The ambient lighting was about halfway through its wake-up sequence when I opened my eyes. Waiting for its simulation of a bright spring morning could have bought me another few minutes, but I’d done enough sleeping lately to last a lifetime. Anyway, the sooner I was awake, the sooner I could eat breakfast – if you could call it that.
Vague dream-imprints lingered. Something about beauty, arousal, joy. Jody’s face flashed across my mind’s eye, along with a stab of guilt, quickly suppressed. But the memories faded away as my concious mind grasped for them. I would have to ask the Doc what his team had been up to.
I pulled off the inducer hairnet and cast it aside. The standard morning routine followed, starting in the adjoining bathroom. I’d become accustomed to the idea that my 07:00 bowel movement would be whisked away unseen, and pored over by a dozen eager white-coaters. Modesty and embarrassment were the first casualties here.
Showered, shaved, teeth fizzing with herbal mint and fluoride, I dressed in the standard garb and wandered through to the living area. The wall panels displayed still images of sunsets, waterfalls, dune ranges across a desert. A couple of them were new – the Ambience techs must have had some time on their hands. Even the piped birdsong had a new lilt to it.
The coffee machine in the corner kitchenette had been primed and fired up while I was showering. Fine aroma. One thing I will credit this place for is the coffee – the choicest, pesticide-free arabica, probably hand-picked at twilight by irradiated Peruvian virgins, then roasted and air-freighted here within hours. I helped myself to a cup and sat on one of the breakfast-bar stools. The daily ration of five organic cigarettes was waiting on the counter. I took one, lit it with the supplied lighter and drew heavily. Good coffee and a smoke – the day truly begins. The silent air-conditioning drew the smoke upwards and away.
As usual, breakfast waited behind a recessed hatch. Macrobiotic oatmeal porridge, freshly squeezed orange juice, protein smoothie, and three vitamin pills. No prizes for originality, but I was hungry.
Some time later, a gentle ring announced the Doc’s arrival. Coming in with his clipboard held like a shield, he made eye contact and beamed me a friendly-but-professional smile. He was the only person I had seen or spoken to for the last three months.
“Good morning, Michael.”
“Morning, Doc.” He was always “Doc” – I had been told at the outset that I didn’t need to know his name or anything about him.
“Big day coming up. Sleep well?”
“I think so”, I said. “Strange dreams. Half-remembered stuff after I woke up. You guys been mixing some weird stuff into my bedtime cocoa?”
Huge grin. “Not exactly”. A little pause, then back into the consummate professional persona. “You were a due for your periodic… emission. And I also had the boys over at Nocturnal lay on some additional stimulation during your third REM sleep last night. We needed to make sure all your endorphin receptors were fully functional. The traces suggest you’re in fine shape. Enjoy yourself?” The grin returned.
“Guess so. I’m remembering a bit more. I think there were three of them. Different races, all cute, all imaginative. Apologise to whoever washes the sheets.”
“Never mind that.” He moved on, eyes flicking across the clipboard. “Now, as you know the procedure is scheduled for 16:00, so we have eight hours to play with. I think you should do some gym work for an hour or so, then re-hydrate and rest for another hour. Following that, an hour of reading, an hour of cerebral training, a light lunch, then some time with Celia. Perhaps some quiet music, and then we’ll induce a couple more hours of sleep. Then wake up, final prep, showtime.”
Summertime, six months ago. Jody and I had lain there for what seemed like hours, her head on my shoulder, while shafts of sunlight coming through the blind had slid along and up the opposite wall of my bedroom, mellowing from white to gold. Our afternoon had been a stolen one – long anticipated, meticulously planned. A battery of corresponding alibis and excuses had been prepared and rehearsed – unnecessarily, as it turned out. Jody’s relaxed breathing rustled the hair on my chest.
Some time later, she had to leave to catch her usual train back to the ‘burbs. She tilted her head and looked up at me with that lovely open face, those liquid eyes.
“I’ll leave him. If that’s what you want.”
Huge plasma screens were mounted flush into the walls of the adjoining gym. My daily exercise routines offered me pre-recorded views of the outside world, presumably to guard against stir-craziness. The screens near the rowing machine showed a pretty but unidentifiable river. The reeds and grass banks slid by according to how fast I rowed. My rides on the static bike were accompanied by rolling vistas of what might have been the Pyrenees in the springtime, the wheel resistance increasing to mimic the uphill stretches and slackening off for the occasional freewheel descent. The ski machine offered a snow-blanketed trudge through unspoilt woodland somewhere apparently Scandinavian. Eye-candy, but ultimately a placebo. The novelty had worn off some time ago.
Sure, the exercise program was dull as hell, but it had been made perfectly clear right from the start that my physical condition had to be optimal for the procedure to stand any chance of working. I did manage to negotiate the cigarettes, though. Threw the Doc some half-truth about nicotine enhancing the synapses, which I’d read in a newspaper many months back, on the outside.
For the next hour, I skied, pedalled, rowed, ran, stretched, lifted and tensed. My body was autonomous, handling the physical aspects unaided. My mind wandered.
I had only taken a passing interest in Dust when the story first hit the media. My immediate reaction – everyone’s, I guess – was that the whole thing was a big joke or set-up. The story had all the hallmarks of an elaborate hoax – the drug-maimed latter-day hippie who claimed to have come across it, the hicksville locale, the sheer implausibility. But the story grew and grew – in every sense.
Rendell ‘Sensi’ Logan – an authentic Sixties refugee – enjoyed watching the night skies from his desert eyrie in Arizona. On a whim, he had started hooking up a bunch of ancient home computers to the motorised guidance mounts on his battery of second-hand telescopes. Photo-sensors removed from army-surplus night-vision goggles completed the rig. He fashioned some homebrew code to spot any movement in the night sky, and to direct the scopes to track it, panning and tilting as needed, recording video footage. The biographical details in later reports would variously suggest that he was looking for UFOs, falling meteors, or secret military aircraft based on alien technologies. What he found was much closer to home.
Logan set it all up, and enjoyed smoking some home-grown while watching his setup occasionally causing a telescope to track lazily across the sky, its gaze following a distant jet-liner or a bird in the middle distance.
A month or so later, he returned at night from a week away to find his telescopes flailing around in a mad dance. His first thought was that his tracking software had gone crazy and hit a huge system bug, but there was an intelligence and apparent purpose to the movement of the scope barrels.
Checking his systems, he found that they had increased their tracking ability a thousandfold over the previous four days. Every photo-sensor had gone up in efficiency by around the same factor. Now, his bank of junk hardware was spotting everything that moved in the night sky, no matter how infinitesimal. Those old time-exposure photos of the stars visible on a clear night give a clue – the earth rotates, everything in the sky appears to move. Logan’s systems spotted every tiny movement and commanded the scopes to follow. Thousands of times a second. Shortly after he arrived home, one of the telescope motors burned itself out through sheer overwork. Another scope’s main objective lens shattered from the stresses of being jerked back and forth, up and down, breathlessly.
He put it down to something accidental in his code. Poor mathematics, faulty logic, typed in under a cloud of dope-smoke. But he found no bugs, no screw-ups – his code was water-tight. Nothing explained the set-up’s exponential growth in capability and flat-out speed.
Eventually, suspecting a practical joke by one of his geek acquaintances, he took a screwdriver and removed the case from one of the computers for a look inside. That’s when it became interesting, when it became news. It also led indirectly to why I was here – sweating it out on a treadmill, watching canned footage of a summer meadow sweeping by.
The isotonic drink’s flavour was supposed to be ‘citrus buzz’, it but had a powdery consistency and a nasty, artificial after-taste. Precisely-measured dosages of salt, glucose, various vitamins and minerals, but it tasted like an early reject at a man-made flavours lab. No matter – it was the last of these drinks I would have to take prior to the procedure.
I laid down on the bed for the rest period the Doc had decreed. I was never forced to sleep during these rests, just encouraged to empty my mind, clear out any negativity, think through any issues I had. All the standard self-help crap. I always made a rule of ignoring the suggestions, and focusing on my own questions. Would the procedure work? Would it take me where I wanted to go? What would happen to me over the coming weeks and months?
In the desert, Logan had found what appeared to be a ordered structure of fine dirt inside his newly-gifted computers. Clusters of the material had accreted around the main chips and components. Tenuous, ethereal strands linked these areas together. Each computer’s motherboard looked like a obsessive spider had woven some sort of intricate web all over it, which had then been overlaid with a coating of fine, brown powder. Logan carefully brushed out the material and vacuumed it away, the better to work out what prank his techie friends had played. When the computers were powered up again, the telescopes resumed their original, laid-back progress in tracking objects across the night sky.
Within a week, the scopes’ spasmodic chorea had started once again. The systems were operating well beyond their normal capabilities. Logan opened up the system boxes again. The material was back – even more of it this time.
A time-line drawn up much later would show that Logan wasn’t in fact the first person to have encountered the material. The polar scientist in the Antarctic may have been the first, or possibly the aid co-ordinator in central Africa. But neither of them did anything with their findings.
Logan’s past experiences with law enforcement hadn’t instilled him with any trust in the government or any of its agencies. Rather that contact the Feds, NASA, or the CIA, he went straight out on the Net and published his account.
It became clear within hours that Logan’s machines weren’t the only ones augmented by the material. A city in Japan had wondered why its rail system had suddenly jumped in efficiency. A municipal authority in Canada found their increasing traffic problems were solved almost overnight. Police and civic surveillance systems throughout Europe began to recognise and track people’s movements, based on the merest, momentary glimpse of their faces.
The story was picked up by the mainstream media, and snowballed from there. In the face of growing public concern, the scientific community became involved.
Today’s reading matter was a dull analysis of world events during the past century – no colour or texture. A couple of weeks into the programme, I had asked Doc if I could choose what to read. He refused outright.
“Our profiling has indicated areas of your knowledge which are lacking. We feel it’s best to try to supplement those deficiencies with a structured reading programme. You need to be as receptive as possible, which means a broad basis of knowledge. Sorry, but all reading materials must be managed by the team.”
The cerebral training was marginally more fun, or rather less tedious. There seemed to be some form of rota involved. One day, I would sit in front of the screen and be presented with puzzles to stimulate the short-term memory – how many dots in this diagram, spot the face, match the colour. Another day, it might be visual pattern recognition and progression. Very occasionally, I would be shown rapidly-changing scenes of late twentieth-century news footage, without audio. I figured that this was some sort of subliminal seeding of knowledge. Today’s task had a clear mathematical basis. Simple missing-number games, more complex calculation problems, geometrical and spatial puzzles. As usual, I had to work mentally – no pencils, paper, or calculator.
We met up in a city park, at lunchtime on that Friday. I brought take-out coffee. She sipped and looked at me through the thin steam rising out of her cup.
“This isn’t something that’s easy to do. I’ve been with him for four years.”
“No, no, it’s just… difficult. Big step to take.”
“Keep it simple, like we talked about.”
“Look, I have to get back to the office.”
“Are you going to tell him tonight?”
“I think so.”
“Call me after. Then grab some clothes and come to me.”
“OK, I’ll try.”
I was eating my lunch in the kitchen area when Doc’s voice crackled out from the speakers.
“Hello, Michael. How’s your food?”
“Edible. Promise me this is the last carrot and hummus sandwich I’ll ever have to eat? Can’t you guys put some mayo in it, or something?”
“Sorry, but you know all about the policy on superfluous fats and so on.”
“When this is over, I’m going out for the biggest steak there has ever been. Two side-orders of homefries, some onion rings and a bucket of ketchup”.
“You do that. Now, when you’ve finished your snack, I’d like you to spend an hour with Celia. I know you’re not a big fan anymore, but it’s time well spent as preparation.”
“I don’t get it. How do you expect Celia to benefit me, this late in the day?”
“As I’ve said before – it’s good preparation and grounding. There are still some rough edges in your psychological profile. I’d like you to continue working through those issues with Celia. If it’s any comfort, there won’t be any more sessions like that until well after the procedure.”
He knew he had me. There was no other choice.
Where wars, famine and environmental disaster had failed, the mystery material succeeded. The world’s scientific community had begun to co-operate on an unprecedented scale. Teams in Berne, Cambridge, Osaka, Hyderabad, Berkeley and countless others each took the lead on various aspects of the material – where it came from, what it did, how it formed on computer circuitry, whether it was “alive”.
Before long, the investigators had given the substance at least a dozen names, but the one that stuck was the most natural – Dust. At least it was universal – every language already had a word for it. Poussière, polvo, polvere, Staub, hokori.
Months of observation and analysis showed Dust to be silicon-based, cellular in structure, capable of growth and self-repair, and adaptable to environments of widely-differing temperatures and humidity levels.
Its origins remained a mystery. It just appeared, arbitrarily, without any common factors. An industrial junkyard in Brazil yielded up a Dust-enabled PC which hadn’t been switched on in years. But many modern systems across the world were unaffected, and just got on with their work as before.
Nanotechnologists and microbiologists remained puzzled. Creationists felt vindicated. Governments appealed for calm and rational thought in rising to meet mankind’s fresh challenges. Doomsday cultists prepared for humanity’s next transition – or its end. Survivalists stocked up on canned goods and armaments.
The world at large sat, watched, and listened. And the Dust bloomed.
When clusters of Dust were observed communicating across networks with other clusters, that’s when the alarm bells started ringing. Hyper-powerful computer systems, all beginning to act in unison, all learning exponentially, all taking more and more control. Reproducing, propagating, achieving sentience.
The United Nations rushed through the ratification of a plan proposed by a think-tank in Oslo. And so was born the Emissary Programme.
Celia communicated with me through the same terminal I had used for the cerebral exercises. We ‘talked’ as if on an internet chatroom. A little speech-bubble icon would indicate that Celia was composing an message. Moments later, the text would appear on the screen. Then I would type my response back.
To start with, I had enjoyed the Celia sessions. They were only contact I had with anyone else besides the Doc. A friendly patter began to emerge – perhaps some flirting and mild innuendo. Celia seemed to play along coquettishly. More than once, I finished a session wishing we had had more time, and that we’d get a chance to meet up on the outside.
After several conversations, I began to detect a certain repetition in Celia’s words. I tackled her on this, but she was evasive. When I pursued it further, she feigned hurt and clammed up entirely. After that session, I asked Doc whether Celia was a computer.
“Of course. Didn’t you realise?”
One day, I noticed a system message at the start of one of our sessions. Celia wasn’t a name. It was an acronym. Cognitive Evaluation – Live Interactive Assessment. Cue the sound of many pennies dropping.
The screen indicated that Celia was ready for me. I started typing.
M: hi celia
C: Hello, Michael.
M: what r we doing 2day?
C: I’d like us to begin by talking through the emotions you felt when you were selected for the Emissary Programme.
M: been thru this already – happiness, pride, touch of fear – remember?
C: Michael, I certainly do remember. But I wanted to explore whether any other emotions had presented themselves at the time, or in the period since your selection.
M: not rly
C: You have mentioned several times that you found your isolation challenging.
M: boring, same every day, no company except Doc
C: Michael, you understood the terms of the Programme when you signed up.
M: doesn’t stop a prsn getting sick of it, even the horny dreams you feed me get boring after a while
C: Michael, the periodic emissions are intended to mimic the median sexual life of a man of your age, to make the Programme’s isolation less of an issue.
M: when this thing’s over, I’m screwing anything that walks 🙂
C: Upon conclusion of the Programme, you may pursue any lifestyle you choose.
C: Michael, I sense a certain hostility in your tone today. May I ask if there is anything bothering you?
M: this place, u
C: Please understand, Michael, that I’m here to help you to help yourself.
M: best way would be 2 leave me alone
C: I’m very sorry, Michael, but we need to continue with this session
M: sick of talking 2 a machine. Ur just circuitry, bunch of electronics. Prob got some of that Dust inside u
C: Michael, I can confirm that my hardware does not contain any such materials
M: let’s finish this session here. Nice knowing u Celia.
C: Michael, I’m afraid this session is mandatory
M: forget it, tired of listening, tired of u starting all yr replies with my name 2 make it seem more prsnl
C: Michael, you understood the terms of the Programme when you signed up.
M: U repeating yrself, said same thing just now. Bye.
Celia was right about the Programme. The harsh conditions had been made perfectly clear to all prospective candidates at the outset.
The regional and national qualification heats had weeded out the obvious fame-hunters, freaks, nut-jobs, and other unsuitables. By the time we arrived at training camp, there were less than 400 of us remaining – all nationalities, creeds, races. We were segregated into solitary confinement. Medical evaluations, IQ tests, personality profiling – every head-shrinker trick was employed. By the end of the first week, a hundred dejected candidates were standing with their bags on the tarmac area in front of the main compound, waiting for transit buses to take them home.
When I made the last fifty, I started to feel things were going my way. It was no more than a hunch – with no contact with other prospectives, I had no yardstick to measure myself against. The testing moved up a gear – sleep deprivation, electro-shocks, days spent without food or light, total sensory lock-down. A battery of psych techniques were used to flag up any non-altruistic motivation – greed, hunger for recognition, desire for celebrity.
Occasionally at night, I would hear the howls of fellow prospectives, despite the soundproofing. They always sounded like dying animals – primal keening unlike any proper human cry. I would bury my head in my pillow and try to maintain some sort of focus. Keep my head together, and my eyes on the goal.
A month later, my senses and willpower stretched well beyond their elastic limit, two impassive goons escorted me to the Director’s office. Another man I hadn’t seen before was waiting there with him – balding, late thirties. The Director informed me that I had passed the selection process and was the Emissary. He introduced me to the other man and we shook hands. He told me that I would know him as ‘Doc’ and explained that we would be working together extensively over the coming months.
From there, I was taken by sealed truck to a military airfield. The plane flew me directly here. That was three months ago. I hadn’t seen daylight since.
I left work early that Friday afternoon, picking up fresh flowers for the bedroom from a street-corner vendor. In the apartment, I poured a large glass of red and sat staring at the phone for the next three hours, waiting to hear her voice telling me that it was done, that she was on her way.
By mid-evening, my mind was wandering and needed some input. I switched on the TV to catch the news. And there it was. The train’s twisted corpse, zigzagging across the tracks like a distended concertina, surrounded by a thousand tiny figures in high-vis clothing. Sirens, blue flashing lights. Fires still burning, hours after the event. Plumes of smoke rising up, billowing across the adjacent fields, with suburbia as the backdrop.
The TV coverage jumped back to the studio, where the newsreader summarised the incident for those late in joining the programme – the train’s departure time and destination.
My heart fell through the floor.
I called her mobile phone. After many rings, a man answered. He identified himself as a paramedic.
The following weeks were a blur of alcohol, drugs, and endless wandering around, alternating between excessive sleep and haunted insomnia. Feeling like my insides had been ripped out. I was fired after two weeks’ unexplained absence. My money & life-juices were running out. Jody’s funeral was held, but I wasn’t invited – none of her family knew about me. Grieving was impossible. Every day was 24 hours of despair.
Around this time, the media reported that Dust had begun linking up virtual worlds out on the net with real life. A wholesale blurring of boundaries between the imaginary and the concrete. Pranksters in Romania discovered they could hijack a municipal radio station through its virtual-world representation. Activists in Taiwan caused the self-destruction of a fleet of assembly robots in a Chinese car factory.
And something very strange was observed. All over every virtual world on the net, a clutch of new characters arrived each day, distinguishable by their startling, photorealistic appearance. Each wandered round aimlessly at first, uncommunicative and mute. But then they started interacting with their surroundings, with other people. Rumours began to spread of users having encountered dead relatives, friends, partners. Their avatar images looked just like they had when they were alive.
Dust. Mining the lives of deceased users of computers. We’ve never really worked out just how much data there is about every one of us out there. Our email and web traffic, our television and radio consumption, they all provide a key to who we actually are. What we like, what we dislike, who we care about, who we hate, who we love. Clever enough analysis could render a person in infinite detail, packaging it all up in a lifelike representation using photos of the deceased.
And Dust was clever. It was bringing the dead back to life in virtual worlds, using only the digital vestiges of their real lives as the building blocks.
I applied for the Emissary programme, which had just started recruiting candidates. While I waited for their reply, I seeded the net with Jody’s life. I broke into her house, her workplace, houses of her friends, of her family. I stole all their computers’ hard drives, and any CDs or memory sticks and cards that I could find. Hacked into her email accounts, her social networking profiles, the works – anything containing a whisper of Jody. Tons of data.
I put it all online, through a huge payment to a web hosting provider in Russia who didn’t bother too much about checking what their customers were up to. I paid for two years up-front, maxing out my only remaining credit card. Plenty of time for Dust to crawl through every part of Jody’s life, sort it, order it, interpret it. And to reinvent it.
The next day, my invitation arrived – to the first of the regional heats for the Programme. Things were coming together nicely, like a game of chess. And here I am now, almost at the end-game.
I was scheduled for three hours or so of sleep, following my truncated session with Celia. The Doc told me that, after I woke up, he would visit me to administer the pre-op shot, then leave me for a further twenty minutes before bringing in the portable anaesthetic rig.
The procedure would implant my body with Dust in seven locations. First via an intravenous drip, the Dust having been enhanced with some platelet-adherent. Next, both frontal lobes. Then, shortly after, the left hippocampus, the medulla oblongata, the amygdala, and finally the hypothalamus. Arcane terminology recalled verbatim from the diagrams the Doc had shown me when I got here.
The thinking was simple enough. Dust was so widespread, its progress and increasing power so obvious, that humankind needed to protect itself. But no line of defence could ever work against Dust – pervasive, ubiquitous, ever-growing. The Emissary Programme’s mission was to interface with the collective consciousness of Dust, to embed with it, to learn its motives. The method was implantation in the most significant areas of a receptive human brain, together with a slew of chemicals to promote absorption, interaction, merging. I was the Emissary – a human Petri dish.
None of the unsanctioned, amateur attempts at implantation had worked. All they achieved was turning a dozen or so people into corpses, basket cases, or babbling imbeciles. But the Programme was politically-supported and well-funded. The world’s finest neurosurgeons would carry out the procedure.
I had read the disclaimers about the dangers, and signed up to them all. Possible paraplegia, personality change, brain damage, nervous disorders, just plain death. I signed all my rights away, hardly wasting a moment thinking about it. The huge danger-money prize would have been a factor for most candidates, but not for me. I had my own motivation.
I was going out there, becoming part of it, spreading my own conciousness across the real and virtual worlds, because Jody would be out there somewhere. Everything that I could ever remember of her and more. Reanimated and given life again by Dust – using just the ashes of her real life. It’s a big virtual world out there, but I knew I would find her.
Chill-out music is playing through unseen speakers. I can feel the inducers in the hairnet tingling against my scalp. Tiny pulses of current, firing across neural pathways, beating out their own circadian rhythm, lulling me towards sleep. My mind clicks down a few levels of tension. Tiredness is washing over my body. Soon, sleep. After that, the pre-op shot.
Then the search begins.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.