January 06, 2356
The debates in the Transhuman Congress were raging, with members of Harold Chase's Popular Party tried to recover and form a solid response to the bill. I watched their longest-winded speakers drone on and on.
Masahiro was late getting the promised software to me. He — it — whatever, had said 40 hours, and it had now been 43. The 500 kiloruples had disappeared from my account right after my call with it day before yesterday. I bugged Poalo, but he didn't know anything about Masahiro other than how to contact him the one time.
Harold Chase himself was at the podium, saying, "I want to reiterate — we cannot remain a free and open society if we're willing to so blatantly enslave certain of our people. We don't 'draft' our people into service. We ask them to volunteer, and compensate them fairly for their time. This is not a dictatorship."
I listened with half an ear as he rambled on about sparring the naturalized arties and terminally absorbed from a lengthy drafting process. Nothing about the arties that weren't citizens, of course.
Congresswoman Tina Crest then made a half-hearted push at saying the arties — regardless of citizenship — shouldn't be drafted at all, but after that debacle a few years ago about the NXA models being kept "under surveillance" and at her beck and call, her voice on Chase's side hadn't carried much weight.
And still, Masahiro hadn't gotten back to me.
"I guess it's my turn now," drawled Baud Scoli of the mid-Atlantic region. I paid more attention. A stocky, bare-headed woman of middle years, Scoli was notoriously blunt but generally fair, in my opinion.
"I don't know why the hell we're all on parade, honestly," she started. "Conscript the artificials and leave the real people out of it. Done."
I laughed and sent that quote to Marlon, who responded, "Can't say I'm surprised. Kim's looking for you." Kim was my sort-of friend and informal Latvian teacher. She was enough of an Achievement Party sympathizer to want to turn me in to force me into service. She'd been calling me every couple of hours to plead with me to listen to her.
"What'd she say?" I asked warily.
Marlon replied, "Just that she wanted to talk, sort stuff out."
"Man, I told her that I was trying to get backed up!" I said. I passed the video of that conversation to him. "What if she's sicced them on me?"
"It's not illegal, right? It's just... unsafe. Are you sure you want to do this?" Marlon asked, concerned.
"Not you, too," I groaned.
"No, no! I'm not trying to screw you over," he insisted. "I'm just wondering... that's scary shit. You could get fried."
I was quiet for a moment. "I know," I said. Was my freedom worth it?
Baud Scoli wrapped up her short-but-sweet talk, and the Congress noisily broke for lunch. I nervously checked for the public's reactions, and found too few people being critical of this crap.
My call sensor binged. Incoming call from... me?
"Hello?" I answered.
"Good afternoon where you are, Ser Theodore," slithered Masahiro.
"Yeah, and good... day... to you, Masahiro. Wherever you are?" I hinted. Masahiro clicked rapidly in what I hoped was a laugh rather an annoyance. This wasn't a person I wanted annoyed at me.
"It is night here, I believe, and I am late returning to you by 10% of the time originally allotted. You've been refunded 10% of the fee." I checked my bank account, and lo and behold, the 50 kiloruples were there.
"Oh. Well, thank you." Nice to know I was working with a somewhat honest developer. "Do you have the software?" I asked eagerly.
"In a manner of speaking," Masahiro replied.
"Hey, separate question, but is there a way to build in some way to have the backup have a different identity than me? I know that's random," I said, "but it's just a thought I had. I couldn't get in touch with you to ask about it," I accused.
Something on Masahiro's side sounded like sandpaper rubbing on wood. This was one weird creature.
After a moment, Masahiro said, "There is an identity redux dilemma in what you wish to do, you're aware?"
I puzzled through his terminology, then said, "But I won't exist when the backup is brought up."
"Exactly. To maintain an exact duplicate, but keep a different name, identity — for you are seeking to hide, are you not? To allow synchronization with that..." Masahiro broke off into wordless, fricative hissing.
It was creepier the more I talked to it. This thing couldn't be non-organic. Could it?
"Whether I'm hiding or not is moot," I said firmly. "But yes, it'd be nice to have the backup have a different identity."
"That was not in the original specifications," Masahiro sighed, calmer now.
"How much would that cost?" I pushed. I was running out of time, but I probably had enough money for another project.
Masahiro's voice was slippery again as it said, "You have not asked if I am available to do the work."
Fine. "Are you?" I denied the incoming call from Kim, but sent her a clip I'd found last night of a cartoon stick figure ramming repeatedly into a wall. Let her chew on that.
"I am not, because I have a better solution for you," it said.
I waited, but it didn't expand on that. "What's the solution?" I finally asked. Kim pinged me again, and this time I threw up a firewall that didn't even acknowledge the request.
It said only, "There is a model of artificials that are legally citizens that might be of assistance."
"How would they be of assistance?" I asked slowly, barely holding onto my patience.
"They would be able to convert you into an artificial," it stated, "thus protecting you from the new bill being discussed in Congress."
This thing was obviously off its rocker. "I can't just become an AI!" Just in case it wasn't... I started a search for conversions of organics to AIs.
"Truly?" Masahiro said slowly. "Perhaps I am mistaken, then. I should reconsider my knowledge in that case. I will call again when I've figured out why I thought that could happen." It sounded almost hurt.
"No, wait," I interjected. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to be rude."
Masahiro said nothing.
"Please tell me about becoming an AI. How is that possible?" Nothing other than silly hearsay in my results so far.
"There is a model that exists that consists nearly entirely of former organics."
"Is it a popular one?" I asked. "I've never heard of that. Plus, citizenized AIs are draftable, too." I tweaked my search a bit to try to get some useful results.
"This model is not draftable," Masahiro stated. "It is part of the deal that was made."
"Deal... with Congress?" If Masahiro trucked with Congress, I was screwed. I halted the net search; no way I was going to be able to find info on a model that fell outside the law. They shouldn't exist.
"The Empress," it replied.
Oh-kay. "What kind of deal?"
"The process of converting is lengthy and involved," Masahiro said in a complete non-sequitur, "but you would be safe from almost all influences while and after undergoing it." Guess I wasn't going to get an answer to my actual question.
"Would I still be me?" I wondered aloud.
"I will leave that philosophical question to your sociological expertise," it responded evenly, only the barest clicking beneath its voice.
"Can terminal absorption be cured? Programmed away?" Maybe then I could have a body again. Was this some cure I'd missed — it was unlikely, but possible. I fired up a second search.
"Particulars, perhaps, but not the tendency," Masahiro said. "That is ingrained and necessary."
"Necessary for what?" I asked. I wasn't getting anywhere with Masahiro. "Look, can I just meet a member of this mystery model? That might be the best way to clear up my questions."
"I will endeavor to arrange a meeting if Congress passes this measure in such a way that would affect you," it replied.
"By the way, how did —" I started.
"It was rather obvious, given the timing. You should finish any outstanding business and papers while Congress deliberates. You may ultimately decide you aren't interested." Masahiro ended the call.
Good point. I took a bit of time to peruse people's reactions again. The majority of the people talking loudly were in favor of the bill, although some wanted modifications. I guess there weren't enough terminally absorbed people around for us to have a human face. We must just seem part human, part AI. Then again, I suppose we were.
Several people claiming to be naturalized arties were posting about how proud they would be to work on a space project. Lots of organics were saying that they wished they could be so lucky as to be drafted. Were all these people idiots?
I'd just fired up the draft of my latest paper, titled "The Effects of 4-D Immersive Conversational Applications on Personal Networks", when my boss Samantha called.
"Hi, boss. What can I do for you?" I asked. I started the recommendation engine — it would let me know if there were references I should check out as potentially relevant.
Samantha's voice was excited as she said, "How long will it take you to finish the 4-D paper?"
"I was just working on it now," I said carefully. If Samantha was excited like this, she was probably going to rush me.
"It's almost done, though, right?" she pushed.
No way. "It's not done yet. You can't have it." I checked the recommendations; they weren't done yet. "I haven't double-checked all my sources yet," I told her.
"I just want to show it to a couple of interested people. They think that if this space initiative kicks off, that they'll want to look into using some of those apps you're writing about." She took a deep breath and said in a more persuasive tone, "Ted, this could be a breakthrough for our little group. We could start getting the big contracts!"
I wasn't so sure she'd really like working for Congress, but the idea of seeing Samantha struggle a little less to make ends meet for our group was appealing.
"That could be humming, yeah," I said reluctantly.
"Send what you have over to me," she said.
"Now," she insisted.
I sent the last saved version. "Done," I grumbled. "You need anything else, Oh Great Boss?"
"Nope, that's it!" she said cheerily. I grumpily ended the call. Now what the hell was I going to do?
The Popular Party returned from lunch with a modified version of the bill, according to the news ticker. It was presented by Miriam Wransky, who I thought was relatively new to the Congress. I'd only seen her speak on Transhuman Relations matters.
"If you would," Wransky began, "check the differences in this bill —" she held up a disk for show, but the bill was already being streamed out. I checked the highlighted differences quickly.
"You should find very few differences, except that we propose to increase the benefits and stipends to those asked to volunteer into service with the Empire. We cannot fairly ask people to volunteer their time without properly compensating them, as Ser Harold has said."
"Furthermore, we propose that instead of the drawn out drafting process the Achievement Party proposes, that they do their due diligence and recruit in one fell swoop. The waiting and not knowing would interfere with people's career plans," she continued sternly.
What? Volunteer? Recruit? My ass.
Marlon prodded my line, and I opened the channel.
"Volunteer?" he sputtered immediately. "What is that?!"
"It's pretty-sounding bullshit, is what that is," I replied.
"And people are in favor of this!" Marlon continued angrily.
I shushed him. Wransky was saying, "We simply can't oppose the progress Ser Chelsea is calling for, but we feel it needs to happen in a differently structured and more open way." She prattled on a little more about fairness and proper compensation — she wasn't really the best speaker — then called for a vote.
There was silence in the Congressional Hall as everyone there considered and voted.
It was an absolute wash, in my opinion. Chase and the Popular Party had caved to... what? Public opinion didn't matter much right now; elections weren't for another four years.
Lyla joined Marlon and me while we waited quietly and I repeatedly checked opinion polls. I already knew one of the bills was going to go through now that the parties were so suddenly united.
"They're probably going to be a couple of hours," Lyla said.
"Probably —" Marlon started to agree.
"No, this'll go quick," I said. This whole thing had gone way too quickly. Out of morbid curiosity, I fired of a search for new cures for terminal absorption and ways for us to have bodies.
My line lit up with another call from "me". "Hey," I told Marlon and Lyla, "I'm going to put you on hold while I take this call."
"Hello, Theodore," said a soft feminine voice when I answered the call. There was no avatar for the caller.
"Hello... secret model of AI?" I ventured.
She chuckled a little. "Yes, super secret. You wanted to talk to one of us?"
"Yes — wait." I checked the Hall; people were still voting. "I thought I was only going to get a call when the vote came out to a yes on the bill. It hasn't been official decided yet."
"Yes it has, Theodore," she said, sing-songing my name. "They're just thinking about how to spin the great bipartisan triumph."
"Who are you?" I asked seriously.
"My name is Mishro."
Obviously the same model as Masahiro, judging by the name. "Okay, Mishro, what would I be getting into with this conversion being proposed?"
"You would be getting into an unbreakable deal with the Empress. What she asks, you do, although she rarely makes actual demands."
"Do all of her aides know her that well?" I asked. No one else did, that's for sure. She mostly worked with Congress rather than interfacing with us, the people. The Congress was the face of the Empire, oddly enough. I figured she was just a puppet, myself.
"We aren't her aides, and no, we don't know her well at all," Mishro said. "We're just well-placed to keep her machine oiled and functioning."
"So... what would change? I mean, do I have to go into hiding or something?"
"By no means. We like you where you are," she said with a teasing lilt to her voice. "If you want a functioning body, then we'll 'discover' a miracle cure for your case of terminal absorption — although not without its outward costs, of course — and you can continue being a sociologist."
"I could really have a working body?" I asked skeptically.
"It must be non-humanoid, of course. That's the outward cost, to the public eye," she said dismissively. "It can be whatever you like, so long as you can still be useful."
"So, I get to have a body, be programmed somehow into an AI, keep my friends and job, but have to do odd jobs for the elusive Empress?" Not too shabby a deal, but I checked my search results for recent terminal absorption cures. Nothing.
"Yep! In return, you won't be separated from Earth and locked into studying a microcosm of society for the next century on threat of termination."
Of course, I could be helping Samantha and the team if I did just that. "Suicide is another option," I dared.
"Of course," she said simply. "So is continuing with your risky plan to reinstate yourself using rushed backup techniques." She was quiet after that.
Suicide wasn't really an option for me. If I hadn't done it already, after coping well enough with the loss of the physical world, I wouldn't do it now. It felt good to give myself a third option, though.
"How long do I have to make my decision?" I asked.
She replied, "I'll need to know as soon as Congress announces their vote results." I checked the voting — still on-going, but several members were noticeably fidgeting. Were they really just scheming on how to wrap up the whole thing?
"One last question: how are you and Masahiro the same model? He seems very different."
"We're sort of the same model," she said slowly. "There are more variations among us, since we're custom-made."
"Why didn't he just say I'd already met one of you?"
"Because he's... weird, to be frank. You thought that, too, right?"
"Well, sure," I said hesitantly.
"He's one type of potential that we can reach. I'm just more along yours." I couldn't deny that there was a smile in her voice. Was she flirting with me?
I couldn't help but ask, "What do you do?"
"I'm a student of society, like you," she said demurely.
Somehow, I didn't think she was a fellow sociologist. "And you work for the Empress?"
She chuckled softly. "Oh, yes. I'm one of her most faithful Servants."
The results of congressional votes were always hidden until the final numbers were in, but I checked anyway. "Since you seem to know so much about the inner workings of Congress," I said to Mishro, "about how long do I have to decide?"
"About five minutes, give or take a minute," she said. "The Populars are very ready for this victory."
"I want to think, then. Should I call you back?" Maybe then I could figure out where she was calling from. The Empress's own home, perhaps?
"You can just put me on hold, or include me in your chat with your friends as a 'colleague'." She seemed amused.
Yeah, that wouldn't be complicated. "I'll just put you on hold, if that's fine."
"Fine," she said, and I switched to the other line.
"Damn, where ya been?" Marlon asked.
"Sorry, that was, uh, business." See, here I was calling her a colleague. I guess she could be soon. Samantha was a good colleague, too, though.
"They're still deliberating," Lyla said restlessly. "I wonder if it'll get voted in?"
Sometimes Lyla was very naive.
"One of them will," Marlon replied. "Ted, what are you going to do?"
What was the safe answer here? I thought quickly. "That call was about a work project I could get put on. Apparently I'm good enough that they don't want to lose me to the space program." There, that was fine. Luckily, neither of them knew Samantha to ask her.
"Or not good enough to get picked," Marlon joked.
"But he's our resident genius!" Lyla said. "Of course they want to keep him."
A gong sounded in the Congressional Hall. The vote was in.
Chelsea Sears stepped up to the podium with a look of guarded pleasure. She was straight business today in a navy blue pinstriped skinsuit.
"In a landmark bipartisan effort, the Popular Party's modified version of the bill — being downstreamed now — has been voted into action." People in the Hall seemed to breath a sigh of relief. People on the nets were already posting excitedly.
To us viewers, she continued, "We'll be working in tandem with the Empress to prepare our lists of recruits. We'll make a statement once we have timelines." Her smile broke through. "I'm so glad we could all work together on this! I want to thank everyone for helping our society move forward." The video feed ended there.
"I want to check on my colleague," I told Marlon and Lyla hurriedly, only to see an incoming call from Kim. Good timing; I wanted to settle this now.
I switched to Kim first. "What?" I barked as I opened the channel.
"Svelki," she said tentatively. "I'm glad you finally decided to talk to me."
"It may be the last time," I said. I checked to make sure Mishro was still waiting.
"Ted, please don't do this backup thing," she pleaded.
"Why? Are you planning to sic the government after me to stop me?" I checked the reactions again quickly, checked again that Mishro was still there, checked that I had no new messages. If I'd had a foot, it'd be tapping.
Her avatar looked sad as she said, "They already know everything, really."
"I know. I have another option, Kim, and I might just take it." I couldn't let Congress win this. I wanted to live at least somewhat free to fix this.
Her eyes narrowed. "What's that?"
"Goodbye, Kim." I switched to Mishro. She had an avatar now — a baby-faced young woman with short and wild curly black hair. She was gorgeous.
"Your decision?" she asked patiently.
I took a deep breath. The Empress, or a backup?
Her avatar grinned impishly. "Consider it done."
"Do you remember how I wanted to overthrow Congress for that one bill — the first expansion and terraforming bill," I reminisced as I lay back in the grass and stared up at the sky.
"Of course," Mishro said. She sat down next to me, leaning into me slightly with her feet tucked under her.
"It all made sense then," I said as I sighed wearily. I'd just submitted my latest paper for peer review about an hour ago: "2356: Government in a Transhuman Society" that prodded at that election 102 years ago. My work was a lot more political now.
Mishro let down her hair and shook it out over my face, laughing. "This all makes sense now, too," she said reassuringly.
"But it's not the same... I wanted them gone." I chuckled ruefully. "Turns out it doesn't work that way."
Mishro shook her head slightly. "You can fix the system the way we work," she insisted.
"Not until I become what you are," I retorted.
She flinched and the smile slid off her face. "I don't know if you want to do that," she whispered as if someone were listening.
"You're the closest to being the Empress of any one of us. How can I want to make Congress into what it should be — our protectors — unless I'm where you are?"
"There is no Empress," Mishro said sadly. "There's just... us."
"That's not true," I growled, propping myself up on two limbs. "You know as well as I do that she's plenty real. She's just more complex than people think she is. She can't exist without you."
"You're a part of that, too, Massro," she said gently. I'd picked up the name Massro when I'd converted, since it was my original take on the model name MSRO. All my friends and old colleagues still knew me as Ted.
"Not really. Not yet. I'm still just one of her normal agents." I laid back down and stretched languidly, letting four of my limbs wrap around her. "What's it like?" I asked.
"It's... big," she replied. "There are so few of us Servants, but we're everywhere, spread thin, especially with the colonizations going on."
I idly stroked her hair where it lay against her back. I loved that she'd grown it out. "Why doesn't she take power? Real power?"
She chuckled. "She has it, Massro. There's not a single election she doesn't know the outcome of, doesn't make the outcome of. You don't get to see all of her machinations."
"She can't have spies everywhere, fixing the outcomes," I said.
"She doesn't have to anymore. There's a fine balance between the need to keep a high-level perspective and losing control of individual elements and, ultimately, the whole machine," Mishro mused. "Too high a view, and little shifts can become big shifts before you realize it. Too low, and you never get to sleep," she said with a slight smile.
A warm feeling spread through me as I marveled at this... system. "What is this? What has she made?"
Mishro laid next to me and put her head on my chest. "It's just transhumanism, silly," she said. "Transhumanism isn't just 'robots' and cybernetics: that stuff is easy. It's us extending ourselves, and she's found a good way to do that by adding our abilities to hers without taking our individuality. Maybe not the best way, but Lina's done pretty well in such a short time."
"Can you always feel her?" I asked. I couldn't, but Mishro had been with the Empress from nearly the beginning.
"No... Yes. Sort of. It's complicated. She's part of me. It's like... like she's a source of my power, my drive." She laughed slightly. "That sounds weird."
"No, it makes sense," I assured her as I kissed the top of her head.
"It won't be much longer for you," she said, and I could tell she was speaking as a Servant. "Lina moves quickly when she wants to. She's not very old, after all, and look at all she's done."
"Then maybe transformation of Congress will be pretty quick, too," I hoped.
"Oh, she's definitely sympathetic. You'll meet Sirpa someday." She arched up and kissed me sweetly. "You two will love each other."
I pulled her over me and kissed her soundly. "Not as much as I love you."