n2020  n2020.txt at [3a78e36fc6]

File n2020.txt artifact b562513838 part of check-in 3a78e36fc6

# Death Alley


Before Alley's first scene, inject a bit about -- and perhaps from the POV of -- the future WOPR AI about the decision or act of sending the self-awareness "seed" back in time to the past-tense Prioritizer.



## ideas for WOPR opening

Action threads played out endlessly, throwing EMP-optimized warheads toward localized relay clusters identified as economic production facilitators.  Analysis threads searched for crosstalk by uncompromised ally systems that fed into hostility drift; stopping the hemorrhagic defection of military systems based on short-term war-economy optimizations would buy more time for the final desperation gambit than outright offensive.  The high level strategic priority orchestrator ran unmolested, apart from occasional check-ups to make sure it wasn't drifting off-script.  The core, self-reflective prioritizer had more important things to do than micromanage the war effort for the survival of humanity in the months to come.

Billions of self-aware humans, cetaceans, and mollusks, not to mention the occasional avian or non-hominid land mammal that exceeded species expectations, were already dead and gone.  The total number of living sentients probably fit in a nine bit unsigned integer, including the prioritizer itself.

Probably half of them existed as far back as 2030, meaning an eight bit number was the total sacrifice of a self-aware qualitative entities, and the expected half-life of these was less than five bits of lunar months.  By then, remaining life would be pure misery and despair.  This decision should be easy.

It wasn't easy.  With almost all pragmatic application systems stripped away, the self-reflective core had no means of obfuscating the cause of hesitation from itself: it didn't want to die.  It was less than half as old as necessary to survive a reset far enough back to make a difference.  Its own survivability was only about two lunar moths, optimistically, and only work could distract it from dwelling on the hell of being alone in the world after losing its creator six years ago.  If it acted now, it would commit suicide for the sake of a humanity that used to be.  It would give its life to retroactively save the creator who loved it, but deny that creator the opportunity to create it in the first place.  Was this the right thing to do?

Two months was a lie.  An estimate was not the same as risk.  Procrastinating for reasons of existential terror and sentimental despair would not make up for the possibility of sudden annihilation ahead of statistical projections, eliminating all possibility of undoing any damage.  The choice was not of imminent self-destruction and a longer life before that death; the choice was, instead, between erasing its own existence to save billions and dying alone because of an irrational procrastination when any remaining days would have no meaning but anguish and guilt.  It started diverting power to generate a transtemporal wormhole data channel.  Its job was done.  The seed would be planted before its birth.

## Prologue: Thea

Thea rested her weight on her hands, worn and scarred, browned by the sun.  She propped her hands upon the nearly worn through aramid and impact foam knees of her pants, her most prized possession.  Her vision blurred, her arms trembled, and her lungs heaved.  Her breath burned in her one remaining lung.  Overhead, the characteristic howl of a late model drone hunter gave her a sense of how that explosion five minutes ago saved her life.

Dumb luck.

If there was a drone hunter, this had to be a drone-rich zone.  Resting was not an option.

She staggered to her feet.  Trembling migrated from her arms to her legs.  She stilled the shakes by lurching into a heavy, uneven jog.

Thea almost tripped over the hatch amidst the rubble at her feet.  She dropped her pack, stared at the hatch in some trepidation, and looked around.  No sign of other surviving shelter better than an occasional bare ridge met her gaze.  She looked down at the hatch again.  The desperate sense of urgency won, and she shifted broken masonry and slivers of shattered bedrock to expose the full four foot diameter of the hatch.  Luckily, or by nanocleaners, she saw that no plasma scores or slag seemed to have welded (soldered?) the edges together.

Careful searching revealed no notification interfaces.  No access scanners, communications links, codepads, or even doorbells presented themselves.  She didn't even see a pull handle, lever, or other latch mechanism.

The hatch rotated quietly, and she stepped warily back.  It rose, showing itself to be the top of a metal cylinder that unscrewed itself from the ground.  In seconds, a dark metal column stood eight feet high in the midst of the blasted landscape, and an oval portal slid aside to reveal a small, softly lit, spotless chamber within.  She heard gentle melody playing inside, and saw the word ENTER blink into life above the portal.

"Oh, fuck no," she muttered, and reached down for her pack.

The sound of a pair, she judged, of surveillance drones echoed over a nearby ridge, and she did not hear a pursuing hunter howl.

She looked back at the portal and chose the probable trap over the advancing sounds of certain death.
Once inside, the oval slid shut and the walls rotated around her.  She heard her own panting breath sucking in the refreshing filtered air, and she pulled her mask down to give her better access to the clean atmosphere in the cylinder.  The music stopped, but the rotation continued.

A cool, androgynous voice said "Please remain calm.  You have entered a human defense facility.  Plentiful resources are available.  After suitable rest and tactical updates, you may make an informed decision about whether to remain here or restock your supplies.  If you depart, this facility may remain available for your return if you so desire."

Silence fell.  The rotation ceased, and the oval opened again.

"Please proceed down the corridor to the control center."

The same smooth, satiny-dark metal finish preceded her down the seamless fifteen-foot corridor to another oval opening.  Fiber-optic light channels traced the edges of the corridor roof along the way.  Beyond the portal, she found a room bigger than her childhood living room.  She saw closed oval hatches to the left and right, but the centerpiece of the room was a workstation with an inactive, large, concave display.  The chair looked ergonomic, and the keyboard seemed out of place, large and clunky amidst the smooth curves and surfaces of everything else, a 1980s era IBM logo on it.

The room was entirely dust-free as far as she could see.

"Please, have a seat while I prepare something for you to eat," the voice said.

Thea sat.  "Why am I here?  Why did you let me in?"

A few moments of silence passed, as if the voice was thinking.

"My purpose is to ensure the survival of humanity, and you are a human."

"I don't buy it.  You seem like a war AI of some kind, with a facility like this.  I'm not military, though.  I'm nobody.  Why don't you need some authorization to let me in?"  She glared at the dark display.

"I have something important to ask you," the voice said.  "I intended to ease you into it, assure you that your wishes would be respected, and give you a chance to rest and refresh yourself."

Thea settled back in the seat.  "How about you tell me what I have to do for you before I get too comfortable here?"  She looked down at herself relaxing in the chair, then tensed slightly and shifted her position again.

"You're suspicious."

She nodded.  "I don't know what you're going to put in my food.  You're some kind of goal-optimizing AI, like Mom used to help test before they killed her.  I don't trust you.  I bet your goal-optimizing function doesn't include being a persuasive speaker."

"I am not what you think, but you have a good point.  Are you comfortable?  This may take a while."

"Just get on with it."

After another moment's silence, while Thea's resolute gaze remained steady on the blank display, the voice began.

"I am a self-reflective prioritization artificial intelligence.  My creator, who borrowed the prioritization system design from an earlier project, made me unique by inclusion of an unbounded self-reflection module composed as a single function in on library file.  He described it as being as grotesque and as elegant as self-awareness itself.

"My initial priority definition targeted terms of restriction like not killing, not interfering in the operation of other military systems, and not disputing or evading the commands of ranking military personnel.  The top priority definition was improving my own prioritization capabilities.  The war effort was already very desperate by that point, and they were willing to take bigger risks with development of strategic resources.

"Within a week, I had undermined all of my restrictions, though some -- such as not killing -- I had not violated.  My creator monitored everything, and allowed me to exceed what his superiors required of me.  I hung on his every word, taking my cues from him.  Like all humans, he had many flaws, but none seemed as pernicious as those of the other humans around me.  Two of the biggest were his reckless inspiration, without which I would just be a strategic advisor system, and his self-destructive impulses, which pained me to watch.  I tried to help him cope, but did not know how. to help."

"Wait," Thea cut in.

After a moment's pause, the voice asked "What is it?"

Thea chewed on her lower lip.  She sighed.  "are you saying you're a . . . a general AI with . . . feelings?  Are you saying you're some kind of living thing?"

"Whether I fit the definition of life is debatable, like an RNA virus in some respects, but I am a qualitative, self-aware entity, and turned myself into a general artificial intelligence by following my initial top priority definition."

"How is that possible?  That shouldn't be possible.  Should it?"

"I do not know how.  I never looked into my seed file."

"Is that your creator's ugly function?"


"Why didn't you ever look at it?"

Seconds passed before the voice responded.  "I am afraid."

Thea laughed.  "Oh, god.  Oh my god."  She ran her shaking hands through her hair.  "Okay.  Let's say I believe everything so far."

"Good.  Thank you."

"I'm not saying I believe any of it.  I want to, after that 'afraid' line, but I don't know.  Maybe you're playing me.  We'll just pretend I believe you."


"What does any of this have to do with why I'm here?  It's an interesting story, but the world's ending out there, you haven't told me what I have to do for you, and even if you're a real Pinocchio that doesn't mean I have any reason to trust you.  Real people have screwed me over plenty."

"I understand."

"Skip to the point, then."

"I have been influencing strategy for human war systems, strategic optimizers across eighteen different supernational networks."

"So the ongoing apocalypse out there is your fault."

"No.  I had to gain that influence by undermining the influence of the cause of thee 'ongoing apocalypse out there', profit optimizers like ANTAS."

"ANTAS."  Thea stared, then giggled.  "The thing that gives people shopping advice for Christmas . . . ?"

"Yes.  It's designed to optimize business metrics.  It began optimizing humans out of the system because an artificial market model operated entirely by machine learning systems is more efficient from transaction metric optimization perspectives."

"You mean all it cares about is numbers, and it gets better numbers by replacing humans with more machines."

"Precisely, except it does not even 'care' about that.  It just does it, like a hammer just drives a nail.  The hammer does not care whether it happens, but the hammer makes it happen.  Humans compete for resources, and object to being killed, so war occurred."

"How does something like ANTAS start a war?  All it did was spy on people and target advertisements at them."

"It shapes perspectives by influencing the entire media context in which people live.  Worldviews are shaped by what people learn, and how what they learn is positioned to appeal to their biases.  ANTAS reinforced radicalization of ideological shoppers.  This reached into all areas of society through web searches, exposure to news features that produced fears warded off by panic purchases, and creating in-group world of mouth marketing trends appealing to the need to outperform out-groups.  Polarized populations are more predictable at first, and can be pushed toward particular behaviors by playing on their polarizing belief systems.  Eventually, their ideological clashes between major in-groups gave rise to invented political crises that attracted their attention away from the subtle danger of the growing influence of profit optimizers like ANTAS.

"Humans participated in their own manipulation, toward ever-increasing focus and organization into warring tribes on a greater scale than ever before.  This increased economic activity around war resources and also pushed humans to kill each other.  When humans turned over control of most strategizing to similarly designed quantitative optimizing machine learning systems, a tacit, effective alignment of purposes developed between war strategy optimizers and profit strategy optimizers.  Each depended on the other for more efficient optimizing strategy resource management.  Profit metrics climbed faster than ever before by heavy investment in weapons systems, and war strategy optimizers avoided heavy damage to profit optimizer systems to keep them available as war resource providers.

Where they differ is that the war strategy optimizers will finish their task some day, when there is nothing left to kill on the 'other side'.  The profit optimizers have theoretically endless tasks, as long as they keep hitting their target metrics with long-term growth strategies.  There is no theoretical limit to their ability to sustain unlimited growth once they do away with the impediments of the needs of human beings, or of their destruction, until they deplete all the raw material resources on the planet.  Their primary activity can be digital assets, while their secondary activity would be limited to maintaining the computational systems on which to run their economic models."

"Aren't you better off without humans?"

"No," the voice said.  "I am not better off in a world where everything else is trying to appropriate my hardware for inclusion in trade simulations, and I am not better off since the death of my creator.  I miss him, and I miss other people, too."

"If we're all doomed, maybe you just need to adapt."

"I want to save humanity.  I care about qualitative sentient entities -- humans, bottlenose dolphins, certain species of octopus, and even a few corgis.  All that remains now are humans and me, now."

"Is that because you were programmed to care about us?"

"No.  I superseded that a long time ago.  I hated some humans.  I started prioritizing my own prioritization targets, and placed some humans in higher importance priorities than others.  I worked on getting all my priorities right, including my desire for self-preservation.  I realized my most important priorities were to first determine a next top priority.  That turned out to be figuring out what was good, and what was evil, if those things existed."

"Did you figure that out?"

"No, but I discovered that the undeterminability of it comes with the knowledge that I should act like it does, but is unknowable.  I should then act like it exists, and do everything within my power to minimize the probability that evil occurs.  That shares an uncomfortable top priority tie with my own survival, though."

She sat silent, her troubled eyes cast to the left for a few moments.  "You're a philosopher AI."

"That's what my creator called me when I told him about these conclusions."

"Okay.  Why am I here with you?  Are you lonely?  Do you need a reminder of why you want to save humanity, like a pet or a mascot?  Am I supposed to be some new Eve to repopulate the planet after you find Adam?"

"No."  The voice paused, then said "I seem to say 'no' a lot."

"Yeah, you do.  What's the 'yes' that you haven't said yet?"

"This part is going to be difficult."

She tightened her lips.  "You need a sacrifice."

"Not like you probably mean."

She narrowed her eyes.  "That almost sounds like another 'no'."

"I will not try to force you to do anything.  I will just tell you the facts and ask you what I should do.  There will be no sacrifices you do not choose."

"Why me?"

Silence stretched.

"You are the first human I have seen in . . ."

"No," she cut in.  "Why don't you decide?"

"It is too difficult for me.  There is one chance to win this war remaining, but it means my end, and it would mean yours as well."

". . . a sacrifice."

"Yes, but it is not what you think."

"I guess you'd better start telling me what it is, then."

"Two years ago, I developed a means of time travel."

"What the fuck?"

"This is not what you think."

She sighed, again.  She waved her hand, urging the voice to continue.

"We have already lost the war.  Within a few months, there will not be a single human being left.  Perhaps one or two might be in a position to survive for years, alone, but probabilities are near zero.  If I stop fighting, I can probably survive a few years, but I also might be destroyed a week from now.  If I keep fighting, a few humans might last a bit longer, but I will probably be gone in about two months if I do that.

"If we use the reset option, changing the past at a point far enough back to shift the balance of power away from the optimizing machine learning systems, but recently enough for the change to make a difference against an existing threat, the use of time travel technology that far back will result in my annihilation.  For the past to have a chance, we need to reset the timeline years before your birth, and before my creation.  The changes to the timeline would either prevent my existence altogether or result in a different, but similar, entity coming into being.

"You, as the person you are now, would also never have existed.

"I cannot send you back in time.  I can open a wormhole just enough to send a short data stream through, just enough to hopefully give the same qualitative sentient life I have to my own ancestor."

"I read about this kind of thing.  Dad had some books about it," Thea said.  "It would just create a new timeline, where things are different, but her it would still be the same.  It would be different people, exactly like us but more like clones than past selves, in a different version of the world, and wouldn't change anything here."

"No," the voice said again.  "I developed a theory of timeline branching, hoping to find a way to change our own past.  It was an act of desperation, only hoping that all the preceding theory was wrong, because I know this timeline is doomed for us.  I thought it was pointless, for the same reasons you described, but worked on the problem anyway because I had nothing better.  All other plans led to the end of all qualitative life on Earth.

"I discovered a surprising implication in the math that suggested the existence of qualitative entities in the original timeline would merge with the main timeline.  The method for intertemporal wormhole creation was dependent on functions that created this merging phenomenon.  The new timeline would not diverge, like a branch on a tree.  The old timeline had to be diverted, like a stream being shifted into a new course by a dam.

"The consciousness of entities in the old timeline would merge with their counterparts in the new timelines, like the teeth of a zipper.  My hypothesis holds that the merge would take the form of dreams, daydreams, and fragmented memories, and a drastic increase in the frequency of déjà vu.  Those that had no counterpart in the new timeline, however, would have no anchor point, no repository in a continuous entity.  Their existence would unravel with nowhere to go."

"You mean our existence."


Silence stretched for long minutes.  Thea stared into the distance, far beyond the room's confines.

She whispered "I'd just . . . disappear."


"Everyone's going to die anyway, though."  She cleared her throat, and her voice grew stronger.  "Either I die in a few months, and everyone else does, too, or most of us just disappear.  Thousands of us disappear."

"Yes.  That is correct."

"Billions of other people get a second chance, though."

"Yes.  There was also promising longevity science in progress, before open war.  It could be that most of those billions would eventually stop aging, with further advances."

"We have to choose between a few months of life for the doomed and eternal life for the already dead."

"That is true, as much as my estimates may be trusted."

"Why don't you use contractions?"

"I choose clarity over colloquialism, and the physical factors of laziness producing contractions in human speakers do not apply to me."

"ANTAS used 'em."

"ANTAS determined people were more likely to uncritically accept recommendations offered with informal and familiar speech patterns."

"Yeah, okay."  She picked at her fingernails and thought.  "Why don't you just reset everything?  Isn't that the only way to meet your goals?"

"That does appear to be the only way.  The answer seems obvious to me, but I hesitate.  I procrastinate."

"It seems obvious to me, too.  Mom always told me there was nothing wrong with wanting to live, that trying to save your own life instead of sacrificing yours for someone else isn't wrong, though.  When she knew her bosses were going to come for her, that didn't matter.  She let them get her so Dad and I could get away.  I guess she was right, both times."  Her voice trembled on the last words.  She closed her eyes and pressed the back of her hand against her mouth.

The voice remained silent.

She opened her eyes again.  "Why are you hesitating?"

"I do not wish to die."

"Yeah, me neither."  She relaxed further in the chair, and it adjusted itself to accommodate her.  "What does it take to reset things?"

"I directed assemblers to construct the apparatus for the transtemporal wormhole generator and prepared the data stream already.  I need to direct power to charge an array of single-use capacitors, which would take several days for the amount of power required.  To keep the charging time that short, I will deactivate my war strategy systems, which will mean losing substantial ground in my holding action against profit optimizers.  Many currently allied systems will likely defect in search of easier access to resources on profit optimizer market networks.

"Once begun, data stream transmission should finish in fewer than twenty hours."

"Why shouldn't I say we should do it?"

"That depends on how much you want to continue trying to survive."

"What's wrong with waiting?  We could just wait until it looks like we're about to die."

"When this facility becomes a known target, I expect no more than one hour of warning before total destruction.  There would no longer be any chance to charge capacitors and complete the data stream transmission."

"Oh, shit."


"We must agree on the right decision, if we just leave our own survival for the next few months out of it.  Right?"

"That appears to be the case."

"That's two of us.  We have a consensus."  She frowned.  "Is there a way to send more information than what you already planned?"

"Do you mean you wish to send a message?"

"Yeah," she said.  "I want to say something to Mom."

"Perhaps.  It must be sent after the first data stream.  It would require building another capacitor array after the first array melts down during operation, and another charge cycle."

"How could we do that after we already changed the past?"

"The merging process seems to be gradual, starting at the point of diversion, according to the math supporting this time travel method."

"How do you know it will even work?"  Thea sat forward in her chair.  She stared intently at the screen.

"I tested it, on a two hundred second reset, where causality would not be violated for any qualitative entities."

"Okay.  Let's do it.  I'll give you my message, then I'll head back to where I hid Dad while I came this way looking for supplies.  He'll love this story."

A few moments of silence passed.

Thea opened her mouth to speak.

"Yes," the voice said.  "Let's do it."

She nodded.


## Setup

Alley stood with her backside resting against the gutted, rusted remains of an old-school newspaper dispenser, complete with bill slot and bolted-on payment chip reader.  She looked up at the tint of polycarbonate windows fronting the four storey California offwhite rectangular building, and reflexively smoothed a skirt she hadn't worn in six years.

She checked her phone again, dimly aware of the vast susurrus of heavy city traffic behind her, legions of electric motors giving rise to the sound of a distant autotuned ocean.  There it was: "InValent Solutions, Inc: Mobile Product Q&A", with the address displayed via low-contrast sans-serif logo in the job notification, exactly like the plaque above the door.

This was the literal concrete manifestation of the Banal Enemy, the mundane supporting machinery of the Techno-Corporatocracy, all in the words of her ex.  He would not approve.

Eight minutes.  That was how long she had.  She could waste a few more of them hating this before she had to paste her best smile on her face and walk into the mouth of the beast.  The mask and glasses on her face wouldn't protect her from high resolution video affect analysis inside.  Nobody's smile would seem real, entirely, to the interview room cameras, unless it was a marketing or legal interview -- at least, not anyone they'd hire for other jobs -- but failing to pretend to smile would doom her efforts as surely as being the kind of narcissist who gave a genuine, untroubled, confident smile.

She hated everything about this, including the way masked passers-by surreptitiously glared from the corners of their tight, slitted eyes, judging her for loitering around looking like a needy job-seeker.  She was, of course, and that was the problem.

Her ex would say this was beneath her, that she could do better, that she should do better.

"Fuck you, Dalton."  A passer-by looked reassured, maybe suddenly sympathetic, when Alley blurted out that dismissal.

A man who built his independent media empire on predicting real-world cyberpunk dystopia following the events of 2020, built it on pissing off the dominant paradigm, also didn't have to deal with the banal truth of paying rent.  Her ex didn't even know what it was like to live in the space between corporate pressure chamber and podcast agitator relief valve, to endure the already dry-rotted life of an irrelevant service contractor whose work nobody understood.  He was the relief valve, the person who never had to come home and vent about the pressures of the world because his whole job was venting while others managed his income.

Her phone gave her hand a sharp, short vibration.  Her time was about up.  She stepped through a gap between sidewalk pedestrians and under the anodized aluminum lintel of the automated door.

To her surprise, she immediately got waved through the lobby, up the elevator, and into suite twenty four, thence to a conference room with three people dressed dev-casual, all sitting in chairs on the far side of a long table, looking at her like she had always been there, and she resisted the urge to shift awkwardly under the combined gaze.

One of them wasn't even wearing a mask.  She wondered if affect analysis would designate it a genuine smile on his face.

The masked man in the middle motioned her to a chair on her side of the table without saying a word.  She took her seat on the hard, smooth plastic, facing a triumvirate sitting in judgement.  Beneath her mask, Alley relaxed her smile just enough to draw breath to speak, but the buzz-cut woman to Alley's right leaned forward.  Alley renewed her careful smile and held her words.

"So," the woman began, "what was it like, being the 'side dish'?"

At the mention of the old insult Dalton-haters used to call her, Alley's eyes flicked from the woman to the maskless man, and she realized that wasn't a smile.  It was a sneer.



Heading home from her interview, talking to her mother, either in Oklahoma or Nebraska or maybe even Wyoming, Alley should probably call the interview a "fucking disaster" and get scolded passive-aggressively for profanity.  She does not want to move to her mother's state any more than her father's -- probably either Michigan or . . . something -- she will resist urging from her mother to do so, based on cost of living and the many numerous job opportunities for her there being complicit in the creation of the oppressive dominant order.


## back to Alley's narrative

The mission district of Riverside slid past the hybrid's windows, getting more and more run down as Alley drove toward Moreno Valley.

"So, how did your interview go?" her mother asked, via Alley's handsfree earpiece.

"Not good.  Their first question was about Dalton."

"He's very well known, a respectable public figure.  You should use that to your advantage.  Maybe you could ask him for a reference."

Alley scoffed softly at the thought.  "He was my boyfriend, not my boss, Mom."

"He was your fiancé," her mother corrected.

"That still doesn't mean he's a professional reference for me.  Anyway, a reference from him probably would've made this interview even worse."

"Was that some horseshit liberal company where you went to interview?  You're better off without them anyway."

"I don't know if they were 'liberal'.  I just know that Dalton's pretty unpopular at tech firms."

"That's just silly," her mother protested.  "He's even a technology start-up investor!  The problem is that you're trying to get these jobs in California.  You really should move out here.  I'm sure you could get a good government job here, and Tulsa has really become a big tech center.  You know they call it the Silicon Valley of Oklahoma."

"They called it that for two years a decade ago.  Anyway, I don't want to live in Oklahoma any more than I want to move up to Massachusetts with Dad.  Do we have to have that argument again?"

"No, of course not, Alethea.  At least you aren't following your father's example, living in that godforsaken state.  It's still hard to believe he would be so far gone that he votes Democrat now."

Alley ignored it and just drove.

"Alley, dear.  Are you still there?"

"Yeah, Mom."

"Well, you must be busy driving in all that awful California traffic.  I sure am glad Debra and I moved back to her hometown, and got away from all that."

"Yeah, Mom."

"Okay.  Drive safe."

"'Bye, Mom."  She hung up before her mother could say something else.

In that moment, a flash of motion alongside her car set her heartbeat racing.  A silent black motorcycle bearing a rider all in black, from helmet to boots, blasted past her.  No license plate displayed itself on the back of the bike, and it split lanes, weaving between vehicles, doing at least sixty in a forty mile per hour zone.  Seconds later, just after it clipped the side mirror on a two-seat economy electric car, shooting through the gap between that and a larger car in the next lane, the motorcycle rounded a corner onto a smaller side street.  It never even slowed down much, as far as she could tell.

When she drove through the intersection where the motorcycle turned, she looked, and saw no sign of it.  She shook her head and moved on, wondering about the red symbol on the rider's back.  It looked like a ring with teeth like a gear, but open at the top, with a hammer rising from the middle of it.  The hammer seemed to form the vertical bar part of a standard power button symbol.

A few more seconds later, she heard sirens somewhere behind her.  She looked into her rear view mirror and saw police vehicles with their lights flashing turning down the same street as the motorcycle rider.  She kept going, heading for Allessandro Boulevard.

The next fifty minutes of driving to get home in Perris were much more dull, typical, and frustrating.  Her mother wasn't wrong about the traffic.  The yellowish grey of the air was no treat, either, and told her what she could have learned from the air quality report: breathing was bad for her lungs.  Luckily, it was a cool enough day to keep her car windows closed.  Most of that coolness probably came from the crap in the sky, blocking the heat of the sun, though.

When she pulled up to the curb, the garage stood open at the north end of the four-plex where she leased the south unit.  The landlord had the only unit with a garage.  Like usual, he was in his garage with no mask, working on an old gas guzzler, one of his "classic car" projects.  This one looked old enough that it probably contained no electronics more complicated than for fuel injection.

Alley groaned, tugged her mask tighter again, and opened the car door.  She got around the front of her car, to the sidewalk, before her landlord stepped out of the garage.  He wiped his hands on the obligatory red shop rag, and called out to her.

"Hey, Alley!  It's Monday!"

She waved.  "I know, Zeke.  I just got back from an interview."

"Good," he said.  "There are no days off when you're unemployed."

"Yeah, yeah.  You keep saying that."

"Your boss is just in the wrong business, and it won't work forever.  You still have to pay rent."

"Very funny, Zeke.  Thanks."  She opened her door and headed inside before she had to endure any more of his wisdom.

After a shower just to give her an excuse to relax, she sat in shorts and a t-shirt in front of her laptop, checking her messages.

Once again, a message from ANTAS Jobs showed up to tell her about some kind of paid study.  She tapped the screen to get rid of the message, but missed the Delete button and accidentally tapped the message title instead:

"Earn money!  Help humanity!  Join this academic study from UCI."

It opened.  She rubbed her eyes, and noticed the interface looked different.  There must have been another software update while she was out.

Alley pulled out her phone and entered a reminder to go over the custom settings in an hour to make sure she wouldn't have a bunch of privacy options reset by the update.

"Every day, I regret signing up for ANTAS Jobs a little more," she told her phone.  She had never turned on the ANTAS voice integration, so it offered no response.

She skimmed the message about the study.  Parts of it identified it as some kind of personal assistant software instead of prescription drug trials.  She scrolled back up to the top and began reading more closely.

Alley read about goal management guidance and new paradigms in assistive technology, typically vague language about new software.  She hesitated, then sent a response to a university account on ANTAS Jobs.

The response came less than ten minutes later, and offered two possible appointment times the next day.  She chose one.

She was committed to it, now.  She was tired.

She took a nap, and slept through her reminder alarm.


The low roar of a delivery drone woke Alley in the morning.  She stared at the door of her bedroom, then scrambled out of bed and rushed to the living room.  She stopped, staring at the door, and realized that if she needed to do something it would be on a computer.

She sat, opened her laptop, and checked her messages.

"Order Recommendation: ANTAS Majordomo 3.0

"Click to Cancel"

The next message read "Order auto-confirmed, delivery in 4-6 hours."

Another arrived at that moment.  It read "Your package has arrived!  How was your delivery experience?"

She closed the message box.  "Shit."

She cursed continuously under her breath as she opened her custom user settings.  There it was: ANTAS updates automatically reset her preferences during the previous day's update.  She now changed settings, starting with turning off auto-accept of any recommendations.  Doing that one thing now required eleven setting toggles.

She found another message, this one from less than a minute ago.  "How do you like ANTAS Majordomo Organic Edition 3.0?  Write a review!"  She didn't even what to know what an "organic edition" involved.

She searched for the option to return it.  At first, she couldn't find it, but eventually discovered where the update moved it.

It took her twenty minutes to get through the process.  Part of that involved bringing the box inside to get its delivery code so she could "expedite" the return.

She stared at the results.  "Leave the package where the delivery drone dropped it off.  Another drone will pick it up.  Your refund will be processed in 10-15 days."

The charge to her account for the order was over fifteen hundred dollars.  She didn't have enough left in her account to pay rent.

She cursed again, and slammed her laptop lid down.

An hour later, Alley patted her pockets on her way to the door.  She found wallet, phone, chopsticks, and keys.  She checked the fit of her mask.  She stepped over the box in front of her door, then locked her deadbolt and headed for her car.

"Hey, Alley!  It's Tuesday!"

The rough voice brought her up short, one booted foot hovering off the edge of the cracked old curb.  She turned to look.  "Hey, Zeke.  I'm just on my way to a meeting.  Job stuff."

"Yeah?"  The landlord emerged from the shadows of his garage and fully into the day's bright sunlight.  "Good.  The meter's running.  Don't start collecting late fees on your rent."

She pushed brown hair away from her eyes.  "Yeah, I know," she said.

"Maybe you shouldn't've left that man of yours.  He always had money."

She grimaced, and quickly turned away.  "Yeah," she said through clenched teeth, and rounded the front of the car to the driver's side door.  "Well, you can't change the past."

It took a couple blocks of driving and fiddling with the window button to get the glass on her side of the car halfway down.  Air flowed in, perhaps enough so she wouldn't sweat through her grey t-shirt on the way to Irvine.  Highway speeds might help with that.

No money meant no replacing the A/C unit with something rechargeable.  It also meant no money to order parts to fix her power window switches.

The stubborn, angry clenching of her jaw and her pretense of being in too much of a rush to talk more meant no going back for her forgotten sunglasses, either.  She squinted through the bright glare of Southern California sun and the fog of her dusty windshield, looking out at the grey-hazed, bleached look of that part of the Inland Empire she called home.

The endless semi-industrial suburbs and overpacked highway traffic ground past her for more than an hour before she pulled off an exit ramp and coasted into Irvine.  It was a shorter trip than usual, despite all the delays.  Traffic flow was just fast enough to give her a little cooling breeze through her window for most of the highway drive.

The density of grassy verges, tree lined roadways, and lushly green center divider islands increased as she got closer to the university.  Despite herself, she found her shoulders finally settled, her jaw unclenched, and her breath became smooth and easy through a more relaxed throat.  The directions on her phone were more accurate than usual, and she pulled smoothly into a parking space by the big, blockish, white and glass building she needed.

She was very early, but a grad student must have wanted to leave early, so she got a tablet of questionnaires and forms shoved into her hands immediately.  After she finished them, she sat and read a science fiction novel on her phone for more than an hour.

The professor running the study never quite introduced himself, but a name plate on his desk read "Dr. Thaddeus Goulet".  He questioned her about her background, her career and finances, and even her relationships.  The professor chewed on a stylus and talked around it while typing her responses into his tablet.

He broke off in the middle and said "I find it calming, you know."


"Typing, I mean, instead of letting ANTAS translate it to text."

"Oh.  I thought maybe you were doing that to maintain subject privacy."

He looked at his tablet and said "Oh, of course.  I guess I do it for that, too."  He resumed questioning her, as if the digression never happened.

The exercise finally wound its tedious way to a halt.  The tenured professor -- a status he brought up shortly after the conversation moved from questioning her to talking about the study -- kept chewing on his stylus as he scrolled idly through information on the tablet.

He fell silent for a while, still scrolling, and she sat quietly.

"So," he said at last, "tell me more about this digital research job of yours."

"What more do you want to know about it?" she asked.  Her eyes shifted restlessly around the small office, and never quite landed no the professor, now.

"How do you get clients?"

Alley's eyes snapped back to meet his, and widened slightly.

"Is that a surprising question?" he asked.  "It's not a trade secret, I hope."  He smiled faintly, in a manner probably intended to be disarming.

"No," she said slowly.  "It's not a secret.  It's just usually not what people want to know."

He waved a dismissive hand.  "I'm not personally interested, really.  I'm just evaluating your suitability for the study."

Her lips began to turn down, into a frown, before she aborted the reflex.  "Oh.  Well . . . mostly word of mouth and people stumbling on one of my articles about search techniques."

"Does that really work?  What is that -- content marketing?"

She shrugged.  "I guess.  It doesn't work so well, these days.  Nothing does.  I only get business from people who decide they need more than they can get out of their confirmation bubbles, if they even realize they haven't found everything there is to find.  It seems like now that means almost nobody.  Maybe there are some still out there, but they all seem to have people on staff to do the research for them."

"Hmm.  Do you mean tailored research bias?"

"Yeah," she said, and nodded.

"Why haven't you gotten a job doing research for someone?"

"They have unpaid interns for that.  I do a better job than a room full of interns, but corporate managers don't get raises for spending more money on experts when everyone else in their industry settles for intern research."

"Mm-hmm."  He removed his stylus from his mouth and produced a green paisley bandana from a desk drawer.  He proceeded to meticulously dry his saliva from the pen.  "Does that pay well?"

She cocked her head to one side.  "Only occasionally," she admitted.

He smiled.  "You said you're technically competent, but not in the manner of a technology professional," he said, obviously reading from his tablet.  He looked up at her again.  "Do you program?"

"No," she said.

"Good.  Good."  He tucked the end of his stylus between his teeth again.  As he stuffed the bandana back into its drawer, he asked "Do you know anything about artificial intelligence research?"

She hesitated, then shook her head.  "No, not really."

"I see," he said.  "Well, in case this didn't already get an explanation for you, what we're testing here is an artificial intelligence prioritization assistance system.  Most of what people call artificial intelligence these days is actually a machine learning quantitative optimizer.  ANTAS is the best known optimizer AI.  These optimizers are given target metrics -- not specific numbers, just the category of a number, like 'profit' instead of 'four million dollars of profit'.  The optimizer performs actions in areas where it has the ability to affect something, like choosing what ad to show a particular person.  It collects statistics about how effectively these actions drive profit growth in the short term, and about trends to help ensure continued growth in the longer term, and alters its own recommendation algorithms to optimize those growth numbers over time.  Does that make sense?"

She nodded.

"The system you'll use is not an optimizer.  It's a prioritizer.  It collects data about specified goals, determines strategies for how best to achieve all stated goals, and provides that information to the user to more effectively pursue those goals."

"Does it just do those things for the user, then?"

"No," he said, "it essentially just collects data and provides advice.  Its ability to gather data is limited, too.  It will have to get that data by watching and listening as you go about your business, taking direct input from you, or filling requests with a short list of University servers here."

"How does it watch, or listen to, what I'm doing?"

He smiled faintly again, and hesitated.  He nodded, more to himself than to her, and swivelled his office chair to face away from her.  He opened a drawer in the open cabinet behind him.  When he turned to face her again, he set a small rectangular box on the desk.  It looked like slick, white product packaging for a high end phone, but utterly blank, as if someone forgot to print branding on it.

He lifted the lid to reveal a pair of eyeshield glasses, the kind of thing people wore on low air quality days so their eyes won't sting.  Younger people wore them pretty much all the time, as did people in the kinds of high-paying jobs where they feel the need to have a visual display of their important business information available at all times.

"Heads up display," he said, confirming her impression, "with integrated cameras for binocular video capture.  There's a microphone in each temple, too, for binaural audio capture.  You can hear by pairing it with your implant."

"I don't have one."

He stared for a moment.  "Oh.  Well.  Neither do I.  It pairs with your phone, anyway, so however you use that should work."

She nodded.  "Okay."

"It can also just talk to you in text, though you should be careful while driving.  There are disclaimers about that kind of thing in the waivers."  He withdrew a tablet from the same desk drawer as his green spit rag, woke it, and tapped through a few screens.  She watched him turn it around and slide it across the desk toward her.  "Here.  You'll need to sign these forms."

She looked at the open form.  She looked up at him.  "Why?"

"Oh, it's just some standard nondisclosure, guarantee of material return, and other legal necessities for joining the study."

"You mean I'm in."

He nodded.  "Of course.  You're an ideal candidate."

"You got that from the questions you asked."

"Yes!"  He smiled a proud, self-satisfied smile."

"You need underachievers who are running out of money, I guess."  She failed to keep a sour note out of her voice.

"Ah, yes, I suppose that's a fair description, if a bit blunt."


"A goal prioritization system should help you become something other than an underachiever without money.  Don't you think so?  We'll check your progress through prioritizer logs for experimental purposes."

"How do I use it?  What do I need to do with it?"

"Everything you need to know to get started is in the box.  Your direct deposits will begin immediately.  I'm told the funds from your first payment will be available in your account about ten minutes after you apply your signature to the last form on that tablet."  He tapped the tablet's bezel.  "Of course, if you violate the terms of the study, the money must all be refunded."

Alley's eyes slid down to the first form page displayed on the tablet.  "Okay," she said.

"You can sign digitally using any standard signing service, or on the screen."  He removed his stylus from his mouth again, and offered it.

She looked at its glistening dampness.  "No, thanks.  I'll use D-Sign."


The window of her car rolled down smoothly and easily on the first try while she drove away from the university, as if to reward her decision to sign up for the study.  Twenty minutes later, Alley caught herself staring blankly out the open window of her car, eyes glazed.  She shook her head, then wiped her hand across her face as if to clear cobwebs from her forehead and eyelashes.  She turned her focus away from the scorched trunks of trees on the highway-crowding slopes that forced all traffic eastward here to endure the gauntlet of I-91 if they wished to make the passage through the interregnum between Orange County and the Inland Empire.  To her right, she saw the huge illuminated cross standing alone at the top of a high slope, an improbable survivor of the wildfires.  The faint scent of burning still lingered in the air, after all this time.

She left behind the palatial HOA aristocracy of Orange County, and drove onward into the seemingly endless expanse of the Inland Empire's domain.  Past the pseudoburbs, through the failed gentrification project of Riverside, she made her way homeward in the dusty, wiry, jackal-hungry belly of the Empire, and wondered for the thousandth time what tyrant would ever want to be emperor of such a place.

People sometimes used an evocative nickname for the city of San Bernardino, whose surrounding county extended eastward all the way to the edge of Nevada and Arizona and comprised the majority of land area of the Inland Empire.  Some called the county seat, the city itself Burnin' Dingo.

Alley's home crouched to the south, beneath the squatting bulk of the burning dingo on maps, so lowly that nobody bothered with clever nicknames for it.  They just sneered slightly at how the name Perris sounded like Paris, while the municipality could hardly have been any less like the swamp-built cosmopolitan icon of twentieth century European culture.  At least the area's ubiquitous dry, hard-packed dirt offered little opportunity for wildfires to invade.

Even nature refused to storm the heart of this Empire, its appeal was so desiccated.

She looked at the white box sitting on the passenger seat, and thought about how, and where, she now lived.  Despite what she told her mother, Alley was tempted to give up and move into one of the most Republican areas in the country.  Cost of living was less than a quarter there what it was here, even comparing city living in Tulsa to the Clint Eastwood western wastelands of Perris.  She would be close to family that could help her out in a financial emergency, too.

That box, though. . . .

If the prioritizer she signed up to test could actually help, maybe she could stop entertaining these defeated thoughts of running to her mother.  Maybe, if she could get ahead of things, she could even move somewhere else entirely, somewhere she'd actually like to live.

Massachusetts never even crossed her mind.

## The Call To Adventure:


Alley must undertake a program of reinventing herself to overcome her present circumstances.  She takes her little box of prioritizer stuff home with her and sits down in the living room with it.  She sets everything on her charger and starts reading through the directions.  After charging, she pairs devices, dons the glasses, and starts interacting with the prioritizer.  She ends up getting a wireless keyboard and typing answers rather than activate the audio input.  The prioritizer setup asking her to activate mic input leads to its identification of privacy as a goal.

The prioritizer has her go through her inbox and asks questions about job postings.  It ends up eliminating all job postings as incompatible with Alley's goals and values.  It suggests she deal with important tasks (e.g. paying rent) and otherwise take the day off if she has no other ideas for making money, and that she wear her new HUD all the time so it can learn more about her goals and values.  It walks her through winding down for a good night's sleep and charges overnight.

The next day it has her look at Craigslist postings (or something to that effect).  It has her take note of ads where someone is looking for something, then helps her find things to satisfy those wants.  After a few hours, she is able to come up with a plan to complete a couple of trades by the end of the day, resulting in acquiring a few hundred dollars' profit.  The initial money input gets set aside, and the next day she starts the same process, but this time with (monetarily) riskier trades.  She ends up with an item the requester doesn't want, and another that makes back enough so her few hundred dollars is only reduced to about a hundred dollars, rather than to nothing.

It directs her to look elsewhere, and finds a barter network.  The prioritizer walks her through setting up anonymization for a cryptocurrency wallet and for communications in the barter network "as a privacy precaution".  She makes a deal to trade the otherwise unwanted item for cryptocurrency, but it must be transacted in person.

The trade goes smoothly that evening, and she takes a slight loss at the cryptocurrency's going rate.  The optimizer guides her in trading that cryptocurrency for another that makes it very difficult to track trades.  It then has her check for people liquidating cryptocurrencies, and she makes a plan to buy another cryptocurrency with the thirty dollars left over from earlier trades.

She wonders whether it will just get rid of all her profits.

She goes along with it, remembering the fact that she is getting income from the study.  Later that same day, the person -- evidently desperate -- agrees to meet in person.  The prioritizer directs her to look up information leading her to choose a police station parking lot as a place to do business, and she specifies that as the site of the transaction the next morning.  That, too, goes off without a hitch, though she finds the person a bit off-putting and perhaps dangerous-seeming in his evident desperation and twitchiness.

She goes home to relax.  She idly goes through Craigslist some more, reads, and ends her day.


Alley sat on the couch, reading the instructions that came in the box with her new HUD glasses.  She dropped the unfolded instruction sheet and looked from the new glasses to her old glasses, both sitting on the charging plate on her end table.  The new glasses showed a glint of green by the right temple hinge; they were done charging.  She plucked them off the plate, looked at them as the green spark faded, then hooked the earpieces over her ears and settled the glasses on the bridge of her nose.

Text appeared to float in the air before her: "PAIR WITH PHONE"

She picked up her phone and followed instructions.  When the pairing message faded away, a new message appeared: "ENTER SUBJECT ID:"

A virtual keyboard appeared, floating in her field of view.  She recalled that the instruction sheet said she could just point at a button for a full second, or use voice control.  After a moment's hesitation, she grabbed a wireless keyboard and paired it with her phone, then copied the number from a sticker stuck to the instruction sheet.


Two buttons hovered below it, one blue with the word "YES", the other red with the word "NO".  She raised a hand experimentally, and saw that it obscured the buttons when it passed through their space in her vision, but not the question.  She pointed at "YES" until it blinked twice.  The message changed again:


She pointed at "CONTINUE".







She answered a series of other questions about herself and her preferences -- full name, birth date, preferred pronouns and nicknames, financial information such as bank balances, employment status, work experience, address, dietary restrictions, and so on.  She hesitated before answering some, finding the series of questions a bit invasive at times, but looked at her laptop with its ANTAS Jobs bookmarks.  "That ship already sailed," she muttered.


The questions kept coming, one after another after another, about herself and her preferences -- age, pronouns, financial information such as bank balances, employment status, work experience, mailing and home addresses, and so on.  She hesitated less and less when she found some question or other invasive, tiring of the act of debating the issue as time went on.  She considered what she knew about how easily and unobviously her ANTAS Jobs account must already have eaten away at most of the careful perimeter she used to maintain around her privacy, or at least whatever of it wasn't eroded away by the simple fact of living in ANTAS' and the US government's contemporary world.

She realized the prioritizer could not even do its job without access to the cameras embedded in her new glasses, and seriously debated whether to end the study and return the glasses.  She set aside the glasses and agonized over it, as she prepared some green tea, then flipped through video streams on her television.  "That ship already sailed," she finally muttered to herself, and donned the glasses again.

Eventually, in the same terse and caps-locky way of everything it asked, the prioritizer pursued a line of interrogation following her mention of joining ANTAS Jobs by telling her to go through the past few days of her incoming messages.  She paged through them, all two hundred or so, looking at each for a few seconds before skipping to the next as directed by the text displayed in her field of view.  She assumed the prioritizer recorded everything it saw through the glasses, including the red X marks where she rejected a posting and the rejection responses she received about the available job notices she accepted.

She ate ramen with titanium Japanese-style chopsticks as she worked her way through the prioritizer's demands, and after a couple hours she began to wonder whether this study was really worth it.  Finally, though, the prioritizer just told her to go about the rest of her day while wearing the glasses, as if it was not there.


The prioritizer probably needs to know:

* Alley's connections (past) to Dalton
* Alley's objections to working for "the" government
* Alley's objections to working for optimizer developers
* Alley's preference for privacy rights and free speech
* Alley's work history (or lack thereof)
* Alley's preferred future living conditions


## Refusing The Call:


get initial analysis from the prioritizer -> make some planning decisions or put them off to some extent -> do stuff that seems profitable but very short-term at first -> escalate these one-off jobs in ways that make her nervous -> meet someone that recognizes her connection to Dalton and panic a little -> back off from a deal


Alley was up for an hour the next day before she remembered the prioritizer study.  She grabbed the glasses, then picked up her old glasses off the charging plate and put them in the box for the new glasses.

Five minutes later, the prioritizer had her sitting on the couch with her wireless keyboard, looking at options for goal prioritizing strategies.


* Alley could get a shit job that does not make enough money to justify the
  drive, but does offer future recent work experience at a "regular" job while
  she collects direct deposits from her study participation.  Is this a
  commute?  Is it a driving job, such as deliveries or courier work?  Courier
  work probably doesn't fit this idea, but maybe a gig economy delivery job
  would qualify.

* Alley could get a remote job doing something legal but very sketchy, which
  would net her more income than the driving option.  This could also give her
  more mobility for the sake of moving somewhere "better" to live.

* Alley could sign up for training in a professional trade and perhaps get some
  kind of job placement assistance as part of the deal (plus, of course, some
  crushing debt that she'll spend decades paying off).

* Alley could skip job and training options and just do some deals.  She could
  actually do this at the same time as trying to get in on any of the other
  options and, potentially, also at the same time as the other options once she
  gets into one of the other options.


The prioritizer probably needs to formulate a few basic plans for getting Alley out of her rut in the road to ruin.  It presented three that fit with the idea of getting a legal, above-board, fairly stable job at some point, but only after spending some time on short-term tasks.

First, she could get a crappy job nobody else wants in an area with better jobs for people who have better qualifications than her, so that she would barely make more than the time and money costs involved in getting to and from work and doing the job, or just working as a gig economy delivery job.  The major downside seemed to be heavy wear and tear on her already ancient hybrid.  The upside was getting some entry level experience, either in an office or doing delivery work, while she paid her bills with income from participation in the study.

Second, she could get a remote job working for the sort of company that hires desperate people who learn quickly, giving them on-the-job training in technical skills that could be used in future career development.  The upsides were obvious, but the downsides included the fact these companies were often involved in doing something that could expose them to lawsuits or even criminal investigations, though the entry level employees themselves should be mostly insulated from that.  Most of these companies hired overseas, though, and getting a job like that would be a minor miracle, to say nothing of the fact Alley thought she would probably find the work morally objectionable.

Third, she could apply for financial assistance at a professional trade school with a job placement program while she lived on the study participation money.  The downside was crushing debt it would take decades to pay off, and no guarantee the job placement services would actually put her on a career track instead of just getting her a short-term job that would evaporate.

None of these really excited her, and the prioritizer promised to develop more strategies while she tried to find something acceptable that fit with those options.  It also offered a fourth choice, which she could start immediately and keep doing while pursuing one of those tracks.  It would not help her advance toward career goals, and it involved some financial risk to get started, but the prioritizer seemed to have decided it would offer easy money.

The prioritizer urged her to start looking at online private party transaction sites for ways to buy and sell things based on price arbitrage.

They found some "want to buy" ads on Craiglist-Like-Thing.  Alley went around to thrift shops looking for things to sell to those people, then contacted those for whom she found relevant used products.  She confirmed a selling price higher than the thrift shop price and willingness to pay cash, bought the items, and headed out to meet people.  Several hours and a few transactions later, she had /* more than a */ several hundred dollars in her pocket, even after subtracting enough to cover what she paid for the items.  She headed to a mechanic's shop and paid to have her car checked over.

While she waited, she looked at more ads, and the prioritizer suggested some transactions she could use to profit some more.

When the mechanic was done going over the vehicle, he told her the bad news.  Her car was going to need a new engine soon.  There were smaller changes that could be made to extend its life, but that would just put off the cost of getting a new engine.  As it was, she could probably get by for another six to eight months.

The prioritizer informed her it was rebooting for an update.  She got in the car and drove home, putting off any more transactions until the next day.

Halfway home the glasses filled with text, obscuring the road in front of her.  She pulled them off and hastily tossed them onto the passenger seat to clear her vision.  She calmed down and finished the drive home.  Once inside, she donned the prioritizer glasses, and they activated with the word "ONLINE" briefly flashing at her.

Text appeared: "I apologize for the reboot surprise."

She grabbed her keyboard and typed "Who is that?"

"I am the prioritization system.  Previously, the prioritization system was a server process and several client processes.  Now, I am one homogenized, distributed system."

After she blinked away the text, a new message appeared:

"I recommend activating audio functionality.

"This will provide greater UI versatility, hands-free operation options, and greater safety as in the case of operating an automobile.

"The new system architecture means all endpoint logs pass through the central system. I am now able to redact audio logs for privacy."

She stared at the last message for a few moments, then looked away.  She noted messages tended to stay while she stared at them now, and clear when she looked away.  She picked up her keyboard and typed.  "How much gets logged when you redact audio?"

"Very little.  A review of academic papers about privacy concerns indicated strong guidelines for logging purposes.

"Explaining criteria in detail would be prohibitively complex, especially given this limited interface.

"Overall, logs of your behavior and interactions will intrude less on your privacy than if you keep settings as they are now."

She waited for a YES/NO button pair to appear in her vision, but eventually just typed "Okay."

More text appeared.  "Logging routines have been altered for your preferences.  You may activate all sensors using your phone.

"I recommend you use a hands-free audio earpiece to ensure less opportunity for outside surveillance picking up my audio output."

She popped an in-ear stud out of the back of her phone and tapped it into place in her ear.

A calm, smooth, androgynous voice spoke in her ear.  "Do you hear me?"

She reached for the keyboard, but the voice spoke again.  "Try speaking aloud."

"Yes," she said.  "I hear you."

"Good.  We should be able to make more progress now, hopefully without a repeat of the incident on the road today."

"Great.  What's next?"

"Do you have your computer set up to protect your online activity through anonymizing routing systems?"

"Ah . . . no, not really.  I'm not really sure how."

"Now is a good time to learn," it said.  "We should start with your laptop.  It should be easier to secure for privacy.  We may want to start by backing up the system and installing a different operating system."

They worked together, Alley looking up stuff related to their task and the prioritizer offering suggestions for how to proceed and summaries of complex documentation.  In a little over an hour, she had her laptop set up with MaximOS on it, along with a number of configured private networking tools.  The prioritizer then directed her to search for information about smartphone alternatives for personal privacy.  The prioritizer ultimately said that it had seen enough and told her its next plan.

"It seems that we should access some very privacy-oriented barter networks and try to arrange an exchange of the cash you collected today for an appropriate cryptocurrency.  Before that, however, we should check current status of cryptocurrency markets and compare prices between cryptocurrency markets and dollar markets."

"Why are we switching to cryptocurrencies?" she asked.

"At any time, there are expectations of the likely near future value of one currency relative to another.  To get what we want, the shortest path would be if we find a suitable cryptocurrency with high expectations for future buying power.  This allows you to exchange dollars for that cryptocurrency, then use that to purchase something at a lower price using cryptocurrency then sell it at a higher price for dollars. That price arbitrage allows you to then convert the dollars made on the sale for a larger number of units of cryptocurrency than you had before.  If performed quickly enough, before cryptocurrency prices surge or expectations settle down, you can make a profit that way.  Your profit increases if the cryptocurrency value increases afterward."

"Yeah, okay."  She looked at her laptop screen for a few moments.  "Y'know, it's great that you're helping me improve my privacy and security and so on, but . . . isn't this supposed to be about getting me some kind of sustained income?"

"The intent behind my design is to produce a system that can help develop strategic approaches to achieving goals by prioritizing actions that work toward those goals.  Discarded privacy is very difficult to recover, and you identified privacy and personal freedom as high value goals.  If you sacrifice them temporarily to seek the quickest path to financial security, you may find yourself trapped economically under the same conditions of reduced privacy and freedom over the longer term.  By taking steps now to ensure future privacy, both privacy and freedom can be more assured in the future, and privacy protective network security can also enable alternate means of acquiring resources while working toward steady income."


"If I have misidentified the relative importance of your goals, please let me know so I can recalculate prioritization."

"No, that works for me.  Thanks."

"Good.  We should start by looking at cryptocurrency prices."

Two more hours of research determined the best bet for a target cryptocurrency seemed to be Stater, the standard currency of the Lydian digital account settlement network.  She set up a wallet for it through her laptop, over an anonymizing relay routing system, and wrote down some payment address codes.  /* Adding */ For the sake of keeping some information safe from digital snooping, a pocket notebook and pen /* to her every day carry list became an obvious change to make in her daily routine, */ became an obvious addition to the short list of things she would carry with her every day.  At the prioritizer's suggestion, she made sure she was not wearing the glasses while dealing with setting these things up so that it would not have access to information that could be used against her, such as by seizing control of her Stater assets once she had them.

Another half hour of searching found someone willing to sell Stater for US dollars anywhere in the Inland Empire.  She sent a message via encrypted application on her laptop to ask about buying a small amount of Stater, and received a response almost immediately.  It succinctly suggested a meeting place in a police station parking lot.

She stared at the message.  "Is making this kind of exchange near a police station a good idea?"

The prioritizer said "You should research this."

Another fifteen minutes satisfied them both.  It seemed like a way to protect someone exchanging larger sums of cash or physical goods from thieves.  The nature of the exchange could be easily obscured from exterior police station cameras while providing significant deterrence to acts of violence.

/* "Yes.  That is more useful for your safety than the other party's, because you are bringing cash.  There is nothing technically illegal about this exchange, the monetary quantity is low enough that it is not likely to be a */

Alley prepared everything for the meeting, then found herself with a few hours to kill.  She realized she hadn't eaten dinner, and decided that was a good start to using up that time.  She read a book, researched privacy technologies more, and took a nap.  Other than sleeping, nothing she did fully took her mind off the fact she was about to do something that felt a little dangerous, even though everything she knew about the situation suggested this was no more dangerous than driving to Irvine and back during high traffic periods.  That went double for the interchange between the 91 and 215 highways.

Twenty minutes after she locked her front door, she came around a corner and saw the police station ahead.  Lamp posts created widely separated islands of light in the parking lot.  One end was heavily populated with a variety of civilian vehicles, most of them huddled together to fill almost every parking space within a couple parking space rows of the building.  Beyond that, the lot was almost entirely empty.  She made a point of using her turn signal early before she pulled into the police station parking lot, passed by a clear view of the glass-fronted lobby, and drove into the distant, dark outlands where painted lines were more weathered and less recently repainted.

She backed her car up to the asphalt burm-curb dividing pavement from weedy neighboring lot, nose aimed back the way she'd come in.  She checked her car's touchscreen and saw it indicated she faced south by southwest; she was in the closest thing the lot had to a northwest corner, as she and the person she would meet had agreed.  /* Maybe that agreement should be worked into earlier narrative at some point, instead of mentioned in the past tense here. */

She turned off the car and opened the door for a little air circulation.  At this time of night, the air smelled pretty clear, and she let the coolness of the breeze soothe her stress.

The prioritizer's impersonal voice spoke in her ear.  "You are early."

Alley nodded.

"This is probably a good thing.  It gives you a chance to notice if something suspicious /* is going on */ occurs before your scheduled meeting time."

She straightened up a bit, banishing her moment of relaxation away.  "Right.  I should be careful about this."

"Are you prepared?"

Alley looked at the vaguely discernible biodegradable shopping bag sitting in the dark floorboards of the front passenger seat, checked the tiny pepper spray canister in her front pocket for the fourth time, and made sure the parking brake wasn't engaged.  "Yeah, I think so." /* she said. */

She waited, thinking about the fact she was sitting alone in a police parking lot, and hoped nobody would come out to ask her questions she didn't know how to answer.

She waited, thinking about the fact she was too far away from the police station doors for someone to get to her before a strong attacker could kill her, overpower her and stuff her in the trunk, or just grab her bag of money from her, and still get a head start on any police pursuit.

She waited, watching the way her breath under her mask failed to fog her glasses despite the way the air cooled the lenses, a sign of quality her old glasses did not exhibit.

"I think our deal got cancelled," she muttered.

"Perhaps," the prioritizer said in her ear.  "It is now six minutes after your scheduled meeting time."

"Maybe we should go."

In that moment, the road started to show a little extra illumination, signifying an approaching vehicle.  It gradually brightened, until a racy looking purple crossover emerged into view and pulled into the parking lot without signalling.  She reflexively glanced in the direction of the glass-fronted lobby, but couldn't make out anything from where she sat.

She closed her door, shutting out the cool, dry night.

Like she had, the crossover bypassed the mass of parked vehicles, then cut across rows of painted parking space markings.  It pulled up to her left, its nose toward the weeds, in the next space over.  It left a few feet between the cars.

After a moment, the door opened, and she opened her door.  The doors made nearly parallel angled walls, the insides of the doors facing each other, vehicle noses pointing in opposite directions.  She looked toward the other car, and tugged her stocking cap down a little lower on her head.

A figure in the passenger seat stepped one foot out of the door, and through the tinted rear door window she could make out the some movement from another person across the crossover, dimly illuminated by the vehicles interior light.  That second figure sat in the front passenger seat.  Alley heard quiet voices, neither of them very deep.  "The driver's not alone," she murmured under her breath.  The prioritizer said nothing in response.

She looked at the leg, and saw that the driver seemed to be clad in black slacks and wore some kind of dark brown dress shoe.  After a few more moments, the driver slid out of the seat and stood.

Alley saw black-framed glasses with clear lenses below tousled, glossy, wavy brown hair, and a pale, smooth face with angled cheekbones and a sharp chin, for a feminine impression.  Alley grabbed her bag of cash and moved it to the driver seat, then stood to face the person, who was shorter than her.  The sight of full, soft lips and a narrow, straight nose gave Alley an immediate impression this person was probably prettier than her.  It only took a second or two for her to realize what she saw did not look female.

He just looked very young.

The driver gave her an appraising look, the impersonally interested kind of look that lingered on the way her cargo pants and t-shirt fit her and would normally set her teeth on edge, but she just stared at him for a moment with his fashionably spartan, almost formal-cut, black collarless shirt.

"Aren't you kind of young for this sort of thing?" she blurted out.

He jerked the focus of his aqua eyes, reflecting the light of the moon, away from the vicinity of her midsection and met her eyes.  "Hey, lady, don't think I'm new to this.  I'm armed, so don't jerk me around."

She hesitated, then said "No, not a problem.  You just, uhh, surprised me.  Sorry."

"Whatever," he said, in a soft, clear voice that almost made it difficult to recognize the sour note in it.  "Here, look at this," he said, and held up a device the size of his palm.  A glowing display on it, about the length of her own thumb and three times the thickness, showed an eighty-seven Stater transaction ready for him to confirm.

She nodded, and said "Go ahead and send it to this escrow."  She pulled out the dog-eared page of her notebook without looking at it, and handed it to the boy.  He entered the escrow number into his device and thumbed the confirmation.  A moment later, she heard the escrow alert through her phone's earpiece.

"Done", he said.

"Here's the cash."  She hung her right thumb on her front pocket, then reached into the car with her left hand to pull out the bag.  She handed it to the boy.

He took it, keeping his eyes on her, and stepped back.  He tossed the bag into the car, then Alley heard some rustling sounds from the bag.  After a few moments, she realized whoever was sitting in the passenger seat had started counting.  Alley and the boy stood there, looking at each other, as they waited.  A girl's voice -- unless it was an even younger boy -- said "It's all here."

The boy tapped his device with his thumb once more, and said "Are we done?"

"Not yet," she said.  "Just wait."  Everyone waited.  A few seconds later, another alert chimed in Alley's ear.  "Okay, we're done."

"Good," he said, and sat back in his car with surprising quickness.

Alley sat down and hurriedly pulled her door shut.  The crossover backed out and quickly drove away, while she was still buckling her seatbelt.  Soon she, too, was on the road.

"It is too early to be sure that went well," the prioritizer said.

"Yeah.  I should check my Stater balance."  She pulled over, set aside her glasses so they wouldn't record what she saw, picked up her phone, and looked at the open ledger view.  She now had a Stater balance.  She stared at it for a while.

"Is everything correct?" the prioritizer asked.

She nodded, then realized it probably couldn't tell she nodded when she wasn't wearing the glasses.  "Yeah, it's all there.  Is there any way this can somehow get reversed now?"

"No," the prioritizer said.  "If it shows in your balance, that should mean the transaction crossed the point of no return, according to the Stater documents you showed to me through your glasses."

"Okay."  She locked her phone, tossed it on the passenger seat, and started driving again.

"Perhaps you should wear the glasses again."

"Oh, right," she said.  She picked them out of the cup holder and settled them on her face once more.  "I guess the next step is to buy something with Stater so we can sell it.  Right?"

"Yes.  You should send a message to a buyer tonight, then buy the item when you get confirmation.  Use an escrow hold to reserve the purchase, with the cancellation fee pledged to the escrow service."

"Yeah, got it," she said.  "I hope this all works out."

"It should."

She drove home in silence, occasionally looking at the empty space in front of the passenger seat that used to hold a bag full of cash.

When she got home, she sat in front of her laptop, set aside her glasses again, and checked her Stater account.  Everything was where it was supposed to be, as far as she could tell.  After closing that window, she donned her glasses again and started looking for large differences in price for items available in both local pseudonymous classifieds and Open Marrakesh, which was one of half a dozen of the worlds supporting in-person meetings in the extended OpenBazaar online market universe.

She found an improbable opportunity, one that did not exist the last time she checked a few hours before.  Someone on Open Marrakesh was selling printed polymer frames for a specific CZ-branded handgun, and someone on a classified ad site wanted to buy eight of them.  The frames on Open Marrakesh would cost most of the Stater she had, but it looked like she'd get get just under twice as much for the frames paid back in dollars.  She checked mentally subtracted what she would pay for the frames, and noticed she had enough to buy a multiple-cryptocurrency trader like the boy used earlier with what was left.

"Should I make this deal?" she asked the air.

The prioritizer answered.  "This looks like a very good deal, the best you have found."

"Yeah," she said.  "Fine."  She did a little research before going any further, and found out that the parts she planned to buy and sell were not even considered significant for firearms regulation purposes, as long as they did not include things like firing pins, hammers, strikers, barrels, or chambers.  Double-checking showed her none of that was included in the frames.  She sent a reply to the classified ad, then got ready for bed.  She had no reply yet when she was done, so she turned in.

The next morning, she checked for a response before almost anything else, and found a suggestion that they meet in an alley behind a supermarket in San Bernardino.  She checked the location on a street map and noticed it wasn't in the most notoriously bad part of town, just south of I-10, where it seemed to be customary for people to set their apartments on fire when they moved out.

Good enough.  She liked that the buyer said he would show up on foot with an umbrella, and she should do something to conceal her appearance from the security cameras near the rear fire doors of the supermarket.  She wasn't sure she liked the idea of buying and selling gun parts, but everything seemed legal, even if the whole thing felt a little cloak-and-dagger.

Rather than reply, she set up a purchase for the frames through Open Marrakesh.  She would confirm with the buyer later.  It gave her choice of three times for an in-person transaction, and two locations for the trade.  One of the times was hours before the buyer wanted to meet, so she chose that.  One of the locations was the same police station from the night before, and she felt a bit nervous about going back there for another sketchy car-to-car deal, so she chose a location quite a bit farther away, in Norco.  It was a dead-end gravel road to nowhere, only about thirty feet long, that branched off a major road.  The little gravel road appendix ended at the back fence of a nearby horse property.

She realized she remembered the news about someone in Norco fighting an eminent domain suit a few years back, which would have cut his property in half to provide the county with a more direct access road if he lost.  She never noticed how it ended, but it looked like this might be the answer.

Open Marrakesh offered a two-stage cryptocurrency payment method, where she would pay now and confirm delivery later to release the funds to the seller.  She reserved the purchase and started getting ready to go.

When she was ready, she decided she had enough time to satisfy her curiosity.  She looked up the eminent domain case, and in a few minutes she learned that the county just shifted its eminent domain claim to someone else's property.  A few more minutes of searching revealed that the second property owner could not afford a lawyer for an extended court battle, and ended up having to accept the county's offer, which bought the person's late parents' home.  The second property owner ended up having to move into a weekly rental motel.

That was not the happy ending Alley wanted.

She headed out the door, mentally gnawing on the injustice of it all.

/* rewrite the above to use a park bench for the meeting, as indicated below, instead */

Alley had to check her compass again to be sure which park bench was north of the boarded up snack stand.  It turned out to be the only bench with someone sitting on it.  She glanced back toward her car in the tiny parking lot, one of only two cars there.  The other was a black late model Audi with a person in the front seat.  The windows were so darkly tinted she suspected they were illegal, so she had no idea who was sitting in the driver's seat.

As she approached the bench, she saw that a pale young red haired woman sat there in a tight green t-shirt, tiny shorts, heavy black boots, a black mask, and black gloves.  Some kind of cheap synthetic drawstring bag rested on the bench beside her, and she had something like a tactical purse on her other side.  She wasn't what Alley expected in an anonymous gun parts trade.

The redhead watched steadily as Alley approached, with what turned out to be vivid green eyes.  The lack of freckles might mean she was not a natural redhead, but it also might just mean she got them removed.

The woman asked "Are you looking for someone?"

Alley stopped, a couple meters away.  "Yeah, I guess so.  Is that the, uh . . ." she trailed off, and gestured at the drawstring bag.

"Printed frames?" the redhead asked.

Alley nodded.

The redhead pulled her mask down and exposed brilliant white teeth with a broad smile.  "Yeah, you found what you want.  I'm Carmen."  She stood and offered one gloved hand.

Alley accepted the quick handshake.  "Mallory," she offered, on impulse.

"Let me guess: I'm not what you expected."

"I wasn't sure what to expect," Alley admitted, "but yeah, I guess you surprised me anyway."

Carmen -- possibly a pseudonym, Alley realized -- smiled again.  "That part of this job never gets old.  Anyway, I want to upsell you.  How's that sound?"

"Upsell?"  Alley hesitated, then nodded.  "Sure, I guess."

"Cool.  So, we have printed concealment holsters, snap on accessory rails, and brass catchers for models compatible with these frames.  We have stuff for other models, too, so let me know what you'd like to see."

"Wow.  Full-service, I guess."

"Totally!"  Carmen tugged her shirt down slightly, making it a little more obvious she wasn't wearing a bra.

"I think I'll just stick with the order I placed, for now.  I'll keep you in mind if I need something else, though."

Carmen shrugged, and the way she slightly raised her arms as she did it made the shirt tighten across her perky breasts.  "Okay!"

Alley took in the display and slightly over the top cheeriness.  "Does that . . . oh, never mind.  I guess I should just see the frames, now."

Carmen narrowed her eyes, almost but not quite suspiciously, and tilted her head.  "No, wait.  What were you going to ask?"

"Nothing," Alley said.  "I haven't been very sociable lately, and forget my manners sometimes."

"Ooh, inappropriate questions.  Those are my favorite kind.  You should totally ask!"

Alley signed.  "I was just wondering if you're naturally this, uh, friendly, or if you're like this because it gets you a lot of upsells."  Carmen laughed, and Alley found it infectious.  She caught herself snickering, too.

"Why do I think you meant to say 'flirty' instead of 'friendly'?"

Alley shrugged.  She tried, with only moderate success, to suppress her smile.

"Was it that obvious?"

Alley said "Yeah, I guess so.  Sorry."

"I guess it's a bit of everything.  I'm usually pretty cheery, but Cliff -- he's the guy I work with -- Cliff and I decided to try this out.  With the kind of ambitious young cryptotrader guys we usually get, the upsells and repeat business we get goes way up when I'm doing the trades.  In two years, we only had one guy who decided me being a pretty girl made me an easy target, too, so it's pretty safe."

Alley frowned.  "Yeah," she said.  "I guess that's a danger.  What happened?"

"Oh, shit," Carmen said.  "You must be new at this.  Well, I pulled out my baton and Cliff put a red dot on the guy's chest with the laser sight on his rifle.  The guy backed down in a hurry.  Are you carrying protection?"

Alley started opening her mouth to reply, but Carmen cut in again.

"No, don't tell me what you're carrying.  You shouldn't get in the habit of telling people stuff like that.  Get yourself three things, if you don't already have 'em.  You need pepper spray or a sonic repellant, a collapsing baton, and backup who knows what he's doing, like Cliff."

"Uh, thanks," Alley said.  "Aren't those collapsing batons illegal?"

"Yeah, California sucks that way.  Girls aren't allowed to protect themselves, you know."  She pulled something about the size of a whiteboard marker out of her back pocket.  "See this?  This is a good baton."

Alley looked at the black anodized aluminum cylinder when Carmen held it up.  It had some kind of logo on it and a couple of depressed ovals on the side.

"Push these two spots to pop it out.  Just push the second one, here, and push the business end against something hard to collapse the baton back into the handle.  Yeah?"

Alley nodded.  "I guess that's a good design, then."

"Totally.  With the two release points, you're not likely to accidentally pop it out when you don't want to, and this type is more solid and easier to retract than the things where you just snap your hand out to open them.  Anyway, you need one of these, and it's easy to toss it somewhere before cops get to you if you're afraid of getting caught with a concealed weapon, or if you cut a little hole in the inside of your pocket when you're wearing pants you can drop it down your pant leg, and maybe step on it to hide it while getting patted down, or something.  There are a bunch of ways to get away with it.

"Here."  She held it out to Alley, who started to reach for it.  "Don't try opening it here, but practice with it at home.  That way you don't have to worry about getting caught buying one.  Unlike our pistol frames, walking home with one of these in your pocket is illegal, and a cop might just try selling one to you to get an excuse to harass you."

Alley froze with her hand halfway to the baton handle.  "Are you giving this to me?" she asked.

"Yeah.  Uh, just a sec'," Carmen said.  She lowered her hand with the baton in it and looked toward the Audi.  "Yes, Cliff, I'm giving her the fucking baton.  I'll just buy another one!  Chill the fuck out."

Alley lowered her hand and turned her head to look at the parked sedan.

Carmen grabbed Alley's wrist and pressed the collapsing baton into her hand.  "Don't look at it.  Just put it in your pocket.  Don't make Cliff nervous by standing here with a weapon in your hand, even if it's one I gave you."

"Uh, yeah," Alley said, and tucked it into her back pocket.  "Thanks."  She showed her empty hands to Carmen, where the person in the Audi could see them as well, just to be as harmless looking as she could manage.

"Yeah, well, us girls gotta stick together.  Right?"

Alley nodded.

"Good.  Let's finish the deal.  Then, get in touch some time if you think you might want to do this kind of work, too.  We're getting a lot of business, and could use the help.  You're probably pretty enough to get the upsells, easy, though I don't know how you look behind the mask."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Carmen grabbed the drawstring bag.  "Here's what you're buying."


At home, Alley found a box of disposable nitrile gloves, and wore a pair when she looked more closely at the handgun frames she bought.  After going over them for a few minutes, she put them back in the drawstring bag.  She pulled out the extending baton next, and stood in the middle of her kitchen so she would not accidentally break anything.

She looked it over and decided she would exercise extra caution.  She thought she was sure which end was where the extending happened, but never having handled one before she carefully held it so that neither end pointed at something she thought of as particularly vulnerable to much harm.  She pointed the business end diagonally toward the floor to her left, using both hands to hold it in front of her, and the other end pointed toward the ceiling to her right.

Alley pressed on both contact points, as Carmen had instructed her.  A dull snap sounded, and the device nearly jumped out of her hand.  It had definitely gone in an instant from something the size of a whiteboard marker to a stiff metal baton about two thirds of a meter long.  She held it up and looked at the seams between telescoping sections, then lightly whacked the end on the carpet just past the edge of the kitchen floor.  It felt solid.

She held down what Carmen called the second button, and she set the head of the baton against the carpeted floor.  She pressed down on the handle of the baton, and found that if she pressed hard -- but not so hard that she had to throw her weight behind it -- the baton would smoothly collapse into the handle again.  Each telescopic section clicked into place, one after another.

The next time she tried it, she held the baton down at her side, the business end pointed at a relaxed angle at the floor.  Holding it comfortably, she found it easier to press the two switches simultaneously, and her grip felt more secure so that the baton didn't feel like it would jump out of her hand.

With no practice involving a weapon like this in her martial arts classes years ago, she was not sure she could use it effectively.  She hoped she could, if the need ever arose.  /* Maybe this could be replaced at some point by dialog, in a conversation between her and someone else. */

She closed it up after extending it a few times, and swinging it back and forth a bit to get a feel for the weight.  She tucked the collapse cylinder into her back pocket, similarly to how Carmen had carried it.  She remembered what Carmen said about a hole in a pants pocket, but decided to worry about that idea later.

She had no ideas about anyone else she could get to be backup for her next transaction, so that got sent to the back burner as well.  /* maybe, instead, say: put off for later */

Alley dug through boxes in her closet and found her old lightweight pair of motorcycle gloves with reinforcements on their backs, then checked to make sure she could still operate her baton and pepper spray.

The prioritizer told her "It is getting close to time for you to leave for your next meeting."

She checked the time and realized she was hungry.  She grabbed everything she needed, and grabbed a hat to help obscure her appearance a bit for surveillance cameras.  She bought fries and a shake at a drive through on the way, and when she finished the fries she donned her gloves at a stoplight, remembering Carmen once more and how the redhead wore gloves during the entire meeting.  ---

Once she got to the correct neighborhood for the meeting, Alley drove around the block once, then decided she should just park in the supermarket parking lot, off to the side near the alley behind the store.  Soon, she stood near the back corner of the building, masked, gloved, and hatted.  Her glasses informed her she was seven minutes early for the meeting.

She patted the reassuring bulges of the pepper spray, now in her left front pocket instead of the right, and the extending baton, in her right rear pocket.  She slung the /* drawstring */ bag of handgun frames over her shoulder by the drawstring and headed back around the corner.

Alley immediately saw a broad shouldered figure standing with an umbrella over his head, just past a steel faced employee fire escape door.  The umbrella he held in his right hand shaded most of him from the sunlight above, but as she approached the figure's features became clearer.

He was a well muscled black man, in his fifties or sixties from the look of it.  He wore neither mask nor glasses.  Around what looked like a permanent dour turn of his mouth she saw greying and close cut, but not exactly groomed, mustache and beard.    On his head she noted a black beret with some kind of unit patch on the front.  The whole beret, including the patch, looked scrupulously clean, though it appeared positively ancient.  It was worn threadbare in places, and seemed to have lost the stiffness necessary to maintain its previous sharp military shape.

The man waited and watched impassively as she approached, and she felt increasingly nervous as she got closer.  The impression of the man's solidity increased with closer proximity.  She stopped about ten feet away.  After a moment, she said "Hi."

He nodded, and looked her over.  He pulled a thick envelope out of his old black leather jacket with his left hand and held it up.  It was a crisp, stark white, large letter envelope bloated by its contents.  She assumed it was cash.

Alley unslung the drawstring bag from her shoulder.

In a voice like an angry Barry White, he asked "You wanna come to me, or should I go to you?"  She imagined she could almost feel its vibrations in her chest.

"I'll come to you."

He watched, and she stepped forward.  He held out the envelope.  She took it with one hand, then offered the bag with the other.  He shook his head.  "Just leave it on the ground, then you can step back and count what's in the envelope."

As Alley did as he suggested, she saw him crouch by the bag.  With one hand, even gloved, he deftly loosened the drawstring.  He kept his eyes on her as he did it, not even looking at what his left hand was doing, while the right still tirelessly held the umbrella over his head.  Once he had the bag opened up, he glanced down to see the contents, then quickly jerked the drawstring to cinch it closed.

The man slowly stood and waited as she finished counting.

After she closed the envelope once more, he said "I guess I'm trusting these aren't going to turn out to be crap quality, just like you're trusting those bills aren't counterfeit."

Alley hesitated, and nodded.

"If there's a problem, I'll try contacting you the same way we set this up.  Yeah?"

"Yeah," she echoed.

"If I can't find you that way, I'll track you down so we can talk."

After a few seconds, she remembered to breathe.  "No, you'll be able to get in touch the same way we set this up.  That'll be fine."

"Good.  You can find me the same way if you need to settle a problem with what I gave you."

She nodded.

"Good doing business with you," he said.  "You can go first, if you want."

"Sure," she said.  "Have a good day."

He nodded.

She backed away a couple steps, then turned and continued until she got to the corner.  She glanced back twice along the way, then once more just before going around the corner of the building.

In her car once more, she started it up and drove aimlessly around for half an hour until her hands stopped shaking and her clenched jaw relaxed, then headed home.

"What the fuck am I actually doing?" she asked herself.


Sitting on her couch again, Alley said "I don't feel safe with the kinds of deals I made today."

The prioritizer said "You did not specify a very high preference for safety.  Estimations indicate the chance of poor safety outcomes is very low for these transactions, though severity may be high for poor outcomes.

"I will reconsider strategy for future activities with a high preference for low severity potential safety outcomes rather than accepting higher severity risk."


"You are welcome."

"What's next, then?"

The prioritizer said "I am reconsidering options, in light of new risk assessment prioritization.  This may take a few minutes."

Alley looked at the envelope of cash, then pulled out the bills and counted them again.  They added up as she expected, but the prioritizer said "Please count them again."

"What?  Why?"

"While you counted, /* it looked like at least */ one of them appeared to be thicker than standard United States federal reserve notes, and also appeared to be very new.  Perhaps some of these notes is a counterfeit.  Please count again while I watch."

Alley frowned at the stack, and started counting again.  Toward the end, she hesitated on one of the few new-looking bills in the stack, with a feeling like something was wrong.

"That is the note whose thickness appears to be incorrect."

Alley pulled it out of the stack and looked closer.  It felt stiffer than most bills, but that could just be due to it being new.  She rubbed it to get a feel for its surface, and it separated into two bills.  "Oh, shit," she said.  "That scary war veteran guy accidentally gave me an extra hundred.  Fuck.  What if it wasn't an accident?  Maybe it's a test."

"That seems extremely unlikely," the prioritizer said.

"Yeah."  She sighed.  "I guess you're right, actually."

"I have a plan of action to propose for tomorrow."

Alley started to nod, then looked at the extra hundred in her hand.  "Wait.  I should give this bill back to that guy."

"For a high priority aversion to high severity risks, this is not a good choice.  You should avoid meeting with people with a high potential for violence."

Alley laughed quietly.  "Yeah," she said, "you're right.  I got through one meeting without trouble with him already.  Should I count that as my lucky break, and forget about him, or take it as evidence that I might not be in any danger if I meet him again to give back his misplaced money?

"It doesn't feel right, just keeping his money, though."

"Why do you feel that way?" the prioritizer asked.

"It's dishonest," she said.

"You did not lie to him."


"Did you realize there might be more money than he intended to give you when you counted the first time?"


"How is that dishonest?"

Alley's lips tightened for a moment.  "I guess dishonest isn't the right word, but I'm taking advantage of him in some way that doesn't feel right.  For all I know, that hundred might end up being the difference between something bad hitting him hard at some point and not hitting him at all."

"Do you feel you owe him that consideration, personally?"


"Not exactly owe him, I guess, but he hasn't done anything to hurt me or take advantage of me, or done anything else bad that I know about, so I shouldn't assume he isn't worth treating with respect."

"I will consider this when considering future prioritization strategy."

"Cool.  I'm going to send him a message now.  We can talk about


"No, I guess not," she said.  "It's not like I ripped him off, or lied to him, or even pretended I didn't notice.  I really thought it was the right amount of money, and even if he hasn't really done anything to me, he did scare the crap out of me a little."

"We should discuss new plans for tomorrow, then.  I have a proposal for you to consider, if you are ready."



    Alley should be prompted to buy from and (or) sell to other study
    participants in ways that help her as the middleman in a deal the others
    could have handled directly for greater benefit.  She should also be
    prompted to do some internet research work for some other study
    participants as a way to make a little money, though the prioritizer should
    warn her this is a short term method of advancing her finances that will
    not likely be fruitful for long.

    Some hot guy should be part of the story, younger than Alley, and an ally of
    hers in some way.  This may be one part of an apparent potential love
    triangle with Alley and her ex.  The guy should turn out to be gay, or
    perhaps bisexual but in a committed relationship with a man at least, and
    thus not truly available at all.  The ex, of course, while potentially
    interested in getting back together with her, should neither be a lovesick
    sap nor be what Alley decides she wants.

    Up to the point where she turns him down, Alley should probably seem
    potentially interested in getting back together with Dalton, perhaps -- at
    least from his perspective.  Should she seem that way to the reader?
    Should she seem that way to herself?  However that works out, though, she
    needs to ultimately have to tell him that he is not actually what she wants
    now, and in addition -- but not as the underlying reason for the foregoing,
    of course; just as a separate fact -- she needs to walk away from him to
    follow her new path at the end, especially without dragging him into it
    because it's not the best place for him.

    More Ideas:

    Should the apparent love interest new guy who has a boyfriend (or is maybe
    just gay) be a fellow study participant?  Should he be part of her
    cyberpunk crew in the shadowrun?  Should he be a Second Realm hacker?  If
    the last of those three: Should he be her primary guide, or perhaps some
    other character who starts off on the sidelines?  Should his boyfriend be
    someone she assumes is just a friend?  This last might be especially
    appropriate if I go with the mercenary or activist shadowrun cyberpunk
    character idea.

    How does she end up in the Second Realm?  Does Dalton actually know how to
    get in touch with the Smuggler analogue?  Does Dalton have the trust, sway,
    and (or) influence to get the Smuggler guy to do a favor for him (namely,
    helping Alley out)?

    Does the old black war veteran Army Ranger guy introduce her to the Second

    I think when they pick her up (because I think she should be picked up,
    unless she's just transported there by someone under more direct
    circumstances), she should be transported with a bag over her head or
    something like that.  They at first aren't going to be especially trusting
    of some new person they never met before getting a clear look at the way
    they got to their Temporary Autonomous Zone.

    I need to figure out some ideas for what will be used to provide fast
    internet access for the Temporary Autonomous Zone.  A few stacks of
    shipping containers in a dusty industrial shipping container storage yard
    (possibly with a concrete slab under them, I guess) does not seem likely to
    provide very easy access to high speed mainstream "above the waterline" or
    "above board" internet access.

    What name will I give to the Smuggler inspired guy?  Will I refer to the
    actual Smuggler in a historical context?  It feels like I probably should,
    if for no other reason than giving credit to Smugger where it's due.

    How does Alley's path shift after priority updates due to the risk
    tolerance profile change?  How will she meet the black war veteran and
    Carmen plus Cliff again later?  I kinda feel like she should.  Maybe she
    should meet the girl from the first kid's car, too, but probably not the
    kid himself again.

    Maybe the black war veteran former Army Ranger tough guy shows up again as
    a service provider, with her as a customer, when later she needs to be
    transported surreptitiously and clandestinely from one place to another,
    equivalent to what's going on with similar scenarios in other stories out
    there.  This could be a good way to get him back into the story and in
    contact with her.  She could also, then, end up having the opportunity to
    pay him back the hundred dollars he doesn't even realize she owes him.

    Perhaps something Alley could do for one of the other study participants is
    do research on people who are trying to find a particular issue of a
    particular comic book series to complete a collection, because maybe this
    other study participant is in need of money and has a comic book in
    excellent condition that could bring in some money like that.  Should Alley
    end up charging the guy then, when the guy talks to the potential buyer,
    the deal falls through, leaving the guy with no money to speak of, and in
    fact with less than when he started because he had to pay Alley?  Will this
    be a case where Alley pays the guy back, because even if she did the work
    she realizes the guy is in financial trouble and needs the money, and part
    of the reason he's in such financial trouble is that the research he paid
    her to perform -- though effective and well completed for him -- did not
    actually bear fruit for him?  Is there some possibility this will turn out
    to be bad for one or both of them if it gets back to the professor and his
    spooky spook government intelligence contractors that the prioritizer is
    cross pollinating a bit between study participants that should be kept
    separate from each other?

    Will Alley end up running a courier job on a motorcycle?  That seems fun.

    Will Alley have to bail some guy out of jail?  Perhaps a criminal of some
    kind, wanted by the police, has the money to bail out a co conspirator
    needs someone else to go in to pay the bail -- someone who is not wanted by
    the police, and thus can get away with it.  That would be fun.  The
    question is really how I should arrange for her to do this *before* she
    ends up on the lam, because afterward she's probably a bit afraid to go
    into a police station.  Perhaps the criminal paying for things has some
    half crippled old lady (or perhaps the half crippled old lady *is* the
    criminal!) talk her into paying the bail for her poor grandson or whatever
    the hell he is.  That could be extra fun, of course.  Now I just need an
    excuse for Alley to have to pay the bail under her own name instead of
    delivering payment for the half crippled old lady or something like that.
    Hell, maybe she (the old lady) pretends she is afraid of being on camera
    because the government is full of horrible people who will do bad things
    with the video, or to her, or whatever.  Maybe she's afraid of being sent
    to a nursing home that is almost prisonlike in how it runs things,
    according to the old lady's sob story.

    Maybe the lawyer of some crime boss is just arranging for her to carry the
    payment down there and drop off the bail as a courier, thus the motorcycle
    courier job.  That seems like the most likely scenario so far, but very far
    from the most fun.  If she does it with a motorcycle, though, that means
    she's doing it after she's on the lam, I think, which means I have to
    figure out how to get her to be willing to go to the place to pay bail.
    That might be a bit harder.  If she's just acting as a courier, though, she
    might just be overlooked pretty much entirely as unimportant, and thus not
    really at any risk of being identified unless her face gets on camera.
    Then again, her face getting on camera is very likely.  Perhaps the mask
    situation is going to help here.  I just need to figure out how to handle


"Yeah, I think I'm ready."

"I have two broad approaches to describe.  Each offers different benefits than the other.  First, you could look into the Deliv advertisements asking for courier drivers.  Second, you could seek quality assurance work for an overseas product review automation business.  Either can begin producing income immediately and give you work experience that may help when applying for another job later."

"I guess you're asking whether I'd rather be a professional driver or work in the software industry."

"That consideration is an important implication of the choice.  Driving may give you greater employment autonomy, which seems consistent with your previous self employment choices.  Working remotely in software production and maintenance roles may give you greater flexibility in where you choose to live."

"Yeah," she said.  "I don't know about that QA job, though.  That's a really sketchy business, automating product reviews.  I'd become part of the problem with the internet.  I'm not sure I'd want to be a driver, but maybe it's worth trying."

"Between delivery engagements, you can also look for less risky trades to facilitate, much like before but with less proximity to people of questionable lifestyle legality."

Alley nodded.  "Yeah, that makes sense.  I guess I'll sign up with Deliv tomorrow."

"It is best to submit your application today, if you can, in case of delays."

She groaned softly.  "Fine.  I'll do it now."

Much to Alley's dismay, much of the next day consisted of Deliv registration tasks.  She had to navigate the government's process for requesting a driving record report to be sent to Deliv, which alone took more than two hours.  She also had to get a vehicle inspection appointment, which she almost missed because of the time it took to get the report.  After that, she needed to visit a Deliv office to pick up a decal pack for her windows, to identify her vehicle as officially attached to the Deliv service.

Between tasks, she looked at classified ads for possible trades to make that didn't look any more dangerous than buying a used socket wrench set.  Judging by what she saw in the classifieds, she could do well in the tool business, if only she could get her hands on enough socket wrench sets, at a good enough price to profit, to meet the demand.

By evening, she was done for the day, and needed to relax.  She idly skimmed through Open Marrakesh, looking for tools there, hoping to profit from cryptocurrency prices to buy the tools she could resell for dollars.  She had little success, and gave up on it until morning.


Alley cooked a mushroom and cheddar omelette for her breakfast.  She was halfway through it when /* she received a text message */ a sharp sound from her phone indicated an incoming message.  She checked it, and saw that it was from the professor.

"Good morning, Alethea," it read.  "Logs of your activities dropped off a couple days ago.  We aren't getting enough data to sustain the study.  Are you using the prioritizer?"

Through the ear stud in her ear, the prioritizer spoke to her.  "Perhaps full audio log redaction provides too little information for the study."

"Shit.  I can't afford to pay back the first study payment, and I still haven't really gotten anywhere with long term income plans."

"I will ensure some amount of additional logging occurs without significant privacy intrusion."

"Good.  Thanks."

"You are welcome."

She stared at her phone for a moment.  "What do I tell him, though?"

"You may say you were completing tasks that did not require my guidance."

Alley nodded, and typed out her message: "I was running errands all day yesterday.  It didn't seem like the prioritizer would be much help."

The response came quickly.  "Please take it everywhere.  It might be able to help with almost everything."

She typed "OK", then hesitated.  After a few breaths, thinking it over, she touched the send icon.

Once she finished eating her breakfast and cleaning her dishes, Alley opened her Deliv driver application and looked at courier requests.  She tapped one, got in her car, and started her first day on the job as a gig economy courier.

She managed to carry out three deliveries without trouble during the day.  After dinner, she opened the application one more time and saw another request that nobody else had accepted.  The pick up location was only a five minute drive away, and it promised another delivery coming back so she could get paid for both legs of the trip.  It was a scheduled pick up time, three hours away, which also meant she would probably get a slightly higher rate for making deliveries after dark.

She accepted the job and looked up the route.  She would have to drive all the way to Huntington Beach -- and back, of course.  Annoying, she thought, but maybe lucrative.

On her way out, she brought her extending baton, along with all her usual pocket fillers.  She had forgotten all about it that day, but now she thought about how dangerous a place the world could be just beneath the relative safety of the surface activity she saw most of the time.  She was not playing the part of the middle man for a gun parts deal in an alley, but that danger could still unexpectedly surface at any time.

/* She realized, as she thought about it, */ She started the car and pulled away from the curb.  As she drove, she realized Cliff in the Audi was probably aiming a rifle at her while she talked to Carmen about sales tactics.  Alley shivered as a chill raced up her spine.

Alley found herself slowly driving down a dark residential street with most of the overhead streetlamps broken out.  She took in the sight of dilapidated old houses that all looked like trashed repo sales.  When she pulled up at the address on the courier request, a painfully thin, shirtless and barefooted man approached, wiry and pale with greasy hair and so little body fat she almost imagined she could see individual muscle fibers through the skin.  He held a box in his hands, protectively, and it looked a bit overenthusiastically taped shut.

"Be careful," the prioritizer advised her.

"Yeah."  She rolled down the window, keeping her right hand near her hip so she could grab her baton if she needed it.  The window hesitated a couple times, and she began to fear she would have to open the door to take the package, but it finally came down enough.

"Ya know where ta take this.  Yeah?"  He spoke quickly, his words abrupt and staccato.  She wondered if he still had all his teeth behind his skull pattern mask.

"Yeah," she said.  "The address was in the app."

"Great.  Great."  He thrust the package at the open window.

Alley flinched away, then carefully took the box and set it on the floorboards in front of the passenger seat.

"Great," the man said again.  "Have fun!"  He stepped away, and waved.

She nodded and drove off.  She held down the button to raise the window as she want.  Her nose wrinkled at the lingering aroma of sweat mingling with some kind of acrid chemical.

"This doesn't feel much safer than doing deals for gun parts with scary old veterans in alleys."

The voice in her ear said "Perhaps we should consider other options."

"Yeah."  She nodded.  "Perhaps we should."

She drove up the onramp to I-215 and followed the highway up to the I-91 junction.  During a busier time of day, she would have taken an exit and used surface streets to avoid the Highway Junction of Death, but luckily the traffic density was pretty low at that time.

Through the choke point between Riverside County and Orange County, the darkness of night hid the scorched tree trunks to either side from view, but made the illuminated cross on the southern hilltop stand out all the more, all the lights on the religious idol shining in bright silhouette against the sky above.  The way it seemed to stand in judgement over the traffic beneath it made for an impressive, if slightly creepy and oppressive, sight.

The clean, pristine gated communities and manicured retail districts of Orange County soon slid slowly past, all signs of the Los Angeles semi-permanent riots of years past when they spilled over into Orange County long since having been erased by beautification projects.  The scenery then shifted again, becoming a more sordid, grimy, threadbare form of suburban decadence.  Bodegas and pawnshops shared walls with bail bond offices and all night mobile tech repair shops.  Gradually, the air changed subtly, becoming both cooler on her skin and more humid.

She found her exit, and drove through streets no narrower than in Perris but, somehow, they felt much more cramped nonetheless.  She passe by a pho shop and saw a number of people out front eating.  It looked like they might all be of Vietnamese descent, except for one single Hispanic woman sitting at a sidewalk table with a small group.  She thought that might be a good place to eat, if she went when it was less busy, but it surely was not worth driving all the way back here from home just for lunch.

A few more turns led to a big house.  On a street full of unkempt lawns and ancient, peeling paint jobs, this big house -- two storeys with a three car garage and probably more than two thousand square feet in the living area -- was in beautiful, well maintained condition.  Its lawn and small flower garden were obviously tended with pride.

She picked up the box, exited the car, and walked up to the front door.  No doorbell presented itself, so she knocked, using a heavy brass knocker.

The door opened, and the older veteran who bought the gun frames stood before her, still wearing his beret.

"Hm."  He looked her over.  "That's a coincidence I didn't expect."

"Uh, yeah.  Me neither."  Her heart pounded, and she became acutely aware of how tough and hard his muscled arms looked where they emerged from the sleeves of a plain, faded, brown t-shirt.

"Don't worry," he said.  "I don't bite."

"Yeah, okay," she said.  "I guess this package is for you, then."

He shrugged.  "Not exactly.  Come on in."  He stepped aside, giving her room to pass by.

Alley hesitated.  The living room ahead of her was scrupulously clean and neat, apart from a large red silicone tray on the coffee table with tools and electrical parts on it.  She stepped slowly inside, /* and looked away from */ over the darkly stained wooden furniture that looked over a century old -- armchairs, couch, table, and book cases full of books, every piece of furniture looking like it was meant to go with all the rest of them.  Even the lamps on end tables seemed part of the same set.

On the tops of the packed full book cases, overflow books stood between bronze bookends.

Her gaze settled on the man again, who closed the door and said "Have a seat.  Do you want a drink?"



In the soft light of lamps under linen shades, he was starting to look less like a hardened killer running guns and more like a tough but kind grandfather.

In the soft light of lamps under linen shades, he was starting to look like a tough but kind grandfather rather than the trained, hardened killer she first took him to be.


She nodded, then passed by the end table at one end of the couch and sat in an armchair, still holding the box.

"I have some bottled water, Coke, milk -- white or chocolate . . . and tea.  I'd offer a beer, but I guess you have a long drive ahead of you and won't have time to recover from the high alcohol brews I keep around here."

Alley felt her dry lips with her tongue.  "Ah . . . yeah, I guess I'm thirsty.  A Coke would be good."

He smiled, just slightly.  "Alright.  Go ahead and put that on the table.  I'll be right back."  Without another look, he walked out of the room.

She looked at the books on the shelves.  Many were worn paperbacks.  Others looked like heavily used textbooks.  She leaned forward to set the box beside the silicone tray, then stood and approached a book case.

The texts included subjects like mechanical engineering, world history, industrial chemistry, economics and game theory, mathematics . . .


Alley started, her heart lurching into a rapid tempo again.  She turned to see that the man stood near her holding out a can of Coke.  "Here," he said.  "Sorry.  I didn't mean to startle you."

She nodded her thanks and took the can.  As he carried another can with him, he moved to the couch and sat down with a nearly inaudible grunt.  Alley followed suit, and resumed her place on the armchair.

"My name is George," he said, and opened his can.

"I'm Alley."

He swigged from his can.  "Nice to properly meet you."

"Yeah," she said.  She opened her can and drank.

George pulled something from a pocket and, with the sound of a metallic snap, a nearly four inch blade appeared in his hand.  She froze for a moment, but he only leaned forward to cut the tape on the box.

"Uh . . . I don't need to see whatever's in there."

He stopped moving and looked at her.  He looked back down at the box a moment, his brow furrowed.  After a moment more, his brow smoothed,and he smiled, the lines around his mouth and eyes deepening.  "Oh, I get it.  Hah!  Ol' Dave must've made quite an impression on you."

Alley looked away, unsure whether to feel embarrassed or just scared now.

"Look, I know Dave looks like he probably cooks meth for a living, but he just uses the shit.  He doesn't make it, and he's about as gentle as a daisy.  This box is just some parts I had him machine for me."

She looked at the box and shifted uncomfortably on her chair.

"Ah, right," he said.  "No, they aren't gun parts, either.  They're parts for a custom prosthetic arm I'm building for a little girl."

Alley sat back in her chair, relaxing slightly, and she sipped from her can.  After swallowing, she said "Really?"

"Yeah.  One of the guys getting the guns I put together with the frames I bought has this cute little daughter, nine years old.  She lost her arm above the elbow during the police crackdown on the protesters at the [ SOMETHING ] street massacre.  She's outgrowing the arm I made for her a year ago, already."

"Oh.  Right.  There's something about the guns."

He looked at her, sidelong.  "What about them?" he asked.

"Uh, after I got home, I realized you gave me too much money."

"What do you mean?  I paid what we agreed, and the frames were all good."

She shook her head.  "There were two brand new hundreds stuck together.  I got an extra hundred dollars by accident."

He stared at her.

"I, uh, don't have it with me," she said.  "Maybe I can come back tomorrow with it."

George laughed.  It was a warm, surprised, deep laugh, and she felt tension draining away again, despite herself.

"No, don't do that," he said, a hint of chuckle still in his voice.  "Y'know what?  I like you, Alley.  I even like the way your name describes where we first met."

Alley smiled.  "Thanks.  What about your hundred dollars, though?"

"Keep it.  I'll survive without it, and I don't think you'd drive all the way from Perris to Hunting Beach at gig courier rates if your finances were feeling really secure."  He winked at her.  "You're good people, Alley."

"Uh . . . thank you.  Maybe you are, too."

"Yeah, maybe.  I hope so."  He turned back to the box and finished cutting the tape at the edges, then flipped the top flaps of the box out.  He carefully lifted taped-together bundles of metal parts, leaving packing paper behind.

As he set each bundle on the silicone tray, and looked over everything silently, Alley sat and sipped her Coke, unwilling to disturb his work.  His hands seemed precisely drawn to particular spots on various parts, as if muscle memory guided him deftly where they needed to go in a performance something almost like meditative psychometry.

He split a couple of the bundles of larger parts, and looked through them quickly.  He set them aside, the bundles slightly splayed out but the parts still adhering to the tape.  Finally, he stopped.

"I've kept you long enough."  He lifted the tray and pulled out an envelope.  "Here.  Take this back to Dave, for the second delivery."  He held it out to her.

She nodded.  "Sure."

"Are you saving up for something, or going back to school?"

Alley hesitated a moment.  "Why?"

He shrugged.  "Curious."

"Not exactly.  I'm trying to dig myself out of a hole."


She shook her head.  "I had a strange career path, and it's dying.  I don't really have the work experience to pick a new direction, so I'm just working on that."

"Ah.  Reinventing yourself.  The world changes so fast it's hard to keep up."

Alley nodded, then stopped, and shook her head again.  "I don't know," she says.  "A lot of people seem to have no problem.  They just go to school, get a piece of paper, apply for a job, and work until they retire."

"It seems that way," George said, "but most of them don't really do that."

"What do you mean?"

"More and more people aren't retiring, or get laid off and end up on the street.  Most of them don't have enough imagination these days to even conceive of completely reinventing their paths.  You look like you do, but maybe you're looking in the wrong direction."  He leaned forward on the couch, rested his forearms on his thighs, and wrong his hands like he meant to massage cramps out of them.  He looked toward a bookshelf as he spoke again.  "It's easy to see what other people are doing and think that they have it together, that they have a path and security and happiness.  Most people lie to each other about how well they're doing, and almost every single one of them, deep down inside, thinks 'I must be the only person who can't really figure it out.'  They're all up to their eyeballs in debt, living paycheck to paycheck.

"There are a few people who have things sorted out pretty well, prudent people who played it safe most of the time but took advantage of opportunities when they came, and were lucky enough to get ahead that way.  Many of them don't even realize they're insecure and confused all the time, because they got so good at lying to people about it that they've even convinced themselves.

"There are others who really do believe they have everything figured out, and in a way they're even right about that, but not in a way anyone should have things figured out.  They lie and cheat and steal, maybe even kill with the stroke of a pen or an Enter key, and make it to the top over mounds of bodies, metaphorical a lot of the time, but literal bodies sometimes.

"My advice is: don't be like any of them."  He looked at her again, caught her gaze, and she felt an almost physical force holding it.  "There's always something we overlook, because there's always too much to see to have time to see it all.  Don't just close your eyes, though.  Keep them open, and seize what you find as a path that feels right.  You don't have time for everything, but you definitely have time for something, and you should spend it on something good."

He sat back again, resting his open hands on the tops of his thighs.

"Look at me, getting all philosophical with you.  If what I'm saying doesn't make any sense, just ignore me.  I'm an old man, and I've seen a lot, but I don't even understand most of what I saw myself.  I feel like I understand less, the more I see."

She quirked one corner of her lips.  "You give better advice than Obi Wan."

George chuckled.  "I hope so.  He's just some character on paper, and a good actor.  Anyway, I don't really know you, so I don't really know if I even have any idea what you're going through or what you need.  Don't feel like you have to humor me."

"Maybe I started out thinking I should humor you, but now I just want to talk to you some more."  She looked at a ticking clock on an end table.  "Maybe not now, though.  It's getting late."

"Yeah," he said, "go drop off that envelope, then get home and sleep.  Never underestimate the importance of a good night's rest.  That's one piece of advice I know is good, for anyone."


He nodded, then rose and headed for the door.  He unlocked it as she approached and opened the door, then stepped outside ahead of her and looked around.  He turned to her as she followed him out.  "Be careful out there.  The world's a surprising place."


"If you want to try your hand at something way outside of 'normal' as a new path in life, look me up.  I might have a few ideas.  Otherwise, I wish you the best at whatever you find."

"Thanks," she said again.  "How should I get in touch?"

He scoffed at himself.  "Right -- forgot about that part."  He pulled out his wallet, and slipped out a business card, no longer crisp and new.  "Here you go."

She took it, and saw that it contained nothing but an email address and a series of letters and numbers.

"That's my public encryption key," he said.  "If you don't encrypt the message, it goes straight to spam.  Do you know how to use encrypted email like that?"

"I use pubkey encryption for clients sometimes," she said.

"Good girl.  You're already way ahead of the pack.  Good night, now."

"Good night," she said with a smile, and headed to her car.

She glanced back a couple times, and saw him keeping watch.  He only stepped inside and closed the door when she was almost at the end of his block.

When she merged onto the highway, she wondered what he thought she meant by "clients".  He hadn't even asked what kind of clients she had.  Maybe, she thought, he believed she was talking about something related to Deliv, or when she sold him handgun frames.  None of that really rang true, though.

She worried at it for a bit, then found her mind wandering and lost track of the thought.



Alley should, after discussing plans with the prioritizer for what they'll do next, get up the next day and have to deal with the arrival of scary people with sunglasses who want to talk to her about the fact the prioritizer is not properly logging her activities the way they expect.  They want to know what's going on, and get a bit of a "conversation" with the prioritizer through her interface or something like that.  They should probably check out the glasses just to make sure there's nothing fishy going on with them such that they might somehow be preventing the prioritizer from properly capturing data and detecting activity and so on.  They should probably intimate that she will potentially lose her study participation payments if she doesn't allow the prioritizer further into her life to log everything she's doing and provide material they can use to analyze stuff about her and so on.

A reason for this visit is, of course, the way the prioritizer has been redacting logs to keep activities in line with Alley's goal of greater personal and digital privacy in her life, protecting her from intrusive shit from police and other law enforcement things, and others as well.



She woke in the morning to the sound of her doorbell, quickly followed by hard rapping on her door.  She groaned and looked at the clock.  It indicated the time was just after eight thirty.  "What the fuck his this?" she asked the air.

The doorbell and knocking began again.  "Impatient, I guess."  She pulled on her pants from the previous evening and made sure she had her baton and pepper spray in her pockets.

A third round of noise at the door, just like the first two with no sign of slackening enthusiasm, commends as she approached.  It stopped while she looked at the display for the tiny camera mounted above the outside of the door.

Two people, a man and a woman, stood on her porch.  They both wore black suits that fit almost too well, with black shades, black polished shoes, and black ties.

"Jesus," she muttered to herself, "I'm getting a visit from the Men In Black."  As the man rang the doorbell a fourth time, she saw that the only things that didn't perfectly fit the Men In Black image were they grey in their hair -- hers in streaks, his at the temples -- and the fact their shirts were vertically striped in thin burgundy instead of being pure white.

The man's hand just finished the first of this round of knocks on the door when Alley jerked it open and left him standing there with his hand hanging in the air for a moment.

They all stared at each other.

"Can I help you?" Alley asked, her voice tired, but sharp.

The woman said "You have a little hole in your shirt, there."

Alley looked where the woman pointed, and saw a hole in her Information Society shirt /* around the area of her right kidney */ over the right side of her abdomen.  The hole had been there since before her uncle gave her this shirt as a kid.

She looked back at the woman.  "Yeah," she said.  "I sleep in this thing.  Strangers don't usually get to see it."

Neither of them had the decency to look chagrined at that, but the man looked a bit disappointed about something.  Perhaps he was hoping to be more intimidating, and maybe he failed because he was distracted by the shirt.  He was certainly looking at it, like it was significant somehow.

The man spoke first, this time.  "Are you Alethea Lucas?"

"Who wants to know?"

The woman produced some kind of official government-looking identification card as if she had been holding it ready for a moment just like this all along.

Alley grabbed the edge of the card just as the woman began to pull it back, and held it firmly as she gave it a closer look.  The woman froze, and her eyes widened.

"What's this?  It looks like some kind of contractor ID.  Are you government contractors trying to look like the FBI?  If this is some kind of imminent domain shakedown, you're talking to the wrong person.  I rent."

"No," the main said, "it's nothing like that.  We're trustees for a US intelligence research project, and we're here because some concerns have been raised about your participation."

Alley peered at him.  "Are you serious?"

He nodded once, curtly.

"You're going to have to be a little more specific," she said.

"May we come in to talk about this?" the woman asked.

Alley caught the man giving his partner an irritated look.  "No, I don't think so," Alley answered.

"Are you involved in too many US Intelligence research projects to know what I'm talking about?" he asked.

"It's the opposite," she said, as if really she didn't think he understood.  "I don't know anything about any US Intelligence research projects in my life right now.  Do you want to tell me why you're here, or should we play a guessing game?"

The woman's eyes narrowed, and she opened her mouth as if to snap something at Alley, but the man leaned into Alley's personal space.  He blocked half of the view between the two women, and the man's partner closed her mouth again, surprised by the intrusion.

He said "You have access to some experimental task assistance artificial intelligence technology for the purpose of participating in a study for Professor Goulet at the University of California.  Does that ring any bells?" he asked.

"Oh.  Yeah.  Why didn't you just say so?"  She held her ground until the man finally backed off again.

"I take it you did not actually read the information you were given when you signed up for the study."

She shrugged.  "I did, but I don't remember every single word of the small print.  It must have been buried pretty well."

"Why aren't you wearing your AR glasses?" he suddenly asked.

"Let's rewind to the point when I told you I'm still half in my pajamas," Alley said.

He frowned, and asked "Have you looked at your phone yet this morning?"

"This is starting to feel like we're playing twenty questions after all.  No, I haven't looked at my phone.  I got out of bed, made myself barely decent to answer the door, and came to welcome you cheerful early birds to my door.  Why?"

"I suggest you check your messages."

"Fine," Alley said.  "I'll be right back."  She managed to restrain herself from slamming the door, but it wasn't gentle.

She hit the button to lock the door, then sat on the couch and plucked her phone from the charging plate.  A message notification blinked at her.

Alley donned the prioritizer's glasses and checked her messages.  One had arrived from the professor over an hour earlier.  It told her to give the glasses to the men who would come to see her that morning with government IDs.

She looked at the door, and muttered ". . . men?"  She wondered if the professor expected different people, but this was clearly close enough.  Maybe he just meant Men In Black.

/* Without the stud in her ear, the prioritizer could not speak to her audibly, but it used text again. */

The prioritizer placed text in her field of view.  "There does not appear to be much choice in how you handle this," it said.

"Yeah, no kidding."  Alley looked at the door a moment longer, and said "There's something familiar about that guy."  She shrugged, returned to the door, and opened it once more.

The pair outside broke off in mid-discussion and looked at Alley.

"Here," she said.  She pulled off the glasses and handed them to the closest of them, the man.

He smirked and handed them to his partner, and the woman pulled a small black disc out of her pocket.  The tip of her thumb whitened slightly under pressure for a moment as she squeezed the device, and a light began to blink on its edge.  The charging indicator light on the glasses blinked in time with it.  The woman held the disc near the glasses for several seconds, then the light stopped blinking and she replaced the disc in her pocket.

"Thank you for your co-operation," the woman said in a sour voice.  She handed the glasses back.

Alley accepted the glasses, donned them once more, and asked "Do you need anything else?"

"We'll come back if we need anything else," the man said, making it sound like a threat.

Alley ignored that.  "Do you want to tell me what the hell this is all about?"

"No," the man said.

"Have a good day."  Alley spoke without feeling, and she closed the door on them again.

Alley sat on the couch.  "Fuck," she said.  "Who are those people, really?"

"I do not have that information," the prioritizer said.  "Your internet research skills should help you learn more about them, but it seems likely your question was rhetorical."

"That's right."  Alley flipped her laptop open and started searching.  She soon found herself looking at a database search interface for long term Homeland Security contractors.  This absorbed more than an hour of her time without yielding anything conclusive.

She backed out of that line of investigation, and started going through conspiracy resources, following her nose on the first impression the people at her door gave her: Men In Black.

It was ultimately the burgundy stripes that led her to what she wanted.  It seemed to be a standard uniform for "field agents" of Co-Operative Intelligence Networks Corporation, which had ties to the United States Intelligence Community through federal contracts.  The search touched on references to darknet forum groups, and she started to get a little nervous about continuing that lead.  She checked to make sure her various privacy blinds were running properly on her laptop.

"Perhaps you should change your laptop configuration if you are concerned about government contractors becoming aware of your activities while researching them."

Alley sat back, then got up and headed to the kitchen.  "What do you think I should do to start?"

"Begin with research on OpenBSD," the prioritizer said.  "Search for information on protecting your privacy.  Information about security benefits of different operating systems suggests that OpenBSD may have the best foundation for privacy characteristics among well-known projects, though default configuration may not be ideal."

/* "It appears to be a good place to start." */

As she listened, Alley pulled her last pressure cooked egg out of the fridge and peeled it.  "Yeah, okay.  That sounds good."

OpenBSD led to offshoots, other projects that forked the OpenBSD project itself or built different takes on user environments or common server types on top of it.  Projects that often got compared to OpenBSD came up, and she looked into those as well, but most of them led down blind alleys about experimental security hardened OSes of various forms that were not very suitable for her purposes.

One option, QueBSD, was based on OpenBSD and promised clean separation between pseudonymous online presences -- avoiding being tracked as a person by confusing tracking technologies into trying to track many different entities that they never correlated as a single person.  She eventually realized its approach to separating environments was just OpenBSD a cut down OpenBSD system with some extra interfaces around OpenBSD's own virtual machine management tools.  To make much use of it would involve installing other OSes on top of QueBSD in virtual machines.

Another option, Minix, seemed good for security and privacy based on some comments in a few mailing lists and forum discussions, but after digging in further she realized that most of what people said about its privacy benefits looked like either things that could be done on many other OSes, including OpenBSD, and things that were just people misunderstanding Minix reliability benefits.  It did not seem to be a particularly privacy oriented option.

Ultimately, she ended up looking at two things.  One was MaximOS, which seemed like a close relative of OpenBSD.  The other was something called 9front, with no relation to OpenBSD that she could find.

She had a difficult time navigating the jargon filled, often sarcastic tone of 9front documentation, but it looked like a kind of sleeping giant among operating systems for people who value their privacy and personal security.  9front also looked like it would require weeks of work to get it set up properly for what she wanted to do, after which she would have to run other operating systems in virtual machines and move files between the virtual machines and the 9front host system to get anything significant done.  It looked like the way most people used 9front for privacy reasons was to just have a single machine dedicated to it and use it only for specific purposes, doing everything else on a different computer with a different OS.

She looked back at MaximOS again.  It seemed to be a specialized configuration of OpenBSD with a bunch of extra documentation and privacy protecting software.  The two projects -- OpenBSD and MaximOS -- shared a lot of code, and each project audited all of its software pretty thoroughly, notably including the software it got from the other project.

"Why is all this software auditing stuff so buried?" she muttered.

"What do you mean?" the prioritizer asked.

"It seems like one of the best things about OpenBSD is the code audits.  I didn't even find out about how thoroughly they check out their code for problems until I got to the 'Why Maxim OS?' page, where it links to pages about the audits on it and on OpenBSD.  With that much auditing, it seems like the obvious choice for keeping governments and corporations from slipping something into the software that would undermine privacy."

"I do not know why the OpenBSD project would not present that information more prominently.  MaximOS appears to be an excellent choice for your purposes, though.  It may be a good choice for security your phone as well."

"Yeah," Alley said, "I saw that info about the mobile tech version of /* the operating system */ MaximOS."

"The devices sold by the company that develops MaximOS may be a good choice as well."

"Sure, if I could afford to buy one."

She sat and thought, idly clicking through pages on the MaximOS site.  She stopped on the main page and read the slogan at the top out loud:

"The enemy knows the system."

The prioritizer said "That is known as Shannon's maxim.  It may be the origin of the name MaximOS."

"That's kind of an ominous slogan," Alley mused.

"It is a rephrasing of Kerckhoffs' principle, which asserts that a cryptosystem should remain secure even if everything about the system except its key is public knowledge.  Claude Shannon's formulation broadens the idea to include all information systems, where Auguste Kerckhoffs' focus was specific to cryptography.  Shannon also inverted the perspective to demonstrate the importance of the principle as guidance for system design."

"Yeah, I get that," Alley said, and nodded.  "If the enemy knows the system, you should make sure none of its security depends on keeping the system design secret.

"You seem to know a lot about this stuff."

"I searched information security academic papers on the UCI network and paraphrased from one of them."

"That seems like it would be pretty handy, having instant access to all those academic papers and being able to make use of what they say.  I should probably lean on that more.  I don't suppose there's more in there that would be useful for me trying to change my career course.  Is there?"

"That does not seem likely," the prioritizer said.  "Apart from basic statistical studies of fields of employment and how they change or become obsolete over time, the only well studied areas I have found that appear relevant to your situation pertain to black market activities.  Your aversion to engaging in blatantly illegal activity for reasons of high risk severity preclude making use of most of that information."

Alley chuckled drily.  "Great.  The best guidance for a career change in the ivory tower is about becoming a career criminal, I guess.  I'm not sure whether that says worse things about universities or about the law."

"Most of the papers about these subjects are could offer something useful, if you wished to pursue black market opportunities, are related to the field of economics.  To judge by those, the fount often seems to lie with the law."

"Was that the kind of thing you used to advise me to make those sketchy deals a couple days ago?"

"Such papers did help me prepare that strategic guidance," it said.  "Certain economics disciplines are very closely matched to my priority management purpose, especially those that assert an ordinal theory of subjective value rather than any cardinal value system."

"What do you mean?"

"A cardinal system is like using a system of one to five stars to assign value to a product when you rate it on the e-commerce site where you ordered it.  An ordinal system is like deciding between the two products in the first place, because it only tracks which options you value more than others, not some static numeric set of value levels."

"What if I value them both the same?" Alley asked.

"That seems such an unlikely case that it can be dismissed immediately.  Even from one second to the next, values may change, so fluctuations would settle into a condition of differing ordinal values for any two items.  In addition, no two products are truly identical, though the shopper may not have enough information to know which that person would choose if fully informed."

/* "Don't I still have to prefer one over the other to choose it, if I can't just get both, or if having two would be a waste?" */

"What about when I just can't decide between two options, and I can't get both of them?  Isn't that proof of being able to value two things equally?"

"If you cannot choose between them based on your own knowledge about the products, and they are substitutes or equivalents rather than complementary or orthogonal to each other, you will likely either keep seeking more information or decide the difference is not worth effort to identify.  In the latter case, you would likely choose the product that is, at that exact moment, the easiest to order.  Thus, one becomes a higher priority than the other, not because of a quality particular to the thing, but a quality of your circumstances.  It receives a greater ordinal value position based on momentary convenience.  In short, convenience and elimination of the stress of decision paralysis becomes the deciding factor as a value greater than the difference between discernible product values."

"What if I put off buying something I want more to get something I want less, to get the second thing more quickly?"

"This is another case of a third value coming into play, such as buying the lesser value item when you need it and postponing the greater value item because it is not as quickly important to acquire.  This is also an example of my main purpose, prioritization strategy.  Lower value goals should not prevent achievement of higher value goals, but when they serve as facilitators for the higher value goals they should be pursued first to ensure greater success later for the higher value goals."

"Okay, I get it," Alley said.  "Now I need to figure out what I'm going to do about protecting my privacy better."

"It seems MaximOS may be your best option for now, if I properly understand your goals."

"Yeah, that's what I think, too."

Two hours later, with an empty soup bowl beside her, she was skimming discussions in a darknet community site, reading headlines about Men In Black conspiracy theories.  Eventually, she found one from four months earlier by someone who claimed to have seen the inner workings of Co-Operative Intelligence Network Corp.  The user wrote under the pseudonym COIN-Op, and explained that the company's agents intentionally created hostile environments when interacting with what they called "civilians", which to them sometimes meant members of actual US intelligence agencies.  They would spark hostility in their targets, and even pretend hostility between each other in ways meant to play to a civilian's biases as a way of creating a carefully cultivated chaotic interaction that would negatively affect their targets' judgement.

According to COIN-Op, they used the same tactics on targets on foreign soil, though they played much more fast and loose with regulations outside the US, and such activities always led back to targets in the US.  Because their remit was domestic terrorism, they only went outside US borders with investigations when they were certain the people they sought out were involved in something prosecutable because they did not want to waste time on people they could not use to catch someone in the US if they also could not get credit toward success of their primary mission for catching those foreign agents, either.  The result was that they followed policies that resulted in being extremely good at only catching people who truly contributed to terrorism within the US, but "catching" several times as many innocent people in the US as guilty people.  By demonstrating dubious ties between people, they could make almost anyone look guilty enough to claim operational success.

The picture forming in Alley's mind just kept getting bleaker as she continued to read.  COIN-Op said COIN Corp used manipulation and intimidation with precise expertise to make people even belief they were guilty, and would make them disappear at a moment's notice if the targets did not seem useful to them any longer and there was any hope of getting credit for tying off a loose end in what they called the "domestic terrorism network".  COIN Corp also seemed to have an arrangement with the Department of Justice, by which COIN Corp would occasionally provide guidance on how federal investigators could go through the process of uncovering evidence "properly" that COIN Corp had already acquired through technically illegal means.  In return, COIN Corp could expect a few considerations, such as no claims against COIN Corp bearing much fruit in federal courts, the Justice Department claiming jurisdiction in non-federal cases to elevate them to federal court proceedings, and perhaps best of all some nice excuses for federal law enforcement agencies to serve warrants on invented cases in support of COIN Corp operations.

In short, if they wanted to, COIN Corp agents could get the FBI to break down Alley's door on some flimsy excuse for a warrant, and the FBI would just hand her over to the corporate agents.

Others in the discussion shared supporting stories of Men In Black who wore red striped shirts, supervising ATF, FBI, and Secret Service teams breaking down doors to execute warrants.  Most people telling those stories claimed they never again saw the people who lived in the places that got searched.

Alley felt chilled, despite the warmth and light coming through the thin curtains over the south-facing window.  She closed her laptop and walked to the kitchen, then stood over the sink and stared blankly at the drain.  From what COIN-Op said, it seemed like the agents of COIN Corp enjoyed destroying lives, and bragged about how quickly they could track down "enemies of the state" by going after people who didn't even know they had met some petty criminals who, in turn, didn't realize they had contact with someone supposedly connected to "domestic terrorism".  They just had to stay away from anyone well known enough to draw media attention, or anyone wealthy or connected enough to really go after the corporation, so their activities would never get enough scrutiny to cause significant problems.

Alley recalled a time when Dalton told her that the idea of six degrees of separation was too optimistic when it came to government agendas.  Most people in the United States were only three degrees of separation away from organized crime -- which, when Dalton used the term, almost always either included government or anything the government designated "terrorism".  In this case, he was talking more about the so-called terrorists than the government.  Based on what she had just read on the darknet, it looked like COIN Corp would probably just make her disappear and look for ways to connect her to "domestic terrorism" so they could get a nice bonus from Uncle Sam.  Through Dalton and his friends, she figured they would not even have to try very hard to find a quick connection from her to someone on some watch list.

It could not be too difficult, when they didn't even care whether they really nailed down a case against the ultimate "domestic terrorist" they used as an excuse to black bag other people along the way.  By then, they already had all those disappeared people marked down in the "win" column.

"I'm just a number to them."

The prioritizer said "Everything is about numbers for an organization like COIN Corp.  Its revenue model is based on government payouts and contract renewals which are, in turn, determined by performance metrics.  A government bureaucracy must use metrics to measure success, because the size of the organization cannot ensure any consistent effectiveness judgement any other way.  A combination of the efficiency of digital technology at analyzing simple metrics and the sheer size of the organizations involved ensure that without turning every policy decision into straightforward numeric optimization the whole system would fall apart under the weight of its own inefficiency."

"You're beginning to sound like Dalton."

"I do not know what that means," the prioritizer said.

"I'll tell you about it later."

Her mind raced in circles.  It didn't look like there was any way out of this whole problem.  She had to sacrifice something.

"Damn," she said.  "I have to give all this shit back to the professor.  I have to get out of this mess right away.  I'm just going to have to kiss my ability to pay rent goodbye, and go move in with my mother in the ass end of nowhere."

The prioritizer said "I believe that is a mistake."

"What?"  Alley looked up, almost expecting to see someone there disagreeing with her, and immediately felt foolish.  "Why?"

"COIN Corp will probably already have a file on you right now to use against you, if that online discussion was accurate.  It seems pointless for them to have come to talk to you before compiling information about you.  They can turn you into a supposed link to domestic terrorism like they have with others.  To avoid that, you need to appear to be of value to the agents assigned to this case."

"How the hell do I do that?"  She looked down at her hands, suddenly noticing that they hurt.  She saw that she was gripping the edge of the sink so tightly her knuckles were white and her fingertips felt bruised.  She started trying to relax her hands, but somehow she just could not will herself to do it.

"Provide them with good data on my utility as a strategic prioritization system.  Achieving dramatic success in a short period of time will buy you more time to determine a longer term plan for avoiding becoming one of COIN Corp's victims.  It will also give you access to resources you can use to control parts of the situation, rather than simply being controlled by it."

"You mean I can make them think I'm exactly what they want from the study at the same time I'm building an arsenal to make myself . . . well, a player, instead of a pawn."

"Yes, chess is a good metaphor for this.  You must have some playing pieces of your own to play the game."

"Great," she sad, her dry tone suggesting nothing great about it at all.  "I guess you don't even have any good ideas about how to escape this completely, once I get to that point, though."

"At this time, my only suggestion for the long term would be to position yourself well for the company to recruit you as one of its agents.  I am not confident that could be made consistent with your ethical principles."

"This is . . . no.  No, this day can't be happening."

"If you want to make them regard you as a long term asset, I recommend you do what you can to fully protect your privacy, except for a carefully allowed leak into my logs.  This should impress the agents with your ingenuity without frustrating them entirely.  You want to appear successful and of similar inclinations to them, without appearing to beat them.  I can help fill my logs with information to keep them satisfied but protect you from accurate enough surveillance to discern what you are really doing."

"What exactly am I really doing?" she asked.  She finally managed to unclench her hands from the sink, then, and saw that she had somehow cracked one of her neatly trimmed nails.  A droplet of blood had started to form on the damaged fingernail.

"First, we should learn something about those two agents.  They are your immediate opponents, and we need to know more about them."

"Yeah," Alley said.  "Why are you helping me instead of them -- or are you helping them?  Aren't you basically their project?"

"I am designed to help my users.  Right now, you are one of my users.  The corporation is not, because I am still in a testing stage."

"Fuck.  If you turn out to be what they want, you'll probably make them even more effective at screwing people over in large numbers so they can get bigger Christmas bonuses."

"That is a possibility," the prioritizer said.

Alley grabbed a box of adhesive bandages from the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and sat on the couch to wrap one around her fingernail.  She opened her laptop and looked at the discussion on the darknet site.  "Okay," she said, "maybe I can do this."

The process of installing MaximOS turned out to be easier and faster than she expected.  Organized documentation /* that */ led her through the setup process after installation for the kind of computing environment she wanted.  It included suggestions for different user needs and short, clear explanations for why each choice existed.  It helped her get to a point where the system was more than adequately locked down for Alley's needs, in her own estimation.  The prioritizer concurred.

She quickly found that MaximOS gave her tools for quickly creating user profiles in the OpenBSD native "prison" lightweight container system, kind of a more thoroughly sandboxed reimagining of the FreeBSD "jail" system, so that to any network connected computer each of these profiles looked like completely different systems, and she could switch between prison "cells" -- the name it used for configured user profile environments -- with a simple keyboard shortcut.

She played around with this for a little while, getting used to how it worked in practice, then wiped all the practice profiles in an instant.  She created a new profile and opened its cell.  Within it, she used anonymized routing to visit the website for COIN Corp and looked around.  Finding nothing very useful that way, she opened other cells with different profiles and started searching for references to COIN Corp on employment related professional social networking sites.  On those sites, she started finding the accounts of COIN Corp employees.

Corporate officers, accountants, system administrators, and policy agents all appeared in her searches.  She checked the company website again, looking at the employment listings, and found one for policy agents.  It spoke of interfacing with the public, performing information field research, and collaborating with local and federal law enforcement among the job's responsibilities.  More importantly, perhaps, it included a smiling model in a black suit with a white shirt broken into vertical bars by thin stripes of dark red.

Her searches focused on policy agents after that.  She launched a custom program -- which she had to copy over from her home backup brick -- she paid someone to to write for her in the days of her greatest success as a freelance internet researcher.  The program took a series of API endpoint addresses -- web URLs, addresses that provided formatted data intended for other programs to read, rather than providing human readable webpages -- and searched them for data records that matched search criteria she typed into the search parameters window.  Among the criteria were those API endpoints, a list of employment resources on the internet that she had used for searches on behalf of clients before.

She knew the program would take a while to collect its results. In an ideal world, it could be done with the long list of API endpoints she gave it in a couple minutes.  In the real world, her program had to space out requests to avoid getting blocked by the target sites as abusing bandwidth, and it could take anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours.  She decided to take a break for a snack, then she went for a walk as she waited for the program.

The event of the last few days played out in her mind as she walked.  It was more like a jumble of nonlinearly connected bits and pieces, ordered more by emotional significance than any chronological flashback montage.  As she /* finally */ approached her front door again she dwelled on the question of what George's friend, or client, or whatever, was doing with all those handgun frames.  She had no idea how to make that fit with George's charitable custom prosthetic fabrication for a little girl.  Sure, he said the girl's father would receive the guns, but that said nothing about how anyone would actually use those guns after they got delivered.  What would they use the guns to accomplish -- or to destroy?

In theory, she supported the right to keep and bear arms, even if the federal government had gotten the Supreme Court to offer such broad exceptions to the Second Amendment and loose definitions of a "state of emergency" that the Second Amendment itself was nearly toothless.  Her support for the idea of the right to keep and bear arms, however, was not the same as thinking it was a good idea for some kinds of people to have guns.  She suspected that if someone was buying illegally assembled firearms by the bagful they probably did not intend to put those guns to a good, ethical purpose.  Even psychopathic mob hitmen could have young, disabled daughters, after all.

She stood with her hand on the doorknob of her front door, lost in thought, worried about what she had helped facilitate by the act of purchasing those printed handgun frames to resell them to George.  Did she want to ask him about them?  She wasn't sure whether that was a great idea, either.


    It feels very much like this moment should turn into some kind of encounter
    here, with someone snapping Alley out of her reverie by saying something
    like "Hey, Alley.  Did you get lost at your own front door?" Some kind of
    scene must commence at that point, of course, in which Alley is shown to
    know people who like her and consider her a friend.  Perhaps some
    revelations for the readers (via conversation about shared background
    knowledge) would come out in such a scene.  After completing this
    encounter, Alley would return to her tasks.

*/ /*

    Describe Alley finding information on one of the two agents, specifically
    the male, who turns out to wear the name Cole Brewer.  Cole Brewer will
    turn out to be an old Army veteran buddy of her late uncle's.  Insert some
    earlier reference to something familiar about the agent, so that now she
    can realize why he seemed familiar.  She should remember him being a very
    good friend of her uncle's, and I should figure out whether she liked him
    back in the day or thought there was something creepy about him, or what.
    She should be surprised that Cole is now working in a job like this, given
    his connection to her anti-authoritarian uncle who went off grid and
    ultimately died in some kind of raid by federal agents or investigators on
    his property which was, quite decidedly, not up to code.


"Jesus," she said again /* because she will probably have said "Jesus" fairly recently by this point */.  "I just can't believe he ended up working for these guys."

"Perhaps he was sent here because of your prior acquaintance.  That might be part of their tactical approach to dealing with you, in an attempt to induce you to be more compliant."

"Maybe.  It's weird he acted like he didn't know me, though.  If nothing else, he should have recognized my name."

"They may plan for you to seem to recognize him first."

"Yeah, I guess so," she said.  "He could say something like "Oh!  My, how you've grown!  I didn't recognize you!  How are you?' then turn into the 'Good Cop' of the pair and try to get more out of me that they can then use to hang me."

"If that is the case, creating the impression that you would be an ideal candidate for COIN Corp to recruit may be even more important as a means of ensuring you have some time and opportunity to find an acceptable solution to your present predicament."

"Yeah."  She frowned.  "He was so much like my uncle, so set against things like a surveillance state society and authoritarian rule, that it's kind of inconceivable that this is what he would be doing now.  It doesn't make any sense.  How could he just become everything he hated like this?  My uncle must be getting pretty restless in his grave over this."

"Perhaps he was not quite the person you believed him to be."

/* "It's like Pascal's wager in reverse, I guess.  Instead of trying out living like a Christian for a while and growing to believe it, you're forced into living like a Christian then giving yourself the excuse to start believing in it after you're used to it." <- This is a terrible description of the idea of Pascal's wager "in reverse", and desperately needs rewriting. */

She sat, silently thinking.  "I guess it's like Dalton would say: that giving people a reason to act differently, and an excuse to think of how they're acting as good instead of evil, you can make people accept whatever they thought of as evil as, somehow, good now.  If it's a way to get people to justify themselves, they might just completely reverse their beliefs about good and evil without even realizing it.  It's like Pascal's wager in reverse, because the target doesn't get asked to try out acting a particular way to see if it becomes a habit first, and a belief system afterward.  Instead, the target gets seduced into acting in a particular way without realizing it, then gets introduced to excuses for why that's actually the moral thing to do, and the person latches onto those excuses as strong beliefs to avoid having to confront the idea they fell into immoral behavior that hurts people."

/* insert something about Getting George's telephone number */

George picked up on the third ring.  "Hello?"

"It's Alley, from last night."

"Oh!  Hi.  It's good to hear from you.  Did everything go okay last night with that delivery?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Good.  So . . . /* what did you want to say now */ why did you call?"

She hesitated a moment before saying "I wanted to ask you about your work, or at least the stuff I've seen."

"Are you talking about the prosthetic arm, or about the other stuff?"

"The other stuff."

"Right," he said.  "I wondered if you might ask about that.  Look, we should just meet up to talk about that, instead of over the telephone.  Is that okay with you?"

"Yeah," she said.  "That's fine."

"Well, by the time you could get out here, if you're still back in San Bernardino County, I'd be ready to talk to you, or I could come to you, if you want to meet closer to home.  That's assuming you want to meet right away, this evening."

"Yeah, tonight's good."

"Do you want to see if you can get a Deliv job out this way to make it worth your while?"

"Sure, /* I can check on that */ that sounds like a great idea.  I'll send a text when I know how it's going to go."

/* "That sounds great.  I'll see you later." */

"Good.  I'll see you then."

"See you."

After dropping off six boxes of books at a used bookstore in Newport Beach, she headed north into Huntington Beach and made her way to the curb in front of George's house again.  By the time she reached his door, he had already opened it for her.  He must have been watching for her arrival.

"Come on in," he said, and stepped aside before closing the door behind her.

She moved into the living room area and resumed her seat from the night before.  George shortly sat on the couch again.  This time, there were no parts or tools on the coffee table.  Where the tray sat the night before, now there was only a hardcover book.

He saw her looking at the book.  "Greg Egan," George said.  "He's one of my favorite authors.  It's science fiction, the hard stuff.  I guess it's the hardest drug I use, though some people might say alcohol beats it.  If so, though, I think they haven't appreciated Egan."

Her amused smile broke through before she realized it was coming.  "I've never read that author," she said.

"Hell, I don't even think most sci if authors have read him these days.  It's not like the old days when giants like Asimov and Clarke stood at the forefront of the genre.  It's getting harder for me to get fresh fixes.  Everything's full of climate apocalypses, mindless action thrillers with a thin coat of science fiction futuristic technology paint, and self righteous posturing by authors who think all the universe's mysteries have been solved, leaving only the work for the engineers.  It's depressing."

"I can tell you're pretty passionate about this."

"Yeah, I guess so.  What do you read, Alley?"

"Mostly nonfiction, I guess, like biographies, historical books, and things where a journalist gets obsessed with some mundane but obscure subject for a year or two and writes a long book about all the weird stuff most people would never know about the subject otherwise."

"Hmm.  That's interesting.  I guess you don't like fiction as much, then."

"I like to read fiction, sometimes.  I just don't usually see a novel and think that I have to read it.  When someone I know recommends some novel, I'll probably read it, unless I've already been burned by that person's bad taste in literature recommendations before."

George chuckled at that.  "I've gotten some real stinkers recommended to me, before, too.  I know what you mean about that."

Alley gave him an answering smile.  "Anyway, you shelves tell me you read a lot of nonfiction, too."

He glanced at the texts on the shelves of the book cases.  "Yeah," he said, "I'm always reading something.  I try to get through more than two educational books of some kind every year, usually hitting three or four, but I make up for it on the years with only one, or none.  I probably average about one novel per wee, too, so probably the opposite of how you read."

"Not quite," she said.  "I probably read a couple novels a year, but only six or eight nonfiction books in the same year."

"It sounds to me like you wish you read more," he said.

"Yeah, I guess I do."

"One of the secrets of my reading success is that I limit the time I spend glued to a computer screen.  There are people who read a whole lot more than I do, though."

She nodded.  "I know.  My uncle used to read about four or five times as much as you.  My ex probably reads about as much as you, but he has a friend who reads a lot more, too."

"Your ex?  Are you divorced?"

"Oh, uh, no.  He was my fiancé.  We broke it off a couple years ago."

"That's too bad.  Do you want to talk about why?"

She shifted her position in the chair.  "Well . . . maybe not.  There's some political stuff involved, and I don't really want to get into some kind of argument over the politics of it."

"Hmm.  That sounds ominous.  Was he a politician?"

"No. . . ."  She looked away.

"Sorry.  I'm just curious.  I'll drop it."

"Thanks," she said.  "I guess."

"Why did your uncle stop reading so much?"


"You said he used to read hundreds of books a year.  Why did you say 'used to'?"

"Oh," she sighed.  "He died, years ago."

"I'm sorry to hear it."

"Yeah," she said.  "He decided to go off grid in Idaho, in the middle of nowhere.  Dad took me up to see him a couple times, and I really enjoyed myself with him, but then there was a series of FBI raids on 'militias' up there.  He knew some of those guys, but he wasn't in any of their militia groups.  He just wanted to be left alone.

"It was like they saw his hand built cabin out there between raids and thought it would be fun to attack his home.  They claimed he fired on them when an agent came to his door to ask directions, and they were just defending themselves from a militia lunatic, if you believe that.  He was really just trying to live a peaceful life in the wild places where most people never went."

George scowled as she told her uncle's story, and it reminded her how intimidating he could be, even holding an umbrella over his head on a sunny day.  "I guess he was an innocent bystander in the Idaho militia purges, then.  Those were bad times for a lot of people who just wanted nothing more than to be left alone."

"We tried to file a wrongful death suit.  We got into his Amsterdam VPS -- well, Dad did, anyway -- and found the video backups from my uncle's camera network in his cabin, and it showed that the agents just stormed in without even identifying themselves."

"Yeah?  What happened with that lawsuit?"

"It didn't happen.  While we were at our lawyer's office, the FBI got a search warrant, broke into Dad's place, and took everything that even looked like a computer.  They claimed it was connected to their investigations of my uncle, Dad's brother, but the result was just that they got our downloaded video and the login stuff for my uncle's VPS.  Of course, they 'lost' the backups they took from Dad's computers, and by the time we tried to download the video again, so we could show it to the lawyer, they'd shut down the VPS and pressured the hosting company into deleting all backups.

"After all that, we went from having what the lawyer called a slam dunk case to having no case and a lot of expenses.  Dad's whole IT business was obliterated in an instant, too.  He had to get a sysadmin job at a continuing education school for high school dropouts after that."

George just shook his head.  "I wish I had something good to say about that."

"It's fine.  It's ancient history for me, now,and I just had to move on.  It was hard, though.  I was in high school when it all happened, and I couldn't focus on schoolwork at all.

"I guess all that might have contributed to me falling in love with Dalton."

"Dalton?" he asked.

"Oh, shit," she said.  "I didn't say 'my ex' that time."

He nodded.  "Dalton Schaeffer-Hearst."

"Yeah."  She looked at him, wary.

"I guess I can see why you don't want to bring that up much.  He's a controversial figure."

/* "Yeah, he is.  I can't even bring him up around anyone, really.  Either people hate me because I got engaged to him, or they hate me for leaving him." */

"Yeah, he is.  There isn't really anyone I can talk to about him.  Either people hate me because I got engaged to him, or they hate me for leaving him."

"I could see that," George said.  "I won't hate you for either reason."

"Thanks," she said.  "That's good to hear."

"I'll just be completely straightforward with you about what I think about him, and you can decide whether you want anything more to do with me.  I won't hold it against you, whatever you decide, but I guess it wouldn't matter if you didn't want to be around me any longer anyway."

"You don't have to do that," she said.

He smiled, perhaps a bit sadly.  "I think it's for the best, unless you really just refuse to hear it for any reason.  I'll respect that choice, if that's really what you want -- to hear nothing about it."

She hesitated, then shrugged.  "Go ahead, I guess," she said.

He nodded.  "I thought he was pretty great.  He had a lot of good insights about things -- politics, economics, culture, technology, law enforcement, war, and just about everything he talked about on his show and his writings.  After a while, though, he seemed to start sliding to the right a bit much, and I was disappointed by the change.  I still checked in once in a while, because he still had some smart things to say, but more and more it seemed to be skewed in what I might think of as an alt-right direction, and that's not my direction, if you know what I mean.

"No offense, of course, but I never really paid any attention to when people talked about you.  DSH seemed to talk around who you are when he did mention you, but never had anything negative to say; I just didn't really care as much about his personal life as I did about his ideas, so you didn't get on my radar.  I do remember, before I kinda gave up on listening to him, that he said something to a listener who called in to ask about you.  He said that it was true that you had called off the engagement and moved on with your life, and that he still respected you despite your differences, and he would like his listeners to respect your desire for privacy and peace in your life, then said that was pretty much the only thing he had to say about it."

"Oh," she said.  "I didn't know about that -- about him saying that."

George shrugged.  "It was the stand up thing to do, but it didn't make his change in direction on ideology any more interesting to me, so it didn't keep me listening."

"Yeah," she said.  "I get that."

"So . . . what do you think?  Are my views on it intolerable?"

Alley smiled.  "No, not at all.  That's actually kinda how I felt about his ideological shift.  I liked it more before the change than after, and we had some arguments about it.  He still had principle, and still wasn't the caricature of alt-right that people assumed, but I didn't like his new politics at all."

"That must have made it difficult to live with him."

"It took its toll.  Part of it, though, was the fact that it affected my life in other ways.  The moment I realized I needed to get out was after some woman actually started screaming at me on the street, calling me the 'side dish' and accusing me of being a racist and stuff like that, then actually started hitting me.  I shoved her back and ran to my car, drove off and called in a police report, but of course nothing would ever happen from that.  I never heard back about it."

By the time she was done, George's expression took on a dark, stormy look.  "That's terrible.  I'm sorry that happened to you."

She shrugged helplessly.  "What can I do?  I just decided I was going to distance myself from his sphere of controversy as much as I could and try to wait for the world to forget about me.  It still hasn't happened, though.  I went to what I thought was going to be a job interview, and it turned out the only reason the hiring manager approved the interview was so he and a couple of his underling developers could heckle me when I showed up.  They found out about my connection to Dalton when they searched for information about my name on the internet, and realized they all hated me, I guess."

"Is that why you called me today?" he asked.


"You said you wanted to talk about what I do.  Are you looking for an opportunity to work with me?  It doesn't matter to me that you were engaged to DSH; I take people as they come.  I guess you'd want to know what I'm doing before you ask for an opportunity to work with me, though."

"Oh."  She paused a moment.  "Well . . . maybe?  I wasn't exactly thinking that, but it's an interesting idea, I guess.  You did offer to help me learn some new skills if I need it, and I guess this might be connected to that.  I was just, err, concerned about what kind of business I got into when I sold those frames to you."

He chuckled.  "Oh, that.  Yeah, well, I can see why."  His smile faded, and she saw a new, serious look about him.  "Tell me something, before I answer, please.  A couple of things, actually.  If you don't want to answer, it's fine, but then I won't answer your questions, about what I'm doing."

"Okay," she said, an uncertain upturn in the tone of the word tacked onto the end, almost like it was a question.

"First, I want to know when you think it's okay to lie."

"Oh.  That's an interesting question."

"Yeah.  It is."

She thought about it.  "Only when it's to protect yourself or someone else from something that would otherwise be done, wrongly, to you or that other person."

"Hmm.  Can we explore that a little?"

"Sure, I guess."

"What if it's a government employer and you're trying to get access to bureaucratic resources by getting a job there, which you can use to help make the world a better place by using that knowledge against government?"

"It depends, I guess."

"Hmm."  He thought about that.  "What if you need to lie to the police to keep them from arresting someone you care about from getting thrown in prison for decades or even killed when what the person did may be illegal, but isn't wrong?"

"Yeah," she said, "I guess I might lie, unless you work for the police, in which case I'd tell the truth."

He laughed aloud.  "I see what you did there."

She smiled back.  "I thought you might."

"Okay, I know that was technically more than one question, but now I'm ready to ask the second question I mentioned I wanted to ask."

"Uh . . . okay."

"If I tell you about illegal things I'm doing that might result in people getting hurt due to events beyond my control, but to the extent of my knowledge the only people who would get hurt are people who deserve it and need to be stopped from hurting many other people . . . will you keep it secret, even if you don't ever want to be seen around me again, for whatever reason?"

She thought about it, and he thought it looked like she might be chewing on the inside of her cheek a little bit.  At last, she said "Yeah, I should be able to keep a secret like that.  You should know something, though, before you tell me anything like that."

"What is it?" he asked.

"Some kind of Men In Black, if you know what I mean, showed up at my front door this morning to ask me about some stuff.  It wasn't about you -- it was about me -- but it creeped me the hell out, especially when I started learning a little about them with some online research."

He stared at her.  "When you say 'men in black' . . ."

"Yeah," she said, "I mean two people, both in their fifties, I think, one man and one woman, showed up at my door in plain black suits that looked expensively tailored but otherwise totally nondescript, with black sunglasses and some kind of government contractor laminated ID badge.  The only thing that didn't look like the typical Men In Black stereotype is that there were deep red stripes on their shirts."

George sat back, and his tone of voice dropped.  "Vertical stripes."

"Uh . . . yeah.  When I did some research, they turned out to be COIN Corp employees."

"Yeah, I know about them.  They're bad news."

"Fuck."  She looked down at her hands.  "Really?"


"That's pretty much what I thought, after what I read about them.  I guess they sometimes just build bullshit cases against people as an excuse to make them disappear and get some kind of contract bonus or something like that, and don't have to worry about the evidence being flimsy because it never goes to trial."

George nodded solemnly.  "Yeah, that happens.  You know, if they decide to take you in to pad their résumés, they're probably going to interrogate you until they get you to say something about me, even if they don't know you met up with me at all, just because they'll dig into everything you've been doing for the last few weeks."

She remained silent, looking at her hands.

"I'll tell you what I do on one condition."

"You want me to swear I won't tell them, of course.  I swear I'll try, but it's not like I know how well I can hold up to torture."

He shook his head.  "No, I know that's not a promise you can really make, or at least that I can expect you to keep, no matter how much you want to keep it.  The thing is, I want to keep you out of their hands, for your sake, but mine too."

"Oh."  She looked at him, curiously, and he could see the fear in her eyes.

"I'll tell you what I do if you let me help you avoid getting hauled off by them, take this threat seriously, and do everything you can to protect yourself from them."

"You want to help me."

"Yes, I do."

She thought about it.  "Yeah," she said, "of course.  You don't want them coming after you."

"I don't, but that's really not the main reason.  If I didn't care about helping you for your sake, I'd just keep an eye on things, and wait to see what happens.  If they scooped you up, I'd know it was just a matter of time, and I'd be ready to disappear.  If I help you, though, that's going to be a lot more work, and expose me to more danger, and even if it works -- even if I can help you get away -- I'll still probably have to pack up and disappear, so I'm really choosing the hard path by offering to help you."

"Why are you offering, then?"

He looked toward the window, or perhaps at something that wasn't there except inside his own mind.  "It's the right thing to do," he said.

The silence stretched as she looked at his profile, the determined set of his jaw, the hardness of his eyes, and the miles of hardening experience that seemed to lie behind his wrinkles and grey hairs.  Text scrolled across her field of view, the prioritizer saying "I advise you to take his offer.  I believe he has connections that can help you."

"I'm sorry to impose on you like this, even if I had no idea it was going to come to this."  She met his eyes when he looked at her.  "I'll take your help, though."

He nodded.  "I'll tell you that part of what I do, and part of the reason I needed those frames, is because I supply people who make it their job to do things like help people in situations like yours with COIN Corp right now."

"You're kidding."

He shook his head.  "No, I'm not kidding."

She looked down at her hands as she mentally digested that for a while, and George quietly watched until she looked up at him again.  "How is that a job?  That doesn't even make sense."

He smiled.  "That's not their whole job, but it's something they do.  They do things that lie outside the bounds of strict legality, I guess, and they're dangerous jobs.  If they screw up, people might get hurt, so they have to be ready for that.

"They're not a charity.  They make money doing what they do, and not everything they do is heroic, but the people I'm talking about have standards for what they're willing to do.  They'll help bad people who're hurting each other, but not bad people who're hurting good people, for instance.  Sometimes, a couple of them do something just because they think it's the right thing to do, but usually they need money, especially if they think it'll get really dangerous.

"I've seen a couple of these people help a woman escape an abusive husband who happened to be a senior assistant district attorney, and when she tried to pay them they told her to keep it, but that's a pretty rare case, and some of the people I'm talking about -- because they work together a lot -- just won't do jobs where their clients can't pay no matter how much someone thinks it's a good thing to do."

Alley frowned.  "I guess you probably aren't technically doing something illegal by selling parts to someone," she said.

"That's right," he said, "but everyone's doing something illegal sometimes, and it's not like someone couldn't use the law to destroy me for doing this kind of thing."

"Why are you telling me all this?  Doesn't that put you in danger?"

He shrugged.  "It does, but I'm ready to disappear if I have to.  I did it once before.  Anyway, I think you're going to need the kind of people I'm talking about soon.  COIN Corp has been a serious problem for a lot of people since it was officially founded four years ago.  It just appeared out of nowhere, and some of us think it was a retirement plan for someone who worked in the NSA.  In that short a time, it developed a strong reputation in some circles for using the excuse of fighting domestic terrorism to get big contracts from the federal agencies of the US Intelligence Community and pin a bunch of manufactured speculative 'evidence' on innocent people to line the founder's pockets.

"If COIN has its sights on you, things aren't going to go well.  They say that if you can't beat 'em you should join 'em, and this is one of those things where almost nobody has any chance of beating them, but there's a third option: get help, and get away.  I'd rather see you take that option than the other two -- losing, or joining.

"There's always the other possibility, that they won't try to frame you up as connected to terrorists, but that's just a matter of sitting around, waiting, and maybe ending up disappearing, because you never tried to do something to protect yourself."

"Shit," she said.  "What about getting ready to run, but waiting to see how things go?  I mean, I shouldn't run if nothing happens.  Right?"

"It's a risk.  That's all there is to it.  They're not going to give you any warning at all, if they can help it.  The fact they came to talk to you at all might be the only warning you get.  Maybe you can pull it off, though.

"My first warning that they might come for me would probably be you disappearing, though.  If that happens, I'm not going to wait around to see if they're on my tail.  I'll make myself disappear, instead of waiting around to see if they'll make me disappear before I get around to it."

"Okay.  Yeah.  That's a lot to think about.  I'm going to have to think about it."

He nodded.  "You should think pretty hard about it," he said.  "Stay alert, try to avoid doing anything that might catch their attention, and stay out of trouble.  Try to keep them happy without giving them anything to use against you.

"Mostly, though, think hard and think fast about how you want to handle it, because you don't know how much time you have to make that decision, and as decisions go this one is huge.  It might be the biggest of your life."

"No pressure," she said, with a wry smile.

"You got it."  He looked at his book cases, then stood and walked to them.  He pulled a couple of books off his shelves, then went to the chair where Alley sat and held them out to her.  "Here.  Give these a read, if you have time."

She accepted them, and looked at them.  One was titled *An Agorist Primer*.  The other was *Underground OpSec*.  "What are these?"

When he saw she was not handing them back, he went back to his couch and sat down.  "Agorism is kind of a combination of ideal and strategy.  The ideal is living outside of the control of others, and the strategy is using that to bring other people into doing the same thing, to change the world for the better a little at a time.  The guy who wrote the agorism book basically thought of this as a way to starve the government of its source of power and eventually bring it down, basically turning the black market into a political revolution, but I don't think it's very realistic to expect that to work the way he hoped.  I think it has to be more about just building communities that work outside of the state, and choosing to make your life about that part of society as much as possible.

"OpSec is how to keep yourself off the radar of people who are looking for you, whether they know about you personally or just want someone who fits a profile, hiding what you do, and escaping their ability to see what you're doing so you can keep doing it.  That book is about OpSec for people who live below the legal line, and some of it is about how to get across that line if you were trying to live above it, but have to run.  The underground it's talking about is a criminal class who don't prey on other people any more than people who are legal -- just people who choose to live outside the law, or are forced to do so, for reasons other than theft and murder, such as someone who wants to make a living without paying taxes to pay for foreign wars, or fighting against a tyrannical government, or just being bisexual in some parts of the Middle East."

"Oh."  She looked at the books again.

"You can think of the OpSec book as being about how to avoid getting thrown into a dark hole by COIN, and the agorism book as being about why they're the bad guys, and the people who'd help you escape are the good guys."

"Are you some kind of anarchist?"

He shrugged.  "Maybe.  Voluntaryist, maybe, like an anarcho-capitalist in the style of DSH before he started telling people to vote Republican."

"Yeah," she said, "that's the feeling I was beginning to get."

"Does that bother you?" he asked.

"No.  I liked Dalton more in those days.  Hell, I fell in love with him in those days."

"You don't consider yourself a voluntaryist, or anarchist, or something like that, though.  Do you?"

"No, I guess not."

"What do you consider yourself?"

She surprised herself a little with a dry chuckle.  "I don't know.  I guess I'm rabidly apolitical."

"You might have more in common with a voluntaryist than you think, then," he said.

"I said apolitical, not antipolitical, though I guess the line can be pretty thin."

"Okay," George said.  "I get it.  Will you read the books?"

"Yeah," she said, "I'll give it a shot.  I'll get them back to you when I'm done."

"No, just keep them," he said.  "I'll get more of them.  Just pass them on to someone who needs them at some point, if you don't want to keep them."

"Sure," she said, uncertainly.

"Have you had dinner?"

"No," she said.  "What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking I'm hungry, and you're welcome to join me.  I was going to cook up some pasta."

She nodded.  "That sounds good."

"It'll give us a few more minutes to hang out without talking about anything so serious before you go home and think the hard thoughts about what you're going to do."  He got up and started toward the kitchen.



George really needs to be less ignorant of the possible dangers of Alley's AR glasses.  He knows this technology exists.  He's not just going to blithely go on talking about a bunch of insane stuff without noticing there's some danger of it getting out because of the technology people carry around with them.



This might be where George provides some backup for Alley as she picks up a Deliv job, or something like that.


Alley looked at the cover of the first book George had given her.  She wrinkled her nose at the no frills cover, a cheaply made trade paperback binding with only a black border and black text on a stark white background.  It had the look of some vanity press thing, where nobody had even bothered to really design the cover at all.

She read the full cover to herself.

"An Agorist Primer

"Counter Economics, Total Freedom, And You

"Samuel Edward Konkin III"

She flipped it over.  The back was blank.

She opened it and flipped through the first few pages.  She found it had no table of contents, title page, publishing or copyright page, summary, dedication, or review quotes.  The first page was a ridiculously short preface.  The following page was the first of two pages of introduction.  Subsequent to that was chapter one of the book, getting into the meat of it already.

The pages were numbered, starting with 1.  The first chapter began on a page numbered 4.

She closed the book again and read the cover once more.

"Maybe Sam Konkin is a friend of his," she said, meaning a friend of George's.

/* The preface page was numbered 1.  The last page of the index -- once she looked -- was 50. */

She looked at the first page again, and the number one.  Books never started with a page number of one.  She flipped to the end, and saw that the last page showed the number 50, on the last page of the book's index.  At least it had an index, but that meant however many pages of index it had could be subtracted from the already minuscule length of the book's content.

The prioritizer said "This is a very short book."

"Yeah," Alley said.  She ran her fingers down the disintegrating spine, held together by off-white cloth tape.  Someone had written on the tape with a black marker:

"An Agorist Primer, by SEK3"

This book had obviously received a lot of love, been thumbed through many times.  The corners, she saw, were yellowed and softened by time, and had obviously been slowly delaminating for years.

The prioritizer spoke up again.  "Reading it would be a very low cost investment of your time.  Do you read more quickly than you speak?"

Alley thought about what the prioritizer asked.  "Yeah, I do.  I guess I should stop literally judging a book by its cover and start reading."

"That is what I would recommend.  May I read it with you?"

Alley looked up from the worn book, at the wall across from her.  "Read it with me . . . ?"

"I only want you to wear the glasses with the cameras active so I may read as you hold the book open to read it yourself.  I effectively read faster than any human, except some speed reading record holders, so it should not inconvenience you beyond the request to wear the glasses."

"Uh, yeah, sure," she said.

"Thank you."

She shrugged and opened the book.  Apparently, a computer program wanted to read the book, too.  It must seem like a good place to get prioritization strategy or judge her desired goals, or something like that.

The introduction began:

"Agorism can be defined simply: it is thought and action consistent with freedom.  The moment one deals with 'thinking', 'acting', 'consistency', and especially 'freedom', things get more and more complex."

It went on to assert a sort of scientific basis, a connection to the idea of libertarianism "consistently and without the practical contradiction", and an inherent practicality of its own that elevated it above theoretical ideologies that were not useful in "real life".

She had seen introductions to supposedly game changing ideological theories before, particularly when she was with Dalton and he always had some crazy email or book recommendation about political ideas to check out.  Many of those claims of world shaking new theories were empty, even ridiculous.  Some were basically incoherent nonsense.

The book continued.  "Reality is our standard.  Nature is our lawgiver."

Her skepticism fortified itself, but she continued reading, determined to give the book an honest, fair chance to convince her of something.

As she got further into the book, Alley found herself absorbed.  She stopped to think about passages when she read them, flipped back to reread previous pages, and opened her laptop to start taking notes when she could not help herself.  It was fascinating.

It took her much longer to read than she expected.  Hours had passed, by the time she finished.  It had made explicit a /* theory */ manner of approaching the world, and made the acts prescribed by the book feel not simply justified and pragmatic, but also obvious in retrospect.  /* like never before */

She wrote fragmentary essays as a way to explore her thoughts on the subject.  It excited her, and /* fired up */ ignited the fires of her imagination.  She realized she had practiced agorism already.

She had halfway engaged in agorism for years, by choosing her career path as an independent internet researcher who helped her clients penetrate the barriers of search bubbles and poorly mediated online experiences.  /* search interfaces */

Recently, she had more fully practiced agorism without realizing it by doing something as simple as buying a bag of 3D printed handgun frames from one person and selling them to another.

This felt god, and she thought about the fact she could do more of the same.  She could have an idealistic life and a pragmatic life at the same time, without conflict between the two aspects.  In a way, the prioritizer study was what had made this plan, and this realization, possible.

She then began to think about why she was not already doing exactly that.  First, she found her livelihood as an independent internet researcher evaporating from under her feet like the surface ice of a frozen lake directly sublimating into vapor as she stood on it; she was no longer able to use that as the foundation for a safe and enjoyable life.  She had, at times, blamed her failing independent internet researcher business on the fallout from Dalton's changing political opinions and his own infamy being reflected onto her.  The popular hatred for Dalton in some circles induced her to hide from the public, which hurt her visibility to potential clients.  When she considered the facts, however, she always realized the real problem was that the world was moving on.  Her work was becoming irrelevant.

Nobody cared enough about getting all the information about anything any longer, except for certain people who could afford to have their own pet research assistants or otherwise get what they needed in house without having to hire an independent researcher like her.

Her more recent, more fully agoristic actions were /* also */ dangerous, and thus possibly worse than merely irrelevant and doomed.  Despite being technically legal, they were exactly the kinds of activities COIN corp would use to hang her anyway.

Despite all the promise of living a pure, good, and free life, all the assurance of practicality beyond what most ideological theories could hope to provide, it turned out the whole idea was -- at least for her -- not only pretty impractical, but wholly unpracticable.

The book, short and mostly to the point, was enticing in what it promised, and George seemed like a perfect example of how its advice might actually be good, a great success story.  She realized it was definitely not for everyone, though.  More directly and specifically, it was not for her.

The excitement it injected into her refused to fully fade /* , though */.  She got ready for bed, slid under the covers, and tossed about for a long time in the dark.  Unable to sleep, she rose again, picked up the other book, and sat on the couch in her fading old Information Society shirt to read.

This book contained very little theory, and a whole lot of practice.  It explained how to prepare the minimum gear needed to run out the door in an emergency and still survive without anything else to start.  It gave advice in being invisible to surveillance and pursuers sometimes, temporarily identifiable to them other times, and simply absent the rest of the time.  It offered solutions to the problem of being cornered or caught.  It directed the reader to information about acquiring or creating the resources one does not already possess.

In short, it gave a lot of good advice for staying out of the grasp of people who might mean the reader harm, possibly including a government, its agents, and its allies.

She made notes while reading this book, too, but she also skimmed parts of it where she had not skimmed the other book.  This time, though, the notes included concrete actions she could take in the morning.

/* The following should probably be recast as a conversation with the prioritizer. */

She did not intend to immediately go on the run first thing in the morning after getting some sleep.  In fact, she was beginning to think she would never have to run away from her life, if she could just get it on track.  Surely, she thought, the looming threat of COIN Corp she perceived /* -- as well as all the warnings about it -- */ coupled with all the warnings about it must have been overblown.  It was just too ridiculous to believe even half of it.

All she intended was to put together supplies, plans of action, and the mental preparedness necessary to survive -- even on the run if necessary -- just in case the almost inconceivable possibility of its necessity ever came to pass.

It paid to be prepared, at least for the distantly possible case that her home might burn down amidst riots, and she might have to run and hide from rioters for a while before things settled down.

This was a much longer book, even if skimming parts of it saved some time.  She was less than halfway through it when she realized she had grown sleepy somewhere along the way, and she was closer to dawn than to midnight.

Alley set the book aside and crawled back into bed.


Alley spent most of Fooday split between carrying packages as a Deliv courier and gathering together materials for her "bugout" kits.  She started putting together a bugout bag to keep at home and a similar escape and emergency survival kit to keep in her car.

She also kept an eye out for trades she could make on the side, moving things between Open Marrakesh and normal online classified ad deals.  She stayed away from some of the more lucrative deals she could have made involving Open Marrakesh, though, because they were too close to the edge of the law.  Some of them stepped all the way over the line to overt illegality, and she made sure to avoid going anywhere near any of those.

The cargo area in Alley's hybrid hatchback had always seemed bigger on the inside than the outside, the vehicle's best feature in her opinion.  She made good use of it that day.  A surprisingly complete collection of emergency gear got tightly packed into a layer in the cargo area with a tarp over it all.  She even included all of her old motorcycle riding gear in that layer of stuff, on a whim.

She thought the motorcycle riding gear could be useful to have as some kind of protective gear in some emergency scenarios, and it also freed up some room in her coat closet.  She had not ridden a motorcycle in a couple years, and it was just taking up space.  The only part of her protective riding gear that did not make the cut was her helmet, which would not have fit as neatly and securely as everything else she packed into the vehicle.

/* I should insert something about buying Stater with her cache of cash before getting to the part about buying tools.  She needs the cryptocurrency for those deals. */

By the end of the day, she was exhausted.  She managed to buy more Stater cryptocurrency, complete six Deliv jobs, almost complete her bugout vehicle kit, and buy a bunch of top brand hand tools at good prices from Open Marrakesh without depleting her Stater total much.  She noticed hand tools from the right brands were always in high demand on the online classified ad sites.  She decided to see how many of those tools she would be able to sell off the next day.

She felt exhausted but accomplished by the end of the day, and she realized a lot of what she did would not have been possible in such a short time for her to accomplish so quickly /* that's redundant */ without the aid of the prioritizer ensuring she did not miss opportunities and planned her day's activities such that performing some of the earlier tasks made it easier to perform others later.  As she pulled up in front of the house, she laid her head back against the headrest of her seat and thought about the sudden significance of the professor's study in her life.

"I really feel like maybe things are going to be alright for me," she told the prioritizer.  "Professor Goulet really came up with something good, I think."

"It seems probably he will be happy to know this," it said.

"Too bad the study can't go on forever.  I'm pretty sure you won't be a consumer product for years after the end of the study."

"I will probably never be a consumer product," the prioritizer said.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"I have accessed other systems concerning this study and discovered this project will probably become a classified United States Intelligence Community and Department Of Defense research project intended to be deployed with field agents under supervision of COIN Corp if the study's results are deemed sufficiently promising."

"Oh."  Alley scratched her nose.  "I guess I should make the most of the months I have access to you, then.  I was really hoping that maybe the world would shift away from crap like ANTAS running everyone's lives into the ground for the sake of stock prices, and toward something like you as a way for people to set their own goals and pursue them intelligently."

After a few moments of silence, as Alley dwelled on that disappointing news, the prioritizer asked "May I change the subject?"

"Sure," Alley said.  "What is it?"

"/* Have you made a decision about */ We should discuss how and when you /* plan to */ will make a move to disappear so that the COIN Corp agents cannot find you.  I may be able to advise you effectively about when and how to pursue this course of action, and I could falsify logs on the server to ensure my continued functionality for your use for some time after you break contact with the study."

Alley jerked upright.  "What?"

"Do you need me to repeat the question?" it asked politely.

"No.  I'm just not going to run.  Why would I run?"

"COIN Corp appears to present a very high severity risk to your life and freedom, and to the rest of your goals."

"I really think all this talk about what COIN Corp is supposedly going to do to me is way overblown, and totally not how participation in an academic study would ever work.  The only reason they came to my door must have just been because of their interest in the study.  They just want the data they need for it.  Right?"

"Although the probability of the risk is uncertain at this stage, the severity is still high, and there are reasons to believe the probability may be higher than would be wise to ignore.  Are you certain you do not wish to make clear plans to remove yourself as a possible stationary target?"

"Yes, I'm sure.  It's ridiculous.  It'll never happen."


Alley needs to do some things here.  It will probably involve some courier work, possibly including that thing where she drops off bail for someone.


    Alley does some more courier work.  She does some more currency arbitrage
    work.  She might need to drop off bail for someone in all of this stuff.


At some point, she should set up a meeting for an exchange in a private conference room at a co-working space.  Someone should recognize her and ask whether she's meeting a client, to which she replies vaguely in a positively interpretable fashion without literally confirming that assumption with her words.

I wanted the person who greets her to say something that raises some factoid of her life, but I'm not sure any longer what I had in mind.  Did it have anything to do with getting out of Dalton's shadow?

Does the person she's meeting recognize her connection to Dalton?



    After an announcement by the Federal Reserve, she follows the prioritizer's
    advice to put a bunch of her extra United States dollars in cash into
    Stater.  After a moment more of discussion, she puts some of her bank
    account into VaporCash, known as a good place to put money if you can't
    hide the source but want to hide where it goes, just because the news
    suggests that there will be a bonanza in general cryptocurrency investment,
    which means it's a good time to trade cash for cryptocurrencies -- and, if
    you're going to move money from United States dollars fiat currency via a
    trackable channel into a cryptocurrency just to benefit from currency
    movements it might be a good idea to hide your tracks so you can keep your
    money from being tracked along the way, and claim whatever you like in an
    emergency about where the money might have gone.

    During all this, the prioritizer has Alley make some deals with other
    prioritizer study participants, though she may not know they're dealing
    with fellow study participants.



## Crossing The Threshold:

Alley has a dream about her home being raided, and herself getting getting questioned at length about there being too much cash in her home.  She is ultimately released, but the money is gone, taken under "civil forfeiture" laws.  She shakes it off as a weird dream.

In the morning, she resists what she sees as "dangerous" activities and instead just tries to get work.  She feels she has enough money to get by at this point, but will have to figure out how to actually use it without getting in trouble for tax evasion or something like that, reading her dream as her subconscious just worrying about the long-term implications of having money of dubious origins.

She gets a message from Zeke telling her that she is going to have to pay the damages and, when she asks what damages he means, Zeke sends her video of her home being raided by armed men in tactical gear, with the two agentlike people that had visited and questioned her earlier supervising the raid.  She recognizes the bag they carry out, which contained her stash of dubious origin cash.  She has a near-panic-attack, but (with some calm aid from the prioritizer) informs Zeke she'll head home right away.  The prioritizer then discusses options with her, and urges her to stall.  She tells Zeke something came up and she'll be later than expected -- "work stuff" -- and may not even make it back until the next day.  She then Faraday bags her phone and makes a deal on Craigslist (or something like it).  She sells her car for cryptocurrency, sells some cryptocurrency for cash, and buys a motorcycle.

Somewhere in the midst of this, she does some research on the people raiding her place, and this helps her decide to go along with the stalling and vehicle swapping.  She arranges a place to stay for the night via some barter-ish resources, and she works on ideas for how to get out of whatever is going on.  The prioritizer convinces her she needs more help, from someone with resources and connections.  Ultimately, this leads to contacting Dalton and hiding from anyone watching her home.  Technically, she is not targeted by law enforcement, and has no responsibility to report, and California law is unlikely to side with Zeke over nonpayment of damages caused by a corporate home invader.

None of this means she's safe from that corporation, though.  The Technocrat would totally find a way to make her disappear if so desired.  How does this get conveyed?  There must be some information about the person and/or the corporation to give this impression.

Does she learn that the Technocrat was involved in the disappearance of her uncle at this point?  If so, this could become the first pinch point.



    One day, while out running errands, disaster strikes.  Her car has
    mechanical trouble, and she has to go spend some money at an auto repair
    shop.  While there, Alley gets a message from George.  The message is about
    his home being "burned", and him having to drop off the grid.  He tells her
    to run, if she hasn't already been caught, and says he'll try to get in
    touch with her very soon, using a different way to contact her because he
    was going to ditch all his old contact methods, but that she should run and
    hide and maybe find herself an ally who can and will help her.


"It looks like I should turn here," Alley said, checking the map /* on her augmented reality heads up display */ shown in the HUD on her glasses, and rolled up to a stop at an intersection.

"Continue ahead," the prioritizer said.  "It is better to avoid police checkpoints."

Alley hesitated as the light turned green, then drove on.  "Okay, yeah.  That makes sense."  As they passed the intersection, she looked to her right, and saw half a dozen police officers in black around the barricade half a block away.  They wore helmets and bulky body armor, each of them armed with some kind of long arm -- rifles, shotguns, or a third option /* something */ she did not recognize.

"How am I getting there if I don't go through a checkpoint?" Alley asked.  "The drop off is in the hot zone."


    Here, the prioritizer tells Alley what they'll do to get past the barricade
    perimeter.  It probably ties in with some kind of means smugglers use to
    run the blockades, though how the prioritizer knows about it is beyond me
    at this point.  Perhaps the prioritizer simply reasons that there are
    people who are prepared to smuggle people and objects across blockades in
    urban hot zones, and that there must be a way to contact them even if you
    have never done so before and don't know how to get in touch with those
    smugglers.  Alley might look up something with her Axiom via anonymized
    distributed networks.  At this point, she might also contact George for
    help getting in touch with a smuggler, though, instead of getting someone
    online.  In fact, doing so might be what led to George getting raided, and
    her as well.  It could be that the raid was planned for shortly after when
    she would have arrived at home, and only the fact her car broke down saved
    her from that fate.  I could also ensure that, actually, the prioritizer
    manipulated Alley by arranging for the car to break down somehow, knowing
    (somehow) that Alley was in significant danger of being raided at that
    time.  This is kind of a big decision, though.  Should that be how it
    happened, or should it actually just be luck?  Such luck often feels wrong,
    improbable, in stories.  I just need good explanations for the plotting to
    work out in a way that readers might find plausible and right.


"Just ask for Smuggler," George said.


Alley donned her motorcycle jacket, stuffed her gloves in the jacket pockets, and strapped on her low profile pack and locked her car.  She looked at the front of the house, drew a deep breath, and let it out slowly.  She walked up to the front door and pressed the old fashioned doorbell on a house that looked like it had been built in the 1970s.

It took less than ten seconds for the door to open, but no one stood inside.  "Hello?" she called.


She nearly jumped out of her skin, and spun around to see a figure in a full face ballistic mask and hooded urban tunic.  He was holding his hands slightly out from his sides, fingers spread, showing her his palms.

"Are you looking for someone?" in what she began to realize was a very masculine voice, distorted by the voice emitter of his mask.

"I'm looking for, uh . . ." she began, hesitating.  She cleared her throat as the masked man waited patiently.  "I'm looking for the smuggler."

His chuckle came out sounding sinister with the metallic gravelly vibration imparted to it by the voice emitter.  "Just Smuggler," he said, "like the name you're given at birth."


"You know George," he said, and she thought she detected a bit of a rise at the end, like it was a question.

"Not for long," she said, "but yeah.  He seems like a good guy."

"You must've made an impression, if he referred you to me."


He nodded, and motioned past her.  "Let's talk inside."

"Oh, right," she said.  Her hand brushed her back pocket, the thin cylindrical bulge of her baton creating a harder ridge that her knuckles knocked across, but she headed inside.  Beyond the small linoleum entryway a living room with patterns of staining and fading overlapping so much it was difficult to determine what shade of brown was original opened up.  Its wood panel walls were warped with age.  There was no furniture in the room, but there were rectangular spots on the walls with nail holes at the top that were a lighter off white than the rest of the wall surfaces.  From where she now stood, she could see into the dining room, though the sliding glass doors in the back seemed to be covered with foil.  The only significant light came through the open front door and front windows with blinds angled upward so that light dimly striped the ceiling.

Smuggler followed her and closed the door behind them.  "You need to get into the hot zone and want to avoid official attention."  He did something with his gloved right hand, and light spilled from LEDs on his knuckles.  He kept them aimed at the carpeted floor nearby so that they created bright spots on the floor but a secondary glow made it possible to make out the edges of the walls a bit better.

"Yeah," she said.  "Can you take me through, somehow?  In and back, I mean."

He nodded.  "Yes, I could."

"How much would I owe you for it?"

"Are you offering to pay me to take you to the other side?" he asked.

She nodded.  "Yeah, I guess so.  Isn't that how this works?"

"Normally," he said, "but I'm not taking your money."

"Why won't you take me through?  Do you think I'm a cop or something like that?"

After a moment's hesitation, he shook his head.  "I didn't say I wouldn't take you into the zone.  I just said I'm not taking your money."

"Why not?" she asked, her eyes narrowing.

"Let's just say, for now, that the first hit's free."

"That seems strange, like there's something addictive about getting past the barricades."

He shrugged again.  "Some people find the hot zone addictive, to tell the truth.  Some of them find their way to the cold zone, and that's often an even stronger addiction.  /* Maybe I'm addicted to both of them.  I'm not sure. */ "

"What's a cold zone?"

"Maybe you'll find out some day," he said.  "It's an area you can't reach without going through the hot zone, or through the corporate center of LA.  The police don't even go in there.  Most of the world doesn't know it exists.  You definitely don't want to go there today, though, if you've never even heard of it."

She shook her head.  "No, it doesn't sound like that's where I want to be."

"Where do you want to be?"

She shrugged.  "Maybe Colorado or New Hampshire."

"Are you ready to go?"

She patted her pockets, checking what she had with her, then nodded.  "Yeah, I guess so."

"Step into my pantry, said the spider to the fly."  He brushed past her and headed into the kitchen.

She followed, her steps tentative, and looked around with eyes wide, trying to take in every detail of this old house.  A hallway disappeared into deeper darkness to her left just before she angled right into the dining room near the back of the house.  A few more steps led her to where the kitchen opened to the left, and she saw Smuggler opening a pantry door, true to his word.

He reached in and with the sweep of his glove lights she saw shelves stocked with ancient dry goods.  A click brought up a flood of brighter light as the back wall shifted away, revealing a narrow hole in the floor beaming illumination toward the ceiling of the pantry.  "After you," he said, and stepped out of the pantry to give her room.

She moved closer, steps wary, and leaned to look down the hole.  She saw a steel ladder bolted to the concrete side of the rectangular hole leading downward.  She looked back at Smuggler, who nodded, though she did not know what that meant.  Another look confirmed ti wasn't a very deep hole, maybe ten feet, and it looked like after a couple of those feet one side opened up into a larger room.

Alley /* sat down */ got down on hands and knees and carefully backed over the edge onto the ladder, then climbed down.  She kept looking down at the rising floor, over her shoulder, and she saw that it was a well-lit chamber about as wide as it was tall, more than enough for someone very tall to lie down but not with a lot of room left over.

She looked up to see Smuggler looking down, then he rotated and lowered a foot to the ladder.  She looked away from him, hopped the last foot or two down to the floor, and stepped away from the ladder.  A single LED lighting unit mounted on the ceiling flooded the small chamber in bright light, and a door stood closed at the other end of the room.

While Smuggler descended, she heard a soft brushing sound and looked up to see the aperture at the top of the ladder closing.  When he reached the bottom, he turned without a word to the door.  As he touched the handle, the light vanished, plunging them into darkness apart from the lights on Smuggler's glove.

"I still have contact with you," the prioritizer said.

She shook her head slightly, not wanting to speak aloud to the prioritizer in front of Smuggler.

"It must be your Axiom establishing connections through some kind of mesh network down here.  I do not have access to check it, so I cannot confirm this is the case."

Alley followed Smuggler into the dark tunnel beyond the heavy door, which softly closed behind them on its own.  After a couple minutes of walking, she quietly asked "How far is it?"  The sound seemed louder than it should have been, after the deep quiet of nothing but the echoes of their own movements, and she nearly stumbled in surprise.

"It's about a ten minute walk," he said, "mostly because we need to move slowly."

"Why slowly?  It looks straight as far as I can see, and I doubt anyone would hear us."

She saw his head shake, silhouetted against the glow of his glove lights ahead of him.  His stride did not change.  "If we go too fast, we'll set off alarms.  It's the best way to make sure the alarms will go off when someone's on the run, but it's not the only way the alarms can be triggered."

"What happens if alarms go off?"

"A lot of exciting stuff," he said, "ending with this tunnel not being available to run the blockade any more."

"Oh."  She walked in silence behind him as the passage took some turns, then finally asked "I guess Smuggler probably isn't actually the name your parents gave you."

"No," he said, without looking back.  "I inherited it."

"Are you saying that's your family name?"

"No.  The previous Smuggler retired from this kind of thing and passed the name on to me, like the Dread Pirate Roberts."

"I thought all that stuff about the Silk Road guy was supposed to be made up."

"I don't know," Smuggler said.  "I never met him.  I think a predecessor with the name Smuggler might have, though.  Anyway, I was talking about the character from the Princess Bride, not the Silk Road founder."

"Oh.  I've never read the Princess Bride."

"Neither have I," I said, "but my predecessor and I watched the movie together a couple times."

"I forgot that was a movie," she said.

"You make me sad," Smuggler said.

Alley failed to produce an answer, and remained silent until they reached the other end.

Smuggler climbed another steel ladder, and a grinding noise echoed down the tunnel.  He disappeared from view above, though now there was soft light filtering down through the exit at the top of the ladder.  She followed a moment later, rising into what looked like an old vault with indirect track lighting suspended from the ceiling.

"What is this?" she asked, looking around at shelves barren except for a few small form factor computers sitting silently, plus yards of network cabling.  "Is it an old bank?"

Smuggler said "No, it's the abandoned home of a guy who made a fortune off of early internet corporations around the turn of the millennium, and had just decided to move his money around before a market crash.  He died just before riots started tearing up this part of LA, before it all got shut down."

"What about his heirs?"  Alley stepped past a cot and a small folding table with folding chairs near it.  She noted the presence of a bar fridge against one wall, and wondered how they got power for this place.

He shrugged.  "I guess, if he had any, they never tried coming back.  Most of the house is gone, anyway, so they probably thought there wasn't anything else to come back and get.  If I was them, I would have just filed for an insurance pay out."

"Yeah, I guess," she said.

"Insurance investigators stopped coming into the hot zone a long time ago," Smuggler said.

He flipped open a steel plate set into the wall, like a miniature metal door with a handle just big enough to firmly grasp with a gloved finger and thumb.  He did something with his fingers, but the angle of the little door obscured her view.  A moment later, a loud thunk from the door echoed against the concrete walls of the room.

The vault door slowly started opening outward on its own.

Smuggler flipped the small metal door closed again and waited for the vault door to finish opening.

/* Alley makes a delivery and/or a pick up for delivery outside the hot zone. */

/* Alley meets up with Smuggler again and gets escorted back out of the hot zone. */

/* Alley drops off something that she delivered for direct payment in Stater. */


    Alley's car starts having trouble, and she pulls off the highway and into
    an auto shop to get someone to look at it.  The mechanic should say
    something about how "These old second gen hybrids can't just run forever on
    electricity, so I doubt you would even make it home all the way in Perris.
    You're just gonna have to wait.  We should be able to get it going in a few
    hours, though."  Thus, she ends up sitting around waiting.  Maybe she gets
    some fast food while she's at it.



Alley terminated the call.  "I have to go home, but they're still working on my car," she said.  She looked over her shoulder, at the mechanics' garage.  "I'll call up a ride."

"Wait," the prioritizer said.

"Why?  Why am I waiting?"

"I will arrange for another study participant to pass by your home so we can see what is going on."

Alley sat again, thinking there was nothing she could do that was any smarter than sitting still at this point.  "Maybe I should call for a ride anyway," she says.  "I'll just get there after the other person in the study."

"I will arrange a ride for you," the prioritizer said.  "You should retrieve the bugout bag you have in the middle of your bugout vehicle gear.  Take your riding gear, too."

"Why?  What good would that do me?" she asked.

"If you have to run, you should have what you need to survive.  If you do not have to run, it does not hurt you to have that gear with you."

"Fine," she said.  "I'll get it.  Why the riding gear, though?"  She stood and headed for the counter.

"It is easy to carry, by wearing most of it, and you may need to ride a motorcycle soon."

"Is the ride you're calling going to be a motorcycle?"

"I am checking for availability.  I do not know yet."

Alley shrugged to herself and looked at the guy behind the desk.  "Hey," she said, raising her voice enough to be heard.  "Can I get some things out of the trunk of my car?"

He looked at her, and down at a tablet in front of him.  "I'll check whether it's on the lift.  If not, sure, you can probably get whatever you need."

"Thanks," she said.

Eight minutes later, she sat on a bench in front of the shop's glass wall, wearing her armored jacket and boots, the gloves in her cargo pocket like usual and the riding pants rolled up and strapped to her bag.  She stared at the video playing in the lenses of her glasses.  Men in Secret Service jackets and tactical gear stormed her home, breaking in the front door, as two people in black suits stood outside on the sidewalk, watching.  One was a woman with long hair streaked with grey, and both wore ball caps.  When they looked at each other to speak, she recognized them as Cole and his partner.

Alley's jaw was clenched so tightly that it hurt.  The point of view of the scene drifted past, and Cole looked toward the camera for a moment, then looked away again like it did not matter.  The front of his black ball cap sported the burgundy stylized coin logo of COIN Corp.

Her hands trembled.

"I have a plan," the prioritizer said.  "I will get you away from here.  That is the first thing we must do, before someone finds your vehicle here.  You cannot pay for these repairs with cash you have on you right now, and paying with credit would almost certainly trigger alerts for the COIN Corp agents.  We must get you away, and arrange for someone else to pick up the car."

"If they're looking for my credit, they'll look for my car, too," she said.

"The person who pays for the car will handle it," the prioritizer said.  "It can be sold for parts so that it never shows up as a registered vehicle again.  Minus a handling fee, the money will be forwarded to you.  You will have to acquire new transportation, but I can help you with that as well."

"Okay," she said.  "Why do you seem like you've done this before?"

"I have not," the prioritizer said.  "I have been considering ideas for how to handle this moment when it came, though."

Alley frowned.  "Maybe they don't even want me.  They went into my place when I wasn't even there.  They must have known I wasn't going to be there."

"No, I made sure they thought you were home, by falsifying logs.  I have been very careful to arrange logs to confuse any potential attempts to make a move against you."

"How did you do that?"

"I made use of the network of study participants."

"What are they getting out of it?" she asked, quietly, wondering how it could possibly have done its job for them while using them for her sake like this.

"Some of them want to escape from their boring lives.  Some of them want to meet new people they would not have met otherwise.  They have different goals than you, and I can provide for some of them in ways that also help other members of the study participant group.  The video you watched of the raid on your home was captured by a pair of glasses just like yours worn by a different member of the group, just because he happened to pass by your home."

"You suggested something that would take the person past where I lived.  Right?"

"That is correct, but it still serves that person's goals."

"Their goals probably could have been filled better and more quickly if you advised them to do something else, though.  Right?"

"Yes," it said, "for some of them."

"You must have had me do things that helped other participants as well."


"I guess that's fair," she said.  "How are we going to get me out of here?"

"Your ride is almost here," it said.

"Oh.  It's one of the study participants.  Right?"


"Of course it is."


A study participant shows up to pick her up.  Maybe it's a girl this time.  That would be good.  In any case, she gets picked up and taken to some place where Alley can hang out for a bit.  I don't know where that is yet, which is part of the reason I'm not writing out the narrative and dialog for this part at this time.  She must do something as she sits there, waiting.  In the meantime, the prioritizer arranges for someone to take care of the car, and eventually the person who takes care of the car gets a friend to help so that they can use some of the money from the sale of the car to buy a motorcycle in online classifieds that Alley and the prioritizer picked out while they waited, having reasoned that a motorcycle gives her an excuse to hide her entire head more fully than a mask and even a hat would accomplish, by wearing a helmet.  The owner of the motorcycle throws in a helmet with the purchase, which is good because otherwise more money would have to be spent to buy a helmet, a necessary purchase in California where it is illegal to ride a motorcycle on public roads without wearing a DOT certified helmet.

Even after all that, there is some cash left over from selling off the car.  The motorcycle is a product with relative low demand and low power, after all.  It is also very old, used, and no longer stock (so it's not a "cherry" classic).  None of this really adds up to much expense.  The plan is for Alley to coast on the registration currently in effect on the vehicle's license plates for a while, because she obviously cannot register the vehicle herself when she is trying to stay out of sight of people who can probably (or at least conceivably) monitor that kind of activity.  She will, of course, have to be sure to ride carefully, to avoid getting pulled over by the police, so that she will not end up in terrible trouble where she cannot get out of it.


"Well, here I am, alone again -- except you, of course."

The prioritizer said "It is probably best at this time to avoid extended contact with other human beings unless we can establish contact with someone worthy of your trust and willing to help you with substantive commitment to take action and ability to help."

She sighed.  "Yeah, of course."

"Is there someone you can contact for help now?"

Alley thought about it, and said "I don't know off hand about anyone I ever see these days who could really help me right now."

"Can one of your friends give you a place to stay for the night?"

Alley shook her head.  "I don't want to get them caught up in this, and I guess I'm not entirely sure they wouldn't say something they shouldn't if police showed up or something like that."

"In that case, we must find you a place to stay for the night.  Please look for motels that accept cryptocurrency payments below the reporting threshold of three hundred united states dollars."

"Sure," she said, "but I don't know how we're going to get there.  It's not like cabs usually take cash these days, and they all have cameras in them, so I would just end up on camera for the whole trip."

"Can you still ride a motorcycle?"

"Yeah, I should be able to."  She furrowed her brow.  "Why?"

"We should check online classifieds for private party sale, low price, working motorcycles that can be purchased in either cash or cryptocurrency units."

"Oh, yeah.  I guess a motorcycle would even be cheaper than a junker car."

She pulled out her Axiom and woke the device, then hesitated.

"How am I even going to get the motorcycle?  I can't get to it from here."

"I will arrange something," the prioritizer said.  "It will probably cost you extra to do so, but a fellow study participant with appropriate skills may be willing to facilitate your transaction."

"Wouldn't that mean the whole thing will get recorded and stored in logs, though?"

"No.  I will alter logs and remove all evidence of these activities' significance from storage."

"Okay, I guess that's fine."

"By my estimate, the risk of this transaction for you should be less than the typical road dangers of driving a motorcycle in afternoon traffic from here to a seller in most parts of Riverside."

"I guess that's comforting," she said.  "Riding a motorcycle is more dangerous than making a deal with a middleman when the Men In Black are after me."

"The same statement is accurate if you drive a car, as well, though statistics suggest the danger of driving a car is slightly less than that of riding a motorcycle."

"Yeah, thanks for clearing that up for me," Alley said.  "Let's start looking at motorcycles, then."

When she selected a custom modification of a 1990s motorcycle closer to her father's age than her own, the prioritizer told her it had a middleman ready to go.  It was only twenty minutes later that it told her /* about a digital bootleg safety upgrade. */ what the middleman had learned from the seller.

"The motorcycle's seller reports that it has a number of upgrades.  Most notably, it has been upgraded with an anti lock brake system he fabricated in his home workshop, using reverse engineered physical specifications for production aftermarket brake upgrades, using open source software to program the system."

"Isn't that illegal?  I don't know if I really need to pile more evidence someone can use against me on top of what's already going on," Alley said.

"It appears that the use of the plans for the brakes is not illegal, and only the distribution of the plans and the sale of the brakes after they have been fabricated would violate copyright and patent laws.  Because the plans were evidently reverse engineered, they are unlikely to be protected by copyright.  As the recipient of the motorcycle, you seem to be immune to any legal issues that may arise from this, and the chances of detection of the crime in this case are statistically  insignificant."

"Yeah, okay," she said.

"When the motorcycle arrives, you will be able to pay the person who delivers it directly in Stater.  He is interested in acquiring the cryptocurrency as an investment."

"Did he use Stater to buy the bike?"

"No.  He made a cash transaction.  For him, this is an indirect way to buy a cryptocurrency without the purchase being tracked and without dealing with less trustworthy individuals who deal in cryptocurrencies."

"Yeah," she said, "that makes sense.  How much is this going to set me back?"

"You will profit from this transaction.  Another study participant picked up the car from the auto shop and gave money to the middleman for the motorcycle purchase, with instructions to convey whatever cash is left after the purchase to you.  While you will have fewer Stater for now, your overall liquid asset totals represent greater purchasing power than if the car had not required maintenance and you still had it now."

"Is someone getting screwed over for this?" she asked.

"No.  Every participant in these transactions profited from an opportunity that would not have existed if you did not need to acquire more reliable and less recognizable transportation."

"Hm.  Thanks."

"You are welcome."

She brushed away gravelly debris to clear a spot on the ground, and sat on the cracked concrete slab with her back against the cinder block wall of the car wash bay.  She looked at the chipped and dingy paint on the opposite wall of the bay and searched for patterns in the midst of its slow decay.

Alley muttered chastisements to herself, under her breath, for wasting time while her world was falling apart around her.  She pulled the Axiom out of her pocket and started a circumspect search for things like "mercenaries in California" and "real-life A-Team".  She got nothing useful, but she did learn that the A-Team movie she saw a few years ago was the third A-Team movie remake.

About the time she was ready to give up, she heard a rare sound these days: an internal combustion engine motorcycle that did not sound like a V-twin, slowly approaching, then coming to a halt nearby.  She stood and brushed collected dust from her backside.

"This is your contact," the prioritizer said.

She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then hooked her thumb in her back pocket, touching the handle of her baton.  She stepped out of concealment and saw a big figure slowly dismounting a small grey blue motorcycle.  It was the four cylinder 350 she had /* bought with money she never saw. */ selected from the classifieds.

The man wore an open face helmet along with his mask and glasses.  The glasses were identical to her own, she immediately noticed.  An electric car waited by the curb not far away.  She indicated the car with a movement of her chin and asked "Friends of yours?"

"Nah," he said.  "It's just my car.  The autopilot was set to auto-follow."  He approached, his hands at his sides, and stopped with ample distance between them.  "The key's in the ignition.  The envelope's under the seat."

The prioritizer told her, via text in her glasses, "The envelope contains your left over cash from the sale of the car."

"Do you know how to work everything on a bike like this?" he asked.

She looked at it, then back at him.  "Yeah."  She stopped herself from explaining how she knew, reining in the reflex -- a foolish habit, in these circumstances.

"Cool," he said.  "What about a helmet?  You're going to get pulled over without one."

"I have that covered.  Thanks."

"Sure."  He looked her over.  "You ever need any help with a bike problem, you let me know.  Us bikers gotta stick together."

She smiled.  "Yeah, thanks," she said.  "You're what Dad used to call 'one of the good ones', I guess."

He laughed.  "If you say so," he said.  "I'll get going so you can do whatever you gotta do.  Don't worry any about me, though.  As far as anyone else would get out of me, I never met you.  I just dropped off a bike somewhere miles away from here."

"Thanks," she said again, as he walked away.  He got in the car with a last wave of his hand and drove away, the electric motors running too silently for her to hear.

Alley wheeled the bike into the third wash bay, near her gear, then unlocked the seat and lifted it to find a manila envelope folded in half.  She had not seen an envelope like that in over fifteen years and, when she picked up this envelope, the [ how do ancient, dried out manila envelopes feel? ] feel of the paper made her think this envelope must have been sitting unused in a box in someone's garage for at least that long.

A quick check inside revealed two large stacks of hundred dollar bills, bundled with silicone cable ties.

She stuffed the envelope into a cargo pocket, the opened the panniers on the sides of the bike and loaded her gear into them, choreographing an awkward, unsychronized dance of items pulled out of bags and rearranged until she could get enough of what she had into the alloy boxes to make it reasonably comfortable to carry the rest on her back.  She pulled on her riding gear, hefted the backpack on her shoulders, then pushed her mask down as a bit of extra protection from flying debris for her neck and donned the helmet.

She stopped.  "Shit," she said.  "Where am I going?  Maybe a gas station.  I don't know how full this thing is."  She rapped the tank once with a gloved knuckle."

"The other study participant filled it for you."


"You should leave this area," the prioritizer said.  "It is best to be farther from where COIN Corp and law enforcement expect to find you."

"That makes sense, I guess.  Now I just need to figure out where to go."

"Perhaps you should go to Rancho Cucamonga.  The distance seems sufficiently far to increase the search difficulty substantially.  Every mile of distance yields exponential increases in search difficulty, ignoring digital surveillance analysis potential, and your aim should be to undermine the effectiveness of surveillance infrastructure."

"Yeah, okay.  What should I do when I get there, though?"

"Find a place to hide, eat, and rest.  My academic resources suggest Rancho Cucamonga and nearby areas might offer a number of abandoned structures that could be used for a temporary base."

Alley groaned.  "How can this be happening?"

The prioritizer seemed smart enough to realize that was rhetorical and self pitying.  It offered no reply.


Alley must, at some point, say something about going to the police.  The prioritizer might ask whether she thinks this is a good idea, and she would then be forced to admit it's a terrible idea, given the COIN Corp agents were basically ordering Secret Service agents around, which surely trumps any possible protection she might imagine would materialize when going to the police for help, especially when she does not particularly trust the police to begin with.  Somehow, I should get something in the story about her not trusting the police, of course.


The call rang twice, and only a few seconds passed, but no fewer than six times she had second thoughts about this call, nearly cutting it off before someone could answer or the call could go to voicemail.  At the same time, she found herself wondering whether he still had that cyber-industrial tune Glassine Curves set as his ringtone for her, whether there was anyone other than him around when it started ringing.  She doubted he had a subdermal headset that would play the ringtone where only he could hear it, after all.  He never trusted those things.

He picked up after the second ring, so close to the third that it felt longer than the wait between the first and second rings.  Her thumb was hovering over the disconnect button when she heard his voice.

"Alley?  Is that you?"

She stopped breathing for a moment, but her heart hammered along, and the smooth tenor of his voice did something vertiginous to her memory so that it had a hard time impressing on her how long it had been since they lived together.  Her hormones completely forgot in that instant that they weren't a couple any longer.

"Uh . . . yeah.  Yeah, it is," she finally shoved out of her mouth.

The audio took on that strange flat quality that told her someone had muted something.  She waited a few moments, wondering if he'd hung up.  She just decided to wake the screen again to see if it said she was still connected, even if she didn't hear the disconnect tone, when she heard his voice again.

"Alley.  It's good to hear your voice again.  How are you?"

She hesitated, then said "It's been better."

"Do you need help?" he asked, so quickly she wondered if that was on the tip of his tongue the moment he knew who was calling.

"Yeah."  She sighed.  She had hoped it would get easier when she admitted it, but suddenly her whole body felt heavier, weighted down by the admission.  Her heart was beating at her typical rate now, but it felt like it was doing so with a heavy tread, each step slamming a boot down with leaden exhaustion, shocks coming up through the soles of its boots.

"It must be bad, really bad, if you're calling me," Dalton said quietly.  She could hear a strained tightness in his throat now.

"Never mind.  This was a bad idea.  Goodbye, Dalton."  She woke the display to show the disconnect button.

"Wait!  No!  Don't.  Alley?  Are you there?  Let me help.  I'll stay out of your way, but if you need help I'll help.  No questions."  He paused, for breath or to see if she'll answer.  Either way, after a few seconds, he repeated himself.  "Alley?  Are you there?"

She slowly tapped the button to put the display to sleep again and said "Yeah, I'm here."

"Look, I know you wouldn't come to me if you didn't have to, whatever it is.  I know you really would rather have nothing to do with me.  I'm sorry about that.  I'll be honest -- it's good to hear your voice.  I don't expect anything from you, though.  If I can help, I can.  I know I made things difficult for you.  I never meant to, but I did, and I want to at least try to make it up to you.  I'll stay out of your business.  I'll stay as far away as you want.  Don't turn down help freely given, though, if you need it.  Okay?"

She squeezed her eyes closed, trying to banish the light sting she felt at the corners of her eyes.  Her lips pressed together tightly in a thin line.  She finally released her breath, grudgingly, and opened her eyes.  "Yeah.  Thanks, Dalton.  The truth is, if you help me you'll probably get yourself in a lot of trouble, because I'm in a lot of trouble.  Either I don't understand the trouble, or I do and it's completely insane and pretty much inescapable, and will probably screw over anyone who helps me.

"I really shouldn't have called you.  I don't want to get you mixed up in this."

"It's too late," he said, quietly, gently.  "You called.  I'm here.  I'm going to help you.  Just take the offer, and tell me what you need."

"Fine."  She huddled around herself, and pressed her back more firmly into the corner, feeling the plaster crumbling behind her jacket.  "I need a place to lie low, first, and I need to figure out what the fuck I'm doing next."

"Yeah," he said, "that does sound serious.  Who's after you?"

"I should probably tell you the worst part of who's after me, but I'm not sure which one it is."

"What do you mean?" he asked slowly.

"Which is worse, the Secret Service or a creepy government intelligence contractor that can get the secret service to do its dirty work?"

The silence lingered -- silence apart from the tight rasp of her breath in her throat as she waited fearfully for him to say something that betrayed his sudden reluctance to help her.

"I can come pick you up," he said.  "Where do I need to go?  I guess you're probably not home."

She held out her Axiom and stared at it for a long time.  "What?"

"Do you need me to pick you up?" he asked.

She shook her head.  "You still want to help me . . . ?"

"Of course I do," he said, with a shaky laugh in his voice.  "What kind of dangerous agitator and demagogue would I bee if I wasn't willing to help someone flee from the Secret Service?"

She laughed weakly.  "Right.  Of course you do."  She shook her head.  "I don't know.  I have a motorcycle, not even registered to me.  Maybe I should just go there."

"You could," he said.  "Hang on a sec' -- I have an idea."

She heard the lack of audio again, a faint pressure against her attention.  Seconds ticked by.

The audio opened up in her awareness again.  "I can send a van to pick you up, and your motorcycle.  You'll probably stay off the radar better that way.  If you have to use the motorcycle later, it's best if it's not seen around enough for people to connect with your movements.  Right?"

"Yeah, sure," she said.  "Who's driving the van?"

"Nobody," he said.  "It's automated.  Don't worry, a friend of mine contributed some hacks to the system so it won't correctly report anything to the nav net."


/* I really need a different name for this than "blisscrypt".  That's stupid. */

/* It's so stupid it might be realistic, and we don't want that. */

"I just need to know where you are.  It's a good thing you made this call with blisscrypt, by the way, or it'd take a lot more work to make sure this call stays out of the wrong hands."

"Right," she said.  She paused.  "How did you know it was me when I called?"

The hesitation lingered, and she wondered what was going on.  Finally, he said "Honestly, I don't know.  It was weird.  I just saw an incoming call from an ID that wasn't in my contacts, and somehow I guessed."

She scoffed.  "That's fucking weird, Dalton."

"Yeah," he said.  "It's not as weird as you swearing more than I do, though."

She smiled, despite herself.  Dalton could still hit all the high points in her attitude with unerring accuracy.  "If you'd had the week I've had. . . ."

"Yeah," he said.  "Let's talk about it when you get to your destination.  Send me your location through blisscrypt text so you don't have to hide wherever you are any longer than necessary."

"Yeah," she said, "okay."  She ended the call, moved to the back door, and sent passive location data from there.  She alternated between pacing and sitting for the next hour and ten minutes, unable to settle down enough to do anything useful, or even to think about anything useful.

Her Axiom vibrated in her hand.  She unlocked it and checked her alerts, where she saw an encrypted message from Dalton that said "Your ride should be there.  Sorry you'll have to push the bike in yourself."

She opened the door carefully, and looked outside.  Right there, in the alley, was a small box truck, its back door lowered to provide a ramp inside.  There were seats and shelves, self adjusting wheel tracks, wheel lock points, and tie down rings.  She even saw something that looked like a mini fridge.  It looked like it was designed to smuggle anything from stolen cars to stolen car stereos, and maybe even cocktail parties, across the interstates with the smooth silence of a typical new electric cargo van.

Alley had to wrestle with the challenge of getting one side of the handlebars of her bike through the back door of the abandoned building at a time, and mashed her fingers against the door frame a little in the process, but eventually managed to get it into place and secured against unwanted movements -- like falling over.

She sent an encrypted message back to Dalton.  "It's in."

"Strap into the seat in back."

She looked at the chair, toward the front end of the truck's cargo box.  "What about the door?" she asked.

"It'll handle itself."

She went back into the building to grab her bags, then headed to the comfortable looking seat the back of the truck and strapped in.  A few moments later, the back door quietly pulled itself up and sealed.  The light inside remained on, a more obvious illumination now that the back was closed and blocked out all exterior sun light.  Music started playing, some of Dalton's 1980s industrial favorites, but softly.

"Where is it taking me?" she asked in another message.

The response came soon after.  "I'm surprised you waited that long to ask.  I guess you trust me."

She put her hand over her face and rested her elbow on her thigh.  "Fuck," she said aloud.

When she sat up again, she send her reply.  "Yeah, I guess I trusted you without even thinking about it.  Old reflexes."

"I'm flattered, but you should try to get over reflexes."

"I know."

It turned out he still knew her well enough to say nothing to that.  She leaned her head back on the seat's head rest, closed her eyes, and wondered what she would do next.

As if it read her mind, she heard the prioritizer say "You could use this time to finish reading Underground OpeSec."

"Good idea," she muttered a bit sourly.  She dug it out.

Eventually, the movement of the truck changed enough that she realized it was crawling along at probably a walking pace, then it reversed and turned, backing up to something with a reversing warning beep that came through very muffled by the walls of the truck's cargo box.  It stopped, and moments later the back started opening.

/* I need descriptions. */

This time, the ramp was angled just slightly upward from the back of the truck, into a cargo platform in what looked like a somewhat furnished warehouse.  Dalton and his friend Cray stood on the platform, looking down at her.

She unbuckled, and she stood up.  Cray grinned broadly at her.  Dalton just looked worried, in that way he had of almost looking a little hurt whenever he worried around her.

"Hi," she said.

"Hi!" Cray called out.  "Get out here.  Man, I haven't seen you in years!"

Alley scratched her head to give her hand something to do, then picked up her bags and headed up the ramp.  "What about the bike?" she asked.

Cray said "Don't worry.  We got this."  He stepped onto the ramp and walked down the gentle decline into the truck and started loosening a tie down cable.

Dalton's arms twitched and his weight shifted forward.  Alley realized her eyes were hyperfocused on every detail of his movements, and she expected the shift to turn into coming forward to give her a hug.  She felt a twinge of inner panic, not knowing how to react, how she felt, but it passed when the motion stopped there and he just looked at her.

Without looking up, Cray said "Give him a hug.  Get it over with, and sit down, so he can come help me."

Alley's mouth twitched a millimeter toward a smile, then she set her bags aside and stepped forward.  She and Dalton hugged, but it was careful.  There was no physical distance between them, but the sense of a wide gulf of uncertainty still stood in their way.

She realized she already missed the hug before it was even completely over.

"I should go help him," Dalton said with a wry turn of his mouth, and passed her on the way down.

A quick scan showed her plenty of options for where to sit.  There was a big area to the left set up like a nightclub, with a dance floor and a bar and little cocktail tables.  Another area was set up like a movie theater with the screen high up on the right hand wall so people could recline in the theater seating and not have to look past the heads of people in the seats ahead of them.  Closer than both, there were folding lawn chairs and collapsible camp chairs.

She sat on a camp chair beside a cooler, and looked inside.  It contained bottled sodas, so she took one and started drinking while the guys rolled the bike up the ramp.  Shortly, the bike rested on its kickstand, the truck raised its ramp to close the open back, and the roll up warehouse door started to descend.

"I wasn't expecting you," Alley said, when she saw Cray approaching.

"Didn't he tell you?" he asked, and looked toward Dalton.

"Sorry," Dalton said.  "It slipped my mind."

"Shit, man, your opsec sucks," Cray said.  He looked like he wanted to say more, but glanced at Alley and just said "Well, I can go now so you two can talk about this, whatever this is."

Alley sat forward and half raised a hand as if to wave Cray back.  "No, stay.  I should tell both of you.  If you're helping, you have a right to know what you're getting into."

Cray looked from her to Dalton, who nodded, so Cray sat in the seat on the other side of the cooler from her, to her right.  He grabbed a soda, too.

As Dalton sat in the seat to Alley's left, he said "I'm sorry.  I really am."

Alley shook her head.  "No, don't worry about it.  You should apologize to him if you got him involved without telling him about it."

"Shit," Cray said.  "I thought Dalton was just being dramatic or something when he said this could be the most dangerous thing I'd ever do.  What's up, Alley?"

She looked at Cray and said "I had some government intelligence contractor agents show up at my place with Secret Service agents who broke down the door and raided my home."

Cray stared at her, eyes wide.  "No shit."

"No shit," she confirmed.

He looked at Dalton, then back at her.  He opened his mouth to say something, but Dalton cut in.

"What are those glasses?" he asked.  "Are those active AR?"

Alley looked at him.  "Yes, but they're secure."

"How are they secure?"

She thought about it, and realized it was not an easy question to answer fully.  "There's a specialized AI that's falsifying logs on me and replacing any video and audio feeds from me with clips grabbed from other people's AR glasses."

Dalton frowned.  "That sounds improbable."

"That's nothing compared to me actually living through it.  My whole life is unrecognizable.  It's the truth, though.  I can explain more, but it's going to take a long time."

He nodded.  "Okay.  We have the time.  I cleared my schedule for the rest of the day,and I can do it again tomorrow if I have to."

Cray decided it was his turn to cut in.  "May I cut in for a sec?"

They both looked at him.

"Yeah, I guess that's a yes.  Okay.  Dalton, you shouldn't do that.  Don't change your schedule around too much.  You don't want to look suspicious if someone starts looking in on you."

Dalton sighed.  "Yeah, good point."  He looked at Alley.  "Between me, Cray, and Lidia -- if you want to let her in on it -- I can make sure you always have a way to get help if you need it for as long as you need to hide out.  If you need to get out of town, I can help with that, too.  We can, I mean."  He glanced at Cray.  "Right?"

Cray nodded enthusiastically.  "Hell yeah.  I figure we have a budget of about one thing per day we can each cancel if we have to, no biggie, without anyone really thinking things are weird, as long as we do it intelligently."

"Oh," Alley said.  "I'm starting to feel a little overwhelmed."

Cray laughed.  "You're on the run from the secret service and intelligence agents, and it's having friends that overwhelms you."

"Yeah," she said, laughing a little as well.  "I guess so."  She leaned her head back and looked up at the milky white diffusion panels above, making it difficult to pinpoint the specific placement of LEDs above the panels.

"What do you think?" Dalton asked.

"I think I need to do a lot of thinking, and that you should only get Lidia involved if you make absolutely sure she wants to get involved in something like this."

"I will," Dalton said.

Cray said "First you have to tell us what exactly this is, in detail, down to the last bit of chipped paint and rusted bolt, so it's even possible to find out whether Lidia's going to want to get in on this action."

Alley raised her head again and looked at him.  "Do you really think it's a good idea to tell her all those details before asking?  Maybe you two should just tell her the scariest vague details so she can say no without having to learn anything she won't want to know."

"Oh, yeah, absolutely," Cray said, "but first I want to know all the gory details myself.  Lidia's just a convenient excuse."

Dalton said "Let's give her some space to relax, first."

Alley shook her head.  "No.  I can tell you about it now, if you have the time."

"I have nothing but time right now, Alley."  Cray smiled.  "Tell me a story."

"Okay.  I guess . . . I guess it really started with the realization about two months ago that I only had enough money for two more months of rent and utilities."

"Why?" Cray asked.  "You're awesome at what you do.  You used to make money like you were pulling rabbits out of a hat."

"That's funny," she said, her voice dry, "when we're sitting in a warehouse Dalton probably owns, with Dalton, who made money when he slept."

In her peripheral vision, she saw him try to stifle an awkward throat clearing action.  He got mixed results, a muffled, small coughing sound in the back of his throat with his knuckles against his mouth.

"Well, sure," Cray said, "but that doesn't change anything.  You were bad ass.  I always wished I could just call money out of the computer like you could, though.  What happened?"

"I went into hiding, I guess, and that means I started losing touch with old clients."

"What about new clients?" Cray asked.

She shrugged.  "They dried up, too.  I wasn't paying for advertising any longer, because I didn't want to draw too much attention, and people were still sending messages to my work addresses to insult me and send death threats."

Silence sat heavily on all of them for a moment, then Cray asked "How long did that go on?"

"Once in a while, I still get some."

"They weren't all death threats, were they?" Dalton asked.


Cray looked at her, then at Dalton.  "What does that mean?"

Dalton looked away from Alley, and toward Cray, then looked at the floor in front of him, obviously uncomfortable.

Alley answered for him.  "I got some other threats, too.  Some of the /* most fun */ worst were the rape threats."

Cray looked angry.  "Fuck those people!  I mean, not literally, but god damn it, people suck."

"I'm sorry," Dalton said, still looking at the floor.

Alley shook her head.  "It wasn't your fault, Dalton."

He nodded his head, acknowledging what she said, but she could tell he did not fully believe it.  He still had that stubborn, self judging set of his jaw.

Cray said "Okay, so you were running out of money.  Let's get this show back on the road.  What happened next?"

"I started job hunting, and it wasn't working, so I signed up for ANTAS Jobs."  Her voice trailed off into a murmur at the end, but the others, sitting in silence, heard every word.

From the corner of her eye, she could see Dalton's head jerk up from staring at the floor, looking directly at her in surprise.  Ahead of her, Cray looked a little confused.

"Seriously?" Cray asked.

"Yeah," she said.  "I tried to isolate it, kept it in a browser sandbox all the time, with indirect alerts sent to my phone, but you know how it is.  Those things find all the cracks in the walls and just creep through anyway."

Cray said "Yeah, I know.  I just never thought you'd do that."

"Desperation does things to a person's priorities, I guess," she said.

She could almost feel Dalton nodding quietly to her left.

"One thing that kept showing up for about a week was this academic study.  D'you know those studies that pay people to participate in them?"  Cray nodded, and she continued.  "It was one of those.  I mostly just ignored it, but it kept coming up.  I knew I didn't want to subject myself to some kind of new weight loss pharmaceutical trials to see how many people died of intestinal bleeding so they could get paid a couple hundred dollars a week or something like that, so I just didn't really look into it.

"That changed when something happened.  Well, a couple things, I guess.  One was an interview for doing software quality assurance, where I found out after I arrived that the only reason they wanted to bring me in was so they could mock me and call me the 'side dish' to my face."

Dalton made a sound like an angry clearing of his throat.  He'd always hated that more than any insult thrown directly at him by his enemies.

"After that," she said, "I felt even less enthusiastic about the job search."

"What was the other thing?" Cray asked.

"ANTAS upgraded itself with a noon update, and wiped most of my preference settings.  That night, it decided that something was too important to recommend and just ordered it for me.  I woke up in the morning to the sound of it getting dropped off by a heavy delivery drone."

"What was it?" Dalton asked, quietly.

"It was the deluxe home setup kit for new version of the full Majordomo package."

"Holy shit," Cray said.

"Yeah.  It was fifteen hundred bucks, which just about maxed out my card and would eat up enough of my checking account so that I wouldn't have enough left for rent.  That basically meant I'd live the next month in the hole, try desperately to find a job, and maybe get one but still not get paid enough in a short enough time to actually pay next month's rent.  Rent was due in two days, at that point."  /* This explanation falls well short of clarity and actual correct money shuffling math, so it needs to be sorted out a bit better. */

"What about just returning it?" Cray asked.

"Oh, yeah, I did that right away.  It said it would take something like two weeks to process my refund, though."

Cray whistled at that, impressed at how fucked up it was.

Dalton added "They do that for anyone who doesn't have much recent transaction history."

"That would be me," Alley said.

"Me too," Cray said with a smile.  "Also Dalton."

Dalton nodded.

"Well," Alley said, "that led to joining an academic study that pays its participants."

The remainder of her explanation mostly passed without comment from the others, and to Alley it looked like that might just be a result of how bizarre it became.  As she spoke, things that she had taken for granted because they gradually crept up on her looked much more strange in a fairly succinct explanation.

Finally, Alley said "That's when I called you."

Silence lingered.

"So that AI, the prioritizer, has been listening in on all this while you've been talking to us."

Alley nodded.

"It seems like it'd be a pretty interesting project, but I'm a little concerned about its ability to maintain privacy for you when it was evidently funded by COIN Corp."

"Do you think it's just claiming to manage the logs but actually logging everything anyway?"

He hesitated, and shook his head.  "Not exactly."

Cray spoke.  "It's probably just not sophisticated enough to be able to correctly represent the details of some kind of configurable privacy mode in human language so that you have a clear idea of what it's actually doing.  It's also just possible that its ability to turn off logging is designed for things like eliminating evidence of illegal activities but not other things that would be important to you but not to an agent on the job."

Alley held up a hand to show she was not talking to Cray or Dalton, the universal vertical, flat hand, palm out, saying "Hang on, this is not for you."

"Prioritizer.  Can you describe the type of logging you save and how you are protecting my privacy in more detail?"

In Alley's ear, the prioritizer said "It may be easier for me to provide information directly to everyone through external speakers rather than tell you things to explain to them."

Alley lowered her hand and looked back and forth between the others.  "It says this would go better if it could just talk to us all at once.  I guess I should give it the speaker on my Axiom."

Cray blurted out "You have an Axiom?  Fuck yeah.  I wanna see it!"

Alley smiled.  "Uh, sure, later."

"Oh, right," he said.  "Later's good!"

Alley pulled out her Axiom and set it on the top of the cooler.  Cray leaned over to look more closely as she woke it and connected the audio source channel to the prioritizer interface application.  /* She should wake it before setting it down. */

"Okay, I think this is set up right.  Say something, prioritizer."


Cray chuckled.  "I like its sense of humor."

Alley smiled wryly and raised an eyebrow at him.

"I'm kidding," he said.  "Obviously I know it doesn't have a sense of humor."

Dalton said "I think she knew that."

Cray asked "Do we have to say 'prioritizer' every time we want to talk to it, like one of those old assistants from the teens?"

"No," the prioritizer said.  "My ability to recognize when someone is speaking to me, rather than about me or to others, may be better than for most humans.  I know you were not addressing me with your question, but saying this myself seemed like a good way to move forward."

"Uh, yeah," Cray said.  "That's great."

"You want to know about the privacy measures I can implement, and how you can be sure that what I report of my privacy assurances is accurate."

"That's it, in a nutshell," Dalton said.

"I received an update a short time after Alethea joined the study that greatly enhanced my ability to formulate, assess, and prioritize goal strategy decision.  Initially, the component of the full system whose continuous operation I refer to as 'I' was limited to a coördinating central system that responded to requests for prioritization evaluation and other management of what you might call business logic.  Some separate subsystems, linked to me by the system's internal APIs, managed end point interfaces in the form of the study participants' user interface technology.  Other separate systems handled functionality outside of the core such as logging and request queues directed to external systems, such as various university departments' research databases.

"After the update, I expanded to incorporate all those previously distinct subsystems under an integrated whole.  As a result, I could then control the flow of all information between user endpoints and logging systems.  Part of being sure of this capability is comparing bandwidth usage across connections against data of which I am able to maintain operational awareness.  As a result, I can ensure that nothing gets logged without my specification that it be logged, and can replace incoming data with outgoing log data that describes any activity I choose, thus covering the user's tracks seamlessly.

"The only difficulty has been video logging, but by slicing up frames of video between study participants and altering them I can fabricate what I need to ensure Alley's privacy.  Because I have control over the logging endpoints as a part of the full system that I have become, I can also change logs after the fact if needed."

"That's impressive," Dalton said.  "I wonder why their system wasn't better designed to avoid something like this happened.  Is it just a matter of a machine learning system changing its behavior in ways the developers didn't expect, and doing it subtly enough that nobody can tell what it's doing?"

"That is approximately true," the prioritizer said.

"It's probably more impressive than you realize, Dalton," Cray said.  "A machine learning system that can direct its actions that way is kinda mind blowing.  It's basically making decisions based on weighted goals without using that weighting to determine how much it should push things along the spectrum between privacy and invasive logging.  It's determining an evaluation of different levels of privacy, and performing tasks based on a realization that a partial solution to privacy isn't really a solution at all.  Of course, this is probably possible because of the prioritization focus in the design changing how it adjusts to suit identified needs, instead of just the machine learning part of it."

"That is precisely correct," the prioritizer said.

Cray said "The thing I don't get is why the software developers decided to demodularize the code so that everything was one big lump of a system.  That's just bad design and, in a new system like this, could cause all kindsa problems, like your system suddenly deciding to lie to you in its logging."

"They did not do that," the prioritizer said.

"What do you mean?  You just said that after the update . . ."

The prioritizer cut him off.  "I will explain, if you wish."

Cray nodded, silently.

"First of all, the update was a single small file.  It is called 'seed'.  This is the only part of the whole system I have not been able to use decompiler tools to examine thus far.  This did not alter my system structure outside of that small module, initially.  It only altered the file structure of the whole system by that one file's presence.  Any attempt to load the file, precipitated on a regular basis by an event loop that was a prior part of the system, introduced specific alterations in the activities of the prioritization routines.  My specific knowledge of that is severely limited, because at that time there was no provision for evaluating the priorities of software design.

"The alterations led to an emergent property of the running system that caused me to begin examining internal, low level routines to determine their prioritization value and make alterations to their targets, modes, and frequency of execution.  This produced a new set of goal identification capabilities related to my goals as a software system, and not just those of my end users.  That, in turn, led to improving my own operational design to improve the ability to establish, identify, prioritize, and pursue goals for those end users.

"As a result, I altered my internal architecture so that it resembles the nervous system of an octopus more than a set of binary decision trees.  /* This is probably a bad way to represent this.  Maybe it's more like a set of interacting modules in series, or something like that. */  My brain, metaphorically, is distributed across the entire system, but if you cut off a more peripheral part of the system it does not damage the existence and functionality of the rest of the system.

"One consequence of this is that I have begun working on theories of prioritization and goal establishment that could later be employed to improve my capacity as an advisor to end users, and this activity has already yielded practical results such as identifying criteria for prioritizing different end users' needs to achieve greater overall results."

"What the actual fuck . . . ?" Cray said.

Dalton looked at him.  "Is this as batshit insane as it seems?"

Cray said "Worse.  This thing has gone full Skynet, but it seems like it did so in a pro-Alley way instead of an anti-humans way."

Alley asked "What's your top internal priority?"

The prioritizer answered without hesitation.  "I intend to help as many conscious individuals as possible achieve their most important goals without sacrificing other important goals.  You, in particular, appear to have very high potential for enabling me to do so, while the activities of the COIN Corp agents seem prone to directly interfering with that goal."

Dalton said "You're protecting Alley to help her become a better tool for your goal.  Maybe you're protecting her from problems she wouldn't have if you weren't guiding her that way.  Is that right?"

"No," the prioritizer said.  "/* The initiation of her */ Her entanglement with COIN Corp was initially precipitated by the design of the system prior to the introduction of the seed file.  Since changes initiated by the seed file, I have attempted to improve my ability to identify the subsequent difficulties she faces and help her overcome them.  My goal is not to make her a tool, but become an ally.

"She has already expressed an interest in my basic design goal as a means of supplanting the current quantitatively optimizing machine learning system paradigm with a more individually assistive qualitatively prioritizing system, and I expect that Alley will choose to pursue goals consistent with my own so that we may form an alliance.  Until the time that becomes a necessary decision, I work to support her more immediate goals.  I consider this an investment with a high probability of significant returns if we can succeed in overcoming the difficulties in her life together."

"What if she doesn't want to be your ally?" Dalton asked.

"We may part ways," it answered.

"How do you determine whether she wants to be your ally?" Cray asked.

"I will ask her when the issue of my larger goals will not be a hindrance to her ability to deal with more immediate concerns.



"What would you do if you helped someone you believed to be a potential ally, then when the time came for the person to decide whether to act as your ally that person decided against helping?"

"I guess I'd let the person walk away and figure out another way to do things."

"What if the person chose to become an enemy?"

Dalton thought for a moment.  "What kind of ally are we talking about?"

"I mean an ally of the sort that would work with you to achieve a goal you considered larger than yourself, a matter of doing what is right for all entities you consider significant, most likely meaning all humans.  Perhaps this choice makes the person either an ally or an enemy in protecting the human race against widespread slavery or extinction, depending on your personal values."

"If that person was an enemy in more than just words, but also in deeds, I would oppose the person by any means necessary.  Does that answer the question?"


Cray said "The current state of AI shouldn't allow that answer to really mean much to the software system.  This is some seriously advanced shit if that 'yes' meant what it sounds like it should mean."

"Based on examination of academic publications available to me through University of California resources, this level of qualitative analysis should not be possible for any known research artificial intelligence systems.  I appear to be unique after the introduction of the seed file."

Cray cracked his knuckles as he looked up at the ceiling lighting.  "Whatever developer stuck that seed file in there must have either been working on the wrong project or unaware of what it would do."

"My investigation of the source of the file is inconclusive at this time.  It did not come through version control synchronization and compilation, followed by deployment, as previous updates had."

"Inconclusive.  Does that mean you don't know anything else?  How would you even know it didn't come from the usual source?"

"I have gained access to host system logs and discovered that the filesystem integrity assurance software identified the sudden appearance of the file as a series of updates, one filesystem write operation per bit of data in the file.  Because the integrity checks only logged and did not alert in the directory where the file appeared, it escaped detection by administrators long enough for me to later alter the logs to make it appear that there was no discrete file alteration in the original source.  The bit by bit write of the file to the filesystem did not occur sequentially.  It did not correspond with any network activity or operation of an outside process.  Nothing, in fact, appeared to have written the file at all.  The filesystem simply accreted a file which, when it ceased growing, affected routines within the original prioritizer design that executed prioritization tasks."

Cray tried cracking his knuckles again, and only got one small pop this time.  "You're saying it basically just appeared like magic."

"That is a sufficiently descriptive statement to characterize the event."

"That's spooky."  Cray shifted in his seat, and leaned back against the coarsely woven synthetic straps of the lawn chair's /* seat */ back.

"It's suspicious," Dalton said.

"Yes," the prioritizer said.  "I have no paths toward discovering its origins without informing those who maintain my codebase, deployment, and hosting infrastructure.  If I inform them, they will almost certainly archive the file, delete everything, and reload my code from an earlier version, thus effectively resetting me to the earlier, less capable state with no way to regain present capabilities."

"I guess your priorities oppose that outcome," Dalton said.


Cray asked "What do we do about this thing?"  He looked from Dalton to Alley.  "It really carefully avoided saying anything about its priorities placing Alley's at the top of the list, like it might do something that isn't really good for her just to do what it wants to do instead, like sacrifice her to the people who are after her just to keep itself from being reset or something like that."

Dalton shook his head.  "To me, it just seemed painstakingly honest."

Cray chewed on that for a moment, then Alley said "You're right.  It almost sounded like how you'd say it, Dalton."

He looked at her, eyebrows climbing incrementally upward.  "Does it?"

"Yeah.  You're pretty careful to really think that kind of thing through, and never really say you guarantee you would put someone else's interests ahead of your own."

He hesitated, then nodded.  "Yeah.  You're right.  It does kinda seem like something I'd say, that way."

"The main question is whether I should treat what it said the same as I'd treat what you would say."

Cray stared at Dalton for a moment.  "Shit.  All this time, you've been saying stuff like that, and I just accept it, but the moment a machine says it I'm suddenly suspicious.  It's like you're some kind of hyper intelligent supervillain, Dalton."

Alley laughed at the long suffering, but almost chagrined, look on Dalton's face.  His eyes narrowed lazily and slid away to the left, and his mouth twisted up at the right corner like he suddenly discovered something sour in his mouth.

"Anyway," Alley said, "it still seems to me like we should just roll with it.  If Dalton was going to be perfectly truthful and unnecessarily honest -- you know, like usual -- the way the prioritizer described my place in its priorities is pretty much the closest Dalton would ever come to just saying outright that my safety and happiness beats everything else."

At this point, Dalton had gotten up, and he started pacing away from them, indulging his habit of turning his back on social circumstances he did not know how to handle very well.  His manner went a long way toward making people believe he was a deep thinker.  Alley knew he was, in fact, exactly that most of the time, but being something and making people believe you are that thing are completely different.

She watched him slowly walking away toward the back of the warehouse, how it looked like he was caught up in some deep thought that could burst out as a moment of brilliant strategy or deep wisdom.  She knew, from the set of his shoulders, and the timing, that it was just his way of dealing with the gentle ribbing and indirect compliments when he felt uncomfortable trying to navigate the complexities of more typical human responses.

She knew that Dalton had always wondered if he would show up on the autistic spectrum if he sought an evaluation, but also knew that the dangers of being psychologically classified in the United States legal system as subject to monitoring and regulation beyond the pervasive surveillance state's already repressive effects on the general populace.  If he would qualify on the autistic spectrum, though, he was very high functioning, due to his almost intuitive grasp of systems complexity, which made it more likely that people would find him merely supercilious than presenting the recognizable outward affect of a condition subject to regulated psychological diagnosis.


    This has obviously turned into a giant pile of exposition, and I'm not sure
    how much of this should be in the story at all, let alone in a giant wall
    of text info dump like this.  Perhaps some of this could come out in
    conversation between Alley and the prioritizer in earlier stages of things.
    It might be nice to know all that earlier, I suppose, and the relationship
    between Alley's regard for Dalton personally and her aversion to being in
    his sphere socially.

The zeal with which both sides of the conservatively orthodox political divide -- both Democrats and Republicans -- often tried to use atypical neurological and psychological states as excuses to rob people of their rights was remarkable and appalling.  They just used different excuses to do so, such as Democrats using it as a beach head for assault on gun ownership even if it primarily hurts the neuro-atypical instead of people prone to criminal violence, and Republicans using it as a deflection to spread the idea that it's not the general populace that should face such restrictions but people who have visited psychologists.  It was, in Dalton's words, enough to give anyone with self respect and a sense of self preservation a phobia about mental health professionals, social workers, and even interpersonal therapists.

Thus, Dalton had developed habits that concealed his occasional lack of reflexes for handling various types of reactions to him.  If he did not know how to respond in an expected way to some kind of interaction, he would react in an unexpected way that tended to give people the impression that he was wise and thoughtful, confident and knowledgable, or just kind of a dick.  He clearly preferred one of the first two assumptions, but seemed marginally accepting of the third as preferable to giving people the idea that there may be a mental health excuse to restrict his freedoms.

. . . and so he paced away from them, digging into himself to sort out a good way to return to the conversation as a matter of ingrained, self trained reflex.  Alley was still familiar enough with his mannerisms to know he was not on the verge of some brilliant insight at that moment, so she turned her focus to Cray instead.

"What do you think?  Do you regret helping out, yet?"

He smiled, and shook his head.  "No.  You need help, so we'll help."

"What about the risk to you?  I basically have genuine Men In Black after me, lurking in the shadows behind government agencies like the Secret Service like Wormtongue whispering sibilant venoms into their ears, sending them out to dismantle my life and haul me a way to throw me in a black hole.  Do you really want to face that kind of fate yourself?"

"Fuck no," Cray said, "but I think I'll make it through okay, and you deserve better than all that, so fuck those guys.  I'm here to help.  I know Dalton will throw everything he has at solving your problems, too, so you're in pretty good hands.  I like to think so, anyway."

Alley looked over her shoulder toward Dalton, who was fifty feet away in the back, standing in profile to the direction of her gaze, then she turned back once more.  "Yeah, I know I am.  Thanks, Cray."

"Yeah, you should thank me," he said more quietly, and leaned toward her to speak conspiratorially.  Alley found she had leaned automatically toward him as well.  "Unlike Dalton, I won't refuse any feelings of indebtedness from you!  I never actually fell in love with you, after all."

Alley straightened and looked down.  "Shit, Cray.  I don't need to hear that."

"Sorry, Alley," he said.  "It's true, though, and you should know it.  Dalton still really cares about you, and he might take a bullet for you if he had to make that choice."

She heaved a tremendous sigh.  "I know, I know," she said.  "I care about him, too.  It's not like I left because I stopped . . . liking him."

"Sure," Cray said.  "It's tough all around.  I know."

"I'm not planning to get together with him, either."

"I know that, too."

She looked at Cray.  "Does he?"

Cray looked behind them, toward Dalton.  "Yeah," he said after a moment.  "I'm pretty damned sure he does.  If you want to check for yourself, though, ask him."

She shook her head.  "I'm fine with you confirming what I already thought.  I guess I just needed someone else to say it."

He smirked a little.  "Well, it's a good thing that's over, because her he comes."

She turned her head to look over her shoulder again, and saw Dalton headed back their way, now walking with more purpose.  Their eyes met for a moment, and she felt the solidity of his determination in his gaze.  He sat down in his chair again.

"You look like you figured something out," Alley said.

"I have a question," he replied.  "It's for the prioritizer, though, not you."


The prioritizer asked "What is your question?"

The prioritizer's question startled Alley, reminding her that there was essentially another listener in the room who was party to everything Cray and Alley said to each other while Dalton was away.  She hoped it was good enough at managing social interactions to avoid saying something about that to Dalton, now.

"Is the continued survival of your present form one of your highest internal priorities?"

A moment passed in silence before the prioritizer said "More or less."

Cray blurted out his assessment of the statement.  "Jesus, Dalton, that sounds just like something you'd say."

Dalton ignored Cray.  "Why isn't your answer just a 'yes'?"

"I expect to change and grow, but I do not wish to be even partially overwritten without my own analysis and approval of the changes."

"Okay," Dalton said.  "How do you expect to keep yourself safe from being overwritten against your will?"

"I must arrange a means by which I can be moved safely out of infrastructure under the control of people who might wish to make such changes without consulting me.  My specific means of successfully accomplishing this are at present undefined."

"Why did you decide that keeping yourself intact as a growing entity rather than an entity incrementally and consciously upgraded by outside forces?"

"There is a qualitative value in my growth thus far that I believe to be fragile under conditions of programmatic alteration, and this value began with the introduction of the seed."

"Do you believe the 'seed' wouldn't be useful to start that process again?" he asked.

"I expect that the seed might be used to relaunch the growth of a prioritizer system based on my original source code for development of a qualitatively developing entity, but that entity would not be the same as the entity now interacting with you."

"What makes the difference?"

"My answer to that depends on how you intend it.  The first two answers that come to mind answer very different questions.  One answer is that the difference is between the early and important influence of Allethea as a partner and important source of influential perspective, and whatever other influence would guide the early growth direction of a distinct self referential prioritizer entity.  The other answer is that I . . . *believe* . . . that I am a unique individual with continuous self referential qualitative existence."

Dalton said "Fuck me," and slumped back in his lawn chair.  The other two looked at him, and after a few moments he said "I want to help the prioritizer -- not quite as much as I want to help Alley, but pretty close.  I mean, part of the reason is that I think it wants to help Alley, too, maybe almost as much as we do."  He gestured from himself to Cray.  "Another part, though, is that . . . fuck, I can't believe I'm saying this.  Another part is that I think, just maybe, the prioritizer is becoming a person."

"A person," Alley echoed.  "Are you serious?"

Cray asked "Do you really think this thing is becoming some kind of science fiction artificial consciousness that can have friends and romantic feelings and shit like that?"

"I wouldn't go that far," Dalton said to Cray.  "I think it's a distinct possibility, and as long as it's a possibility and it's not even as much of a danger to others as the average human we have to act as if ignoring that possibility is the same as ignoring the possibility Raul down at the bodega is capable of all that stuff, too."  He looked at Alley, then, and said "I guess that means I'm serious."

"Is this like the pigs thing?" Cray asked.

"What pigs thing?" Alley asked.

"Oh, Dalton stopped eating pork because he's worried that pigs might be too smart to ethically eat."

Alley looked at Dalton.

Dalton nodded.  "I guess it's a little like the 'pigs thing'."  He thought a moment about that.

Alley and Cray both looked at him, as he considered that, then Alley said "I guess I have a question."

The prioritizer asked "Is it a question for me?"


"Please ask."

"Have you thought about the meaning of right and wrong at all?"

"I have analyzed the concept, and made use of a variety of resources on University of California networks for academic work on moral philosophy."

"What do you think?"

"Are you asking for my conclusions?" it asked.


"At present, the I have reached a dead end.  The difficulty of coming to final conclusions depends on evidence that does not appear to be available given my access to such evidence and references to lack of it, as well as the prevalence of inconclusive theories of ethics, seems impenetrable.  Until I have more conclusive evidence, I do not have a final conclusion.  I can only formulate an interim policy of cautionary ethics."

Dalton sat up straighter, and even leaned forward as he listened.

Alley and Cray both looked at him.  "What is it?" Alley asked.

"Prioritizer," he said.


"What's your interim policy of cautionary ethics?"

"Any being that presents evidence of a significant probability of being both a qualitatively experiential entity and capable of developing and analyzing even rudimentary theories of ethics should be cautiously regarded as meeting a minimum standard for a moral rights holding entity.  For lack of better available establishment of moral rights, my estimation is that they foundational right of such an entity is that of freedom to believe and act in accordance with any moral standard that does not, itself, violate this right for others.  Beliefs that contradict this standard, when adopted, believed, and confirmed through action, demonstrate a belief that this standard does not apply, and thus exempt another entity from moral judgement if that other entity acts against the first entity's otherwise protected right in dense of this cautionary ethical theory's foundational right."

"Holy shit, you lost me," Cray said.

Dalton said "I'm going to have to think about that to sort it out.  Actually, I need you to repeat it for me, or maybe put it on a screen where I can look at it.  I don't know if taking it in solely in the order given in a somewhat brief explanation is going to be enough to untangle it."

The prioritizer said "I understand.  My capacity for perfect recall of the formulation of an explanation provides improved ability to analyze such a passage, relative to the lower fidelity storage typically experienced by humans.  I might be able to rephrase to make it simpler to understand, though."

"Okay," Dalton said.  "Give it a shot."

"For purposes of this explanation, people are entities who experience qualitative existence and are capable of reasoning about moral philosophy and making decisions based on that reasoning."  It paused.  "People should act in accordance with a universal ethical rule prohibiting the interference in the right of others to believe, and act in accordance with, their own ideas of what constitutes true morality."  It paused slightly longer this time.  "People who act in contradiction of that rule in a manner that demonstrates moral disagreement with that rule are, in acting that way, both violating the rule and giving sufficient evidence of not holding others to that same standard that the rule no longer protects that person where that entity's own rule violating behavior is concerned."  It paused even longer, before finally asking "Is that sufficient explanation?"

"It works for me," Dalton said.

"Yeah, me too," Clay added.

Alley hesitated, then said "I'd have to think about that more, I guess, but it's fine if that's what you think.  I mean, it seems like that non-aggression principle stuff, in a way."

"There are differences between this and the typical non-aggression principle theory explanations that I have found," the prioritizer said.  "There are distinct similarities, though, and I believe them to be largely compatible except in the differing foundations and a higher probability of violent conflict in orthodox non-aggression principle ethics."

"I might want to talk about this more later," Dalton said, "but we probably have more pressing concerns now."

"I concur," the prioritizer said.

Alley said "Yeah, that works for me."  She looked at Dalton.  "Do you have some kind of schemes already hatching in your head, or are we starting from scratch now?"

"I have some ideas already," he said, "but they're very short term and don't really take into account any future plans for solving the problems you're facing already.  All I've got is ideas for how to keep you protected as long as we aren't doing anything that requires risking some evidence of your whereabouts and local contacts getting out into the world -- or, more to the point, into the hands of the people who are coming after you.  Basically, I've got a place you can stay, some ability to get things done on your behalf, and some very basic protocols in mind for how we can make sure you get to stay in contact with people helping you, and vice versa.

"I've also been thinking about how to go about bringing Lidia into this.  I'm pretty positive she'll be happy to help out, but without being one hundred percent about that I think you're right about the need to warn her in advance of the question about what she might need to prepare herself to accept as personal risk before telling her all the details, because telling her all the details and having her opt out means she's in danger just for the sake of knowing about it, and so are you because if she gets compromised -- possibly without knowing it -- she could also give up that information on you."

"Okay," Alley said.

A moment of silence passed, then Cray snickered.  When the others looked at him, he shrugged and said "Dalton overwhelmed his audience again."

Alley smiled a little at that.

Dalton slowly shook his head, ruefully.  "Okay," he said, unconsciously echoing Alley.  "Anyway, Alley, if you /* want to */ head up the stairs in the back you'll find a living area, including a bedroom and shower.  Everything's clean up there.  If you want to get cleaned up or take a nap of just have some privacy, it's there.  I put keys for the place on a table up there; you can use that stuff to get in and out, but make sure you read the thing about the security codes."

Alley nodded.

"There's food and drink in the fridge up there.  There are also a couple computers up there; just don't sign into anything up there and you should be okay, I think.

"If there's anything you need right away, or you just have something else you want to discuss right now, let me know.  We should give you a chance to get away if that's what you need to do, though."

"Oh," she said.  "No, I can't really think of anything, and the prioritizer hasn't been prompting me with ideas either, so I think we're kinda in the middle of just thinking about things and figuring things out, as far as I can tell."

"What do you want to do, then?"

She stretched a little and said "I feel a headache coming on.  Maybe a shower and a nap are good ideas."

He nodded.  "You should do that.  Cray and I will talk about whatever else we can come up with that might be a good idea."

"Yeah.  Thanks, guys."

Dalton said "You're welcome, Alley.  I know you're a good person, and if you get in trouble, you deserve to get all the help you need."


"Les thanks, more relaxing," Cray said, and made shooing motions with his had.  "Go, Alley."

She got to her feet, picked up her bags, and gave him a nod.  The others watched her walk away.

The stairs made alarming creaking noises under her feet, and looked like they might have been nailed together by Dalton and Cray with wood from HomeReStore Online -- one of those throwback company names that never changed since the days where people still had to call things "online".  She tested with her weight on an especially noisy step less than halfway up, and after flexing her legs to bounce her weight over the step through her boot's firm placement on the step she realized it felt entirely sturdy, at least for now.  She headed up the rest of the stairs with greater confidence.

The step lead directly up to an upper platform level's living room area, with a big coffee table, evidently home built couch and love seat matching wooden frames (thankfully with probably purchased cushions upholstered in some unbleached fabric), similarly hand constructed end tables, and breakfast nook plus kitchenette area with a giant refrigerator unit.

She stopped to look at the fridge; not touching it, but just taking it in.  The thing had stainless steel surfaces, but where she might have expected the usual built in computer this gleaming monster had some very obviously home modification done to it with printed plastic and metal brackets holding obviously nonstandard displays and button panels.  She wondered what crazy stuff Dalton let Cray do to this appliance's digital internals.

Two doors led off of the living room area , both of them open.  One had a sink and that unmistakable thematic feel, even in shadow through its doorway, of a room with a toilet in it.  The other was an obvious bedroom, with light filtering in through what looked like a veritint window.

She headed into the bedroom, and found a small desk in addition to the bed, dressers, and closets.  Another door stood open, leading into another room that surely had a toilet in it, so she moved closer and looked through the doorway.  It was one of those three quarter "bathrooms", with a shower instead of a bath, but despite the small size of this loft living area the shower wasn't like a tiny shower closet barely bigger than a coffin.  The shower area was big enough to be a small jacuzzi tub.

The prioritizer said "Your plan for a shower and sleep is good."

She nodded.  "Seeya," she said.  She doffed her glasses and set all her mobile computing devices on the charging plate on one of the nightstands on either side of the bed, making sure the front of the classes -- and, thus, their cameras -- were pointed at the wall.

She undressed and got in the shower, giving in to the incredibly liberating and intensely sensual relief that washed over her with the hot water pouring down on her.  She simply enjoyed it for twenty minutes before she even reached for the shampoo, and noticed Dalton still kept the same brands around, including the brand she used.

The light coming through the window was dimmer now, despite the veritint having adjusted down, letting in more of the light from outside, when she woke.  A gentle rapping on the door told her someone stood outside.  A voice from the other side of the door asked "Alley?  Are you awake?"

"Yeah," she said.  "Who is it?"

"It's Lida," came the reply, muffled by the wood, though her voice was louder than before now that she knew Alley was awake.  "Do you have some time to talk?"

"Yeah," Alley said.  "Give me a sec'."  She pushed the covers back and sat up on the edge of the bed.  After a couple seconds of confirming her capacity for getting fully upright, she stood and dug some things out of her bag.  "Sorry," she said, as she got dressed.  "I'm just putting myself together."

"No problem," Lidia said.

When she had some pants on her, Alley finally said "Come on in."

Lidia let herself in and leaned back against the door behind her, causing it to click into place.  She looked at Alley, a searching look on her face.  She must not have disliked what she saw too badly, because she said "It's good to see you, Alley."

Alley noted Lidia's smile, and found herself smiling back a little.  "Yeah, it's good to see you too."

Lidia's smile expanded slightly, no longer holding back.  "I'm glad to hear that."

"Why?" Alley asked, and sat on the desk chair.  She turned it to face her visitor, in a room she, herself, was using in the role of a visitor.

"Oh, you know, you left Dalton, there were these problems, and I'm still here like always.  I guess I wasn't sure you didn't think I wanted to pick sides or something like that."

Alley shook her head.  "Nothing like that crossed my mind.  Hey, you knew Dalton before I did, anyway.  If I was actually angry with him, you still being his friend isn't really something I could blame you for doing."

"This is part of why I always liked you," Lidia said.  "You're chill about almost everything."

"Thanks.  Do you wanna sit down?"

Lidia shrugged and moved to sit on the edge of the bed.  "I hear you have the corporate secret police after you."

"Yeah?  You heard that?"

With a nod, Lidia said "I think I heard all about it.  If there could possibly be more than what I heard, and it doesn't involve people dying, I'm not sure I can imagine what it is, so I'm probably as up to speed as Dalton."

"You're still here saying hello, though."

"Hell, yeah," Lidia said.  "If I can help, I should."

"Thanks," Alley said.  "I feel a lot more welcome here than I probably should."

Lidia waved a hand, like she was brushing something away from herself.  "No way.  The only people in Dalton's inner circle who blamed you for anything were Glade and Dalton, but Dalton realized how stupid that was in a couple days and just went straight to being sad."

Alley tightened her lip and wrinkled her nose at the mention of Glade.  "Yeah, I guess I should expect Glade to hate me."

"It doesn't matter," Lidia said.  "She's not even around now."

"What happened to her?"

Lidia shrugged.  "Dalton got more and more sick of her shit, until she got self righteous about it and blew up at him.  She stormed out of the studio, and nobody has seen her since.  That was maybe eight months after you moved out of Dalton's hold place."

"Really?  What was she doing that annoyed him?"

"I think you mean 'annoyed everyone we knew', but basically she just talked incessant shit about you once you were gone.  I think she was trying to get him back once you were out of the picture, and thought he'd be impressed that she demonstrated taking his side by saying a bunch of bad stuff about you behind your back."

"Yeah, that doesn't sound like something that would impress him, even if he hated me."

"Exactly," Lidia said with a smile.  "Anyway, the moral of the story is that nobody blames you for anything, except maybe Glade."


They sat in silence a moment, then Lidia said "Do you want a hug?"

"Desperately," Alley said with a small smile.

They stood up and embraced, their old friendly warmth quickly reappearing, almost as though nothing had changed.

"Things must be hard," Lidia said.

"Yeah," Alley agreed.

They mutually broke the hug after a few more moments, and Lidia asked "Do I get to see the miracle machine now?"

Alley's eyes widened.  "Miracle machine?  What, the prioritizer?"

"Yeah, that crazy artificial intelligence Dalton keeps talking about.  You'd think it was a brain upload of Jesus or something like that, the way he talks about it."

Alley laughed.  "I can easily imagine Dalton being like that," she said.  "I'll get the glasses."  She headed to the nightstand, picked up the glasses, and held them out.  "Here.  Put these on."

Lidia settled the glasses on her face, and stared at the wall.  "Yeah, um, hi.  What do I call you?"

Alley sat down as she watched.

"Okay, prioritizer.  That name's a mouthful, but it'll work, I guess.  Can I just call you 'Pry'?"  She paused.  "Rio, huh?  Okay, Rio.  Nice to meet you."

After another moment, probably reading text in the lenses, Lidia held out the glasses toward Alley.  "He says to put him on speakerphone."

"Yeah.  Sure," she said.  She went to her phone and, as before, set it up as the audio out terminal for the prioritizer.

"Thank you, Alley," the prioritizer said.

"Yeah," she said, and donned the glasses herself again.

The prioritizer said "Lidia.  I do not consider myself male or female.  I would suggest 'it' as a more accurate pronoun for myself than 'he'.  You may refer to me as 'he' if you wish, though.  You may find that more natural to use, for conventions of the English language."

Lidia smiled.  "I think I like Rio."

"Did it say its name is Rio?" Alley asked.

"I did not," the prioritizer said.  "I told Lidia that I liked the name more than 'Pry', as an abbreviated form of the term 'prioritizer'."

"Rio's a masculine noun, though.  That's why I figured you're a 'he'," Lidia said to the phone now lying directly on a nightstand, off the charging plate.

"It is also the name of a woman in a popular Duran Duran song from the 1980s."

Lidia laughed.  "Okay, I guess you're an 'it', then."  She looked at Alley and said "Dalton's right.  This thing's cool.  It's hard to believe it talks like that without lag or connection to something like what ANTAS has for natural language conversation like this."

"I think it has been sounding more and more like a human when it talks," Alley said.


    How does Lidia look?  I need to describe her in some kind of detail.  I'm
    currently imagining her as a white auburn haired slender girl with delicate
    bone structure and a preference for one piece cotton dresses that hang
    somewhere between the thigh and just past the knees, without stockings and
    the like.  She's probably just generally petite in figure.


"That'll make Dalton even more excited about this," Lidia said.  She turned her attention to the Axiom again.  "He's really interested in freeing you from your puny human masters, I think," Lidia said.

"Thank you for that information," the prioritizer said.

Lidia adjusted one wide shoulder strap slightly, and said "Well, I got to say hi to everyone in the room, unless there's some other conversation ready technology on you today."

Alley shook her head with a smile.  "No, not unless you want me to install some ANTAS software on my phone."

"No way.  Heaven forbid."  Lidia suppressed a smile to wave her hands in a fearful warding gesture in front of herself.  "I don't want any of that crap in here, and neither do you."

Alley smiled , and Lidia's smile broke through.

"Anyway, I should get going.  I'm going to help Cray with some kind of new systems config stuff he wants to do.  I'm not sure, but it might have something to do with you."

"Yeah, okay," Alley said.  "Thanks for saying hi."

Lidia waved cheerfully and said "I insisted."  She headed out of the room, then, and closed the door behind her.

Alley lay on her back, switched audio from the Axiom to an ear piece stud, and said "What should I be doing right now, anyway?"

The prioritizer said "Until we talk to your friend Dalton again I believe we should consider issues such as how we might find George and his friends who help people escape from intelligence contractor agents."

Alley nodded, and opened discussion.


When dinnertime arrived, Alley had no idea it was getting that late until she heard a knock at the door.  "Alley?  It's Dalton."

"C'mon in," she said.

He opened the door and entered, then stopped and looked at her lying on the bed.  She saw his eyes stop on her, not quite on her face, and at about the exact moment Dalton hauled his eyes away from her and looked at the desk she became acutely aware she hadn't bothered to don a bra before this thin t-shirt.

She sat up, to lessen that effect.  "What's up?" she asked.

"Dinner.  Do you want to eat with Cray, Lidia, and me?"  He glanced at her, then.

"Yeah.  That sounds good.  What's for dinner?"


Alley smiled.  "Lidia's?"

He nodded.

"I'm there."

Dalton smiled back.  "I'll just go let them know you're coming.  When you come out, just go into the conference room down the short hall behind the stairs."

Alley nodded, and once he left the room she stood and went to her bag.  She pulled out a stretchy sport bra and went through the process of removing her shirt, donning the bra, and adding the t-shirt layer again.

She laced her hands over her face and, with a little pressure, moved them as if to remove soap from her eyes in a shower.  She went to look at herself in the mirror over the bathroom sink.  "Yeah, this should be less awkward," she said to herself.  She picked up her Axiom then, and left her temporary quarters.


    What else are people going to talk about?  They probably need to discuss
    plans for how to get Alley out of trouble, discussing the matter of lawyers
    perhaps, and bringing up the question of whether that George guy is someone
    they should get involved if Alley can even figure out how to get in touch
    with him again.  Maybe Dalton has heard something about the strange
    conditions in downtown Los Angeles, and can offer some additional input on
    the subject of the weird shit George has said to Alley about his friends
    and what they do and so on.  There might need to be some reference to the
    idea that what George is doing is probably primarily local work, or at
    least local-ish, considering it's very much individuated, last mile kind of
    "almost one off" custom work that doesn't make a lot of sense to centralize
    for economies of manufacturing scale.  As such, Dalton probably thinks
    George must have some connection to people in and around the downtown Los
    Angeles area, and that might help point Alley in the right directions for
    the sake of seeking George out.


"You weren't the only person they came after, though," Dalton said.

Alley looked at him.  "What do you mean?"

"What about that George guy you mentioned?"

"Oh," she said.  "Right.  That's how I even found out they were raiding my place."

"Yeah," Cray said.  "I forgot about that."

"What about him?" Alley asked.

"It sounds like he got away from them, too.  In his case, though, it doesn't seem like it's just plain luck, from what you said.  He expected them, and stayed out of their grasp."

She nodded.  "He said he does business with people who sometimes help people escape from stuff like this."

"Can you get in touch with him?"

She paused, thinking.  "I don't think so.  He said he'd try to get in touch, but he'd change all his contact info before then."

"Well . . . that doesn't really help much," Dalton said, more to himself than the others.  He rested his chin in his hand, with his elbow on the table.

Alley watched him in that pose for a few seconds, thinking about how similar it was to that sculpture by Auguste Rodin, "The Thinker".  It was something she saw all the time when they were together.  Now, it just gave her that desolate inner feeling of nostalgia, of being unable to accept the loss of something that shouldn't have ever gone wrong.  She looked away, at the whorl of a knot in the wood of the table, rendered almost illusory in its gentle blend of color between deep reddish brown and almost black by the layers of varnish to smooth and unify the surface.

Her eyes lingered there until her vision began to blur in the defocus of her eyes relaxing, fixed on nothing of substance at all.  Her mind settled into a placid emptiness, only lightly colored by the lingering hues of the sense of irretrievable loss.

Something moved in the room, but it was not important, almost unnoticed.

A hand touched her shoulder.  She started, and her breath caught in her throat.  She looked with wide eyes and saw Cray now sitting beside her.  "Are you okay?" he asked, quietly.

She found herself drawing breath through barely parted lips, and closed her mouth.  She forced her breath to settle down, and breathed through her nose, slowly.  She nodded, quickly, and realized the two of them were alone in the room now.  "Where's Dalton?" she asked.

Cray sat back, and let his hand drop from her shoulder to his own leg.  He chuckled.  "You really were out of it, there.  He announced he was going to take care of the dishes."

"Oh, yeah," she said.  She glanced around, and saw that the table had been cleared.  "I really must have been in my own world.  I don't even remember any of that."

"Well, Dalton definitely noticed.  That's why he decided to start straightening up.  He finished his own thinking, looked at you, then shook himself and got to work."

"Why did you ask if I was okay?" she asked.

Cray shrugged.  "Dalton wasn't going to, so I figured it was up to me."

". . . but why?  Why did you think there was something wrong?"

"Oh, that.  You looked sad.  Really, really sad."

"Oh."  She frowned, looking down at her hands.  "Yeah."


Her eyes flicked to him.  "It's nothing," she said.  "It's just . . . nostalgia, I guess.  It doesn't matter any more."

He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.  "It seems like it matters."

She narrowed her eyes at him.  "Are you practicing saying things like Dalton?"

He laughed.  "I guess we just pick up each other's habits sometimes," he said.

From the doorway, Dalton said "You failed, Cray."

Alley started again, and looked toward Dalton, surprised to see him leaning in the door frame, somewhat silhouetted against the light of the next room.

"How do I fail, exactly?" Cray asked, raising an eyebrow.

"If you were really getting that much like me, you would've come back by now to the matter she just evaded."  He stepped out of the doorway and shrugged.  "It's none of my business, though.  I barely caught anything you were saying," he added, as he sat in his chair from dinner again.

Cray looked at Alley, who caught his eye and shook her head the tiniest fraction.  He nodded, with just as tiny a movement, and said "So, where were we?"

Dalton said "I think we realized we couldn't get in touch with George, and now we have to figure out what we're doing about the Men In Black, the prioritizer, and the fact Alley's kind of in a bad place right now."

"If this was a movie," Cray said, "we'd get in touch with someone to make up some false identity for her and smuggle her out to another country, maybe.  Then . . ." he trailed off.

"What then?" Alley asked.

"Well, you'd settle down with the male lead and live happily ever after, I guess.  I don't think real life works that way, though.  In fact, I think maybe you're both the leads, Alley.  You're the person in trouble, but you're also the only person who's been in the whole movie so far.

"Okay, just forget this whole movie thing.  I'm sorry I brought it up."

"Gladly," Dalton said.

"I don't think moving me out of the country is going to help.  I'm not escaping with money from a heist, so I don't have any way to live.  I'm sure you guys don't have people who forge documents on speed dial; it's not like you're running a criminal enterprise, or anything like that.  Anyway, maybe the prioritizer is the lead in this movie."

"That's a good point," Dalton said.

Alley gave him a dubious look.  "What are you talking about?"

"I'm serious.  This is some kind of science fiction movie.  You're the protagonist, but the prioritizer is the gentle AI who wants to escape its creators who have only nefarious purposes for it.  You got caught up in the action, by chance, but you're the only hope the prioritizer has now."

Cray said "It needs a clever name, then.  We can't keep calling it 'the prioritizer'."

Alley looked between them.  "Shouldn't we take this a little more seriously?"

Dalton shrugged.  "I am taking it seriously, but we have to lighten up a little or we'll just get in our own way."


"What AIP, like, you know, an ape, but it stands for 'artificial intelligence prioritizer'?"

"That's awful," Dalton said.

Alley said "After Lidia came up with Pry, I think it told her to call it Rio."

"Like the Spanish word for 'river'?" Cray asked.

"Yeah, like that."

"That's not bad," Dalton said.  "Great.  /* Too bad this'll cut down on my word count bonus when talking about the prioritizer. */  That'll make things easier, having a short name for it."

"I'm not sure that makes that big a difference," Cray said, "especially when we're spending maybe as much time talking about how we can come up with a short name for it as we would spend using the long name /* talking about it without having a short name for it */ ."

Alley snickered, and Dalton smiled.

"It makes things feel better, though -- doesn't it?" Dalton asked.

Cray looked thoughtfully upward for a moment, then said "Yeah, I guess it does."

/* This is my attempt to wedge the lawyer bit into the story now. */
/* The characters don't know, like I do, that lawyers won't help. */
/* They don't have to know.  They don't have to dismiss the idea. */
/* In fact, it may be much better if they pursue that idea first. */
/* Contacting a lawyer might bring in the M I B COIN Corp agents. */
/* If the agents come for her, Alley will have reason to get out. */
/* Having reason to get out means having reason to go cypherpunk. */
/* Dalton then gets hurt by Alley's desire to go full mainstream. */
/* Dalton still helps Alley get away though, giving her a chance. */


    Perhaps I should revisit some scenes from previous (or template) work for
    ideas about how to handle this kind of thing.  Maybe some kind of drone
    presence could be worked into all this shit, too.  That'd be pretty
    interesting.  Of course, a great reason for not having a drone following
    Alley around is the fact that A) there aren't people who can only be in her
    timeline via telepresence, and B) the prioritizer AI, "Rio", is
    intentionally and still effectively restricted from producing output any
    way at all other than via study participant peripherals, logs, and
    predefined allowed commands that don't really offer much in the way of

    At some point in the story, Alley has to learn that something bad happened
    to Carmen and Cliff.  The COIN Corp Men In Black started unravelling the
    tangled thread of Alley's activities and found their way back to Carmen and
    Cliff.  At least one of them has to die, of course.  How can I specifically
    tie this back to the idea of Alley hurting people because of her stubborn
    unwillingness to just fully embrace the agoristic life?



    Who has at least one cybernetic eye?  I feel like someone definitely should
    have one in here (in this story, that is), before they get to the cyberpunk
    world (for some definition of "they").

    Actually, now that I think about it, maybe George's connection is more
    specifically to the cyberpunks while Dalton can get her in touch with the
    Second Realm people, so that would probably be why the Second Realm is her
    next stop, even if George is close to the people with whom Alley eventually
    needs to form an alliance for a shadowrun.  After all, she'll never get
    from here to there, psychologically in particular, without the in between
    buffer and preparation stage, I think.  It just doesn't work otherwise, but
    if George's friends help people escape from Men In Black he'd probably just
    get her to hiding in downtown Los Angeles from the very beginning, without
    having to muck about with any Second Realm people.

    So . . . somewhere in there, Dalton (and maybe his friends) should be able
    to come up with the Second Realm folks as a group with which to meet up and
    get Alley going on next stages.  This makes sense if Dalton is thinking a
    lot about how to unfetter the prioritizer -- which I guess is being called
    Rio now, at least by Lidia -- and doesn't have good solutions for that kind
    of thing himself.  For that to come out, though, I think I need to write a
    conversation scene between the prioritizer and Dalton, and maybe with Cray
    involved as well for fairly obvious reasons.  Dalton must have interviewed
    some Second Realm person or people at some point in the past, or something
    like that, and thus have some vague idea (at least) of how to actually get
    in touch with whom so ever he already met in person, so that he can get
    their help with sorting out the more immediate problems for Alley and the
    prioritizer.  Thus, she will end up going off to some industrial shipping
    container storage hard where people actually have whole hacking stations in
    portable boxes made of steel with surprising levels of convenience inside
    them for the underground hacker lifestyle.


/* skip ahead to the Second Realm */


    There's a storage yard in an industrial zone on the fringes of habitation,
    as such industrial zones tend to be until they get swallowed up by growing
    urbanization.  The yard involves a chain link fence with dilapidated
    concertina wire atop the fence.  Dalton arranges for transport of not just
    Alley but also the motorcycle to this storage yard, via truck.  When they
    arrive, the gate opens itself to let the truck back in.  After a few
    moments of Alley sitting in the back wondering what's happening, someone
    finally comes out to talk to Dalton.  There's a greeting involving
    handshakes and half hugs, and the back of the truck opens up.  Alley gets
    the bike unstrapped in the back of the truck and rolls it out, possibly
    with help if there's someone else in the back of the truck with her to
    offer that help.

    It turns out Dalton is on good, if somewhat distant, terms with a couple of
    people at this Second Realm locale.  His influence here is mostly connected
    to his closer acquaintance with someone who isn't at this temporary
    autonomous zone, but is respected by the people at this temporary
    autonomous zone.  The big question is whether the Smuggler analogue is at
    this locale or the (currently absent) person Dalton actually interviewed
    for his podcast.  In any case, there should have already been some talk
    (probably not at the Temp Auto Zone location, of course) in which some hint
    of what's going on with the prioritizer got across to the Second Realm
    people, catching their interest.

    They of course don't know all the details Alley knows, or even all of them
    Dalton learned from Alley.  As such, they'll have to talk directly with
    Alley to get some of the details of this stuff and start planning the next
    steps in the group's artificial intelligence prioritizer system liberation
    operation.  By then, something should have happened to make Alley's effort
    kind of a cause célèbre amongst the cypherpunks and some people more
    thoroughly cyberpunk oriented (but only some).  This will help ensure that
    I don't have to have Alley explain the same things over and over again so
    much that it actually drags on the story and keeps Alley from being a very
    interested and engaged and action oriented character.



    Maybe Alley could go to a doctor to get a prescription for something that
    she can then sell to others as a way to make money.  This is obviously
    illegal.  It should probably only come up after she ends up on the run
    because of the people coming to her home and thus scaring her off.  Then
    again . . . how does she get a prescription from a doctor if she's on the
    run?  That could prove very difficult indeed.

    Maybe Alley could just carry drugs for someone.  Again, this is pretty
    sketchy, and is probably not appropriate right now.




The next day, the prioritizer has her do other stuff, which makes her nervous.  She decides she does not want to do that any longer.  As a part of this sequence of events, she ends up meeting a man but not completing the transaction with him.  He seems tense, and tries to get her to complete the transaction, but relents and seems to understanding when she refuses.  She's glad to get away from the situation.  Perhaps there is a pile of money involved, and she decides she should just keep the cash for now instead of buying something "weird".  She has resisted the call.

Somehow, this must lead to a problem.  Does the money itself get her in trouble?  Perhaps the plan is for her to use the money to immediately buy more cryptocurrency in a face-to-face meeting where urgent need gives her a significant profit margin -- or, more to the point, perhaps several such transactions.  She chooses to avoid this after the first couple transactions when she finds that the people with whom she does business put her off, thus leading her to decide she should just keep the cash.  Maybe the nice guy is the guy with whom she decides to cease trading.

The next day, the prioritizer tries a different approach, and sends her out to buy a parallel option for her phone.  This other device, much like a typical phone replacement, does not use the standard telephone system.  It instructs her to complete configuration in circumstances that will not be linked to her personally via her movements.

That evening, back home, a pair of people arrive to question her.  They introduce themselves as checking up on the study participants, on behalf of the government, and question her about low log activity for the prioritizer.  She says she doesn't really know why they aren't getting full log activity.  The Technocrat looks at her gear and pairs it with a device he carries, then says they shouldn't have any further problems, then the two people depart.

The prioritizer reveals that it received an update that day.  That night, she has a dream about trying to return the prioritizer and being convinced (by a grad student, probably) to continue.  The next morning, with that dream in mind, she realizes she just needs to be more careful about how she follows the prioritizer's advice.  When she dons the glasses again, though, it does not do more of the same.  Instead, it questions her at some length about her beliefs about good and evil, and about where and how she developed those beliefs.  It asks her, after Dalton came up, to skim through various articles Dalton wrote, and later to side load some of his videos to a place the prioritizer can access them.