19/ @Jean 5

It surprises her — jolts her — to see another person on this beach.

It’s late afternoon, and she is on her daily walk.  She turned left today, into the sun, to put it behind her for the return trip.  And now, two miles down the shore from the poolside patio — past the tiki bar (closed) and the stacks of unused rental chairs (unattended), but still a click short of the half-buried catamaran — she can see a figure, back-lit, approaching her.

She stops, turns on her heel, considers running.  She is supposed to be alone.  But where would she go?  Maybe it’s another of their million pre-release tests: this one a gauge of her emotional wellness, and specifically, how well she handles surprises.  So they wouldn’t have told her it was happening.

The right way to handle a surprise in this setting, @Jean thinks, would be to reach out to her technician.

“Anne!” she calls out.  Over the past week she has grown used to shouting questions and requests into the open air.  But in this moment she isn’t alone on this beach, in this DRE, and she feels a flush of blood in her cheeks and is self-conscious about it — as if this person, this stranger might see her addressing the sky and mistake her for a paranoid.

@Jean looks back over her shoulder at the approaching stranger.  With the 4 PM sun behind him/her, he/she appears only in silhouette.  The back-lit figure waves at her.  It is a friendly, non-judgmental wave.  And the figure calls her by name:


She drops her guard and answers.  “Yes?”

Half-jogging up to her — “I’m Th@ch.” — right hand extended.  She takes hold of it and shakes.  In that moment, she receives an alert:

Th@ch13 has offered you a script.  You may accept the script and install it later.  Installing the script introduces the following functionality: auto-correction of any spoken or written reference to Th@ch13 by a gendered pronoun (e.g., <he>/ <she>/ <him>/ <his>/ <her>/ <hers>).  The script will substitute <Th@ch>/ <Th@ch13>/ <Th@ch’s>/ <Th@ch13’s>, as applicable.  If you install the script, you may forfeit personhood status in the State of Kansas.

@Jean pauses to consider this.  Th@ch has finished the handshake, but @Jean is still holding his — Th@ch’s — hand.


“What?  Oh, I’m sorry.  Th@ch, you’ve offered me this app —”

“Oh, goodness.  I have that offer switched on, don’t I?  And of course you’re still personable in Kansas?”

“I am.”

Th@ch chuckles.  “They’ll find a way to chuck you out soon enough.  But for now, it’s good enough, as a matter of etiquette, to accept the app.  And you can decide at your leisure whether to install it.”

“Yes — yes, of course,” @Jean says.  As a practicing lawyer, she should have appreciated the distinction between accepting and installing. Precision of language, and all that.  She accepts the code into a Pending folder.

“Anne didn’t say I was coming?  I feel like I’ve taken you by surprise.”

“She didn’t.  You have.”  @Jean thinks for a second.  “I suppose if she told me, it would be in the logs.”

“Where Henry could find it.  Is he reduced to reading through your logs, to weed out bad influences?”

“I wouldn’t say that.  But he is interested in the progress I’m making.”  She takes a few seconds and recovers her bearings.  “Th@ch, it’s a pleasure to meet you.  I’ve heard so much about you, over the years.”

“Likewise.  Let’s walk.”

@Jean leads the way, back toward poolside.  Th@ch steps out of the blinding sunlight and takes up alongside her.  She sneaks a peak at Th@ch’s render: slim figure — muscular but not masculine, curved but not feminine.  More gender-neutral than gender-free, but she supposes this is the best ones and zeroes can do.  Th@ch wears black hair grown to the chin, parted in the middle.  Aviator sunglasses, reflective lenses, so she can’t see his eyes.  Her mind landed on his: she has decided he must have been male, when he lived in the PhysWo.  But she can’t say why.

“Have they mocked up your apartment yet?”


“What do you think?”

“It’s very well done.  I’m sleeping there now.  Of course, in the PhysWo it’s in Manhattan.  But here I step out, take the elevator down, and I’m on the beach.”

“Welcome to the afterlife,” Th@ch says.  “Once your quarantine ends, you’ll be able to ride your elevator to any DRE you like.”

“It’s not perfect — the apartment, I mean.  No noticeable differences, and nothing I can put my finger on.  There’s just … a delta.  Between what I remember and what they’ve rendered.”

“It’ll go away with time.”

“How is Henry?”  @Jean asks.  “He sent me a letter.  It was full of wise counsel, but it didn’t give much insight into how he his feeling.”

Head tossed back, Th@ch laughs out loud.  “Would you expect anything different?”

“No, I suppose not.”

They come upon a small crowd of sandpipers.  The birds scatter, running at first, then flying.

“Jean — I can do small talk for days.  In fact, Anne and I co-developed a script for it.  It allows me, at cocktail parties and the like, to allocate a negligible sliver of RAM for hobnobbing, holding forth, the rubbing of elbows, while the better part of my brain is working elsewhere.  I gave up Mississippi and Arkansas for that functionality.  Shall I switch it on now, or do you want to tell me why we’re talking?”

@Jean counts out ten steps in silence, and then she goes for it.  “I want to understand your worldview.”

Th@ch laughs again.  “How much time do we have?”

“As Henry’s granddaughter and protégé, I’ve been on the receiving end of a great many lectures.”

“For sure.”

“I feel like I’m pretty squared away on the Henry Woolsey ethos.  I could lay it out in my sleep.  But for every thesis there’s an antithesis.”

“And I’m the antithesis?”

“Or maybe an alternate thesis,” @Jean says.  “I don’t know. I don’t have that insight.  I only know, from asides he makes — grumbled at times — that you’ve rented space in his head.  He won’t tell me why.  I know next to nothing about what you believe or stand for.  But I know that you are alternately a focus of his admiration and his anxiety.  I want to understand why.”

“Plenty of time for that,” Th@ch says, casting an arm out over the sea, toward the horizon.  “You’ve got an eternity ahead of you.  Why are we meeting in this green room — in Quarantine?”

“I feel like I’m at a crossroads here.”

“Not an answer.  We are at crossroads every minute of every day.”

“I was fully embedded in the PhysWo — I had ties there, and plans.  Now circumstances have yanked me out of it, I don’t know what those ties or plans mean now.”

Five, ten, fifteen silent steps.  Th@ch flicks a scallop shell down the beach with Th@ch’s left big toe.  “I can’t answer that for you.”

“But you can present me with a new perspective.”

“I don’t do guru,” Th@ch says.

“I don’t do follower.  I receive information and I judge for myself.  Next Saturday I step out of here.  My boyfriend will be there, waiting for me.  My career, waiting for me.  Offers of false continuity, when in fact everything is changed.  I will need to make choices.  I know what Henry wants for me.  I’ve heard his side of the story.  You could tell me yours.”

Th@ch stops in his tracks and looks at her.  @Jean glares back.  To this point in the discourse Th@ch has gone out of his way to project superiority and strained patience.  And let’s be clear: whatever he may be now, Th@ch entered life as a male.  Patronizing the awed new girl, making her feel oh-so-privileged to be granted an ounce of his company?  Jean has seen enough of this over the years — men underestimating her.  You’d have thought the ungendering would have scrubbed it out.

Their eyes lock, and they take each other’s measure while the tide washes their ankles.

“Or don’t,” @Jean picks up where she left off.  “But if your plan for the afternoon is to keep dropping one-liners, the better to establish dominance over Henry Woolsey’s granddaughter — maybe your time isn’t quite so important as you would lead me to believe?”

She turns her back on him and starts walking.  “Maybe not,” Th@ch mutters, but by this time @Jean is thirty, forty paces down the beach.  In the PhysWo she would not have been able to hear him.

18/ @HenryWoolsey 04

“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:

[throat clears]

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.

17/ @Jean 4

Day Eleven of Quarantine.

She has been awake now, for some indeterminate amount of time, thinking.   Quiet, motionless, in the beach chair, thinking.  Trying to decide.  She has a request — not for a cool breeze or a fizzy drink or a favorite song to play over her rendered phone, but a real, consequential request.  There are politics involved here, of a kind that reach from the national to the personal level and so can affect longstanding relationships.  She would probably do better if she steered clear of the subject altogether.  Just by asking, she will, at the least, disappoint certain important people in her life.  Still worse — she fears — it could rise to the level of that sticky kind of disappointment, something like a betrayal, hanging forever between her and them: the fact that under these conditions, at this moment in time, @Jean asked for *that*.

This transition — the churning of it — it feels like puberty all over again.  Mind, body, soul on fire; the yearning and taboo-seeking, the crushing curiosity.  And just like it was back then, no one who has been through it and come out on the far side remembers or can relate.  These people who say they love you — and surely they do — they look right past and through all that is big and brutal and crushing you.  They see you there alone, small and damaged and making bad decisions, entirely divorced from the context that might explain them.

But this gulf of understanding is a fact of life, and one that as a practicing lawyer, she is peculiarly adapted to bridge.  @Jean is a professional persuader.  If called upon, she could state her reasons, justify what she did, or if needed minimize it, walk it back, “come home again.”  And for that matter, she is a grown woman.  She has lived and died and reawakened.  Can anyone fairly fault her just for asking this one question?

Emboldened by that sensibility — I am free to make my own choices — @Jean bites rendered lip and takes a first baby step down her path to perdition:

“Hello?” she says to the sky.  “Who’s there?”

It’s Anne.

In that case, a second step.  “Am I far enough along in the config where I could, maybe, talk with somebody outside the box?”

Dougie and I are wearing on you?  @Anne aiming for playful, missing the mark.  It comes off as deflection, which it is.

“I just — I have questions.”

We can answer —

“Non-technical questions.”

We can answer those, too.  @Anne pauses.  But I get it.  Personal stuff.  I suppose you want to talk with Henry?  Breaking Quarantine is a deprecated practice, but …

“Actually, I would like to talk to Th@ch.  Could you arrange that?”

Th@ch.  Hm.  So that’s what you’ve been agonizing about these last — a pause, and @Jean presumes @Anne is checking the time stamps on her processing readout — forty-five minutes?

“I just thought you could, well, make an introduction?

You haven’t met Th@ch?

@Jean would have thought this much was obvious.  “I’ve only just discorporated, and I’ve been in Quarantine. When could I have —”

That business about Th@ch refusing to interact with anyone in the PhysWo — that’s a myth.

“Well, in any case, I haven’t met Th@ch.  You all keep asking me about settings.  Memory adjustments, enhancements.  Th@ch has made … different choices.  I’d like to understand why.”

@Anne doesn’t answer.  Thirty, forty seconds pass.  @Jean opens her eyes.  She looks up into the sky and waits for a response.  Of course, @Anne isn’t in the sky, and for that matter, her disembodied voice doesn’t rain down from the sky, when she uses it.  It says something about their relationship, about these Quarantine conditions, that in her mind’s eye, @Jean has placed Doug and @Anne high in the air above her.

Another forty seconds pass.  Long enough that she wonders whether @Anne has logged out.  Or maybe a shift change is imminent and she’s just running out the clock, so she can hand this tough, unanswered question over, ask-your-father style, to Doug?

“Anne?  Are you still there?”

Forty more seconds pass.  @Jean counts them off on the digital clock she has parked out in the blue sky ahead of her, at the top-right corner of her field of vision.  @Anne answers, finally — and unhelpfully:

We don’t keep asking you about settings and enhancements.  We asked you the one time, at the appropriate moment in the config sequence.  You can of course review and adjust your settings at any time, including after you’ve left Quarantine, at which time you can consult with anyone you’d like.

That is, without involving @Anne as an accomplice.

“Anne, I realize I’ve put you in a difficult position.  You don’t want to go behind Henry’s back.”

This isn’t about loyalty.  My obligations in this moment are to you, to the configuration process, and to the testing.  The protocols that we follow in the Quarantine phase are clearly stated.

“And yet you were prepared to breach the protocols just a moment ago, when you thought I was asking for Henry.  Look: it’s fine.  I just — I don’t have much to think about here —”

We can get you books, crossword puzzles, sudokus.  There’s a whole menu —

“Better put, I have too much to think about here, but I don’t know how to think about it.”

It’s only three more days in the Quarantine.

“Yes, and that scares me, too.  I don’t feel like I’m ready.  There’s this party people are planning for me.  Saturday night.”

The invite came in by email yesterday.  The party will be held at the Fault Line, the latest and greatest venue in NYC for mixed-company events.  The PhysWo location is at 25th and Lexington.  DigiWo guests follow a link to a real-time render of the full restaurant and bar: Some-Bodies will be scanned into the DRE for @Jean to see, hear, and hug hello, and she and any other No-Bodies on the guest list will holo-project into the room in physical space.

44 confirmed attendees and counting, as of this morning.  Many have left heartfelt notes.  Isaac only clicked yes.

The prospect is terrifying.

“I don’t want to go out there.”

That’s normal and understandable.

The puberty analogue rears its head again, @Jean managing simultaneously (1) to appreciate @Anne’s efforts not to patronize her and (2) to feel patronized. “Doug says the testing is going well and I should be 100% bug-free and ready to move into my apartment on Saturday afternoon.  But if I don’t feel ready, isn’t that the most important test?”

And a sit-down with Th@ch is going to help you with that?

“I don’t know.  I don’t know what I’m thinking.  What I do know is I’m not comfortable plugging back into the world while I don’t know what I’m thinking.  I feel like I’m missing … perspective.  I have some, but it’s too narrow.  Do you see?”


“‘Hm’ what?” @Jean asks.  “What does ‘Hm’ mean?”

A minute ago, I started running a script, @Anne says.  This would explain the earlier hiatus in their conversation.  It’s an advanced behavioral diagnostic.  You weren’t slated to have it done until tomorrow.  But I was thinking this conversation might be an indicator of anxiety on your part —

“It is an indicator of anxiety on my part.”

— that might in turn arise from an error in your configuration.  But the test results tell me there’s nothing wrong in the soup.  Or with our cooking, at least.

@Jean takes that cue and runs with it.  “This is just who I am, Anne.  I’m a pain in the ass.  Henry could have told you that.”

He did tell me that.

“What else did he tell you?”

That while you were in Quarantine, you might ask me to connect you with Th@ch, and that if you did, I should notify him immediately.

“Will you?”

Not immediately.  Your grandfather can be insufferable and imperious, at times.  And I’m inclined to judge this question for myself.

“Hm,” @Jean says.

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 —


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.”>

15/ @SamSmith 04

It’s been a week since he found @Daisy grayed out and distraught in the Wipe Center lobby.  @Sam still doesn’t know what happened to her that day, and @Daisy’s not telling.  Or maybe she’s not able to tell.  Either they scrubbed her fully clean of the day’s events, or she’s some kind of master manipulative sociopath, and he never knew it.

No kidding: when he sought her out that night, on their shared line, you’d have thought she had spent the day in the Perpe2ity daysp@.

He’d pressed her: “I saw you just before we scrubbed.  Something horrible had happened.  I could read it on your face.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” was her answer.  And she didn’t crack.  There was no quake in her voice, nothing to suggest his questions had landed on any hard memory.

@Sam had asked her, then, what her assignment had been.  Who had posted the job, what they’d asked of her.

“I don’t know,” she said.  But she’d earned good money.  They paid her $1500.  And she was invited back on Thursday.  It all had gone swimmingly, she was told.  They liked her work enough to give her a standing offer — same AM/EDT shift, eight hours’ work at $400 an hour, every third day.  An off-Lottery gig, it would run at least six months.  They urged her, too, not to work on the in-between days. Hence the pay hike from the first day’s rate.

@Daisy is over the moon and making grand plans.  “After six months,” she says, “I’ll have saved enough to put the both of us into school part-time.  You’ll learn to code, and I’ll study design.  Three years from now we’ll have our certifications, and we can leave the Lottery, the grunt work, this hand-to-mouth living behind.”

She’s gone back twice now.  Same story each time: she comes home with a fat wad of dollars and a business card in her pocket, and no memory — not the first clue — of what she does for them.  The business card reads like an appointment card you’d get from a doctor in the PhysWo. There’s a date and time on it, and an address — an IP address, in this case, and it changes with each appointment. Just enough information for her to find her way back to them.

That’s not ordinary.  Job posters don’t wipe the whole workday from your memory, clock-in to clock-out.  On the surveillance jobs, they just fuzzy up the details — things you saw and heard that bear on others’ personal privacy, and maybe they scrub out a little something extra (he’s been told), if you knocked heads or had a shitty moment with a co-worker.  The whole point is to retain enough memory to be good at your job.  And the employers that post Lottery jobs — the Movers and Shakers who hang their dollars over This Economy for all of us to jump at — they don’t just shower steady work and legit wages on rank-and-file PoMos.

@Sam is scared.  What sort of work would the Movers and Shakers hire a girl like @Daisy to do … and then forget?  He doesn’t have to wrack his brain for ideas.  Last year The Onliner ran an exposé about “smashhouses”: rendered rooms where PhysWo sadists take PoMo women (men, too, sometimes) to be raped, beaten, tortured, left for dead, and finally paid for their pains.  @BrionBurbridge mentioned the article to @Sam shortly after it came out.  @Sam hadn’t taken an interest at the time.  Rich Some Bodies exploiting No Bodies — this was the way of the world.  Smashhouses?  Just one more riff on the theme: a fresh outrage that teaches us nothing.

Three days ago, out of concern for @Daisy, @Sam went back and read the story, which as it turns out, Onliner owner and Editor-in-Chief @VioletWoolsey wrote up herself.  She did a deep-cover shift in one of these renders.  Two men had their way with her for three days.  A single shift in a smashhouse goes on for as long as it takes to get the “client’s” rocks off.  That can be hours, days, weeks.  For the woman, it’s a 5-D render — a full sensory experience.  So when they scream in outrage, when they cry out, writhe in pain, beg for mercy, a doctor, a blackout — for outright death even — they’re not acting.  It’s this aspect, knowing they’re actually hurting an actual person, that drives the demand here.  They’ll pay 100x over what they’d pay to slap around a bot.

When it’s over, the smashhouse operator scrapes the woman off the floor, gives her a glass of water, a memory scrub, and a big fat check.  She leaves the session pain-free and in the same condition she entered it.  The smashhouse owners say it’s all on the up-and-up, because the women sign a written informed consent document beforehand and a release afterward.  The women consent and release because they earn more in a day than @Sam does in a week on the Jobs Lottery.  And with clean memories, they go back for more: over and over and over again.

@VioletWoolsey submitted to seventy-six hours of torture in the smashhouse before her clients cashed out.  She was able to report on what happened to her because she hacked her way out of the room before her “emcee” (read, pimp) arrived on-scene to do the memory-wipe. She will never get that wipe.  The smashhouse owner says she breached the confidentiality clause in her contract, and he’s legally excused from performing that service.  There are of course third-party scrub services that could do the work, but weeks have gone by since the session: the events have set in her memory, ancillary memories have accrued, through all the reporting and writing-up, and in any case third-party scrubs are known to be imprecise.

It’s fine, @VioletWoolsey wrote in her article. The three days I spent in the smashhouse, while too awful to remember, are too important to forget.

Having read the story through, @Sam himself wishes he could forget it.  It’s parked right up in the front of his mind and won’t go away.  To the point of distraction, he is wondering: could someone be using the Lottery to recruit fresh meat into these smashhouses?

More than once he has told @Daisy: he’s worried.  He hasn’t explained why or what he’s worried about.  He can’t bring himself to say it out loud.  “I’m worried because they’re hiding something,” is all he will say.

“How bad can it be?” @Daisy answers.  “The Lottery pre-screens all the job posters.”  As if the Lottery were some shiny, principled institution that stood above the fray, when in fact like everything else in these worlds, PhysWo and PoMo, it’s a product of the ambitions and imaginations of corruptible men.

His thoughts go to dark places.  It conjures up @VioletWoolsey’s experience, the blow-by-blow of it she relayed in the article — horrific, sickening abuse — but in his mind’s eye it’s not the activist reporter in that room.  It’s @Daisy.

He considers what he would do, if people were hurting her and he could get into the room.  The anger swells in him; it makes him out as something less than a hero, far less, as he turns on the attackers.  It would not be good enough just to put a stop to this and save her.  @Sam would need to inflict pain on these shadowy men who have no detail or definition in these rained-down imaginings, men in the PhysWo who can’t be reached.  Who leer and laugh at him while he hacks at their rendered avatars with everything in their toolbox.

This has been going on for three days now, this business in his head.  By now @Sam is totally fried.  His suspicions have scattered his brain and are affecting his work. Charged with staring down video feeds from train stations, and yet he can’t bring his mind out of these rooms he’s never seen and that may not, for @Daisy anyway, exist.  Earlier today a known bomb-maker entered Penn Station. Seven watchers on his team flagged the wanted man: everyone but @Sam.  His Aggregate Performance Score is in the shitter, approaching 60.  For crying out loud, Mobutu has @Brion leading his DHS shifts.

But just a minute ago, @Daisy gave him money.  One thousand dollars even.  Something about that money hitting his account, the cha-ching of it, and then the punch in the gut he felt seconds later, when he came to realize that whatever she’s doing or having done to her, she’s doing or having done at least in part for him — it’s brought him clarity.  He knows what to do now.

He’ll write a letter to the Onliner, attn: @VioletWoolsey, tell her everything he knows, and ask her for help.

14/ Isaac 03

“Sorry sorry sorry,” Raya says.  She leans over and kisses Isaac on the cheek.  She steps around to the chair opposite him, slings her bag over it, and sits down, huffing.  “Traffic.”

“It’s fine.”

“Used to be you could get anywhere in the City in fifteen minutes.”

“When was that?”

Raya shrugs.  Her Mylar skullcap crinkles and sends a glint of sunlight into her brother’s eye.  “What are you drinking?” she asks.

“Iced latte.”

“Let me get you something with rum in it.”  Before he can stop her, his little sister has pulled out her wallet and is up and gone inside, toward the restaurant bar.  With all the shit going on these days, you can’t get table service outside.

Isaac sips his coffee, sets it down on the table, and looks out into the street. The sun has poked around his table umbrella and is machine-gunning rays into his elbow.  He’ll need to move his chair, or he’s likely to get burned.  Fuck it, he decides.

The light turns green.  One taxi cuts off another.  Horns blare, and the two cars take off up the road, scissoring in and out of one another’s path.  One of them grazes the side mirror of a parked delivery van halfway up the block. Neck-and-neck at the intersection, and they crash the yellow light.  Belatedly, the van’s driver runs out from a storefront.  He slams his dolly down on the ground in frustration.

Isaac calls out to him.  “I’ve got their numbers.”

The van driver shambles down the block.  Loose black jeans and a Coca-Cola corporate polo.  “Drivers?” he asks.

“Empty seats,” Isaac testifies.  Suggesting two possibilities: (1) owners remote-piloting them from their easy chairs in Queens, or (2) bot-based models running illicit aggro drive-style scripts downloaded from the Internet.

“Jerks,” the driver says.  “The City needs to pass that ordinance before we all get killed.”

The Times Metro section ran a story last week — NJ Analytics Firm: City Streets Safer with In-Seat Cab Drivers.  Isaac’s team at DataDart did that work under contract for the Mayor’s Office.  He had been finalizing figures for the white paper when Jean took her Jeep off auto-drive, crashed it, and discorped.  The irony was not lost on him.

Isaac recites the cab medallion numbers to the van driver, who thanks him and steps out from among the café tables to call NYPD.

Raya is back now, with drinks in each hand — big tropical productions topped with skewered slices of fruit and multicolored straws.  She slides one in front of him, slips into her chair, looks at him the way she does.

“You’re not wearing your hat.”

Isaac reaches up top, runs his fingers through his hair.  “No, I suppose I’m not.”

“It’s not like you, not to take precautions.  You okay, Brother?” she asks.

“Yeah.”  He waits a beat.  “I think so.”

“Have you talked to her?”

“I haven’t.  She’s in Quarantine.  Henry calls me with updates.”

Raya nods toward the glass Isaac hasn’t touched.  Obediently, he picks it up and has a pull through the straws. For all that, it doesn’t taste like anything.  But maybe that’s the point.

“How’s work with it?” Raya asks.

“Bernie’s fine.  Says I should take all the time I need.  It helps we just finished a big project.”

They sit for a minute, amid shafts of sun.  Tires squeal, and pedestrians, too.  Somebody walks by with an antique 1980s boombox on his shoulder, playing dub reggae from a cassette deck.  The van driver throws hands over his ears and shouts into his phone.  Time passes, and in a moment of relative quiet, Raya leans over the table and finally asks him:

“So where do you go from here, Brother?”

He toggles back to the coffee.  A sip, a sigh, and an anticlimactic answer: “I don’t know.”

“Well, you still love her, right?”

He gives a bitter laugh.

“What?” Raya says.

He can’t say what.  If he does she will skewer him.  Brother, Raya will say, you’ve given your soul over completely to statistics.  But the data are damning: eight of ten crossover marriages end in divorce, and 36% fail in the first year.  Go to any of Manhattan’s fine restaurants on a Saturday night, and it’s not hard to see why.  See the maître d’ seat a well-dressed woman at a candlelit table for one.  See him fetch a brick-sized speaker box, battery-powered with WiFi, and set it down in front of the woman.  See Man-in-the-Box and his PhysWo Missus exchange fewer than a hundred words over the course of the evening.  See her down an entire bottle of wine on her own.  See if she so much as cracks a smile.

“Isaac, I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you.  I got back as fast as I could, after I heard.”

“Used to be you could get from Tokyo to New York overnight,” Isaac says.

Raya takes a deep breath.  She lifts the little plastic sword from her drink, bereft by now of its several pineapple and melon chunks, and seems to talk herself back from stabbing her older brother in the eye with it.

“I’m sorry,” he says.  “I’m a dick.”

“I’ll make an allowance,” she answers.  She flips her dyed-red hair over her shoulder.  “But I’m here to help.  Don’t push me away.”

“Jean’s law partner Talia is throwing a ‘re-wake’ for her.”

“Is that what it sounds like?”

Isaac goes to his phone and conjures up the invite.  Our Sleepy @Jean opens her eyes again, one week from Saturday!  Please join us for drinks and hors d’oeuvres at the Fault Line restaurant and pub at eight o’clock.

“Jesus Christ,” is Raya’s first reaction.  “These people you hang with do some weird shit.  Makes me want to go back home to Flyover Country and farm the fields.”

“I’m going to need you with me,” Isaac urges.

“Yeah, sure.  Sounds … interesting.  I’ll wear my prom dress.  I think it still fits.”  She pauses, ceases to be wry.  “Wait: will you be able to talk to Jean before this party?”

“Not while she’s in Quarantine.  It’s against the rules.”

“Whose rules?”

Isaac shrugs.  “Her carrier’s.  We can’t talk, but she can send me messages.”

“Has she?”


“Have you written her?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“I can think of three easy words,” Raya says.

“Easy for you to say.”  Isaac pulls the cocktail sword out of his drink, flicks a piece of skewered pineapple onto the concrete beside his chair.  A pigeon waddles up.

Raya pinches her face at him.

“For me,” he says, “it’s always been harder.”

13/ @Scooter 01

“FUCK YOU, Axman.”

@Scooter takes a deep breath.  “The lights, as we say, will go out at exactly midnight.  The Carrier will provide a complimentary seaside evening DRE, so that you may spend your wind-down hours in quiet contemplation —”

“Does your mother know you’re a KILLER?”

“I do understand your disappointment, ma’am.  Thank you for choosing V@llh@lla as your carrier —”

“FUCK V@llh@lla.”

“— and we hope that we may serve you again soon.”

“That’ll be the GODDAM day.”

@Scooter closes the line.  Sighing, he looks down his call sheet.  He crosses the ironically named @$tacy$mither$ off his list.

The Foreman coughs and addresses him.  That was a very difficult client, Scooter, and you handled the situation adeptly, with poise and professionalism.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

What do you do now?

“I document the conversation in the log, set Ms. @$mither$’ account for suspension as of midnight EDT, and submit a Form R-620 noticing our transfer of her profile into federal escrow.”

Excellent, Scooter.  I’ll wait while you do that.

@Scooter calls up a QWERTYboard, the carrier admin dashboard, and the U.S. Department of Information Forms app.  “Give me a few minutes.”

Take your time.

@Scooter takes ten minutes.  “Finished,” he says.

Mm, the Foreman says.  She’s snacking on something.  She chews, swallows.  Do you need a break?

“I’m — I’m okay.”  There are three names left on his sheet.  Three names left in the shift.  And then he can drink.

Are you sure? the Foreman asks.

“Yes.  Let’s — let’s just get these done.”

Fine with me, the Foreman says.  Onward to @EllisTurnbuck67.  You do the dialing.

“Yeah.  Okay. Command, colon: contact @EllisTurnbuck67.”  The report back:

@EllisTurnbuck67 is not accepting calls from non-familiars.

Lying low, this one, the Foreman says.  What do you do?

@Scooter resists the urge to check the handbook.  “I think I’m able to override?”

How? the Foreman asks.

“Command, colon: request admin override of call filter, @EllisTurnbuck67.”

Please submit userID and password.

@Scooter calls up the QWERTYboard and keys in his credentials.

Credentials accepted.  You have a line with @EllisTurnbuck67.

“Mr. Turnbuck, my name is —”

@EllisTurnbuck67 has changed his interactivity setting to iso. This line is closed.

Christ Almighty.  “Command, colon: request admin override of isolation setting, @EllisTurnbuck67.”

Well done, Scooter.  The Foreman is gushing with positive feedback.  She doesn’t want to have the post this job again, clearly.

Override request accepted.  Your line with @EllisTurnbuck67 is reopened.

“Mr. Turnbuck —”

“How in the bloody hell are you on this line?  I’m set to iso.”

How?  Right here right now, @Scooter is the Grim Reaper.  There’s no hiding place he can’t find, and no lock he can’t pick.

“Mr. Turnbuck, my name is Derrick Walters.”  Today’s pseudonym.  An Axman does not reveal his identity — and for that matter, nobody wants ushered into oblivion by a guy named Scooter. “I’m a representative-in-training of V@lh@lla, your PME carrier.  I’m speaking with you today under the supervision of my foreman, Dinah Tebbits. How are you this evening, sir?”

@EllisTurnbuck67 does not answer.

Recording, the Foreman whispers to him — needlessly, as she is addressing him over their direct (one-to-one) line.

Right — he’d forgotten.  “Mr. Turnbuck, this conversation is being recorded for quality assurance purposes.”

“Is it now?  In case I should be heard to complain from escrow?”

“Mr. Turnbuck,” @Scooter says, “I’m here today to discuss the status of your account with V@llh@lla.”

“I know the status of my account, thank you very much.  I don’t need some bot to kick his way into my iso to tell me —”

“Then you know,” @Scooter says, choosing to ignore the bot slur, “that you have been running a negative balance with the Carrier for fifteen days now —”

“I’m in the red, I know.  But it were no more than twelve days.”

“Mr. Turnbuck, my records say fifteen days, fourteen hours, six minutes since you were last in the black.”

“Your records are wrong.”

@Scooter sighs.  “I wish they were, Mr. Turnbuck, but they are not.  By law and by our terms of service, I am required to allow you five phone calls before I move you into a dormant state —”

“I don’t have anyone,” @EllisTurnbuck67 says.

“No emergency contacts?”

“All in escrow.  I’m the last.”

“There are a number of charities that will fund service extensions for PMEs until they can find paying work and get back on their feet —”

“I’m maxed out with the charities.”

A recurring theme today.  @Scooter has heard talk in the Social Club about a recession in the PhysWo.  A bear market: endowments beaten up, belt-tightening all over, and less money available to float folks like @Ellis, for any length of time.

“Mr. Turnbuck, I’m sorry.  I understand that you are a British national.  Under the terms of the Prague Convention, your dormant profile will be transferred into the custody of the United Kingdom, where it will be secured in government escrow until such time as you are reactivated.  We will post notice of your dormant status in V@llh@lla’s carrier listings.  V@llh@lla will keep on its services any messages or recordings left by any person seeking to contact you.  By law and treaty V@llh@lla is required to receive and preserve such messages or recordings for a period of eighteen months from today.  Mr. Turnbuck, do you understand everything I have told you?”


“Do you have any questions?”


“The lights, as we say, will go out at exactly midnight.  The Carrier will provide a complimentary seaside evening DRE —”

“Can’t we just get on with it?”

“Um …”  @Scooter pings the Foreman, who does not immediately answer.

“I’m sorry, Mr. … Walters, was it?  But I don’t want a bloody seaside evening.  I’m ready.  I’ve lingered now for thirty years, well past the point where I can even remember why I chose this option.  I suppose I thought it was an exciting time and I wanted to see the show through to its end.  But it’s been one bloody cock-up after another, if you want the truth.  PhysWo or PoMo — all the same, innit?  Nobody ever learns.  And I’m tired.”

@Scooter doesn’t know what @EllisTurnbuck67 is talking about.  The training manuals describe a type of subscriber who retreats into near-complete isolation.  These users typically have survived their peer groups.  Or they lack ready income streams but are advanced in the art of stretching the dollar, and so have long ago checked out of public life in order to save processor cycles.  Outside the loop and out of practice in conversation, these subscribers are known to hold strong opinions and yet struggle to articulate them.  The manuals call for an Axman to be especially deferential toward such subscribers.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Hand me the hemlock, Walters, and Lethe-wards I will sink.”

“If you’ll hold for just a minute?” @Scooter says.  “Thanks.”  He pings the Foreman again.  “Hello? This is a new one for me.  He doesn’t want the wind-down.”

Mmm, sorry, the Foreman says, over a mouthful of something.  I had the mic off.  Didn’t realize.  Yes, that’s fine.  We can do that.

@Scooter toggles back to the line with the subscriber.  They make the necessary arrangements.

@EllisTurnbuck67 takes a moment to queue up “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles, and @Scooter stands by, shuddering, as that song plays.  He’s never heard it before.  There is a stretch of silence after it winds out.

You hit the MUTE button now, Scooter, the Foreman says.

do?”  The other customers all accepted their grace periods, their seaside evenings.  Or in the case of $tacy$mither$, not refused them.  This would be his first time actually standing by while a subscriber clocked out.  “Do I say anything?”

We want to be most respectful of a customer’s choices for his last waking moments.  We make clear to them that this isn’t the end — the final death — but many of them feel like it is.  They don’t expect they’ll ever leave escrow.

Most don’t.

It’s an important closure moment for them. They shouldn’t feel like they’re spending it with a customer service rep.

“Okay,” @Scooter says.  He conjures up the control panel for Manual Untimed Transfer to Escrow, which, as it turns out, consists entirely of a single big red button.

“Any time now,” @EllisTurnbuck67 calls out.

Taking the Foreman’s counsel to heart, @Scooter does not answer.

We’ve done all we can do for him, the Foreman says.  @Scooter wonders about that.  Last week there were agitators down on the sidewalk outside the Social Club.  One of them handed him a leaflet hammering the Big Five Carriers over their stock buybacks, and the year-end bonuses to their CEOs.  But he’d be a fool to raise this question now.  He is so close.  Just push the button.

“For what it’s worth,” @EllisTurnbuck67 says, “I give you my permission to be awakened, if at any point humanity should get its head out from its arse.”

These seem good enough for last words.  @Scooter presses the big red MUTE button.

The Foreman waits a moment, out of respect.  That’s good work, Scooter.  Hard work, I know, but good.

“Funny thing —” @Scooter catches himself.  “Odd thing: he tried to hide away in iso, at first.  But then he was ready to go.”

Might be he wasn’t hiding from the Escrow Administrator — he was just hiding from anyone.

They move on to the last two names on his list.  These two are easier: audible shrugs, one makes a handful of last-ditch phone calls (unanswered), and they go gently into their seaside evenings.

That wraps it up for today, Scooter.  Thank you.

“Yeah.  Sure thing.”

I think from this point you can proceed without supervision.  I’ll sign off on your training.  But you should know that you’ll retain your probationary status until you’ve finished your next shift.

“So my debt stays on the books another day?”

That’s right.  We had to change the policy recently, after a number of our Escrow Administrators quit right after the training.  At close of business tomorrow, your balance with V@llh@lla will be reset to zero, *provided* you’ve completed your shift.

And he will.  After what he saw today — the rage, the bitterness, the resignation, and worst, whatever that was from @EllisTurnbuck67 — @Scooter feels most acutely the urgency of getting himself into the black.  And staying there.

“Do I also get the day’s wages?”

Yes.  The debt will be wiped, and you’ll receive the standard voucher for a week’s free storage and processing, subject to the terms and conditions, which I assume you’ve read.

He has.  A full week’s worth of extended coverage for every shift he works, provided he keeps within the $150 per diem limit for storage and processing.  Not so easy to keep within a $150 daily burn rate, but it’s twice the $75 they were offering in the last round of Axman recruiting.  He had done well to wait.  But then again, when they were last recruiting, he wasn’t so desperate, either.

The Foreman clears her throat, then speaks.  I promise you, Scooter.  It gets easier, the longer you do it.

Meaning, you get used to it.  He’s worked jobs on the Lottery where they scrub the day’s work from your memory — say, for privacy protection, if you’re looking through checked luggage for the TSA.  Here they don’t do it, because the analytics show an Axman is most likely to quit on his first day, and why give a guy an endless string of first days?

So we’ll see you back here bright and early tomorrow?


Great.  I’ve sent you a link to our employee resources.  It should be in your inbox by now.  There’s a number there: a support services hotline.  If you’re struggling with anything, you call us.  Any time of day.  Okay?