by Stewart Wilson
Somewhere in the middle of a Jovian orbit packed with lumps of dumb-matter rock barely large enough to register their own gravity wells falls the Habitat — a lump of superprocessing matter about the size of a paperback book. For the first time in five years, it starts broadcasting towards Earth. It has no noticeable means of generating such transmissions, but they're there anyway, trained on a small building in the urban zone that used to be called Boston. Two mental state vectors and an expert system of future prediction screams towards the planet that birthe3d humanity at the speed of light, which at these distances is noticeable.
The legacy systems, maintained by self-sustaining programs and autonomous drones since the big FIF buyout, activate. The biological templates, maintained in cold storage, are re-activated and the last five years of life are decanted into their brains. Thoughts flow down augmented neural pathways, information engines in the walls codifying them from Habitat-impulses into human intelligences. Old implants come online, and both Jerry and Alex realise just how human they are.
The world has changed in the last five years. The social and technological changes are equivalent to those between the Industrial Revolution and when they left, and that's conservative. Probling local networks provides low-bandwidth info-pages suitable for old headware as well as numerous pop-ups advertising on-the-fly upgrades available from "liberated" nanotech creation engines, on the offchance that anyone would want to let unchecked nanotech mess with their brains.
Alex is the first to recover, being used to advertising-dense cultures. She crafts some on-the-fly protection from the worst memes, a simple filter to bounce even meta-adaptive advertising technology. She tries to make it public through a Free Information license only to find that such a thing doesn't exist any more. She can assign it to the Free Information Foundation, Inc. but then she loses any rights to it. An animated paperclip behind her eyes informs her that if she keeps it to herself, any corporate entity believing that she has violated their property rights can search and seize her mind for evidence of infringements and does she want the number of a local law firm?
She updates the filter to block agent-based intrusions and bounces the software to Jerry before deleting her public copy. He's doubled over, not used at all to the glut of advertising and spam. It's a few seconds before he's stable enough to stand.
"Close off everything but the essentials until I can find something to calibrate us." Alex has become quite the authority on dealing with potential cultural deltas in her time on Haven.
"Right. Fuck, it was never anything like that before."
"Just be glad they don't have the OK switch keyed to a WTF-meme or we'd both be having our brains peeled by weird ideas."
"You sound like your father, so calm like that."
"I guess." Something irritates the back of her mind, but it's not anything she can't ignore. An old site has an archived FAQplex, downloading it takes forever and it's harsher on the frontal lobes than a Habitat FAQ but it works.
* * *
Returner FAQ version 4.3
What is happening? - Where am I? - Why are you so mean? - What do I need to survive?
What is happening: You're back on the real world. And you probably took your sweet fucking time dicking around on some off-Earth installation before coming back. By present revision, the only people who might be returning are coming from the Cop and they need all the hand-holding they can get, being from the 90's. We handled reclimatisation. We handled several neurocomputing integration advances you never heard of. In short: Welcome back and welcome to the future. Your time off-Earth was wasted. Start catching up.
Where am I: The Eastern Seaboard of the US. The reforming that's gone on has made the old cities spill into each other as a way to handle population increase without destroying too much to appease the environmental whiners. Not that we need plants for oxygen any more, but they have become a semi-powerful lobby among the Progenitors.
Why are you so mean: Because I can be. We did this without you. We won without you. And now you come running back to Earth hoping to share in the bounty. I hope you love feeling like a second-class citizen, because you fucking deserve it, you pathetic deserter.
What do I need to survive: Headware. Implant tech that will bring your brains up to speed with the rest of the world. Aside from that, we have genome plugins in case you don't like your body any more. We have seeded informational nanotech that interfaces with the headware bringing you your choice of media and making sure you never get sick of any standard diseases or anything like that. The upgrades to cut out the adverts cost and cost bad so get a fucking job.
* * *
"Well..." Alex sighed, sitting on a console.
"Damn. What kind of world is this? Is it even in the expert system?"
"Unlikely. We estrapolated without knowing the breakthroughs. Sounds like serious genetic augmentation and some fundamental nanotech creation engines that people thought were interesting before I left. We're looking at a panopticon of some kind, but the advances came too fast for us."
"I need a fucking coffee. And a smoke." Jerry slumped against the wall. The wish-fulfilment of the Habitat was a hard habit to break.
"We should find something like. And update our physical headware while we're at it."
"How? We're ex-Reality Deviants&mdahsh; I mean, Rogue Specialists. Not a good thing to have on the resume here."
"We can claim we were late transfers to the Cop who have been experimenting with not integrating into the monoculture."
"I knew I recruited you for a reason. Coffee and a cigarette and access to the infosphere."
They headed for the reactive-glass doors, which melted into nothing at their approach.
The streets were confusing. Nothing like the Boston that they had left, these had some features missing — including most visual cues. Traffic flew past on the single-level conveyance route, a mess of cars emitting synthetic smog and bike couriers nipping between the four-wheeled monsters. There was nowhere for pedestrians as far as Alex and Jerry could tell. In the end, they crossed at what seemed to be a stop-light as Jerry verbally abused the drivers they were moving in front of and sometimes climbing over.
A few streets away a delineated sidewalk filled with people greeted them. The fashions were bizarre and eclectic, so that even five-year-retro was able to pass without comment. A group of people marvelled at some kind of invisible projection that neither Habitat resident's headware could pick up on. A man in the street stood, recording. Listening to the city so others could experience his life for a small subscription every week.
The headware upgrades were available off the shelf. Their excuse went over well enough, the lack of modern slang adding to the authenticity of their cover story. Rather than an invasive surgical procedure, they were offered a number of options. Alex chose a small black tablet, Jerry opting for inhaling the nanotech from a pseudocigarette.
From there the coffee shops were easy to find, navigational memes coming as standard. The corporation intelligence forked and personally offered them a variety of blends that neither had heard of, before begrudgingly admitting that it did indeed offer espresso by the cup or pint. Everywhere they looked advertising and media flung itself down their optical nerves, subsonics tried to implant an impulse to consume, meme-viruses told them Starbucks customers were 88% less likely to die of weaponised Ebola-3 than customers of their current franchise.
"Where do we go from here, Jerry? This is so... weird." Alex had been searching for a word that conveyed her astonishment with the world, but there wasn't anything.
"We do what we planned on. We come back, we offer people a choie and we offer them the truth. Deprogram some of them if we can't, launch a combat media attack if we can't. I've been working with Sirhan on some interesting tricks with weaponised entropy that should help." Jerry dragged on a non-toxic cigarette fashioned from a creation engine he'd picked up for ten dollars.
"Get real, Jerry. Where would we do that from? The world's been absorbed. I've been checking. This kind of capitalist groupthink has become a global monoculture. Fuck, kids in Africa were so glad of the AIDS-cure nanotech seeding their atmosphere that they may as well have invited the Ruling Power in."
"Even so. We have a chance."
Both of them could feel it. The pressure of stealth-memes on the back of the mind, a mild urge to conform, to stop thinking the way they were thinking. This time it was Jerry's turn to come to the rescue, sketching out a graph in cigarette ash that cut through the mental fog.
"We should get back. Don't want to be interrupted."
"Only if you tell me what you're planning."
A visual in Alex' peripheral vision informed her that the Free Speech Regulatory Commission would be sending people to ensure that she understood the new legality soon enough.
"It's simple." Jerry set down old currency enough to cover twice their bill, the corporate intelligence didn't object. "They've not rescinded the basic nature of the nation-state. Come on."
Both of them swept through the crowds, Brownian motion analysis plotting a critical path to dissuade physical pursuit. Habit for Alex, and a mark of paranoia for Jerry.
"The fuck are you talking about? We'd need some kind of land to claim that we represented a seperate nation."
"Exactly. Even Sirhan wouldn't have realised that was my plan."
The annoying sdeed finally flowered in te back of Alex' mind. "And another thing! How the fuck did you know my father?"
"All in good time. Come on, the FIF's down the street.
Alex broke out in rage-fuelled invective enough to stop any vehicle in it's tracks, annoyed at herself for not working out the core of the plan or finding that key titbit that had fired Jerry's mind.
Only once the glass behind them solidified to the density of steel did Jerry elaborate.
"Legal codes here don't recognise a difference between physical and virtual real-estate. It's an artefact of corporations being allowed to make their own virtual zones and protecting them as if they were the corporate intelligence's home country."
"That sounds dangerous."
"It is. But the dangerous thinkers took your route and rebelled into conformity."
Alex opened her mouth, but stopped as Jerry continued. "As for your father, he and I were friends. We did some fucking amazing drugs together. I had my eye on you as soon as you rebelled from him. He was a clever guy but we lost touch when I started exploring the Habitat. You have his adaptive intelligence, you can think your way through any problem. But you don't have the feel for logical near-paradoxes that he had. Think about it some."
"This is a lot to take in..."
"More than a world changed by five years of weakly superhuman intelligences living on it? They have plans for Matrioshka brains made of Mercury and Venus. The world is a lot to take in, Alex. You dealt with the weird when we got here, don't tell me some odd revelations about your family are going to screw you up."
"Of course they are you unfeeling bastard! You never knew what it was like growing up with my parents and to just tell me offhand that you knew them probably better than I did.... I know why I rebelled, but that's between me and him. Why did you have to go and bring it up anyway?"
"To see how you dealt with pressure outside of an environment where moods were optional. Now you can stay here having some kind of self-reflective Hallmark moment or you can wait long enough to help me."
"I still don't know what you're going to do!"
"Pardon me for thinking you'd be faster on the uptake. I'm excited. Burning passion of an idea. I'm going to crash the Habitat."