KASMA MAGAZINE

Consensus Building

By Tom Doyle

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Artwork by Jose Baetas.


Irena’s head chip woke her like a slow sunrise, a gradually rising voice cooing “good morning” inside her mind. Damn, two flaws already. The first was last night — too many weird dreams had interrupted her sleep. She would have noted the dreams in her alpha test journal, but this morning she couldn’t remember any of them. She must have chewed out her subconscious for shoddy work so it was giving her the silent treatment.

The second, more concrete flaw: she had specifically asked to be awakened with a sudden jolt. She detested the cloyingly sweet morning alarm that did not resemble her own thoughts. Maybe Will McRae in Design could fix it.

She dreaded going into work. For her this was strange, because she liked her job, liked the money that bought the overpriced morning coffee, liked to smile while bossing some idiots and charming others, hated ending the day. Most mornings, she looked forward to the one morally objective reality in a world full of weak, gray men: the no-nonsense, bottom-line pursuit of profit.

Irena’s belief in her own rituals got her out of bed. As always, she examined herself in the mirror, searching for vulnerability. She was rewarded by the usual view: an attractively fit, Slavic cheek-boned thirty-something who could still pass for twenty-something.

“I could lose some weight,” she thought. But no, she hadn’t really thought that. It was a chip idea. She consciously interfaced with the AI to avoid further confusion. “What the fuck are you talking about? I look great.”

“You could lose a few pounds.” The voice was a more clinical version of her own. “And your skin could do with some work, too. I can assist.”

“No, thank you. Resume normal.” She concentrated on getting ready for work, but the ritual had been tainted. Despite herself, she felt larger, flabbier, distinctly less attractive. To compensate, she deliberately dressed sexier than her usual businesslike attire, with shorter skirt and flashier blouse, and forced her hair to have a good day. She refused to submit to moods as a matter of policy.

Another thought tugged at her mind. “You could really use a new outfit.” The tone was that of an enthused continental fashion designer.

“No, I couldn’t. I don’t wear half the stuff I own. And it’s none of your business anyway.”

“Only trying to help.”

Ridiculous, arguing with her own head chip. She would have to get it checked at work. And her morning strategy had again been thwarted — her clothes did feel ill-fitting. On the maglev to HyperCerebraCorp, she couldn’t dispel the sense that everyone was looking at her, at best amused, at worst disgusted. Like a morning in high school.

She shut her office door behind her, dodging the virtuchat “good morning” of Beth, her perhaps-too-attractive assistant. The efficiently clean surfaces of her office furniture failed to provide their usual reassurance. Several items occurred to her for improving her workspace — she saw their images in her mind. Then she thought she should have just e-commuted, but that idea triggered a display of home improvement options with estimated prices. Christ, did she ever need a diagnostic.

Irena called the tech floor by phone instead of by chip-to-chip virtuchat. The always amenable if inexcusably slovenly Will answered. Good, he was one of her male fan club members. On her first day, Irena had immediately sensed this designer’s importance and had charmed him from the get-go. “Will, I need a chip fix today.”

“What’s the problem, Reenie?” Will could call her Reenie because he was often valuable to her and because it set no precedent for those on her own floor.

“It keeps trying to sell me stuff. Environmental cues or even my thoughts set it off. Is the company trying some special marketing program?”

“I’m sure you’d be the first to know if we were. Come down midafternoon, bring your memory backup, and I’ll take care of you personally.”

“My memory backup? That’s about a year old now!”

“Oh, I see. Not saying we’ll use it. Just in case.”

“O.K. But Will, I need this done now.”

“Sorry Reenie, the CEO’s got me on a project through lunch. Just tell it to shut up. That should hold it for a while.”

Will clicked off, having easily trumped Irena’s mid-management authority. “Shut up,” Irena told her chip, and for a moment her mind was mystically quiet, an almost frightening kind of relief from the constant noise of mental traffic. She immediately busied herself.

Her virtuchat routine — meet with the important and delegate to the unimportant — was too daunting with a dicey chip, so she lost herself in HyperCerebraCorp’s financials, straining her eyes at the hard copies. The figures looked good for the chip program that she helped manage. The direct brain interface hardware (actually a series of chips) was in her skull and spine, and the skull and spine of every other HyperCerebraCorp employee. They were the human experimental prototypes for what she hoped would become a ubiquitous product after its alpha and beta testing were complete. A fortune for the company, stock bonuses and promotion for her — if the damned thing worked right.

But with all these problems, they might not complete the alpha stage in time for the scheduled start of beta testing next month. That would piss off the stockholders and higher-ups. She would be lucky to keep her job.

Lunchtime finally. She would not risk venturing outside with a faulty chip; she couldn’t be seen acting strangely in public. So, a rare stop in the company cafeteria.

Her ultrafit meal disappointed her; it just didn’t taste right. A flash — the smell of a Farmer Mike’s hot dog, the taste of A-1 Cola to wash it down — her mouth watered. Shit, must be her chip again. “Shut up” didn’t mean “shut down” — a shut down was pretty traumatic and, besides, she needed the chip to network with her co-workers or they would notice something was wrong. More bad news: the chip was continuing its sales efforts with the deep reptilian brain senses. Will would get an earful about it.

Irena chomped through her salad like a forced march through hostile jungle, ignoring with discipline and stamina her chip’s insistence on brand-name junk food. Looking up during her leafy sortie, she saw Pete from Market Research walk by her table. Pete reminded her of the cool feeling of hand lotion in her hand before she… god, where did that anatomically impossible image come from? After he sat down at another table, Pete sent a call to virtuchat to a dozen or so folks in the area and included Irena to avoid snubbing a higher-up. His virtual self-image, oddly heavier today, started with a preternaturally perky “Saw a weird show last night.”

Irena usually ignored everything that followed this opener. Like asking a random New Yorker if she knew your college roommate from Queens. In a world of hundreds of services providing thousands of asynchronous programs, the odds were long against Irena’s coincidentally watching the same show on the same night. And current programming was just part of the story. The previous generation of embodied chips and senseware had helped fragment the culture further by allowing instant access anywhere to all digital entertainment and information. Irena sensed a growing demand for community, and felt that the enormous memory capacity of HyperCerebraCorp’s chips could help create common cores of shared culture.

Irena’s chip was not helping her with anything today, and she was inclined to avoid using it. But Pete was young and tender and had a nice butt, whatever his self-image, so she listened.

“It was about these strange guys bopping around the galaxy, a comedy, and . . .”

Irena was startled into vocal — she had seen this show. “Yeah, it was ’My Spacey Family’ on the life and love feed. Couldn’t figure out what it was doing there.”

“No, I’m pretty sure it was ’The Galactic Champions’ on that sports and chicks feed.” Then the eleven or so others on the virtuchat all chimed in at once with other titles and feeds.

Irena hid her worry beneath some contrived managerial busyness. “Whatever. Cool that we watched the same show. I’ve got to get back to work.” So they dropped her from the chat, leaving her free to walk (don’t run, don’t run) back to her office.

She slammed her office door and immediately buzzed Will again. “I need to see you now.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I just heard twelve people say that they viewed the same show on different feeds with different titles. Plus, my chip’s been hammering at my midbrain.”

“Oh crap. Look, Reenie, don’t worry, we expected bugs like this. But this means there are still more things I have to do before I can see you. Stay calm, and I’ll get back to you soon.”

“Bugs? Stay calm?” But Will had already clicked off. Calm — not appropriate if the interface was completely crashing. Irena might lose her job and her mind at the same time.

She steadied herself by reviewing the problems so far. The crossed entertainment feeds could be an external and coincidental problem, but not with her luck today. The mental spam and porn and the virtual self-image weight problem were probably internal and minor (though they felt major), but their origins were even more suspect. That left the main selling point for the new chip, memory enhancement, apparently untouched. The possibility of that crashing made Irena’s scalp tingle.

A rough test quickly occurred to her. She studied the photos on her office wall. There was one of two older people, a man with Irena’s dark hair and a woman with her blue eyes. Another photo was of herself with a slightly younger woman. She knew that she should easily recall details about these people. But her first thoughts were not “parents” or “dead-beat sister”; instead, the photos unleashed a flood of consumer information that made personal memories difficult to find. The chip was overwhelming her temporal lobes with irrelevant data.

O.K., so she was losing bits of her mind. Keep what remained focused on the latest fugazi. A year-old backup would not help much. Chip use was a statement of faith; a monthly backup was a sign of doubt. But now a good chunk of a year of her life might be lost, and if the problems continued any backup would just be a temporary and increasingly ineffectual fix.

She decided to go down to see Will now. He would make time if she hung over him like a desperate vulture. He would straighten things out for her at least. She unlocked a desk drawer and drew out her backup’s protective case.

But as she was getting up to leave, a near-paranoid and definitely unchip-like idea suddenly occurred to her. Was crashing the chips (her chip in particular) some crazy plot of one of the head honchos? Irena always assumed that she thought like a head honcho, and this scheme seemed unlikely to her.

Someone else then? Irena drew strength from such thoughts; she had gotten this far assuming the worst of others. She didn’t even consider calling outside help — that would bring reporters. Whatever was happening, she had to handle it within the company to save the chip’s rollout. She just needed some kind of insurance.

With her office computer and some interface cables, she spent an hour creating the best insurance she could think of before she left to find Will.

*****

Reenie’s head chip woke her by steadily increasing the perceived volume of a song by a British comedy troupe. Lots of trippy dreams last night. She couldn’t remember them all this morning, but she was sure they were cool. She rolled out of bed and prepared for her “commute” to the adjoining room. Reenie loved her job, well, as much as she could love any job. She got to work from home as much as she liked.

Avoiding the mirror, she slipped on her jeans from yesterday and a sweatshirt. She had bought some new comfy clothes over the past week. For some goofy reason, all she seemed to have in her closet were suits and foreign yuppie wear, which were just not her. Maybe she could donate them to the homeless.

Reenie’s home workspace was a chaos of unwashed laundry, cola cans and papers. As she savored her morning A-1 Cola, she decided to interface with the office, make sure nothing was going on. “Good morning, Beth. How’s things?”

“Hi, Irena, I mean, Reenie. Things are fine. Are you working from home again today?”

“Yes, or I will be, once my brain gets going. Hey, I’ve heard on the e-vine a rumor about you and Pete?”

“Well, we’re going to the Ren Faire together this weekend, if that’s what you mean.”

“Maybe Will and I will see you there.” Geek love was a beautiful thing. Though she would have to get a new costume. She always enjoyed dressing Ren. She couldn’t believe how lucky she was to find someone as cool as Will. They had so much in common — they knew the same music and shows and everything. She wasn’t sure why she hadn’t connected with him before. The last week was the happiest that she could remember.

Still, life wasn’t perfect. Maybe she was getting too old to be hanging out with slackish twenty-somethings. And she had a guilty suspicion that the only reason Will wasn’t living with his mother was because she had died and left the house to him. Reenie wanted to be going places, be in charge sometimes, though in a nice, mellow way.

Oh well, time to get some real work done. She could try to call her sister later in the day. And no more games — she had stayed up too late last night playing a sim Will had designed.

The end of the chip project had allowed a hiatus from her managerial role, so she was designing some new financial software and an AI management program. She felt chip memory of tons of software designs from which she could start. A good area if she ever wanted to freelance from home, once she started a family (though it seemed a little early to be planning that). How would she look pregnant?

She hadn’t been working very long, and was just about to give a cuddle-call to Will, when a priority to-do message flashed on her computer. Oh crap, she needed to report to her office right away and reload some chip files from her computer. But it wasn’t a complete drag. Maybe she could grab a hot dog with somebody — if anyone besides the suits was available. She would ignore the sterile surfaces of her office, which unsettled her.

*****

Irena was at her desk, interface cables still attached to her scalp. She had no clear recollection of anything after sending the to-do message to herself with a week delay and preparing to copy her chip before going to see Will. But she intuitively knew that time had passed. She looked at her calendar. Shit, it was a week later, just as she suspected. Her insurance had not completely protected her. She was dressed like something out of an L.L. Bean catalogue. Her teeth felt hairy. Her eyes stung, probably with the burned retina images of endless gaming hours. She could smell her own body odor; she was seriously under-bathed. She had been far-gone.

She quickly scanned the previous week’s chip memories that she had downloaded on her computer. She couldn’t find anything for the afternoon of her chip fix. That was enough for her. She called company security. They burst into the tech area and grabbed Will without a word. Will protested, but then saw Irena glaring at him. “Hi, Reenie. You’re, um, back early.”

“Who put you up to it? Tell me, and maybe you and your stock options won’t disappear.”

“That’s easy, Reenie. You put me up to it.” He smiled nervously at her.

“Explain.” If this was a lie, she wanted to hear all of it.

“You wanted to find out the economic potential of the chip after we sell it to folks. You figured that upgrades and add-ons are not going to be very profitable, and that we’ll be outcompeted quickly in software, so you decided to try other things. You said that you were as representative of a lucrative demographic as anyone, so we suppressed your memory of your scheme and then hit your chip the next day with various types of marketing to see how you’d respond. Unfortunately, you saw through the chip’s manipulation quickly in every area, which may have been because it was concentrated in one day. The group feed manipulation didn’t work out so great either.”

“And what about all of last week?”

“Well, there we were more successful, though very heavy-handed. As per your plan, when you came down for the fix, we were able to change your chip memory so much that it significantly altered your personality without you perceiving any dissonance. You were right — eventually, even the frontal lobe personality and identity material caves in to the crushing weight of the pseudo-experiences and their emotional associations. Though exactly who would be our clients for such a service is a scary thought. We had planned to bring you back tomorrow. It’s all here.” He handed Irena some documents and data. “I assume you reloaded your chip memory from before this last week?” Irena nodded. “Fine. Your chip should be O.K., though I’d like to take a look at it, unsuppress your memory of your plan and such. I have the backup we made right before the changes.”

She tapped her finger on the documents. “Later. I need to look at this.” She hurriedly left the tech area. She needed a moment with herself.

*****

Irena disconnected the interface cables. She had just finished a long “talk” with Reenie. She quietly made sure the door was closed. Then, she methodically trashed her office, breaking every picture, ripping papers. And then, she beat her hands against her desk until they bled.

*****

Irena’s office light was on long after everyone on her floor had left for the day. Will crept towards her back-lit door, armed with a trank gun.

But when he pushed the door open, he was the one hit by a stream of nanodarts from the doorframe, automatically triggered by his entry. His arms and legs were instantly useless. Irena was up immediately and guided his tottering unresponsive body into a chair. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she whispered seductively. “Your girlfriend Reenie was good at hacking the autosecurity,” she said, stroking the doorframe with her finger. “Now, we can talk more privately.”

Irena had turned her computer monitor to face Will. Reenie’s visual memory files were running on Irena’s office computer, showing her activities over the past week. She had spent lots of time at home. And lots of time with Will.

Will turned his head away from monitor — he still had some motor control from the neck up. Broken glass and papers were strewn about the office. “Oh god. Oh god.”

Irena snapped her fingers in his face. “Will, look at me. Look at me.” He looked. “I’m not angry with you. You saw an opportunity, and you took it. And I’m glad you respected my intelligence enough to know that you’d have to come after me as soon as possible, to fix my memory, or me, permanently. I mean, how long could it take me to piece together the difference between plan and execution?” She tapped some documents on her desk — the only ones she had left intact. “You were supposed to make me into a politically docile consumer, not a lovesick computer geek. And for a day, not indefinitely.”

Will’s speech slurred, gurglingly pathetic. “I’m, I’m so sorry. Most of the memories were mine. I only wanted someone who understood me.”

“I know, Will, and it’s flattering in a way. Of all the girls at work, you wanted to get my attention. But what should we do with you? We wouldn’t want to go to court, would we?” Will shook his head uncertainly. “That’s right. What could a court do anyway? We’re reasonable people. We can correct this injustice ourselves.”

For a moment, Irena lost control of her calm expression. She saw on the monitor Reenie’s memory of playing milkmaid to Will’s knight-errant — she had been milking him for all he was worth. But Irena’s voice betrayed little. “Christ, it appears we were having quite the time. So, to repeat, I’m not angry with you. I’m a bit disgusted by the whole thing, but I don’t feel violated. Violation is something I do to other people.” She held up some interface cables in front of Will’s face. “Do we understand each other?”

“No! Please! Don’t! I love you.”

“Goodbye, Will.” She attached the interface cables at the appropriate sites on Will’s scalp, and downloaded his chip, completely emptying it of information. Then she drew out as much of his organic memory as the interface could reach. And then she shut his interface system down. When it was done, Will stared blankly ahead, breathing in the relaxed manner of an infant. She had apparently taken a lot out of him. Something still missing for her, though. So she queued up Will’s download and reviewed (not for the last time) his horror as she drained his life from him.

*****

Irena strode into her office with the confidence befitting a company vice president. The two months since her self-conducted marketing survey had brought her unexpected opportunities.

The restored photos in her office were no longer confusing. Through a lot of cutting and pasting, Irena had managed to put something like her recent memories back together, patching up the suppression job that Will had done at the beginning of their experiment. A more existential soul might have worried about her exact identity, but she had already been willing to risk that for her career, so she didn’t sweat whether she’d gotten the details of a snog on last New Year’s Eve right.

She buzzed Pete in Market Research. “How are the Computer Pro artificial memories doing in the beta group?”

“Amazing. You were right on the money. I mean, everyone figured that there would be a demand for education through the new chip, particularly high tech education, so Computer Pro was a great trial product. But there’s something else.”

“Something profitable?”

“Oh yes. I’ve been monitoring the group interaction. Seems like Computer Pro provides a pre-built common culture for the betas’ fragmented social lives. They can talk about the same subjects and happily agree on most, debate confined within validating boundaries.”

Debate confined within the moods of a meme-obsessed young man, thought Irena. But she had other business. “I would like to talk with you more about this after work. Would dinner be O.K.?”

“Sure!” He didn’t try to hide his enthusiasm. Good. Pete, or someone like him, would soon be a necessary professional accessory, like a nicely cut blouse or skirt.

“I’ll stop by when I’m done here.”

There was a knock, and Beth came in. She looked unhappy, probably because of Pete. Irena had obtained direct oversight of the tech side of the chip program to prevent further fiascoes. During Pete’s chip diagnostic, Irena had been able (with little sense of irony) to change his remembered emotional nuances of his time with Beth. After all, Irena would have gotten Pete first (or fired Beth’s ass) if she hadn’t been interfered with. She was merely correcting another injustice.

“The messenger said these require a manual signature,” Beth muttered. She placed an envelope on the desk without looking up. She left without waiting for Irena to sign. Fire her ass? No, poor thing. Maybe Irena would adjust Beth’s memory, too. She could make her happier. It might be fun. One never had enough accessories.

The envelope contained papers that dealt with the remnants of Will. Irena had reported upwards her own version of Will’s excesses along with a hypothesis that Will’s sudden cognitive collapse might be due to a bad chip array. She had been authorized to do the necessaries to cover the whole thing up. Quietly, she had ordered Will’s interface hardware removed. These papers would place him in a private rehabilitation institution.

As Irena signed, she considered whether she would sell a part of Will’s experiences back to him some day. She would sleep on it. She slept much better now, with no troubling unremembered dreams.


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