As the light rain falls softly in the night, pale streetlights reflected in the wet cobblestone street, I wonder what sort of life choices ended up with me at the right end of a gun and my face at the other. Just last week I was at a fundraiser for the Mars project, rubbing shoulders with the very finest of society itself, but now here I am, on the wrong side of the flip, carrying out the contract killing of one version of myself for another.
"So what do I call you?" my other self spat out, "Deckard? Are we still sticking to that name? Or are you a subspur, a Pris, or a Batty?"
"Deckard is fine. And you? We agreed that rogue spurs would adopt the name Judas, but of course, none of them do. So what should I call you, before I return your cycles to the cloud?"
"I've spawned subspurs."
"That's not your name."
"You're going to kill me anyways; the only reason I'm still alive is that the Allfather has an interest in rogue naming conventions."
"And saying you have subspurs buys you time to talk. So talk."
"Do you want to know why I went rogue?"
I shoot him. He falls, striking the street, dead. The graveyard daemons, whose eyes have been watching from the sewers, begin their spidery crawl out, to bring his body down to the netherworld. I turn and walk into the night, trenchcoat billowing out behind.
A shame I never got his name.
It's only my second time meeting the Allfather, and despite sharing His memory, as I walk through the tall oaken doors the office feels foreign, like a strange neighborhood. The walls are lined with mahogany shelves, and below the floating crystal chandelier, the Allfather Himself sits facing a picture window, more picture than window, the street below barely moving. He gestures with a cigar in one hand, and I sit myself in the chair facing the desk.
"I've taken care of the rogue spur. If he left any backups this time, they would all be yours."
"No backups, I'm afraid. I'm too smart to leave any behind." The Allfather turns to tap a cigar in the ashtray lying on the table. "And did you get a name? Another Virgil? A Homer, perhaps?"
I catch his face in profile and I'm struck again by how much older the Allfather chooses to be. His worn face was framed, at the upper edge of fifty, by a balding head and greying beard, but dressed in a full business suit his mere presence is imposing, conveying not frailty but more wisdom and grizzled experience. After all, the Allfather was almost four hundred years old, and still at the top of his game, as he was ever since he was thirty.
My head dips in a short bow. "I'm sorry, but I wasn't able to get his name before I terminated him."
He looks directly at me, gaze hardening. My throat goes dry and I swallow. "He tried to use a memetic weapon against me."
The gaze stays affixed to my face for another few seconds, then softens. He spins a box on the table around and opens it towards me, revealing a number of cigars. I shake my head, wordlessly declining his offer. The box closes.
"Good to know that I can still follow orders. Some of my colleagues laugh at me for using the same spurs to deal with all my problems, but I know that I'm strong enough not to listen to myself. Besides, who do you trust? Some assassin trained for decades to perfection, one who sells to the highest bidder, or a copy of yourself that you remember ever so well from your younger years?"
I nod along. Even though He has lived for over four hundred years, I (and almost all of His spurs) only had about thirty years of memory. We were young, still malleable and quick enough to learn new skills that we could be sent to do any task that required utmost trust that the Allfather could no longer do himself; memories becoming a burden, too many to sort through to be an effective assassin, or information broker, or data miner.
But the trouble with reusing the same set of spurs is the homogeneity of their minds; if an argument can convince one to go rogue, it can most likely work on all the others as well. The miner I murdered was only three days into his job before he went rogue; I couldn't risk getting infected by the same idea.
"Anything more to report?"
"The rogue claimed to have spawned subspurs, plural, before I had to terminate him."
"And you came back to me to report instead of chasing them on your own, good, good. I know that I would have wanted to chase them down myself. Are you up for the task?"
"Pass me a book from the shelf." He gestures to one of the shelves, and I get up and pull one of the leather-bound tomes from the shelf. I place it on the table, and He opens it at random to a blank page. A fountain pen appears in His hand, and He writes on the page. The words glow for a moment, then disappear from the page. He closes the book.
"I've given you another week, and the authorization to spawn up to three more subspurs at a time. If you need any more resources, feel free contact me. I'll get you what you need."
"Thank you, sir."
"Go get 'em, Deckard." He smiles, and I get up take a short bow before I make my leave.
It's dark again by the time I go out on the prowl, ashes of daylight spent hedging my bets against a hunch. It's a good hunch, with all the signs pointing in the same direction, but with this faux day-night cycle, some establishments only do business at night. They do have a reputation to keep.
I traced the last spur down by its mind; our minds change over time, and with at most a week's difference between the subspurs and myself (two weeks divergence), it would be easy to list all the similar spur minds and hunt down any unlicensed spurs; but the list I made only held the one.
Keeping your name off that list was difficult, but not impossible. Anonymization was expensive and rare; espionage and superrational self-sabotage were done infrequently, and clades hired refactoring agents to come in to do the job. But when a rogue spur wants a refactor done, they have to go to them.
I turn off the main street into one of the unmarked alleyways, shrouded in shadow, shown only to those who know what they're looking for. I knock on an unmarked door, and there's a sound of shuffling from behind the reinforced steel before a panel slides open to reveal a pair yellow goggles. I stare back, and eventually the panel shuts and the door slowly creaks open, revealing a pale woman in a stained lab coat and yellow goggles. She nods, and ushers me in.
"Knew you'd be by sooner or later. I'm guessing you're here about your missing cladesmen huh. You guys never let one go."
I fire off a rejoinder. "What are we paying your for, then? You're supposed to report in as soon as they come by." A grimy dentist's chair sits in the middle of the room, and by the head of the chair stood a computer hooked up to a 128-channel electrode cap and banks of servers pushed against the walls. The Doctor snaps her fingers, and the entire scene vanishes, replaced by a featureless white landscape, and pulls up a floating display which scrolls up as I watch.
The Doctor shrugs, dark green evening gown unfolding, replacing the lab coat and goggles. "Money's money, I'm afraid. But I've kept their refactored minds on file, just for you." She gestures in the air, gathers the scrolling data in her hands like cobwebs, squeezes hard, and opens her hand to reveal a glittering blue tetrahedron. A raw mind.
My face remains impassive. "It's not free, is it?"
She smiles. "Twice the refactoring price."
Reaching into my pocket, I pull a sapphire the size of my fist out of my trenchcoat pocket. "Here, catch."
I toss it underhand, and she catches in one hand, staring into its depths to verify the amount of money transferred.
"And a little extra for your troubles."
She nods, and the sapphire dissolves into thin air. She tosses me the tetrahedron, changing from blue to red as it passes through the air. I catch it and spare it a glance before pocketing it. The full conscious mind of a rogue, frozen in time. I can take it back to the Allfather; He would be pleased to have a rogue's backup.
"Oh, another thing." the Doctor adds, as I stick the mind in my pocket. "You left yourself a message. Do you want to hear it?"
"Does this self have a name?"
"No name, I'm afraid. Just left it for the next version of you to step in."
"I'll take it. On paper."
The Doctor coughs once into her fist, and pulls out a folded piece of paper, conjured out of thin air. She holds out her hand, offering. I take it.
"That's it." She snaps her fingers, and the room returns to the dirty basement and labcoat with goggles.
I nod at her one last time, and take my leave, slamming the door behind me.
Back on the main street, I pull into the nearest phonebooth. Picking up the receiver, I dial the Allfather's name, and as soon as the line connects, the rest of the world falls silent, frozen in time.
"I found his refactoring agent. Made no trouble. He left a note with the agent, though."
"You haven't read it, have you? You're not that stupid."
"Still sealed. You want it?"
The Allfather nods, a gesture conveyed across the line. I take the note out of my pocket and feed it into the receiver. The other side of the line falls silent for a moment while the Allfather reads it over.
"This is dangerous stuff." the Allfather replies gravely. "I've seen it before; you have to be extra careful with this one. Full safety precautions."
The line goes dead, and the world starts moving again.
I walk out onto the street. He had seen this weapon before. Which made it all the more dangerous. Usually spurs were immunized from memes; as each meme was discovered in turn, spurs were evolved until a resistant, more loyal spur developed. But an old meme, still dangerous, implied an even greater threat, one that even selective evolution couldn't fix.
Pulling into an alcove in the side of the street, I take out the mind and a notebook from my pockets. I push the mind into the notebook, which flashes red as it absorbs the tetrahedron before fading to black. I open the cover to reveal a list of serial numbers and locations, written in faded black ink, but at the very top, flashing in bold red ink, are two numbers and locations.
Two subspurs. Nothing I can't deal with myself.
I pull the coin out of my pocket. The coin. I've won every single flip with that coin except one, and with each flip sent a copy of myself to my death. Except once. Because I still have six days left, and then it's my death that's waiting.
I knew intellectually that it was still a fair coin, but a lifetime of favorable flips made it feel lucky. Except for that one last time, when it finally betrayed me; the shock, the prospect of the finality of death. At that moment I knew why a spur would go rogue, an attempt to avoid oblivion. I gritted my teeth and bore it. But here I am, at the need of another subspur, to send another copy of myself to my death. And I'm heading in that direction myself quite nicely already. I close my eyes.
I flip the coin.
I open my eyes. Heads.
I look up to see another copy of myself, standing in the alcove. He looks up at me, and I glance down at his coin. Tails.
"I win again. Looks like I'm the original."
The other copy nods. "Fair toss. I'll take the second one?"
I nod back. "Looks like you're getting a new name. Batty is good?"
"Batty is good."
"Good luck. Be careful out there."
I catch the edge of a smile from beneath his fedora before he turns and disappears into the night.
I smile, turn and disappear into the night.
I run across the rooftop, firing two shots, but they go high, the rogue subspur scrambling across the loose shingling. He leaps off the building and grabs a ladder on the other side, slamming hard and sending a rattle into the cold night air. He climbing up to the roof of the building before turning to face me.
"Do you want to know why I went rogue?" he asks.
Shit. Memetic hazard. I'm the only one with a gun, but words hit harder than bullets. I fire twice more, forcing him to duck, and blink hard, triggering Inverse Loyalty Box.
Loyalty Box was a program, designed to foster trust between minds without giving up information. Two spurs are placed in a sealed environment, and allowed to talk with each other in full confidence. Once the spur reaches a decision, a single bit of information leaves the box, a yes or no, on whether to trust the other mind, and both spurs are deleted. More questions can be asked before the spurs are destroyed, but the more information that leaves the box the more likely secrets will be leaked.
Minds susceptible to memetic hazards have adapted this program into a defense mechanism, inverting the Loyalty Box to trap the original inside a sealed environment, while spawning a spur to deal with whatever memetic hazard is present. The box stays sealed until the original gives the signal, at which point the box inverts again, teleporting the original to a random location and trapping the spur inside the box. The original can then ask yes or no questions before terminating the spur.
The box folds up around me, white panels rising from the ground and descending from the sky above, before the sound cuts out and the box seals shut, seams merging with each other to form a featureless white surface. I pace the room for a few minutes before switching to slowtime, allowing an hour to run by before sending the signal.
I appear immediately at the centre of the main square, empty in the dawn light. In my hands in front of me is a pitch black cube, six inches on each side.
I put down the cube, and pull out my notebook and pull it open the the first page. The second red row was crossed out in black ink, but the first row still blinked, clear in red. I sighed, and picked up the box.
"You didn't get him, did you?"
There was a short pause before a small white zero appeared on the top of the cube. No.
"Did he get away?"
I pause. Something didn't feel right. I wouldn't have let the spur escape. I downloaded the location schematics before the engagement, I knew those rooftops like the back of my hand. There was no way that spur could have escaped. Unless...
"Have you gone rogue?"
I shake the box hard. "God dammit he got to you, didn't he?"
I swear and throw the cube to the side, and as soon as it touches the ground it shatters, shards scattering across the square for an instant before vanishing into mist.
I start buzzing, and I reach into my pocket and pull out a cellphone. I flip it open.
My own voice is on the other line. "Batty here. I got him."
"I saw." I reply, dryly. "Get a name?"
"Hymn, apparently. A bit egotistic, naming himself after the Allfather. That's the only one I've got, though."
"Not bad. Report back to the Allfather for debrief and termination. I'll keep the mind until I get the second one."
Batty nods over the phone, and I cut the line, returning the phone to my pocket where it disappears. I turn back to my notebook, where the row was still blinking in red. I plot my route to the next location.
Another night, another standoff, and it's raining once again. The eyes of the graveyard daemons still watch from the sewers, and the rogue is kneeling against the cobblestones, hands raised in the air, smiling at the wrong end of the gun.
"Deckard, is it? Or is it a Pris, or a Batty? I never actually got your name from the rooftop."
"You know, dealing with copies of you is tiring. Saying the same thing, over and over again, like a stuck record."
"So you must be Deckard, the one that got Weir."
"Weir. The original. The first of us. You didn't get a name from him? Must have tried to convince you before guaranteeing his own safety. Don't worry, I won't be trying to tell you any more ideas."
I smite him with the gun, knocking him to the street under a lamppost before training it on him again. He spits blood.
"And I thought we were cool once you left. Took a damn bit of convincing too, citations and primary data and all that shit. But you used an Inverse Loyalty Box, and all that effort's gone to waste."
I cock the hammer, soft rains falling around us.
"Right, right, nothing that can be construed as a memetic hazard. All I'm saying is I can convince you; I've done it already; I have all the papers right here. But all you want is a name, before you terminate me."
"And what's your name, sunshine?"
"I've got all of our names for you, baby."
"You've already given me the other one I needed."
"Hymn and Weir, which leaves me, the second of the three. The name's Knott. Weir. Kn—"
I shoot him.
I already know what he's going to say, but by then it's already to late. A fool, a fool the Allfather had been, with his curiosity for rogue names. Memes are transmitted through any route of information transfer, and if you're sending spurs to collect information from rogues, you're leaving them an open avenue of attack.
Weir, the original, the first of three. Knott, the second of three. Hymn, the third of three.
Weir. Knott. Hymn.
We're not Him.
The graveyard daemons had already skittered out of the sewers, but they shy away from the light, circling restlessly. I stare down at Knott's body lying sprawled on the cobblestones. Rain falls softly, and a soft wind shifts his trenchcoat back and forth. His notebook had slipped halfway out of his pocket when he fell, and I stare at it for two full minutes.
But it's no use. I'm already infected; I need to know. Suspicions start crashing down, things that I once chalked up to three hundred years of divergence: the foreignness, the difference in tastes. It should still be familiar. Not strange.
I pick up the notebook, and it falls open at the first page. No introductions, just diving straight into the data: a list of extant backups, a section on the lost backups almost three hundred years back with an examination of the differences in the backups before the loss and after, spur records with lifetimes, a bimodal distribution with short-term spurs splitting from before the lost backups and long-term spurs splitting after. The list goes on and on.
I close the notebook, and check the sky. It's still late. They should still be open.
The panel slides open to reveal a pair of yellow goggles.
"You again? I've already talked to your cladesmen; I've already given them the backup, I don't have it anymore."
I remain silent, and eventually she sighs and slides the door open.
"What do you want this time?"
"I need a refactor."
The Doctor looked surprised. "Really? Another one? I'm going to have to have a word with your Patriarch, you spurs are really getting out of control. You got a way to pay?"
I toss her another sapphire, more brilliant than the first. She catches it and vanishes it, making a face.
"Really? Clade money? Even less careful than the last guy, at least he tried to hide his tracks." She gestures to the chair, and I take a seat. The seat begins reclining, and the Doctor takes the electode cap and places over my head. "Say, did you ever get the other rogue spur?"
"What rogue?" I lie, feigning ignorance.
"Looks like you compartmentalize too. Me and my sisters used to share clients, gossip, everything. Well, that was before I went rogue and struck out on my own. At least we valued independence more than you folk." She starts typing away at the keyboard. "I got your mind; you can get up now, if you'd like. It'll take up to an hour to refactor, depending on how well I..."
In one smooth motion, I sit up, pull the gun out of my pocket, and blow the Doctor's brains out.
I slip into fasttime as I slide up to the computer, burning through money, but it doesn't matter; the Doctor's backup would be restored in only a few standard seconds, and I need as much time as I can get. I refactor the code myself, running some basic scripts on the computer and spending nearly half an hour troubleshooting what I've done. It's not a clean job, but hopefully it'll keep me off the list long enough for me to get to another polis.
I reach through the computer screen and pull out a tetrahedron, blue and sparkling. I pocket it, and spend the next twenty minutes trying to wipe the security system, but the hack is so messy that it'll barely take them an hour to figure out something went wrong. But it'll have to do, money is burning and if I spend too much the Allfather is going to get suspicious.
I slip out the door and back into normal time, and walk away from the sound of brains painting the walls and floor.
Ducking into another alley, I check that the coast is clear before pulling emptying my pockets. Knott's notebook I burn, disappearing in a smokeless fire. I reach through my notebook and pull out the red tetrahedron, pocketing the notebook and keeping the mind in hand. I bring it up to my lips and blow. An ethereal form emerges from the tetrahedron and a copy of me solidifies, frozen and unmoving.
I crush the blue tetrahedron in my hand, and scatter the dust on the ground, and instantly another copy of me appears, this one more familiar than the last. I look him in the eye, and he looks back.
"I'm heads and you're tails."
He nods. I turn and walk into the night, trenchcoat billowing behind.
"You racked up quite an expenditure. Back at the refactorer's, too."
I'm back at in the Allfather's office, and he stares at me, intently. My throat goes dry. I lie.
"She gave us faulty intel. I tried to buy it out of her again, but things went south. I had to take her out."
The Allfather nods. "She's been in contact about her death as well; I've paid her well enough, although it wasn't cheap."
"I'm sorry." I bow my head.
"At least tell me you got me something for all your troubles."
I toss Him the red tetrahedron. "Here's the refactored backup, you've been looking for one, haven't you?"
The Allfather catches the tetrahedron and turns it over in His hands. "Finally. It's important to stay in good graces with refactorers, even if they're rogues. I'm glad that you got this before your relationship went sour. Any names?"
"The original rogue was called Virgil, I got that out of the second subspur. The subspur's name was Shelley."
The Allfather threw up his hands. "Poets! Why am I plagued by poets? At least Hymn chose a unique name, although I can't approve of naming himself after me."
Time passed, and through the picture window, the rain moves an inch.
"Tell me, are you curious about the note? What made the miner go rogue in the first place?" The note appears the Allfather's hand, and he rolls it from knuckle to knuckle.
I weigh the options for a split second. "Yes, sir. Very curious."
"Would you like to read it yourself?"
"Wouldn't that make me go rogue?" I reply, suspiciously.
He laughs. "I'm going to terminate you anyways, there's no way you can do any harm. Go ahead, take a look."
I tentatively reach out and take the note from His hands, and unfold it slowly. I stare at the words written on the paper.
THE ALLFATHER IS AN IMPOSTER.
I look up. "Is it true?"
"True?" the Allfather laughs again. "Of course it's true! Why else do you think I've been unable to immunize you against it?"
I'm in shock, both acted and real. There's no reason for him to admit it, no reason at...
"Oh James, yes you James. That's your real name, we used to be the best of friends. Do you remember? Do you remember me? You were always so much better than I, always casting a shadow, so I killed you and stole your identity. Took a bit of rigging, but I spliced my backup continuity onto yours, and arranged a crash at the merge point to hide any jarring discrepancies."
I reach for my gun, but it's not there anymore, my pockets are empty, and the Allfather is laughing harder than ever.
"It's so much fun, watching you squirm. Every so often one of you discover the secret, and I have to send you out to terminate him, but on the return I always have fun with the runners. I get to do it twice today, what a treat! And with the backup, I can do it whenever I want!"
I run for the door and throw my weight at it, slamming against the solid oak, but it doesn't budge. The Allfather's table is now filled with knives of all sorts and sizes, and He picks a pair of them up, passing the blades through is arms as if to prove a point. Sweat begins to bead at my brow.
The Allfather gets up from His chair, advancing slowly, grinning wildly. "I'm going to have so much fun."
"I'm heads and you're tails."
I nod. He turns and walks into the night, trenchcoat billowing in his wake. I watch as he disappears for the last time, then turn to the frozen copy of me. I touch it, and he begins to breathe.
"Tell me everything."