TRANSCENDENCE

by Christopher McKitterick

 

TWO: Earth

Innerspace 1: Jonathan Sombrio

Around Jonathan, the city stands high and shadowed and quiet, seeming as empty of life as an automated factory at midnight. Afternoon sunlight filters down through the ever-present haze that smells of dust and ozone, falling in luminescent green columns onto the street. The sun offers no warmth, and his breath is a puff of fog before him.

Jonathan works hard not to notice any of this, instead concentrating on his splice, a virtual-reality subscription inserted into his field of view like a wedge splitting reality. Another channel he subscribes to plays the newest form of rock, revmetal, 24 hours a day. He has shut off the video so nothing but music penetrates. The notes are torn from the strains of engines and the bone-bass thumps of steam presses, human voices barely perceptible above their industrial accompaniment.

At the same time, he’s double-subscribed—naturally, he’s not paying the kind folks who, unwittingly, let him electronically feed from their home systems—into an adventure flick he never misses, entitled, Lone Ship Bounty. The center 30-degree wedge of his vision is spliced with the show, pushing reality 15 degrees to each side so this virtual world can take center stage.

Lone Ship Bounty isn’t scheduled to begin for an hour, but the previews are sometimes as interesting as the show itself. Except when his captain is in real-time combat: That’s the best. Jonathan especially enjoys watching the Captain, his quick decision-making, his sure confidence in crisis. Secretly, he wishes he were the Captain. The Captain was from Minneapolis, too. Jonathan bets that no one ever got the best of him, when he lived here. Jonathan knows about being used.

Echoes of shrieks and laughter dash off the steel and concrete facings of the real buildings near him, so Jonathan kicks open his cloud of data-icons and begins to walk faster. A ground-car screeches around a corner. Jonathan rushes to the ragged sidewalk just before the wheeled vehicle roars past, spewing a cloud of exhaust from poorly burned methane. If it weren’t for the shrieks and this car, Jonathan might think Minneapolis abandoned.

"Meat!" he cusses the driver using both his physical voice and the public:local comm channel. At the same time, he reaches down for a chunk of concrete. He throws it after the beetle-sleek car. But by the time his projectile falls, the target is far away, dodging charred hulks of other cars as well as shattered aluminum and glass panels fallen long ago from the old towers. He cusses again, mentally dashing through network channels to find this guy and tell him a thing or two. What kind of retro drives a ground car intheflesh anymore, anyway? The guy isn’t even transmitting a signal.

Then, embarrassed, Jonathan realizes he too is traveling intheflesh. He is on his way home from Minneapple Corrections, which just released him from feedrapture-addiction treatment, where he spent a damned long time, including his sixteenth birthday, ostensibly learning that a healthy boy needs to lead more than a purely electronic life. The car vanishes from his mind.

 ""‘Feedrapture-addiction,’ phah!" He spits. He never felt enraptured while spliced into layer upon layer of the virtual world. Only relieved. Who wouldn’t? Who doesn’t? Anyhow, Jonathan spends more time in his physical world than many he knows.

He pulls his concentration from the spliced-in subscription—not needing to shut it off, so adept is he at this—and studies his physical surroundings as if they had just now sprouted from the street.

Unedited, clear of overlays, the city seems to crash down all around, ominous, heavy, impenetrable. Few objects display any info-icons, and those that do offer little in the way of comfort. His nostrils fill with the stench of decaying garbage and damp cement. The shrieks end with a final rising note, and the laughter ends with them.

Now silence, except for gravel and broken glass scuffling beneath his boots as he walks.

He is alone. No, alone isn’t a strong enough word for how he feels. Once upon a time he had been in love . . . what? only a year ago. Not with an individ—a subscription fantasy mate almost everyone enjoys at one time or another—no, that isn’t for Jonathan. His love was a real girl, someone he’d been with intheflesh. érase was her handle. As he begins to think of her, powerful need automatically brings an individ program to life, a program that his former—goddammit, former! Jonathan thinks—gang leader had him download. Jonathan has to force himself to stop dreaming of érase to shut down the damned thing, beautiful girl or no.

"Fucking government card," he mutters, cursing his cybernetic implant for its utter lack of security against such downloads, and what a bitch it is to erase them without damaging the other data contained in memory.

For a moment, his ephemeral brain-fingers almost touch his black-market card, almost power it up, almost nudge him back onto the road that led to feedrapture and those idiotically concerned nurses at the Center. Because he was still unenfranchised—and won’t be franchised with EarthCo until he turns twenty-one and proves himself worthy of becoming a full, shareholding citizen—they hadn’t probed his head. In the old days before the politi-corps, the unenfranchised used to be called "minors" or "homeless." Because the Center staff hadn’t probed him, they hadn’t noticed the blackcard implanted in his scalp. Had he been a few years older, they would have looked for and found it, and he could have been sentenced to five years of virtual lockup. Simple as that. He’s seen it happen to other kids, others from the gang. Their slack faces attested to the claim that virtual lockup is more secure than the physical prisons of history.

Something in the distance booms, followed by a shockwave that rattles the metal grate protecting a chipboard window beside him. Jonathan stops and turns to see what’s happening while resuming the city’s default overlay, bristling with information and ads.

A chorus of whistles slashes the air, whistles followed by howls of pain. Cracks and sharp bangs answer the chorus, and this orchestra rivals the music in Jonathan’s revmetal subscription. He realizes the booms come from sonic grenades, the cracks and bangs from antique guns, the whistles from police rifles.

A pair of young men round a building and run toward Jonathan.

"Zone behind us!" one of them shouts at Jonathan via a line-of-sight personal-comm channel, his self-projection appearing for a moment overlaid atop Jonathan’s splice, then disappearing just as quickly. Though the words shouted in the air are hard to discern amid the noise, those fed direct to Jonathan’s neural receivers are as clear as the man’s calm, smiling 3VRD image, his concept of himself.

"Beatcoats heading this way, stupid," the other man says, also flashing in front of Jonathan with tailored perfection, then winking out.

Jonathan finds his legs, turns, and begins to run. He’s been inside a mobile hostile zone before and feels no urge to repeat the experience. Beatcoat cops don’t have the same restrictions as regular police.

Thunder rattles in his skull. He hasn’t gotten far enough away. Thunder for three seconds, then a booming voice and a disorienting 90-degree grey-out splice that pushes reality far into his peripheral vision:

"ATTENTION ALL CITIZENS IN RANGE OF THIS FEED. DO NOT BE ALARMED. DO NOT TRY TO RUN OR YOU WILL BE TARGETED. DO NOT BLOCK THIS POLICE OPERATION, AUTHORIZATION ZIGFIELD-PP107. WE ARE SEEKING THESE MEN—"

Several men of varying skin color appear in front of Jonathan, who—since he is a master of splices and overlays—is still running, keeping his attention on the fuzzy periphery. Statistics, names, and credit IDs roll across the sizzling grey background of the splice while 3VRD images of the men slowly spin, sprouting beards and changing hairstyles. Dozens of info-icons glitter above them, awaiting Jonathan’s mental attention to click them open.

"IF YOU ARE ON THIS LIST, SURRENDER. DO NOT RESIST. IF YOU RECOGNIZE ANY OF THESE MEN, CONTACT US NOW ON ANY BANDWIDTH. DO NOT HESITATE OR YOU COULD BE CHARGED WITH OBSTRUCTION, MOBILE HOSTILE ZONE CODE 97, PARAGRAPH 19. . ."

Jonathan recognizes one of the men as the first one who had warned him of the approaching Zone. He doesn’t even consider telling the cops. He runs, dodging a man lying prone across the sidewalk. Where did all these people come from? Like insects, they spill out of every crevice where they had lain quiet, alive only in their skulls and virtual lives. I bet none of them had to endure feedrapture treatment, Jonathan thinks. He grows angrier.

The invasion of his brain continues, but now he can’t tell whether the thunder he’s hearing is grenades or the beatcoat cop splice.

As he rounds the ragged edge of a brick building, Jonathan collides with a young woman. He rebounds from her, tumbling to the rubble at the base of a wall while she falls backward against a heap of molding garbage.

". . .AUTHORIZATION TO USE LETHAL MEASURES. . ."

"You okay?" he asks, communicating via personal-comm channel rather than talking, as usual. When she doesn’t answer, he realizes the beatcoat splice is blocking all electronic feed but theirs. Of course. While rising to his feet, he repeats the question using his meat-speech equipment: throat and mouth.

"I’m afraid," she says. Her voice is barely audible above the high-volume greyout voice-over and electronic hum. "I can’t see anything but those horrible men."

Jonathan studies her as best he can in the unfocusable corners of his vision. She seems so small against the backdrop of trash and abandoned stuff. She weeps quietly. The memory of the Captain gives him strength to make a decision.

"C’mon," he says, taking her hand without faltering. "Hurry." He pulls her to her feet and begins to run, tugging her along. She follows, stumbling over every obstacle.

". . .DO NOT RESIST. . ."

On the street Jonathan leaves behind, a sonic grenade falls and pulses, blasting him nearly off his feet, battering his back with debris thrown before the shockwave. The girl trips and he has to drag her for several steps until she regains her footing. He will not stop running now, not for anything.

". . .DO NOT RUN. . ."

Gunpowder-type automatic-weapons fire bursts to life from a broken window in the building across the street, pounding the air with a sustained drum-roll. The girl screams. Jonathan grips her hand tighter as the cops’ particle-accelerator rifles whine and snap. Too close. Jonathan grits his teeth, breath hot in his throat as he runs.

A new cross-street slides into view, and Jonathan pulls the girl onto its sidewalk. Something about the building’s construction shields a great deal of the greyout and, suddenly, Jonathan’s adventure-series splice flickers back into view like an overlay in the middle 30 degrees. The calm, authoritarian voice of the beatcoats becomes muffled and staticky. He realizes the revmetal is still screaming and pounding at the back of his skull, so he shuts it off.

He knows better than to stop running at the first hint of safety. A mobile hostile zone can sometimes cover a dozen square blocks, more when the police face real, organized resistance, terrorists, or NKK corporate-saboteur agents. But because the greyout is fading, this has to be the edge of the Zone’s perimeter.

They zigzag a few more streets away, moving in whichever direction the greyout fades most, and finally emerge into the relative safety of the locks-and-dams. Leg-muscles burning, Jonathan slows to a fast walk while they descend a muddy slope. Soon they reach a path, its dirt packed like stone, and stroll silently beside one another to a concrete bridge spanning a sheltered canal off the Mississippi. The only info-icons here identify shoals beneath the water, gas lines just beneath the soil, or products the viewer should buy.

Jonathan blocks the icons and shuts down all his subscription splices, replacing them with a personal comm channel. His real surroundings slide back together in his vision as the girl’s 3VRD appears before him; by default, he automatically projected his own image and some lightly fictional metadata icons when he spoke to her.

She looks old, maybe eighteen, and wears a gown of strange—almost retro, if it had ever been a style—billowy lace that conceals and reveals at the same time. Her long hair is pale red, sparkling with programmed sunshine, and her eyes are big and blue. Her skin is porcelain white. She projects absolutely no data-cloud, keeping the focus of conversation on her rather than her metadata. Politely, Jonathan avoids looking beneath her edits at her physical presence so near him. From memory he knows she really has dull hair and squinting eyes, and is dressed in a standard coverall.

He breathes deeply to slow his panting. Around them, thick trees stand tall but leafless, many of them stripped of branches, graffitied, carved, scorched. Late September in Minneapolis. The water below reeks of sewage and oil, shining dully in the paling light. Mists gather along the trash-lined shores and roll gently along the nearly motionless water. In the distance, beyond the muddy bank above them and many blocks away, the mobile hostile zone screams and booms and rattles to crescendo in the heart of Old Downtown.

"You were so brave back there," the girl says.

Jonathan feels his cheeks flush; luckily, the programmed 3VRD projection of himself remains as stone-faced and calm as ever, not revealing such childish reactions. With a quiet gasp, he realizes he’s still holding her hand, but he can’t let go now without letting her know she scares the hell out of him.

"Well," he begins, "you were just lying there like someone feed-rapt. I couldn’t leave you for the beatcoats to find, could I? They’re sick bastards."

The girl’s 3VRD smiles: So she uses an interactive 3VRD. He kicks in his own interactive program to show her that he, too, understands how to use all the tricks of his card to edit his world. Now he has to be careful to suppress any display of emotion lest his 3VRD betray him.

"Modest boy. What’s your name?"

"Jon."

"I’m Charity." Her 3VRD gains the accompaniment of soft music that Jonathan can’t quite discern and swirling sheets of color-changing silk. More than that, the landscape she surrounds herself becomes a time-updated revision of the actual one around them.

Jonathan is awed. Never before has he met anyone who has gone to such trouble programming her commcard and 3VRD, and almost never has he come across a person who did a real-time, rolling landscape overlay for a simple conversation. People usually project images of themselves, and sometimes they include a basic landscape edit: a colorful backdrop, a horse they’re riding, stars, whatever. But interactive landscape editing takes a lot of processing power and a decent program to make it look flawless, especially when the observer is in close proximity to the real thing, which requires extra processing for triangulation, shadows, and so forth. Jonathan appreciates this kind of mind.

They begin to walk across the bridge, now seen as through her eyes as a gracious wooden span over a trickling stream. The trees fill out, displaying fall colors. Tropical birds flit from branch to branch, chirping. Jonathan peeks beneath the surface and sees that she is accomplishing most of this simply by using off-the-shelf applets and code snippets to run highlights and adaptive overlays, but supremely integrated: The birds and leaves are probably called from a databank of stock images then slipped over reality like gauze, stretched to fit and moving to remain fixed on the moving landscape. A few swirls on the murk below and it comes alive with a school of rainbow trout. Paste a nineteenth century covered bridge over the real one, and suddenly it’s no longer a decaying stretch of concrete. But—though most of this is open-source, editing like this for an interactive overlay costs big.

"Do you love beautiful things, Jon? I do, I love beautiful things and romantic people. Are you a romantic person?"

Again, she doesn’t wait for Jonathan’s reply before she continues. "I am. Romance is what keeps a woman alive." Jonathan feels a little uncomfortable now.

They continue walking hand-in-hand. "If you are to be my loverboy, Jonny, you need to remember that. Today you’re my hero. But tomorrow you need to prove your love in other ways, true ways, Jon. Don’t forget."

Jonathan stumbles over a pothole in the bridge. At its edge, a rusted steel reinforcement bar snags the cuff of his pants. Loverboy? he wonders. Amorous meetings among anonymous strangers are common in Jonathan’s world, even among the unenfranchised who can tweak a program’s security settings, but it has never happened to him intheflesh before, only in long-distance virtual reality. Loverboy. The word evokes nostalgic images of érase, which triggers that idiotic program, and he has to fight to put down the damn thing before it loads. His cheeks burn, and he knows—too late—that even his stoic 3VRD is revealing a blaze of emotions.

"Look for me tomorrow," she says with a sly grin. The soft hand in his squeezes once, firm and warm.

"If you find me, we’ll talk more." Her 3VRD disappears and she is gone, even intheflesh. Jonathan realizes he hadn’t even noticed her physical departure. Her 3VRD had been holding his hand. Now that was more than open-source feed. It takes some serious programming to fool Jonathan.

So her 3VRD also feeds full fivesen – all five senses. His blackcard receives fivesen, but only his blackcard, since he is too young to buy a regulation full-sensory card. She must have known. She had tricked the feeble AI of his blackcard into waking up without his even being aware of it.

Once more, he is fascinated and awed by this Charity. And a little afraid of what it means to have his blackcard running again.

"Charity," he says aloud, forming the word carefully on his lips. His heart pounds and vessels rush in his ears.

"Tomorrow, don’t forget," her disembodied voice whispers. The overlaid landscape begins to fade as she moves beyond the range of unassisted personal-comms. Again, the city crashes down around him, dark and damaged.

He fires back up his revmetal in audio-only and re-splices the Lone Ship Bounty previews. Then he closes his eyes and mentally reaches out for a public server. He finds one whose security is easy to circumvent. Seconds later, by calling up a trace of Charity’s personal comm channel from when their cards did the virtual handshake and exchanged tokens, by then sorting through the city’s virtual netways like a coiled mass of shifting serpents in his net-landscape, he matches the trace with her ID card. Now he taps into traces of her public channel, following data residues from purchases and edits along converging netways, riding an electronic raft through tubular datastreams, tracking her warmest trails from data-shop to library to other peoples’ cards until finally he touches a line of hot feedback and opens a comm channel to it.

By tapping—illegally, but that’s of no concern to him—into the city’s Net and its unsecured feed/feedback routers while keeping a lock on her, Jonathan sees Charity’s 3VRD as alive as when she stood beside him. She appears to stand on the bridge of the Bounty, revmetal drowning out her soft music. She also floats disembodied against the tangle of city netways like a gem among necklaces. Three sets of visual input overlay one another, yet he has picked up the trace-cracking as easily as if he’d never knocked it off during the weeks of treatment. This is what a blackcard allows him to do; no security system he has ever encountered can resist his efforts; no encryption algorithm is opaque to him when assisted by his personal AI, this extension of his brain. Jonathan’s mind staggers with the blazing delight of once again playing the landscapes, using "secured" hardware and cracking open private information-channels as if they were his own. Charity virtually takes his hand.

"Very good boy," Charity says, smiling at him, glowing as before.

In response, Jonathan bends at the waist and turns over her white hand. Gently, he places a kiss, as guys do in the shows he suspects this girl likes.

"Tomorrow," she says, and—snap—she’s gone in a swirl of laughter. Her image flickers and fades, erasing all her metadata traces in an instant.

Uncharacteristically, Jonathan struts across the bridge. He hadn’t seen Charity leave him intheflesh. He hadn’t sensed his illicit blackcard waking up. He hadn’t let go of her hand, yet she’d gone. He has reopened CityNet and truly stoked his headcards again.

It’s been a long time since anything or anyone made Jonathan forget about keeping an eye on all realities. Before long, he realizes he’s reached his high-walled neighborhood.

With something like joy, Jonathan Sombrio strides along a sidewalk that leads to his house. He smiles when he realizes his apprehension has faded. Going home isn’t as scary as he had expected now that there’s something to look forward to tomorrow.

He lays his fingers against the reader and the metal gate creaks open a bit. Jonathan laughs, pushing open the door, staring up into the coils of razor-wire that embroider the wall. Because he’s using a visual overlay instead of a splice, the wire appears softened by stars and the image of the Captain, who tramps across the lunar landscape."

 

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