She is a teacher of complexity theory and author of several abstruse textbooks on the subject, but it is her interest in mid-Twentieth Century literature that initially piques her interest. What happened to the remaining pages of The Soft Machine? Private collectors again, she is forced to assume.

April 1st, 2078

Two hundred and seventy-one children are redirected in-transit to a location in Macau, where they arrive wearing the costumes of popular fantasy adventure series Super Awesome Ninja Ponies. They play without adult supervision for sixteen minutes before being rescued. No serious injuries are reported.

April 2nd, 2079, 12:03am

Following the attack on children the previous year, PKs worldwide are on high alert for any sign of The Fool. There are no incidents for twenty-four hours. After declaring the operation a complete success, outspoken octogenarian lawmaker Kieran Defrain is redirected in-transit and dumped in Times Square, wearing nothing but a cloth diaper and a tag tied around his left big toe, inscribed “Gotcha!”

November 9, 2079

Anggoon Montri, 32, from the Thai Protectorate, confesses to being The Fool. After eight hours of intense interrogation he recants, claiming he simply wanted to publicize his own original artwork and leaving The Fool’s true name and motives a matter of keen speculation. Some say that he or she is a disgruntled employee intent on exposing the flaws in the d-mat network, others that “The Fool” is actually a collaboration of many people dedicated to Eris, the ancient Greek Goddess of chaos. Still others believe that each incident is perpetrated by copycats, and that the original Fool went to ground long ago. No evidence exists to confirm any of these theories.

April 1st, 2080

Despite a vigorous, yearlong search, The Fool remains at large. Embarrassed by their failure, PKs instruct the general public to avoid using d-mat except in the case of dire emergencies. No incidents are recorded involving d-mat booths. Instead, every networked fabricator in the world makes a unique piece of a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, each approximately one cubic centimeter in size, which, if assembled, would form a sculpture of an upraised middle finger twenty-five meters high.

June 17, 2080

Professor Marburg of New Leiden University publishes a paper in the journal Complexity and Organization entitled “Manifest Meaninglessness: The Fool and his Meme are Easily Imparted.” She notes that six weeks before The Fool’s first known incident (clown noses), a major Peacekeeper initiative was launched to curb youthful misuse of d-mat booths, called “Quit Clowning Around.” Similarly, the following year’s incident (the smell of roses) was preceded by the “It Stinks” meme, instigated by a celebrity complaining that she didn’t receive a red nose. The cut up novel allegory is obvious. That The Fool is a playing a game at everyone’s expense was a notion widely discussed prior to the mass-kidnap of children in 2078; “Gotcha” in turn connects with the PKs’ determination to apprehend and punish the prankster, while the disassembled, statuesque obscenity clearly relates to a growing worldwide amusement at official impotence.

Professor Marburg concludes that this series of correlations is evidence of an emerging, powerful memeplex, or complex of memes, focused on The Fool. Whoever he or she originally was, he or she is here to stay.

April 1st, 2081

Ignoring stern Peacekeeper warnings, the “Fool’s Tools,” a loosely organized movement of everyday citizens travel en masse continuously for twenty-four hours, awaiting, perhaps inviting, the latest prank from their hero. None is forthcoming, although over the course of the day six copycat stunts are easily detected and reversed, their perpetrators taken into custody. The only work ascribed to The Fool is a maze of d-mat addresses that, once entered, cannot be exited. The technician who stumbled across the artifact is never seen again, prompting another global manhunt. The Fool is now a wanted murderer . . . but remains no easier to catch.

April 2081-March 2082

The longer The Fool remains at large, the higher his or her public profile rises. Numerous organizations form to honor the prankster’s artistry, including the Fool’s Brigade, the Tomfoolerists, and the First Church of the Foolhardy. No matter how vigorously Peacekeepers crack down on publicly disruptive initiation rites, the number of disciples, prophets and self-proclaimed messiahs mounts. A monument to the Unknown Fool is erected in Berlin. A popular genre of erotic fan fiction, known as Foolfic, explores the motives and secret emotional life of the men and women supposedly behind the meme. In a series of increasingly obscure articles and blog posts, Professor Marburg, now 57, continues her examination of the phenomenon, placing the latest stunt in the context of a memeplex that seems on the one hand healthy to the point of profligacy and on the other verging on implosion.

She suggests that The Fool never existed at all, in any sense that matters--not as a person, or as a series of people copying each other, or as a group of people acting in concert. “The Fool” might very well be an emergent property of the world’s memeverse, in the same way that magnificent dunes form out of the simple interaction of sand grains and the wind, without conscious control or intent. Hence, she says, we have organizations that mimic The Fool, inferior to the original in some eyes but nevertheless an authentic part of the phenomenon. If that is so, she speculates, it is entirely possible that the sealed maze--cause of The Fool’s one and only direct fatality--might be a sign that the original Fool, whoever or whatever that might be, is now turning on itself, strangling itself in a knot of memetic transmutation that can only conclude one way.

She recants her previous prediction, and issues a new one: The Fool is dead. The knot has been tied off. All that remains is aftershock.

April 1st, 2082

Few people read the theories of obscure professors. Huge celebrations greet the latest Fool’s Day and no one is immune to the party atmosphere--not even those who, led by a masked figure called “Straight-Face,” mount theatrical mock-protests against the rising tide of foolishness. Pranks of all kinds are performed, ranging from the harmless to the extremely dangerous. One hundred and seventeen people are killed in accidents; many more are injured. None of these tragedies are connected to The Fool. The world waits in anticipation to see what this year’s “official” prank will be, without release.

April 2082-March 2083

The Fool’s absence does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the Foolish. After all, “Gotcha!” happened the day after April 1st. The Fool’s fans assume that the prank, when eventually revealed, will be unmatched in subtlety and explosiveness. Plans for next year’s celebrations begin early. “Best ever,” the world is promised.

In New Leiden University, Professor Marburg is troubled by the deaths. Not a day doesn’t go by that she doesn’t wish the world would put aside “The Fool” and the troubling visions he, she, or it inspires in her. As the memeplex grows larger than ever, The Fool as an active participant in its own perpetuation is made conspicuous by its absence. The Fool is dead; long live The Fool. How can that be possible?

The growing memeplex, as mapped out by other colleagues in the field, is already a fiendishly convoluted web of popular culture. Only she is fixated on its connection to d-mat, the means of mass-transit for ninety-nine percent of the world’s population. It’s no accident, she has always understood, that The Fool manifests this way, for that network contains--and symbolizes--vast complexity. She herself is part of this complex whether she wants to be or not, both by traveling via d-mat and by publicly posting her speculations. She cannot help but wonder what role she has played in the evolution of The Fool. Did she inadvertently name it, for starters? Did she shape its evolution by noting its past connections and predicting its disappearance? What if her musings are the butterfly wings that created a storm that is still unfolding, albeit invisible to her, now?

April 1st, 2083

Still no prank has been found. The world awaits as it did the previous year, with identical results. “Perhaps we are the prank,” Straight-Face declares. “You, me, all of us. His work is done. And the joke is on us.” Nobody listens to him, either. Fool’s Day celebrations achieve outrageous heights. There are more injuries, more deaths. All festive promises are met, no matter how extravagant.

June, 2083

Professor Marburg of New Leiden University reads a paper by a colleague in Spain who declares that the memeplex is now so complicated that its extent can no longer be accurately measured. This prompts a highly unnerving thought, one she keeps entirely to herself.

At what point does one seriously consider the possibility that the memplex is alive? Perhaps not in the same way as a human; perhaps it possesses little more than reflexive self-awareness, like that of a puppy or a small child. But still, alive. What could that mean? What happens when it wakes up?

September, 2083

Professor Marburg, 59, has a dream about running down a tunnel full of people, all shouting at once. She wakes in a cold sweat. The image haunts her for days, leading her to a new and entirely chilling notion concerning the interaction between d-mat and the memeplex.

At any given moment the network contains millions of people, crisscrossing the earth from end to end. All their atoms, all their molecules, all their cells, pass relentlessly from one node to another as data. Data that is in theory available. And nature never leaves anything lying around unused. With such a great resource in existence, what are the odds that so many moving brain cells would never achieve spontaneous life? Life that might evolve in fits and starts, depending on the environment around it? Feeding on all the crazy things that humans believe? A thriving memeplex, for example . . .

January, 2084

Professor Marburg doesn’t know whether to laugh or weep. If a mind has been accidentally created by the movement of people through the d-mat network, then Straight-Face may well be right, albeit for the wrong reasons. The Fool is all of us, and we are The Fool.

She has just remembered that, in Scotland, someone who has been tricked on April Fool’s Day is known as a gowk, which is an old word for cuckoo.

March 31st, 2084

Professor Marburg of New Leiden University writes her final blog post. In it she explains her theory and elaborates on the almost godlike potential of this emergent organism. We are as tiny compared to it as our cells are to us, she says. But we are not entirely insignificant, not in a chaotic system: butterfly wings, remember? Her work comprises just one cell in that vast creature, and it made a significant difference. She provided a necessary piece of the puzzle for the creature to become aware of itself, via the memeplex. She could even claim to be its midwife, if she wanted to.

She does not want to claim anything of the sort. All she wants is to stop worrying about the consequences for the entire human race of what she has inadvertently done.

Professor Marburg, 60, composes another note, which she leaves in an obvious place, and then she goes to sleep.

April 1st, 2084

Fool’s Day has supplanted Halloween as the most popular holiday celebration in the world, behind only New Year’s Day. Straight-Face’s annual Sober Address is watched by millions. The death rate is the highest so far, but The Fool is not directly implicated in any way. Next year, The Fool will turn 10, if the phenomenon continues unchecked.

Few hear about the death of an obscure academic in a small European city, even fewer the typo in her suicide note. However, the coroner makes a note of it in his report, an electronic document readily available to anyone who cares to read it.

In the suicide note, instead of “I have cancer,” Professor Marburg wrote, “I am cancer.”

Careless, the coroner observes, for a woman of such impressive intellect.

Author profile

#1 New York Times bestselling Sean Williams lives with his family in Adelaide, South Australia. He's written some books--forty at last count--including the Philip K. Dick-nominated Saturn Returns, several Star Wars novels and the Troubletwisters series with Garth Nix. Twinmaker is the first in a new series that takes his love affair with the matter transmitter to a whole new level (he just received a PhD on the subject so don't get him started). "The Cuckoo" is part of that universe.

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