Brian sweated, unable to settle, thinking of all the white lies he’d told her.
Once they crossed the border, he was finished. Felicity would connect to the American network. She would turn that poisonous expression on him, the one she had turned on the accordion player with the dancing bear, right before she kicked over his coin-filled case, broke her ankle and ended up staying six weeks longer in Shanghai than she’d intended.
Brian’s bunk wasn’t rolling. In fact, the entire junk was still, as though the harbour was holding its breath. The only sounds were the honk of sea birds, the rumble of tugs and the distant blast of cargo ships.
No, it wasn’t the boat pitching him from side to side. It was the intensity of his infatuation. The tide of his guilt.
I have two masters degrees, he’d said carelessly.One in computer engineering and one in computer science.
Of course I don’t think vegetarianism is stupid.
A big family? I love kids.
Brian clutched his skull. Inside it was his American node, connecting him to all his fellow citizens when he was on American soil. The wet net was an improvement on the old, electronic, editable encyclopaedia and search engine systems. It needed only to be asked a question and it would ping every person in the network, gathering answers based on firsthand experiences, before reporting the majority response as the correct one.
Sadly, there were three people who had firsthand experience of Brian’s skittishness when it came to starting a family. First was Brian’s mother. She’d asked him if he really thought she shouldn’t have brought him into the world – and was shocked when he said yes. People who can’t afford to raise children properly shouldn’t have them, he’d said. Then, there was his ex-girlfriend, Winnie, the stripper who wanted to start with the baby-making not six months after they’d met.
Brian was an agreeable sort of guy, but some things you didn’t just agree to on a whim.
Finally, there was Winnie’s lesbian aunt, Peta. Brian had expected Peta to appreciate his derision for brainless breeders, but she had lectured him on his selfishness instead.
There was no escape. He’d said a lot of things early on in his relationship with Felicity, not knowing her and not caring, thinking it was a holiday fling, not realising her penchant for fact-checking everything. Who could be bothered doing that? Not Brian. He’d be the last person to start sending out questions as soon as he crossed the border to make sure Felicity really had always wanted a Niagara Falls wedding, or that she really did have a secret fondness for chest hair.
But she would check. She would find out that he’d lied.
Or had he? Being with Felicity electrified him. It had changed him. He didn’t care that she wanted five kids or that she didn’t eat meat. She was a force of nature. He adored her.
She’d never believe that. She’d believe the net and turn on him, the way she’d turned on that pickpocket at the Great Wall, leaving him with a handprint on his face, rips in his shirt and a widening circle of his own friends staring voyeuristically in the direction of his departure.
Brian sat up on his bunk. It was not quite pitch blackness, but he still had to feel for the zippers on his backpack, drawing out his typesheet by touch.
There was a way out. Questions asked of the net would skip over individual nodes without tallying their answers if those individuals had been through the prison system. Since most criminals these days were mental illness sufferers – nodes made it all too easy to gather eyewitness evidence without subpoenas or court appearances - it was a cheap, albeit discriminatory way of eliminating hallucinations and other skewed experiences from the system. The list of felons wasn’t stored in the nodes themselves, but rather in the national criminal records database.
He could hack it.
He’d done it once before. The conviction had led to Brian himself being added to the criminal records database. No matter what experiences he had, they were invisible to the wet net. If Felicity asked the question, Does Brian Tempest love me?, it would be the observations of others that were surveyed, not his.
Strangers who had seen them kissing in the rain, then returned home to the American net with their experiences stored, ready to be rifled through without them even being conscious of it. Singaporean rickshaw drivers who had heard them giggling in back and then returned to their families for Chinese New Year, whose memories would become freely shared information the moment they crossed the border.
Winnie, who he’d walked out on.
Peta, who’d overheard him telling a friend about which yacht he’d get after he’d married and divorced a rich heiress.
And Felicity had just sold her start-up business for a tidy two point five million.
It wasn’t fair. Brian would have fallen for Felicity even without the millions. He was the best authority on his own feelings. He was the only authority on his own feelings. If he’d been arrested before he could finish his masters degrees, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t have passed ten times over with genius to spare. It was just that he’d gotten overconfident. He’d gotten caught. If no officer of the law had asked the question, are you guilty? then the fact of his guilt would have been irrelevant.
He hadn’t lied to Felicity. Not really.
I check everything, Felicity had whispered to him when their local guide had informed them that Nanjing Road was one of the Seven Greatest Roads in the world. She asked her Chinese cousin, Grace, to immediately put the question to the Chinese net.
Chinese citizens who had never left China were agreeable to the greatness of Nanjing Road, but those more widely travelled gave as their consensus the galling answers of Broadway, Hollywood Boulevard, the Road to Giza, Orchard Road, the Champs Elysees, Via Dolorosa and Venice’s Grand Canal.
She really did check everything. Brian had no choice, even though he’d sworn he’d never go back to jail. Being forced to kiss hairy man-butt was an experience the net could have benefited from in terms of deterring would-be cyber criminals. Brian had not forgotten the acute humiliation he’d experienced daily on the inside.
But this was an emergency.
He couldn’t live without Felicity.
She hadn’t agreed to it yet, but they were practically engaged.
Why had he told her so many lies?
Text began to scroll invisibly down the surface of the typesheet as he directed his thoughts towards it. The typesheet was connected to the relic of the electronic web, which most people still used for number-based or projected information that was difficult to garner from polling direct experience: maximum daily temperatures, transport schedules, formalised education and entertainment. There was no crossover between the electronic web and the American wet net, except at the criminal records database, which acted as both bottleneck and filter. Brian had attacked it before because the wet net had the potential to be so much faster.
He attacked it now in a lovesick frenzy.
In the bunk below, Felicity slumbered peacefully.
* * *
Peta Knight stooped to remove an imaginary stone from her shoe.
It was the signal they had agreed on. Out of the mass of black umbrellas moving through rising evening fog, a single umbrella detached itself, held slightly higher than the others by a man taller than she expected. Footage of seated ministers or of lectern-shielded spokespeople at press conferences could be misleading.
“Mr Qing,” she said as he fell in beside her. They strolled through the park, two black umbrellas knitted together over black suits, black shoes, as night began to swallow the city.
Night could only be useful for concealment if they avoided well-lit places; mushy snow lay on both sides of the path through the park and ruffled, roosting ravens were all but invisible in the bare branches of the trees.
“Ms Knight,” Qing said. “It is unfortunate we must meet like this.”
“Is your family well?”
“Quite well, thank you. My mother enjoys her ninetieth year. And your family?”
“They are well. My niece has given birth to a healthy baby boy.”
“How long before you begin drilling into his head, then?”
Peta did not rise to the bait.
“They are all noded at puberty, Mr Qing. The dull-minded and the constantly questioning alike.”
“If one has a correct answer,” Qing replied, “there is no need to constantly question. That is why there is no need for a constant connection to the net.”
“If the threat to our nations’ integrity is realised,” Peta said, “the ability to remove your people’s extradermal nodes will not preserve your cultural isolation. The common people will not accept the mass withdrawal of census patches, as you call them, by the government.”
“Why would we withdraw them when we outnumber you three to one? Americans will ask the net, ‘is there a God?’ And the net will tell them, ‘no.’”
Peta kept her features impassive. The spread of atheism was her government’s greatest concern, if not her own personal one.
“And what will happen if the Chinese ask the net whether their officials are corrupt? You remove census patches from anyone with firsthand experience, but ours cannot be removed.”
They crossed a stone bridge over trickling meltwater. Ahead, a moon gate framed the darkened entrance to the ginkgo pavilion. Its columns were red and gold by day, colourless in the twilight.
“There is a bypass system,” Qing said. “Your criminal records database.”
“Any attack on it will see the alert level raised to stage one.”
“On whose authority?”
“Mine,” Peta smiled. “Which is why any attack on me personally will see the alert level raised to stage two. If that should happen, the consequences will be out of my hands, Spokesman Qing. I am doing all I can to keep the hawks at bay, but it is not easy.”
“And I am doing what I can, Agent Knight. The status quo must be preserved.”
“We traced an attack to the Party last week.”
“It was a sally,” Qing said soberly. “Not a true offensive.”
“It must not happen again. From this moment, any venture with its origin in Chinese territory will be seized on by my opponents.”
They passed through the moon gate together.
* * *
Brian rubbed his tired eyes.
He’d worked through the night but it was no use. The criminal records database was computationally and algorithmically secured. Since he could not solve the mathematical equations which would give him access, the only weak link in the system was the corruptible human being; anyone with auto-authority, anyone whose identity might be borrowed.
In the world of the wet net, that was impractical. Still possible, but he didn’t have the equipment to forge a node; had never done anything like it before.
He set the typesheet aside on his bunk, his gaze caught and held by a coin-sized circle of sunlight which shone through a hole in the bow. It seemed like it would brand the wooden wall that it fell on, so intense was its glow in the below-deck gloom. One of the other foreign backpackers on the tour roused herself, stumbling towards the amenities cubicle in the forward part of the ship.
Brian almost warned her to keep out of the light. It unsettled him, as though a giant child with a magnifying glass was crouching beside them, waiting to fry them.
The answer came to him.
He knew a way to put Aunt Peta’s node out of commission. Hers first, then his mother’s, then Winnie’s.
American nodes, being internal, functioned optimally at body temperature or slightly below. They also had to be as small as possible, to take up a minimal amount of intracranial space. They couldn’t incorporate the same cooling mechanisms as the external Chinese models did. That was a weakness Brian could exploit.
If enough requests were made of a particular node, it would overheat. It would shut down before damaging nearby brain tissue.
He had to get a bunch of strangers to query Peta’s node all at once. Somehow, he had to rouse their curiosity about something only she had direct experience of. An affair with someone famous ought to do the trick.
Mass media. He had to upload something phony to the entertainment channels. Something that would leave everyone gasping and wondering if it could be true. There were endless vidfiles on the web; he could easily substitute Aunt Peta’s face for any one of those moaning porn actresses.
Brian hesitated. It might damage Aunt Peta’s reputation, sure. She was some kind of paper shuffler in a government organisation; at least, she was always wearing suits and security passes and she had the telltale tic in her left eye of a person who takes too many retinal checks.
But she’d be cleared. Eventually. And by the time Peta got a new node, Felicity would have finished interrogating the net and Brian would be saved.
The media outlets were a breeze to hack after a night spent banging his head against the impenetrable wall of the database.
He sent the altered vidfile through to half a dozen destinations.
That was Aunt Peta taken care of.
Brian had just started to brainstorm the best way to burn out his mother’s node when the backpacker came back to the bunkroom, carrying a cup of coffee whose smell filled the small space. Other bunk occupants began sitting up, rubbing sore muscles, scratching bedbug bites.
Not for the first time, he wondered what all those idiot children were doing in China, taking tours like this because they were cheaper than hotel accommodation, boasting about their suffering as though the lack of air conditioning entitled them to bravery medals. Brian’s childhood bed in the shipping container his mother had called home had been a pile of cardboard boxes, but no-one had suspected that until he’d been noded, such pride did she take in his appearance.
She had ironed his school shirts with a metal dog bowl heated over a gas-burning stove. A teenager with tear-filled eyes from a big name charity had come one day to give her a real iron. Since the wet net, the organisational costs of such institutions were minimal. They were able to do a great deal of good simply by asking the net who was in need of what.
As Brian had gotten older, he’d become acutely aware that only by using his wits could he escape from that metal container. Crossing castes was difficult, but not impossible. Winnie had been from several strata above Brian. He might have stayed with her, if not for the way she chattered about leaving her job to have five or six children. No matter what the net told her, she refused to believe that they could ever be without money. She was convinced that God would provide for them.
Because he had been imprisoned, Brian’s memories of eating bread dipped in the boiled water left over from yesterday’s hot dogs were not available to Winnie, or to anyone else.
Well. All that was behind him, now. It had been a hot dog stand where he’d bought a twelve-pack of Shanghai Surprise noodles, filled out a form to enter a prize draw and been flabbergasted by the arrival of complimentary travel documents a month later. He’d never left the country before, never been curious about places whose images and sounds could be called up instantly, mentally and electronically.
But the trip was free, so why not?
“Brian?” Felicity wondered lazily from the bunk below. He quickly rolled up the typesheet and slid it into its waterproof cylinder.
“Yes, ma’am?” Brian answered, dropping down from his bunk onto the floor.
Her smile was impish, her curls loose around her broad, freckled face.
“I can smell coffee. Yum.”
He kissed her. Her lips were dry and she tasted slightly sour, but they had eaten a great deal of garlic squid the night before.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. There was time. Another full day before they transferred from the junk to the cruise ship and crossed the eastern boundary of the Chinese net. A series of platform-mounted towers across the East China Sea separated Chinese net territory it from Japan, which was American net territory.
Another full day. He could spare time for coffee.
* * *
The alarm sounded shrilly over the muffled roar of the jet’s engines.
Peta’s attention jerked from the conference interface to the silver skullcap on the table. Red LEDs flickered all over it. Her node was under attack.
It wasn’t her true node, any more than Peta Knight was her real name. Intelligence operatives couldn’t go around plugged into the wet net like ordinary people. They had state secrets to keep safe.
Still, the node that was docked on the table, the one that was being maliciously overloaded, was the node registered to the false identity of Peta Knight.
“What is it, Agent?” her superior demanded from the interface, brows drawn together, unable to see the table and yet alerted to the breach by her demeanour.
“It’s my node,” Peta said calmly. “It’s under attack.”
Outside the window of the plane, under a cloudless sky on a moonless night, the glitter of the Chinese mainland receded. She would cross the border into New Afghanistan any moment. New Afghanistan was one of the American wet net territories. Below her, in darkness, lay the double row of communications towers which secured that border.
If the towers were disabled, the American wet net would immediately expand. American soil and the territories of its signatories were defined as the space between one longitudinal marker and the next. In the absence of Western China markers, the area would be redefined. The entire globe would be included and the nodes of Chinese citizens would be re-labelled American.
Unless the Chinese destroyed their border markers first.
“You were careless,” snapped another holographically depicted member of the security advisory. The meeting had been hastily convened. Half of them were in slippers and bathrobes, ill-tempered at the disturbance so late at night and the frightening implications of a Chinese attack so swiftly on the heels of her meeting with Qing.
“I was not,” Peta said.
“You were seen with him,” a third member accused.
“I was not seen.”
“Pride has brought them to this,” the first speaker said.
“Their pride?” the second speaker snorted. “Or ours?”
Peta fell silent as they shouted at one another, ignoring her.
“They consider themselves in a position of strength. They think their net will engulf our own.”
“And so it will.”
“Unless we detonate our towers first.”
“We will still be overwhelmed – ”
“We have taken steps to ensure the inactivation of – ”
“I have assurances from our people – ”
“Those assurances are worthless – ”
Far below, the earth turned. Dawn crept up from the rear of the plane. Before it could touch any but the highest mountain peaks, Peta was forced to close the sun visors over the windows.
She thought about Qing’s ninety-year-old mother and what she would do when she found out Qing himself was responsible for the razing of the little Buddhist temple in the village where he had been born. He had asked the Chinese net how many people used it, and the answer was barely a dozen; he had asked it how many people might use a new indoor tennis centre, and the answer had been several thousand.
It was the net which had demolished that temple, really. The people had spoken. Yet Qing was not noded any more than Peta Knight was noded. He knew too much and so his mother would never find out about his discreet little poll; all she would see was his hand cutting the ribbon to open the tennis centre.
On the table, the node overheated and died. The attack was successful. She couldn’t prevent what would happen, now.
Winnie’s new baby had been born into an uncertain world.
Peta sighed. She’d done her best to protect a determinedly individual society from the weight of the impoverished global masses. In the end, it wasn’t religion she worried about, or corruption, or even mob rule.
It was hope. When confronted with the hopelessness of most people’s meagre lives, it seemed impossible for a person to delude themselves into hoping for something better.
The un-noded might be the best hope for the future, or they might be an ignorant, easily-manipulated menace. There was no telling.
“We go to advise the Commander-In-Chief,” Peta’s superior said, terminating the connection.
To divert herself from her gloomy thoughts, she checked the morning news. There was her face, mapped professionally onto a stranger’s body. Oiled skin gleamed. Enormous breasts bounced.
It would have been hilarious, if it wasn’t the end of everything.
* * *
Brian moved gingerly aft, two cups of steaming coffee in his hands.
Something wasn’t right. A prickly sensation passed through him and was gone. One of the coffees spilled onto his hand. He swore, spilling it some more.
“What was that?” he shouted.
The wet net answered him, translating as it went. The prickle was the integration of his ex-American node into the Global Chinese net. The implications leaped out at him, filling him with equal parts thrill and dread. The criminal records database had been bypassed. He was part of the Chinese net. Everybody was part of the Chinese net. That meant his experiences could be accessed by Felicity.
She would know for certain that he loved her, would do anything for her.
The problem was, she would also know he had wiped out Aunt Peta’s node and plotted to wipe out two more.
But only if she asked.
Even with the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, people had to ask questions in order to get answers.
What kind of engagement ring will she like best? Brian thought giddily at his node.
Images blasted him. Felicity laughing in her ex-boyfriend’s face, telling him that marriage was enslavement, that he was a pig for even asking her.
She had lied. Happiness drained out of Brian. More and more knowledge planted itself in his skull. She was a pathological liar. She took holidays outside the American net because she couldn’t be found out right away, because building false identities thrilled her in a way that Brian’s lovemaking skills never could.
She found his chest hair repulsive; had laughed about it with her cousin Grace. There was no start-up company, no money, nothing.
From the mind of the hot dog vendor, he plucked an image of her, stuffing her face with processed meat. She’d entered the same competition that he had, winning a trip the very same way. Hers was supposed to finish before his had begun, but she’d broken her ankle and the insurance had paid for her to stay on.
“Felicity,” he croaked. “Don’t you love me?”
And the net said, No.
Thoraiya Dyer is an Australian science fiction and fantasy writer with a passion for travel diminished only by an unreasonable fear of sharks. Her short fiction has appeared recently in Cosmos, Nature and ASIM #51, and is forthcoming in Apex. Winner of the 2011 Australian Ditmar Award for Best Novella/Novelette (“The Company Articles of Edward Teach”) and the 2010 Aurealis Award for Fantasy Short Story (“Yowie”), a collection of her original short fiction will be published by Twelfth Planet Press in 2012.
To discover why pirates are better than robots, see http://www.thoraiyadyer.com