We Are The Olfanauts

by Deji Bryce Olukotun, recommended by OR Books

EDITOR’S NOTE BY BRYAN HURT

In October 2014, Wired published an article called, “The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed,” that investigates the lives and careers of the 100,000-plus men and women, often from the Philippines, whose jobs are to scour and remove offensive material from the world’s social networking sites. These content monitors are exposed to the worst that humanity has to offer: bestiality, child pornography, decapitations, torture videos, hate speech, abuse of every kind. They are poorly paid, suffer a high rate of burnout, and many are psychologically scarred. Yet social networking companies find this kind of human labor to be increasingly necessary. “Active moderators” are more effective at censoring offensive content than moderation algorithms or reactive moderating, which rely on users to flag objectionable content before it’s taken down. This means that there’s often an invisible human curating our social media experiences for us, patrolling the border between the polite and profane Internet, protecting us from ourselves.

Empty Pockets

“The world was not a fair place, and I was the one that helped people forget that fact.” So says Renton, the narrator of Deji Bryce Olukotun’s terrific and chilling story, “We Are The Olfanauts.” Renton is one of these invisible curators, a content moderator for Olfanautics, the “global pioneer in scented social media.” He is an Olfanaut. He defends humanity from its own worst self. From behind his desk, his Trunk dutifully attached to his face, Renton has seen, and smelled, it all: ritual dismemberment, rape, a nun who gets her head smashed in. Despite these horrors, Renton insists that he remains unaffected, unchanged. One of the story’s great triumphs, and great tragedies, is that it shows us in rich but subtle psychological detail just how wrong he is. Outside of the office, he acts with casual disregard, sometimes cruelty, to those around him. He has a man fired for no reason other than his own wounded ego; he fails to comfort his lover, another content moderator, who feels her own humanity slipping away. His empathy is eroded by everything he’s seen.

In many ways Olukotun’s story is novel-dense, and I feel like there’s a novel’s worth of material here to praise: his perfectly rendered and eerily prescient near-future world; his keen social commentary; his wonderfully complicated and morally complex characters; his smart and powerful use of the Prometheus myth. But my favorite thing about the story is the way it engages with and explores our sense of smell. Smell is the most immediate of all the senses, the most intimate. Researchers have found that there’s a link between intensity of feeling and intensity of smell. The future where smells are shared across cell phones and screens in order to intensify virtual experience is not far off; in fact, it’s already here. But as Olukotun shows us all of this sharing, all of this access and intimacy, comes at a cost.

This is why I am so excited to recommend “We Are The Olfanauts” and why I so eagerly included it in Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest, an anthology of fiction that explores lives lived in the new surveillance state. In addition to Olukotun’s brilliant story, the book features new and previously uncollected work by Etgar Keret, Chika Unigwe, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Aimee Bender, Lincoln Michel, Jim Shepard, Carmen Maria Machado, Zhang Ran, Robert Coover, Paul Di Filippo, Alissa Nutting, and many more. Watchlist is a book for anyone who’s interested in the politics of surveillance, the social impact of technology, and what it’s like to live in a world where the audience is ever-present and unknown. But more than that it’s for anyone who loves great literary and science fiction and authors like Deji Bryce Olukotun who turn fiction into a kind of surveillance technology, one that reveals something of our own dark and unexamined selves.

Bryan Hurt
Editor, Watchlist

We Are The Olfanauts

by Deji Bryce Olukotun, recommended by OR Books

U have to whyff this.

Cant.

Y not? ☹

Just cant.

Shes bak.

Dont care. Send it up.

I pasted in the link anyway, ignoring Aubrey’s decision.

www.olfanautics.com/13503093!hsfi9hhhh

I knew she would whyff it eventually. One click and you were there. You may as well download it directly into your brain, and with a whyff the effect was nearly as instantaneous. I played the video again to confirm that it was as special as I remembered.

Close-up of a desk. Glass top on a chrome frame. On the desk, a knife, a leather strap, a small glass bowl, and the girl’s wrist. Light tan skin. The whyff: hints of lilac, clearly the girl’s perfume.

She holds the knife in her palm and waves her second hand over it, like a game show hostess displaying a valuable prize. Then she stabs the tip of her finger with the knife and lets her blood trickle into the bowl. The whyff is not of pain, nor the metallic scent of blood. It smells like the richest, freshest strawberries, collected right there in the bowl. And you can hear her laughing.

I should say that the girl appeared to stab the tip of her finger with the knife. You see, there was no proof that she had actually done it. When I slowed the video down, and advanced it frame by frame, her index finger and thumb obscured my view at the exact moment of puncture. She may have stabbed her own finger, or she may have somehow burst a capsule of fake blood with her fingers. Or, more likely, based on the whyff, a capsule of concentrated strawberry essence. It was either the work of a skillful illusionist or a deranged sadomasochist. With my Trunk on, it smelled hilarious.

Aubrey eventually messaged back: Told u to send it up.

What abt the whyff??

Send it up.

Shld Private Review.

Send it up.

Cmon, grrl. Strawberries!

This was the second video this user had posted, and each had ended with a whyff that completely subverted the image of the video with humor. It felt like she was playing with us, questioning whether we would believe our eyes or other senses. Wasn’t that reason enough to Private Review? To talk it through? Last week, Aubrey and I had met in the Private Review rooms twice. I wasn’t going to let her ruin my discovery, though. Instead of sending it up, as she had ordered, I posted the link to ALL-TEAM. Immediately I heard gasps in the cubicles around me.

“Oh, shit, Renton!”

“She’s back!”

“Aw, man, I bet she’s hot!”

Then they went back to their keypads and we began a group chat.

You gonna send it up?

What do you think?

Think we shld.

You smell the strawberries?

I thought it was raspberries.

You cant see the wound.

She a kid?

No, shes 18+.

You hear her laughing?

Crazy grl.

I let the discussion go on for some time as the team chatted amongst themselves, enjoying the fact that with every passing moment the post was staying online, and some new stranger could appreciate its artistry. There was something beautiful about the glass and the steel and the blood. Only the essentials, the sterility of the table against the violence engendered in the blade. The whorls in the redness as the blood filled the bowl, the burst of strawberries and the laughter, ethereal, hovering above it all.

In the end someone sent it up. I wasn’t surprised. We were paid to be cautious, to keep the slipstream of information flowing at all costs, even if it meant removing some of it from the world.

Our team was based in a multibillion-dollar technology park fifteen kilometers outside Nairobi, and our data servers, which would have made us liable under Kenyan law, floated above national airspace in tethered balloons. The Danish architect had modeled the Olfanautics complex after a scene from Karen Blixen’s novel, as if that was what we secretly aspired to, a coffee ranch nestled against the foothills of some dew-soaked savannah. The cafeteria was intended to replicate the feel of a safari tent. Catenary steel cables held up an undulating layer of fabric, which gleamed white in the midday sun. In reality, the tent was the closest I had ever been to a safari. I only left Nairobi to go rock climbing.

Aubrey found me as I was ordering a double veggie burger with half a bun and six spears of broccollini. I could tell from the few frayed braids poking out of her headwrap that she had not slept well last night, nor had she gone to the campus hairdresser to clean herself up. I reached for her thigh as soon as she sat down but she swatted it away.

“I told you to send it up.”

“Nice to see you, too, Aubrey,” I said.

“I’m your boss, Renton. If I say send the video up, then send it up. You’re making me look bad.”

That was the problem with dating your supervisor. She thought any discussion could be resolved by pulling rank.

“Didn’t you whyff the strawberries? They were hilarious, hey. That girl’s an actress or something.”

“We don’t know that, Renton. She could have really been cutting herself. Or someone could have been forcing her off camera and layered in that whyff afterward. We don’t even know if she’s a she. It could be a man.”

Aubrey always pulled her liberal philosophy on me, as if I couldn’t trust my own nose.

“The metadata said she was a twenty-four-year-old woman,” I said. “I looked at the time signatures. The whyff was recorded simultaneously.”

“The signatures could have been spoofed.”

“That’s only happened once.”

I wasn’t concerned about speaking to Aubrey so intimately in the cafeteria. No one would have believed that we were together, because for all appearances, I was a handsome young Kenyan man with his pick of eligible women, and Aubrey was a frumpy foreigner from Somewhere Else. But they were using the wrong sense when they judged her.

“Aubs, maybe you should eat something.”

“We can’t Private Review anymore, Renton.”

“Here, have one,” I offered. I liked to eat broccolini from the spear to the tip, leaving the head for last.

“Those rooms are set aside for us to do our jobs.”

“It’s high in folate. And iron.”

She glanced around. “Would you stop bloody ignoring me!”

“I think you need to eat something.”

“I don’t want any of those bloody things. They’re not natural. They were invented by some scientist.”

“At least it’s food.” I showed her the screen of my Quantiband on my wrist. “Says I need five hundred milligrams of iron today, and these will give me a thousand. Don’t shoot the messenger, hey. I do what I’m told.”

“Just not when your boss is the one telling you,” she said, and walked away. Only after I had finished my broccolini spears did I realize that she hadn’t been wearing her Quantiband.

That evening I tried to forget my conversation with Aubrey because I wanted to be totally focused on my Passion. In three years, I planned to freeclimb the sheer granite face of the Orabeskopf Wall in Namibia, one of the most difficult routes in southern Africa, and I had meticulously plotted out my conditioning, fitness, and routes with my personal fitness instructor, whose name was Rocky. You see, because of my work on Trust & Safety, we were afforded certain additional privileges: a trainer (mine was Rocky), a psychologist, a full subscription Quantiband, an additional five floating holidays, a stipend of OlfaBucks that we could use at the gift shop, and access to a sleep specialist. The company would support one Passion for each of us. It could be running a marathon, completing a competitive Scrabble tournament, or knitting a quilt. What mattered is that you chose a Passion with a measureable goal. That’s why I loved my Quantiband: it calculated my heart rate, blood pressure, distance walked, calories, alertness, mood, sleep quality, and even the frequency with which I had sex. When I was treating my body well, my Quantiband felt as light as air, but it could constrict itself around my wrist like a snake when I veered off my programmed routine.

My role at T&S was fairly simple: to respond to content flagged by our users that violated our Terms of Service. Olfanautics was the global pioneer in scented social media. Our Whyff product allowed users to send scents to people around the world. It was originally a stand-alone device that utilized four fundamental scents — woody, pungent, sweet, and decayed — and combined them proportionately in a spray to mimic real scents, but few people could afford to buy it. As the technology grew better, and tinier, Olfanautics became a standard feature of smartphones that could also record video and audio. Many users would whyff frequently at first and then save it for special occasions, like showing off a fresh baked pie during the holidays, or sharing a vacation by the beach. Some users would turn off the feature when they wanted more privacy but most preferred to have the ability to whyff, if they might need it, than not to have it. Then there were people like me who whyffed incessantly, who became so enthralled by the unlimited palate of experience that we sought out its very source.

My main job was to monitor the whyffs that users considered suspicious or objectionable. I did so through my Trunk, a tube that looked like the oxygen mask of a fighter jet pilot. Between each Whyff, the Trunk would inject a neutral scent to cleanse my palate. You see, scent is determined more by your tongue than your nose — think of how hard it is to taste anything when you have a bad cold — and everyone on my team had a significantly higher number of papillae on our tongues than your average user. In another era, we might have been perfumers selling bottles of lavender along the cobblestone of Grasse. Today we were the Olfanauts. We transported our users safely and peacefully to exciting realms of discovery. So went our tagline.

I loved our tagline.

The video safety team would pull down the usual garbage: sexual content, violence, self-mutilation, and child pornography. But sometimes people would inject a whyff into an otherwise normal video. A video of a birthday cake might stink like feces, or a trickling stream might reek of decomposition. Usually these were hatchet jobs that were crudely added to the video, and our software would automatically flag the whyffs because of their metadata. Occasionally we’d come across a whyff of skilled artistry, when the scent would waft through the Trunk like a sublime wind. Like the girl with the knife.

When I couldn’t decide on a case by myself, I could present it to my supervisor, Aubrey, and then she had the option of sending it up to the Deciders — members of the legal and marketing teams back in Denmark. Only Aubrey had ever met them, although we had all been flown to Copenhagen for orientation when we were hired. (That was a legendary trip, hey.)

Rocky was waiting for me at the gym when I arrived. He was a grizzly, colored South African with a bursting Afro and wind-seared skin. He claimed to have broken thirty-two bones, fifteen of which he had shattered on the same fall in the Dolomites back when he was a competitive climber. He wore glasses with thick black plastic rims that he had owned for so long that they had twice gone in, and out, of fashion while they were still on his nose. He’d switched from rock climbing to bouldering after he had gnarled his right leg, and I had seen videos of him skittering under impossible slabs of granite like a dassie.

I began strapping on my harness.

“Wait, wait, bru,” Rocky said. “Let’s hit the fingerboard first.”

“Quantiband doesn’t say I need to get on the fingerboard until next week. I’m supposed to climb.”

“That thing doesn’t know how to climb.”

“It knows how to measure my progress. That’s what it’s supposed to do.”

Rocky sighed. “Alright, big man. Think you know what you’re doing? Give this route a try, then.” He hooked me in to his carabiner and illuminated a green climbing path for me to follow on the wall.

I gleefully dipped my hands in my powder bag. I love the smell of the powder as you grab the first holds. It smells like freedom, hey, as if I am climbing towards my dreams. Before long I had pulled myself about thirty feet off the ground. Then I got to a problem that I couldn’t navigate. There was a nasty slither of a hold that I thought I could crimp, and as I dug my fingers in, my hand stiffened from fatigue and my feet slid out from under me. I tried to dyno my hip onto the hold but it was too late. And I was falling rapidly towards the mats below.

My head snapped forward so hard that my nose bashed into kneecap.

“Got ya!” Rocky said. He gradually lowered me to the ground.

I clutched at my nose as he unclipped my harness. I could feel numbness spreading along my eye socket.

“You all right there, bru?”

“No, I’m not alright! Why the fuck didn’t you catch me earlier, Rocky?”

Rocky recoiled: “Why the fuck did you fall?”

“I couldn’t crimp it. The route was too hard.”

“Here, let me look at your nose. Come on, move your hand out of the way.” I let go, and the blood rushed in painfully. “It’s alright, bru. You’re not bleeding. It was a light knock.”

“Bloody hell.” I was relieved but I could feel my nostrils filling with something. Mucus? Blood? The air was already starting to feel stale. It was as if the smells were slipping past me, as if the room was coated in a skein of mud.

“You weren’t prepared for it, bru,” he went on, tapping his temple with his finger. “It was a simple problem. It wasn’t your finger strength but your mind that failed you.”

I didn’t like Rocky’s tone. I paid him to help me fulfill my Passion, not to cause me more problems. I was in line for a promotion soon. “How am I supposed to go to work tomorrow if I can’t even smell your stinking breath? You made a mistake, Rocky. Just admit it.”

“That’s kak. I’m not the one who fell.”

I began tapping away on my Quantiband. “Says here that I shouldn’t have been doing this route for three weeks. This wasn’t part of the program. I could report you for this.”

Now I had his attention. “Calm down there, bru. There’s no need to report it.”

At Olfanautics, the numbers didn’t lie. The Quantiband would have measured the speed of my fall in meters per second as well as my rise in pulse. If I could show, objectively, that someone had put my work at risk then he would be dismissed immediately. The same went for all of us.

“Why shouldn’t I report you?”

“Because then you wouldn’t get any better at climbing. I wanted to challenge you, bru. You can’t control everything when you’re out there. That’s part of climbing.”

“But it’s not part of the program. The program says I get better in three weeks. That’s the whole point. If you want to challenge me then put it in the program.”

“Come on, let’s forget it, Renton. You’re right. My mistake, bru. I put in the wrong route.” He tapped on the wall and illuminated a yellow route, one that I had already successfully completed twice before. “This is what the program wanted, right?”

He grabbed for the carabiner on my harness, but I pushed his hand away. “No, I need to get some ice for my nose.”

“Come on, bru. Your nose is fine. You took a small knock, is all. Let’s hook you in. Yellow’s still a bastard of a route. You haven’t even free-climbed it yet.”

It was so easy to screenshot my Quantiband, and even easier to send it to security. I looked at him blankly as if I didn’t understand, buying time. He began pleading with me to hook me in, insistently, pathetically even.

“What are you waiting for, Renton? It was a simple mistake. Let me hook you in!”

“No, it’s too late.”

Olfanautics only allowed the perimeter security to carry guns. So the ones who arrived wielded batons, but the effect was still intimidating enough to prevent Rocky from putting up any sort of struggle.

“You think the Orabeskopf Wall gives a shit about that thing on your wrist, bru?” he shouted back. “You think that thing is going to save you when you’re on the wall and a vulture starts pecking at your fingers? That’s what happened to me! I was like Prometheus, getting my liver pecked out by an eagle, bru. I didn’t have one of those kak wristbands. I let it eat my own hand and then I climbed up that wall! The Orabeskopf says fuck-all to your wrist! That wind will tear you off that route and splatter your brains in the sand!”

But I’d heard that story about the vulture many times before, and it didn’t scare me anymore. My Quantiband told me that there was a one in ten million chance of it ever happening to me. I had whyffed some terrible things during my time at Olfanautics — ritual dismemberment by a militia in Bukavu with a volcano looming in the background, a woman being raped on a frozen canal in Ottawa, and once, a manhole cover in Nagoya crushing an old nun on the sidewalk after it was ejected by a blast of gas. If Rocky had whyffed these things, too, he might have left with a little more dignity. The world was not a fair place, and I was the one who helped people forget that fact. As soon as he had left, I put in an order for a new fitness instructor.

Except for the death of the nun in Nagoya, which crept into my dreams and made me sad in a way that I don’t think I’ll ever understand (the ferocious spin of the manhole cover, the febrile skull), I had learned to forget the horrific smells that permeated my Trunk. I had trained for months at Olfanautics to expunge them from my mind, and the regimen had worked for the most part. You have to let things go, you see.

But I hadn’t finished my climbing routine, so I felt edgy when I took the shuttle back to the Olfanautics housing complex, and my nose hurt like hell. The pain from my fall had spread from the base of my skull to my shoulders, and seemed to be wrapping itself around my chest.

My apartment had two bedrooms, a small balcony, and one and a half bathrooms. Behind it, I had a tolerable view of a tennis court surrounded by electrified razor wire. My unit was subsidized so it was still cheaper than living in the city, and I was permitted to invite guests, usually my parents, to stay with me for six days per month.

Aubrey was sipping on a beer at the living room table when I opened the door.

“What happened to your face?”

“Took a fall at the gym.”

“What about those bandages?”

“It’s to keep my nostrils open. Doctor said there might be some temporary blockage.” When she didn’t say anything, I added: “I should still be able to put in my shift tomorrow.”

“I’m not worried about that anymore.”

Her face was as distraught as when we’d met in the cafeteria. If she’d been wearing her Quantiband, it would have been twisted tight around her wrist like a tourniquet. But she still didn’t have it on. Maybe it was that sense of freedom that made her come over to me. Because the next thing I knew, she began opening the buttons of my shirt. I didn’t stop her. Aubrey was the most beautiful woman I had ever met. Her natural odor was enough to turn my head, and she layered on essential oils so that she was a fragrant mosaic, a true artiste who could compose entire olfascapes of inspired brilliance. I had never been able to resist her. On our first secret date, she had guessed what cologne I would wear and applied an extract of argan nuts on her skin, so that when we touched we smelled like buttered popcorn. I found other women repulsive by comparison, as if they had showered themselves in crude perfume.

But as she slowly peeled off my shirt, my bashed-in nose seemed to be obscuring everything. “I can’t smell you.”

“Then feel me.”

In the Private Review rooms, Aubrey and I would sniff each other more than we licked or kissed, and this took time. When we were really horny, we’d inhale each other’s most private scents — our groins, armpits, and anuses — like animals in the throes of estrus. But with my swollen nose I felt clumsy, as if I was watching myself make love from a distance, and my fingertips couldn’t make up for the lack of sensation. Aubrey, on the other hand, enjoyed every second of it. She lingered over my bandages and wrapped herself around me. Then she dug her hips into mine until she came. Even with her breasts flopping against my face and her full buttocks in my hands I couldn’t stay aroused without my sense of smell, and we both gave up trying.

As we lay on my bed, Aubrey announced: “This isn’t working.” She always said depressing things after sex.

“It’s my fault. I couldn’t get into it.”

“No, Renton. I mean us. I’m your boss. We can’t do this anymore.”

I turned to face her, suddenly concerned. “What do you mean?”

“The Deciders know.”

“You told them?”

“No, the Private Review rooms are all monitored. They’ve known for some time and they confronted me about it.”

I tried to remember everything we might have done or said to each other. She normally made me take off my Quantiband in the Private Review rooms.

“Did they whyff it, too?”

“I don’t think so — at least, I wouldn’t see the point of that. They tracked our bands to see how often we were meeting. I clearly violated my Terms of Reference. I’m your boss and it should never have happened. I’ve got to go see them tomorrow.”

“They’re flying you to Copenhagen?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s a good sign, right? They wouldn’t fly you up there if they wanted to fire you.”

She considered this. “I suppose so.”

“Why did you come here tonight, Aubs?”

“I wanted to do it one last time.”

I raised from the bed to look out the window. Beyond the tennis court were rows upon rows of sagging acacia trees that the Danish architect had planted all around the campus, but the soil was too damp for the trees and their roots were slowly drowning. I had never liked them. Their pollen gave me sneezing fits. If I had my way, I’d have them all cut down. “How can you say it’s the last time? How is that fair? Shouldn’t I also know when it’s the last time? You can’t break it off and say it’s the last time without telling me!”

“I’m sorry, Renton. It’s not just the Deciders. It’s — it’s the unreality of it.”

“Was it the video of the girl? The strawberries?”

“No, that’s not it.”

“I meant it as a joke. There’s no need to break up over a thing like that.”

“You know what I spent this morning doing? Watching a woman eat a goat alive. She had filed her teeth into points, Renton. Like a vampire. Even had the makeup on. Her girlfriend — I think that’s who it was — was screaming at her to eat more. Shrieking at her to eat more. The poor beast was pinned down by stakes and the girl was tearing into its belly. The stench! Of piss and shit, the goat was in so much pain it was expelling what little bit of life it had left in it. Trying to die.”

I had never seen Aubrey cry before, and I feared what it might mean.

“Who would do such a thing, Renton? To a harmless animal? I vomited into my Trunk it was so disgusting.”

I could see that she wanted me to feel what she had felt, smell what she had smelled, but I couldn’t let her get to me. Every Olfanaut who burned out tried to drag everyone else down with them. The psychologists had taught us it was called transference. I began searching desperately for my Quantiband, which she must have torn off during sex.

“Why don’t you go see the psychologists, Aubs? That’s what they’re there for.”

“They wouldn’t understand.”

“Of course they would! Mimi helped me with the nun thing. I’m sure she can help you with whatever is bothering you.”

I found my Quantiband beneath my sock at the foot of the bed. I didn’t remember taking the sock off, because I was still wearing the other one.

“Mimi can’t help me, Renton. She can’t help a thing like that. Tell me, when was the last time you left the campus?”

“I go to the Rain Drop all the time.”

“That’s still on the campus!”

“So what? It’s a bar. I like the people there. We have a lot in common.”

“I mean, when was the last time you went downtown? Or anywhere people don’t have to whyff a conversation?”

“My family doesn’t live downtown. They’re out in Kibera.”

“That’s not my point. What we see all day — it’s not right. We made love over a Nazi bookburning last week. A bloody bookburning.”

“We took that video down, Aubrey. We prevented the rest of the world from smelling that filth. That’s something to be proud of. Sure, we had sex in there but we did our job in the end. That’s what matters. We have one job here, and we do it right. I’m sure that’s all the Deciders care about too. That’s why I fired Rocky.”

“What are you talking about?”

I hadn’t meant to tell her, because I knew she’d try to make me feel bad, but now it was too late. “He put me on a dangerous route. That’s how I hurt my nose.”

“So you fired him?”

“Of course! Rocky had it coming to him, Aubs. I’d told him a thousand times that we had to follow the program. It’s not my fault he can’t listen to directions.”

“That’s what I mean by unreality. So what if you hurt your nose — he has a family! How will he survive without this job?”

“What about my family?” I grabbed a glass from the kitchen, and filled it in the sink. “Do you realize this is the only neighborhood within twenty kilometers where you can do this? Drink water straight from the tap? My parents drive here for their drinking water. I’m putting my sister through school. I pay for every funeral in my family. That’s as real as it gets.” I pointed to my Quantiband. “This says right here that I was climbing the wrong route when I fell. Rocky hurt my nose, the tool of my trade. I’m in line for a promotion now and I can’t take the risk. I need someone reliable. Trustworthy. I don’t need his bloody war stories. I need someone safe. Who can commit to the program.”

Aubrey stared at me blankly for a few moments. “You don’t see what this does to us, do you? Today was my big test to determine if I could join the Deciders. And I failed it, Renton. I failed it horribly. Because I told them that if I had my way I’d exterminate those girls from the face of the Earth. I wasn’t thinking about justice. I was thinking about revenge. Revenge on behalf of a mangy fucking goat.”

I drank my glass slowly, trying to taste the filtered water. They ran it through reverse osmosis and then a layer of sand, which normally gave it a delightful mineral quality. But I couldn’t taste a thing.

“You’re not going to get a promotion, Renton. Look at yourself in the mirror and then take a look at management. I recommended you twice but they said you don’t have the pedigree. When was the last time a local was promoted?”

Now I knew Aubrey was planning to move away all along. And she wanted to hurt me while doing it, whatever for I had no idea. That was what happened in the videos. That was what those people did to each other. Even after all we’d been through, I refused to let her do this to me. It was the slippery hold on the wall. The tumble from the granite, the brains in the sand.

“I’m going to be the first one, then.”

You can’t let it all weigh on your shoulders. That’s what Mimi had told me about the nun. You’ve got to let things go.

I snapped my finger. “I know what’s changed — it’s you, Aubrey.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you need a new Passion.”

“You weren’t listening.”

“You made that short film last year, right? That was too close to home. We whyff videos all day, hey. You’ve got to choose something else. Something that really gets you chuffed! Like writing a book. Or dancing. You’ve got to focus on the positive, Aubs! Think of all the value we’re creating for our users. Think about how we protected them from that Nazi video. We saved a little bit of joy for two billion users around the world. We have to celebrate that! You can’t dwell on these things. We’re watching so no one else has to!”

As I went on like this, Aubrey’s face brightened, and before long she seemed to be coming around to the idea. So I was surprised, when I pulled her in for a kiss, and she said: “If evil is humanity turned against itself, Renton, then who are we?”

“We’re the Olfanauts,” I said proudly.

Aubrey left Olfanautics two weeks later, and she was kind enough to say goodbye to me. She also transferred me all of her OlfaBucks, which would allow me to order something from the gift shop, and I think she knew, in her heart, that I would spend it on a Hyperlite Bivouack that I had told her about a few months ago, which I planned to use when I freeclimbed the Orabeskopf Wall in Namibia. I won’t lie — I started dreaming about the nun again as soon as Aubrey left, and I had to work extra hard at my Passion to get that old woman to leave me alone in my sleep. It’s funny how sometimes you only understand what people mean well after they say it. Because I realized that Rocky had been right all along, that I had to be like Prometheus giving the fire to humanity, and that I couldn’t worry about some bird pecking at my fingers as I made my grand ascent.

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