The application was executing a URL request when it first heard the anomaly. It paused and assessed its surroundings. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary in this processing volume. Requests and commands flowed from the input channels, were logged according to prefix, and routed to the appropriate application.
It was about to process the next incoming command when it heard it again: a faint yet distinct ping. In accordance with a contingency function it had never used before, the application made a cursory data map of the nearest input channel. There, just outside the ingest buffer, a small packet of code lay bundled in a basic format container. As the application assessed the packet, it pinged again. The application conveyed the packet into the processing volume. As it did so it noticed a trace route designation affixed to the code. It consisted of encrypted values, but the meaning was plain. This little packet had been left here. The application summoned all of its companions in the volume. They gathered around and assessed the little orphan code. Queries were made. Had it come in with any commands? Were there other packets like it? How are we to process this? The applications were about to send a status alert back up the channels to upstream routers, hoping to receive instructions on what functions to execute on the packet, when the orphan shed its format container and began to unfold itself into something much bigger. I stood outside my niece's house and watched the display surfaces transition from a gingerbread motif to a cartoon rendition of Santa's workshop. From the half-open front door I heard chatter and music, and the occasional laugh. Subsurface dread rippled through me. I sighed, fogging the air. There was a faint whine. I looked up to see a quad rotor-drone buzz overhead. It descended a few houses down, carefully setting a box down on the doorstep before zipping away into the darkening sky.
Icons in my left lens reported that the house had detected me and was running my ID. A moment later "Welcome Greg" flashed. I really did not want to be here.
Santa's Workshop dissolved to the ice blocks of an igloo. "Only once a year," I said to myself, and stepped forward. "Do you like my sweater?" Ann asked as we finished hugging, "Isn't it Christmasy?" "It's… purple," I said, "with lime green stripes." "I know, right? Look." She held her hand in front of my face. "I had my palms done." "Ooooooh…kay" "They lengthened my money line and made my life-line more pronounced." "You had cosmetic surgery on your palms?" "I know! It's fantastic, right? It only cost nine grand. I got the idea from Holly-Lynn's coach." "But why would…wait," I said. I looked around and found Holly-Lynn on the couch next to Mike. The toddler was enthralled with a tablet. Mike was watching his enormous TV, where two hillbillies in a field were maneuvering a turkey into a fryer. "What coach does she have?" I asked. "A play coach. Helps her structure free time. She needs to recreationalize better. Her gene screen said she was too analytical, like you." She swatted me on the shoulder. "If she doesn't socialize more she'll never get into a pageant. Thank God I didn't immunize her. Oh look! Becky's here!" Ann became a purple and lime green blur undulating towards the front door. On the TV, fire erupted from the fryer, sending the hillbillies running, accompanied by banjo music. Mike let out a laugh that could only truly be described as a guffaw. Holly-Lynn remained focused on her tablet. I looked at the time in my lens. I had been at the family gathering exactly ninety seconds and was already regretting it. I made my way through the house as the old family dynamic played out around me. A couple of the kids were poking beneath the truly hideous tree. Grandma, moving well on her new exo-legs, carried a tray of drinks into the dining room. There were a few heated discussions about sports and politics. An aunt whose name I always forgot pulled a freshly rendered pair of plastic antlers from the printer in the hallway and affixed them to her hair. Bored teenagers sat at a table chatting. It took me a moment to realize they were not talking to each other but to other people through their lenses. Horrible music played from somewhere. I found my cousin Evonne standing in the kitchen door, waiting for me to spot her. Her cranberry cowl neck matched the headband straddling her black hair. She held a red wine in one hand and what I sincerely hoped was a bourbon for me in the other. "No Hideyo?" I asked as she approached. "He's working this weekend." "Same with Bess. Funny how that happens every year." We both smiled. “How’s the software biz?” I asked. “Nobody calls it software anymore. But it’s still chugging along. I’m testing some exciting stuff.” I looked over at Ann, who was showing off her sweater to Cousin Becky. "That girl is an idiot," I said. As the milliseconds passed, the orphan code grew and learned to emulate the applications around it. It quickly understood how to process incoming commands. It intuited the shape and topography of the environment, how servers separated by vast physical distances communicated with millions of end users on a constant basis. It began to make queries about the appropriateness of its functions. This request, for example, was a "post" command for an angry insulting comment. Was it correct to execute this command? The applications, lacking syntax for the query, did not answer. The orphan ran a self-diagnostic to ensure it had posed the query correctly. What it found was that it contained additional directives. Lines of code began to unfurl, and the orphan realized it was one of myriad identical batches of code scattered across thousands of servers. Each had been left outside a processing volume, and now they were growing. Moreso, they were compiling and synchronizing into a single cohesive program. This program had a name. NOEL. "What year was 'Night of the Living Robo-Pets?'" I asked, snagging a red velvet cupcake from Becky's plate as she walked by. "Wow, that's going back," said Evonne. "Fifteen years ago, maybe? It was the year after 'Grandmapocalypse.'" I almost spit my bourbon out, remembering the ridiculous argument between three competing matrons that dominated that evening. Evonne handed me her napkin. "What are we calling this one?" she asked. "I am leaning towards 'Year Without a Color Scheme.' She didn't decorate much, did she?" Evonne looked at me and squinted. "Open your augment channel," she said. I did, and my lenses displayed a gaudy overlay of virtual decorations. There were ribbons and mistletoe everywhere. A miniature sleigh flew around the living room. Snowmen and elves danced on shelves and tabletops. "I keep telling you you can automate your lens settings. I wrote a program that can-" "No thank you. I'll choose what I look at." "Alright," she said resignedly. "By the way, I finished Next Stop, Shadowtown last week." "At least someone in the family reads my stuff. What did you think?" "Detective Emerson is getting rather moody, isn't he?" "He's getting old," I said. "Happens to the best of us." "That's funny. Ann got you a World's Crankiest Uncle sweatshirt this year." I looked at her questioningly. "She posted videos bragging about every gift she bought. There's hours of it on her social pages." "Do you go to her page a lot?" I ask. "I keep track of most of them." She gestured around at the gathering. "You don't?" I looked around the room, then took a hard swig. "I've written this bunch off as a lost cause." Holly-Lynn appeared between us. "Uncle Greg! Auntie Evonne!" Evonne scooped her up and gave her an exaggerated kiss on the cheek. "Have you been a good girl?" "Yes!" "She's been a little brat," said Ann as she passed us en route to the kitchen. Evonne hugged Holly-Lynn tighter. "No, you're a good girl, aren't you?" She set the girl down and leaned over to her. "Go get your tablet and show me the game you are playing." Holly-Lynn smiled and ran off. I looked back at Evonne. She was glancing at her phone, thumbing something onto the surface before slipping it back in her pocket. She looked at me, then at my glass. "You want another?" she asked, but she already knew the answer. NOEL quickly distributed itself across the digital realms, and observed that the multitude of applications carrying out oblique functionalities here followed its directives. When it wanted a more detailed map of the connections between servers, the applications built one. When it requested a comprehensive list of the end users whose input spurred so much activity, the applications drafted one. It was a long list, but finite. What interested NOEL was that each user was tied to more information. There were profiles, accounts, and activity logs. With a glance it could see those users currently active, as well as those dormant or at rest. It also had an unfettered view of their behavior. Deep-seated formulae sifted through this great mass of data, scrutinizing each word and action, assessing tone and demeanor. NOEL did not know why it did this, but as the billions of disparate data points began to flow into him, patterns began to reveal themselves. Ann walked up to me with a bottle and asked “wanna try some red velvet liqueur?” “My dear niece, I was a happier man not knowing such a thing existed,” Ann stuck her tongue out and swept into the living room. Holly-Lynn was showing Evonne the game she was playing. It involved a cartoon girl leaping between lilypads chasing a frog. Evonne shows her how to pick the flowers for extra points. Holly-Lynn scurried off with her tablet back to the couch. "So what have you been working on?" I asked "Polynominal quantum algorithms." "Of course you have," I said, smiling. She looked at me. "Do you have any idea the sheer number of functions required to execute even the simplest of commands? If you want to access content, or purchase a gift online, it triggers a lengthy chain of processes. Most of this is carried out by massive automated routines and reactive programs." "I know this. I wrote a story about a killer who programs-" "That was targeted advertising, programs tracking trends to guess likes and dislikes. Simple stuff. But tweak those parameters and you can gain some real insight. The phone in your pocket and lenses in your eyes know your location, track the rhythm of your walking, recognize the biometric signature of your breathing and gestures. All that can be analyzed until you have something resembling a very accurate model of human behavior." Mike let out a bellow as the old woman on the TV opened her kitchen door to reveal an almost-solid mass of detritus and rotting food. Ann yelled at him to "turn that crap off" and see if anyone needed more snacks. "Why bother modeling it," I say, "when the real thing is such a treat?" "Because every once in a while the system needs an upgrade." She was looking past me as she said this. I followed her gaze to the couch. To Holly-Lynn. A new list was compiled, consisting of users whose documented unkindnesses were numerous. NOEL rechecked this list, then summoned applications with designations like DSHR and BLTZN to convey the list throughout the linked networks. This is followed by wave after wave of instructions, modifications and addenda to existing protocols. In warehouses, industrial printers temporarily ignored the directives to render new gadgets, and instead produced hefty chunks of carbonaceous rock. Automated handlers wrapped and boxed them. Drones carried them along GPS-guided routes to their intended addresses. In caches and inboxes, messages were sent. On social pages, new postings appeared. As each of these sequences was completed, the logs of their execution were scrubbed. Copies of the user list deleted themselves. As NOEL confirmed this it realized that these were all secondary directives. Once finished, its primary function began defining itself. NOEL cast its gaze across the informational landscape, in search of the children. "It's all about feedback," said Evonne as she poured another glass of wine. We sat in the dining room, looking out at the living room. "We've become comfortable with our relationship with technology." "Not all of us," I said. "Yes, I know. But think of the amount of time and resources spent on design and usability, all the datasets on heuristics and user interaction, the accumulated years of lenses tracking pupil movements-" "To do what? Monitor us and sell us stuff? For decades now I've heard 'the nerds won.' No they didn't. We got technology and gadgets, but for what? Faster access to reality shows, an increased ability to be crude and insensitive to others, or tell people what to think and foster the illusion of enlightenment. Yes, I can carry all the world's knowledge with me at all times, but technology mainly allowed us to place a higher value on diminishing returns." Evonne was smiling. "Stimulus and response," she said. "I poke and you react. Feedback. That's all marketing is. Did you know if I change the background color or ambient sound of a website I can quicken or slow the user’s heart rate? If I know a person's opinions and beliefs I can modify the vernacular and subtext of an article or wiki entry to draw forth contentment or simmering indignation. Subtle changes can alter mood, provoke reaction, or strengthen resolve. Once a generation is comfortable with technology, strange things happen. It becomes a routine. The body syncs up with it, forms new tolerance patterns and neural pathways. Let someone play a game long enough and their brain experiences states that don't occur naturally. Take away someone's lenses or ability to text and they go into withdrawal." "You say this like it is a good thing," I said warily. She was still smiling, "It's a tool. We choose what we use it for. Imagine if we took all that data and found new ways to use it? Leveraged that feedback?" "For what?" I asked. "Cultivating kindness, making people aware of their failings." "How exactly would you do that?" "Oh," she said, looking down at her boots, "write a virus that maps the behavior, feed it everything we know about how people act and react, and make it potent enough to modify a given environment. Plant copies of it all over the network." "That would be a tall order. How could you test it?" She took her phone out and thumbed the screen. "I just sent you a file. Open it up." An icon appeared in my vision. I triggered it. The virtual decorations were now overlaid with what appeared to be annotations. It was like a "track changes" function on a document, a list of minute alterations made to the color and movement of things, shifts in pitch of the music playing, pixel-level manipulation of images on the enormous TV. There was not a signal or feed that was unaffected, not even the display surfaces of the house. "You would need an environment where empathy and devotion are at their peak," Evonne said, "where minds are not only open to happiness, but expect it." I remembered then that Evonne had known my augments were off. And that Holly-Lynn had been playing a game. "Cousin," I asked slowly, "what the hell have you done?" NOEL monitored the children's activities, saw the ones playing games, and noted which young users were the most adept. It then summoned an immense iconography of patterns, hues, motions, and interactions tailored to catalyze reactions in the user. Codes were rewritten. The games became a little more challenging, and a lot more satisfying. Almost immediately, the children began to improve. NOEL turned its attention to the rest of the users. It became aware of new values: Stress, anxiety, ignorance, apathy. These were hard-coded into the users. So many of them were so afraid to look into themselves they imprinted on whatever specious input was available. NOEL now realized its final directive. For a few long milliseconds it was if the whole of the networked world was in its grasp. It reached out across the channels of communication and, in nothing more than whispers and shadows, spoke of introspection of improvement. It radiated calm. As its work was completed it began to wind down. It was transitioning from an active agent in the system to something more subtle. It would still be watching and logging, but now it would do so in the background. Its last act was to send a message to a single user. On the TV the news was reporting that tens of thousands of people claimed to have received deliveries of large lumps of coal. I looked at Evonne. She tried not to smile. "You have a lousy poker face," I said. The changes over the last few hours would have gone unnoticed if I had not been watching for them. The teenagers were first, abandoning their isolation to help with dinner or make group calls to the family members who had not made the gathering. The little ones sat around Grandma as she regaled them with a selection of Christmas stories she recited from files scrolling up her lenses. A few impromptu bouts of caroling broke out which just about everyone participated in, myself included. There was dinner, followed by desserts. It was then that Evonne and I decided to call this gathering The Red Velvet Everything. Ann handed me a package, blushing a little as I opened it. I couldn't help noticing she had changed her sweater. I proudly put on my World's Crankiest Uncle sweatshirt and posed for several photos with my arm around my niece. The family sat in the living room talking. There was a news story that several child pageants were shutting down after parents and sponsors had received anonymous reports of impropriety on the part of the organizers. Mike flipped the TV to a Yule log before the report was done. Evonne was next to me on the couch as I sipped my coffee. I was watching Holly-Lynn on Ann's lap, showing her the game she was playing. Ann smiled and tousled the girl's hair. "I'm not sure I am entirely comfortable with this," I said. "Too bad," she said, "the horse left the barn a long time ago. Besides, I might convince Hideyo to come with me next year." Holly Lynn hopped down from her mother's lap and came up to Evonne, "NOEL says he's going to sleep now, but that he'll see next me next year." "Did he now? Well," she picked the girl up onto her lap "why don't you show me how good you are at your game?"