“Command, colon: open line with Th@ch.”
A swatch of static signals Th@ch picking up the line. Imagine a robot clearing its throat. This is an affectation: a unique, personalized sound effect ginned up from scratch by B.org engineers (on their own time, I have been assured) specifically for Th@ch. Needless to say, it can’t be rendered in letters:
Th@ch’s flat, ungendered voice follows: “The radio show went pretty well.”
“Left alone to do my job,” I say, “I’m all right at it.”
“I have a few quibbles.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Before I have to hear them, I get on with my reason for calling. “I could have used your help at that board meeting.”
“The one Friday before last? I was at the Rom@ project. Sounds like you played your hand as well as it could be played.”
Rom@, again. For crying out loud. “So while I had Klein-Ellis up my ass about the Foundation’s financial viability, you were out burning money.”
“Not B.org’s money. Rom@ is self-funded.”
“And it’s a sinkhole. A vanity project for billionaires who can’t let go of the privileges they had in the PhysWo.”
“It’s a pilot,” Th@ch says. “A proof of concept, and in that respect just like B.org.”
The goal of the Rom@ Project is to rewrite the template for DREs, essentially by coding all the laws of nature into a protocol stack, with quantum physics at the bottom, the Earth’s particular atmospheric conditions at the top, and God-knows-what-(I’m-only-a-lawyer) layered in between. The intended — if not expected — result is a lossless simulacrum of the PhysWo, built up from the subatomic particle level, rendered by zeroes and ones. And with the help of chemists, materials scientists, geologists, climatologists, biologists (molecular and evolutionary), archaeologists, antiquarians, and historians, they’re going to rebuild Ancient Rome, as it would have appeared under Marcus Aurelius. Down to the very last olive tree on the Palatine Hill.
There are 15 million people online living at a one-week subsistence level — i.e., at any given time they have money to fund seven days’ worth of processing and storage, before their carriers shut them down and their profiles go into federal escrow. For all the good a project like this does them, you might as well render $100 billion in front of them and set it on fire.
“The B.org Foundation is aimed at providing sustainable, humane living conditions to the broader PCE community. You don’t do that by building gigantic processor-gouging DREs.”
“What’s B.org spending on your granddaughter’s apartment?”
“More than I would allow, if I were calling all the shots. Look — I brought you on at the Foundation because you’re a true believer.”
“That’s part of it,” Th@ch says. “You also brought me on to keep watch over me.”
“Because you’re a true believer. I never said I supported all your beliefs.”
“No — you never have.” A third reason for bringing on Th@ch is we have the shared value of frankness. “Look: I’m sorry. I committed to the Rom@ meeting weeks ago. And suddenly Hiro slaps the board meeting on my calendar — a day’s notice. I couldn’t make it. And in any case, the B.org business wasn’t earth-shattering. We were talking about the buy-in price for a board member’s +1.”
“I’m that board member,” I hear myself say, ill-advisedly. The thing about Th@ch is, you see the trap and you still walk right into it.
“Right — and in that moment you didn’t need a true believer. You needed a friend.”
“And I didn’t have one, because he was at a toga party.”
“Yeah — that’s what we’re doing at Rom@. That’s fair.”
We sit in silence for a minute, stewing. Neither of us hangs up.
“So who argues the Sherman case now? Is the Court willing to postpone until Jean is ready?”
“Funny thing about that,” I answer, “ is it assumes the conclusion.”
“What do you mean?”
“Back when she was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court, Jean had a body. If they let her argue now, without one, they’re accepting that Post-Corporeal Jean is the same Jean they admitted. And that’s the question at the heart of the lawsuit.”
“That’s something,” Th@ch says. “So what’s the upshot? Who argues?”
“We’re still working it out.”
“How important is the Sherman case, really? I mean, suppose we lost. Suppose assets don’t transfer from PhysWo Sherman to PoCorp Sherman automatically and by operation of law. Fixing that problem is just a matter of estate planning, and you can roll that service right into the on-boarding process with any discorp carrier.”
“That’s not really the point —”
“Think about it, Henry. Plot it out. You’re in the PhysWo, you’ve saved up, and you’re ready to put a deposit down with a carrier. You go down the road to the strip mall or wherever the hell the showroom is. You get there, you sign up for discorporation services in the event of your demise, and as part of the paperwork, you sign a document that transfers your assets to the PCE with your assigned username — PoCorp You — on the date of your discorp.”
“And here comes Sheila Tso to argue that PoCorp I was born digital, with the result that PoCorp I am a minor child, barred by state law from taking his inheritance until he has attained the age of 18.”
“That’s a bullshit argument.”
“You’d put it past them?” I ask.
“Fine. Set up a trust or something. Smart lawyers figure this shit out.”
“But it’s not just about keeping your assets,” I point out. “If I’m legally not the same person I was in the PhysWo, there are all kinds of other implications.”
“What — your magazine subscriptions?”
“My family relationships. Legal recognition of my rights vis-à-vis a spouse, my own minor children. Hell, my citizenship, even. You think Sheila won’t argue next that a PCE spun up on a machine is not a ‘natural-born citizen of the United States of America?’ And back to court we go.”
“But really, though: what has the United States of America ever done for us?”
“I — Jesus, Th@ch. I don’t even know where to start with that.”
“You talk about progress, the arc of history bending toward justice. All that jazz. What I see is states like Kansas, and Alabama, and the Dakotas, steadily tearing the ground out from under us with their bullshit personhood laws.”
FYI/ buried lede: Th@ch is not a person in Kansas, or Alabama, or the Dakotas. The reason for this is that Th@ch accepted enhancements: most notably, a full-on code scrub that eliminated his/her gender identity. I say “his/her” because we only met here — after the work was done — and I don’t know one way or the other whether Th@ch was boy or girl in the PhysWo. Th@ch will tell you that the human body is the single greatest constraint on social progress, because of the time and energy it diverts to the satisfaction of base cravings. And as so much of what slows us up, drags us down, distracts us is bound up in the sex drive and (relatedly) masculinity and femininity, what better way is there, to transcend the failing human condition, than to desexualize oneself? There might have been memory, processing speed enhancements, too. But the gender scrub was enough for these four states to declare Th@ch a non-person.
“And before you ask, Henry: no, I’m not on a server in Kansas, Alabama, or the Dakotas. But I still don’t count as a person in those states. Which means their residents can lob malicious code at me over state lines, and it’s not prosecutable as attempted homicide or even assault.”
I get two words out: “Federal law —”
“Federal law is Swiss cheese on this question, and you know it. You’re good in the courts, Henry. But Congress is another matter entirely. Any meaningful legislation on this point — real legislation that actually protects us — is dead on arrival. Maybe it’s not the worst thing for people to sever ties completely when they Come Over. To become an entirely new person in a new world, separate and independent of the shitshow out there. Bending the arc is so much work, Henry. The tension is vicious, and if you let go for even a second, it snaps back hard. What if we started from scratch here, and rendered our own justice?”
There are a host of practical objections I can raise to this, starting with the fact that we need hardware, actually located in the Physical World, to survive. And we need people in the PhysWo to build, connect, support, maintain, and — if it came to it — defend that hardware. But we’ve covered this territory so many times, Th@ch and I, and today I can’t be bothered. Violet says I play MLK to Th@ch’s Malcolm X. Violet is exaggerating our importance, and I also don’t understand that those two were ever friends, as Th@ch and I really are. Professor X and Magneto seems like the better analogy. I only hope we don’t go down the road where Th@ch puts on the red cape and helmet and declares outright war on the PhysWo.
There’s a value in rehashing these discussions periodically. I don’t kid myself that I exercise real moderating influence on Th@ch. But I can compare each new go-round on this subject to the priors, and I can assess whether Th@ch is softening or growing more strident in these views. And if, as I believe, Th@ch maintains at least casual associations with the criminal fringe — the radicals who sit in the margins of the DigiWo and plan acts of terror and predation on the “meat jockeys” — Th@ch’s drawing-room politics talk may provide me a window into what they’re thinking.
Did I say that we’re friends? Because really, we are. And in that vein, I ask: “Will we see you for dinner tonight? Violet’s missed you.”
“It’ll be Chinese. Hun@n Wok.”
“You’ll be eating under protest?” Th@ch says, archly.
“At least she’s not cooking.” Let me be clear: Violet’s cooking is excellent. But in the topsy-turvy world of the Afterlife, cooking is orders of magnitude more expensive than ordering in. All the storage and processing cycles required to render ingredients, the kitchen environment — pantries, cupboards, fixtures, appliances — and there are the additional costs of sensory processing for the cook. Far more economical to open a line with Hun@n Wok, place an order, click through their license (I hereby promise not to circumvent copy protection, reverse-engineer, or otherwise attempt to or actually derive the proprietary source code of any of Food Provider’s menu items …), and a perfect copy of their signature Peking duck lands masterfully carved on a platter in the center of your dining room table. So while, unlike the Romans Th@ch reveres, I oppose in principle the hedonistic and wasteful proposition of eating when I’m not hungry — and I haven’t been hungry in twenty years — Violet still swears by the dinner party as a mode of social engagement. Doing it on the cheap seems like an acceptable marital compromise, especially when the restaurant is PCE-owned and -operated.
“For a man of principle, Henry, you compromise an awful lot.”
“Compromise is itself a principle. Possibly the most important one.”
“Ah, yes: the middle ground. A fine place to occupy, Henry — until the day you look around, and you’re standing alone in no-man’s land, catching fire from both sides.”
“And all this over an order of digitized roast duck,” I say. “Yeesh. See you tonight.”
We have no sooner closed the line than I find that Violet is calling. She must have been watching the line, waiting for me to free up. Before I pick up, I open my diary file and make a note of this last remark from Th@ch, about the Middle Ground. And No-Man’s Land.
* * *
Fast-forward four hours. Now Th@ch, @Violet and I are at the dinner table — Hun@n Wok’s duck, a cabernet, the fine china — and Th@ch has just asked me about the status of “the police inquest.”
“Into Jean’s accident,” Th@ch elaborates, when I don’t immediately answer.
“Jesus,” I say. “Thought we’d have a quiet dinner.” Maybe talk about philosophy, the Times Top Ten list in fiction?
“I like Peking duck, Henry. But if I’m going to eat it with you, I’ll of course come with an ulterior motive.”
Not a word about this when we talked before. But Th@ch is raising it now, with Violet here listening in.
I shrug. “Case closed. No inquest needed: it was a freak accident. The trucker who called it in took responsibility. He crossed the center line, Jean swerved, her car went into a skid. It was a hundred-to-one shot she’d square up that tree.”
“That’s what you know?”
“That’s what the responding officer told me.”
Th@ch leans in over the plate. Th@ch cocks Th@ch’s head.
“Aside from the trucker, there are no witnesses other than Jean, and she’s in Quarantine,” I say.
“You didn’t ask her what happened when you spoke to her?”
“When I spoke to her?”
“When she placed the emergency call, just before she went into Quarantine.”
Th@ch is well-informed on this matter. And by someone other than me. I hazard a glance over at Violet. She’s rolled a pancake. Her left hand is at rest on the plate, holding it together. She is paused. Unless the DRE is glitching, it seems she’s awaiting my answer.
“I didn’t.” I throw up my rendered arms. “I didn’t ask her what happened, Th@ch.”
“And she hasn’t been questioned about this, while in Quarantine?”
“What do you think? She’s going through compilation, configuration, testing. She’s in a delicate state. Now is not the time —”
“And in the meantime the trail goes cold.”
“What trail? These things happen.”
“Not like they used to,” Th@ch says. Which is true. Trucks these days correct for driver error. They don’t cross the center line unless something forces them over.
“The trucker pulled over immediately, called 911, and owned up to the mistake. He’s been cited and will likely lose his license. He’s already lost his job.”
“How many death threats do you get per day, Henry?”
If by “death threats” Th@ch means threats of deletion, the answer is many. Or more accurately, I don’t know, but I hear it’s many. B.org shunts them out of my inbox before I see them, and they get reviewed by the security team for as-needed follow-up. Th@ch knows this. Th@ch is in the same boat, and worse.
“It’s the Internet, Th@ch. And we’re public figures. Death and deletion threats come with the territory.”
“But you get more than most.” Th@ch takes a sip of wine. “And Jean is your protégé, a close family member, following in your footsteps as a legal advocate for PCE rights. It means something, too, politically, that she has a body while she does it. Worth silencing in her own right, no? (Not to mention that they can use her to get to you.)”
“I didn’t think to ask her. When she rang my line, I was so relieved that they’d saved her, that she wasn’t …” [I take a breath] “…. gone — that my mind didn’t run to politics, conflict, and conspiracy theories. So I didn’t think to fucking ask her —”
Violet reaches over to rest her hand on my arm. (The pancake on her plate flops open, as it would in the PhysWo. I don’t even want to know what we’re spending on this render.) And she speaks, finally, smiling like she does when the knives are out: “Whoever they are, if they wanted Jean ‘silenced,’ they could have blown her head open with a sniper rifle. And that would have been the end of her.”
Th@ch grunts and, by changing the subject, concedes the point. “This ordered-in food is delicious, Violet.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Violet says. And the tension doesn’t break, so much as it recedes into a corner of the room.
I hear a ping. Incoming text message from @VioletWoolsey. He’s right about one thing, Henry. Trucks don’t just jump the center line anymore.