DC, Central Sprawl
May 29, 2055
Minotaur was screwed. He straddled the trike in the carpark trying to figure a way out. Brags thought he was doing him a favor by slipping him noise on the hole in Volition security. Fact was the news had yanked the rug out from under his feet.
For a moment he’d thought he might turn things around. The DNA was a trump card. Minotaur felt sure it was a breakthrough on the case. He’d assumed it would give him the bump he needed to get back on the steady.
The way things looked now, the evidence was as good as useless. The code might lead him straight to the killer but he damned sure couldn’t log it. Logging that call was signing his own death certificate. Yet until he logged something he’d continue his status slide – all the way down to the Low.
He realized he had entered a death spiral when his online credit rating started eating into his personal status on Netspace. At this stage, Minotaur could take out the Arabian Peninsula and the points would barely slow the seep. He was losing face and there was nothing he could do about it. Refinancing the trike or subletting the apartment would only advertize the fact that he was in dire straits and undercut what little confidence his bullhead brand still inspired.
Screwed, screwed, screwed. He’d seen it happen to other people. He never thought he’d get sucked down the hole.
It had to be a fault in the system, he reflected. That this kind of thing could happen to an honest contractman – it was more disturbing than any glitch in the VOLICOMSAT. When the Volition Party had reignited pod culture in the Sprawl five years ago, distributing the personal units far and wide, the idea of a networked status system uniting personal, professional, and cultural achievements seemed like a great idea. Like old-world pod culture, it enabled people to build their brands and faces, and make their living on Netspace (previously Sprawl Online). Minotaur had burst from the blocks ranked in the upper twentieth percentile on Netspace thanks to his bloodletting as a team leader in the Volition revolution, a diverse network of contacts, and the intrinsic cool of his profession. Yet in these past five years, Minotaur hadn’t kept up. When pod culture started up, with Initiative Four and the launch of Netspace, anyone with some talent and initiative could start a business. But since Volition had campaigned for Initiative Five, the hive mind had gravitated towards democratic utopianism, and dissenters had become rough edges that seemed to be smoothed off by the power of consensus. Minotaur’s mistake had been to let his innate distaste for House of Representatives, and everything that it represented, bleed into his status updates. He’d given up voting, or even keeping up with what was going on.
Friday week, the Sprawl would vote on the fifth and final Volition initiative. All the polls said that Dorien Xiao would cream it. The world was on the brink of a high-tech democratic revolution. And Minotaur was an old-school contrarian. It was the wrong time to be caught in a virtual death spiral.
Everything he’d worked to achieve. Everything he’d dreamed of achieving.
Look ready soldier. It wasn’t over yet. He synced the pod with the dashboard feed and checked the files Brags had uploaded for him. Sure enough, Volition was preoccupied with concealing the anomalies in the VOLICOMSAT from the media. Minotaur figured he could make use of the confusion. It was time for some detective work. It was time to figure out what really happened at Volition House last night.
He checked the files of the deceased. Davidson, the psychiatrist, was a Volition insider. So too was Undersecretary Lewis, who looked like a powerbroker in the Sprawl. Admiral Dixon was a dark horse. Dixon’s file was a maze of restrictions and truncated narratives. This made Dixon the decisive variable in the equation. But it didn’t indicate a way ahead.
The other clue was Seritus Wetectronics. Minotaur’s initial search didn’t turn up any record of the company. He sent out posse of autobots but registered no hits.
His avatar appeared carrying a flashlight.
‘Are you lost, Minotaur?’
‘Trying to find Seritus Wetechtronics’.
MINO3GRAFXX30 looked pensive. ‘Not on file, I’m afraid’.
‘This is why I’m lost’.
A business party unfurled from the elevator shaft in a snarl of voices. The security contingent kept lock on Minotaur as their clients climbed into an armored vehicle and drove away. Minotaur returned his attentions to the portal. He entered Brags’ security codes and dived through the hypercoded flows of Netspace. For a quarter hour he trawled a series of low-level servers dating from the Federation era. He dived again. Each search led him further from the online architecture of the Sprawl.
Soon he was in the strata of the old internet. There he found the Seritus homepage, rotting like a fly in the tattered framework of the World Wide Web.
Legend, the body text declared. Hardly any of the graphics were working. The site hadn’t been updated since 2030. Minotaur clicked FAQ. Seritus was: a provider of genomic services and nanotechnological solutions. Looked like any number of wetectronic companies that sprung up in the biotech boom of the twenty twenties.
Wetech – what did he know about that? Fisherman was offline. Minotaur struggled to recall what he’d picked up over the years. Wetech was biotech meets nanotech, something like that. It got going when biogeeks started using nanobots to recode DNA in situ. When Minotaur got cancer from the rad-bomb in Afghanistan, the medics had used a nanostimulant to trigger a genetic pattern that helped fight the disease. Everyone knew the case of Justin Tsimfuckis, aka chick3n little, who used wetechtherapy to change his looks and went onto a career as an award-winning actor and talk show host.
Wetech changed a lot of things, back in the twenties. It changed the way people thought about race and ethnicity. It changed the way people thought about human nature.
Minotaur had spent most of that decade on duty overseas, and he lived on camp between sorties. But he watched the military channel as he worked out, and joined the chat feeds on the holocrom, and the changes that he saw taking place in US popular culture confused and depressed him. Things had gotten wild, back in the twenties. Part of him wondered if they had been lucky to have been wiped out in the Change. Given another decade, who knows what the human race might have done with itself. NuFlesh was a mausoleum of freaks who still experimented with wetechnology. If things had kept on, Freddy the Fly and the lizard-girl might be normal average citizens.
He checked some more links on the site. Seritus’ customers included the Department of Defence, USHealth, and select US government agencies. With a client list like that, Seritus wasn’t just any company. It was contracted to the most high-tech military in history. The CEO and board would’ve been tight in Washington, in there with Cleaver’s circle. If those people had survived the Change, they could have easily forged connections in the Council of Marshalls, who knows where else after that.
He browsed the product portfolio. Whatever lay behind the alluring titles of Seritus’ various wetectronic innovations – like Sericonin PDRI® Reagents: Blast from the Past!, SWARM2 Metabolic Enhancements, and the award-winning SYNCRON4000 Nanopacifier – the links were lost in time. Minotaur noted that Seritus had a local headquarters – Curtis Bay, Baltimore, now under the greater DC area.
He was punching in a TripQuest when a title to the corner of the holscene caught his eye. Autonet. It was listed in a section of the site devoted to new R&D projects. The page link was down.
Minotaur thought hard. Autonet. Where’d he seen that name before? Following his instincts, he scrolled through Leopold Lewis’s file. There it was: Autonet. Autonet was a private corporation attached to the United Eastern Federation Centre for Democracy, a proxy for the progressive arm of the Volition Party. Its mission was ‘the enabling of civil synergies through technologically-facilitated virtual processes’. Minotaur knew the rhetoric. This was what Xiao and his cohorts called democracy.
The question was whether the name was a coincidence, or if it indicated some deeper connection between Seritus and the Volition Party. Minotaur checked the Autonet offices, off Columbia Pike. He fired up the trike. He’d call in at Autonet to ask a few questions en route to the Seritus building.
‘Let me explain what we do here, Minotaur. Autonet is not a service organization. Strictly speaking, Autonet is not an organization at all. Autonet is a group initiative. The initiative has a political mandate and a democratic mission’.
Atticus Williams studied Minotaur though the psychedelic play of the holoscreen. He’d barely begun speaking and he wanted Minotaur gone. He was between appointments. He’d given him five minutes. Atticus sat on the thither side of a buffed obsidian desk, elbows on the surface, his chin rested on the steeple of his manicured fingers. As he considered each of Minotaur’s questions, the peak of the steeple ascended to his lips then descended again to the chin as he offered his answer. The performance was as natural as the holoscene vista behind him, which showed a yellow sun dipping behind ice-cream mountains.
Minotaur was confused. He coughed. ‘You, what, build online platforms? You design spaces’.
Atticus smirked. ‘Take a helicopter view, Minotaur. Since the birth of society, human beings have organized themselves into groups driven by common values and visions. Sometimes this has had a political aim. Sometimes it has just been aimed at the preservation of social life. Here at Autonet, we make no distinction’.
Graphics danced in the air between them as he spoke.
‘We treat all forms of collaborative activity the same. Collective action unfolds in a common vision. Masses of people learn to swarm. We call this process: “symbiotics”‘.
Atticus made quote marks in the air with the tips of his fingers. From where Minotaur sat, it looked like he was placing devil-horns on the sides of his head.
‘And symbiotics is democracy, right? Democracy 2.0′.
‘Symbiotics is democracy. Not some new democracy, but true democracy, democracy as it is and has always been. Autonet is not trying to bring democracy to the masses. We are not trying to instruct people how to behave. We provide tools. Autonet provides platforms for collective democratic activities. Our mission is to enable civil symbioses, regardless of what expression these symbioses may take’.
Atticus’ face solidified in a smile. Minotaur sensed he was being asked to leave.
‘How is Autonet related to Initiative Five?’ he asked.
Atticus deconstructed his steeple of hands.
‘Autonet is the architecture for Initiative Five’. A holocard slid across the desk. Autonet is Internet Five Alive! it said.
‘I assume you haven’t been keeping up, Minotaur. The fifth initiative has been debated on House of Reps for months. The vote is Friday week. Once Initiative Five becomes law, Autonet will take over a large part of the day-to-day administration of the Sprawl. People will use the platform to run their lives and govern it: triggering initiatives, debating policy, even with the power of attorney. We are completing the revolution. This is what Volition has always been about’.
‘Point-click democracy?’ Minotaur smiled.
‘You’re not in favor of the reforms?’
‘I’m not political’.
‘That’s you’re prerogative. It’s a free Sprawl’. Atticus waved his fingers in the dimension cloud. It exploded in puffs of fractals.
‘Democracy has always been the goal the Volition Party. It is there in the Freedom Manifesto: democracy is the political expression of volition, the principle ambition of any legitimate administration. To this extent, yes, one could say that the Autonet system has always been central to the Volition agenda. You might even say that Autonet is Volition – a slogan I have suggested to Representative Xiao on numerous occasions, to which, I must say, he is beginning to warm’.
Minotaur synced the holocard and placed his pod on the obsidian top of the desk. He placed his hands to either side of it. The stone was cool and centering under his palms.
‘What exactly is the legal relationship between these two organizations, Autonet and Volition?’
‘Autonet is a private company contracted to Volition. As a start-up, we were incubated under Volition, but we were privatized in 2042. Alongside Organix, Minutiae, a whole range of companies’.
‘Autonet and Minutiae, back in the day’.
‘I don’t know what you mean by that, Minotaur’.
Minotaur took his hands off the desktop.
‘I have just a couple more questions, Mr Williams. I’ll try not to take up much of your time. The first question concerns one of your, uh, users, who was killed in an incident at Volition House last night. You may have heard…’
‘Tragic. Leopold Lewis was one of our most active and innovative contributors. He was with Autonet from the start’.
‘The question that interests me is whether there might be any connection between Undersecretary Lewis’s murder and his involvement with Autonet. The vote on Initiative Five is, as you say, just around the corner’.
‘And there is a heap of controversy surrounding the final initiative. Do you think there’s a possibility that Leopold Lewis may have been targeted on account of his being a democrat?’
Atticus placed his fingers on his lips.
‘May I speak off the record?’
‘Admiral Dixon never made any secret of his opposition to the Volition initiatives. I think this is unsurprising. Dixon was the product of the US Marine Corps – a hierarchically-organized and highly individuated social system. He was not exposed to the horizontally-distributed forms of autonomy characteristic of true democracy. Dixon’s opposition to the Volition Initiatives was strong and vehement. He tried to block public funding for Autonet’s activities at several points. And he clearly bore a grudge against key figures in the Autonet community. I wouldn’t want to go on record suggesting that Dixon was carrying out some kind of vendetta. But off the record – it is possible’.
‘Though I suppose if he were carrying out a vendetta, Representative Xiao would have been a more obvious target’.
‘Assassinating Xiao at this point would have worked against him. He would have created a martyr. It would have shored up support for Initiative Five’.
‘OK. Last question. Have you heard of a company called Seritus Wetectronics?’
‘I can’t say that I have’.
‘You can’t say that you have or you haven’t?’
Atticus looked displeased. Paydirt. Minotaur suppressed a grin.
‘What is the point of this question, Minotaur?’
‘I’m interested in learning whether Autonet is in any way related to the activities of this company, Seritus Wetectronics. In any way at all’.
‘Minotaur, as I explained to you, Autonet is a private company. If you are interested in checking our accounts from 2042, I’d advise that you should contact…’
‘I’m thinking more of the technology that you use here at Autonet, Atticus. Where it comes from. Who made it’.
Atticus deconstructed the steeple and put his hands on the desk before him. The interview was over.
‘I have to apologize, Minotaur, but I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’d recommend you direct them to our legal team. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go. It is a long commute. House of Representatives screens in two hours, and I do not intend to miss my chance to vote’.
Fisherman’s reply came through as Minotaur was leaving the building.
‘Good and ready’, it said.
Minotaur mounted the trike and summoned the encrypted site they used to exchange information. He downloaded the file and decoded it on the dashboard system. It was a vidiclip. It changed everything.
Fisherman had just come inside. His oilskins glistened wet.
‘Minotaur’, he said. ‘This time you have met your match! It is a genuine monster. Humanoid, it turns out. There are traces of homo sapiens in the field structure, but it’s not human. Periodic isoforms indicate baboon, cat, reptile, and protoplasmic origins, all in one beastie. Go figure. I hope this is a failed science experiment, Taur. It’s an impressive architecture, I have to admit. Quote me on saying it is gloop and I’ll deny it‘.
Fisherman fetched a beer. ‘Reason I’d say it slips under the VOLICOMSAT is because it’s too subtle for the system’, he gasped between gulps. ‘This is alien stuff, man, a generation or two ahead of where we were in the twenties. I haven’t seen wetech like it. Like any design, you don’t see the action until you get into the strands of the double-helix. Here you find the chemical pathways enabling the viruses to swarm. The weird thing about this structure is that it’s flooded with nanites. I kid you not – the rungs of the double-helix are crawling with nanobots! Don’t ask me what they’re doing there. You don’t put people in an architecture, right? You apply architecture to build a hotel for people to stay in. Same way, wetech designs are just architecture. They open trails and pathways for the nanotriggers; they don’t host freekin nanobots.
‘Good news is, if you wanna find Dr Frankenstein, the DNA has a patent, coded into stable phosphate groups between the nucleotides. Ever heard of a company called Seritus Wetectronics? They were big in the 2020s. Couldn’t miss them if you were working in my neck of the woods. You were probably applying their biowarfare portfolio to the Chinese at the time. Anyhoo, Seritus owned the IP, so Seritus is your lead. I ran a search – seems they closed their books in 2030, same time as everyone else’.