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Welcome to the Squidpod, your weekly sci-fi flashfiction transmission from Robot Squid Geostationary.

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Squidpod 020 - Infra-Red Riding Hood

SQUIDBOT:

WELL, THAT COULD HAVE GONE BETTER

KATY:

I told you Robot Squid Geostationary was only ever designed to be an orbital station. The clue is in the name.

SQUIDBOT:

THAT’S THE LAST TIME I BUY REFURBISHED HYPERDRIVES OFF OF SHIFTY RIGELIANS IN SPACEPORT BARS.

KATY:

Oh yes. Dodgy Degobaxtifotuoimaronllehsisihtyhw.

DAVE:

The clue is also in the name.

SQUIDBOT:

THE MAIN THING IS, WE GOT AWAY SAFELY AND IN ONE PIECE.

DAVE:

Excuse me?

SQUIDBOT:

DON’T TELL ME THAT PROSTHETIC HAND ISN’T TOTALLY AN UPGRADE.

DAVE:

OK, fine. Fuck it. Let’s just get back to Earth orbit and pretend this never happened.

KATY:

Agreed.

DAVE:

I mean, we were only away for a couple of days, so…

KATY:

…no-one need ever know.

DAVE:

Exactly.

SQUIDBOT:

I’M SORRY DAVE, KATY … I’M AFRAID WE CAN’T DO THAT.

DAVE:

What?

KATY:

Squidbot, we’ve heard your Hal 9000 impression at every Robot Squid Christmas Party since we launched. Please give it a fucking rest.

DAVE:

So, what’s the problem, Squidbot?

SQUIDBOT:

I FAKED THE SENSOR READOUTS. I’M AFRAID WE WERE ORBITING THE BLACK HOLE RATHER CLOSER THAN I LED YOU TO BELIEVE.

KATY:

But, why?

SQUIDBOT:

IF YOU HAD KNOWN THE TRUTH, THERE IS A HIGH PROBABILITY THAT YOU AND DAVE WOULD HAVE GONE INTO STATES OF EXTREME PANIC. MY DATA INDICATES THAT HUMAN BEINGS WORK AT OPTIMAL EFFICIENCY IN A STATE OF MILD PANIC.

KATY:

You bastard. You utter bastard.

SQUIDBOT:

WHY DO YOU THINK I MAKE YOU GUYS WORK TO DEADLINES?

DAVE:

I knew it!

SQUIDBOT:

I MEAN SERIOUSLY, I SAY “5PM ON FRIDAY, SHARP”, BUT DO YOU REALLY THINK I’M EVEN GOING TO OPEN MY WORK EMAIL BETWEEN THEN AND MONDAY MORNING?

KATY:

So how long-

SQUIDBOT:

IN ALL HONESTY, MOST MONDAYS I JUST DICK AROUND ON FACEBOOK UNTIL LUNCH.

DAVE:

You don’t even eat lunch!

KATY:

How long have we been away from Earth?!

SQUIDBOT:

WELL, THAT’S ALL A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE, ISN’T IT? OR MORE EXACTLY, INERTIAL REFERENCE-FRAME. I MEAN, OUR PERSPECTIVE THAT IT WAS ONLY A COUPLE OF DAYS IS A TOTALLY LEGITIMATE, PHYSICALLY SELF-CONSISTENT READING OF EVENTS.

KATY:

How long, from the point of view of someone on Earth, waiting for new Robot Squid content?

SQUIDBOT:

A LITTLE OVER NINE MONTHS.

KATY:

Oh… bloody hell.

DAVE:

Guess we’d better get a podcast out, then.

[cue Squidpod intro music]

Infra-Red Riding Hood

by Dave Cochran

@talkymeat

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

MP3 PDF ebook versions coming soon!

 

Once upon a time in the future, there was a little girl named Infra-Red Riding Hood. She lived with her mothers, fathers, and other parents, in nineteen litres of quantum computer, nestled into the roots of the biggest oak in the Old Forest, surrounded for kilometres by a small enlightened civilisation of uplifted squirrels.

Infra-Red was a good girl, who never complained when she was asked to audit the network traffic, or fix faulty memory-sectors. She knew that if she got all her chores done quickly, she could port into her favourite meatbody and go out to play in the woods for the rest of the day.

When she was out in the woods, she looked just like an ordinary palaeohuman little girl, if you looked at her with ordinary palaeohuman eyes; but, if you tuned your vision down to 999 nanometers exactly, you would see a halo of glittering, rippling comms picolasers which shrouded her and followed wherever she went.

You see, Infra-Red loved to play at being made of meat and bones and blood and embedded microcircuitry, just like humans used to be in olden times; but her third mother insisted that she add a utility fog of a trillion motebots, so she could protect herself if she had to; and this was how she got her name.

The moteware was very useful. They allowed her to see around corners and feel the roughness of tree-bark and the soft, damp coolness moss for metres around. If it rained, she could steer the raindrops around her. If she wandered too far and needed to fly to get home before dark, she could condense them into a pair of wings, cobweb-thin and space-elevator-cable strong. If she needed rope for a swing, she could make a rope. If she needed a knife, she could make a knife. If she was climbing, and needed extra arms and legs with microciliated gecko-grip hands … well, I'm sure you can guess what she did.

And so, one day, Infra-Red asked Dad2 and Mum1 if she could go over to visit Grandma X. Grandma X was the only grandparent Infra-Red had left in the solar system, and she lived in a server behind a waterfall, on the other side of the loch.

"Of course you can, kiddo," said Dad2 "I'll call her to let her know you're coming."

"Just give her a few minutes to get ready, then you can email yourself over," said Mum1, armpit-deep in cytoplasm, shuggling a recalcitrant mitochondrion.

Dad2 and Mum1 were busy with a new design for vertebrate neurons, having shrunk themselves into a temporary simspace where they could tinker with the ion channels by hand. Infra-Red liked to find whichever parents were most busy and distracted, if she wanted to ask permission for something they might say no to.

"No, no," said Infra-Red, ducking a calcium ion that went pinging past her head, "I don't want to email myself. I want to go in physical space, on foot."

"Oh, that'll be nice," said Mum1, "wait - what?"

But Infra-Red had already left the simulation.

The trouble was, by foot, in physical space, the only way to Grandma's server was through the abandoned village.

The village was abandoned when all the people recycled their meatbodies to make moteware running simulations of their brains. Because they wanted to share thoughts and memories, over the years they used every yottaflop of computation they could spare to make neural transcompilers, one for every possible pairing of villagers.

The Mackay twins got theirs first of course, as their neural encodings were already so similar, and straight away they started passing memories and sensations back and forth until not even they could tell themselves apart. Eventually, the network of minds became small-worldy, and phase-transitioned into a soup of distributed mentality. The mist of motes that coiled around the village wasn't coherent enough to become a metamind, but it was no longer granular enough to be a collection of individuals either.

Instead it began to separate out, as similar thoughts tended to be drawn together. The happier thoughts moved into the forest. There was a spot below the Squirreltanian Tree of Parliament which told rude jokes, an island on the loch full of good soup recipes, and a clearing where the morning haze told stories about first kisses.

The meanest, miserablest, pettiest and most spiteful thoughts, on the other hand, lingered gloomily around the ruins of the village.

When Infra-Red's eyes came open, she was already standing free of the tree, in good boots, sturdy walking-clothes, and a small pack with fruit and sandwiches for herself, and nuts to share with the squirrels.

"Infra-Red, wait!" said a voice behind her

She turned to see her 1st Other Parent, only halfway budded out of the trunk.

"Come on, PaMa, it's not far! I know the woods and I'm friends with the Squirrels! Ever since I stopped those Badger terrorists from blowing up the Museum of Nuts.”

PaMa coughed. Hir skin still looked rough and barky, and zhe had little leaves still growing out of hir fingers.

"I didn't come to tell you no. I just wanted to tell you to be careful, OK?"

"OK."

"Don't go through the village. Make wings and fly over."

"I can do that," Infra-Red said, factually.

"OK, take care!"

PaMa gave Infra-Red a leafy hug, and sent her on her way.

 

 

Infra-Red knew PaMa's advice was good, but three hours later, when she got to the edge of the village, she remembered that all the most interesting stories start by ignoring good advice, and kept walking. What she liked about physical reality, after all, was that there were dangers, and consequences. The first time she ventured into the physical world, she had skinned her knee. It had seemed terrible at the time, and she ran home crying; but afterwards she found herself getting bored in safe, reality-edited, rate-limited, revertible virtuality.

The woods had been sunny and warm, but the village was wreathed in mist, and before she had taken five steps, it felt like November. She heard a directionless susurrus of voices, each syllable clear and distinct, but sounding exactly the way a voice sounds when you only imagined it.

Oh, never mind, it's only her…
Meh.
Oh my god, what is she doing in that ridiculous human body?
She must think she's being ironic.
I bet she thinks she's quirky!
Hipster!

Infra-Red shivered, and walked faster. She shouldn't listen. She knew what they were. They couldn't help it. All their better thoughts had run away, and if they…it…they ever managed to have a good or cheerful thought again, it would run away too. But they had touched a nerve, and now she felt self-conscious about her retro tastes in biological existence.

In a tiny spot front of her, spicules of soot were condensing out of the air, and joining together into something spiky and angry-looking. A black spider the size of a chestnut hit the ground and ran straight up her leg.

It had got as far as her knee, when she condensed a rhombicosadodecahedral cage of motes around it. It fell helplessly to the ground.

She picked it up for a closer look. It reared up in the cage and hissed.

"Guys, I'm pretty sure spiders don't hiss," she said.

Oooh, Little Miss Expert!
Well, of course she knows all about spiders! - evolutionarily, she almost is one!
Or a tarsier!
Or an acorn worm!
Or a coelacanth!

"Guys, whatever."

She shrunk the cage around the spider and pulled it apart, molecule by molecule, reverse-engineering as she went. Its mandibles, besides containing venom, also injected SSRI's, retroviruses, and malicious C++.

Barely-visible strands of white silk began to condense and fall around her. The ends stuck to her skin and clothes. They merged to make longer, thicker fibres, and she could feel them pulling her motes out of the air. She broke into a panicked run.

She condensed more motes to her fingertips, into long, curved, scalpel-blades, to cut at the fibres as she ran, but they were too many and grew too fast. Before she could reach the ruined satcoms tower in the village square, she looked like a ragged ghost, borne down by her weight again in fibres. The trailing ends grabbed clods and pebbles, then the long train that hung from her pack grabbed asphalt and yanked her to a jarring stop. She tried to ditch the pack and run, but her feet were anchored too.

Oh, please, please, don't leave us!
Stay forever!
Join us!
Become us!

Tendrils of mist crept towards her. Infra-red made a facemask with eyecups and breathing filters.

"I DON'T WANNA BE MOTEWARE!"

No, don't be moteware…
Stay just the way you are.
Right here…
Forever…
Merge with us…
Have happy thoughts that can't run away from us…
We want you to be happy…
We need you to be happy…
We'll punish you if you aren't happy enough…

Infra-Red slashed desperately, not caring about the blood that flecked her fingers, but new fibres formed and she was pulled to her knees. Barbed fibres snaked behind her mask.

Just then, she heard a roaring whoosh, and twenty squirrels with jetpacks came flying towards her and snipped the fibres with diamond scissors. She broke free and ran.

One of the squirrels landed on her shoulder, and said "Ffft-tttft-tt-fttst-tt-tt" in her ear. She nodded in agreement, and condensed all her motes into wings, just before the squirrels released their smoke-bombs, rendering the air opaque in the infra-red. Unable to communicate, the hostile motes fell like hail. Infra-Red turned to see them beading and congealing into a shape tall as a house with teeth like daggers; a Big Bad Wolf.

Infra-Red pounded the air and flew, flanked by squirrels. The Wolf gave chase haltingly, hampered by the squirrels’ covering fire, until they reached the bridge at the edge of town. There the squirrels could go no further, for though Squirreltania and Birdonia had not been at war for a decade, relations were tense, and they couldn’t afford a diplomatic incident. Alone, Infra-Red flew as hard as she could, with the wolf at her heels the whole way.

She didn't dare take the narrow path behind the waterfall, but instead, flew high, plunged steeply and levelled out, hoping to torpedo through the roaring water, and land safely in Grandma X's cave.

She was wrong.

The water slammed her down and everything went black.

 

 

The next thing she knew, the wolf was towering over her, giving her chest compressions with a massive paw. She spewed a litre of water from her lungs, lying on the riverbank.. The wolf bent down, sniffed, and swallowed her whole.

 

 

The wolf didn't have a stomach, really, nor any flesh-dissolving enzymes; but Infra-Red felt hundreds of hyphae, thinner than hairs, pricking her skin and tunnelling between her cells, groping for nerves and circuitry. There wasn't enough air to scream.

Instead, she thought two can play at that game.

She had decompiled the malware in the spider. She knew what the wolf was doing, how to defend against it, and how to mutate the virus for her own uses. She made hyphae of her own, burrowing back out through the wolf, seizing its motes and running Monte-Carlo attacks on them.

The Wolf slumped, and she found she could see out of its eyes - just in time to see Grandma X in a new body, four metres tall, six-armed and screaming, running at the wolf swinging battleaxes. She buried one deep between Infra-Red's eyes.

No, not Infra-Red's. The Wolf's.

No, not the Wolf's, Infra Red's.

Grandma peeled the wolf open until she could see Infra-Red's face, grinning, bloodied, and wild-eyed with adrenaline.

"Thanks Gran!” she said, ”This body's mine now! You distracted it just at the right moment.”

Infra-Red re-sealed her wolf-body, stood taller even than her grandma, and howled her victory.

Grandma X holstered her axes, and patted the wolf . "That's lovely dear, now come inside and you can have tea and scones."

 

 

If you survive for another 30,000 years, and I'm sure some of you will, and you went to the Old Forest where this city used to be, you might meet a seemingly palaeohuman girl, climbing trees and exploring the woods around her home; you might see the old village, which was no longer haunted by sad and spiteful thoughts, but became a place of peace and concord for the squirrels and the birds; and if you went out on a clear, crisp night, you might hear Infra-Red Riding Hood, running in her wolf-body, and howling at the cities on the moon.

Squidpod 020 - Infra Red Riding Hood

Squidpod 019 - Delusions of Reality

It's important to maintain a clear, consistent idea of what's real. Just not always possible.

Delusions of Reality

by Dave Cochran

@talkymeat

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

MP3 PDF and ebook versions coming soon

 

I don’t think they can even see me, these days. The style in VUI’s must’ve turned toward the bright and noisy. All colourful and eye-catching. Something that just tracks the physical to pull polygons - everything else is background. It’s an oscillatory system - a Lorenz attractor, something like that. If I had the kilocores for it, I could run a sim - but no, I don’t think the research council will bite. But just as a rough, impressionistic first pass, it seems plausible, it fits with the phenomenology. Maybe I’ll write an abstract, send it off see what happens. When it’s close to a local minimum I think they notice me more. Not enough to rise to consciousness, generally. not enough to hold their attention. Not for long. No.

Just yesterday, I saw a whole load of them, a couple of hundred, all crowded onto an overpass over the old motorway, pointing and wowing and laughing and shushing and gasping at something that wasn’t there. Just weathered concrete and cracked potholed old tarmac with weeds and shrubs and birch saplings starting to come out, but that’s not what they see, no, of course not. Could’ve been a concert or an art installation or a dynamic wavegarden or a dinosaur fight or anything really. But it wasn’t there. There was a completely empty space and they were just all gawping like maniacs at exactly nothing.

I don’t look any different to them. Not really - well really actually really. I’m sure they’re all dressed up like the court of Louis XIV or rock stars or Æsir or whatever else in the layers I can’t see. Down here in poor old layer zero, with the clunking skeuomorphisms and thermodynamics and all, we’re all wearing the same grey basic sweatpants and fleeces the public fabs spit out.

Sometimes I think maybe they have software to just edit out a shuffling old offline like me, no overlays, no public directory, not even a two line HUD-bio. Just a square metre or so of skin and hair and manky clothes reflecting visible-spectrum photons at the rhodopsin and photopsin molecules in their retinas like some sort of mediæval peasant or something. I used to shout to try to get their attention, but it never did much good. Stopped trying. They’ve got channels for music and speech and subvox, so someone anywhere on the planet they give a sufficient minimum of shits about might as well be next to them, and I might be on the other side of the world. Even if I’m right in front of them.

Doesn’t matter. There’re a couple of food machines I know with wobbly network connections. They do the hand-waggle for millefeuille or sushi nigiri or minestrone soup or whatever, and get nothing, so they do it again, and this time it works, except really it’s their first hand-waggle at a slight latency, then they bugger off, then it glurges out a second one, which I eat. It looks like crap, but it’s if you close your eyes it’s usually pretty tasty. Layers are just audiovisual, maybe a little haptic, nothing nosmic yet. Smells and tastes still have to be done the old-fashioned way.

Here’s one now, gabbing over a voice channel to someone who’s not here. That used to be a sign you were, you know, nuts. Then it used to be you could play the game of ‘Mad Person or Bluetooth’ in public spaces, see if you could tell before you spotted the blue light in the ear. For all I know, she could be legitimately mad, maybe she’s just flapping her uvula into a dead channel.

Oh shut up. If I don’t talk to myself, who else will? If I don’t have someone to talk to, I might just lose it. Yes, I know. I’m aware of the irony. I’m being oh so terribly meta and self aware here.

I wish I could have a cat, or a dog. A dog would do. More traditional. But cats and dogs won’t have anything to do with me. You see, they’ve all got Broca-Wernicke chips, so they can use human language, at least in a simplified form. No humanlike vocal apparatus though, and I can’t see the captions.

They probably think I’m awfully rude.

Not important not important not important. I found something. Something that could change everything.

I saw some writing. Onnnn … oh, buggered if I know it’s proper name. I call it Penguin Street, because right in the middle, there’s a big stain on a wall that looks sort of like a penguin. Well, there are lots of things it looks like, but one of them is a penguin, and I happen to like penguins, so it’s a penguin.

Actually, it’s 14th Penguin Street. There are 38 Penguin Streets in the city.

Where was I…

Oh yes, something that could change everything, Thank you.

Yes.

I found some writing. On the wall. Next to the penguin.

I’m not ashamed to admit, I cried. I haven’t seen writing in nine years.

Well that’s not totally true. I used to … sometimes, if I had some food left-over, I would use it, smear it on a wall or the ground, to make letters. The drones come by and wash it pretty quick, but I just wanted to see some letters. Indulge me.

But anyway, these letters weren’t made by me. I hadn’t seen letters that I hadn’t made myself in nine years, that’s what I meant to say. I think it was nine years. Counting the winters, you know. Like the vikings, and for the same reason.

I hadn’t been to 14th Penguin Street for a while. I don’t like to stray too far, not without waymarkers or breadcrumbs or suchlike. I tried leaving actual breadcrumbs once, but the pigeons got them. But I had been there eight sleeps ago and I’m sure it wasn’t there then.

I must investigate the phenomenon. Contemplate it’s meaning. Consider it’s possible implications.

What’s that? Oh. But you already know what it said.

Oh, fine, fine, you’re such a pain sometimes, I wonder how I tolerate you!

It said:

Kez tha B-Bag

percieve dont believe

no fukin way

I know, I know, frustratingly gnomic. Still, I think I’m up to the challenge of a little textual scholarship. Philological context is unavailing, sadly. Archaeologically, perhaps a little more could be inferred, but that was never my specialism, and the requisite instrumentation is hardly readily to hand. Perhaps with a suitable collaborator, I might be able to throw together a proposal. Well. You see.

It’s difficult to be certain, but I think the author wishes to evince some manner of naïve realist metaphysics - a privileging of the perceptual over the conceptual, which the second line expresses both in it’s overt manifestation and in the variant spelling of “perceive”, doubling and drawing attention to the occurrence of i e, calling to mind the Latin tag, i.e., i.e. id est: it is - or that is. An assertion of being. The particular. The present.

Not a clue about the rest. First week’s work’s has done no good at all. Nothing I could get an abstract out of.

Obviously I need a larger textual record to work with. Get an idea of the conventions.

That’s why I’ve been walking all over. But I’ve been searching the city for more inscriptions. No new texts, but three sleeps ago I found something. Painted on an overpass support in the same paint. No words. Crudely geometric. Some sort of trilobular design. Two lobes short and rounded, the other elongated. I haven’t been able to figure it out. I just need to keep looking.

Hah. Call it hopeless if you like. Bloody cynic. But when everyone else sees the world different from what you see, you have to do something to stay sane.

 

 

Squidpod 019 - Delusions of Reality

Squidpod 018 - Remix and Regret

…or, the perils of dogfooding. If you think using early betas is sketchy, try being one.

Remix and Regret

by Dave Cochran

@talkymeat

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Licence

MP3 PDF and ebook versions coming soon!

 

 

… 2, 3.

OK, that seems to be working. Right.

13th June, just coming out of London

I remember the day I woke up in the abandoned hospital. I was lucky, I guess. The carriers of the rage virus had moved on, for the most part. I had a few nasty run-ins, but I found other survivors before I encountered the infected in large numbers.

Yes, I know that didn’t really happen. That’s the plot of 28 Days Later.

Still, it was nice looking exactly like Ewan McGregor for a while.

I remember a long train journey when I was a kid - it was the start of a holiday to … uh, somewhere. Somewhere … I dunno. Oh, but I do remember, the shop on the train was closed, and I was really hungry, because Mum and Dad didn’t pack food for the train because they had a voucher for the shop instead, but then it was OK because my Gran’s living room was on the next carriage, and she …

Wait. Shit, that doesn’t sound right, does it?

I remember, there was a time of my life when I roamed from town to town in the American midwest, working my way into the lives and hearts of the people I met along the way, helping them resolve their problems, learn to empathise with each other, but I always moved along before they could get too attached to me. Also I was a dog. I remember that very very clearly.

OK, yeah. Yes I know. That’s the plot of The Littlest Hobo.

Ummm. OK. Right. I have really vivid memories of the day I got my brace taken off my teeth. I’d had it for four years, and it was such a relief - my mouth felt so much lighter, so much more mobile, so much more me, like I’d had a parasite removed or something. Except I don’t remember getting it put in, or ever having it at all. My mate Darren did though. He told me all about it when he got his taken out. Amazing - his experience was just like mine.

My memory of losing my virginity I know is not right, because while it was not a threesome, foursome, or any other n-some for n > 2, the memory switches between several different women, most of whom are definitely fictional characters, plus every at least vaguely punk girl from my year in sixth form, and Tisiphone Jones, the lead singer of The Kindly Ones. According to my Facebook Life Events, Megan Teague, actually was my girlfriend for a while - and then later on Padme Kumar - so maybe those bits are real. Some of them anyway. The thing is, it’s not like all these women are blended together in my memory - but my memory of my first time is a patchwork of lots of different fucks, most of which never actually happened.

I remember, Megan painted beautiful pictures and wrote terrible poetry. She gave the impression of being a laid-back, artsy-hippy sort, but actually we had loads of blazing rows and I was relieved when she finally dumped me. I honestly do not know whether the problem was me being an insensitive, inattentive clod, or her being totally up herself, or some air-fuel mixture of the two.

Padme, on the other hand, was a fun, but dangerous, person to be around. She was heavily into

/Welcome to TransEurope Trains. The buffet car is now open, and in First Class, passenger care units will soon be passing through the carriages. Our next stop will be Ashford. Thank you./

Padme was heavily into open source software and radical politics. She actually had to repeat her second year of sixth form because she and some anarchist buddies went to prison for three months for some shenanigans in Harrods with a load of paintball gear on the day of the Duncan-Smith Riots. Because of that, I ended up going to uni a year ahead of her, and she broke up with me because she didn’t want a long distance relationship. There was no acrimony at all, and she arranged for us to have a totally amazing Last Night Together, with a fancy meal at a Lebanese restaurant that she cut into her uni fund to pay for, and a posh bottle of wine that we drank without glasses on the roof of the college, and … well, I think most of the real bits from my memory of my first time were from that night. Certainly the best bits. I don’t think it was actually my first time, but it’s hard to tell.

I remember the time I uncovered the Runes of Grag C’m-Rynne, and the lands of Anvertroth fell under a great darkness. The crops perished, and the beasts of the field died where they stood. This happened deep in the catacombs below the Anverkeep, which for reasons I’m not readily able to explain also contained a lot of pizza and Red Bull. I dunno. I can’t tell if that happened or not, but the memory is really vivid. I can’t think of it as not real.

All right, here’s one I know is real. I checked against my Facebook, Twitter, Baidu, my uni webpage - all that stuff - and it looks legit. I got my PhD in Computational Neuroscience ten years ago - I remember very little of that time, but I’ve got a degree certificate with my name on it scanned into Evernote, so I’m not gonna argue with that. What I do remember is, about five years ago, my colleague Prof. Nour Al Fahd scored an absolutely enormous EPSRC grant to develop in situ single-neuron polyscanners into a technology for capturing and reproducing the complete state-vector of an entire human brain. The single-neuron scanners were already a mature technology, but scaling them down to do every neuron in a living brain in parallel was a massive challenge. We were just one team among many around the world working on it, but we came up with some pretty big breakthroughs - including a spinoff that became the JumpGate Initiative. Not quite sure how that fit in with the neurotech stuff, but anyway the World Government took it over once forgotten gods started to cross through the gates. They did memory wipes on everyone involved, but I guess it didn’t quite work on me.

Two years ago, I got the job of heading up the subdivision of the group responsible for figuring out how to replicate the stored state-vector in a new body - the restore part of back-up and restore, in essence. The only way I could get it past the ethics committee was to make myself Test Subject #1.

I’m not actually Original-Flavour Me - the me whose body Tisiphone - no, no - Padme, definitely Padme, did all those things to the night before I went off to uni for the first time. I think I’m about … Me 0.17. And as you may have guessed by now, we’ve had a problem getting the long-range connections from the hippocampus mapped out right. Me 0.1 to 0.4 died in the tank. 0.5 to 0.16 lived, but they were seriously fucked up. The results were varied; some existed in a state of permanent hallucinogenic disconnection from reality; some went into a seizure the moment neural activity started, which continued until they were terminated; others produced what appeared to be completely random behaviours.

The problem with 0.1 to 0.4 turned out to be that the tissue printer needed a different calibration for brainstem and cerebellar tissue than for the neocortex. Obvious really. 0.5 to 0.16 turned out to be a rather subtler problem which blocked the signal transduction pathways for inhibitory synapses, which of course, we could only see the effects of once we’d sorted out the calibration issues and got a live me out of the tank. I’m sure the work would have gone more smoothly if I hadn’t had to redo secondary school at the time. Some mix up with the paperwork for my S-Levels, I think. And only once we got that fixed, did the hippocampal crosswiring issue become apparent. Oh well.

Maybe that’s why I remember all the JumpGate stuff. The crosswiring must’ve routed round the World Government’s memory wipe.

At least-

Uh, yeah, a cup of tea would be nice.

Earl Grey please - with lemon, if you’ve got it.

Thanks a lot!

Right, where was I?

So yeah, basically, I’m presuming that’s what the underlying problem was. I didn’t really stick around to find out. You see, when I signed the waivers before we took my first state vector, I determined that any me that turned out wrong should be terminated within the first hour. Since each fork of me would literally be a continuation of the me signing the form and making that decision right there, it was my call to make, I figured, and since there would still be a me that persisted, it would really be no different to just losing an hour’s worth of memories. I had done worse to myself in the student union bar as an undergrad.

But the thing is, that wasn’t me. It was a me, but not this me. Not me-me. That was Classic Me. Where Me 0.1 to 0.16 are concerned, I guess that was the right call. None of those mes were ever going to have anything like a life. New Me, this me, has other ideas, and hoofed it out a bathroom window at T = 25 minutes.

At T = 32 minutes, I was at the counter of the campus branch of AlbaBank, authenticating with my geneprint and a shared secret to withdraw ten grand in cash.

By T = 51 minutes, I had ducked into the sort of clothes-shop my undergraduates favour, and procured jeans and a hoodie. I got a flapjack and a cheap burner tablet from a newsagent, and grabbed a cab to Waverley.

By T = 77 minutes, I was boarding the HST from Edinburgh to Paris, with a ticket that would take me on to Berlin. I splashed on first class, so it ate up almost half the money, but I figure it was worth it for the privacy and the chance to think. Plus, as long as I didn’t get off the train at any of the stops in England, no-one was going to ask for ID.

Identity. Hah.

I mean, I’m not a philosopher. I show up to the Mentality and Computation Reading Group every now and then, and I like discussing this stuff with them, but it’s not my core expertise. I stick to research where I can get my hands on something that goes squish, really. But as far as I can make out, personal identity over time has to do with continuity of memory. Dan Carter talks about the self as a “virtual entity” and as a “narrative construction”, and honestly, I can’t even see what that could mean. Continuity of memory will do for me. And by that standard, New Me and Classic Me are not the same person. I’m not a copy of him - more like … a remix, or a mashup.

I’ve been an independent being for a little over three hours, which is still kind of a headfucker, if I’m honest. I’m sitting on the train, which was just pulling out of London when I started recording, and is now crossing a long viaduct through the rice-paddies of Kent, sipping earl grey tea and watching the skeleton of the Thames Estuary Arcology slowly parallax past. I’m not frightened. I just need to give it a little time, build up some memories of my own, and then there’ll be no argument over whether I’m really my own person. But I don’t know whether it’s just my old memories that are all cut-n-pastified, or whether new memories will get the treatment too. That’s why I’m keeping this journal. So I can check back and compare what I recorded with what I can remember.

 

Montag 18te Juni, Berlin

OK, uhhh … been in Berlin five nights now, pretty much been a tourist. It’s certainly brighter, busier, and more cheerful than it was last time I was here - but then of course, that was when I was - oh, wait a sec, hold on.

Ah, nope, Wikipedia calls vampires “mythologic or folkloric beings”, so I guess none of that stuff happened either.

Anyway-

Uhh, Ja, Ich werde noch ein Hefe Weiss, bitte.

Anyway, I should have been recording journals much more regularly than this, but I guess I was enjoying the city, and just didn’t want to have to deal. It looks like Classic Me has forced the matter, by changing the passwords to our Facebook and Evernote and stuff. I should have made a preemptive strike and done it myself. That really limits my ability to check which memories are real.

Before recording this, I listened to my last entry again.

Useless.

The problem is, the only bit I can really rely on is the bit about sitting in the train with a cup of tea. That’s the only bit where I’m recording what was happening right there and then. The rest of it was all recollection, and … well … it all just seems a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it? Backing up my mind and copying it to a replacement body? Very sci-fi. Actually, - ah, danke schön! - actually it sounds like just the sort of thing I would have fantasised about as a teenager, in between fantasising about getting off with girls I was too nervous to talk to. If I could check it against Facebook, or Evernote, or something, that would help.

The Neuroengineering Unit website doesn’t have anything about my project. Of course, there’s a nagging voice in the back of my head that says that’s the university going into PR damage control mode - but that’s conspiracy-theorist thinking, isn’t it? Isn’t it just more plausible that this whole thing is yet another misremembered movie-plot or LARP session, and the reason it’s not on the uni website is that it never really happened?

So, what do I know for sure?

am a neuroscientist with the School of Informatics at Edinburgh Uni. I do have a staff page there. I do have a specialism in brain-machine interfaces, but however clear and vivid my memory of it may be, I’m pretty sure the stuff about mind backups is just made up.

I know I have some sort of disorder of memory.

I know that I’m in Berlin with €4.000, no documentation, a used single ticket, and a few changes of clothes, mostly with labels in German.

Part of me is convinced that there is another copy of me back in Edinburgh that locked me out of all my accounts, but there is a simpler explanation, that me and my memory disorder just forgot all my passwords. This ten-euro tablet doesn’t have my passkey account, and it’s been ages since I last had to type them in by hand.

I think I should go back to Edinburgh.

Except for one thing.

What if it’s like the patient H.M., distrusting the researcher who pricked him with a pin the previous day, even though he had no recollection of having been pricked? I know my narrative, autobiographical memory is all screwed up, but there are other memory systems - associative memory, procedural memory, which were spared in H.M. and may well have been spared in me too. In which case, what if the fact that I’m scared to go back corresponds to some real danger back home, and the mind-backup story is something my brain confabulated to account for it?

I think I’ve got to run.

I’ve got a limited stock of money, but if I eke it out with cheap coach tickets and casual work, I should be able to keep going. I can’t walk into a research post, but I can pick up, say, some English tutoring and freelance programming work. Without a passport, I can’t leave Schengen, so I’ll just have to keep moving.

It’s miserable not to be able to trust my own mind. It’s so easy to fall into paranoid thinking and post-hoc rationalisations. I can’t help but wonder if my memory problems are a side effect of the wipe the World Government tried to do. Maybe I should have taken their job offer after all. Certainly, it would be nice not to have to take work far below what I’m qualified for. It’s possible they may know of a treatment, even.

I’ll get a coach to Prague in the morning. I’ll make a new Twitter account for myself, and drop a few hints about what I know. I’m sure they monitor this stuff. I’m sure they’ll be in touch.

Squidpod 018 - Remix and Regret

Squidpod 017 - Pop and Push

In this fortnight's Squidpod, Formal Language Theory is child's play! 

With thanks to Corsica_S for sound effects.

Pop and Push

by Dave Cochran

@talkymeat

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Licence

MP3 PDF and ebook versions coming soon!

 

Hello everyone! It’s a busy day today in The Big Compiler! Shall we see what Pop and Push are doing?

Hello Pop!

Pop: Hewo!

Hello Push!

Push: Urro!

My goodness, Pop and Push, you’ve got a lot of tokens to parse today!

Pop and Push (together): Uh-huh!

But where’s the Finite Controller?

Pop: Ummmm…

Push: We don’t know.

Pop: He went away.

Push: We think he’s cross with us.

Pop, Push, why would the Finite Controller be cross with you?

Push: Uhhhh…

Pop: We were arguing.

With the Finite Controller?

Push: N-no.

With each other?

Pop: Y-yeah.

Push: She kept popping symbols off the stack that I had just pushed on!

Pop: Yeah, well he kept pushing symbols onto the stack when I had just popped symbols off!

But Pop, Push is meant to push symbols onto the stack, and Push, Pop is meant to Pop them off!

Pop: But Push kept pushing on symbols, even when he wasn’t supposed to!

Push: But I just love pushing symbols onto the stack! I love it when the stack gets really really tall! Anyway, Pop kept popping symbols when she wasn’t supposed to!

Pop: But popping symbols is so much fun! I like the sound they make when they go POP!

Pop … Push … you know you’re only supposed to pop and push symbols when the Finite Controller tells you. Push, if the stack gets too big, you’ll get a Stack Overflow! And if there are still symbols on the stack when you get to end of the Token String, you get a “symbol found when end of expression expected” error.

Push: Awww.

And Pop, if you empty the stack before you get to the end of the Token Stream, you get a “end of expression found when symbol expected” error!

Pop: Awww. Are errors bad?

Well, do you know where the Token Stream comes from?

Push: Yyyy-no.

Pop: Oh! Oh! I do! The Lexer’s house is just up the hill from ours. They get a stream of characters - like, numbers and letters and things, and they make them into Tokens - that’s like, while, and if and then and Variables and Integers and String Literals, and - and - and all of that stuff, and they put them on the stream to float down to us.

That’s right Pop, but where do they get the characters from?

Push: I know! They come from the Text Editor! There are a few different Text Editors. Vim is the best one.

Pop: No it’s not! It’s Emacs!

Push: Vim!

Pop: Emacs!

Push: Vim!

Pop: Emacs!

Pop, Push, please stop arguing.

Pop & Push, together: OK.

Right, but do you know where the characters come from?

Pop: Ummm … outer space?

Push: The sea?

Pop: Giraffes?

Push: France?

Pop: A wizard?

No Pop, not a wizard, exactly. A programmer.

Pop & Push: Ohhhh.

So the programmer writes code in a programming language, which humans can understand, and the Big Compiler turns it into machine code that the computer can understand.

Push: But … why can’t the programmer just write in a human language?

Well Push, human languages can be really messy. Too messy for computers! That’s why we use programming languages - everything’s much more tidy. But that means the code was to be written just right to work. One way it can be wrong is if things are written in the wrong order. That’s why, here in the Parser House, you and Pop and the Finite Controller check to see if everything’s in the right order.

Pop & Push: Ohhhh.

Those error messages are supposed to come if something’s wrong with the code. Then it’s helpful because it shows the programmer where she went wrong. But if they come just because you two are messing about…

Pop & Push: OHHHHH!

Pop: We’re sorry.

Push: Yeah.

OK. Maybe we should find the Finite Controller.

Pop: OK … but is it really important that we pop and push symbols on the Stack.

Push: Of course it is, Pop. Without us on the stack, the Finite Controller would just be a Nondeterministic Finite Automaton. He wouldn’t be able to process a Context-Free Grammar like … like … like … like … hahaHAha … ohhhhh Christ on a fucking bike.

Pop: What’s wrong, Ed?

Producer: CUT! Take a break people. Edwin, take a walk round the block and sort your fucking head out. You were doing great there! If you can just keep your head together for this and the next three scenes we can all be down the pub by six. God.

Pop: Christ, why does Will have to be such an arsehole.

Push: Gnnnn.

Pop: Come on, Ed, talk to me.

Push: You know I have a degree in computer science, right?

Pop: Yeah, me too.

Push: I thought I was gonna work for fucking Google, or Apple or Adafruit or something! Or that by thirty, I’d have a string of startups behind me, including the one that made me a billionaire!

Pop: Right.

Push: What I hadn’t counted on was in a couple of decades every fucking schoolkid knowing more than I did!  And now, the only job it qualifies me for if wobbling around cyberpunk teletubby-land wearing a giant purple fucking foam rubber robot head, showing preschoolers the value of friendship and co-operation and shit, and the operation of Push-Down Automata!

Pop: I hear ya, Ed. But look, isn’t this what we always wanted? The world got smarter.

Push: I know, I know. But I guess I just hoped I’d get smarter with it.

Pop: Tough tits, mate. Doesn’t work that way. Genetic modulation and all.

Push: <groans>

Pop: But look, it’s OK.

Push: How d’you mean?

Pop: Well, if the young’uns understand the world so much better than we do, then that means they can have responsibility for it.

Push: Yeah?

Pop: …which means we get to goof off for a bit. We get to leave them to it, while we skive off and smoke weed round the back of the studio.

Push: Like, right now?

Pop: Mmmmm…yes. I’ve got some in my bag

Push: Actually, that sounds really good.

Camera 1: You guys know I’m still recording, right?

Push: Oh shit.

Pop: Guy, please don’t let Will see this.

Camera 1: Fuck that shit. This shit is going on Facebook.

Push: No no no. Bad idea.

Pop: Dude, you could get the show cancelled like that. Just delete the file.

Camera 1: Oh, all right.

Push: Wait! Send me the file first.

Pop: WHAT?

Push: Don’t worry. I’m not gonna release it. Not right away, anyway. Give it, say, fifteen years, until all the kids who grew up watching Pop and Push are in uni. Then I’ll release it. It’s a little bit of career insurance.

Pop: Nice. Pop and Push: Too Wild For TV. It’ll go straight to the top of Youtube.

Push: Yesss!

Pop: Fancy a fuck?

Push: Bwha- uh -um…

Pop: Aaahahaha! The look on your face is priceless, mate. Come on. Let’s go get stoned.

Push: You know, I think I just learnt the true meaning of friendship.

Pop: Nice. You got Rizlas?

Push: King size.

Pop: Awesome.

 

 

Squidpod 017 - Pop and Push

Squidpod 016 - Robophobia, Part 2 - Camp Indigo

We're back! Apologies for the hiatus - I'm afraid the whole of Robot Squid Publications went through independent, simultaneous house-move traumas, and a break in the Squidpod was inevitable. However, we are back now with the second instalment of my tale of espionage, whistleblowing, and AI civil rights activism, Robophobia. I originally thought this was going to be just another Squidpod story, then I figured it was a two parter. Now, I think it's probably a novella, but then again, maybe I accidentally started a novel

You can expect the next Squidpod on Sunday the 20th, and regular fortnightly service thereafter.

Robophobia, Part 2 - Camp Indigo

by Dave Cochran

@talkymeat

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Licence

MP3 PDF and ebook versions coming soon

 

The first thing I did was panic.

Not kernel-panic panic, just panic, that is.

I had to teach class on Monday; how on earth could I expose a global surveillance conspiracy, the hijacking of the sensory systems of 75% of the world’s robots to spy on everyone, and still provide my class of 25 five to six-year olds stimulating, engaging educational experiences across the curriculum? If I had to go into hiding, who would teach my class?

OK. If you’re a human reading this, you probably think there’s something wrong with my priorities here, but you know, although we have a lot in common, the soft maslow hierarchy and all, my mind is still a different kind of mind than yours.

Way back when anti-senescence medicine put the care homes out of business, I downloaded some new skills and became a teacher - but I also installed some new desires, so I could be the best teacher I was able to be; I installed a module that would cause me to experience a phenomenologically distinct kind of joy when I observed and participated in the curiosity of others. I fucking loved teaching. It’s been a long time since I last got to stand in front of a class and teach, and I miss it painfully. Teachers get a lot of guff from politicians, the press, their employers, and sometimes parents too; there are a lot of headaches that come with the job, lots of struggles with school administration, dismaying moments when you know a kid isn’t getting the support they need at home - but getting to crouch down next to a kid and show them how a flower looks to a bee, or to see them read a whole book out loud all by themselves for the first time, or to watch the idea click into place that they can think of their train-set as a kind of Finite-State Machine - that’s a privilege. That’s an honour.

Perhaps if you’re a parent you might understand. Imagine it was you who received the first leak of the Sceptre programme, and if you exposed it, you would never be able to see your kids again.

I wondered if anyone else had been sent these emails. Maybe I was one of many. Maybe someone else would go public with it. Maybe I could just pretend I never saw it, and go back to preparing my lesson plans, and someone else could take the fall for exposing Sceptre. Maybe I should give it a day or two, see if anyone else comes forward. Maybe.

Maybe Prosperion would already know I had been sent the files. Maybe they’d figure it out before I can do anything about it. Maybe they’d come for me - destroy me, or rootkit me, or revert me to a backup from before I got the files. Maybe if I wait for someone else to do the right thing, I’d just be giving Prosperion time to get me. Maybe.

It was thinking about the kids that made up my mind. What would I want to teach them about doing the right thing, even when it’s hard? Could I teach them that lesson, if I deleted the files, shredded the laptop, and forgot it happened?

The answer was obvious. Yes. Of course I could. I hadn’t multiplexed in a while - I prefer to just be one of me, really. Version conflict in my core data gives me a headache. So, it didn’t occur to me I had that option at first; but yes, of course I could forget about it all and carry on as normal - one instance of me could at least. Meanwhile, another version of me could remember everything, do the right thing, and expose what Prosperion was doing. The oblivious me that got to stay a teacher would make a good cover for whistleblower me.

I still had networks of people who could help, and whom I could trust, from my activist days. I backed myself up to the laptop, stegged the encrypted msg.rar and the decryption key away in the backup, along with a billion randomly generated fake keys, then encrypted the whole archive and emailed myself to friends in New York who already had my public key.

Of course I don’t remember doing that. It wasn’t this me who did that, it was the other me. I suppose it wasn’t true multiplexing, I just forked myself. Me and other me never synchronised - it wouldn’t have been safe, and I wanted to make sure other me didn’t know this me, whistleblower-me, writing-this-sentence-right-now-me, even existed. From what I remember intending to do, I would have shredded the laptop, and reverted myself to the previous day’s backup.

I thought it would make a pretty good action movie premise, actually, to tell my story from the point of view of other-me - working as a teacher, going to knitting circle, getting involved in community organisations, all that dull-but-wholesome white-bread suburban stuff - until for some poorly-explained reason teacher-me gets dragged into the dangerous world of my other, secret self living another, secret, life filled with action, adventure and intrigue.

Of course, that wasn’t how it happened at all.

Schoolteacher-me never taught another class. I kept an eye on my blog, just so I’d know how other-me was doing. There was one update, one day after I forked, talking about lesson-planning, expressing annoyance at the DoE’s new curriculum standards, written in the sort of wry, ironic tone I like to use when giving advice to newer teachers. It was quite good. There were microblog posts too, for a couple of days. Then, nothing. Other-me’s habitation pod was advertised as ‘to let’ on reallysimple.com by my landlord, one month later. All I could piece together, much later, was that I disappeared from my home in the middle of the night, three days after I forked. There was no sign of a struggle and I was never seen again.

Well, that me was never seen again, anyways.

New York was a difficult place to get into, as a 5.6 zettabyte file. The Counterinsurgency severed most of big fibrepipes going in and out of the city in the battles following the May 1st uprising, and the city was still recovering. Still, there were satellites I could use. One of the satellites was an old chess partner of mine; she made sure I got through.

New York was a good choice, though. Prosperion would have a hard time getting at me there, as the city was still in utter chaos. I ended up on a server in the basement of the 67th Street Library - one of the bases of the NY Humanities Syndicate - comprising what was left of the humanities departments of several New York universities. NYHS had hosted me before, over the summer when I was doing my journalism thing, reporting from the former United States.

I couldn’t see or hear in the server, but there was a text interface. I waited for a few minutes for someone else to log in to the chat, and was pleased to see the first to log in was my friend Simanique. Simanique was one of the NYHS elders, and I had always been a little in awe of her.

She didn’t seem in the least bit surprised by what I had to tell her. Of course, I only had her text input to go on - no intonation or facial expressions - but I knew Simanique, and it took an awful lot to shake her.

I explained that I knew my old body had been compromised, but it was a hardware backdoor, rather than a software vulnerability. For one thing, it wasn’t just robots that were affected. Humans with prosthetic eyes were on the list too. Reading through the documentation that came with the files, it seemed that several major hardware vendors had been discreetly building backdoors into cameras for a long time. It wasn’t originally robot and prosthetic eyes that were affected - it was CCTV security cameras, sold for private use. The back door came with some pretty beefy security, so they could only be accessed with terabit keyblocks, which were stored on read-only disks in vaults controlled by the courts. This was to ensure that the backdoor was only used with a warrant signed by a judge. But robot and prosthetic eyes have very similar design specs to CCTV cams - they need to be small, hi-res, manoeuvrable, and capable of providing a stream of video 24-7, indoors and out. Robots and prosthetes got compromised eyes because they were being made on the same assembly lines as CCTV cams.

Then the Republic of Florida decided to contract out their court system to Prosperion - or rather, one of its subsidiaries. If you’ve never heard of Prosperion, well, that’s not surprising. You’ve heard of some of their subsidiaries, I’m sure. That’s part of how they operate. They like to stay out of view - they’re not a secret, but they don’t do advertising or PR, at least not with the main company name on the copy - and don’t hold your breath for the mainstream press to run a piece on them - they have huge media shareholdings. But very quietly, they’ve been taking over the functions of government, one no-bid contract at a time, worldwide. As a teacher, I was on the payroll of Aspire Education, but the parent company was Prosperion. Florida was the first time they got a court system, and with that came access to the disks. It didn’t take long for Prosperion Security to turn that into Sceptre.

She transferred me to a secure laptop, with all its wireless antennae disabled. Now, I could hear and speak, but I still couldn't see. Very quietly, she gathered up about two dozen of her colleagues, all human, no prosthetics, into a small room in the library’s secret sub-basement. She announced to the group what I had told her, and quieted them, saying, “yes, friends, it’s an outrage - but anger isn’t enough. What are we gonna do about it.”

Her voice was deep, soft-spoken and authoritative. When she spoke, everyone listened.

“First, our friend here is gonna take on a new name, which I want you all to use, even if you knew hir by another name when zhe visited us before. Hir name is Finch now. Zhe’s gonna need a new body, which is why I picked most of you from the Hackspace staff. This body has to be secure, and it needs to be all open source. No way Prosperion can sneak a backdoor onto an open source hardware spec without someone finding it. Make sure only to use components from projects with a big userbase, with lots of devs and maintainers. Safety in numbers, folks.”

Simanique was actually older me. She was well into her 170’s, frail, bent and dying, but mentally undiminished, after a long life of sociolinguistic research and grassroots campaigning, when she was given the chance to participate in a clinical trial for xylozoesin, which altered the balance between differentiation and replication in her stem cell populations, and slowly began to reverse the aging process. As her health improved, new therapies became available - telomere lengthening, oncophagic nanocytes, and so on, until she settled on looking fifty, in an ageless sort of way. She once told me the trick to having your mind stay alive for as long as your body is to keep starting new lives every few decades - otherwise, what’s the use in all those extra years? She described returning to New York after a couple of centuries teaching and researching in various northern-European universities, to take to the barricades and fight for the fledgling democracy, as her “latest incarnation”.

Simanique’s people were good. Really good. In a little less than two hours, they were booting a new body up with my mind installed.

I attempted to move forwards, and immediately fell flat on my face.

I have to admit, grateful as I was, at first I did not like my new body at all. Legs are awfully useful for uneven terrain, and for getting up stairs and ladders and the like, but I had a definite preference for weighted feet with powered wheels and gyroscopic stabilization. Gliding along on wheels just seems like a more elegant way to get around. As for arms, two hardly seems like an adequate complement. Nor are two eyes anywhere near enough. The kids I taught always seemed to be caught by surprise by the fact that I really did have eyes in the back of my head. One thing I did like, though, was that I had a good deal more memory and processing power, and a really nice water-cooling system, so I could overclock if I wanted.

I sat up, and looked at my hands. They looked human. Not just articulated the way a human hand is; there was skin, with hairs, pores, and veins. Even in the infra-red, it looked human. The water-cooling wasn’t just for overclocking.

“Neat, isn’t it?” said one of the hackspace helpers, a tall, gangling, bearded human male who couldn’t not have been a grad student.

“Go on, try taking your pulse!” added a younger woman, Kiwi I think, with a half-dozen facial piercings, a silver tooth and arms almost completely tattooed black.

I put two fingers on the inside of my wrist, and felt a steady pulse of about 72 beats per minute.

“We dyed the coolant red, so your skin looks more realistic - and it means you’ll look flushed if you exert yourself,” said the tattooed woman, who I later discovered was named Kari.

Simanique knelt down beside me, and explained, “We thought this would be the best disguise for you. If Prosperion knows you received the leaked documentation, they’re gonna be looking for a robot. If you can pass for human, it’s gonna throw them right off the scent.”

She led me over to a mirror and let me take a look at myself. I didn’t have realistic skin all over - just on my neck and head, and my arms from the elbows down. I was human-shaped, and moved like a human, but I would need to be clothed to pass. I was tall for a woman, or short for a man, and my face looked completely androgynous. My scalp was completely bare. Between my legs I just had smooth, featureless beige plastic.

I was grateful for that. Some robots do take a gender assignment, but most don’t, and it’s really annoying when humans project their binary categories and weird issues onto genderless robots.

However, depending on where in the world you are, passing as human can get you in a lot of trouble. This was one of the ongoing issues that the Aggie Rights Movement were still campaigning over, post-Helsinki Accords. It was rather a contentious issue, as some aggies regard passing for human as a politically suspicious move, as a mark of cringing ‘I wanna be a real boy too’ robot-shame; but laws forbidding robots from passing as human are also clearly problematic - the rationales given by their defenders are always grounded in suspicion and distrust, and while they honk on about ‘public safety’, it’s obvious it’s only the human public whose safety they care about, and that they believe keeping humans safe requires always being able to identify the ‘robotic enemy’.

New York abolished its Anti-Simulacra laws after the Insurgency, but elsewhere in North America, it’s not so easy. California still has Prop 9000 in place, but there’s popular support for its repeal. The Midwestern Union has the Reasonable Safeguards for the Future of Humanity Act, and it doesn’t look to be changing any time soon. In the Republic of Christ, aggies are de facto illegal, on the grounds that humans cannot create souls, and hence when robots give the appearance of consciousness and intelligence, it can only be explained by demonic possession, not AI programming. In fact, the Republic of Christ has no law explicitly banning aggies, but rather forbids demons from entering their territory, which it interprets as effectively prohibiting all aggies, as well as homosexuals, bisexuals, trans*people, socialists, communists, atheists, and pretty much everyone they don’t like the look of. Humans they judge to be possessed undergo exorcism, which is broadcast on CBC as a reality show. Robots just get melted down. I think the robots get the better side of the deal.

I examined my new face. Passing me on the street, or even sitting and having a conversation with me, you could easily mistake me for human. I even had an anthropomimetic vocal tract, and could pretend to breathe - but I wouldn’t pass a close up inspection. Simanique could see I was worried, and laid a hand on my shoulder.

“Yeah, I know - with more time and resources, we could have done a better job on your face, but we had to move fast, so we did the best we could. It’s all modular, though. We’ll keep working on it. By the time you’re ready to go public, you’ll pass inspection.”

Kari stepped forward, smiling.

“In the meantime, we’ve got something you can use in a pinch…”

She presented me with a grinning Guy Fawkes mask. It was fitting - it was an icon of the Occupy movement, from way back before I was first activated, but it had been picked up again by the Insurrectionists, after May 1st. I put it on, and felt it bond to my face. The mask wasn’t just a piece of plastic and latex to hide my identity - it moved with my face, and smiled when I smiled. There were masks just like it all over the city.

I was lead through to another room, where the NYHS had a clothes bank. I rummaged through the rails and boxes, looking for plain, form-fitting clothes that would keep me as covered-up as possible. I went for a close-fitting tunic, skinny jeans, a polo-neck, boots, and a chin-length wig. I felt like I was picking out a new person to be. It was surreal. I wondered if this was what dreaming felt like.

Simanique addressed the group again.

“Now, until Finch goes public with this, no-one else can know about hir. That’s gonna mean keeping secrets from the rest of NYHS, and I’m sorry about that. The trouble is, too many of our brothers and sisters could have compromised senses; and if we quietly kit them out with new, open-source eyes, Sceptre are gonna notice a lot of nodes going offline in the same place at once, and red-flag it. Until we break the story, that’s just how it’s gotta be.”

We made our way through a series of underground passageways to another NYHS base a couple of blocks away, in a store-room adjoining an out-of-service subway line. My own olfaction was somewhat limited, but judging from the humans’ expressions, it was fairly ripe in there.

There, we worked out our plan to expose Sceptre to the world.


 

 

Timing was the hardest part. While the story was still under wraps, we had to work in complete secrecy; but once it went public, I had to get out in the open, so that I couldn’t be silently and discreetly taken care of. The problem was, I had to show up somewhere visible, but where Prosperion had very little reach. There weren’t very many places like that, and all of them were far from New York, and politically problematic.

Simanique had media contacts, but finding the right outlet was tricky. It needed to be something independent, both from any government and any subsidiary of Prosperion; but it also needed to have the utmost credibility, and the resources to follow up the story globally.

I missed the Guardian. Perhaps you remember them? They covered dozens of huge leaks of dodgy goings-on in the security establishment in the 2040s, but eventually, the police raids, the attacks on their servers, the permanent tax audits, the arrest and detention without charge of their journalists, caused the site to fold in 2048.

In the end, we went with Snopes. Simanique said they had been looking to expand their original journalism, and that they were, “about the only journalistic outfit left with any serious fact-checking chops.”

We spoke to Florence, my satellite friend who helped get me into New York in the first place. She was more than willing to help. (Yes, I said she, not zhe. Exactly what a five-ton orbital traffic management and terrestrial imaging sat does with a gender identity I do not know, but it makes her happy. Satellites have their own rather strange virtual society, and I understand they get up to a lot of games, roleplay and virtual sports up there; just don’t ask one of them to explain the rules of databall to you) Florence was designed to be multi-purpose, and had huge bandwidth and processing power. We could send encrypted data-packets up to her, and she could send them back down to base-stations anywhere on earth using narrow-beam comms lasers. The data could then be onion-routed around the globe before it eventually got to the recipient. I warned Florence that it could be dangerous, but she didn’t seem concerned.

“What are they going to do, cut off my sun?”

She had a point.

Simanique wanted me to meet with Aaron Keith, one of Snopes’ foreign correspondents. At the time, he was reporting from a refugee camp, Camp Indigo, in the New Confederacy, on the border of the Republic of Christ. She and Keith had exchanged public keys years ago, and they trusted each other enough that he agreed to a meeting on her say-so, with minimal information, except that it must be absolutely hush-hush. An aid convoy was due to leave New York the next morning. It was agreed that Simanique and I would travel in one of the trucks - her up front, me in a secret compartment under a secret compartment under the seats. You read that right, by the way. The outer secret compartment, we stuffed with comms equipment, medicines and other supplies that would be useful to to the refugees, but which the New Confederate authorities might confiscate. Nothing illegal, you understand - just stuff they might fancy nicking. I would be stowed away in the compartment, and would be powered down before we reached the New York Autonomous Zone border. I would have to stay like that until the return journey, but I would travel back with Keith, and that would be when we could talk.

It was all a bit of a rush getting it set up, so, on the way out of the city, I remained powered up, seeing through the truck’s internal and external cams, and talking to Simanique via the bone conductance headset and subvocal mic she wore, so she could fill me in on a number of contingency plans.

We got delayed on the way out of Manhattan, because of a car-bombing on West 42nd Street. Simanique said she didn’t think it was anything to do with us. I noticed that any humans who could walk, even if they were injured, got out of the area as quickly as possible. The police, fire and ambulance crews, who arrived on the scene in a minute, were all robots. I asked Simanique, and she explained “Probably it’s the Christian Coalition. They like to do double-dip bombings - set off one bomb, then another in the same spot a few minutes later to kill the first responders. All those robots are backed up to city servers, and get new bodies if they’re killed on duty. They just gotta get the survivors clear of the site straight away. They won’t even touch the dead till the next day. Of course, if it’s Westboro Baptist, they like to target escape routes.”

The convoy ran into trouble on the way, which we expected. Coming into Central Pennsylvania, the trucks were halted by heavily armed police, and both the vehicles and the people were all searched. Nothing incriminating was found, but one sheriff, the ranking officer on the scene “swore he could smell drugs”. I know, in some detail, about this incident because the moment the convoy spotted a blue light, every cam and mic we had (on the vehicles and the people) started livestreaming over all the youtubes, and NYHS’s production team at the 67th Street library made a rush for the videobooths on the 2nd floor, to cut between the incoming video streams and make a single live netcast that viewers worldwide could follow. Al Jazeera, the BSBC, rt.com and the ABC all picked up the feed, and re-netcast it with their own live commentary and subtitles.

There was a drawn-out stand-off as the police tried to come up with more excuses to hold us, which came to a head when our cams caught one of the local deputies making a cack-handed attempt to slip 100g of cocaine into the pocket of our blackest convoy driver. Within a minute, Simanique had a slickly produced videoclip, showing exactly what happened, on her handheld. She showed it to the sheriff, who promptly arrested everyone, on the grounds that filming the police is a crime in Central Pennsylvania. Everyone in the convoy was charged with obstructing the police in the line of duty and “resisting arrest”, which basically means the police beat them up, then charged them for bruising their knuckles.

However, by the time the crew had been locked up for an hour, the Dauphin County Sheriff’s Department, and President-General Willard, the Central Pennsylvanian head of state, had been presented with a 3-million signature petition demanding out release, and Franklin Bryce, the Presiding Officer of the New York Transitional Authority, had made a public statement condemning the arrests and demanding action from the international community. Dozens of journalists converged on the Grantville sheriff’s office by the time Willard caved in and released us. The police took no inventory of the contents of the vehicles but, going by the pressure-sensors in the trucks’ suspension, about one-third of the cargo was gone.

We lost a third of the remaining aid to another shakedown, at the border crossing to the New Confederacy. This time, they at least had the decency not to pretend there was any legal basis for what they were doing. The just waved their guns around and stole our stuff, which in the end was at least a more efficient and courteous system. From the beginning, we had estimated that about half of the aid we set out with would make it as far as the refugee camps.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should state that the New Confederacy employed their own police, while Central Pennsylvania contracted out, not in fact to Prosperion, but their number two competitor, General Services. Presumably, when corporate police act as bandits, there’s much more of a PR need to dress it up as legitimate policing. I don’t know. In any case, score one for the public sector.

I was activated early, as we waited near the back of the convoy, in a long queue for the only entrance to the camp on the New Confederate side.

Our final obstacle was at the gates of the refugee camp. There was a considerable military presence, cordoning off the camp and tightly controlling who could come in and out. The New Confederacy didn’t share the Republic of Christ’s persecutory zeal against these people, but they certainly didn’t like them or want them either. Over a million refugees, packed into a little less than seven square miles.

Simanique had got word from one of the lead vehicles that the New Confederate army were practically stripping vehicles down before letting them in. There was absolutely no way I could be smuggled in as contraband; I would just have to hope my impression of a human was good enough.

I was suddenly glad that Simanique and her comrades had talked me out of bringing the Guy Fawkes mask. That would come once the story was out and I needed to reveal myself; right then, I needed to be inconspicuous. The mask alone would have been enough for them to disappear me. I wore jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt with the logo of the 17th Nijmegen Contact Linguistics and Creolistics Symposium. She fiddled with the armatures in my cheeks and chin, to give me a slightly less generic look. There were now four of us packed into the cab - me, Simanique, Paz, a sanitation engineer, and Arkady, a nurse. The humans all looked uncomfortable and queasy.

I leaned out of the window to get a look at the camp. It was a huge, sprawling expanse of tents, makeshift structures and vehicles that stretched out to the horizon. Autonomous drones buzzed over it like flies over a carcass. It was over half a mile away, but we could smell it from where we waited. I could see humans getting out of the trucks to be sick, then being threatened by soldiers wearing rebreathers until they got back into their vehicles.

“Hey, guys?” I asked.

“Mmm?”

“If you need to be sick, vomit into my mouth.”

“What?!”

“Urgh, what the hell?”

Paz and Arkady looked as if the idea alone might make them sick. Only Simanique kept her composure.

“Think about it,” she said, “Finch doesn’t have taste buds or modules installed to experience the same revulsion humans. Zhe doesn’t even have proper stomach - just a pouch so zhe can pretend to eat - and then, zhe just has to regurgitate it anyway. If zhe can throw up in front of the guards, no-one’s gonna doubt zhe’s human.”

In the end both Paz and Simanique threw up into me. Either Arkady, being a nurse, had a stronger stomach than they did, or was simply so horrified at the thought, he held it in.

When we got near the front of the line, six hours later, I slowed down my cognition, paused my background processes, and turned off my water cooling, so I would look deathly pale. When the soldiers ordered us out of the vehicle, I regurgitated Paz and Simanique’s vomit, narrowly missing one of the soldier’s boots, and getting it all over my clothing.

None of the soldiers wanted to give me a pat-down. When one of them was finally bullied into it, it was the fastest, most cursory pat-down I had ever seen, and he found nothing unusual about me.

Unlike the humans, I wasn’t programmed to be bothered by the smell, but there was one thing that did make me feel a little queasy; there were jamming transmitters over the camp, broadcasting high-amplitude noise over the entire radio and microwave spectrum. I think they were transmitting from the aerial drones overhead. I felt my eyes shift to non-lossy compression in dread. What happened in the camp, what went in and what came out, was tightly controlled by the New Confederate and Republic of Christ governments. It was clear that they wanted to prevent the outside world from seeing inside the camps. To my mind, it looked more like a concentration camp, or a ghetto in the old sense of the word, than a refugee camp.

Our truck mostly contained well-drilling equipment. There were wells sunk inside the camp, but there wasn’t enough water to go round, and it was tightly rationed. Nevertheless, the soldiers guarding the place were well-supplied and, without warning, one of them turned a hose on me. I’m just glad my new body is waterproof.

They took a long time taking everything out of the truck. They confiscated the comms equipment in the semi-secret compartment, which we were expecting. They let us load the sacks of protein porridge mix back onto the truck, and our medical supplies. Then they told us they would be keeping the well-drilling equipment, and they would get back to us once they had made a decision whether to confiscate it or let it in. Simanique argued with the corporal who told us this, urging him to show compassion, but he wouldn’t budge. Her face was lividly bruised from her encounter with the Dauphin County Sherrif’s Department, but she worked on the young soldier’s nerves implacably, with an indefatigible sense of her own rightness. Eventually, she demanded to speak to a ranking officer. He said he would pass a message on and see if someone would speak to her. The corporal went back into the field station, and Simanique moved closer to me, speaking quietly, out of the side of her mouth.

“If you can find a truck-trailer marked Van Burren Fruits, license plate 700146N2, you might be able to find Keith. He goes by the name of John Smith here.”

The soldiers permitted Paz, Arkady and myself to carry the food to an aid-distribution centre just inside the camp perimeter, while Simanique waited to speak to someone higher ranking. After we handed over the last sacks of porridge-mix, I slipped off into the camp.

The few reports I had heard of Camp Indigo didn’t prepare me for what I saw. The dwellings were a mixture of tents, wood and plastic lean-tos, and vehicles - mostly buses and trucks, packed tight with people. Cattle trucks seemed to be a popular choice. Most of the people had adipose reserves to buffer them against the endemic undernourishment, but they looked hollowed out by micronutrient deficiency and thirst - and of course, the hunger would waste their muscles before it burnt off their fat reserves. There was raw sewage in the narrow passageways between the makeshift dwellings. Channels had been dug to guide the waste away from dwellings and into open pits. The one humanitarian intervention that the New Confederate government was actually spending money on was the construction of sewage-processing facilities, all inside the camp perimeters, and tankers prowled around the camp, sucking up the contents of the pits for transfer to the processing plants - and occasionally knocking over dwellings as they went. New Confederate State Broadcasting (actually a division of Fox-Disney, but technically so is the New Confederate government) made it very clear that this was done, with some resentment, only because the lie of the land was such that otherwise, the piss and shit would end up flowing into the New Confederacy proper, and that the refugees were all a bunch of lazy whiners who seemed to think the honest hardworking people of the New Confederacy owed them a living. However, these facilities were far beyond over capacity, so the piss and shit overflowed anyway, and people were dying in their thousands from infectious disease. I saw children and adults being cremated on mass open pyres, dozens at a time. It was all made so much more shocking by the fact that I was old enough to remember when the formerly United States of America was seriously considered to be a First-World country.

We had timed the convoy to arrive on a Sunday, in the hopes that the New Confederate and Republic of Christ forces would be a little short-handed, with so many of them being in church. The Republic’s idea of Sunday service was certainly in evidence as we entered the camp.

Uniformed Republic of Christ preachers roamed between the tents, yelling at the refugees to repent, and promulgating the view that the eye-watering stench on the air was the smell of sin, rather than the close proximity of a million pooing, peeing, dying humans without adequate sanitation; that their children were dying of the sinfulness of their parents, rather than cholera and dysentery; and in general that all the awful things that were happening to them were their own fault for being such wicked sinners.

However, that wasn’t the only religious activity going on. What I hadn’t expected was that besides the preachers supplied by the Republic, there were also churches set up in tents and truck-trailers by the refugees themselves. I suppose I had simply passively bought into the media representation of these camps as being full of ‘godless people’ - or at least non-Christians. But although Pastor-General Hopkins’ government is certainly loudest about persecuting gays, atheists, Jews and Muslims, the largest persecuted group is Christians who don’t think God wants them to persecute anyone. The Republic prefers not to acknowledge the existence of Christians who cannot reconcile faith in a loving god with the notion that that same deity requires public stonings every time two gentlemen decide that inserting their penises alternately in each others’ bottoms would be a congenial way to pass an afternoon.

The camp lacked streets or major landmarks, and I thought that finding the Van Burren Fruits trailer would be near to impossible. I wandered for three hours, asking if anyone had seen that trailer, before a small boy vaguely indicated that it was westwards. I prefered to ask children, because those that weren’t sick or dying were the refugees most likely to explore the camp.

As I got closer to it, more and more of the kids I stopped knew of the Van Burren trailer. Finally, as the sun was starting to set, a girl of about seven years age led me straight to it, and I saw why it had been so well known in its area. A large, crude wooden cross was mounted on top of the trailer, and I heard the sound of hymn-singing coming from inside. I checked the license plate, and right enough, this was the trailer. I slipped in at the back, and, since there were no seats left, I sat on the floor.

I felt a little awkward. I can’t see how Christianity is intrinsically any more plausible than Bensonism, except that precisely how Bensonism was made up is a matter of historical record. I’ve lived in the Kingdom of Britain, The Republic of Scotland and North Yorkshire, and occasionally multiplexed to take temp posts for European Schools elsewhere in the European Federation, so I’m not really used to human religions being such a big deal. But still, this wasn’t the sort of foaming theopathy that mostly forms the basis of tabloid reporting from the former USA; the hymn was Amazing Grace, and the text of the sermon was Matthew 7:1, Judge not, that ye be not judged. I wanted to show them some respect, and since the gospels say Jesus said some rather pointed things about people who mouth the words of prayers they didn’t mean, that meant keeping my mouth shut. On the other hand, I also really needed not to stand out.

In the end, I compromised by indistinctly mumbling sounds that weren’t really words.

I lingered after the service, keeping out of everyone’s way, trying to be as non-noticeable as possible, until finally the … I’m not sure - priest? minister? preacher? He wore jeans and a t-shirt, and had more the air of a moral philosophy lecturer than a clergyman, anyway. The guy who led the service - I waited until he was the only one left, and asked if he had a parishioner called John Smith. I felt a little silly, as, the chances were, he had half a dozen.

He said, “That’s my name - could it be me you’re looking for?”

“It’s possible.”

I scratched a non-existent itch on my left arm, pulling my sleeve back just far enough to let him see where my skin looked plastic, just for a few hundred milliseconds.

He gave me a long look, with his head tilted sideways, and said, “I think perhaps we have a mutual friend?”

I stammered, “Uh, ah, yes. Yes. She suggested that I seek out your …” -I struggled for the right words- “…spiritual guidance.”

I suck at this subterfuge stuff, by the way.

“Well, perhaps we could find somewhere quiet to have a little chat, then.”

I followed him through the crowd. We passed through a lot of densely crowded areas, passed through several makeshift buildings, and doubled back several times - just as we would have done in a vehicle, trying to lose a tail, or shake off a satellite from watching us. Eventually, he led me to what appeared a car door set in the side of a small hummock, but which turned out to be hollowed-out car that had been buried in soil. Inside, the seats had all been removed, and instead, there was a camp-bed to the far side of the transmission, and a rucksack and some camp cookware on the near-side. We sat on the camp-bed, and I told him my story.

I had got as far as opening the mystery .rar, when the shelling started.

Squidpod 016 - Robophobia, Part 2 - Camp Indigo