Sunday, March 6, 2072: Ten days before the national cognitive update
9:02 a.m. Central Standard Time
“The way you talk, I can tell you’re wild,?she says.
He has just awoken. He slept like a corpse from the DC suburbs to the
Mississippi, stirred briefly to glimpse down at the mighty river,
and then fell into another long nap. He pauses, trying to collect his
thoughts. Their burnt-orange Sheng-li is driving itself west along a
lonely stretch of 1-40. Oklahoma scenery flies past their windows at a
constant 97 miles per hour.
“How far to El Paso??he asks.
“Only a wild person would need to ask.?br>
He shakes his head slightly, and tugs at the rim of his red baseball
cap, a relic with a stretched-out P on the front. “How far is it??br>
“When do we get there??br>
?:31, if we’re going downtown, 3:33 to the Stanton Street Bridge, 3:33 to Cielo Vista Mall, 3:54 to...?br>
“All right, I get the picture.?br>
With a blink of her green eyes, she snaps back from her processor, or “boost.?nbsp;
“I know you’ve gone wild, Ralf, because I’m not getting anything from you at all.?br>
“Is it gone, or did you somehow turn it off??br>
He looks away from her, out the window to the south, at the rusted
remains of oil derricks, and the gray hills stretching to the horizon.
They’ll head west to the Rio Grande, then turn left, following the river
to the border, which divides El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, the notorious
outpost of the wild in North America. He knows these facts and doesn’t
have to look them up, even if he could.
He listens to the wind whistling past the car, the hum of the
hydrogen engine. That’s all he hears. No videos, no soundtrack, no info
blasts. He hears himself breathing, as if for the first time. He knows
they’ll get to El Paso sometime after 3. Ellen said so. But he has no
idea what time it is and has nothing to tell him. People used to wear
wrist watches or look at the screens of their cell phones. But once the
processors moved into the heads, clocks slowly disappeared, along with
computers and televisions and telephones, and all the other machinery
that he remembers piling up in his grandparents?basement. That’s all in
the head now, he thinks. But not in mine.
He looks at Ellen. With a couple of wardrobe commands, she has turned
her pullover to gold and her skin-tight leggings to black, with deep
blue highlights. They shine like the feathers of a raven. She’s staring
straight ahead, living in her boost. He knows she’s been spending hours
on end in virtual Rome, with a college friend of hers, checking out
Etruscan art. But by the way she’s shifting her weight in the seat and
moving her lips, he wonders if she’s having sex. If so, is it with him?
Ellen has the face of Greek goddess. It’s the Artemis line: a perfect
oval surrounded by wavy golden hair, the nose slightly turned up at the
end. Her lips move slightly, as if trying out sentences. They look like
parentheses drawn by a sharp red pencil. Ellen is his processor now.
“What time is it??he asks.
Chapter One 9:21 a.m. Central Standard Time Ralf’s
memory is shot. His whole life, he has been considered a prodigy of the
digital world. But the detailed time-tagged images, the videos, notes,
links, they’re all gone. All that remains is the wet brain, where
memories, if you can call them that, well up in pools of appetites,
regrets, and desires. He can fish out only snippets of conversation. The
blurry pictures he summons seem to change and fade. They’re not
distinct images: more like ideas with ghostlike transparencies hovering
over them. It’s a sorry excuse for a brain, he thinks. There’s good
reason people like him are called wild.
tries to dredge up memories from his last full day in Washington. That
would be ?day before yesterday? He isn’t sure, and doesn’t want to
ask Ellen. He remembers sitting at breakfast with Ellen in their
second-story apartment in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, just two
blocks up from the zoo. The last specks of snow were melting from the
branches across the street, but spring was still a good month away. He
was sipping a protein blend and flipping through college basketball
highlights in his boost, when a message popped up from Suzy. “Have to
He messaged back. “Talk talk??/span>
“Face to face.?/span>
They agreed to meet for coffee at the Taizhou Tower, near Dupont Circle, and Ralf hurried out to his bike.
minutes later he was sitting across from Suzy, blowing warm air onto
his frigid hands. She looked just like Ellen, but a half foot taller.
Instead of wavy shoulder-length hair, the standard Artemis style, she
kept a just a hint of blond fuzz on her skull. Suzy carefully dipped a
corner of her scone into her steaming glass of greenish tea. She greeted
him with a nod. He messaged her: “What’s up??/span> She frowned and shook her head. “I meant ‘talk,’” she said.
sat up straight in his chair and coughed. He found face-to-face
conversations awkward and he tried, whenever possible, to sidestep them.
He nodded, looked at Suzy’s eyes, and quickly shifted his focus a few
millimeters down, to the less threatening terrain around the bridge of
her exemplary nose. Over
the next few minutes, Suzy whispered across the table to him, the
old-fashioned way, laying out the issues. Ever since Suzy’s arrival,
earlier in the year, they’d been working closely in the chip lab at the
Department of Health and Human Services, overseeing the annual processor
updates. Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the
middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier. Some inevitably
complain that they’ve lost memories or have to concentrate harder to
send messages. Some say they notice more ads popping up, or soundtrack
music that’s hard to mute. But most are satisfied. Their heads work
for the updates is a long process. A few months before the scheduled
date, the code comes in from China. A technical panel reviews the
changes, and draws up a summary for the Senate subcommittee and the
White House. Once the design is approved—largely a formality—the chip is
divided into a dozen segments, so that no single person has access to
the entire architecture. This is Suzy’s first cycle. She’s a junior
staffer on segment 3, which is mostly data storage, along with other
odds and ends. Ralf heads up the all-important segment 4, which runs
communications, including six different radio signals and the vital
interface to the wet brain.
year, the country is scheduled to receive the update on March 16. If it
goes smoothly, the process will begin with the general population,
followed by Congress and the Supreme Court, the vice president and the
cabinet, and finally the president. Then, presumably, the country will
be on firm cognitive footing for the next year.
asked Ralf, as he waited for his coffee, to take a look at one of the
gates, 318 Blue, in his segment. She had its counterpart in hers, and
had found an anomaly. He called it up in his boost, and saw, to his
shock, that 318 Blue was wide open.
didn’t have to say another word. Ralf knew. The Chinese were updating
the chip with a version of their domestic software. Its surveillance
gate was open for both communications and data. What Ralf didn’t
understand—and still doesn’t—is how Suzy Claiborne spotted the anomaly.
She was new to the department and often asked him questions that a
sophomore comp-sci student could answer. She was perhaps the last person
Ralf would have expected to notice an open gate.
Ralf looks back, the rest of that day is a blur. The details are lost
with his boost. But he remembers the general outlines and can bring back
fragments of the day, each one wrapped in the animal blend of emotions
and physical sensations, chiefly nausea and jangling nerves.
idea, he recalls, was to upload Suzy’s segment into his head, match the
two sections, and figure out commands to close the gate. Otherwise, as
he saw it, companies would have free run in everyone’s boost. They could
mine lifetimes of memories. Experts had been declaring privacy dead for
decades, but this would obliterate the last vestiges of it.
was a hacker, had always been one. He knew he could close the gate. He
felt he had to. He can still picture Suzy, standing over him as he
locked his bike across from the frozen Botanic Pagota on the Mall,
whispering that his plan was “reckless.?/span>
you didn’t expect me to do something,?he messaged her, “why’d you loop
me in??But even as she complained, she transferred her segment file
onto his boost, and he was busy exploring it as they made their way into
HHS and climbed the stairs to the lab. In the file he could see the
open gates. While
Ralf knew that carrying Suzy’s data was risky, he hardly expected to be
nabbed the very first day. His messages, like anyone’s, could be
intercepted, but the surveillance gates in his own boost were locked
down, at least as far as he knew.
after he reached the office, two uniformed security guards hustled him
out of the building. Ralf remembers that his colleagues turned their
heads from him, as if embarrassed. He felt ashamed. He remembers
wondering why one of the guards had grabbed his dirty green gym bag.
thing he knew, he was stretched out on a hospital bed in a white room.
The sheets on the bed were rumpled. The curtains on the small window
high above the bed looked like rags. Smudged on the wall above the sink
was a single footprint, far too large to be Ralf’s. The sound in his
head, if you could call it that, was the solitary hum of consciousness.
He had never felt so alone. He summoned his mapping function to see
where he was. Nothing came up. Just the same hum. He called up his
messaging. Nothing. Ralf felt a surge of panic. He thrashed, and knocked
a metal tray from the side of the bed, sending bits of debris falling
to the floor. He looked down and saw the tray lying on his gym bag. He
felt soreness on the side of his head. He reached up and touched a
had ripped out his chip. For Ralf, whose boost had been installed on
his first birthday, this amounted to a lobotomy. He was wild. For the
first time he could remember, at least with the remaining hunk of brain
in his head, he cried.
remembers hearing explosions, and wondering if it was thundering
outside. Then a young Asian man came into his room. The sculpted arms
and shoulders of a body builder seemed to burst from his tight white
T-shirt. He had a primitive twentieth-century look to him, unenhanced.
He didn’t say anything, but simply placed his hands on Ralf’s shoulders,
sat him up, reached down for Ralf’s gym bag, zipped it closed and
handed it to him. Then, still without a word, he placed a firm grip on
Ralf’s elbow and led him out of the clinic to the street. He stayed in
the doorway and waved good-bye. Ralf
didn’t know where he was or what to do. If his boost had been in place
and working, dozens of streams of information would be informing him,
orienting him, messaging, carrying out thousands of risk scenarios, in
short, making him aware. He would have figured things out. But as a
brain-surgery patient, recently sequestered and newly wild, he walked in
made his way down a tree-lined street and came to an esplanade with an
Alexandria Metro stop he recognized. King Street/Old Town. He considered
taking the Metro back to the Mall, where he’d left his bike. But he
couldn’t pay for a ticket without a credit beam from his chip. As a wild
man, he was broke.
would walk. Without geotags, even that was a challenge. He wondered
which way to go and got no directions. The only signal coming from his
wet brain was the same gentle hum, with no data, no meaning. He was full
of questions but powerless to answer them. He looked at the February
sun, low in the southern sky, and took off for the north. In time he
felt hungry, but found no signals leading him toward food. He was on his
own. He wanted to see Ellen, and to hug her. But he could not message
her. He dug into his ancient memory for her whereabouts and came up
remembers the crunching sound and feel of his footsteps on gravel as he
walked north from Alexandria, across the Potomac, and back to his bike.
Were they watching him as he walked?
Are they following us now? He turns around and looks out the back window of the car.
“You’re not going to see anything back there,?Ellen says. “This isn’t a movie from 2010.?/span>
peers up, through the windshield. “If any drones are following us,?she
says, “they’re no bigger than bees. They might even look like bees.
Kind of useless to look for them.?Though Ellen’s an artist, she’s up to
date on spy gadgets. Some of her contract work for the Pentagon
includes drone design, which on occasion she incorporates into her
leggings and blouses.
sits back. He’s small, dark and wiry, with deep-set violet eyes and
black hair that curls around his ears. He’s good-looking, to such a
degree that his mother convinced him to avoid all of the enhancements
they were offering in middle school. He contemplates human beauty, and
pictures Ellen without the Artemis package. That reminds him of Suzy,
which in turn reminds him once again of the fix he’s in. Funny, he
thinks, how thoughts meander in the wet brain.
car speeds ahead, past crumbling clapboard houses and deserted strip
malls, and under rusted and rickety bridges. There was a time, Ralf
thinks, when society marked its progress on the physical landscape,
building skyscapers, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, even
stately porched homes, like his mother’s place in Montclair. But in the
last half century or so, most of the landmark projects have been
virtual. What new physical construction there is comes from the Chinese,
who have money for such things. For most Americans, he thinks, progress
is defined in apps. The physical Oklahoma looks abandoned.
pass a sign for a Civil War battle at Honey Springs. A Civil War battle
in Oklahoma? Ralf wonders if he lugged around that morsel of data,
unknown and unread, in his processor for twenty-eight years. He
considers the trove of information stored on that chip, entire years of
video, every virtual world he’s ever entered, every song he has ever
heard, every conversation he’s ever had, the full database of all his
messaging, even much of his sex life. All of it gone.
“Listen,?Ellen says, stirring him from his reverie. “How about this? You tell me what you know. I’ll do the same.?/span>
He pauses for a moment. “It’s classified,?he says.
their three years together, she has heard that same phrase a thousand
times. “Let me get this straight,?she says. “They tie you down, take
out your boost, patch you up, and send you as a wild man down to El
Paso, and you have to protect their secrets??/span>
wants to tell her what he knows. But first he’s attempting to run
risk-reward calculations in a brain not built for such work. It’s
painfully slow, and does not deliver answers, only ideas.
“They didn’t send me to El Paso,?he finally says. “That was my plan.?/span>
“Because your brother lives there??/span>
“My family has roots there, too,?he says. “My grandmother grew up there. Her father was a big shot on a newspaper.?/span>
quaint,?Ellen says, before returning to Ralf’s brother. “I thought you
two didn’t get along. Now, he’s the one you run to??/span>
“I wouldn’t call it running, exactly.?/span>
“I’m taking a trip,?Ralf says.
Ellen says flatly. She gestures toward the backseat. “So you usually
take trips with no more luggage than that disgusting gym bag of yours??/span>
“Actually, I wasn’t even planning on bringing that.?/span>
pauses and looks at him. He stares straight ahead, as if he were
driving the machine. These kinds of conversations, he thinks, would be a
lot easier if he had driving to focus on.
“Let me tell you what I worry about,?she says.
He glances at her and nods.
worried that you want to go to Juárez to be at home with all of those
wild people. I love you, Ralf, I really do. But that is the
single-most ?It’s the scariest place on earth, and if you want to
live there, or even visit, we’ve got a big problem.?/span>
“Don’t worry,?he says. “My destination’s El Paso, not Juárez.?/span>
studies his profile and concludes, after a few seconds, that further
questions will get her nowhere. So she sits back, and as the car hurtles
west through Oklahoma, she tells him her side of the story.
days ago, Ellen says, she was working at home, creating herds of
dinosaurs for a virtual safari site, when she got a message from her
friend Robin. “She said they were rounding up every Artemis they could
find. Tall ones, fat ones, every shape and flavor.?/span>
government.?Then she stops for a moment, replaying the conversation.
“Actually, she didn’t say that ?but I assumed it was. I messaged
you twenty-three times and couldn’t even leave a note.?/span> By
messaging friends in her network, and friends of friends, Ellen learned
that young men wearing green sweaters had arrested two Artemis women,
or Artemi, at a lunch spot on Capitol Hill. Fifteen minutes later, they
picked up one near Chinatown, and then one in Farragut Square. “I did
the numbers and figured they were eighteen to twenty-three minutes from
our house,?Ellen says. “So I got in the car.?/span>
He asks her where she went.
didn’t know where to go, so I put it on a shuffle route in Georgetown,?
she says. “Then Julie messaged me that she saw you on the 14th Street
Bridge. She said you were walking and looked terrible.?/span>
“Yeah, I love her, too,?Ralf says, ransacking his mind to come up with a face for Julie.
was worried for you.?Ellen goes on to say that she headed over to the
HHS building on the Mall, figuring that Ralf would be there. When she
arrived, he was bent over his bike, trying to wrench it free without the
signal from his boost.
“So why do you think they were picking up Artemi??Ralf asks.
“Call me naive, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the update, and that hole in your head,?she says.
He shrugs. “Then why do you think they didn’t stop us from leaving town??/span>
“Maybe I wasn’t the Artemis they were looking for.?/span>
leads the conversation straight to Suzy, a subject that they’ve agreed
tacitly to avoid. Ralf dated another Artemis in grad school. This raises
Ellen’s suspicion that he might be drawn to her largely for the beauty
she shares with Suzy and a few thousand other women in the country, plus
others in South America. No words from Ralf could put these doubts to
would they pick up all these people based on what they look like??Ralf
says. “Kind of primitive, wouldn’t you say? They have machines that can
ID her boost in about two milliseconds.?/span>
“Maybe her boost isn’t in her head.?/span>
The idea, so simple, leaves Ralf stunned. He lowers his head and says nothing.
I don’t get,?Ellen goes on, “is why they rounded up all the normal
Artemi and didn’t just focus on the one with no hair??She considers it
for a second, and then answers her own question. “I guess she could have
bought a wig.?/span>