Introduction: So I sat down to write something uplifting and slightly funny, but it ended up turning dark and growing teeth – the tale of a prisoner doing hard time. Warning: contains a few scary and/or depressing moments.
This story establishes the moral center of my series of books; a bunch of disparate cultures united under the foundational principle that since biodiversity benefits us all, we should keep everyone alive and healthy.
Okay, that’s enough moralizing, let's get to the story. Here comes a whopping 9,537 words.
©2015 by Charon Dunn
After a long uncomfortable ride with his hands and ankles restrained, and a transfer to a second Ambit boat after the first one developed engine trouble, Joke finally caught sight of Justice. Towering out of the water and filling the sky, after hours and hours of nothing but gray waves. It moved like a living thing, constantly rebalancing its weight around the sturdy pyramidal base anchored deep into the ocean floor. Was it still the Carribbean, Joke wondered, or had they reached the Atlantic? The eastern cluster was smoking somewhere far to the northeast of him, leaving a sour black tinge in that corner of the sky to provide a properly gloomy backdrop.
Docking at the platform around the pyramid was unnerving. The constant structural swaying of the city itself woke a sense of something heavy overhead that was about to fall, and he supposed it was true, the sky really was falling. At least in his case.
He was hustled off the boat and through a corridor. He hadn’t spoken to the agents following his arrest. He was both grateful to them for saving his life and angry at them for making sure he’d be spending the rest of it in prison. Here in Justice.
He craned his neck for a last glimpse of the sky, before the firm insistent hands on his shoulders steered him through a door labeled with the long formal name of the facility. The only word he noticed was “Justice.” The Ambit officers handed him off to other Ambit officers, and they removed the restraints, but not before calling over a restraint bot. Joke settled into its cushioned embrace as it ferried him to an elevator, up some floors, to another elevator, down a hall and finally, into his very own private room.
It was very small, and lined with dull gray tile, and furnished with a small bench. Barely big enough to take three steps. Joke suddenly felt intense claustrophobia. The restraint bot spat him out and trundled back out of the room, locking the door behind it.
He stood there, rubbing his arms. Two and a half steps long. Two steps wide. The floor had several drains, and so did the walls.
“May I have your attention,” said a polite voice of indeterminate gender. “Please remove all of your clothing and place it on the bench, together with your other external items. You will have five minutes to comply before we use force.”
Joke wasn’t in the mood to be forced, so he removed all of his external items: a pair of pants, a shirt, some soft-soled shoes that smelled of sweat and ocean. Then he sat down on his bench and sighed. At one time, he had onboard brain mods that helped him commit his crimes, feeding him data and keeping him updated on his messages. The Ambit officers had burned them all out upon his capture, leaving the inside of his head tuned to an offline channel, with nothing onboard except his own thoughts. Those were scattered and disorganized, and tinged with depression. He hated being alone with them.
A door he hadn’t noticed before hissed open, retracting into the ceiling. Ahead of him was an empty space, decorated with soothing colored lights. The hair on the back of Joke’s neck stood up.
“Please advance into the chamber,” purred the voice. “You have five minutes to comply before we use force.”
Joke stood there with his knees wobbling for a long time, until he estimated his five minutes were nearly up. It was hard to tell in here, with no references. Then he took a deep breath and stepped forward. The door hissed behind him, sealing him in. A moan escaped from his throat as a surface behind him met with his back. A body harness slid over his torso, locking him in place.
The voice returned and directed him to stretch his arms up, and out, and forward. He moved his legs back and forth as commanded, and he got the sense that some wall was closing in, ending just outside the span of his reach, giving him just as much space as he needed. Right down to the centimeter.
He noticed his feet were wet. A moment after that, the voice reappeared, smugly informing him it had registered a surge in blood pressure, and would play some soothing music as the containment process continued.
Moisture crept up over his toes, up to his ankles, up to his knees. It wasn’t warm, or cold. It had no particular smell. When it got to chest height, a helmet descended from the ceiling, forming a perfect seal around the edges of his face, cupping his ears in protective shells. Enclosing his hair, as trimming appendages descended to shave it all away.
The back part of the helmet floated away as the fluid rose over the top of his bald head, leaving him tethered to a center support and completely submerged. The music continued to play, finishing up the song. The video monitors lining his facemask flickered to life and suddenly he was in a comfortable room, decorated in warm browns and yellows. He had an animated body, floating below him and slightly beneath him. He couldn’t quite see all of it, but it responded when he moved.
He experimented with his avatar body, walking it around the room, hopping, sitting, lying down. If he sat on a chair for any length of time, a barrier rose beneath his butt to support his weight. When he reclined, his weight shifted from his butt to his back. When he jumped, the surface beneath his feet dropped away for a moment.
His avatar body was wearing plain gray pajamas. Underneath them was plain smooth skin, without hair or muscle definition or scars. He still had a penis, but it was small and indistinct and resembled the one he’d had at age five. He ran his hand over his flesh and blood penis just long enough to satisfy himself that everything was still intact. He was certain a bunch of people were observing him, even though he couldn’t see them, and he wasn’t inclined to give them a show.
He turned his attention to his digital hands. They were smooth and fresh, with fingers that almost seemed jointless. When he plucked at certain items in the room, like the couch cushions, or the hassock next to the easy chair, there was a brief delay and then a muffled contact with some invisible floating simulated texture. The textures applied only to his fingertips; the surface beneath his butt felt the same whether he sat on the furniture or the floor.
Joke settled into the easy chair and relaxed. Prison wasn’t too terrible, so far. Neither was being submerged in a vat, until he thought about being locked inside it for the rest of his life. Where it was too dark to see his hair turning gray. Assuming they ever let him grow hair again.
A door opened and a cartoon woman entered. She was his size, and she had a scribble of magenta hair on her head, pointy breasts that stuck out at angles, and extra long legs. She wore a formal looking navy blue skirt, with a bib-fronted blazer. She had a glowing golden aura surrounding her. Joke realized that his avatar had one too. It was difficult to notice the aura when you were inside one.
She stared at him for a while, then she spoke, her animated lips not quite matching her words. “Joaquin Jibbly.”
“That’s my name. You can call me Joke.”
“I’m not your attorney. My name is Candra, and I’ll be doing your general orientation. And I’m familiar with the name, and I know there are several ways to pronounce it, and that it refers to the patron saint of cabinetmakers.”
“Cabinetmakers.” He wasn’t sure if she was being serious. Her animated face betrayed no emotion, until suddenly it did, and she collapsed into a fit of giggles.
“Lesson one. Emotion.” She smacked the wall with the side of her hand, turning it into a full length mirror showing their two avatars sitting comfortably in the room. Joke hadn’t seen his from a third person perspective yet and he stood in front of it, curious, while Candra droned on.
It looked like him, but a cleaned-up, healthier version.
“Your expression won’t change by itself. All your interactions will be poker-faced until you set up a series of emotions. You may select your favorite animations from a palette, and you can hotkey them for quick access.”
She rose and stood beside him, performing a wizardlike gesture. He copied her and a glowing keypad materialized in the air, hovering near his hands. Surface rose to met his fingers in the tank. He navigated his way through submenus for anger, and sorrow, and humor, and joy. “Use them for emphasis. You may find that many people won’t register your verbal expressiveness without an accompanying visual cue.”
“How do I get a fashionable outfit like yours?” He tried registering verbal expressiveness as he stared at her, reminding himself there was a person beneath her dead animated eyes. He wondered if it looked anything like the drawing.
“You won’t be fashionable for a long time. The only customization prisoners may request is a one-time gender correction. Interested?”
“Hair, clothes, artistic style, improved emotion animations, experiences, entertainment – you have to earn those things. If you were one of our non-prisoner residents, you would also have access to your own fully customizable home, but since you are a prisoner, you have a cell. You may retreat into it at any time.”
She made a big waving motion, and suddenly she vanished from view, reappearing a moment later to help him fumble his way through the gesture. When he succeeded, everything went black around him, as though he were standing in an underwater cave at midnight. He waved again and the room reappeared, and Candra was performing an elaborate celebration animation, complete with fist thrusting and a little dance step.
“So that’s where I go to sleep and shit?”
“I’m glad you asked about elimination.” She showed him a little video, describing how nanobots circled his nether regions waiting for elimination to happen, then containing it and whisking it out of the gel in which he was suspended, and porting it to a lab for routine analysis and destruction. There was a toilet rig that he could trigger to rise beneath him, in case his body demanded that he assume the posture. “After they’ve been here for a few years, most people don’t even bother,” Candra cheerfully informed him. “Just go ahead and eliminate wherever you’re standing. It’s not like anyone you’re talking to will know, unless you tell them.”
In order to eliminate, he had to eat. Food came in five textures: creamy, crunchy, chewy, doughy and quickmelt. As a prisoner, he had his choice of three flavors: sweet, plain, or savory, and his only beverage option was water. Food arrived at regular intervals whether he requested it or not, as dictated by the computers that kept everyone adequately nourished. “You get a five minute warning, in case you want to sit somewhere special while you eat, or assemble your friends, which won’t apply to you.”
“Where would I go?”
“An excellent question. The answer is that you will be limited to the plaza.”
She opened an animated door on the wall and led him through. Moving his legs to propel his avatar forward, he stepped out into bright daylight. Blue sky above, tufted with white clouds. Fancy brickwork beneath his cartoon feet, spreading into a massive disc of plaza, ringed with ornate buildings decorated with lights and posters and flowers. It looked like some place he should recognize from films, an important place.
“Take a good look,” Candra said.
She made another one of her wizard’s gestures and the buildings dissolved, losing their decorations. Blank slabs of concrete appeared in their place, windowless and stark. The blue sky above transformed into a cloudy overcast gray.
“The prison version,” he guessed.
“Exactly. They make us give you a glimpse of the real thing, just to give you a promise to dangle over your head, except not even that is the city most of us see. There are civilians living here too, not just prisoners. People who are old, or who have been in terrible accidents, or whose bodies just don’t work properly. Some of us just enjoy the idea of living in a vat. This is the city we see.”
She held up a square frame in her two hands and showed him a video of the plaza he’d just left, crowded with people. People drawn in all kinds of artistic styles, twodees mixing with threedees, exchanging greetings. A quartet singing a capella harmony. A small group doing synchronized exercise. A couple doing the tango. A little girl, riding on the shoulder of a giant cartoon monkey. The buildings around them bristled with lighted signs advertising experiences, and scenarios, and environments, and they displayed pictures of every kind of beautiful location imaginable, and everything delicious that one could eat, and all of the sexy animated people who couldn’t wait to meet you.
Candra clapped her hands and the frame collapsed. “We citizens can block people we don’t need to see, and they don’t even appear in our version of the plaza. There are thousands of people, standing here right now, all of them ignoring you. On top of that, I want you to know that a substantial number of us not only are ignoring you, we actively disapprove of your crimes and are petitioning for even harsher penalties. You’re a disgusting man, and I hope we never meet again. Goodbye.”
She made her wave gesture and blinked out, leaving him all alone in the gray plaza.
He waited there for three days. He slept during that time, and eliminated, both within the privacy of his darkened cell. He ate, trying all the flavors and textures and finding them all bland. He walked in circles around the plaza for hours, desperately looking for motion. The simulated sun rose and set, always in the same gray sky.
He tried the doors of all the indistinguishable gray buildings. None of them opened except one. It led to a plain little room with a wallscreen that displayed all of his legal files, in case he wanted to review them. He didn’t. He backed away and closed the door, but only after thoroughly checking to see whether he could contact other people on the wallscreen. He couldn’t.
He used to be good with machines. Quick at learning how they functioned, reducing them to parts, recombining them. That’s what had led him to trouble, if you extended the definition of machine to include flesh and bone. Joke did, or at least he had at one time. Back when he was smart, and had a reference database built into his head, feeding him scrolling information that only he could see.
Ever since they had burned away his mods he had felt hollow and ghostlike, insubstantial. Not quite empty. There was just enough of him to register that he was still alive, even though he didn’t deserve it, and that everybody he’d known for the past decade was dead. Everybody he’d known before that had cut him off.
It had started with the butterflies. His first viable creation, and in fact they lived twice as long as regular butterflies, which had been carefully reintroduced to various natural habitats throughout the world. The butterflies were white, with heart-shaped red spots on each wing, and they were created to commerate the marriage of Emilia de Finestra and Jally Crawp-Hoteq, a pair of horrible rich snobs. Joke hated them both. But he aspired to be a horrible rich snob himself someday, and he had delivered on their request for a unique biofabbed addition to their ceremony, and they had paid him, and he had weathered the storm of public disapproval afterwards.
There had been approval, too. Specifically, from the Red Flower Consortium, where there was always need for biofabbers with slippery ethics. They didn’t care that Joke’s degree was a freebie, or that he had already become a Joke, thanks to Emilia’s mangling of his name in her open public apology.
“It’s an ancestral name, on my mother’s side,” he muttered, kicking at nonexistent debris. His mother loved to sit for hours scrolling through her greatgreatgreat grands’ social media posts, trying to locate an ancestor with a more exciting life than hers. So far she hadn’t. They had always been the people in Apartment 4307. They weren’t going to rise any higher. At one time Joke had thought he would be the one to raise them higher, but after mom died, and his brother and sister cut him off after the butterflies … after he began working for organized crime, he basically stockpiled money. Occasionally he spent a week partying in Japan or Australia or the Mericas, not very long. There was always work.
Sometimes it was a one-shot, like a unique pet. There was plenty of dog and cat data on file to form a base model for most housepets, and customization was just a matter of adding whatever trunks or tentacles or skin texture or additional heads the customer wanted. Elephants and stegosaurs were popular, lapsized and cuddly, with hypoallergenic dander and glands that made their poop scentless.
Then there was a whole agricultural gray area that made up most of their work. People in the big cities fed themselves from vats of cultured nutrition generations divorced from harvested plants or animal flesh. People in rural areas preferred to get their nutrients the old fashioned way, even though the plants and animals they were eating had been reintroduced via labs. Via biofabbers just like himself.
Some biofabbers were celebrated as heroes. They made fish that recirculated oxygen, and anemones that gradually adjusted acidity levels. They had made the meaty bovine creature that was on Bonterra’s national seal, and the tasty sheeplike beast that was preferred in Samerica. They brought back long-extinct species and made pious documentaries about restoring life to a dead planet.
Then there were biofabbers who worked for outfits like the Red Flower Consortium. Mostly reverse-engineering livestock. Horses, all kinds of bovines, sheep, chickens, salmon – if an animal won a prize somewhere, eventually someone would steal a little of its blood or fur or feathers and give them to someone like Joke to run through the analyzers and figure out what made it better than the rest. Usually the assignment included fabbing a creature with the distinctive sequence, capable of breeding true.
That was the extremely illegal part. Transgenerational mods were illegal everywhere. Creating asexual butterflies with short lifespans was trivial in comparison. Joke had assisted in the creation of enough illegal livestock to populate a decent-sized ranch. Lots of racehorses, although he only saw them as gangly foals. He understood there was a plant lab that did similar work, but botany had never been his thing.
Then there were the meat targets. There existed, in the countries which still had rich people, individuals who fancied themselves hunters. They lacked only prey, since it was all extinct, and they were far too important to settle for shooting at drone targets like regular people. Joke made live prey for them, in whatever dimensions they ordered, with sweet tasty flesh and attractively patterned hides. Meat targets were born fully mature, and they could live up to a year if the hunt went unsuccessful, presuming they found a food source, such as each other. They were fabbed in batches, and customers would release them in remote locations and invite their friends for the occasion. Joke had been to a few hunts, but he had mostly hung back at the base, alphabetically working his way through the bar menu. Making meat targets was also very illegal, although the law was not likely to intrude upon the lives of people who enjoyed shooting them.
He wasn’t much of a killer. He fancied himself a creator, possibly even an artist. It had been easy with his mods. Research the project, locate the samples, run a bunch of database compares. Most of the actual calculations had been done by his onboard computer. Joke fancied himself as bright, but memorizing datasignature information with its billions of subfields was not a job for a naked brain.
In fact, it had been so long since his brain had been naked that he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Most of his memories were unpleasant. He’d been too intoxicated to remember the good ones. So he paced in circles, trying to think of things to think about, wondering if he’d spend the rest of his days this way.
On the third day, a person appeared in the plaza. She had prismatic hair and a gray suit, and was rendered in extra sharp resolution. She introduced herself as Linden Morward, and informed him that she was his attorney. And apologized for making him wait several days. “I was out of town for the holiday. Jozebo. Nobody else is really allowed to talk to you at this stage.”
“What’s Jozebo?” He lifted his physical eyebrow sarcastically until he realized he hadn’t preset an emotional animation to make his avatar do that.
“You’re not familiar with Jozebo?”
“One of those holidays that people who like to celebrate celebrate.” He activated his animation for “shrug.” “Holidays are for regular people. Family types. We both know what I am.”
Her avatar performed a polite nod. “You’re looking at a life sentence no matter what I do.”
“So sitting in this plaza until my heart finally gives out?” He paced back and forth as if trying to will it to happen faster.
“Your access increases as you move through your sentence. Eventually you’ll be allowed to interact with the other prisoners, and the scenery gradually appears given good behavior. And successful completion of quests, of course.”
“Quests.” He desperately needed that sarcastic eyebrow raise.
“For an example, I have a substance abuse quest that would award you sixty points toward the next visibility level upon completion.”
“I’ve never had a problem with substance abuse,” he said curtly, and when he realized he’d never abuse another substance again he nearly had a panic attack. He had experienced a couple of those earlier. Both times, there had been a sudden onset of neutral calm, as though the tubes and monitors keeping him alive had slipped him some chemicals. Nothing remotely like a buzz, just an absence of anxiety.
“I’ll drink to that.” She sat down, the curves of her back not quite matching the bench. Joke sat down beside her. “You’ll officially be charged tomorrow morning, and then I suppose I’ll be frantically preparing for trial. Compiling all those witness who’ll swear you’re a stand-up guy that performs life-saving surgery when you’re not saving kittens, lovable photos of you acting goofy on vacation and playing with kids and raising money for charity, all that documented evidence of you being safe and solid and reliable, all your school transcripts qualifying you to do advanced bioengineering, your loving family who will stick with you no matter what. You’ve got all that, right?”
There was a long pause. Joke reflected that Linden didn’t need a sarcastic raised eyebrow animation. She got it all across in the intonation. He finally said, “No, I don’t,” just as she said “I thought as much. It’s probably just as well. There’s not much you can say when you’re charged with creating a new species of deadly animal and releasing it into the wild. It will be difficult to find a jury that wouldn’t immediately sentence you to some gruesome medieval punishment, so you’ll be tried by a panel of judges with strong stomachs instead. I’ll see you tomorrow, at nine.”
“I haven’t got a clock,” Joke admitted. “Or a calendar.”
Linden pulled a tablet out of thin air and consulted it. “Wow, you’re stuck at entry level. Zero points. Probably because you got processed right before Jozebo and everybody wanted to start their holiday. I’ll give you some points for cooperating with counsel and having a noncombative demeanor.”
She tapped with fingernails decorated with scrolling animated scenes and something moved in the plaza. Joke’s eyes were drawn to it. A leaf, tumbling along the sidewalk. Not only that, but now one of the buildings had a lighted time-date sign. No temperature. No wind, either, despite the tumbling leaf.
Joke was mesmerized by the leaf, and he went over to watch it tumble while Linden took a quick call from her secretary about some woman who was charged with strangling her sister. It was an old-fashioned looking leaf, reddish gold, and he clumsily tried to catch it in his hand, but it moved right through him. He followed it all the way around the plaza. Linden had finished her call when he returned, and after getting his assurance he would be ready and available at the appointed time, she vanished.
It took the leaf seven and a half minutes to travel all the way around the plaza. Its path was somewhat randomized, according to Joke’s experiments where he stood in one place and waited for it to travel around, estimating its distance as it passed him. Sometimes it passed to the left, sometimes to the right.
It wasn’t the most interesting thing to do, but it was something to do, and he did it for a long time. The buildings had lights, now. Not all of them, only a few, but at least it broke up the grayness.
It occurred to him that he should try the doors again. Just to see if any had opened up as a result of his upgrade. He moved clockwise from the office containing his case file, and was rewarded when the seventy-fifth door opened. It had a windowed pane – Joke was certain all the doors had been gray and windowless the previous times he’d checked – and opened up on a lighted hallway. At the end was a door with a plate that said “Quests.”
So this was it. No medieval punishment, no hard labor breaking rocks. Endless video games. He opened the door.
Inside he found a wizard, carved in wood. Or, more accurately, digitally rendered as though it were a woodcarving. In his clasped and outthrust hands was a glowing purple orb. Joke reached out hesitantly and touched the orb, and a screen flashed to life, displaying a hand shape. He laid his hand on the plate for his scan, and that got him into a quest interface. He chose “list all quests” and got a message scolding him for being too low in level to accept any quests. There was a tantalizing display of quests he couldn’t have yet, such as Defeating the Dragons of Anger and Anxiety. In fact, he was only capable of accepting one: Jozebo Holiday Quest (expires in six hours).
He tapped the quest and it flashed briefly, acknowledging him. Then the display went blank. He poked and prodded at it. No result for a long time, and then a flashing “no quests available.”
Fine. The wizard lied. Joke headed back out into the plaza to check the other hundred and twenty-three doors. He noticed motion as he closed the door behind him, and it first he thought it was the leaf, but it was actually a boy. With shaggy hair and a yellow-and-black football shirt, and cheap scuffed shoes of the type Joke recognized from his own childhood. He waved. The boy beckoned.
“Are you my quest?” Joke asked when he reached the boy. A flesh and blood boy would have looked him up and down, but this one just gave a presentation smile, his animated eyes sparkling.
“It’s very nice to meet you. My name is Joseph Esposito, but most of my friends call me Joe.”
“Joe Esposito, Jozebo.”
“Exactly. I’m not the real Jozebo. He died, long ago. I’m a simulation, authorized by the historians’ union and animated by an artificial intelligence. You can see that I have no aura, and therefore am not an OI.”
That was true. Joe lacked the gold cloud that had surrounded Linden and Candra, signifying the presence of an organic intelligence. “I think they covered history in school,” Joke said. “During one of the parts where I wasn’t paying attention. I was more of a math guy.”
“And now you find yourself with a wealth of attention.” Joe cracked a smile animation. Since he was a preprogrammed AI, his emotional expressiveness flowed, unlike those of OIs who had to consciously invoke and perform.
“And nothing to do but walk in circles and worry,” Joke agreed.
“Come over this way.” The boy took off running. Joke followed, clumsily performing his first Justice sprint. They headed to a doorway which opened under Joe’s hand, leading into a swank lobby and then a theater. A fist-sized projection of the planet Earth rotated in the center of a room lined with screens, including the ceiling and floor. When Joke reached for the globe his hand passed right through it, but Joe’s hand lit it up, making it swell to beachball size. He grasped it with his fingertips, pausing its rotation, then spun it in the opposite direction.
Joke watched, fascinated, as the volcanoes cleared away, and a huge landbridge appeared, connecting Samerica and Namerica. The coast advanced and the polar frost retreated until the southernmost tip of Samerica was free and surrounded by blue, and the Carribbean was a friendly smile sandwiched by land instead of the middle third of the map.
“Twenty-one seventy-two,” Joe said. “Before the meteor. Before the domes.”
He punched his finger into the top swell of Samerica and the surrounding screens lit up, and Joke found himself standing in a cramped, dingy room crowded with dead people. They had dark lesions on their faces, and blood on their lips, and their bodies were emaciated, covered in stained ragged clothing. Joke startled, then began counting them. Eight, nine, no, one was alive. A child.
People in white biohazard suits pushed into the room behind him, walking right through him without acknowledging his presence. They headed directly to the crying child and plucked him from its dead mother’s arms. “That’s me,” Joe said.
The child was bigger than a toddler. Something was wrong with his lower body, which hung at an odd angle from his rescuer’s arms, and his thin arms jerked in spasm. The white-suited people carried him outside and Joke followed, watching as they dressed the child in clean clothes and scanned it, and finally fed it something that made it sigh in ecstasy.
The street outside was poor, and cramped, and dirty, and it was full of death. Corpses lay on sidewalks, all of them with the same lesions and darkened lips. Joke lost count. He watched the white-suited rescuers bundle the child into – an actual helicopter! It landed right next to them, and Joke was lost in contemplation of its beating rotors.
Sometimes he dreamed of living in the days when flight was possible. He had spend a sizable chunk of his childhood sleeping in a room decorated with aircraft, playing flight sims, watching movies about dogfights and test pilots. Atmospheric flight had been possible on a planet with a consistent atmosphere, and Earth wasn’t like that anymore. Assuming one were foolish enough to launch a plane, there was a more than likely chance turbulence would shake it to death once it reached altitude. Plus you would have to build it out of something guaranteed not to fall apart under the elements. Metal no longer fit in that category, and composite was a poor substitute, although it was good enough for thick-hulled ships creeping cautiously across the sea. And once you got your motion-sickness-immune pilot and your indestructable airship into the air, you’d have difficulty navigating given the large chunk of meteor embedded in this section of the planet, which had turned radio waves and compasses into nostalgic memories unless you were within physical sight of the transmitter. Jozebo seemed as though he’d had a terrible life, but at least he had gotten to ride on a helicopter, and of that, Joke was jealous.
“I was the only one with a natural immunity,” Joe said beside him in a dreamy voice. “Once they got me into the labs they were able to synthesize it and save all the people who hadn’t died yet. I only lived a few more years. I had some developmental problems, and I had suffered some broken bones and head injuries, most likely inflicted by my father. I never learned to read, and I didn’t speak very well. This version of me that is talking to you is based on what I would have looked like if I had grown up rich and strong and healthy.”
The dismal street scene melted and they watched young Jozebo take halting steps in a light exoskeleton, and babble curiously at an animated book. He was in a medical environment, filled with cleanliness and light, and helpful people. One of those helpful people was a thoughtful-looking man who presented Jozebo with a fat teddy bear, making him squeal with delight. The camera zoomed in on this man, then cut to him working alone at a wall filled with portals crowded with text and imagery.
“Doctor Egaryen took an interest in finding out exactly why I, alone, was immune. He analyzed my family tree.” This appeared as a massive spreadsheet of names, filling the wall. Joke studied them. He noticed several variant spellings which he thought indicated different cultures, and he supposed that meant Jozebo’s roots went back all over the world. He noticed an ancestor named Joacim, and he reached out to touch the name. It expanded, showing an old-timey photograph of a Swedish sailor and a couple of paragraphs relating he had spent a couple of weeks in Haiti in 1931, enjoying the company of a dancing girl named Isabel, which had resulted in another addition to the tree.
“We were humble people who weren’t very good at keeping written records.” Joe expanded one of the earliest entries marked “[Name Unknown]” and revealed a dense block of text. “It means,” he started, but Joke spoke over him.
“I can read it.” This particular [Name Unknown] bore an extinct blood grouping originating in the Amazon River area, which the reconstructionists compared to archeological evidence from several dig sites in the region, concluding that [Name Unknown]’s tribe died after contact with a neighboring tribe about seven hundred years prior to contact with Europeans, leaving only this one branch of descendants. This was the earliest they could trace the particular sequence that led to immunity.
More names were known after the Europeans arrived to write them down, connecting their own tidy geneology with Joe’s ancestors through clandestine fragile threads. Joke’s eye found a Joakum Wallace, descendant of Abyssinia Wallace, purchased at auction, aged seven months, the genetic descendant of a British duke and a [Name Unknown] from Senegal. Joakum went on to sire twelve children, most of them with Miranda Wallace, granddaughter of [Name Unknown] from Malaysia and Hong Li Chen, whose immaculate geneological records went back for centuries.
Joe gestured and Doctor Egaryen’s head appeared in a portal, explaining in technical terms how the genes from Ireland had teamed with the genes from Brazil to defeat the invaders from Tasmania via Louisiana. At the same time, a simplistic animation appeared to illustrate this, and Joke longed for his missing implants, since he found his focus drifting to the dumbed-down version.
Photos began appearing, of survivors, all over the world, holding up signs that said, “Thank you, Joe Esposito” and “Merci, Joe Esposito,” and “Gracias, Joe Esposito,” and similar, in many other languages. Alongside them were graphs showing the number of dead. A hollow-eyed girl posed beside a headstone bearing seven names, holding a baby who seemed to be her sister in one hand and a sign thanking Joe Esposito in the other. After several creative spellings, his name morphed into the nickname Jozebo, usually surrounded by a red heart.
“They gave me everything,” Joe said, enlarging a portal showing Jozebo watching a Broadway musical from a wheelchair in a private box, flanked by sharply dressed attendants and waving his hands in excitement. Another one displayed a physical therapy session in a pool surrounded by flowers, and a third one showed him smearing an elaborate dessert across his face while trying to eat it.
Another talking head popped up to say that according to Egaryen’s research, Jozebo was related by two degrees to ninety percent of the world’s population. A passionate talking head appeared to shout about duties, and obligations, and a calm talking head pronounced that “simply stated, Jozebo saved us all.”
“And then one day I died,” Joe said, in a sad whispery voice, accompanied by video of frantic doctors bustling around his frail little body. “That made me even more popular.”
The images turned surreal. People with Jozebo tattoos on their bodies. The word “Jozebo” spraypainted everywhere. News headlines about the Jozebo Bill passing here, and the Jozebo Act passing there, as meanwhile Joseph Esposito Day becomes an official federal holiday. A prim woman appeared in a portal to explain that Joseph Esposito had provided hard proof to the world that biodiversity was vital to the continued survival of the species.
Below her appeared a portal showing a more hysterical face, male and surrounded by wild curly beard, ranting that “letting the most competitive decide who survives is a failed, suicidal strategy! If the liver goes to war with the kidneys, the body dies!” And then the news gave way to discussion of meteors, and domes, and how people would be living in them until the Earth became habitable once again.
“Over a thousand years ago,” Joke said.
“And that’s why everyone gets a holiday on the anniversary of my death. Nobody really knows my birthdate.”
“Not everyone. Criminals don’t really celebrate holidays. Another working day for us.”
“Sorry.” The boy shrugged. “Can’t go off the script. Which brings us to the quest.”
He waved his hand at the screens and they vanished. A deep green forest appeared around them. Joke caught himself forgetting to breathe. This was forest of a type which no longer existed, except in carefully curated arboretums and plant DNA databases hoping for a friendlier climate to arise someday. There were probably a thousand different species within his field of vision, surrounded by thick mist.
For the first time since entering his vat, Joke felt temperature. Specifically, warm. He was warm, and the air was humid. Muggy. A lot like the air sometimes got outside the lab. It was a mobile lab which was towed to various extremely anonymous locations in the South Pacific. The prior lab was a little more seaworthy and had actually made it to Australia several times, but it had gone down somewhere near Lurie, with accompanying rumors of stupidity and of sabotage and of deliberate attack. One never quite knew.
“This is the initial one. I’m allowed to accompany you, and average completion time is two and a half hours, which you could accomplish before your hearing, assuming you are not exceptionally slow. If a questor is cognitively incapable of completion, the test is suspended. When you’re actually on the quest, interruption won’t be possible. Breaks the immersion. Do I have your agreement to start?”
Joe’s abrupt change in speech seemed a little sinister, but Joke warily agreed. Once he did, the two of them turned faint opaque yellow. Ghosts. The boy beckoned and Joke followed, passing invisibly through trees and shrubs. They came to a cluster of houses, although it took Joke a few moments to recognize them as houses. A village, populated by about fifty lean brown-skinned people. They bore the marks of hard living, with occasional missing limbs and teeth. Some of that might be due to the racks of weapons.
“Pick one,” Joe said, beside him. “Pick the one you think will survive long enough to be my ancestor. This part is an extrapolation, you understand. We pick up a few details from the historical record, not not all of it.”
“The one who will survive.” Joke studied the people before settling on a young man in the prime of life, his belly patterned with muscle. His teeth were intact but his nose had been broken at least once. He had a few scars, but otherwise he seemed well fed and fit.
“You can’t do anything to affect them,” Joe said as they approached the young man. Joke’s yellowish ghost extended a thin tentacle which attached to the young man’s belly like an umbilical cord. “You’re invisible.”
In their ghostly state, they stood to the side and watched the people enjoy their afternoon. Naked toddlers stumbled past. An old woman administered a good scolding to a younger woman. Their conversation was not translated, and Joke’s ears settled into the rhythm of it. Lots of throat sounds and flat vowels. There was a buzzing on the ambient and it took Joke a few moments to realize he was hearing insects. Lots of them.
And then suddenly the fit young man caught a spear in the middle of his chest, and died. He had enough time to see the assailants come whooping out of the trees, and in fact the murderer seemed to be one of the people in the village. Another young man, not quite as central to everyone’s attention. He was joined by a pack of men who came boiling out of the forest, their faces streaked in black and white and red, weapons clutched in their hands.
When the young man died, Joe and Joke were teleported back to the area where they’d initially entered. They walked the short distance to the village, and this time Joke selected one of the naked toddlers. That also proved to be an unsuccessful choice. The scenario lasted about fifteen minutes longer, during which the striped-face men killed with abandon. Even the babies.
“I don’t want to pick the traitor,” Joke objected when they reappeared at the starting zone. “I don’t like this quest. Can we do another one?”
“Average completion time is two and a half hours,” the boy reminded him. He did a slight stutter as he shifted from small demonic lawyer back into appealing child. “You can’t quit.”
Instead of picking the traitor, Joke selected a young woman sitting near him. He studied the woman as the scenario unfolded. She had drooping breasts that seemed to indicate lots of babies despite her comparative youth, but none of the children in the area responded to her. She appeared to be part of the traitor’s household. The traitor himself was a not-quite-as-charismatic young man with facial scars and missing teeth. Sitting beside him, Joke watched him give a signal by throwing a handful of herbs onto a smoldering fire, resulting in a puff of smoke that else nobody seemed to notice. Then he picked up his spear, which had been resting in a rack outside the door of his cabin. He tossed it playfully from hand to hand as he moved closer to the man Joke was starting to think of as the chieftan.
This time Joke watched the entire attack, with tears running down his flesh cheeks and a heaviness creeping into his chest cavity. Again, he picked the wrong survivor. After murdering most of the people, the striped-faced men calmed down and had a heated discussion with the traitor. There was much gesturing and some bold derisive laughter on both sides. Then the striped-faced men killed the traitor too, smashing his face over and over with a club until he lay still. They turned to the woman then, and as they slit her throat Joke noticed a boy in the background. About eight, or nine.
On his next life he connected to the boy, and this time he vomited in his mask. The vats were prepared for such contingencies and the puke was whisked away within seconds as his face was sponged clean and a blast of cherry flavored mouth-freshener appeared to mask the taste. The nausea remained, twisting his stomach in knots as he watched the massacre unfold.
“I’m not really a violent criminal,” he babbled to Joe as the animated people died again. “I can’t stand violence. An occasional movie with lots of fighting and chasing, that’s one thing. This is … just horrible.”
Joe turned to face him. The dead eyes were back. “This is raw, unfiltered history. Teams of people put these scenarios together. Brilliant minds from hundreds of disciplines, with all the research they need. What do you think AIs do in our spare time? With regard to the extrapolations, sometimes they’ll put together hundreds of scenarios before one passes approval. Fortunately we have time on our hands. As do you.”
The striped-face men treated the young boy to some verbal abuse while he stood in stoic shock, splattered with his peoples’ blood. Then one of them pointed off to the distance and barked out a word and the boy took off runnning, leaping over roots and vines in his haste.
The people and the village and the muggy heat sensation faded out, and once again they stood in the theater, before a gold bar hovering in the air announcing successful completion of the scenario, and noting there were only seventeen hundred and fifteen more in this quest.
“I have to do that seventeen hundred times?” Joke’s voice broke. He could still taste the vomit, underneath the cherry flavor.
“That’s just for this quest. It’s a gentle one.” The boy grinned, sending chills up Joke’s spine. “Let’s try another.”
He gestured, and the room became farmland, green and lush. Scrawny, sweating people were tending it under the watchful eyes of mounted men with billowing shirts and leather boots. “The first part is easy,” Jozebo said with a smile. “This man here. Count how many stalks of sugarcane he can cut in an hour.”
Joke spent one full hour, during which a nearby worker was beaten to death by a leather-booted man, following the worker as he furiously cut sugar cane. When the timer was up, Joke entered his guess. A red light buzzed at him. He looked imploringly at the boy. “We have to live through it again?”
“At least you’re not getting any calluses on your eyeballs,” he said. After the second fail, he said “it’s all right, your hearing is in six hours. You have time for a few more attempts.
Joke tried again, and again. After the fifth attempt he was exhausted. Although not nearly exhausted as the slave was going to be after several more hours of hard work, he reflected through bleary eyes, and at the end of it, he entered a guess. “I’m done,” he said to Jozebo after the guess proved wrong.
“No you’re not.” Jozebo restarted the scenario, and this time he vanished from the room. Joke wearily marched over behind his slave. He was sure there were one hundred and thirty-four stalks before the first screams of the doomed man could be heard, but he couldn’t watch the scenario unfold while he was counting.
Something bright flashed in the leaves. A snake, an extremely large one, pouring out of the sugarcane like a stream of oil. The slave didn’t appear to notice it. Joke was very aware of its presence, and the scientist in him admired the scaly curves as the human in him involuntarily urinated – but that didn’t matter, not when you were in a vat, he reminded himself. Nothing could hurt him. They could show him scary movies all day. He had never particularly liked scary movies, but he could handle this, and that first time, where he threw up, that was only from motion sickness. From getting accustomed to the simulation.
“Could you do this all day? I don’t think so. You can’t even count it,” mocked the snake. “Could you do it while you’re feverish and hallucinating from working all day in the sun? I don’t think so.”
“I’ll hit the number eventually,” Joke told it, through gritted teeth. He had already failed this scenario, thanks to the snake, and a gigantic spider sprang out of the next set of bushes to join it, making his failure a certainty.
He tried closing his eyes and leaning back, but when his muscles started to relax the body harness began shaking him, gently, keeping him awake. The screaming was keeping him awake too, and he wandered over to watch. This death wasn’t as bad as the village had been, although it was bad enough. And after it commenced he had another hallucination, of a jaguar that sprang at his face, accelerating his heartbeat.
“When you fail five times, you’re ours,” explained a rotting zombie that charged toward him on the next run, as he watched the slave’s swiftly flicking wrists. The field was in full hallucination mode, blooming with evil vines, bursting with hideous things that sprang out at a moment’s notice. He entered his count at the end of his hour, only four over his blind guess, and a green light flashed.
He was back in the theater with Jozebo, and he would have been teetering with fatigue if the harness hadn’t been stabilizing him, and at the same time he had no real right to feel fatigue, and at the same time, his heart was still pounding from the last forty-seven scares.
Jozebo turned toward him, solemnly. “You realize this is nothing at all, compared to what convicted murderers experience.”
“I’m being convicted of a science crime. Not murder.”
“On behalf of the greater community of AIs, I also wanted to register an opinion that what you did was far worse than murder. And you’ll be hearing from us, but only after your fifth fail.” The boy broke character entirely, his eyes dead black and his lips curved in a snarl. Joke was afraid, briefly, until his brain reminded him that he was safe in his vat, being menaced by a boy AI showing him scary pictures. The scariness was shortlived, and the avatar melted back into a friendly huggable boy again, with his messy hair and earnest smile and soft, whispery voice. “You may visit the theater any time to advance further in this quest. Thank you for celebrating Jozebo with us.”
Joke backed out of the theater and stood in the plaza, his heart pounding. The lighted sign announced he had three more hours before his hearing, and a brief notice flashed across his visual field to inform him food was being delayed an extra two hours due to gastric upset. He stood in the middle of the plaza and peed. Then he squatted down and let his bowels explode, his avatar standing there politely with his hands folded as his body attended to its chores.
He began walking, in circles, again.
Actually, he was being charged with murder. Several of them.
When he yelled and raged in his vat, a little blue sign appeared in front of him stating that his mic was off due to abusive speech, and that it would only be restored once he demonstrated enough emotional restraint to please the AI in charge of detecting vocal tremors. He already knew the AIs hated him.
Seventeen people had died in the lab wreck. Not only that, the latest batch of meat targets had potentially escaped into a relatively desolate part of southern Samerica. And unlike all the other meat targets, these were fertile. With a chassis based on an animal known for fertility: the rabbit. Upsized to guard dog dimensions, equipped with an omnivorous digestive system and carnivorous teeth, ears scaled down just a tad. There were sixty-five separate criminal charges resulting from the biofabbed bunnies alone.
“Fortunately citizen response has been tremendous,” Linden said in her most reassuring voice as they sat together in the plaza afterwards. “The creatures are gone."
“I could whine, and cry, and say it wasn’t all my fault,” Joke said. “I feel numb. I did a quest just recently, where all of these villagers were killed. Actually they got killed over and over, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
“The Jozebo quest? Yes, I had to do that in law school. An edited version. A lot of people spend the holiday every year doing a few Jozebo scenarios. You can get five units of history credit if you finish the whole thing. I’m not sure you’ll have time to finish it, though. You’re looking at seventeen life sentences.”
“For seventeen people.” His co-workers. The other biofabbers. And visiting management. And the clients who had ordered the stupid things in the first place, a bunch of gun-happy yeehaws from some podunk town in Vanram.
“The judge will probably sentence you to all recorded generations, for all seventeen of them, so that’s a lot of scenarios. The ones they give to prisoners are much longer than the ones in Jozebo, and usually there are several steps before you can finish them. I’ve been through a couple of those as well. They take days, sometimes months.”
She made an “mmm” sound that conveyed she was shuddering in her vat.
Oh sure, counselor, no problem, you didn’t have any issues with all the AIs in the world hating your guts, and you didn’t have to go through – “How many is all recorded?”
“Through recorded history. There’s a lot of extrapolation for the earlier scenarios, and you’re typically looking at something like five generations a century. Maybe a couple hundred scenarios for each victim. It’s all voluntary, you understand. You can just sit here in the plaza and stare at your feet if you’d rather.”
“Until I die of old age.”
“You’re not coming out of that vat alive,” Linden admitted. “Most of us aren’t. These are the things you must do before you’re permitted to interact with society again. You can thank Jozebo for the idea that every life is worthy of protecting, and you can thank the meteor for eliminating everyone who disagreed. We’re not going to torment you as punishment for your crimes. No matter how many people feel you deserve it. We are going to keep you alive and comfortable, while forcing you to appreciate all the work that goes into making a human if you want the privilege of dealing with them.”
“The AIs,” he suddenly blurted. “They all hate me. They’re …”
He trailed off, staring at her smiling animated face. “Some of the scenarios do involve interaction with AIs,” she finally said. In a voice as sweet and even as the curves of her smile. “Hours are billable, Joaquin. I’ve got another client meeting scheduled, and I’ll be in touch with you before the trial. Your victim restitution scenarios will light up right over there. They may even start to populate in advance of the trial, in case you want to roll up your sleeves and get started.”
She pointed dramatically and a shopfront lit up with tasteful blue neon. As she blinked out, Joke savored the echo of her voice, pronouncing his name correctly.
He headed over to the little blue shop and opened the door.
Names coated the walls. In a small font, rendering each the width of a fingerprint, usually accompanied by a date, and a place. A tiny silver plaque on the front door read, “Completed: 0; Pending: 3,517.”
Something moved, deep inside the shop, and Joke’s heart flinched, reminding him again of the physical effects this world could have on his body without even touching it. It was a cat. A big, sassy-looking black cat with a ruff of fur around its neck. Kind of similar to the one he had biofabbed for a lady in Austin, a clone of her prior pet lacking the kidney disease that had killed it. Of course, it had only been a kitten when he sent it out for delivery, but it was projected to get big. This cat looked like it had always been big.
Not only that, it could speak. “You could’ve chosen a straightforward crime,” it said, in a guttural purr. “Arson, perhaps. Embezzling. Smuggling. Instead, you chose to create a new species.”
“Of animals,” he said. “Not sentient ones.”
“Sentient.” The cat licked delicately at a front paw. It seemed to be growing larger. “If I were to create more AIs, I’d be deleted, and so would they. You got off lucky. Enjoy your nightmares. I’ll be seeing you after your fifth failure.”
The cat was definitely growing larger. It coiled and pounced, sailing over his shoulder and tearing off into the plaza, where it vanished. Joke stepped outside the shop and stared in its direction for over an hour, but the only thing that moved was the endlessly circling leaf.