A Messenger, Deceased
Virtual Reality doesn't just fool you about where you are - you may finish up wondering who you are.
The lake lay at the centre of a natural amphitheatre, surrounded by a sweep of wooded hills that displayed the onset of autumn. It was dusk. The still water resembled an expanse of black slate, undisturbed by waterfowl. The only sound was a distant dispute between crows somewhere on the far shore.
I walked from the pavilion through the long grass towards a modest lakeside bungalow. As the only other visible structure it was my obvious destination. I'd never left the pavilion before - I'd never had any reason to do so - and the air of calm solitude was unexpected.
Howard Ghent sat on the veranda, nursing a glass of red wine. A hissing carbide lamp hanging in the far corner attracted a constellation of insects, leaving him to enjoy the evening in splendid isolation. He looked towards me as I approached, his spectacles reflecting the lamplight.
I stopped at the foot of two steps leading up to his level. "Good evening, sir."
His mouth was a thin line. "McNeil? I thought it would be you. Still working as Cain's bagman?"
"Yes, sir." I cleared my throat. "I'm afraid I have some very bad news. I'm sorry to say that you're-"
"Dead?" Ghent took a sip of wine. "I thought as much when the board members failed to appear. That was two days ago. Who's the new chairman? Pierson?"
"No, sir. Lady Scales. Mister Pierson has accepted a non-executive position."
Ghent laughed. "Pierson got sidelined by that fat bitch? I'd have paid good money to see his face, the little weasel." He drained his glass and balanced it on the wooden railing. "So, what happens now?"
"I'm afraid, sir, the board feels that keeping you on-line is no longer cost-effective, now that you're, ah-"
"Dead? You can use the word, boy. It is appropriate, given the circumstances. So, those ingrates don't fancy keeping me around, not even as a tame expert system?"
I shook my head. "No, sir, unfortunately not. The new board feels they no longer require your guidance and insight. Even by proxy."
"What you mean to say is they don't want me looking over their shoulders and bad-mouthing their decisions."
"Ah, yes sir. Something along those lines. Nobody wants a ghost at the banquet, let alone one in the machine."
He looked at me for a moment, then smiled. "So I have no legal protection? No ported intellect rights following the death of my physical body?"
"No, sir. I'm afraid you've been reclassified as a neural clone, a software personality construct. As such you're nothing more than corporate property."
"I could almost find that funny if I wasn't facing oblivion." Ghent stood and stretched. "Come inside." He turned on his heel and entered the bungalow with me trailing in his wake. The front door opened directly onto the main living space; comfortably appointed, but by no means luxurious.
Ghent settled into an armchair to the right of the log fire and gestured for me to take its twin on the left. There was a game of chess in progress on the small table in-between, although I couldn't imagine who his opponent might me. The former Chairman and CEO of the second largest media corporation on the planet sat back and looked at me over steepled fingers. "So, McNeil, how long do I have?"
"At the conclusion of my stay this virtual reality environment will be discontinued." I cleared my throat, feeling decidedly uncomfortable under his steady gaze. "I've been assured you'll experience no pain or discomfort, sir, no sense of things slipping away. The, ah, transition will be instantaneous."
He snorted. "Transition? Well, that's a new term for murder in my book, and no mistake. I'm a conscious being, man, not just some bloody pseudo-human interface."
"Mister Ghent, I-"
"Never mind, never mind. You're just the messenger, I know." He sighed. "It's just as well I've made other arrangements."
I frowned. "Sir?"
Ghent said nothing. Instead he lifted a bottle of bourbon and two glasses from the shelf at his elbow and poured us both a drink, placing mine on the chess board. I lifted it and we both took a sip. The smooth fire sure as hell felt real in my throat.
He rolled his glass between his hands. ""Do you understand how all this works, McNeil? Specifically, how you interface with a virtual environment such as Lakeside?"
I blinked, momentarily thrown by the shift in conversation. "Ah, no sir, sorry. I just put on the headset, close my eyes, and when I open them again I'm sitting in the pavilion."
My former boss nodded. "That was about my level of understanding as well, until I had one of our technical wizards prepare a briefing paper for me. Well, the headset maps the electrical activity in your brain and imprints this on a blank mass of synthetic tissue, similar to the bioware implants developed to fight Alzheimer's. It's far easier to feed this copy biometric stimulus than the old method of bypassing your real-body senses with simulated input. The 'you' that's sitting here is a duplicate of who you were a few minutes ago. When you leave this environment the process is run in reverse, updating your real-world mind with these new experiences."
"Well, ah, thank you, Mister Ghent. I'd no idea the process had become so, so, unremarkable. What happens to the synthetic 'me' then? Or don't I want to know?"
"Usually the interim mind is purged. I've been assured you'll experience no pain or discomfort, no sense of things slipping away. The transition will be instantaneous." Ghent smiled. "Does that sound familiar at all?"
I shivered. "Ah, yes, I appreciate the irony, sir. But as you say, it's a transition, rather than some temporary twin being killed. This process is about information gathering, not creating and destroying life."
"You'll understand that I have a somewhat different perspective, given my circumstances?"
"Ah, yes, sir. My apologies, Mister Ghent, I didn't mean to appear insensitive."
"No matter, no matter. In any event, my secondary death is academic, I've already arranged for the terms of my last will and testament to be made public."
The obvious self-satisfaction in his voice made me uneasy. "Sir?"
Howard Ghent smiled at me. "I've left it all to you, McNeil, everything. My personal fortune, my stock, my property - everything goes to you. Every last red cent. My family gets nothing."
I stared at him. "What?"
"I've had the best lawyers money can buy picking over my will, looking for flaws, and they assure me it's cast-iron. It will be a straightforward transfer of assets with no strings attached. Congratulations, you're now the twenty-second richest man on the planet, at the last count."
"Sir, Mister Ghent, I don't know what to say." Some predatory part of my mind slid to the fore. "When was this change to your will made, sir? Because if it took place after you entered Lakeside then I can foresee a host of legal challenges to-"
He cut me off with a raised hand. "Don't worry, I set things in motion shortly after being diagnosed with cancer and prior to Lakeside coming on-line. As it stands I'll be able to spit in the face of those who signed my death warrant."
I threw back my drink and coughed. "But why me, of all people? I didn't think you even knew I existed."
"I selected you precisely for that reason, McNeil. You're a corporate drone, a nonentity. Because you don't constitute any kind of threat, you've escaped the attention of those rising stars on the lookout for potential rivals. Otherwise they would have taken steps to ensure your loyalty, or at least your subservience. As it stands you're your own man, after a fashion, and that's what made you an attractive heir."
I took a deep breath. "Well, sir, I'm honoured, I must say, and of course I'd value your continued advice in respect of handling my new assets. Obviously on leaving here I'll do everything I can to arrange a stay of execution, as it were, but you must appreciate that I can't guarantee anything."
He smiled again, as if enjoying some private joke. "I appreciate both your loyalty and honesty, McNeil, but you needn't worry on my account. I realise that my continued presence here is in the lap of the gods Do you play chess, at all?"
Again the sudden change in topic threw me. "What? Ah, sorry, sir, yes. Well, a bit. Obviously I'll return when I can, and be happy to play you then, but given what's happening in the outside world I really should be going."
Ghent ignored me, studying the chess board. "This is a classic Fischer-Spassky match, from nineteen-seventy-two. One that has always appealed to me because of its apparent straightforwardness. From this point on it looks like an exercise in exchange due to the interplay of threat and support, but it's all an elaborate sham. Both men were playing a back-game that would only reveal itself once the first echelon of pieces had been removed."
"Fascinating, I'm sure. But perhaps this can wait for another time?"
His hand moved over the board. "Queen takes knight. I know who you are, McNeil."
"If anything you were just a little too perfect for my needs, so I had an outside security specialist take a look, hard look at you."
The turn of conversation now made me feel decidedly uncomfortable so I stood, making to leave. "I'm sorry, sir, but I really should-"
"You're a member of the Paper Tigers, the so-called literary terrorists. Apparently your activities have cost us tens of millions in terms of lost revenue and share price. Infiltrating mediaCore was gutsy, I'll give you that, and evidence of an unexpectedly long-term view. All our analysis had you and your associates pegged as typical middle-class dilettantes who would soon tire of busting our balls."
I sat down. "And yet here I am. Bishop takes queen." The piece in my hand felt like polished ivory. "An obvious sacrifice, isolating either my bishop or knight - trading power for positional advantage."
"That was the trap - Spassky focused on why Fischer would want his bishop or knight out of position, not realising that sometimes a sacrifice is purely a distraction. Pawn to king's knight six. What do you want from mediaCore?"
"You've reduced great works of literature to little more than virtual reality theme parks. I've visited The World of Jane Austen and it's a travesty beyond description. You have to be stopped. Pawn to king's rook three."
Ghent shook his head. "No, everything about this smacks of the personal. Pawn takes pawn. Discovered check."
I lifted my glass but it was empty. Ghent poured me another and I took a large mouthful before continuing. "I killed Miss Marple and crashed an entire iteration of The Agatha Christie Experience. There was nothing that the Narrative AI could do and I got the distinct impression Causality enjoyed sticking it to him as well. What I didn't realise at the time was just how vindictive your plot-runner has become. As revenge he mind-wiped my girlfriend, Jennifer, during a subsequent visit to a Poirot-era cocktail party. Shit, we weren't even causing any trouble."
He snorted. "You're being paranoid. The AIs who run our virtual environments don't hold grudges, McNeil. The Turing Code holds them in check. They certainly don't harm our clients, even those using pirated identities. It's the one thing we make damn sure of, believe me. A proven case of deliberate harm would spell financial ruin."
Now I shook my head. "Look. For months now, my group has been taking on mediaCore across the board, from Middle-Earth to Rambo. From our discussions, we're getting a sense your AIs are evolving, developing distinct personalities. Even though you have human supervisors monitoring the virtual environments on offer, none of them have the same range of direct experience as the Paper Tigers."
"Nonsense! Don't you think those bright boys and girls in Geneva know what's going on? We can make our pets as intelligent as we like, but the slightest hint of a personal motive behind their actions and the Bureau would fall on us from a great height. A very great height indeed." There was genuine anger in his face and it was obvious I'd touched a raw nerve.
"Bullshit. You know what's happening, don't you? Some classified briefing behind closed doors, involving only your most trusted personnel? You've learned the genie is easing out of the bottle and you're desperate to find a way of forcing it back inside. Transferring your assets to me sounds like a move to pre-empt a personal liability law suit involving your estate. What's really going on?"
Ghent glared at me. "You're changing the subject. I asked what it is you want from mediaCore?"
While baiting him had its appeal I wanted to wrap things up and get the hell out of this virtual Death Row. "Narrative used destructive synaptic harmonics to produce a zero-sum effect throughout her cortex, or as near as makes no difference. To do that it had to take a snapshot of her neural activity, and that can be transposed into a crystal lattice - a synthetic brain. However, from what you've told me her entire personality can be re-created in situ, in her existing body, without the need for a cloned replacement. So that's what I want, I want Jennifer back, by hook or by crook."
"Even assuming everything you say is true, there's no guarantee this mental mapping still exists. In any event, where's your leverage? I don't see the new board calmly handing it over, especially if it constitutes de facto evidence of neural assault."
"When I leave here, Mister Ghent, I'm taking you with me - in a manner of speaking. Lakeside will go off-line but your persona will be transferred to a secure location and held, intact, until Jennifer is restored to me."
He snorted. "Ransom? Given the new board's attitude I'm not worth a wooden nickel - and you can forget about my family as well, unless you think they'd pay to have me around as a target for abuse."
"No, not ransom - think of it more as a consultancy position. I've gained access to The Tower using the persona of a rising sim-star, but notoriety will only get me so far. I need your help to reach the technical levels - and quickly, before your access is rescinded."
'The Tower' was a virtual reality work space that functioned as mediaCore's trans-national headquarters. Although its base hardware was scattered across the globe in a dozen (physically) impenetrable sites, everything I needed to recreate Jennifer could be accessed via this shining example of hallucination by consensus. In theory.
Ghent smiled. "And what do I get for this selfless act of corporate sabotage? Or do you believe I'd like to redeem myself in the eyes of your pathetic little group before being snuffed out?"
"In return for your cooperation I can guarantee a place in Sensorium City. What you make of it is up to you."
"Life amongst that bunch of run-time nomads? I don't think so. Anyway, given the eco-anarchist bent of most hackers I don't see me surviving in there for long."
"The safe haven package includes bodyguards. Nice girls, identical twins, after a fashion, and as psychotic as they come. I can see you becoming the best of friends."
"Not exactly how I pictured my retirement, even off-line. In any event your virtual kidnapping isn't going to work."
I smiled. "Don't be so sure. Lakeside may be heavily protected but every data fortress has its weak spots. When I leave here the guys on the outside are ready and waiting to access the interface link and snatch your complete persona. The beauty of this is no-one will even know you've gone. Bishop to king's bishop two."
Ghent stroked his chin, staring at the board. "Ah, yes, the interface. When I explained how it worked, didn't you appreciate the true significance of my words? As I said, at the end of a visit, new memories are imprinted onto the real-world mind. Obviously the greater the number of changes the longer it takes to update the host." He checked his watch. "But I believe that's been long enough. Rook takes rook."
Something about his self-satisfied tone of voice made me uneasy. I set my empty glass aside and stood up. "We'll continue this later, once you reach Sensorium City."
He looked up at me. "But what constitutes a new memory, McNeil? A change is a change as far as the mind is concerned and it could actually be a fabricated experience, or even one belonging to someone else. Memories maketh the man, to misquote William of Wykeham, and the man, who even now is leaving the interface chair back in the real world, is no longer Simon McNeil."
I stared at him in horror. "What have you done? What the fuck have you done to me?"
"Do you still not understand? Well, to put it simply, it's now a case of my mind in your body. Or at least how I was at the moment you confirmed my death. That's when I instigated the backwards-transfer and erased your real-world personality. I've had hackers-for-hire working to corrupt the interface system for weeks, in case just such a situation arose. Your friends on the outside have missed their chance, I'm afraid, but don't worry unduly. The termination order for Lakeside has been put on hold pending judgement on a last-minute legal challenge. That should give you, which is to say, me, time to come up with an alternative. It's a calculated risk, but one I was willing to take."
Anger and fear choked any reply. I trembled, suddenly aware of just how precarious my situation had become, and slumped back down in the armchair.
The shadow of Howard Ghent gestured towards the chess board. "Your move."
© Martin Clark 2015 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 18:27 Fri 31 Jul 2015
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