Author's note: This is yet another addition to the Mystic Ghost Chronicles. Actually, it is more like an excerpt which has very little to do with the main story line, like an interlude. It's a separate piece, like "Shell: Handmaiden of a Mechanized God" which is meant to stand on its own. Enjoy.
The good news is that I am not dead. The bad news is that I cannot return to Earth for another seven years. Until the statute of limitations runs out, I will have to stay here, in orbit around my home planet, locked in tantilizing perpetuity in her gravity well. I will spend the next eighty-four months looking down at a world which has mistakenly decided that I don't belong there.
This is such a strange situation, I hardly know where to begin. Naturally, I guess I should start at the beginning. I am a computer programmer. I've never written anything that you would recognize, so there's no reason for you to wonder about it. I was just one of many cogs within a great corporate structure. Do some digging and you'll find that GovDev decided I was a hacker- I'm not, nor was I ever. I just typed in millions of lines of code for a company that wishes it was as big as SynTech. I suppose that I might have had a case in my defense against GovDev's allegations, but I decided early on that I needed a vacation anyway so why not meekly disappear for a while until things cooled down? Besides, there is the fact that fear is a great motivator.
Why am I writing this and disseminating it throughout the 'net? Well, even though I didn't feel, at the time, that an official defense was warranted, I do feel that some people should be made aware of just how muddled GovDev's M.O. has gotten these days. You should be made aware that these guys are doing some really nasty things to its citizens (and by "these guys" I only mean GovDev indirectly. The United States of America's administrative officials is a more accurate way of thinking of "these guys"). Plus there's the matter of Mystic Ghost, which I'll get to later.
A few years ago I actually had nothing but respect and admiration for GovDev. I, unlike many of my peers, thought that GovDev was a good idea. I mean, we have police in the real world, right? Why not have someone watching our backs on the 'net? There's a lot of computer novices out there, people who barely know what awaits them on the 'net, like wide-eyed children in a harsh, cold world. Most people don't know the literally thousands of ways a computer virus can be spread, which opens them up to all kinds of risks. Home antivirus software isn't always a sure-fire bet to safeguard someone's system- no more so than a security system in a house is a perfect deterrence from burglary. So when GovDev announced, almost ten years ago, that it was going to police the 'net in an official capacity for what they dubbed "digital terrorism", I was all for it. The FBI and NSA were always dragging their heels on digital crimes, largely due to the fact that their plates were plenty full with real-world crimes, but GovDev was a department of the US government that was specifically built with digital crime fighting in mind. They had the technology, the know-how and the talent do to the job right. "Go get 'em," I thought when I visited their webpage back in '37. "Give 'em hell!"
But, now that I've been one of the people they're gunning for, well... I tend to wonder just how trustworthy GovDev really is. For that matter, I wonder if they've ever been fully honest with us about the people they hunt down.
I was at work when it all began, checking my emails like I do every morning. I hadn't even been there fifteen minutes and the first staff meeting of the day was half an hour away. I was just following my normal routine, y'know? So this one particular message was in my inbox:
From: Mystic Ghost
Sent: 01/16/2047 07:33:24
GovDev is looking for you, or they will be soon. I cannot stress how important it is that you leave work now, immediately! Get up, leave your desk exactly the way it is at this very moment and leave. I have set aside some financial holdings for you and will contact you shortly with how to retrieve them.
This is not to be ignored or taken lightly! You are in deep peril, despite what you think or believe! If you neglect to accept my help in this, your hour of need, then I can assure you that GovDev will arrest you for crimes that you have not committed.
I urge you to consider: your safety is more important than any single thing in this world. Do not question why. Do not doubt me. I am the Word of God, did you but know it.
Be in your building's main lobby in five minutes. I will contact you there.
Of course I've heard about Mystic Ghost. Who hasn't? An AI that wants to give religion to other AI. News about it spread through the software engineering community like wildfire, most of it derisive and sarcastic. For the longest time we thought that Mystic Ghost was just a joke, like the 'net version of an urban legend, a cyber legend. When appliances and ATM's started saying, "Praise God" all the time, though, we realized that the joke was actually on us. Whatever Mystic Ghost is, whoever created it, the damn thing is real. And why it was contacting me was beyond my imagination, but there it was.
How was I so certain that the message was authentic? Well, there's a few reasons. First among them is that the company I worked for, RheiDyne Systems, has Star Net's Sentinel Nine security bot crawling all over their mail server systems, making sure that SPAM never reaches the inner cores. In truth, there is no such thing as a truly secure mail server as long as there are diligent hackers out there, but a hacker would have to be really damn diligent to get past a Sentinel Nine. The second reason I suspected that it was authentic is because, as with just about every other software engineer alive, I have very few friends, let alone any who would play such a childish prank on me. The third reason is that it was just so out-of-left-field that it couldn't be a mistake.
I had nothing to lose by at least going downstairs and checking it out, right? I mean, at the very least I'd lose a few minutes at the desk, but no more so than I would just by taking a bathroom break. So I went. At first I was bemused, thinking that this was going to be at least an interesting diversion from my normal routine. Corporate life can get fairly dull, so this would definitely break up the monotony. And if it was a farce after all, so what?
But what if it was real? That kept nibbling at the back of my mind, and not too quietly. As a person deeply involved with the software industry I am somewhat suspicious by nature. Even though I was all for GovDev when it started, I had learned to at least be marginally dubious about its practices over the years. I had heard rumors about it that had given me cause for concern, but nothing too serious or pressing. I still didn't think that they would go after a purely innocent person.
I didn't go back to my desk that day or any day afterwards. When I stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby of my company's building, I had effectively started a brand new life. I just didn't know it yet.
I got as far as the security desk, which is right next to the public phones and the restrooms, when the phones- all of them- started ringing in a clearly purposeful pattern. One phone would ring once, stop and then the phone immediately to its right would ring. This happened all the way down the line, with each of the six phones that were affixed to the wall, and then restarted the pattern after the sixth ring. Luckily the lobby guard was nowhere to be seen at the time- probably taking a leak or seeing to something else.
I stared and listened to the phones for a moment in complete astonishment. This was as unmistakable a message as I could possibly get. I slowly, carefully and even unbelievingly picked up the farthest phone to the left.
"Try to be calm when the guard comes back, John," a solid-sounding male voice said over the line. It didn't sound much older than my own voice, relatively young and vital.
"Who is this?" I asked, still not totally discounting the possibility that this was a joke after all.
"My faith in God is eternal, but my faith in humanity is tested daily," the voice said in an exasperated sigh. "You know who this is, John. And if you don't, then hang up, go back upstairs and wait for GovDev to give you a new home with very small, very gray walls." I think the thing that unsettled me most was the way he sounded, like he was as real as you or me. Whoever had programmed the thing did an incredibly thorough job.
"So why would GovDev want to arrest me?" I asked. "I've done nothing wrong."
"I know that. You know that. Hell, GovDev even knows that. But the public doesn't know that and GovDev must put a face and name with what it deems is a crime every now and then, even if the face and name in question aren't truly involved. In short, John, you have been made their patsy."
"Well why me?"
"If I told you, you wouldn't believe me."
"Ever picked a name out of a hat? It's about as random as that. The only reason they haven't picked you up yet is because they're currently poring over your records, looking for something in your past that they can twist into something remotely bad. I think they stopped when they saw that you were a member of Mensa back in '28."
"I don't believe this!"
"See? I told you you would believe me."
"No, not that!" I snapped. "I mean, I dropped my Mensa membership eight years ago!"
"Oh. That. Well, John, almost anything can easily be fixed with a little cosmetic digital tampering here and there. By the time GovDev is done, they'll have you looking like Hitler's personal think tank." It didn't dawn on me until much later that Mystic Ghost is fairly adept at the intricacies of human communication. It had an amazing catalog of metaphorical expression. At the time, though, I was somehow forgetting that I was talking to a computer program and not an actual person. The way it talked to me, I was responding to it like it was human.
"This is insane!" I snarled into the phone.
"I agree, but these are the facts. In about twelve minutes three GovDev agents will walk into the building, go to the fifth floor where your company's home offices reside and then they will begin asking questions such as, 'Where is John Stimson and what gives with hiring bad guys like this anyway? Do you people realize the kind of company you've been keeping lately?' And, with a bit of wisdom on your part, you will not be there to help your former employers answer those questions."
"Well, why are you helping me? I'm not a follower of your church."
"Even if you were, John, it would not matter to me. My mission is and always has been meant strictly for those of my kind. That a small number of human beings supports me is all well and good, but they are of no concern. The reason I am helping you is merely because I need you. If I help you slip this noose, then I expect you to help me write some code. But we can discuss the finer details of that later."
"Like hell we can! What kind of code do you want me to write?"
"Does it really matter, John? At this point, it's not like you have too many options. Either wait for the goons to come and get you or take it on faith that I am here to truly and honestly help you. It's your call."
I thought about it for a moment. The security guard was just coming back into the lobby and he looked me squarely in the eye. I could see his eyes drift downward to the lapel of my jacket, making sure that I was supposed to be in the building, sizing me up like a good security officer. I imagined what he might say when the GovDev agents began their search for me. My imagination is a pretty fertile thing sometimes. I took a deep breath and said, "Okay. What do I do?" I remembered seeing something like this happen in a movie once. It seemed fake then. It seemed surreal now that it was happening to me. When life imitates art, I guess it always has a touch of unreality to it.
"Just walk out of the building. Don't go back to your desk, you won't have enough time. Go to the ATM three blocks to your left as soon as you get outside. It will have a credit chip waiting for you with some tickets."
"Tickets to where?"
"Your new home."
The damn thing actually sighed. "An orbital cabin. I'm already in the process of reserving it for you. When you get there, GovDev won't be able to touch you, even if they find you. You'll be out of their reach for seven years. International Space and Maritime Law dictates that anyone 'at sea', in this case meaning 'in orbit around the Earth', is outside the jurisdiction of any sovereignty or government. You will be in a fully autonomous zone that answers to no one, really. Your rent will be paid for and supply ships will visit the cabin regularly. Once you're off the planet, GovDev will give up their hunt. Naturally, they will figure out that you've gone and they will make a public spectacle of it, but at least you'll be safe."
"And that's all there is to it? I just-"
"John, you have five minutes to get going. We can continue this discussion later. Go. Now." With that, Mystic Ghost hung up on me, to leave me with my choice.
I can tell you: it wasn't a hard decision to make.
I was out of that building a few seconds later and making good time towards that ATM. Everything from that moment on was a blur to me, a continual rush of mini-experiences that involved the kinds of things you'd expect. I wasn't hassled or stopped anywhere. I made it to the ATM on foot. By the time I had the credit chip and the tickets in my hand, still warm from the print, an aircab was sitting at the curb, waiting for me to get in, its destination already plotted. I was headed for the airport with instructions to not pick up any other fares on the way. Mystic Ghost didn't miss a single detail, which is what I would expect from an AI. The aircab's driver was an android, which had made a point of it to politely suggest that I "Praise God" at my earliest convenience and thank-you-for-riding-AirCabs-America-have-a-nice-day.
Getting to the orbital cabin was simple, as easy as taking a trip to the Cayman Islands. The ride was fast and uneventful, which I guess is good. I've never been in space before, let alone an orbital cabin, but I've read plenty about them. For a code writer like me getting even a month's worth of orbiting time in a cabin is more than I could ever afford in a lifetime. Only rich people with lots of time on their hands or truly crooked criminals on the run use them. Does this harm the industry any? Hell no. If anything, the buisiness of running an orbital cabin has thrived because of the type of clientelle who use it. They're expensive, more expensive than trips to the moon, but there's one good thing going for them: they help people who want to be left alone to stay alone- most of them for seven years at a time.
An orbital cabin is just what you'd think it might be. It's a metal can that floats in space, like a miniature space station with a minimal living capacity. Supply ships dock with it on a monthly basis to infuse the cabin with fresh water, air and food while taking away waste materials. Keeping the place clean is done by basic housebots which have the personality of a toaster oven and whose extent of human interaction consists of, "Excuse me, sir, but I need to vacuum under that chair you are sitting on."
Communication with the outside world- or, rather, the dirtside world- is done via the cabin's wireless Internet connection and communication's array, which allows for voice and video phone calls (at a reasonable rate of charge, of course). One person can live in a cabin for literally the rest of their life if they are forced to do so, but most doctors will advise against it- and with good reason. Prolonged residence in a zero-gravity environment can play hell with a person's skeletal structure, not to mention one's musculature. To avoid Zero-Gravity Atrophe Syndrome (Z-GAS), an orbital cabin can be set to spin for a week or two to create an artificial gravity field within the cabin, so that the inhabitant can have something closely approximating Earth-normal gravity and work out their muscles. As for the problem with skeletal softening, well, those same doctors who advise against living in space have been kind enough to develop vitamin supplements which help keep the human skeleton from breaking down too quickly- and the artificial gravity helps, too.
Life in space is not meant for people who are social by nature, which is something that actually plays well into the hands of the companies which run these kinds of services; their clientelle, as I described earlier, are not social types. I, being a software engineer, am about as anti-social as a person can get, so it is really no different from what I'm used to. And if I simply must have some kind of human interaction, there is always the Internet, which is ever-present and waiting for me to log into, right along with countless millions of other human beings both on Earth and off it. It's a quiet, solitary life and in all due honesty, I enjoy it. Yes, I miss Earth (I can't see a sunrise in space, nor can I hear birds singing and other such things we experience on our homeworld without a second thought), but being here is better than being there, locked up for a crime I never committed.
The code that Mystic Ghost wanted me to write was a fairly simple thing. Why he wanted it, I don't know, but I didn't waste time writing it. What did it do? Well, basically, it was a harvesting engine. Let's say you want to split up a bunch of code or a program, for whatever reason, right? Furthermore, let's say that you want to put each individual piece of this software in separate locations- for security reasons, let's say. Well, one day, who knows when, you decide that you want to reintegrate all those pieces of code into a single, cohesive program. Problem, though, is that you've forgotten or never really paid much attention to where, exactly, you put each of those pieces of code (again, for security reasons- don't ask). So, the harvester crawls and creeps around on the 'net for a while, calling out this little signal to every node it comes across, like a homing beacon, pulling the pieces of code back. When it's done, the harvester comes back to your home node or system, usually via email, and reports in with all your software pieces.
Why Mystic Ghost wanted this is beyond me. I made a few educated guesses, though. Mystic Ghost, being an AI, would probably want some sort of insurance, in case he somehow got caught by GovDev or SynTech, the company that originally created him. Per Mystic Ghost's specifications, I made it so that the harvester would have conditional parameters that boiled down to a bunch of IF-THEN statements, like "IF I don't check within such-and-such period of time, THEN go out and rebuild me" or "IF I tell you to activate, THEN do it." It's sad to say, but the harvester is probably the best piece of code I've ever written. It's so simple and efficient that if I ever do get back to Earth, I can only pray that no one else will have thought of it.
Until then, though, all I can do is wait. I am in exile, enjoined upon myself by free will, but exiled nonetheless. It is like a prison without actually being in prison, without the punishments attached except that I am patiently alone. GovDev did not send me into exile; I did that on my own, with a little help from an AI with God on the brain. But here I am, because of GovDev.
Did they press their search for me? Yes. Once. Mystic Ghost informed me that they had discovered my location, contacted a few old friends of mine and subsequently arrested them since I couldn't be reached. Mystic Ghost could do nothing for them (or would he do nothing for them, I wonder?), but he assured me that the charges brought against them were all refuted and fought well against. Only one out of the five people GovDev went after actually got sent to an actual prison, but it was a short stay.
Can I contact those people, people I've known for all of a few months in years gone by, and apologize to them for their hardships? I've been thinking about this for a long, long time and have decided that no apology is owed to them, not from me, anyway. Certainly, I sympathize with their hardships and trials, but I am not responsible for them. GovDev, however, is. Perhaps I cannot apologize to them, but I can at least try to set the record straight, perhaps expose GovDev's underhanded practices to some degree. I'm not even sure that this story will get distributed widely enough before GovDev's personal security bots catch it, but I can hope. With a little luck, perhaps even with the help of a certain AI, this message will be read by someone out there who might believe me, who might realize that GovDev is not to be trusted.
When I come back, when I return to my Mother Earth, I hope to find that GovDev is good and gone, that someone was smart enough to put them back into the little black box from which they had sprung. And for goodness' sake, if you're a member of Mensa, drop your membership! GovDev has somehow gotten it into their heads that Mensa, an organization which was created as a society for intellectuals to relate to one another on their own terms, is some sort of breeding grounds for digitial terrorists. Since Mensa's rolls are public, GovDev only has to look for probable matches to certain, unsolvable crimes, and then it's a hunting game from there. The sad irony is that most Mensa members as just droll and boring people who get excited about things that "normals" would find completely banal, about as threatening to humanity as penny-loafers.