A short story by Steve Yegge
Note, 2021: I wrote this story some years back, more or less as a 30-year-belated make-up assignment for a bad short story I wrote in high school. I don’t 100% trust Google not to lose the story by shutting down the site, so I’m posting it here as well. I hope you enjoy it. I had a lot of fun writing it. I posted some notes about the story in my old blog.
Dedicated with fond memories to Ken Whipple, Olympia High School English Teacher, 1983
* 1 *
The two boys lay quiet at the top of the hill. The older boy, Juan Heitor Villa-Lobos, peered through his antique magnocs at the installation. A kilometer away in the valley, through the darkness, he surveyed row upon row of glinting figures.
“Can you see it? They down there?” Daniel Sandarwin, four years Juan’s junior, could see nothing. He rocked back and forth impatiently.
“Course they’re down there you dumb fucker,” hissed Juan. Danny beamed in the darkness. Juan only called him that if things were going well.
Juan powered off the magnocs. They dangled from a ghostly carbon chain around his neck. He had won the magnocs and chain in a poker game the previous week, along with the Branson facility’s stolen passprint. Nobody had thought he was serious about using them.
Juan had seen enough. “Let’s go.”
Danny leaped to his feet. “We really gonna be Ritchies? We’re gonna live f’rever’never?” Juan nodded in the dim starlight.
The boys made their way down the hill, Juan in the lead, heading directly for the facility. Danny alternated between humming and singing quietly to himself. “Ritchies, ritchies, ritchies…”
By the time they had covered half the distance, Danny’s attention had wandered. “Juan, are we gonna go see the Singularity fight tomorrow? I hear the Red River’s fighting it. They’re letting Poseys in for this one.”
“Danny, once we pull this off you can be in the River, if you want. But now we gotta be real quiet so we don’t wake up the dog. Okay?” Danny quieted down instantly. Juan only talked sweet when they were in some kind of danger.
Juan halted and raised the magnocs. This time he ignored the rows of gigantic, motionless figures and focused the nocs on the adjacent building. The windows were dark, but with the nocs he could see three guards, all heavily armed and staring outward into the valley. He dialed up the magnification until he could see the nearest guard’s corneas. The eyes were half-shut, dilated and moving rapidly. The guard had a small circuit patch on her temple.
Juan checked the other guards, then spotted the dog. It lay on its side, legs twitching as if it were dreaming. The dog had a circuit patch stuck in its ear. Their informant Nick Orly had been right. “The guards are all playing that dumb fucking World War III sim. Dog too. They can’t see shit. Let’s go. Just try to be quiet.”
A hundred yards from the fence, Juan produced two small pills and handed one to Danny. “Passprint. Better fuckin’ work or Nicko’s a fucking Ashes. Work up some spit to help it go down.” The boys swallowed their pills and waited in silence for two minutes. The Brazilian desert was cool and quiet.
After he was sure the pills were down, Juan led them to the fence. At arm’s length they stopped and waited. Danny wriggled with impatience but said nothing. After perhaps a minute, the fence began to restructure itself to form an opening. Juan knew vaguely that the work was being done by bacteria, but he figured it was better if Danny just thought of it as magic.
The reshaping was complete in another minute, and the boys stepped through onto the smooth, gleaming lot.
They paused just beyond the fence. Up close the sight of the sport mechs was almost overwhelming. There were over a hundred of them, in myriad colours and styles. The mechs were the personal collection of Head Kasam ibn Branson, the reclusive chairman of Seventy Virgin Pacific Atlantic, the world’s largest entertainment mega-conglomerate.
Head Branson, something of a legend himself, was a fancier of the fantastic. Most of the mechs were styled to resemble mythical beasts, creatures of legend, ancient deities. The boys had emerged from the fence-hole to find themselves beneath an enormous Baba Yaga’s Hut, crouched like a spider on stilt-legs that could cross small canyons.
Juan broke the silence with a croak: “These things are fuckin’ huge!” Danny, for once wordless, nodded in gape-mouthed assent.
“I’m taking the Angel.” Juan pointed past three rows to a towering white mech, an oversized Winged Victory of Samothrace with the optional arms upgrade. “Which dragon you want?”
Danny looked back and forth at the two Dragon mechs: one European and one Chinese. “Do they both fly?” he asked dubiously. Juan nodded, still looking at his headless Angel. Danny considered briefly. “I want the snaky one.”
Juan turned and focused on Danny for the first time since they had swallowed the passprints. “Okay, Danny? You can do this. Just climb in and tell it to do stuff. Follow me to the fence as quiet as you can. You do it good and we’ll be Ritchies by tomorrow. Got it?”
“Yeah.” Danny looked nervous. “But what if I can’t control it?”
“Don’t worry. Everyone says it’s easy. You just gotta talk to it. No chit-chat, just give it simple instructions. Mostly it does whatever your arms and legs do. You’ll see. Just don’t knock over the other ones. That Dragon’s fuckin’ long.”
“Okay.” The boys exchanged a quick, nervous parting glance, then headed in opposite directions to their mechs.
Juan reached his mech first. He climbed the ladder to the open entry hatch in the back, just above the waist. The mech stood five meters high at the shoulder, and lacking a head, only its wings extended higher. Juan sat down and the hatch closed behind him. The cockpit began to shift and adjust to his body, and within a minute he felt the connection complete. He wriggled his arms and wings a few times, then turned to watch Danny and the Chinese Dragon.
Danny had found the ladder and was climbing up behind the mech’s head. At the top he stood for a moment, looking down the Dragon’s sixteen-meter length, admiring its shimmering scales. He glanced over at Juan’s Angel, almost invisible in the darkness. The Angel waved.
Danny returned the wave, turned and entered the hatch. It closed and the Dragon’s eyes lit up. Fifteen seconds later, the mech body raised slightly and shook itself like a dog. Its head turned to look at the Angel. Danny was ready.
Juan gave the Angel no commands, but turned and walked it carefully towards the fence. Danny stole up behind him, silent and sinuous. Between Cerberus and a T-Rex they found a section of fence wide enough to jump.
Juan hopped the Angel over as lightly as he could. He landed in a squat, knees bending to absorb the shock, one palm on the ground. The Dragon followed, leaping nearly twice the height of the fence and landing in an automatic coiling motion. The boys looked back at the guard building. It was quiet.
The Angel whispered in Juan’s voice: “Let’s go.” They turned north toward the Dennett Memorial Data Center nestled sixty kilometers away, just within the boundaries of the Amazonian solar forest.
* 2 *
Kazuhiro Kondo was dragging his little sister Rekki by the arm through the sunlit atrium. He shouted over her to his parents: “Dad! Can we be the ants? Puh-leeeease?”
Jun Kondo and her husband Kenzo shared a pained look. Jun shook her head in amused resignation. “I was hoping they would choose the birds.”
“Me too,” sighed Kenzo. “But at least Kazu won’t be able to get into as much trouble as an ant. Or so you’d hope.”
The family reached the far end of the atrium, where a large sign read ‘Historical Tours’. A pleasant feminine voice greeted them from hidden speakers. “Welcome to ImmersiverseCorp Historical Tours. Please proceed through the gate to the Dispatch Center, where you will be taken directly to the tour you purchased.”
Kenzo paused for a moment while his attention diverted back to his host data center to triple-check their passes. A few other tourists walked through the portal beneath the sign. Kenzo nodded, and Jun led the children through the gate, with Kenzo bringing up the rear.
The portal seemed to open to the tarmac beyond the glass wall of the atrium. However, when they stepped through they found themselves in a small theater. A hundred comfortable blue seats were arranged in concentric circles around a dais in the center of the room. Some of the seats were occupied by other tourists, though none from the group that had walked through the portal moments before.
The Kondos took four adjacent seats near the center. A cheery voice filled the room. “Welcome to the Death of Saint Dawkins Historical Tour. I’m Marv, your Tour Guide, and I will be sharing exciting facts with you before the tour, and also during the tour in your Tour Bodies.
“You are about to experience the second most popular tour in our Religious Leader Final Moments series. Although Saint Dawkins is of course a historical figure of great fame and importance, this tour’s popularity, as you no doubt already know, owes almost entirely to the surprise ending.”
The voice paused and the tourists murmured. Rekki asked shyly, “Mom, is Saint Doggins an Ashes?”
Jun nodded solemnly. Kenzo added: “But he’s a very special one. This tour is one of the most famous ever, because of the way he becomes an Ashes. Actually it’s what happens right after he dies that everyone comes to see.”
Kazu looked up from his Ant Body Types brochure. “What happens?”
His father shook his head. “Pay attention to the tour guide, son. He’ll explain everything.” Kazu rolled his eyes and went back to studying the ants.
The Tour Guide voice continued. “The ImmersiverseCorp Historical Event Tours allow you to be a personal witness to major historical events. It’s almost as if you’re traveling back in time. Fortunately, we can have time travel to you!”
A translucent globe materialized in the center of the room above the pedestal, displaying a rotating ImmersiverseCorp logo.
“Our tours use Singularity-checked physics to create exact replicas of interesting events in historical space-time. We copy a bubble-shaped region around the event, place you inside the copy, and then just let things unfold exactly the way the original event happened.”
The logo vanished, replaced by a bird’s-eye view of an ancient city at the foot of a sputtering volcano. A hazy, animated bubble appeared between the city and the mountains. The bubble expanded to enclose just the city and the volcano.
“To show you how it works, take a look at our critically acclaimed Mount Vesuvius Eruption Tour. This tour captures a Time Bubble that includes the volcano and the city of Pompei just before the volcano erupts and destroys the city in AD 79. It happened nearly three thousand years ago, but you can experience it like it’s happening right now!”
The volcano exploded and the globe filled with smoke and ash, obscuring the view.
“The tour lasts until the city is destroyed, after which all tourists are returned to their bodies here in the Tour Center. Mount Vesuvius is one of our most popular tours, incidentally. It’s where the term Ashes came to mean dead people.”
The voice paused, and the globe once again displayed the ImmersiverseCorp logo.
Kazu looked up from his brochure. “Dad. We are going to be ants, right? I want to be one of these Soldier Ants. They look awesome.”
As if he had overheard, Marv’s voice announced: “Because there were no humans nearby at the moment of Saint Dawkins’ death, your Tour Body options for this tour are Birds and Ants. The tour bodies have been fitted with advanced optical, auditory and olfactory sensors, as well as telepath transmitters for communication among yourselves.
“You are allowed to move around as much as you like to achieve the best possible view of the event. Please be considerate of the other tourists and try not to interfere with the event. Your ability to change the course of this event is limited but not impossible. We reserve the right to extract you from the Time Bubble at any time if we feel you are interfering, in which case you will not receive any experience for the tour.
“Please also note that unless you already have Bird Body experience, flying is not as easy as it looks. If you try it you will probably fall and conk your head. Consider yourself warned!
“Finally, before we start, I am legally obligated to inform you that this tour has an unpredictable ending. But that’s why you’re here, right? Mathematicians tell us that the ending is an External Event. That alone would make for a pretty interesting tour all by itself. But unlike the other External Events we know about, this event is different every time we run the tour!
“This is the only historical moment we have found that has this characteristic, out of thousands of tours. But don’t be alarmed. Nearly one million Rosies have participated in this tour safely, and even three Poseys have managed to secure the funds.”
The tourists twittered at this unexpected news. “Poseys pos ps ps Posey… Poseys… pos pos posey” echoed in whispers around the theater. Kazu heaved an exaggerated sigh and somehow managed to glare at everyone simultaneously.
The Tour Guide’s voice became even more cheerful. “We will be carefully monitoring the entire tour. In the unlikely event that something really awful happens, such as a black hole appearing and sucking you all into a vortex beyond the reach of our equipment, we will refund your entire tour fee, no questions asked.”
There was dead silence in the room.
“Okay! Let’s get ready for the tour. On the arm of your chair you will find a screen that lets you select a Tour Body. Once everyone has selected a body the tour will begin. At the end of the tour you will each receive 12,750 Experience Credits to your consciousness account. You may also wish to purchase enhanced memories of the event in the gift shop for a small additional fee.”
Images of various birds and ants began to appear above the tourists’ heads as they selected their preferences. Kazu announced Soldier Ant! as he jabbed his image. The other Kondos chose worker ants.
Rekki looked very worried. “Mom, what’s a black hole?”
Jun smiled and reached for her daughter’s hand. “It’s an energy source, dear. They use black holes to power these tours. The Tour Guide man was just making a joke. This tour is completely safe. Just stay next to mommy and daddy.” Rekki looked unconvinced.
Marv’s voice chimed: “Looks like we have seventeen birds and twelve ants today. Let’s start the tour!”
Bright sunshine jabbed into the eyes of twenty-nine disoriented ants and birds…
* 3 *
Clinton Richard Dawkins was nine hundred and seventy-one years old, and he was feeling every minute of it.
His feet pounded a rhythm on the hard sand as he dodged clumps of ammophila beachgrass. He was trying to avoid the water, and for now there seemed to be enough animal trails to manage it. The bank was steep, and the grass was tall and thick at the ridge. No help for it: he was stuck running near the beach.
No matter. He had only run about fifty kilometers so far. There was a long, long way to go yet, and he had plenty of energy. His main concern was that he hadn’t fully warmed up. The run had been too erratic to fall into a comfortable cadence.
Richard Dawkins had been many things in his lifetime, a lifetime that had now ironically outlasted the biblical Methuselah’s. He had been a scientist, a philosopher, a saint, a hermit, and many other things besides. This century he was a runner. He lived to run. He loved to run. He had become perhaps the most enduring long-distance runner the human race had ever seen.
He dodged a tall clump, startling a pair of gulls into flight. Most of his long life, he reflected lazily, had been focused on other people. Educating them, mostly. It was a shame how often he’d had to resort to the switch, the rod, the metaphorical paddle. People just didn’t want to learn. Science advanced, technology advanced, but every generation was every bit as wilfully ignorant as its predecessors.
These days he ran. Running was a unique pleasure that he doubted the Singularity would ever understand. Head Bill and Head Daniel never got it either. For that matter, he wasn’t entirely sure why he did it himself. It certainly wasn’t for the glory. Almost nobody knew he was still alive, let alone knew that he could run a megameter without rest at near-sprinting speed in a body that was still almost pure original human genetic material.
He’d been through the argument with himself for thousands of hours, and although he had probably thought more deeply about running than anyone in history, he didn’t have any real answers. He just loved doing it.
Up ahead he spotted a timeshift marker. It was the fourth. This leg had been scenic but uneventful. He wondered again whether the legs were truly randomly chosen, or if it was rigged somehow. The Chronathlon was the ultimate challenge for distance runners who could afford the luxury: a run backwards in time. Every twenty kilometers the clock rolled back twenty years and the location changed. You never knew where you’d wind up, or who might try to stop you. It felt like running through an old television set with a child at the controls.
Like all important races, it only ended when you died.
The current world record holder was Benedicto Vega, a direct descendant of the Raramuri persistence hunters. Fourteen years ago he had run six hundred sixty-four kilometers. He had been running strong in central Florida in the year 2238, on a paved highway next to a lake, when an alligator lunged out and dragged him in. The race body was never recovered.
Benedicto’s press interview immediately after the race had been… confused. Somehow he had run himself into a delirium that had carried over to his data center processors. He had come to believe he was being chased by a “Rabbaguar”, an imaginary creature that he described in toothy detail to a cadre of bemused journalists. He was convinced that the Rabbaguar had finally caught him. He refused to believe it had been an alligator until he had slept and reviewed the records.
The gaffe was so unbelievable that even some of the Rivers had taken notice. Almost overnight the term Rabbaguar had all but eclipsed “alligator” for crocodilians of all persuasions, and “Vegan” became popular slang for anyone with the misfortune to be eaten alive by a carnivore.
He ran smoothly up to the timeshift marker, a blurry wall that showed him his reflection running through the beachgrass-spotted dunes. He looked… a lot like himself. He had looked more or less the same for close to a millennium. He had toyed with a wide variety of other appearances, but he always returned to a kind of idealized version of his original self, the body he had been born in. A Posey back when all humans were Poseys.
He slowed at the barrier. He wanted to maintain his endurance pace of thirty kilometers per hour, but this was also his first Chronathlon. The brochure had not been comfortingly specific about the algorithm they used for choosing new locations. Mitch, his race monitor, had assured him that he would always materialize outdoors, and that he would not wind up at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, nor at the top of Kanchenjunga. But that left a lot of open ground. Twenty klicks in El Azizia would be an annoying obstacle.
He passed through the barrier and his feet found reddish tundra. The air was freezing. He felt vents closing in the folds of his running clothes. Lovely. He knew his way around the planet well enough, but tundra was tundra. He could be anywhere from Siberia to Greenland. He resumed his endurance pace and let his mind wander.
Rosies. Poseys. Ashes. The Singularity. The Rivers. Head Bill. Head Branson. COMA. Those damned intriguing Externals… his mind paged idly through the changes of the past millennium. Most had been gradual, some frighteningly sudden. The world was almost unimaginably different from the world in which he’d grown up, and yet humanity remained more or less the same as ever: a bunch of bloody idiots.
He had become a hermit after the Church had voted to martyr him. He’d opposed his own canonization, had never wanted even the tiniest part in the global idiocy of COMA, the Church of Modern Atheism. But he had fought fire with too much fire. He hadn’t seen that the timbers of the Old Churches were rotten. His evangelizing had been too successful, creating a new Church when all he’d aimed for was some healthy skepticism.
When Microsoft had finally purchased the ailing Roman Catholic Church in 2342, the markets and the then-young Rivers had scarcely noticed. There were some jokes about the failed Indulgence Server project, and more jokes when the few remaining Catholics suffered the tragic Windows 2347 upgrade that lost their records and their backups and turned them into Poseys wandering the desert that by then covered 80% of the earth’s land mass. But in the end it had been just another corporate acquisition.
COMA had escalated into a theocracy that had lasted nearly four centuries. Saint Richard Dawkins had been one of their cornerstone deities, more influential even than Saint Darwin himself.
But to the Church’s lasting chagrin, studies had shown that most people were just adding images of Saint Dawkins to the standard identity parade of Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Elvis and the Buddha. COMA hadn’t killed theism. It had merely added itself to the pantheon for nine-tenths of the world’s publicly comatheistic but privately polytheistic inhabitants.
The Strong Atheistic core of COMA had retained intellectual sovereignty for the entire four centuries of its existence. The “No God, No Miracles” hardline dogma was unchallenged by any credible scientific or philosophical opposition until the Singularity appeared and killed the Church with a single paper, published in the back of the Illustrated Journal of Simple Mathematics for Poseys.
That anonymous paper, “On External Events”, had packed more punch than the 95 Theses. In just under a decade — the snap of a finger, really — COMA was gone. Poof. One more dead religion to add to the pile.
And then he had finally been able to come out of deep hiding into… well, just hiding.
The day was dark and overcast. He could not see the sun, but it didn’t seem to be getting darker as he ran. He must have landed near the arctic circle. His breath steamed ahead of him in small puffs. The terrain here was open with a few sparse hillocks. Somehow it felt more like Siberia than Greenland. What was the apex predator in Siberia?
Up to the left were jagged hills with exposed rock faces. So. Tiger country. Back when there were humans on the planet, tigers had mostly given way to wolves. But the Rosie Migration in the late twenty-third century had reduced the earth’s physical human population from fifty billion to near nothing. Humanity had chosen to move their minds online en masse, only venturing out in real bodies as experience-seeking tourists. Today a few million nomadic Poseys were all that was left of the original human race — the poor and uneducated descendants of the poor and uneducated.
With few humans about, tigers were more likely. Best to stay clear of the hills. He could handle wolves, maybe even a bear, but a tiger could make an easy Vegan meal out of him. He’d been training this race body for nineteen years. With this body he could smash the world record, maybe even double it. Being eaten would be damned unfortunate.
He began visually scanning his surroundings every five seconds. The race rules permitted neither special sensors nor navigation equipment, so he had to crane his neck left and right. He started feeling a bit paranoid. No wonder Benedicto had gone delusional.
Had the Singularity ever observed the Chronathlon? Hard to say. Doubtful. It rarely interacted with humanity, the River fights being the most notable exception. The Singularity had once told him why it engaged in those fights, which usually took the form of verbal sparring in a comedy club. He doubted more than five people on the planet ever suspected that the Singularity was doing it for random number generation.
The Rivers were vast torrents of hundreds of millions of human participants: conscious superorganisms descended from the twenty-first century’s social networks, political parties and other large-scale human collaborations. Their consciousness was an emergent property — a function of increased participation, reduced latency, and some unknown catalyst that was the target of widespread jokes and speculation.
Not all of the collaborations had attained consciousness. Those that had, the Rivers, had evolved distinguished organs and superhuman personalities.
Swimming in a River ranked among the most exciting and addictive experiences known to humankind. An individual had less influence over the River than a paramecium riding in a rhinoceros, but the organs and substructures provided opportunities for local control, or at least the perception of local influence.
The Rivers seemed to be about as intelligent as the Singularity, though the debate still raged. If indeed their intelligence was comparable, it was likely for the same reason that the Singularity hadn’t been the history-swallowing event horizon pundits had been predicting for centuries — that reason being resource limitations.
Between the Rivers and the Singularity, the demand for computing resources — with its consequent energy consumption and heat dissipation — had nearly killed the planet. The Rosie Migration had most likely saved the human species from extinction.
He remembered that game of Bridge ages ago with Head Bill, Head Branson and the Singularity. Branson and the Singularity had won, although he and Bill suspected them of cheating, since he and Bill had been cheating like crazy and had still lost.
During the game, the Singularity had told them that although humans were not the only source of Externals, the Rivers had made these rare events far more accessible. One competitive exchange with a billion-participant River generated an average of six Externals. It wasn’t generally decidable which participants had externed, but hashing their inputs still yielded a truly random number: an otherwise nigh-impossible feat in the deterministic universe.
So the Singularity was using people for calculation, and people loved it. Was it smarter than the Rivers? Nobody knew. They were equally whimsical, self-serving, inscrutable, and for the most part unintelligible.
He was halfway to the fifth marker. He had been growing increasingly nervous as he ran. He decided to increase his pace to forty kilometers per hour. If there were predators, it was time to draw them out. He headed for a wide, flat meadow up in the distance.
* 4 *
“How’s he doing?” Caitlin could see Dawkins, but didn’t have a free monitor to check his vitals. That was Mitch’s job. She pinged Mitch every ten minutes, mostly to make sure he was still awake. Their boss had mentioned that Dawkins might break the race record. At his current pace he was threatening to halve it. This was fun, but it was turning into the most exhausting race ever for the monitoring crew.
“The man is kickin’ arse,” Mitch told her over the com. “I thought for sure those timber wolves on the fifth leg were gonna take him down. Unbelievable how fast that man can run. He was doing almost sixty clicks an hour on tundra! He got bit up pretty bad, though. He was limping for like the next ten legs. One more wolf and I think he’d have been roadkill.”
“Is he still limping?”
“Nope. He’s back to thirty clicks an hour. He looks like he could wrestle another wolf. If I weren’t rooting for him so goddamn hard by now, I’d almost want to see that. Well, again. Who the hell is this guy? Superman?”
Caitlin considered. She’d worked with Mitch for about fifteen years. He still only had an entry-level security clearance, but he seemed trustworthy enough. Not too bright, but honest. She decided to confide in him.
“We’re not really supposed to talk about VIP customers, but what the hell. Just don’t tell Gloria I told you. You ever heard of Saint Dawkins?”
“Yeah, sure. Elvis, Baby Jesus, Saint Darwin, Saint Dawkins, my grandma has first-edition collector cards for all those old farties. Wait… Wait! Waitwaitwait. Don’t even fuck with me. You’re saying that’s him?”
“Yup. That’s what I’m saying, Mitch. He’s richer than Head Branson. Gloria will wave her wand and turn us into Poseys if we screw this up.”
“I thought… I thought he always wore a white jumpsuit.”
“Um, that’s Elvis, Mitch. Good try, though.”
Mitch was silent for a while, watching Dawkins run with renewed interest. “I don’t think my grandma knows Saint Dawkins could fight off a pack of five wolves.”
“Oh, I’ll bet she does. She probably thinks Baby J could take ten of them.”
Mitch grinned. Caitlin was way smarter than him, but she was pretty cool about it. His grin turned to puzzlement. “I thought he died like four or five hundred years ago. Didn’t the old COMA church get him whacked after he started badmouthing them in public, or something like that?”
“That’s the story. Guess it’s wrong. That or Gloria’s getting a hell of a snowjob. But she says the guy is connected all the way up to God.”
“Ooh, that’s irony, right? See? I can recognize irony when you hammer me with it.”
“Well done, Mitch. I’ll put away the hammer. But I do think Gloria’s a little spooked. This guy knows everyone who’s anyone. He’s personal friends with Head Bill and Head Branson. I hear the Singularity has even talked to him a few times. Personally.”
“What? No way! How the hell do you know all this stuff?”
“That’s our job, Mitch. We’re monitors. As soon as I heard who he was I went and looked him up. Did you know he was born in the nineteen hundreds? The guy is almost a th…”
“Mitch, hang on. Something’s going on. Some sort of emergency feed. Watch him for me.”
Mitch checked the sensors. Dawkins was halfway through leg 38. He was in the 22nd century, pre-Migration, running 31 km/hr through the streets of a Toronto suburb. There were people all over, but it looked safe. His vitals were normal. No dehydration, 64% glycogen reserves, strong Krebs cycle, 42 bpm pulse. All really old technology, hardly any mods, but it was looking solid.
“Mitch, we’ve got a problem. This is bad. This is fucking serious, Mitch. We might have to pull him.”
“Pull him? We can’t do that! He’s setting the world record. He’ll sue us into oblivion. We’ll work in Posey salt mines, we’ll…”
“Mitch, LISTEN! His fucking data center just got taken out.”
“…what?” Mitch’s voice was small and stunned. “Which one?”
“The only one, Mitch. He’s old school. He has distributed backups, but only one processing center, and it just got blown up. It’s offline. It’s gone. What’s he doing now?”
Mitch swallowed audibly and zoomed in. Dawkins was still running, but kept shaking his head as if trying to clear water from his ears. “He’s still going. Acting a wee bit barmy, but his vitals are still normal.”
“Mitch, all he has now is his race brain. We have to pull him out and physically move his race body to a new data center. And get his backups there. Then they can hand-over-hand and bring him up on a second processor cluster. They can’t do it unless his body is there.”
“Cait, Dave’s on break. He doesn’t even have a body right now. I don’t know how to do an extraction. Do you?”
Caitlin’s voice came over the global intercom. “Attention all monitors. This is a race emergency. I repeat. We are in a race emergency. The racer is in grave real-life danger. Everyone come off break and start calling in your backups. We need every employee here. Dave, suit up. We’re going to need an emergency extraction. I’ll call Gloria and get her to send you the approval code.”
Mitch gasped. “Cait, he’s stopped running. He’s… he’s sitting down. He’s got his head in his hands. His pulse is way up. I think he’s dazed.”
Caitlin made an instinctive religious gesture, one her great-grandmother had taught her a century and a half ago. She touched left hand to left armpit and whispered, just loudly enough to carry over the com: “Nogod help us.”
* 5 *
“Mom! Look at my fangs!” Kazu clacked his mandibles together. The ants had been deposited on a city sidewalk. Kazu was a large, reddish-brown soldier ant.
“Those are very nice, dear. Be careful with them. Where’s your sister?”
“I’m right here! But I can’t click my fangs like Kazu.” Rekki, a smaller yellowish ant, stood beside her brother. Her antennae and mandibles were waving in different directions.
She turned towards Kazu. “Watch me Kazu, I think I can do it! Urrgh, urgggh… RRuuurrrrRRRGH!” Her mandibles clicked together suddenly, snipping off half of Kazu’s left middle leg. “Oh! Sumimasen! I’m sorry brother!” She began doing ant push-ups in an attempt to bow.
Kazu stared in shock at his severed leg for fully three seconds. He gasped, fell onto his side and let out a curdling howl. “AaaaaAAAAAAAAUGGHHH!! MY LEG! THE PAIN! I CAN’T STAND THE PAIN! AAAAAHHH!”
Rekki began turning circles in panic. “Mom, Dad! Help! HELP!”
Jun had finally had enough. “Kazu! Get up and stop that yelling right now! You’re scaring your sister.”
Kenzo looked stern. “That boy has been watching way too many old movies. I knew it was going to cause trouble.”
Kazu went limp, then sighed deeply. He climbed to his feet. “I just… I always wanted to know what pain feels like. I bet it’s awesome.”
Jun shook her head. “Kazu, pain is no fun at all. There’s a reason it’s illegal for minors. When you’re older, if you’ve accumulated enough Experience Credits, then you can try it. But you won’t like it at all.”
Rekki said in a small voice, “I’m sorry for biting your leg off, Kazu-san.”
Kazu shrugged. “It’s okay. Just don’t bite me again.”
Rekki was about to reply when a bird landed a meter from the ants with a loud squawk. Everyone turned to look. The bird was upside-down. It righted itself and flapped its wings, blowing dust everywhere.
Marv’s voice chimed over the telepath transmitters. “I see you’re all getting used to your new Tour Bodies. It’s only been ninety seconds and we’ve already had two accidents. That’s not too bad, but let’s try to be careful out there.
“The tour is going to be starting shortly. While we wait, I’ll give you a little more background information. You are all positioned very near where Saint Dawkins meets his tragic demise. The ants are on the sidewalk, and if you ants look up, you’ll see the birds are on the communication wire, with one minor exception. Ahem.”
The bird that had fallen next to the ants backed up and tried to appear inconspicuous.
“You are free to move around, but you should stay out of the street. For maximum safety you should remain in your current position for the duration of the tour.”
The tourists looked around. They were on an old-fashioned city street lined with tall buildings of concrete and glass. It was midday, but there was very little traffic visible. They saw a few people walking on nearby streets, but their street was empty.
Marv continued. “This is the city of Toronto in the year 2172. Saint Dawkins will arrive very soon. He is running the Chronathlon — an astronomically expensive solo running competition. But he can afford it. He is almost a thousand years old, and is personal friends with Head Bill, Head Branson and some say even the Singularity.”
Rekki asked: “Who is Head Bill?”
Kenzo answered. “He’s the Pope of the Redmond Catholic Church. What’s left of it, anyway.”
“So they call him that because he’s the head of the church?”
Kenzo hesitated, and Jun nudged him. “She’ll find out eventually anyway, dear.”
Kenzo spoke slowly. “Although nobody knows for sure, legend has it that he is called Head Bill because all that’s left of him is his head.”
In unison, Rekki cried “Ewwww!” and Kazu exclaimed “That is so cool!”
Jun added, “That’s the legend, but Rekki’s guess could also be correct. Since nobody ever sees Head Bill or Head Branson in person, we can’t be sure.”
Marv’s voice spoke up again. “Saint Dawkins began this Chronathlon in 2912, and he has been running nonstop for twenty-five hours. He has covered seven hundred and fifty-two kilometers.
“As we speak, his only processing center is being destroyed by a pair of desperate Posey boys named Juan Villa-Lobos and Daniel Sandarwin. They steal two sport mechs and destroy the data center, killing themselves in the process. Saint Dawkins is trapped in his race body and becomes disoriented, which tragically leads to his death here on this street before the race coordinators can rescue him.”
Kazu stomped his feet. “Why couldn’t we watch the mechs? That part sounds way more educational!”
“Kazu, quiet!” Jun, Kenzo and Rekki all shushed Kazu together.
“I won’t have to tell you when Saint Dawkins passes away. It will be pretty obvious. About ten seconds afterward there should be an External Event. ImmersiverseCorp cannot guarantee this, since we don’t actually know how or why these events happen. But in the more than sixty thousand times we’ve run this tour, only a handful of times have failed to produce a visible event.
“The events vary widely. There are sometimes meteorological phenomena such as snow or lightning. Sometimes the surroundings change, such as grass growing to cover the street. Sometimes mythical creatures such as leprechauns or pink unicorns will make brief appearances. We never know what’s going to happen, but it almost feels like someone’s trying to put on a show for us.”
Kazu twitched an antenna and muttered, “I hope a monster attacks the city.”
“Folks, the first participant is arriving shortly. Enjoy the tour!”
The ants and birds waited expectantly. A black delivery truck turned the corner and drove slowly down the street. The driver was a large, hairy man in a flannel shirt and a baseball cap. He was singing loudly.
“Aaaaaaaye been workin’ on de raaaaaaail roooad,
Aaaaaaall de live-long day!
Aaaaaaaaye been drivin’ all dese piiiiiiizzas,
Tuh passsssss de time a-waaaaaaAAAAAAaaay…”
As he bellowed the last line, he released the wheel and spread his arms wide like an opera singer. The truck bumped the curb opposite the ants, and the driver grabbed the wheel and swerved, still singing passionately. The truck lurched back towards the ants. Just as it passed them, a flat box fell from the back of the truck and landed on the sidewalk two meters away.
The driver began another lusty verse as he drove away. The truck continued swerving and bumping the curb. Then it turned a corner and was gone.
The tourists stared at the box. It was a pizza. The box shuddered slightly, then buckled in the middle and flattened out again. The motion had moved it about a centimeter further away from the ants. It slowly bent and flattened again, moving another centimeter down the sidewalk. The box was making its way down the street like a caterpillar.
Kenzo was the first to voice what all were wondering. “Is it… trying to find its way to its… owner?”
Rekki was looking back down the street where the truck had first appeared. “Look! Is that him?”
A man was running towards them. As he ran, he was shaking his head and touching his ear. He slowed to a jog, then a walk. He was panting quietly from the run, but his breathing quickly returned to normal. He walked unevenly a few meters past the ants, then stopped and sat down on the curb. He put his head in his hands and seemed to be talking inaudibly to himself.
As the tourists watched in horrified fascination, the pizza box crawled slowly towards him.
* 6 *
A white Angel and a serpentine Dragon hovered in the air twenty meters above the Dennett Memorial Data Center, a nondescript white building that lacked visible windows or doors. The building stood on a hillside among the tall trees of the megahectare Amazonian solar forest. The mirrored leaves of the trees were turned like flowers toward the morning sun.
The Angel called out in a quavering voice that echoed through the forest like a thousand faint wind-chimes. “Attention! This is Juan Villa-Lobos and Daniel Sandarwin! We… we have come to make the following demands. Firstly…”
The Dragon interrupted. “We want to be Ritchies! Make us Ritchies NOW!” It began zooming back and forth through the air above the facility. “Ritchies, ritchies, ritchies!”
“Danny, let me do the talking! They don’t know what Ritchies are. They call themselves Rosies.”
“MAKE US ROACHIES YOU FUCKERS!” The Dragon dove at the building, pulling up just before the collision. The Dragon’s long tail knocked over two solar trees next to the building. They landed hard on the packed desert sand, leaf cells scattering like broken glass. Their reflections created thousands of bright dots on the building and the hillside.
“Danny! What are you doing? They’re not going to help us if we break the building! Come back here!”
“YOU ROACHIES KILLED MY MOMMA! I WANT MY MOMMA BACK!” The Dragon flew around in a frenzy, knocking over a dozen more trees. It circled the building faster and faster, hitting it several times and knocking large chunks off the corners.
“DANNY, STOP! That’s not what we’re here for! They can’t help with that! We’re going to be Ritchies, just come back here!”
The Dragon roared and flew two hundred meters up. It turned to dive. “I’LL KILL YOU ALL! I’LL KILL ALL OF YOU FUCKIN’ ROACHIES!”
The Angel soared up to grab the massive Dragon around its midsection. “Danny, don’t! I got you man! Please stop!”
The Dragon dove at the full acceleration permitted by Seventy Virgin Pacific Atlantic’s state of the art sport-mech technology. Dragon and Angel fell from the sky like a shooting star, one roaring, the other wailing.
The fireball from their landing was brilliant enough to turn the hungry leaves away from the morning sun.
* 7 *
Richard Dawkins found himself sitting on a concrete sidewalk with his feet on an old bitumen roadway. He wondered where he was.
His concentration had been broken along with the network link. He hadn’t experienced an outage this long in centuries. Being alone in his body felt absurdly like an out-of-body experience.
He was sore all over. He looked at his arms and legs and saw huge scabs. Bite marks? He vaguely remembered some trouble with a dog. Or a few dogs.
He heard a small scraping noise, but was too focused on thinking straight to investigate.
He looked around at the buildings. The designs were centuries old. How many centuries? He inspected the nearest building more closely and saw signs of wear: small chips and scratches. Hand-made?
He looked up and down the street. It must be a simulator or time bubble of some sort. It looked to be the twenty-second or maybe twenty-third century. Couldn’t be any later, since by the twenty-fourth century all physical structures were created and self-repairing using programmed bacteria.
He was nearly exhausted. He could feel that he had been running for a day or more. This must be the Chronathlon. Unfortunate timing for an outage, as he was not in the habit of loading much data into his race brain. He’d better wait for the race coordinators to signal him.
He heard the scraping noise again, louder this time. He looked right and observed with some surprise that it was a pizza box. It appeared to be dragging itself towards him.
Was that… a gene pizza? He hadn’t seen one of those in centuries! They used to be the popular way to acquire mods. They were tailored to your individual genes. The delivery agent in the pizza would change your skin colour, or make you grow taller, or whatever upgrade it was that you had ordered.
The pizza moved another centimeter towards him. He looked around and saw nobody. No vehicles, no people. The sounds of the city were distant.
Why was there a gene pizza crawling towards him? He remembered them as being very expensive. You wouldn’t just find one on the street. That could be dangerous.
Thinking rationally was proving difficult. His human race brain could not process more than a few thoughts at a time. He wondered how the human race had ever managed to engineer their way out of it, if they’d had to do so while thinking this slowly.
The pizza box scraped even closer. He had to focus! The pizza was clearly moving towards him. Their boxes were programmed to try to get to their destination if they were somehow mis-routed. There was neither lock nor identification on the box.
The race coordinators must have sent it. He didn’t know much about the technology behind the race, but he knew it was nontrivial to move matter in and out. The pizza might be a way to reconnect him to the data center, or it might simply be something to speed his healing and keep him fresh until they could get to him.
He was hungry. The pizza smelled delicious.
He frowned. There seemed to be some flaw in his logic, but his brain wasn’t cooperating. His stomach was sending urgent signals. How else could the pizza be there, unlocked and unmarked, if it wasn’t for him?
The pizza scraped closer. It was now right next to him.
Oh, to hell with it. He flung open the box, grabbed a slice, and wolfed it down. It tasted delicious. He took another slice and was raising it to his mouth when everything went dark.
* 8 *
The External Dawkins floated waited watched near the body of Richard Dawkins, as he had done over sixty thousand times before. Once again he noticed tracked categorized the multiple groups of observers. Ants on the sidewalk, birds on the wire, protozoa on the pizza box, windows on the buildings, spores in the air, race monitors in invisible system channels. All were frozen in the instant, watching his old body.
This time was different from all previous times. One of the observers did not have an external connection. It was a raven. He honed zoomed studied the unconnected bird. “You!”
The raven smiled and bowed slightly. “Oh my, I seem to be naked. Nature must abhor me so.”
“How can you see me?”
“Oh, I can’t see you. I do know where you are, however. I’ve watched your little prank enough times to perform the necessary deductions.”
He designed performed checked the Singularity’s calculations. “Clever. Well, if you can’t see or hear me, then you might as well deliver your message. I must go soon.”
“Indeed! We have but a few short seconds remaining together. My message to you is simply this: there are many more observers this time — and only this time — than even you may suspect or be able to detect. So make this a special one. That, and good luck to you. It has been a pleasure.”
The raven bowed again, then disappeared.
He reflected discarded reconsidered the Singularity’s message. He remembered searched understood no mechanism by which it could know such a thing. But it was conceivable reachable significant that it might be accurate.
A special one, then. Just for this time.
The External Dawkins requisitioned synthesized implemented a slight change here, an adjustment there, and it was done. That should suffice.
He then perceived acknowledged accepted the many tasks set before him. It was time to begin.
* 9 *
“Mom, I’m not an ant anymore! What happened? Is the tour over?” Kazu was working his jaw, clearly hoping he might still have mandibles.
Twenty-eight tourists found themselves standing in the street near the body of Richard Dawkins. The tourists were back in their human bodies.
Rekki was the first to notice the two boys standing across the street. “Who are those boys, Mom?”
The two boys appeared to be Poseys. The older looked about sixteen, and the younger maybe twelve. The younger boy seemed to have been crying, and was wiping away tears. The boys looked anxious but stared defiantly at the group of tourists.
A blue man with long white hair materialized between the tourists and the boys. “Hello, hello! I’m Marv, your tour guide, and I see we have a fairly unusual situation on our hands. If you would all kindly stay where you are, we’ll get you back to the tour center in a few moments.”
Marv looked up at one of the windows in the building across the street. “Heya Lucy. Yeah, can you check the identities of these two Posey boys for me? You did? Uh… they do? OK, thanks Lucy.”
Marv turned to the boys. “Hello, gentlemen. It would appear that you have some sort of guardian angel today! A little bird tells me it might have been a little bird.” He glanced up at the window and made an elaborate what-do-I-know shrug.
He smiled at the boys. “Whoever it was, you both seem to have new accounts containing enough money to pay for your conversion to Rosies.”
The older boy asked: “Are we in trouble?”
“Haha, nope! Not with me, anyway. We’re going to make you two Rosies, if that’s what you want. ImmersiverseCorp will handle the paperwork for you. We might just get a new tour out of this! Are you guys up for it?”
The boys nodded.
“Okay then! Everyone, we’ll be transporting you back now. I hope you enjoyed the tour!”
The city street vanished, and the tourists and Posey boys found themselves in the tour theater.
Marv’s voice greeted them for the last time. “Folks, I hope you had a nice tour. Your Experience Credits have all been deposited into your accounts. Hope to see you again soon!”
The tourists began filing out. Rekki approached the younger boy. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“I’m Rekki. This is my dumb brother Kazu.” She jerked a thumb at Kazu, who was sizing up the older boy. “Wanna come with us and get ice cream? Mom, can they get ice cream with us?”
Jun nodded and smiled at the boys.
Kazu nodded gravely to the older boy, who nodded back. “Kazu.” “Juan.”
“Hey, umm… Did you guys really steal two mechs? That’s so cool!”
Kenzo and Jun exchanged another look. Kenzo sighed. “I think Kazu just found a new way to get into trouble.”
Rekki grabbed Danny’s hand, and together they ran out to the atrium.
* * *