by Kathleen McFall
Upload archivist needed - Category: Recent history - 150 points for 90 BaseINC allotments
That was it. The full OPP description. Twelve words. Typically, a licensed OPP ran on for paragraphs, sometimes multiple screens. Yet, of the nearly two hundred OPPs Vingah scanned this morning, this tiny twelve-worder was the only one that matched her allotment budget, would bump her up to the threshold and was, most important, available now. Today.
Sure, it was a little worrisome the listing was buried so deep, at the very bottom, and worse, there was no prior uptake even though the OPP was four years old.
Was it too risky, she wondered?
But desperation is the mother of self-deception, and Vingah was desperate. The offered points were high, amazingly high.
Instantly, the return message came across, an auto-reply requesting affirmation her upload capacity was aligned. She looked over the specs. Real old school, like stuff her Dad tinkered with in his garage. Not much in use anymore, but sure, I can do this, Vingah thought. Piece of cake. An appointment time was set, and she established a neural correlate meeting room, using her mental theater scene as the base.
Then one more message came across, just as she was disengaging. You will protect the world.
Weird, Vingah thought. But so what? She would log the time, get the points and boom, gone. A new life. The month’s BaseINC registered at noon, and she would use it to check into temporary housing. Hitting the 400 threshold OPP score today would make that much easier.
One hour until the OPP. Enough time to make an appearance at work and clean up.
When Oliver left this morning without a word, not even an I’m sorry, baby, I’ll never do it again, Vingah made a snap decision, the tentacles of which must have been lurking beneath her surface for months.
Where to disappear was still an open question. One step at a time, she thought. Divert, get to the threshold OPP score, leave.
First, divert. Vingah had three unused avatar days left this work unit; today she was using one, but still needed to check in. She activated the ear-buds, clicking into watch mode. Vingah-avatar sat at the conference table for the corporeal design team meeting at Vector 221 and Box 30. She hadn’t used an avatar day in, well, she couldn’t even remember. A long time, clearly, judging from the appearance. She had forgotten to activate the style upgrade; her avatar hair was short and red, the opposite of how she wore it now—coned up and black.
Listening and watching, Vingah-avatar was subbing in fine, although her projected image on to the assigned local worker-bot was scattered along its edge, a trembling fade, not a dead giveaway of her upheaved state of mind, but close. At a lull, she opened the audio.
“Sorry to miss the meeting,” she said, keeping the reverse visual outlet blocked. If her co-workers saw her face, they would make the mandatory report. She fake-coughed a few times.
“Get better soon,” Jeremy said. “We’ll be sure the av has everything you need to catch up on the outreach campaign later.”
“Love your old hair. Didn’t know you went through a short, spiky phase,” Pinky said.
Vingah grimaced. “Hideous. What was I thinking?”
Pinky laughed. Vingah gave another fake cough and signed off. She cinched her robe at the waist, walked into the bio-room and examined herself in the portfolio reflections. The right side of her face was purple. She lightly touched around the edges of the bruise, and winced.
How had her life, so full of promise, been reduced to this? Hindsight always shone light on the paths not taken, but she wished that light would sometimes illuminate the moment itself, so she wouldn’t always miss her turnoff.
She gestured, a movement programmed to activate the neural nodes, and pushed out her thoughts. The situation demanded pragmatism. Later, she could mourn. And wonder.
Was it necessary to try to hide the wound for the OPP session? Yes, probably, she decided. No telling who would be on the incoming side of the upload. She smoothed skin-toned paste over the bruise, but after a few tries, the wound still simmered. Manual override was not going to cut it. Vingah touched her cheek in the mirror, reactivated the thought followers, and requested color-coded instructions with product manifest. After four swipes, cocking her head first to the right and then to the left, she decided it was hidden well enough.
She dropped the robe and stood naked. Looming large against her small frame, rising below her ribs were three more welts, mottled green with speckled red, reminding her of the holly bush in her parent’s front yard.
Vingah selected a silver body hoodie from the catalog, one with opacity fabric woven in, waited the minute while it manifested, and then zipped up ankle to chin. Presto. Vingah looked normal. She made a face at the mirror, sticking out her tongue, armoring herself for what was coming.
Thirty minutes. While coffee manifested, Vingah did the math. Last month, she came closer than ever to breaking 400 by a marathon participation in six Redistribution Opportunities, or OPPs, as everyone called them. Now, after she finished today’s OPP, her community score would finally pass 400, the minimum for the next step on her ascension track, and a requirement for the level of housing she wanted.
Redistribution was voluntary, but professionally mandatory, in her corporeal group—if you didn’t need the BaseINC you tithed it, or some portion, into a licensed OPP. The OPPs were people or programs that did need it. The system kept the money moving around, flowing where it could be used or invested. The more you tithed, the higher your score, the more prestige, the better corporeal jobs available to you. And so on. Some OPPs required involvement, others just straight BaseINC allotments.
All kinds of socio-genetic studies had shown that the OPPs score was a predictive metric for corporeal worker success. Turns out, the giveaway of BaseINC was a neural correlate to empathy. Empathy was the one thing the bot-avatar workforce couldn’t replicate, even with the adaptive learning algos—not yet, anyway. The same studies concluded that the flip was true as well; greed couldn’t be replicated, but greed hadn’t been shown to track with success, at least not inside the BaseINC economy. Maybe outside, but why would anyone bother?
When Vingah received her first BaseINC five years ago at the initiation age of 25, she and Oliver were already together, both working, no children, no big expenses, and they could spare some of the BaseINC allotment. It was the time in their professional paths to build up their OPPs score.
Some people complained that the OPPs system favored people with non-BaseINC, like legacy wealth or corporeal employment, those who could afford to give away their allotments for ascension leverage, but Vingah didn’t agree. If you wanted to live above the standard pegged to BaseINC, you could pool, and lots of people did.
Take her brother. Seven years ago, when he hit 25, he and six friends pooled their BaseINC to start a vegetable co-op on the high-altitude ag-zone, an outpost with experimental recovered soils. They farmed, ate their own vegetables, raised children and bartered for whatever they couldn't make. Last year, her brother celebrated when his veg co-op was removed from the licensed OPPs listing because it had met the sustainability check. Now, he was working to build up his own OPPs score.
Vingah decided to do the OPP upload in the local gather, walking the few blocks through a neighborhood so familiar she barely noticed it. Around her, corporeals whizzed by—chatting, eating, floating. Bot-avatars worked, cleaning the pathways, ferrying goods. Transports slid through the upper zones and rumbled below. Her father once told her it wasn’t always this good and safe and productive, but it had been for so long, no one remembered otherwise.
In the gather-room, she took a seat in a corner near a window, asking the waiter-avatar for red wine. A small crow—a teen, maybe—landed on the sill, squawked twice and flew off. She watched it perch at the top of a tree, balancing on the tiniest of branches that bounced beneath its tender weight.
Two minutes to connect. She checked her neural transmitters and brought forward errant thoughts about Oliver, her brother, and everything else and then gestured to swipe them clean. Didn’t want any identifying clutter in her theater for the link.
Then she brought forward what she knew about recent history, the designated category for this OPP. There was just enough time to manifest and push those concepts out of the theater, too. They would muddy the upload, even with this outdated technology.
One. She knew that sometime during the old calendar, there was an insurrection or uprising. Some damage, and some deaths, but not many.
Two. A government, some legacy government, she was not sure which one, put out a pulse that wiped everything clean, destroying digitized history which, as it turned out, was almost all history, except the most ancient. There were stories it caused half the corporeals to go deaf. But everyone was sorry about it now. Reparations were made.
Three. Sometime after the pulse, the BaseINC fund was created. The metal machines evolved into the bot-avatar system, and later the OPPs system spontaneously evolved.
She swept the history thoughts outside. Her stage was clean now, ready for the OPP. She was excited—150 points for 90 allotments. Usually, it was a tenth that ratio. Get this done, then bye-bye Oliver.
Vingah ordered another red wine and activated her interior theater, selecting a seat in the front row. She designed her theater to look like small off-Broadway space, complete with glittery floor and track lighting. Since the OPP was coming to her, it was her scene to set. Whoever or whatever appeared in the OPP, she designated center stage with a brick wall behind it for the link.
Seconds later, a man manifested. He sat in a chair with wheels, like he couldn’t walk. Who couldn’t walk, Vingah thought? His face was a sea of ridges and canyons. Hideous, really. She leaned in to nuance the image and knocked over the wine.
“Oh shit, hold on,” she said. Outside the neural correlate, the waiter-avatar wiped up the mess, and Vingah signaled for a refill. The young crow flew by the window.
The old man spoke directly to Vingah’s unease, with a strong but trembled voice. “My name is King,” he said. “You have noticed. I am old, very old.” He laughed, each snort interrupted by a little cough. “Perhaps you have never seen anyone who looks like me.”
“I’ve seen a few,” she said. Once, long ago, in her parent’s house when she was a child. Another time, walking on the street. A gaggle of kids followed, pointing and being rude. But the old woman laughed at them, much like the wheezing gleeful sound this one was making now on her stage.
No one looked like King anymore because it was unnecessary. Corporeals or corps, as the non-machines were called, relied on the physician-avatars and the quantum-health cells from the health co-op to keep their biology static until voluntary termination, which was rare. Instead, most corps succumbed to a mutant virus in the short, deadly gap between when it popped up and before the scientist-avatars could manifest the q-cell antidote.
The way both her parents died three years ago.
The thought of her parents’ swift deaths still took her breath away, even now, but by this time she was accustomed to the bio-feeling, and counted on its manifestation, rendering its effect neutral, and she causally swiped it off. Focus on the points. Pragmatism wins the day.
“Why choose to look so wretched?” Vingah asked, mildly curious, but mostly making what she youthfully assumed was polite conversation.
“We all age, even if we arrest its appearance. I prefer interior-exterior alignment.” He laughed again, a heartier sound. Vingah began to wonder if the 150 points would be worth whatever was coming.
“I am relieved to find you,” he said.
“Me?” she said, surprised. “Why? Were you looking for me?”
“After four years of applicants, you are the only one to align with the upload specifications. The needle in my haystack has been located.”
“I don’t understand,” Vingah said, thinking okay, here comes the truth, the weird reason the score to cost ratio was so unbelievably good on this OPP.
King rolled back and forth slightly in the chair, and wiped away what looked like tears, but maybe that dripping water was just what happened to old eyes. How would she know?
“I’m sorry, I’m in a hurry,” Vingah said, her discomfort increasing, as she felt this old creature subtly probing the limits of her theater. There was no reason why he shouldn’t do this, she had not set the parameters to keep him contained, but still, it felt intrusive.
“I don’t mean to pry,” King said, sensing her concern. “I will get to the point.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your efficiency.”
“Are you prepared to upload?”
“Sure,” Vingah said. “I’m ready.”
He paused, looking down from her from the small brick stage, as if he was taking the measure of her, shaking his head sorrowfully, mouthing the words I’m sorry, but no one is ever ready.
She was thrown back hard into the seat, as image after image unfurled. Silently, he let them screen; buildings destroyed, throngs of skeletal corporeals begging, terror and tragedy from around the great cities of the world, women sobbing over dead children. She was frozen, her hands gripping the arm rests. A single cloud shaped like a giant mushroom of fire. Her empty stomach lurched, the red wine sloshing around and she worried she might be sick, as she watched people wandering the barren landscape on their knees, crawling, the rancid smell of burning flesh enveloping the feed.
King stopped the upload, and she took in two ragged breaths to steady herself. “What the—?” she whispered. “What is this?”
Without answering, he restarted and the upload zoomed in on familiar territory—her zone where she lived with Oliver, but from another time. People walking stone-faced, scared and dusty, taking shelter under crumbling bridges, in abandoned doorways, groups huddled together for warmth, wherever they could, old people, so many old people. She looked up, a single upper zone, opaque, and locked down, an army of metal robotics circling, nothing like dozens of free-travel transparent zones now.
Vingah’s neck snapped right at the images streaming in from that lobe. Blood pooling in the gutters. Mountains of rusting metal bots. Battalions of raggedy men and women marching lockstep, others in front, running terrified. The images kept coming, flashing fast, cruelly, microseconds of thousands after thousands, endless horror pushing into her brain.
Her breathing was labored, her mouth dry as sandpaper, and then finally the pace slowed down, fading into her father’s garage workshop, where little Vingah sat on a stool, watching him adoringly. He was a tall man with a beard he occasionally tugged out into fan shape, a silly gesture to make Vingah laugh, as he tinkered with her neural surface. Afterwards, they practiced an upload of his memory of her birth. Then, they ate cherry ice cream.
“What the hell is going on?” she asked King, threatening to break the link.
“I have shown you a small sample,” he said.
“What the hell have you uploaded?” she said. “I didn’t sign up for this.”
He twisted his mouth, as if considering carefully what to say.
“Tell me,” she insisted.
And then he began to speak, as the picture of little Vingah slurping an ice cream cone faded into black. “A half-century ago, there was an insurrection, what we now call the first Leveling Event. Three more followed. As machines replaced jobs, wealth was highly concentrated and sequestered, corporeal workers had no means to buy goods produced by the robot economy. Eventually, there was little left to do except fight for basic survival. And fight they did, our heroic ancestors.”
“I saw…a bomb, or something,” Vingah stammered.
He put his head in his hands. Vingah waited. When he spoke, his voice took on a deeper sound, an echo of tragedy. “The uppers had control of government weaponry, and at first, their coordinated strategy worked. When the news of that bomb blast spread across the world, the masses were scared into obedience. But even in their obedience, there was no work, and it couldn’t last.”
“There is nothing, no sign of any of this now,” she said. “Why don’t we know this?”
“After the bomb, but before the third Leveling Event, the uppers dug in harder, combined forces across the world, and put out a massive pulse, wiping away most of the historical record,” he said. “And for a time, preventing anything new from being recorded, except by a few.”
“But that was an isolated technological mistake,” she said. “That’s what we were taught in lessons.”
“You are correct, the wipe out of the historical record was a mistake, a side-effect. The uppers were not very good at fighting, it turns out. But the pulse itself was not isolated, it was one part of a decades-long battle.”
“Was there only one bomb?”
“As word got out that a second bomb would be deployed, a miracle occurred. A corporeal scientist discovered how to remotely disarm all weapons through the neural synaptic bridge. Every single one. The threat of violence from the few to control the many was instantly eliminated.”
“Why didn’t the other side pursue that knowledge?”
“They did, for a time, but then finally, a few from the uppers came to their senses, exhausted perhaps, and persuaded others, joining forces with the working corporeal masses,” he said.
Vingah said nothing. Was this some kind of performance art, a trick? She began to hope that maybe the OPP was miscategorized, not history, but a theatrical reimagining of history.
King continued. “In this country, ultimately, the constitution prevailed, a new government was elected, and the uppers endowed the seed fund which still today, decades later, anchors the BaseINC economy. Corporeals regained their footing, able to buy food and, later, discretionary goods. Soon, individual entrepreneurs began to pool their BaseINC allotments. Later, laws were recast requiring contributions into the BaseINC fund from the profit of those who owned bot-avatar workers. And when the voluntary OPPs system took hold on top of these fundamentals, the economy gradually, after a generation of ruinous fighting and devastation, recovered,” he said, his face now drawn and weary, as if the retelling of the past caused him to age even more.
“Why did it have to happen so violently? Couldn’t everyone see what prosperity the BaseINC economy would unleash?”
“Different views prevailed,” he said. “Profiteering success was the means by which people measured meaning in life, a game of winner takes all. It was a failure to envision a different path, a tragedy of the imagination.” He paused. “But it could all still come crashing down.”
A feeling of dread washed over Vingah.
“A small group protects the historical record I have just shown you along with the synaptic code that unlocks the neural correlates to remotely disarm,” he said.
“Protect it from what?”
“From those who would use it malevolently. Mutually assured peace.” He laughed again, and this time is sounded like an ancient wind.
Vingah tried to collect her thoughts, as the desperate images reverberated in her mind. And then it clicked. “In the garage?”
“Yes. Handed down from generation to generation. Your father chose you to replace him,” King said, letting out a fierce and long sigh. Vingah watched as the warren of wrinkles spread across his face seemed to loosen and flatten, as if gravity were reshaping his form. “You are now a single cell, one of a small group, diffuse and active, like the q-cells in the human body itself, keeping ahead of the viruses which would do the collective harm.”
Vingah had enough. Whatever this was, she wanted it to be over, to reverse time. “This is not the OPP you said it was. You are old and deranged.”
“Instructions are hidden in the upload code, and a message from your father. Your role is to carry this information and, when the time comes, find a new carrier. In the remote possibility the disarmament technology is ever needed, direction will manifest.”
“I came here to get to 400,” Vingah said. “Not to protect the world.”
“No one is ever ready,” he said, and then he shrugged, a movement that to Vingah seemed almost to signal indifference. “My job is done. The OPP points will be recorded. The rest is up to you. This time, Vingah, the path is well lit.”
And just like that, the old man broke the upload bridge. Vingah did the same, disconnected and immediately activated her synaptic purge.
But nothing happened. She tried again. And again. She restarted, but Vingah couldn’t purge. Her father’s image pulsated on to the stage. She shut that down, but it didn’t purge either.
The distant memories of that day in his garage wisped in. Her mother had hugged her afterward, saying she was proud.
Vingah rushed out of the gather-room, walking fast, hoping the motion would clear things up, give her some direction. She stopped in the middle of the transport conduit, concentrating as forcefully as she could manage, and tried to purge again. It didn’t work. Everything was still embedded. A horn blared and she stumbled back into the ped-lane.
And then she remembered. Oliver had access to her neural network. While Vingah didn’t understand what was happening, whatever it was she knew she didn’t want Oliver in on it.
First things first. She needed to terminate their joint BaseINC account. She stopped at the nearest pedestal and delinked the accounts. It wouldn’t take long for Oliver to be notified about the BaseINC delink. She didn’t have much time. She raced home to shut down the partner neural connect from Oliver at the manual level, the only way to be sure it could overcome his resistance.
When she opened the door, Oliver-avatar hovered at the entrance, following Vingah as she collected her things, lurking. He was suspicious. Why else would he be projecting now? She tried to act naturally, singing gently, and cleaning up a bit, but in the neural background keeping her focus on blocking her perimeter.
“Who was in that OPP?” Oliver-avatar asked.
“Nothing important, I got over 400, so I’ll be eligible for better positions when I ascend,” Vingah said.
“Good. We can increase our give-back of even more BaseINC allotment now, or pool it for special investments, that will really help our standing,” Oliver-avatar said. She heard a pinging noise. The delink notice coming in. Time to move.
“I’m going to shower now,” she said, shutting Oliver-avatar outside.
Vingah sat on the floor in the bio-room, the tiles cool against her thighs. Swiftly, she projected on to the idled domestic bot-avatar, and directed it to open the control panel and yank out the connection to Oliver. Within seconds, she felt Oliver’s sensors slip out of her neural network. Vingah concentrated, closing her eyes and forcing all of her activation energy into her stream, and it worked, she released the synapse to permanently lock him out, just as she heard him asking what was going on, then yelling, finally begging.
Please, Vingah. I won’t do it again. Please, don’t go.
Once a hitter, always a hitter, she thought. Five minutes later, Vingah was on the street, one foot in front of the other. She would go to her brother’s veg co-op, a safe spot to project her father’s message, and figure out what to do next. As the day curled into noon, she heard the ping of the new monthly BaseINC allotment crediting to her account, and she knew whatever was coming, it would be okay.
A young crow, perhaps the same one from earlier, landed on the top edge of a billboard, wobbling unsteadily for an instant, but then regained its footing and flew off in a new direction.