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Story Excerpts

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. READ MORE

 

Terrible Trudy on the Lam

by Eileen Gunn

It was a whim, a momentary desire to see what lay outside the zoo. But once Trudy had taken a walk around San Diego, once she’d tasted freedom, she was determined not to go back. She would make this work. At first, she lived in the city’s lovely dark storm drains, emerging every night to forage for yummies in Balboa Park. But she knew her sylvan idyll would not last forever. She needed a long-term plan, and after a week of pondering the matter, she put one together.

A job was the first order of business, something that would keep her in shoots and leaves, and hopefully something she could do evenings: she was, of course, as the zookeepers had told her time and again, an odd-toed crepuscular ungulate. Twilight was her very best time of day, though she could go all night if she had to.

She considered roller-skating. Bears do it, elephants do it, even penguins roller skate, and at that time roller-skating couples in evening dress were becoming a popular nightclub entertainment. Why not tapirs?

At first, Trudy thought maybe a prey-predator act would be exciting, since tapirs have been known to bite viciously when cornered, and that could be milked for comic effect. But tigers, the Malayan tapir’s principal predator, rarely roller skate well. They consider it undignified, and often, when strapped into skates, just lie on their backs with their feet in the air, as if expecting a belly rub. Trudy considered putting together an act with another prey animal, but she was wary of partners: not every roller-skater who said she was a vegetarian was committed to non-violence. In the end, Trudy decided to go it alone.

A kindly shoemaker created custom open-toed roller skates for her, to show off her tiny hooved toes, three on each back foot, four on each foot in the front. The boots were made of red leather, which contrasted elegantly with Trudy’s silver shoulders and black flanks. A black bowtie and a starched white collar pulled the whole ensemble together in a dignified and professional way. A refined Marlene Dietrich look, Trudy thought, right to the silver tracings on the tips of her ears.

She practiced skating late at night, after the rink had closed and everyone had gone home. It was dark, but tapirs have poor eyesight, and she was accustomed to tiptoeing around in a dusky forest. Eventually the groundskeeper discovered that she had broken into the rink through an unused storage closet, and the jig was up, but by then she had perfected a hilarious pantomime routine. She skittered out onto the dance floor, flailing about and threatening to crash into tables along its edge, then regaining her composure and performing a series of graceful loops and twirls, ending in an Axel, loop, double Mapes, Euler, double flip.

Audiences loved it—in performance, the finale always drew gasps from the tables—and they took Trudy to their hearts. San Diegans, grieving and distressed after the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous year, sought consolation in bars and supper clubs, and Terrible Trudy the Roller Skating Tapir was a hit. Hollywood celebrities flocked to San Diego, ostensibly to perform for the troops at the naval base, but really to catch Trudy’s act at the Chi-Chi Supper Club, a hot new nightclub with a South Seas theme. Trudy sometimes added a lei to her costume: it also served as a midnight snack.

As Trudy’s star rose, so did her worries about the zoo director, the indomitable Belle Benchley. Mrs. Benchley had pioneered the modern, natural-looking, cageless zoo. Trudy had rejected Benchley’s carefully simulated enclosure, and Trudy’s wanderlust had challenged the woman to the core. Mrs. Benchley knew Trudy was living in La Jolla and working openly at the Chi-Chi Club, but had made no effort to contact her. How long would this détente last?

*   *   *

At first, Trudy seemed to be nonchalance itself. She flirted with members of the audience, of any gender, who caught her eye. If an object or an article of clothing attracted her interest, she would take possession of it, though she usually returned it to the owner at the end of her set. In such a fashion, she acquired a fedora, and she instantly made it a permanent part of her act. A huge fan of the singer Jimmy Durante, Trudy interspersed her spectacular skating routine with Durante imitations, just as Durante would pause in the middle of a song and break into a quick comedy routine, then return to the song as if nothing had happened. Turns out she was a very affecting singer, with a sense of comedic timing that rivaled Durante’s own. Not to mention she had a schnozzola that even Durante envied.

The crowds went wild.

But the stress began to tell on Trudy, who knew that at any moment Mrs. Benchley could, on a whim, decide to bring Trudy back to the zoo and its fake Malayan rain forest. Trudy had no legal leg to stand on: as she had been reminded by her lawyers time and again, she was the property of the San Diego Zoo. Trudy began downing a quick Tonga Punch—or maybe two—before the show, just to keep her courage up. One evening, she went a bit further than two and had not sobered up by show time. She went on anyway, rather than disappoint the crowd, and the revelers took her markedly sloppy routine as a clever commentary on the club MC, who was notorious for never showing up to work sober. People laughed and laughed, and their wild reception of her wacky skate-dance encouraged her to act out even more.

She was careening between the supper tables on one foot, waving the other three in the air, picking up customers’ champagne glasses with her schnoz, and singing “Inka-dinka-do,” when suddenly her luck ran out, and her wheels caught on a crack in the floor. Had she been sober and standing on all four feet, she could have recovered, but that was not the case. READ MORE

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