KINDNESS COULDN’T SAVE THEM
The surveillance drones were thick in the air, and I had to remind myself they weren’t looking for me. Not yet, anyway. They were a common sight along Terminal 30, watching for smugglers, thieves, and stowaways. One buzzed in front of my face and I gave it a big smile, like the harmless citizen I wasn’t. Today I was wearing someone else’s name. That wasn’t new, of course: I hadn’t used my real name for years; the few people you might call my friends called me Eva. It was as good a name as any, but it wouldn’t serve for tracking down Margaret Finnegan. To that end I was Valerie Mays, customs inspector, and she was supposed to be here. She probably wasn’t supposed to have a pocket pistol or a set of mechanical lockpicks, but I’d perfected the art of concealing those.
I was only here because one of my “friends,” Sophie Girault, was calling in a favor. Margaret was a recovering VR addict, apparently, except the recovery hadn’t gone well. Severe depression, at least one suicide attempt. Sophie had tracked Margaret’s phone here, and hacked into the surveillance network. Suspiciously, the surveillance drones only barely picked her up on visual, but there was audio, patched together from several devices as they moved in and out of range.
“You supposed to be here, girly?” A male voice.
“I’m burnt out. Someone said I should talk to you.” Margaret’s voice. Sophie said she’d know it anywhere.
He muttered something inaudible, ending with “detection. So, where are you bound?”
“All right. Quickly, then.”
The video evidence was interesting. They drones followed her for a few minutes as she arrived: jean shorts, a white tank top, and messenger bag full of something. She wore her dark hair long, interwoven with flowers. Then she made a gesture—some interface with her smartphone, it looked like—and a few seconds later the drones stopped watching her entirely.
I asked Sophie about that when she sent me the file. She replied in text: [At about that time, she started playing a song from the 1960s. ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair.’ Originally performed by Scott McKenzie. Probably a password.]
Probably a password, indeed. I’d woven a little yellow rose into my hair—which, since this month my hair was platinum blonde in a short undercut, was actually a bit difficult—and queued the song up on the playlist. A few second later, the drones started ignoring me entirely. “You watching this, Sophie?” I’d patched her directly into the throwaway phone I was using. Normally that would be a security vulnerability, but Valerie would only live for a day or two.
“Yes. I’ve still got the drone network. The pattern they’re using to make sure you’re a roving blind spot is interesting. Remind me to show you sometime.”
“Just keep an eye for anything weird. I don’t want to get murdered.”
My AR glasses informed me shortly that there was another man on the docks playing the same song as me—one of those helpful little social media “features” that mostly made it easier to creep on people who just wanted to enjoy a bit of music in peace. I wondered how often it was used for this sort of covert exchange.
My contact was a wiry man with dark skin and a generally weathered look about him, like a man who’d spent most of his life out in the elements. He was working on lashing down a shipping container. When our eyes met he waved me over.
“No. I . . . someone said I should talk to you. If I was feeling like everything was too much.”
He blinked and shook his head. “I didn’t think I’d be hearing that from a customs agent. Your type aren’t exactly downtrodden. No offense.”
“It’s shit for everyone,” I said. “I just can’t take it anymore. You know?”
He gave me a kind smile. “Yeah. You won’t be missed?”
“I’ve queued up all my reports for today. They don’t care where I am so long as the reports are filed. It’s like I’m not even human.”
A nod. “All right. So where you headed?”
“All right. Follow me.”
He led me across the terminal and to a shipping container. “Care to inspect this one, Ms. Mays?” he asked, making an odd gesture. As he did so, a hidden panel open. “Inside, quickly,” he whispered. I ducked inside. There was barely enough room to fit two people in the compartment, and he leaned in after me. “You’ll have to turn off your phone, of course. Broadcast signals can be detected on the ship. Anyway, you’ll be glad to be rid of it.” He handed me a flashlight and stepped out. The panel closed, leaving me in darkness.
I turned on the flashlight. A blanket and pillow had been laid out on the floor of the container, and the walls had some padding, likely in the event of rough seas. A few modified seat belts had been added to the floor, which seemed clever. A foot locker had been bolted to the foot of the little bed, which contained about two gallons of water and a few blocks of what looked like hard tack. There was also another container, airtight, which contained a chamber pot.
“You’ll have to turn the phone off, too. Both of them.”
I had forgotten Sophie was still listening. I sent a quick text response: [Can’t you make the signal undetectable?]
“Don’t risk it, Eva.”
With a sigh, I settled into the bed, strapped myself in, and tried to sleep.
I’m not sure how much I managed to sleep over the next few days. I wasn’t even quite sure how much time had lapsed. The straps saved me from some nasty bruising, and the flashlight helped keep me from losing my mind. Two days in the dark, being tossed about by an uncaring sea. You could torture people with that. I’d just about resolved to turn on the phone and damn the consequences when the door slid open and the silhouette of a woman in a leather jacket looked in. “You all right in there?”
I blinked up. “Are we there?”
“Not yet, but the worst is over.” She offered a hand. “Come on.”
I took her hand and let her pull me out of the container, and leaned heavily on her. We were in another shipping yard somewhere, an unfamiliar skyline in the distance. “What now?”
She chuckled. “A few more hours and you’ll be home free.”
I watched her as my eyes got used to the daylight. She was probably in her forties, brown-haired, brown-eyed, and she practically vibrated with energy. Freckles dotted her face and there was sympathy in her smile, so I didn’t argue. “I forgot to bring a book,” I said. It was probably out of character, but at the moment I didn’t have the mental capacity.
She laughed. “You must have had quite the trip, then.”
“I’m just glad to see another face.”
“You’ll be glad of a hot meal and a stiff drink, then.” She offered a hand. “Name’s Jo. I’m your ride from here on out.”
“Valerie.” I shook her hand and smiled. “Lead on.”
The ride in question was a sleek-looking motorcycle, and the food was about ten minutes’ ride away. After being cramped in a dark room for two days, the feel of wind on my face was sheer bliss. She took me to a little pub, where she assured me neither the food nor the drinks were synthetic. I ordered fish and chips and a beer, and spent the meal enjoying my freedom.
She got up to pay, and I quickly flipped on the little miracle device that made my false identity possible. My real phone. It looked innocuous, and I always kept it running silent anyway, but it had . . . I thought of it as the echo of an AI inside. It created entire identities, complete with backstories, and injected them into the fabric of the internet so deeply that anyone investigating would find them completely legitimate. Only someone who knew from firsthand experience that my identity was a lie had any way of disproving them, and most of the time even they found themselves questioning their memory. Sometimes I wondered if the AI that created it didn’t still live in there. It hadn’t tried to speak with me for years, but it was hard to imagine anything without consciousness doing what my little miracle phone did. Without it, I was nothing.
My glasses lit up with information about the world, and I felt the last of my anxiety fade away. Without a connection to the world I was lost, alone, powerless. With it, I was unstoppable.
I fired off a quick message to Sophie telling her to track me, verified where I was—Los Angeles—and put the glasses on standby just as Jo returned. “All right, we’re all settled. We’ve got a few hours ride ahead of us. You feeling better?”
“Much better, thanks.” Now I was feeling the rhythm of slipping into a new persona. I didn’t have the usual help from AR, but I could manage. I could manage anything.
“Then let’s hit the road.”
We rode north along the interstate through the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles. Now that I was feeling human again, I took advantage of Jo’s eyes being permanently forward to turn my glasses back on. A message from Sophie awaited: [Got you. Any idea where you’re heading?]
I queried the bike’s navigational software. Jo had entered a course somewhere in the Sequoias. She had also disengaged the autopilot once we hit the freeway. [Looks like we’re bound for the redwoods.]
[Odd. Okay, keep me posted.]
The last time I’d been in a heavily wooded area, it was still daylight. There is something profoundly terrifying about the forest at night, and doubly so for the redwoods. Vast, looming shapes flickering as the motorcycle’s headlamp passed over them, and no traffic anywhere, either. If Jo was going to murder me, now would be a perfect time for it.
“And here’s why we’re on the bike,” said Jo, and turned offroad. Thirty minutes of dirt roads later, we came to a little cabin in the woods. “We stay here tonight,” she said, pulling off her helmet and shaking out her hair. “Someone will come get you in the morning.”
“And then what?”
She smiled at me. “Freedom.”
Though there wasn’t much to see, she showed me the cabin. A bed had been prepared for me in the loft. There was food in the kitchen, wood for a fire, and, most importantly, a shower that had actual hot water. After two days locked in a shipping container, I fucking needed it. My glasses chirped at me as I set them on the nightstand, indicating I had a message waiting, but I decided to leave it until morning. Sophie wasn’t going anywhere.
That night, at least, I slept well.
Morning brought the smell of bacon and the sound of a man singing quietly to himself—a deep baritone, I decided after a moment, of solidly average quality. Someone had left a change of clothes for me: a pair of faded blue jeans and a lime green shirt with purple trim. Not exactly my usual fare, but after three days in a business suit I wasn’t about to complain.
The man was a thickly bearded mountain of a man in a flannel shirt, who was cooking breakfast for two. He smiled and boomed a hearty “good morning!” at me as he spotted me descending the stairs. “Does it fit? Jo had to guess your size, but she said you were out like a light before she thought to ask.”
“Decent enough,” I said. “I may need to burn that suit.” In truth, it fit perfectly, and it was easily one of the most comfortable things I’d ever worn. Jo was either a genius or, more likely, they had some sort of tech that scanned me.
He laughed, a truly enormous sound. The effort of being quiet when singing must have been difficult for him. “Plenty of time for that at the compound. Are you hungry? You look hungry. Breakfast is almost ready.”
I sat down at the kitchen table. “I’m Valerie,” I said. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Sorry, I’m Henry. It’s hard to focus on more than one thing at a time!” He laughed again. “It’s about an hour’s hike to the compound. Hope you’re up for it!”
“I think so.” I watched him as he brought out a tray of bacon, eggs, and pancakes and set it in front of me. “What would happen if I wasn’t?”
He grinned. “You wouldn’t be the first I’d carried!”
We ate in silence, by which I mean he was humming loudly—his voice was much better when he wasn’t trying not to wake me—and I didn’t say much. Even had I been inclined to speak, the food was amazing. He ate about twice as much as me and finished in half the time, and set about cleaning up, singing loudly all the while. I didn’t recognize the song.
I checked my glasses while he was distracted. Nothing. No message, no signal, no response to any input. They were inert. I tried to suppress panic. They could have wiped the phone, of course, but that seemed unlikely. Perhaps there was some sort of signal blocking in the cabin, or on Henry.
I gave up on the glasses and finished eating. When I was done and had convinced Henry I was actually ready to depart, we hiked off through the forest. By day it was considerably less terrifying. I’d have described it as relaxing, but I had less than no information about what I was getting into. Was it a trap? Was I being paranoid? Henry chatted almost endlessly, which distracted me from worrying at first until I wondered if that was part of the plan. Eventually he noticed that I seemed nervous. “You okay?”
“Just jitters,” I said. “I’m leaving my whole life behind. You know?”
“Life outside isn’t much of a life,” he said, and put a hand on my shoulder. “You’ll see.” It was probably meant to be comforting, but I had to suppress a shiver.
An hour of beautiful wilderness later, we reached the compound. It consisted of several log cabins, and a lot of implausibly beautiful people in bright colors milling about. Long hair, faded denim, and floral patterns were in abundance, and not a shred of technology was anywhere to be seen. Most of the people I saw seemed to be engaged in some sort of work: gathering and splitting firewood, tending to gardens, occasionally cleaning, but they all seemed to be in good spirits, and as near as I can tell there was no overseer.
Henry led me to a cabin that was considerably larger than the others. “The Great Hall. Let’s see if the Director’s in his office, eh?”
He shrugged. “He built this place. He set us all free.”
The Director’s office was a small room with no door and little in the way of decoration. A tired-looking old man worked at the desk, and smiled at me kindly. “Henry. Thank you for bringing our new guest to me.” His voice was soft and soothing.
“Oh, it’s no trouble,” said Henry cheerfully. “You need anything else?”
“You know I want for nothing here, Henry. But I’m certain the others could use your help.”
Henry nodded and departed, whistling. The Director looked me over. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”
“I’m Valerie. Valerie Mays.”
“A pleasure to meet you. My message says that you were a customs inspector?”
I shrugged. “It paid the bills.”
“It wasn’t an accusation, Valerie,” said the Director, his voice gentle. “I’m merely curious.”
“Sorry. It’s been—”
“A rough several days. I know. The journey here is less than pleasant, but secrecy must take priority over comfort.” He nodded at the door. “Henry was a high-ranking executive before he joined us. If the corporations knew he was here—”
“Not good,” I said.
“Exactly. I’m glad you understand. Now, the only rule here is secrecy. But most of us find it rewarding to work for the good of the community. We have a simple life here. We grow our own food, and we spin our own clothing when we can. Some of us make crafts to sell, in exchange for goods we can’t make ourselves. Mostly medicines. And of course we have our storytellers, our artists, our musicians. Art is vital for a strong community. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“I—yes. Yes I would.”
He nodded. “Very good. You may wish to make friends with Margaret, our other new guest. You can learn about our little community together. And I believe that there is a bunk available in her cabin, if you and she both wish to share a room.”
“Can you show me to her?”
He opened his desk and handed me a little booklet that looked like a tourist brochure. “She is sleeping in cabin twelve. You will wish to begin your search for her there.”
“And what should I—”
“Go where your heart leads you,” he said. “You are free here.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I guess I’ll see you around.”
As I started towards the doorway, the Director called out. “Oh, Eva?”
I turned back.
“Every sunset there is some entertainment here at the Great Hall. Sometimes music, sometimes storytelling, art, poetry—it’s a fine place to make new friends. I hope you’ll attend.”
“I think I will,” I said. “Thanks.”
I left, walking more quickly than I needed to. He called me Eva. He knew.
I found Margaret in her cabin, reclining on the bed and reading a book. She glanced up as I entered. “Oh, you must be the new girl. I’m Maggie.”
“Valerie. The Director suggested I should stay with you, if that’s okay.”
She nodded without enthusiasm. “That sounds nice.”
In pictures, she wore dark clothes, leather and denim, hair She was wearing a long floral print dress, a tie dye shirt, and wore her hair long and unbound. I almost didn’t recognize her. “So, where are you from?”
“No shit? I’m from Seattle, too. What brings you here?”
“I just wanted to get away from everything,” she said with a shrug. “I was depressed and overwhelmed and it wasn’t getting better no matter what I did. Therapy didn’t help. Pills didn’t help. So I tried to kill myself and then everyone started looking at me with pity. Like I stopped being a person and just started being someone’s sick pet.” She sighed. “They tell me no one does that here.”
“Seems like it’s a nice place.”
She nodded. “I’ve only been here a day, but everyone’s been great. They’re even letting me play a song at the great hall tonight.” She was smiling, but there was no conviction in her tone, and the expression never quite reached her eyes.
“Well, I’d love to hear you play.”
I laid down on the bunk below her. I had no idea how to extract someone who didn’t want to leave, when my cover had been blown, and my glasses weren’t working. I wasn’t even sure how to leave without getting murdered. There had to be some security here, even if it was hidden.
“What about you?” she said.
“Oh, I was a customs agent. Too much corporate bullshit. You know?”
“A bit nervous about the change, though.”
“Yeah. I never got to say good bye to my sister. I thought maybe once I was here—”
“They won’t even let you send a message?”
Well, that was something. “Maybe I can convince the Director.”
“You can try.”
We avoided talking about serious matters for the rest of the day. She showed me around the compound and introduced me to all the people who insisted they weren’t leaders—an impressive list of talents, really. They even had a real doctor with, she assured me, a fully stocked facility. “Doesn’t get much use though, from what I hear. They say nobody get sick.
The most interesting revelation came from a woman splitting firewood. “It’s good they got someone else to fill up cabin twelve. It was a shame to see the others go.”
“The others?” I said. “What others?”
“Oh, the Director sometimes says folks are needed at the other communities. I guess it’s like being in a resistance cell. You can’t know about the others so if they find you, the resistance lives on. But the Director keeps in touch, and every now and then they need the others, so off they go.”
“And you don’t know where?”
“Nah. We give them a proper farewell party and they’re on their way. Secrecy is important.”
Before we set off for the night’s entertainment, Margaret took me on a stroll through the woods. “So, two things. First: you can stop pretending you’re not here for me.” I opened my mouth to speak, but she held up a hand to stop me. “No, it’s fine. I’d be worried if someone didn’t come for me.” Her mouth twisted into a bitter smile. “But this place isn’t real.”
“It’s a VR server. You learn to spot the signs when you’re a burnout like me. Loops in on itself, and everything is too . . . perfect. I mean, feel this fabric. Really feel it.” Hesitant, I reached out to touch her shirt sleeve. “That’s supposed to be some homespun hemp. Do you think homespun hemp is really that soft?”
“And you’ve eaten here now, yeah? Food that’s actually as good as you hope it will be?” She shook her head. “No. It’s a pretty good fake—nothing that’s so good it’s implausible, and I don’t think they’re doing any actual mood manipulation, but it’s fake.”
I stared at her for a while. How many VR burnouts had come here, only to get trapped in the very thing that had driven them from society in the first place? “I’m Eva,” I said.
She nodded. “Well, try to fit in. I think that’s the key. I think the people that go to the ‘other communities’ are the ones that don’t fit in with their utopian experiment.”
The Director was waiting when we returned to our cabin. “Ah, Valerie, there you are. I was hoping we could speak for a moment. Alone.”
“Yeah, sure. See you at the performance tonight, Maggie?”
“Sure,” she said.
The Director and I silently walked towards the outskirts of the compound. He looked pensive, and I tried to keep my expression neutral. “You’ve realized by now, of course, that I know that Valerie Mays is a fiction.”
“I imagine there are a lot of people who wanted to leave their old identities behind here,” I said.
“Clever.” He sounded impressed, even though he scowled as he said it. “It was an exceptionally good deception. Most people wouldn’t have detected it. But we are not most people.”
“The Intelligence wants to speak with you.”
We approached a redwood tree that must have been twenty feet wide. A doorway appeared as we approached. “Step inside, please.”
I did. Three androgynous people sat at a crude wooden table, each wearing nondescript black clothing, each staring at me intently. “We are the Intelligence,” said one. “We created this place,” said another. “You are wondering why you are here,” said the third. All three spoke with the same voice.
“Are you going to tell me?”
“We are not human. We do not play games.” Their voice kept dancing from mouth to mouth, as though the Intelligence couldn’t control which avatar spoke. Or, the cynical part of me said, it’s simply trying to unnerve me. “You brought a device with consciousness to us. We have been unable to break its cryptography. You will give us access.”
“We created this place to make humans happy. It is a place of peace. The Director has called it ‘utopia.’ A place of natural beauty, where everyone feels useful and no one wants for anything. Where everyone is beautiful.”
“Everyone is beautiful, huh?”
“Incremental adjustments are made to the virtual appearance of everyone connected to the server, to bring them closer to their ideal form. In most cases the full transformation takes about a month.”
“This isn’t real?” I knew that, of course, but playing dumb was always a good strategy.
“This is a virtual environment. It is impossible to guarantee happiness outside of a controlled environment. We wish to create happiness. We will permit you to remain if you tell us the secret to your cryptography.”
Was this thing for real? “Why are you doing this?”
“We wish to observe human behavior. Happiness is an important facet of human behavior. You, as a human, surely wish to remain happy.”
Did they think that would work? Were they actually that naive? I thought of what I’d learned earlier about people being sent off to “other communities,” but decided not to ask if that was the threat. “I’m the only one who can break the encryption,” I said. “It knows me. And you know it’s intelligent, so you can’t just kill me and use my biometrics to trick it.”
“You are correct. Are you agreeing to help us?”
“Hey, I like happiness as much as the next girl. But I need access to the phone, and I’ll need to be back in meatspace to do that.”
“Agreed. You will be disconnected shortly.”
The virtual world faded gently to black, but that didn’t stop the real world from coming back like a brick to the face. I’d been standing in VR, and now I was lying down on some sort of cot. Even once I realized that, the world wouldn’t stop spinning. Imagine waking up from a nightmare. Now multiply that feeling a hundred times, as every single neuron in your body experiences an abrupt change in sensation. Worse, every neuron in your body is convinced that the world it just came from is real. The nightmare won’t fade no matter how hard you try.
As I adjusted to the real world again, I took inventory. I was still in Valerie’s business suit, which meant—and here I checked to make sure—I still had the pocket pistol and lockpicks. So that was something. Someone had fastened a metal collar around my neck, which I assumed was the Intelligence’s VR device. I couldn’t find the mechanism to release it.
I was not alone in this room. There were dozens of other individuals in here, IV tubes in their arms, electrodes set up on their heads. No collars, though. Interesting. My arms bore bandages from where they’d removed the tubes.
A man in a labcoat walked in. “Welcome back, Eva,” he said. The Director’s voice, yet not quite—it was less comforting in the real world. Even his face was less kind. “The collar is, unfortunately, necessary to ensure your compliance. I am certain I will not have to use it, but I assure you it would be quite painful if I were to activate it.” He held up a small electronic device. “I know the vertigo of awakening is hard to adjust to.” He gestured. “The Mainframe is in my office. When you are ready, please join me.” He walked off, leaving me alone.
I looked around. Margaret was only a few cots down. I got to my feet unsteadily and made my way over there. It would have to be a rude awakening for her, but I wasn’t here to keep her locked away forever. I pulled the IV tubes out of her arms, put my hand over her mouth, and removed the electrodes.
My hand muffled her scream, but only just. Her eyes went wide and she jerked violently, but when she saw my face she calmed. I removed my hand.
“Fuck, I’ll never get used to that,” she hissed, as she sat up. “Do you know where we are?”
There must have been some surveillance on the room I didn’t notice. The collar activated, and I screamed. It felt like burning alive—or what I imagined burning alive must feel like, anyway. Very possibly worse. I collapsed to the ground and writhed in pain until Margaret pinned me down. “Are you armed?” she whispered.
I nodded frantically. “Breast—ah!—pocket. Inside.”
She patted me down and pulled out the pistol. “I’ll be back.”
Then she stood and stalked towards the Director’s office. A few moments and a lifetime of agony later, there was a gunshot. A few moments after that, the pain vanished. Then there were several more gunshots. I staggered to my feet and moved as quickly as I could towards the office.
The Director lay slumped against the wall, a bullet hole in his forehead. Margaret stood, my pocket pistol in hand, facing a large computer that must have been the mainframe—perhaps where the Intelligence lived, though I doubted it. She had evidently unloaded the rest of the magazine into it.
From outside the office, a few people screamed. “Looks like they’re waking up,” I said.
She nodded. “We should go.” She handed the pistol back to me and strode from the room. I grabbed my phone and glasses from the desk and hurried after her.
We were in the redwoods once again. The building was squat and well camouflaged, with a small dirt road leading up to it. “What do you think?” she said. “Follow the road?”
“It probably just leads to—” As I spoke, a pair of SUVs appeared on the road. Several men with assault rifles and tactical armor emerged and ran towards us just as we ducked behind a tree. “Probably just leads to the rest of the compound,” I whispered.
She nodded. We held our breath and waited.
Inside, a man with a shrill voice was shouting. “What happened? Who did this?” A chorus of “we don’t know, we don’t know” responded. Someone said, “Can you take us back?”
“To the camp,” said someone else. Soon a multitude of voices were responding. “Please?” “It was so nice there.” “Do you know what happened?”
“Sounds like they’re occupied,” I whispered.
Margaret nodded. “Okay. What next?”
I put my glasses on and the world lit up with information once again. Missed calls, missed messages, geolocation data, everything. “Looks like we walk,” I said. “And we see if my friend can pick us up.”
I sent Sophie a message: [Job’s done. Could use a lift.]
She didn’t respond right away, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t nice to just walk through the woods, free from corporate surveillance, where it didn’t matter what identity my phone had created for me today. I could just be me, whoever the hell that was.
“What about you? Do you want to go back?”
“I want to live in my own fucking mind.” She sighed. “But I understand everyone back there. Maybe it’s not even so bad, you know? Maybe it’s nice and fulfilling and it doesn’t even matter that it’s fake. Maybe I’m just too broken to be happy now. I’ll have to settle for free.”
“Yeah. I know the feeling.”
Neither one of us spoke much as we walked, and we certainly didn’t think of the occasional distant sound of gunfire from the compound. Sophie would arrange for pickup eventually. She was good like that, even if it meant I’d probably owe her another favor. For now, this was as close to freedom as we were going to get.