Sunday, March 2, 2008

1.3 Signs and Portents

It was Tuesday, and Steve was doing his best to avoid the lecture. Not only had his mother had just opened a window in his sensetap, and all but directly ordered him to go – if anything, that was be a powerful reason not to go – but that little traitor Bindi was trying to talk him into it, too. He asked why, his friend said, “The lecture she’s giving today, man. I’m positive she’ll slip and lay out some utter political fuckery, and someone has to be there to cover that.”

Bindi was a wannabe public eye. At a year younger than Steve, he was already a node of small credibility within the hive mind of the media. He was one of the smartest, best-informed people Steve knew: he stayed so on top of the news that he was even able to catch Aiken by surprise, every once in a while. “Dude, there will be. Probably hundreds of public eyes will be covering this lecture.”

“Yah, but on the spot?”

“That matters?”

“Stop thinking like an eyeball. On the spot is access rating gold.” His owlish friend looked up at him, blinking behind flickering contact lenses that were even now dumping a constant stream of data from the essential newsfeeds into his peripherals. Bindi's fingers waved about in the air, and he announced, "Already got two hundred pairs looking through me, and the lecture's fifteen minutes off."

“Why do you need me?”

“What, why? It’ll be fun."

Right about then he got a text from Aiken.

>Blow this place? I've got some interesting stuff I'd like to show you, back at my place.

Steve knew what that meant, and it sounded like a lot more fun than hanging out in a lecture hall packed with a bunch of cex-crazed tribes, who would cheerfully pound him to a pulp.

>>Anyone else in?

>Gav and Nikel.

>>Fuck yah. Where you at?

>South doors.

Other side of the school.


>>OMW. 10 min. Down if Bindi comes?



"Hey, Bindi man, listen. Fuck that shit. We all know what she's gonna say anyways. Aiken's having a little get-together at his place, Gav and Nikel are gonna be there too. That sounds like a lot more fun than hanging out in a lecture hall packed with hostiles. Wanna hit that instead?"

Steve illustrated his point with a quick flash from a wallcam inside the lecture hall. It was already filling up with students from a dozen different tribes, at least: graks in their bony, armored hides, clumped together in an intimidating, glowering mass; pestiks in their touch-me-not jackets, their eyes daring those around them to do just that; korpsiz, dreamy and disinterested, their clothes the same unhealthy off-blue texture as their skin. All cexies, of course … kids convinced that civilization held nothing for them, that the Extinction War would take them one way or another, that the ecosphere deserved to survive more than they did, and that, hell, they might as well have a good time while everything went to shit.

Bindi clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder, letting their PANs establish a secure connection. Look at those wasters, he said. I’m going behind enemy lines here. And I could use some backup, you know?

Won’t be any violence, Steve said. Not with the level of transparency coverage it's gonna be under. The only violence is going to be in my heaving guts. The stench of stupidity makes me puke.

I've heard some things on the waves.


Signs and portents. My intuition's telling me something's gonna happen there.

Like you're gonna need a bodyguard kinda something?


You're tripping, Bind. Nothin's gonna happen.

Don't be a coward.

Don't be paranoid! Listen, man, you wanna come to Aiken's?

No, I'm going to the lecture. I'm not gonna let down my audience just so I can spend an hour with mechbac poking at my synapses.

Go alone, then.

Steve broke contact before Bindi could answer and headed for the elevator. Bindi didn't say anything, but looking back through a wallcam Steve saw him standing as though frozen, staring with widened eyes at Steve's receding back. A moment later his expression set and he turned away to head for the lecture hall.

A little ball of guilt twisted up in his gut, like a worm. Which is stupid, Bindi himself said he was in no real danger. Repeating that like a mantra, he activated his PAN's emotional biofeedback utilities, and stepped on that guilty worm before it had a chance to grow.

Getting to the other end of the hall was like trying to paddle the wrong way through white water. With the popularity storm in full swing - thanks in no small part to Rowen's selection of the school as her physical location, three months before - the whole school was way over capacity. It was worst on the eighth floor, where Rowen’s lecture was being held.

Rown's popularity was an awesome thing, and she had built that popularity by exploiting the dynamic instability at the heart of the modern educational system. There were no hard and fast academic schedules anymore; education was accomplished primarily through unsupervised simulation and lightly supervised practicals, the students learning more or less what and as they pleased, their progress tracked down to every last theorem understood, reaction pathway memorized, athletic technique mastered. Many instructors provided lectures, as Anastasia Rowen did, but these were as voluntary as everything else. The aim of education, the instructors always said, was to make learning fun, to make school the most interesting place for children to hang out so that they would want to learn as fast as they could be taught.

Steve’s generation had been the guinea pig for a vastly influential pedagogical fad. The movement was not only successful but (as all too often happened these days, when millions of people made up their minds about something and expressed themselves using their shockingly powerful modern technology) arguably too successful.

Rivercrest was a ten story complex taking up most of a city block, capable of comfortably servicing the needs of five thousand students. On a regular day, there would be chaotic knots of exuberant teenagers, rushing from one part of the school to another in the grips of a 5im, standing in conversation, playing with creations made in the fab lab, organizing plays, filming movies, synthesizing biosystems, or any of thousands of other things. The list of projects going on at any given time was almost as long as the list of students.

It was only natural that children were allowed to choose where they went to school as readily as they chose what to do there. With schools converted from pedagogical jails to educational playgrounds, they had abruptly become subject to the same fickle laws of fashion that had once applied only to trendy nightclubs. Fashions these days – in clothing, in genes, in ideology, in anything – changed so fast they sometimes seemed to gain relativistic mass. They’d sweep the entirety of the Core and disappear into oblivion within a month, leaving only a cultural echo in the Gap, lingering for years like a bad hangover.

What worried teachers most was the danger of a school becoming social death. Kids would stay away in droves, often for no immediately apparent reason, and if it lasted the school would go bankrupt. There was also the danger, however, of becoming too popular.

A month ago, this had happened to Rivercrest. Its population had swelled to three times what it could comfortably hold. Quite apart from the physical damage inflicted on the school’s architecture, already badly needing repairs in some places, the student population had become completely ungovernable. With the density of teenagers so drastically increased, the temperature of social interaction was accordingly rising. It was still just a smoldering of hormonal tensions, erupting only occasionally: couples fucking openly in the hallways, careless of who might see them; punch-ups in the bathrooms, and knife-fights in the basement.

Steve loved it. As an original Rivercrester (he’d been there for three years) some of the school’s cachet rubbed off on him. For the most part, the crowded hallways were like an endless party, one that he was, in part, hosting. A lot of the new kids had no actual interest in educating themselves; they just drifted, from school to school, going wherever the party went (this was one aspect the legasphere’s reformers had foreseen, but the reasoning went that there were always dropouts ... and at least this way they’d be more likely to hang out at the schools and, maybe, learn despite themselves.)

Still, there were times when Steve missed the old, comparatively empty Rivercrest. Like now, when he had to struggle his way past teeming masses of his peers in order to get to the other side.

There was crowd of keezers furtively camping out in front of the elevator, around a black carbon hemisphere the size of a beachball. Steve ignored them, pushing the button. There was no response.

“Elevatah down, kiznit,” said one of the keezers, taking note of the interloper. The kid was probably fourteen, a tonsure exposing his scalp and the remainder of his hair long, dirty, dreadlocked and grey. His face was mostly hidden behind a pair of ridiculously oversized horn rim glasses, the lenses consisting of a layer of water suspended between fluctuating, transparent membranes; the unsettling effect was that the keezer’s glowing pupils were alternately magnified to the size of quarters or shrunk to pinheads. The horn rims were a platform for an array of digital cameras, sensitive to a range of spectrums beyond the visible; as for the lenses, they were purely cosmetic. Odds were the kid wasn’t even nearsighted.

“No shit,” muttered Steve. “How long?”

“One minute an’ five seconds. Mark.”

“Fuck. What are you corpsefuckers up to, anyway?”

The kid didn’t move, and Steve got the impression he was engaged in silent consultation with the other keezers. One of them, a bigger kid with a vid-shirt looping through Tiananmen Square, grinned, showing off a mouth full of glowing braces, and touched Steve's arm. Bloodsport, kiznit. With obvious pride he removed a case the size and shape of a pack of cards from his satchel, passing it to Steve. We make these in bio. Then we cage ‘em an’ fight ‘em. Steve thumbed the case, and glanced inside as it went transparent. In the palm of his hand was a vicious looking beetle, carapace gleaming a holographic green, it's mandibles a baroque array of razorblade edges. It looked like it could take off his hand before he had a chance to feel the pain.

He took his thumb off the see-through pad and passed the case back almost reflexively.

All insects?

Mammals, lizards. I like bugs, though. Wanna take a look in ring? He motioned with his head towards the black hemisphere.

Down. Got plans. Mod bug, though. Seein' ya.

“Around,” agreed one of the other keezers absently, and they returned to their game.

Crazy bastards. Cexies generally took a dim view of animal cruelty. What they were doing amounted to open provocation. Come, attack me, I dare you. Which wasn't like keezers. They didn’t generally keep weapons … it was a tribe that was more or less non-violent, and non-political. But then, he’d never known them to practice bloodsports, either. The tribe was changing, apparently; only a few months old, as a recognizable group, and they were already starting to splinter off into separate tribes.

Didn't generally keep weapons... You could fit a lot of those little bugs and lizards and shit in a satchel. Tiny, but lots of sharp bits. And with nervous systems no doubt designed with fight-or-flight circuits frozen on the first option. Wouldn’t kill anyone, but it would leave a mess of their face, maybe even leave them twitching for a while if the keezers had thought to throw a nerve toxin or two into the genome.

It was almost enough to make him want to stick around and see what would happen if some cexie somewhere raised a strenuous moral objection to their game.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

1.2 Keep Out

An hour later the area was secured. The Congolese had taken sixteen casualties, mostly dead, at a price of twelve RAGVIs down, eleven of them for good. A quarter of the platoon's strength. Steve’s was damaged - a close flinch from a mine had left it without forelimbs - but the motor algorithms were designed to compensate all the way to a bipedal gait, so it was still considered functional. Replacements were being flown over from the DSSS John Hawkewood, while Lieutenant Marcos was having a go at repairing anything salvageable, cutting what parts he could from the field fab. The rest of the platoon was on sentry at strategic positions; there was still a high probability of counterattack.

The media was already out in force, a dense swarm of chipped dragonflies buzzing around the battlefield, relaying all they saw to the world’s hundreds of millions of hungry eyes. Doctrine was not to bother fighting them; media swarms could prove troublesome from an operational secrecy standpoint, but the military could devise no better way of gathering information. Before long the swarm would exhaust the site of all immediate interest, and disperse, some fanning out across the jungle in search of whatever they might find, others departing for nearby battles (of which there were several ongoing at any given moment, at this stage in the campaign.) Only a few stragglers, the platoon’s fan-base and self-appointed civilian scout force, would remain.

Steve’s stomach won out over his sense of duty, and he put out an open request on the battlenet for temporary relief. Given the number of botriders temporarily without mounts, it wasn’t long before one of them responded with an affirmative. He submitted the request to Marcos – a formality – and got a cursory approval, followed by a terse, “Good hunting, Tango Nine.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Keep an eye on the action through the fan club. ETA on the replacements is twenty-two minutes. I want you in that thing’s shiny new metal skin in twenty.”


Riding a bot for an hour in combat was hard work, but he’d been doing it in sims for a while. Steve wasn’t particularly big for his age, but he was lean, possessed of a nervously athletic physique, the twitch-muscles all over his body obsessively cultivated through years of gaming. He bounced down the stairs, barely having broken a sweat. Tara had made a bacon and cheese stir-fry, with a spicy peanut sauce. He grabbed a bowl, added some noodles, and threw it into the microwave while distractedly catching up on any correspondence that he might have missed.

“Hi, hon,” came Tara’s voice, calling from the fab room. “How’s the game going?”

“Good,” he answered.

He removed the stir-fry from the microwave, sitting down as his mother came out from the fab room. “So,” she said, walking to the fridge, “How has your day been?”


She poured herself a glass of juice, added a shot of vodka when she thought he wasn’t looking, and leaned against the counter. “And school?”


She sipped from the glass. “Well?”


“Are you going to talk to me at all? I haven’t seen you all day.”

He shrugged. “What’s to tell? I woke up, I went to school, I came back home, now I’m eating.” He paused to chew a giant mouthful of greasy vegetables, and added sarcastically, “I’m sure you checked in from time to time.”

“Don’t chew with your mouth open,” she said reflexively, then sighed and sipped her drink. She had checked in, of course. What parent wouldn’t, with the transparency right there, for everyone to use? She knew all the important events of his day and, for that matter, his life. She knew about a few things he didn’t know she knew about – like his occasional experiments with sheening – though she generally didn’t mention those.

It was one of the things that tortured the collective conscience of her generation. There were those that railed against the way modern children had been stripped of their privacy, the way some had railed against drugging them with Ritalin and Prozac when she was a child. Perhaps in compensation, she – like most parents – let her son have a range of freedoms (like sheening) that made his grandparents go pale when they found out.

Well. If he'd had grandparents....

Obviously, if there were to be any help of salvaging a conversation with her son, a more specific question was called for. “I noticed you haven’t been attending the biology lectures, lately.”


“Well? Why haven’t you been attending?”

His leans shoulders stabbed the air in a kind of spasmodic shrug. “They’re boring.”

“You used to like biology,” she pointed out.

“Used to like Mandelbrot Mandy, too,” he said, tone veering into casual contempt for the cartoon character he’d been entranced with as a four year old.

It was a tone calculated to stand Tara’s hair on end, and Steve watched her calm herself with an internal reminder that this was, after all, normal adolescent behavior. “Your interest in biology was somewhat more recent than that,” she commented dryly, “So what gives? You've got a real talent in the field.”

“Whatever. The lecturer bugs me, all right? She’s boring, so I’ll wait until the school gets someone better and I’ll go then. My practicals are still good,” he pointed out. Which was true. Last week he’d programmed a bioluminescent bacterial colony to display a Keep Out sign whose glowing letters were formed, if you looked close enough, out of little swastikas. He’d promptly smeared the slimy mess all over the outside of his door, to her intense displeasure.

“I’ve talked to her, you know. Ms. Rowen? We had an exchange yesterday.” Another sip. “She seemed nice," his mother added brightly.

Steve continued chewing, choosing to momentarily ignore the implied question. It was obvious to her that he was thinking about telling her why he didn’t like Ms. Rowen, but after a silence that stretched out an additional three mouthfuls (not, admittedly, that considerable of a stretch), he said only, “I don’t like her.”

“What? Anastasia Rowen has quite a name for herself. Something like fifty thousand students attend every lecture she gives through the transparency … you should be taking every advantage of the fact that she happens to teach at your school, and that you can attend her lectures in person.” She shook her head. “I just can’t understand why you’d let such an opportunity pass you by.”


“Are you watching something?” His mother asked.



He hesitated, then shrugged a little upon deciding that the truth (carefully edited) couldn’t hurt, and said, “Just following feeds from the war.”

“Oh, god,” she made a face. “Please, I don’t want to think about that.” She shook her head, took a long sip and placed her drink back on the counter.

Her son favored her with another shrug, and continued munching away at the stir-fry, hunched forward, eyes darting around as his point of view skipped through the media flies buzzing around the battlespace.

She didn't want to think about it, but - with a triumphant inevitability Steve had grown to expect after long aquaintance - she continued. After a while. As though she'd paused to give it some thought. “I can’t believe this is happening again. After everything ... it’s wrong, just walking into someone else’s country and killing them. They’ve done nothing to us!”

If you don't want to think about it, then don't, he thought. “Forty five thousand people died last month from the latest Romero.”

“I take it you mean HIAP,” Tara corrected him, pronouncing every letter.

“Hey, Highly Infectious Acquired Psychopathy, ZPFH, REBAEH , whatever you want to call it,” spat Steve, “It killed a lot of people.”

He gave her some time to google those acryonyms - Zombie Plague From Hell, and Rapid Easter Bunny's Alien-Egg Hunt - which, without-it as she was, he'd known would be alien to her. She snorted as she read them, then shook her head, and set her drink down with a thump. "We don’t know that HIAP was unleashed by the Congolese. No one knows for sure where it came from. We don’t even know for sure that it’s a war plague.”

He rolled his shoulders, body language that Tara had come to recognize was an exaggerated - and to her eyes, blatantly disrespectful - adaptation of eye-rolling (the use of sensetaps generally discouraged eye-rolling, of course; Tara was aware of this and thus generally exerted herself to overlook it, grating though it might be.) “Of course it wasn’t the Congolese. They’re mostly just ignorant gappers. But it’s a good bet the corpsefuckers who did unleash the virus…”

“Watch your language,” Tara snapped, reconsidering for a second her decision to overlook the shoulder-rolling.

“… are sheltering in the jungle,” he went on, ignoring the interruption. “We know there’s a lot of sympathy for cex there.”

“Even if HAIP did come from the Congo, we can’t hold the entire population responsible. We can’t just … take their country away from them. More violence isn’t the answer.”

There were several arguments Steve could have made at this point, but he opted for the most direct (and not incidentally, most likely to piss his mother off.) “Sure we can. We are. Right now.” He said it matter-of-factly, and was rewarded with a flash of angered shock in his mother’s eyes. He smiled. “If they can’t run their country properly, we’ll just have to run it for them.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” she finally said. “There are better ways.” And paused again, picking up her glass again and draining most of it. “At least I don’t have blood on my hands. I voted against it.”

Steve snickered.

“What?” Her voice was low, suddenly. Dangerous.

Steve decided to press further.

“I guess you’re just a good person, then, huh Tara?”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Just that you’re obviously occupying the moral high ground here, like you always do. You’re so virtuous, you know? Like Ghandi. Why fight for survival when it’s so much easier to just sit there and die righteously?”

The sarcasm was spread nice and thick. Tara cut him off just as he was about to continue with a sharp, “Don’t! Just don’t.” So instead he just stuffed another too-large mouthful of noodles into his mouth, smirking as he chewed it. Tara shook her head. “You sound just like your uncle,” she said softly.

Uncle Sunil had a tendency to come up whenever the subject touched anything related to the military; he'd died in Venezuela ten years ago, a career soldier helping to liberate the brutalized country from Chavez. He'd left a warblog behind him, though, and Steve had read the whole thing, all five hundred thousand words of it. It had been like plowing through the writings of Julius Caeser, only with pictures and (for the later stuff) some video.

Tara - who'd of course been aware he was reading it - was impressed that Steve had gotten all the way through it (especially given how little time he spent reading). She was also glad her dead brother had made such an impression on her son; still, she was more than a little concerned about it's influence. It was no accident that his name came to her lips

Steve figured he'd seen through a transparent tactic - use Uncle Sunil's sad fate as a red mist to try and scare him off from the army - and he didn't appreciate it. He rolled his shoulders again and got up, quite obviously with the intention of departing to his room.

“Steven,” Tara said.

“Yes, Mom?”

“Dishes, hon. Recycler.”

“I was gonna,” he said. Meaning, oops, I forgot.

“Would you like some ice cream?”

“No thanks … maybe later.”

And he was running back up the stairs.

“And don’t be playing games all night!” She called up after him. “Get some work done on your school projects!”

The only response was the slamming of a door smeared with glowing patches of Nazi Keep Out signs that had - of course - proved resistant against every legal disinfectant she'd scrubbed it with.

Friday, February 29, 2008

1.1 Monday Bloody Monday

Steve killed for the first time the day after he joined the army.

There had been no delay for training, or even to be outfitted and shipped off to a far foreign country. That was the beauty of the Telepresence Cavalry: the Pentagon could cherry-pick their recruits from the nation’s top gamers, already as well-trained and combat ready as they’d ever be thanks to years of pretend violence. The robots they’d be riding herd on, meanwhile, were already in the battlespace, packed up tight inside ground effect carriers floating off the coast, just a short flight from deployment.

His ‘bot, an M-2053 Remote Armored Ground Vehicle (Insectile), was still in the air when he grabbed the reins, attached to the belly of an A-280 Mulehawk. Flying in loose formation were three other A-280s, carrying the rest of 3 platoon, Bravo Company, 6th Armored Telepresence Cavalry.

The battlenet gave Steve – and all of the other ‘botriders – an audiovisual feed from each of the RAGVIs: inside the interface, his field of vision bore a passing resemblance to what an insect would see through compound eyes, the world fragmented into twenty viewpoints arranged around the central feed from his own ‘bot, each of them labeled with its rider’s callsign. At the moment they differed only in displacement: all showed the vast green carpet of the Congo’s jungle, racing by beneath, broken by the thick brown ribbon of the Congo River. The airspace above the jungle swarmed with aircraft. In the far distance, behind them, the tenuous glow of the festering hive that was the East African coast, the thin blue line of the Atlantic beyond.

"Listen up, hotshots,” Lieutenant Marcos’ voice broke through without warning, as clear as though they were all sitting in the same room, rather than separated by oceans and continents. “A lot of you – hell, most of you – this is your first combat op. I know y’all’ve been gamin’ sims since ‘fore y’all could walk, an’ as a result y’all think you’re experts. Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. We’ll find out in a few minutes, either way. Just keep in mind, this is for real. You’re in the saddle of real machines. Firing real weapons. At real people. Keep that in mind ‘fore you authorize a kill.”

Steve licked his lips. “Yessir,” he said, in more-or-less unison with the rest of 3 platoon. There was none of the ‘Sir-yes-sir’ speaking-with-one-voice nonsense that his forebears might have used: discipline of that kind wasn’t necessary in a telepresence cavalry, and like all adaptations that had lost their usefulness, it had been dropped in a remarkably short time.

He knew enough to know that that sort of break with tradition rankled officers like Marcos, men who still had to enter the combat zone and put their lives on the line, and thought discipline was more than just a quaint habit from the twencen. Marcos was the platoon’s IC, but his role was only nominally a leadership one: he was really there as more of a combat mechanic.

Still, to the el-tee’s credit, he didn’t let it show. “Enough of that. They make me say it for legal purposes. Y’all know what we’re here for. Folks down in that jungle figure they can do more or less as they please to one another. They’ve been fuckin’ up each others shit for generations now. They’ve got no government, no laws, no goddamn order, an’ as a result they’re playin’ host to some dangerous, evil sumbitches. I don’t have to tell y’all how much is at stake here.

“Drop’s in thirty seconds. Let’s kick some ass.”

The drop, when it came, was sudden. One after another, the povs of the RAGVIs lurched as they detached from the A-280s and fell like lawn darts towards the jungle. Tracer fire from a handful of different sources erupted, managing to take down two of the drop vehicles before their lethal cargo could land. The rest corkscrewed through computer-controlled trajectories that were almost impossible to track, and almost guaranteed to bring each RAGVI down in a tactically optimal position: in this case, as part of an ellipsoid formation, a noose around what intel said was a likely enemy base.

Steve’s own drop vehicle crashed through the canopy like a bullet through crumpled kleenex, coming to a rest in the jungle floor with an abruptness that would have broken him in any number of ways had he been physically present. As soon as it hit ground, the raggy was already scrambling out of the drop vehicle, spraying up shock gel in its haste, sensor package whipping around in search of targets.

Incredibly, he’d come down almost right on top of a small knot of men, dressed in ragged combat greens and carrying weapons that would have been at the bleeding edge half a decade before. One was shouting orders, while the others did their best to follow them: taking firing positions, attempting to establish a perimeter.

Steve sent the RAGVI into a dip in the ground, where its low-slung form would have cover. Some team of geniuses operating out of San Jose and Shenzhen had made significant improvements in actuator design, just in time for them to be incorporated into the blueprints of the latest generation of raggies. As a result Steve’s machine moved faster than his opponents expected: depleted uranium pelted the empty drop vehicle, and the explosions of microgrenades finished the job, reducing it to scrap. Steve indicated the four men in the firing group, and authorized the drone to deal with them; obligingly, it reared up on four of its legs and sent each target a swarm of explosive seeker rounds from its chaingun. By the time it was back under cover, there were three corpses and a screaming, legless man where once a threat had been.

Those were Steve’s first kills. At the time, he didn’t pause to think about it. He was too busy moving to get into formation with the rest of the platoon.

Steve was fifteen years old.