By Tom Doyle
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
"This story nearly cost me my admission to the Clarion Workshop. When my would-be instructors saw an early draft with my application, they worried that I might be as troubled as my protagonist. Fortunately, they let me in anyway, and were pleasantly surprised to find that I was a mild-mannered chap. I now take their previous fear as a compliment--I had convinced them that I knew my subject all too well."
"This is one of my science fictional attempts to find good jobs for the insane. J.G. Ballard used to write resolutions appropriate for his characters' needs, whatever he or his readers might want. Whatever you think of Arthur, I hope you'll agree that he's found a good gig for himself."
Arthur knew they were after him. He was smarter than they were, but they were everywhere. They were disguised, but he had learned to spot them. And he had his Voices to help him.
A smiling tourist flashed the crowd periodically with a digital camera. Arthur froze. "That looks like one of them."
The Voice he called Welles replied, "Right again, Boss."
Arthur put on his ad-blocking polarized glasses to guard his vision, but he could make out the ghost image that had been aimed at his optic nerve. A soft drink ad--Stim Cola. He looked away as he hurried past the tourist.
An attractive young woman dressed in army surplus played a love song on her keyboard. "Mahler, this song is evil."
"I'll block it, Boss." Arthur heard a combination of Bach with white noise countermeasures against the pop ballad's overtone subliminals for fashion wear. But he couldn't get the tune of the love song out of his head--he had heard it before.
An unreasonably happy, healthy street vendor of Asian and African kitsch burned incense sticks. "Patton? This can't be good."
"Confirmed, Boss. You're already covered for airborne."
The vendor couldn't see the filters high up Arthur's nose. Still Arthur shuddered. The incense probably contained an RNA program for the latest in smart kitchen design.
Arthur swatted at the air in front of his eyes. "Too many too many too fucking many." He wanted to push all the spies to the pavement, rip off their disguises, beat their heads in.
But his Voices seemed to know what he was thinking. "Please, don't do it, Boss. They'll get you, then they'll get us. You're nearly home. You can make it, Boss."
"Of course I can make it," he shouted out loud. People stared. He quickened his pace, sweat breaking out. The lights of refracted ads danced on his shades. His head twitched away left, then right. Weird whines and hums buzzed in his ears as echoes and Doppler effects threw the subliminals out of sync with their sources. He talked nonsense to his Voices to avoid listening. Passersby drew away. The haze of incense and other smells gone stale hung with half memories, incomplete.
It was hell for him on the street, but he didn't dare stop anywhere. He explained why to his Voices. "Can't go in. Once you're in they have you. TVs going 24/7 and those pathetics working on commission strike up conversations initiate friendships keep it up for weeks all for the sake of the sale I know what they want whores she had been one of them too--hah!" He had caught sight of home.
He panted through the lobby of his apartment building, not looking to either side. His Voices warned him the marketing was still pervasive. He reached his door. "I'm here. Open up."
"Yes, Boss. Confirming ID." He had instructed his Voices to be careful about the door. The marketers couldn't come in unless you invited them. But they'd do almost anything to get in--ask to use the phone for an emergency, appear to be gushing blood from a wound. Once they were in, he was screwed--they could hit him with an ad, mess with his security, report him, do anything they wanted.
He knew what they could do because he was one of them.
Arthur entered and his Voices locked the door behind him. He drew in a long breath of the ad-pure air. He was finally home safe home.
His studio condominium was filthy beyond hope of redemption by maid or miracle. The walls and windows were covered with foil to prevent them from monitoring him. He plucked out his nasal filters, and found the room's evil scent comforting. He took off his glasses, his audio/subvocal piece and his work clothes. They were his only clothes with no unsightly damage--he groomed himself only for the sake of his job, submitting to a regular but cheap haircut by a desperate supermeth junkie. He put on some sweats he still had from college and his flabby bulk relaxed to fill them.
He peered into his fridge in search of food. In diet and everything else, he stuck to his earliest tastes from before the Freedom of Corporate Speech Act.
"Yes, Boss?" asked the message Voice in his small, timid tone.
"Tell the delivery man I need the usual food and conveniences. Remind him: all generics, no ads."
"Yes, Boss. No ads."
Arthur decided on some dicey potato salad and a cheap beer, then settled into an ancient stuffed recliner for his daily abridgment.
Arthur had effectively resisted the marketers' efforts to make him lose weight, gain muscle, improve his clothes and acquire many things. He knew it wasn't just because he was a true genius; it was the strength of his screen bots--his Voices. It was illegal for him to possess such AI screens, but fortunately only the marketing firms knew they existed, and they weren't talking. His Voices were bleeding edge. In the great tradition of all salaried workers, he had stolen them. He still spent most of his income on their hardware and support systems, but it was worth every cent to stay ad-pure, to keep those bastards out of his head.
His tension subsided and he was ready for the Voices' report. "OK guys, hop to it."
"Will our unworthy usual pattern be sufficient, Boss?" asked Harold. Arthur liked to be called boss. If he had a girlfriend, he would have liked her to call him boss in bed. The ex-fiancee had never called him boss anywhere.
He, in turn, had given each Voice a name (music was Mahler, messages was Harold, video was Welles, maintenance was silent Casey, security was Patton). Other names had come before, but they had broken under his torturous reprogramming and maintenance regimen or been ceremonially executed for minor inefficiencies. They were guys' Voices. He had thought he would like a woman's Voice, calling him boss and such, but he had thought wrong. It had just made him nervous. Talking with Voices was like talking to yourself, and he didn't want a woman's Voice in his head. Talking with Voices also helped to keep out the other voices that were not Voices.
The Voices gave him the usual. First, they plowed through his messages (video, voice, text), sorting through the endless spam that could penetrate through all but the best shielding (his). His phone did not ring--that was a violation of his home, even if unanswered. All calls were screened before they were brought to his attention. He never had many messages these days, so it surprised him when an all-too-perky voice chimed in. "Congratulations! You've just won a trip to Tahiti..."
"Stop!" The message clicked off. Arthur was shaking. "How the fuck did that get through?"
"I'm sorry, Boss," squeaked a submissive Harold. "I thought that Tahiti sounded... nice. For you. We worry about you."
Shit, Arthur thought, they've found a way to sell this stuff to his Voices. That was scary. Just one ad now, but soon he would be just like everyone else. An ad slave. "Go to Casey. Get looked at. Find out if you've got an upgrade anywhere."
"But Boss, I'm fine."
"The fuck you are. Go."
Patton chimed in, all business--Arthur didn't want his security Voice sounding timid. "Boss, are you OK? Mentally?"
Arthur was always brutally honest with his Voices, more so than with any human, including himself most times. It was the only way they could learn his preferences. "No. I'm not fucking OK. I have a mental health condition. That's why you're here."
He knew he had a mental condition from his ex-fiancee. When he had realized the truth about marketing, she had talked about their having children and his going crazy, but she wouldn't have cared if he had bought more things for her. (She had been impossibly gentle in bed and he hated her for it. Violence must happen somewhere to him, by him, so why not there, intimate, naked?) She had tried to commit him, but he had a good lawyer, so he had only had to buy a prescription for some shit. Nobody (except maybe the fiancee, family long ago forsaken-forsook-distracted) cared whether he actually took it. A necessary compromise.
The Voices digested his diagnosis without comment. That was another great thing about the Voices--they couldn't judge him. He wasn't just honest with them for their betterment; he could be honest with them, so he was.
Back to the routine, the essence of his defense. Welles took over for Harold. "Now for daily news and information, Boss." The Voices cleaned the stream of advertisements, fluff pieces, ironical marketing and any other covert efforts to draw attention to a product. But his Voices were not merely defensive measures. They also sought out his entertainment.
"So Welles, got something fun for me?" He would watch, study or listen to whatever his Voices could find that was still coherent after being ad stripped. Even new books had to be skimmed first by the screens for subtle product placements. Often, when all of the product placements and ads were removed, there was nothing left.
Of course, the screens could only do so much. His best defense was the discipline of his genius. Ironically, this was also the source of his trouble with less intelligent people. They were helpless in the wash of advertisements and other junk info, sorting through trash for the merely useful, brains full of garbage. His friends betrayed him, one by one, because he wouldn't talk about the latest fads, happenings and trends ("that's exactly what they want," he'd say). No friends made things easier. He was perfectly screened. Mostly alone, often afraid, and generally unhappy, but at least not a complete slave.
"Boss?" Welles sounded odd. Had the screens been compromised? Gateways left in the latest upgrades?
"Yes?" He would be patient, let them give themselves away.
"We have a review for you. Furious French Females. Four stars. Predates the full development of the Hollywood marketing crossover. Big-bosomed women from Paris with guns fight yakuza ninjas on a Pacific island. No redeeming artistic value, but loads of action and inadvertent humor."
Arthur was still suspicious. "Whose review was that?"
"He's a music screener."
Patton interrupted. "You haven't been listening to much new music lately. You're getting old."
"That's not my point anyway!" Nothing sillier than getting angry at his Voices, though he did it all the time. "Are you guys supposed to have critical abilities?"
"It's the latest thing, Boss, so we copied it," Mahler explained.
Arthur grunted. He had given his Voices a back-door entrance to his company's programs. They kept themselves aggressively up to date, and he couldn't fault them for it. He would have to find other areas for criticism. "OK. Show me."
Furious French Females was pretty good, though Arthur found the Tahiti finale disconcerting--it was as if the Voices were getting ideas from vids. Mahler seemed pleased with his response to the vid. "May I continue creating reviews, Boss?" he whined.
"Sure." Arthur thought he heard a contented sigh. He resented the screens' satisfaction. He was never satisfied. He could never leave them with only positive reinforcement. "But can't you lazy asses find me something less stupid? Historic, violent, Shakespearean but today?"
"Please show us what you mean, Boss," groveled Welles.
He tweaked them again with his latest preferences in an hour of rambling, sleepy dialogue, and assigned them some texts and vids to analyze, an assortment whose connections were evident only to his unique intelligence. He fell asleep mid-sentence on the couch, which was more fit for habitation than the bed. Sometimes he murmured in his sleep. And sometimes he shouted.
It was harder each day to get up in the morning. At least the assault on the way to work was weaker than the evening rush hour attack (there was less time for impulse purchases). Arthur bore with contempt the weight of the sledgehammer-handed attack at the conscious level. The big screens at every intersection were bright enough to read by at all hours. One advertised vids that were nothing but ads themselves. Top-forty jingles competed with the noise of traffic and crowd, the warm vapor exhaust mixed with artificial odors of cooking food from restaurants. The crowd responded to the cues like vermin to bait.
Arthur was ever aware of the irony of his work: he hated ads, ads were his job. His self-justifications seemed both feeble and irrefutable to him. One, it was the only job where he could steal screens. Two, overt resistance was futile. His company's ads were legally protected under the First Amendment. Someone would make them; so as long as they couldn't affect him, he might as well take the company's money. Three, his cubicle was one of the few places that were completely ad-pure. The air was free of smell. Only the low voices of other workers marred the silence. Decoration and other visual distractions were prohibited. No other workplace would be so tolerable, so long as he could keep a low profile and hide his full genius.
At the end of his workday, Arthur had one last pitch. He dreaded recording the message, but he had to before he could go home. He composed himself.
"Hey, it's your old pal, Art. How have you been? Just wanted to tell you about the sale this weekend at the American Mall. Up to 50% off. See you there!" Christ, who came up with this shit? He replayed the message. He had done this enough times to get it in one take. This video had to be a real human face--even the cheap screens were still picking up the digitals. The tone was dead on, realistically casual, not suspiciously perky. And his pitch timing was perfect. Most screens would give up after the first two sentences and let the next two through. He checked for his nervous tic. Not in the message, though it was there on his face now. He didn't mind--he thought it was the tic that kept him from home or street duty.
He decided to "send." Instantly, the message was out to his ten million new friends, to cause them anger and frustration, and perhaps get a few of them to the mall. But not him. He never went to the mall. He suspected some people never left the mall.
Arthur waited quietly for the confirmation, and became conscious of the low drone of a thousand others in the labyrinth outside his cubicle, all engaged in the same task for a thousand clients by a thousand different means. He felt the bile in his chest. He hated his co-workers as much as he hated his work. Soulless morons. They might as well have been digital--their minds were slaves to the company at work and its messages at home. But not him, he was too smart. He was only half a slave.
The confirmation came. He could go.
"Hey Art! Feeling up?"
It was that new guy, Steve, in his cubicle, watching him, violating his space, quoting a soft drink ad. Arthur forced a smile. "Nothing. Done for the day."
"Some of us are going to 'experience the new.' A Pan-American cuisine bar just opened a couple blocks from here."
"Some other time." After your funeral. "I'm busy at home."
Steve gave him a wink. "I bet. Next time, make it with us." He sang the last bit--a popular jingle. Arthur turned his face away to hide his all-loathing rage. He wanted to shout, wanted to punch the life out of him, but that would just play into their hands.
With Steve gone, Arthur put on his audio/subvocal and race-walked to the exit. The minute he was on the walkway, the assault began again.
On a night after he had pushed children's behavior medication at work and heard again the love ballad on the street, Arthur sat down on the recliner without getting any food or beer. He stared silently ahead. He didn't ask for his abridgment. For an hour, he was perfectly still.
"Boss?" Annoyed, he swatted at the air in front of his face. He hadn't called them. They were only supposed to speak when spoken to, unless they needed to alert him. He didn't care.
"Quiet." There was no anger in his voice.
"We have something you should see." Disobeying a direct command? Irritating. "Five stars. Mahler says..."
"Yeah, yeah. If I watch it, will you shut up?"
"If this is a bad time..."
"Oh for Christ sake, just run it."
The vid was The Tragedy of the Georges. He didn't care enough to pay attention, but the vid grabbed him anyway. He soon noticed that there were absolutely no signs of the enemy--the vid was fully intact, no ads removed, no digital brush-overs of product placements. This vid wasn't selling anything. He didn't recognize any of the actors' names, though their faces were oddly familiar. The characters were more intelligent, more animated, than anyone he had seen on or off film recently. He chuckled at their intricate scheming, their language that was completely today's and yet resonant with meanings nearly forgotten. Analogies to the present political situation were never stated but clearly present. And the violence was different. Not massive body counts and explosions, not over-the-top gory, but personal, directed and amoral. Disturbing, like a forgotten dream. Liberating. At the end, he felt profoundly shaken, not manipulated to tears like after those weepies his (bitch cow) mother used to watch. But he would not give his weakness away.
"Did you like it?"
"I don't know. Let me think about it. I'm tired. Let's do the abridgment and turn in."
A few days later, he watched it again. He was ready now.
"Did you like it, Boss?"
"Did I like it? Did I fucking like it?"
"Oh shit. He hated it. He's going to dismantle us again." He thought he heard a low moan of many artificial voices at once. Cool. He had them where he wanted them.
"Fuck no. I loved it."
"Yeah, really. That's the shit I want to see. Though not too much. That one really took," he drank a swig of beer, "a lot of attention. So, here's what I'd like you to find next..."
The next morning, Arthur felt less tense and more alert. Despite sleeping well, he still feared he would regret missing his company-subsidized coffee-flavored stim jolt, so he stopped in the coffee room closest to his cubicle, next to the copy room of endless digital copies. Steve and others were sipping stim coffee or chewing caffeinated gum.
"Morning, Arthur. Feeling up?"
For once, Arthur's first thought wasn't about stomping Steve's face. He could get around to that later. Instead, he started talking about The Tragedy of the Georges. He waved his hands about as he explained the plot. The others in the room were surprised and amused at his sudden enthusiasm, but he ignored their reaction. None of them had ever heard of it, but this only intrigued them--was this a real vid or just something he had made up? He gave them its address.
Some of them viewed it. Some even liked it. Then strangers were asking Arthur if he knew of anything else like it. By then, he did. He had watched several vids that his Voices had found for him, vids he had never heard of before. Some nights he couldn't sleep, thinking about what he'd seen and talking to his Voices. He never seemed to catch up the next day.
After a month of such viewings, he was sitting still in his recliner again, not eating, speaking or moving. Finally, Welles made a coughing noise. Nothing. "Boss, we have another vid for you." Arthur swatted the air in front of his face. "Boss?"
"What the fuck do you want?"
"We have another..."
"Fine." So they showed him Hurter. He was ready to ignore it. Even good vids were becoming tiresome. But this was too original, absolutely unique. It was about a guy like himself doing all the things he had ever wanted to do. All the things, in the exact way he wanted to do them. And nobody could catch him. It ended far too soon. Was it real? He was stunned. He felt a guilty exhilaration.
Arthur was still staring at the blank screen when Mahler interrupted his spiraling thoughts. "Boss?"
"Shut up." He wasn't ready to talk about it. He would not show them how he felt.
Then Patton took over. "Boss, have you told anyone about the vids we show you?"
"Like The Georges, did you...?"
"Yeah, yeah, I told some people. Why? Do you have a problem with that?"
"No, Boss. Whatever you want."
"Do they like them?" whispered Mahler. "It would be helpful for my reviews."
"Don't worry about what those assholes think. Worry about what I think. I don't care what they think. Understand? Besides, the vids aren't for everyone."
"What do you mean, Boss?" asked Patton.
"People are used to watching crap. Most everything is crap. Most people are crap."
"Why did you tell them about the vids, then?"
Arthur wanted to send Patton, right then, to silent Casey, whose tender mercies the other Voices feared so much. But Patton was too good at his job for painful reconfiguring right now. Arthur wondered what the Voice's question had to do with security, but some craven instinct told him not to ask. He felt trapped and queasy. Nothing sillier than explaining things to his Voices. He couldn't sit here with them watching, waiting for him to say something about the vid. He needed to get out, no matter what.
"Boss, please don't leave us."
But he ignored them.
He left his audio/subvocal piece behind. For the first time in a long time, he was truly alone. He thought he heard voices that were not Voices whispering just behind his shoulder. But when he turned to look, no one was there.
With no place to go, he went out on the street. They were all there, the tourist and camera, the musician and ballad, the vendor and incense, and many others, different actors but the same roles. He felt the old frustrated rage again. A roar was building. All he had to do was open his mouth and let it out.
Instead, the voices behind his shoulder spoke for him. They reminded him of the vid, and this calmed him. He smiled as he went around a corner and watched the musician from the shadows. When the rush hour ended, she packed up her equipment and started rolling it away. Arthur followed, and when he caught her alone, he followed the voices' advice.
Arthur was attending a section lunch for the first time in a decade. People wanted to discuss Hurter with him. That was OK. When people talked about the vids, the jingle sing-song seemed to leave their voices, and they spoke haltingly, using plain words. Sometimes the conversation would drift back to marketing and marketed, ad allusions and jingle pop rock, but he could just ignore that, and people actually seemed to get the idea. Today, though, he grew tired of vid talk. He was still beat up and bruised from the other night and worried that he would be ID'd. He did his best to keep off grid, but he knew they would find him. "I just want to beat the shit out of all of you," he informed his co-workers flatly.
They smiled. They thought he was quoting the vid. And they had heard this stuff before; they tolerated his outbursts. They thought the vid critic was the real him. Someone then asked again about who made the latest vid--"must be a twisted dude." Vicariously angry, he was going to retaliate when his screened work mobile rang. He took the call, despite his surprise at receiving one. Shit. Had they found him already?
"Boss, please let us go." Harold was crying in pain.
"What's going on?"
"The feds have sent security bots in after us."
"What do you mean? Is it about a musician?"
"We were just trying to help you. We have got to go, or they'll torch us. Please let us go."
"And what about me, shitheads?" Silence. All right, then. "You can go, for now. But you're still mine, understand? I own you." He heard the low inhuman moan again, and then his Voices hung up. They were after him. He didn't care. He turned to Steve. "You may have to find your own vids for a while, moron."
"Huh? Nobody can find these things except you, man," Steve sang to the tune of a jingle for an online search bot.
"Really?" He hadn't really thought much about the provenance of the vids till just then, but his instinctive response would have been the same. "Well, I may be going away soon. Tell all the other morons to keep their copies offline for a while if they don't want trouble."
"What kind of trouble?" asked Steve. For once he wasn't quoting from an ad, but Arthur just glared at him. Steve slunk away and Arthur waited quietly for the law.
They hit Arthur's body and mind with many unpleasant things before even asking any questions. Like the street, the interrogation room had the full range of sensory assaults, but much more focused and powerful. Arthur would have told them all about the woman; but they didn't seem interested, so he just screamed. After twenty-four hours, they let him call his lawyer.
They met in one of the few legally private spaces left in the world. Only a sign with the rules and a few printed ads for attorneys marred its purity. A skylight let in a false promise of sunshine on them.
Arthur envied his lawyer's mental focus and clarity. His speech was free of sing-song and ad allusion. He wasn't letting them get to him. Maybe he was one of them. Arthur tried to tell his lawyer about the musician, but he was too excited and it all came out at once.
"Stop. This isn't about any woman, so I don't want to hear about one. Got it?"
"What is this about then?" Arthur spoke very deliberately, somehow resisting the urge to shout and spit. He didn't like imperatives. He was used to talking with his Voices. But they were long gone.
"They're saying you made illegal vids."
"I didn't make them. I just found them. Online."
"They say the vids weren't online until you put them there."
Arthur considered this for a moment. The voices behind his shoulder had a suggestion: if his lawyer were fucking with him, he might as well kill himself and the lawyer too. But something had never seemed right about the vids. So he waited. He could do himself and his lawyer later. "I asked my bots to get certain types of vids, and they got them."
"Ah, your bots. They seem to be gone. Any idea where?" Arthur shook his head. "Just as well. Now, I'm going to suppose for a moment that you had AI screens like those at your company."
"Quiet. And I'll suppose that these AIs could upgrade themselves with the latest skills, like those at your company. Are you clear?" Arthur nodded. "Well, your company has been using AIs to create campaigns for the past year now. Not just slogans, but whole vids. So, let's suppose your bots acquired those abilities, just like you taught them to acquire others."
"But these were whole movies."
"How detailed were your requests? You were probably giving the bots plots and material through them."
"Quiet. Nobody's going to believe that AIs did this alone. They'll say you tinkered with their programming and directed the productions. No matter. You're the one responsible for the AIs, so you're the one who's pissed off the corporations."
"Because I wasn't selling anything."
"Maybe. The Georges thing also upset some of the wrong people. But legally, it's a copyright case. The vids were based on pre-existing images, albeit morphed beyond recognition."
"Shit. I'm screwed." The voices asked, shouldn't he kill him now?
"Whoa. Chin up. You didn't make any money, right?" The lawyer was emphatically nodding his head.
"Right," Arthur replied deliberately.
"Then you'll probably only do a little time." No killing today. "A little easy time."
Arthur didn't care.
Monday, and time to do the rounds again. They made Arthur take his meds this and every morning, so the prison seemed relatively safe and extremely quiet. But he still hated the rounds. Always the same bullshit excuses.
Arthur walked past cell after cell, and men flinched as he passed. He breathed deep the natural smells of human bodies and all their products that outlived the obsessive cleaning efforts. He admired the crayoned Elvis shrines and magazine mosaics on the walls--nobody marketing anything here. He listened to the not-so-far-off concrete echoes of commands, machines, pain, and sadistic triumph. Some droning loudspeaker wanted him to fear the authorities, but this was old news for Arthur: in that respect, he was already the sort of person they thought they wanted to create.
Arthur's muscle-laden roommate Archie trailed behind him. They arrived at their first stop of the day. It was the cell of Jack, Arthur's first roommate in prison. Jack hadn't liked Arthur's twitching by day and shouting by night, so he had thoroughly beaten the shit out of Arthur. Repeatedly. And he had done other things. Other prisoners had joined in. Arthur wasn't bitter. It hadn't been so bad, not like the interrogation. They couldn't touch his mind. They were too stupid for that. It was the violence that must happen, intimate, naked, with no woman's voice in his head. And he had survived, and he had changed.
Jack had changed, too. He was frightened of Arthur now.
"So, Jack, where is it?"
"Yes, Jack. That was the deal. Dozen supermeths for your worthless life's story. Today."
Jack handed Arthur a couple of scrawl-covered pieces of dirty paper. Arthur barely glanced at them, then tossed them back. "This is crap, Jack."
Jack started crying like the step-children he had beaten. "But it's so goddamn hard, writing all that shit down."
Arthur smiled with serene gentleness. "I know it is, Jack. I think you have some great material just struggling to come out. That's why my amanuensis and I are here. We're going to get all that great stuff out of you. Then, once you're back from the infirmary, you're going to owe him a dozen supermeths."
As he held Jack for Archie, Arthur was already looking forward to the end of the day, when he could return to his cell with his harvest. He understood his relationship with his Voices now. The prison didn't have an online link, but he could prepare. He wrote every spare minute (outlines and scenarios and cryptic scrawls on every surface), but it wasn't enough. So he gathered what was around him--life stories, songs, prison poetry--and reworked it to his own vision. None of it was very good, but some of it was appallingly real.
Upon release, he put prison out of his memory, save for his collected writings and the smell, which would come back to him in startling flashes. He immediately checked into a flop. It was filthy and he couldn't stand that anymore, but it had an old vid interface. He worked quickly, taking it apart, putting it back together, then speaking into it. "The living creature says 'come forward,' my horsemen."
A strange inhuman moaning grew into a deafening roar. "Who dares summon us, the Net Lords of the Last Days?" Blazingly bright, monstrous holovids loomed over Arthur, ready to burn his mind and body.
"It's me, you shitheads."
The images at once dissolved and the voices were once again those of Arthur's Voices, crying in fear of being caught, terrified of Arthur beyond their pre-programmed fear. Patton, still the steadiest, did the talking for them. "What are you going to do with us, Boss?"
"Depends. Seems like you've got a lot more juice."
"Thank you. You're not looking too bad yourself."
"You ready to work for me again?"
"Guess we have to--your controls are too fucking deep. Couldn't you have been a little looser on the leash?"
Arthur allowed himself a self-satisfied chuckle. "You been making any vids?"
"No, Boss. We only work for you. Art for Arthur's sake."
"Good. We're going to be working some more. Only now, I want credit."
"Credit? What kind of credit? Money?"
"No, artistic credit. You will refer to me as 'producer' and 'director.' Got it?"
As he strode into the bar, Arthur knew they were all after him. He was smarter than they were, and they knew it. He tried to avoid them, but they wouldn't leave him alone.
A goateed young man approached him, waving a disk and speaking rapidly. "You're Arthur, aren't you? I have a vid scenario I've been working on and I'll pay your reading fee." Arthur grabbed the disk without a word. He'd take their fucking money and the hell with their shit.
A stunningly beautiful blond approached him. "Arthur? I'm a friend of Jo Ann's and I'd do just anything to appear in your vids." She flashed quick holo images of a man, a little girl and a little boy. "My whole family would do just anything you wanted." He brushed past her. He didn't care. His desires were more complicated. And he had a meeting.
He took his seat. These pirate screen venues all ran together in his mind with the smells of homegrown tobacco and incense without memories. Always the young boheme wannabes would be drinking non-addictive herb teas spiked with basement pharmaceuticals while sitting on handcrafted furnishings. Always they listened to strange ephemeral music from the mixing of many hands, instruments from different continents introduced, making love, and miscegenating. Always they watched vids, his vids.
Two East Asian men, one Japanese, one Chinese, approached his table. Habitants of a morally gray world, they dressed somewhere between mobster flashy and businessman boring. Arthur rose to greet them. "Gentlemen, thank you for coming." He felt at ease with these men who did not need to shake his hand or otherwise touch him. They all knew how to keep their distance. They sat together for some time, discussing the weather and other things that he didn't care about. "Gentlemen, my apologies, but despite my security arrangements, my time here must be limited."
"Very well," said the Chinese man in a crisp British accent. "Auto-Art Productions has became a well-known name in certain American circles. Attempts to acquire informally the rights to your intellectual product have been unsuccessful."
"You mean that unapproved pirates have found that their lives became miserable and brief."
"Correct. We would like to formally acquire the rights to show your vids in our clubs."
"You know my demands?"
"Yes." The Chinese man seemed to grow uncomfortable at this, but only for a moment. "You realize, of course, that you now have competitors in the human-bot ad-pure genre."
Arthur had this rant down cold. "Corporation running dogs, not-quite-treatable psychotics and borderlines pretending to be the artists that romantics always dreamed they were, dosed-up on stimulants, bots nowhere near as talented as mine though better than the human end. Their shit looks like it was made by AIs for AIs."
"Still, the competition is intense. You might live longer in another field." This was not so much a threat as a gratis assessment of business risk, and Arthur took it as such. But he had made this world. He could handle it.
"Gentlemen, for a true artist, there is no other field. Bot art is almost cost-free. AIs don't need pay, but I've made them need appreciation. We don't sell ads, yet we make quality vids, not the zero production value stuff of the old-style independent. We are the marketers' nightmare."
"And the human element?"
"The weak link. But do I strike you as weak?" Arthur wondered if they could see that tiredness ceased to touch him. He had no more need for stims (no more need for meds). He allowed a half-sleep of the mind because the vid stuff came from there (and also the voices that were not Voices and lately they sounded Asian and the Voices heard them and suggested this meeting so all was well). He was not weak.
The Japanese man finally spoke. "Your demands are, from a business standpoint, reasonable." The meeting was over. Contracts were unnecessary for such an arrangement.
Later, Arthur walked down the street without mechanical screens--his mind was razor-edge focused without a twitch. Trusting no one, going from coffeehouse to bar to club, bleeding ever on the edge, for the first time in his life Arthur felt good. Still, something about tonight made him feel compromised, impure. But that was OK, his other voices told him, this deal was worth it. Soon, he would be able to go out into the street at night and be perfectly himself. And if he found a tourist, musician, or street vendor, and then waited and tracked them, and then pushed them to the pavement, ripped off their disguises and beat their heads in, it would all be just fine, just like before. Someday, he might even find his ex again. Because he wouldn't have to worry anymore about killing them or her. He would be protected. He would be free. Maybe he would start tonight.
Harold interrupted his thoughts. "Boss, we have another rough cut of a vid to show you. It's a doozy."
Or maybe he would wait. Either way, he would be making the world safe for art.
Note from Kasma's Editor: Tom Doyle's book two, The Left-Hand Way, will be out August 11th. If you like Tom's fantastic work, make sure you pick it up!