The car speeds ahead, past crumbling clapboard houses and deserted strip malls, and under rusted and rickety bridges. There was a time, Ralf thinks, when society marked its progress on the physical landscape, building skyscapers, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, even stately porched homes, like his mother’s place in Montclair. But in the last half century or so, most of the landmark projects have been virtual. What new physical construction there is comes from the Chinese, who have money for such things. For most Americans, he thinks, progress is defined in apps. The physical Oklahoma looks abandoned.
Sunday, March 6, 2072: Ten days before the national cognitive update
9:02 a.m. Central Standard Time
“The way you talk, I can tell you’re wild,” she says.
He has just awoken. He slept like a corpse from the DC suburbs to the Mississippi, stirred briefly to glimpse down at the mighty river, and then fell into another long nap. He pauses, trying to collect his thoughts. Their burnt-orange Sheng-li is driving itself west along a lonely stretch of 1-40. Oklahoma scenery flies past their windows at a constant 97 miles per hour.
“How far to El Paso?” he asks.
“Only a wild person would need to ask.”
He shakes his head slightly, and tugs at the rim of his red baseball cap, a relic with a stretched-out P on the front. “How far is it?”
“When do we get there?”
“3:31, if we’re going downtown, 3:33 to the Stanton Street Bridge, 3:33 to Cielo Vista Mall, 3:54 to...”
“All right, I get the picture.”
With a blink of her green eyes, she snaps back from her processor, or “boost.”
“I know you’ve gone wild, Ralf, because I’m not getting anything from you at all.”
“Is it gone, or did you somehow turn it off?”
He looks away from her, out the window to the south, at the rusted remains of oil derricks, and the gray hills stretching to the horizon. They’ll head west to the Rio Grande, then turn left, following the river to the border, which divides El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, the notorious outpost of the wild in North America. He knows these facts and doesn’t have to look them up, even if he could.
He listens to the wind whistling past the car, the hum of the hydrogen engine. That’s all he hears. No videos, no soundtrack, no info blasts. He hears himself breathing, as if for the first time. He knows they’ll get to El Paso sometime after 3. Ellen said so. But he has no idea what time it is and has nothing to tell him. People used to wear wrist watches or look at the screens of their cell phones. But once the processors moved into the heads, clocks slowly disappeared, along with computers and televisions and telephones, and all the other machinery that he remembers piling up in his grandparents’ basement. That’s all in the head now, he thinks. But not in mine.
He looks at Ellen. With a couple of wardrobe commands, she has turned her pullover to gold and her skin-tight leggings to black, with deep blue highlights. They shine like the feathers of a raven. She’s staring straight ahead, living in her boost. He knows she’s been spending hours on end in virtual Rome, with a college friend of hers, checking out Etruscan art. But by the way she’s shifting her weight in the seat and moving her lips, he wonders if she’s having sex. If so, is it with him? Ellen has the face of Greek goddess. It’s the Artemis line: a perfect oval surrounded by wavy golden hair, the nose slightly turned up at the end. Her lips move slightly, as if trying out sentences. They look like parentheses drawn by a sharp red pencil. Ellen is his processor now.
“What time is it?” he asks.
9:21 a.m. Central Standard Time
Ralf’s memory is shot. His whole life, he has been considered a prodigy of the digital world. But the detailed time-tagged images, the videos, notes, links, they’re all gone. All that remains is the wet brain, where memories, if you can call them that, well up in pools of appetites, regrets, and desires. He can fish out only snippets of conversation. The blurry pictures he summons seem to change and fade. They’re not distinct images: more like ideas with ghostlike transparencies hovering over them. It’s a sorry excuse for a brain, he thinks. There’s good reason people like him are called wild.
He tries to dredge up memories from his last full day in Washington. That would be … day before yesterday? He isn’t sure, and doesn’t want to ask Ellen. He remembers sitting at breakfast with Ellen in their second-story apartment in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, just two blocks up from the zoo. The last specks of snow were melting from the branches across the street, but spring was still a good month away. He was sipping a protein blend and flipping through college basketball highlights in his boost, when a message popped up from Suzy. “Have to talk.”
He messaged back. “Talk talk?”
“Face to face.”
They agreed to meet for coffee at the Taizhou Tower, near Dupont Circle, and Ralf hurried out to his bike.
Ten minutes later he was sitting across from Suzy, blowing warm air onto his frigid hands. She looked just like Ellen, but a half foot taller. Instead of wavy shoulder-length hair, the standard Artemis style, she kept a just a hint of blond fuzz on her skull. Suzy carefully dipped a corner of her scone into her steaming glass of greenish tea. She greeted him with a nod. He messaged her: “What’s up?”
She frowned and shook her head. “I meant ‘talk,’” she said.
Ralf sat up straight in his chair and coughed. He found face-to-face conversations awkward and he tried, whenever possible, to sidestep them. He nodded, looked at Suzy’s eyes, and quickly shifted his focus a few millimeters down, to the less threatening terrain around the bridge of her exemplary nose.
Over the next few minutes, Suzy whispered across the table to him, the old-fashioned way, laying out the issues. Ever since Suzy’s arrival, earlier in the year, they’d been working closely in the chip lab at the Department of Health and Human Services, overseeing the annual processor updates. Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier. Some inevitably complain that they’ve lost memories or have to concentrate harder to send messages. Some say they notice more ads popping up, or soundtrack music that’s hard to mute. But most are satisfied. Their heads work better.
Preparing for the updates is a long process. A few months before the scheduled date, the code comes in from China. A technical panel reviews the changes, and draws up a summary for the Senate subcommittee and the White House. Once the design is approved—largely a formality—the chip is divided into a dozen segments, so that no single person has access to the entire architecture. This is Suzy’s first cycle. She’s a junior staffer on segment 3, which is mostly data storage, along with other odds and ends. Ralf heads up the all-important segment 4, which runs communications, including six different radio signals and the vital interface to the wet brain.
This year, the country is scheduled to receive the update on March 16. If it goes smoothly, the process will begin with the general population, followed by Congress and the Supreme Court, the vice president and the cabinet, and finally the president. Then, presumably, the country will be on firm cognitive footing for the next year.
Suzy asked Ralf, as he waited for his coffee, to take a look at one of the gates, 318 Blue, in his segment. She had its counterpart in hers, and had found an anomaly. He called it up in his boost, and saw, to his shock, that 318 Blue was wide open.
She didn’t have to say another word. Ralf knew. The Chinese were updating the chip with a version of their domestic software. Its surveillance gate was open for both communications and data. What Ralf didn’t understand—and still doesn’t—is how Suzy Claiborne spotted the anomaly. She was new to the department and often asked him questions that a sophomore comp-sci student could answer. She was perhaps the last person Ralf would have expected to notice an open gate.
As Ralf looks back, the rest of that day is a blur. The details are lost with his boost. But he remembers the general outlines and can bring back fragments of the day, each one wrapped in the animal blend of emotions and physical sensations, chiefly nausea and jangling nerves.
His idea, he recalls, was to upload Suzy’s segment into his head, match the two sections, and figure out commands to close the gate. Otherwise, as he saw it, companies would have free run in everyone’s boost. They could mine lifetimes of memories. Experts had been declaring privacy dead for decades, but this would obliterate the last vestiges of it.
Ralf was a hacker, had always been one. He knew he could close the gate. He felt he had to. He can still picture Suzy, standing over him as he locked his bike across from the frozen Botanic Pagota on the Mall, whispering that his plan was “reckless.”
“If you didn’t expect me to do something,” he messaged her, “why’d you loop me in?” But even as she complained, she transferred her segment file onto his boost, and he was busy exploring it as they made their way into HHS and climbed the stairs to the lab. In the file he could see the open gates.
While Ralf knew that carrying Suzy’s data was risky, he hardly expected to be nabbed the very first day. His messages, like anyone’s, could be intercepted, but the surveillance gates in his own boost were locked down, at least as far as he knew.
Minutes after he reached the office, two uniformed security guards hustled him out of the building. Ralf remembers that his colleagues turned their heads from him, as if embarrassed. He felt ashamed. He remembers wondering why one of the guards had grabbed his dirty green gym bag.
Next thing he knew, he was stretched out on a hospital bed in a white room. The sheets on the bed were rumpled. The curtains on the small window high above the bed looked like rags. Smudged on the wall above the sink was a single footprint, far too large to be Ralf’s. The sound in his head, if you could call it that, was the solitary hum of consciousness. He had never felt so alone. He summoned his mapping function to see where he was. Nothing came up. Just the same hum. He called up his messaging. Nothing. Ralf felt a surge of panic. He thrashed, and knocked a metal tray from the side of the bed, sending bits of debris falling to the floor. He looked down and saw the tray lying on his gym bag. He felt soreness on the side of his head. He reached up and touched a bandage.
They had ripped out his chip. For Ralf, whose boost had been installed on his first birthday, this amounted to a lobotomy. He was wild. For the first time he could remember, at least with the remaining hunk of brain in his head, he cried.
He remembers hearing explosions, and wondering if it was thundering outside. Then a young Asian man came into his room. The sculpted arms and shoulders of a body builder seemed to burst from his tight white T-shirt. He had a primitive twentieth-century look to him, unenhanced. He didn’t say anything, but simply placed his hands on Ralf’s shoulders, sat him up, reached down for Ralf’s gym bag, zipped it closed and handed it to him. Then, still without a word, he placed a firm grip on Ralf’s elbow and led him out of the clinic to the street. He stayed in the doorway and waved good-bye.
Ralf didn’t know where he was or what to do. If his boost had been in place and working, dozens of streams of information would be informing him, orienting him, messaging, carrying out thousands of risk scenarios, in short, making him aware. He would have figured things out. But as a brain-surgery patient, recently sequestered and newly wild, he walked in a fog.
He made his way down a tree-lined street and came to an esplanade with an Alexandria Metro stop he recognized. King Street/Old Town. He considered taking the Metro back to the Mall, where he’d left his bike. But he couldn’t pay for a ticket without a credit beam from his chip. As a wild man, he was broke.
He would walk. Without geotags, even that was a challenge. He wondered which way to go and got no directions. The only signal coming from his wet brain was the same gentle hum, with no data, no meaning. He was full of questions but powerless to answer them. He looked at the February sun, low in the southern sky, and took off for the north. In time he felt hungry, but found no signals leading him toward food. He was on his own. He wanted to see Ellen, and to hug her. But he could not message her. He dug into his ancient memory for her whereabouts and came up empty.
He remembers the crunching sound and feel of his footsteps on gravel as he walked north from Alexandria, across the Potomac, and back to his bike. Were they watching him as he walked?
Are they following us now? He turns around and looks out the back window of the car.
“You’re not going to see anything back there,” Ellen says. “This isn’t a movie from 2010.”
He peers up, through the windshield. “If any drones are following us,” she says, “they’re no bigger than bees. They might even look like bees. Kind of useless to look for them.” Though Ellen’s an artist, she’s up to date on spy gadgets. Some of her contract work for the Pentagon includes drone design, which on occasion she incorporates into her leggings and blouses.
Ralf sits back. He’s small, dark and wiry, with deep-set violet eyes and black hair that curls around his ears. He’s good-looking, to such a degree that his mother convinced him to avoid all of the enhancements they were offering in middle school. He contemplates human beauty, and pictures Ellen without the Artemis package. That reminds him of Suzy, which in turn reminds him once again of the fix he’s in. Funny, he thinks, how thoughts meander in the wet brain.
They pass a sign for a Civil War battle at Honey Springs. A Civil War battle in Oklahoma? Ralf wonders if he lugged around that morsel of data, unknown and unread, in his processor for twenty-eight years. He considers the trove of information stored on that chip, entire years of video, every virtual world he’s ever entered, every song he has ever heard, every conversation he’s ever had, the full database of all his messaging, even much of his sex life. All of it gone.
“Listen,” Ellen says, stirring him from his reverie. “How about this? You tell me what you know. I’ll do the same.”
He pauses for a moment. “It’s classified,” he says.
In their three years together, she has heard that same phrase a thousand times. “Let me get this straight,” she says. “They tie you down, take out your boost, patch you up, and send you as a wild man down to El Paso, and you have to protect their secrets?”
Ralf wants to tell her what he knows. But first he’s attempting to run risk-reward calculations in a brain not built for such work. It’s painfully slow, and does not deliver answers, only ideas.
“They didn’t send me to El Paso,” he finally says. “That was my plan.”
“Because your brother lives there?”
“My family has roots there, too,” he says. “My grandmother grew up there. Her father was a big shot on a newspaper.”
“That’s quaint,” Ellen says, before returning to Ralf’s brother. “I thought you two didn’t get along. Now, he’s the one you run to?”
“I wouldn’t call it running, exactly.”
“I’m taking a trip,” Ralf says.
“Semantics,” Ellen says flatly. She gestures toward the backseat. “So you usually take trips with no more luggage than that disgusting gym bag of yours?”
“Actually, I wasn’t even planning on bringing that.”
Ellen pauses and looks at him. He stares straight ahead, as if he were driving the machine. These kinds of conversations, he thinks, would be a lot easier if he had driving to focus on.
“Let me tell you what I worry about,” she says.
He glances at her and nods.
“I’m worried that you want to go to Juárez to be at home with all of those wild people. I love you, Ralf, I really do. But that is the single-most … It’s the scariest place on earth, and if you want to live there, or even visit, we’ve got a big problem.”
“Don’t worry,” he says. “My destination’s El Paso, not Juárez.”
Ellen studies his profile and concludes, after a few seconds, that further questions will get her nowhere. So she sits back, and as the car hurtles west through Oklahoma, she tells him her side of the story.
Two days ago, Ellen says, she was working at home, creating herds of dinosaurs for a virtual safari site, when she got a message from her friend Robin. “She said they were rounding up every Artemis they could find. Tall ones, fat ones, every shape and flavor.”
“The government.” Then she stops for a moment, replaying the conversation. “Actually, she didn’t say that … but I assumed it was. I messaged you twenty-three times and couldn’t even leave a note.”
By messaging friends in her network, and friends of friends, Ellen learned that young men wearing green sweaters had arrested two Artemis women, or Artemi, at a lunch spot on Capitol Hill. Fifteen minutes later, they picked up one near Chinatown, and then one in Farragut Square. “I did the numbers and figured they were eighteen to twenty-three minutes from our house,” Ellen says. “So I got in the car.”
He asks her where she went.
“I didn’t know where to go, so I put it on a shuffle route in Georgetown,” she says. “Then Julie messaged me that she saw you on the 14th Street Bridge. She said you were walking and looked terrible.”
“Yeah, I love her, too,” Ralf says, ransacking his mind to come up with a face for Julie.
“She was worried for you.” Ellen goes on to say that she headed over to the HHS building on the Mall, figuring that Ralf would be there. When she arrived, he was bent over his bike, trying to wrench it free without the signal from his boost.
“So why do you think they were picking up Artemi?” Ralf asks.
“Call me naive, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the update, and that hole in your head,” she says.
He shrugs. “Then why do you think they didn’t stop us from leaving town?”
“Maybe I wasn’t the Artemis they were looking for.”
This leads the conversation straight to Suzy, a subject that they’ve agreed tacitly to avoid. Ralf dated another Artemis in grad school. This raises Ellen’s suspicion that he might be drawn to her largely for the beauty she shares with Suzy and a few thousand other women in the country, plus others in South America. No words from Ralf could put these doubts to rest.
“Why would they pick up all these people based on what they look like?” Ralf says. “Kind of primitive, wouldn’t you say? They have machines that can ID her boost in about two milliseconds.”
“Maybe her boost isn’t in her head.”
The idea, so simple, leaves Ralf stunned. He lowers his head and says nothing.
“What I don’t get,” Ellen goes on, “is why they rounded up all the normal Artemi and didn’t just focus on the one with no hair?” She considers it for a second, and then answers her own question. “I guess she could have bought a wig.”