Donald Canon’s message to me remained unread in my inbox. He was an Achievement Party rep from the Germanic region.
I and others like me — terminally absorbed professionals, naturalized artificials — had gotten messages just after Chelsea Sears’s address this morning. The talk was supposed to be non-political, or at least not a Congressional speech, but it turned out to be a call to enlist us in expanding the empire’s borders.
I didn’t do enlistment. Not by force.
Problem was, I could be easily held hostage. My body was in a long-term care facility, easily drugged or unhooked from its tubes. I probably wouldn’t even know.
So I surreptitiously began to check out backup options. These were places that would digitize and download my mind and what made up my personality. I could make clones of myself, or I could have my will state that I be restored in a new body the event of my death.
Some rich terminal absorption patients had tried body-hopping, but their personalities were still obsessive and there was still part of their mind — a part which couldn’t be “cut out”, even in a digitization process — that was fixated on whatever their original downfall had been.
I called Poalo, a friend of mine who worked in heavy, secure data encryptions and transfers.
“Hey, bitto,” he sing-songed when he answered.
“Hey, Poalo,” I replied.
“Oh, man, you must be ill about this whole initiative,” Poalo said, his face scrunching sympathetically. He always had the weirdest facial expressions.
“Little bit, yeah.” My avatar didn’t do facial expressions — by my choice — but if it did, it’d be red-mad with a big frown. “I wanted to ask about mind downloads, though.”
“Not really my area of expertise, bitto,” Poalo said. “You know they’re still expensive as hell.”
“How much is ‘expensive’?” I asked. I’d accumulated a bit of wealth over the years — I only had to pay for medical treatment, which was all automated, even the muscle therapies. Not cheap, but cheap enough.
“They range from five thousand to ten thousand kiloruples,” he said.
“Fuck,” I muttered. I didn’t have that much money to throw around.
“That’s… through proper channels, though,” Poalo said slowly.
I perked back up. “There’s a black market for brain downloads? Seems dangerous.”
“Oh, yeah,” Poalo said. “Lots of defective copies that way, and no way to test without firing it up, which has all sorts of problems in and of itself.”
Yeah. There wasn’t a fancy term for it, but personalities diverged once they started getting different stimulation, which included being unconscious.
“Plus,” Poalo added, “it’s difficult to update them to keep them current. So it becomes an old snapshot real quick. There’s no black market sync backup software that I know of.”
“Fuck,” I murmured again. That wasn’t going to work, unless I was willing to disappear right then, which was premature. I wasn’t even sure Chelsea’s initiative had been publicly put before Congress yet. I still had research to do.
“Hey, bitto,” Poalo said. “I’ll keep my ear to the ground. You’ll be the second one to know if I hear something.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said distractedly. “Oh, wait. If someone were working on unofficial sync software, who would it be?”
Poalo whistled. “I don’t even know. You’re the one with the weird net friends. Ask some of them.”
“Yeah, well, keep an eye out, like you said,” I said before signing off.
Kim, from the Siberian nets, had left a message for me to ping her. She was a sort-of friend; she bought into some of Chelsea Sears’s artie-control ideas, which made it a little hard to deal with her.
Not that I was, strictly speaking, an artie. Not legally. The line was fuzzy, though.
I rang her up.
“Sveiki,” I greeted when she picked up.
“Hello,” she responded, cautiously cheery.
There was a moment of awkward silence before Kim rushed, “Look, Ted, I didn’t mean anything by the whole ‘arties can be dangerous’ stuff.”
“Do you consider me an artie?” I asked seriously.
“I… I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it.” She looked down. “I don’t have any easy answers.”
“Listen, Kim, I have to figure out how to make a backup of myself so that if they come for me, I can have an out.”
“Maybe… maybe you should cooperate,” Kim murmured.
I was stunned for a moment. “You’re kidding, right? Cooperate with Crazy-Gorgeous-Genius-Sears’s plans for galactic domination?”
Kim couldn’t help but smile a little at my description. “I just mean that it would be a great honor to get to work on the projects,” she said. “A once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
“We live a long damn time, Kim. I’m not hot about being Congress’s guinea pig.” I sighed. “Unless you know anyone who writes good software for personal backups, I kinda need to go. I have a lot of shit to figure out.”
“Um, yeah. Just be safe, Ted,” Kim pleaded. “Don’t fixate too much on this. I doubt they’re singling you out.”
“Didn’t you hear?” I asked. “I got a message from some Achievement Party goon. They are singling me out.”
“I got a message from the Party, too,” Kim said quietly, her pleading demeanor gone. “They really want you to cooperate, Ted.”
I disconnected without another word.
Fuck. I rang up Marlon, who answered immediately. “Sup, bro?”
“Did you get a message from the Achievement Party?” I asked quickly.
Marlon blinked. “Uh, no. I don’t truck with them much,” he said.
“Kim did,” I growled, “and they ‘really want me to cooperate’, according to her.”
“Shit, dude,” Marlon breathed. “So what do you need?”
“A way to back myself up. Something not mainstream, and something cheaper than what most folks do.”
“So black market, but safe and cheap?” Marlon chuckled. “You don’t ask for much.”
“You know this is probably out of my purview,” I said. “This is stuff people take off the nets and into the physical world, so I only see snippets of it.”
“Like iceberg tips,” Marlon mused.
“Artist,” I accused. “You know anyone?”
Marlon laughed and said, “It’s not like anyone I hang with just sits around and talks about it, no.”
“But you’ll see what you can do?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. We chatted a bit longer and signed off.
It could take him a couple of days to get back to me. He tended to get distracted. I wasn’t sure if I had a couple of days.
I dug into the Congressional records, checking the agendas for the rest of the week. Tomorrow. Sears was introducing the initiative tomorrow. With her party in the majority, they could try to choke it through in the same day, and she was obviously well-prepared to execute it.
I made careful note of the people on the different committees of Congress, including who would be likely to vote in favor of the initiative.
Around the time I’d worked my way through 46 of the 171 Congress members, I got a static message from Poalo.
All it said was “MSRO.”
Massro? A search on the nets gave me nothing useful. Some small textile company’s stock exchange symbol. Probably not what I was looking for.
I slipped into the places that the main search indexers don’t go, where all the truly illicit stuff lived. Kiddy porn, snuff films, fantasies of murders and abuse, software that promised to be able to crack bank accounts, etc. Stuff that didn’t see the light of day.
Some of my best work happened here. It was the equivalent of the seedy underbelly of a city, where people dealt drugs and death with one eye over their shoulder. These places did their best not to track anyone, although anonymity wasn’t completely possible on the net. Like I told Marlon, only tidbits were here — discussions were quick to move off the net, away from eyes like mine.
Intuition told me that MSRO was either an organization’s initials or an artie’s designation, so I tackled it from that angle.
I dug and dug, finding nothing.
When I finally came up for air, I realized I’d missed a call from Poalo. I rang him back quickly.
“Hey, bitto,” Poalo said when he answered.
“Hey. What the hell is –”
“Shuttit,” he said firmly.
I… shut it. “Okay… What can I do for you?”
“I’m going to give you a number to call,” he said, and then waited.
“I’ll call it?” I wasn’t sure what he was expecting of me here.
“Once. You can call it once,” Poalo emphasized. “Tell whoever answers exactly what software you want built, and they’ll name a price. You take it or leave it, and then you hang up. When it’s done, it’ll be delivered and you just have to make arrangements to use it.”
“And the money?” I asked.
Poalo cracked a small smile. “They’ll get it.”
I thought a moment. This was definitely something sketchy, but that was what I’d asked for, right? “Alright. I’ll make the call.”
“Good.” Poalo ended the call.
I took a deep breath and dialed the number.
“Theodore Sbili?” said a soft voice that — I’d have sworn — chittered. There was something insectoid about the voice, a little click under the words.
“That’s me,” I said slowly.
“Tell me what you need,” the voice sing-songed quietly. Yeah, there was definitely something slithering or clicking or tapping under the voice. “Creepy” didn’t begin to describe it.
“Are you Massro?” I dared to ask. Worst case, I had to go back to Poalo and beg another audience, right?
“Masahiro,” it said on a sigh. “Tell me what you need.”
I described what I needed — backup software that would synchronize as well or better than the professional stuff.
“I am a professional,” it responded.
Oops. “I meant no offense,” I said quickly.
“Worry not. Because I’ve enjoyed our talk and I enjoy your sociology work, I set my fee at 500 kiloruples.”
Not cheap, by any means, but not bank-breaking for me, either. “I’ll take it.”
“Good,” it said. “It shall be delivered within 40 hours.”
Within one day of the initiative going up in front of the entirety of Congress. I settled in to wait.