The doctors told me that I was stuck in my own head.
I wasn’t. I was in the nets all the time, doing ten things at once with a bunch of people. I was rarely ever alone.
“Terminal absorption” was what the doctors called it. Despite what the vids showed, very few people had personalities really obsessive enough to be likely to fall to it.
When I was eleven, I’d started playing a new, immersive game: Time Jump. Time Jump was one of those endless games where you could build up your skills as you explored, well, time. I loved it. I played it. A lot. Some part of me hadn’t ever stopped playing.
It wasn’t the game’s fault, although my parents went ape-shit. It would have been something else if not that.
I worked as a sociologist in net studies, so it wasn’t a total wash, although some of my colleagues argued that I didn’t have an objective enough perspective to make valid studies. I usually responded that they didn’t spend enough time in the society they were studying.
Today held a special treat for me. Today, Ser Chelsea Sears would be giving a talk. Not some Congress speech, but an actual talk. I couldn’t go in person, of course, but I could be on the nets, where I could see her and see people’s reactions at the same time. Win-win.
I was already taking in the anticipatory thoughts. No one really had anything interesting to say. The smart folks — my personal favorites, of course — were biding their time, just like me. The prattlers were recouping trends in her old talks and forecasting net attendance. Who cared?
Marlon, a friend of mine on the Jordan River nets, pushed a message at me. “Hey, bro. You feeling alive at five?”
I chuckled and opened a full channel. “Humming,” I responded. “Do you know what she’s supposed to wear today?”
“Something sleek and matte, I hear,” Kim added, hopping into the conversation. She was from the Siberian nets, and helped me practice my Latvian a couple days a week.
Lyla chimed in. “The damn leader of Congress is up today, and you all only care about what she’s wearing?” Lyla was actually at the talk in person.
“That’s not all we care about,” Marlon protested. “But we can’t, you know, be so deep into the politics.”
“Why not? She’s got some valid points,” Kim said quietly. I braced myself. She’d talked about this sort of stuff before, and I always kept my peace. Kim doesn’t know that I’m… bodyless.
There was silence for a moment.
“I mean, some artificials can be dangerous…” she continued.
“Yeah, but so can some organics,” Lyla fired back. “Doesn’t mean births and personalities should be regulated, too.”
“I know, I know,” Kim said. “I just…” She cursed in Latvian. “I can’t say it right.”
“Hey,” I said. “Lay off. No need to be ill about it.”
“Yeah,” muttered Marlon. He sighed. “Is it time yet?” he asked desperately.
“Almost,” said Lyla. “Hey, have any of you played Concourse yet? I know you don’t game, Ted, but what about the rest of you?”
No, I didn’t game anymore. As the rest of them chatted about gravity wave weapons and the latest big game hero, I carefully tuned out. I couldn’t risk losing what remained of me.
“She’s on!” Lyla whispered. We all tuned in.
She walked out to the podium, and the live audience gave an uproar of applause. This woman was the public face of the Transhuman Congress, leader of the majority party, the Achievement Party. Even if you hated her politics, you loved her.
She was “sleek and matte” today, as Kim had guessed. Black one-piece that hugged curves and swallowed light. Her face was framed in black, her hair blending seamlessly with the outfit.
I had an obsession with bodies. Mine was lying in a long-term care facility, unused except for the brain inside that let me be here. A brain that couldn’t even keep that body going any more; tubes and pumps did that.
Chelsea Sears stood at the podium with her announcer, who prattled on about her qualifications, as if we didn’t already know how amazing she was. She looked adorably bashful and modest, and I saved a snapshot to look at again later.
Chelsea stood at the podium for a minute, waiting for the applause to die down.
“Thank you, my friends,” she said. “Thank you.” The applause finally tapered off.
“I want to share with you my thoughts on expansion,” she began. “Expansion of minds and expansion of us as a race, as a people.” There was a murmur from the crowd.
She cleared her throat slightly. “We’ve evolved ourselves beyond the need for limiting ourselves to one planet. We can construct assistants to help with terraforming planets like Mars and — when we become more efficient at it — Ganymede, Jupiter’s moon.” A more energetic shuffling from the crowd.
I envisioned an army of arties flying out to Jupiter, all alone and cut off from human contact. Would they mind? I would.
Chelsea raised a hand to silence the crowd, eyes gently pleading. “Now let me explain my reasoning for this initiative I’m trying to kick off. The big question that keeps me awake at night is, ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?'”
“We make our assistants like us, and we live our lives in a way that is a modification of the way people have always lived here. We tweak our styles to not be so wasteful, so hateful, so deadly, but it’s really all the same.”
“But if we want a change, to truly evolve, which comes first — the idea of how to change, or the mechanism that allows us to change? Do we have to find new uses for existing technologies to leverage them for change, or do we make new technologies to make change?”
Kim chirped in over our channel, saying, “Both, of course.” The reactions I took in began to debate about that, a few arguing for one side or another. I was with Kim on that.
“I think,” Chelsea continued, “that there’s more of the former. There’s a small segment of our population with the creativity to make the new technologies — these are our elite scientists and top businesses. But when we already have the technology, even more people have the creativity to think of ways to make new uses for them. This sort of thing happens most among other businesses, but among the scientific community, too.” Chelsea paused, and I jumped into the temporary silence.
“Wait,” I protested. “That’s bullshit. Every one of us normal people thinks of new uses for technology all the time. Just look at the uses of the nets–”
“Shh!” Marlon said.
“Alright, alright” I muttered.
“We spend a lot of our energy manipulating artificial beings and artificial spaces like the nets,” Chelsea said. “I think think we should leverage these to move in a different direction. We should turn our attentions outward, instead of so incestuously creating art in our own image.”
“Leverage artificial beings?” I muttered.
“Imagine,” Chelsea said breathlessly, “being able to fathom — each of us — the distances between planets. To be able to compare it to the distances you yourself have traveled, just like distances we travel to and from stores. Imagine seeing comets and, when we figure out fast interstellar travel, visiting nebulae.”
“Science fiction has been doing it for centuries. Why aren’t we doing it for real?” she asked.
“I have prepared a list scientific foundations that have already been interested in terraforming and interplanetary travel,” Chelsea said with a heart-stopping grin. “These groups would get funding under my initiative to make the effort happen.”
Chelsea looked a little more serious. “We would also make heavy use of artificials in the effort, of course.” Of course, I thought. “Our artificial friends have skills that are perfect for this effort. To that end, we would institute a selective draft.”
I felt a chill.
“Certain existing models,” Chelsea said with a slight smile, “would be used in the physical efforts of terraforming and exploration, but there are models with a lot of mental processing power. We have resources that can do the computations necessary to pilot and manage these ships and terraforming resources real-time. We can’t let them go unused,” she insisted. The feed of reactions were picking up.
“But we must have the human element,” she pushed, “and we must have fully dedicated people involved. So we’ll be talking to and possibly drafting naturalized artificials and people with terminal absorption. Their singular attention to projects would be crucial.”
Naturalized artificials were models of arties who had been established as people in the empire. Some of the folks on the nets responding did like it, though. Unfortunately.
“We have to grow our minds,” Chelsea reiterated. “All of our minds, in different ways. To do that, we need different environments and different technologies.”
She opened the floor to discussion shortly after that, including discussion and questions from people on the nets. My friends and I stuck our channel, including Lyla.
“It’s a really good idea,” Lyla was gushing. “Imagine living on Ganymede!”
Marlon growled, “It fits into her crazy artie-control scheme, for damn sure.”
“Humming,” I replied. “I’m not sure I like this.”
“Oh, well, of course,” Lyla said quietly, her enthusiasm dampened.
“Why not?” asked Kim. “Hey! Maybe they’ll have call for sociologists! It would be a great career-maker, to get to help the colonization of Mars.”
“I… yeah, I guess it would be,” I said. She had no idea.
Lyla blurted, “Ted has terminal absorption.”
I sighed into the silence. “It’s not a big–”
“Oh,” Kim said. “I… didn’t realize.” There was something in her voice, a realization. I hated that realization. People thought they could explain all sorts of pieces of my behavior and personality by chalking it up to the absorption.
“It’s not a big deal,” I said forcefully.
“I don’t like Sears’s damn politics any-fucking-way,” Marlon exploded. “She’d have labeled Ted a broken artie with some of her legislation, if not for pushy assholes like Ser Chase. If she weren’t a gorgeous genius, I’d hate her.”
“It’s not a big fucking deal,” I barked again. “Can we just drop it?”
“We can get you out of it, right?” Lyla asked.
I chuckled sardonically. “Doubtful. They have me by the balls, if I didn’t want to. I’m pretty sure I can’t survive without a brain, and I don’t have any backups of myself, like some of the crazy rich people. They could just turn off my life support.”
“Or firewall in your mind,” Marlon supplied helpfully.
Kim said, “Oh,” again.
The on-site conversation about the imperial expansion continued for a few more hours, but I and my friends broke up after about the next hour of stilted, unenthusiastic conversation.
Someone like Chelsea — and her party — could so casually toss up the idea of using arties, despite the fact that it had long been demonstrated that arties had at least a facsimile of emotion.
And what about me? I didn’t want to be a part of anyone’s draft, even for a noble purpose.
A static message chimed in my inbox, from Donald Canon, an Achievement Party Congress representative from the German region.
I didn’t open it, but mentally girded my loins and posted on the nets, “I just got a message from a Congress rep. I’m terminally absorbed.” This could cost me my freedom. Or my life, if the Achievement Party got a mind to be nasty.
Within a few minutes, I had a slew of responses. Some arties had gotten them, too. Mostly scientists like myself, some minor public figures. Seems to have been a prearranged message. They were trying to marshal support from the toughest quarter.
I began to send out private messages to select people. I needed to marshal my own support before I could talk to the Achievement Party’s goons.