Jan. 8th, 2015

jexia: (Me me)
Please note: this is the second part of a two-part story. The first half is for "Intersubjectivity", and is essential for this piece. (Sorry.)

The first half can be found here: http://jexia.livejournal.com/1338776.html


=====================

A quiet knock on the door startled me awake. I must have dozed off unwittingly. My head felt murky; my mouth, too. Too much beer? Gin? Unsettling dreams about a megalomaniac trying to mess with everyone's brains?

I called, "Come in," and a servo-bot entered, carrying a tray. My mouth watered; the accompanying scents were greasy and savoury, just what my stomach wanted.

As I ate, the servo-bot bustled around, making a point of opening the wardrobe so I could see the clothes hanging there. I had no doubt they were just my size. After a quick shower, I found they did indeed fit me. The servo-bot gestured to the hallway, and I wandered until I found the others in the room where we'd met.

Alicia greeted me, but my response was lacklustre and distracted. My mind was churning furiously. Where was Benjamin? Was he okay? Jaylene came in, accompanied by a trail of techs. Benjamin hurried in at the end of the group, his cheeks flushed. He looked dreadful, his eyes dark-ringed with exhaustion.

<What happened?>

He didn't respond, other than to glance at me. I bit my lip and waited.

The techs bustled around, checking our headnets. I held my breath as the tech scrutinised mine, but apparently it passed muster.

Jaylene started to speak, and I cast a carefully casual look in Benjamin's direction. He looked distracted, tapping at his handheld device, but he paused long enough to send a message.

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Sorry. Detected signs of someone trying to breach our commnet. Took a while, but I managed to deflect them. I'm sorry there hasn't been time to brief you.>

<What do I need to do?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> It's my understanding that the override will appear as differential equations, in the preprocessor subroutines. You'll probably recognise them, but you'll need to locate any changes and revert them. You'll have to work fast.>

Jaylene was exhorting us to be honest and think of the big picture. I mentally snorted, knowing who I'd give that advice to, and ignored her.

<OK, I can do that.>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> There may be data protection on them, so you'll need to subvert that, and maintain the cyclic redundancy checks so the changes aren't detected.>

<That's a hell of a lot of calculations!>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I know. Do your best. I've got your back.>

Jaylene finally stopped, and nodded significantly to Benjamin. He met my eye, and tapped his device.

I fell through familiar blackness, to the malleable space where I had reshaped my implant's functionality. I could sense others with me; the solidity of Henry, the grey sponginess of Rickard, the fiery flicker of Maria. Alicia glowed, ethereal and pulsing. If this was my mental model of them, there was no doubt how I felt about her.

A "voice" echoed through, more sensed than heard, all glint and steel. Jaylene, not bothering to materialise herself. "We are about to begin. Keep your responses as honest as you can. There is no judgment here."

A symbol appeared, the arrowed triangle of recycling. "Rubbish collection - should we increase the fees?"

Numb lassitude spread through me, warm and enticing me to agree. I mentally twisted, but couldn't escape it. Was this the feedback loop? I looked around frantically, but couldn't see anything to challenge. Maybe I had to go deeper?

I dropped to the preprocessor level, glimpsing the tail end of a calculation. Gah. I'd already missed it. These buggers were fast.

"Consensus reached. Fees to be increased 237%."

Another symbol appeared, the tasseled cap of an archaic educational ceremony. "University fees. Currently 15% funded by the city. Should the funding be dropped?"

Surely Alicia would protest? Her glowing form appeared quiescent and compliant. The amenable lassitude spread through me again, but I fought it, dropping to the preprocessor level again. There! That was one of my equations! I hurriedly scanned through the variables, searching for alterations. The sum of... ζ'... and -15 Ψ... no, that was the same... There! They'd swapped a Φ and a θ! I swapped them back, trying to resist the inexorable tug of the equation's processing. A warning chime sounded, and I reached for the CRC subroutine, frantically diving through calculations to rebalance the checksum.

I was too slow. It was gone.

Jaylene's steely voice sounded a little perturbed. "Consensus reached. University funding to be dropped, effective immediately." She paused. "Is everyone ready to proceed?"

"Yes, Jaylene," we dutifully murmured.

A green warmth appeared. "There may be some recalibration required." Benjamin's voice flowed liquidly through the virtual space.

"Yes, there does appear to be some fluctuations in the response matrices," Jaylene said.

"I'll stay here and watch over the consensus collection, if that is acceptable?" he asked.

"Of course. Let's proceed."

The malleable blackness formed into a shape, a human shape, the archetype of every unemployed citizen. The media liked to demonise them, painting them as dirty, stupid, and drug-addicted, while carefully avoiding any mention of the bots that had reshaped our society.

"The unemployment problem - does it require a more permanent solution?"

The figure lurched, leering and grotesque, and then shuffled up a ramp to a sinister black box, marked with the red logo of Animal Control.

I didn't wait. I dropped to the preprocessor level and scanned for the equation. Whoa. This one was a juggernaut, unrecognisable to me. I fumbled through the variables, simplifying where I could, trying to discern a familiar core. Could this substitute for that? I made the change, and was immediately surrounded by a swarm of stickiness, engulfing me and hampering my movement. This equation had data protection, and plenty of it.

Suddenly Benjamin was there, green and warm. "I've got it," he said, and embraced me. As he let go, sticky strings clung between us, but the bulk had transferred to him. I could move again.

What had they done to the equation? I made more changes, finding fragments that I recognised, and stringing them together. I almost had it.

"Look out!" Benjamin was behind me, watching as I worked, and he'd spotted another layer of protection. It exploded, pelting me with stinging fragments, but he shielded me from the main force of the blast. His glow flickered; he was hurting.

"Almost there!" I said, pleadingly, and made the final switch. The warning chime sounded, and I dived into the CRC calculation, trying the most common polynominals to see if I could find a match. Binary digits swirled around me; this was low-level stuff, and hard work. Yes! a 65-bit exponent, as I'd hoped! Any bigger and I couldn't have managed it. I had my new checksum, now I just had to overwrite the old one so that my changes wouldn't be detected.

"This way!" Benjamin's green glow shaded, dark to light, indicating the direction of the checksum, and he shifted.

<Message: Priority: URGENT. From: Benjamin Cleaver> GO DARK.>

I damped my virtual appearance, stifling it to an infinitesimal speck, and followed him, cautiously. Jaylene was there. That spiky form could be no-one else. "What are you doing?" she snarled.

Benjamin said, "I detected some more fluctuations, and I was trying to track them down."

"Hrm." Her steel was icy and disbelieving now. "Back to the group."

He bobbed and obeyed, disappearing up through the levels. She followed. I'd have to be fast. I flicked through tags and found the checksum, and clumsily overwrote it with the new value. It'd have to do.

With a jolt I was back with the others. Their forms stirred and twitched, as the figure of the unemployed man turned away from the sinister box.

"That's not right!" Jaylene shrieked. "That's not what the consensus was supposed to be!"

"'Supposed to be?'" asked Alicia. "How do you know what it was 'supposed to be'?"

Jaylene's jagged form twisted. "That's not your concern."

"Not our concern?" Henry demanded. "This is our consensus. What are you doing?"

Benjamin's green glow throbbed. "The same thing she wants to do to everyone. She wants to run consensus in reverse and make us all think the same."

You don't really have lungs in virtual space, but nonetheless, everyone gasped.

"Enough," she snapped. "We have enough data to extrapolate and do it without you. It won't be as concordant, but it'll do. I'd rather you complied, though."

Rickard, bless his blustery grey soul, found some spine and spoke for all of us. "No."

"Then you're superfluous." Jaylene's spikes distorted in a way that shouldn't be possible, and agony washed through me. My senses were overwhelmed with pain, though I could still hear the screams of the others. A stream of inversion matrices flooded from her, corrupting the innards of my implant.

Reacting instinctively, I gathered the malleable darkness around me. This was my space, in my head, and I'd be damned if this sociopath was going to kill me with my own brain. Through virtual eyes blurred with pain, I followed the flow of evil to its source, and engulfed her in a wall of blackness.

The pain stopped. Jaylene's shrouded form twitched a few times and fell still.

"What happened?" Sherm asked.

"I... turned the pain against her. I guess she got an extra-strong dose with it all focused on her."

"Is she... is she dead?" Alicia's radiant form huddled against me, still shaking with reaction. I did my best to exude competence and comfort.

"Let's go find out." Benjamin's form was starting to fade. The seven of us gathered around him, touched, and ascended to consciousness.

The brightness of the pale room was a shock. We still sat on couches and chairs- except for Jaylene. She lay crumpled on the floor, with the techs fussing around her. Benjamin levered himself stiffly to his feet, and limped over. "Don't bother," he said.

"She's still breathing," said one of the techs, hopefully.

"She got hit with an eightfold inversion matrix."

"Oh." The tech shrugged and moved away.

*

There were weeks of inquests, debriefings and implant inspections. I put up with the rifling through my implant, on the basis that it was the quickest way to absolve myself. Eventually, Jaylene was found guilty, and sentenced to 10400 hours of community service. A moot point, really.

Alicia and I saw her a couple of years later, begging outside NYLEC. She looked at us blankly, open-mouthed, as we went in to work. Alicia's an assistant director these days; she graduated top of her class. University funding has increased 12% since then. I work with Benjamin and the other techs; we're building a way to find true consensus, not just from seven representatives. The city belongs to the people; we can all govern it, together.
jexia: (Me me)
I ordered my usual gin from the servo-bot and sat down at the bar. The air was redolent with the stench of the Hudson River; ongoing clean-up work hadn't yet reversed the eco-collapse of 2133, and ten years later it still smelled of death. You got used to it, mostly. It was worse in hot weather, and today had been a scorcher.

The last few weeks at work had been hellish, fighting to meet the fixed deadline of today's lottery, but we'd done it. The atmosphere at CyberCo had been triumphantly collegial. We'd declared it "beer o'clock" at three, and then left early. I'd come straight here, for my annual tradition of watching the lottery at my favourite bar. I nursed my drink and gazed at the screen.

The Lotteries head, Jaylene something-or-other, gave her usual aspirational speech- "think big", "make a difference", the same old stuff. Then the lottery-bot, gawky and angular, fished a ball from the spinning barrel and held it aloft. It was all for show; the barrel was nowhere near big enough to hold the 38 million balls needed to represent every law-abiding, employed, adult citizen of New York, not unless the balls were

<Implant query: container volume / 38000000, allow volume factor of 1.6 for movement> 0.32mm>

0.32 millimetres in diameter.

The ball the bot held aloft was much bigger than that, but no matter. Digits slid over its SmartSkin, displaying the citizen number randomly selected by the algorithms behind the scenes. There was no need for all the stage-dressing; you could just run a random number generator over the citizenship list and choose the first seven, but the flashing lights and glamour kept people tuned in. A voice-over announced the digits, and my implant

<Implant query: Citizen 752341857> Henry James Fernandez, b. 2108, Apt. 3012, 452 Foster Ave, New York, NY 10016. Three children, 2142 income of $132,023.>

flashed up his details, while the screen showed an animated cut scene with his name and photo. The upgrades I'd made to my implant weren't strictly legal, but I hadn't been able to resist the challenge of breaching and integrating a number of supposedly-secure city databases. It was useful.

I sipped my gin; it mingled warmly in my stomach with the beer I'd had at work. I wasn't alone. A rowdy group of college kids in the corner laughed over the traditional lottery drinking game; they each picked a digit, and every time their digit was announced they had to drink. One, with the pasty pallor of a physics student, argued it was unfair to pick 0, given that citizenship numbers don't start with 0, and that started a loud discussion about probability and the unlikely characteristics of each others' mothers.

It wasn't so long since I was one of them, oblivious to the real world; I'd graduated with an double degree in Mathematics and Computer Science eight months ago, and since then I'd been working at CyberCo. They provided the gear for the lottery winners, and I spent my days working with probability analysis and consensus, modifying differential equations with 30-plus variables and integrating the calculations into code. It paid the bills, and left enough time for my other interests.

The second ball was drawn,

<Implant query: Citizen 684128953> Alicia Rose Willcocks, b. 2122. Final year PoliSci student at NYU, with part-time employment at McDenny's. Minor traffic violation in 2141, expunged with the minimum 320 hours of community service.>

and the group in the corner started the next round, reciting each digit and pointing accusingly if the person took too long to drink. Alicia's details came on screen, and they whistled appreciatively at her picture. "I'd like HER number," some wit yelled.

I rolled my eyes as I took another sip. I'd had enough of that sort of nonsense at college. Despite many attempts since the late 20th century to address the gender imbalance, I had still been severely outnumbered in my classes. I've never been a stunner, but the very fact of my femininity had been enough to goad even the most awkward of classmates into propositioning me. Urgh. Not interested. Alicia, on the other hand... I'd appreciated her smile as much as the college kids, but I wasn't crass enough to whistle about it.

The lottery-bot reached into the barrel again, and grasped one of the swirling balls. I barely listened as I savoured my drink, until

<Implant query: Citizen 722148301> Shay Malloy, b. 2120.>

I realised it was my number, my name and face being flashed up on the screen. The glass slipped from my numb hand, and shattered against the floor, the abrupt noise interrupting the next round of "Drink your digit". The pale student stared at me, and a flurry of elbows and whispers flew around the group. Suddenly they were around me, crowding me with beery breath and exclamations.

"You won!" one yelled.

"Vote for cheap beer!" shouted another, to general cheers of approbation.

I ignored them. My implant was flooding with message pings, from friends and family. I started to check the one from my mother, but it was over-ridden.

<Message: Priority: Governmental Urgent, Classified. From: New York Lotteries and Electoral Commission> Congratulations on your election. Stay where you are.>

The group around me grew quiet and withdrew, watching as two large men in dark suits approached me. How did they get here so quickly? I briefly considered running, but my shaky legs wouldn't let me. I didn't want this.

"Miss Shay Malloy." It wasn't a question. "Please come with us," said the taller of the two suits, extending a hand. I didn't have a choice; I went with them.

*

The room at NYLEC was spacious and comfortable, with the pale cream furnishings of an institute that can afford plenty of cleaner-bots. I huddled in the corner of an enormous couch. Henry Fernandez sat opposite me, his dark face wrinkled with concern. We'd exchanged introductions, then left each other alone to ponder what would happen next.

Alicia was ushered in, still in her McDenny's uniform. Despite the unflattering beige-with-yellow-trim clothes, she was stunning. Her dark eyes were wide, glittering with calculation and suppressed fear, but she maintained a casual demeanour as she introduced herself. We chatted about the superficial pleasantries of people in unwanted situations, telling me nothing my implant hadn't already reported.

The other chosen citizens gradually arrived, escorted by their own pairs of large men: Maria, a middle-aged Latina who owned a well-known bot distributor; Sherm, a 20-something who worked "whatever's going"; Charlotte, a dancer from Brooklyn with two children, fretting about whether her mother would be able to pick her kids up from school. Rickard, a perfect blustering example of middle-management in a grey suit, demanded to know how long this would take; we shrugged and ignored him. We all knew the theoretical premise of what was about to take place, but the practicalities hadn't been covered in our civics classes.

The door opened, and Rickard fell silent. The head of NYLEC came in, as pristinely groomed as when she'd appeared at the start of the lottery, followed by a few others in less formal clothes. They were techs; I knew the type, and they carried CyberCo-branded boxes.

"Good afternoon," the head announced. "I'm Jaylene Davidson, head of NYLEC. No doubt you have many questions-" she raised a manicured hand to silence Rickard as he began to blather- "and they will all be answered in time. You all know that New York is governed by consensus. Each year we select seven good citizens, assess their values and priorities, and use our analysis to form a consensus. Your consensus will drive policy and funding decisions in the coming year."

Charlotte tentatively raised a hand. "How long will it take? My kids..."

"The process takes several weeks." Charlotte gasped, and adopted the glazed expression of someone accessing her implant. Jaylene continued, "During that time, you will-" Charlotte twitched, as if receiving a painful electric jolt, "-not be able to access messaging. Any dependents will be taken care of by the city."

Alicia spoke up. "How do we do it? I know it has something to do with our implants."

"You will be fitted with a headnet. We'll put them on now, to give them time to integrate with your implants before we begin in the morning. The headnets assess your response to a range of topics. Your responses will be averaged out to form a consensus. Any questions?" Her tone was polite, but the expression on her face was cool enough to quell even Rickard.

She nodded curtly to the techs. The scruffiest one, clearly senior, fiddled with a handheld device, while the others moved around the room, fitting a stretchy net over each of our heads. One by one, a light lit up on each headnet, but the tech behind me muttered and fussed, pulling and adjusting it. The senior tech came over.

"Is there a problem?"

The tech behind me mumbled something about non-compliant settings, and the senior tech caught my eye. His eyelid flickered.

"I'll sort it out." As he adjusted the headnet, he tapped the handheld device, apparently calibrating some settings. From his smile, he succeeded, and the techs moved back to stand behind Jaylene. The senior tech gazed blandly at me, and a brief expression of abstractedness passed across his face.

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Do not react. I will contact you later.>

He winked at me.

*

The evening passed with more briefings and acclimatisation. The real work would begin in the morning. We were shown to individual bedrooms, each sumptuously furnished in pale neutrals. I collapsed onto the bed and stared at the ceiling.

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Are you alone? Respond if so.>

I considered his message. Concealed surveillance aside, this was as alone as I was likely to get. I composed a message and replied: <I am alone. How are you messaging me? I thought we couldn't access it.>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I set up an internal commnet on your specific headnet. I needed to talk to you. You are not here by chance.>

<Oh?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I accessed the algorithms for the lottery selection and made sure you'd be picked. I need your help. The city needs your help.>

<What's going on?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Jaylene is working with CyberCo. She's being paid off by the Chief of Police. They came up with a scheme to reduce unrest in the city. They want to take consensus to the next level - feed it back to the populace so that they will all agree with the city's policies. They've put a feedback loop in, to override your response and encourage you to respond as they want. Then when they have the nicely-packaged consensus they need, it'll be pushed out to the citizens.>

<That's horrible! Can they do it?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> CyberCo has the tech. You've been working on some of it. That's why I need you.>

<What can I do?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I hope you will be able to disable the override.>

<OK. I'll try. What do I need to do?>

I waited, lying awake until the dark hours of the morning, but my implant remained silent.

*


=====================
Please note: this is the first part of a two-part story. The second half is for the second topic of this week, Overwatch, and can be found here: http://jexia.livejournal.com/1338376.html

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