16/ @Scooter 02

“Command, colon: go to Socket 60 Social Club.”

The DRE tumbles down over @Scooter.  Like always, he flinches.  There’s nothing new or surprising in the render — the street corner, the sidewalk, the thick wooden door with the windows, hung with neon beer signs, on either side.  His arms, his legs, the sides of his nose that he can see if he crosses his eyes.  Same smell of smoked meats and fry oil.  Still: it’s jarring, every time, to be given a body and a place again.

And today it comes with just a little guilt, too.  Twenty-five names on his shift list; twenty-five names checked off, twenty-five human beings he helped ship off to escrow.  They’d spent their last days in iso mode, in retro text-based MS-DOS environments, in outright blackness: trying not to think, so they could save their pennies and live a day longer.  He clocked in this morning telling himself if it wasn’t him, somebody else would be doing this work.  With the money he earned, he could do some good in this world.  Eight hours later, all he wants is a drink.  Or four.

He pulls out his phone.  @Scooter opens his camera app and trips the selfie switch to check his hair.  If he fixes on the coif, he doesn’t have to look himself in the eye.  He runs a hand through the bangs, twitches them up.  He stows the phone in his jeans and enters the pub.

There’s a good-sized crowd tonight.  Thin Lizzy playing over the Victrola: “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

Every night, that song, ten times at least between shift’s end and closing. This started a month ago, and the culprit remains at large and unidentified.  There came a point where certain of the regulars started keeping watch over the jukebox.  Precious chip-cycles given over to trying to catch out the joker pushing the buttons for Thin Lizzy.  Their vigil notwithstanding: still ten times a night, “The Boys Are Back in Town.”  Right under all our noses, and no one caught. Last week @Mickey came out from behind the bar, unlocked the jukebox, pulled the record and shattered it, to general applause.  (@Scooter wasn’t present in real time, but a video was later posted to the S60SC resources page.) Ten minutes later, the box was back playing Thin Lizzy.  This cleared up the picture.  Someone was — and still is — hacking the pub music from the back end.  A PhysWo troll, most likely.

There are three TVs hanging over the bar.  Two NHL playoff games and Red Sox/Yankees.  “Command, colon,” @Scooter mutters.  “Dump the Sox default.  Show me the Nats.”  The TV flickers for a moment, then conjures up the video feed from D.C.  Washington tied 3-3 with Caracas in the fifth.  Nobody barks about the change of channels, because in a rendered room, everyone present can watch something different on the same TV screen.

There’s a motion pending to convert the jukebox to the IMOD model — Individual Member On-Demand, like the televisions.  This will entail a modest increase in dues.  Debate on the resolution is running hot on the S60SC message board.  Those Opposed are wondering at what point a social club ceases to be a social club. The point was to create a community space, and some amount of shared sensory experience would seem to be required for that.  It’s one thing to give each member lighting and HVAC controls, and the IMOD TVs concession kept the Club from going under during college football season.  But Jesus: if we can’t listen to the same background music, we may as well render up at home on couches and dial in to a group chat.

Those in Favor respond by posting audio links to “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

@Scooter bellies up to the bar.  Friday night: it’s a packed house, and @Mickey’s down the far end.  It’ll be a few minutes before @Scooter can place an order.  On his left is @LionelRoche14.  @Lionel must be flush, because he’s drinking Guinness and is up to date on the news.

Finches, they call them.  They fly east to west,” @Lionel is telling @RitaUpsall, “and they can stay in the sky indefinitely, because they’re solar-charged.  They run circles around the planet, traveling with the sun.  Back each day for another attack and they’ve never touched the ground.  They get above the clouds, steady up right on noontime longitude, so they can wring every last joule of energy out of the available sunlight.  The batteries they carry charge high-intensity lasers.  The beams can bore a hole in the skull of a pedestrian from 3000 feet.  People are freaked.  They’re wearing reflective hats.”

“Do they work?”

“The hats?  I don’t know. The Finches haven’t yet fired on anyone wearing one.  That could be coincidence, but as time wears on, it seems more likely they’re avoiding the hats by choice.  Which means more and more people buying ridiculous reflective hats.”  @Lionel licks his lips.  “For all we know, it’s the hat-makers flying the Finches, to drive up demand.”

“That’s pretty sick.  Can’t we do anything to stop them?” @Rita asks.

“What do you mean, we?”

@Rita smiles and looks down into her drink.

“Ultimately it’s air-to-air combat — our drones, our pilots versus theirs.  All you can do is shoot them out of the sky.  The Air Force puts 500+ interceptors into the air over the East Coast every morning.  The mission is I/D/P: Intercept, Disperse, Pursue. But these Finches have at best a five-foot wingspan, with radar-scattering geometries, and they’re maneuverable as hell.”

@LionelRoche is a nerd.  But women of a certain second-age love stories about the Physical World.  And @Rita is at just that second-age — long enough online to be checked out of PhysWo current events, but not so far gone as to have stopped caring.  She stirs her drink and listens intently as @Lionel goes on.

“We’re lucky if we can pick off six of them in a day.  The sky is a big place, the ground is a big target, and they don’t give a fuck where they fire off.  If we swarm our guys over New York City, they just peel off somewhere else. They bob and weave, do what they can to shake off pursuit, and the minute they see an opening, they go into a dive, lock on a target, take out some farmer on his tractor in Central PA.”

“They’re after farmers?”

“For them, a kill is a kill.  Hell, you can argue it’s an even bigger win to hit someone out in the country.  Next thing you know the farmer’s congressman is on the House floor screaming about unfair treatment: New Yorkers lying out on beach towels in Central Park, and USAF can’t be troubled to keep a Finch out of his district.”

“Bombs would be better,” @Rita says.

“They would do more damage, sure,” says @Lionel.  “But you have to reload them, and that admits a window of risk.  They need to land the drone in some undisclosed location — Horn of Africa, the Caucasus — and have a pit crew run out with a payload.  Snap it on, try to run back to cover before they’re spotted on satellite and they get strafed.  Some of the older organizations still do this.  They cut their teeth with bombs and can’t bring themselves to upgrade.”

“And these Finches — they can’t figure out who’s piloting them? The comms from the ground have to be traceable.”

“It’s possible, but it’s a hell of a lot of work.  All the communications, whether it’s inbound piloting or video, instrumentation, transponder data flowing outbound from the device, are routed through anonymizing servers.  Dozens of relays, one after another, every one of them scrubbed for ID.”

“And with all that routing, the pilots can still operate the drones in real-time, with no delays?”  @Rita sounds skeptical.

@Lionel shrugs.  “The Internet is a fountain of wonders.”

“And the PhysWo is a shitshow.”

“Ain’t that the truth.  Cheers,” @Lionel says.  He and @Rita knock glasses together.  A collision like that — stout should spill.  But here in the DRE, no one loses a drop.

There’s a second bartender tonight.  That’s new.  But then again, it’s a Friday, and so it’s more crowded than when @Scooter usually drops in. (Weeknights have fewer people, and so less to see and hear, meaning fewer processing cycles.  Boils down to a cheaper night out.)  Plain-looking guy, this bartender.  Short haircut, nondescript.  Stubble, white dress shirt, jeans.  @Scooter hails him.

“Do you have a membership card?” Barman #2 asks.

@Scooter furrows his eyebrows.

“New guy,” @Lionel says.  “Doesn’t know the faces.”  He turns to the bartender.  “I’ll vouch for him.”

“Before I can serve him, I need to see his card.”

“Jesus Christ.  You’d think the guy was working airport security.  Mick!  MICK!” @Lionel waves down the bar.  “Can you tell the rookie to pour Scooter a beer?”

@Mickey points to his ear and shakes his head.

“It’s all right,” @Scooter says.  “I have it on me.”  Because how could he not?  He pulls out his wallet, produces a card.  It has the S60SC logo on it, along with his name, member number, and a bar code.  He hands it to the bartender, who runs a scan gun over it.

“You’re a bot?” @Scooter asks.

The bartender blushes, drops his eyes to the floor.  “Yes,” he says, as if ashamed.  Under the law, a bot has to say he’s a bot, if asked.  But the better coders don’t like people asking — it’s their gig to make their creations as lifelike as possible — so they write scripts to make you feel bad about it.  Like you’ve humiliated the guy, when the truth is he’s not a guy at all, and he can’t feel humiliation.  He’s a couple hundred thousand lines of code, performing a function — here, pouring beers.  And upon receipt of certain inputs, blushing and hanging his head.  @Scooter sent twenty-five souls into oblivion this afternoon. Against that baseline, the sad-sack bot bartender doesn’t move him.

“Pint of Guinness,” @Scooter says.

“Coming right up,” the bartender says.

A rush of air, a brush along his elbow, a whiff of … @Scooter inhales: Command, colon: ID this odor.  The search engine debits him $3 and answers: Chanel No. 5.  The bar extends itself, shifting @Scooter two feet to his left.  @EllieTarbell steps into the created space, shoulder to shoulder with him and @Lionel.  @Scooter’s heart jumps.  Only part of that jump has to do with the teak bar and its brass rail, defying laws of nature and space-time.  The rest is @Ellie.  He reaches again into his hair.  45+20 years old, and preening like he was in college.

@Lionel is back holding court:

“The pilot they caught — the suspected pilot — is one of us.  It took them three weeks to pick their way through all the anonymization layers and identify her, and she’s probably one of fifty out there piloting these craft.”

“You say she’s suspected.  They can’t prove it?”

“They’ve tracked the signal back to her and have documentation of every step. There’s no doubt she was out there flying Finches and taking shots.  But she says she was duped.  She’s a gamer — one of these PCEs who enters tournaments and lives off the winnings. She says she was presented with a game interface — the objective was to fly the drone, avoid interceptors, and hit targets on the ground.  She had no idea it was actual PhysWo weaponry and live targets, on the far side of her flying.”

@Rita huffs.  “She couldn’t put two and two together?”

“Well, you’re not exactly caught up on the PhysWo news, either.”

“A fair point,” @Rita acknowledges.

“But here’s the part you should be following: the government wants to crack her open.”

You’re kidding.”

“I wish I was.”  @Lionel sips his drink, self-important.

“But that’s illegal.

“The FBI has this new software.  It’s more refined than the last time they pitched this to the courts. They say it can run a targeted search on her memory file and ascertain the truth on just this question.  The software can provide a definitive answer to what she knew about the Finches, if anything, and when she knew it.  And it won’t see or report on anything else in her mind.  And for that reason, they’re saying there’s no privacy violation.”

“Jesus,” @Rita says.  “And we’re just supposed to take their word for that?”

“Henry Woolsey’s on the case for the defendant.”

“He damn well better be.”

“How are you, Scooter?”  @Ellie smiles at him.  Chanel No. 5: what that must cost.

“I’m good.  Real good.” He would like to say something clever.  “When the Nats aren’t up to their old tricks.”  He gestures up at the television.  But of course she’s not watching his game.

“The Nats,” she says.  “Baseball, right?  The Washington Nationals?”

“For my sins.”  Twenty-five names, on a list.

@Ellie rests her hand on his forearm.  “You just need a better hobby.”

The bot bartender is back.  “Your Guinness.”  It rolls up on the bar, the perfect pour.  Deep brown, with a half-inch head just reaching the lip of the glass.  Lacking any ready response to @Ellie, he only smiles at her.  And to buy himself some time, he takes a drink.

The bot bartender smirks.  There’s a crackling sound, and a rush of air, and he’s gone.

@Ellie: “Scooter: what’s happening?  Where did he go?”

And then the pain comes.  Boring in on him, like a worm, or a million worms, burrowing through every cell in his body.  Flaying, crushing, melting flesh he doesn’t have, displacing organs he left behind years ago.  He has never felt, nor could he imagine feeling, anything like this pain.

Sirens ring out in his head, deafening.  He staggers back from the bar.  @Ellie reaches for him.  Her lips are moving, but he can’t hear her words.  He turns toward the door, pinballs out through the crowd, and lurches out to the sidewalk.  The pain doubles him over.  @Ellie has followed him outside.  She is reaching for him.  A dozen other club members gather at the threshold of the club, to see what’s going on. The doorframe widens three times over, to give them all sightlines on the action outside.

@Scooter switches to iso mode.  The pain folds in on him.  He tries to collect himself.  A virus, he thinks.  It has to be a virus.  He brings up his settings: Main Menu/ Additional Carrier Services.  A full code scrub is on offer for $179.99.  He’ll need to borrow.

We can connect you with our preferred third-party lender.  Click yes to continue. He clicks yes.  Time passes.  He has to create an account.  Jesus.  Amid this pain, unrelenting, unendurable, he musters the concentration to QWERTY his personal particulars into a loan application.  He awaits completion of a real-time credit check.  He selects an amount and term of loan and clicks through three notices about the interest rate and borrowing conditions.  Lying on his side, in the fetal position, with his consciousness on fire, he digitally signs the loan agreement, then the promissory note.  If at any point during this twenty-minute process he could have died — really died — @Scooter would have taken that deal.

Finally, the code scrub initiates.  He watches the progress bar to 100%.  Five minutes’ time, by the Carrier Clock.  It might have been months.

Code scrub is completed.

“No it’s not,” he all but howls.

All known bugs are zapped, all suspicious code identified and overwritten.

“Show me the report.”

The report tells him nothing.  “But I’m still in pain.”

All known bugs are zapped, all suspicious code —

He toggles back to settings.  Main Menu/ Profile Settings/ Self-Service.  They unfold in front of him.  At this point he can barely see.  “I want to turn off pain receptors.”

Querying …

“I’d like to speak to a customer service representative.”

A CSR-bot, a woman, appears in front of him.  Turning off pain receptors will cause you to forfeit your legal status in the following fifteen states: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri …

“It’s fine.  I agree.”

The bot pauses and looks him over.  Are you under duress, sir?

“I’m in tremendous pain, and I just need it to stop —”

The Carrier has determined that you have been recently attacked and that you may be under duress.  The Carrier determines that you are not in a permissible state of mind to make the decision to abandon personhood status.

“You can determine that.  But at the same time you’re telling me my code is clean?”

Do you wish to appeal this determination?

“Yes.  Yes!  Appeal.  Please!”

Please wait.

The Carrier determines that your appeal is denied.  Is there anything else I can help you with?

“Take my money. All of it.  Take it, please …”  Pain is feeling, after all, and feeling costs money.

The Carrier has determined that you are not in a permissible state of mind to make the decision to redistribute assets.

@Scooter checks his account balance with V@llh@lla.  Down $40 from when this started, a half hour ago.  That’s not fast enough.  His entire body on fire, but at this rate, it could take days to weeks to run through his surplus, and that would only get him to the fifteen-day grace period before anyone could put him into escrow …

— where did this come from how is this happening that bartender wasn’t a bot someone send an Axman please oh God please save me kill me —

Cha-ching!

Hey there, Scooter!  Looks like a friendly donor just dropped $40 into your V@llh@lla account.  Your kindly benefactor did not leave a name, but he/she did post this message to you:

<And plenty more where that came from, “Derrick Walters.”>

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