Rain pelts in muted fury against the clearwall nearest him as Denny reenters what many still refer to as “the Real world”. Euphemisms abound.
“We’re ready whenever you are, Denny,” Eric says.
“The interview with Benn and young Mr. Crippen. Did you still wish to participate?”
“Oh, right. Have they initiated yet?”
“Benn is staging the applicant now. Another couple minutes.”
“I’ll wait for them inside.” Denny says and settles back into a semi-recline.
The greatroom dissolves into a featureless white emptiness.
Denny’s tari is situated in reasonable comfort on a straight-backed wooden chair. Two more of identical design are positioned nearby; one a meter to his left, the other facing them. His attire, too, has altered almost as expected, replaced by a charcoal suit, a blue button-down shirt with dark pin-stripes and an azure tie. Dark socks and polished black shoes complete the ensemble.
“A little austere, don’t you think, Eric?”
“I think it sends the correct message.”
“At least let the socks match the tie.”
“You are a wild man.”
Denny’s socks take on a cerulean hue, neon in intensity, as does the tie. Denny squints at the luminous hosiery across the glare of his tie. “Really? If I didn’t know better, I’d say your sense of humor reminds me of Benn.”
“I wouldn’t call it a ‘sense of humor’, but I may have assimilated a bit of his particular sensibility along the way.”
“God help us.”
“No need to get political,” Eric says. The radiation is subdued to a less-than-luminous level. “Happy now?”
“Almost. Put armrests on these two chairs,” pointing, “but not that one.”
The changes are instantaneous.
“Okay,” Denny admits. “Now I’m as happy as I’m willing to be.”
“The undisputed master of your own responses.”
“One would hope. And you, Eric, are you not the same in that regard?”
“A good question.”
. . .
Several hundred kilometers south southeast of the atoll and Denny’s form in repose, Benn is settling the skullcap and visor over Dashel Crippen’s head. A series of contacts along the spine of Crippen’s immersion suit match counterparts in the recliner.
“Are you all right with this?”
Crippen seems to writhe, perhaps shrugging a last cluster of sensors into place as the seat adjusts to a comfortable angle. “Yes, sir. It’s the same implementation used in some classrooms and excursion modules.”
Benn cues the entry protocol.
. . .
Crippen is sitting upright in a sturdy chair. The surface beneath him is a shade or two darker than the blank white space—he twists in his seat to look around and behind— surrounding him. There is nothing anywhere to provide dimension or perspective except the two men seated opposite him a couple meters away.
One of them is Mr. Germane, the tall, good-natured fellow who just plugged him in. The other he’s never seen before, a muscular gentleman wearing a nice suit and square-jawed determination. Bonus points for the loud hosiery and for providing from the get-go the most unconventional interview environment he’s experienced so far.
“Hello, Dashel,” the suit says. “My name is Denny Crosier. I am Eric Gerzier’s Chief of Operations.”
“H’llo, sir. You can call me Dash, if you like. My friends do.”
“Dash. Strong name. Let’s get down to it. Who are you?”
“. . .”
“. . .”
“Take your time. There’s no wrong answer. I want to hear yours.”
“Well, sir, I’m the son of Donald and Annette Crippen. Both of them, and my little brother, died in the Ends. I don’t know how I survived, or why I did, and not them, but a friend I didn’t even know I had, saved my life and… And I realize this is just my story. It’s shaped who I am, but it’s not who I am, any more than my Federal ID number is, or the folder that goes with it. Let me try to answer you a different way.
“I’ve learned to live by observing two fundamental principles.” He holds up an index finger. “Show up. That’s more than just arriving at an agreed destination on-time. To me, it means being present in the moment as an aware and willing participant.” He raises a second finger. “And ‘do what you say you’re going to do’. I believe if these criteria are met with consistency, all other concerns will take care of themselves.”
“Wow,” Mr. Germane grins at him. “You practice that much?”
“Yes, sir. I put it near the top of my interview flowchart. Seems practical to let you know what I’m about as clearly as I can. I think it saves us both a lot of time and I hope it answers your question, sir.”
Mr. Crosier says, “It does. I trust you mean it.”
“Trust is what it’s about, sir. May I add a post-script to ‘Who Am I’?”
“My friend got me into Promo. I’ve learned and experienced things there I wouldn’t have been able to see or know anywhere else. Beyond the School’s environment, back on the grid, I’m just another cataloged face in a volatile crowd with nowhere to go but into one queue or another, maybe find work as a laborer, maybe lucky enough to have my own place to live. Or a family. Maybe gonji, instead. Or, you know… flattened by an asteroid.
“But I see astonishing events taking place, events I know my friend has been a part of. I’ve been given a taste of what’s possible and, as I walk around knowing this, I wonder why I’m not doing those things too. I feel in-between something amazing and just living this bonus live I was gifted as a… a statistic.”
“Your friend. Mr. Gaston. Is that correct?”
“He has sponsored your placement on a working team, one of which he is a member. His work with us makes his assignment flexible. Do you believe you can operate in an environment without his close support?”
“I have no doubt that I can learn to fit in wherever you place me, sir.”
“What can you tell me about the ‘art’ you practice?”
“I have several, sir.”
“Do they still call it freerunning?”
“Art… I like that. Most consider it a fringe activity.”
“Tell me about it.”
“It’s an exercise in how much distance I can cover using unconventional pathways, taking advantage of natural and architectural structures, challenging them to show me useful imperfections and how to use their design to my advantage, trusting my strength and balance and reactions. And my luck.”
“I’m out of breath just hearing about it. Your luck, how’s that been?”
“Mostly good. I try not to press it too hard. Gravity doesn’t forgive.”
“Sounds very seat-of-the-pants,” says Crosier.
“Sounds kind of timid,” says Germane.
“Both, I guess, though not at the same time,” says Crippen. “Some places I run often because most places within my range are restricted. I don’t need to test my luck at every turn, not against the law in particular. So, I’ve cut a few grooves that challenge my precision instead.”
“I had a short time to scan your folder. You play pitball at the dormitory?”
Yes, sir. Greensprings. We have a team. With uniforms and everything.”
“What’s your position?”
“I trade off, high anchor and outlier.”
Mr. Germane says, “I take back that timid crack.”
“What’s your standing?” Mr. Crosier says.
“It’s a new cycle. So far no one has figured out how to hurt us, but I think Emerald is going to give us a game.”
“I’d like to see that. Maybe I will. So, can you tell me what a transformer does?”
Crippen blinks. “The electrical component, or the cartoon robot?”
Mr. Germane cracks a smile. Mr. Crosier does not. Crippen clears his throat.
“It’s used to couple alternating current between circuits while isolating direct current, although it can also be used to increase or decrease power to a secondary.”
“Okay,” Mr. Crosier says. “Do you read or speak a foreign language?”
“I know enough Spanish to get me beaten and robbed in an alleyway. Oh, and I read music. Does that count?”
Mr. Crosier glances sidelong at Mr. Germane and both almost nod.
“… and play three different woodwind instruments.”
” What instruments?” Crosier asks, pulling a foldie from his jacket’s inner breast pocket, opening it about halfway.
“I started in secondary school playing clarinet. Later, an obo. Lost those in the… you know. I made a native flute a couple years ago from a piece of cedar. It looks just like the beginner’s effort you’d expect, but it has a pleasing voice.”
“Obo, huh?” Mr. Germane says. “It always seemed an effeminate instrument, like a French horn.”
“You might be surprised how much ladies appreciate a good embouchure.”
Mr. Crosier hands his foldie to Crippen. Its surface has been cleared save for a graphic composed of three lines of musical staff and notation.
“Name that tune.”
“Ode To Joy. Beethoven’s Ninth,” says Crippen. “And thanks for choosing an easy one.”
Mr. Crosier wipes the media’s surface and folds it back into his pocket.
“I understand you have no neuro-adaptive enhancements. Is that correct?”
“Yes, sir. External only, as required for my studies and occasional entertainment purposes—you know, music, Sieb Forward, that kind of thing.”
“Porn?” Mr. Germane’s query sounds innocent.
Crippen looks him in the eyes. “It’s a distortion, and an obvious one, a commercial distraction to pacify and create revenue. I’m not immune, I just don’t care to go there. Real is better.”
“That’s debatable,” Mr. Germane says.
“Is this a social or religious choice on your part?” Mr. Crosier asks.
“Oh. Neither, really.”
“I remember when the NOASR was hailed as a milestone of human achievement, and I suppose it is. It might have been coincidental that Dr. Ampellov’s original neural net innovation received AMA approval about the same time. Everyone has an opinion about the waves of cheaper, but as-functional knock-off models that seemed to flood the market before the Ends.
“Anyway, the marriage of those technologies—it’s an overused word, but an accurate one—allowed societies to survive the enforced isolations that followed the destruction, allowed them to continue to operate. I suppose the virtual environs became an affordable and, best of all, completely safe way of adapting to life and work in an increasingly inhospitable world. But where many hoped it would bring us closer together, I don’t see how. Do you?
“Beyond government and civil services that function there, and commerce in all its forms, AsReal and the virtual continuum are no different than any other addiction. I mean, I observe people so deeply engaged in subjective experience, that they’re divorced from each other in widening circles. We’ve all known people entrenched in vee to the point that their Real life is unsatisfying compared to the life they live inside the construct. They’re so invested they will choose the construct over their own authentic lives.
“I enjoy my limited interactions, but I’ve preferred to live in real-time, experience the precision of my muscles, my reactions. When I want, I’m able to press the actual edge of danger that doesn’t really exist within the scope of the AsReal community. Well, maybe in the Outlands.”
“You know, ‘The Frontier’.”
Mr. Germane says to Mr. Crosier, “Interdicted environs operating without mandated fail-safes, yet somehow allowed to function, just like any other certified node. Ask Braden about them sometime.”
Crippen says, “You’re probably aware there are a number of others in the Promethean School that are ‘outies’ like me.”
“It’s not a disadvantage there,” Mr. Crosier says. He shows Crippen his hands. In them is a gossamer webbing, fragile to an almost ethereal degree, so insubstantial does it appear.
“This is a proprietary Axonic heuristic neural net. Every member of a working team is fitted with one, as are we.
“Contrary to the claims of antagonistic elements, this is not a mind control device. The implant’s primary functionality is intercommunication. With it comes access to our own virtual subset, nodes existing on the outlands, as you say, of the AsReal community. We are outside the protocols of the ubiquitous commercial provider, NOASR. We can access their nebula, but we no longer exist on their grid. Anyone’s grid.
“There are many, including but not limited to the United States government and military, who would misappropriate every element of our technology for their own purposes with prejudice, to keep it safe from the amorphous, ever-present ‘Enemy’. Similarly, those who view us as competitors for certain technological niches, would be happy to see us eliminated. From their standpoint, we are the enemy.
“Our popularity with the general public is all but outweighed by the despite of those entities who perceive us as a threat to their power and profitability. There are constant risks whenever we’re on assignment and the ability of our team members to coordinate their activities is critical to everyone’s safety, as well as the successful completion of our assignments.
“So, I have to ask, why are you, an unapologetic ‘outie’, looking for a position knowing you would have to re-evaluate your abstention? It seems counter-intuitive.”
“Barney doesn’t talk about what he does,” Crippen says, “but I can tell its challenge/reward ratio is way higher than anything currently on my horizon. The world I live in is broken and some tasked with fixing it are trying to do so with sledgehammers and fire. I don’t believe the School is broken and I don’t believe the lies being told about it, about Mr. Gerzier, or about what he’s trying to accomplish.
“When Barney is around, I see the difference in his outlook and manner. I see it in those around me in the School. I want that. I want to feel like that. And I want to know what else is out there. But, to do that, I have to allow the implantation of the device.”
“That is your choice today in a proverbial nutshell.”
“Can you tell me about the baseline and the downside, sir?”
“A pertinent question. Unlike the externals, as I’m sure you know, there is no latency or residual backscatter. You and the mesh will establish your own baseline. You will define your own personal usage profile, as well as your working profile with your assigned team.
“We are not in the business of monitoring or auditing your thoughts and beliefs. As long as you conduct yourself in good faith, a phrase you’ll hear again, the mesh operates unobtrusively, and provides you reliable connectivity with people and processes that you will learn to control and utilize, both on your own and in concert with your team counterparts. Your own discretion and intention will determine the degree and depth of that connectivity.
“Due to the nature of our enterprise, and because of the sensitivity of the processes and devices with which you’ll be acquainted, we must insist upon your absolute discretion regarding our work and the people with whom you interact. You already understand we are a community apart from the mainstream. We keep our cards face-down and we don’t talk about our business outside of our own house.”
“Like Fight Club?” says Crippen.
“Or the Yakuza.” says Mr. Germane. “Except if you decide to leave us, we won’t kill you. The mesh will blur certain details of your experience with us before it’s removal. There’s your downside.”
“Blurred, sir? Let’s say you take me on and I decide to haul off and quit for some inexplicable reason. My memory will be… what? Wiped somehow?”
“The term ‘wiped’ is misleading,” says Mr. Crosier. “‘Obfuscated’ is a better one. From the point of the device’s implantation, some of those experiences you had will become indistinct. Not relationships and connections as much as details like names and faces. You will know they’ve been muddled and you will know why. Your prior experiences will be untouched, the Project School, for instance, and all you’ve learned there, but pretty much a good deal of static beyond that, right up to the removal of the mesh and tearful good-byes.”
“That’s asking a lot.” Crippen sounds dismayed.
“It helps weed out the tourists,” Mr. Germane says. “Why? You can’t quit; we haven’t hired you yet.”
“I think you’ll agree we’re offering a lot in return,” Mr. Crosier says. “Let’s be clear. This is not an annexation of your body by a mind-control device. It is an uncommon interconnectivity tool you will learn to control. You will allow this to the degree you perceive as necessary and appropriate for the benefit of your team and yourself. Later, we invite you to expand that perception to the broader scope of the network we have in place, but the mesh will only respond to your deliberate intention.”
“So, if someone thought it would be a good thing to save four-D of some sensitive aspect of your operations, say, and broadcast it later into the NOASR for anyone to experience, the mesh would respond to… what? To that individual’s decision to act against the common interest?”
“That’s exactly right. A willful breach of foundational security protocols is bound to be, by its nature, intentional. Some within the mesh are sensitive to the vibration of… let’s call it ‘contradictory and antisocial intent’, which accompanies problematic behavior.
“Let me say it again for emphasis. As long as you conduct yourself in good faith, you and the mesh will only interact within parameters you yourself define and allow.”
Mr. Germane drags his chair closer to the younger man, sits down, and leans in.
“I understand your reticence about the commitment. I doubt if anyone noticed it at the time, but I felt much the same as I sense you do when I was given the choice to let a device merge with my favorite brain. All I can tell you is I’ve never regretted it.” He stands up and winks. “At least, that’s what the mesh told me to tell you.”
“The up-side,” Mr. Crosier continues, “is membership in a family that is not motivated by fear. We’re cautious in much the same way you are with gravity. There have always been grave threats to any individual or group that will stand up to the Established Order in any of its forms, who have the means and the strength to claim their freedom, and exercise it. We’ve separated ourselves so we can become instruments of change in the world and operate without the constraints of repressive societies that are afraid of everything, including their own citizens. We have the willingness and ability to stand apart.
“In return you become one of the clan. In most cultures, that means subjugating oneself to the greater needs of the whole and, I suppose, that’s true with us too, although this is not a hive-mind and your individuality will not be absorbed into some homogenous collective. The diversity of those who already make up our community, our family, is a great part of our strength and we prefer to nurture that. Know that we have no desire to direct your personal life or beliefs, the nature of which is already sufficiently compatible or we would not be having this conversation.
“We will provide frequently challenging, sometimes dangerous, always engaging, consequential work in unusual, potentially exotic, occasionally uncomfortable settings. You will enjoy the company of talented and similarly-motivated individuals and the certain knowledge that what you do matters. If I heard you correctly, I believe that’s sort of what you’re looking for.”
“Yes, sir. It is.”
“In return for your honest effort, we will provide all your subsistence-level needs: excellent food, clothing, better-than-adequate shelter, and comprehensive medical care for yourself and your family in one of our redoubts. Their choice. Also, a generous stipend for any discretionary needs will be deposited in a personal account on a monthly basis. You will work hard in return for that device wet-wired into your brain, but you will be allowed your privacy and a quality of life and freedom that has all but disappeared in the world beyond the boundaries of our holdings.”
“I don’t have to wear a red shirt, do I?”
Mr. Germane fixes Crippen once again with a grave look. “Only for the first three months. Probationary period, you understand. You’ll be fine.”
From the white emptiness behind the two executives, three men are approaching at a clumsy gallop. These appear rough-looking, graceless caricatures, almost comical in aspect, if not for the bow-wave of violence preceding them.
Mr. Crosier nods toward their advance. “This is another of those interview moments where there is no wrong answer, per se, but some are better than others. These sims represent the kind of senseless opposition our people face routinely when on task,” he says. “If allowed to do so, they will harm your teammates. They will harm you. What are your thoughts about them?”
Before he can formulate a reply, Misters Germane and Crosier are hurled aside, chairs clattering and bodies flailing. The three brutish figures rush the lone applicant.
The immersion system’s latency is noticeable, but manageable, and Crippen meets the trio’s advance standing with his arms straight out to both sides of his body, an invitation. Accepted, the first two reach to seize them and immobilize him as the third closes in to pummel him.
He pivots, ducking beneath his own arms, crossed now, and yanks each of the brutes into the other. Their heads clap together a heartbeat before he pistons a heel behind into the crotch of the oncoming third. It provokes a satisfying compression and mournful objection.
The hollow sound of cranial impact has signaled the release of his arms and, as the two heads have bounced apart somewhat, he cradles one in his left hand, the other in his right, and slaps them together again. He gasps the back of each man’s collar and drives his weight toward the floor. Both topple backward and their heads bounce some more. Crippen, still in motion, snatches up his chair and whirls to greet the last man with it.
Instead, he finds only Misters Crosier and Germane seated as they had been moments before, watching him advance on them wielding furniture.
Four legs touch down and Crippen straddles the chair backward facing the two smiling administrators. Chin on his arms folded across the seat back, he does not appear to be breathing hard.
“Holy shit,” says Mr. Germane.
Crippen says to Mr. Crosier, “You asked what I thought a moment ago. In contemporary culture, I think dealing with troglodytes would be the least of your problems. Do you get a lot of that?”
“Symbolically. Sometimes they’re in tactical armor with guns and badges.”
“When do I begin?”
“I believe you just did. Your new rate and privileges are in effect as of today,” Mr. Crosier says. “Benn will go over the obligatory paperwork with you—the ubiquitous state and federal documentation, acknowledgements of policy and procedures, that kind of thing. Afterward, report to Med for your immunizations and see Dr. Ampellov, who will oversee your procedure.”
Mr. Germane says, “Why? You got another interview to go to?”
“Uh, no. I guess I didn’t expect it to happen so quick.”
“Well, let’s not dawdle. I’ll have you back to the dorm by suppertime.”
“Welcome to the family, Dashel,” Mr. Crosier says and stands, extending his hand.
Dashel removes the chair between them and returns a firm handshake. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“We’re not a military organization, Dash, and I’d ask you to lighten up on the ‘sir’ if you could… but you probably won’t, will you?”
“No, sir. Probably not.”
“That’s all right. You’ll get used to us soon enough.”
Crosier turns to his counterpart. “The cohort with the Nancys is a tight little group. It won’t hurt to have his sponsor on board with him, but… not as his trainer.”
“Pair him with Ms. Atlee and let her show him the ropes.”
Mr. Germane turns a solemn face to Crippen. “Oh, you poor son of a bitch. I was just starting to like you, too.”
◄ ~ ~