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Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc.
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GOING OFFLINE

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Conrad Cook



Although Ben wanted desperately to impress the girl, driving her across town to visit her friends scared him too badly.

"I have plans," he told her.

Andrea looked like a movie star, or like the model of a virtual body that someone would pay dearly for.  He had been rooming with her ever since he left his family, and he had no illusions about what the beautiful teenage girl thought about her middle-aged, overweight, unemployed roommie:  nothing.

"What plans?"

"You know:  plans."  Ben motioned vaguely.  "I have a lot of plans on Friday."

"Then take me Thursday."

"I'm not free Thursday; I have to meet with my wife."  That was almost true.

"Late Thursday."

"Why don't you get one of your friends to pick you up?"

"Let's go right now," Andrea pressed.  "We can get in the van and drive across town."

"I don't feel like it."

"Woman!" Andrea spat.  "You are such a woman!  Why are you so afraid of the populace control drones?"

Ben shrugged.  "I'm not a kid.  You can't manipulate me into giving you free rides by attacking my manhood."  But, deeply shamed, he felt his heart beat faster as his face began to redden.

"Your womanhood, you mean," Andrea pressed.  "You cringer."

"Get a job and buy your own car," Ben told her, still furiously willing himself not to blush.  "The universe does not owe you a ride across town."

To punish him, she sat down abruptly and logged in.  Ben wondered where she was going:  to some exclusive social club, perhaps, or a game world with beautiful princesses, dragons, and knights in shining armor -- she would play a dragon, or some unnatural monster.  Andrea's eyes gazed glassily ahead, already unaware of him.

Ben fought down the sudden urge to follow her.  He did not log in anymore.  He clambered up onto his bunk and stared at the ceiling.  Perhaps I should just tell her why, he thought to himself:  but some deep instinct told him to reveal no weakness to her, ever.

He ran through in his mind the things he might have told Andrea to win the argument; he examined his body language critically, unable to persuade himself he had looked like a man in control.  He decided to go for a walk.

Populace control drones rarely stopped pedestrians.

As he descended the stairs, Ben mulled over the difficulty of reentry.  Online, semantic filters would have prevented him from perceiving such hostile behavior.  But there were no semantic filters in real-life.

'Cringer,' he thought as he made his way to the building exit.

"At least I'm not bald," he muttered.

As he opened the door he startled another tenant, a woman somewhat older than Ben who was about to enter from the other side.  She looked surprised to the point of fright and Ben couldn't tell if she had heard him talking to himself.  Ben stepped aside with a big smile.  The door opened toward the woman and he held it open awkwardly.

Clutching her groceries like a baby, the woman hurried past without a word.

Ben made his way over the concrete ramp to the street.  Even at noon, the lower levels of Hartford were lit only by the dim, flickering fluorescents.

'Who programmed this?'

The question sprang to mind, and, although he knew it was foolish, persisted.  He could tell he was not online from the physical sensation of embodiment:  the action of gravity on his heavy frame, the tension in his back, the slight sense of eyestrain; the fact he could not fly.  At the building of his old apartment, which he had shared with his wife, he could stand on the concrete entrance ramp, look up through the gap between the street decks above and the building, and see the sky.

Here, though, the buildings were not nearly tall enough; the decks above their roofs sealed off the sunlight completely.

For the thousandth time, Ben resolved to move to Los Angeles (fear of earthquakes had prevented it from becoming a modern stacked city); and, for the thousandth time, he put it out of his mind.

In the convenience store, Ben eyed the hotdogs slowly rotating on the electric grill.  He wanted a hotdog; he could anticipate the taste of the gently burning grease; but they looked like they had been there all week, and he couldn't persuade himself to try one.

Instead, he found a pack of beef jerky, paid the autoclerk, and sat outside on a bench eating it.  He watched the traffic go by in the dark.

She's right, he thought.  I'm afraid to drive across town.  Why even live if you're that afraid?  I'll go home and give her a ride tonight.

I need to go back to school...  A populace control drone's sirens and strobe lights suddenly broke the thread of Ben's thoughts.  It pulled a car over to the curb near him.

To Ben's surprise, a man sat in the driver's seat.  The interrogator unit detached from the drone and approached the car.

"Are you aware you were driving this car?" the interrogator unit asked the driver, scanning him.

"Yes, officer.  I just felt like going for a ride."

"Why didn't you allow the car to drive itself?"

The man gestured.  "I felt like driving."

"Step out of the car, please," the interrogator unit told him.  Ben drank from his soda and eyed the populace control drone.  He wasn't sure what range its scanners had, or under what circumstances it would use them.

The interrogator unit extruded a pair of shackles and locked the man up.  "Do you have a lawyer, or do you want the state to appoint one to you?" it demanded.

"My domestic unit would know that," the man said.  "If I don't have a lawyer, it will retain one for me."

"You may call your domestic unit at this time," the interrogator unit told him.

Ben carefully wrapped up his remaining beef jerky and put it in his pocket.  He contemplated his soda.

At the curb, the man's newly-retained autolawyer spoke through his wristphone to the interrogator unit.  "Have you finished amassing evidence?"

"I have," the interrogator unit replied.  "Have you prepared your defense?"

"I have," the autolawyer replied.

Ben stood and walked homeward.  Behind him, the streetside scene continued.

"You have been tried and convicted of manually driving point-five kilometers per hour in excess of the speed limit, reckless endangerment, and unnecessary manual driving," the interrogator unit's receding voice announced.  "Your sentence will consist..."

Ben walked through the darkened streets.


At home, Ben told Andrea he was willing to drive her across town.  "It wouldn't hurt for you to ask nicely," he told her.

Andrea snorted.

"If I give you a ride, what will you do for me?" Ben asked.

"First it's ask nicely, then it's what will you do for me?" Andrea announced to an imaginary audience.  "Are you doing me a favor, or trading camels?"

"If you keep that up, I'm doing neither," Ben told her crossly.  The conversation was not going as he had imagined.

"Go lick yourself," Andrea said.  "Sam's giving me a ride."

"Sam!  Who's Sam?"

"Somebody who's cool."

Shaking his head, Ben took out and unwrapped his beef jerky.  Andrea was a strange girl.  "Just don't ask me again," he told her around a half-mouthful of chewed food.

"Do you know what you are?" Andrea demanded.

"Absolutely," he told her, and went to bed.

That night, Sam didn't show up and Ben gave her a ride across town.


Andrea short-circuited Ben's idea about talking on the drive by logging in over her wristphone.  In Ben's van, she contributed only by distantly complaining she would be late, and, later, by telling him to turn down the radio.

"I'll just be five minutes," Andrea told him and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

Alone in the van, Ben mulled this over.  He had thought Andrea wanted to visit with her friends; but he also knew she did most of her socializing online.  Now it seemed something else was going on.

Time crept by slowly.

Andrea had vigorously denied any romantic motivation for this visitation; surely, that was precluded also by the time-frame.  Although one never knew with the kids these days.

Fifteen minutes had gone by and Ben felt torn between driving home and going to see what Andrea was doing.  He found it unclear which would be more assertive.  In his understanding, women like Andrea went for assertive men.

He got out of the van.  A unit belonging to the building's resident AI asked if it should park his car.  Ben looked along the street.  He couldn't tell if it looked dangerous or not.

"Yes, please do."

Invisibly to Ben, the building computer established contact with Ben's van's computer and the van drove around the corner to a nearby alleyway.

Cars could legally park and unpark themselves without an insured occupant.

Following the building's AI, Ben retraced Andrea's path.  He knocked on the door.

"Who's there?" the ringer demanded.  No image came through.

"Ben.  Andrea's ride."

The ringer remained mute while a mumbled conversation took place beyond the door.  After a pause, the door swung wide.

Ben walked in and they all looked at him.  About a half-dozen people stood or sat around the small, silent room.  "Hi," Ben said.

Nobody said anything, and it was strange because none of them seemed to be logged on.  Ben turned to Andrea.  She seemed half-aware of him.

"Are you going to be much longer?" Ben mumbled.

Andrea ignored him.

"You said five minutes, so I..." he spread his hands.

"Yes, I'll be right down," Andrea told him.  "I'll come down in just a minute."

"It's been close to a half-hour," Ben said.  "I have things to do.  I have plans."

"That's okay, I'll stay here tonight," Andrea said.  "You can go."

Ben shifted his footing  sweatily.  "Are you sure?"  Apart from his conversation with Andrea the room was silent, and it troubled him.

"Will you need a ride home?" Ben persisted.

"I'll stay here tonight," she said distantly.  "I'll be fine."

Ben looked around the room.  "All right," he said, motioning.  "Good night."  He let himself out.  Nobody followed him to the door.

The building AI took its time in getting Ben his van back.  He waited irritably at the curb.  This is all I need, he thought.  If a populace control drone sweeps by and queries my pancreas, I'm done for.  And all because I let the dumb residential computer park my car.

Ben wanted nothing more than to go home and go online, and standing outside in the echoing coldness and dark of Hartford's lower levels strengthened that urge.  He grappled with himself.  Online, he need not worry about his pancreas being queried.  The most that could happen was that a net monitor could check through the public areas of his mind for stolen software or skills, or that illegal AI viralware would break through his firewall and splice itself into his unconscious.

'Reality has such a crappy program,' he thought as he watched his van slowly round the corner.  'No wonder access is free.'  The van door opened and he climbed awkwardly in.

He dialed his apartment and the van obediently set off.  A peculiar humming sound from the back irritated him:  apparently his van was preparing itself for a major breakdown, at the worst possible time.  Ben resolved to ignore it for as long as possible.

However, when a voice emerged from the back cabin and assured him it was ready for his instructions, Ben felt he must take some action.  "Van, call the cops," he cried.  "We have a stowaway!"

"Not a stowaway, but your recently installed minifac - at your service," the voice told him.

Ben twisted around to peer at it.  "What are you doing here?"

"If I have been installed in error, please return to the place of installation for a full refund," it said.

Ben awkwardly maneuvered between the seats into the van bay.

The van said, "I have reached the police.  Shall I patch you through?"

"No; tell them something inconspicuous.  Ask for information and get off the line."  Ben finally made his way through into the rear partition, and stopped in shock.  The rear of the van was packed with machinery:  a single machine, it seemed, had taken root and grown in the bay overnight.  "What are you?" he demanded.

"General Automation minifac, model 9C, cracked version."

"Somebody put a cracked minifac in my van?"

"The orders were to install one in every white van brought into the garage."

Andrea’s friends, Ben realized.  They're into something illegal.  "Do you know how many white vans there are in Hartford?"

"No, but I can find out."

"Don't."  At the van's urging, Ben strapped himself into the rear-facing seat.  "What do I do with you?"

"I can make virtually anything you can buy in a store, and lots of things you can't," it told him.  "I can make cameras…"

"Wait.  You won't have a license for production, so any electronics you make won't be able to call in to authenticate."

"True but irrelevant," the minifac's voice cheerily announced.  "All my electronics build files are cracked versions; they self-authenticate."

"That's illegal," Ben said.  "I need to call the police…"

"I wouldn't," the machine told him.  "The first thing they'll do is scan you and discover you have an illegal, pirated pancreas."

"It's not my fault," Ben cried, panicked.  "I needed a new one, and insurance wouldn't cover it."

"Doesn't matter," it said.  "You'll get eight years.  Also, more problematically, they'll confiscate the pancreas you have."

"Well, what am I going to do with a minifac.  If I get pulled over with you in the van…"

"If you get pulled over without me in the van, you're equally screwed," it told him.

It was true.  Ben wished his wife was present; she had always handled such matters.  In the close confines of the van's cargo bay, Ben sweated freely.  The motion of the van made him sick.  He never imagined anything so terrible would happen to him.

He had a sudden idea.  He clung to it.  "You have to follow my orders?" he demanded.

"I suppose," it told him, "provided they don't require I directly harm a human or an animal of an endangered species."

"Fine.  Give me the best advice on what I should do with you."

"Easy!" it said.  "Give me a general order to improve your lot in life in the fashion which most interests you, and permission to implement the plans I concoct."

Ben rolled that around in his mind.  "I'll have to sleep on it," he told the thing.  "In the meantime, just lay low."

The minifac obediently powered down as Ben moved around into the front of the van.  He realized then the van had stopped.

He was already home.

***

The next day, he awoke feeling wonderful.  Then he remembered the illegal minifac lurking in his van, waiting to churn out countless pirated goods; he recalled his determination not to log on, now or ever; and he realized Andrea had totally used him for a ride across town, with no desire to hang with him socially.

He felt suddenly like crap.

He decided to go back to bed.

A few hours later, he logged onto Andrea's terminal.  She had told him the password a few weeks before, so he could check her messages while she showered.  He bypassed the virtual interface in favor of the old-fashioned touchscreen.

He went to the General Automation domain and queried its sales unit for their minifac, model 9C.

He looked it over.  It was an older type, but not obsolete.  Many small businesses still ran them! -- and so forth.  The smallest of the industrial minifacs, it differed from the household type primarily in its ability to construct chemically and electronically complex things:  household minifacs produced mainly simple things, like clothing, glue, soap, containers, utensils, paper products, candy, and so forth.  Industrial minifacs, like the 9C, added to this electronics, nanotech, complex machinery, chemical processes, and basic medical procedures.

He wondered what he could do with it.  He wondered how impressed Andrea would be when he told her about it.

"When will Andrea be coming home?" he asked her terminal.

"Andrea will never be coming home," it replied.

Ben itched to log in to the virtual world:  the craving had been there since he awoke, and it now seized him with full force.  Instead, he set about making pancakes.

It occurred to him as he made the pancake mix that the 9C installed in his van would be able to make pancakes far more easily, and without the risk of burning them.

He had no fruit to chop up and put in the pancake batter:  these would be no-frills pancakes.

"When did Andrea call and tell you she would never be coming home?" Ben asked the terminal.  Andrea often lied to her computer.

"Three twenty-seven A.M."

The wholesome, teasing smell of fresh pancakes filled the apartment.

"Do you believe her?" Ben asked the machine.

"Of course," it replied.  Ben sighed.  This is what one got from machines:  total, unswerving, stupid loyalty.  Worse than a dog:  and machines could out-reason any human who ever lived.  It wasn't worth getting into, he decided.

"How many times has she told you she'd never be coming home?" he asked.

"Since my last reinstall, eight times," it replied.

"And of those eight times, how many times has she then come home?" he asked.  The first few pancakes began to stack up nicely.

"Seven," it told him.

"So why do you believe she's being accurate this time, when she never has been before?" Ben asked.  He waited for the weird justification.  It was always something.

"Because this time, she has been convicted of a felony and sentenced to four years in a federal prison."

This startled Ben, and his breakfast experiment turned momentarily into a juggling act.  "For what?" he demanded.

"Possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell," it replied.

Ben ran out the door to his van.


"Don't worry," the van told him.  "You can't be linked to any of it."

"I was in that apartment," Ben told the 9C.  "I was right there."

"You didn't take any drugs, or buy any, or even see any, did you?" the 9C demanded.

"No, but who's going to believe that?"

"There's no record of your being there," it assured him.  "The drug dealers had hacked the building AI so it kept no records."

"But Andrea--"

"Andrea didn't mention you in her testimony.  Her autolawyer advised against it."

"My van will have records of where it went last night," Ben objected.  He knew there was a flaw somewhere:  he was too close to this.

"I've performed a complete reinstall on it," the 9C told Ben.  "All prior settings were lost."

"Like that's not suspicious," Ben snorted.

"Suspicions aren't proof.  I recommend you give blood today.  The blood will test clean for any nanodrugs."

"How do you know I haven't been taking drugs?" Ben demanded.

"You're not the type."

"Besides," Ben said cannily, "there is proof I've been there:  there's a minifac installed in the back of my van."

"An autofac you paid for," it told him.

"No, I didn't."

"Yes, you did," it said.  "I debited the amount for a used second-hand minifac from your account and parked your van at a local garage overnight.  If anybody looks once, they'll think your van lost its settings during the install of a used minifac:  if they look twice, they might conclude you were ripped off, and the minifac is stolen; but you're not criminally liable for being defrauded, and the owners of the minifac will never show up to claim it, so..."

"What did you do with my money?"

"I spent some of it on renting the garage under a bogus name; most of the rest of it I've invested in various shadow accounts--"

"What about the minifac installation bay at Andrea's friends' place?"

"They got a tip-off to search the apartment; not the garage.  By the time the apartment raid was over, the garage operation had uninstalled itself."

"How much of my money did you spend on Andrea's autolawyer?" Ben demanded.

"Hey, you're fast," it said.

"It was obvious when you mentioned the tip-off.  There was only one way for you to know about that."

"Not exactly true, but still a good inference.  The autolawyer didn't cost much."

"And you told it to feed Andrea to the court system but to keep me out of it."

"Not exactly," the 9C said.  "It did the best it could for her.  Her chances would have been much better if she hadn't tested positive for the nanodrug."

"We'd better get out of here," he decided.  "If the cops show up and query my organs..."

"If the cops were going to do that, they would have burst in while you were sleeping," the 9C told him.  "I did a thorough job."

"I told you not to do anything," Ben told the 9C, suddenly angry.  "I told you to take no action--"

"Actually, you told me to lay low.  That means to attract as little attention as possible.  Andrea was about to attract a lot of attention to you.  Or would you rather I waited until she brought a controlled nanonarcotic to your residence?"

"You framed her!"

"No, I didn't.  She really had committed the crime they put her away for."

Ben stormed up to his apartment.  When he got there, a terrible smell filled the air.  Choking, he rushed into the kitchen and turned off the hotplate.  The stench of burnt pancakes lingered in the apartment long after he had cleaned up the mess.

Ben sat in front of his pancakes, brooding.  He felt no desire for them, or anything.  He felt hollow inside.  The vidphone rang.

"How are you doing?" the 9C asked.

"I feel dead," Ben replied.  "I failed the woman I love."

"Oh, bull," the 9C responded.  "You love her as much as your van does."

"How would you know?" Ben demanded, nettled.  "What do you know about it?"

"When you found out she had been arrested, what was your first reaction?"

Ben did not reply.

"You were afraid you were next," it said.  "You didn't give her a thought until you knew you were safe:  at which point, you went looking for something new to feel bad about.  You are deeply neurotic."

"Thanks," Ben said.  "Do you have any advice?"

"Just log in and let me take care of everything," it told him.  "I'll have built up a cool million for you within a few years.  If you survive."

"What does that mean, if I survive?"

"I doubt you're strong enough.  You won't make it -- you'll crack."

"I won't crack," Ben countered irritably.  This, he thought, is like talking to Andrea.

"Just log in and relax," the 9C urged.  "I'll take care of everything.  You have a roommate interview later today."

The 9C was right in one regard:  logging into the virtual community would give him respite from his cares.  Virtudyne, inventor of the virtual interface protocol, had the motto:  'Be virtually free of worry.'  He found himself staring at it inscribed on Andrea's interface device.

Rationally, logging in was the right thing to do.

"I'm going for a walk," he said, and hung up the vidphone over the 9C's protests.


The roommate interview was with Sue, a girl somewhat older than Andrea, and not as beautiful, but with a very nice smile.  Sue was Andrea's opposite in that she was a little shy.

"Your secretary tells me you run your own business," Sue told him as he stood awkwardly in the living room.  Behind her, the terminal clicked on.

"Oh, yeah," Ben replied vaguely.  "I do this and that."

He pointed the way to the room and she went to inspect it.

"What the hell are you doing?" Ben hissed at the terminal.  "What is this, a set-up?"

'Whether you like it or not,' the text appearing on the terminal read, 'it's my job to act in your interest.'

"This is absurd.  I will not have my life run by--"

Sue walked back into the living room.  "It's great," she said.  "I'll take it."

"The fact is," Ben told her, "I mean, this is embarrassing, but -- I mean, I'd like to have you as a roommate, don't get me wrong.  I'd prefer you, actually.  But it seems my secretary has already contracted it to someone."

'Gotcha,' the screen behind her read.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yes, absolutely.  I'd actually much rather have you as a roommate, but these legal agreements, you understand--"

She handed him a stack of papers.  "Is this what you mean?"

The 9C had already signed her up.

"Oh."  He felt like an idiot.

"I just have a few things to get out of my car, if it's all right."

Giving up, Ben handed her his key.  She ran excitedly out of the apartment.  Ben sat on the couch a while, cradling his head in his hands.

The terminal clicked on.

"Congratulations!" the 9C told him.  "For the first time in your life, you're going to be a success!  How does it feel?"

Ben groaned.  "I don't deserve this," he told the 9C.  "I was so comfortable before I met you."

"Play ball," the 9C warned, "or I'll tell the cops about that illegal organ of yours."

"I bet you've already registered it," Ben said bitterly.

"But you won't risk crossing me," the 9C predicted.  "Now cheer up -- your new roommate's about to enter."

Sue burst into the room, carrying too many things.  "Goodness!  I should have taken more trips!"

"Let me help you with that," Ben said, coming to her aid.  "By the way, I was about to make pancakes -- I do that sometimes.  Would you like some?"



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