Happenstance

Sunlight hits the top floor of One Eastwaters Tower in a hard, bright wave. When the afternoon glow also strikes the lake, everything turns to dazzle.

I’ve lived high-lakeside for three years. I still startle at the ripple of water-light on the floor, dappling my skin, sparking off the bits of my exoskel that are otherwise invisible no matter what I’m wearing.

People are hardwired for pattern and expectation. Changes shock the system.

I think about this a lot. Especially when I’m working.

Shake off the dazzle, Lane. Focus on Eastwaters’ maps, the Happenstance Engineering Overlay. A fingertip pinch here, a pull there, and you’re done. Got to hit quota before end of day and it’s already late afternoon.

Patterns mean safety. Known risks instead of unknown hazards. A smooth experience.

See also: boredom and stagnation.

So the city gave a handful of Happenstance Engineers full access to the roadworks, the waterworks. With a fast calculation on the city-physics engine and some caution signs, I start an alleyway shift near Water Street. Over a few days’ time, the quiet Eastwaters alley will begin to run east-west for a block. That moves several small shops onto the main thoroughfare, out from the shadows. And it means Sam Bergo from Tower Two, seventeenth floor, and Juliette Dory, Tower Seven, floor twenty, will meet by accident on the way to work the day before their first CrossTowers date.

That’s a couple quota boxes checked with a single job.

On the Overlay, I let the meter run out two minutes early on a single seat at El Fortuna’s open four-top. A Solar Toys CEO is using two more seats as a remote office. Now I watch the dataflow as Zai Norcelli “accidentally” takes a seat. Before the new CEO of SolarToys realizes Zai isn’t the person they’re meeting for dinner, Zai has awkwardly answered questions about his custom automatons and passed a business card.

Check two.

Earbud pings break my concentration: once, twice. An inner-circle chat. That could only mean Sirocco.

“Sorry, working,” I whisper.

Siro’s probably staring at his palm in consternation at that. If he really wants me, he knows where to find me.

Ha. The thought makes me smile.

I toy with the idea of making a fountain rise from the intersection at King and Vorhees, way up on Eastwaters’s last hill within megacity limits, settle for a less-whimsical pothole instead. Less likely to get me in trouble with the city, or the water division of Civil Engineering. Foot traffic will still have to go around the obstacle and people will still shift their day slightly. Bonus: I’m all the way at the edge of my territory. That’s three.

So much for patterns, city dwellers. The changes I’ve made to the smart streets and shops start to ripple in real time: people bump into each other to avoid the pothole, grumble a lot, and commiserate. On their new path, they discover that small, out of the way shop with that thing they didn’t know they needed. The shop will drop City Engineering a thank you cred, and some of that will slide to me. Check, check, check.

I can almost hear Eastwaters’s gears click into new shapes; the streets sing. But city infrastructure isn’t my watch. Gears, physics, street sounds, and lights belong to CivE and MechE. Those engineers listen for the grind and crunch, the rush of water, the sound of a tram barreling along a tunnel.

My skel—an old model, but I keep it because I’ve made my own mods—chimes quietly. New message from Siro.

“Text and scroll.” The command sends his words to my wraparounds—the only part of the skel I can take off because they’re just for work. :: Dinner 7pm w. VC VP Ok? @Home ::

It’s 5:15 pm now. The depth of my sigh sets the suit’s monitors whirring, trying to figure out what’s the matter with Lane. Pain? Exhaustion? “Stand down.”

Annoyance isn’t on the suit’s checklist.

:: Okay ::

I wave the message away. For a moment, the sun-sparkled hypercarbon of my skel transfixes me. The light snakes from my palms, up past my elbows, and on back past the edges of my tank top. The skel looks like stars.

I’m not going to soft-pedal Siro. He knows that two hours is nowhere near enough time for me to get ready and be entertaining. He can handle the party himself.

Sure enough he texts right back. :: Catering at 6:45 ::

The skel stops trying to assess me as soon as my blood pressure drops back into normal range. Need to jack those metrics down a bit. Siro likes to know how I’m feeling, but I don’t, not this much. This is way too sensitive.

On my wraparounds, the city maps illuminate new connections built off the Happenstances I’ve put down. My earjacks feed me snippets of laughter. That’s a day’s pay when you’re a Hap Engineer. The sound of cred micropayments from the city grant going into my account. The kick of unexpected meetings and faces lighting up.

Most cities, even a few years ago? My activities might have been called mayhem. But in a smart city where everything runs on smooth, automated rails? Happy accidents have to be engineered.

I bag my Haps quota when a banana shortage I caused at Tower One’s grocery pays off. To celebrate, I vent the overhead water feed on Tower Seventeen’s second floor vertical farm. Just a little.

Points of reference light up all over the megatowers as people come out to see the rainbows. The points grow brighter still as the fish in the atrium breeding ponds rise to nibble on the fruit dropped by the soaked plants. Beautiful. More lights intersect as neighbors reconnect beneath the rain and sunbows. That district’s social nodes go bright purple on the map.

Check.

5:50 p.m. I need to move the printing supplies off the dining room table and get changed. But I want to watch Davian Mirren’s payoff once it filters down the network. Mirren needed bananas for the desert she’d looked up at work that morning. Right after I’d shorted the grocery, my mark had to find a different store. She chose the next tower over, used the crosswalk, grumbled at the inefficiency. On the way there, she met an old friend from college on her regular run. My cred record showed Davian applying for a new job at her friend’s company. Excellent.

My weekly Haps quota—upper left in my wraparounds and lower right on the main map projected above my loft’s coffee table—both go green. It’s only Wednesday, and though I’m still short on the month because I took sick leave last week, I’m catching up.

I stretch my hands and pull the wraparounds from my eyes. Drop them on the coffee table. Resist the urge to sink into the couch and watch the sun on the lake. My loft’s a big open square on the forty-sixth floor. When I found it, the tower hadn’t been popular; all the city’s hotspots were up the hill near all the good restaurants and clubs. Tower One had been a loss leader for a failed developer who didn’t understand Eastwaters’s docks, so I locked in cheap rent and camped out, eating takeout on the sofa—my main furniture besides the matterprinter and a mattress—watching sunsets through the big windows, avoiding the Oldtown protests, and working.

The plexi coffee table came in a few weeks ago, along with the chrome dining set, the retro lamps, and Siro.

“You timed the market, Lane,” he’d said. “This neighborhood’s getting hot.” His sheepish grin did the asking for him and, tired of pushing myself to get across town for dates, I let him move in.

Don’t date your boss. I know, I know.

I could say he was closest to hand. We worked together for years. But truth was, I liked him. And he was never shocked by my mods. When I told him. He didn’t mind the skel, and he wasn’t creepy about it. That was important.

Plus, his codework was damn sexy. Even his comments.

OK, I admit our code those first few years got pretty not safe for work, but it was just us, working on the Happenstance algorithm. Things just . . . happened.

And now I’m cleaning up so he can have investors over for dinner.

My skel chimes. “Stand down. Recalibrate for less input.” The skel chimes again, acknowledging.

I box the printing supplies—plastic and chrome for modding the skel, a few carbon tubes for reinforcements—and shove that under the sofa with my foot. The printer itself Siro will have to move. It‘s too heavy for me, even with the exoskeleton’s help. Some skels are work-strong, but this one is mostly support, a little reinforcement to keep my limbs from popping, a little skin-level pain-soothe. The basics.

I grab a short, sheer black dress from the bedroom closet and wiggle it over my head. Leave my jeans on. Siro wants fancier? He can damn well let me know before noon. Swap my chucks for flats. Don’t bother about the hair, which drops straight down my back like a second brace, no matter what I do to it. Check.

I have a few minutes more to watch the map before I have to deal with guests. The map soothes me. I can’t always watch the ripples caused by Happenstances, but the metrics drop from the network to the Happenstance Engineering Overlay in a few hours. Even without metrics, I can see I’m having a good day, just by the glow of the overlay. New nodes in the network are strengthening. I know it’s good work.

The algorithms Siro and I developed over the past three years and the lines we’d patched through the city’s main utility systems—plus social, shopping, traffic, and scheduling apps—were light-fast responsive. That made the work easier. Not just for me. For the two other Happenstance Engineers we’d partnered with in Eastwaters also, and for the Haps in Seattle and Shenzhen who were pioneering the system there.

A knock on the door. I wave it open from the middle of the loft and go back to work. Siro’s caterers can set up the table however they want.

Smells like salmon. Big meeting then, if Siro’s springing for real fish.

I haven’t played big with the map shifts today—I’d burned a few of those from my quota last week. Today is smalls—the most fun, in my opinion. They cause the most direct Happenstances. I like the up close shifts, the changes in just a few lives that one pause or a new conversation create.

The Happenstance overlay on the map glows brighter in that edge district. The one with the pothole. Shit, maybe that was too much. That’s a lot more people than usual in that district.

My skel pings softly again—suit charge alert this time. I ignore it for now. Still enough power in the system to support my legs and back. The map’s got my attention.

With a double click, the thick door to the loft opens, then slams closed. I barely hear it.

A few moments later, Siro’s fingers brush the bare edge of my ear. “You are an artist,” he says.

He always says that.

“I like the connections.” Leaning into the touch, I douse my maps.

Lakelight plays on Siro’s chrome gearbag, dropped on the coffee table. Dazzling. The sleeve of his grey suit’s dappled in light.

“Besides, you built the damn nodes. I just play them.” I turn to look at him. When he smiles shyly, I add, “Quit that. You know it’s elegant.”

He’s a weaver of networks. A maker of gates. All I do is help people walk through.

“You play a great tune.” Siro slides an arm around my waist, hard exoskeleton and all. Smells like cologne, bright wood tones, but not too much—so he’d been meeting with the city again—plus garlic and thai basil—he’d had lunch at his favorite pho place.

My stomach growls. “A lunch meeting and a dinner?”

“Have to, Lane. Eastwaters isn’t going to run Happenstance off grants much longer. Utilities won’t let us in unless we hand over the algorithm, and then we can’t expand to more cities. I’d rather go private. Contract to the city.”

We’d talked about this before. I liked my job better than his. “Who’s in the net tonight?”

Before we’d proved the Happenstance concept in Tower Sixteen—on the upper edge of the city, where Siro lived—no one would sit down with him. First sign of our success had been “Caledin,” a competitive food-dance gig that had grown out of an accidental cross-scheduling of two community groups. Yeah, it was as messy as it sounds.

No one realized Caledin was going to be big until it caught on in three more towers, both players and watchers. Soon after, a support group appeared for school children who couldn’t use VR gear—something the city government hadn’t even known was a problem until two disparate parents met in a fifth floor grocery over the last bag of oranges.

It wasn’t long before metrics supported so much of a shift for the better in Tower Sixteen—more students coming to classes, more residents attending events—that the tower and several more around it began to pay us. Give us access to more systems.

Sure, there were a few disasters that first outing—a flooded apartment, people who were so late to work they got docked—and we took the cred hit for that. But we learned a lot too. Three years on, people across the towers are happier, more connected. They don’t get stuck in ruts as much. The data shows it. Hell, the maps show it.

Except for the map that was lighting up too much before I had to stow it. Shit, why now?

Siro hasn’t answered me about who’s coming to dinner either. I repeat the question.

He smiles his best please-don’t-hate-me grin. “Octavian Smith.”

“I don’t need to be here for this.”

Octavian’s the worst kind of player. He likes to fund companies with pretty owners or pretty assets. He seeded the first part of the Happenstance trial run, actually told people he’d invented it, and then ditched for a higher profile project. We’d nearly lost everything, Siro and me.

Now we were successful and Octavian was back. “How can you consider him?”

My partner’s smile falters. “He’s got the best offer, Lane.”

With the suit sensitivity turned down, I can seethe and he’ll never hear a thing. “It’s the only offer, right?”

Instead of answering, Siro busies himself, taking the lids off the catering trays, pouring wine. Fish, rice, beans. The table’s set for three and he’s not changing that. My appetite goes dead.

I tap my left arm twice. The skel beeps obligingly. “I’m going outside to charge.”

“Lane, now?” Siro says.

But I’m already out on the balcony watching the sunset. Not much in the way of charging at this point in the day, but the colors are pretty. A flock of birds skids in random patterns over the lake.

Back inside, Octavian and Siro are standing on the other side of the glass, watching me. God, that guy.

Where Siro’s pale from head to toe—greying hair, light-steel eyes—Octavian’s bright and right on trend. Man loves his lips. Right now, he’s wearing two tones: chrome top, purple bottom. His polychrome jacket looks orange, then purple in the right light.

“Lane,” he gushes when I come back in. “Such a pleasure. Your stats are amazing. And Siro’s told me about your mods.” He hands me a bouquet of stargazer lilies. The smell is overpowering. My face heats up.

“She embarrasses easily,” Siro chuckles. I could almost murder him and then print out his casket and drop it into the lake.

“It’s not embarrassment,” I say. “I’d rather my stats and mods stayed out of negotiations, is all.”

Octavian’s smile brightens. “I like a challenge.”

Siro looks at me, pleadingly.

Octavian tries again. “This is such a fantastic apartment. Lane, you had such vision grabbing this one.”

Better. “Thank you.” But I don’t smile. I’m not interested in anything Octavian’s selling.

Over dinner, Octavian’s smile just gets bigger as he and Siro talk. By the time I go to bed, they’ve started drawing up plans, talking acquisitions. Loudly.

Damn. I like my job. I don’t want Octavian anywhere near it. Maybe not Siro either.

The next morning, while Siro sleeps off the wine, I watch more points on the Happenstance overlay begin to glow brighter, this time near the alley I’m shifting.

“Want to get dinner outside the tower tonight?” Siro collapses on the sofa, a glint in his eyes. “Surprises.”

I’m in no mood. “Tell me now. I hate surprises.” Especially Octavian surprises.

Siro gloats. “You do surprises for a living! How can you hate them?” But he squeezes my hand. “It’s going to be great. New project, Lane.”

Maybe it’s not Octavian? I shrug. “Sure.” I could like surprises, with enough advance warning. “I have to finish this quota set.” I put my wraps on, but keep the main map off. I can’t afford to fall any further behind, especially if Siro’s seriously considering Octavian. Maybe I can work in Seattle. Once I solve this overload bug.

The system’s set up so that Happenstance Engineers can synchronize across the city so that no one area gets more changes—and more serendipity—over another. Quotas and data keep everything balanced.

“It’s good, I promise.” Siro grins. “Hey, Octavian wasn’t kidding about your cred . . . .”

I wave him off. “Later?” That small square of the map’s glowing more brightly than last night. Too many people with too much Happenstance is bad. Kind of like too much of one kind of data overflowing one part of a system and leaving the rest blank.

Siro shrugs. “Of course. I’m going to get cleaned up anyway.” He leaves the bag on the table and closes the bedroom door behind him.

Everyone in Eastwaters has cred based on work quotas, thank yous from friends, community goodwill. Micropayments sometimes add up, though I donate most of mine to biomech research a couple of cities over. But with Siro and Octavian both talking about my cred, I take a peek on my wraps. Okay, it’s worth more than a little today. Something I’d done had gotten a big gratitude bump.

Grinning, I keep working. I can buy extra supplies for my printer with that. The map brightens again, same spot, right near the alley. Too many people there.

Might have to shut it down. That will ding me, but it’s better than having something go wrong. Happenstance can get messy if you’re not careful.

But shutting down the shift isn’t as important as figuring out where the bug is in the algorithm. How did people know to go where everything is shifting? I’m always careful to cloak my actions, so no one expects.

I heat water for tea in the kitchen. The caterers have come and cleaned up. That’s great because my hands are shaky. The skel struggles to brace my wrists and fingers, but this isn’t my crappy joints. This is nerves.

A similar in-a-rut pattern emerged after one of my early engineering runs. I’d ignored it and that’s how I’d besieged an entire floor with kittens. Long story. Longer cleanup. Don’t ask.

Now I can’t help worrying. This isn’t like the kittens or the flooding. People are gravitating toward where I’m working. They’re anticipating and—worse—hanging around, waiting for happenstance.

“That’s not how it works, kids.” I shut the alley shift down. “Sorry, Sam. Sorry, Juliette.”

If my work is becoming part of a pattern that people can anticipate somehow, that breaks the whole system.

My suit chimes again. I ignore it. Throw a frustrated poll onto the network instead. It doesn’t look like anything much—small, reward-based, single question. :: Do you think luck is hard to find? ::

I’d seeded two other polls over the past three weeks. The results all came back the same. This one does too.

An increasing percentage of people say no. I watch as real time results creep past 45%.

So strange.

I get the Happenstance Engineers in Seattle and Shenzhen up on my screen, but hold off on grabbing the two in Eastwaters. They’re aren’t online yet anyway and, besides, they work for Octavian.

“Seeing anything strange in your nodes?”

The engineer in Shenzhen shakes his head. “Nothing unusual.”

Seattle hangs onto the connection longer. “Check for scanners on the networks. We’ve had bots lately scanning keywords. We’re shifting to codes and false phrases in order to gain a bit of a head start on them.”

“Thanks. That could be the answer I need.” I take off the wraps. Look up to find Siro on the sofa with the main map open, watching my moves.

“Hey.” Too flustered to get really mad yet, I sit down next to him. Him opening my map is concerning. He’s never done that before.

“Tell me.” He knows something’s up.

That’s genuinely concerning, since I don’t have a grip on the data yet. “There’s nothing to tell.”

Siro frowns by halves, one side of his mouth dropping to match the other. “Spill, Lane.” Hung over, for sure.

I play with my wraps and then drop them on the table. Look out at the balcony, the lake beyond. The dazzle’s just about to break, but the sun’s not low enough yet.

“That thing I was talking about with Seattle?” I assume he heard. “I think people are starting to expect luck. All the time. That ruins the algorithm. Happenstance? Serendipity? Can’t be expected. None of our quotas will mean anything if all we’re doing is filling a hole that keeps getting bigger because of expectations. We won’t help anyone connect, we’ll just make another rut.”

I think of the family yesterday who’d just “lucked into” a long lost relative by the farm levels after the mini-flood in Tower Seventeen. Of the happy reunion photos that had spread across the network. I love helping nudge that sort of thing along. I don’t want to give it up because the algorithm’s obsolete.

Must be a way to fix it. Code words like Seattle? Just a kludge. I want a real mod. Something that evolves.

Siro has gone wraps-up, messaging someone. He’ll be little help until he’s over his hangover anyway.

On the balcony outside my flat, a seagull lands, then tucks its wings and cocks its head as it ponders the broad glass doors. I slide the doors open and step outside, “Shoo!”

My suit chimes as sunlight hits it, charging back up.

So that’s the jittery wrists. Note for a future mod: something to help me tell the difference between nerves and tech failure. Like, say, any number of chimes from my exoskeleton. I make another note.

I’d forgotten I needed to get to full charge. Possibly for a couple days. The skel drains easier on lower charge, and one of my new mods might be dragging the system. Either way, I hadn’t remembered to charge until I saw the bird.

People forget to help themselves sometimes when they’re busy, when everything’s in easy reach.

Below the balcony, the city spreads out on all sides in a neat grid. The lake fans against the horizon also, but with less pattern, more sunlight sparkling across the water.

Siro slides the doors open, snakes a finger down the back of my neck. “Sorry. Rough night.” Hands me a glass. Ice water. The ice is luxurious. He sips a gin tonic.

“I don’t know why you want to deal with Octavian again,” I say. Never really good at knowing when to cut my losses, me. “This mess worries me.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Siro says. “You always come up with interesting approaches. Dinner’s canceled though. Octavian says we’ve got to clean up Happenstance before we can court more buyers. He’s got some structural ideas—new nodes, line of sight stuff.”

Not just Octavian, then. A group of them, eventually. Another of Octavian’s schemes. Suddenly I feel very tired. “When were you going to tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

That you were selling me out. “A group of buyers?” Things are going to change. Damn I love this job. More than anything. It lets me be in the world if I want, when I want. It lets me make a difference.

I lean my head back, hold out my arms so the sun can hit more of the skel. The servos whir softly as the braces shift to support my back and keep my knees from dislocating. Joints. Intersections. Big old fail points. Especially if your system’s not making enough of what holds them together.

“You’ll figure it out,” Siro repeats. He’s donned his wraps again, reading. “I can get some node programmers to help you if you want.” His voice has that tin quality of someone half paying attention. He’s like this a lot lately, not wanting to sort out details with just me, assuring everyone everything will be fine.

“But don’t mention it to anyone, not yet. Not until something changes.” He looks at me over the wraps until I nod.

I stare out over the lake, looking for something to change out there. For a fish to jump, a waterspout, anything. “You told Octavian.” What I don’t say yet: Aside from shutting down the program, like I shut down the alley shift, I can’t see a way out of the rut. Worse, with Siro in the loft, I know I can’t work on the problem all night the way I want to: letting the wraps wear a red mark on the bridge of my nose, letting my suit run out of charge from lack of sunlight. No, because dinners and Siro dragging me outside or telling me to “spill” before I’m ready.

Check: still mad.

But Siro’s gone back inside. Didn’t hear me. Time to tell him to take a walk for a bit.

67% charge on the skel. Good enough. I pull the doors open.

In the loft’s greatroom, Siro has an expensive loafer up on the coffee table. He points at the map. “Hey, here’s another ten percent on the node.” He shakes his head. “Just waiting. Like they think it’s going to rain candy or something. They’ve been doing this for a while?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll fix everything. Octavian’s got an idea. He’s coming over.”

That doesn’t sound like a fix at all. “You creeped my live feed again?”

Siro really needs to take a walk.

It’s still my loft. I haven’t added his name to the lease yet. Granted, it’s a handshake lease, not all that legal, done when everyone wanted to live up the hill. Doesn’t really matter if he’s on it or not.

In the quiet, I can hear my skel ticking. I can hear Siro’s breathing. It’s smooth and relaxed, like he’s keeping himself calm. I modded a data feed upgrade last week—that’s probably what was sucking the skel’s power dry. That was why the sick leave. But now I’m glad I did. The added room sensors and proximity monitors in the skel let me watch Siro’s heartbeat and blood pressure. Even when I brush my leg against his thigh, he’s dead steady.

Lying. Siro. And so careful about it. “I just wanted to see for myself. There’s an easy fix, you know.”

Fine. I can lie too, and he doesn’t have the upgrades to sense it. My hand twitches. The recharged skel balances to compensate. “Go on.”

“Octavian’s solution? He’s thinking we upgrade some of the land nodes. One node to start, to see if it makes a difference in predictability. Somewhere unusual, like Oldtown.”

Yeah, well, Octavian owns a big share of a node company. And shares in the other two Hap groups. We just own the algorithm.

Siro catches a faceful of my opinion. “Shit, Lane, he’s just got an idea. Hear him out, okay? We can’t do this fast without you anyway.”

There’s one aspect to installing new nodes that I can do easily. I’m a walking data center—even more than Siro knows. When I move through the city, my skel can pick up data from my surroundings, anything that isn’t marked private or no-entry. My maps load to my suit as easily as they do to the loft’s coffee table. I can engineer Happenstances from anywhere and see the results at ground level. I just prefer to be up high. Out of the noise. Away from the people. The other Haps can’t do that. Not without huge rigs and a fair bit of claustrophobia from not being used to the gear.

I’m very used to the gear.

“Sure.” I’m tired. Siro knows it. And the minute I say sure, he drops the guilt-face and blinks at his wraps. They go opaque like someone’s been waiting on the other side of the connection. The data sleeve Siro wears lights up. Three swipes and a quick reply cascade bracelets his arm. His wraps go transparent again. “Great. Octavian’s coming now.”

That’s fast. “Didn’t Octavian just leave a couple hours ago? He must have slept in an empty flat in the tower. Can’t we go somewhere else? This is still my place.”

Siro pulls me close. “We live here now, remember? Not just you.” He runs a thumb along my throat where the skel doesn’t need to support me. My skin goosebumps in the worst way. I lean away from it, feeling the warmth Siro’s hand leaves across my throat. I don’t want that right now. Too much.

I’d let him in, sure. Let him stay. But this place is still mine. He’d wanted it that way, especially at first. For years, he’d kept his things and his meetings at Tower Seventeen. Didn’t want to complicate things. I found this apartment. Created my nest. Never thought it would become one of the most sought-after towers in the city.

I just liked the height, the view. Now he likes it too.

When Octavian knocks on the door, I let Siro get it. I’d already seen Octavian coming down the hall on my wraps—yep, I modded the hallway too. I know he’s carrying more stargazers, even though I dumped last night’s stargazers in the garbage as soon as I could.

It’s going to be one of those meetings.

Siro lets Octavian into the loft. “Thanks for coming back.”

Octavian holds out the flowers so I have to take them, be responsible for them, while he and Siro begin talking. I leave them high and dry by the sink.

“So,” Octavian’s saying. They have my map projected over the coffee table. Again without asking. “Lane, you’re the best Happenstance person we’ve got. You make it look so effortless. With a few adjustments, we should be up and running with no expectation factor in a few days. Easy.”

Really. I haven’t been able to figure out how. I wonder at this. My shoulders tighten the more I think about it. Nothing’s that easy. And who gave Octavian the right to say “we?” I haven’t accepted yet. My skel tries to get me to relax, applying modulated pressure to muscles in my back. Screw that. I shrug it off. I want to be angry.

Octavian fills in the space left by my silence. “People don’t value the work that goes into Happenstance. Just like folks used to leave the faucets running before they installed the timeout meters.”

Siro nods in complete agreement.

“Sometimes you just want to take a long shower.” I’m growling now.

Siro sighs and opens the doors to the balcony. No birds out there now. No dazzle either. Just the real city’s grid expanding out from the lakefront below.

Octavian points, down and to the left. To Oldtown. “To plant the node, we need you to go to Oldtown, by the ph shop, and open up a new line.”

“A line too? In Oldtown?” Lines, like everything else in the smart cities, have to be cleared with the city. A direct line-of-sight control on all the hypercarbon embeds in city structure? So much paperwork. Siro was all about the clearances so I didn’t press. If he was signing off, this was legit.

That was Siro’s favorite takeout place anyway.

“Just a temp line.” Octavian nods. “It’ll be like old times before we’d laid down any of the Happenstance nodes.”

We. Again. I don’t recall Octavian running any lines three years ago. Just dropping some cash and running away.

“A temp line to do what? There aren’t any smart streets or pop-up builds for blocks beyond Tower Seven in Oldtown.”

“There are a couple nearby. You dropped a pocket park just across the street from where we’re going, so it’s line-of-sight to the next node. The couple there run a grocery and the ph shop, in a three-story tucked into Tower Seven’s shadow, east side. They’ll let you up on the roof for sight access,” Octavian answers. But it isn’t an answer, not really.

The sun hits the lake, white diamonds sparkle on the tower glass.

Three-story walk-ups are rare now, except in Oldtown. But the skel makes stairs easier.

Siro clears his throat. “You’ll just need to grab their data key in order to loop them in. I’ll do the rest.”

“What’s the rest?” And who grabs anyone’s data key anymore?

“Bigger Happenstance. A new way to push things forward. The walk-up is at a great location for line of sight access to five towers. So there can be more randomness, and people might not be able to predictive-jump the Happenstance spots so frequently. Also bigger. Did I mention?”

I hesitate.

Octavian looks at Siro with a meaningful eyebrow raised, then sits down on the sofa and pats it, trying to get me to come sit too. “Come on, Lane. Show me the mods you’ve been doing. Compared to them, a node install is a cakewalk.”

I don’t move. There’s a long silence.

“She’s an engineer, not a prop,” Siro finally says. “You don’t get to play with her.”

“I can speak for myself.” Annoyance doesn’t register on the skel, thank everything. I pick the bench just beyond Octavian’s reach. Ignore his interest in my mods. “What do you bring to this?” And what has Siro promised you?

“The new algorithm gives you enough variation that your activities will be invisible to your districts. You’ll be invisible to almost anyone until you’re right on top of them. Better than that, it will give you some surprises too.”

“I don’t want surprises. I don’t want your code. Siro’s code is fine.”

Octavian purses his lips and clenches his thick fingers in his lap. “That’s unfortunate. My review of your work says you could use some surprises.”

The leather-analog surface of the bench I’m sitting on is cool to the touch. While my skel whirs, adjusting support, I trace the bench’s upholstery: circles, triangles. The minute stitching, the three-ply thread, and the woven padding beneath.

His review of my work. “I don’t see why.”

Siro clears his throat. “Lane, doing a deal with the cities meant we had to look hard at everything. That turned up some questions about whether your work has been giving you unfair advantages. Whether you had some bias in your project selection. Octavian offered to look into it when we hired him to solve the predictability problem a couple of weeks ago.”

They’d brought Octavian on around when I’d first noticed the problem. Before I’d said anything. Siro had known for that long and not said a word.

Couple weeks since he’d moved in, too. I felt physically ill.

“I couldn’t say anything because the city had questions. And I didn’t want to upset you. Make you sick.” He tilts his head. “Okay?”

I mute my skel’s alerts. Not okay.

I’d taken nothing for myself. Worked ridiculous hours for nothing. Met all my quotas once we landed the grant.

“I get to decide, remember?” I decide what I can and cannot handle. “How have I been unfair? My data’s clean.”

Octavian jumps in. “Your data’s wrong.”

Siro puts out a steadying hand. “Just subconscious bias; it can be fixed.”

Then Octavian’s saying, “You’ve been missing things for a while. Given your condition . . . .” That makes me want to toss them both into the sun.

Then don’t let them say that to you. Push back.

“My condition’s got nothing to do with my work. And my data’s good.”

“I wish that was the case,” Octavian says. His voice turns velvet. He’s so very sorry. “But my assessment doesn’t lie.”

“It does. This time it does. Whatever you have, it’s nothing I’ve done.”

Velvet-voiced and oh so sorry, Octavian spreads out data sheets on the table.

“Here’s a list of your last hundred Happenstances. They’re all well distributed. You’ve been working very consciously to make sure everyone gets a fair chance. But . . . .” He flipped another data sheet. “Here’s the value on your flat. And your cred.” The numbers climb. I can see the pattern, almost—but . . . it looks strange. With every happenstance, my value, and the value of the one thing that’s mine, rises, based on Octavian’s calculations.

“You think I’m enriching myself? Making this neighborhood more popular?”

“Not consciously, no.” Octavian plays with a twitch-ring, moving the gears back and forth. “Just by being you? Maybe. The city’s concerned. You’re in a very important position, especially if we become contractors. We want to make sure everything is . . . clear.” We again. I realize he’s offering me something. I don’t want it.

Siro continues, “So we’re here to help you optimize and modify. The first step is setting this node, giving yourself some unpredictability in your districts. If you’re willing to do that, the city can see the rest is an accident.”

“A little diversification of your investments won’t hurt either,” Octavian adds.

A deep breath feels like fire in my nostrils. “Diversification of what?”

“Yes. Your cred, your investments. You need to look cleaner for the city to take us as a consultant. Your loft too. It’s rocketed in value. If you sublet it, or move, you won’t look quite so complicit.”

I shake my head. “I have too much work to do to deal with this bullshit. You two should take your data somewhere else.” No way am I moving when I don’t want to.

Sensing the resistance, Octavian puts a hand on Siro’s shoulder. “Maybe we should do this later, over dinner.”

“Do what?” I say. I run through the other things I’ve bought—three pairs of shoes, a few tunics to go over the skel. Some music.

Octavian’s rich clothes and expensive hair are just the start of his investments, I know.

Siro, too. He looks carved, toned. He’s been cleaning up a lot better lately. And me?

“How long have you been collecting data on me?”

Octavian shrugs. “Not on you, Lane. Never. Just on your work for us.”

For at least as long as Siro’s been in the apartment, then. My skin crawls beneath the frame of my skel.

Siro reaches out to me across the space between sofa and bench. I stare at his hand, hoping it bursts.

“I was concerned. Worried for you. Then Octavian said . . .”

“I know what Octavian’s saying,” I interrupt. “What do you want me to do to fix it?” When they say I can’t do something, that makes me want to do it twice.

Octavian smiles at Siro. “I told you she’d want to help.” He moves to the bench, sits beside me, and takes one of my hands. I can retract the braces, but I don’t. He gets a fistful of hypercarbon and chrome. It feels rude.

I’m okay with rude.

Siro ignores the gesture. Sits on my other side, puts his arm around me. “You just need to run that one line. Drop one node. Everyone will see how much you want to help, and it will be fixed. Fast, too. The system will be so much more robust.”

“They might not want that much luck. Not in Oldtown.” Sandwiched between the two of them, I feel like a three-story walk-up shadowed by megatowers. “People don’t like too much change. Just enough that it’s a discovery.”

Siro withdraws his arm. “You said you’d go.” He needs me to go. Why?

“And I will. I’ll go now.” It’s not yet late afternoon. I grab the chrome gearbag. Leave Siro and Octavian sitting around the coffee table.

As soon as the loft door shuts, I un-mute my skel. Every notice goes off. Pulse, breathing, tension, pain.

“Stand down.” The skel quiets.

Going will fix the problem.

So. I’ll go.

Where the upper lofts in Eastwaters are filled with light, the lifts are narrow and dark. Odd feeling, being encased thrice, once by my skel, once by the lift, then by the tower itself.

People crowd me too.

Descending the lift in Tower One, I’m trapped in a full-surround argument. Yelling, waving hands. Pushing.

Not my argument. Drunk couple. From a floor below, who’d been up to the roof.

“You don’t understand,” the pushing one says loudly. “I forgot I was supposed to meet you. It disappeared from my calendar.”

They’d met over a calendar snafu, I knew.

Waving-hands just groans. “You forget about me all the time.” The doors open and the couple steps out onto the market and gym floor of Tower Three in a dark silence.

I ride the rest of the way to street level alone. On the wall near the lift controls, someone’s posted a note, using a pen and actual paper. “I’ve not been outside in ages. If you have a dog you want walked, or want company walking one, flag me on the network?”

The tear-offs where people take contact info off the sign are all gone.

People hunger to connect and don’t know how any more.

I flex my fingers and my skel flexes with me. I know how. But can I keep helping without gaining unfair advantage?

I’d no intention of enriching myself, even subconsciously. Just thinking of it horrifies me. That Octavian has data on it? That’s even worse.

My skel beeps. “Stand down.” I know my heart rate’s still way off. I can feel it in my temples. The skel pings again, ignoring me. Lights up a display on my wrist: orange bars—Power down to 45%. Not red yet, but I sure could have used some more charging time before I left. Shit.

But I’d been too angry to stay.

Make the node Octavian wants and get them both out of my hair. Then I can think.

What will I do if I can’t Happenstance?

Another ping, this time from the Haps overlay. Fail report. My pothole has caused three bikers to collide. My cred takes a ding, then keeps falling as more people come out to see what the fuss is. I watch it drop. I pull my wraps up, leave them half-opaque in case someone else gets on the lift. I want to be able to see. Open up the map to have a look.

The accident’s near the pothole all right. I adjust so that it will be less dangerous. Slide a garbage can on seamless magnetic controls across the street with a swipe. Redirect people even more around the approach to the area.

With the wraps on, I can’t miss the notice from my building manager as it flickers its way into my inbox. Let it go until later. I have a mess to clean up.

Two more nudges and my cred stabilizes. But I’ve undone two big haps from yesterday. My quotas are in the hole now too. A complete mess. No one to blame but myself.

The lift stops, the doors slide open. Right into the lobby. Empty.

Outside, I stop, caught between the sunlit lake and the towers. Feel the exposed lines of my skel warm and begin to charge. Better.

Then I swing left onto a street between Tower Three and Tower Six. Head for Oldtown, and the takeout place.

The high towers immediately block lake and sunlight. The dappled shadows of reflected windows aren’t enough to charge a piece of paper, much less smart carbon.

By the time I reach the shop, my skel’s at 30%.

Powersuck. Shadows. And the ph place is caught up in Tower Seven’s shadow. I’ll have to work fast to place the node or I’ll be crawling back to my loft. No thanks.

“Come on,” I tell my legs. First thought: Faster. But no. That will suck power too. I’m really not the most efficient body out here. But the suit has two hours of charge left if I’m careful. I set it on low-power. Noisy but it’ll get me through.

Octavian’s new line and node will take an hour, tops.

Finally, I spot the front of the walk-up, with the smart towers built up and over it. Happens a lot in Oldtown, where brickwork and six-over-six windows are slowly devoured by the smartbuildings.

One of Just Ph’s owners stands outside, arms folded. She watches me cross. Hears the low-power whine of my joints. “What’s that?” She glances at her building, as if looking for cracks.

“Me,” I try. “I’m a Happenstance engineer. They told you I was coming, they said?”

The owner nods. She doesn’t smile.

In the shade where we’re standing, I don’t think she can see my skel.

“Won’t take a second. I did a little work just up the smart side of the street.” I point at the small pocket park I’d dropped. Where there’d once been a blank intersection, now there was a jungle gym and a colorful merry-go-round. Two kids playing, parents standing quietly nearby.

“That was nice work,” she finally says.

My wraps say the owner’s name is Pham Thi Bao Lan.

Mrs. Pham frowns. “What kind of install are you doing?”

“Just a node and a temporary line.” The woman’s frown stays stable. She points me to the roof. “Stairs OK?”

Stairs are fine with the skel. Even on low power. Once I’m up, I pull a micro carbon line from Siro’s chrome bag and began to set the anchor in the roof. It can’t get picked up by birds or blown away by the wind this way. There’s too much chance something would snag it if I didn’t lay it down carefully and then synch it with the rest of the lines on Tower Seven.

The line can’t impact physical elements the way they do in the smart part of the city—nothing smart to talk to here—but it can share data and relay information into the apps in a new way. Just Ph will see a bump in traffic. Other Oldtown stores will too.

Once the anchor’s set, I trail the thin line through my fingers all around the building, shivering in the shadow of the tower. Use an epoxy to seal it to the roofline. Then I pop the end of the line with its miniature network drive on the ledge. Line-of-sight for days up here.

Once I have it all up, I register the node with the city using my skel’s connection and the Happenstance Overlay. Watch it light up, green. Check.

“There you go,” I say to Octavian and Siro.

They don’t respond.

Fine by me.

When I’m done with the install, especially once the main line-of-sight is in, I can see the impact hit. Down the street, my park begins to shift slowly, adding a new bench. That motion expands, rippling, so that walkways and thoroughfares begin to smooth around the benches. Soon the whole corner’s reconfigured, with seats facing the Ph shop, and people have to change directions to go around.

Inside the pocket park, two parents pause and begin talking. “Good to see you! We should grab lunch.” People are stepping outside their circuits. It’s working.

My shoulders relax. That should help me with quotas. But I don’t want any cred for this.

Even so, my cred’s wobbling. I can’t get a lock on the value.

Even so, I wave the owner’s proffered handshake away. She still uses a manual cred-transfer. “Don’t worry about it,” I say.

But she’s not looking at me. She’s looking at a wall just below where the tower meets her building’s roof. I can hear the load-bearing-wall beneath it groaning.

That isn’t going to be okay with the city. The smart tower is growing down over the three-story again. And the restaurant’s wall is going to crack.

“I’ll report it.” How could this happen with a permit down?

“It’s because of your Happenstance,” Mrs. Pham says. “The buildings move too fast.” She means ‘move at all.’ They shouldn’t be moving. But if they are, it’s going to be worse now. Because of the new line.

“Not at all, ma’am. No one would do that if there was a risk.” Buildings don’t move unless an engineer told them to. I haven’t told anyone to move anything.

14% charge. I need to hurry back to Tower One before the sun goes down.

Mrs. Pham’s cheeks color a deeper hue. “You think you can make me pay, but you can’t!”

“What are you talking about?” Utterly befuddled, low on charge.

I’d refused her offer of a tip.

“Your friends said you’d be by if I didn’t pay up. That Happenstance was a two-way street. Have you no empathy?” She’s almost crying. “You people always take advantage of the next modifications, the next new everything. But,” she points at the wall, “it is breaking us.”

The three-story building makes a sound like my skel, groaning under the pressure.

Her wall line begins to sound. “Other business owners, in adjoining buildings.” She points. That’s a lot of angry faces. All wanting to know what I’ve done.

What have I done?

Massive fail points stacking up, and meantime my own cred is suddenly thriving again. Outside, people are interacting, everything’s got a boost. Big, like Siro said. Only this shop is losing out.

“Pay up? Who said that to you?” The penny drops. “Octavian.”

Mrs. Pham shrugs. “We can’t prove it . . . he knows we can’t.”

“Has this happened before?”

“Just rumors.”

Furious, I look at the Happenstance overlay. Sure enough, someone’s running a hap right on top of us. The building is shifting, grinding into the three-story. I power up to full and throw a hold on the modifications.

It’s not entirely legitimate, but technically this is my territory so the map lets me do it. The node I just activated fades and the building stops creaking. The crack stops growing. Mrs. Pham whistles appreciation. “Thank you.”

“That shouldn’t ever happen.” I try to see where the work originated, but the map’s powered down to short range, because my skel’s charge can’t support a citywide. 3%.

I try to grab Siro on my wraps but I can’t get a signal out that way either. Not past tower seven. No links. No coms.

The map has faded to a low-charge grey. The only reason I can connect to anything at all is the line I just planted.

Worse, the skel’s slowed to a crawl. I can strip it off, which might make it easier to move at this point, since the joints are all servo-guided, but then I’ll have zero support, and no way I could get down the stairs. I doubt I can even ping a cab to take me back to Tower One.

I thought I’d packed the emergency charge cables in Siro’s bag, but they aren’t there. I’m stuck here, until I can get a charge.

Worse than stuck. Dependent.

I look at the restaurant owner. “I’m afraid I need your help.” I hate asking for help. It gives people power over you.

When I let her know what I need, Mrs. Pham shakes her head: No solar, no backup charger.

Nothing that will connect with my skel.

I’m stuck in an Oldtown three story with no power, no sunlight. It’s too far to walk to get out of the tower shade. We’re losing what light remains anyway.

“But I can make some calls for you,” she says. She tries to ping Siro first. No answer.

She calls up to my flat for me on her wall screen. It doesn’t connect. She tries again.

By the third try, I’m sitting on the floor, my knees and arms locked up. The friendly face of the tower supervisor appears. “Lane! We’ve been trying to reach you. There’s been a flood at your apartment level.”

“What do you mean? Since this morning?”

“We had to clear it out. You’re being moved down a few floors.”

“Temp quarters?” How many floors? Mrs. Pham’s looking at me, trying to overhear.

“Permanent—your lease was up anyway, and with the repairs we’re going to have to raise the rent to someone with higher cred. Yours is . . . plummeting. I hope you’re all right?” The supervisor’s smile doesn’t say anything of the sort.

To a shadier floor. And I’d never signed a real lease. The tower just let me and a few other creatives crash there to keep the lights on years ago, then I’d started paying rent. Now the building’s popular and I’m not.

“I can up my rent. Not a problem.” I liked my flat. And I had cred.

But now the other area businesses are filing complaints and I see he’s right. My cred’s dropping faster than it rose earlier. Damn.

“We’ve already got someone lined up. You know him, actually.” This time, the supervisor frowns.

“Octavian.” Siro, how could you trust the man? This is the worst kind of surprise.

A clatter from beyond the restaurant’s kitchens. Mrs. Pham leads out one of the customers, who wears a partial skel on a wrist and shoulder. He holds up a power cord. “Yes?”

Oh yes. “I’ll pay you back for the charge.” Lucky, this. Very.

Mrs. Pham nods. “You can pay me back by stopping what’s happening here—keep our home safe.”

Payback. I can do that. I just don’t know how, not yet.

When I have enough juice from their wall unit—10%—I open the map once more. The hap to Tower Seven’s been made under my name. That’s why my cred’s heading for the gutter again. Good luck getting any of the other engineers to help me either—this has third rail disaster written all over it.

But I can do one thing. I ping Siro. Leave a message. :: You need to meet me in Oldtown. I found out what Octavian is doing. You can’t do a deal with him! ::

If Siro’s working with Octavian, that will get him down here. If he isn’t, that will get them both down here.

I pull myself up from where I’d sat down when my skel drained. 13% charge now. Enough to get across to the park, where the sun is finally breaking the treeline just a little. It’s risky, but I can charge and watch the shop at the same time. “If anyone comes in, stall them, okay?” Mrs. Pham and the customer both agree.

I sit on the jungle gym, soaking in late afternoon sunlight. When I see Octavian approaching, I drop my first happenstance. Just up the street from where he’s walking. A big fountain, ornate hypercarbon, with plenty of water features.

I’ve been prepping it for an hour, loudly, so that all the search bots lurking in the happenstance grid can alert their owners.

The fountain pushes against the hypercarbon surface of the smart road there at the edge of Oldtown, self-printing and generating more of itself as it goes. Octavian sees the bulge in the street, but doesn’t quite understand what it means yet.

The bowl of the fountain hollows out, and from within it, another tier rises, then another. Water begins to trickle down the terraces, catching the light and refracting it.

“Mrs. Pham, I came to check the work done by our engineer,” Octavian says.

Our.

There’s enough pull on the pipes from that fountain that Civ Engineering is bound to check in. I block their calls. They’ll alert the city. The police.

Then I toss my second happenstance, the one that sets off the fire alarms in the lowest three floors of Tower Seven.

The fountain’s big enough now that people can sit by it, cool off in the spray.

11% power. The skel’s dropping fast. :: Lane what are you doing? :: Siro pings. :: Octavian left like his hair was on fire, and I’m trying to catch up. I saw your haps drop. What happened? ::

:: I’ll show you when you get here. ::

By this time, there are a ton of people in the streets. Those who’ve begun flocking to my workpoints in hopes of catching some serendipity have come to Oldtown. Dozens of them.

And then the Tower Seven residents emerge because of the alarms.

Octavian’s surrounded by people. Happenstance seekers and residents of the old town and the new.

That’s when I walk out from the park to meet him.

I unblock the fire department, the city. Connect to a wide-channel for everyone in range, except Octavian. I can network too.

Octavian stares at all the luck seekers.

:: That man’s been shaking down your city, charging people for serendipity. ::

I show them the evidence, and Mrs. Pham comes out to back me up. Several other store owners and residents light up my statement and share it.

With so many people around, when Octavian sees me, he doesn’t threaten or try to wave everything off.

“Why didn’t you say anything before?” one of the CivEs asks Mrs. Pham. “Someone would have helped you.”

“We didn’t think anyone would believe us,” Mrs. Pham says.

In the crowd, Octavian turns this way and that. “City wants to talk to you,” a firefighter says. She waves a hand and two officers take Octavian away.

My skel pings. :: Your apartment’s available again. ::

Thought it might be.

They send a real lease this time. I’ll look it over. Later.

I’m watching the city reps stare at the ornate fountain in the middle of Oldtown. The CivE raises her eyebrows. “Who’s going to pay for that?”

The crowd looks at the fountain too. They turn to me and I groan.

My cred, what’s left of it, isn’t nearly enough to pay for an entire fountain, plus all the water. So much for the loft.

But then Mrs. Pham raises her hand. “I’ll help.”

“And me,” says someone from Tower Seven. Their words echo in the crowd.

More volunteer, until the entire neighborhood has pooled enough cred for the disruptive, ornate Happenstance. I’m amazed. The waterspouts glitter in the refracted light.

Siro finally arrives. The sight of him makes my breath hurt. I keep breathing anyway.

He spots the fountain. “What did you do? How did all this happen?”

Mrs. Pham laughs. “Just old fashioned good luck.”

By the time my skel’s at 100% and I’m ready to leave, Siro and the city have talked up a tentative utility fee rather than privatization.

“You’ll stay?” he asks me.

The setting sun passes through the trees, hitting the fountain. The light bubbles and tumbles across the water, sending dappled sunlight across the shadowed alley.

“I will, but I want rights, access. Lockout privileges.” I hold my gaze steady as he squirms. “I’ll ship you your things.”

It’s a good kind of change, for the moment. Like all the best surprises.

 

 

“Happenstance” originally appeared in the first volume of Futurescapes.