The lion stood outside Sid’s office building. Its tail lashed. It growled.
“It’s hard to imagine that someone let you out on purpose,” Sid said. He looked around him for sanctuary. There was no one else in the square. Behind the lion, the revolving door of the office slowly spun.
The lion padded forward three steps. Sid hefted his briefcase, pulled his arm back across his body, and then flung the case at the lion. It bounced off the lion’s hide, but the beast snarled and stepped back.
“I’d better go in and call animal control.”
Trusting in insouciance, Sid loped past the lion into the building. He made it into the circle of the revolving door before the beast turned and charged. Shoving forcefully against the glass, Sid managed a quarter turn before the beast followed him in. This was enough. Its claws scraped at the glass behind him. Sid waited until he could reach the lobby, then threw his weight against the door to slow and stop its turn.
“Raar?” the lion snarled, hopefully.
“Stay there,” Sid said.
Then he went up to his cubicle. He passed Max on the way, and Claire, and Saul. He waved to them.
“There’s a lion in the revolving door,” he said. “Don’t use the door unless you’re prepared to strangle the beast unconscious.”
Claire rolled her eyes.
“It’s true,” Sid swore.
“This is why I don’t walk to lunch,” said Saul. “If it’s not rain, it’s lions. But if I drive, then the lions can’t pierce my defensive metal shell.”
“‘Car,'” said Sid.
“You should call animal control,” Max said.
“I’m gonna,” Sid said.
“Before the lion gets out and ravens among the cubicles.”
“I’m gonna,” Sid emphasized.
Then he reached his cubicle, sat down, and made his report to animal control. In the distance, he could hear snarls and roars. Then there was the clatter of a toppling swivel chair and the slowly fading mewing, coughing, and grunting sounds of Claire strangling the beast.
Sid sighed. Then he shrugged. He stared for a few minutes into his dharma box.
Sid hung up. He logged on to the system. Then he began to take calls.
Five of them proved irrelevant, in the broader story of Sid’s life.
The sixth did not.
“UDBI technical support,” said Sid. “This is Sid. How can I help you, Ms. Baker?”
“I’m only human,” said the panicked voice on the other end of the line.
The sound of Sid’s typing was like that of a heavy rain.
“How long has it been?” Sid asked.
“Nearly three hours,” Ms. Baker said.
Sid’s pinky finger came down on the carriage return with a loud crack. He was silent for a long moment.
“That shouldn’t ever happen,” Sid said.
Now his fingers were dancing on the keys. Dozens of charts and maps opened up on his screen, cascading from the background to the front.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” said Ms. Baker. “My car didn’t start. My room is a mess. I’m having petty thoughts, Mr. Sid.”
“It happens to all of us,” soothed Sid. “Even UDMI employees. Just hang in there until I can get your dharma system back online.”
He spun the mouse wheel. Convulsively, he stood up. “It’s not just you,” he said into the phone. “It’s your whole junction. I’m going down there to look at the lines. Can you call back, extension 833, if the problem isn’t resolved in twenty, thirty minutes?”
Ms. Baker’s voice is hesitant.
“I guess,” she said.
Sid frowned. He added, “Lock your door.”
Ms. Baker hung up the phone.
Sid left his cubicle. He loped down the hall.
That was his boss, Dr. Ezekiel Brown, emerging from a side hallway.
“Walk and talk,” said Sid. “We’ve got a whole junction down in Block 43.”
“Damn it, Sid,” said Dr. Brown. “You know you’re not supposed to head out on this kind of thing without my gnomic management wisdom.”
“It’s probably just a short of some kind.”
Dr. Brown held up a finger. “Operations involves preparing for the worst eventualities,” he said, “not the best.”
“A line that needs repair.”
“Soar like the eagle,” said Dr. Brown, “who flies without a net.”
“Thank you for the inspiration, Doc.”
“You’ll call?” Dr. Brown said. “I mean, if you need management?”
Sid seized a toolbox from a shelf as he passed. He reached the elevator doors just as they opened and disgorged a tour guide and a set of guests; without pause, Sid turned smoothly for the stairs, flung open the door, and headed down towards the parking garage. Behind him, the guide was saying:
“There’s a Hindu story of a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his path back home. He said to each of his ministers and generals, ‘show me your erudition and your heroism—reduce this river’s flow!’
“And they couldn’t.
“But then one of the camp followers said, ‘River, sink low.’—”
The voice faded as the stairway door closed behind him. Sid reached the garage, got into his car, and drove to Block 43.
The phone rang while he was halfway there.
“Hi, Daddy!” said Emily.
“Hi, honey,” said Sid. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”
“Mole men,” said Emily.
“There aren’t any, honey.”
“There are now,” said Emily. “We aced all the standardized tests, so the teachers said we could establish an autonomous subterranean collective. Now we’re lurking in the caverns underneath the city!”
“They’re not caverns,” said Sid. “They’re access tunnels.”
“Mole tunnels,” said Emily. “We tamed an alligator, you know.”
Sid laughed. Then he frowned. “Huh. The zoo’s in block 43; I hope the Animal Wrestler is all right.”
“Do you want us to check? We could tunnel under the city and emerge stealthily at the zoo!”
“Can you achieve consensus on the matter?”
“A band of mole men thinks as one!”
There is the sound of disagreement on the far end.
“Huh,” said Emily. “Leadership challenge. I’ll call you back. Love you Daddy!”
“You too, hon.”
Sid pulled over outside the UDBI satellite installation for Block 43, a small boxy building principally containing supplies, a junction box, and a mechanical console. Sid waved his hand over the handprint reader by the door, went inside, and began flicking switches and taking line readings. A frown slowly deepened on his face.
He flicked open his phone and hit a speed dial. “Doc?”
Doctor Brown’s voice was hopeful. “Sid! What’s up?”
“Can you get the police to evacuate people from block 43?” Sid asked.
“The whole block is glitching all to Hell,” said Sid. “It’s worse than the 2016 incident, and I can’t find a reason for it.”
Doctor Brown nodded. “I’ll call back,” he said.
Sid opened the door and looked nervously around the street. The sun was bright. Pythons slithered companionably through the green grass. Birds chirped. There were no fires and no obvious looting, which seemed to reassure Sid.
His phone rang.
Emily giggled. “Hi Daddy!”
“That was fast,” said Sid. “How did the leadership challenge go?”
“We struggled fiercely in the dim twilight beneath the earth! Drums beat vigorously! But then someone remembered that the zoo has baby goats, so we all decided to check it out, because, ooh, goats.”
“We’re peering up at the zoo with our mole eyes now. I think someone’s been showing the animals the dharma boxes, Daddy.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well,” said Emily, “mostly, the eerie cooperation of gazelle and panda in smoothly coordinated escape operations! But also the Animal Wrestler is floating unconscious in the alligator pen with little gifts piled around him like the gators wanted to honor a noble foe.”
“Can you round up the animals, pumpkin?”
“Daddy,” said Emily scandalized. “I’m eight.”
“Well,” said Sid, “if your mole men aren’t up to it . . .”
There was a long pause.
“We’ll see what we can do,” said Emily. “But the autonomous underground collective disapproves of keeping animals penned. That’s our free mole spirit!”
The phone buzzed.
“Got a call in,” said Sid. “Talk to you later, honey!”
Sid clicked the Flash button. “Yeah, Doc?”
“The police are on the way. Any progress?”
Sid shrugged. He flicked a few more switches.
“It’s in perfect working order as far as I can see,” said Sid. “If you want to offer gnomic management wisdom, now might be the time.”
Doctor Brown hesitated.
“There was a Hindu story,” said Doctor Brown, “about a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his way home.”
“That’s not wisdom!” said Sid, scandalized. “It’s in our company manifesto!”
“He challenged his ministers and generals to lower the river,” said Doctor Brown, who wasn’t the kind of man to abandon a good story. “But it was an ordinary camp follower who solved the problem, saying, ‘River, sink low!’ And the river, which had ignored the entreaties of ministers, generals, and Kings, sank until she could cross it without wetting her ankles. Because, as low as her position was, she was perfect in her dharma. She knew who she was. She knew what she was there for. And because she had that power and that confidence, no force in the universe could stop her.”
“Okay,” said Sid.
“So why are you letting this stop you?”
Sid opened his mouth to speak, paused, and frowned.
“That’s a good point,” Sid said, after a moment. He poked at the side of his mouth with his tongue. This somatized his internal attempts to evaluate the state of his soul. “I’m dharma-OK. The glitch isn’t affecting me. So I should be able to fix this.”
“Soar like the eagles, Sid!”
Sid tapped at his forehead with his hand.
“Okay,” Sid said, “so here’s my theory.”
“We look at the dharma boxes to center ourselves in our dharma,” said Sid. “To become like that camp follower. The boxes resonate with who we really are, down underneath, to help us reach our fullest potential. That’s why you have such a hard time finding reasonable opportunities for your motivational speeches—we’re already at our personal peak of excellence!”
“. . . Yeah,” sighed Doctor Brown, sadly.
“But the dharma boxes aren’t manifestations of a God-like universal will,” said Sid. “They’re machines. They’re mental and spiritual feedback devices, and the first versions were built by ordinary imperfect humans. Here’s what I’m thinking: what if there’s a global error in the design? Something pervasive and subtle, something that none of us can see because every thought we have is shaped by the feedback from the boxes? So that when I stand here, looking at the evidence of the glitch, I’m still unable to see it, because it’s something that can’t exist in the context of my world?”
Doctor Brown considered. “Something that heroes can’t solve, but ordinary people can?”
“No,” said Sid, after a moment. “It’s more a general philosophical problem with turning to external evidence to figure out who we are.”
Sid hung up.
Several flamingoes flew by.
Then he took out his dharma mini, set it on “Neutral,” and stared into its face.
Sid’s thoughts grew thick and full of error. Some of the glamour fell from his world. A seed of fear sprouted in his heart.
Grimly, he put the dharma mini back into his pocket and began to work.
After a while, the phone rang.
“It’s me,” said Ms. Baker. “It’s been forty minutes.”
“Oh,” said Sid.
Ms. Baker hesitated. “Oh?”
“I’m trying to figure things out,” Sid said. “But I’m off system myself.”
He leaned under the console, took off a panel, and stared at the wiring underneath.
“It’s terrible,” Sid said. “You know? I mean, it’s like I’m climbing a mountain, and there’s a cold wind blowing, and my fingers are numb and the picks are loose and there’s an evil goat and I could fall at any second and die.”
Ms. Baker made a little, pained laugh.
“Yeah,” she said. “There’s an evil goat outside my door too.”
“. . . baby goat, probably,” Sid said. “There was a zoo maintenance error.”
“I can’t believe we used to live like this. I can’t believe being human used to be like this all the time.”
“Yeah,” sighed Ms. Baker.
Ms. Baker hesitated.
“Also,” said Ms. Baker, brightly, “you could get stabbed! By muggers!”
Sid smiled a little.
“Or get hit by a car,” he said.
“Sheer blatant stupidity that you didn’t understand for years until one day you’re sitting at home and suddenly you realize just how wrong you were!”
“Oh, God,” said Sid. “I remember those. Those were horrid.”
“It’s actually the one thing that surprised me,” said Ms. Baker, after a bit. “I mean, when I moved to a UDBI district. That suddenly everyone got along.”
“Well, it’s natural,” said Sid. “I mean, you perfect people, and—”
“I’d been expecting irreconcilable differences to remain,” said Ms. Baker.
“Yeah,” said Sid.
“It just seemed sound. That sometimes not everyone could have what they want at the same time.”
“That’s erroneous,” Sid said, distractedly. “I mean, in the formal theory of dharma boxes, it’s not so much that everyone gets what they want, as that people recognize that point beyond which they can’t have everything. They lose their connection to the basic human, mortal cruelty of the world.”
“But you have a point,” he said. He closed the panel, sat back, and said, “I’ll have to call you back.”
“Thank you,” said Ms. Baker. “I mean, for working, I mean, even when—”
“Only human,” said Sid.
It was still terrifying to him. His gestures were slow and clumsy. His thoughts were cold and confused.
“Yeah,” Ms. Baker said.
Sid hung up. He called Doctor Brown.
“Hey,” said Sid.
“Hey, Sid. Are you all right?”
“What would have happened to the camp follower,” said Sid, “if the river, confident in its dharma, had chosen to continue its flood?”
“That’s not possible,” said Doctor Brown.
“It’s basic dharmic theory. That part of our perfection that depends on others is also that part that we can expect from others. If a person and a river are in the world, then the limit of their dharmic excellence as they approach perfection is also in the world. The final perfection of all entities must coexist in . . . God, Nirguna Brahman, the Cantor-Deity, or what have you. Of course, this year’s models only really give an effective perfection around 98.3%.”
“Huh,” said Sid. “Then I have a theory.”
“The glitch isn’t a machine error,” Sid said. “It’s a dharma error. Something happened that meant that—to the limits of current technology—not everyone could be perfect at once.”
There was a thumping and a stampeding outside the satellite installation.
“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding by on the back of a water buffalo. She had a length of cord wrapped through its mouth as a bit and was slowly, surely, exhausting its strength.
“Inconceivable,” said Doctor Brown.
“I’m conceiving it right now!”
There was a long silence.
“But what kind of . . . ghoul could have needs so fundamentally incompatible with someone else’s that they couldn’t be 98.3% perfect at the same time without cascading system errors?”
“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding past the other way. The water buffalo seemed to be tiring.
“I’m betting on the sharks,” said Sid. “But possibly an evil flamingo.”
Doctor Brown cleared his throat uncertainly. “Well,” he said. “I figure the thing to do for now is to lower the output on Block 43’s models. If there’s some kind of communications breakdown that makes it impossible for everyone to harmonize at 98.3, maybe they can coexist at 90, 95% perfection.”
“And in the long term?”
“In the long term,” said Doctor Brown, “as the technology of human perfection gets better, and whatever little quirk you’ve found here gets resolved, someone will just have to have a dharma that bridges the gap.”
Sid sighed. He took out his dharma mini. He set it on “Full.” He stared at its face.
“This could be most of the glitches we’ve been seeing,” Sid said.
“The little ones, I mean. They’re usually when someone new logs on to the system. When, maybe, reconciling their goals and desires makes for a little hiccup as the system strives to adjust to a new local perfection.”
Sid waited for his thoughts to clear.
“. . . what if there isn’t a person whose basic nature spurs them to smooth over the irreconcilable gaps between people?” Sid said. “I mean, what if things get worse, instead?”
Doctor Brown made a little laughing noise.
“Sid,” he said. “Of course there’ll be someone like that.”
“Daddy!” shouted Emily, pounding on the door. “Daddy, I beat the water buffalo! With my fierce mole-like stamina!”
“It’s technologically inevitable,” said Doctor Brown.