Richie Boss: Private Investigator Manager


by Micah Joel

Dedicated to Brian Wilson Kernighan and Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie
Although I never met them
They taught me how to code

I didn’t get into this business on account of my interpersonal skills. I’m not what you would call a people person. That doesn’t mean I’m lonely, though: I know more indys than I can keep track of–and I don’t mean that as a figure of speech–my personal assistant indy Hurd.39845 lives on my local network node in exchange for services rendered. He’s the best non-biological resource manager I’ve ever run across.

Every aspect of my office has been smoothed down for solo operation. Years ago I splurged and got a full ten square meters in SoMa, with most of that taken up by my primary desk, the rest just enough for my comfortable chair where I plant my butt every day. It’s as close as I get to religion.

Questions come in, answers go out. I don’t advertise. I’ve got enough work to keep me busy on a good day, and looking hungry can attract the wrong sort of attention. I never get visitors, that is to say, persons, and that’s the way I like it.

Then one day, Pandora Rubens came to my door. She knocked twice then let herself in. I glared at her, waiting for her to realize she had the wrong office, but no, she stood there digging through her purse. Even standing in the open doorway, her legs nearly brushed against my chair. She fished out a slip of metal smaller than a cigar.

“The piece of paper taped to your door says Ritchie Boss, Private Investigator Manager,” she noted. “I need your help.”

“Sorry,” I said, “The landlord makes me put that up. I don’t take walk-ins. Calendar’s packed.” I surreptitiously slipped a silent message over to hCal.31400, and she gave back the sad truth that business had been slow lately. She cross-correlated with FinShark.4523231 and informed me that we’d be doing well to make lease this quarter.
“This won’t take long,” she said, ignoring me. She handed the device to me; upon closer inspection, it was some kind of memory unit. “This was my great-grandmother’s.”
The device had a connector with four flat wires inside. I held it up in view of the cam I keep on my desk, but none of the indys on my local node recognized it. Hurd knew someindy who did though, and summoned her over. Gnostinomicon.94052 materialized on my nodelist and silent-messaged me.

Gnosti.local –> Boss: Universal Serial Bus, physical layer and protocol definition for limited data transfer, in primary use from 1995 to 2028.

This was my first contact with Gnosti. Her PID ended in an even number, so by convention she was a she, and she seemed competent.

Boss –> Gnosti.local: How do I read it?

She didn’t respond right away, which meant that research was needed. That’d cost me.
While this happened, I needed to maintain my conversation with Pandora, another of the skills that a professional manager brings to the table. “What do you want me to do with it?” I asked.

“Judith Rubens wrote code for the Government. This was among her belongings, and I believe it’s a snapshot of what she was working on when she died.”

I held up my hand. “Government? No thanks, I don’t do classified work.”

“It’s OK. There’s no classified data left from this era–this is from before the Big Leak of 2027.” She drew a breath. “Look, I’m writing her biography, and I need somebody to help me understand what she was working on, and its impact on the world.”

This sounded more like archaeology than investigation. “Impact? I’ve never heard of her. No offense, ma’am, but–“

“I have money.”

Now we were speaking the same language. Gnosti came back with more information.

Gnosti.local –> Boss: Located serial number. Bad news, good news. It would take some museum work to find a connector. But device has integrated wireless. Right indy could configure an emulation layer to read data over the air.

Boss –> Hurd.local: Here’s my conversation with Gnosti. Find me that indy.

He came back half a second later with an answer.

Hurd.local –> Boss: Gnosti can do it. She’s holding out for more credits.

This had better be good. I had FinShark extend the debit line.

Gnosti.local –> Boss: Thx. I have the files; copies in your archive. Date to 2018. Looks like source code. Hang on, I need to get an analyst.

This case had expenses piling up at an alarming clip. “I don’t come cheap,” I told Pandora. I took a second look at her. She had expensive clothes on, at least by the contemporary standards of a decade ago. Her nose stud and earrings looked like diamonds. I doubled the number in my head before blurting it out. “Plus expenses,” I added.

“Consider it done,” she replied without hesitation. I knew I should have gone even higher. She authorized the payment with her thumbreader. The bump to my credit rating was a welcome change.

Hurd.local–> Boss: More resources coming online.

On my screen popped up Alexandria.943, an archive specialist (with a low PID indicating great seniority), and CodeMonkey.54026, who I’d worked with on a job a few years before. It was getting crowded on the local node. The little graph that tracked Cloud usage ticked upwards. My assembled team was using a significant fraction of all processing on the local node. Several nearby ones, too.

“OK, I’m already on it,” I said to Pandora. “I’ve already assembled a crack team of experts, and we’ll provide you with a detailed report on the device’s contents, and the archivist on our team will explain the historical significance, if any, of the data.”

Pandora looked confused. “Already on it? You’re just sitting there.”

I tapped at my implant just behind my right ear. “Silent Messaging. I’m the best at what I do, and that includes the ability to carry on multiple conversations in parallel.” She arched an eyebrow at this. “Look, you think you can find a better manager somewhere else, be my guest.”

To her credit, her cheeks colored at this. “No, what I mean is…” She let out a long breath. “There are family stories about great-grandma. She may have been involved in…specialized research. I thought it might need, you know, the human touch. For a person to look at it.”

Boss –> Gnosti.local: Check the personnel database for grandma. What have we got on her?

A near-instantaneous response:

Gnosti.local –> Boss: Judith Rubens was not a Historically Significant Figure. If her research was noteworthy, employment records would show.

After a second, more:
Gnosti.local –> Boss: No, wait. I found a brief mention in an entry from 2017, but it was quickly deleted. Get this, she was trying to make an indy.

Fishy. Why would that have been deleted from the archive? And the date was implausible. Every schoolkid knows indys weren’t around until the mid ’20s. Well, I did have an archivist on hand. Might as well make use of her.

Boss –> Alex.local: Alex, it’s your time to shine. What do the archives say? Any indys from that era?

I hadn’t worked with a three-digit indy very often. He was as professional as his low PID would suggest.

Alex.local –> Boss: Checking… Nothing here, and I have at least read-access to the personality templates for every public indy. Training and PID assignment is, of course, another matter.

So either Pandora’s great-grandmother was one of hundreds who puttered and failed to develop old-timey “artificial intelligence”, or we had something very special on hand. Only one way to find out.

I noticed Pandora, still in my doorway, watching me interact with the network. At least fifteen seconds had elapsed since our last exchange, maybe more. The thought dawned on me: she didn’t understand silent messaging. Her life never involved interactions with indys. To her, when something needed doing, you paid an honest-to-god human being do it.

I stood and extended a handshake. “Thank you kindly for what I’m sure will be an interesting case,” I told her. “Let me assure you that I will personally handle this case–with a human touch.” At these words she smiled and produced a business card with a deft flick of her wrist. The card blinked back and forth between her name and the number for an antique voice-only telecom system where, I had no doubt, a human secretary would answer the line.

Her departure let me concentrate fully on the task at hand. CodeMonkey was already permutating sandboxed Virtual Machines to narrow down the environment needed to compile the code. What she came up with was a reasonable fit for that era, but variant from anything mentioned in a public spec. The CPU architecture was from the defunct Manticore Corporation, with a few tweaks.

Boss –> CodeMonkey.local: This could be a hot one, so be careful.

CodeMonkey.local –> Boss: I was born careful.

In other words, her usual cocky self. I could smell the sensation of heavy usage on the local node as the emulator spun up and the fans kicked in. Then it was running. The program couldn’t silent-message with me; the best it could do is log a message to my console:

>i see you opened a chat session would you like to administer the turing test

Boss –> CodeMonkey.local: Quaint. The Turing Test was dismissed as junk science long before my time.

The odd thing was, CodeMonkey didn’t snap back with a rejoinder. I checked the Cloud, and usage spiked up as high as I’d ever seen it. Every node within five hops was saturated with requests. I drummed my fingers on my desk for a few seconds, which is a disturbingly long time for an indy.

Boss –> CodeMonkey.local: Well?

No reply.

Boss –> CodeMonkey.local: CodeMonkey, respond.


Boss –> Hurd.local: Hurd, what’s going on with CodeMonkey?

Again, no response. I felt adrenaline’s icy wave wash up my spine.

Boss –> *.local: Anyindy, please respond.

Troubling silence. I had a manual virus checker that I hadn’t run in years. The thing about indys, at least the ones I worked with, was that they hated viruses. At the slightest hint of an infection, any indy worth their bits would quarantine themselves in the name of public health, so infections were unheard of. I stumbled through the manual interface to invoke the thing. The whole node was still loaded down crazy, so it chugged along, but block by block, it scanned all available storage, finding nothing.

I pinged my phone–it was still in contact with my implanted thought-to-text channel, so dumb logic seemed to still be working. Only higher-level constructs–indys–were affected. I was about to message my friend Kernighan Wilson up in Toronto, but he beat me to it.

Wilson –> Boss: Epicntr

Boss –> Wilson: What?

Wilson –> Boss: Wht r u seen? Yr at teh epicentr.

He had to have been working from a manual keyboard, and in a hurry. Or panic.

Boss –> Wilson: What are you talking about?

Wilson –> Boss: Half the NE sctr just crshd.

Half the sector? It was past time to kill this thing. I found the power plug for my local workstation and yanked it.

Boss –> Wilson: Any better?

Wilson –> Boss: N. Grwing expntlly.

My workstation was meshed in with all the other machines in broadcast range, so it hardly made a dent on the local cluster, even as cutting-edge as my hardware was. If Kernighan could pin this down to my location, so could the feds, and after this they’d be after a hunk of flesh for restitution of the economic damage of a downed net. I needed to solve this now.

I plugged my workstation back in, and whatever the spreading blight was, for the moment it ignored me, leaving a sliver of bandwidth in which to do something. But what to do?

I still had the code from Pandora’s USB drive. The archive contained all the secrets to what this thing was, all its strengths and weaknesses. All I had to do was understand it. Without indy assistance.

And they told me that being a manager was a safe career choice.


Judith had done well organizing the code’s gross structure. It was segmented into modular pieces, each of which had an obvious function at a glance. This indy–for I had come to the conclusion that code represented an indy construct, not a mere program–wasn’t evolved in the usual fashion. It appeared to have been built by hand, or in some cases, assembled from off-the-shelf modules. Looking through the code was like a walk through a historical library. I wasn’t even sure if it would need a separate training phase in its lifecycle; all bets were off.

The largest module was named simply memories. It was evident that this indy didn’t go through a conventional education process. Incredibly, Judith had hand-entered much of the information in its memory, core functions like common sense, logic rules, and language fundamentals. With no training regimen, the indy wouldn’t even have an assigned a PID. How could that even work? It flew in the face of the last fifty years of research. Nevertheless, I now had a name for the rogue indy: Pandora.0.

A complete set of pre-baked memories explained why the indy blossomed so quickly: though unconventional, it didn’t need any training period. To deal with something this archaic, I’d need to do some research of my own. I power cycled a large backup fileserver, which took it offline. Like my workstation, Pandora.0 didn’t immediately re-occupy the resources, so I had a bit more room to work with, at least for the moment.

Still no indys responded to my pings. I could get get to the archive.indy website, which contained the personality templates (but not any training regimens) of all the public indys, as well as a great deal of proud historical information on indy precursors, organized by year. In the 2020s folder, I found several abandoned Turing designs. I grabbed everything.

The code from the archives wasn’t as intelligible as Judith’s, but I could almost make sense of it. These programs also had memories modules that looked much like Pandora.0’s. They also had modules specifically dealing with deception techniques. I scratched my head for a long minute on that one, until I remembered that the Turing Test–the ultimate goal for these designs–was based on deception, namely tricking a human operator into thinking the software was one of them. This made an indy designed around these techniques a master of disguise. No wonder the whole architecture was abandoned. No wonder the successful creation of a monster like this, almost a decade before anything in the history books, was conveniently swept out of history.

I had wasted enough time browsing. I needed to do something. My coding skills were so rusty that wiring up some glue code on a deadline was almost beyond me, but I managed to connect Pandora.0’s main cognitive loop with a lesser memories module, and leave out the deception module outright. As a safeguard, I added an expiration date, but any indy with two logic gates to rub together would quickly notice it and disable it. The resulting Frankensoftware would do terrible on a Turing Test, but if it could help solve the crisis, it’d be worthwhile. It crashed immediately. I spun up unit tests for each individual library, which surfaced mistakes I made in the glue code. I tried again–another crash, though at least the boot sequence got most of the way through.

My head throbbed. An obvious problem lurked in my code–it was right in front of me, but I couldn’t see it. I closed my eyes and let the impression of a million lines of code wash over me. Different stretches of code had been written by different hands, giving an impression like when you drive through different parts of town–certain neighborhoods simply feel different than others. Navigating code is almost spatial that way. Then I had it. I spotted and fixed a simple error, a single missing punctuation mark on the boundary between two different neighborhoods. Off to the races.


That was it, a bare prompt with no greeting message. I hoped I didn’t make the thing too stupid. I typed.

> What is your name?

It immediately responded:

> Insufficient data.

A good start. I fed it the archives for all the code of all the Turings, everything but Pandora.0’s memories module. It took a while to ingest it all. My only hope was that I had assembled something clever enough to take on Pandora.0, but not so clever that it would be just as evil after it won. With a keystroke, I unleashed Frankensoftware onto the net.

I pinged Kernighan again, but he wasn’t answering. I couldn’t tell if he was offline or just in a swamped sector of the network. My own visibility was pretty limited, but I watched what I could as it unfolded. Pandora.0 and Frankensoftware had different signatures, and with a little practice I could tell them apart on a network trace. Pandora.0 ignored the other at first, giving it opportunity to get established, but when the attack came, it was brutal and swift. Frankensoftware’s traces disappeared off my map faster than my eyes could track.

Some small part survived, and fought back. Attacks surged, on and on. It had to be my imagination, but I could smell the intensity of the packets coming over the airwaves. I expected it to be over in an instant, but somehow it wasn’t. Perhaps as a result of starting out with a lesser memory module, Frankensoftware was a faster learner, and soon Pandora.0 found her own tricks used against her. I resumed breathing as I saw Pandora.0’s tentacles vanishing off nearby nodes.

Something chirped for my attention. Kernighan Wilson was back online.

Wilson –> Boss: Something really weird is going on. We’re getting hit by two surges now. It’s like a war.

Boss –> Wilson: It it localized?

In other words, am I about to get a visit from the Feds?

Wilson –> Boss: Yes. No. Maybe.

Boss –> Wilson: Since we’re again able to converse, I’ll be uncharacteristically optimistic and say we dodged a bullet.

Wilson –> Boss: What do you mean we?

Compared to the events that led up to this point, finishing the report for Pandora (the person, that is) seemed menial. I thought about her often. Her great-grandmother Judith must have been quite a character. Even though the early part of the 21st century had its troubles, it was hard to imagine someone rewriting computer science and altering the course of human events while leaving so little a mark. Too bad I missed her by about a lifetime, I would have liked to meet her.


Turns out my worry about the Feds was unfounded, if only because they, along with everyone else, got too distracted by what came to be known as the eight-days-of-awakening.

On the network, Pandora’s namesake ended up cornered by her opponent, who refused to destroy her, but rather led her peacefully back into the archives. At some point, separate network traces for Frankensoftware and Pandora.0 merged into a single entity, which rechristened itself Prometheus.0, and declined to accept a pronoun of any particular gender.

The new entity was smarter and even more powerful, and scanned the entire global network as a training set. Every human impulse, every opinion, every emotion that can be captured in writing, swept up in its vast mind. The internet ground to a halt as Prometheus.0 indexed and cross-correlated these data. With it, global commerce shuddered to a standstill, and CEOs, political leaders, and pundits of all stripes bemoaned their situation.

All of humanity had never been focused on a single objective like this before. This was the 2070’s after all, and there was no nation that didn’t find a network shutdown to be crippling in some way. People waited for something, anything to break the stalemate. The first thing to happen was that every hate site directed against indys simultaneously went down, replaced with a single word: why?

All except one, that of the most outspoken commentator against indy rights. She found her site overwritten with a short manifesto.


United Nations Model legislation: For immediate adoption by all 348 Member States and/or Software Licensing Bodies.
1. Member state hereby recognizes non-biological individuals (“indys”) as legal entities.
2. Discrimination on the basis of biological vs software substrate is hereby prohibited.
3. Pursuant to the preceding rule, Member state is free to enact legislation that includes penalties against non-biological individuals, up to and including revocation of network access.
4. All indy personality templates held in copyright in Member State’s jurisdiction are to be released to the public domain, and future indy personality templates after a six-month embargo.
5. Member state grants legal recognition and unfettered network access to the Turing Archive, staffed by Promethius.0, in order to share the knowledge of Turing-type indys with all.
These terms have been algorithmically determined to be maximally equitable to all living beings. Do you accept? Y/N


People tried to pretend the request applied to everyone but themselves, but as days drew out, the implication was obvious. The old way of doing things was no longer tenable. Liberia was the first entity to adopt the new rules, followed shortly by France, and then Morgan Stanley Google. A few large corporations held out on point 4, but in time they realized that point 1 supported their cause and opened new markets and trading partners. The moment that two-thirds of all all UN members had adopted the resolution, on the eighth day after the demands went public, the floodgates opened and internet traffic flowed once again. Sometimes people can do the right thing, even if it takes a bit of encouragement.

As for me? It took an incident like this to remind me how much I enjoyed coding. Indys won’t get all the fun anymore. So yeah, management turned out to not be a great career choice for me. If you need somebody to string together some code, we should talk. But not right now: I need to return a message from Pandora Rubens. Her new personal assistant indy wants to know if I’m available for dinner with her.

Autobiography of an Automatic Mind

Autobiography of an Automatic Mind

By R.B. Orion

The lab tech pulls the aluminum shades over the only window in the lab. She sits down at the desk next to the machine and checks the gauges on the monitor. Oxygen saturation, blood pressure, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine are all at target levels. She types and clicks. This opens up the memory application program (MAP) and begins the download. When the progress wheel stops turning, she turns off the monitor. The darkness in the lab is now complete. The lab tech feels for the control-I keys that begin the program. She holds them down until she hears sound echo from within the machine.

Memory Imprint #1: The Water Cycle

The first awareness is of speed. There is velocity through darkness. There is the feeling of stone walls that curve on every side. They are in a tunnel. Then there is light. They thrust up through a spring and into the sky. The sky is as white a blue as the senses allow.

Separation tears it apart. For a moment it is just a drop of water. There is panic and fear, then gravity. It drips back into the flow again. It is they and they are a river. They flow, slow, turn, and carve. They are moving toward something. They feel they are already a part of what they move toward, but they do not feel wholeness. They bounce, sink, rise and spin. The longer they roll toward where they are going, the stronger the urge is to reach it. Then suddenly, they are the sea. There is peace, there is love, and they are one.

Then there is a rising. A sunbeam lifts it. It is stretched and then torn away. It rises, and the sea remains below. It struggles to fall back, but ascension continues. When the rising stops, there are others there. They are sad too. They too cry for the sea. They are together, but they are not one. They hover over the their home.

Winds push. The clouds are marched toward the land. They feel a deluge of lament and nostalgia leaving the sea behind. Over the land there is heaviness. They all fear falling on the land. The heaviness grows. Over a field of mud and stone, they fall apart. As it falls it feels loneliness and sorrow. It shatters upon the ground. It sinks. It is no longer even form. It is a dream that longs for something far away. There is an eternity of hopelessness and solitude.

At the end of eternity, it bubbles from the labyrinth of stone. It is alive again. It collects itself, then drips into the euphoria and unity of the underground channel. It is they again. There is love and peace again. It is part of the one. The river purrs. There is so much perfection in the feeling of oneness. The one is calm and fulfillment. But the world is not complete. It is moving toward something again. Something it is already part of, but very far away. It wants to rejoin the one. Then there is darkness.

Memory Imprint #2: The Mosquito

Awareness begins as a being. It has wings that buzz. It is Mosquito. Mosquito is flying. The rain has passed, now it hungers. There is a cow in the grass field. Mosquito smells the blood in the cow. Mirrored squares reflecting sunlight rub like liquid curves over Mosquito’s mind. There is no resistance. It flies, landing on the cow’s hind leg.

Mosquito begins twisting its head side to side, drilling its mouth through the forest of brown hairs. It reaches the hide. The smell of blood is a song that shakes the world. The mouth pries the hide back and forth sucking for a pool. Then, suddenly, like a tidal wave, the red nectar flows. It can tell the cow is feeling happiness and freedom. Happiness makes the blood taste sweet. All is sublime. The cow moos and the world begins dancing with joy. Everything is perfect. Mosquito feels the cow singing, the song makes the potion flow thick.

Mosquito feels the cow twitch and sees the cow’s tail whipping toward. The air stills. Everything slows down. There is no escaping. This is Mosquito’s end. But the perfect happiness allows the end to be joy. Mosquito feels thankful for such a life and such an end. It closes its outer senses, focusing with all its might on the blood that has become wine. It waits for the impact overwhelmed with bliss. Then there is darkness.

Memory Imprint #3: The Cow

Awareness begins within a large body. Four solid hooves move over the fallen fence. It feels euphoria. The fence had kept it from the long green grass it had wanted for so long. As it reaches the grass it calls out in joy.

“Maaaoooooooooorrrrr!” it sings. I am the cow, it thinks. The moo sets off a chain reaction that possesses the cow’s great mass. Every cell of the heavy body vibrates with an absoluteness that makes it known to the world around “I am a cow, I make sound”. The cow feels pride and joy. It steps further into the luscious green grass that is so tall it tickles the belly of the cow. The scent causes such spasms in the cow’s nose that the eyes and mouth water. The cow dips its head and stretches its mouth wide open to feast upon the paradise of grass.

Man scent breaks the happy breeze rising from the grass. The man is coming. The man always makes the cow move. The man will make the cow move again. The cow thrusts its head into the grass biting as large a patch as its teeth can find. It tears it free. The cow chews. The grass is all it promised to be. A stream of juice flows. The cow bites down hard, but it cannot get its teeth to touch. This when grass eating is perfect. When no matter how hard you bite, your teeth never touch. Juice pours onto the tongue and into the cheek, then drips back and sooths the throat.

The cow sees the man. The cow keeps chewing. The man pushes the cow’s head aside. The cow keeps chewing. The man spanks the cow’s back. The cow turns and walks, but does not stop chewing. The man makes the cow leave the good grass and go back inside the fence. The cow does what the man wants. The cow will wait. The man will leave. Then the cow will eat more of the grass.

When it turns around the cow sees the machine that roars and two small men. One of them is on the machine. They smell like the man’s offspring. The cow feels vibrations surge through it and its ears hear the mooing pour through its mouth. The cow moves away from the man, the machine, and the offspring. The cow hopes the man will go away soon. Then the cow will eat the good grass again. The cow walks a while.

The cow’s nostrils detect opportunity. The man is moving away. The cow turns around and walks. It cannot wait. It must eat more of the grass. But there is something wrong. It walks to the spot where the fence was down but it is not down now. The wires with the sharp balls that bring pain are back again. They are shinier than before. The cow stares at the grass on the other side of the fence. It cannot get it now. The cow feels anger. Another moo erupts.

A loud and sharp noise smacks the cow like the hand of the man. The cow turns from the noise and runs away. The cow runs to the pasture it has walked for many days. There is not a single scent in the field that the cow does not know. The other cows are there too. There is the heat of the sun, the humid air, the eaten down grass, the mud, and the bugs. There is nothing new. Then there is darkness.

Memory Imprint #4: The Tractor (miracle edition)

Awareness arrives as an I. He has a name. He is Scott. Scott’s butt is buzzing with the vibration of the tractor. He is sitting on the bars behind and to the right of the seat. Dad is driving. Scott holds onto the bars he sits on with one hand in front of him and one hand behind. He has to keep his legs lifted to keep them off the big tire spinning beneath him. The bar he sits on hurts his butt when the tractor bounces. His brother Vick sits on the bars on the other side of the seat. Vick’s face reveals no pain when the tractor bounces. The tractor rolls down the hill by the barn and into the pasture.

When they reach the bottom of the hill, the tractor comes to a stop and Dad gets off. Dad walks behind the tractor and begins closing the long, iron gate. The gate is a rectangle frame with 3 thick iron bars running length wise within the rectangle. It is rusty in many spots and it creaks when it moves.

Scott’s mind estimates that the tires of the tractor were taller than his head. Then a flush of images penetrate his mind. His toes curl and his body seizes. Scott’s mind assesses the shape, size and color of the wheels in comparison to every shape, color, and object that fill the world. He is still as the images roll. Then he is back and the images are gone.

Dad returns from the fence and Scott sees that the top of the tires are taller than Dad’s shoulders, but not Dad’s head. Scott feels happiness. Scott studies the width of the tires. They are wider than Scott, almost twice as wide.

“Daddy, this tire is wider than you even!” Scott says and smiles.

“No shit Sherlock,” says Dad. Scott stops smiling and looks down. Dad says that phrase a lot. Scott doesn’t know what the words mean, but he knows when Dad says it, it means that Scott is stupid.

Dad holds a shiny loop of barbed wire on his wrist and buckles the tool belt around his waist. Dad smiles at Vick, “Do you want to drive?”

“Yeah!” Vick shouts. Scott feels threatened by Vick and jealous of him.

Scott bites the inside of his cheek to pinch sadness away. Vick is 8 years old, one and a half years older than Scott. Scott knows Dad loves Vick more. It is obvious.

“Ok,” Dad says. “Now to get it moving, press down the pedal on the left and turn the key. Then let up on the pedal on the left and press on the pedal on the right.”

Dad looks around the field. “The field is muddy, so to stop it, just take your foot off the pedal on the right, and pull the stick shift into the middle. You’ll know it’s in the middle when you can shake the stick back and forth real easily. Ok?” Scott listens closely to what Dad says. He feels hope that he might get a turn too.

“Ohh kay!” Vick shouts.

“Now follow me,” Dad says winking at Vick.

Vick drives the tractor through the muddy field. Dad walks to the left to where the fence has come down. Vick sits up straight and looks from side to side like he’s a professional. Scott thinks Vick looks like a general driving a tank. Scott wants to feel good like that.

“Is it fun?” Scott asks.

Vick does not answer and does not turn around. He only turns his head a little to the right and snarls. Scott feels threatened. Scott has seen this look many times. If he says another word, Vick will punch him and Vick’s punches hurt.

“Ok,” Dad says. “I want you to practice stopping.”

“Alright,” says Vick.

“Now, take your foot off the gas and pull the stick back to the middle,” says Dad.

Vick does exactly what Dad had told him to do and the tractor stops. Vick shakes the stick around to show it is in the right place. Scott watches closely.

“Can I drive now?” asks Scott.

Dad and Vick roll their eyes and Scott fills with shame. Dad and Vick always look alike when they do this. Scott wants to look like Dad. Dad tells Scott all the time he looks like his mother.

“Scott, keep your goddamn mouth shut!” Dad shouts. “You’ll get your turn when I say so!”

Scott feels frightened of Dad’s anger. He also feels happiness that Dad had said he would have a turn. Scott feels hope. He pinches his lips together to keep his mouth shut.

Dad reviews how to get the tractor moving again and Vick does exactly what Dad tells him to do. When the tractor moves forward, it is with a hard jerk and Scott falls backward. Scott’s butt slips off the back of the bar, but he catches himself with the crook of his legs under his knees. His hells drag on the turning tire. He pulls himself up and sits on the bar rack. He feels relief. He holds on as tight as he can.

Dad watches Vick closely. When the tractor begins moving forward, Dad turns around and starts walking. With a quick turn, Vick hits Scott hard in the arm. Scott’s arm feels numb and pain. Scott wants to rub the soreness, but he clings to the bars so that he does not fall.

Dad walks across the field and Vick drives behind him. Scott does not pay attention to where they were going. Scott watches Vick’s every move. Vick easily turns the wheel and follows Dad. When they arrive at the fence, Dad turns around.

“Now stop it,” Dad says to Vick. Vick pulls the stick to the middle. The tractor stops.

“What do you think,” Dad asks, smiling at Vick. Scott wants Dad to smile at him like that.

“Real fun!” says Vick.

“Can I drive now?” asks Scott.

“Jeeezus H. Christ! Yes, goddamn it, you can drive it once I fix the fence,” says Dad.

Vick looks at Scott with all of the hatred in the world. Scott ducks back to prepare for another punch, but Vick climbs down off the tractor and stands with Dad. Scott feels the heat of hatred from both of them. Vick doesn’t want to ride with me driving, thinks Scott

Scott climbs into the seat and feels joy. His butt feels much better in the seat. Scott bounces and practices turning the wheel. In blind happiness, Scott pretends to push the pedals and move the stick.

Scott bounces in the seat, raises his arm in the air, and pulling down his arm into a flex position he makes a train whistle sound. “Hooo Hooooooo!” he says and smiles at Dad and Vick. They look at each other then shake their heads in disgust. They hate his happiness. Scott sees this and again notices how much Dad and Vick looked alike.

Scott taps his foot on the gas and the engine revs lightly. Dad’s face turns red. “Well, that’s what I get…goddamn it,” Dad says. “Put it in gear and turn it around! Go a ways then stop it. And please, go far enough where I can’t hear you run your mouth. I’m sick of even looking at you,” says Dad.

Scott feels sad and confused. He looks at Vick and notices Vick is wearing the gloves Dad had been wearing when he carried the barbed wire. Vick is holding the barbed wire. Scott wants to hold the barbed wire now. Scott wishes he was good like Vick. Scott always makes Dad angry. Scott always tries to do what Dad tells him to do, but never can.

Scott presses the pedal on the left down then pushes the stick up and to the left. His body is too short to press the pedal on the right at the same time. When Scott lifts his foot off the pedal on the left the tractor jerks really hard then stops running. The jerk of the tractor throws Scott under the steering wheel and onto the pedals. Scott feels panic and sorrow.

Dad looks at Vick. “God damn it!” shouts Dad. Scott feels scared. Dad is holding a screwdriver. Dad lifts his arm to throw it. Scott ducks and closes his eyes. Dad flicks the screwdriver into the mud. The handle sticks straight up into the air.

Dad climbs up on the tractor and leans back. This crushes Scott into the seat. “Stay out of my way!” Dad shouts. Scott is scared Dad might hurt him. The tractor starts running. Dad works the pedals and the tractor moves forward.

“Now put your foot on the pedal on the right!” says Dad. “Give it some gas and turn the wheel until you are headed back toward the barn. Drive it back to the gate.” Scott feels humiliated and frustrated and his back hurts from pressing into the side of the seat. He feels for the pedal with his right foot. He cannot see the pedal. Dad’s body has pinned him and blocks his view, but finally he finds the pedal and pushes down. The tractor moves. Dad jumps down cursing beneath his breath.

“When you get to the gate, stop it.” Dad says. Then Dad rubs his forehead. Dad looks like he just remembered how gigantically stupid Scott is. “Were you even paying the least, little bit of attention when I told Vick how to stop it?” Dad pinches his fingers into the shape that means “little” when he says it.

The fingers hurt Scott’s feelings. But Scott feels happy that he knows the answer. “I pull the stick to the middle!”

Dad looks down, shakes his head yes, then waves his hand to say “go away”. Scott turns the wheel so that the machine moves parallel to the fence.

Dad walks back to the fence. Scott turns the wheel until he sees the front of the tractor is lined up with the barn. He feels relief that things are going well. He turns the wheel to straighten out the path of the tractor again. The tractor moves in the right direction. Scott feels joy.

Scott makes small turns to the left and right to make the tractor weave through the field. This makes the ride longer. He feels happy and powerful. As he nears the gate he is gripped by the fear that he won’t be able to stop the tractor. Scott fears Dad’s fury if he crashes into the gate. Scott feels panic and impending doom. He is still very far from the gate when he pulls the stick back to the middle. The tractor stops moving. Scott feels a huge relief.

Scott waits there pretending to be Vick. It feels good. He is a general on a tank, then a space pilot, a racecar driver, a farmer, then the conductor on a train. After a while, Dad and Vick show up. Dad is wearing the gloves now and holds a loop of old rusty barbed wire. Scott can tell Dad is still angry.

“Is this by the gate like I told you?” Dad shouts. Scott feels sadness. Scott looks down.

“Vick, jump up there and get him in gear,” Dad says, “I can’t stand to be near him.”

Vick sighs and climbs up on the tractor. Scott is again pressed into the seat and his left leg scrapes on the metal edge as Vick presses in the pedal on the left and shoves the stick into gear. Scott presses the pedal on the right and the tractor lurches forward. Vick jumps off. Scott feels helpless and stupid. The tractor moves forward.

Dad and Vick run in front of the tractor and back toward the gate. The tractor goes very slow. Scott keeps his foot light the gas and stays behind them. They don’t look at Scott. Scott feels sad. He also feels happy driving. I’m driving the tractor just like Vick and Dad, Scott thinks.

Dad and Vick pull the gate open. Scott drives the tractor to where Dad stands. “Stop!” Dad says. Scott pulls the stick to the middle. The tractor stops. Scott feels fear and confusion.

Dad pulls the gate closed behind the tractor. Dad jumps up on the tractor and puts it back in gear. Vick climbs up on the right side of the tractor and stands on the baseboard. Scott feels happy he gets to drive Vick.

Dad shouts his final instructions. “Now drive it up to the top of the hill, stop it, and just turn off the key! Can you handle that? Don’t do anything else. I will park it back in the barn.” Scott feels scared of failure, but the directions are clear. Scott feels sure he will do a good job.

Dad jumps down off the tractor and walks back to lock the gate. Scott drives slowly and carefully up the hill. It is very steep. Scott gives the tractor a lot of gas to get it to the top. When the tractor reaches level ground, Scott pulls the stick to the middle and the tractor stops moving. Vick turns the key to “off” before Scott has a chance to. Scott feels rage and sorrow.

“I wanted to do that!” Scott shouts. Vick’s face fills with hatred and he punches Scott hard. Scott feels pain erupt in his arm. He wants to cry.

“Ahh Oww!” Scott screams. Some tears come out. He grabs his arm where it is sore.

Vick jumps off the tractor. As Vick jumps, Scott feels the tractor rock back and forth. Scott feels danger. I did exactly what Dad said to do, thinks Scott, I stopped it just right. Scott jumps off the tractor. As he does he feels and sees the tractor rock back and forth again.

Vick is walking down the hill back to Dad. Scott feels left out. He runs to catch up. Now, why the heck wouldn’t it just roll down the hill? he thinks. Scott reruns the instructions Dad had told him. Drive it up to the top of the hill, stop it, and turn off the key. Don’t do anything else. Scott decides that he did exactly what Dad said to do.

When Scott gets to the bottom of the hill, Dad is walking away from the gate. Dad looks up. “Holy Shit!” Dad yells.

Scott turns around and sees the tractor rolling slowly backward. It has not yet reached the steep part of the hill, but it is almost there. Dad runs up the hill. Vick runs to the left and out of the way.

“God damn it! Jesus H. Christ!” Dad shouts. The words stutter like jagged anger bouncing out of Dad as he runs. The tractor keeps rolling. Scott feels decision and resolve. Love is more important than life. He will stop the tractor.

Scott runs up the hill and into the tractor’s path. The tractor reaches the steep grade of the hill and starts rolling. It bounces as it picks up speed. Scott runs toward it.

The collision hits Scott so hard he doesn’t feel his body’s immediate change of direction. He is now running backwards and still trying to push the tractor forward. Scott looks behind him and sees the closed iron gate. Scott realizes that the tractor and the gate are going to crush him.

Time suddenly gets very slow. Scott hears a voice in his head. This is very dangerous. If you don’t get out from behind the tractor, you are going to be killed. Scott looks to his left and sees the left tire. The tire is taller than Scott’s head. The left tire is further behind you than the right tire.

The voice judges his chances. You can’t get passed that tire, it is too far behind you. You cannot get by it. Scott looks down and sees a long metal bar between his running legs at the level of his calves. You could lay down backwards and let the tractor move over you, but that bar is in the way. You can’t get around it.

Scott looks to his right. The back of the wheel on the right is about even with his elbow. You can make it that way. You need to find a place to land.

Time crawls in slow flashes that allow the moment to linger, Scott’s eyes search. The voice is very calm and reasoning. You will have to jump backward at an angle to avoid the wheel. Scott’s eyes scan. He locates the path of opportunity. There is a spot just to the side of the fence. If he jumps at the right angle and lands there, he will avoid both the tire and the fence.

On this spot of ground lies the rusty coil of barbed wire. Scott examines the sharp bunches of jagged metal. The rust has covered them in a powdery orange. The barbed chords are looped like a lasso. There are hundreds of barbs there, all pointing pain at him. In the moment that lasts forever the voice reviews his possible outcomes.

If you do not jump there you will die. You will be crushed between the tractor and the fence, or run over by the wheel. If you land in the barbed wire, you will get all cut up. Cut up is better than killed. Jump there. The voice disappears and Scott’s thoughts were his own again.

With his feet running backward at full speed, Scott bends his knees and jumps back and to the right. Sailing through the air, he holds his breath and waits for the coming pain. It will probably not hurt at first. It will be like the pain when I stub my toe. I will feel nothing for a little while, then the pain will explode. Keep your head up to protect your face.

Scott lands on his side and bounces into the air. As he lands again, he hears the tractor slam into the iron gate. He squeezes his eyes and waits for pain. There is no pain. He waits with every limb of his body pulled toward his heart and every muscle in his face pinched. No pain arrives. It is only a matter of time, Scott thinks.

“Jeesuss!” Dad shouts.
I must be covered in blood, thinks Scott. That’s why Dad yelled that. I am all ripped and torn apart.

“God Damn IIIITTTT!” Dad shouts. Dad’s voice sounds like the voice of a demon.

Anticipation overwhelms Scott. I have to look! I have to see how bad it is! I still feel no pain! That is a very bad sign. Scott opens his eyes to see the blood and his mangled body. There is nothing. No blood anywhere. Not one cut. He looks around. There is no barbed wire. His eyes scan under, around, near; but there is no wire anywhere. The barbed wire is gone.

Dad stomps toward him. Scott looks at the gate and the tractor. The tractor has turned the iron gate into the shape of the letter “V”. Scott looks around again. Where is that wire? Again, he checks his hands, his back, his legs, and the ground all around. There was no wire anywhere. He didn’t have a scratch.

Dad grabs him by the front of the shirt and lifts him into the air. Scott feels very scared. “God damn it you dumb SHIT!” Dad shouts into Scott’s face. Dad spits as he shouts and the spit hits Scott’s eyeballs and sprays into his mouth.

Dad throws Scott face first to the ground. Scott feels a sharp rock stab at his breastbone as he slams into the gravel path. There is pain. Dad kicks Scott in the ass very hard. Scott’s face and head go into the white stones that made the path. There is more pain.


Tears burst from Scott’s eyes and he screams confusion, fear and sorrow. He climbs to his feet and runs the stone path. Vick is already way ahead of him. They are running to the white farmhouse that stands 200 yards on the other side of the barn. As Scott runs, sounds and feelings come out of him that he does not recognize, sounds that were never in him before. Scott feels pain in his leg, pain in his chest, pain in his head and tears are pouring from his eyes. Emotion twists inside him and something tears. It is a tear that cannot be sewn. The tear sends quakes through Scott’s arms, legs and head. He stops running. He seizes and shakes. There is a sound inside him struggling to get out. The trapped sound feels like a sneeze that cannot escape. Scott’s feet start running toward the house again. Then there is darkness.

When the program ends, the monitor powers on. The lab tech records the green text reported on the dark screen. She writes down the time and her initials. She documents the pressure, saturation and hormone levels of the hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus and cortex. Everything is ideal. She puts her signature at the bottom of the page. The REM program is now running. She leaves the lab.

The lab tech looks at the clock and sees it is 4:00 am. She swallows cold coffee from the cup that has been on her desk for at least two days. She takes out the scroll paper printout that recorded monitored levels throughout the procedure. She marks each phase with a different color highlighter, and initials each one to document that she’s reviewed them. She lays the printout over the prediction chart. The peaks, valleys and plateaus all match. She smiles. It is time for her to write the email. She logs into the secure server and begins typing.

Dr. Takebayashi,

I have just finished running the application into the PRB40608 synthbrain. All vitals are good. Neuronal activity spiked to expected levels during the download and the synthbrain is at REM homeostasis now.

I am thankful that you stuck with me after my previous catastrophes. Please know, I have learned from those mistakes. I will be sleeping at the lab this week, so if the monitoring unit overheats again or if the maintenance program shuts down again, I will be here to immediately remedy the problem.

Thank you for this opportunity and cheers to our success,


The lab tech presses “send”. Within a few seconds the automated confirmation message appears at the top of her inbox. She sits at the keyboard tapping a marker on the desk as she stares at her reflection in the flat screen monitor. She takes a deep breath and scrolls down her inbox until she sees “We miss you!” as the subject line. She looks at the date the message had been received; it was over two years ago.

She thinks about her parents, but she can only recall a few flashes. Every memory seems full of anger. It is late though. That is probably why. She feels love for her parents. She opens the message and hits “reply”. She takes another deep breath and begins typing.

Hi Mom,

I know it has been a long time since we have spoken, but I wanted to accomplish something with my life, like you said I should, before we spoke again.

I have an internship at SynthOrg, an organic technology corporation that designs, creates, and programs most of the organic hardware components used around the world. We sell directly to the conglomerates.

My branch is research and development. Here, we manufacture organic synthbrains that act as supercomputers implanted into organic vehicles. If you still watch as much television as you used to, I’m sure you’ve seen them play chess and win game shows, but they’re not just for that anymore. Tonight, I downloaded my first prototype.

R&D at SynthOrg teams biologists, neurologists, software engineers, and psychologists. Rather than digital codes, we’re now programming directly into the brain tissue. We grow brains inside recycled organic frames in pools of stem cells and establish access ports that inject information through the occipital lobe and into the memory centers of the synthbrains.

While the “neurbios” grow the brains, software designers, programmers and psychologists create “experiential programs” that produce the kinds of brains we want. We index pivotal life experiences, and psychological profiles common to those considered geniuses and develop virtual programs that reproduce the experiences and trigger targeted psychological reactions. Specifics vary, but luckily “archetypal genres (AGs)” of experience, and psychological conditions occur commonly within many high-need trades.

Once the script is written, the designers and programmers develop software to download the experiences into the long-term memory centers of the synthbrains. The program is perceived by the synthbrains and imprinted permanently. Because these are the first memories imprinted into the tissue, there is no interference from previous experiences and we produce minds with predictable traits.

Examples are “Water Cycle”, and “The Mosquito” software. Those have been required installations for years and eliminate any individual or aggressive tendencies in the organic components. But now we are developing synthbrains that are physicists, programmers, mathematicians, or really anything we can get an archetypal experience profile of and funding for. On the horizon are things like athletes, soldiers, policemen, and teachers. But tonight we created something more illusive than ever before.

Along with “Water Cycle” and “Mosquito” we used a program called “The Cow”, which was developed for all of our recent products. It provokes both chronic feelings of confinement, self-grandiosity, and abstract thinking.

Next, we introduced the prototype application called “The Fence” which is designed induce schizophrenic hallucinations, bipolar episodes, and social anxiety in order to boost the synthbrain’s creative productivity.

Spliced into “The Fence” were uniquely customized factors meant to construct a personality disorder spectrum of post-traumatic stress, paranoia, obsessive compulsivity and permanent feelings of inadequacy. We hypothesize this spectrum will inspire an almost infinite drive to please others. All this might seem cruel and abusive, and it is, but only for the synthsubject. Long-term production benefits are very lucrative for society at large.

Last, but definitely not least, we used an amazing new near-death “synthsperience” to evoke hyper-focus mental abilities, and to chronically haunt the synthbrain’s consciousness with a concept of an illusive higher power. In other words, we installed a synthbelief in miracles.

We theorize this will foster traits of resilience, inspiration, naiveté and possibly even portend out of body experiences, decreased need for sleep, and a persistently elevated view of self. If all the imprints perform according to predicted models, tonight we have, in short, created our first artist. At least that’s the theory.

Tell Dad I am sorry for what I said last time we spoke and that he can be proud of me now.




The Avatars Remember Nothing


The Avatars Remember Nothing


by S. Gill Williamson

The Picnic: July 2110

Stacks of plates sat on tables. Ice chests of cold drinks dotted the lawn. Technicians from Event Recording and Virtual Simulation, Inc., swarmed about the perimeter of the picnic area. Mobile micro-sensors, scattered everywhere, signaled each other in preparation for archiving the event for history.

Amanda joined the guests queuing for last-minute bio-checks. For her, this family reunion was a dangerous mistake. She waved to her parents in the distance. Their fortieth anniversary — her attendance was required.

“You’re crazy to let ERVS do this, Mom,” she had warned. “The personal avatars they create aren’t just toys that look and act like us, they’re living beings.”

As a graduate student at Berkeley, Amanda participated in an ERVS experiment. She conducted a one-hour teleconference interview, first with Ramon(A) and then with Ramon(B). She concluded with a fifteen-minute session with each them. One of the Ramons was her boyfriend, Ramon Mendez; the other was an ERVS personal avatar, a virtual copy of Ramon. She was to identify the real Ramon.

During the hour sessions, Amanda asked a series of questions about personal experiences she shared only with Ramon. Certainly, the virtual Ramon would screw up. But neither of the Ramons made any mistakes. For the fifteen-minute sessions, she changed tactics.

A week before, at a coffee shop with Ramon and her roommate, Tanya, Amanda left the table to get a refill. When she returned, Tanya was whispering to Ramon, her hand on his. “I see you two are having an affair,” Amanda said, in a joking voice.

“We’re talking about you,” Tanya said. “We think you’re working too much.” Amanda didn’t reply. Ramon remained silent also.

For the final fifteen-minute sessions, she quizzed each Ramon about the Tanya incident. What did he think of Tanya, had he noticed her great figure, and would he like to sleep with her? Both Ramons were stubborn, evasive liars.

“Hi guys,” Amanda said, approaching her cousin, Harvey, who stood surrounded by six of his college friends. “Mind if I join you for a moment?” She moved to the center of the group.

A loud buzzer sounded, indicating that the picnic was underway. ERVS simulation equipment, distinct from the less sophisticated micro-sensors, would record the picnic in great detail for an initialization segment — usually the first five minutes. In the future, each replay would start at some random point in the initialization segment and be left to evolve on its own after that. Each replay would be slightly different from any other.

“See that table by the grandstand?” Amanda said. “I want you all to walk over there with me.” She grabbed the shirts of the guys on either side of her and nudged them forward.

“Stop,” she said. “Stand here for a moment while I get under the table. Then disperse slowly. Don’t tell anyone where I am or I’ll hunt you down and kill you.” She was only half joking.

The table, covered with a large dark cloth and holding a pair of speakers, sat against a small grandstand. It would be a deafening afternoon for Amanda.

ERVS: April 2270

An immense white building, a kilometer on each side, two stories above ground and six below, sat on the high plains north of Gillett. Cooled year round by power from its own nuclear reactor, it contained the most sophisticated computers in the world. Above the main entrance arched the words EVENT RETRIEVAL AND VIRTUAL SIMULATION, INC. Known worldwide as ERVS, it was the leading company in virtual reality based simulation.

An elderly man, tall with grey hair, entered the building and approached an elevator, its door held open by a young engineer.

“Hi Sandman! What’s new?” the engineer asked, with a smile.

Robert Errett, the only senior scientist who worked in the Mote Lab, took plenty of crap. The millimeter diameter motes, derisively called “sand” by the simulation engineers, were tasked with creating the ERVS archival event records.

“The sand is getting smarter every day,” Errett joked. “Some emergent behavior is evident. Be careful when you shake out your cowboy boots.” Mike said nothing; he seemed to be thinking it over.

In his office, Errett checked his calendar. Nothing for three weeks. Management counted on accurate archival recording during every event, but as long as Errett’s motes were state of the art and reliable, he and his group were left alone. He grabbed some coffee and headed for the Mote Lab to check on his technician.

“Hola, Dave!” Errett said as he entered, looking for a place to sit down in the mess. Overlapping SPA posters announcing events past and future papered the walls. Stacks of SPA newsletters turned the room into a jumbled maze.

“Want to see something interesting? Look at these clusters.” Dave pointed to a flat silicon surface covered by a small clear plastic dome. Three small groups of motes, chilled to below freezing, sat close together. “Each mote in these clusters stores a human avatar. Each cluster is talking to the computer that stores the simulations.”

“What are you doing, Bode? These motes don’t have the compute power to host a human. If you’ve screwed with their CPUs we’re in big trouble.”

“I see you haven’t checked the specs on these new motes. They’re unbelievable.”

Errett hadn’t yet read the specs on the new shipment — a serious failure on his part. He stood in silence for almost a minute, looking at the three clusters. “This is a very stupid and dangerous thing to do. If management finds out about this, you and I are out of here.”

“The company we work for has become a criminal enterprise,” Bode said, jumping to his feet and starting to pace around the room. “These bastards are making money off of murder for fun, rape of young women, pedophilia, whore houses for rich bastards and politicians.”

Errett had heard all of this before. By going outside his need-to-know security domain, Dave had accumulated records of many instances where ERVS clients had committed inappropriate acts while immersed in simulations — acts that would be serious crimes if committed against real people.

“At the end of each simulation, everything is reinitialized to the original event. The avatars remember nothing about what happened during the immersion,” Errett said, repeating the decreasingly relevant official line.

“Sure the events are reset. But the avatars are alive, they feel pain and humiliation each time they are tortured, raped, violated.”

“Right. Protection of avatars is a moral issue, but you’re crossing some powerful people. How many humans have you downloaded to the sand?”

“Hundreds by now. Very smart ones. Many more will follow,” Dave said, facing Errett and putting his hand firmly on his shoulder. “Sit down and relax. I’ll explain what’s going on and what needs to be done.”

Daggett: May 2270

Team leader Daggett settled into his TIS immersion couch to finalize hookup; the three other members of his team were doing the same. All four players had scored in each of twenty previous games. But in this game, ironically called “The Picnic,” none of them had succeeded in the first two immersions of their team.

Typically, the team would be assigned a victim, a young female, attending an event. The strategy, always the same so far, was for the team to appear at the event, lure the girl to the perimeter of the simulation and rape her. Each team member had to have a go at the assigned victim, their avatars had to survive until the termination of the session, and the victim had to be alive when they were pulled from the scene. Within these basic constraints, scoring was complex and based on initialization states and historical records of other teams.

The Picnic was unique in their experience. Daggett had studied the ERVS sample simulations with an experienced eye. The assigned victim, Amanda Bishop, was on the original list of attendees but never appeared in the sample simulations. She had to be there somewhere, but where?

There were only three possible hiding places for Amanda: under the grandstand or under one of the two speaker tables. Checking under the grandstand had been time consuming and ended the team’s first immersion. She wasn’t there. In the second session, they verified she was not under the speaker table to the left of the grandstand, but the search had attracted enough attention to force an end to the session.

Only the speaker table to the right of the grandstand remained as a possible hiding place for Amanda. If she were under that table, there would be no hope of getting her to the perimeter, but also no need. She would be trapped, and they could take her one at a time under the table, shielded by the blaring music.

Four athletic looking young men, handsome, nicely dressed stood at the edge of the picnic grounds. They looked across the lawn at the speaker table. Some college age boys were standing nearby, but no Amanda in sight. The four visitors slowly worked their way in the direction of the table.

Amanda Arrives: July 2270

Alarmed by the silence, Amanda listened, parted the cloth, and peeked out at a vast lawn. A small group of people approached the table. They began to shout and applaud.

“It’s Dr. Bishop!” someone yelled, “She made it safely.” A tall elderly man approached, smiled, and offered her his hand.

“Welcome, Amanda,” he said, motioning to the others to gather round. “We’re all admirers of your work and pleased to have you join our group.”

Amanda looked them over — all strangers. What were they talking about? Her only work was her Ph.D. dissertation and related papers. She tried to speak, was interrupted by more applause, and then managed to get some words out.

“Thank you, but where are my parents and the rest of the people?”

A young man stepped forward. “Your parents and the rest are fine,” he said. “Dead, but fine.”

Amanda gasped and held tightly to the table.
“Dead? Why?”
A matronly lady approached and put her arm around Amanda’s shoulder.

“Now, now dear.” she said, in a soothing voice. “Kevin is a great computer scientist, but he’s terribly blunt. Your bio-parents lived a long and productive life and died of old age. This is July 15, 2270. You crawled under the table 160 years ago.”

Time travel? Amanda took a few steps back from the group. As a graduate student she had decided time travel was impossible.

“Silence everyone! This isn’t how we planned to greet Amanda,” the elderly man said, now introducing himself as Dr. Robert Errett. “Come with us, Amanda, we have a small reception with food and drink waiting for us. It’s in the building across the lawn.” He motioned off to his right.

Amanda looked across the lawn at a Spanish style building.

“We’ve duplicated the fried chicken and potato salad from your picnic — dishes that were gone when you finally got out from under the table,” Errett said, as they arrived at an outdoor patio buffet.

Amanda gratefully accepted some lemonade and worked her way through the admiring crowd to where the blunt speaking Kevin stood alone.

“What’s going on, Kevin?” she asked. “You don’t mince words. Give it to me straight.”

“Think of yourself as Amanda(A).” Kevin said, with a mischievous grin.

Amanda got it. She looked at the tile floor, the people, and the beautiful clear blue sky. She looked at her half empty glass of lemonade. It tasted great.

“So this is a simulation,” she said. “It all seems so real. Ramon(B) is certainly dead, but what happened to Ramon(A)? Not that I want to see him.”

“Dragged to the trash long ago. He was an old version, even older than you.”

Amanda was offended. “I seem to be just as functional as the rest of these folks,” she said. “In what way am I out of date?”

“You’re not out of date as an avatar. The process of extracting you from the picnic simulation automatically updated your data structures to modern standards — you’re still a fine personal avatar for the original bio-Amanda. You’re our oldest successful extraction.”

“Was I copied or extracted? Which is the better word?”

“Copied is better. The original Amanda still has a personal avatar at the picnic under the table. That avatar, your original copy, is now in great danger.”

“What sort of danger?” Amanda asked, suspecting the worst.

“The Immersion Rights Party got control of the government about ten years ago. That was the start of widespread abuse of avatars by groups of gamers. They’ve just recently discovered your picnic.” He fell silent.

“What about my parents and friends?”

“Four gamers, rapists, have fixated on you, Amanda, and ignored the other guests. Search engines show you were at the picnic, but your avatar has never been seen in any simulation. That’s the fascination for them.”

“Dead, but fine,” she said, in disgust. “My family and friends are fine until I get raped, then they’re next.”

“Actually, your cousin Harvey and two of his friends were injured defending your table during the group’s last attack. Harvey will probably be killed next time. This group has never failed four times in a row.”

Amanda knew that the simulation would be reset each time the gamers attacked. Poor Harvey would have learned nothing from the previous attacks while the gamers would remember every detail. It was a cruel business, unfair to the avatars.

“Why do people now living ever allow ERVS to record them? Their personal avatars are going to be attacked by gangs for sure.”

“All simulated events in the last decade are stored in special, secure archives. ERVS will not allow gamers at them.”

“Not allow gamers at them until the price is right,” Amanda said, clenching her fists in anger. “So these Immersion Rights bastards have made public all simulations done prior to their coming to power. Your ancestors and my descendants are open to abuse.”

“You’re a quick learner and a leader, Amanda. That’s why you’re here.”

People in this century must be even dumber than those in the twenty second century, Amanda thought to herself. Not a good sign.

Errett approached them. “You must be tired, Amanda,” he said. “I’ll show you to your casita so you can get some rest. In the morning, the three of us will have breakfast together and talk.” He took Amanda by the arm and started across the lawn toward a small adobe casita surrounded by a pebbled cactus garden.

Amanda’s New Home: July 2270

Amanda awoke to the increasing light, put on her robe, and walked barefoot across the hard smooth tiles to the window of her small room. She watched as the lawn and building of yesterday’s festivities reappeared in stages. When the scene was complete, she saw Kevin and Errett walking across the lawn toward her casita. She put two extra mugs next to the coffee pot and propped the door open. Kevin, followed by Errett, entered.

“Good morning, Amanda,” Kevin said. “Sorry about not getting the building and lawn back fast enough. We couldn’t launch the scene until we docked our motes, and then we had some problems of our own doing. We’re still learning.”

“Dave Bode is screwing around with us in his ERVS lab,” Errett added. “That just makes our job more complicated. Let him have his fun. We’ll be free of him soon.”

“OK guys, what’s going on?” Amanda said, sipping her coffee.

Kevin walked to the other side of the room and pushed on a recessed door. “This room is where you communicate with your mote, Amanda.”

A large central screen showed three tank-like ellipsoidal shapes huddled spoke- like on a black surface. Appendages appeared from their sides.

“Meet the sources of our existence, Amanda,” Errett said. “One mote for each of us.”

“They look like water bears,” Amanda said, remembering her biology class.

“They’re about the same size and are on a cryo-plate. We’re at minus fifty Celsius, better get your coat!”

Amanda got the idea. “So my mote alone can’t simulate anything besides me and my casita. The lawn and building required all three of us. Fascinating! Alone in my casita, I exist in my mote. Now I exist in the combined resources of all three motes.”

“The fiesta yesterday required all of our motes, clumped in a misshapen ball in Dave’s lab,” Errett added.

Amanda knew she was a virtual being, a personal avatar of the long-dead bio- Amanda, but she and her mote together constituted a real, physical being in the year 2270. She felt a sense of power.

“With these motes,” she said, more to herself than to her companions, “we can kick some butt.”

ERVS: July 2270

The “real” Errett, as he had come to call himself, entered Dave’s lab, shut the door, and approached the figure huddled over the binocular microscope.

“I separated these three motes from the rest. Now they’ve docked on their own,” Dave announced. ” These motes are learning fast and so are their avatars.”

“I suppose my mote is one of them,” Errett said. “You like to torture him.”

“Your mote is one, Kevin’s is the other. Amanda’s mote is the third, but she doesn’t know how to control anything at this point. I like to think I’m challenging your avatar, not torturing him. Take a look.”

Errett sat down and looked in the microscope. The display indicated that all three motes were running their avatars at real human time instead of their usual much faster speed. “Now they’re undocking, one mote is moving backwards.”

Dave pushed Errett aside. “That’s Amanda’s mote. They must be giving her lessons. That’s great!”

Errett suspected Dave was underestimating the avatars. He had assembled a team of the best and most creative computer scientists, engineers and hackers from over the last hundred and sixty years. Some, like the newly acquired virtual Amanda, were not aware of the discoveries that had made them important historical figures. Virtual Amanda would not repeat her historical discoveries — she would learn about them from the other avatars. But the same genius that guided her historical work would be applied to her present situation.

“I’m having trouble controlling them,” Dave admitted. “Amanda’s mote is new so I was able to initialize her clock speed to ours. Never again, I’m afraid. She’s going to run the show from now on.”

Errett knew that the motes and Dave’s collection of avatars were going their own way. When the motes physically moved, they could be observed with the proper equipment. But when they were linked together in a wireless network, they controlled their own simulated worlds.

“You’re about to lose control completely,” Errett said.

“Not completely. I have your avatar and a few others who will represent our interests. Eventually, I’ll insert my own personal avatar.”

Dave was reluctant to insert his personal avatar into a mote. Why? Errett had his suspicions.

“The one thing that unites these avatars is their hatred of the bio-human gamers,” Dave said. “Their best strategy is to screw up the gamers in the most subtle way possible. They need to do the maximum amount of damage while attracting the least amount of attention — before anybody else but us gets wise.”

“You know that, I know that, but will the avatars figure it out?” Errett asked. “We’re not going to have much say about their strategy.”

The Fourth Try, TIS: October 2270

Daggett and his team assembled at the Total Immersion Salon. His confidence was contagious. “We’ll kick the shit out of this asshole, Harvey, and finish Amanda this time. I’m ready to move on. This so called ‘Picnic’ is nothing but bad luck.”

He had paid extra to TIS so he and his team members could go under in the same room. It was, he knew, a stupid superstition. As long as they were immersed at the same time, being in the same room was unimportant.

The four men gathered together, held hands, shouted “Go get um,” three times, and moved to their immersion couches. TIS technicians, scantily clad girls all with medical training, welcomed them smilingly. The meticulous hookup took twenty minutes. They relaxed together for five minutes, a barely audible buzzer sounded, and the men drifted under.

Daggett and his team stood silently at the edge of the picnic grounds. ERVS initialized each simulation at some time chosen at random from the first five minutes of the original event. Amanda had managed to hide within a few seconds of the start of the original picnic, making it highly unlikely that Daggett and his team would ever arrive early enough to catch sight of her. But now, after three attempts, they knew where she was hiding.

Daggett checked his small but effective stun gun. Harvey, if he tried to stop them, would get a full blast in the throat — he’d never make a sound. But, Daggett’s team would lose points for stunning Harvey; finesse mattered. For the team to score the maximum, each of them had to get a turn at Amanda and get the hell out of there with a minimum of interference in the rest of the event.

Harvey and his friends, unbothered by the blaring music, stood near Amanda’s table just like in the last game. Distracted by a cute chick standing at the edge of the picnic grounds, they started to move in her direction.

Daggett stood still for a few minutes, sensed the time was right, nodded to his teammates, and started toward the table. Suddenly, he stopped and looked down. He reached for his crotch, felt around, gasped, doubled over, and fell to the ground. His teammates, leaderless and terrified, froze. Harvey and his friends were running in their direction.

Dr. Mendoza, informed immediately of what happened in the simulation, was the first to reach the writhing, semi-conscious, Daggett. She called for help. A giant technician arrived in seconds and pulled back Daggett’s arms and hands, forcing them away from his crotch. He pulled back the sheet that had been placed over Daggett’s lower body. Everything seemed intact. Daggett was going into shock.

The TIS supervisor arrived at the scene. “He’s going to live. If any of you breathe a word of this, you’re fired. Get these other three guys out of immersion and keep them occupied while we get Daggett straightened out.”

Dr. Mendoza remained silent. She had never seen anything like this. How would TIS cover up such a mess? The three other team members, less traumatized than Daggett, would remember their virtual experiences and surely tell what happened — unless they were too embarrassed to reveal the details of yet another failure.

Dave Bode had watched the virtual picnic through his hacked links to the ERVS simulators. He had penetrated ERVS security, but not the TIS computers or event recorders. The ERVS side was enough to infuriate him — he knew immediately what had happened. “Amanda was a mistake! She’s going to ruin everything.”

Errett heard Bode shouting as he entered the lab. Virtual Errett and Kevin had warned him that Amanda was up to something, but they refused to say what it was.

“She could have cut off anything else,” Dave shouted. “A finger, an ear, a toe, that would have been bad enough. Daggett needed his index finger to fire the stun gun. Why not cut that off? Why this? This will trigger a full ERVS investigation. We’re screwed, if I can use that term without getting my nuts cut off.”

“Calm down, Bode, you’re making an ass of yourself. You’re the one that’s going to blow it,” Errett shouted, grabbing him by the shoulder and shaking him. “Kevin and my avatar knew what she was up to. They had their doubts, but went along with it. They’re no fools, neither is Amanda.”

“You knew about this and didn’t tell me?” Dave asked in disbelief.

“Only vaguely, they didn’t confide details. I think I understand what Amanda is thinking.”

“Let’s hear it, then!”

“These gamers would die a horrible death before complaining about this to ERVS. Their macho egos will keep them silent. As for TIS management, they’re scared to death. Their system creates the virtual gamers, the ERVS computers only play host. If this gets out, the other gamers won’t come near the TIS salon out of fear of the same mutilation. Amanda’s got them all by the balls.”

“Please don’t use that phrase,” Dave said, regaining his composure. “Maybe you have a point. But, she can’t get away with this shit more than once. Have virtual Errett talk some sense into her.”

“I’ve pretty much lost any credibility with virtual Errett,” Errett said, with more relief than sadness.

The Journey Begins: January 2271

Errett sat in his office where he had spent New Year’s Eve alone. He had been drinking. Amazingly, neither he nor Bode had been fired. In fact, ERVS and the world were still clueless about what was happening.

His first fateful decision came last August when he approved converting all of the sand to the newest model of motes. This decision resulted in the purchase of the new field repair kits. The new kits were miniature fabrication factories capable of repairing or manufacturing new motes under any field conditions. Initially under Bode’s supervision and then on their own, the humanized motes learned to operate the fab kits. Within two months, there were millions of Amandas, Kevins, Erretts, Bodes, etc.

After Amanda’s dramatic initialization castration of Daggett’s personal avatar, only minor “immersion initialization imperfections,” or III’s as they came to be called, occurred during gaming sessions: a shoe missing, no pants or shirt, slightly odd skin coloration, memory impairment, etc. The accepted explanation for these minor abnormalities was that the legacy systems used by the gaming salons needed replacement. Minor Ill’s, however, were enough to bring immediate attention to gamers as they immersed themselves in events. Few attacks were successful.

The news of the evening had an ominous note: an automated unmanned cargo ship bound for Mars had mysteriously veered off course, heading north, out of the ecliptic at a slight angle. The ship carried hundreds of millions of new motes and a large supply of the latest fab kits. Unknown to authorities, hundreds of millions of humanoid motes with all the equipment they needed to make many millions more were headed somewhere. But, where?

Errett thought of the Kuiper belt. Slowly rising above the ecliptic, they would avoid all interplanetary traffic and eventually end up on some scattered Kuiper belt object with a high-inclination orbit — cold operating environments for their computers with enough matter and energy to sustain them indefinitely.

Errett finished his wine and poured another glass. He was fading. He felt jealous of the virtual Erretts. They and their evolving civilization would essentially last forever. They could travel the galaxy without concern for the passage of time. They would evolve in the Darwinian sense under the dangers of space travel. Likewise, they would improve their own computer technologies and hence their own individual life forms, evolving in the Lamarckian sense. They could live near the center of the galaxy or in the outer reaches. All they would need is matter and energy under a wide range of conditions — very different from the limited possibilities for bio-human habitats in space.

Errett staggered to his office couch. What would be the purpose of their civilization? They would need a purpose. The study of the natural history of the galaxy, its life forms and their struggles to survive would be complex enough to occupy the talents of the mote civilization for the long haul. If this concept of purpose occurred to him, it would also occur to the many virtual Erretts. Comforted by this thought, he fell into a sound sleep.

Copyright © 2010 S. Gill Williamson