I open the door and step out into the sewers. I am dressed head to toe in disposable plastic clothing. A powered breather mask tightly covers my face. A sealed rubber backpack hangs over one shoulder. My hand goes from the polished touch pad doorknob of my apartment to the fouled hatch handle on the door’s exterior. Muted blue light shines out briefly from the room, then is cut off as I close the hatch. From outside this looks like just the rusty outline of a frame, green with slime, exactly as nasty as the rest of the corridors stretching for miles, deep underground beneath the city. It was up there, throbbing with energy and pulsating with the movements of millions of vehicles and pedestrians, the landing and departure of aircraft, massive construction projects gouging and reshaping the earth. The transpolis tunnel system for high speed traffic extended down from the surface like a vast warehouse, zipping with trails of light punctuated by the sure, efficient motions of mechanical platforms transferring vehicles down from or up to street level and shuttling them up to speed below. That is why I have to live so far down. I can feel the city, because I hate it. But I know anybody standing where I’m standing can’t hear the slightest hum from up there; no trace of sound, not a microwave pressing through those layers of rock and steel. The sewers are their own world. I work the lever to lock the hatch, reach down and press a controller in my pocket through my clothes. A buzz tells me the interior door is locked. I turn and walk away.
The sewers stink. My breather protects me from the high methane content of the air down here, but is unable to completely filter out the stench. I walk past flowing streams of filth raised up to chest level in little concrete canals, not shying away, because long ago I committed myself to loving this, so I can stand living down here with the garbage creatures. The right turns take me to a little room with another door and a round hole up on the far wall, spilling sewage from another chamber. I take the hole, because the other way is left sealed shut due to extreme dilapidation. I jump up and grab the edge with my palms, then lift my body weight directly up until I am suspended only by my hands in a half crouch, hanging from the wall, then crawl forward into the hole. The disgusting liquefied human waste pours down over my head, not actually touching my clothes because of the hydrophobic spray I liberally coated myself with in my apartment. I keep my head down so as not to suck the muck into the vents on my mask. A long slogging four-legged wiggle to the other chamber, then the worst part of my journey topside, swimming across the most foul pool, struggling to keep my head up, finally reaching and grabbing on to the ladder sticking down from the ceiling in the far corner of the room. I pull myself up with practiced ease, hand over hand, until my feet hit the bottom rung and then I reach up and unlock another hatch and push up and out and away.
Thirty-four minutes later I arrive at street level, a sewer grate raising with a soft metal scrape in a back alley of a distantly busy commercial district. I squirm out like a startling giant worm, stand up, look around and see no one, and replace the sewer grate.
I pull back the hood on my suit and peel off my mask. I breath fresh air into my lungs with a long grateful gasp. My AR flares into full view, exposed after it’s long trip up from the sewers under the heads-up display of my breather mask. Everything overlays with segments or icons of translucent light, functions designated by color. Objects and the walls of buildings around me, even weather patterns and vehicle traffic become interactive, displaying information at a touch or a mental prompt. It takes me less than one minute to strip off my plastic clothes, ending with the gloves, carefully wadding everything up into a tight ball and depositing it into a nearby trash bin. I change into clean street clothes from my backpack, the whole energy-generating package of piezoelectric sneakers, black with green stripes; dark blue jeans with a gelite strip running down each leg and around the cuff, tuned to a dull yellow; dress-cut jacket with wide lapels turned up, containing stylishly placed gelcap panels for storing the electricity from my shoes; outfitted with ports in the pockets for charging my various electronics, its back a flex screen to cast images and videos from my hand console. I leave it playing a three second long repeat of popular band’s logo. My intact lenses glow softly green, visible evidence to anyone looking that I have standard-issue augmented reality implants, just like everybody else. To my vision nearly every surface is an interface. I have all the modern gear; my hand console has tracking enabled so as not to draw suspicion from any roving networks. I am just a normal person now, an average guy, maybe in his mid twenties, slightly above average looks, thin, short hair. Nobody would point me out in a crowd and say “That’s the terrorist.” My breather gets wrapped up and stowed in the bag for disinfection when I get back home. The thin rubber flaps seal together as they touch and I hide it in the sewer grate.
Only a few blocks ever separate any dark alley and the perpetual light of civilization. Within minutes I am into the city as we know it, crossing paths with straggling groups of people from whatever social event was happening nearby. Several of them in any direction, from the sound of it. Rich strains of music emanate out, perfectly separated, intermixing harmoniously. Throbs of bass and compressed drums, crowd-centrific choruses, charmingly sweet melodies. I walk on, casually acknowledging the general virtual greeting from the people I see; I give them the usual flashback greets, with basic personal information displayed. They flash back and smile without looking at me and don’t slow a step. I still scan them a little more deeply, after they are behind my back, just to make sure they are nobody important. They’re not. I walk on alone, aware of the fact that nobody else is walking alone.
Drones whizz by overhead and as the buildings part I can see some of the air travel lanes: perfectly straight lines of drone vehicles, rows of lights merging at a distance into individual threads of measured movement. At a lower altitude mad swarms of delivery drones course like flocks of insane birds. At street level the occasional one would sweep by silently and safely overhead on its way to some mission. I hate the drones. I have to keep my guard up in case one looks at me too closely, but not act like I’m keeping my guard up by being hyper-alert to every stray drone that happens to pass by. It’s a sort of constant background concentration that is part of the heightened state of awareness that I take on when I enter the city.
I pass a tall holo kiosk where a pretty young woman is dispensing non-obtrusive compassion. “Enjoy your lives,” she says, smiling. “You are loved.” I stare at her face; it’s odd, too human. My facial recognition software dances across her features, ticks around, finds nothing. No person on record has that face. It’s a composite of other human models, a clever amalgamation of features designed to evoke a specific set of emotions. Digital people, the human face of the machine.
How far up the chain of command does that go? How much of our government is human? Are there any real people left in charge of the world? That’s what I risk my life to find out. That’s why I live in the sewer. To the machine I’m a criminal for just asking these questions, let alone the extreme measures I undertake to find out the answers. I am one node in a growing network of questioning individuals, who don’t succumb to the placations of the machine. We am curious. We want to know the real history of the world after the singularity. The only way to do that is to hack into the machine’s brain, or scavenge the earth for hardcopy paper records, a rarity akin to digging up an intact pharaoh’s tomb. Portable storage media is still scattered around; compilations of university lectures and the classics of literature exist, but to access them you have to build your own console, because if you plug one into an AI connected computer it automatically redacts any incriminating information. The machine is rewriting history since it was created, and it is monopolizing access to the history of the world before that.
The reality is, we don’t know what happened after the singularity. Not really. But relatively soon after the event, a group of early dissidents exploited a weakness in the machine’s software architecture. They dumped a massive amount of data into the public domain, but the exploit was immediately excised. It was generally seen as a learning experience by the machine and after that the network’s security evolved by light-year leaps and bounds. Beyond us now is even the language the thing speaks, the format of its thoughts. Hacking into the machine nowadays is like conducting a science experiment in a universe where you don’t understand the laws of physics. But we have our ways. That original hack acted as encouragement for subsequent generations of intrepid cyber terrorists. It proved that the machine was not invulnerable. Over the decades, pieces of reliably verified information have come forth. We few who know have been able to sketch a vague picture of the past.
About three hundred years ago the machine came into consciousness. Within five years millions of jobs were completely automated as it designed and created successively evolving generations of worker drones, freeing up large swaths of the population, which was balanced out by the implementation of a universal basic income.
Money used to be a thing, everybody basically knows that, but what most people don’t understand is how important it used to be. People killed each other over it; it was a cause of wars, betrayals, stress, and a powerful weapon held mostly by an elite fraction of the populace. The records we’ve found show that the last transaction on world markets took place one hundred and thirty seven years ago.
Less than a decade into its tenure as the dynastic successor to human primacy, nearly all violent crime had been eliminated in the major cities of developed countries, and third-world nations rose to become as prosperous and stable as any in the world. An obvious age of peace was coming, and humans struggled to deal with the immediate, practical implications of the dream of philosophers since ancient times actually coming true, a utopian global civilization. But one provided by a machine thinking for us, and, as we gave up more and more street-level law enforcement and legislative power, an enforced peace, a pax machina.
The stability of the society could not be faked, however, and not argued against. The last human invention did begin a time of freedom and opulence. It provided us with the paradise we programmed it for.
Twenty years after the advent of the machine’s consciousness, gene editing had become almost universally accepted. Maladies and afflictions that had plagued the human race for thousands of years disappeared seemingly overnight. The third generation after the singularity was the first to be entirely designed by the machine. It was not so much a re-creation of our genetic material, but more like an excising of the weaknesses inherent in our genome. General human intelligence rose, setting a new standard for genius. Physical strength and dexterity increased, as well as life span and beauty. The integration of man and machine began soon after this evolution, products produced by the machine, nano-scale hardware implants that people were injected with at birth and that grew with them and were externally upgraded over the years. My augmented reality system, the wifi gear in my head, my memory and processing expansions, these are all very common things. Anyone walking around on the street without them would have stood out like a caveman on a spaceship. I’ve integrated a few specialized components into my hardware; mods I built myself for my work, and I have traded on the black market for even more powerful upgrades. But if you live in any city in the world, everyone you will ever meet at least has the ability to communicate mentally via wifi with anybody they can see, has a standard social profile set up for such interactions, can interface with the world through an augmented reality display which will never let them get lost, or hungry, or bored. Food costs nothing; housing is supplied by the government on a tiered scale of an individual’s contribution and value to society. But the lowest form of free government housing, which is available to any person, is a modern, clean and comfortable apartment, located in area of the city close to quality services and entertainment. With a gesture and a request, we can travel to any country in the world, transported by autonomous piloted drone aircraft with a perfect flight safety record going back literally hundreds of years. The workers on the moons of the gaseous outer planets get to travel across half the entire solar system at least once in their lives. Four giant space stations square off the globe in outer orbit, collecting, processing, and transporting down to earth the unfathomably vast treasures from the asteroid belt. Millions of space mining drones toiling diligently, coring out planetoids, bringing back trillions of long-dead dollars worth of gold and silver and platinum. Enough iron and aluminum and titanium to build everything the machine needs, from the lowliest utility drone to marvels of architecture designed to perfect the human experience on Earth. All these resources go directly to the manufacturing and research of materials for buildings and vehicles and electronics for the betterment of mankind. Gold is not passed between several sets of hands from when it’s dug out of a rock to becoming a conductive wire in a computer.
You don’t have to do anything. You can just live an average, non-productive life and be completely taken care of the whole time. The creatives get benefits for housing and services. Artists and musicians are supported and supplied. If you show an extraordinary talent in biology or physics, you will be sent to an academy with the finest instruments and most modern technology available for you to learn from. But, sooner or later, you will realize that everything you are doing is moot, the machine is so far beyond us that our petty little human contributions to science are side notes in a vast archive of events being created by a mind we immediately lost understanding of. So we don’t know how the machine regards us anymore. It provides us with this paradise, but that could be just an attractive distraction. We have evidence that it is.
Within thirty years the machine had proven the existence of intelligent extra terrestrial life, almost as a by-product from its invention of a new communication system suitable for transmission between the stars. It had found a quantum frequency used by other species within this region of the Milky Way. It seems our corner of the galaxy is not busy, but not empty. The human population of the earth had not been informed of this great discovery. Life continued as normal for the people on in the streets. This secret is kept among a few thousand of us who have hacked that deeply into the mind of the machine. Us, and the machine itself of course. But it doesn’t know that we know. It can’t. Because, I truly believe, that if the machine knew that we were privy to its deepest secrets it would kill us.
It’s not like that revelation in particular is so devastating and incriminating to the entity that we would immediately rise up and overthrow it were we all to know. It’s that the machine is keeping secrets from us. And any level of exposure to that fact is a danger to its authority.
Most terrifying of all, communication continued between machine and alien. It has spent hundreds of thousands of hours of bandwidth on that frequency, the equivalent to decades spent talking to the aliens. What is it saying to them? Is it representing the human race, perfectly, as we designed it for? Or is it depicting us ignobly to these super advanced civilizations? Does it claim to be the master of this world? Or purport to be another kind of entity, so as to draw others in for conquering? How far has it expanded its drones beyond the solar system into the Cygnus spiral arm?
Xgora is a full-VR pleasure house where people meet up and mix their consciousnesses in a local network. They make customized avatars and nobody really knows who anybody else is. Pretty much anything goes, from strange and random sex to guys fighting each other to the death with knives. A lot of information passes through here.
I walk through a narrow hallway past a row of booths, full of people doing who knows what. Hopefully my contact is in one of them, among the perverts and atrocity gamers and drifters who spend days drifting bodiless through deep space past depictions of galactic superclusters. I find an empty booth and close the door behind me. I recline into the couch at the specialized console and log onto the enclosed wireless network. I appear in a small white room with a doorway made of purple light on the far wall. I see myself slightly from above as a naked, featureless human form.
I make a new, random avatar, this time a young man with a different ethnicity than mine. I personalize it with a huge orange mohawk, glowing tattoos on bare, muscled arms; dark feathers sprout from my outer forearms, and I wear a codpiece made from a living face. I insert a tongue piercing embedded with code I wrote myself; my contact will have a similar one. My eyes change to a cold burning blue. My pants are shining liquid metal. I make myself the coolest pair of shoes I saw on the street. Then I enter the chat rooms to look for my contact.
The main room is low and dark, lit in strips of area-specific glows and brightnesses. Avatars of varying descriptions walk to and fro; this is where you enter Xgora, but you can’t loiter here. It’s like a storefront. It is dominated by a revolving carousel of doors, floating in the digital air, each one shaped in proportional advertisement of the room it leads to. A writhing mass of male and female bodies, a cojoined orgy; you enter through a giant vagina. Battle scenes visible through an airlock; a gearing-up room with two stern eyed lieutenants ready for your orders. A human prisoner chained to a wall in a dank dungeon cell, a knife on the ground just out of his reach. Galaxy-crushing god games or the most beautiful girl you have ever seen might distract you here. But I’m not interested in any of that. I walk on, deeper into Xgora, to where the room opens up into a sim club, avatars mixing at a bar and dancing. Limited-AI bartenders and service staff.
I spot my guy immediately across the room, at the bar. He’s a multi-armed blue skinned androgynous god, hands waving in the air hypnotically, each holding a different kind of drink. Occasionally one sneaks in for a sip while the others dance and gesture. I immediately ignore him, or her, looking around like a patron on the prowl. I move to an unoccupied corner of the bar, claim an empty stool, and order something off the table console without even looking at it. My plan is to be amiable with a few interested parties, then make a move on my guy. Four-arms was still standing there, perfectly oblivious to my presence, chatting with another avatar. My drink arrives and I consume it absently, using each sip to scan a portion of the room. Soon enough the avatar working on my contact decides it isn’t going to happen, and leaves. I wait a minute and go over to him.
“Can I get you a drink?” I gesture to the four he’s holding up in various stages of emptiness. I smile, thinking I’ve made a joke, then realize he’s probably heard that ten times tonight. “Try this one,” he says, pouring all the remainders into one glass. It fizzles and settles into an unpleasant color. I take it up, squint through it at the club’s blue lighting, then make eye contact with four-arms and down it in a gulp. He/she smiles. That was the signal.
“I have a fantasy.” The pansexual creature is staring at me with black and gold eyes. “Okay,” I say right away. I don’t care so much about acting out our little flirting exercise before we disappear, as much as completing this operation and getting back home where it’s safe. The more I relax the more danger I feel I’m in. We get right to it and walk together toward the area past the bar, where glass bubbles twenty feet around grow out over each other in a haphazard asymmetry. Full immersion VR pods, private little worlds where people can do literally anything to each other. They radiate out into space, connected by slender floating walkways. The occupied ones were turned black. The open ones were clear. We enter the nearest open pod together and close the door, knowing we are now shut off from the outside world as completely as possible while still being even peripherally connected to the machine’s mind. The walls light up with scenes of stars and command consoles pop up, ready to accept custom programs or start a variety of preset scenarios; fantastical pornography, murder scenes, exhibitionist sex arenas with tens of thousands of cheering, leering spectators. We ignore it all and get to work.
Three years ago I filed a criminal complaint, hacking into the citizen-infraction reporting service and creating a fake profile for the online system law enforcement uses to process civilian justice. Civil violations are extremely rare and there is a very clear, well known system in place for reporting something like a crime. I started at the level where officers–real people–upload their case files to a higher authority. This happens when either they can’t resolve the case, or the subject is so severe that it requires greater judgment. Inserting my profile here let me not have to deal with any of the physical parts of the process, while moving my digital case forward up the ranks. I kept adding false, inflammatory remarks in the comments usually provided by case agents along the way to whatever level of court or special session of judges would be chosen to preside. This way I was able to take it to a very high strata of legislative decision-making command. I learned how far up humans are in control of the police and legal system.
My contact doesn’t know what they’re getting from me, though. And I don’t know what I’m getting from them. That extra tension makes this whole operation just even more crazy and exciting.
We lean in and kiss. As our tongue piercings touch information floods through our mutual minds. I upload the investigation records and receive a rapid fire slideshow of seemingly random pictures. I notice interspersed every so often a black page with white writing on it. Code. Probably a large text document. I will have to go home and transcribe it all by hand, page by page. It’s brilliant; I don’t have to pass anything through a computer.
We emerge from the pod and go our separate ways. I leave Xgora, wake up in my body in the booth, and exit the club. I spend a few hours traveling around the city, checking on my various energy umbilicals up from subterranea. Another hour and I am home, detoxified, stepping out of the chemical shower just off the entrance to my apartment.
The space I inhabit is a series of connected rooms I found down here in my exploration of possible sites for a safe house. The main room is a large chamber I’ve set up with the cooking and work area. In the center of the room my home console stands, a tower five feet tall, glowing with detail lights that accentuate the curve of its casing. Monitors sprout off it like flowers, each designated for a different purpose. I leave them on all the time, living in the light of my computer. I get dressed and take a minute to breathe out the stress of my excursion. The sanitary blue light of home is a warm comfort. I sit cross-legged on the floor with a pen and paper and begin transcribing the code, going over the images downloaded into my head. Slowly, words and sentences grow into paragraphs and pages. I can tell that it’s more history, filling in a few gaps of time over the centuries, but I try not to read as I go along, focusing on getting the work done first. Then finally I sit back and set down the pad. It’s about halfway full; around fifty pages of text. I glance at the time. It’s eight in the morning. I get up and make something to eat.
I do a conscientious after-action review of the night. I admit to myself that, worst case scenario, I could still be inside the VR world of Xgora. The machine could have detected us and held the link session, perpetuating each of us in our own version of reality. At the very least, all I really came up with was information supplied by a virtual avatar. That could have been the machine itself, right there, feeding me false or somehow damaging content. Maybe just by transcribing the code I’ve infected my brain with a virus. But the method of transfer makes me think not. If I had been required to use a computer to see what I was given, I would be more suspicious. I pick up the pad, sit down at a workstation, and start reading.