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In Effigy

It’s been ages since I sent you fiction. This half-story has been kicking around in my Google Drive for months, and even though it doesn’t have a normal plot or resolution, I hope it will interest you. Suggestions of what might happen next are welcome. Either way, think of this dispatch as a foray into a world based on Exolymphian principles.


Phoenix illustration by Ricardo Orellana.

Artwork by Ricardo Orellana.

“It is a strange wind that blows no ills.” This is what Attwell’s grandmother told him, in her warm, wry voice. They stood in front of a clear window, high up in the arcology. Attwell could see her scalp through the silver hair on her head. Earlier she had mentioned that a cousin offered to buy her a full-body resurfacing, but she planned to decline. “Why bother?” Nana had chuckled.

Now, glancing down at her, Attwell felt slightly embarrassed by the visible skin of her scalp. He ought to look away.

The wind that blew against the window was thick with dust. All they could see was the movement of the air. “It is a strange wind that blows no ills,” Nana repeated.

This conversation took place before she died, as all people must die. Before she was recycled, as all empty bodies must be. Attwell knew that her substances would nourish the arcology. Her generation was dropping one by one, two by three by four by five, and their deaths helped to sustain their children. Chickens and pigs had no sentimental qualms about an old woman’s flesh.

Attwell wished that personality-preservation had existed before the cancer ate up Nana’s brain. Even the stilted simulation of a first-generation model would be a comfort to him now. But perhaps she would have been content to disappear completely.

It was twelve years ago that Nana died. A few days after her body had been surrendered, the computer that coordinated the arcology offered usage stats to Attwell. This percentage went to mineral reclamation, that percentage went to agriculture, and so on. The computer instructed, “Please engage the Cycle of Life grief-management module. This is a complimentary offer, available until” — then Attwell blanked the screen with a harsh motion. He sat on the carpet and wept.

Even now, more than a decade later, Attwell longed to speak to Nana again. If her essence were available as a Dearly Departed® program, Attwell could upload pictures of his new suite, to show her his success. He could demonstrate the screen-morphs that disrupted the monotony of the arcology. Attwell felt sure that Nana would want to explore the reconstructed immersion vistas of rainforests and sunny beaches. And he would tell her about the scientists preparing for expeditions to reclaim the outside world, microbiome by microbiome. The news-beams warned that a manned mission was still decades away, but Attwell hoped it would happen sooner than that.

Attwell was estranged from the rest of his family. Grief had turned to bitterness after Grandpapa’s death, and every segment of the clan came to suspect the others of villainous perfidy. Inheritances are a hard thing. Six of them came to live in the arcology when it was established, but they still never spoke to each other. One cousin’s suite was on Attwell’s level, but the pair had affected indifference so well that it came true. Attwell felt as if he had never known this cousin at all.

Their respective parents had both refused to enter the arcology, calling it a project of Satan. Attwell suspected that they had perished in the howling dust storms many years ago. Nana was always more sensible than her children.

Attwell was not alone, and he didn’t spend all of his time pining for a lost grandmother. Not long after the twelfth anniversary of Nana’s death, incidentally, he held a dinner party for his friends. Two of them were lapsed members of the Sunsplit doomsday cult. (It had lost steam after the predicted doomsday actually came to pass. The arcology chugged along just fine. Mourning rites were still held quarterly, and a fanatic core remained, but general attendance kept slipping.)

At the table these two quarreled about a fine point of the law written by the Sunsplit founder, part of a document officially titled `revealed_arcana4j.txt`. Most people referred to it as the Revealed Arcana, for convenience. Sunsplit lore reported that the First Priest sat down to write a SCRUM report for his manager, found his fingers hijacked by a higher power, and spent seventy-four hours typing sacred secrets. Skeptics often attributed this episode to a layered cocktail of amphetamines and hallucinogens. They couldn’t dismiss the incident altogether, since the First Priest’s computer had been forensically examined.

Atwell’s friends were arguing about the prohibition against killing and consuming phoenixes. The mythical phoenix is a large bird with red and gold plumage, which never dies unless intentionally slain. When it perishes from old age, there is a burst of flame. A phoenix chick emerges from the ashes of its previous life cycle after the blaze subsides.

The rest of the party looked on, bemused, as the Sunsplit believers went back and forth.

“Why forbid the eating of a phoenix,” Timothy asked, “if there is no such an animal in nature?”

A noncombatant chimed in, “Maybe there used to be, before the dust” — but was quickly shushed.

“There must necessarily be such an animal!” replied Valeria, “There’s no sensible reason for the rule to exist, otherwise, and of course the First Priest was sensible.”

Attwell pointed out, “If there are no phoenixes, we cannot possibly slaughter them. Either way, all of us are following the Sunsplit doctrine, without even trying.”

The guest who attended by hologram said, “Did you know that the nanotech fellows at Companion Labs aren’t even trying to make a phoenix, because it would be such bad press?”

“What about an effigy?” Attwell asked. “What if I 3D-printed a phoenix out of cake and ate it?”

Valeria snorted, half amused and half contemptuous. Timothy opened his mouth but someone else cut in before he could speak.

“Haven’t any of you played the phoenix game?” This was the first time Lydia had spoken since the appetizers.

“No, what’s that?” the hologram guest inquired.

Lydia shrugged her thin shoulders. Atwell thought she seemed uncomfortable with the table’s full attention. “Just something I heard about. You harvest phoenixes.”

“I don’t know if it breaks the First Priest’s law,” Valeria declared, “but it’s certainly obscene.”

Not wanting Lydia to be steamrolled, Atwell hurried the conversation in another direction. But after the guests straggled out of his suite that night, he sent her a message.

> what’s the name of that game you mentioned? i searched and nothing came up

She responded almost instantly.

> i shouldnt have said anything =/

> why not? it sounded interesting. i like obscure games. You know how i am

Lydia didn’t respond, but a few minutes later, he received a message from the username vezik77. It was just a hyperlink. No preview popped up. Was this just spam, or did it have something to do with the conversation? Attwell copied the link, opened a sandbox browser, and pasted it into the address bar.


That’s it!

Very loosely inspired by “The Envious Man” from Voltaire’s Zadig the Babylonian, via Project Gutenberg.

Perils of the Connected Farm

Note from the editor: My friend Greg Shuflin posted the following story on Facebook. I asked if I could redistribute it here, and he said yes.


It was a pretty crazy day on the farm — the farm of the neocyberpunk 2040s that is, where cybernetically modified agrohackers wielded vast armies of AI-controlled smart tractors and fertilizer drones to eke their genejacked grain out of the dry soil of the post-Ogallala hellscape that was once a polity called “Kansas”.

Old Farmer Mauricio had programmed his cyberbrain to start nanofabbing caffeine molecules at 6am, and ever since then he’d been dealing with shit — some web bandits had exploited a quantum memory zero-day and broken into half of his private cloud’s namespace. Probably some fucking thirty-something LOMPs [low-marginal-product-of-labor proles on basic income] with nothing better to do than fuck with people, Mauricio thought to himself darkly.

Before the sun was finished rising, Mauricio had patched the vuln, killed as many of the malware AIs as he could find on his network, and had started to restore the water-recycler control AI from backup. He grabbed a quick breakfast of rice porridge and a Chinese doughnut, then woke up his lazy teenage nephew Chuck, who was staying with him during the growing season.

“Time to get up, Chucko,” he said, as the sleepy teen fumbled for his ocular implant on the pile of dirty laundry near his bed. “We’ve been hacked. I really need your help today.”

Chuck quickly brushed his teeth, threw on some work clothes, and went to the hovertractor in order to go do a hard reset on the network node out in field #3. But as he pulled the tractor out of the garage, he found that his way forward was blocked.

All of the AI-controlled wheel hoes that his uncle owned were spinning in circles and brandishing their spikes, in the most menacing fashion that their hardware allowed. Of course, the damn wheel hoes were behind the same firewall as everything else! So they had been infected and turned by the LOMPs’ fuckery too.

Mauricio let his nephew set out, with a word of warning: “Watch yourself, kid. These hoes ain’t loyal.”


You may be wondering, “Was that whole story really just build-up for a pun based on a Chris Brown song?” The answer is that yes, yes it was. Watch out for the LOMPs at work today, y’all.


Header photo by Michele Walfred.

Respirator, Pre- and Post-Digital

Be kind and not angry.
She is surprised by your tolerance.
The seal suctions your face.
And simultaneously you suck in your breath.

At that point you find
that she has sucked in all the breath.
You are bereft without oxygen.
All the breath.
There is no more
in the capsule that you occupy.

Then all of her lungs expand.
How has she gathered so many lungs?
You feel panic filling you.
There is no respite for the tester rat.
Is this it?
Is this the end, so cliché?

All the true things are cliché.
All the women worth touching, and
all the anecdotes worth recounting.
You are
bereft without oxygen
and she lends to you
no respite.
She cannot.

The short-circuit report goes straight to corporate.
Doesn’t it always?
You find that
this is the way.


Header photo by Zach Welty.

Neural Fintech x2

“Neural Fintech” got more responses than anything else I’ve ever asked you all about, so it’s back *TV infomercial voice* by popular demand! If you missed the beginning you don’t strictly need to read it, but you can if you want to.


In the examination room there was machine that looked like an old-school MRI unit — Sasha remembered them from the hospital shows her grandma used to watch, 2D video of handsome doctors clumsily enhanced for her parents’ RoomView.

Next to the machine stood a beaming nurse with sleek brown hair. Everyone working for Centripath seemed to smile all the time, Sasha thought.

Jake the recruiter exclaimed, “Becky! Help me welcome our newest participant!”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sasha,” the nurse said in a warm voice. On the machine’s side screen, Sasha could see the permission form that she had signed with Jake a few minutes ago.

“You’re in Becky’s hands from here,” Jake said, winking at Sasha as he slipped back out through the door.

The next few hours were busy and regimented. Multiple tests, the first inside that big machine, and then more forms. Sasha was glad that she hadn’t made plans for the rest of the day, but a little annoyed that no one had told her how long it would take.

She found out from Becky that she had “stellar capacity” for a crypto mine. Sasha tried to ask again how much they would pay, but Becky said she’d have to find out from her case manager. “That’s your next stop!” she told Sasha brightly. “Then installation!”

The case manager’s office was like Jake’s, and he even looked a bit like Jake. The nose and chin were different, but much the same smile. “Sasha, right?” he asked, half-rising from his desk.

“Hi,” she answered. Sasha could hear that she was tired.

“Would you like a drink of water?”

“Yes, thanks.” He handed it to her, and Sasha sat down.

“I really want to know how much this will pay. No one will tell me so far.”

“Of course, of course! You get a percentage of the yield from the mine. It can vary depending on your physical state, since all the energy is sourced from your body.”

Sasha didn’t say anything, just kept looking at him.

The case manager paused, waiting for her to acknowledge what he said. When she stayed silent, he continued. “It’s usually 5%, but that fluctuates based on the price of the cryptocurrency at hand, the daily processing efficiency, and so on.”

“Please estimate, in real money, how much I can earn from this.”

“Well, Sasha, I can’t promise anything. I can’t make a guarantee. But I can tell you that you’ll be able to pay half of the monthly fees for a nice PodNiche.”

She sighed. “Okay. I hoped it would be more. But okay, what the fuck. Let’s do the installation.”


Header image by Liz West.

Neural Fintech

“See, it’s a simple program.” The recruiter had very white teeth, Sasha noticed. He was wearing a navy blue suit and smiling big. The identity module said his name was Jake.

“A very simple program,” he repeated. “You know that old expression — humans only use 10% of our brain power? That other 90% is an opportunity, and we at Centripath have the software to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Sasha nodded. “Yeah.” She knew all of this from the promos she had watched. The exact figures weren’t true and Sasha knew that also, but it didn’t matter as long as they paid enough.

“Ae you familiar with cryptocurrencies?” Jake asked. “The one you’ve probably heard of is called bitcoin.”

“Uh-huh, I know bitcoin,” Sasha told him. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Wonderful!” Jake exclaimed. “Well, what this program does is harness your brain’s under-utilized processing power. The technical details aren’t important, but basically all that extra energy runs a cryptocurrency mine. Not always bitcoin, but that’s certainly one of the assets we harvest.”

Sasha was sitting forward on her armchair, leaning toward the recruiter with her elbows on her knees. “So you pay me rent for that. For using my brain. It doesn’t say on your website, so I wanted to ask how much you pay.”

“Ahhh, yes,” Jake answered, still smiling. “We have to analyze the capacity you have available, of course, and then we’ll give you a quote.”

“And this crypto mine won’t interfere with my daily life? I’ll still be able to think, like, normally? I watched the testimonials, but…”

“Then you know that you won’t feel a thing! It’ll be like nothing happened. Everything about the Centripath program is perfectly safe. All of this equipment has gone through rigorous testing. Really, you’re signing up for free money.”

Sasha bit her lip, thinking for a moment. “Okay, I want to take the scan. Or however you test people’s brains.”

Jake clapped his hands together. “Sasha, I am so glad to hear that! First let’s go over this paperwork — it should show up momentarily…”

Sasha felt the ping. “Got it.”

“Alright. I need to you read this and add your bioprint here… Here also…”

They sped through the details, then Jake led Sasha into the examination room.


Let me know if you want me to continue this. Otherwise I’ll leave it as microfiction. I owe the idea to my boyfriend, Alex Irwin. Header photo by Pantelis Roussakis.

—> READ THE SECOND SEGMENT

Unconvincing Androids

Kids called them Hollow Heads. When the androids hit the market, the term “Bunnies” almost caught on instead, inspired by the ear-like antenna prongs, but the alliteration of “Hollow Heads” was more appealing to the first generation who interacted with the machines.

Artwork by NicoTag.

Artwork by NicoTag.

Besides, the increasingly powerful House Rabbit Society lobbied against the trend conflating their beloved pets with humanoid robots. After dogs died out in the 2030s, rabbits got a lot more popular, and their owners weren’t keen on having their endearments coopted.

One of the original engineers admitted on a virtustream that his design riffed off of an old film, back when screens were dominant. He said it was called Chappie. No one else seemed to remember this movie and soon the engineer disappeared from spokesmanship.

The other big innovation, besides the distinctive “ears” (which didn’t actually have any audio-processing capabilities), was to make the androids slightly insectoid. Just a little something in their structure. Babies found them unsettling, and this was judged to be good. Faces without heads — you could relate to them, but you’d never mistake them for human.

At first the market responded better to realistic androids. Boutiques liked them, as did hotels. But after a couple of high-profile impersonations splashed all over the virtustreams, along with that one abduction, the Bureau of Consumer Protection pushed Congress to regulate the new machines. They codified the Hollow Head design, and soon a thousand variations were being imported from China.

It wasn’t that the androids had been going rogue. Their owners programmed them for nefarious purposes. The nice thing about the Hollow Heads is that they really stood out, so you wouldn’t have them going around signing contracts without being detected.

Of course, the US Empire’s sphere of influence was only so big. Plenty of factories in Russia kept churning out androids with full craniums, some also featuring convincingly visible pores.

Program or Be Programmed; UX or Be UX’d

Artwork by GLAS-8.

Artwork by GLAS-8.

Aboniks posted this blockbuster comment on artificial consciousness in the Cyberpunk Futurism chat group:

Pondering how the digital brain-in-a-jar might practice good mental hygiene.

You’d need a hardwired system of I/O and R/W restrictions in place to protect the core data that made up the “youness”. A “youness ROM”, perhaps. If that analogy holds up, then maybe my grandmother’s case is akin to a software overlay suddenly failing. Firmware crash. But I’m not convinced brains are so amenable to simple analogy. The processing and the storage that goes on in our heads doesn’t seem to be modular in the same sense that our digital tools are.

Anyway, if your software and hardware (however they’re arranged and designed) are capable of perfect simulation then they are equally capable of perfect deception. There may be a difference between simulation and deception, but I can’t think of a way to put it that doesn’t seem… forced.

So, for the rest of your “life”, your entire experience is UX, in the tech-bro sense of the word.

“Program or be programmed,” as Rushkoff would say. If you’re not the UX designer, you’re hopelessly vulnerable. Who are the UX designers, then? Who decides where the experience stops and the “youness” starts? Who defines that border to protect you? Another Zuckerberg running a perpetual game of three-card Monte with the privacy policy?

Maybe not an individual, but something more monolithic, ending in “SA” or “Inc”? Will there be an equivalent of Snowden or Assange to expose their profit-driven compromises in our storage facility fail-safes and leak news of government interference in the development process of our gullibility drivers?

Will we be allowed to believe them?

(Lightly edited for readability.)


She wondered where the expression “surf the net” came from. Of course Sarah knew what surfing was, but why “net”? Did it used to have something to do with catching fish?

She was fourteen and relatively popular. Her classmates though she was nice and mildly funny. Sarah knew because of the survey reports.

Harry, the troublemaker, would shoot caustic messages into their class channel. “Who surveys the surveyors?” he asked.

Finally Allison answered — Allison was more popular than Sarah, so she looked up to her — “You are so fucking boring. Get off your history kick and live in the real world, Harry. Like the rest of us. No one cares what the surveyors think. We saw them for like five minutes.”

He shot back, “You know those surveys determine your job trajectory, right?”

Allison told him she thought the test-writers knew what they were doing. Harry called her a regime sycophant. Then the teacher stepped in and reminded them that hostility was inappropriate for this venue.

Four years later, at eighteen, Sarah wondered what ended up happening to Harry. But only for a couple of minutes. Then she went back to work.

Exclusion from the Mapped Physicality Database

some kind of space shuttle? not sure

“Put me back on the GOD. DAMN. MAP.” Alden was yelling into his laptop speaker. He was so angry that he brought his face close to the computer, voice distorted by the overloaded audio processors.

“My apologies, sir,” the tinny customer service chatterbot responded. “At this time we cannot reinstate your business on the Mapped Physicality Database.”

Alden made a noise of pure frustration, a growling sort of scream, and then banged his mouse to click on the hangup button.

Stacy sat in the corner of his office, feeling awkward. They had been removed five days ago, and she wasn’t sure how long Alden would keep her on. She wasn’t sure how long Alden could afford to keep her on. It wasn’t like Stacy was privy to the details of cash flow.

Alden stood up and started pacing, hands in the pockets of his grey suit pants. He muttered expletives to himself. Stacy didn’t move, still watching him from the corner.

Alden stopped abruptly and turned to look at her. “Is this a glitch?”

That was when Stacy felt the alarm in her stomach. She had never heard Alden sound plaintive.

He was tough. He didn’t whine. He didn’t ask her questions. Not until now.

Five days ago, the store was suddenly dead. No one came in to buy new rigs or fancy up their old ones. This was very unusual; Stacy was used to furiously taking notes on her netpad while customers dictated what they wanted. The regular clientele was all bored upscale folks, since no one else would bother to come in person. Alden said they liked the attention.

But five days ago there was no one. Alden said it was a fluke.

Four days ago, there was still no one. Alden laughed it off to Stacy, but he went into the back room and didn’t emerge until after closing. Stacy left without seeing him again.

Three days ago, Stacy opened up the shop and Alden arrived an hour later. By noon he told her, “I’m looking into this.” No customers had come in.

At two o’clock he strode back into the showroom, where Stacy was sitting, and shouted, “We’re gone! It’s like we fucking disappeared!”

She looked at him quizzically. “We disappeared? But, aren’t we… here?”

“Yes, Stacy, we’re here. I KNOW WE’RE HERE. Jesus. We’re just not on the maps. Not any of the maps. Not the suggestion APIs or the service maps or the retail maps. Not any maps.”

Stacy hesitated to ask why. If he knew, wouldn’t he lead with that?

Two days ago, Alden told Stacy the name of what they were missing from. “It’s called the Mapped Physicality Database. I didn’t know about this goddam thing. Did you?”

It took Stacy a moment to realize that it wasn’t a rhetorical question. “No,” she responded. “I don’t… I don’t think so. The name doesn’t sound familiar…”

Alden blew a frustrated breath through his nose. “I’m gonna talk to them. You don’t have to come in tomorrow.”

Stacy didn’t ask if she would get paid anyway.

Today was a day and a half later.

Stacy had not been able to enjoy the time she had off. When she looked up the Mapped Physicality Database, results were disturbingly thin. But she kept her faith in Alden. He seemed to force obstacles out of his way through sheer rage.

But now he seemed desperate. The grey suit, so impressive one week ago, was suddenly crumpled. His eyes were fearful.

“Why did this happen?” Alden spread his hands like he was reaching for something. “Tell me what we did. Stacy. Tell me what the hell is happening.”

Stacy tendered her resignation. Alden didn’t say anything else. He turned and went into the back without acknowledging her.

Two days later, a week later, two weeks later, a month later. Stacy kept checking the suggestion service on her palm module. The shop didn’t reappear on the map.

Where’s the credit in it?

This is more of a provocation than a full-fledged story. Feel free to reply with what you think might happen.

Favela wiring. Photo by anthony_goto.

Photo by anthony_goto.

You couldn’t get water in the slum. You had to go to the city proper for it, and wait in a long line, and shell out your credits. All the un-augmented chumps would gleam with sweat, their thirst increasing as the queue inched forward. Augments were pretty rare among slum dwellers, but anyone optimized for heat did better. The hardest part was paying, since naturally the slum residents were broke, but the whole process was a commonly despised hassle.

“Why ain’t they just pipe out here?” was the exasperated, rhetorical refrain.

The answer that usually went unvoiced, assumed to be common knowledge: “Making us walk gets Urbancore more credits.” Slum residents weren’t exactly complacent, but they understood the lack of ROI in serving them.

Jamie Dry responded to the niche market need created by this situation: he started a water truck. Most of his customers were gangbangers or cartel men. They could afford the luxury of water hauled by someone else, and they had other things for their own people to do.

Dry’s surname was a joke, bestowed by the urchins who followed him around when they were bored. He called them “my little friends”, sometimes sarcastically and sometimes sincerely. If Dry was particularly flush, or had a party gig, he would hand out ice cubes. Most adults were busy scavenging and any children attached to adults had to work too, but freewheeling street kids would hang around for the possibility of an ice cube. Sometimes Dry’s customers would send them on errands and pay them with calories.

When Dry founded his business, people were surprised that he was able to hook into the roadnet. Transportation API access was supposed to be restricted, and everyone was incredulous that Dry might have gotten a permit. Besides, his truck was hacked together from the body of a much older vehicle and assorted parts. The slum didn’t pay a lot of attention to IP regulation, but certainly everyone knew about it. The clear illegality of Dry’s setup seemed strange considering that he interfaced with Urbancore every day.

Well, follow the money, right? Who benefits? Jamie Dry, of course. His clientele, but they’d just go back to sending their own lackeys if he folded. Dry coulda paid off a netboy to spoof his movements, but the truck would still show up on aerial scans. Maybe it was plain, traditional police graft.

Almost immediately after Dry started operating, people began trying to hijack the truck and its heavy load of clean water. Dry carried a taser on his belt, but that was no good if someone could get the jump on him with a gun. Guns weren’t cheap since 3D printing access was even tighter than transportation, but plenty of firearms circulated through the slum regardless.

Unfortunately for would-be thieves, Dry caught on quick. He had to buy his truck back from a gang once, but then he obtained a sniper drone. It hovered along with him. No one was exactly sure what triggered its attack patterns, since the street kids never got fried, but Dry’s next assailants didn’t fare well.

Andrea’s engineers were torn on whether Dry was a narc or a legitimate hustler, one of their own. Andrea would sit with her elbows on her knees, propping up her chin with her fists, and listen to them bicker. It got far enough that Lewis spent time at home building a model and tweaking a neural net to assign probabilities to the various outcomes. He tried to show it off and Jasper exclaimed, “There’s no way you can be confident enough about half the assumptions —”

Andrea cut things off there. “Back to work, netboys. No credit in solving this mystery.”


Best response so far, from Eth Morgan: “The water is allowed because it’s laced with various experimentals. The slumdwellers are unwittingly in human trials, because if they die no-one cares, they’re in worse conditions so it sets a good lower bound, and if it’s uncovered it can be trivially spun as secret philanthropism.”