Arnold K. Albert bolted straight up in the middle of the night. Albert was an excitable fellow. He had a brain like a lightning rod, his bosses all said. It attracted things, namely ideas. He threw back the blankets and ran for his desk.
“Albert is a man of ideas,” his current boss, RJ Weekly had said only last week. “He’s our ideas man at ENOC.”
Albert considered this mostly true. He hardly thought of it so grandiosely though. He was quite thankful that lightning hit the same place twice when it came to him. He wouldn’t call himself an “ideas man,” per se. More like an “ideas deposit box.”
His home PC never uploaded quite fast enough. Albert kept a sketchbook beside it to this purpose. He fetched it up, tilted the No. 2 pencil out of its spiral coil, and thumbed back the pages.
“A… Sign…” He muttered. He blocked the word, added some shadows. It needed a square perhaps, and a circle around it, perhaps a bit off center, like a spotlight…
By the next morning at the office, Arnold K. Albert had his idea ready for the proposal.
“It’s a tracking service,” he explained, “that lets you choose what tracks you, and suggests what will track you, and keeps others from tracking you. So you get “privacy,” but you start wanting the ads.”
He was quite proud of his ability to summarize like that. Arnold wasn’t a conventional marketer. Things just “came to him.”
There were people at ENOC who could make ideas work. They could figure out the details. They could take the logo and visualize it in another dimension. But they needed the fuel, and Arnold, or rather, the ideas, supplies it.
ENOC’s A+SIGN was a big hit. (Manager Brown had suggested the adding of the “+”.) It was a positive move towards simple AI application. Ads were inevitable, Ads were, his marketing team spun it, necessary. You needed to know there were things that you needed. Maybe you had an idea what you needed, but who would give it to you? A tracker you control, a helpful assistant of sorts. It was brilliant. Arnold got a raise.
The next time the lightning struck, Arnold was at the coffee machine. Arnold did not mind the late nights, but the coffee machine was sometimes the worse. He’d be in line, ready to get coffee, and then he’d be there, getting his coffee, finally, fueling up for the day, and then it would hit him, as the line grew behind him, that thing he had to write down right now.
“It’s called OMEN. It’s like this…” Arnold stood over his desk, furiously dashing out the lines on the sketchpad there (he had learned to keep them all over the place). “A wi-fi speaker system, that also broadcasts emergency announcements.”
“And advertisements too?” Manager Brown suggested.
“I suppose if it’s necessary, but we shouldn’t emphasize that,” Arnold explained. “What we emphasize is that you need to know if there’s an emergency. Who listens to radio anymore? ‘Life is full of interruptions–make sure they’re only the important ones,’ or something like that.” The pen dashed again, demarking a square turned on its point, quartered, raised at the center. Like one of those fortunetelling toys we made as kids, thought Arnold with some nostalgia.
Another idea, another hit. Arnold was on fire.
Well he was, figuratively, when a fever hit him come winter and he was home from the office and lying abed. He didn’t have family close by. Family was a difficult thing for Arnold. They were calm people out on the steading in Missouri. They weren’t idea people. Lightning never so much as rumbled over the Albert household. It was clear skies in every direction. Albert’s magnetism for inspiration had always hit the family a bit like a flashflood when it came. There had been the automated feeder for the chickens, the self oiling rags for the tools, the time he mentioned a better fence might keep out the foxes.
Though there hadn’t been foxes until he said it. Arnold’s brother had blamed him for that to this day.
In the end, marketing was a respectful position that let you respectfully move far from home where respect was difficult to cultivate due to the general annoyance. Arnold had gotten used to living alone.
The fever passed and the middle of the Christmas marketing season was upon them all.
“It’s called PORTENT,” Arnold said next.
The meeting room had a large map for emphasize. “Know if there’s another smartphone near you. Not who it is–not unless they share–but if you need to find the population, there they are.”
“What’s the point?” asked a voice from the back.
The question startled the forward leaning faces of the invention department. Questions like that were not common at places where Arnold took a stand as a human grounding rod.
“If you need help. Traveling. Flat tire. Lost your way. Emergencies.”
“Who would need that?” asked the voice.
Arnold peered. He found it belonged to a sharp-faced man, a new member of the team, a Mr. Carl Riggs. He was younger than Arnold, taller too, and his suit wasn’t quite broken in yet, but his face certainly was. It looked like it might have stared up at a mobile of punch cards as an infant, inside a cubicle nursery.
“Travelers. People who live outside the cities too.”
“They have poor wi-fi there,” said Carl. “We’re a technology group and all tech is wi-fi, isn’t it?”
Still, Arnold prevailed. He had, at least for the moment, come around so far that he could ride his own coat tails now and then.
Another fever. The winters were getting worse, weren’t they? Arnold thought about this and decided it wasn’t true. Missouri winters were not city winters, and they had been worse. It must be the cold in the concrete, getting into the bones. He’d buy a heated blanket next week.
He turned over and tried to sleep. Around four in the morning, he bolted up again. He rushed habitually to his office, letting habit take him through the motions: The PC, the sketchbook, the tilt for the pencil, and…
His mind cleared and the thought floated in front of it, there like any of the other ones, clear and begging to be made.
“But that can’t be right…”
“APOLY,” Arnold announced. “Find your Rep or House member, and whenever they vote, it tells you what for.”
“A political app?” Brown asked, shocked. “We don’t do political.”
“It’s bipartisan,” Arnold said. He’d practiced this speech. The words had come easily as they always did, in front of the mirror that morning. He hadn’t liked them. He was trying to change them. “More people are concerned. We’d best take advantage of it, times between what they are.”
“Well, with the matter of the new political turns,” Arnold tries.
“Which means what it means. More people are interested in politics. It’s becoming mainstream. It’s interesting again.”
“It’s upsetting again,” Brown pointed out. “A good government is one you don’t notice, that lets you get on with business as usual.” He seemed suddenly apologetic. “Don’t worry about it, Arnold. We all have our duds.”
Duds. Duds. We all have our duds? But it was lightning. It was the idea. Arnold had been getting ideas with no effort like a radio tower for so long, he wasn’t sure what to do to make a dud into something more effective. He had no training, after all. He was the natural, the one “born to it.” What was he to do now.
He asked to help update the OMEN with some new emergency services next. It had sold well. An upgrade would be easy to market.
It was in a bakery next. He was staring at the bread rolls, the crusty ones he could never remember the name of because they were German and he was not and there were vowels he’d never gotten the hang of.
“ECHO,” he said outloud. The baker did not bother to hear him. It took all sorts to make customers. Arnold frowned. A software that would scan media and find similar expressions, or perhaps compare them to historical media. Maybe some updates that allowed translation. Help prevent accidental copyright infringement–or locate it (this said by the echo of Brown in his head)–and enrich historical understanding.
Arnold frowned. It sounded… educational. No one wanted education, not after high school, not after college at best. Educational was hard.
“It won’t sell,” he said out loud, but he took the nameless bread anyway, which confused the baker who had decided not to question his ways.
“It’s hard to keep track of the news, with a new story every 140 characters,” said Arnold in front of the mirror the next morning. He shook his head. “It’s difficult to know what anyone really said with so many false echoes out there.” He shook his head again. “It’s political. They don’t want political. What can it be used for?”
“Copyright protection?” Brown said. “There’s an idea.”
“With the option to expand the database, of course, to look up anything with an echo.”
“Well, for research…”
“You just ask Google.”
“We’d advertise the reliability of it, get some brains and libraries involved, curator stuff on the web.”
“Sounds frightfully boring. Arnold, we’re worried about you. Do you need a vacation?”
It was late in the evening and the sun had set. The streets were paved with cabs and Arnold dug his hands into the pockets of his old leather jacket with the worn-down wool interior. The trouble with the ideas was that they usually went away. He put them on paper and there they were, like they’d run out of his mind and through his fingers, drained away to make room for the next deposit.
But now they were stuck and more kept coming. The logos weren’t even that good anymore, all targeting sights at the center of squares. And red. Red wasn’t a good color in advertising, not alone, not all the time.
What was going on?
He needed a vacation, Arnold decided. He didn’t want one. Work had kept him conveniently absent from home in a way that allowed the entire Albert family to insist they all missed each other without having to look at anyone they didn’t particular like. Still, he’d keep failing and that would mean his job if he didn’t look like he was proactively pursuing better grounding for all those idea storms out there.
Arnold stopped at the crosswalk and looked up, and up, at the dark beyond the skyscrapers. His head felt so full it was a wonder tilting it back wasn’t spilling things out of it.
A vacation, he resolved. He spotted the moon. It was washed out and faded but nearly full. It would be miserable, but it might jog something loose.
If you didn’t write an idea down, someone else might steal it. This was something he’d heard thrown around the office. Ideas were inevitable, but trends were too, and trends could be predicted. Trends had to be optimized. They never lasted long. They frayed and faded. It was about keeping your finger on the pulse, they said, knowing where the tide was about to turn, they said, and being there first, ready to charge admission.
Maryanne Elizabeth Grace Albert was ninety-seven and had four teeth. She sat curled like floral-print prawn, rolling her eyes up most days to see through the thinning shock of her short white hair, since her chair at the television kept her lower than most of the other members of the Albert household, though she was the oldest and the only remaining great-grandparent.
There were seventeen Alberts at Christmas dinner, including the former Albert, Lily Whiteswift, who had married in June. She brought Mr. Whiteswift with her. His name was Benny or Ben, or possibly Barnes, which was a last name to Albert, and so never stuck in his mind right.
As the turkey was presented and the great bowls of potatoes and yams passed around, Arnold relaxed when the noise around him made conversation about ideas practically impossible. He might get out of this alive. He might find some rest in the travel back, even buy a novel on the way. He never liked the thought of buying an airport novel much, but there’d be nothing saying he couldn’t, no awkward conversations to review, no pressing concerns until the lightning struck and his head refilled, this time with good ideas, since he’d become so rested…
He was just daydreaming about how content this would make him when Great-Gran Maryanne tucked his shirtsleeve.
“You w…,” she started to say. Much was lost for the shortness of breath.
Concerned, Arnold leaned over. If there was trouble, it were best to see that Great-Gran was cared for.
“You remember the fence and the foxes?” she asked.
Arnold drew back. He nodded, straightening. Perhaps if he pretended that was the end of the conversation, the effort wouldn’t be worth bringing up the reason for his long exile.
To no avail. Great-Gran pulled at his shirtsleeve again. He leaned down obligatorily and waited. She smelled like pharmaceuticals and the laundry powder from her dress.
“You’re like Moses,” she said weakly. “You had to go away to come back.”
Arnold straightened and fretted. He looked about, hoping there was someone willing to take Great-Gran for a much needed nap. It was hard enough to talk with the noise, but to explain…
He leaned over and tried to sound confused. It was easier than becoming frustrated with older people. You had to give respect. You had to show you knew they knew more than you, even when you had no idea what they were talking about.
“I’m only back for the holiday, Great-Gran,” said Arnold. He winced as she tugged again, this time crooking a finger of silken wrinkles insistently.
“Remember the burning bush,” she said.
“I will, Great-Gran,” said Arnold, because ending the conversation was easiest.
Back at the office the snow fell and the ice slicked the streets and the streets were paved with cabs. Arnold had his sketchbook out at his desk at work. He’d listed his inventions. He was trying to think of innovations to make these innovations more innovative. Something familiar but new, something needed but wanted more than other needs…
Great-Gran Maryanne was religious was all, Arnold told himself. Aloud he muttered, “There is no such thing as prophets.”
Saying it, he felt better, even if his head still felt crowded. Why couldn’t these ideas just go like the others said: Follow the trend, find someone else’s head to play in.
A thought occurred to Arnold. If there were persistent thoughts in his head, didn’t that mean they came from somewhere? What was a trend anyway? Why did it happen. What produced it? What about the bigger thoughts that strayed to everyone at the same time? What about Zeitgheist? And how did some thoughts hide until it was too late, like Hitler’s Blitzkreig or the Atomic Bomb? How did you stop the thoughts from straying?
Or make them stray? Get them out?
“I am not a prophet,” Great-Gran, Arnold said out loud because there was no one close enough to wonder. “I am certainly not Moses. There are no burning bushes here!”
Which was embarrassing to recall saying, of course, since the next night he thought of a family tree search engine that searched by historical event. The leaves would light up…
Arnold opened his eyes and fought his feet and his mind and his hands, and left his sketchpad where it was.
Maybe if he was very quiet about it, it would go away.
The company of ENOC was miserable to lose their “ideas guy.” They would just have to make do with Carl. Why had Arnold felt the need to invest in early retirement? It was too early. Didn’t he know there were decades left to save for?
They talked about it often at the company. Carl became chief project manager. He was a patterns man. Following the right trends needed a patterns man. RJ Brown coined the title just for him.
Business went on as usual. A+SIGN, OMEN, and even, with some tweeking for less divisive material, ECHO, were the height of popularity.
A shame about Arnold’s strange retirement though. Last RJ had heard from him, he’d been talking about asceticism, about deserts, and staves, and sandles.
Poor sod, RJ thought, turning on his OMEN unit as he arrived at the office under a November sleet storm. It had predicted the storm, but it had been here. He’d need to get one for his house, he thought. It was easy enough. One should know about sleet storms when they were going to happen. Sleet and floods and bad traffic, anything that mattered really, anything that might hurt you. People should be informed.
He doffed his coat and settled in for another long, successful business day.