March 2

Ghost (working title)


ghost (noun) – the disembodied spirit of a dead person manifested among the living

Kat’s flat panel display was the only source of light in her living room, the ceiling fan the only thing loud enough to make noise.  Her nocturnal affinity meant that 11 PM brought her highest state of awareness.  The lightcast display across her desk was turned off, the state it had been in since she’d futzed around on the Internet earlier that day.  Flat panel displays were old technology, but they still made sense in many applications, despite lightcast displays and ARUs having almost taken over for most consumers.

Half of the screen was filled with white-on-black log files she’d pulled up in a shell, the other half with an article on how to flash custom firmware onto her old ARU.  The logs were absolute garbage, only “human readable” if you altered the definition of “human” to require a Ph.D. in computer science.

0x7638A – Update failure.

“Seriously?” she muttered, shaking her head with frustration as she scanned the article for an explanation of that specific error code.

Augmented Reality Units were ubiquitous, and as with any tech, there were people like Kat that felt an innate desire to tinker with them.  Custom firmware only allowed for a handful of additional features while maintaining ARnet compatibility, but the custom stuff did sometimes run better than stock, and Kat was sort of bored that night anyway.

Her main ARU was sitting near the keyboard her fingers were occasionally dancing across.  She relied on that thing way too much to risk downtime, which was why the ARU she was experimenting with was last year’s model that she’d upgraded from several months prior.  To find Kat without an ARU attached to her head, you typically needed to catch her either when she was sleeping, showering, or using an old flat panel.  This, of course, was one of those times, but even though the ARU was on her desk, the bone-conduction speaker was still in her ear.

“Hey Kat, you there?”

Regardless of where the display was, she recognized the voice instantly.

“Hey Nate, I’m here.  What’s up?”

“My sister’s backup is failing.  Could use some help if you have time.”

Kat picked up the ARU and set it carefully on her ears, adjusting the display over her eyes until it sat just how she liked it. 

“Sure, I need a break anyway.  What’s the error?”

“Can I just come over?  It would be easier to show you.”

Kat looked down at the old t-shirt and sleep shorts she was wearing.  “Yeah, just give me five minutes to change.”

“Well, that’s how long it takes to drive to your place.”

“I never know with you.  You could’ve been halfway here already.”

Nate laughed.  “Normally, yeah.  But it’s late, so I didn’t want to assume too much.”

“Please.  You know I’m up until like two every night.  What else would I be doing at 11?”

“Don’t act like you don’t have other friends.”

“Who, Allie?  She went to sleep like half an hour ago.”

“Okay, okay, whatever.  See you in five?”

“Yeah.”

Kat lifted her hand to the ARU, paused, then lowered it.  She wasn’t going to get much done in five minutes, so she figured she may as well leave it on.  In reality, the units looked like thick glasses, but even regular glasses had gotten thicker to match ever-changing styles, kind of like watches had back in the twenty-teens.  Not that Kat had been around to see that, but she’d read about it.

She quickly made her way to the bedroom and changed into the tee and leggings she’d taken off hours ago.  They’d been in a pile on the floor of her closet, but it’s not like Nate would know or care.  Though, on that note, she wasn’t sure why she was changing in the first place.  She was just wearing some fairly unflattering sleep clothes; it wasn’t like she was half-naked. 

Kat shrugged and decided to stop thinking about it.  Not like changing took more than a couple minutes anyway.

She headed to the kitchen to grab a couple bottles of koffee, mostly for Nate since she only sort of liked the stuff, but she weirdly found herself drinking it without him around more than she cared to admit.  “Coffee-flavored, caffeinated water, with a dab of sweetener and a touch of dairy-free cream, specially enhanced to keep you going!”  She’d never forget the ads from when she was a kid. 

The real stuff?  She loved it, but who could afford it anymore?

Nate’s ARU hit Kat’s geofence and automatically requested entrance authorization, which Kat approved almost involuntarily.  She sometimes wished you could set users to auto-allow, but that was a “security concern” for the manufacturers.  Actually, if she could get the custom firmware on her old ARU to work, that was something that might be possible, but that was a problem for another day.

Within Kat’s geofenced area, there were an array of sensors that alerted her of what was going on.  She could see the outline of Nate’s car in her driveway as sort of a distant, slightly transparent wireframe outline, and as soon as he stepped out of it, she could see his outline just the same.  There was a setting to make her walls appear transparent so she could see outside as well, but that freaked her out, even though from outside, no one could see in.

Nate didn’t bother knocking when he got to the door.  He just let himself in the way he always had. 

“Yo.”

“Hey Nate.”

Without an ARU, Kat’s living room was pretty barren, aside from a few tables, the seating area, and the desk and chair she was working from.  With an ARU on, though, the room sprang to life with AROs of wall decorations, plants, artwork, and shifting ceiling color.  She usually kept the TV hidden until she needed it, but when activated, it pushed aside a couple of paintings and took up most of the wall across from the sofa.

Since Nate was entering Kat’s digital space in the ARnet, her apartment looked exactly to him as it did to her.  That was part of the beauty of the ARU’s and their connected nature – shared virtual space.  The virtual plant on the real coffee table didn’t exist anywhere except the ARnet, but if everyone could see it, and everyone got the sensory input from it to their implants, then could you really say it didn’t exist?  What was real and what wasn’t were separated by quite a blurry line.

“So, did you really need help with a backup, or were you just bored?”

Nate shrugged.  “A little of both.”

“Well, what’s going on with Heather’s backup, then?”

“There’s some kind of failure related to the upload.  She’s freaking out about it.”

Kat rolled her eyes.  “Freaking Ghost Generation.  It’s as if humanity hadn’t survived for thousands of years without copies of their memories being stored on remote computers.”

“Jesus, Kat, could you act any more like a grandma?  You’re 19, not 70.”

She shrugged.  “I can’t help it, but I guess she’s been conditioned to act that way as well.”

“In fairness, she has never known a world without backups.  We have.”

There had been a period of rapid technology advancement and cost reduction in 2042 that had ultimately led to widespread adoption of neural implant and backup technology in 2043.  Kat was eight years old when she got implanted, which meant Heather had been three – the absolute earliest age you could be implanted.  That generation was only five years younger than Kat and Nate, but their psychological dependency on knowing they were being backed up was, to be frank, frightening to those that had at least a few formative years without the backup system.

What did being backed up even get you when you died?  A Ghost in the ARnet?  That was for loved ones, not you.  It isn’t like your consciousness would continue to exist.  It was just a more realistic way than photos or videos to relive memories of those that had passed.

“If this is a SpecterCorp issue, I can’t really do anything about it,” Kat said.

“I know, but you know how Heather idolizes you,” Nate said, rolling his eyes.  “I could tell her ten times to call support and she wouldn’t do it, but if you told her once, her ARU would already have the number queued up and ready to dial.”

Kat laughed.  “Fine, fine, let me take a look.  You have her login authorization tokens?”

He lifted his hand, and an access card manifested between his thumb and forefinger.  “Yep.”

She reached over and grabbed the card, the distinct feeling of skin-to-plastic subconsciously present until she squeezed her hand into a fist, vanishing the card into thin air.  It was a silly way to digitally pass authorization when you really thought about it, but Kat loved its simplicity.  It was skeuomorphic design at its absolute most brilliant.

Kat lifted the ARU off of her face, set it down on her desk, and paused before taking a seat.  “This might take a bit.”  She thumbed at the koffee on the table.  “Help yourself.”

Nate nodded and grabbed a bottle.  “Thanks.”

Some people considered typing a lost skill, but Kat had learned it in her early teens for fun.  She actually found it to be therapeutic to mash out thoughts rather than just speaking them into one of the dozens of microphones on basically any gadget you could buy these days.  You could even code using voice assistants if you wanted; in fact, most programmers did.  Only the really old school tedchies used honest-to-God, plastic and metal actuating keyboards.  Well, them and Kat.

After clattering away on the keyboard for a few moments, Kat realized that Heather’s backup was failing due to the data being malformed.  It was a square-peg-in-round-hole problem, more or less.

“The database build failed, her backup is sending data the server doesn’t know how to process,” Kat said.  “She needs to wait until tomorrow.”

“That’s what I told her,” Nate said.  “She was having none of that, clearly.”

Kat rolled her eyes.  “She has a good backup from yesterday, is it seriously that big of a deal to her?”

“Do you really think I’d be over here after 11 PM on a Wednesday night if it wasn’t?”

“Uh, yes?” Kat said.

Nate frowned.  “On Friday or Saturday night, sure, but-”

“You were on my sofa until midnight last Tuesday watching old horror movies,” Kat said.

He opened his mouth briefly to protest but realized he had been backed into a corner.

“I will never understand how someone as smart as you can have such a catastrophically poor memory,” Kat said.

“Fine, fine, you win,” Nate said.  “Can you just please tell Heather to wait till tomorrow and her backup will be magically fixed?  I really don’t feel like sitting on the phone with SpecterCorp support for an hour to wait for a manual backup authorization token.”

“Sure,” Kat said, picking up her ARU and situating it on her face again.  “Call Heather Droyer.”

She didn’t blame Nate for reacting exactly as he had.  Manual backups were a royal pain in the butt.  Heather was almost definitely losing nothing of value by waiting until the next day for her backup to complete.  The only way it would matter is if she died in the next 10ish hours, for which, of course, there was an incredibly low statistical probability.

“Hello?”

“Hi Heather, it’s Kat.”

“Hi Kat!”

Nate’s little sister loved Kat, which was quite a puzzling fact.  Heather had no interest in tech beyond typical consumer usage, and they honestly didn’t have a lot in common.  Sure, there was an argument to be made that Kat’s success at just 19 years old had made her a strong female role model, but Heather always treated Kat much more like a friend than someone she looked up to.

“Hey, listen, about your backup…”

“Oh, yeah!  Did you get it working?”

“It should be fine, it’s just a transient error.”  Kat paused, realizing that a non-tech-savvy 14-year-old might not know what that meant.  “It’s no cause for alarm, it’s just temporary.  The backup will work tomorrow.”

“Okay, are you sure?”

“I can’t make any promises, but if it doesn’t work tomorrow, just let me know, okay?”

“Okay, thank you, Kat!”

“No problem, but you really should trust your brother more.  He knows how to do this stuff, too.”

“I guess so,” she replied sheepishly.

“Night Heather.”

“Good night, Kat!”

Kat sighed and looked over at Nate, who was mid-swig of koffee, the bottle in his hand nearly empty.

“Geez Nate, do you not have anything to drink in your apartment?”

“Of course I do,” he said.  “Koffee just tastes better when I’m bumming it off of you.”

Kat rolled her eyes and rose out of her chair, taking a sip out of the koffee bottle she’d already opened.  It was slightly sweet, bitter like the darkest of dark chocolate, but went down like water.  The texture was bizarre and totally lacked smoothness, despite there definitely being some sort of cream in it.  How Nate could just guzzle the whole bottle down like he always did was a mystery to her.

“Anyway, I owe you one.  Sorry for intruding on you for something so silly.  I appreciate you humoring my sister.”

“No problem, I needed a break anyway,” Kat said.

“A break from what?” he asked, knocking back the last of the koffee and setting the bottle down on the nearest end table.

“I’ve been trying to install the Harp firmware on my old ARU all night,” she said.  “Dumb thing keeps failing.”

“Oh, we had the same one last gen, right?  The Linz model C?”

“Yeah.”

“You updating it from Viola or the stock stuff?”

“Stock.  I didn’t mess with the first release of the custom firmware, heard way too many stories about bricked ARUs.”

“Me too, but Harp worked fine for me.  I updated my model C yesterday.”

Kat raised an eyebrow.  She gestured over to her computer, made a fist, twisted it clockwise, then pulled her arm back toward the sofa as if she were slinging a ball with a Trac Ball racket.  The screen of her computer appeared at the trajectory of her fist, at which point she released it and pointed at the error code that was still pulled up in the terminal.

“You didn’t get this error?” she asked.

“No, it went off without a hitch.”

“Huh,” Kat said, frowning.

“There’s almost definitely no way I’d know how to fix it if you couldn’t, but I could point you to a really good group on Social Queue if you weren’t still refusing to be involved with social media.”

“Yeah, thanks, but I’d a slightly less creepy option.”

Nate rolled his eyes.  “Says the girl that walks around with like five cameras and microphones on her person at all times.”

Kat winced.  It was true, ARUs had quite an array of hardware that could potentially be used for the creepiest and most personal kinds of spying, but she at least had doubts that Linz was doing that with their hardware.  Social Queue?  Spying – or “data collection,” as some people liked to call it – was their entire business model.

“At least ARUs are useful for more than getting in virtual arguments.”

Nate laughed.  “Well, I guess you’ll have to find help on a forum or something.”

“I was actually thinking about heading down to First and Zero.”

He arched an eyebrow.  “The hackerspace?”

She nodded.  “That’s the one.”

“You ever been there before?”

“No, never really had a need.  Also wouldn’t have gone by myself.”

Nate sighed.  “I can see where this is going.  What time do you want to go?”

“Now.”

“Kat, it’s 11:30.  You can’t be serious.”

“Name one important thing you have to do tomorrow before noon.”

“I, well…”

Kat and Nate were both freelancers, which meant they set their own schedules.  They frequently collaborated, and while they didn’t keep tabs on each other, per se, they were both at least somewhat aware of each other’s calendar.

“Didn’t you just tell me you owed me one?”

“I guess you’re right,” Nate sighed.  “We’re taking your car, though.”

Kat smiled.  “That’s more like it.”

First and Zero was in the warehouse district downtown, or, put more specifically, was in an old warehouse.  It was the stereotypical space you’d expect to find a bunch of modern hacker-nerds working together on their passion projects or just chilling.  Nate passed by it frequently when he used to live with his parents, but not so much anymore.  He wasn’t entirely sure what kinds of things went down there, but he’d always imagined some of it was illicit.  The thought crossed his mind as he climbed into the right side of Kat’s car, but wasn’t sure how to bring it up.

“Set drive mode, destination First and Zero.”

“My pleasure, Kat,” the nav system responded as it slowly and silently propelled the car forward.  “Proceeding to route.”

“Hey, Kat.”

“Yeah?” she said, turning her seat slightly toward him.

“This place isn’t, like, trouble, is it?”

“Trouble?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know, I guess I always used to imagine a hackerspace as like, the real-life version of the dark web, before the feds killed it.”

“Oh, geez, no,” Kat said.  “Did you really think I’d take you to some kind of seedy, back alley hacker ring?”

Nate shrugged.

“First and Zero is like, super chill.  You’ll see.”

“How would you know if you’ve never been?” Nate asked, pausing briefly, his eyes darting to the side as his head followed a slight arch.  “Oh.  Jack?”

“Yeah.”

Even though the settings for Ghosts were extremely granular, giving the option to see only exactly what you wanted to see, Kat still kept Ghosts turned off on her ARU.  Nate saw Jack’s Ghost in the ARnet sometimes, particularly near the dog park by his place.  Sometimes Kat was within several feet of Jack and she wouldn’t know it, because Nate kept his mouth shut.

Nate spun his seat around to face the back of the car, then made a few flicking motions with his fingers toward the empty space in front of him.  Several security settings popped up, which he then pushed to his friend-level AR space.

“Do you think I need to change any of this?” he asked.

Kat spun around and pored over the settings.  “No, I think you’ll be fine.  It’s not like we’re going to DEF CON.”

Nate understood well enough that his security settings were fine.  He meant it as a distraction from the previous topic, but perhaps he’d made an error in judgement to talk about something that Kat would know he was quite capable of on his own.  Or maybe he was just overthinking it.

“I really have no idea what to expect,” he said.

“Just chill, we’ll find out.”

The truth was that Kat was a little anxious, considering she wasn’t great with people outside of a professional context, but she wasn’t worried about walking into an underground crime ring like Nate seemed to be.  She breathed a deep sigh and glanced over at the console.

The nav system showed two minutes until arrival, and due to the time of day, Kat was fairly certain it was correct.  Traffic was much less predictable during the day, even for the advanced, interconnected piloting systems and all of their fancy algorithms, but 11:45 at night?  No one was on the road.

Sure enough, a couple minutes later, Kat’s car located a parking spot right outside First and Zero, coming to a rest as silently as it had taken off.  A lot of the hacker-types had their own cars, despite car-ownership steadily declining since the ‘20s.  During the day, this meant there was a higher concentration of cars at First and Zero than other places, but there was ample parking due to the spaces at the nearby businesses and residences being freed up.  You would guess that time of day would also mean that there would be ample parking, but the place seemed as busy as ever from the outside.

Kat and Nate exited the car, prompting the locking system to immediately activate once Kat’s ARU left the car’s AR space.  They walked across the street and up to the oversized metal doors, which still seemed small against the face of the multistory brick wall.

“Do we just…go in?” Nate asked.

Kat shrugged.  “I guess so.”

She reached out for the door handle, and instantly, a notification popped up on both of their ARUs.

Notice: this AR space is private, and by entering, you consent to the rules and terms set forth by First and Zero.  Swipe to see more.

“Wow, they actually employ terms-of-service fencing,” Nate said.  “I can’t even remember the last time I’ve seen that at a business.”

Kat had ToS fencing turned on at her house, as did Nate, but both of them had accepted the terms on each other’s AR spaces so long ago that they’d almost definitely forgotten what they’d agreed to. 

Businesses were exempt from the ToS fencing mandate that applied to personal AR spaces.  It was a weird and controversial law, but most of the population had ToS fatigue and just accepted the terms as soon as they popped up without reading them anyway.  Anyone that wanted to see the terms could still request them, as they were still required to exist at the border of commercial AR spaces, but they didn’t pop up automatically. 

Nate was usually pretty indifferent to reading the terms, but Kat usually assumed that every business was always collecting everything they could about everyone they could.  She was familiar with the terms of most of the places she frequented, though she usually only skimmed for certain words and phrases for places she only planned on going to once.

This situation was totally different, though.  First and Zero didn’t have to display anything, which meant they were doing this because they wanted to.  It was so intriguing that Kat and Nate instinctively stood there for several moments absorbing the terms.

First and Zero is a private establishment categorized as “entertainment and social” under the ARnet Consortium business doctrine, section 3C.  As per subsection 5, point iii, the ARnet within First and Zero’s AR space is privately hosted and does not reside on public ARnet servers or fall within public ARnet guidelines.  You agree that by entering, you are doing so at your own risk.

First and Zero does not collect any personally identifiable data.  The only demographic data we collect is your age, which is assigned to an anonymized token and discarded once you leave the facility.  This is to ensure you meet the age limit restriction of 18+ years.

By entering First and Zero, you assume all responsibilities for your actions.  Illegal activity is not allowed.  The onus of…

Kat stopped reading and just skimmed the rest at that point, as it became the same, boilerplate language she’d seen dozens of times before.

“Wow, this place is serious,” Nate said.  “How do they make money if they don’t collect any data?  Do they sell anything inside?”

“There’s probably a cover charge,” Kat said.  “I’ll pay, don’t worry.”

“A cover charge?” Nate said, though mostly to himself.  That was something he’d only seen in movies.  Paying to get into any establishment seemed so old-fashioned this day and age.

Kat reached for the door handle once again, this time pulling it all the way open.  She held her breath, for some odd reason, then crossed the threshold into First and Zero.  The age verification request popped up immediately, and upon her acceptance, was followed by a payment transfer request.

“$40?” Nate said.  “Yeesh, I could get a whole six-pack of koffee for that.”

“Quit whining, you get free koffee at my place, and they’re not harvesting your data,” Kat said.

“You know I don’t care about data collection as much as you do,” he said.  “I’d rather get in free, honestly.”

“Well, you are getting in free, since I’m paying for this anyway.”

“You know what I mean.”

The room was totally open once you passed through the short entrance hallway.  The expanse of the space’s former life as a warehouse was certainly evident by the sheer volume of air in the building.  The overhead lights were dimmed so heavily that you could legitimately say most of the interior lighting was coming from the various flat panel displays that lined the tables and walls.  There wasn’t a lightcast display in sight, but ARUs were so ubiquitous here that there was almost definitely no need for a display that essentially functioned as a limited ARO.

It was a little bizarre to see a place like this abuzz with chatter and Augmented Reality Objects.  In fact, the amount of AROs was staggering, but what else would you expect from a hackerspace?  Kat could feel her ARU heating up against her left temple as it struggled to maintain the integrity of the AR space.  She briefly glanced at her ARU’s metrics and was not-so-shocked to find that the bandwidth of practically every major bus was maxed out.

AROs were sort of easy to spot because they could be both simple and extremely functional, which was difficult, nigh impossible to do with physical objects that were restrained by reality.  There was a couple in the corner of the room playing chess, but there was no table.  The pieces and the board simply hovered where they needed to be.  Nearby, there were flat panel monitors, which measured only a few millimeters thick, but since an ARO could exist in only two dimensions, they usually had no actual thickness.  If you looked at an ARO display straight on from the side, you would see nothing.  Spotting those types of things was a skill you quickly picked up in the ARnet, sometimes subconsciously.

“Whoa,” Nate said.  “There’s a ton of Ghosts here.”

Ghosts, unlike AROs, were designed to perfectly emulate the likeness of their physical counterpart except for one thing – they were semi-transparent.  Since people could make AROs of themselves, there needed to be a distinguishing feature, and that seemed to be the most obvious way to do it.  Of course, there were low-end ARUs that made everything look semi-transparent, in which case, they’d give users a selection of ways to distinguish ghosts, usually with a thick black outline or some sort of aura effect.

“You’re not kidding,” Kat said, counting out at least 10 near the entrance alone.  “I wonder what the Ghost policy is here?”

Public ARnet spaces didn’t allow Ghosts except for a few specific places: public parks, certain libraries, and courtrooms, though the last one was specifically restricted to trials that involved the person that the Ghost was a backup of.  Of course, privately registered spaces on the public ARnet, like a person’s house, a cemetery, or even a grocery story could allow ghosts if they wanted, but there were restrictions and limits to that as well.

First and Zero, though, was a completely private ARnet instance.  When they’d walked through the doors, the network communication in their ARUs had switched from the public ARnet subscription service they paid for to the privately hosted ARnet service offered at First and Zero.  This, of course, meant the establishment could choose exactly what they allowed in their AR space.

“Probably former regulars?  This place has been here for like a decade now.”

“Maybe,” Kat said, eyeing a few of the semi-transparent people in the room.  Because she kept Ghosts turned off on her ARU, it was a little weird to see them suddenly.  It was unlike her to miss that type of thing, but allowing Ghosts must’ve been a part of the terms of service that she’d skimmed over.

“You okay?” Nate said, eyeing Kat from the side.

“Yeah.  It’s not like Jack is here.”  She paused, frowning.  “Although, I guess he could be.”

“I’ll tell you if I see him.”

They continued past the crowd, observing quietly how the social and practical function of the place seemed to work.  Where they’d seen the couple playing chess, there appeared to be numerous other groups playing both traditional games and several different types of video games.  Kat saw no formal signage, physical or virtual, that denoted a specific usage for that space, so she assumed it was a naturally formed division of space that regulars just knew and respected.

If that was the case, then all she needed to do was find the people that were actually hacking.  She had never expected the entire warehouse to be filled with only one activity, but she was a bit surprised to see the diversity.  She definitely would’ve thought a hackerspace would’ve at least been mostly hackers hacking, yet she continued to pass by areas of paintings being painted, karaoke being sung, movies being watched, and even a group dressed in varying costumes that Kat did not recognize at all.

Weirdest of all, there were Ghosts in every single group.  Even when she’d had Ghosts enabled, Kat had never seen this many in one place, except maybe at the cemetery.

Toward the back of the room, Kat finally saw what she’d been looking for: people gathered around various flat panel displays, hardware strewn out on tables, 3D printers whirring as they printed boards and other components.  These were definitely her people.  If she could find help getting Harp installed properly on her old ARU anywhere in the city, it would be right here from these people.

“What do we do?” Nate whispered.  “Just walk up and ask for help?”

Kat tried to stop herself from saying what she was about to say, but her desire to get her old ARU updated won over the social anxiety that tried to drag her down.

“Just leave it to me.”

She quickly scanned the faces at the tables in front of her, zeroed in on the one that seemed the friendliest, and began walking toward him.  Kat hated asking for help, and she hated talking to strangers, so this was not exactly easy for her.

Kat stopped just a foot or so away from the table, smiled, and tried to bring out some of the charisma she kept carefully locked away.

“Hi there, I’m Kat.”  She reached her hand out, the gesture quickly returned by the guy at the table.

“JC.”  He arched an eyebrow.  “You new around here?”

“Yeah,” she gestured back to Nate. “Nate and I are looking for some help with something.”

“Sure, depends on what you need, though.”

“Well, do you know if anyone around here has experience with Harp firmware installation errors?”

JC perked up.  “On what?  The model F you’re wearing?”

Kat shook her head, dug into her bag, and pulled out her old ARU.  “No, this model C.”

“Oh!  I can’t personally help you with that model, but Zee can.”  JC thumbed over to a girl at the next table.  “I think the Linz Correction firmware guard is giving you issues.  Zee fixed a couple of those for some of our regulars just yesterday.”

“Awesome, just what I was hoping to hear!” Kat said.  “Thank you.”

“Sure, no problem,” JC said, pausing.  “You said you’ve never been here before?”

Kat nodded.  “Yep.”

“Weird, you look sort of familiar.”

“Well, I can’t promise I don’t have a doppelganger, but I can promise this is my first time here.”

JC laughed and gave a slight wave.  “I’ll take your word for it.”

“Thanks, JC,” Nate said.

“Yeah, and nice to meet you.”

“You guys, too.”

Kat and Nate turned and walked over to the table Zee was sitting at, Kat once again preparing for a social interaction that she dreaded starting.

But, miraculously, she was spared from that horror.

“Hey,” Zee said.  “I heard JC say my name over there.  Who are you guys?”

“Hi Zee, I’m Kat, and this is Nate.”

Nate and Zee exchanged nods, and Kat stood there awkwardly, not sure if she should also nod or proffer a hand like she had for JC.  However, Kat was once again spared the trouble as Zee raised both her hands, palms forward.

“I’d shake your hands, but I’ve been ripping apart these old rigs for the past hour, and as you can see, my hands are a bit grimy.”

“No worries,” Kat said.  “I appreciate you stopping in the middle of what you’re doing to humor a couple strangers.”

“Trust me, it’s not unusual for me to get interrupted around here.  If I wanted no distractions, I wouldn’t be at First and Zero.”

Kat and Nate both laughed, Kat especially happy to see that Zee seemed pretty chill.

“You been here before?” Zee asked, eyeing Kat very peculiarly.

“No,” Kat said.  “First time for both of us.”

“Weird, could’ve sworn I’ve seen you before,” Zee said.  “Anyway, what can I help you with?”

Kat placed the ARU she was still holding on the table.  “I tried flashing this thing with the Harp firmware and it failed pretty badly.  JC mentioned maybe Linz Correction was the culprit?”

“Wow, this again, huh?” Zee said, reaching for the Model C.  “This is the third one I’ve seen this week.  Yeah, I can definitely fix this.”

“That would be great!” Kat said.

Zee took the ARU and pressed in a couple of buttons on the side to put it into wireless restore mode.

“You wouldn’t believe the crap they’re trying to pull to make these things tamper-proof,” Zee said, assumedly swiping at a bunch of menus that Kat and Nate couldn’t see.  “Surprisingly, though, that wasn’t the problem here.”

“Huh,” Kat said.  “What was it then?”

“And how’d you figure out the fix?” Nate added.  “Usually Kat can figure this stuff out pretty easily.”

“It was a total fluke,” Zee said, still swiping and poking at things they couldn’t see.  “The update worked on my Model C, but not Jenna’s.”  She thumbed to a girl a few tables away with a remarkably long side ponytail.  “When I looked at the firmware interface, I noticed different part numbers on the Hardware Security Chip.”

The gears in Kat’s brain suddenly began to churn.

“Oh!” she said.  “That makes so much more sense now!  Nate’s also updated just fine.”

“Yeah,” Zee said, “It’s frustrating, but they used different suppliers for the Hardware Security Chip.”

“What did you have to change to get Harp to work on the other HSC?” Nate asked.

“Luckily, the vuln that allows the Harp installation isn’t in the HSC, so all you have to do is make the installer ignore the hardware mismatch error.”

“So, the installation was failing because it thought my Model C wasn’t a Model C due to that one component difference…”

“Exactly,” Zee said.  “I should really get around to posting the fix online, but I keep forgetting.”

“I’ve actually been curious about this place for a while, anyway,” Kat said.  “Just needed a good excuse to drag him along with me.”

Nate rolled his eyes but remained quiet.

“I don’t know what I would do without First and Zero,” Zee said.  “The community here gives me purpose.  There’s just nothing else like it.”

“Not even other hackerspaces?” Nate asked.

“Oh, I’m sure there are some great ones out there.  It’s just more like…these people are my family, you know?”

“Right, I gotcha,” Nate said.

Zee made one big swipe downward, which usually indicated closing down an ARO.  “Done.”

“Wow, really?  That fast?” Kat said.

“Trust me, it took a lot longer the first time.”

Kat picked her old ARU up off the table and examined it briefly.  The status indicator was glowing faint white, which meant that it was booted and awaiting skin contact.  With little hesitation, she plucked her Model F off and situated the Model C in its place. 

“You ever used that model in a place with this many AROs before?” Zee asked.

“No.  Judging from how hot my Model F was getting, I can’t imagine performance was that great.”

“They normally scale the integrity down based on your preferential order,” Zee said.  “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that with HarpOS, though.”

“Whoa, no kidding,” Kat said, glancing around the room as if she were seeing it for the first time.  “This thing is keeping up as well as the new one.”

“HarpOS handles local ARnets way better than the stock stuff,” Zee said.  “If you were looking at an ARO cluster like this outside, integrity scaling would definitely be noticeable.”

“This is so cool, I can’t wait to mess around with this when I get home,” Kat said.

“I have to ask, out of curiosity,” Zee said.  “Why did you care about installing HarpOS when you have a Model F?”

Kat answered without hesitation.  “The privacy controls.”

“Ah, you wanted to test the Discretionary Anonymization System before putting it on your new ARU.  Smart.”

Kat nodded, continuing to examine her surroundings.

“She’s a bit of a privacy nut,” Nate said.

“I don’t blame her,” Zee said. 

“Do you have HarpOS on your main ARU?” Kat asked.

“I do,” Zee said.  “Linz Model F, just like yours.  No problems so far.”

“Cool, well, I can’t thank you enough for sparing the time to fix this for me,” Kat said.

“No worries,” Zee said, pausing and quickly eyeing Kat again from top to bottom.  “You sure you’ve never been here before?”

“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Kat thought, but kept to herself as she searched and found the only answer she really had.

“Yeah…”

“Sorry, I believe you, I could just swear…well, anyway, catch you again later maybe?”

Kat glanced over at Nate.  “I guess since I don’t have to worry about dragging him along, probably so.”

“Oh please, you know I’ll probably tag along anyway.”

Zee laughed and half-waved.  “Take care, you two.”

Kat and Nate reciprocated the gesture, turned in the direction they’d come from, and began walking.  Nate, having become more and more intrigued with the place, was moving at a snail’s pace as he admired each and every little group doing its own thing.

“Do you want to hang for a bit before leaving?” Kat asked, unable to ignore Nate’s obvious fascination.

“Sort of,” he said, homing in on a group in the corner.  “There are some people back there playing old tabletop games, and I think they’re real.”

Even Kat’s eyes lit up at that news.  “Whoa, really?”

She followed Nate’s gaze to the back corner, and sure enough, it appeared that there was a group playing actual, physical tabletop games.  Kat couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a real game, as almost everything in that genre had been replaced with AROs, which technically made them video games, if you wanted to split hairs.

“I’m with you, we gotta check that out,” Kat said.

Nate nodded and began leading the way through the groups of people and Ghosts.  It was actually a bit crowded, and even though you could technically ignore the tactile feeling from AROs that typically had collision turned on – like Ghosts – you could simply push your way through if you wanted to, but that was considered rude to anyone the Ghost might be interacting with.  For that reason, if there was a crowd of Ghosts around even just one person, you wouldn’t just go walking through the middle of them.

That didn’t mean you couldn’t excuse yourself and ask to be allowed through, though, which was what Nate was attempting to do as he played Moses with the sea of Ghosts and people that stood before him.

As they made their way through the crowd, it was inevitable that they’d bump into a few AROs and people in such a crowded space, and Kat quickly noted that even with HarpOS running on her newly improved Model C, she still couldn’t turn off collision entirely in a private ARnet…unless there was something she was missing.  It probably wasn’t the best idea to pore over ARU settings as she followed Nate, and sure enough, as soon as the thought crossed her mind that she should wait till later, she slammed right into the back of a Ghost.

Well, maybe “slammed” isn’t the best word, but full on ARO collision did cause every touch-based sensory implant to vibrate as forcefully as possible, which was arguably almost as jarring as actually walking into a person.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Kat said as she practically jumped back.  She didn’t know why she found herself apologizing to the Ghost, but as the last generation before the Ghost Generation, it was likely just force of habit that was probably already dying out of the social conscience. 

The Ghost, a female, began to turn around just as you’d a expect a person to in the same situation.  Kat always felt awkward looking Ghosts in the face, because she knew she was literally staring in the eyes of a dead person, but as this Ghost’s profile came into view, Kat began feeling a very different emotion than mere embarrassed self-consciousness.

The raven bangs, the pale skin, the lazy makeup, the impossibly green eyes – it was like looking into a mirror.  Kat’s blood ran cold as her mind emptied, searching for an explanation of what she was seeing.

But there was none.

As soon as the Ghost made eye contact with Kat, its own eyes grew wide, and it winked out of existence before Kat could force a word out of her mouth.

“Kat?  Kat, what’s wrong?” Nate said, now having turned back to see why she was no longer behind him.

“I…” she trailed off.  “I…”

“Yeah?” he said, seeming more and more concerned the longer Kat fumbled over the pronoun.

“I just saw my own Ghost.”

January 21

SASPER (Chapter 1, cyberpunk novel)

Chapter 1

Nathaniel Droyer raps his thumb against the bottom of the leather-clad steering wheel of his three-year old SASPER sedan as it carries him down I-10 east just outside of New Orleans.  The electric blue gauges cast a dim illumination into the car, but it is drowned out by the conglomerate glow of headlights and taillights leaking from outside.  Nate normally drives himself, but he’s exhausted from a long day in Baton Rouge, and he can barely keep himself awake.  He has to do at least that much, as he doesn’t trust autocruise quite as much as others seem to.  He needs to keep an eye on the car, just in case.

This is undoubtedly more boring than actually driving, but if he does fail to control his fatigue and drift off into some state of slumber, the consequences will be far less dire this way.  After all, Nate is very familiar with the statistics: last year there were just over 5 million traffic accidents caused by drivers of traditional cars, and only about 600 accidents total with a SASPER self-driving car at fault.  Considering their 22% market penetration, 600 accidents was a drop in the barrel.

Nate knows that statistics don’t lie, but he doesn’t want to become one of the marginal 600.  Paranoia is a major problem of his, but understanding, and consequently not trusting technology had gotten him this far.  He is on year 31 of his miraculous streak of not succumbing to death, after all.

Paranoia and willpower can only do so much to keep Nate awake, though.  He is almost back to the hotel, he knows if he can just hold out another 10 minutes, he’ll be able to rest safely in the bed he’d slept in for the past few days.  But the weight of his eyelids seems impossible to overcome.

What could go wrong in 10 minutes anyway?” he reassures himself.

Nate is abruptly awakened by the nightmarish sound of metal scraping, crunching, and compacting.  His car is stopped, and the display shows a string of notifications he’d not been awake to see.

“Impending collision detected.”

“Collision avoided.”

“External collision detected.”

“Rerouting; halting.”

Nate looks out the windshield and tries to discern what had happened.  He reaches out to the display and slides his finger across each notification.

“This city and its motherfucking drivers,” he groans.  For as much as he didn’t trust his SASPER car, he was glad to have it in this place.  He fumbles for the door release and clicks the slider back.  The door pushes itself outward with a whir, then slides forward.  Nate exits the car, casually muttering, “headlights on.”

He makes his way closer to the accident.  Other cars are whizzing by, seemingly unfazed by the wrinkled up transportation cans.  Nate wonders what he would’ve done had he been driving; if he would’ve stopped had his SASPER car not automatically done so to avoid being involved in this very wreck.  Probably not, he thinks.  He doesn’t particularly care for blood.  Or death.

His eyes are drawn to movement in one of the vehicles – an old car with sharp lines that belie subtle curves.  Nate studies it for a moment, decides it has – or had – a certain boring charm, but is now sporting thousands of dollars of front end damage.

The driver door swings open, and a pale man steps out, clutching onto the roof of the car for support.  He’s dizzy, maybe.  Or just too shaken to stand on his own.  His clothes are ill-fitting; the shoulders of his shirt much too big, his pants drowned his legs.

“Are you okay?” Nate calls out.  The man doesn’t respond.  Nate decides that if the man can stand, he’ll probably be alright sooner or later, so he diverts his attention to the other car.  This one has no lines, no flat surfaces, nothing sharp.  It is glossy, it has curves that beget curves, endlessly.  It is compact, a coupe, and makes no excuses for its lightweight design.  Despite the damage to the rear driver’s side panel, it is beautiful.  A throwback to yesteryear, reminiscent – however ironically so – to sports cars that were meant to be driven.

“A SASPER 7?  No way…” Nate says.  He rushes over to it, ignoring the man from the other car.  He forces his sight through the darkly tinted windows for signs of life inside, but the body he makes out is still.  Nate backs up, reaches under the door to the rocker panel, and finds one of the emergency door release buttons that’s recessed into the underside.  If the SASPER 7’s computer was still working properly, it should’ve registered a collision and unlocked the doors automatically.  That doesn’t mean the door will still work, though.

The door reluctantly releases and begins sliding forward, but the damage is apparently more serious than just the outer panel, and the door sticks halfway open.  Nate briefly considers how much force it must’ve taken to bend the frame of a SASPER car, but it’s a fleeting thought.

He reaches into the car’s luxurious interior, noting the smell of clean leather and the spicy base note of a cologne he almost recognizes.  The man inside looks to be unconscious, but Nate isn’t qualified to make any judgements of human health.

“Hey, wake up,” Nate says.  He reaches a hand out to shake the man, but realizes that he may serve to agitate a sustained injury by doing so.  Frustrated, Nate mutters, “Crap,” and looks up at the SASPER’s console display.  Across a shadowed gray background in clean, blue typeface were the words “EMERGENCY SERVICES CALLED” and directly below that, “EMERGENCY SERVICES DISPATCHED.”

There’s nothing more Nate can do about this man’s well-being, but…

He circles the car, slides the passenger door open, and enters.  “SASPER emergency mode,” Nate commands.  “Accident replay.”  The display in the center console cleanly transitions to a video, with a wireframe overview being rendered on-the-fly in the top right corner.  He watches as the old car puts on a turn signal and legally changes lanes in front of the SASPER 7.  The SASPER speeds up, swerves in front of the other car, and hard brakes.  The wireframe shows a side impact to the SASPER 7 and a front impact to the other car, noting that autocruise was on the entire time, without any human intervention.

“What the hell?”  Nate says, replaying the last few seconds of the video.  “It was the SASPER’s fault?”  It’s a statistical outlier within a statistical outlier, for more than one reason.

“SASPER emergency override,” Nate commands.  “Operator code 744809.  Show event logs.”  The screen transitions from video to text display.  It is crude; a terminal not meant for consumer eyes.  Nate filters the logs, collapsing everything that wasn’t in the 60 seconds prior to the accident.

The event codes don’t make any sense.  Nate furrows his brow, flicks his finger across the screen, pinches and zooms to examine what he’s seeing.

His eyes hadn’t deceived him.

Of the 600 recorded traffic accidents last year with a SASPER car at fault, and of all recorded traffic accidents in history involving an at-fault SASPER car, there has never been a case where a SASPER hit another car.  That is to say, every at-fault SASPER accident was a single-car accident.  Last year, 600 SASPER cars in autocruise mode had detected an impending accident, and had flung itself off of the road in the safest way possible – as it was programmed to do – to minimize possible causalities.  All 600 accident cases involved the SASPER car, and the SASPER car alone.

This was the first time in their 9-year history outside of factory testing that a SASPER car has hit another car.  The SASPER clearly made a decision based on its very complicated accident-avoidance algorithms to involve another car.  As much as Nate couldn’t believe it, the event logs show it as plain as a cloudless, sunny spring afternoon.

Nate didn’t trust SASPER cars, but he knew the accident-avoidance algorithm’s logic was sound.  He’d sat through so many conferences, board meetings, compliance hearings…God, too many to think about.  Every engineer in the company had pored through the code with a fine-toothed comb, analyzed every bit that had a potential to cause an issue.  The head engineers wrote line-by-line documentation of the code.  Change control was strict; those meetings were a nightmare.

But just as Nate’s paranoia defies his own logic, here it has seemingly been justified.  Did the SASPER purposely cause a wreck?  There are no alerts in the logs, nothing to indicate that this wreck had been caused due to avoidance of some other possible collision event.

Nate steps out of the car and cranes his neck in search of the driver of the other car.  He’s still standing there, pale as paper is white, just staring into space.

“Hey!  This car hit you, right?” Nate voice is more commanding than he intends.

The pale man pivots his head like an oscillating fan.

“Wha…what?”

“This car caused the accident?”

“Y…yeah.  It swerved…in front of me.”

“Any idea why?”

“No.  It…it was really random.  Like, for no reason.”

Nate knows computers don’t do anything without a reason.

“Thanks.”

He pulls out his PerCom, surveys the SASPER with suspicious eyes as he speaks.  “Iris, is Kat busy?”

“Kat is available,” the PerCom says.  “Should I contact her?”

“Yes, by phone please.”

“Calling Kat now.”

Nate anxiously waits for Kat’s voice.

“Hello?”

“Kat, I need a favor.”

“Jesus, Nate, can’t you say hi first?”

“Sorry, I uh…it’s important.”

“What’s up?”

“I’m standing five feet away from a SASPER 7.  I need you to pull its SASPERnet logs as soon as you possibly can.”

“You know I can’t do that without an authorization from the owner.”

“I have access to the computer.  I’ll override the authorization request.”

“You know I’m not a fan of ethically murky requests.”  Kat pauses.  “How do you have access to a SASPER 7 anyway?  There are only 49 of those in the country.”

Nate bites his lip.  “You won’t believe me until you see the logs.”  The PerCom vibrates lightly in his hand as a notification for a location request pops up.  He approves the request, allowing Iris to send Nate’s GPS coordinates to Kat.

“You’re freaking me out a little.”

“It’s warranted.  Trust me.”

Silence creeps into the conversation for several seconds.

“You’re in Metairie, Louisiana?”

“Yep.”

“Well, there are no other SASPER 7’s in the state, so this ought to be easy to pinpoint.”

Nate hears a siren in the distance.  He glances over at the pale guy that’s drowning in his own clothes, then slides back into the passenger seat of the SASPER.  The man in the driver’s seat – if you can even call it a “driver’s” seat anymore – is still out cold.  “Ready when you are.”

“It’s pinging SASPERnet.  The authorization request has been sent.”

Nate sees the notification pop up onto the screen.  It pulses blue and white, trying to get the driver’s attention.  For whatever reason, this guy had turned off the SASPER’s voice assistant.

“SASPER emergency override.  Operator code 744809.”  The screen flashes to a console, then back to the authorization notification.  Nate does not hesitate.  “Authorization approved, send logs now.  Grant root access, wipe 10 minutes’ previous access records on completion.  Confirm operator code 744809.”  The display transitions to a progress bar, completes transmitting the logs, flashes once to indicate root access, and then goes back to emergency notification mode:  “EMERGENCY SERVICES CALLED, EMERGENCY SERVICES DISPATCHED.”

“Got the logs,” Kat says.

“Thanks, I owe you one.”

“Now, are you going to tell me what this is all about?”

Nate exits the wrecked SASPER and begins walking to his own.  “This SASPER 7 caused a wreck involving another car.”

Kat is silent for a moment.  “How is that possible?”

“You tell me.  You’ve got the full autocruise logs.”

“Holy shit Nate, this is bad.”

“No Kat, this isn’t bad,” Nate says, looking back at the victim of the wreck, who has slightly regained some color.  “This is way fucking worse than that.”

April 20

Creation

Morgan’s hair was streaked pink and blue and blonde that morning.  It looked like cotton candy or bubble gum or birthday party streamers.  Cal had seen her the day before when her hair had been all one color –  bright red, but still one color.  He would’ve been more surprised if her hair stayed the same color for longer than a week than he was at seeing this new cacophony of color.

He could have the same conversation he’d had with her back when they’d met in college – that she was too old to be doing things like that; that she wasn’t a skater punk.  Nine years later, he’d long given up on that and gotten used to her eccentric hair.  Maybe he’d even grown to like it.

“How’s the research going?” Cal asked.  He flipped through a notebook with hand-written diagrams and symbols and scribbles of things he only barely or partially understood.

“Decent,” she said.  “I was up until three trying to make sense of Martin’s notes, but I just don’t get this neuroscience stuff.”

“What’s decent about that?”

“I don’t think we have to understand it to get Kytara to function at a basic level.”

“Martin’s research was pivotal to understanding any of this,” Cal said, gesticulating at the server cluster behind her.  “Kytara is dead in the water without him.”

“Not necessarily,” Morgan said, shuffling through another notebook that she’d seemingly pulled out of nowhere.  She stopped on a page and her face lit up.  “Ah, here it is.”  She handed the notebook to him.

“Kytara…revision…99…”   Cal looked up from the page.  “What does this say?  Martin’s handwriting looks like chickenshit.”

“Neuralware unnecessary for Kytara project.  Revision three of Kytara OS software with standard neuralware has 99.5% probability of compatibility.”

Cal froze.  “You’re kidding me.”

Morgan shrugged and pointed at the words in the notebook.  “Martin said it, not me.”

“How could standard neuralware possibly handle that much throughput?  The synapse translation algorithm would burn a hole in your head.”

“I don’t know, but Martin’s notes from the few days preceding his death show that he definitely thought he was on to something.”  Morgan grabbed a datacard off of the desk and handed it to Cal.  “Check out the one that smells like coffee.”

“All of Martin’s files smell like coffee.”

“Not on that card,” she said, making a face.

Cal took the card and held it flat against his fingers.  The data instantly transmitted to Cal’s neuralware and assigned the proper receptors to each file.  Some were named like traditional computer files, such as “March 12th research data.”  Other bits of data only had smells or colors or warmth.

“Fuck, everything on this card smells like pot,” Cal said.  “Was he doing all of his work stoned?”

Morgan shrugged.  “Probably.”

Cal continued sifting through the data until he finally found the only one that smelled like coffee.  It was lukewarm and held no identifiable data other than the standard timestamps from its inception and modification.

He opened it up and took a look at its contents.

“Whoa.”

“Found it?”

“Yeah.”

“Saw the part about data streamlining?”

Cal flipped the datacard around in his hand and held it out to Morgan.  “The entire thing was about data streamlining.”

“I mean the part that’s relevant to Kytara.”

Cal grinned.  “I know.”

“So what’d you think?”

“If we can seriously solve this with code rather than beefier hardware in our heads, we’d be 100 years ahead of anyone else on the planet.”

“They already have functioning AI in a few of the western European states,” Morgan said.

“Yeah, but have you ever tried one of those?  They are artificial, and they are intelligent, but they’re intelligent on the level of an orangutan or a dolphin.  If the Kytara project bears fruit, we’ll have an AI that’s intelligent at or beyond a human-like level.”

Cal pulled a datacard out of his pocket and bent the corner, simultaneously activating a fingerprint encryption algorithm.

“Hold this.”

“Got something on there you don’t want me to see?”

Cal grinned.  “Maybe.”

Morgan reached out and flattened her fingers on the half of the card that Cal wasn’t touching.  There was only one file she could access.  Cal had turned the rest of them into gibberish – smells and colors and letters that had no meaning whatsoever until they were decrypted.

“What is this?  An awkward proof of the Sullivan Construct Theorem?”

Cal laughed.  “Look closer.”

Morgan arched an eyebrow and further examined the data.  This file was mostly text, a few pictures, and a poorly recorded video in measly 4k resolution.  Normally, this data would’ve taken hours to sift through, but with the neuralware reading the datacard and dumping it directly into her brain, it took only a few seconds.  The only thing that really took time was analyzing the data.

“No, no way.  You wrote this?” Morgan asked.

Cal nodded.  “Martin suggested that I do some research on some data of his – the video and pictures that you just saw – and that’s what I came up with.”

Morgan stared awestruck and dumbfounded.  “You reproved the Sullivan Construct Theorem using Calloway computational standards after adding a feature shell and removing a complexity layer?”

“I did,” Cal said, flattening the corner of the card by pressing his finger against it, simultaneously decrypting the entirety of the data on the card.  “Check the rest of the data.”  Cal let go of the card.  She took it out of his hand and analyzed it for a few moments.

“That magnificent son of a bitch…” Morgan gasped.  “He had us each working on complementary halves of the same puzzle.”

“It appears that way.”

“How did he know?  And why didn’t he tell us?”

“I don’t know,” Cal said, “But if we’re right…if Martin was right…this is the beginning of a new software age.”