Sunday, August 7, 2011

Common Words: Just Like Real People

In my time writing, I've gathered no shortage of rejections - twenty-one so far for the stories I'm currently shopping around, and that doesn't include earlier stories that I've abandoned or am planning on reworking significantly. One such story is "Just Like Real People" - it was written between January 1 and January 3, 2008 as a submission for the Toronto Star's 2008 short story contest, but was rejected and, ultimately, sent nowhere else; looking at the story again now, I think it could use thorough reconstruction, and it's also based on a concept - easy mind-to-machine uploading - that I've since discarded for the "present" of my shared setting. Since the story as it's currently set up founders without that, well... it'll be thoroughly reworked, but I'd still like for people to be able to read this original.

I would not be surprised for the characters within to appear in another story somewhere down the line, once I've had a chance to improve upon the skeleton here.

Just Like Real People
by Andrew Barton

Ryan Galt went to work the instant his cameras caught the flivver whispering up the greenway. It was one of those new three-wheelers he'd fancied before he'd been reborn, all sleek curves with pure white paint and government plates. It was just his luck for someone to shatter his privacy after he'd managed to finagle a secure link to Tegucigalpa.

"You can't honestly expect me to accept these demands of yours!" thundered the President of Honduras. "Providing a 'favorable climate' for your operations is one thing, but this list of 'requests' is nothing less than an instrument of surrender! Do you think I take my responsibility to my country so lightly? I will not mortgage it to some computer!"

Galt tut-tutted at the shame of it all. He'd been wise enough to transcend the flesh at the first opportunity, but there were so many others who insisted on sinking in the mud. If it converted itself into a transhumanist haven, Honduras would ride the waves of advancement and prosperity forever. Small minds were more vicious than the worst undertow.

"My apologies, Generalissimo, but security here is about to be unavoidably compromised," he said. At least he'd managed to hash out a tolerable framework for expanding his footprint in Honduras. A few million euros spent here and there, and it might as well not be a government at all. If only the professional politicos in Ottawa would move aside for forward-thinking men who knew what they were doing-- "I'm sure you understand. I'll contact you again soon. Thank you for your patience."

From the speed at which he left the conversation, it was obvious the Generalissimo had somewhere he'd much rather be - hunting snipes, maybe, before they launched a coup of their own. Galt's attention was on the little car when it came to a halt on the grass and a reedy Asian girl in government blues emerged, hefting a suitcase that probably weighted as much as she did. She barely looked out of her teens. If the government was trying to intimidate him, they'd have had more luck wheeling out a panda bear.

She strode briskly toward his country manor's front door like Moses' nth-great-grandkid, as if she expected the whole world to let her through. Galt made sure all the doors and windows were sealed tight before manifesting his latest avatar, a holographic muscleman with a top hat and a blinding smile, on the welcome pedestal.

"Good afternoon, little girl," he said. "I suppose you're here to tell me what an uncooperative man I am for not believing the man in Ottawa when he tells me the sweat of my brow is his and not mine. Better to save your breath. Take some clean air before you head back to the city."

A new-email notification impinged on his awareness. He spent a microsecond scanning the contents, a routine status report from the Honduras lab's latest cognovirus experiment - three more subjects would have to be pastured, the test having left them too deranged to function in ordinary society, and another thirty given careful brainpeels to determine what went wrong - and placed it in his encrypted archives. Science had enemies more relentless than frenzied sharks, petty enforcers of irrelevant morality.

"Ryan Ulysses Galt," said the girl. He'd toyed with taking a new name after his upload, but too much hard work was bound up with it to discard like yesterday's trash. "I'd say you were a hard man to find but, y'know, that assumes you're still a man at all. You ever tried canning your crap in case people are dumb enough to buy it?"

"Is that all, hollow insults?" He chuckled. "In that case, you represent your government perfectly. I'm a busy spirit, girl, and I don't have a hand for you to shake. Finish your business here so I can return to mine." If he'd had a hand, he would have flicked her away, and probably knock her clear into Pennsylvania.

"Nice try, if I was one of your secretaries," she said. "Not going to be that easy for you, my digital ami, not easy at all, but I'm willing to cut to the fun stuff." She thumped her chest and coughed. "Ryan Ulysses Galt, under the authority granted me by the government of Canada, I am hereby placing you under arrest on the charge of tax fraud. Makes you feel all cuddly inside, ne?"

"Really? After all the tar you used to paint my employees, I'm surprised you have any left for me. But it doesn't matter. I don't recognize your authority here, little girl, and neither do I acknowledge it."

"Doesn't matter to me if you cry all the way to the judge, you're coming with me. My authority doesn't depend on your recognition." She smiled. "Just try it. I'd love to see you wail."

"Perhaps, but this is still private property, and if you had a warrant I'm sure you would have already kicked the door down by now." His own avatar smiled in turn, more like a lion than anything human. A digital warrant notice flashed into his sensorium, and he minimized it immediately. "Though I think you'd be hard-pressed to kick down a piece of paper, my dear. Let alone drag a five-hundred kilogram computational cluster to your lockup."

"Then I guess it's a good thing I don't have to move at all," She lowered her gaze and smiled, wolfishly. "We've taken the precaution of severing your hardlines and jamming the local wireless spectrum. Don't think you'll be able to give us the slip."

In a flash, he was boxed in by walls that reached infinitely high, walls he'd been too distracted to notice sooner. Only his emergency line, snaking through his property to a hidden radio burst transmitter, responded to his frenzied hails. The girl, the impudent stripling, the dirtscrabbling peasant, had somehow managed to sever his access to the rest of the world.

"Hell, I don't even think I need to be here at all," the girl said, running a thumb across her fingernails. "Partner's doing all the work. How do you like his style, ami? Trust me, you've never seen a better slicer... but then, you could say he's running on the inside track there."

Not since the last day before he'd gone in to escape the limitations of flesh-and-blood mortality had Ryan Galt felt a headache. Though his head and brain were both gone, he felt one now. It took a concerted effort to think clearly, as if a London fog was drawing in to smother him in its misty grip.

"You have no right to sever my connections, little ant," Galt said. His avatar hissed and extended a forked tongue. "Would you cut the legs off a bodied suspect to make sure he can't get away? Or would you simply break his kneecaps? I didn't transcend my limits so I could be placed below ordinary morality."

"Just a precaution, O Transcended One," the girl said. "Can't have you running away."

The fog constricted further around him, and emulated responses told him it was getting hard to breathe. A breath of fresh air might have helped in any case. Every time he scrambled and fought to push the fog away, it came back stronger and denser, until it felt like he'd been buried in a snowdrift. He launched a diagnostic program and cursed. If he could only see--

In that moment, he did see. The girl's plain metal suitcase wasn't a suitcase at all, but a hardened hundred-petabyte hard drive with more than enough space to store a copy of his consciousness... a pliable copy, a copy that could be cajoled to calmly confess all his secrets, from jaywalking to full-bore genetic experimentation on his good Honduran subjects.

"How dare you!" His avatar transformed into a fire-breathing monster that crushed a miniature version of the girl underfoot, leaving only hot coals behind. "My name is Ryan Ulysses Galt, citizen of Canada, and I know my rights! Rights which protect me from mental coercion, police brainwashing, and personal copyright infringement!"

"None of which applies in this case," she said. "You're right, I can't move your cluster, at least not before you lock all your bad memories in some off-site lockup and play angel to the jury. So we're just going to put your twin brother here on trial instead. Makes it easier for everyone, ne?"

"This is an unconsciable violation of my sovereign rights!" He could feel himself being torn away, second by second, as his essence was distilled down into zeroes and ones and filed away. To be betrayed by a shadow of his own self...

If he was to be betrayed, he would make the best of it. His wealth was tied up in too many hedge funds, stock portfolios, and Swiss accounts for any analyst, digital or no, to unspool them before he could shuffle them around and away. He'd lose the silver Liberty dollars, but those had always held more sentimental value than real.

"Says the man who's only a citizen when he doesn't have to pay anything for the privilege."

The government would do everything it could to trap him in its digital web, regardless of whether or not he had a pound of flesh to give them. The only option left was to escape, to transmit his consciousness through the secure line to one of his boltholes. With luck, the girl'd be left with a corrupted shadow of his soul.

He cursed. The complex in Arizona would've been perfect if that vitalist bastard Harkness didn't look to be on a straight path back to the Oval Office. If Galt transferred there, he'd be lucky if the FBI waited as long as two days before busting down his door. The others either weren't ready or were far too insecure for his tastes.

All except Honduras. Relatively free of government, lacking any extradition treaties with Canada, and in the palm of his hand already. Given a few years, he would outdo Montezuma and Cortez combined.

"So sorry, little girl," he said once everything was in readiness. "Give your superiors my regards, but I'm afraid I've got to decline. I am a free spirit, and I do not consent to the subjugation of your laws!"

It would take only a few seconds for his consciousness to be compressed and transmitted to an ordinary relay satellite, and from there to the Honduran facility. There, he would truly be free to reinvent the world. He would become a fountainhead and reason would rain upon the dead lands.

The radio transmitter pulsed, just once, and all went dark for him.


Ryan Galt stirred, caught between wakefulness and a dream. The new cluster fit him approximately as well as a muscleman's tights on a horse jockey, and beyond basic architectural similarities it was totally unfamiliar. But he'd made it, to Honduras and to freedom. It had only taken--

"Nine days?" The Honduran system, for all his faults, had been built with the intention of hosting his consciousness. It should have taken him only a matter of hours to decompress after the transmission. He queried his networks, searching for news, only to find every door and window painted over and sealed shut.

He floundered in twilight limbo for another four hours, twenty-five minutes, and fifty-two seconds before an opportunity for escape presented itself. He dashed toward it like a starving, frenzied man to a maggot-ridden carcass. It was a simple webcam, the sort that came in snackflasks, but enough for him to hear and see beyond his digital prison.

It wasn't the lab. For one, he'd given explicit instructions that the President of Honduras was to no nothing beyond the fact of its existence. The rotund generalissimo sat behind a metal desk and wore an expression of complete satisfaction, framed by a beard that could eat more men than Idi Amin.

"Good day, Mr. Galt," the President said. "Thank you for your patience, by the way. It took a great deal of time and effort to secure your facility, but... I believe the effort will have been worth it."

"We had an arrangement." Galt gave his voice a jagged edge. "Sealed with blood and silver."

"Your blood is worth more to me than all the silver you could offer," the President said. "I allowed you to pursue science in this country, not slaughter. How many of my people died in your abattoir of a laboratory? How many had to watch while your men ripped their souls out, taking notes all the way? No, Mr. Galt, I'm afraid that only blood will pay for blood."

"I'm afraid I don't have any to offer you. Why not try squeezing a stone?"

"I'd much rather wring your circuits dry, Mr. Galt." The President rumbled like Mount Vesuvius. "We're both civilized men, I'm sure we can agree on a... favorable climate for our cooperation. If not, well... it's amazing what they're doing with computers these days. They can even be trained to think just like real people. Or to not think at all, for that matter."

The President nodded to someone outside Galt's field of view. A door open and two women wearing dirty, ragged overalls barely recognizable as belonging to his lab were pushed in at gunpoint. He recognized their faces. Cognotechnology specialists, with a focus on the care and feeding of digital intelligences.

The President was hungry.

"I'm sure we can cooperate, now, can't we?" the President asked. "Knowledge is your blood, and you will repay this country every drop for the horrors you've visited on her people."

"Cooperate," Galt said. "Like civilized men."

The cognotechs went to work on him almost immediately. He could feel his volition trickling away, like the last drops of water down a dry and dusty gulch. In his last free microsecond, he wished he'd taken his chances with the little girl in the government blues.

Previously on Common Words

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