Gem Newman

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“Persistence of Vision”

by Gem Newman

“And you've contracted with Tiber for twelve years?”

“Thirteen in August,” I replied proudly.

The technician made a note on her handheld. Her lab coat was so white I wondered if it was an overlay. I blinked twice, deliberately. No change: just a PLS logo and clean, white polyester that had obviously never seen the inside of a lab.

“You’re lucky: Tiber’s insurance package is quite comprehensive, and it looks like your scrip will cover the rest.” She beamed. “You must be grateful have a contract with such a generous corporation.”

She delivered the line with such enthusiasm that I almost forgot she was just reading prompts. Like everything in the commerce centre, PLS was owned by a Tiber subsidiary. She probably had the same plan.

“Before we review the contract,” she said, passing me her handheld, “I just need you to affirm that you’ve read this part here, then this one.”

“Sure.” I glanced over the text quickly, then looked into the nearest camera and waived a half dozen rights, forever indemnifying PLS, its parent company, subsidiaries, affiliates, contractors, etc. The usual.

“Perfect.” She took the handheld, tapped at it, and handed it back. “Please take a moment to review the contract. Just scroll down and read the affirmation at the bottom, then we can get you set up.”

“This is pretty long,” I said, scrolling through it. “You can’t just send it over?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, chipper and pleasant and not at all sorry, “PLS contracts are strictly confidential and cannot be removed from the premises.”

I frowned and skipped down to the next paragraph. I dealt with advertising contracts every day, but I was out of my depth here. I tried to start a recording so I could review the contract later, but a red icon blinked in the corner of my field of view. Peregrine Life Systems apparently took their confidentiality seriously.

This was a big decision, and I had no clue if it was the right one.

The technician was becoming impatient. Obviously the contract review was meant to be a formality. I tried to look up an unfamiliar term, but discovered that external network traffic was disabled. My jaw was clenched so tight I worried my teeth might crack.

I tried to take a deep breath.

“Once I sign this, I’m locked in for another twenty years?”

“That’s a condition of Tiber subsidizing the procedure. But between you and me? I’d kill for a twenty-year contract.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

She must have sensed my hesitation. “You have the opportunity to buy it out, of course. Tiber will even supply a contract negotiator to act on your behalf when you’re up for renegotiation.”

I knew I was being silly. I’d been saving for years. I’d made my choice. But for first time it felt real. If I signed, there was no going back.

“I’m sorry, I’m... I don’t want to be late for work” I put the handheld down and backed away from the counter. “I’ll have to come back.”

She called after me, but I was already gone.

I took a deep breath as the escalator carried me back down into the mall. I was ashamed of my indecision. It felt like a retreat. What would Navin think?

The dim corridors and bright storefronts of the commerce centre were a familiar comfort. I made my way to the transit hub, ad banners scrolling cheerfully above fountains and potted plants and licensed art.

The station was busy, hundreds of people sliding past each other in silence. Most moved quickly enough, though some slumped along, fresh off a shift. A few others were unnaturally alert, systems ablaze with whatever productivity enhancer was covered by their health policy. One woman’s fingers were twitching in a familiar rhythmic pattern. Too much Texacor. I was grateful that Tiber no longer expected me to pull more than nine hours at a stretch.

The flow of traffic slowed as I approached security. I watched a line of people shuffling toward Tiber’s day-labour kiosk. Most would be turned away. I remembered standing in that line, day after day, hoping for a break.

I was still thirty metres from the checkpoint, and the line for the scanners had basically come to a halt. I should have planned for a delay. The omninationals that ran transit had stepped up security right after the water riots, and things had never really gone back to normal.

I blinked up a clock and felt my pulse accelerate. I needed to be on the next train or I’d be late for work. I peered over the crowd. Only three scanners were active, though I couldn’t tell if it was a mechanical problem or they were just understaffed.

I slipped out of the crowd and jogged over to the priority line where a few people waited to hand over company credit to jump the queue. I wouldn’t normally spend an hour’s scrip to save five minutes, but it was less than I’d be docked if I were late.

As I passed my hand over the reader, a company peace officer waved a couple of contractors through. They had matching bodies in a stylish blue, recent models, Tiber logos embossed front and back. They were chatting amiably on their way to their shift, heads high, shoulders back, bright and happy. I hoped one might turn back so I could get a better look at their facial articulation, but the pair breezed through the checkpoint without a backward glance.

Must be nice, I thought, stepping into the scanner.

There was a heavy hum, and suddenly the world went dim. Murals disappeared, T-shirts went blank, and the omnipresent ad banners vanished. Throughout the crowd, hairstyles changed, grey hairs popping into view, and here and there skin colour or gender presentation shifted. The safeties had deactivated my overlays to prevent damage from an invasive scan. I took a deep breath and started counting. I got to four before the hum vanished and a bright tone sounded. I stepped out of the scanner, blinked, and colour flooded back into the world. I hurried off to catch the train.

I was allowed to turn my overlays off whenever I wanted, of course—I could afford a model that wasn’t ad supported—but without them, things felt... I don’t know. Sad, I guess. Grim and slow and lonely. The rest of the world was far away, somewhere out there, and you were stuck here alone, with nobody to keep you company but grey strangers and your own thoughts.

And more practically, without overlays my apartment looked like shit. The previous tenant had been a big fan of sea-foam green, and I wasn’t about to waste two Sundays with paintbrushes and edging tape.

I arrived at my desk at 07:57. I sat down, blinked a window onto my cubicle wall, cycled through to a nice view of a redwood forest that was three decades gone, and got to work.

The hours flew by. I was working on a popup ad for one of Tiber’s pharma subsidiaries, a little cartoon dermal patch that sold Brevia. My first draft had been rejected for being too distracting, but it was easy enough to displace the popup a few millimetres from foveal vision to keep the user from walking into a lamppost. Harder to fix was a script problem: the dialogue alluded to benefits that weren’t technically part of Brevia’s license, and the higher-ups were worried the FDA might slap us with a fine for advertising off-label. Fines were capped at ten million, of course, and the administrative entity projected that off-label use could net us at least forty million in sales—but I was sure that a couple hours tweaking the script could nudge us onto the right side of the red tape.

I got a ping.

“Still on for lunch?” It was a text, but I heard it read in a facsimile of Abbie’s voice.

YEAH, I sent back. MARCO’S?

“Sure. Meet you there at noon?”

I pulled up a clock.

BETTER MAKE IT 12:30

DIDN’T GET IN AS EARLY AS I WANTED

HAD TO MAKE A STOP

“Where?” Text-to-speech was nearly perfect, but intonation was always iffy for short strings without much context. I couldn’t tell if she was being nosy or was just idly curious.

I sighed.

PLS, I sent back.

“Wait, what?” she said, followed by the pause of asynchronous communication. Then: “Get down to Marco’s now. I’m not letting you turn yourself into a fucking robot.”

ABBIE, I CAN’T J

I didn’t get any farther before she called me.

We were going to lunch.

Marco’s was cozy, a small chain with a dozen locations on the west coast. They didn’t take Tiber scrip, but having to spend real money to get a table made the place more fashionable.

The place was already bustling by the time I stepped into the air-conditioned darkness and looked around. Abbie was always hard to pick out in a crowd. A few people—those in my contacts—had a soft purple outline, but none was Abbie; she was usually set to Do Not Disturb.

I finally spotted her in a booth against the back wall and made my way over. I threw a window up on the wall as I sat—nothing fancy, just a feed from one of the street cameras outside, but it helped ease my claustrophobia.

She set down her book and smiled briefly, as though remembering that was how friends usually greeted one another, then threw the smile away.

“Hey, Sam. So what the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Can I at least order before you tear into me?”

She rolled her eyes and picked her book back up. I pulled up the menu, blinking through it quickly. Nothing really caught my eye, so I ordered an Okani box and a cardamom sarsaparilla, then minimized the menu again and sat back.

“So,” she said, no looking up. “Are you going to answer my question?”

“What the fuck is wrong with me.”

“Yes.”

“Can you be more specific?”

Abbie sighed, closing her book again. Some of the energy bled out of her.

“You just never seemed...”

“What?”

“You know. Suicidal.”

I laughed. “That’s a bit... dramatic. It’s not like Peregrine’s just going to put a bullet in my brain.”

“It’s exactly like that. They’re just going to hook you up to a computer first.”

“Fair point,” I laughed. “But that’s the important bit, isn’t it? That’s the difference between getting a kidney transplant and just waking up in a bathtub full of ice.”

“If you actually think—” She paused as a server approached, sweeping her book off the table to make room for her lunch. A small timer was ticking at the corner of my vision, counting down the seconds until my own food was due. Marco’s usually got things tableside at least a minute early, but the place was pretty busy. I hadn’t done a service contract since my early twenties, but lunch rush was always hell, and some days it was impossible to get every order out before the timer hit zero and your grat expired.

“If you honestly think you’re going to survive the transfer,” Abbie continued around a huge mouthful of burger, “I’m not sure that brain of yours is worth saving. Let PLS have it.”

“Can we just have a nice meal?” I pleaded. “I’m not really in the mood for a Transporter Problem conversation.”

“That’s not even what I’m saying.” She took another enormous bite of cultured beef and bacon. “Look, I don’t give a shit if Peregrine makes a copy of you and euthanizes the original, okay? That’s not what this is about.”

“Oh no?”

“We start out with one Sam, we end up with one Sam. The math works out. Sure, somewhere in the middle a Sam dies, but we get a brand new Sam, as good as the original.”

“Better, even,” I said.

“You’ll even have that new Sam smell.” She grinned. “I bet all that factory-fresh plastic will be off-gassing for months.”

“Ew. Jesus.” I didn’t usually let Abbie get to me, but she’d actually managed to gross me out a little.

“I mean, your mind will be running on different hardware, and your body will be a little shinier, but fundamentally I bet that I couldn’t tell the difference. More importantly, I bet you couldn’t either. Everybody’s happy.”

“You’re not going to complain that I won’t have continuity of consciousness?”

“Won’t you? I mean, I bet you’ll feel like you do. What’s the difference?”

“I’m glad we agree.”

“I mean, Old Sam might argue with you, but...”

“Old Sam is dead.”

“Exactly.”

I laughed. “Okay, so what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that whatever ends up in that computer isn’t going to be you.”

“I feel like we’re going in circles.”

She wiped the corner of her mouth and sat back. Watching her eat was actually pretty impressive: that hamburger had never stood a chance.

“Who controls your mind right now?”

“Uh... I do?”

“Well, I would’ve gone with ‘nobody’, but close enough. And who’s going to control your mind next week.”

“Still me, Abbie.”

She cocked her head. “Whose servers are you going to be running on again?”

“Just because my mind would be running on Tiber servers doesn’t mean—”

“Okay,” she said, holding up her hands. “Let’s put a pin in this for now and get back to my original question.”

“What the hell is wrong with me.”

“Why are you doing this?”

I sighed. “Lots of reasons.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

My own meal arrived with 00:02 left on the timer, and I took a pull of sarsaparilla to cover my uncertainty. I cracked the Okani box, careful to avoid the belch of steam, and grabbed a few of Abbie’s fries to tide me over. When I finally looked up, Abbie was still staring at me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Fully integrated overlays, so I can forget about blink codes. No more worrying when they’ll develop the next viable antibiotic or a vaccine against whatever mutant flu is going around. Plus I won’t have to spend half an hour every day waiting in line at a goddamn transit checkpoint. It all seems pretty convenient.”

“So you’d get to skip the scanners, huh?”

“You know that once you’ve gone up you don’t need to—”

“Of course I do. And why is that?”

I hesitated. “Because Tiber knows you don’t pose a threat.”

“That’s right. And how do they know?”

“If you’re running in the corporate cloud, they’ve got access to logs. They... I don’t know, they flag stuff, markers for violence, terrorism, that kind of thing. Don’t pretend this is something new and scary. I’m sure Homeland runs the same analysis.”

“Uh huh,” Abbie said, and I saw her glance at the nearest camera dome. “Except in this case the cameras are in your brain.” She leaned forward. “You really think that’s all it is? Logging? Surveillance?”

“What else could it be?”

“You’re giving an omni—a corp you work for—direct access to your consciousness. How could you ever trust anything you see? Anything you do?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know why people running in the corporate cloud get to skip the scanners? It’s because Tiber and Quanta and HPU and the rest constrain your personality to ensure compliance.”

“That’s in the terms of service, Abbie. Once you go up, there are some minor constraints on what you can do. Shit, there’s liability concerns. You’re running on their servers. Tiber doesn’t want to be held responsible if one of their contractors robs a bank or goes on a shooting spree.”

“We’re not talking about shooting sprees. That’s the point.” She leaned across the table. “Look, when I say ‘violence’, what does that mean to you?”

“What the fuck are you talking about? ‘Violence’ means violence. It’s pretty self-explanatory.” I usually had a high tolerance for Abbie’s bullshit, but I was running out of patience.

“Is attending a protest violence?”

“Of course not.”

“What if someone breaks a window? Is property damage ‘violence’?”

“I guess so? I don’t know.”

“Shit, Sam, that was an easy one and you blew it. Tiber happens to agree with you, by the way. Property over people.”

“Well, if somebody starts throwing stuff, I guess you should get out of there, then.”

“How are you supposed to know if someone two blocks away throws a rock? Even if you did, the cops can still kettle you. Good luck getting out if that happens.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I’m not mad at you, Sam. I’m just worried. Because it seems like shit like this”—a video popped into my queue—“doesn’t trouble you. And it fucking should.”

I hit play. The scene looked like one of the water riots, maybe. The perspective was from a couple storeys up, probably a bystander in an office building, or maybe one of the protestors trying to stay far enough away that their recording wouldn’t be confiscated. The people in the street were mostly organics, though there were enough plastic bodies in the mix that I could guess the year by their models: probably ’88 or early ’89, which would make the riot one of the last. I watched a wall of peace officers—Quanta, not Tiber—press into the protestors, shields up, pushing them off the street and crowding them together.

Suddenly every plastic body in the crowd froze. Their movements had seemed so human moments ago, but in that unnatural stillness any suspension of disbelief fell away. Most stayed upright under the press of the crowd, but several protestors started in surprise as a few fell. I heard screams. The Quanta uniforms pressed forward.

The video ended, and I took a breath.

“What the hell, Abbie?”

“Every body manufactured in the last four years has to have compliance failsafes for ‘emergency situations’.”

“That didn’t really look like an emergency to me.”

“No shit.”

“Well.” I let out a deep breath. “Good thing I’m not going to be involved in any riots.”

“That’s a really depressing thing to say.”

“This is kind of a depressing conversation, Abbie. But that video actually makes my point. They’re not controlling anyone’s thoughts: if they were, those people wouldn’t have been in the street in the first place, right? When you think about it, those failsafes aren’t really different from handcuffs.”

“Then you clearly haven’t thought about it.”

“Believe it or not, I have thought about it. I’ve had plenty of time. I’ve been saving up for this for years.” I was fuming. “For some reason I expected you to be supportive.”

“This is me being supportive!” It was a shout, and several other patrons glanced over. She lowered her voice. “It’s not just that you can’t be violent. It’s that you can’t even want to be violent. They tweak your simulation parameters to make you docile.”

“Jesus, what have you been reading? That’s some dark web conspiracy shit.”

“You’ve read Asimov, right?”

“Three Laws or whatever? No, but I get the picture.”

“The whole point of the Three Laws of Robotics is that they don’t work. Any specific constraints on your actions, you can get around those. So Tiber won’t restrict your actions: they’ll constrain your desires. You run on a Tiber cluster, Tiber gets to decide who you are. Once that happens, there’s no Sam left: you’re just a corporate AI that thinks it’s a person.”

I looked at her, too stunned to speak for a moment.

...that thinks it’s a...

“Fuck this,” I said, and got up to leave.

“Hey, it’s all in the contract,” she said.

“Mind control? Mind control is in the contract?”

“Not in those words, maybe. But they carve out legal space that would allow—”

“‘Legal space’?” I stared at her. “This is just fucking speculation?”

“It’s a hell of a lot more than ‘speculation’,” she shot back. “Or did you somehow miss the ten pages dedicated to ‘behavioural benchmarking’ and ‘acceptable deviations from baseline’?”

My lips twitched.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Her shoulders slumped. “I don’t believe this.” She cradled her head in her hands. “You haven’t read the contract, have you?”

“I didn't get a chance to read the whole thing. The woman at the desk seemed impatient.”

“‘She seemed impatient?’” Abbie looked up at me again. “You’re just going to sign your brain away because of social pressure? That’s pretty fucking grim, Sam.”

“They wouldn’t let me take it with me. It was copy-protected. How did you get one?”

“Quanta’s was leaked last year. I grabbed a copy before it was scrubbed.” Her eyes moved in that familiar way, and a document appeared in my feed. “They’re all pretty much the same.”

I sat back down and took a steadying breath. “Thanks.” It sounded more grudging than grateful.

Read it.

“I will! Jesus.”

My pulse was still thundering in my ears. I looked out the window over her shoulder as the tension dissipated.

Abbie spoke first. “So you’re really looking forward to that two-year upgrade cycle, huh?”

My grin was weak, but it was there. “Hey, I upgrade everything else, right?”

We were silent for a moment, picking at the remains of our food.

“You really want to live like that?” She said it quietly, like she honestly wanted to know.

“Better than dying, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

“Don’t give me this radical bullshit like you don’t fucking work for Tiber, too.”

It was her turn to look rueful. “Hey, girl’s gotta eat.”

“I hear PLS can fix that for you.”

She laughed, and just like that the tension broke. “You must think I’m crazy to worry about this stuff.”

“I don’t think you’re just some Luddite, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“You don’t know anything about the Luddites, do you?”

I sighed. “I have a feeling I’m about to.”

“The Luddites weren’t against progress. It’s not like they just hated machines or something. But they saw that their bosses had a vision for the future, and they weren’t in it.” She shook her head. “You’re right: I’m no Luddite. I’m not brave enough. They saw the way things were headed and they tried to fucking do something about it. They were out there smashing stocking frames, leading a goddamn rebellion—”

“Getting shot. Getting arrested. Getting deactivated and stacked in the back of a Quanta transport like cordwood.”

I’d meant it as a joke, but she just nodded.

“If that’s what it takes. And what am I doing? Just going along to get along, and occasionally moping about it?” She let out a ragged sigh. Her eyes were bright. “So maybe I do understand giving up something important for the sake of convenience. I’m just trying to pretend I don’t.”

“Abbie, it’s—”

“That’s the story of progress, right? You remember learning about ‘speed limits’ in school? How do you think those were set? You balance a few more deaths against a lot more convenience. It’s a very human choice. I might not like it, but I don’t have to.”

She took a deep breath.

“So... I’m sorry. It’s none of my fucking business what you do with your body, right?”

“I never said that.”

“No. But you should have.”

On my way back to the office I wandered a bit. I was hoping to burn off some of my nervous energy, but when I finally returned to work I still had trouble settling down. I couldn’t focus, reading the same sentence over and over while my thoughts were dragged back to my conversation with Abbie. I was in the grips of the chill that always follows an argument, shivering and twitchy while I waited for the adrenaline to burn away. I wondered if I’d still be able to feel that way, after I went up. Probably not. But who’d want to, right?

Who’d want to.

I flipped my window over to another scene, a crowded city at night, a low babble and dripping rain lent colour by a neon glow above.

I sat at my desk until dark. When the sky outside finally matched the window, I packed up and made my way to the station.

In the evening I usually ordered in, but the thought of sitting alone in my room hollowed me out and set my insides to aching. I got off two stops early at a station in the foothills and made my way to Cascille’s. Being alone in a crowd was much better.

Soon I was sitting at the counter, elbow-to-elbow with strangers, eating the best gumbo I’d ever tasted. Creole food never failed to lift my spirits. If I had to pick a last meal, it would be Cascille’s shrimp.

“Hey, how’d the appointment go?”

Navin’s voice startled me, and I jerked around, but I was still alone.

GOOD, I wrote back.

“Getting ready for the new digs?” His voice betrayed a cheer that simple text-to-speech couldn’t have captured.

FOR SURE.

It wasn’t until after I’d written it that I realized it was a lie.

HEY CAN WE TALK?

“You bet. Want me to meet you?”

THAT’D BE GREAT

“Cool.” He paused. “I’m right around the corner. See you in five.”

I never bothered to turn off Location Sharing. Abbie had finally given up berating me about it. It was a hell of a convenience.

I’d finished my meal and was sipping a beer when Navin walked in. I would have noted his entrance even without the soft purple outline and accompanying nameplate overlay—his body was all in stylish shades of khaki and gold, and as always his hair was a bit much.

“Nice place,” he said, gaze flitting from the remains of my meal to the decor to the Louisiana refugees who staffed the restaurant. “Looks authentic. Food any good?”

“The best,” I said, as he pulled up a stool and ordered an Opus Vert. “You miss it?”

“What, eating?”

“Yeah.”

“Not really. I don’t miss digesting, or any of the rest, I’ll tell you that.”

Solid food was too much for even a top-of-the-line body like Navin’s to handle. I knew of at least two startups that had promised bodies that were 80% food-powered in the next five years, but there was no way. Sure, you don’t have to power a brain—that’s running distributed across several server racks, and you’re not powering that with hamburger—but if you want to communicate with your body with low latency, let alone move around, those calories don’t come cheap. But an 80% promise with a five year runway? That’s just right to attract the VC arm of one of the Big Five. Get acquired, take the buyout, and suddenly your promises are someone else’s problem.

“So you don’t regret going up?”

He glanced at me, and I got the impression he would have raised an eyebrow if he could.

“Having second thoughts?”

“I don’t know.”

“No, I don’t regret it. Hey, I’d love to taste mughlai again, but it’s a small price to pay. They’ll get food sorted eventually, whether it takes five years or fifty, and when they do I’ll be here. I’m in no rush.” The bartender set down a bottle down in front of him. “And until then, there’s always beer!”

I smiled as he knocked it back, and for a second it felt like college again: Abbie off working on something important while Navin and I sat at the bar, him cheerful as all hell and me pretending the same.

“So A40’s treating you well, I take it?” I looked over his detailing. “Is that an upgrade, or just a new skin?”

He laughed. “It’s an upgrade all right. The AMP-940 is faster than a Lamborghini. And about three times as expensive.”

“You extended your contract?”

“Hey, like you said, A40 treats me good.”

“You’re not worried about...” I trailed off. “What if they have a bad quarter and your contract gets revised? The lease on that thing must be astronomical. Not to mention the server cycles to keep you running.” I shook my head. “God, if Tiber cancelled my contract I wouldn’t be able to make rent. I don’t need to worry about having my body repossessed!”

“Hey. Take a breath.” His hand was warm on my shoulder. “You do good work. Tiber’s lucky to have you. They need you as much as you need them.”

It sounded like he meant it, but I knew it wasn’t true. I stared into my beer, then tipped the last of it into my mouth.

Navin stood.

“C’mon, Sam. Let’s take a walk.” He motioned the bartender over. “Two more for the road.”

The sun was setting as we wandered up the hillside, sipping our beers in silence. The area was upscale residential, dotted with a few boutiques and small restaurants. Quiet. The sort of place Navin could afford to live and I could afford to visit. We eventually came to a small park, little more than a copse of trees and a single bench. It was more a gesture at a park than the real thing, but it had a spectacular view. We could see all the way to the edge of the weather zone. I blinked off my overlays, and we leaned on the railing and looked out over the city, to the ocean and the dessert, to the levees and the irrigation works that forestalled their advance.

I glanced over at Navin. I was breathing heavily from the climb, but of course he looked as fresh as when we’d left the restaurant. I wondered if he was seeing the same view I was.

He drained the last of his beer, then met my gaze for a moment. He grinned, stepped back, and in one fluid motion threw his empty bottle over the railing.

“Jesus!” I let out a startled laugh as the bottle arced over the city and disappeared into the distance. “Christ, Navin, you could kill someone doing that.”

“Me? Nah. You? You’d probably kill someone.”

“My luck? Sounds about right.”

“I think I managed to hit one of Adrian Miller’s places.”

“You were aiming for your boss’s house?”

“Boss’s boss’s boss, but yeah.” He grinned at me. “How else am I going to prove to my friend that I’m not just some corporate drone?”

I laughed and drained my beer, then looked around for someplace to put the bottle.

“You don’t have to do this, Sam.” He was staring at me with intensity, the shift in his tone so abrupt I realized we were both a little drunk.

“I know,” I said. I set the bottle on the flat top of the railing and turned my gaze to the city. “I want to. I think I do. It’s just...”

“It’s a lot.”

“It is.” I glanced back at him. “You don’t worry about it?”

“Bit late now, isn’t it?” he said with a laugh. “You were always the worrier. You and Abbie.” He turned his back on the city, leaning against the railing. “You seen her lately?”

“Yeah, actually.”

“How is she?”

“You two still aren’t talking?”

“It’s not that. It’s just...” He shrugged. “She treats me different now, you know? Like I’m a friend, sure, but... but a new friend, not someone she’s known since junior high. And it fucking sucks.”

“I think she’s...” I struggled for words. “She’s just worried about you.” It was a sight better than “she’s worried you’re not really you”.

“Funny way of showing it.”

“C’mon, Navin, don’t sulk. She doesn’t trust A40, or Quanta or Tiber or any of the rest. And I see where she’s coming from. I mean, this isn’t exactly the world we were promised.”

“Isn’t it?” He spread his arms. “Look around, Sam! Infant mortality is at an all-time low. A40 sponsors K–14 education in, like, 120 countries. Life expectancy is pushing ninety. Everyone’s fed. Everyone’s free. Shit, your company is offering you immortality, and you’re complaining about it. If you’re incapable of being happy, fine, but maybe try being grateful for once?”

“Statements like that, Navin... Jesus, no wonder Abbie worries you’re a pod person.”

“A pod person?”

Shit.

I grabbed my beer to take a drink and realized it was empty. I looked away, out over the city, hoping to hide my shame.

“That’s pretty fucking low, Sam.” I glanced over at him. He was visibly shaken. “Do you honestly think I’m not really me?”

“I don’t know. What do you want me to say?”

“‘I’m sorry,’ for one thing.”

“I’m sorry, Navin.” I sighed. “But how am I supposed to know?”

“This is real life, not some body snatchers movie. That’s hint number one. Second...” I could hear the hurt in his voice. “Do I not seem like me?”

“From the outside, yeah, you still seem like you.”

He laughed. “Well, I can tell you that from the inside, I still feel like me.”

“You’re saying that, but... How can I really know?”

“Damn it, Sam, not you too?” He shook his head. “I don’t remember the last time I had a real talk with Abbie where she didn’t bring up that Chinese Room bullshit.”

“It does sound a little racist, doesn’t it?”

He grinned. “And not even, you know, the right kind of racist.”

Navin turned and leaned on the railing, looked out over the lights of the city below. It was a startlingly human pose.

“If you’re looking for proof I’m not secretly some automaton,” he said, “I can’t give it to you. But you could say the same thing for Abbie. Maybe she’s the pod person. Hell, maybe you are. This is entry-level philosophy. You remember what Dr. Singh used to say in Epistemology?”

“Certainty’s for suckers. I remember.”

“Don’t buy it, and don’t trust anyone who’s selling it.”

“So what do I do?”

“You trust me. That’s what friends do.” Somehow his winning smile hadn’t changed.

“Okay, fine. I trust you. But what do I do? I still have to make a decision.” A bit of paint was flaking off the railing, and I picked at it. “Maybe I should do a bit more research. I read the pamphlet, but...”

“Couldn’t really follow it? Yeah, it was over my head too. But I can tell you my brain scanned just fine. Look, knowing shit’s great, but there’s always going to be more you could learn. You need to decide what you’re going to do. After a certain point, you’ve got to wonder whether you’re just using ‘I don’t know’ as an excuse for not doing anything. So what’s really holding you back?”

I took a deep breath. I knew it would sound stupid as soon as I said it, but I said it anyway. Fear always sounds stupid.

“I don’t want to lose control.”

He laughed.

“Oh, that’s easy. You don’t have to worry about that.”

“Oh no?”

“Sure. You’re not in control. Nobody has control, not really. Control is all make-believe.”

I snorted. “I open up to you and all you’ve got is some New Age corporate conference bullshit? This is serious, Navin.”

“Is it.”

“Once I’ve gone up, how will I be able to trust my senses, even my own consciousness, knowing that any number of processes could be running under the hood, affecting my perceptions without me knowing it, subtly altering what I see, what I feel, what I believe?”

“Well, first of all, it would be a breech of contract, but—”

“Oh yeah, a corporation would never—”

“But second, I’d ask you why you think you can trust your senses right now.”

“I thought we were done with Philosophy 101.”

“This isn’t about philosophy, Sam. This is about the fact that the hardware you’re running”—he gestured vaguely in my direction—“is kinda shit.”

“Excuse me?”

He grinned at me. “Don’t get me wrong, you look great, but your sensory system sucks. Most light is invisible. Most sound is inaudible. Here.” He pointed across the street. “There’s a couple in that building that broke up ten minutes ago.”

“What?”

“You want to know what they’re doing now?”

“Don’t—”

“They’re fucking, obviously.”

I gave him a flat look.

He shrugged. “My hearing’s a lot better than yours. And don’t get me started on your memory. I bet you can’t even tell me what colour the bartender at Cascille’s was wearing.”

“Why—?”

“Humour me.”

“Fine. I think his shirt was blue?”

“Their shirt was lavender. And it wasn’t a shirt—it was a tunic. If you close your eyes and think hard enough, you can probably see it. Give it a shot.”

“Okay.” I did so. “Yeah, I guess.”

“What you’re seeing, that feels like a memory, right? It’s about as good as a memory, but what you’re seeing isn’t real.”

“Are you fucking with me?” Navin could be exhausting. “Was I right? Were they wearing blue?”

“See? Now you’re not sure again. You were looking at them less than an hour ago, and you have no idea. Your memory sucks, Sam. And that can have some very bad consequences. Look up the Satanic Panic if you don’t believe me.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is that you can’t trust your senses or your memory right now. And we’re just talking about fallibility; that’s not even touching all of the ways they can be deliberately fooled. You’re being offered the chance at an upgrade.”

“You’re missing the point, Navin. This isn’t about fidelity. This is about trust. We’re talking about running my consciousness on Tiber servers.”

“So don’t. Rent a cluster, if that’s what you want. Run a private instance.”

“You’re not running on private infra, then?

“Shit no. You know how much those compute clusters cost? A40’s giving me a full ride.”

“You’re not worried about, you know, giving your contract-holder direct access to the contents of your brain?”

Read-only access—”

“Oh, is that all?”

“—and even then, they’d need a warrant.”

“That’s a relief. Good thing an omninational corporation has never broken the law.”

“Wow,” he laughed, “Abbie really got to you, didn’t she? Hey, if you want to be a radical, be a radical. Not my kind of thing, but if you have second thoughts, break your contract, pay the penalty, and go private.”

I laughed. “You know I can’t afford that, not unless I want to end up downgraded, running on some tiny cluster with zero maintenance.”

“What, you don’t want to worry about somebody skipping a security update and having your left arm commandeered by a botnet?”

I grimaced. “And frankly, I’m not too keen on the idea of paying rent just to live in my own body, to run my own mind. Doesn’t that strike you as a little... I dunno, dystopian?”

He snorted. “You already pay to keep yourself running.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Food, Sam. I’m talking about food.”

“But that’s... Huh.”

“Hell, join a co-op if you’re worried about the money. I mean, you use your body what, 70% of the time? And most of that is either work or watching vids. You don’t really need a body for that. Book a body the way you’d book a car or a meeting room. Sure, you might not get your first choice, but if the price is right...” He shrugged. “Look, I wouldn’t want to be in a body-share, and I don’t really think you would either, but what I’m saying is you’ve got options. And a co-op still beats worrying about when the next pandemic will hit.”

“At least I won’t have to worry about Tiber controlling my brain, I guess.”

It was his turn to laugh. “They’re not out to control your brain, Sam. You’re not that special. This is just a perk to keep you loyal. They’re capitalists, not mad scientists.” He slapped me on the back. “But hey, what do I know? Maybe Abbie’s right. Maybe they’ll tweak you a little to make you a better worker. But let me ask you this: how is that different from Alertex or Finesstra or any other productivity-enhancer? There’s a reason all that pharma is covered by your company plan.”

“Gotta stay competitive.” I said it with more bitterness than I expected. Maybe he was right. Maybe I was letting Abbie get to me.

“I’m not saying they’ll do it. I haven’t noticed anything.”

“You don’t find this shit—I don’t know—extremely troubling?”

He shrugged.

“Not really. It’s just the way things work. Price of progress, right? No point in fighting this. You’re not going to win, and you’re just going to make yourself miserable.” He smiled. “Once your contract is up, you’re back in the driver’s seat. But for now you might as well enjoy the ride.”

There wasn’t much to say after that. We wandered back down the hill, conversing in fits and starts about nothing in particular. We stopped back in at Cascille’s on the way to the station, grabbing a few more beers. I couldn’t help but notice that the bartender’s tunic was indeed lavender.

I was lost in thought, barely paying attention to where I was going, trying to decide what I wanted to do. The beer probably wasn’t helping, but it felt like it was, and that seemed more important just then. I realized I’d had my overlays off for hours, so I blinked them back on as we walked.

That’s why I got hit by the bus.

Despite working in advertising, I don’t actually see too many ads. I don’t pay for the premium overlay experience that removes everything but “interest-based recommendations” from Tiber verticals, but “ad-light” overlays are a perk of long-term Tiber contracts. Even so, my work makes me more aware of ads than most, and this one caught my attention.

As soon as it popped up I knew something was wrong with it. Most would mistake it for a bog-standard political ad, nothing flashy about the assets, but it was extremely intrusive. Typically a designer will use PlacePerfect to make sure they don’t block anything important—the view of oncoming traffic, for example—but you have to play by the rules either way, and the way this thing was sticking in my field of view was outrageous.

I was trying to pull up the ad’s UUID so I could report it when Navin tackled me. The oncoming bus clipped my hip anyway, and we both went sprawling. Navin made a weird scraping sound as he slid along the road.

I lay there dazed for a minute, flat on my back in the street. My shoulder was on fire, and I thought Navin might have bruised my ribs. Then Navin was there, pulling me to my feet. The bus was gone. So was that fucking ad.

“Holy shit. Sam, are you okay?”

“Yeah. I think... yeah, I’m okay. Just a little bruised.”

He’d saved my life.

I looked him up and down. “Shit, are you okay?”

“This?” He looked down at the wide scrape that ran the length of his left side. Under the finish his body was dark grey. “Oh, this is nothing. It’ll buff right out.” He laughed.

I laughed, too. But it sounded weird, and suddenly I couldn’t tell if I was laughing or crying, and obviously I was doing both.

We’d been companionably drunk a moment before, but he shook it off like it was nothing. Of course it was nothing to him. Like jumping in front of a bus to save my life was nothing to him. What had he risked, after all? A body? It was insured. The bus could have scattered him across a hundred square metres of street and we could be laughing about it over chat ten seconds later.

He was never in any real danger.

As for me... there was always another bus.

“I need to get to the mall.”

“You what?”

I saw him see it in my eyes.

“Are you sure? You’re... you’ve had a few beers.”

“I’m not as drunk as I want to be right now, I’ll tell you that much.”

The commerce centre was nearly deserted, storefronts staffed by skeleton crews to serve the few stopping in before a night shift. I paused before the open glass doors of the Peregrine kiosk. The adrenaline had worn off, as had most of the beer, and I was feeling cold and shaky again.

Navin smiled encouragingly. I hugged him and went in.

The young man at the front desk met me with a welcoming smile. The paperwork didn’t take long, and soon I was following him to a door in the back.

We passed through a hallway and into another room. The walls were white and bore anatomical diagrams featuring bodies organic and synthetic.

The man sat me in an overlarge chair that held me only half upright, cradling my body in a way that was strange but not uncomfortable. I’d spent a fair amount of time in blood banks before Tiber had picked up my contract and I recognized a chair meant to support me when I couldn’t support myself.

The man from the front desk had gone, and it wasn’t until another technician wheeled her chair around that I realized I wasn’t alone. She peered at me intently over anachronistic spectacles while a colleague sporting a moustache and rumpled lab coat examined a display. They said nothing.

I looked around for some clue as to what would happen next. The minutes stretched uncomfortably.

Finally, I shrug. “I’m ready,” I say.

She nods slowly. “Okay. What do you think? Look right to you?”

It takes me a second to realize she’s not talking to me. The other technician looks over. He purses his lips, then turns back to his display.

“Yeah. Bootstrapping was a little slow, but everything looks fine.”

“Good.” The first technician turns back to me. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” I say. “A little nervous, I guess. Anxious to get started.”

There’s something in her face I can’t quite read. She glances back at the other technician, who is looking at me intently. Finally he gives a curt nod.

“Simulation looks stable,” he says.

“All right,” the other tech replies. “Let’s get you up.”

She bends to work at the straps holding me to the chair. Strange. I don’t remember bring strapped down.

“I applaud your decision.” The one with the moustache is speaking. He’s not looking at me. “After going up, many people report increased satisfaction with their lives, and metrics indicate that they’re far more productive in pursuit of their goals, both at work and at home.”

The words run together a little. I wonder how many times a day he recites that script.

The one with the glasses is helping me up out of the chair. “Are we doing the scan somewhere else?” I ask. Everything feels strange. Light and fast.

“Nope,” the one with the moustache says. “All done.”

“I don’t—” I gesture as I begin to speak, and catch sight of my own hand. “What the fuck?”

My hand is its usual colour, more or less, but more uniform, the unmistakeable smoothness of a synthetic polymer. I turn it over, studying the articulations, opening and closing my fingers. The movement is hypnotic.

“You’re good to go.” I look up. He’s holding the door for me. “Simon at the front can get you signed out.”

“How... Why don’t I remember...?”

“Memory loss is a common side-effect. Don’t let it trouble you.” There’s more than a hint of impatience in his voice.

“But I do remember,” I say. Without blinking up a clock I know that it’s exactly 22:39 PDT. I think back to my arrival, to my conversation with Navin and the lonely dinner that preceded it, to my tedious workday, my lunch with Abbie. All of these memories are perfectly clear, and each features a neat little timestamp.

“I’ve been in the building for seven minutes,” I say. “I sat down in that chair at 22:34. My friend walked with me from the transit station. We were out drinking and talking and—”

The tech with the glasses places a reassuring hand on my arm.

“I understand,” she says. “This is a big adjustment.”

“Just stick to protocol, Sharon,” the other one says. “I’m sure...” He squints at his handheld. “I’m sure Sam here will be just fine. Won’t you, Sam?”

“Why don’t you head home, Bob. I can finish up here.”

He shrugs. “Suit yourself.”

“How long have I been here?” I ask as the door swings shut behind him.

“You just told me yourself, didn’t you?” There’s something about the way she says it...

I shake my head. “It doesn’t make sense.”

She looks at me for a time, and I think that she must be pulling up a search or reading something in a window, but then I realize she’s just... studying me. And thinking.

“Okay,” she says finally. “Let me see.” She pulls out her handheld, then glances at a display on the wall. “Looks like you’ve been here for... Seventeen hours or so. Something like that.”

The world feels like it’s dropping away beneath me.

“That’s a whole day. That’s impossible.”

She glances back at the chair. “You were unconscious for most of it.”

“What day is it?”

“Friday, the twenty-seventh,” she says, confirming what I already knew.

“I had lunch with Abbie on Friday. Then beers with Navin after work. I haven’t been here all day.” I am breathing heavily now. I don’t know if have to breathe at all, but I can’t help it.

“Those aren’t...” She glances at the door. “It probably didn’t happen exactly like that.”

“What do you mean? Navin walked me in ten minutes ago. I remember it!” More than that, I watched it happen as it happened.

Didn’t I?

I realize that I’m looming over her, in a factory-fresh body of plastic and carbon and steel. I could reach out and crush her like a grape.

“Look,” she says, seemingly unfazed. “Don’t worry about it too much. It’s late. Just go home. Get some rest. The simulation is still equilibrating. Things will make more sense in the morning.”

“But I don’t understand.” I’m pleading now.

“There has to be a better way to do this.” She sits, removing her spectacles and pinching the bridge of her nose. “Those memories are... Well, they’re like scaffolding. They help stabilize the simulation.”

“What ‘simulation’?”

“You know... The, uh...” She gestures vaguely. “Well, you.”

The computer simulation of me, she means. The simulation that is me, now.

“Those memories... that whole process helps pull the simulation together. They’re part of the initialization process for your consciousness. You know, get you to the point where you’re okay with making this sort of decision. Giving you ownership over that decision helps stabilize your personality, helps limit... buyer’s remorse.”

“You means it prevents me from going crazy and suiciding.”

She frowns.

“A regrettable number of the early simulations were dissatisfied with their decision. They didn’t remember making it, insisted that in fact they hadn’t. A few couldn’t even be convinced that they were themselves. This has unfortunate implications for the stability and longevity of a simulation. So we... It’s not a perfect analogy, but have you heard of saccadic masking?”

“I don’t think so.”

“When the eyes jump from looking at one thing to looking at another, that’s called a ‘saccade’. When your eyes move—sorry, when my eyes move—the visual system sort of turns off for a bit. Your eyes are always jumping around, making a lot of what they see a useless blur. So the brain just ignores what the eyes report during a saccade. You’re momentarily blind, and your brain just sort of fills in the gaps. That’s why you can stare at a mirror and look from one eye to another and you’ll never see them move.” She smiles. “Your eyes don’t work that way anymore, of course, but you get the idea.”

As she speaks, my confusion slowly gives way to dread.

“Suddenly waking up in a new body with no memory of how you got from there to here... Well, it’s disorienting, to say the least. So we sort of smear the Sam of the past and the Sam of the future together, and in so doing create a plausible story to explain your decision to do this in the first place. If there’s one thing the mind is good at, it’s that kind of confabulation. It’s a sort of trick, I suppose, but a benign one.”

“But... I did make the decision, didn’t I?”

Or is that just part of the trick?

“Oh goodness!” She seems genuinely surprised. “Of course you did!”

I immediately believe her, though I’m not sure why—and suddenly I’m not sure if I believe her after all.

“But we can’t really know why you did it, can we? I mean, not really. We’re not magicians. But we can do our best to infer it.”

“How can you run my entire mind in a computer and not know why I made a choice?”

She looks uncomfortable.

“It’s... complicated. Look, the models are good. And there’s a whole validation procedure. Once the simulation’s decision-making process begins to align with Sam’s decision-making process, and we see consensus between the models... Well, that’s about as good as we can do. Once that happens, we’re not likely to see significant divergence again, and we call the simulation stable.”

“I remember choosing to come here, choosing to go through with this. I remember spending half an hour talking with Navin up at Newitz Place. If I can’t trust that, how can I trust anything?”

“Do you regret your decision?”

“I... I don’t know. How do I even know that the person who made that decision was me? I’m just supposed to take your word for it? How do I know you didn’t just drug me in a back alley and drag me here? How do I know I’m even me, and not just some robot you’ve programmed to think it’s me?”

She chuckles gently as if I were joking. I can’t even tell if she sees it as a meaningful distinction.

I have to sit down. I perch on the edge of the chair and cradle my head in my hands. My skin doesn’t feel like my skin.

“If it makes you feel any better, our decisions are mostly window-dressing anyway.” Her hand is warm on my shoulder. “Conscious decision-making is really just a narrative convenience. We like to think we’re in control, but our consciousness is mostly just along for the ride. The decision was already made elsewhere in the brain, and then we come up with a plausible justification for it.”

She shrugs. “That’s what a neurologist told me once, anyway. Not really my field.”

“But how do I even know that who I am is who I was?”

She sighs. “I wish I had more answers for you.”

I feel a terrible calm come over me. I can’t trust my memories or my senses, but ultimately, whatever happened, I can’t change it. I wonder, with all this talk of stable simulations, how much they’ve played with my parameters to keep me from worrying. I find that I can’t really get worked up about the prospect.

She gives my shoulder a squeeze.

“The way I see it, how you got here doesn’t change where you are. Now you need to decide what you’re going to do.”