Pat Cadigan : Dervish is Digital 

"DOWN THESE MEAN casino aisles," said the cyborg to Konstantin as they walked through the gambling palace, "something, something go. Or is it go something something?" He was a patchwork cyborg, very leading-bleeding edge these days. His name was Darwin. Konstantin had traded her street-life outfit for shiny pastel plastic and a nondescript painted-lady face. She might have stood out among the far more ornamented crowds in the glitter and sparkle of the casino, except she was sure that she was invisible in the shine. Konstantin paused at a roulette table where everything was so jeweled she couldn't tell the wagers from the wagering board they rested on. She wondered if any of the equally bedizened blowfish clustered around the table could. The croupier was an even more bejeweled demon of a kind she hadn't seen before, but that didn't mean anything. The Hong Kong mound added a multitude of demons and kicked out others every day. It would have been impossible for even a scholar in the classics to keep up with, and Konstantin's knowledge was more on the mahjong level. This was one of the lower-middle layers of the HK mound, where the climate was controlled as strictly as the gambling and there was never any raw skyspace to interfere with the permanent evening sky simulation. That wasn't as hard on the nerves as the casino sprawl itself, where one gaming joint melted into another without either a mark or a pause. The revel without a pause, Konstantin thought. She'd heard that hardened Vegas veterans had been found, within an hour of arrival, curled up in the foetal position under craps tables, shaking and crying and hemorrhaging money from every orifice. It was the sort of story Konstantin had been tempted to dismiss as clever PR disguised as an urban legend. Now, besieged by glitter — blitzed by the glitz, so to speak — the idea of someone melting down under the onslaught didn't seem so farfetched. Withstanding this kind of sensory overload took either nerves of stainless steel or really good drugs, and the former seldom came without the help of the latter. She turned to Darwin and waited for him to offer her a dose. Instead, he tugged at her arm, pulling her away from the roulette table, toward something bright. Not that it wasn't all bright, everything around her, but this was even brighter. Probably just some game of chance trying to get their attention, Konstantin thought, feeling the first touches of ennui at the edge of her mind. Abruptly, the brightness flared into a blinding explosion of light, soundless but so intense that Konstantin's ears rang and she lost her balance. Some moments later she found herself blinking up at Darwin's face; she was bent backwards in the crook of his arm as if they'd been dancing. "All right now?" Darwin asked cheerfully. "Paparazzi?" guessed Konstantin, righting herself clumsily and pushing away his hands. They didn't feel as metallic as they looked. She didn't like that; the trainer had told her that illusions you couldn't trust implied more serious treachery to come but Konstantin's objections were based on a dislike of literally mixed literal metaphors. The brightness had died down to a more tolerable level and she saw they were standing on a promontory overlooking a lake of fire. Automatically, she took two steps back, raising a hand to shield her face, but there was no heat at all. A sort of demarcation between this casino and another just beyond? Konstantin adjusted the shading feature in her vision and the lake of fire became a shimmering pool of opals. "Doesn't this ever become a feast too far?" Konstantin asked the cyborg. As if in response to a keyword (probably feast, Konstantin thought) two people in chef drag passed in front of them, walking over the lake in midair on a bridge that appeared under their feet at each step and disappeared behind. They were carrying a platter with the most enormous roast duck she had ever seen. Their puffy white hats and aprons advised her where she could enjoy a similar treat, in any of several branches worldwide. "What do you mean?" Darwin asked her, looking longingly after the duck. She wouldn't have thought anyone with a lower jaw made of platinum would be all that interested in eating. Maybe it had just been a long time since breakfast. "I mean, don't you get just a wee bit tired of jewel-bedecked this-and-that?" "I hear the Vatican makes this place look poverty-stricken, but they won't let any civilians in so I can't say for sure—' "A big strong cyborg like you, can't hack into the Vatican?" Konstantin was surprised. "I'd have thought you'd have done that so often by now that the idea bored you." The right hemisphere of Darwin's brain, visible through the transparent half of his skull, showed a pinker undertone in the grey matter. "I didn't say I couldn't, I'm just not posing for mug shots this year. Besides, I'm not Catholic. I don't even bother to watch it on TV. What we got here, this is the big leagues. Mean aisles in mean casinos. Beggars, trash, dirt, it's all been abolished. They got a very serious dictatorship running things here." "In the whole mound, or just this level?" Darwin spread his mismatched fingers. "A few levels both ways. And I never knew any dictatorship that wasn't dying to expand its horizons. They brainwash people. It's easy in a place like this. After a few hours here, you'd believe anything anyway." "But if people do it voluntarily—' Konstantin shrugged, watching as creatures who might have been humans crossbred with jeweled dolphins swam through the opal lake, cheered on by groups now gathered at either side. It didn't seem to be a race but Konstantin was sure they were betting on something. "And you know it's gotta be voluntary. So it isn't against the law." "Who says it's always voluntary?" "Look, they come here knowing what kind of place it is. It'd be hard not to know. It's advertised heavily enough and you can't turned around without seeing a warning sticker on your way in. People put themselves through it so they can say they survived it. It sounds cool to have done it, and you're the envy of everyone. My Mom got brainwashed in low down Hong Kong and all I got was this lousy Mickey Mao holo." Darwin eyed her as if from a great height — one brown, organic eye, one glowing green LED, which briefly flashed the local time at her. It was later than she'd realized, but there was no way she'd be able to hurry Darwin. "They don't know," he insisted. "They think they know, just because they can see it on TV. They think it's like an amusement park ride or something, but they're wrong. The after-effects linger a lot longer than Hong Kong says. Some of them may never disappear." "Never?" said Konstantin skeptically. "Look, I know it's hard to figure out why anyone would willingly live, even temporarily, under a totalitarian regime that would brainwash them. But it's a big world and there's no explaining what some people want. In the words of the prophet, the joint is jumping. If enough people weren't coming here and watching it on TV besides, this place would be gone, turned into something else — sex playground, sewing circle, you name it. Hey, can we walk over this on one of those visible/invisible bridges, like the chefs?" Darwin nodded and she strode out from the promontory into the space above the pool of opals, enjoying the feel of the step-bridge coming into existence under her feet as she went. The steps gave a little as she put each foot on them with a bouncy sensation that wasn't at all unpleasant. The cyborg stumbled after her gracelessly. "So you think it's all right to lure people to a place like this, get them all worked up—' "No," Konstantin said, letting the steps lead her away from the lake of opals and up to another level. Darwin nearly fell trying to keep pace with her. She was only too happy to leave the opals behind; she'd begun to feel slightly hypnotized. Now she was walking down a wide aisle/boulevard lined with card games. The tables, all at different heights, were shaped like calla lilies or lotuses. She wasn't sure how the players climbed up to their seats on the higher ones. Maybe they were airlifted. "Truthfully, I don't. In the perfect world defined by what would be the Great and Powerful Me, places like this don't exist. But we're not on that planet, and it's not my job to close down legal businesses just because I don't approve." She shrugged. "If the ratings fall off, it'll get cancelled." "But don't you care?" Darwin said melodramatically. Konstantin winced. Not that one again. She moved a little faster. "Come on, now, you care or you don't," Darwin said, chasing alongside her. "It doesn't have to be a perfect world for you to care." You care or you don't. Where had she heard that one before? Don't answer that, she told herself. "OK, I'll admit it," she said wearily. "I don't care. I don't care about anything or anyone. Not only do I not care, I loathe and despise anyone who does. I also hate the helpless and the innocent. Especially children. I think all children should be sold into slavery. I detest whales and seals. I spit on rhinos and white tigers. And that's nothing compared to how I feel about the world in general and everything in it. It's all one big abomination as far as I'm concerned. The biggest favor anyone could do us would be to perfect a doomsday device that would blow this ball of low-grade mud we live on into a billion, trillion—' Four golden uniforms materialized around her and Darwin amid the tables. Everyone, those at the tables and those cruising along the aisle, ignored them. The golden uniforms were unadorned and unmarked, and something about the way the surfaces looked suggested to Konstantin that they were closer to liquid than solid. The heads were as featureless as the bodies, each one vaguely helmet -shaped, but without any visible openings for sight or speech. She couldn't see where they had come from; for all she knew, they had congealed from the glitter in the air. "Papers," said the one directly in front of Konstantin. Something might have moved behind the featureless gold expanse at face level, or not. Konstantin thought of an antique photograph she'd seen in a museum, of a police officer from the previous century wearing mirrored glasses that reflected the scene directly in front of him, including the photographer. Who'd have thought that sort of thing would have caught on in Hong Kong, she thought as she produced a visitor's pass. She was not surprised to see it disappear into the flexible scoop that served as the thing's hand. While the officer, or whatever it was supposed to be, considered her pass, she looked the mechanism over, careful to keep her posture unaggressive. All the major joints were perfect ball-and-socket arrangements, meant to allow movement in any direction. Good for law enforcement — would be no dislocations. Pity they couldn't manage that where she came form, she thought. Her own shoulders, never great, were giving her more trouble with every year. It stretched its hand-scoop toward Darwin, who obligingly produced his own pass. She took a chance and looked at the other uniforms, feigning innocent curiosity. They were probably scanning her and Darwin as thoroughly as any ultra-expensive hospital scanner could. Most likely, they were just an extension of the one in front of her, and she doubted they had passed any information to it yet. "What are you doing here?" the gold uniform in front of her asked. "Playing?" Konstantin asked, hoping she had guessed right at what he wanted to hear. She sneaked a glance at Darwin. The problem with a cyborg was that the face wasn't meant to be especially expressive. No cues forthcoming. "You have played nothing," the golden uniform said. "We couldn't make our minds up," Konstantin said uneasily. "We were trying to decide." "Your behavior does not conform to normal activity patterns," the uniform told her. Konstantin wondered if it had been talking to her ex. Darwin nudged her. Finally, a reaction, she thought. Now if only she knew what he was expecting her to do. "Your conversation indicates that you are antisocial and so could be intending to act in antisocial and disruptive ways," the golden uniform went on impassively. "This gives us due cause to take you into custody and decide if it will be necessary to regularize you, which is our right under global guidelines for local peacekeeping, crowd control, and law enforcement." Konstantin looked at Darwin again. The time readout in his digital eye had changed from numerals to EEEE. Big help, that boy. "And how would that be accomplished, this being regularized?" she asked, turning back to the uniform. Darwin nudged her again and she grabbed his wrist before he could pull away. "We have a complete program of conditioning and behavior phasing, which will last as long as your stay within our borders. It is non-toxic, with no lasting side-effects, and will not interfere with any other activity in any other location." The people at the gambling tables and the traffic in the aisles seemed to become more colorful and ornate, the jewels larger, stranger, more exotic, the movements stronger and the music more intense, but still, everyone ignored them. More than that, Konstantin decided; it was more like they were no longer visible to anyone else. The idea gave her a faint preview of panic and she looked around quickly, wondering if she could catch anyone in the act of sneaking a look at them, or even ignoring them intensely. High up on one of the leaf perches around a calla lily gaming table, an Oriental guy in a painfully authentic tuxedo glanced briefly past the cards fanned out in his left hand and met her gaze for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Or had he? Suddenly, she wasn't so sure. He wasn't seeing her now, even though he hadn't turned all the way back to the dealer in the center of the flower -shaped table. Either that or he had especially fierce control over what he allowed to draw his gaze. "Will this treatment have to be repeated if we decide to come back?" Konstantin asked smoothly. "Or does it kick in again automatically every time we hit this part of the mound?" "There are no lasting side-effects," repeated the uniform. "That doesn't answer my question," Konstantin said. "Yes, it does," said the uniform, still without any emotion or expression whatsoever. "No, it doesn't," Konstantin insisted, in spite of Darwin stepping on her foot. "I want to know if this is brainwashing that wears off out of context or not. I think it's important." "Brainwashing is too inexact a term, leading to misunderstanding and misrepresentation," the uniform said. Konstantin wasn't sure whether she was imagining that some smug had finally crept into its tone. "We'll decline the regularization, thanks just the same," she said. "Just point us at the nearest exit—' "Normally this would be the procedure," the uniform said. "But you have expressed negative and destructive emotions towards entities unable to defend themselves effectively against aggression. You may constitute a danger to those whom we are bound by law to protect." "Not if we leave," said Darwin nervously. "If we allow you to leave, we may be held responsible for any harm you may do in any neighboring sovereignty, state, city, or territory within easy access of this location. Records would show that monitoring had revealed you as an antisocial, aggressive, and potentially dangerous individual. Our failure to act could make us partially liable for any harm you may cause." "But how will your regularizing us make the world a safer place?" Konstantin asked. "I thought you said there were no lasting side effects." "They didn't say anything about after effects," Darwin whispered harshly. "Our monitors can pick up whatever you say, at whatever volume," the uniform told Darwin. "We can also detect and decode pop-ups." Darwin's befuddlement was obvious, in spite of his partly machine made face. "This is simply informational, for your benefit," the uniform went on. "Meant to save you any wasted effort if you were thinking of trying to communicate covertly with each other." Something began to take shape in the air around them, shimmering into existence like a reflection reappearing on the surface of a body of water as it calmed after a disturbance. Konstantin looked up again at the guy who might have made eye contact with her, but she could no longer see him through the thickening barrier coming into existence around her and Darwin. Only her and Darwin, she noticed; somehow the uniforms had either stepped away from them or simply been excluded. The stealth porto-paddy-wagon, probably the latest thing in crowd control and regularization here in the ever-evolving and still inscrutable Far East; perpetrators and would-be perpetrators would never see it coming. Binds invisibly with dust motes until turned loose by law enforcement— Something caught her in the back of the knees and she sat down suddenly. Darwin was sitting on a bench across from her, titanium-hinged elbows on his organic thighs. Konstantin winced. "Happy now?" Darwin asked her. "At least they left the lights on," she said lamely. They both jerked as the box they were in accelerated forward. "So, are you ready to have your brain washed, dried, and martinized?" Darwin asked her. "Snap out of it," Konstantin told him. "We aren't even handcuffed. This wouldn't even raise a blip on a bondage meter, let alone false arrest—" "Yeah?" Darwin sat back and folded his arms. "Try to get up." Konstantin obeyed and discovered that someone had super-glued her butt to the bench. "OK," she said, "now we're getting somewhere." She moved her eyes in the requisite pattern and the exit pop-up appeared on the right side of her visual field. "The exit pop-up's working." "You mean, you can see it," Darwin said ominously. "Just try to use it." She felt an uneasy chill as she blinked at the pop-up. It was followed by annoyance as she found herself standing in the first stage exit lobby amid the usual multitude of regular users entering or leaving AR. "You really looking for the exit?" said a smooth voice close to her ear. "Or is what you really want the way out?" Konstantin winced, drawing away from the voice. A disembodied mouth, several times larger than life-size, smiled oozily at her with exaggerated, lush lips. She made a gun out of her left hand and aimed at the mouth; it dodged the bright blue lightning bolt that leaped from her fingertip and blew her a string of heart-shaped bubble kisses. "Missed me, missed me, now you'll have to kiss me," it jeered. She fired again and, to her surprise, hit it this time, just at the extreme left-hand corner. The mouth zoomed away with a sound like a scalded weasel. Stupid spam, she thought poisonously, and blinked her filter on so she would be invisible to any others, for the rest of this session, at least. They were getting better at slipping through the filters, masquerading as personal or business communications or even legitimate sponsor ads. Annoying but not yet illegal. She looked around for Darwin, but no solid image of the cyborg appeared among the multitude of semi-ghosts moving around her. She whistled for him, first on the police-witness frequency and, when there was no answer, she started on the ten private ones he'd given her. A message came back via pop-up on the seventh. Callee is currently unable to answer your whistle personally and left the following message for you: "You may never see the REAL me again." That assumes I saw the real you to begin with, Konstantin thought, amused. Highly doubt that I did. Nonetheless, she zapped him a get-out-free pass and waited to see if he'd use it to join her, not really expecting him to. She'd written him off as a crank (likely) or a disgruntled gambler (far more probable) who'd lost all his stuff in a game he'd known all along was crooked, and was trying to swindle it back again. Konstantin had a filter for those, too, but a canny few always managed to bob and weave enough to get through to her. Most of them needed therapy more than anything else and, for the thousandth time, she thanked the random forces in the universe that she was not a therapist. Her pop-up gave her a polite reminder of how long she'd been in and suggested she withdraw soon to avoid a headache or, in extreme cases, a seizure. Supremely annoyed now, Konstantin grabbed the pop-up and whited out the seizure bit. The commissioner's scare tactics bothered her a hell of a lot more than anything AR hot dogs like Darwin might do. "You have defaced official law enforcement equipment," said a business-like contralto. "Really? My hand slipped." Konstantin was about to request departure when, through the speedy blur of the semi-ghosts transiting to and fro, she saw someone perfectly recognizable approaching her, which meant he had requested her frequency. It took her a moment to place him. "Well, you look different on eye level than you do ten-twelve feet in the air playing blackjack," she said. The man was Japanese-Occidental and very, very annoyed. "What the hell did you think you were doing back there?" "Back where?" she asked. He shifted position, slipping one hand into his jacket pocket and coming out with a silver case. He clicked it open one-handed, selected a pure white cigarette without offering her one, and put the case away. The cigarette lit itself; he drew on it and blew a stream of smoke over her head. "Impressive," said Konstantin, meaning it. "Where'd you get it?" He didn't answer. On impulse, Konstantin grabbed his face, pushing his cheeks together to purse his lips. He batted her arm away angrily and took a step back. "That's not an animation," Konstantin said admiringly. "That's a real simulation. That is really, really good. It really is. Really." "You didn't answer my question," he snapped. "What the hell did you think you were doing back there?" "Well, who the hell wants to know?" Konstantin asked pleasantly. "You intruded into an investigation of practices in the lower Hong Kong mound." Konstantin crossed her arms. "Excuse me if I interrupted the rhythm of your investigation. Sure it isn't more like a master's thesis or a news-porn feature story?" "You fuckin' American." "Pardon?" "Yeah, I thought so. It just figures. Only a fuckin' American goes stomping into any place, any time, anywhere, without a second thought as to who else might be at work." He blew another stream of smoke over her head. "I've been stationed in that casino for two Hong Kong months, gathering evidence as part of a major police investigation. Maybe the first of its kind in AR, for sure the largest." Konstantin gestured to the semi-ghosts shifting and blurring around them. "I'd believe you, except for the obvious impediment. We're still in AR, and there's no truth in AR." He took another drag on his cigarette and, to her surprise and revulsion, blew the smoke in her face this time. "After you decrypt that, give me a call." She had felt nothing, of course, when the smoke had surrounded her head, but she could sense it sorting itself into an encrypted chunk in her in-box. "You guys watch too many old James Bond revivals on TV," she said. The man paused with the cigarette halfway to his mouth. It hadn't shrunk at all. "What gives you that special insight?" "Because Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan didn't smoke." She waved a hand in front of her face. "Officer ready to depart."