Homunculus: Chapter 2: Phone

Liz Richardson stopped short as soon as the passed through the door. The line in front of the counter was at least a dozen people deep, and judging from all the people crowded around the tables, it had been that way for most of the morning. She checked her watch: already ten minutes behind schedule.

There was the other coffee shop on the other side of the office park, after all, and its coffee was a little better too. But Liz was already here, and she didn’t care how nice it was outside, there was no way she was going to walk all the way there in these shoes. That was almost as crazy an idea as getting back in her car and driving over there. Faster, yes, but then she’d lose the parking space she had lucked into right out in front of her office building across the street. She checked her watch again: even in the best case, five minutes to the other shop, five minutes back, and she’d be stuck parking in the overflow lot, waiting for the shuttle. Or she could walk the difference, but again, not with these shoes.

She sighed softly, grabbed a newspaper from the stand next to the door, and took a few steps forward to start waiting. If she was going to be late no matter what, there was no point now in making any extra effort to avoid it; might as well take the convenient option. Location, location, location, she nodded to herself.

Naturally, the thought of giving up on coffee altogether and showing up at work five minutes early never crossed her mind. Back-to-back-to-back meetings all morning ruled that out entirely.

As she waited, Liz paged through the newspaper. All the headlines blended into one another as her eyes skimmed the page. Oh joy, another article about health care reform; like she didn’t hear enough about that whole mess in the office. It could be worse, though, she reminded herself has her attention fell on a poorly Photoshopped lingerie model next to the News Of The World column. There but for the grace of God go I.

Newspaper advertising: where marketing campaigns go to die. It was terrible even before the entire newspaper industry entered its death spiral. All the careful graphic design and ad copy in the world fell flat when rendered in newsprint. Maybe if you were an expert, maybe you’d be able to draw the reader’s eye long enough for them to notice the big thumbprint they made thanks to the world’s cheapest ink and its inability to adhere to the world’s cheapest paper. Not that the rare color pages were any better; you could count yourself lucky if the printer was properly calibrated and managed not to offset the yellow ink half an inch to the left.

But the worst, no doubt, were the faux articles. At least those had potential, Liz mused, and that’s what made them so painful to look at: all that squandered potential. No matter how carefully they tried to read at least somewhat like a real article — and that was the idea, right? — they could never resist the blatant sales pitch in the final paragraph. They never tried to plant an idea in the mind of the reader that would build on the larger ad campaign. “Oh, you’re selling the leading widget frobnicator? I remember reading something about how important widget frobnication is last week…” The fact that they had to be printed with a thick black border and the word ADVERTISEMENT at the top and bottom merely proved how little the newspaper’s ethicists thought of their readers’ intelligence.

Liz shuttered to think how close she had come to being part of that world. Luckily that interview with Jennings/Keller several years back had gone so well. If not for that, her career would probably be circling the toilet instead of putting her on the path to make executive.

By this time Liz had finally reached the front of the line. She bought a latte and the paper, turned, and scanned the room looking for an open table. She knew she should probably just head straight to work and drink it there, but she wanted to get off her feet for a few minutes before heading in.

The coffee shop hadn’t noticeably emptied out any while Liz was in line, and she didn’t see any open tables. There were, however, a couple empty seats here and there. The most promising one was at a small table at the front window. There was a man sitting at it, focused on the phone he held in front of him, his back to the wall of the shop.

“Is this seat taken?” Liz asked.

The man glanced not at her, but at the empty chair across from him. “Doesn’t look like it,” he replied, his eyes moving back onto his phone. It didn’t sound like he was making any kind of joke out of it; it almost seemed like he genuinely didn’t know if there were anyone sitting across from him until he checked.

“Do you mind?” she asked.

“Knock yourself out.”

Liz slid the chair back from the table a bit and sat down, laying the folded newspaper in front of her. She looked at the man across from her. If he had taken any notice of her, he wasn’t letting on.

“I’m not disturbing you or anything, am I?” Liz asked.

“No,” he replied. “Just checking the news.”

“Same here,” Liz said, lifting the corner of the newspaper. Hardly riveting conversation, but it was less awkward than not saying anything.

The man shifted the phone to the left, letting him see what Liz had on the table. “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know they still printed those things.”

“Either this or cable news.”

“If those are the choices, I’ll stick with this.”

Liz looked at the man’s phone. She figured it wouldn’t be any more rude than him keeping his eyes on it while they were talking. Well, sort of talking. It was a sleek black rectangle, held along its edge by the man’s left hand. He kept poking the side facing him, probably a touchscreen, with this free hand. As the sunlight glinted off its finish, she caught something that didn’t glint.

“Is that tape?” she asked.

“Hmm?” the man said, flipping the phone so that its screen faced down. “Oh, that. Electrical tape.”

“Did you drop it?”

“No, that’s the camera lens.”

“Oh, so it’s broken.”

The man shook his head. “It should still work if I took the tape off. I haven’t tested it, though.”

“So that it doesn’t work.”

Liz looked at him quizzically. “Why wouldn’t you want your phone’s camera to work?”

“It’s not really my phone, is it?”

“So your employer put it on there?” Liz asked.

“Oh God, no,” the man replied, shaking his head in disgust. “You should’ve seen the POS they wanted to assign me. No thank you. I’d like a phone that can do something other than text and phone calls.”

“So, whose phone is it?” Liz wasn’t sure where this conversation was going, but at least it was something that could be called a conversation. Whether or not it was an improvement over silence, well, she was going to reserve judgment on that for the time being.

“It’s the phone company’s phone. Their hardware. Their software. Their network. They make that abundantly clear in the license agreement. Well, more ‘obfuscated’ than ‘clear,’ really, but you know what I mean.”

Liz nodded hesitantly.

“The point is,” the man continued, “they control it. It’s theirs, and even if you jailbreak it, they’ve usually still got something running on it they could use to take back control of it. Or worse, someone who’s hacked into their network. Just this morning I’ve found an article about a botnet targeting cell phones, even. And I’d rather not have to worry about whether or not my phone’s secretly taking pictures of where I’m at.”

“And you think it is?”

“No.”

“So why…?”

“Because now I know for sure it isn’t. One less risk I have to worry about. Besides, why do I need a camera on my phone anyway?”

“To take pictures,” Liz answered.

The man paused. “OK, there’s that, but I can pull the tape off if I ever want to do that. Just like a lens cap on a real camera.”

Liz checked the dwindling level of her latte. “I guess I never thought of my phone quite like that,” she said.

“Most people don’t. But that’s what I get paid to do.”

Be paranoid about everyone trying to get you? “You get paid to worry about phones?”

“I get paid to worry about everything. Or rather, paid to figure out what needs to be worried about, and then figure out a way to stop needing to worry about that too. That’s risk management, in a nutshell.”

“Uh huh.”

“No, I’m serious,” the main said. “Here.” The main fished a card out of his wallet and handed it to Liz. She hesitated for a moment, then took and looked at it:

Douglas Decker
Information Systems Security Officer
Medimetics Corporation

“See?” Douglas added. “If I really were part of the tin foil hat brigade, I wouldn’t have enough money left over after hoarding cans of pork and beans to afford printing fake business cards. Or real business cards, for that matter.”

“Why would they hoard pork and beans?”

Douglas shrugged. “I don’t know what they hoard. I’m not one of them. I figure they must hoard something. Seems like the kind of thing they’d do.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, they think tin foil will block the CIA mind control satellites, never realizing that if tin foil did do that, there’s no way the government would let anyone sell it. Or realizing there aren’t any CIA mind control satellites, for that matter. See, that’s two ways right there they’re crazy.”

“I guess that makes sense. Oh, look at the time,” Liz said, checking her watch and standing up. “I’ve got a meeting or three I need to get to.”

“OK,” Douglas said. “It was nice meeting you, um…”

Liz looked at Douglas. Ignoring the topic of conversation for the time being, he certainly looked like an average, run of the mill, not insane office worker. And it’s not like there were many crazy homeless people around the office park anyway.

“Liz,” she said.

“It was nice meeting you, Liz.”


Chapter word count: 1,753 (+86)
Total word count: 3,463 / 50,000 (6.926%)

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