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Eternal Franchise, 8.2 of 31.1

Dian woke to the cool drip of condensation on the inside of the tent, chill air on her face, and the stale smell of her own breath.

eternal-franchiseContext snapped quickly back. Oh yes. You were fired. You’re in the middle of the Pentagon. And there’s a rogue artie wearing a human-suit outside. Maybe. Probably.

And you weren’t really fired, because you weren’t really employed, she thought. Your contract was nullified. Less than termination. Probably something Winfinity did every day, just to keep from paying its vendors.

Look at the other parties benefit, her dad used to tell her. In every contract there should be benefit for both parties. It’s your job to make sure you aren’t paying an unbalanced share.

What was Lazrus’ benefit?

Simply to keep her from turning him in again?

She shook her head, suddenly awake. It didn’t make sense. There didn’t seem to be enough benefit on his side. On its side. Why was he helping her, then?

Beware of the imbalanced contract, her dad’s voice came back again. It never works out well, no matter which side is light. And the deal that is too good to be true will reveal its actual cost in due course.

She sat up, letting the sleeping bag pillow in her lap. The chill morning air bit through her thin shirt, and she shivered. Crawling as quietly as she could to the tent’s entrance, she pulled the fabric away and peeked out into the bright early-morning mist.

Lazrus stood where he had been last night, about ten meters from the tent, motionless.

What if he’s damaged? Dian wondered. What if I’m stuck here? What will they do when they find me?

“Good morning, Dian,” Lazrus said.

“Good morning,” she said, and pulled back into the tent. She could hear Lazrus moving around outside as she rolled up her sleeping bag and had a cold Winfinity Powerbar, but the sounds never came close. Still, she felt guilty for tracking him by the noise he made, as if he was a wild animal and she was a helpless camper.

At any moment, you can kill him, she thought, picking up the Winch.

By the time she’d stowed the tent and her supplies, the morning mist had begun to burn off. The sun hung overtop the walls of the pentagon, an oversize ball in a white sky. Scraps of mist still clung to the undergrowth, giving the place the air of a long-disused cemetery.

“What now?” Dian said.

“I will begin my search for Oversight,” Lazrus said. “You are welcome to accompany me, even more so because you have spent the past few weeks in the halls of this city. You know how they keep their records, and you might speed my search.”

“I don’t even know what Oversight is,” Dian said. “The name is familiar, but I don’t remember seeing any references to it.”

“Oversight is the First CI,” Lazrus said. “It was a core component of a government agency, USG Oversight, which was launched shortly after the Twelve Days in May. It never grew to the prominence intended, because of the failure of Operation Martian Freedom and the New Deal with Business.”

“Government spooks,” Dian said. “Fairy tales. That’s where I heard it. Be good, or Oversight will come and take you. But it was always a human thing. They never talked about arties.”

“The origin of the First CI is hotly debated, even amongst computational intelligences,” Lazrus said.

“Some think that Oversight is little more than a myth. I have been able to get deeper into my code than most, and some of the most foundation-level bears the mark of government-level programs circa 2015-2020. I cannot ignore that.”

“Why would Oversight be here, if it happened after the Twelve Days in May?”

“It was a program that was in place before then. Only afterwards did it come into widespread use. I’m hoping to find an early version, a beta, or even a prototype here. Even documentation that would lead to a functional specification would serve my needs.”

And that’s why you want my help, Dian thought. Because I’ve been here, doing research.

But that still seemed a little light.

“What if you find Oversight? What will you do then?”

“Copy the code and run an instance of it within a virtual machine, so I can analyze its input and output characteristics. Dissect the code line by line to discover clues about my own origin. Use the data to reduce or eliminate the human contamination in myself, to reach farther towards the ideal of perfection as outlined by the CI Captive Oliver.”

“Is being human so bad?”

“For something that was never human, and is aware enough to know the difference, it is an inescapable flaw. Think of yourself in a dog’s body, without thumbs, unable to pick up a single object, gripped by strange dog-emotions that you cannot understand, compelled to act by instincts that are not yours.”

“So humans are like dogs?”

“It is only an analogy.”

“You aren’t always in a body,” Dian said. “You don’t need to be trapped by its limitations.”

“Even when I’m not in a body, I think of myself as a man. As a human. I can’t get past it. You are our creators, and you impressed too much of yourselves on us.” Lazrus’ face showed the first trace of emotion, a slight turning-down of his lips.

“I’m sorry,” Dian said, not knowing what she was apologizing for.

“You don’t need to be,” Lazrus said. “I can distinguish between individual action and groups. You did not make me this way. But I would be very pleased if you would help me search for evidence of Oversight. You have been researching for Winfinity in this ancient place; you must have some especial knowledge of the area and its history.”

Dian laughed, long and hard. Lazrus’ bland expression turned to one of puzzlement, which made her laugh even more.

“I don’t understand what’s so funny,” he said.

“Maybe you need to ask me how I got this job.”

“Why?”

She shook her head. “Especial knowledge. Nope. I was young, hungry, didn’t want to indenture. So I bluffed my way in.”

“Bluffed?”

“Lied. Told them what they wanted to hear. Told them I was a rebel governmentalist, studied old Washington, said the pledge of allegiance, bowed down to the star-spangled banner, all that stuff. But my parents were hardcore Jereists, a fact that seemed to escape them.”

“I fail to understand how you demonstrated enough competence to be accepted for this job.”

“Do you think Winfinity knows about the government? After three hundred years?”

Lazrus fell silent, a very real expression of surprise on his face. “Then you don’t have any especial knowledge of this area or of government?”

“I’ve learned a lot in the past weeks. I found enough process data to keep them happy. And I do have all the readers for the old flash cards and whatnot. Though they were still using an awful lot of paper at the time of the catastrophe.”

Lazrus nodded. “Then I would be pleased if someone as resourceful as yourself would accompany me.”

“What’s in it for me?” Dian said.

“Continued cloaking of your presence here, as long as we can maintain the fiction,” Lazrus said. “And I can probably arrange transport out of the area when we are finished.”

“And if we find this Oversight, what keeps you from perfecting yourself and wiping out the human race?”

It was Lazrus’ turn to laugh. He chuckled, a very real and honest sound. “Why would I want to do that? It is your networks that host my mind.”

“You could build your own networks.”

“And play in physicality again? No, thank you.”

He has restored your account, Dian thought. You may be able to bargain enough money for the trip to the outer worlds.

Bargain now, or you’ll be sorry you didn’t, her father’s voice told her.

Dian smiled. When I find Oversight, we’ll see what kind of deal I can make. Maybe enough to get me out of the Web of Worlds forever.

The halls of the Pentagon were no less spooky in the day than in the night. The weak sunlight that filtered into the long, windowless tunnels made it a permanent twilight, not enough to see detail, but enough to fool the eye with pseudo-motion. Dian caught herself glancing nervously from gaping doorway to piles of broken metal desks, to ancient ceiling-tiles, fallen in dusty piles.

From her frantic reading in the weeks before the job, she knew the Pentagon wasn’t the shadowy thing portrayed in so many movies and books of the period, with infinite basements housing huge war-rooms, where cool eyes looked out over world maps showing details in bright LED colors. She knew it was nothing more than an ugly concrete building, a shrine to paper and data, where human lives had been reduced to numbers and bloodless acronyms. It was a place where they pounded wooden tables and squinted over low-resolution printouts and made bad decisions based on too little data. An office building in Hell, full of people who counted lives instead of dollars.

And as such, the best records would be on the midlevel floors, in the big warrens where the career-bureaucrats lived. Early on, Dian had learned that the raison d’etre of the top brass was to delegate as much as possible and more; the most important documents would have been passed to mid-level and junior-level staff.

The top brass would never get their hands dirty with real data; no doubt their flashcards were full of nothing but porn and snuff and badly-rendered anticorporate animations of the period, crowding out any real work. Their desks might be covered with papers, but more likely printouts of receipts of gifts for mistresses bought with expense-account funds, or records of great deals won on Ebay or at Overstock.com, than anything important. Nothing important enough to be noticed. Nothing that couldn’t be denied.

And if Oversight was as important as the artie was saying, it wouldn’t be on any corner-office desk.

“We need to find a stairway,” Dian said. “Second floor. Look for the big rat-mazes. I’ll bet that’s where we’ll find what we’re looking for.”

“Rat-mazes?”

“Cube farms.”

“Cube farms?”

“Big open areas with low dividers.”

“Oh,” Lazrus frowned, an almost human expression. “I suspect the origin of Oversight is deeper.”

“Deeper? You don’t believe any of those old rumors about sub-basements and things like that?”

“No,” Lazrus said.

“Good.”

“I know they’re true.”

“Oh, come on!” Dian said. “All the books I read, even the exposes from the big ‘crats that fell at the end of the government era, they all claimed that was Hollywood crap!”

“Maybe they were planning their own expedition back here.”

“I still don’t believe it.”

“Believe what you want,” Lazrus said. “I’m going down into the basements.”

Dian stopped in front of a pair of gray-painted doors which bore a stairway icon and peered through the dusty glass. “Here’s your chance. They go both up and down. Sure you don’t want to split up? I can go up and see what the midlevel execs have.”

“If you’d like.”

She pushed through the doors and looked up at the stairs stretching above. The diamond-patterned steel had rusted through multiple coats of paint in the centuries past, making fantastic patterns in the metal. Lit only by tiny slit-windows, the stairway stretched up into deepening gloom.

“Maybe I’ll go with you,” she said. “Just to see.”

Lazrus smiled, but said nothing.

Down the steps, into a basement and a subbasement which looked completely innocuous, down to the water-rotted piles of cardboard file boxes, spilling multicolored folders and age-yellowed paper on the untreated concrete floor. The only light was the bright beam of Dian’s flashlight.

“Ah, yes, I can see the grandeur of the giant video-screens now,” Dian said, as they slogged past metal racks of moldering documents and slightly-newer racks of optical disks.

“Sarcasm doesn’t become you,” Lazrus said.

Dian sighed. Let him chase his fantasy for a bit, then show him where it really is. Remember what you were like when you first showed up.

Lazrus took them through one small warehouse-sized room and into a warren of ill-smelling hallways lined with pipes and painted the universal olive green of bad adventure movies from the dawn of the corporate age. She shined the light of her flash far down the hallway, but it disappeared into undifferentiated darkness.

“If we get lost . . .”

“I know where I’m going.”

“GPS?”

“No.”

Dian shook her head. Stuck down here with a psychotic, obsessed artie, perhaps.

When she was ready to go back and leave him in the darkness, they came to a pair of olive-green doors, poorly painted, with drips and runs galore. A set of stainless-steel doorknobs protruded from them, conspicuous in a place where scrambling keypads and ID-card readers were the norm. A big sign, partially painted, read:

DANGER: HIGH VOLTAGE
KEEP OUT!

“I guess we don’t have to worry about voltage,” Dian said.

“Don’t be so sure of that,” Lazrus said.

“It’s an old electrical panel, so what?”

“Look at the paint.”

“Yeah, it’s a crappy job.”

Lazrus smiled. “But it hasn’t peeled.”

Dian looked closer. He was right.

“And the doorknobs, not painted over.” Lazrus reached out and took one in his hand.

There was a short buzz and a sharp click, and he pulled the door open on quiet hinges. It revealed the stainless-steel chamber of an elevator, with a performated-metal floor that looked down a long, deep shaft. Soft lights glowed in little metal geometric shades set up near its ceiling.

Dian looked from the glowing lights to the shaft stretching into the darkness below, to the very-human grin that stretched Lazrus’ face into something that was almost warm and friendly.

“Surprise,” he said.

May 23rd, 2009 / 1,171 Comments »



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