Human Readable
Written by Cory Doctorow
Narrated by Spider Robinson

  1. Nice networks don't go down

It was unthinkable that the invisible ants that governed all human endeavor should catastrophically fail, but fail they did, catastrophically, on the occasion of Trish's eighth date with Rainer. It took nineteen seconds for the cascade of errors to slow every car on the Interstate to a halt, to light up the dashboard with a grim xmas tree of errors, to still the stereo and freeze the tickers of information and context that they had come to think of as the crawling embodiment of the colony that routed all the traffic that made up their universe.

"We are going to be: So. Late," Rainer said, and Trish swiveled in her seat to look at him. He was Fretting again, his forehead wrinkled and his hands clenched on the steering wheel. When they traded massages (third date) and she'd rubbed at his hands, she'd found them tensed into claws that crackled with knuckle-fluid when she bent each finger back and rubbed sandalwood-scented oil into it. He was mighty cute for a neurotic -- at least he knew it when he was being nuts. Not that he'd stop being nuts, but he'd cheerfully admit it.

"We are not going to be late," she said. "We just need to manually route ourselves out of the dead spot and get back on the grid and we'll be on our way. We've got plenty of time."

"Dead spot?"

"Yes," she said. His forehead wrinkles were looking more klingon by the second. "Dead spot." She forced a chuckle. "You didn't think that the whole world was down, did you?"

He relaxed his knuckles. "Course not," he said. "Dead spot. Probably ends up at the turn-off."

"Right," she said. "We need a map. I'm navigatrix. You're pilot. Tell me where your maps are, then get onto the shoulder and drive straight."

"Where my maps are? Jesus, what century do you live in? My maps are with the sextant and sundial, between my leeches and my obsidian sacrifice-knife."

She laughed. "OK, pal, I'll find a michelin, you drive. Every car has a couple maps. They self-assemble from happy meal boxes." She opened the glove-compartment and started rooting through it while he pulled onto the shoulder and gunned the tiny two-seater along it.

"This is: So. Illegal," he said.

"Naw," she said. "I'm pretty sure you're allowed on the shoulder when the routing goes down. It's in the written-test manual. Learned it while I was helping my little cousin Leelee study. Aha!" she said, holding something up.

"You have a cousin named Leelee? That's uniquely horrible."

"Shut up," she said. "Look at this." It was an old-fashioned phone, of a certain handsome retro line that made it look like a dolphin fucking a silver dildo, the kind of thing marketed to old people who wanted a device with its affordances constrained to collapse the universe of all possible uses for things that fit into your hand into the much smaller universe of, say, a cellphone.

"Yeah, my mom left that behind a couple years ago. I looked everywhere for it but couldn't find it. She must've been snooping in the glove-box. Serves her right. So what?"

"These things can unmesh and talk straight to a tower at a long distance, can't they?"

"I dunno, can they?"

"Oh yes, they can. Which means that they work in dead spots. So we can call and get directions."

"You think you're pretty smart, huh, dumpling?"

She put her finger to her temple and made an adorable frowny thinky face, and held it until he looked at her and laughed. They'd discovered their ability to make one another laugh when he'd farted while taking off his kilt (second date) and had reflexively swung the hem back to make it appear that his mighty gust was ruffling the pleats.

"What's your mom's number?" she said.

He recited it and she tapped it in.

"Hi there! This is Trish, Rainer's friend? We're on the way, but the, well the, but the -- I mean to say, the grid's down or something. The car doesn't have any nav system, the dolby's out, the Interstate's a parking-lot... Oh, you too? God. Wonder if it's the whole country! So, we need directions from San Luis Obispo, to the cemetery, if possible."


"Why yes, it's venti nice to be meeting you," she said. "I've heard a lot about you, too. Yes, I'm giving directions, he's driving. Oh, that's so sweet of you. Yes, he does look like he's going to scrunch his forehead into his upper lip. I think it's cute, too. Right. Got it. Left, then right, then left, then a slight left, then up the hill. Got it. Whups! That's the duracell! Better go. Soon! Yes. Whoops."

"So?" he said.

"So, your mom sounds nice."

"You got the directions?"

"She gave me directions."

"So you know where we're going?"

"I don't have a single, solitary clue. Your mother gives terrible directions, darling. Pull off at the next exit and we'll buy a map."

"We are going to be: So. Late."

"But now they know we're late. We have an excuse. You: stop Fretting."


Once they were on the secondary roads, the creepiness of the highway full of stopped cars and crane-necked drivers gave way to a wind-washed soughing silence of waves and beach and palms. Trish rolled down the window and let the breeze kiss the sweat off her lip, watching the surfers wiping out in the curl as the car sped toward the boneyard.

"Are you sure this is the kind of thing you're supposed to bring a date to?"

"Yes," he said. "Don't Fret. That's my job."

"And you don't think it's even a little weird to take a girl to a cemetery on a date?"

"We're not burying anyone," he said. "It's just an unveiling."

"I still don't get that," she said. "I keep picturing your mom cutting a ribbon with a giant pair of gold scissors."

"Right, let's take it from the top," he said. "And you'd better not be getting me to talk to stop my Fretting, because appealing to my pedantic nature to distract me is a very cheap trick."

"I'm fluttering my eyelashes innocently," she said.

He laughed and stole a hand through the vent in her apron-trousers and over her thigh. "Achtung!" she said. "Eyes on road, hands on wheel, mind in gutter, this instant!" She put her hand over his and he put down the pedal. His hand felt nice there -- too nice, for only eight dates and 20-some phone calls and about 100 emails. She patted it again.

"This is kind of fun," he said, as they zipped past some surfer dudes staring glumly at their long-boards' displays, their perfect tits buoyant and colored like anodized aluminum with electric-tinted sun-paste.

"Ahem," Trish said, squeezing his hand tight enough to make his knuckles grind together. "You were about to explain tombstone-unveiling to me," she said. "When you got distracted by the athletic twinkies on the roadside. But I am sweet-natured and good and forgiving and so I will pretend not to have seen it and thus save us both the embarrassment of tearing out your Islets of Langerhans, all right?" She fluttered her eyes innocently in a way that she happened to know made him melt.

"Explaining! Yes! OK, remember, I'm not particularly Jewish. I mean, not that my parents are, either: they're just Orthodox. They don't believe in God or anything, they just like Biblical Law as a way of negotiating life. I renounced that when I dropped out of Yeshiva when I was 12, so I am not an authority on this subject."

"Let the record show that the witness declared his utter ignorance," she said. "But I don't get this atheist-Orthodox thing either --"

"Just think of them as Mennonites or something. They find the old ways to be a useful set of rules for navigating the universe's curves. God is irrelevant to the belief."

"So they don't believe in God, but they pray to him?"

"Yeah," he said. The surfers were all coming in now, jiggling their boards and rebooting them and staring ruefully at the radical cutback off the lip, dude, gnarly, as they plodded up the beach. "The ritual is the important part. Thinking good thoughts. Having right mind.

"It's good advice, most of it. It doesn't matter where it comes from or how it got there. What matters is that if you follow the Law, you get to where you're going, in good time, with little pain. You don't know why or how, but you do."

"It's like following the ants," she said, watching the stop-and-go traffic in the other direction. "Don't know why they tell us to go where they do, but they do, and it works."

"Well, I guess," he said, using the tone of voice that told her that he was avoiding telling her how wrong she was. She smiled.

"Anyway. The thing about Jews -- ethnic Jews, cultural Jews, forget the religion here -- is that we're pretty much on the melodramatic end of the grieving scale. We like to weep and tear at our hair and throw ourselves on top of the coffins, right? So there's like 5,000 years of this, and during that time, a bunch of social scientists -- Rabbinical scholars -- have developed a highly evolved protocol for ensuring that you grieve your dead enough that you don't feel haunted by guilt for having failed to honor them, but not grieving so much that you become a drag on the tribe.

"When someone dies, you bury him right away, usually within 24 hours. This means that you spend an entire day running around like your ass was on fire, calling everyone, getting the word out, booking last-minute travel, ordering in from the caterers, picking out a box, fielding consoling phone-calls, getting the rabbi on the phone, booking the limo, so much crap that you can't spare even a second to fall to pieces. And then you bury him, and while you're at it, your family extrudes a volunteer to go over to your house and take all the cushions off of one of the sofas, hang sheets over all the mirrors, and set out enough food to feed the entire state, along with an urn of starbucks the size of an oil-drum.

"Before the service starts, the rabbi gives you a razor-blade and you slash a hole in your lapel, so that you've got the rent in your heart hanging out there in plain sight, and once you get back home, you spend seven days grieving. You pray two times a day with a quorum of ten men, facing east and singing the Kaddish, this really, really depressing song-prayer-dirge that's specially engineered to worm its way into the melancholy receptors of the Semitic hindbrain and make you feel really, really, really miserable. Other people come over and cook for you, all three meals. You don't see yourself in the mirrors, you don't sit on cushions, you don't do anything except mourn for a whole week.

"Then it's over. You take a walk, leaving by one door and coming back in by the other. You put the mourning behind you and start your new life without your dear departed. You've given over your whole life for a whole week, done nothing but mourn, and you're completely sick of it by then, so you're almost glad to be done.

"Then, six months or a year later, usually just before Jewish New Year's, which is in the fall, you have a tombstone erected at the gravesite. The stone-cutters tie a white cloth around it, and everyone gathers there, and there's a sermon, and that dirge again, and more prayer, and everyone has a good hard cry as the scabs you've accumulated are ripped away and all your pain comes back fresh and scalding, and you feel it all again in one hot second, and realize with a guilty start that you have been neglecting the memory of the loved one, which is to say that you've gotten on with your life even though his is over, which is to say that you've done perfectly healthy, normal stuff, but you feel totally, completely overwhelmed with guilt and love, which are kind of flipsides of the same emotion --"

"You don't believe that, do you?" She held her breath.

"Well, kind of. Not that they should be, but hell they are, most of the time, then."

"Good thing we're not in love, then, right?" she said, in reference to their sixth date, when they'd decided that they would hold off on any declarations of love for at least an entire year, since they were most often moved to utter the Three Words of Significance when they were besotted with e.g. post-orgasmic brain-juice or a couple of cocktails.

"Yes, counselor."

She shook her head. He knew she was an academic, not a practicing lawyer, but he loved to tease her about it, ever since she'd revealed (after third date, on the phone) that she'd spent about ten seconds in private practice after she'd worked for her congressman and before she'd joined the faculty at UCLA.

"You're out of order," she said.

"This whole damned car is out of order!" he said. "So that's the ritual. You said you wanted to meet the parents and sisters and aunts and grandmothers and cousins and uncles and nephews and in-laws the next time we all got together. This is it."

"Right," she said. "I asked for this." And she had, of course. Hadn't asked for the graveside elements, but she'd been curious to meet this big sprawling enterprise of a family that he was always nattering on about. This seemed as good an occasion as any. "So," she said. "Is this a traditional date among Your People?"

He chuckled. "Yes, this is Yom Shiksa, the ritual bringing of the gentile woman to the family so that she may become the subject of intense, relentless scrutiny and speculation."

She started to laugh, then saw that the tractors were stilled in the fields they were passing, that a train was stopped in its tracks, that the surfers were unable to get their roll-cage dune-buggies to take to the road.

"You all right, babe?" he said, after a couple minutes of this.

"Just wondering about the dead spot," she said. "I wish we knew what had happened."

"Nothing too bad, I'm sure," he said. "It's all self-healing. I'm sure we'll be back online soon enough."


They rolled into the parking lot for his family's shul's section of the giant graveyard a few minutes after 1PM, just over an hour late, along with the majority of the other attendees, all of whom had had to navigate manually.

"Where are your sisters?" Rainer's mother said, even before he'd kissed her cheek.

Rainer screwed his face up in a scowl and dug in his pocket for a yarmulke. "Do I know? Stuck in traffic, Ma. The grid's down everywhere."

Trish watched this bemusedly, in her cool loose cotton apron-trousers and blouse. She scuffed her toe conspicuously and Rainer turned to her, and it was as though he'd forgotten she was there. She felt a second's irritation, then a wave of sympathy as she saw the spasm of anxiety cross his face. He was nervous about her meeting his fam, and nervous about who would arrive when, and nervous about where his sisters were with their enormous families and meek husbands, trapped somewhere on southern California's squillion-mile freeway network.

"Ma," he said. "This is my friend, Trish."

"Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Feinstein," Trish said. The old woman was remarkably well-preserved, her soft skin glowing with heat-flush, her thick hair caught in a tight bun and covered with a little scarf that reminded Trish of Rainer's yarmulke. She wondered if she should be wearing one, too. Mrs. Feinstein's eyes flicked quickly to her shoes, up her legs and boobs, to her face and hair, and then back to her face. She opened her arms and drew Trish into a hug that smelled of good, subtle perfume, though Trish knew so little about scent that she couldn't have said which. "Call me Reba, darling," she said. "It's so good of you to come."

And then she was off, hustling to corral a wayward knot of horseplay-aged cousins, stopping to shake hands with the deceased great-uncle's poker buddies in their old-man pants, golf shirts and knit yarmulkes bobby-pinned to their thinning hair.

Trish took stock. Looked like every other graveyard she'd been in, which wasn't that many. At 35, she'd been to half a dozen family funerals, a couple of college buddies who OD'ed or cracked up their cars, and one favorite poli-sci teacher's service, so she was hardly an expert on boneyards, but something was amiss.

"What's with the pebbles on the headstones?" she whispered to Rainer, who was scanning the road for signs of his sisters.

"Huh? Oh. You drop those on the monument when you visit the grave, as a sign that someone's been there."

"Oh," she said, and began to cast about for a pebble she could put on his great-uncle's headstone once it was unveiled. There were none to be found. The ground had been picked completely clean. Looking at the thousands and thousands of ranged marble headstones, each topped with a cairn of stones -- and not just stones, either, toys and seashells and small sculptures, she saw now -- and she understood why.

"What are you doing?" Rainer asked. He might have been irritated, or just nervous. It was hard to tell when he was Fretting, and he was clearly going coo-coo for coco-puffs.

"Looking for pebbles," she said.

He said :fuck: very quietly. "I meant to bring some. Damnit. I've got twenty relatives buried here and we're going to go past every single tombstone before we get to leave and I don't have a single rock."

"Can you leave toys or other stuff, like on those stones?"

"Yeah," he said. "I suppose. If I had other stuff."

She opened her purse and pulled out the dolphin-dildo cellphone. "You still need this?" she said.

He smiled and his forehead uncreased. "You're a genius," he said.

She set it down on the pavement and brought her heel down on it hard, breaking it into dozens of fragments. "All the pebbles we'll ever need," she said, picking them up and handing them to Rainer.

He put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "I'm awfully fond of you, Counselor," he said, kissing her earlobe. His breath tickled her ear and made her think of the crazy animal new-relationship-energy sex they'd had the night before -- she was still limping, and so was he -- and she shivered.

"You too, steakypaste," she said. "Now, introduce me to all of your relatives."

"Introduce you?" He groaned. "You don't think I remember all of their names, do you?"


Afterward, they formed a long convoy back to the nearest family member's house -- a great aunt? a second cousin? Rainer was vague -- navigating by keeping everyone in sight, snaking along the traffic jam that appeared to have engulfed the entire state, if not the whole coast.

"You made that law, yes? We've all heard about you." This was the sixth time someone had said this to her since they'd arrived and Rainer had made her a plate of blintzes, smoked salmon, fresh bagels, boiled eggs, and baby greens salad with raspberry dressing, then had been spirited away into an endless round of cheek-pinching and intense questioning. She'd been left on her own, and after having a couple of grave conversations with small children about the merits of different toys, she'd been latched upon by one of the Relatives and passed from hand to hand.

"I was involved in it, but I didn't write the law," she said.

"Look at you, so modest, you're blushing!" the Relative said. She reached out to steady a cut-glass vase as it wobbled in the wake of two small boys playing keep-away with a third's yarmulke, and Trish realized that this was probably the hostess.

"This place is just supercalafragilistic," she said, with an economical gesture at the tasteful Danish furnishings, the paper books in a handsome oak bookcase, the pretty garden out one side window and the ocean out the back window.

"Thank you," the great-aunt said. "My Benny loved it here." She misted up. Trish finally added two and two, remembered the BENJAMIN chiseled into the marble headstone, and the blank spot on the other half of the tombstone, realized that this wasn't just the hostess, this was the widow, and felt about for a thing to say.

"It was a beautiful ceremony," she said. She had a couple napkins tucked in the waistband of her pants, and without thinking, she extracted one and folded an angle into it, reaching for the corner of the great-aunt's eye. "Look up," she said, and blotted the tear before it could draw a line of mascara down the widow's cheek.

The old woman smiled a well-preserved smile that reminded Trish of Rainer's mom. "You're a sweet girl," she said. "Me, I'm not so good with names, and so I've forgotten yours."

"I'm Trish," Trish said, bemusedly. Rainer's grammar got yiddishized when he wasn't paying attention, and she adored the contrast between its shtetl credibility and his witty, smooth public banter-persona. It had attuned her to little phrases like, "Me, I'm not so good."

The widow shook her hand. "I'm Dorothy. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Would you like to come out to the garden with me?"


Once they were seated, young male Relatives materialized and set up shade-umbrellas and brought out trays of iced juice.

"They're not after the inheritance, you know," the old woman said with a snort. "Their parents are very well-off. They don't need from money. They just adore me because I've spoiled them rotten since they were babies and I'd take them swimming and to Disneyland."

"You have a beautiful family," Trish said.

"Do you have a big family, too?" The old woman put on a pair of enormous sunglasses and sipped at her pink grapefruit juice.

"Not like this one," she said. There were a couple hundred people in the house, and Rainer had spent the whole car-ride back from the cemetery Fretting about all the relations who hadn't made it.

"Oh, this one! Well, this is a special case. This family accumulates other families. My Benny had a small family, and when he married me, they just joined us. All the high holidays, we ate here, or at my parents' place, God rest them. Your family is in DC?"

"All over."

"But you're from DC, no?"

"Not really. I grew up in Chicago and Seattle."

"But you made that law --"

"I really didn't, honestly! I was clerking for a Supreme Court judge when the case was heard, and I wrote his dissenting opinion, and when we lost, I quit and went to work for a PAC that was agitating for copyright reform to accommodate free expression, and then when Senator Sandollar got voted in and they started the Intellectual Property committee and made her chairman, I joined her staff as a policy wonk. So I worked on it, along with a couple thousand other people, not counting the millions who contributed to the campaign and the people who knocked on doors and so on."

"How old are you, darling?"

"35," she said.

"At 35, I was having babies. You -- listen to you. Listen to what you've accomplished! I'm proud just to listen to you. Rainer is lucky to have you. You two will get married?"

Trish squirmed and felt her face grow hot. Neither of them really believed in marriage. Whenever anyone brought the subject up around Rainer, he'd grimace and say, "Are you kidding? It'd make my mother far too happy -- she'd keel over from joy."

There was some kind of disturbance down the beach, one that had been growing steadily over the past several minutes, and now the Relatives were all turning their attention that way, to a couple of small boys in miniature suits who were ruining the shine on their shoes running in the sand like lunatics.

Something in the way they were running, the distant expressions she couldn't quite make out on their faces. It made her think back to high-school, to working as a beach lifeguard on Lake Michigan in the summers, and before she knew what she was doing, she'd kicked off her shoes and was running for the shore, her legs flashing immodestly through the vents in her apron-trousers.

She was still yards away from the hissing surf when she began to assess the situation. There was the small boy, bobbing in the ocean, where the undertow had spit him up after sucking him under. There was the swimmer, unconscious on the beach, face down. Couldn't tell if his chest was moving, but the small boy was in a suit, not swim-trunks like the swimmer, and that meant that he was part of Rainer's Family, which she had begun (on the eighth date, no less!) to think of as her own, and so she had him as her primary target before she reached the sea.

She didn't bother finicking with the buttons on her top, just grabbed her collar and yanked, leaving her in a bra that revealed less than some bikinis she owned, but did so through a cunning arrangement of lace, mesh, and structural engineering that was probably illegal in Texas. She undid the bows on each hip holding up her pants and stepped out of them, leaving behind a very small pair of white panties whose primary design consideration had been to avoid showing lines through thin trousers, with modest coverage of all her nethers coming in a distant second.

She plunged into the water without hesitation, moving swiftly but surely, taking care to keep her feet dug in against the undertow as she waded out toward the young boy. She was a strong swimmer, but the water was shockingly cold after the heat of the garden and the buzzing afternoon and it sucked at her calves and legs like a jacuzzi intake. Her breath roared in her ears as she rode the swells, and then she was soaked by a succession of breakers, and then she had the boy's little hand.

She hauled him to her, seeing that he was only five or six, and that his pouting lips were alarmingly blue and that his skin was as pale as cream. She scooped the water out of his mouth, hooked her arm around his neck and tilted his head back and began to slosh back toward shore. When she was waist-deep -- immodestly revealed in a bra that she was quite certain had gone completely transparent -- she pinched his nose and blew into his mouth, not quite getting her mouth out of the way before he vomited up a gush of salt-water, blintzes, diet coke, and bile. She spat and wished that she could duck her head and get a mouthful of ocean to rinse with, but she couldn't without dunking the boy, too, so she hauled him up out of the water and handed him to the Relative who was standing with his arms on the shore, his fine leather shoes soaked with cold seawater.

She looked for the swimmer, and saw that he was still face-down in the sand. "You, you and you," she said, pointing at three young cousins whose wide eyes were flicking from her boobs to her crotch -- white underwear, Christ, why white underwear today? -- to the boy on the sand, who was mobbed now with Relatives whose hubbub had reached deafening proportions, "Go to the house, find an old-fashioned phone and call emergency services. Tell them where we are, and that we have two drowning victims, one a child, neither breathing. What are you going to do?"

The tallest of the three managed to make eye-contact long enough to say, "Find a cell-phone, call emergency, tell them where we are, two drownings, not breathing."

"Right," she said. "Come back when you're done and tell me that it's done."

"You, you," she said, picking out two tall uncles who looked like they'd worked out or played sports before they found whatever careers had paid for the nice suits they were wearing, "Carry him here and lay him down on his side."

She looked for Rainer and found his ass sticking out of the scrum around the boy. She snagged him by the belt and dragged him back. "Rainer," she shouted. His forehead was scrunched, but he was clear-eyed and grim and looked like he was listening to her, which she found very pleasing. "You need to get everyone back at least five steps from that kid, and make them quiet down," she said.

"Right," he said, and took off his jacket and handed it to her.

"Hold it yourself," she snapped, "I've got things to do."

"It's to wear," he said.

She surprised herself with a grin. "Thanks,"

The Relatives were murmuring, or crying, or bickering, but Rainer hollered. "LISTEN UP," he said. "All of you get over there by that rock, NOW, or my girlfriend won't be able to save Jory's life. GO!"

And they went, amazingly, crushing back so quickly they looked like a receding tide. The tall uncles deposited the swimmer in the sand between them, and she checked his breathing and saw that it was good.

"Turn him on his side and tell me if he starts to choke," she said, and turned to the little boy, struggling to remember her rescue breathing.