Thursday, January 15, 2009

Emrystic Illusion

Inspired by this article on a situation in Glastonbury, U.K., and the weekly challenge at Bruce Bethke's Ranting Room.

“Your episkopose summons you to the Loft. Your presence is required before the morning hour eight.”

“Emrys? …what time is it?”

“7:32 in the A.M. Oh, and totally buy some powdered donuts on your way up.”

The ringing of my cell had done little to awaken me from my pleasant Saturday morning stupor, and had it been anyone else on the line I would probably have mumbled a few obligatory words before tossing the phone and turning over to continue my intended late morning.

But Emrys was speaking the sort of nonsense that often served as the precursor to the implementation of another of his fiendish schemes. I stared groggily at the phone after he hung up, debating.

Twenty minutes later I was walking down the street, the bright morning sunshine glaring down on eyes that would have much preferred the darkness found beneath a pillow. The air was still brisk, though, and soon the birdsong cheered me to a good enough mood to begin wondering what sort of madness Emrys had called me out of bed for. I made my way to Stan-Ley & Sons, the locally-owned grocer—Nirvana was still too small of a town to warrant the attention of Wal-Mart’s corporate offices—and entered to the tingling announcement of the bell above the door. I headed straight to the “impulse buys” and picked up two packages of gem donuts, then swiveled around to face the check-out.

Old Man Stanley must enjoy sleeping late on Saturdays as much as I do, because his son Rob was manning the register. I paid for the donuts and said, “I’m going up to visit Emrys.”

Rob nodded, looking somewhat sleepy himself. I guess nobody really wakes up on a Saturday before nine. Except Emrys. Probably for that reason alone.

I walked past the well-lit aisles of groceries to the doorway at the back of the store. The sign said “Employees Only,” but I pushed through the sliced plastic curtain and into the relatively somber backroom. I turned and clambered up a metal stairway to my immediate right. I knocked on the poster of Cthulu emerging from the watery depths and splaying forward his hands in judgment over existence, and waited for Emrys to answer the door.

I never really understood how he managed to lease the Loft from Old Man Stanley, but it didn’t really surprise me that he had. Emrys had an uncanny ability to convince people that what he wanted to happen was a good idea and even in their best interest. So the old codger accepted Emrys’s rent payment in cash at the beginning of every month, and Emrys used the apartment over the store for himself and was able to maintain his life “off the grid.” Whatever that was supposed to mean: I’m pretty certain he paid for his internet by credit card.

I heard the approach of footsteps from the other side of the door. After a pause, Emrys cracked open the door and peered at me. “Matt, is that you?”

“Who the hell else would it be this early on a Saturday morning?”

Emrys squinted suspiciously at me from behind the door. “I dunno. Maybe a gnomish assassin using magic to disguise himself and catch me off-guard.”

“Gnomes? You don’t believe in gnomes.”

“Maybe I do today.”

I showed him the packaged donuts I had just bought from the store, the plastic crinkling as I waved them in front of his eyes. “Look, I brought the powdered donuts and—”

“Oh, excellent,” cried Emrys, throwing the door open wide before grabbing one of the packages and turning to walk away. I entered the apartment and closed the door, locking out any gnomish assassins in disguise before I followed him back into his bedroom.

He was lying on his stomach, sprawled out on his bed with the opened gem donuts package in one hand and his laptop at the other. Two donuts were already missing and he was idly sucking the powdered sugar from his fingertips as he watched the computer screen. He didn’t look up as I entered his room, but he did start speaking.

“You should check out this argument I started on this news blog.”

Sometimes I referred to Emrys as a “professional forum troll.” He would spend hours hopping between various online communities, stirring up drama across every corner of the internet. He always seemed to know exactly what sort of irreverent, off-hand comment would really get some nerd’s whitey-tights in a knot. Sometimes moderators tried to ban him from their boards, but he’d simply mask his connection with a new IP address and sign on again under a new personality.

I peeked over his shoulder as he told me about his newest “shot heard ‘round the world.”

“I signed on as ultra-conservative NealPatUSA and made a very good case regarding the hypocrisy of gay marriage. Then, I switched over to neo-liberal SweetPink, and lambasted Neal for his bigoted close-mindedness and accused him of all sorts of closeted psychoses. Of course, by the time I got that post up already four people had started to argue. Then I got back onto Neal and typed an all-caps tirade of epic angriness, stepping into the obvious trap of the ‘Angry White Male’ stereotype. On the eighth page in I get Pink to betray that she thinks people should be able to marry sheep, and on the fourteenth page Neal tosses a retort that says Pink should be either pregnant or in the kitchen. We’re up to twenty-eight pages now and I haven’t made a post in ten.” He popped a donut in his mouth in triumph.

“Wow. When did you start all this?”

“Last night about ten. It’s too easy, really. Controversial topics argue themselves. I’ve decided that from now on getting anyone to argue about anything more vital than nail clippers is beneath me.”

“Nail clippers?”

“Yeah. Gnomes use them to assassinate people. That’s why they don’t allow them on airplanes, you know.”

I noted the second reference to gnomes, wondering if this might be his latest kick. Emrys had a tendency to make something up, something spectacular and crazy, talking about how people would believe anything. Then he would in turn become a rabid follower of his own fantasy—no, more than that, a proselytizer. Only to turn and laugh at anyone who believed his convincing proofs.

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

I blinked. “Pardon? That the gnomes have gotten nail clippers barred from air travel?”

“No, no,” he said irritably, nodding his head toward the open window that faced out onto the street. That. Doesn’t that bother you?”

At first I didn’t know what he meant. The window was open to let in some fresh air, but there wasn’t really an uncomfortable draught coming in or anything. I tilted my head to see if there was some sound from the street I hadn’t noticed, but all was quiet. Wondering if he meant something about the window itself, I made my way over and glanced at the glass (not very dirty) and paint on the sill (plain old white). Still getting nothing, I looked through it to see if he was talking about something in the street. I was just noticing one of the town’s new wireless network masts across the street when Emrys was suddenly standing beside me.

“What, the Wi-Fi pole?” I said incredulously. “Why would it bother me?”

He grunted and pulled me over in front of the wall adjacent to the window. “Here. Stand here.” I complied. Then he pushed me over to the open window. “Now here. …any difference?”

I shook my head. He nodded as if he had proved his point. I furrowed my eyebrows in consternation. “Seriously, Emrys, what are you talking about? Don’t tell me you’re buying into all of that anti-radiation kookery.”

A couple people had objected to the town council’s free public Wi-Fi network, on the grounds that it disrupted the spiritual energies of the town. Supposedly Nirvana lay at the end of a very long and powerful ley line, the same one the aliens in Roswell had been following when they crashed in New Mexico, and these ley energies manifested themselves in the town attracting all sorts of weird kooks who set up natural therapy spas and New Age boutiques. The tourists had kept the town alive, though, which gave me a job as the night manager for the local Starbucks—we were big and trendy enough to warrant the attention of their corporate offices—so overall I didn’t mind having to put up with all the crazies. Nirvana was mostly a peaceful, quiet town and I liked living there. Still, occasionally they would get loud and vociferous about one type of lunacy or the other. These latest fringe complaints about the new Wi-Fi masts that had recently been installed across the town in the council’s attempt to modernize Nirvana for the digital millennium—well, they were just one in a long history of nonsense we generally ignored. I hadn’t paid much attention at all to these nonsensical ideas that the Wi-Fi signals “interfered with the ley processes that provided Nirvana’s spiritual energy.” Emrys himself had mocked these individuals as “curmudgeons bearing fluorescent bulbs ‘neath the magnetic fields of electric towers” just a few days ago.

“It pisses me off, Matt,” said Emrys now, rather bitterly. “We had a good thing going here, and now technology may very well ruin it. I, for one, cannot stand by and allow this to happen.”

“But I thought you were a fan of the Wi-Fi network, since it lets you troll the forums anywhere, anytime.”

“ ‘The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,’” declared Emrys with proper sobriety. He then earnestly cried, “Would you stand by while our ley line—the very life-line of Nirvana—remains obstructed?”

“If it gets me free internet, then yeah.”

Emrys looked coldly at me. “The internet is not a proper substitute for real life, and only a passing diversion at best.”

I sighed. Whatever he was going to do, he was sure to do it with or without me. I figured there was at least some entertainment value in coming along for the ride. “Well, what did you have in mind?”

* - * - *

Emrys and I strolled out from the back room of Stan-Ley & Sons. A few customers were browsing among the aisles, but for the most part the store was quiet. Rob was still looking bored at the cash register. As we passed the produce section, Emrys stopped for a moment to pick up some apples.

Setting his chosen pair of apples down on the counter, he engaged Rob in some chit-chat.

“Good morning, Robert V. Stanley.”

“G’mornin’, Emrys,” Rob grunted in reply as he rang up the two apples.

“How you doin’?” Emrys smiled, leaning onto the counter with his elbows.

“Fine. How are you?”

“Oh, I’ve been all right. Except I’ve been so tired lately! You know, kinda sluggish and worn out. And then I get these headaches from time to time.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” murmured Rob without an ounce of actual concern. “That’ll be $1.18.”

“It’s not like I haven’t been getting enough sleep; it just hasn’t been restful,” chattered Emrys as he searched through his jeans for his wallet. “It’s like my—oh there’s my wallet—center of being has been thrown off or something. How much did you say it was again?”

“One dollar and eighteen cents.”

“Right, right. Lessee, here’s the dollar. I know I have some change about here somewhere. Say, you don’t look so well rested yourself. Maybe we should have the store checked for carbon monoxide or something. Ah, here’s my coins! Ten, fifteen, and three pennies. There ya go.”

“Thanks,” said Rob, and hit the button on the register to kick out the cash drawer. The machine began printing out the receipt. After putting away the money, Rob slammed the drawer and tore of the receipt with the fluidity only hours of mindless repetition can create. “Here’s your receipt.”

“Oh, thanks, Rob. You know, now that I think about it, this all started when they put that Wi-Fi mast up across the street.” Emrys shrugged. “Oh well, it’s probably nothing. I’ll see you later.” He scooped up the apples and headed out the door with me following in his wake.

Outside, he tossed me one of the apples, and threw the other in the trash. Reaching into his sleeve, he produced another apple that he had nicked. Taking a big juicy bite, he closed his eyes and sighed. “Ah, the stolen ones taste so much sweeter, I tell you.”

“Don’t mind the free one my friend bought myself,” I said, munching on my own. We began walking down the street. “You really think that’ll leave an impression on Rob?”

“The most lasting influences are the ones we don’t know are trying to persuade us,” Emrys answered. “But before we go much further down that line, we’d better make sure we cover the primary motivator of all social change.”

“Young people with too much time on their hands?”

“Almost humorous,” Emrys said, then gave me a wink. “No, man, moolah.

With that he turned and walked into Mystical Empowerments, one of the town’s larger tourist gift stores. M.E. had a lot more customers than the grocer, with out-of-towners inspecting the geodes, orgone machines, incense, yoga equipment, Yanni CDs, and other assorted mystical paraphernalia. Emrys usually only came into M.E. to attempt to persuade the owner, Randy Goettheiler, that he should allow Emrys to sell “the most effective mystical empowerment” in the alley out back, but today he made his way over to the orgone machines and began fiddling with them. With one hand he picked up a weird contraption called a “Ley Field Resonating Surveyor” and started watching the swing of the little pendulum in the center, while continuing to munch noisily on his stolen apple. After a few minutes on this he switched hands, but instead of resting the box on his palm like he had done before, I noticed he gripped the machine from one of the openings on the side. His sticky fingers made an audible velcro-like ripping sound when he handed the thing to me.

“See if you can’t make the ball stick to the side where my fingers just touched,” he said, reaching down to pick up a new Surveyor. I shook the machine softly a few times and finally succeeded in making the pendulum stick up against the side.

“Hey, Randy,” Emrys called out suddenly. I jumped a little, accidentally dislodging the ball from my sudden movement. Across the store, Mr. Goettheiler looked up irritably. “Hey, Randy, c’mere a minute. I think there’s something wrong with your machines.”

Randy gritted his teeth and then looked about the store from the corner of his eyes, forcing a smile. “I sell machines of flawless design according to the specifications of Reich himself. I’m sure you’re just failing to operate it with the proper methods.” He began striding forcefully toward us.

“That’s why I want you to see this,” Emrys replied absently, looking intently at the surveyor in his hand. He glanced up as Randy came up beside him. “Look. It’s stuck.”

Sure enough, the pendulum was stuck up against the side wall.

Randy snatched the machine from Emrys and began rotating it slowly with his fingers in what I had to assume was the “proper method.” Emrys snuck a look to me and rolled his eyes, but was interrupted as Randy suddenly gasped.

“It stuck!”

“Yeah, that’s what I was telling you.”

“You broke it somehow,” said Randy, looking irritated and confused.

“No, this one is doing the same thing,” I interjected, showing him the one I was holding, its pendulum stuck to the side.

A few of the people in the store were staring at our little demonstration, and others were beginning to look our way to see what was happening. I noticed a little bit of sweat starting to bead on Randy’s temples. He glanced about the store quickly and then blurted, “Maybe these two models have malfunctioned. Try any of the others!”

He reached quickly out to the nearest Ley Field Resonating Surveyor, but Emrys beat him to it, grabbing it up in a way that ensured his fingers stuck to the inside of the machine. He then handed it to Randy, who repeated the process of setting the machine in motion. At first it looked like Emrys hadn’t had enough apple juice left on his fingers anymore and the gig was up, because the machine kept spinning. But after a few moments it started to lose momentum and finally ended up stuck like the others.

Pretty much the whole store was watching now, and Randy was beginning to panic. His eyes were wide with terror. I suppose that in a business like his, one always looked like they were on the fringe of hustling their customers, so any negative demonstrations of their merchandise dealt a heavy blow on their already tenuous credibility. “I—I don’t understand. These were working fine when I stocked them at the beginning of the month…”

“Yeah, I know you deal in good stuff, Randy,” said Emrys, giving him a consoling pat on the shoulder, “That’s why I’m so confused. Huh, that’s odd.”

“Huh? What’s odd?” asked Randy.

“They’re all stuck in the same direction. As if something is pushing against them.” Emrys squinted suspiciously at the orgone machines. “Pushing them into the store, away from the street. What could be in the street?” he wondered aloud, turning to look out the window. “Cars, traffic signals, nothing that hasn’t always been there since you founded this illustrious store.”

At this point half the store was peering out of the large picture window at the front of the store, trying to figure out what could be causing the Ley Field Resonating Surveyors to malfunction.

“What about that funky tower?” asked one of the store customers, pointing to a Wi-Fi mast visible at the corner. “It seems to be in the right direction and has a lot of antennae on the top.”

“Oh, that?” shrugged Emrys. “That’s just the new Wi-Fi network the town installed a couple weeks ago… whoa. When did you say you stocked these, Mr. Goettheiler?”

“At the beginning of the month.”

“And they were working fine then?”

“Yes! I only deal in quality goods!” Randy nearly shouted, quite flustered.

“I know, Randy, and I don’t think it’s your machines that are broken.” Emrys paused for dramatic effect, and then pointed a finger at the Wi-Fi mast like a detective declaring the identity of a killer. “I believe the Wi-Fi signals are disrupting Nirvana’s ley lines!”

* - * - *

Sunday afternoon found Emrys sitting on a park bench, coding away on his laptop. I was laying a little bit away facing him, leaning up against a tree. The afternoon was sunny and warm, and the squirrels were hopping about the grass looking for things to nibble. A particularly bold one was venturing beneath Emrys’s bench to filch crumbs that had fallen through the slats from his chip bag. It would grab one and then scurry back to the tree to feast upon its prize, only to venture cautiously forward in a few more minutes to grab a new piece.

“OK, so the spa prank I can see being effective,” I said, breaking the silence. “But I really don’t see how dropping hints about the town is going to make everyone believe this thing.”

We had spent all of the previous day going from establishment to establishment inside the town and complaining of various non-serious ailments that had supposedly suddenly cropped up in our lives since the Wi-Fi masts were installed. At the On the Line Café we commiserated with our waitress about back pain; at the local bike shop we had suffered dizziness; and at the Ley Right Massage and Spa we talked about a strange rash, and then poured nearly a pound of ground-up poison ivy leaves into the filtration system.

Emrys sighed and looked up from his LCD screen. “People find things to be credible when they learn that other people believe them. If we talked to Cindy at On the Line and tried to convince her that her back pain was from the Wi-Fi signals, she probably wouldn’t believe us. But if we talk about how our back pain might be from electro-sensitivity, throwing in allegedly scientific reasoning about nerves using electrical impulses to make it sound intelligent—the appeal to authority is key—then she starts wondering if her back pain is from electro-sensitivity. It starts sounding less crazy because she thinks we believe it.”

“Which we don’t, do we?”

“The fate of a ley line is at stake, here, Matt. I don’t have time for philosophical questions.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. “So, the website, that’s to cover the appeal to authority?”

“Yup,” said Emrys with a grin, turning his laptop around so I could see the screen. “And it’s all done.”

A crisp blue logo on a green background read “A-1 Radiation Diagnostics, Inc.” The subtitle spoke of A-1 Radiation being the forefront in harmful radiation detection companies. The contact number was emblazoned across half of the screen, with a message to act quickly lest harmful radiation injure you and your loved ones’ health.

“Don’t you feel a little hypocritical, accessing the Wi-Fi to make that?” I asked.

Emrys shrugged nonchalantly. “As long as it’s around, why not make use of it?”

* - * - *

A cap and collared-shirt with a nametag below the logo, plus the crucial addition of a ridiculous glue-on mustache, and Emrys became Aaron, one of the field techs for A-1 Radiation Diagnostics, Inc. I still couldn’t believe that we had received eight local calls (and one out-of-state) in response to the website within three days of it being set up. Emrys had us driving all over the town to provide inspections for the townspeople, insisting that I come along as his Technician’s Assistant. My evening job left my mornings pretty open so I agreed, on the condition that I get a twenty dollar cut of A-1’s fifty-nine dollar service fee.

Watching Emrys con those people into believing that he was measuring their radiation levels was like watching a shark cut through the ocean. His ability to pre-guess someone’s question or objection and come back with a ready answer was uncanny. I’m a rather intelligent guy and I easily understand psychology and social movements in hindsight, but I’m not that good at reading people in the heat of the moment or predicting what they’ll do next. I’m the sort of person who can win at online poker but lose in person; Emrys will not only win, but he’ll get you to put your sports car on the line before he takes you. I’m sure it’s the same gift that lets him do so well in his day-trading.

So I followed Emrys out on his excursions, dressed up as his assistant, which I didn’t mind so much. Emrys was definitely running the show here. He’d show up with his clipboard and ‘signal detector,’ which was nothing more than a gps receiver he had reprogrammed to display a moving sine wave and connectivity to the Wi-Fi network.

I did mind having to lug the ‘equipment,’ a much heavier hard plastic and metal box with a thick cord running to an old television satellite dish. Emrys would have me point the dish in various directions as he mused over the unchanging sine wave, grunting occasionally or making notes on his clipboard. A few of the owners left us to our own devices, making me feel very stupid putting on a show with nobody watching, but most of the time the person who had hired us would follow us about, wringing their hands and looking concerned every time Emrys muttered “Hmmmm” or “Yikes.”

The most paranoid was Natasha Gee, whom I actually knew. I was immediately worried when we walked up to the door and I had this uncanny sensation that the house looked familiar. Emrys brushed off my concerns and rang the doorbell anyway. Then Natasha opened the door.

“Oh thank God you’re here!” Natasha exclaimed upon seeing the logo on our shirts and caps. “I took the morning off work because I’m just so concerned about this situation. You see, there’s one of the masts right over there, in plain view of the house! I’m dreadfully worried that—Matt? Don’t I get my afternoon latte from you?”

I didn’t know what to say. “Um, yeah.”

“Why does your name tag say ‘Mark’?”

“Mess-up on the order form, ma’am,” interjected Emrys, saving me with the rustic accent he had affected for his role of ‘Aaron.’ “Just recently hired Matt here, ya see, for the mornin’ shift. We’re fixin’ to get a new one for ‘im.”

“Yeah, with the economy like it is, I thought I’d get myself a second job,” I added.

“Oh, right,” said Natasha, nodding with understanding. “Well, come on in. I want you to measure every room in the house and tell me straight just how bad it is.”

“We’ll get right to work, ma’am.”

Emrys sidestepped past Ms. Gee and entered the house, glancing back over his shoulder to give me a “man this is gonna be easy” look. I followed closely behind, lugging the heavy box connected to the mini television satellite dish. “We’ll start in the livin’ room, ma’am,” Emrys was saying as he walked down the hallway to the den. We took a few measurements and Emrys noted that he could indeed tell that the effects of the mast were apparent inside the home. Then he asked to see the kitchen.

“Lower in here. Probably’s bein’ shielded by the refrigerator,” he said after only a few seconds of looking at his receiver, and began scratching some notes on his clipboard.

Natasha looked relieved. “Oh, thank God, so the food’s okay!”

For a moment I thought Emrys was going to break character, but he bit his lip and focused on finishing his note. Then he looked her dead in the eye and said with a straight face, “Nah, from my readings I doubt any of the food is being irradiated. Can we see the bedrooms?”

Natasha’s master bedroom was rather elegantly decorated with a four-poster bed in the center. The coverlet and drapes were a dark violet with sheer extensions, with the color theme extending to the rug and even the doilies on her dresser. Emrys looked about for a few moments and then asked me to place the satellite appendage of the equipment on the bed. He took a few readings and then told me to move it toward the window. I had to make my way around the bed to the other side of the room, pulling the heavy box with me.

I had previously peeked inside the box to see what made it so heavy: he had filled it with pieces of cinder blocks! When I asked him why, he made some postulation about people believing in the authenticity of machines when they have a good weight to them, but I think he just wanted to see if I’d lug the thing around. More evidence to my case was added when, after asking me to “place the detector near the windah,” he immediately asked me to bring it back “o’er the dressah” so that I would have to pull the thing across the room again. I gave him a glare as I passed him, limping from the weight of the box in one hand..

“A-yup,” he said, making another notation on the clipboard.

“What?” Natasha asked, a worried note to her voice. “What is it?”

“Radiation’s worse right in the center of the room, ma’am. You’re getting’ the worse of it when ya sleep at night.”

Natasha placed a hand to her lips in shock and stared at her purple bedspread. By the look in her eyes, I figure in her mind it was transforming into a rack or some other similar torture device.

“I reckon ya ought to move it against the wall—in any case, further from the windah,” Emrys continued, still scratching away on his clipboard.

“Quick quick!” Natasha said suddenly, “You have to check the levels in my son’s room!”

“Sure thing, ma’am,” Emrys said, turning to follow her out of the bedroom. I followed, too, still struggling with the detection equipment.

We entered the kids room and Natasha picked up a few toys that were scattered about the floor, apologizing.

“Not a problem, ma’am,” said Emrys kindly. “Matt, can ya hurry it up with the radiation detector?”

“Coming,” I huffed, dragging the thing through the doorway. I set the box down in the middle of the room, and stayed bent over for a second to recover from the exertion.

“Hold the receiver out, please.” Emrys nudged. I shot him a look and then raised my arm holding the dish.

Emrys let out a long, low whistle.

Natasha stared at him in terror. “Oh no,” she murmured.

“Radiation levels’re nearly off the chart,” said Emrys finally, confirming her fears. “This room’s got the highest in the house.”

“Oh no, oh no oh no oh no,” exclaimed Natasha, stepping backward slowly to fall down and sit on her son’s bed, her face in her hands. “Oh no, who knows how this is affecting Eddie? What am I going to do?”

“Well, based on what I have seen, you and your son should probably move right away,” answered Emrys, nodding gravely.

I elbowed him sharply in the ribs. “Do you really think that’s necessary, E—er, Aaron?” I hissed. “Isn’t that a little extreme?”

Emrys used the eraser on the end of his pencil to rub at the spot where I had jabbed him. “Only if ya wanna get away from—” He stopped as I glared at him, then started again. “Well, I s’pose another alternative would be to come to the Town Council meetin’ this Friday they’re havin’ ‘bout the masts. Ya could express your concerns an’ mebbe they’d shut it down.”

* - * - *

The Town Council meeting was packed. Every seat in the room was taken; people spilled over into the aisles and along the walls, the mass of people flowing up to the base of the stage on which sat the council’s table, pressed forward by the weight of the other citizens still pooling in the lobby. I didn’t envy the council members, probably accustomed to doing business with only a couple crickets in attendance, now sitting in front of this sea of irate people. The Council Chair, a balding man with rimless glasses, stared expressionlessly at the expanse of seething citizens, like a man facing execution brought out before a wild rabble. Or hiker downstream who just felt and saw a giant crack appear on the concrete edifice, and is now waiting for the dam to burst.

At 7:00 PM sharp he stood up and adjusted his glasses, then motioned for the crowd to quiet. I was rather glad we had arrived an hour early, or else we might have missed the spectacle. Emrys and I had procured seats on the right side of the room, about five rows from back. By no means had the other chairs filled up when we got there, but people were starting to show and Emrys wanted his pick of the room. After we were seated, however, the room filled up quickly, and by 6:30 all the folding chairs had had occupants.

The Council Chair completed the orders of business required to start the meeting and then motioned to move directly into the special inquiry involving the Wi-Fi masts.

“That’s a good sign,” Emrys confided to me. “He recognizes how seriously the citizens are taking this issue and wants to resolve it immediately.”

“Yeah, well, wouldn’t you?” I muttered back. “These people remind me of a lynch mob.”

Person after person came forward to testify to the ill effects they were experiencing from exposure to the public wireless network. After speaking of hard-to-nail-down maladies such as dizziness, headaches, back pain, rashes, shortness of breath, and fatigue—there was even one male who brought up his low sperm count—the complainer would then inevitably blame their ephemeral sicknesses on the Wi-Fi masts and demand that they be shut down immediately before conditions worsened. Speculations of cancer and mutations abounded. Mothers spoke with worry for the health of their children and elicited a very sympathetic response.

Local pastors and members of their congregations questioned whether the network might lead to the exposure of pornography to young children in public. I’m not sure, but I think Emrys had written an anonymous letter of concern with a fictional anecdote and sent it to all the churches in the area.

Doctors and intellectuals lambasted the council for exposing the citizens to technology that had never really been tested for its long-term effects on people. They decried a society which simply assumed such devices would not alter our biological processes, and ignored the segment of the population which might be “electro-sensitive.”

Local businessmen such as Randy Goettheiler hit upon the unique “spiritual climate” of Nirvana and claimed the masts introduced “negative energies” poor for the town at large. They suggested that the town council seek improvements to Nirvana that stayed in line with the town’s “unique cultural milieu.” From the looks of things, our unique cultural milieu was crazy people. I couldn’t believe that Emrys’s subtle campaign had wreaked such havoc upon the townspeople’s consciousness. In fact, it didn’t even make sense that it did. There were people coming forward complaining of ailments that we had not suggested. There were shop owners complaining of a loss of economic stability during the ongoing recession in whom we had not planted any seeds of doubt regarding their merchandise.

Just looking around the room, it was as if every person of the room had, on their own, reached the conclusion that the Wi-Fi masts were dangerous, and then become adamant about their opposition to the equipment. The whole southwestern corner of the room was dominated by the “Why Wi-Fi?” faction, all in matching T-shirts a savvy storefront owner had printed, which Emrys and I had done nothing to instigate (though he seemed rather pleased by it).

At the same time, I saw familiar faces. The customers of A-1 Radiation Diagnostics, Inc., were all in attendance, their computer print-outs of the radiation levels in their home in hand to wave before the council. Randy Goettheiler was seated next to Emrys and me. A couple three rows in front of us were bright pink from the calamine lotion slathered all over their body, and a few others in the room were scratching themselves obsessively. The swath of destruction we had done to reasonable thinking was readily apparent to me.

It was a mistake to assume what I was watching had been put in place by Emrys’s scheme. And it was a mistake to assume that it had not, either. The chaotic will of the people loomed large in the room, and though I didn’t feel unsafe or fear they were going to riot, the experience blew away the illusion of control in society and made a profound impression.

My favorite testimony came from one stringy-haired woman who had gathered data on the usage of the network. Apparently despite the cost of installation and maintenance, very few people had logged on to the network in its three weeks of operation. Total usage amounted to a measly 236 sessions. She questioned whether such an underused system warranted the expensive investment of the taxpayers’ funds. It tickled me that not a single aspect of this now-controversial issue had been left to the wayside.

“And at least two dozen of those sessions are yours,” I teased Emrys.

“Good point,” he said, then leaned back and spoke loud enough for those seated nearby: “And a good number would be the sessions of investigators testing the network and the negative effects.”

That got several murmurs of agreements from the crowd and a man behind us stood up and made the same point to the council a few minutes later. Emrys grinned at me when he did.

After an hour and a half, the Council Chair stood and acknowledged that it was clear that the citizens objected to the Wi-Fi network and he motioned for a vote to switch it off. Emrys sat straight up and then leaned and whispered frantically with Randy Goettheiler. Randy nodded and then stood up.

“Point of order, Mr. Chairperson. It’s not enough to merely switch them off. I think it’s pretty clear here that the citizens of Nirvana want the plug pulled on the Wi-Fi system. If the powered towers can interfere with the ley energies of this great town, then who’s to say that the towers themselves might be having a disrupting effect? I move that Nirvana take down the masts immediately!”

He was instantly and vigorously seconded several times over by various people in the room. After the Chair regained order, he repeated the motion and the council voted unanimously in favor of the removing the Wi-Fi masts.

* - * - *

The next morning, to celebrate the restored ley energies of Nirvana, I properly slept late according to the cosmically-aligned parameters of a slothful Saturday morning. When I finally got up I decided to walk over to Stan-Ley & Sons to see how Emrys was spending the day after his victory. On my way into the grocery store I noticed a work crew hoisting a dismantled Wi-Fi mast on to their truck to haul it away.

I watched them for a moment, then shook my head sadly before turning to enter the store. It had been a fun trip, but I was going to regret losing that wireless network. I waved at Rob, who was behind the grocery counter, and headed straight up to Emrys’s room.

Emrys began ranting from the moment he opened the door. “—out to be malleable luddites! An entire, free-of-charge—well, tax-payer funded, but what is that to me?—wireless network for lazy, sunny afternoons on the roof, and now it’s gone overnight! Overnight! The rabble has spoken, and the magistrates have covered their tails and given in to misinformed public opinion, as is their wont. What action could be taken if not action into further degeneration of society by placing undue burdens in unneeded places and cowing to pressure to release services needed.

“I can’t believe these people.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Emrys, buddy, I thought this was all your plan.” I had been following my steaming friend back to his room, only to watch him continue his tirade as he paced back and forth in front of his bed. He seemed truly distraught. “And it’s not like you can’t access the internet here in your room.”

“Yes, but I’ve limited myself to my room. All because of these miserable impressionables.”

“Yes, but don’t you feel it?” I said, smiling like an imp. He stopped pacing and gave me a confused look. My smile broadened and I pointed to the window. That. Can’t you feel the freedom?”

He laughed, then walked over and opened the window. Placing two hands on the sill, he poked his head out and stared across the street. “Yes. Isn’t it a glorious view?”

“Hmm?” I asked, peeking out behind him. Across the street was Ley Right Massage and Spa. I hadn’t realized but Emrys’s window overlooked a back wing of the boutique. I suppose the line of sight must have been blocked by the Wi-Fi mast. Now looking out, I realized that from this height that one could look down into the private tanning courtyard where some women were sunbathing nude.

My jaw dropped. “This … this was all because the mast obstructed your peepshow?”

Emrys chuckled. “What? Why else do you think I would go to such extremes, other than to protect this vital ley line? Besides,” he said with a shrug, “the wireless radiation was causing my gnome informants to fall ill.”