People deny the hive mind, but like every creature’s ecosystem, success is impossible without it.
Voter #335874867844 was driving on the backroad that paralleled the river, leading to the bakehouse and then the town of Petrichor’s main street. This voter was Eric Tacheus, a field reporter for LifeTimes covering the communities along the Combahee River, selecting voter reactions that would shine some sunlight onto the laundry line he had to hang for an article about the newest RIcast voting interface. He planned to stay in Petrichor for the rest of the day, hoping for more like the comments he’d already recorded—“I didn’t expect the experience to be as robust as it is,” said one new voter, “but they still need to contract with the guys at Freak-a-Lot Games.”
The sun on the river glinted through the trees, playing across the windshield and the shadow-smooth asphalt before him. Dragonflies zinged across the road more and more, and Eric slowed the car, then rolled up his windows as the dazzle of insects thickened. He heard them rushing by and noticed that he couldn’t hear the car itself. It was slowing down, the engine dead, with enough momentum to coast onto the shoulder, right where the trees cleared and a wide view of the lazy river was wonderful, distracting him as he tested the pushbutton start, the radio, the roadside commando. The washers wouldn’t flap, the headrests would not tilt. He peered behind him, into the shady tunnel of arching trees and saw the dragonflies there in a joyous swarm. He stood up from the seat (this was a low-riding XCruiser enlabeled LifeTimes are Your Time; every time Eric read this assertion he heard the alpenhorn of yellow journalism) and one metallic flyer landed on the roof of the car. Ten feet above both of them hovered a silent RAMfly. Eric stepped toward the view of the river and felt the same rush as when he left the office. Escape. A low sign up ahead stated Wilder’s Bakery Next Right, which, he confirmed in his jotbook, was his first stop in Petrichor for soundbites and snapshots and his snippet-grabbing appointment with Mrs. Descalier. He put on his blue blazer and took off.
The walk before him wasn’t long in meters or minutes. Walking was the right way to enter Petrichor, where paths and roads followed the contours of the landscape and daily routines. Walking is encouragement—this motion will get you somewhere—and Eric felt an unencumbered briskness. He crossed a bit of roadkill—the dragonflies must have come from this direction, a thick jumble of segments and wings were splattered to the road, bits still waving and glinting. He didn’t notice the half-flattened RAMfly in the ditch slowly leaking its last drifts of radiation. The stretch before him remained greenery and black road, until three brown-clad figures popped out of the bushes, twenty feet ahead. They were teenagers costumed for the election holiday, he correctly assumed, in the fedora, suspenders, and ankle boots of Eugene Frieri, the anarchist candidate from the 1930s.
“Hello fellows,” Eric called, immediately regretting his friendliness in the blank stares of their round sunglasses. The bank of the river offered no better path so he walked forward in the middle of the road and enquired, “What’s up?” He wasn’t that much older than a teen, he reasoned to himself, giving one second of effort to relating to the boys. The teens were silent. One boy’s red, white, and blue oxford shirt peeked out from his brown vest.
Eric spotted a fallen branch on the side of the road, so he sprinted to it, throwing his fist back and knocking one boy to the ground. He snatched up the branch and pitched the branch at their feet, which felled one more. Eric outran the third figure who wore a short, round cape, like a royal personage who’d abdicated in solidarity. When he looked back at the figures, he snapped one picture— Highwaymen in Petrichor! Perhaps their free time for crime could underscore the expediency of the voting interface.
When Eric looked forward, he caught the glimpse he needed: the low and wide wooden structure that bore a sign illustrating a fat, golden loaf of bread steaming off the last bit of live yeast. When he was in the parking lot, just two cars at rest, he patted his breast pocket to make sure his jotbook was safe. The slim device was everything he needed for work, other than the actions of people, which seemed to him on some days infinitely varied, and on other days scrutably similar. Over and over again, like his deadlines. He sat down on a rocking chair at the entrance and watched the road.
In the town of Petrichor, infrequent rains and efficient irrigation gave hope and boutique crops to the farmers. The Lobecos were doing well with sunchokes, golden frill arugula, and muscadines. Groundwater pumps stretched deep to hydrate the Cherokee tomatoes of the Green Street Garden Club and the impressive aloe plants of Marcia and Jeni Kinton, who had gone ahead and purchased the lot next door to make room for more varieties and a coldpress kitchen. Elephant ear plants, Caladium maximus, stood seven feet high in shady spots—trades and furtive pluckings had populated the nodding green beasts all over town, engulfing mailboxes and pushing garbage cans onto the sidewalks.
Last year the town, aided by the Human Benevolence Society, installed a new fountain in its least-shady square. People could step forward to cool their feet in the inch of water that flowed over the bedroom-sized basin, which was a granite slab brindled with gold and tan and black and brown. Mike Collins, the most sullen teenager in Petrichor in decades, his teachers thought, was especially drawn to it. Dogs bit the spouting water that flapped their lips, and waste water was directed to the surrounding beds of begonias and neon green sweet potato vines.
The greenery paused its spreading and mounding and vining during the cold that set in with the winter solstice and left on warm March breezes. A few of the old holidays were still embedded in the seasons too, but the one that Petrichor enjoyed most as a community was not so pagan. In fact, out of all the towns in the nation, Petrichor had once been honored, just five quick years ago, by LifeTimes as the Number One Town For Honoring the Election Day National Holiday. LifeTimes chose a new town every year, for their all-voters issue, photographing the people, the calm-eyed professionals and the droopily elated seniors, as they cast their votes in the Your Ballot Here Pavilions. Dads were often captured holding the leashes of shaggy dogs wearing funny hats.
Election Day National Holiday (as it was Constitutionally known) rivaled turkeys and Trick or Treats and arrangements of burning candles. Crafters took cues from the 4th of July and vintage campaign buttons. They draped festoons of red-white-and-blue vigorously under windows, over entranceways and across fences. Old Button-matics and new Button Popper 4000 machines were popular gifts and garage sale staples: Life’s a Bitch and then You Vote. Art teachers sent students home with posterboard top hats, folding fans made from cereal boxes, and tissue paper flower bursts. In one five year period there was a 45% increase in the construction of bandstands, as reported by the US Builders Association. Tubas and their players were in demand. Taggers marked the day in advance of voting with their ventilators dangling from their necks. When the Smithsonian trumpeted their work (“Red, White & Spray”) their art became part of the tradition, and even the Honey’s chain of breakfast cafes handed out Tag This Vote! coloring-placemats weeks in advance of the big day. Children’s penchant for daily costuming (the princesses and robots) grew into the spoken rule of costumes all day on every Election Day, which solidified into a pastiche of Ghosts of Terrorists Past—old white sheets lent themselves to Middle Eastern garb too, and the hoboes of Halloweens yore transformed into para-military white men (ten year olds with eyeliner beards) carrying around long manifestos.
Petrichor was a blue collar place, so family businesses like Murr’s appreciated the holiday as a speedbump that allowed them to close the print shop, though the Thorntons, who owned the cannabis nursery and Wilder Bakehouse, did well this time of year with apple brown sugar focaccia drizzled with a pine nut & THC-laced glaze. The sidewalks had cracks, the cracks had dandelions, and that was the unasked referendum of society—What is the weed?
Eric’s appointment was with Mrs. Esprit Descalier, voter #349857349587. When she opened her eyes that morning, the botanical wallpaper in her bedroom felt like it was two inches away. After a few moments the busy paper settled into its membranous place across the room, and she focused on the illustrated platypus swimming around lush acanthus plants, their soft brown bodies c-ing around the pluming leaves. She had picked out this wallpaper a good ten years ago, during her studies at the Zoologische Technik in Berlin, and gazing at it was a routine; this morning the windows were cracked open to the damp air and songbirds, which made the rest of the entire world feel, to Esprit Descalier at least, as idyllic as her wallpaper.
Esprit could also see her shaggy dog Florida lying on the wooden floor in the hallway outside her bedroom. This was his favorite spot, back to the bedroom door and eyes on the stairwell and front entranceway below. Esprit, in a white and puffy-sleeved night shirt, squeezed and shook her SmartOrb (she preferred tactile commands to voice) so that Florida’s collar projected the Come Hither command. Florida was deaf, and her collar contained images of Esprit’s left hand signing commands: Frisbee; Bark; Attack; Stop. Florida bounded onto the bed.
Esprit heard her husband Patrick downstairs rumbling. He must’ve been rehashing one of his old speeches. “To each his or her own bathroom,” he might be intoning, or perhaps he was talking back to the news broadcast—voter turnout would be the morning’s topic. When she heard Patrick join the birds with his clarinet she knew his day, this Election Day National Holiday, had gotten off to a strong start.
Their home was a long and early split-level ranch at the farthest walking distance from the Your Ballot Here Pavilion on Main Street—an official Walking Distance denoted by beacons embedded in the sidewalks. From their wide and faded front door forward their property was urban, but behind the house their property—their land, their homestead—sprawled, taken up by wildlife habitats, ponds of prickly pear cactus, and Patrick’s eight prized pear trees. The Descaliers had indeed made a few salads of both prickly and traditional pears, dressed with gorgonzola, but Patrick’s ambition for the tree pears was scienti-neurial rather than culinary. He reshaped them, clasping new fruit in clear poly-forms so that as they grew, the pale green and gold pears pressed into the shapes of babies and Buddhas and beckoning cats.
He had planted the orchard when first elected to the state’s House of Representatives nearly two decades ago, before Esprit had even met him. She was very glad, with Florida already snoring at her side, that today was not another campaign day for them—his well-publicized retirement from office and demoted security clearance, among other things, prevented them from ever going back to that phase of their lives. But she was still going to vote today, of course, and meet with that reporter who’d called, and she also planned to observe the festivities of Election Day National Holiday the way her beliebt entomologist professor trained her, shapes, details, and connections: banners of red, white and blue, cake walks in the park for people wearing their I Voted stickers, and soap boxes for the Free Speechers—the whole ecosystem of civic spaces and duties.
“Happy No Election Day,” she spoke via SmartOrb to Patrick, which sent the domabot scuttling to him, inhaling dust along the way. Moments later, she heard her delivered voice outside her window, and then the orb replied—“I do not regret that I had but seven terms to give,” Patrick had said, in his best tricorne hat tone of voice.
The Descaliers’s habitat, where gopher turtles and anoles proliferated, was one of 1,252 residences within town limits. The nearby National Cemetery claimed more bodies, though due to steel and herbicides the worms there were less happy. Dragonflies and RAMflies were out in number, in the Descalier’s garden and beyond, a project of Carnegie Mellon University’s ecobotics program. Winning CMU’s contract was one of Representative Patrick Descalier’s biggest achievements—an academic reputation for the town, recognition for their green spaces, an expanded tax base, and a job for Esprit, the one she had been working towards while muling away on his campaigns. Patrick’s political technique was straightforward: one for you, one for you, one for me.
Esprit was a professional field illustrator, trained to observe the life cycles of creepy-crawlies—cannibalistic spiders, omnivorous plants, and flying jewel-toned incredibles—she drew their webs, the leaves they ruined, the slime trails they left, and their bursting cocoons and their dead exoskeletons. Now, she had a new constituency, academic peers who welcomed her sketches every week and direct-deposited her pay. They were programmers with remote controls and diginurses with swabs and data collectors with wands, all eager for her view on how the town’s urban and nature scapes harmonized with their bespoke technology: their SMARTorbs roamed freely like street cats, and the BiblioTek was in full bloom every single day. She had a bouquet of sketches in progress of the specimens in the BiblioTek, quick figure studies of people reading the aspidistra and ferns spiked with aggregated local news, imparting knowledge like aromas and airborn seeds.
After lunch, Esprit and Florida walked out the front gate, which closed behind them. Under the brightened blue sky and rustling trees, they started off down the sidewalk—but the SMARTorb jangled in her pocket. “Bring back some fresh dill,” Patrick said. In reply, she kissed the orb, leaving lipstick and a registered gesture, and then threw it as hard as she could, just clearing the peak of the roof, so that the orb could roll its way to Patrick, who was probably knee deep in the compost heap by now.
It was just about early closing time, and Saudade Thornton was feeling the need of a nap. She was voter #576525778902, and she had not yet cast her ballot. Wilder’s, her nursery-bakehouse, was just past town limits, far opposite the Descaliers, where no sidewalks or beacons led. The shop was alongside the river, the calm Combahee that was good for gazing, feet-soaking, and fishing. Saudade’s grandfather had run a lumber mill-distillery-photo gallery here, and her namesake grandmother had sold handmade quilts displayed over the wide porch railing. When Saudade’s mother took over the place, she had stained the words I make small things large so that people can see them. – Georgia O’Keefe, over the double front doors, converting the place into the grow house-yeast shop with a statement of perspective. Yeasts are bacteria, prolific as ditch weed, useful as GMO corn, essential as spit. While her parents had slowed down like bees trapped in their own honey, she’d fed their sawdust to her compost heaps.
Saudade leaned heavily on the counter, and ate another spoonful of the thin icing that she had spent the early morning drizzling over apple focaccia. She had perfected the recipe, which was a sappy glaze of beet sugar, ground pine nuts, and pleasantry. It was a Tuesday, after all, every day of the week subject to being an excuse to be stoned. It made her feel busy in a better way than she already was.
Upon the last fullfilled order of the day, Saudade walked outside with her customer, Ruth Frank, who was her highest-volume doobie brownie consumer and on town council. They stopped on the porch with the four empty and one occupied rocking chairs, while Ruth was telling her a good one, about the new element just added to the periodic table, the Bu. “It’s the element of surprise!” Ruth cackled.
“You enjoy those plum buns, Ruth.” Saudade said.
Eric stood up and said, “Down the road, there’s some— “
“I know all about those boys,” Ruth replied, not looking over her shoulder as she and Saudade filled her Volvo, the old gas-powered kind, with boxes and pans. “They’ll be at the party tonight too. I’ll give Timmy a dunking when he’s got his head in the bobbing tub.” She paused to sigh. “He’ll get the message.”
Like Saudade at her counter, many in Petrichor were a little bit weary, as if there was an unfactored eighth day of their week. The long-time locals had developed a genetic causalness for dealing with crime and punishment, and intruders and questions. Saudade’s parents were both carriers of the gene, and she was the most advanced lackadaisical phenotype yet. She worked at the counter because there was less walking than in the kitchen. She lived in the room above the old mill shed because it had been bare clean when she needed a space for her one hamper full of clothing and the rope hammock in which she slept. Her jeans were tight because she never bothered to shop.
Saudade walked up the three steps to the porch and looked at Eric, who was rippling at the edges in her glazed vision, and looking handsome in the blue blazer that would have made many handsome quilt squares. She could feel the texture from five feet away.
“You walked here,” she said to the man, who bore whiffs of the river lilies and sputtered more about his car and thugs and roads and elections. She took his hand and led him inside to the display case where the pans each held one or two last cinnamon rolls, plum buns, brownies, or biscuits.
“Have some,” she said, “while I close up. I’ll drive you into town.” While she closed a cabinet here and tightened a lid there and worked her way to the source of all the aromas (an old stone-decked Pavallier converted to solar), Eric held up his palm to take pictures, opening the shutter, as it were, of the cameras and sensors in his coat. The hot scent of the fields blew in through the square window at the end of the storefront, and Eric wished he had a glass of cold milk.
After a few minutes, and many satisfying bitefuls, Saudade returned wearing a fresh blouse for the party at Ruth’s, a mesh of pale linen embedded with glittering glamastrings that waved like tendrils in the ocean. An owl button pinned to her short sleeve announced: I Vote Early & Often & Wisely. She held a plastic bottle of Blasto-X7 Thirstsublimator. “Fresh hempseed milk,” she said, offering it to him. “Recycled bottle. It’s cold.”
By design, the Your Ballot Here Pavilion was where everyone converged. Literally everyone, the registered, per-capita We of this town. Eleventh grader Mariama was planting so many flags in the vicinity that she poked into any sturdy pile of dog shit. The poll workers swooped through their duties efficiently as bats. A few members of the town council took a break at a picnic table in the shade, empty brownie box attracting ants. The diginurse on duty at the BiblioTek directed readers to the pavilion.
Petrichor’s pavilion had been built following the recognition of the LifeTimes award. Around the country these centerpieces of the voting experience were more often on wheels, or inflated and strapped down, or in curtain-divided gymnasiums. But some determined towns (usually those with the most bandstands) constructed permanent pavilions, civic fixtures offering classes and meeting rooms and interbatch all year round. In Petrichor, the architecture was Grecian, an aesthetic spearheaded by the local arts council. The founders of the Human Benevolence Society met there to enact their mission, We Shall Help, which they did by taking care of the maintenance of the pavilion, including the graffiti (We Shall Help YOU HAPPYTIZE.) The Society’s domabots were top of the line, and even removed grime from the elegant faces of the caryatids that ringed the building. The artists had not sculpted simple Greek maidens, but rather local figures—school teachers in A-line skirts, the soccer coach and her roof-hoisting brawny legs, a scientist in her overalls, the gardener in her apron and knee pads, the entastic blouse-wearing expectant mother strong with iron-supplemented blood. Esprit had advised them on landscaping, and acanthus plants below tied into the Corinthian capitals above. The flowering, spotted spikes looked like caged animals, willing but unable to strike.
Saudade delivered Eric to voting central. They walked together down Main Street, where the Green Apple Lounge advertised Pursuit of Happiness Hour~All Day Today! She was showing him around, and he was forgetting that he was on the clock. His brain kept returning to his assignment, then to the sight of Saudade in the sun. She had illegally parked her bedmobile, as she called the battery powered utility trundler: when she wanted to sleep by the river, she parked it on the riverbank and settled in. Down the street, a pod of tuba players and one drummer boy blasted and hoota-tooted.
Esprit’s meeting with Eric was set for the café with a view of the pavilion. She sat outside with a tasse kaffee, her household waste analysis report, and Florida lounging on the cool flagstone patio. She and Patrick had lowered their sodium output three months straight now. Voting stories were traded around the coffee shop—“I just did! The interface update is cool.”
“Washington’s hand reaching out like that—“
“That made me kind of dizzy,”
“Who was that Hime-a-robey guy?”
By this early evening, Election Day National Holiday had sated the people of Petrichor. Happiness was found in the feast. Turn-out was already announced as higher than ever, even though voters 349857349587, 576525778902, and 335874867844 had not yet entered the oxygenated and pulsing pavilion. Nor would they. The digitally-driven saturation point of the occasion morphed into an earthly satisfaction of digestion, choices made, and overflowing serotonin receptors. Esprit deserved to skip this election cycle—her contentedness was such that she didn’t even mind being stood up by Eric, who, at the bar in the Green Apple, said “Fuck it,” out loud to himself.
“What?” Saudade laughed, swiveling back to him on the high barstools. She had been talking to a bakehouse customer who was urging her to vote—“It’s better than last time! There’s an hour left!”
“Nothing. Work,” he said. “I have a deadline.” He snapped a pic of Saudade and her customer, and swiveled 360 degrees for a panorama of the crowd. The highbacked booths cradled contented voters, the table-top jukeboxes displayed rising tallies over images of the candidates, and citizens darted from table to table, carrying mugs and news.
Esprit capped her pen, done with doodling over her waste report. Eric was only twenty minutes late, but that was enough for her. Dill was to be purchased and Florida needed a bush. She and the dog strolled across the street, to the busy grounds of the pavilion where children were chalking the pavement and the doorways were busy with in-process voters wearing their applicuffs. She saw the lights and heard the sounds. Florida led her to the outskirting greenery toward the back of the structure, snuffling around, Esprit’s head level with the comely ankles of the caryatids. She dropped the leash so Florida could wriggle into the branchery, rustling up a snake. She turned and looked around at the maintenance area, where her acanthus were doing best and a garden hose was coiled. We Shall Help YOU VOTE GOOD was the tag of the week. The domabot station (power or dump, she wasn’t sure) was lit with green LEDs, and the first pinks of dusk glinted in the stainless steel. She looked up to the greying sky framed by the trees—hovering RAMflies had gathered eight feet from the wall, eight feet from the ground. They weren’t swarming, she noticed, and took a step back. Swarming would have been acceptable—they clouded for information exchange in that manner. Instead, they all faced the back wall of the pavilion, holding silent and steady in a feeding posture, forming rows and columns nose-to-tail. The air whirred back and forth with electricity, and Esprit Descalier, the trained zoologist, discovered a new sub-species: the Thieving RAMfly, able to consume raw data up to twenty times its own weight, and turn it into royal jelly for the queen. Or a king who wants the data to lead to a specified outcome.
On her walk home she let Florida drag his leash and wander. They passed a couple—Eric and Saudade naturally—deep in the shadows, getting as close as an instant run-off. They were a perfect backdrop for dancing hymenoptera. Esprit looked around in the dusk at the well-fed families pushing strollers and avoiding bugs as best they could, walking the winding pathways back to their houses and parties.
That night the inhabitants spoke in the postprandial language of an epilogue: we did this, so we get that. This vote, that person. With a pollen-dusting of manipulation, the data captured by the thieving RAMflies agreed with enough voters that the triumphant candidates felt like a consensus, especially considering the Human Benevolence Society’s newest announced initiative—Botplus Voters Reward Points.