Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Prequel to The Boost: Dark Site
December 3, 2014Marketing the book

On Sunday afternoon, I finished writing the prequel to The Boost. It's (tentatively) called Dark Site, which is the name for the corporate prisons featured in the story. The one readers get to know is in Vienna, Virginia, within walking distance of the Metro. 

On Monday and Tuesday, I went through the text, about 119,000 words. I cut out extraneous stuff, including plot elements I never developed and ruminations that slowed the pace. I chopped out about 12,000 words (or nearly two weeks of writing). That leaves it at close to 400 pages, about 15% longer than The Boost. (I can see coming back to it with fresh eyes in a month or two and chopping out more.) 

Today, I sat down to write a promotional precis for the book. This isn't my favorite activity. Actually, it reminds me of writing a short BusinessWeek article, where you have to squish a complex story into 500 words. In any case, now I'm done that, and I'll have to figure out what to do next.

I placed the narrator of the book, Gary, in an apartment building some of my friends lived in long ago. It's called The Shawmut, and it's on Columbia Road in the Adams Morgan section of Washington. I'm sure it's a very nice building now, and Adams Morgan is a wonderful place to live. But when my friends lived in a borrowed apartment there, they kept it "untidy," and the kitchen walls and sink were alive with rushing roaches. I have no idea why those bugs kept so busy. It was as if they were trying to lose weight. 


                                                                     The Shawmut

I don't know yet when this book will by published, or by whom. But here's the precis I wrote today:

Dark Site

The Boost Files: Washington 2044



2043. Two billion Asians operate Chinese-made supercomputers, or boosts, implanted into their brains. Americans, still waiting for their own chip, remain “wild.” In the coming cognitive war, the two powers will battle over access to brains—and control of mankind’s thoughts. The United States starts out dangerously behind.


On a summer day, a software lobbyist in Washington named Gary Terwilliger learns that his lovely downstairs neighbor, Stella, is the first government employee with a Chinese boost running in her head. The Congressional guinea pig for brain implants, she has access to top political leaders, including the president.


While privacy mavens are terrified by brain implants, advocates tout them as the next jump in human cognition, similar to our leap 40,000 years ago to cro-magnon. Some wealthy parents, including Gary and his ex-wife, fearing that their children will be left behind, start sending them on “cognitive vacations” to Asia.


From his apartment in the Shawmut, in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, Gary harnesses his newly boosted 11-year-old daughter, Alissa, as a spy. Riding “shotgun” on her neighbor’s boost, Alissa sees the world through Stella’s eyes. She witnesses chilling corruption and back-channel intrigue. She also sees political opponents being snatched up by drones and carried to corporate prisons, known as Dark Sites. And she learns a startling secret about the president that could bring down the government.


The exuberant Alissa is fascinated by what she’s learning—but cannot keep her mouth closed. As the secrets spread through Washington, powerful players, from tech plutocrats to South American capos, trace them back to their source. Will they lay claim to the precious flow of intelligence by throwing Gary, or even Alissa, into a Dark Site?


As dangers mount, Gary finds himself falling in love with Stella. But he’s all too aware that his daughter might be riding shotgun, and spying on him through Stella’s eyes. For his own privacy, he needs Stella to block Alissa’s access to her brain chip—but not before one final mission, which could carry Alissa into the innermost sanctum of the President of the United States.


Dark Site is a fast-paced prequel to The Boost (Tor Books, 2014), which takes place 28 years later. Kirkus Reviews called The Boost “a true delight of a techno-thriller that has deep, dark roots in the present.” Paul di Filippo, writing in Locus, notes that the “tale is rendered in light, easy, smooth prose which walks the tragicomic tightrope brilliantly and deftly.”


Baker was a senior technology writer at BusinessWeek for 10 years, and is also author of two non-fiction books, The Numerati (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) and Final Jeopardy: Man vs Machine and the Quest to Know Everything (Houghton Mifflin, 2011).



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How the prequel to The Boost starts
August 15, 2014Marketing the book


I'm about a third of the way through the first draft of the prequel to The Boost. It's called Washington at War. To give you an idea of where it's going, I'm pasting the first paragraph below. A bit of context for Boost readers: The lover is the 29-year-old Stella, and her husband is Francisco.

Between March of 2043 and the following January, war raged between United States and China. You wouldn’t have noticed it walking across the Mall on a late summer afternoon, as the Congressional teams played softball and drank beer. I strolled past them one evening and thought: We’re at war and life goes on. The drones circling above seemed as harmless as sea gulls. A Frisbee fell at my feet. I picked it up and heaved it toward the Monument, and someone yelled thanks. My trek continued past the White House. I waded through the vaporing crowds around DuPont Circle, and from there to Columbia Road, where my lover waited for me—assuming her husband wasn’t around, or too drunk to notice.

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Facebook ads: Scary stuff wins
July 3, 2014Marketing the book


See that scary looking ad? I've been dabbling in advertising on Facebook, trying different images and ad copy. And I'm sure it comes as no surprise that the most menacing graphic and message gets by far the most clicks.

The issue for me is that I don't view the future in The Boost as especially terrifying. It's simply the future. Sure, there are aspects I'd rather do without. People can send headaches to each other, journalism no longer exists within the borders of the United States, people eat tasteless pellets and flavor them with brain apps, etc etc. But there's still love, laughter, jokes, and above all, hope. Life goes on. 

But when it comes to selling the book, dark wins. 

I've faced this issue before. The Numerati attempted to portray a balanced view of Big Data. Yes, there would be privacy issues. But governments, corporations, and doctors would stop treating us like herds. Data, for example, would bring us personalized medicine. But the scary stuff sold. When it came time to publish the book in paperback In the UK, my publisher actually changed the title to the menacing "They've Got Your Number."  (The New York Times used the same headline in its review of the book.)


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The steam engine and the future
June 25, 2014Marketing the book


When the steam engine was king, the future looked steamy. The hulking machines, it seemed in the 19th century, would just grow bigger and more powerful.

That's easiest way to imagine the future: Start with what we have now, and exaggerate everything. And that's sort of what I did with The Boost. We have cell phones that increasingly dominate our thinking, track our movements, and are fast turning into external lobes of our brains. So I simply made them tiny, maybe a million times more powerful, and moved them into the head.

I believe that computers will increasingly knit their way into our minds, but I'd bet the technology I describe in the book will be laughable in 2072. That's because between now and then there are likely to be jumps to different tech platforms. These will probably make the boosts seem as silly as a cell phone powered by an internal combustion engine, or perhaps Jules Verne's vision of a moonship fired into space by a massive cannon. 

What will the jump be? John Markoff writes in the New York Times about Microsoft's research into quantum computers. These could conceivably turn computing upside down. It would not only make computers thousands of times more powerful, but would also revolutionize the way they process information. It would conceivably permit them to introduce doubt into calculations--more the way we do. (Today's computers, in contrast, simulate doubt with billions of statistical calculations). Other researchers are looking into computing models based on animal brains. 

The point is that the change won't come in a straight line, and it's likely to be more dramatic than we imagine--and more dramatic than the brain chips in The Boost. 




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Hunger Games, Divergent or Fahrenheit 451?
June 3, 2014Marketing the book


It wasn't until after I'd written The Boost that I learned it was dystopian. I just thought it was a book about the future, both good and bad. Now I'm interested in catching up on this genre I participate in. I searched dystopian books on Google and found a few I'd read--and a bunch I haven't gotten to yet. I'd welcome recommendations.

Here's what I've read: 

1984, by George Orwell. Beautifully constructed book, pervaded by grimness and despair. Very few laughs. 
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Much like 1984, but post-apocalyptic. Love persists.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Read it in high school. Only remember the drugs.

Let's stop the charade. I'm nearly unread in this genre. I took Fahrenheit 451 out of the library, but didn't read it. I saw the movies of Never Let Me GoThe Children of Men and A Clockwork Orange. Which dystopian books should I read? Hunger GamesOryx and CrakeDivergent?

***
Incidentally, looking for the links to these books, I just came across the Amazon interview with Veronica Roth, of Divergent. She gives a nice piece of advice to writers:

"Want something else more than success. Success is a lovely thing, but your desire to say something, your worth, and your identity shouldn’t rely on it, because it’s not guaranteed and it’s not permanent and it’s not sufficient. So work hard, fall in love with the writing—the characters, the story, the words, the themes—and make sure that you are who you are regardless of your life circumstances. That way, when the good things come, they don’t warp you, and when the bad things hit you, you don’t fall apart."


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American dullards: What happens here when foreigners get brain implants?
May 31, 2014Marketing the book


A nation of dimwits?

The year 2043, in the world of The Boost... Early in the year, the Chinese moved to implant cognitive chips, or boosts, into their entire population, and they offered chips to all of humanity. Workers with chips were more productive, enhanced diplomats communicated wordlessly in negotiations, children with chips aced the standardized tests in minutes!. Still, Americans resisted Chinese chips, worrying about privacy and safety issues, and sovereignty--not to mention religion.

An outtake from the novel: 

In the end, a grassroots movement forced the government’s hand. Across the country, parents filed successful suits, pressing the Commerce Department for rights to import Chinese processors for their children. Overnight, normal students budded into prodigies. Within months, exclusive private schools around San Francisco and New York were demanding Chinese processors in the heads of incoming students. Tech companies entered into bidding wars for capped engineers from Asia. Thousands of “cognitive tourists” were traveling to Malaysia and Singapore and returning with startling powers. An enhanced elite was taking shape. It threatened to turn the wild majority of the country--which still included the government--into a vast underclass of dullards.


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Paul di Filippo reviews The Boost
May 21, 2014Marketing the book


I've trimmed a bit. The full review is in the Sci-Fi journal, Locus

...Reading The Boost, one discovers that Baker plainly knows all this and is intent on giving us a stefnal allegory about our contemporary madness. But that goal does not stand in the way of a rousing, idea-packed adventure story from this highly competent beginning novelist, whose CV as a tech writer for BusinessWeek has obviously prepped him well to speculate on cutting edge technology and its impact.

The year is 2072, and every single citizen who is not an outcast “wild” human has “the boost” in his or her head: a gadget no bigger than a fly’s wing, implanted in youth, that offers virtual reality, augmented reality, mind-to-mind communications, life-logging, auxiliary memory and general internet access. With free annual software upgrades! “Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier.”

But that upgrade is now the source of trouble. This year’s download contains a secret back door inserted by the Chinese engineers, Gate 318 Blue, allowing who-knows-what kinds of hacking. Learning of this, our hero, Ralf Alvare of the federal Upgrade Department, finds his life immediately overturned and in peril before he can even act. He’s kidnapped and his boost is surgically removed.

Escaping with the help of a mysterious Asian man, now a helpless “wild human” himself, he goes on the run, hooking up for assistance with sometime paramour Ellen (who happens to sport the fashionable “Artemis” somatype). They head to El Paso to meet with Ralf’s brother Simon, who might offer some solutions.

But on their trail, under the command of despotic, ninety-three-year-old billionaire John Vallinger, is the oversized hired killer named Oscar Espinoza. The trio of Ellen, Rafe and Simon eventually flee over the border, into Ciudad Juárez, where everyone is a wild human. There, they encounter the local crime kingpin, Don Paquito, whose old-fashioned illicit network—featuring an actual newspaper, of all antique things!—might just offer a solution to their problems and to the larger dilemma of the tainted upgrade.

Now, before we begin to look at Baker’s commentary on the nature of the boost—and by extension, our always-wired cell phone culture—let’s give him props for sheer storytelling. His tale is rendered in light, easy, smooth prose which walks the tragicomic tightrope brilliantly and deftly. There’s a definite Donald Westlake vibe to such elements as put-upon hit man Espinoza, who relishes becoming wild because it frees him from his overseer, Vallinger’s hireling, the virtual-porn entrepreneur George Smedley, allowing Espinoza to luxuriate in Mexico with lots of meals of delicious goat. Then there’s the intriguing love story between Ellen and Ralf; the surprising family dynamics of the Alvare clan; the lifestyle of being a beautiful Artemis woman; international realpolitik; and a host of other non-tech aspects of late-21st-century life.

But the most substantial aspect of this adventure is Baker’s dissection of what the boost does to baseline humans, who are deemed Neanderthals and essentially disabled compared to the boost users. Baker catalogs the dismaying shifts: people can be rudely having virtual sex while seeming to converse with you. They are content with eating tasteless protein pills and allowing the boost to fool their sensorium with artificial tastes. Eye-to-eye contact is painful. Ralf to Ellen: “It’s easier to manage memories of you…than to manage the relationship in real time.”

Perhaps the core speech occurs when older brother Simon and Ralf are talking about their different childhood experiences of the boost, echoing some of the same thoughts that Rudy Rucker has blogged about, concerning simulations versus nature.

Simon goes on to describe the generation gap that he still feels with his little brother. He and his friends grew up with their experiences grounded in the wild brain… “Then they come along and give us virtual apps that were just the crudest version of reality… When we were disappointed, they called us Luddites… But your generation was different… You accepted the virtual as real.”

And there’s the theme in a nutshell. Reality versus simulation, solipsism versus mutuality, dominance by constructs versus unmediated interactions. This is certainly one of the biggest issues of our time, explored here with sophistication and insight.

One final observation on this novel: Stephen Baker comes from outside the genre, but is as proficient, savvy and adept as any prozine-trained acolyte of Campbell. Like Ernest Cline with Ready Player One, Kenneth Calhoun with Black Moon, Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, and any number of other allied “mainstream” books, he proves that SF is now truly a universal language accessible to anyone anywhere who is willing to learn it.


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Sierra Blanca, TX


From The Boost

"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 simple and stately porched homes, like his grandparents’ place in Montclair. But in the last half century or so, most of the landmark projects have been virtual.... For most Americans, he thinks, progress is defined in software apps. The physical Oklahoma looks abandoned."

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Kirkus on the Boost: "an exquisite thriller on the Mexican border"
April 17, 2014Marketing the book

Here's your one-stop shop for reviews of The Boost, which will come out May 20. These are from Kirkus, Library Journal, Booklist and Publishers' Weekly, publications that bookstores and libraries use to scope out what's coming. (Excerpt of The Boost here

KIRKUS REVIEWS

THE BOOST 

A novel about the technology that controls our lives accelerates into an exquisite thriller on the Mexican border.

The year is 2072. Technology has left the keyboard and is implanted in our brains; those who don't have the implants are “wild,” meaning natural thinkers. Baker has created a believable, not-too-distant world with the same issues we face but on a grander scale: People spend too much time in virtual reality; there's a proliferation of porn sites and a computing-power arms race. But here, it's all done seamlessly through “the boost” in people's heads; keyboards and screens are antiques. The ghost in the machine is surveillance—surprise! A scheduled software update will enable American workers to be as efficient as their Chinese counterparts; Ralf Alvare is tipped off about a gateway that will allow Varagon Inc. to snoop, collecting personal data from anyone’s head, for marketing and advertising purposes. He is caught trying to close the software gate, his implant is removed—rather, ripped from his head—and he's soon on the run to El Paso. He's now “wild,” which isn't a comfortable state of mind for this digital genius. Baker’s characters are memorable and wickedly fun. Ralf’s companion, Ellen, has been genetically enhanced as an Artremis—a stunningly beautiful, Amazon-like ball of fire. Don Paquito is an unassuming hero who prints the last remaining newspaper, the only outlet for uncensored truth. As Ralf and his brother Simon shimmy through a tunnel from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, they enter a world where the boost is safe from surveillance and the largest population of “wild” people in the world lives in the past. From here, they make their stand against “the virtual as real.”

Baker has written a true delight of a techno-thriller that has deep, dark roots in the present.

LIBRARY JOURNAL

Computing has moved into our brains in the near future, and when the United States loses the chip wars, the country turns to chips from China to remain technologically competitive. Ralf is in charge of the rollout of the nationwide chips upgrade, called "boosts," but he discovers that someone has deliberately left a security gate open that will allow surveillance of every aspect of people's lives. When his boost is ripped from his brain, Ralf ends up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, one of the only communities for those living "wild" without a chip. He needs to find a way to get a new boost and prevent the chip upgrade before the government finds him and stops him for good. VERDICT Baker has put together an intriguing cast in which the secondary characters are almost more exciting than the leads, including an egomaniacal Paraguayan drug lord-turned-newspaper mogul, a beautiful but ditzy Mata Hari, and the conflicted government hit man sent after Ralf who instead spends his time enjoying Juarez. After writing several nonfiction books about technology (The Numerati; Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest To Know Everything), this is Baker's first novel.

BOOKLIST

In the not-too-distant future, just before a major update to the network of computer chips, known colloquillay as "boosts," implanted in the brains of most of the world's population, Ralf, a low-level government employee who also happens to be a bit of a techno-whiz, learns that the Chinese company behind the chips has incorporated into the update a rather frightening security breach, which will allow the Chinese to monitor each and every boost-outfitted person. Before he can blow the whistle, Ralf's boost is forcibly removed, leaving him unconnected from the network and on the run, hiding out in a community of similarly unconnected people (they're called the "wild"), hoping his brother, a fella with a seriously mysterious lifestyle, can help him survive. This is an exciting story, even if it's built on a familiar platform. Thee are plenty of other novels involving similar types of implants, but Baker loads this one with enough fresh material that it doesn't seem like a been-there, done-that affair. Highly recommended to sf and techno-thriller fans. --David Pitt

PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY

 An update to the boost, a revolutionary human-computer interface, threatens to open Americans’ brains like a Facebook account left unattended in Baker’s chillingly possible debut, a futuristic thriller with a few flaws. Baker weaves a complex plot about permanently blurring the lines between real life and the digital world, humanized by a family intimately involved with the development and propagation of the boost. Technology slowly erodes privacy inch by inch, forming a strong moral quandary, but it’s undermined by the grating portrayal of China as an unrelentingly evil country that will stop at nothing for dominance, as if the U.S. wasn’t capable of the same ruthless tactics. Baker’s ear for dialogue gives each character a unique voice, but sometimes the perspective shifts abruptly, and info dumps drag down the pace. This is a strong first effort with broad appeal to readers of thrillers and SF. (May) 



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The Boost: an excerpt
April 15, 2014Marketing the book


My publisher, Tor Books, just released an excerpt of my upcoming novel, The Boost. It's also on the Amazon and B&NWeb sites. I'll cut 'n paste below. As the book begins, Ralf and his girlfriend, Ellen, are on their way from Washington, DC to El Paso. Ralf has recently had his cognitive implant, or boost, ripped from his head. He's newly "wild," and very unhappy about it. And he's being secretive about it with Ellen.

The photo, above, incidentally, is a shot I took out the car window of Juarez as we were motoring down I-10 on the west side of El Paso a couple of weeks ago. I took a lot of pictures down there and in the Big Bend, and I'm planning to use them to illustrate a big social media push behind this book. Since much of America in The Boost is something of a post-industrial wasteland, I tended to focus on the decrepit, forlorn and wind-swept in this swing through West Texas. I don't want to overdo that side of things, or people will think it's grim. I don't think of the book that way all. In fact, it wasn't until I'd finished writing what I thought was a cheery brand of sci-fi that I learned that my book was "dystopian."

Anyway, I have a new author page on Facebook. I might put a bit of money into promoting it. Have to say, though, the design possibilities on that page are pretty limited. I'm having more fun with a new Tumblr blog, RalfLostHisBoost. I might also put a few dollars into promoting on Goodreads, where I also have an author page (but find myself spending more time chatting with fellow readers in the Proust group). 

Here's the excerpt:



Introduction


Sunday, March 6, 2072: Ten days before the national cognitive update



9:02 a.m. Central Standard Time

“The way you talk, I can tell you’re wild,” she says.

He has just awoken. He slept like a corpse from the DC suburbs to the Mississippi, stirred  briefly to glimpse down at the mighty river, and then fell into another long nap. He pauses, trying to collect his thoughts. Their burnt-orange Sheng-li is driving itself west along a lonely stretch of 1-40. Oklahoma scenery flies past their windows at a constant 97 miles per hour.

“How far to El Paso?” he asks.

“You see?”

“See what?”

“Only a wild person would need to ask.”

He shakes his head slightly, and tugs at the rim of his red baseball cap, a relic with a stretched-out P on the front. “How far is it?”

“830 miles.”

“When do we get there?”

“3:31, if we’re going downtown, 3:33 to the Stanton Street Bridge, 3:33 to Cielo Vista Mall, 3:54 to...”

“All right, I get the picture.”

With a blink of her green eyes, she snaps back from her processor, or “boost.”

“I know you’ve gone wild, Ralf, because I’m not getting anything from you at all.”

He shrugs.

“Is it gone, or did you somehow turn it off?”

He looks away from her, out the window to the south, at the rusted remains of oil derricks, and the gray hills stretching to the horizon. They’ll head west to the Rio Grande, then turn left, following the river to the border, which divides El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, the notorious outpost of the wild in North America. He knows these facts and doesn’t have to look them up, even if he could.

He listens to the wind whistling past the car, the hum of the hydrogen engine. That’s all he hears. No videos, no soundtrack, no info blasts. He hears himself breathing, as if for the first time. He knows they’ll get to El Paso sometime after 3. Ellen said so. But he has no idea what time it is and has nothing to tell him. People used to wear wrist watches or look at the screens of their cell phones. But once the processors moved into the heads, clocks slowly disappeared, along with computers and televisions and telephones, and all the other machinery that he remembers piling up in his grandparents’ basement. That’s all in the head now, he thinks. But not in mine.

He looks at Ellen. With a couple of wardrobe commands, she has turned her pullover to gold and her skin-tight leggings to black, with deep blue highlights. They shine like the feathers of a raven. She’s staring straight ahead, living in her boost. He knows she’s been spending hours on end in virtual Rome, with a college friend of hers, checking out Etruscan art. But by the way she’s shifting her weight in the seat and moving her lips, he wonders if she’s having sex. If so, is it with him? Ellen has the face of Greek goddess. It’s the Artemis line: a perfect oval surrounded by wavy golden hair, the nose slightly turned up at the end. Her lips move slightly, as if trying out sentences. They look like parentheses drawn by a sharp red pencil. Ellen is his processor now.

“What time is it?” he asks.



 Chapter One
 
 
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.


Untitled


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.”

“No?”

“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.”

“‘They’?”

“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.”

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