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# 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 seedfile."

"Is that your creators 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 datastream 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 datastream 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, datastream 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 datastream 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 datastream.  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 rearview mirror and saw police vehicles with their lights flashing turning down the same streat 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 hismouth 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 comptent, 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 quantiatative 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 chck your progress through proiritizer 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 blanky out the open window of her car, eyes glazed.  She shook her head, then wpied 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, thorugh 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, birthdate, 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 alrady 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 deperate 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 intrue 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 handsfree 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 mear 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 cary 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 olice 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, neighter 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 OpenMarrakesh, 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 OpenMarrakesh 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 OpenMarrakesh 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 OpenMarrakesh.  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.

OpenMarrakesh 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 offfered, on impulse.

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

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

Carmen -- possibly a pseudony, 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 Idecided 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 agaisnt 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.  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 hte 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 cheked 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 drastring 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 reserach 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 shold 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 htink 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 reasearch 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 pollenating 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 Delivr 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 OpenMarrakesh, 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 chokepoint 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 elctrical 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 endtable 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'tneed 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 ath teh 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 surive 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.


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 mutered 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.

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 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 coöperation," 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.

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 informatoin security cademic 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 ecommerce 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 strees 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."


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?

Maybe Alley could just carry drugs for someone.  Again, this is pretty sketchy, and is probably not appropriate right now.




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 inher life, protecting her from intrusive shit from police and other law enforcement things, and others as well.



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?



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 end 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 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 sideload some of his videos to a place the prioritizer can access them.


## 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.