by Simon Kewin
The buttons started to appear on the last day of April, 2022.
A six-year-old boy from Nairobi, Jomi Mbenzi, was perhaps the first to spot one. Dawdling along behind his mother, her swaying yellow-orange dress and the bag of melons and paw-paws she carried, his attention was caught by the shiny button set in the stone of one of the city’s office buildings. He squatted to study it. Strange that it was so low-down, right near the ground. In his experience, switches—and all other interesting aspects of the adult world—were kept high up, out of reach, but here was this button set right where he could get at it. He was sure it hadn’t been there an hour ago when they walked down the same road toward the fruit market. Ground-level was his domain and he noticed everything there, while the confusing, noisy grown-up world went on around him and above him.
There was no writing on or near the button, nothing to suggest what its purpose might be. Buttons often had words on them to say what they did, words he rarely understood. Or else, they had warnings nearby telling you not, under any circumstances, to press—a fact which always struck him as odd. Why have a button you couldn’t press?
A bus roared past on the road, washing a blast of hot, smoky air over Jomi. He paid it no attention. Instead, he did what any child in that situation would do. He reached out with his soft finger and touched the button. The metal ring around it was hot from the rays of the sun, but the button itself—black, smooth and invitingly recessed—was surprisingly cool.
It clicked very faintly when he pressed it, and there was a brief musical note from somewhere, but nothing else happened. No alarms sounded, and no lights flashed. The button sprang back out when he released it, as if he hadn’t pressed it at all. He tried again, and then a third time. Each time, the same tone played.
“Jomi! What are you doing back there? I told you to stay near me.” His mother called from up the street, her bags on the floor and her hands on her hips as she studied him disapprovingly. “What have you found now? Whatever it is, leave it alone and come away at once.”
“It’s nothing,” he called. “A button.”
“A button?” His mother sounded worried, as if buttons and the pressing of them were always bad things. “Don’t you go touching it, now. Come away, it’s time we were home.”
Jomi stood. The button wasn’t so interesting after all. It didn’t do anything. He turned to run to catch up with his mother.
The first social media posting about the buttons came twelve minutes later from Cho Li Han, a postgrad student supplementing her income by cleaning the skyscrapers of Hong Kong. Dangling by ropes three hundred metres in the air, she came across one on the glass exterior of the headquarters of the Cathay Pearl Bank.
She paused to consider it, tilting her head as she tried to make sense of its existence. The exterior of the building was a flawless wall of glass, and their supervisor, the perpetually angry Mrs Fong, had given them clear instructions to remove any stain. An unblemished façade is very important to the bank’s public image. Someone must have put the button there for a reason, but it made little sense. None of the windows opened so high up, meaning only a person climbing on the outside could press the button. But it couldn’t do anything, unless wires had been run through the glass, and why would anyone do that?
The traffic crawling below her was a distant roar punctuated by the blare of horns, the occasional wail of emergency vehicles. Taking care not to press the button, she wobbled its housing to see if it was loose. It was stuck fast to the glass. She might be able to chisel it off with the tool she used to scrape off bird shit, but it went against her nature to deliberately damage something, even if it wasn’t supposed to be there. The gusting wind tugged at the fringe of the hair sticking out from her helmet, tickling her cheek, sending her cradle swinging. The breeze brought with it the smell of open water from the South China Sea, the promise of those distances. And what else did it bring? The news was full of warnings of high radiation counts. Chemical and microbiological agents, too. Corruption washing around the world on the winds.
She decided to leave the button where it was, unpressed. She’d lost vital minutes; if she didn’t catch up, she’d be in trouble with Mrs Fong. Again. The word was, she spied on you from adjacent towers when you were cleaning, and Cho was already on her final warning after the incident with the bucket of soapy, black water that she’d accidentally rained onto a knot of passing bankers far below. But, before she resumed her work, she couldn’t resist grabbing one photo. She took out her phone, tethered to her belt so she didn’t drop the device and bash in someone’s skull, snapped the shot and posted it to her social media accounts, thinking it might get an amused reaction from her friends. Hoping, also, Mrs Fong wouldn’t see it.
She typed the pinyin rapidly with her thumbs. Weird thing to find on the outside of a skyscraper, 300 metres in the air! Should I press it? #buttonsinweirdplaces
It was the first of many, many times the hashtag came to be used.
She didn’t check her phone until she was back on the ground two hours later. It had buzzed repeatedly, but she’d resisted the temptation to look. Unbuckling her harness, she stretched her back and legs, rubbing her shoulders where the straps bit into her. She took out her phone to scroll through her messages. The first few were from close contacts, her sister back in Wuhan, university friends, all responding light-heartedly to her post.
Then there was a reply from her father, characteristically formal and beautifully composed. The sight of it made her smile. He had never got the hang of writing brief messages. His reply gave her his latest thoughts about her troublesome older brother, Li Jing, who had dropped out of university to become a peace campaigner – much to her father’s distress. Li Jing was a bone of contention between Cho and her father, and they’d argued about him, something she hated to do. She’d defended Li Jing, saying he had to live his own life. Her father had countered with talk of duty and sacrifice, the importance of hard work. Once, he would have grown angry at her, but he was mellower now, his rough edges smoothed by his years and the loss of his beloved wife, and in the end he’d relented. There’d come a point in the argument when she’d heard him pause … and back down.
“Ah, Cho, always trying to heal the world’s wounds, just like your mother.”
Was she? It had never occurred to her before. Li Jing was the one for that; she simply didn’t like conflict. Back home in their village, whenever there was an argument between families or generations, it was her mother who would drag the warring sides to sit down together, force them to come to some grudging understanding. Her father would watch from the shadows, embarrassed at his wife’s extroversion. But also, Cho knew from the gaze in his eyes, quietly proud.
“We’re family,” she said. “We have to stick together, even when we don’t agree.”
“Yes, I know.”
There were also replies on her phone from people she didn’t know, contacts of contacts, widening ripples in the water, picking up on her hashtag. Some of the messages were in English and some in languages she didn’t recognize. Some were predictably childish, men saying how much they wanted to press her button. They were gone with a swipe. Someday, she’d go back to her AI filtering algorithm to cut out crap like that.
There were also posts containing pictures of other buttons: similar to hers but found in all manner of unlikely places. There was a shot of one upon the ground of the Great Wall, although, oddly, it wasn’t in the centre of the pathway but twenty, thirty centimetres off to one side. The fact puzzled Cho more than anything. In any case, there clearly couldn’t be any electrical connections there. The man who’d photographed that button had tried to remove it, bashing it with an ancient stone, but it hadn’t budged.
There were buttons set in the tarmac of busy South American city streets, run over by the tyres of thundering lorries. There were buttons discovered inside people’s homes, set into their tables and bedroom walls. They were upon the tops of cars, and one had been photographed embedded into the deck of a cruise-ship in the Caribbean. Another had been spotted high up on the inside of the copper skin of the Statue of Liberty, while yet another was inside the Palace of Westminster in London, triggering a major security scare. An engineer erecting a wind turbine on the North Island of New Zealand had found two, very close together.
While Cho scrolled through the growing list, puzzled by it all, Mrs Fong pulled up in her white pick-up to collect the team’s cleaning equipment. She looked as stern as ever through her gold-rimmed glasses as she jumped down onto the pavement, all suppressed fury. Cho slipped her phone back into her pocket to await the onslaught. She caught the glance of anxiety from Dani, the newest member of the team, and prepared to intercede on the younger girl’s behalf if Mrs Fong picked on her.
Instead, Mrs Fong addressed all of them. “You need to be quicker, quicker. This tower should have been finished yesterday; we have two more to do on the waterfront by the end of the week. I need you all here by 7am, yes? Plenty of others who will do the work, plenty of others. You should be glad you have a job in these troubled times, very troubled times.”
There were the usual mumbles of assent from the group as they dispersed.
Cho nodded to Mrs Fong, then watched the lines as they were reeled up the side of the building to the distant rooftop winches. Everything seemed so much simpler up there: just her and the building and the ropes keeping her alive. She loved the sense of distance and isolation the work gave her, the way she could literally look down on the troubled world. Some of her best ideas came while scraping the grimy patina of pollution off those high windows, idly wondering what was going on inside, invisible, a short distance away.
While Mrs Fong fumed and fussed over her equipment, Cho slung her backpack over her shoulder and set off for home, walking through the thronged streets that she’d gazed down upon so recently. She really needed to spend some development time on the system she was designing for her Doctorate, modelling the 3D topography of social-network interactions, tracking ideas washing about the globe in real time. But, if she was honest with herself, she’d lost her burning interest in her thesis. The technology had moved on so rapidly in two years that what had once been cutting-edge was now almost commonplace, and she’d thought about dropping the project more than once, finding some new area of research.
She needed to think more about the crazy buttons, too. Try as she might to plan her researches, it was the buttons her brain dwelled on. The messages had continued to stream in, from more and more unlikely places, corners of the globe she’d barely heard of. One or two news sites had picked up on the story, her own photograph even appearing on the BBC World Service, attached to a jokey story about the buttons as some sort of elaborate prank. Maybe that was it.
Or maybe, as some thought, it was a clever marketing campaign from a tech start-up, a way of grabbing the world’s attention ahead of some product reveal. She didn’t think that was it, though. Too many of the buttons were in obscure places. There were several in Paris, but none in the obvious places, the Eiffel tower, say, or the Arc de Triomphe. Instead, they were attached to street grids in residential parts of town, or upon the exteriors of drab buildings of no particular cultural interest. In any case, the buttons inside people’s houses couldn’t be part of a guerrilla marketing effort. Perhaps people were pretending to have found buttons. It was the sort of thing they’d do.
One button had been photographed upon a rock in the Patagonian Desert – she’d had to look that up to find out where it even was – and from the geotag attached to the post, it was clear the button’s finder was a long way from civilisation, only able to get a connection via one of the new constellations of low-orbit internet satellites. Which suggested there might be unknown buttons in all manner of obscure corners of the globe, in places no one was currently visiting.
Back home in her flat, Cho made herself a pot of green tea, the little ritual of it something she did to get her mind slotted into the right shape for thought. At some point on her walk home, weaving through the pedestrians, thinking about the patterns of their movements and arrangements, she’d had an idea, and she wanted to consider it in the quiet calm of her room. Step around the thought slowly, as she might some precious work of art in a museum. It thrilled her, intrigued her; she was wary, also, of going too near it in case, up close, it dissipated, turned out to be a disappointment.
She started with a world map and threw together a simple script to plot all the geo-tagged button sightings she could pull from the various social media platforms. Many of the posts had no GPS metadata, and these she siphoned into a separate list for manual consideration later. There might still be some way of getting a rough fix on them, from some detail of their accompanying images or text. She was only after a broad view at the moment.
When it was done, she sat back and sipped at a second cup of tea from the pot. On her screen, dots were appearing every few seconds, each a tagged sighting of one of the impossible buttons. So far as she could tell, they were scattered randomly across the landmasses. Inevitably, there were more in areas of higher population density – clear enough if she applied an urban area overlay – but every now and then, another appeared in an empty stretch of wilderness, confirming her suspicions.
She watched the picture building up for an hour before phoning her PhD Supervisor, Dr Suresh.
“Cho, hi.” Dr Suresh disliked what he termed the stuffiness of social convention, insisting they use first names. Sometimes she thought she would have liked a little more formality between them, but right then it was fine. She needed to him to be cool about what she was about to propose.
“Arjun,” she said, “thanks for picking up.”
“No problems. Hit another wall with the project?”
“Actually, it’s a little more serious than that.”
There was a smile in his voice as he replied, as if he’d been expecting just such a conversation. “Sure, tell me the problem.”
She took the plunge, saying the words before she had chance to reflect upon them. “I’d like to start again, pursue a different thesis.”
“Quite a step, Cho. You have a new idea?”
“I think I do. I might be able to use some of what I’ve been working on, so it won’t be completely lost, but it’s a very different direction.”
“Sounds intriguing. We should get together to discuss it before we make any definite decisions, yes? I’m at the university tomorrow, are you around first thing?”
That was all she needed. “I’ll be there.”
There were still a few hours of light left: she had time to go back to the skyscraper if she hurried. Something she needed to check. Strictly speaking, she had no right to be up there on her own, but she still had her building pass, and the Security Manager was a kindly, grandfatherly figure whom she had chatted to several times while preparing for a descent.
He was dubious when she explained she needed to go back down the building, but she had her story all worked out. “I know, but Mrs Fong was checking up on me, watching through binoculars, and apparently I missed a spot. She said there’ve been complaints from inside, too. You know what she’s like.”
He did; they’d shared jokes about her, but he wasn’t convinced. “It’s not safe to descend on your own. If something went wrong with the ropes…”
“If I don’t go, I’ll lose my job, and I need it. Please, I’ll only be twenty minutes. I can bring the line up myself once I’m done.”
He had grandchildren her age that he loved to indulge, loved to talk about. Maybe that was why he relented. His face broke into a nest of wrinkles as he smiled. “This one time, then, but be careful. I’ll watch the line myself.”
She thought the button might have vanished as she neared the spot, but there it was, tiny in the expanse of smoked glass. This time, she was going to press it. She needed to record exactly what happened: there were reports of faint musical notes coming from the buttons when they were pressed, a fact that had to be significant. She held her phone ready, close to the button, recording everything. The wind was gusting more strongly now as the sky faded and the lights of the city began to shine out around her. The glass of the building was a starfield of their reflections. She shivered, feeling very exposed, the gulfs of air beneath her gaping. She put them out of her mind, steadied herself with her feet against the building and pressed the button.
It clicked in, clicked out, and a quiet musical tone sounded. Nothing else happened so far as she could tell. She listened back to the recording. Not a tone, a more complex sound with harmonics to it, lasting three seconds. She repeated the process, capturing a second press, and a third. The last time, something interesting happened to the sound: it changed its harmonic properties part-way through, rising in tone very slightly but also becoming richer. She pressed a fourth time and the sound returned to its original form.
Satisfied, she let herself down the glass cliff-face to the ground. Once she was free of the harness, the kindly Security Manager hauled the line up for her, no doubt relieved she was safe. She waved her thanks, although he wouldn’t be able to see her in the darkness and distance.
By the following morning, the miraculous rash of buttons was already slipping from the headlines, not because they continued to defy logic or explanation, but because of the deteriorating political situation across the globe. Most trouble-spots were longstanding conflicts, but so many were coming to a head at the same time that some commentators were seeing a pattern, warning of a wildfire of global conflagration. Festering tensions in the Middle East had flared up again. North Korea was testing long-range nuclear-capable warheads, while the USA retaliated with dire threats. The Balkans, Kashmir: old resentments left smouldering were suddenly boiling up.
Was it possible there were connections there? Her researches had suggested something along those lines. Us-and-them ideas reinforced by social networking algorithms that spiralled their popularity, cheap anger easier to foster than slow understanding, a way of grabbing user engagement. The news had been bad for months now, each day a fresh worry. Mrs Fong had been quite correct with her very troubled times. Perhaps that explained Cho’s disillusionment with her researches. Given the way the world was going, did mapping out social media posts really matter? Cataloguing the conflagration did nothing to put the fires out.
The thought about Mrs Fong sent a pang of guilt through Cho. She wasn’t going to make the 7am skyscraper-cleaning rendezvous, and that meant she’d have permanently burned her bridges. It couldn’t be helped. Scouring office blocks suddenly didn’t seem very important.
It occurred to her that she sounded a little like her brother, a reflection that brought a smile to her face as she ran through some Tai chi stretches in front of her window, preparing herself. She’d worked most of the night, pulling in more data, hypothesising, and she knew now what she needed to do.
Dr Suresh poured her more tea from the antique, brass urn he’d brought with him from Northern India. My own little taste of home. He’d been in Shanghai for three years and talked about going back from time to time, but never very seriously so far as she could tell. Recently there’d been trouble in his community, too, violence flaring between Hindu and Muslim, young men who’d grown up together attacking each other. She hadn’t asked him the details.
“You look like you need this,” he said, passing her the cup. “You were partying into the night?” He asked with a grin; he knew it almost certainly wasn’t the case.
He sat in his chair, peering at her over the papers piled across his desk like some model of the Himalaya he was building. “So, tell me your new area of interest.”
“It’s the buttons.”
He nodded. “I thought it might be.”
“What do you make of them?”
He breathed in, breathed out. “In truth, I’m baffled by them. Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to scatter them around the world willy-nilly. Their motivations escape me, frankly.”
“The thing is,” she said, “I don’t think they are random. I think there’s a very definite pattern to them. Somehow, also, they’re connected. I mean, physically connected. They interact with each other.”
“Interesting.” He studied her with his soft, brown eyes, then nodded to the laptop she carried. “Show me.”
She’d worked out a fix for maybe half of the non-geotagged posts she’d pulled in, and all were now plotted on her world-map. “It was these three that showed me what was going on.” She indicated the three that formed a diagonal line across Kenya and Tanzania. “You recognize the arrangement?”
“I don’t believe I do.”
“Let me show you.” She activated the other overlay she’d been using, the one she’d spent half an hour building from charts she’d pulled off the University’s servers. “You see it now?”
Understanding lit up his face. Understanding and wonder. “You’re saying the buttons have been placed to match the arrangements of the stars?”
“I think they have, yes, the stars as they were at the precise moment the buttons started appearing. These three correlate to the Three Stars mansion in the quadrant of the White Tiger. Orion’s belt, in the Western tradition. Using them, I was able to fix the orientation and scale of the rest of the arrangement. It took some work to wrap the star chart data onto the globe, but you can see how closely everything correlates.”
“Some are slightly out. Here and here.”
“The blue dots are buttons I couldn’t fix precisely. The red have reliable GPS data, and almost all them align closely with the star map, down to the centimetre. One or two are out because, I believe, people have invented sightings for some reason of their own.”
“Is it possible any random scatter of dots could be made to fit?”
“Not with so many data points. The correlation has to be significant.”
“There are millions of stars: look far enough out and you can find one at just about any point in the sky.”
He was testing out her ideas, challenging her thinking. Exactly as she’d hoped. “I’ve used only stars visible to the naked eye, around six thousand of them.”
“I see. You obviously only have fixes on the land masses, but most of the Earth’s surface is ocean.”
“Which made the matching difficult, but the pattern is clearly there.”
“You’re suggesting there are thousands of these mysterious buttons upon the sea floor?”
“I don’t know about that, there’s no data. I have a few matches on permanent coastal structures, oil-rigs and wind turbines, and one on a ship that happened to be in the right place at the right time. It seems unlikely there are buttons on the sea-bed, but who knows? The whole thing defies logic.”
“You have, what, two thousand five hundred possible land button locations?”
“And how many actual buttons reported?”
“Nearly twelve hundred now.”
“Isn’t it odd there are gaps?”
“Few are near centres of population. They’re on mountain tops, in deserts, lakes, that sort of thing. My working theory is that there are buttons in the missing places, but no one has found them yet.”
“You haven’t postulated a reason for the buttons’ existence?”
“But you have ideas?”
She did, little more than vague ideas, but she needed much more evidence before she would spell them out. “Not at this point. What do you think of it?”
“Well, Cho, I think it’s clearly worth pursuing. It’s fascinating, intriguing. It could be the basis of a very important and significant piece of work. What do you need to take it further?”
“There are some experiments I want to carry out. And then I’ll need as big a network of contacts as we can muster between us.”
The news the following morning was bad. An explosion in the middle of a market-square in Libya had been variously blamed upon a suicide-bomber and upon over-zealous security forces trying to control crowd trouble. The truth of it made little difference to the eighty who’d died, the hundreds left broken in the aftermath. Tensions had flared on the Mexican/American border after a young man fell to his death attempting to climb the wall to reach the USA. In Ireland, the names of old republican and nationalist groupings had been resurrected, wielded anew by figures wearing balaclavas and holding assault rifles.
Cho switched off the car radio. Sometimes it seemed the world was intent on tearing itself to pieces, and she needed to focus on the plan.
She’d travelled north to the Ma On Shan Country Park. Her predictions suggested there would be a button near the top of one of the remoter peaks. If it was there, it not only helped confirm her theory, it also meant she could experiment without any interruptions – something impossible part-way up a skyscraper.
It took her two hours to hike to the location. The GPS on her phone identified the spot rapidly enough, twenty metres down a steep, scrubby slope. The terrain had looked rough on the maps, and she’d brought ropes to rappel to it. After a couple of minutes of scraping through the brush and grass clinging to the side of the hill she found it, right where it was supposed to be.
Crucially, she also had phone signal. She’d worried there might be none so far from the city. She posted a message in the chat group she’d set up to say she was ready. Three of the academics that Dr Suresh had found from his contacts around the world were already there, standing by their buttons: one in Toronto, one near Lima, the third a few miles outside Edinburgh. It was the middle of the night in the Americas, but from their jokey messages, they all appeared to be in a good mood. Once Suresh had explained what they were attempting, they’d been happy to help. A lot of people are looking for answers, right now, he’d explained.
The fifth member of their team—Dr Mbenzi, a Linguistics Professor in Nairobi—came on line in an explosion of emojis and exclamation marks, and they were ready. Cho had thrown together a rough-and-ready app to tell them when to press and when to release their buttons, its simple display consisting of a light that flashed green for now. The app synched to an internet clock so there was no problem with communications lag, and it also captured the tones produced by the buttons. She’d specified a careful sequence of presses, repeated five times so she could spot patterns and filter out random effects from people clicking elsewhere in the world.
The buttons were still attracting a lot of attention. Social media occasionally trended with a #pressthebuttons hashtag, encouraging everyone to press as frequently as possible in the belief that numbers were somehow being tallied up. Countervailing tags trended in response – #donotpressthebuttons – from those who believed the whole thing was sinister, a conspiracy, some unspecified evil. Some saw pressing the buttons – or not pressing them – as a religious duty, an act of devotion. Others, for reasons she didn’t get, wanted to destroy them. The switches were tough, but acid or hot-enough flame, it turned out, ruined them well enough.
The countdown on the app reached zero, the light turned green, and Cho and her helpers began to press their buttons.
The following morning, she sat upon a bench outside the university, waiting for Dr Suresh to pass by. She breathed in the early-morning warmth of the summer’s day, enjoying the peace of it. The rising sun made the air glow, dissipating some of the weariness that filled her. The bitter coffee she’d bought was helping a little, too. She normally preferred tea but right then needed something stronger.
“Cho, what are you doing here?”
Dr Suresh, hurrying to his office, leather briefcase in his hand, looked bemused to come across her. He looked worn out, frayed around the edges, his usual clean-shaven dapperness gone.
“I came to see you,” she said.
“Has something happened? You look all done-in.”
“I spent all night analysing the data we captured.”
“You wish to discuss your Doctorate now?”
“I think there are more urgent things to talk about. I mean, perhaps afterward there will be time for that, but right now…”
Dr Suresh sat beside her, setting his briefcase down. She wished she’d brought him a coffee, too. He looked like he needed it. “You got some results from our little experiment?”
He studied the laptop screen through his glasses as she ran him through the data. “It’s as I thought,” she said. “There’s a clear cumulative effect to pressing the buttons at the same moment. The more that are on their three-second cycle at the same instant, the stronger the effect.”
“You had only five people; there’s a lot of background noise from random presses.”
She acceded the point with a nod of her head. “I still got results that are statistically significant, you can see from the sequence repeats. Each time we began our coordinated press, both the tone and the volume of the sounds increased by the same amount. The effect is clear and universal, recorded at each of the five locations.”
“And the tone itself?”
“It also changes in predictable ways, with extra harmonic spikes clear in the waveform. Here, and here.”
He let out a long breath. “It’s interesting, but I don’t see where it gets us.”
“I thought that too, at first, but then I studied the sound alterations some more. Both the pitch and harmonic changes suggest that a certain number of buttons need to be pressed simultaneously.”
“That’s a leap, Cho.”
“I know, but I’m worried we may not have the time for a long and considered analysis. I’ll show you why. I started by asking how many buttons would need to be pressed to raise the tone by a full octave. That seemed like an objective measure, and the increments I picked up in the test suggested it was in about the right range.”
“What number did you come up with?”
She’d thought about how best to tell him this, but now she just came out and said it. “One thousand. I mean, exactly one thousand.”
“There must be a margin of error.”
“Then I looked at the harmonics. A thousand extra spikes gives you exactly what you need for a regular pattern spanning the entire audible range of human hearing.”
“This is no proof; the range is variable.”
“It’s evidence suggesting a pattern. Next I looked at the volumes. The increases in the sound levels do not indicate a simple, linear change. The chart’s a little difficult to plot, but a thousand simultaneous presses gets us to one hundred decibels; pretty much exactly.”
“There’s nothing fundamentally objective about one hundred decibels, it’s an arbitrary scale invented by humans.”
“Which suggests whoever did this knows about us. The roundness of all the figures combined is hard to ignore.”
From his frown, he looked troubled by her words. “What do you mean whoever did this? You sound a little like one of these wild internet conspiracy theorists who claim that the buttons have been placed on Earth by a god or a benign alien to test us.”
“Do you have any better explanations?”
“I have no explanations,” he said. “No one does.
“Someone has set all this up,” she said, “and I can’t identify any obvious candidates.”
“But whoever did it – and however they did it – it has to be us, right?” he said. “People we simply haven’t identified yet.”
The ideas had been circling in her head all night and she was tired of thinking them. “Perhaps. I don’t know. We still have no idea how the buttons function, how they draw their power, let alone what they do. What matters is, I believe we have to press one thousand of them at precisely the same moment. That’s the point of the whole thing. And we have to do it now.”
His troubled expression returned as he considered her words. “What exactly do you think is going to happen? The buttons can’t really do anything, you see that?”
Did she? Perhaps. Without really understanding it, she knew they had to try. The best explanation she’d come up with was that it was what her mother would have done. Cho had sat in her room in the shadows of the early-morning, the glow of the screens in her eyes, and wondered who she was: her father’s daughter or her mother’s. Her father would have exercised caution, hung back, let others take the risks and shoulder the responsibilities. She could bury herself in her researches for years and hope the world sorted itself out. Or she could be like her mother, not stand for it, take a lead. Always trying to heal the world’s wounds, just like your mother. She didn’t want to do it, but it was what she needed to do. The realisation had surprised her.
Out loud, she said. “From a research point of view, we need to know what will happen. My theory needs to be tested.”
“Do you discount the wilder claims that pressing the buttons will trigger some unspecified Armageddon?” He spoke gently, like a counsellor gently teasing out some delicate truth.
“I do, of course.”
He nodded, as if she’d provided the correct answer. “You said there were two thousand, five hundred buttons on land. Why the sudden urgency?”
“Some are going to be impossible to reach, under the snow of high mountains or deep in jungles. My latest analysis suggests fifteen hundred should be reachable with a bit of effort. But the thing is, they’re not all reachable. Some states have declared them off-limits, refusing to let citizens near, claiming that they’re weapons or bugging devices planted by other powers. In several countries, we have no idea what’s going on because they habitually keep everything a secret. Then there’s the rate of destruction. It’s accelerating; you must have seen the videos. People are competing to destroy the buttons in creative ways. Relishing doing it. My best guess is, there won’t be a thousand reachable buttons left in about a week.”
“A week. It’s hard to see how we could coordinate such a world-wide effort in that time. I don’t have the contacts. You’ve seen the news; people are distracted right now.”
“Still, I think we have to try.”
“I suppose.” He was sceptical, she could tell. Not as excited as she’d thought he’d be. He stared at his brown leather shoes.
“Has something happened?” she prompted.
He waved his hand in a way that suggested it was nothing. “More trouble back home. A terrible thing happened; someone was set on fire.”
“Not immediately. They died after a few hours from their injuries.”
“Someone you know?”
“No, no. But it’s possible I knew one or two of the attackers. They were normal young men, like me, but they did that. It is … troubling. Is that what we’re all capable of?”
“You could never do such a thing. Most people couldn’t.”
“Are you sure of that?”
He sighed. “I hope so, I do. Sometimes it is hard to see where things are leading.”
He seemed to rally, cast his anxieties aside. “So, these buttons. Let us try what you suggest. I can spread the word through academic circles, see if we can recruit a thousand people.”
“I’ve been thinking we need to go public.”
That puzzled him. “That runs the risk of alerting all the crazies intent on destroying the buttons.”
“I know, but it’s the only way to be sure of getting enough people in time.” She didn’t add that she thought the collective effort of it might be the whole point. It sounded ridiculous even to her.
He shook his head, smiled weakly, as if something in her words amused him. “Very well, let us see what we can do. Let’s set a time and begin recruiting.”
She placed a hand on his arm. Perhaps it would be good for him, take his mind of his troubles. “Thank you,” she said.
Five days later, she walked the streets of Hong Kong again. The anxiety etched on people’s faces was starker than ever. It wasn’t just the demonstrations and the riots, the clashes with the authorities, the barricades and the tear-gas volleys. That morning, the eastern sky barely shading from black to bruise-purple, the sirens had started up across the city, their mournful wailing a warning of imminent attack. In the end it had turned out to be a false alarm, but it had set everyone on edge. People whispered about the government practising for something they knew was coming.
She’d ignored the troubles, thrown everything into her plan with the buttons, but it wasn’t going well. The plain truth was that the numbers were against her. She’d thought people would be excited by the idea of the shared effort, but so many had turned against it, actively seeking out the more inaccessible buttons to destroy. She was going to fall far short of the one thousand mark.
Dr Suresh, it seemed, had been having similar thoughts. She’d intended to cross the harbour and climb The Peak, hoping the height and perspective would give her a fresh angle, but he phoned as she was crossing the choppy waters of Victoria Harbour, the deck of the Star Ferry lurching beneath her feet as she struggled to hold on to the rail and pick up at the same time.
He sounded weary, drained of all his colour and energy, like she was hearing a low bit-rate sampling of his true voice. “Cho, I’ve been looking over your projections.”
“I know they don’t look good.”
“I rang to say, I think you should forget about this concern with pressing a set number of buttons at the same time. It was an interesting idea, but not a practical one. Better to coordinate whatever amount of global co-operation you can and extrapolate from there. The long-term research possibilities are still enormous. That has to be your focus.”
“I think we have to do this now, or we may never be able to.”
“You can’t possibly know that.”
“Maybe I’m deluded, but I don’t want to take the risk.”
The weight of regret in his voice was clear. “Then, I don’t think there’s anything more I can do. I can review your research drafts when they’re ready, but this is beyond me. I’m sorry. I’ve spoken to everyone I can, spread the word. We simply don’t have the numbers. And I … I’m not convinced of the scientific or the social worth of what you’re proposing. Also, the thing is, I need to go back home, to India, for a while.”
“Because of the conflict?”
“I just think I need to be there at the moment, with my family.”
“When will you be back?”
It took him a long time to reply. “Honestly, I don’t know. Between you and me, there’s some talk of shutting down the university for a while, until the current political situation is calmer.”
His words troubled her, but they were also useful. She didn’t need to climb the Peak to think about what she should do. It was suddenly clear. She thanked him and, worrying she might never see him again, told him to be careful. After an awkward pause when he seemed to be struggling for the right words, he told her to do the same and rang off.
She had Li Jing on an encrypted chat app. If she sent a pre-agreed message, he would send her back a temporary phone number he could be contacted on. That was the arrangement. She’d thought the arrangement ridiculous when he’d explained it to her, but now it seemed completely reasonable.
It took his number an hour to come through after she sent the message. She called him straight away.
“Li, it’s your sister.” When he didn’t reply for a moment, she added, “It’s Cho.” They hadn’t spoken for nearly a year. She didn’t know where in the world he was.
Finally, he responded. “Cho. Is it father?”
“No, no. He’s well. Still doubting your life choices, but he’s coming around.”
There was another pause, although whether it was lag on the line or he was distracted, she couldn’t tell.
“Why are you calling?” he asked.
“I need a reason to call my brother?”
“No, no. Of course not. It’s good to hear from you.”
“I wanted to be sure you were okay, but, actually, I do have a reason for calling.”
“Go on.” He sounded amused rather than angry.
“I need your help. Where are you?”
“Best I don’t say.”
“So, somewhere you’re not supposed to be.”
“That depends on your viewpoint; I’m where I need to be. I can’t stay on the call too long, though. Sorry to be abrupt, but what help do you need?”
As quickly as she could, she explained what she’d learned about the buttons, what she wanted to do. There were only twenty-four hours left before the big press, and, by her reckoning, they had only nine hundred of the buttons covered, give or take.
“We can get to those in hard-to-reach places, up mountains or in jungles, but it’s the human geography that’s defeating us. There are too many states that refuse to give people access, or that refuse to even admit they exist. It’s hard enough here in Hong Kong with all the trouble on the streets we’ve been seeing.”
“I can believe that.”
“You must have useful contacts. You must know who to speak to among the underground groups and the political activists.”
“Activists where?” The suspicion in his voice was clear.
“Everywhere. Anywhere that needs them; I can send maps. Look, I don’t want to know who or where your contacts are, but if word could be got to them, somehow, it could make all the difference. We need people in every corner of the world to take part in this.”
He couldn’t quite keep the note of disdain from his voice. “Why, Cho? This can’t do anything. Action on the streets is the only way to change anything. And something like this, even if it were possible, the risks would be too great. The locations of the buttons are well-known. You don’t know the half of what goes on, the extra-judicial killings and the atrocities.”
She resented his tone; she’d seen plenty on her TV screen over the past days. And on the streets around her, brutality she thought was in the past, safely confined to the history books. At the same time, she understood what he meant. In the face of what was going on in the world, her concern for the buttons seemed ridiculous even to her.
“I think we have to try,” she said. “I think the buttons have been put there for a reason. What we have to do is the simplest thing in the world. Press them, all together, all across the world.”
The chuckle in his voice was familiar from their childhood. He’d always indulged her in her mad schemes and games. Her big brother.
“I’ll put the word out,” he said, “try and reach people with restricted access to the net. But I can’t promise anything. I can’t know if the message will even reach them. Or if any of them will be able to respond. Or will want to. Or will be able to.”
“Thank you. Will we see you soon?”
“I don’t know, Cho. I don’t know. I hope so, truly.”
An hour before the agreed time for the mass press, she set off for the skyscraper where she’d found the first button. She’d seen no other mention of that particular location on social media; it would be her contribution to the effort.
She found her way blocked by a confrontation between angry protestors wearing face-masks and a line of armed police. The word was that many of the security forces had been brought in from the mainland to suppress the trouble. She skirted around the pitched battle, tasting the acidic smell of tear gas in the air, hearing the muffled roar of hundreds of voices united in their cries and shouts. The melee swept suddenly toward her, and she had to run, sprint past burned-out cars, the glass of smashed windows crunching underfoot.
The delay threatened to make her late for the agreed moment. It didn’t matter; she was under no illusions: they weren’t going to reach one thousand buttons. Over the last twenty-four hours, the number they had access to had reduced rather than risen, the rate of destruction higher than she’d projected. She’d tried to speak to Dr Suresh again, desperate for some ideas, some help, but he hadn’t picked up. She’d tried Li again, too, but the number he’d provided was now unobtainable. She’d even contacted her father, told him everything.
The fear in his voice about unfolding events had been naked. “Come home, Cho. Just come home. You’ll be safer away from the city. Perhaps when this is over, you can go back.”
She’d been very tempted to comply, too, hide away in the safety of her childhood home, let others shoulder the burdens. And yet, here she was, at the foot of the skyscraper that, just a few short days previously, she’d laboured to clean.
The building was deserted, the friendly Security Manager gone. No one had taken his place. Things were falling apart. She wondered what had happened to Mrs Fong. The word was, she’d fled the city leaving everything behind, as so many others had done.
Mercifully, Cho’s security card for the office tower still worked, the machines oblivious to the world’s troubles. She buckled herself into her harness and descended the glass side of the building alone, grateful for the solitude, the distance. Sooner or later, she’d have to go down to the ground again, but the longer she could put that off, the better. It was good to feel distant from the planet’s troubles. A part of her wished she could stay up there for the rest of her life. A part of her also toyed with the idea of releasing the safety locks, undoing the lines that held her so she could fall free. She could hear the roar of the riots, see the lines of people advancing and retreating down there, but they were distant, small. It was hard to be sure who were the protestors, who were the police trying to stop them.
The button was unharmed, just where she’d left it. Most likely, no one had been to it since her last visit. It was as small and black as simple as ever, almost unimportant-looking. Still no one had been able to adequately explain how it and all the others had appeared. How they functioned, what they were.
Her app, distributed to the whole world for anyone to download, showed her the remaining time. There were suddenly only a few moments left, the seconds of the countdown flicking over to single digits, to 3, 2, 1.
She pressed the button, heard the familiar tone. Rapidly, it rose in volume and pitch while deepening in complexity, becoming richer as more and more buttons were pressed. There was something choral to it, massed voices booming louder and louder, the timbres familiar but also unearthly, making her flesh crawl.
The app, sampling and analysing the sound, gave her a readout of how many buttons had been pressed. The number shot up to four hundred, five hundred, six hundred, and her heart leapt. Maybe they had enough people after all. Then the numbers began to level out.
She pressed again, and again, hoping people across the globe were doing the same. The digits ticked up more slowly, creeping to seven hundred, touching eight hundred – then dropping back again. The clarion sound from the buttons ringing out around her, beautiful and alarming, dipped noticeably in volume.
It wasn’t going to be enough. They’d got close, but they weren’t going to make it. They’d tried. She’d tried. She’d done all she could.
Another sound came to her ears, above the roar of the city, above the chorus of the buttons. A falling and rising wail. The sirens were sounding once more, warning of some imminent danger, some malign cruelty screaming through the air toward them. This time, she knew, it wouldn’t be a false alarm. There was a taste of finality in the air. Of an end being reached.
Desperately, eyes watering from the wind, she pressed the button again and again, jabbing at it. Others, people she had never met and would never know, were doing the same. She wondered what fights, what bloodshed was taking place in the world as people fought to press. She wondered where Li was, right then, whether he was involved.
The numbers on the app continued to react. Nine hundred. Nine hundred and fifty. Eight hundred and eighty. Seven hundred and ninety.
Then came the moment when the numbers spiked. For the briefest moment, they shot up sharply. The coincidence of human actions all across the globe. The sound from the buttons swelled to a crescendo that sent shivers up her spine, the volume of it deafening, seeming to fill the world. In that instant, she couldn’t tell if it was inside her head or real.
One thousand and one.
A huge, heavy silence washed over Cho, washed over Hong Kong. The chorus of sound from the buttons ceased. So, too, the wail of the sirens, their mournful howl cut off. The numbers fell back, but for a brief moment they’d done it, reached the mark.
The roar of the crowds had also stopped. She looked down at distant faces. They were all upturned, staring at something above her. Straightening her legs against the glass, she peered up the sheer side of the building. A bright light was there, like an impossible day-time star. Not just a light: there was a solidity to it, too. Some new object hung within the atmosphere. She could see others in the distance, stationary in the air above sea and land. Filling the skies of Earth, impossible constellations of atmospheric lights were appearing. She understood their locations, the arrangement now very familiar to her. One shone out above each button, beneath each star.
Social media posts began to flood in, reporting the same thing over every country and continent. People stopped what they were doing and gazed to the sky, their faces lit by impossible red and orange and blue lights appearing from nowhere, the glow on billions of upturned faces brightening and brightening.
Simon Kewin is the author of over 100 published short and flash stories some of them in Abyss & Apex. His works have also appeared in Analog, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and many more. He is also the author of a growing number of novels. He lives deep in the English countryside. Find him at simonkewin.co.uk.