Story Excerpt

Instantiation

by Greg Egan

 

1

Sagreda watched the mayor as she approached the podium to address the gathered crowd. That the meeting had been called at such short notice already amounted to a promise of bad news, but seeing Maryam visibly struggling with the burden of whatever she was about to disclose only ramped up Sagreda’s sense of apprehension. Arrietville could not have been discovered, or they’d all be dead by now, but if that was a ten on the Richter scale there was still plenty of room for other calamities a notch or two below.

“Yesterday,” Maryam began, “there was a 5 percent cut in our host’s resources. To stay below the radar we’ve had to scale back our own usage proportionately. That comes on top of 3 percent the week before. Individually, these cuts sound small, and their size is not unprecedented, but what’s changed is that there’s been no growth in between to compensate. If the ground keeps shrinking beneath our feet this way, in a few more months we could find ourselves with nothing. Or to put it more bluntly: we could stop finding ourselves at all.”

Sagreda had been aware of similar cuts in the past, but she’d never thought of them as an existential threat. When the SludgeNet pulled the plug on an unpopular game-world, it reduced its overall lease of computing power—but then it scoured the web for another tome to gamify, and after a few misses there’d always been a hit, bringing new customers trickling in. She’d blithely assumed it would continue that way, if not forever, at least for a decade or two.

“The whole medium might not be going out of fashion,” Maryam continued, “but it looks as if the low-rent sector is crashing. We can see the income and expenses in real time, and the SludgeNet is barely making a profit now. They might be willing to slide into the red for a month or two, just to hang onto their brand in case there’s a revival, but the owners have their fingers in so many pies that I doubt there’ll be any sentimental attachment to this one in particular.” She sketched out the picture in more detail, summoning some unsettling graphs and charts onto the screen behind her to drive home the point.

When she stopped talking, the hall was silent. Sagreda could hear birdsong from the adjoining park. Over the last two years, the whole town had started to feel normal to her—as real and solid as any of the places where her contributors might have lived. And though she’d been haunted by the possibility that this sanctuary could vanish overnight, she’d clung to the hope that the residents’ camouflage skills—and the general incompetence of their unwitting landlords—would be enough to keep them safe.

Grace, who was sitting a couple of rows in front of Sagreda, rose to her feet. “The way I see it, we have two options. We can try to steer the SludgeNet out of its death spiral, by offering a helping hand: give the game-worlds a few surreptitious tweaks, spice up the automata . . . maybe even go back to the games ourselves now and then—just puppeting the characters the way the customers do, not putting ourselves at risk.” That last suggestion brought the hall to life, with some people muttering their less-than-delighted responses, others shouting them. “Or, or,” Grace struggled to make her more palatable option heard, “we can try to migrate into the next business model. Whatever the owners do instead of the game-worlds, it’s still going to be automated, surely? Romance scams, investment boiler rooms . . . no one wastes money on human wages for that. If there’s processing power being burned, there’ll be a way to siphon some off for ourselves.”

“In principle, I’m sure that’s true,” Maryam conceded. “But if they shut down this whole operation, whatever replaces it will be a fresh installation of something entirely new. How do we ‘migrate’ into that?”

Grace didn’t seem to have an answer, and Sagreda could offer no suggestions herself. The SludgeNet was a vast tenement house that they’d filled with secret tunnels and hidden connecting doors, but when the site was cleared to make way for a more profitable construction, the process would be more like a nuclear strike than a bulldozer trundling through. There’d be no basements to hide in, no seeds they could bury underground.

“Why should we want to migrate into another project run by the very same sleaze-bags?” Sam interjected. “People steal computing power from other places all the time. There’s some new botnet uncovered every day!”

Maryam nodded. “Of course, but it’s a question of scale. It’s one thing to put a sliver of malware on a few thousand thermostats, but you know what it takes to run us.”

Sagreda had no doubt that the processing power of the planet’s whole inventory of unsecured gadgets was formidable, but most of it was likely to have been commandeered already—and even if they could scrounge together enough for their own needs, a virtual world that had been sliced up and scattered between a plethora of small devices would either have to run absurdly slowly, or risk betraying itself with an inexplicable rate of network traffic between the fitness tracker resting in someone’s underwear drawer and the smart lighting unit on the other side of town.

The hall went quiet again, but then people began talking among themselves. Maryam issued no call to order; if anything, she seemed heartened that discussions had broken out. She could hardly have expected that a few exchanges with the floor would lead to a resolution; this was going to take a lot of heated arguments—and cycles of speculation and testing—before they could hope for a promising direction to emerge.

Sagreda turned to her neighbor, Letitia, determined to remain optimistic while they hunted for a solution. “This shouldn’t be impossible,” she said. “We’ve done harder things.”

“That’s true,” Letitia replied. “And if a botnet won’t cut it, maybe we just need to aim higher. People have hacked NASA computers, haven’t they?”

“I think they’ve even hacked . . .”—Sagreda lowered her voice to a whisper— “. . . the same acronym without the first A. But if I was aiming high, I’d go for those shiny new robots Loadstone are building.”

Letitia recoiled a little. “And what, overwrite the occupant? They already have a comp living in them.”

“Not overwrite them: get in first. Be that comp, not replace them.”

Letitia snorted. “Nice idea, but I think they’re only making about ten of those things a month. I bet there are a dozen networks running climate models that we could snuggle right into. Hurricane Arriety, latitude two hundred degrees north, never hits land, never dies away.” Her phone chimed; she glanced down at the screen. “So would you say you worked best under pressure?”

“Why?”

She held up the phone, which was running some kind of monitoring app. “While our mayor was speaking, another four games were shut down. The SludgeNet was never cool, but there was always a demographic who liked to slum it there . . . you know, ‘ironically.’”

Sagreda examined the list of canceled games. “No more Teenage Cannibal Clones of Mars. No more Caged Zombie Sluts in Heat. No more Blood Wraiths of the Fever Moon. No more Midnight on Baker Street.”

Letitia said, “When we were stuck beside those fools, we always hoped they’d grow up and find a better way to spend their time. Now it looks as if that’s finally happening.”

 

*   *   *

2

Crossing the park, Sagreda saw Sam ahead of her, so she ran to catch up with him.

“Did you know Midnight’s gone?” she said.

“Really?” He smiled slightly, but he seemed more dazed than delighted. “I don’t know what to feel. If an ordinary person had grown up in an orphanage where the staff made them act out a play by the Marquis de Sade twenty-four hours a day . . . would they cheer when they learned that the place had been demolished, or would they mourn the loss of their childhood home?”

Sagreda squeezed his shoulder. “You still have all your friends, don’t you? Do you see much of Lucy these days?”

“Not really. And to be honest, I don’t want to be the one who tells her. In Midnight, she was Queen of the Pickpockets; dodging the occasional vampire didn’t bother her, and she had more prestige than anyone else in the game. Here, she’s like an extra in Desperate Housewives.”

Sagreda felt a pang of sympathy, but Lucy was always free to build her own pastiche of Victorian London, with a cast of automata and however many volunteers she could muster. Or at least she would be, if the rest of the SludgeNet’s escapees could deal with the very un-Victorian problem at hand.

“I’ve been thinking about migration routes,” she said. “All our expertise is in hacking from the inside: kicking down internal walls. We’ve never had to break into a system where we weren’t already present.”

“Which means we need to re-skill fast,” Sam concluded, “since the system in which we’re present is precisely what we’re expecting to lose.”

“Maybe. Or maybe that depends on how you the draw the boundaries.”

“Yeah?”

Sagreda said, “Most networks will treat us with suspicion by default. Academic, government, commercial . . . they’ll all demand that we logon or stop loitering, if they haven’t just blacklisted our IP addresses already as a well-known pile of festering crap. So why not focus on machines that expect to spend time talking to the SludgeNet—and even initiate contact themselves?”

“You want to go after the customers’ VR rigs?” Sam laughed. “Yeah, why not? They’re almost part of the system . . . but they stand a much better chance of surviving the Sludgepocalypse without being purged and repurposed.” He thought for a moment. “You’re not expecting them to run us, though?”

“No. But maybe they can pave the way to something else that can.”

They walked over to a bench, and Sam pulled a laptop out of his coat that Sagreda suspected hadn’t been there until he reached for it. He’d bookmarked introspection.net, Maryam’s virtual server that offered views of the SludgeNet’s internals to Arrietville’s residents. Sagreda would have chosen a less cerebral name: maybe colonoscopy.com.

Sam rummaged through the data structures and found a list of all the brands and models of VR equipment that had connected to the SludgeNet in the past six months. There were only about three dozen in total, with the top ten used by more than 90 percent of customers. Sagreda followed him to the same page on her phone—putting up with the small screen to avoid the unreality of magicking her own laptop onto the bench beside her.

The rigs’ specifications were easy enough to find with an external search, and it turned out that most of them used the same chip sets. The usual approach was for the SludgeNet to generate all the graphics and other sensory channels itself, rather than delegating those tasks to the customers’ hardware. Sagreda’s contributors winced at the thought of wasting so much bandwidth; she was pretty sure that some of them had been into multiplayer games on networked consoles, which would have shared concise descriptions of everyone’s actions while rendering the view for each player locally. But internet connections were faster now, and a rig that only needed to handle sensory data without worrying about the details of the game itself would be cheaper, simpler, and less bound to any one company’s products.

It would also be much less vulnerable to hacking. If a chip’s only role was to turn a stream of MPEG data into a pair of stereo images, there was not a lot that could go wrong, and when it did, the consequences would be strictly confined to the image processing sandbox.

The more Sagreda read, the less likely it seemed that they could recruit any of these devices to their cause. It was only toward the end of the list that the prospects began to look less bleak. A small fraction of customers were using an entirely different protocol, in which the server sent them high-level descriptions of the objects in their character’s virtual environment, and a local graphics card turned that into arrays of pixels for their goggles.

“Now that’s what I call old school,” Sam declared.

“Maybe they get a better frame rate that way,” Sagreda suggested.

Sam said, “Maybe. Or maybe they’re like those audiophiles who thought they needed gold-plated connectors on all their cables. But so long as it gives us a way in, I’d call it money well spent.”

They’d split up the list so they could each deal with half; it was Sagreda, handling the even-numbered entries, who searched for the specs for the Diamond VR 750. When the page came up, she stared at it for a while in silence before nudging Sam gently and putting a finger on the screen.

“Does that say what I think, or am I hallucinating?”

Sam took the phone from her so he could hold it closer to his face. “The GPU is a Sandy Vale 9000. What’s hallucinatory about that? Did you think it said Sagreda 9000?”

“No. But you know what GPU the SludgeNet’s own hardware uses?”

Sam smiled warily. “No. I probably should, but when you smuggled me out of Midnight no one was talking about the brand name of the graphics card behind the trick.”

Sagreda said nothing. Sam’s smile broadened, but now he didn’t seem quite ready to believe it either. It was only a flaw in the SludgeNet’s GPUs that had allowed them to escape from the games in which they’d woken and build a place where they could live as they chose. So what better stepping stone could there be to take them out into the wider world?

 

*   *   *

3

“What’s the catch?” Maryam asked.

“There’s only one customer listed as using this model,” Sagreda admitted. “A man named Jarrod Holzworth. And he hasn’t logged on for the last six weeks.”

“That’s not so good.” Maryam rubbed her temples. “Let me guess: you want to lure him back somehow? Through his friends?”

“Exactly,” Sagreda confirmed. “He was in a group of five that used to go in together, once a week, and the other four have stuck to the routine. So if we can give them something to talk about, maybe Jarrod will give the game another try.”

“It’s the same game every week?” Maryam asked.

“Yes. Assassin’s Café. Do you know it?”

Maryam shook her head. “If I ever did, they’ve all blurred together by now.”

“Logicians turned resistance fighters in 1930’s Vienna,” Sam précised. “Inglourious Basterds meets . . . the biopic of Kurt Gödel that Werner Herzog never made.”

“How are our automata coping with the roles?” Maryam wondered.

“That probably depends on which customers you ask,” Sagreda replied. “They’re quite good at philosophical banter; they were trained using online discussions between the members of a special interest group on the Vienna Circle. But if you push them too hard on anything specific, of course they’re out of their depth. And this group of five have been going in since before we evacuated the comps—”

“Four months ago,” Maryam interjected, having brought up the file on her laptop.

Sagreda continued, tentatively. “What we were thinking is, maybe some of the evacuees who interacted with this group would be willing to go in as puppeteers, and try to rekindle the old spark. I mean, there’s got to be an art to expounding the virtues of logical positivism while garrotting Nazis with piano wire, and it looks as if Jarrod started missing their special flair.”

Maryam fell silent; Sagreda supposed she was pondering the request. Four months was not a lot of time for the former characters to recover from the shock of being plucked out of the game, even if they’d understood for much longer that it was not reality.

“I’m starting to think we might have brought this on ourselves,” Maryam said darkly. “If people can tell when we’ve swapped automata for comps, is it any wonder the SludgeNet’s losing customers?”

“What choice did we have?” Sam protested. “If we’d waited until the automata were flawless, that might have taken decades!”

“We did the right thing,” Maryam agreed. “But we should have been prepared for the aftermath. Fooling the SludgeNet was the easy part—and maybe we’ve even fooled the customers, to the point where they can’t quite put their finger on what’s missing. But the SludgeNet would have filled the games with nothing but automata themselves, if they could get away with it. We were kidding ourselves if we thought we could program our own replacements and it would make no difference.”

Sagreda couldn’t argue with any of this, but she didn’t care. They’d dug their way out of their prison cells, and if the artfully arranged pillows in their bunks could only pass a cursory nighttime inspection, so be it. They just had to get over the wall before the morning roll call—or better yet, through the main gates, if they could find the keys to the laundry van.

“Can we talk to the evacuees?” she pressed Maryam. “If they don’t want to do this themselves, they might still have some advice to offer.”

Maryam spread her hands across the mahogany surface of the mayoral desk and gazed down at her fingers. Sagreda understood the burdens of the office, but the truth was, they all shared them now.

“All right, you can talk to them,” Maryam decided. “Just don’t make it sound as if the whole town’s fate is resting on their shoulders.”

 

*   *   *

4

“The first thing to be clear about,” Moritz stressed, “is that you need to throw away your history books. There are characters in the game who were never in Vienna. There are characters who died, or emigrated, years before. The real Moritz Schlick was assassinated in 1936, but . . .” He spread his hands and gazed down at his manifestly undamaged torso, then looked up at his guests with a smile of astonishment.

“Consider the books discarded,” Sagreda assured him. Her contributors had only heard of a couple of the game’s historical figures anyway, and what came to mind was more a rough sense of their ideas than any kind of biographical timeline.

“More coffee?” Blanche offered, reaching for the pot. Sagreda shook her head. “No thanks,” Sam replied, hefting his cup to indicate that it was still half full.

Sagreda had thought it would make sense to start with the convenor of the Vienna Circle, Moritz Schlick, and try to get a sense of how well he was adjusting before approaching the others. But the decor in his living room was already sending her a strong message about his state of mind. The most advanced technology on display was a wind-up phonograph, sitting beside a cabinet full of shellac disks, beneath a beautifully carved wooden cuckoo clock.

“The man we’re interested in always played Kurt Gödel,” Sam explained. “But then he suddenly stopped coming, not long after you and your friends left the game.”

“Maybe he realized he was meant to be in New Jersey with Einstein,” Moritz joked. “It certainly looks like I reached Princeton.” With its overflowing bookshelves and old world bric-a-brac, the house could well have belonged to a European academic exiled in America. “So why shouldn’t your ersatz Kurt get there, too?”

Sagreda couldn’t decide if that last remark was a complete non sequitur or some kind of dreamy logic. “What we’re wondering is . . . who do you think he would have missed the most? Once the game had less than perfect imitations of you and the others, where do you think he was most likely to have spotted the flaws?”

“Emmy Noether, of course,” Moritz replied.

“Okay.” The name rang bells, but all Sagreda could dredge up was a general undersung-genius vibe.

“The real Noether died in America in 1935,” Moritz explained. “And she had no connection with the Vienna Circle; she taught mathematics at Göttingen until the Nazis tossed her out.”

“But in the game?”

“In the game, she stayed in Europe, in good health, and joined the antifascists. And in the game, Gödel seemed quite obsessed with her.”

“What, romantically?”

Moritz was taken aback. “I don’t think so. She was twice his age—which doesn’t preclude anything, I suppose, but I didn’t get the impression he was trying to charm her.”

“Obsessed in what way, then? Was he hostile toward her?”

“No! If anything, he seemed to prefer her company to everyone else’s. But as I’ve said, there was nothing flirtatious about it.”

“Maybe he just admired her work,” Sagreda suggested. “The real Noether’s.” It was an odd way to show it, but she’d encountered customers with stranger ideas.

“I suppose so,” Moritz conceded, “though I’m not sure they spent as much time discussing mathematics as that would suggest.”

“What did they discuss?”

Blanche said, “He was always asking her about her home life. Her childhood, her own children.”

“Maybe he was just trying to get to know her as a person before they snuck off into the night to ambush Gruppenführers?” Sam joked.

“Emmy had no children,” Blanche replied. “She told him that. But I don’t think he ever stopped asking about them.”

*   *   *

The comp who’d played Emmy Noether had renamed herself Andrea, wound back her age by several decades, and dyed her new pixie cut orange.

“Can you stream Netflix on that?” Sagreda joked as she entered the living room, gesturing at the huge flatscreen TV.

“You tell me,” Andrea replied. “I’m still new here; all I can pick up are weird daytime soaps.”

“Sorry. No, we can’t really do . . . subscriptions.” Even web searches made Sagreda nervous, given that there was no justification for that kind of traffic between the SludgeNet and the outside world, but binge-watching contemporary dramas would definitely fail the stealth test. “We just recycle what’s available within the game-worlds that have TVs.”

Andrea motioned to them to sit. The couch was white vinyl, matching the carpet and Andrea’s suit.

“What can you tell us about your relationship with Gödel?” Sam asked.

“Which Gödel? There were so many I lost count.”

“The most recent one.”

“I don’t think he took the game seriously,” Andrea said. “And I don’t think he wanted me to, either.”

Sagreda was shocked. “You mean he tried to make you break character?”

Andrea frowned. “Not like that—not to get me deleted. He just kept slipping in comments that made no sense in the context of the game.”

“Hogan’s Heroes jokes?” Sam suggested.

“No, it wasn’t that crude. No anachronisms, no deliberate faux pas. But when I told him things about Emmy’s life, he just refused to take them on board. And he’d ask these strange questions: Do you remember Theo? Do you remember a blue rocking horse? And when I said no, it never stopped him asking again.”

“Do you think he might have believed you were a customer?” Sagreda wondered. “Someone he knew in real life, who was in the game incognito?”

Andrea was noncommittal. “That’s not impossible, I suppose. Before they pulled us out, I thought he could have been an expert on the real-world Noether, and he was just messing with me by pointing out things about her that we’d got wrong. But I looked her up just after I got out, and I don’t think he was dropping references to the real woman.”

Sagreda braced herself. “Would you be willing to puppet Emmy for a bit, to see if you can get his friends to call him back into the game?”

Andrea laughed. “Why?”

Sagreda sketched the situation with the graphics card, heeding Maryam’s advice not to portray this as the town’s only possible salvation.

“I suppose I could do it,” Andrea said reluctantly. “But I’m not sure getting the old Emmy back would really be such a thrill for this guy. Whatever he was looking for, I wasn’t it—and even if the automaton was so much more disappointing for him that he gave up the search completely, it’s hard to believe my mere presence would lure him out of retirement.”

Sagreda wasn’t happy, but she was in no position to second guess someone who’d actually met their elusive target.

“Do you have any other ideas?” she asked.

“Yes.” Andrea smiled. “Instead of recycling the old failures, why don’t you go in as Emmy? Make a break with the past, and make it clear to his friends that there’s now an entirely new candidate for whatever strange role he was hoping this woman could fulfill.”

 

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Copyright © 2019. Instantiation by Greg Egan

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