Check out Stephen Baker’s The Boost, an Orwellian technological thriller available May 20th from Tor Books!
Ralf is a software prodigy. He works in the US government office that updates the software in the population’s boosts—networked supercomputers contained in a chip implanted within the brains of 99 percent of the world’s population. Invented by Chinese researchers in 2032, the boost is credited with leading humanity to its most significant cognitive leap since the discovery of fire.
Days before a national upgrade, Ralf notices that the update includes an open surveillance gate—meaning that Americans, who had negotiated high levels of privacy with the Chinese manufacturers, will now be subjected to the invasive Chinese standard. Ralf attempts to hack the boost, but is caught by agents working for Washington’s preeminent lobbyist. His boost is ripped from his head, and Ralf barely escapes with his life…
9:21 a.m. Central Standard Time
Ralf’s memory is shot. His whole life, he has been considered a prodigy of the digital world. But the detailed time-tagged images, the videos, notes, links, they’re all gone. All that remains is the wet brain, where memories, if you can call them that, well up in pools of appetites, regrets, and desires. He can fish out only snippets of conversation. The blurry pictures he summons seem to change and fade. They’re not distinct images: more like ideas with ghostlike transparencies hovering over them. It’s a sorry excuse for a brain, he thinks. There’s good reason people like him are called wild.
He tries to dredge up memories from his last full day in Washington. That would be… day before yesterday? He isn’t sure, and doesn’t want to ask Ellen. He remembers sitting at breakfast with Ellen in their second-story apartment in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, just two blocks up from the zoo. The last specks of snow were melting from the branches across the street, but spring was still a good month away. He was sipping a protein blend and flipping through college basketball highlights in his boost, when a message popped up from Suzy. “Have to talk.”
He messaged back. “Talk talk?” “Face to face.”
They agreed to meet for coffee at the Taizhou Tower, near Dupont Circle, and Ralf hurried out to his bike.
Ten minutes later he was sitting across from Suzy, blowing warm air onto his frigid hands. She looked just like Ellen, but a half foot taller. Instead of wavy shoulder-length hair, the standard Artemis style, she kept a just a hint of blond fuzz on her skull. Suzy carefully dipped a corner of her scone into her steaming glass of greenish tea. She greeted him with a nod. He messaged her: “What’s up?”
She frowned and shook her head. “I meant ‘talk,’ ” she said.
Ralf sat up straight in his chair and coughed. He found face-to-face conversations awkward and he tried, whenever possible, to sidestep them. He nodded, looked at Suzy’s eyes, and quickly shifted his focus a few millimeters down, to the less threatening terrain around the bridge of her exemplary nose.
Over the next few minutes, Suzy whispered across the table to him, the old-fashioned way, laying out the issues. Ever since Suzy’s arrival, earlier in the year, they’d been working closely in the chip lab at the Department of Health and Human Services, overseeing the annual processor updates. Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier. Some inevitably complain that they’ve lost memories or have to concentrate harder to send messages. Some say they notice more ads popping up, or soundtrack music that’s hard to mute. But most are satisfied. Their heads work better.
Preparing for the updates is a long process. A few months before the scheduled date, the code comes in from China. A technical panel reviews the changes, and draws up a summary for the Senate subcommittee and the White House. Once the design is approved—largely a formality—the chip is divided into a dozen segments, so that no single person has access to the entire architecture. This is Suzy’s first cycle. She’s a junior staffer on segment 3, which is mostly data storage, along with other odds and ends. Ralf heads up the all-important segment 4, which runs communications, including six different radio signals and the vital interface to the wet brain.
This year, the country is scheduled to receive the update on March 16. If it goes smoothly, the process will begin with the general population, followed by Congress and the Supreme Court, the vice president and the cabinet, and finally the president. Then, presumably, the country will be on firm cognitive footing for the next year.
Suzy asked Ralf, as he waited for his coffee, to take a look at one of the gates, 318 Blue, in his segment. She had its counterpart in hers, and had found an anomaly. He called it up in his boost, and saw, to his shock, that 318 Blue was wide open.
She didn’t have to say another word. Ralf knew. The Chinese were updating the chip with a version of their domestic software. Its surveillance gate was open for both communications and data. What Ralf didn’t understand—and still doesn’t—is how Suzy Claiborne spotted the anomaly. She was new to the department and often asked him questions that a sophomore comp-sci student could answer. She was perhaps the last person Ralf would have expected to notice an open gate.
As Ralf looks back, the rest of that day is a blur. The details are lost with his boost. But he remembers the general outlines and can bring back fragments of the day, each one wrapped in the animal blend of emotions and physical sensations, chiefly nausea and jangling nerves.
His idea, he recalls, was to upload Suzy’s segment into his head, match the two sections, and figure out commands to close the gate. Otherwise, as he saw it, companies would have free run in everyone’s boost. They could mine lifetimes of memories. Experts had been declaring privacy dead for decades, but this would obliterate the last vestiges of it.
Ralf was a hacker, had always been one. He knew he could close the gate. He felt he had to. He can still picture Suzy, standing over him as he locked his bike across from the frozen Botanic Pagota on the Mall, whispering that his plan was “reckless.”
“If you didn’t expect me to do something,” he messaged her, “why’d you loop me in?” But even as she complained, she transferred her segment file onto his boost, and he was busy exploring it as they made their way into HHS and climbed the stairs to the lab. In the file he could see the open gates.
While Ralf knew that carrying Suzy’s data was risky, he hardly expected to be nabbed the very first day. His messages, like anyone’s, could be intercepted, but the surveillance gates in his own boost were locked down, at least as far as he knew.
Minutes after he reached the office, two uniformed security guards hustled him out of the building. Ralf remembers that his colleagues turned their heads from him, as if embarrassed. He felt ashamed. He remembers wondering why one of the guards had grabbed his dirty green gym bag.
Next thing he knew, he was stretched out on a hospital bed in a white room. The sheets on the bed were rumpled. The curtains on the small window high above the bed looked like rags. Smudged on the wall above the sink was a single footprint, far too large to be Ralf’s. The sound in his head, if you could call it that, was the solitary hum of consciousness. He had never felt so alone. He summoned his mapping function to see where he was. Nothing came up. Just the same hum. He called up his messaging. Nothing. Ralf felt a surge of panic. He thrashed, and knocked a metal tray from the side of the bed, sending bits of debris falling to the floor. He looked down and saw the tray lying on his gym bag. He felt soreness on the side of his head. He reached up and touched a bandage.
They had ripped out his chip. For Ralf, whose boost had been installed on his first birthday, this amounted to a lobotomy. He was wild. For the first time he could remember, at least with the remaining hunk of brain in his head, he cried.
He remembers hearing explosions, and wondering if it was thundering outside. Then a young Asian man came into his room. The sculpted arms and shoulders of a body builder seemed to burst from his tight white T-shirt. He had a primitive twentieth-century look to him, unenhanced. He didn’t say anything, but simply placed his hands on Ralf’s shoulders, sat him up, reached down for Ralf’s gym bag, zipped it closed and handed it to him. Then, still without a word, he placed a firm grip on Ralf’s elbow and led him out of the clinic to the street. He stayed in the doorway and waved good-bye.
Ralf didn’t know where he was or what to do. If his boost had been in place and working, dozens of streams of information would be informing him, orienting him, messaging, carrying out thousands of risk scenarios, in short, making him aware. He would have figured things out. But as a brain-surgery patient, recently sequestered and newly wild, he walked in a fog.
He made his way down a tree-lined street and came to an esplanade with an Alexandria Metro stop he recognized. King Street/Old Town. He considered taking the Metro back to the Mall, where he’d left his bike. But he couldn’t pay for a ticket without a credit beam from his chip. As a wild man, he was broke.
He would walk. Without geotags, even that was a challenge. He wondered which way to go and got no directions. The only signal coming from his wet brain was the same gentle hum, with no data, no meaning. He was full of questions but powerless to answer them. He looked at the February sun, low in the southern sky, and took off for the north. In time he felt hungry, but found no signals leading him toward food. He was on his own. He wanted to see Ellen, and to hug her. But he could not message her. He dug into his ancient memory for her whereabouts and came up empty.
He remembers the crunching sound and feel of his footsteps on gravel as he walked north from Alexandria, across the Potomac, and back to his bike. Were they watching him as he walked?
Are they following us now? He turns around and looks out the back window of the car.
“You’re not going to see anything back there,” Ellen says. “This isn’t a movie from 2010.”
He peers up, through the windshield. “If any drones are following us,” she says, “they’re no bigger than bees. They might even look like bees. Kind of useless to look for them.” Though Ellen’s an artist, she’s up to date on spy gadgets. Some of her contract work for the Pentagon includes drone design, which on occasion she incorporates into her leggings and blouses.
Ralf sits back. He’s small, dark and wiry, with deep-set violet eyes and black hair that curls around his ears. He’s good-looking, to such a degree that his mother convinced him to avoid all of the enhancements they were offering in middle school. He contemplates human beauty, and pictures Ellen without the Artemis package. That reminds him of Suzy, which in turn reminds him once again of the fix he’s in. Funny, he thinks, how thoughts meander in the wet brain.
The car speeds ahead, past crumbling clapboard houses and deserted strip malls, and under rusted and rickety bridges. There was a time, Ralf thinks, when society marked its progress on the physical landscape, building skyscapers, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, even stately porched homes, like his mother’s place in Montclair. But in the last half century or so, most of the landmark projects have been virtual. What new physical construction there is comes from the Chinese, who have money for such things. For most Americans, he thinks, progress is defined in apps. The physical Oklahoma looks abandoned.
They pass a sign for a Civil War battle at Honey Springs. A Civil War battle in Oklahoma? Ralf wonders if he lugged around that morsel of data, unknown and unread, in his processor for twenty-eight years. He considers the trove of information stored on that chip, entire years of video, every virtual world he’s ever entered, every song he has ever heard, every conversation he’s ever had, the full database of all his messaging, even much of his sex life. All of it gone.
“Listen,” Ellen says, stirring him from his reverie. “How about this? You tell me what you know. I’ll do the same.”
He pauses for a moment. “It’s classified,” he says.
In their three years together, she has heard that same phrase a thousand times. “Let me get this straight,” she says. “They tie you down, take out your boost, patch you up, and send you as a wild man down to El Paso, and you have to protect their secrets?”
Ralf wants to tell her what he knows. But first he’s attempting to run risk-reward calculations in a brain not built for such work. It’s painfully slow, and does not deliver answers, only ideas.
“They didn’t send me to El Paso,” he finally says. “That was my plan.”
“Because your brother lives there?”
“My family has roots there, too,” he says. “My grandmother grew up there. Her father was a big shot on a newspaper.”
“That’s quaint,” Ellen says, before returning to Ralf’s brother. “I thought you two didn’t get along. Now, he’s the one you run to?”
“I wouldn’t call it running, exactly.”
“I’m taking a trip,” Ralf says.
“Semantics,” Ellen says flatly. She gestures toward the backseat. “So you usually take trips with no more luggage than that disgusting gym bag of yours?”
“Actually, I wasn’t even planning on bringing that.”
Ellen pauses and looks at him. He stares straight ahead, as if he were driving the machine. These kinds of conversations, he thinks, would be a lot easier if he had driving to focus on.
“Let me tell you what I worry about,” she says.
He glances at her and nods.
“I’m worried that you want to go to Juárez to be at home with all of those wild people. I love you, Ralf, I really do. But that is the single-most… It’s the scariest place on earth, and if you want to live there, or even visit, we’ve got a big problem.”
“Don’t worry,” he says. “My destination’s El Paso, not Juárez.”
Ellen studies his profile and concludes, after a few seconds, that further questions will get her nowhere. So she sits back, and as the car hurtles west through Oklahoma, she tells him her side of the story.
Two days ago, Ellen says, she was working at home, creating herds of dinosaurs for a virtual safari site, when she got a message from her friend Robin. “She said they were rounding up every Artemis they could find. Tall ones, fat ones, every shape and flavor.”
“The government.” Then she stops for a moment, replaying the conversation. “Actually, she didn’t say that… but I assumed it was. I messaged you twenty-three times and couldn’t even leave a note.”
By messaging friends in her network, and friends of friends, Ellen learned that young men wearing green sweaters had arrested two Artemis women, or Artemi, at a lunch spot on Capitol Hill. Fifteen minutes later, they picked up one near Chinatown, and then one in Farragut Square. “I did the numbers and figured they were eighteen to twenty-three minutes from our house,” Ellen says. “So I got in the car.”
He asks her where she went.
“I didn’t know where to go, so I put it on a shuffle route in Georgetown,” she says. “Then Julie messaged me that she saw you on the 14th Street Bridge. She said you were walking and looked terrible.”
“Yeah, I love her, too,” Ralf says, ransacking his mind to come up with a face for Julie.
“She was worried for you.” Ellen goes on to say that she headed over to the HHS building on the Mall, figuring that Ralf would be there. When she arrived, he was bent over his bike, trying to wrench it free without the signal from his boost.
“So why do you think they were picking up Artemi?” Ralf asks.
“Call me naive, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the update, and that hole in your head,” she says.
He shrugs. “Then why do you think they didn’t stop us from leaving town?”
“Maybe I wasn’t the Artemis they were looking for.”
This leads the conversation straight to Suzy, a subject that they’ve agreed tacitly to avoid. Ralf dated another Artemis in grad school. This raises Ellen’s suspicion that he might be drawn to her largely for the beauty she shares with Suzy and a few thousand other women in the country, plus others in South America. No words from Ralf could put these doubts to rest.
“Why would they pick up all these people based on what they look like?” Ralf says. “Kind of primitive, wouldn’t you say? They have machines that can ID her boost in about two milliseconds.”
“Maybe her boost isn’t in her head.”
The idea, so simple, leaves Ralf stunned. He lowers his head and says nothing.
“What I don’t get,” Ellen goes on, “is why they rounded up all the normal Artemi and didn’t just focus on the one with no hair?” She considers it for a second, and then answers her own question. “I guess she could have bought a wig.”
3/6/72 10:14 a.m. Eastern Standard Time
“Make it quick,” says John Vallinger. The world’s most powerful lobbyist, president and founder of Varagon, Inc., is pulling into the driveway of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington. For Vallinger, who at age ninety-nine still plays racquetball twice a week, the visit is routine: just a fresh kidney. But it’s a busy day. Vallinger has to entertain a Chinese delegation tonight at the Kennedy Center, and then eat the usual pancakes tomorrow at the White House. It’s a courtesy he extends every week or two, to keep the president in the loop. He has no time this morning to referee the latest squabbles between his two top aides.
The voice of Tyler Dahl, the younger and more ambitious of the two, echoes in his boost. “Remember the two people who disappeared from the Update Division on Friday?”
“Right,” Vallinger says. He entrusted the case to George Smedley, and he can guarantee, without hearing even another word, that Dahl is about to tell him how badly Smedley screwed it up.
“There was the software genius, Alvare, and then the domed Artemis, Suzy Claiborne.”
“Spare me the details,” Vallinger says. He climbs out of his black Houyi—a car long enough to feature a full-length bed—and dispatches it to the parking lot. “Just tell me what happened.”
“Well, Smedley, for some reason, ordered a roundup of every Artemis in the Washington metropolitan area. It was a huge job for security. I think they got fifty-four of them.”
Vallinger steps inside the hospital foyer, for warmth, but continues his boost-to-boost talk. The lobbyist is tall and gaunt, and wears a shiny maroon trench coat. His white hair, parted on both sides, falls onto his forehead in his signature V. “Did he get the one he was looking for?” he asks.
“No,” Dahl says.
“Do we know where she is?”
Strange, Vallinger thinks. His company has one of the two machines in the country that can locate and track the movement and behavior of virtually every American by his or her boost. It sits in its own refrigerated room in the company’s K Street offices, overlooking Franklin Square. Smedley should have tracked the two employees as soon as he learned they were missing. Suzy Claiborne, Vallinger figures, most likely works for the underground Democracy Movement. Within minutes of sharing the software code with the genius, she was probably rushed to a safe house and shielded from electronic surveillance. If Smedley had harnessed the machine quickly, he might have even exposed an entire cell of the subversive DM network.
He screwed up—all for the pleasure of hauling in scores of dazzling Artemi. Vallinger knows that his young aide would love to speculate with his boss about how Smedley could be so dumb.
But Vallinger will not give him that pleasure. He is aware that Smedley runs a smutty virtual business on the side, and that he was probably scouting the Artemi for talent, or maybe just for kicks. This would be a firing offense in many shops. Vallinger, though, finds a certain value in having such a rogue on call. Smedley is wise to the world in ways that the more intelligent Dahl may never be. To protect himself from Smedley’s excesses, Vallinger keeps him off the Varagon staff and pays him as an independent contractor.
“So what happened to the genius?” Vallinger asks his aide.
“Smedley had a contractor pick him up at work. They took him to a clinic in Alexandria to scrub his boost and ended up taking it out. An Asian went into the clinic. I’m told that he killed a couple of people and helped Alvare escape. I can’t confirm that. In any case, that’s the last anyone saw of him.”
“Where is the genius now?”
“We… don’t know.”
“You scanned for him and he’s not there?”
Dahl remains silent.
“Are you telling me,” Vallinger says, his voice rising, “that even after Smedley screwed up, you neglected to track whatshisname, Alvarez?”
“Whatever. The wild genius. Didn’t you track him?”
“I… was focused on Suzy Claiborne,” Dahl says softly. “We thought his boost would be scrubbed, or in Alexandria.”
“But you didn’t bother checking.”
Vallinger should be angry. But he enjoys Dahl’s comeuppance so thoroughly that the corners of his mouth turn downward into what passes in his world for a smile. In any case, this incident at HHS doesn’t concern him.
John Vallinger’s nearly eighty years in the technology industry have left him with a rich perspective on setbacks and embarrassments. Those that appear most threatening, he has learned, often recede with time— provided that they’re handled smartly, or even ignored. Sometimes there’s money to be made from them. Vallinger made his first fortune while working in the mid 1990s as a barista at a Starbucks coffee shop on El Camino Real Boulevard in Sunnyvale, California. He came up with a phony business plan for an e-commerce startup and landed a million dollars in angel funding. He then maneuvered his way into the initial public offering for Netscape, the first Internet stock. Within months, he was rich.
He quit the Starbucks job and rented a small office suite on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Every morning, he lowered his willowy frame into a swiveling Aeron chair with a taut fiber back. He booted up a big fast Dell PC equipped with Windows 95, and scoured for business for his new investment boutique, Varagon, Inc. Vallinger’s first move was to short his Netscape stock, which he knew was headed for a dive, and to plow his fortune into high-flying stocks including Enron, WorldCom, and SDS Uniphase.
As his fortune climbed, Vallinger became a quiet fixture in Silicon Valley. If you look at pictures from that era, you can often spot his slender form and white sun-starved face, the blond hair already falling onto his forehead in the V. In barbecues in Woodside or champagne brunches in Mountain View, Vallinger is invariably off to one side, usually alone, staring into space. In one photo, taken at a party shortly after Steve Jobs returned to Apple Computer, Vallinger appears to be chatting with Larry Ellison, the voluble founder of Oracle, the business software giant of the time (some of whose database code is still active in the boost). But if you study the photo closely, you’ll see that Vallinger is simply reaching around Ellison, probably to turn down the stereo.
You would think that in an era defined by hype and celebration, the antisocial Vallinger would be ignored. Yet Vallinger’s silent style created an aura about him, a mystique. People believed he was far richer than he was, that he had more friends than he did, that he must be having love affairs with senators or chief financial officers, or maybe that he was blackmailing them. In short, they thought he was onto something. That was what led a Stanford computer science professor to knock on his door one day and tell him about a project a couple graduate students were working on. It was a search engine called Google.
Vallinger’s angel investment in Google drove his fortune into the billions and landed him in Forbes magazine as one of the five hundred richest people on earth. His picture, displayed in profile, shows only one half of the V falling across his forehead. The one visible corner of his mouth is turned ever so slightly downward, a sign that Vallinger, in a rare bow to vanity, was attempting to smile for the camera.
It was on a trip to China with top Google investors that Vallinger had his greatest revelation. What he first noticed upon stepping off the plane was a security camera pointed right at his face. From that point on, in the hotels, on the junkets to the factories and universities, he sensed that his movements were being recorded, his gestures noted, his words captured. This was when he glimpsed the future. China was going to control its society, and its Internet. That authority would prevail. It might take a decade or two, or even three, but this command regime would drive China’s economy and its technology. With time China’s system, embedded on chips, would spread to the rest of the world. When it did, China would need an ally in America. For Vallinger, it was an epiphany. He would become a lobbyist.
All of his labors ever since, sixty-eight years of lobbying, are finally coming to a head. The next update, his crowning triumph, is sailing ahead and only ten days away.
A bit of leaked code isn’t likely to interfere.
“Get Smedley on the case,” Vallinger says, striding into the hospital. “Tell him to keep me abreast.”
The Boost © Stephen Baker, 2014