BABBLE ON

The conference room was crowded and airless. Even the air outside the building was airless—through the smudged window, Johnny saw the gray Beijing smog, wafting like a wet, cotton curtain. Fog outside, fog inside. Everyone was speaking Chinese, a language he didn’t understand. He felt himself starting to nod off.

Jet lag was always the worst a few days into these trips. It was late afternoon here but the middle of the night in California—he tried, dopily, to do the math, thought of his wife, sleeping warmly in their bed, felt his eyelids droop. Tried to remember why he was here, the mission.

He reached for a cup of tepid, chrysanthemum tea and took a sip, hoping it would revive him. He forced himself to listen to the incomprehensible conversation, and searched for the occasional English word that blurred by, like smooth rocks in a stream. “Platform.” “API.” “Asterisk.” “Johnny”—his name.

He jerked reflexively and saw the others looking at him. He blinked, nonplussed, just this side of shocked and awake now. Sarah, who ran the Beijing office, sat next to him. She had been giving the presentation and said quietly in English, “Johnny—I just telling them about domestic US distribution—”

“And in China?” Johnny asked softly. “Will they do the quid pro quo?”

Sarah wrinkled her nose and shook her head slightly. “I think not so interesting to them. At this point.”

He considered that, and decided not to push it. He’d worry about it later. Doing business here was always a puzzle within a puzzle; often, it was hardly worth the effort. China was—usually—a mirage. Westerners assumed that the place was one, big, juicy market for its goods, but it almost never turned out that way. And when it did, the foreigner’s advantage was short lived, lasting only until the Chinese caught up and provided their own home-grown version of the goods or services.

Business of course is business, everywhere in the world. You take advantage of them, or they take advantage of you. Or you take advantage of them until they take advantage of you. It was rare that any deal was mutually and eternally advantageous. But here, even the normal rules of perfidy weren’t understood. You could not beat China, people said.

Addressing the older men across the table—there were no women—Johnny said, modulating slowly in English, “There are a great many things we can do together.” He spread his arms munificently, like a priest, palms up. “We look forward to finding areas of mutual benefit in which to cooperate.” The Chinese businessmen nodded. Who the hell talked like that? Even he didn’t know what he meant. But he hoped his genial tone would do the trick.

He had moved up through Asterisk, from engineering to sales to biz dev. In his darker moments, he thought of this pilgrim’s progress as a dialectic, a journey from The Truth (the mathematical certainty of code) to its opposite—the squishy, persiflage of The Deal. He’d spent nearly two decades at the company, which was an unheard of amount of time to work at one place in Silicon Valley. But that was Johnny Manhattan: He enjoyed an undisrupted career in a disruptive industry. He was a constant in a sea of change.

Sarah said something in Chinese to the Beijing men, who conferred, and one of them chuckled and then said something back to Sarah. She replied and everyone around the table nodded some more. Then to him, she said in English, “We get you to the airport?”

She knew him well enough to know he was a Type A traveller. He had an irrational fear of being late; his bad dreams involved poorly laid out airports and missed connections. He’d been here for only three days, but from the moment he landed he was fixated on returning.

And yet, his business wasn’t done. If he left at this point, he’d feel like a failure. He tried again: “I am always so impressed when I visit your company,” he said. “You know, for a long time, all the great ideas in technology came from the U.S. But now…” He let his words hang there, certain that most of the Beijingers were getting the gist of it. “Now, we look to you for innovation. Thank you for letting me visit…”

Nods and smiles all around, and Johnny figured he’d blown it. But as the meeting was breaking up, the product lead said something to Sarah, animating a rapid back and forth between them. Johnny thought he heard the word “lab.” “He want to know if first you want to see a special… project?” It was unclear to him whether the lilt at the end of that sentence referred to the correctness of the word “project” or was itself the question mark.

“Sure,” said Johnny, calm as a placid sea. “I’d love to see it.”

A younger man, with crooked teeth and a small rash on his cheek, stood up and shambled across the conference room. Stiffly, he stuck his hand out and introduced himself to Sarah and Johnny. “This is Mr. Gao,” said Sarah.

Johnny shook his hand and bowed with great dignity. Gao bowed back. Johnny always bowed in Asia as if it were some sort of pan-Asian thing, though he knew it was considered bullshit in China. No one here, of course, ever gave any indication that they thought the bowing was silly. The Japanese bowed. So did the Koreans. It was the same way with business cards, which were ubiquitous across Asia, and the reverential, two-handed way one was supposed to accept one’s business card. Smile gravely and receive, as if from the hand of God, the card of your new pigeon.

“Please,” said Gao, gesturing at the exit and indicating that Johnny and Sarah should be first out the door. A half dozen others from the electronics company brought up the rear. They marched down a short hall that debauched into a huge room where more than 100 people sat silently in front of long desks with computers. A few of them looked up, discreetly, at the entourage and especially at the foreigner passing through. The group went to the elevator bank and squeezed into a narrow elevator, so tightly that they pressed up against each other. They got off at a higher floor, and wended through a maze of scuffed hallways blue-lit by florescent lights. At last, at the end of the corridor and across from a harshly lit room whose ammonia-smell identified it as a bathroom, Gao indicated that they’d arrived at their destination.

The lab was about 20 feet by 20, with a low ceiling. It was painted black and seemed to be a sound studio, with what Johnny identified as acoustic dampers and felt tiles to mitigate noise. A metal table of the sort one might find in a morgue occupied the center of the room and at Gao’s prompting—“Please! Please!”—Johnny and the others found places to stand around it.

A dozen, small, black cubes were randomly distributed across the table. Each was the size of a cigarette pack and looked like an audio speaker, with a tight, mesh grill on its face and a black button on its top. The devices were identical as far as he could tell—each had what appeared to be a volume knob and a power switch, nothing more.

Gao said something and Sarah translated for Johnny: “He says you should take one and turn it on.” she handed him a cube and Johnny flipped the switch. Sarah took one herself and put it in front of her and powered it on, as did Gao. “Now, you need to set up your translator—”

Johnny looked at her, puzzled. “Say to your box, ‘English,’ ” she said, demonstrating. Sarah leaned down so that her lips were almost touching the black cube in front of Johnny, and depressed a small black button on the top of the thing. Then she said, “English.” A green LED lit for about 3 seconds, and went dark. In Chinese, she said, Pǔtōnghuà—which Johnny knew was Mandarin for Mandarin— to her cube, and it lit up, green.

Satisfied, Gao spoke into his own cube in mellifluous Mandarin. Johnny noticed that while he talked, a tiny blue LED fluttered on the man’s device.

A voice came out of Johnny’s box. “Welcome to our office, Johnny,” it said in perfectly inflected, conversational English. “We hope you’re enjoying your visit to Beijing. This is our latest project. If you’d like to talk to me—in English—go right ahead! Talk as fast as you want and use any English words you’d like. Hopefully, this thing will work, though we’re still doing a bit of debugging...”

Johnny smiled. It was the damndest thing. “So the rumors are true! This is utterly, totally amazing,” he said as he watched his box’s blue LED flutter. “The naturalness of the spoken English itself is better than anything I’ve ever heard come out of a computer.” He giggled. “I mean, if this were one end of a conversation on a phone, I wouldn’t even know it was mediated by a little, black box.”

“Exactly. That’s what we’re hoping for,” said Gao. “It’s pretty cool, isn’t it? One of our young engineers, whom we recruited from Beijing University, developed this in his spare time.” The words flowed smoothly from Johnny’s box. “Have you noticed that the voice that comes out of your cube actually matches mine? Same sonic fingerprint. And while it might be hard for you to hear it, the voice that comes out of my cube when you talk—in perfect, idiomatic Mandarin!—is yours.”

“This thing is going to be huge,” Johnny said. “I imagine it can handle texts and written communication, too?”

“Oh yes,” said Gao. “No problems on that front. That was pretty well solved before we even got started. We think the real opportunity here is actually live, multi-synchronous, flawless audio translation. We want to put Babel—that’s what we’re calling it—onto a chip and put the chip into a mobile phone. Can you imagine?”

“Multi-synchronous?” Johnny repeated.

“Yeah,” said Gao. “Sarah can talk, I can talk, you can talk—all at the same time, pretty much. It can handle an organic, free-wheeling conversation of up to 50 people at a time before noticeable lag sets in. Babel can even deal with up to five people speaking simultaneously before it freaks out. We’re working on that.”

“If more than five people are talking at a time, you’ve probably got bigger problems,” Johnny said.

“Clearly, you’ve never worked in our office,” said Gao. Everyone laughed. He continued: “We’ve got a bunch of products in the pipeline. We can, of course, produce small task-specific devices like the ones we’re using, or license the Babel technology to third-parties who supply gear for conference rooms and so on. But yeah, we’re estimating a multi-billion-dollar market.”

“At least!” Johnny said. “This thing is going to be huge. And beyond the market possibilities, it’ll be good for humanity, too. Things will no longer be ‘lost in translation.’ People from different cultures will still, of course, disagree—but not because they accidentally misunderstand each other’s words. What an amazing thing this is!”

Johnny picked up his cube and slowly rotated it, but as far as he could see, it was just a generic-looking piece of consumer electronics. A thought took root, and then another and for a second, Johnny wondered if the magic box might also do mind reading. Then he put the cube back on the metal table. “Amazing,” he said again.

“Yes, glad you agree,” said Gao.

“It’s so incredible!” Sarah said, and Johnny marveled at how the device removed any trace of accent from her already good English. It was almost like Auto-Tune for accents, bringing everyone into a perfect linguistic pitch. “I can’t believe I wasted so many years in English class,” she added.

Then she said to him, “Johnny, we probably ought to get you in a cab to the airport pretty soon. Beijing traffic—”

“Right,” he said, “And God knows what fresh hell awaits me at the airport.”

Sarah said to the others: “Johnny always complains about how Chinese people don’t understand what he calls ‘line etiquette’—”

“It’s true,” Johnny said. “Everyone just rushes to the front of the line. It’s so chaotic. I’m amazed you guys get anywhere. It’s so stressful!” There were knowing chuckles around the table, and one by one, everyone reached to long-press the power button on their black boxes, switching them off.

At Gao’s prompting, Johnny and Sarah headed out into the foyer by the elevators. But as they awaited the rest of their entourage, something occurred to Johnny and he said to Gao, “Sorry—may I use the bathroom?” Sarah translated and Gao said, “Ah,” and waved him back down the hall, to the bathroom.

Some 10 hours later, in a United Airlines jumbo jet 30,000 feet above the endless necklace of the Aleutian Islands, Johnny Manhattan finished the last of his Riesling and wondered why his Ambien hadn’t yet kicked in. On the big monitor in front of him, he watched as men in sapphire turbans and women in lush saris frenetically danced at a wedding in the latest Bollywood blockbuster—the third leg of the stool that usually carried him off to sleep on these trans-Pacific flights.

He was too keyed up. He had been certain that the Chinese border officials at the airport would stop him and find the black box he’d stolen during his last-minute trip to the bathroom. Increasingly paranoid as the minutes had ticked by in the airport, he had imagined that the folks at the Chinese electronics company, discovering his deception, had notified the authorities. At each of the airport’s three emigration checkpoints, he’d braced himself for the inevitable search, for being taken into custody and then—what? Execution? The Chinese were so hard ass about crime.

Even after he’d boarded his flight and it languished at the gate, the anxiety was overwhelming. He had thought he would weep when the captain’s voice came over the PA and said, “Sorry folks, but apparently the Chinese government is holding us at the gate for some kind of paperwork snafu. Needless to say, we’ve got our people working on it in Washington, and we’ll let you know when we get clearance.”

His heart had thumped crazily for the better part of 15 minutes and he stared out the window, waiting for a phalanx of helmeted military police to board the plane and take him away. But it never happened. In fact, the captain never even announced the all clear—the airplane had simply fired up its engines, taxied down the runway, and taken off.

Now, Johnny reached into his briefcase and felt around until he touched the metal edges of the little, black box, and fished the Babel device out of the bag. He turned it over and over again, it in his hand. It was definitely a prototype; the edges were rough and sharp and the box looked unfinished, like a science-fair experiment. And yet, he thought, it contained such magic—and enormous riches. He fell asleep with the treasure in his hands.

His car service met him at SFO and took him to Asterisk’s offices in Palo Alto. It was lunchtime and he found Culverhouse seated alone, eating a sandwich in the cafeteria. A square-jawed man who favored cargo shorts year round and always seemed to be grinning at a joke he’d just heard, Culverhouse headed up hardware engineering. Even among the geniuses at Asterisk, he was crushingly intelligent.

He smiled up at Johnny. “Bring me any fortune cookies?”

“Just this,” said Johnny, tossing him the Babel box.

Culverhouse was startled, but managed to grab it. “Ah, the legendary magic box,” he said. Big smile. He placed it on the table and dug an enormous keychain out of his pocket. It had a small utility tool on the ring, which he pried open, finding a small screwdriver. “Let’s see what we’ve got under the hood.”

Johnny pulled up a chair and watched the engineer remove the four screws that held the lid onto the box. Culverhouse placed the screws on the table, then tapped the side of the box, until it started to come undone. Then, he removed the top, put it on the table and peered into the box.

He whistled softly.

“See anything interesting?” Johnny asked.

“Oh, yeah,” said Culverhouse, slowly spinning the box as he gazed inside it.

“Think you can reverse engineer it?” Johnny asked. “It’s just a beta, but it worked pretty well for me. I got the one that I used.”

“Definitely,” said Culverhouse. “No question. Easy!” He looked up from the box and met Johnny’s eyes.

“What?”

“Check it out yourself,” said Culverhouse, pushing the black box at him. “I bet even you could reverse engineer it.”

Perplexed, Johnny gazed into the box. There was no circuit board. In fact, there were no electronics of any kind. The Babel box was completely empty.

-end-

The rest of the short stories in this collection: Silicon Valley Stories http://flip.it/suo-0