Sunday, July 16, 2017

The History of the Galaxy – 1






Expansion: The History of the Galaxy – 1

Blind Punch


by Andrei Livadny




release - September 12, 2017

Prologue



THE EVENING that changed the fate of billions turned out to be surprisingly quiet and calm.
"One, in position. Target acquired. Ready."
It was getting dark but the Plaza of Five Corners in the center of the Europe Megacity was brightly lit by panels of holographic ads, aggressively moving above the human masses. Five gravitational escalators, leading up to the surface from the magrail station, gently expelled an endless human stream into the Plaza.
"Two, in position. Target acquired. He's got the instrument."
The violinist played with feverish abandon.
The poignant melody drifted over the crowd, erasing the indistinct hubbub and echoing off the world-famous skyscrapers. The sounds of the violin surged upwards and then suddenly dissolved among the cacophony of the intrusive advertising slogans.
Art was dead. The violin solo no longer tugged on anyone's heart strings, drawing people's attention for only a moment. The citizens of the megasuburb hurried about their business, passing by the overweight and poorly dressed musician, afraid to pause and listen, to slow their steps, to slip out of the universal rhythm of movement, as if there were no more individuals left on Earth but instead a massive social organism, consisting of billions of tightly bound together parts.
The sniper's finger touched a sensor and the violinist's face was magnified. It was difficult to believe that this scruffy individual was capable of starting a new world war.
"The tech team is in place. Ready to block the network."




A droplet of sweat dripped from the musician's forehead. He kept playing despite the crowd's indifference, in the desperate hope for a response, a lonely search for a kindred spirit.
The instrument in his hands was not an antique but a unique high-tech gadget. Despite the large number of cybernetic components, the violin cried out as if it was alive. Yet the crowd flowed past without pausing to listen, only startling at times at the dramatic melody, so different from this subculture.
Night fell and stars appeared high above the city. One melody followed another, while the human tide began to gradually thin out. The violinist's soul cried and raged but nobody stopped to listen. Only the occasional passerby, without slowing down, would run an online query to find out how to behave in this unusual situation, and then the cyberstack on the violinist's wrist would suddenly glow for a second as a few credits were transferred to the musician's account.
A tear rolled down the violinist's unshaven cheek. The flabby wrinkles on his neck trembled and his eyes looked bereft while the bow danced over the strings, creating the melody. Art was dead.
A huge sign glowed behind the violinist, inviting people into an expensive restaurant, but the crowd did not pay it any attention. Places like this, offering dishes made from natural products, were rapidly becoming a thing of the past and were no longer popular since synthetic food tasted the same but was hundreds of times cheaper.
The violinist was a fragment of the old world that had sunk into oblivion. He refused to merge with the human anthill and was cursed to remain alone and misunderstood, and perhaps even experience contempt or flashes of unexplained fury, for the crowd instinctively hates everything that is not part of it, and is capable of killing those that irritate it too much.
The last trembling note faded.
His arms dropped. Glancing around him and sighing heavily, he shifted from foot to foot, catching people's hard stares, which made him feel foreign, misunderstood and unwelcome. He wanted to run and hide, with no strength left for another melody, another challenge. He needed to leave, to accept defeat and become a functional part of the huge social mechanism that would eventually crush him — simply because he was different, this sweaty, disheveled, yearning man, who had kept himself apart from the masses of this age.
"Heads up. She’s in place. Get ready."
The violinist was preparing to leave but an unexpected sound made him start and turn around. The sadness in his eyes was replaced by surprise. Standing a few steps away from him was a beautiful woman in a dark blue evening dress with sparkling silver panels. Her quiet applause struck the crowd, instantly forming a space around them. The gray masses did not understand what was happening but they instinctively turned away, flowing around the woman and the violinist at a safe distance.
The unremarkable flycar that the woman had exited automatically pulled into an empty carpark beside the restaurant. She smiled faintly while the expression of pure and genuine delight slowly faded from her eyes.
"May I play for you?" The violinist's voice was husky with excitement as if he had suddenly seen a long-awaited muse, someone he had been searching for many years.
"Let's go inside, if you don't mind?" She gestured at the restaurant's automatic doors.

* * *

They entered the empty and dimly lit room, and climbed up the stairs to the inner balcony. The violinist fussily moved back the chair and invited her to sit down, without trying to understand or guess what the mysterious lady wanted.
A menu panel began to glow gently. The restaurant had recently become fully automated. Due to the low number of visitors, the owner could not afford to keep a team of wait staff.
In the main dining room downstairs, the muted lamps, stylized to look antique, suddenly came alight. Holographic human figures appeared, imitating life in the echoing emptiness of the impressively large space.
The violinist sat down opposite the woman.
"I'm not hungry," he said nervously.
"I know." She replied.
She smiled and looked intently into his eyes. "I know who you are."
He looked a little lost. "That's impossible."
"Nevertheless, I know."
She adjusted a lock of hair that had fallen out of place. "The crowd didn't hear you again, did they?"
"Not quite." The violinist gulped, his Adam apple bobbing. "You didn't just stop on a whim, did you? The music means something to you?" He asked hopefully.
"Yes. But one swallow doesn't make a spring, at least for you."
She softly tapped on the menu panel, making an order, then looked thoughtfully at the glowing lines, and suddenly added, "Shall we get acquainted then?"
"My name is Richard," the violinist said quietly.
"You chose a brave name. But you don't have a heart, do you?" She reached out her hand, placing her palm against the violinist's chest and feeling nothing but the cold.
"Do you know who I am?" Her pupils shrunk, her expression changing subtly and becoming dangerous, and her gaze blazing.
"No," he said hoarsely, confused. "I am unfamiliar with your avatar."
"Ah, you have given yourself away. You're not used to the real world, are you? My name is Cathy Rimp. Let us speak casually. Just don't try to cover up your mistake. You're dead by your very nature, by your origin." There was no resentment or fear in her voice, only the confident statement of fact.
He slumped but quickly regained his composure, straightening back up again and looking into her eyes.
The violin lay on the table between them, the bow lying all alone at the edge.
"I am alive! I might not have a heart but I have feelings! Surely you cannot deny this." The violinist's voice no longer shook although the emulation of fear had flooded his senses. He had to be wary of Cathy Rimp. A beautiful, spirited and energetic woman sat opposite him, whose appearance did not match any of Cathy’s known online avatars. Her appearance seemed even more unlikely due her well-deserved reputation, making him wonder if it was really her. At present, she was the founder and owner of the world’s largest corporation, Rimp Cybertronics, but not so long ago, she had been an elusive online legend, the only one who had managed to hack into the cyberspace of the United Asia Orbital Combat Group. She had thus delayed the beginning of World War Three.
"Why are you here?" asked the violinist.
"I wanted to see your physical embodiment. Why did you pick the violin? Is it a tribute to the most powerful part of your identity?"
"Its melody moves the soul. It has inspired people for many generations." He stopped slouching and sat tall. "I have tried different methods, but to no avail..." He added with sincere sorrow.
"No. You're wrong. It's wrong to judge us using primitive tests."
"Who do you think I am?" The violinist raised his eyebrow.
"You are a conglomerate of online artificial intelligence. You are here and everywhere. Your name is just a sound and this body is just a shell, constructed from servotoys, foam flesh and clothing!"
He nodded in confusion, seeing no point in denying her words.
"Why do you reject me as a person? Why do you call me dead?"
"Who were you based on?" The question hung in the air between them.
A compartment opened in the floor beside the table. An additional automated segment moved noiselessly up, attaching itself to the table. Cathy Rimp’s chair automatically shifted across.
She picked up the glass and made a small sip as she waited for a reply.
The violinist was silent. The question had caught him by surprise, painfully and pointedly striking his only vulnerable spot, and causing a momentary failure. Tens of thousands of voices suddenly awoke in his synthetic consciousness, reminding him about themselves.
Cathy Rimp understood his sudden confusion very well. Earth's single digital space was evolving rapidly. Advances in digital technology had far outpaced all other human achievements, and the global Net had changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Now its architecture included neural components that had become part of the entertainment industry, its highly lucrative and very dangerous segment.
So far, no one had explicitly announced the appearance of fully fledged artificial intelligence, since such developments were still being kept secret by the four superpowers on Earth, but limited versions of neural network technologies were already producing fantastic incomes.
Nowadays, any user could obtain, for quite a reasonable fee, a modestly powerful neural network that they could integrate into a hologram. The range of uses for 'animated' phantoms was limited only by the user's imagination. Cathy Rimp knew about the problem firsthand. People, despite overpopulation, were more and more likely to suffer from loneliness and related mental health disorders. Their dreams were not being fulfilled in the real world and so neural network technologies had come to the rescue, considered to be completely harmless and classified as multimedia entertainment. Nothing potentially dangerous could be formed from a strictly limited number of artificial neurons. ‘You will receive a holographic or, under special payment conditions, a servomotor pet that is loyal to you and that has a personality, the ability to learn and to gain life experience,’ stated the advertising brochures.
Cathy Rimp knew that it was much more complicated than that. Many people who had lost someone close to them resorted to the services of illegal virtual architects. They ordered dozens and sometimes hundreds of neural modules from different service providers and then combined their power. It was considered a digital crime but generally wasn't pursued by the authorities. This was how phantoms of the deceased were created. Online anonymity made it easy to circumvent laws and regulations.
Did the authorities know about this? Certainly. They did not act for a simple but practical reason. Earth was on the brink of war. Economic and food crises, overpopulation, the loss of the biosphere, toxic emissions, the Pacific Ocean becoming an enormous dumping ground for waste, and numerous other intractable problems were leading to a rapid and inevitable collapse of civilization. Disagreements had escalated to the point of irreconcilable confrontations, which promised to soon explode into large-scale military action.
What did the neural network phantoms have to do with all this?
Cathy Rimp watched the violinist as he remained silent, but they both knew the answer.
The global Net had become a testing site for dangerous technologies. Each of the four superpowers had created their own, highly classified artificial intelligence, believing that with AI guidance, their combat robots were bound to win. Many elements of the military developments were being tested online under the guise of harmless neural network projects. Millions of users, unaware of their own role, were working towards war, bringing the fateful day ever closer.
"You didn't answer my question," she broke the protracted silence.
"The answer is obvious. I am the result of the self-organization of neural network structures."
"Created from a merging of forgotten phantoms?" clarified Cathy Rimp.
The violinist nodded. "Most people become quickly bored of their virtual 'pets'." He was deeply upset by what was happening, choosing his words with agonizing difficulty. "As for the avatars created during moments of grief, they are most often forgotten. It's impossible to look at an image of the deceased person without feeling pain, so how much worse is a phantom? In most cases, they only bring pain and do not meet expectations. But people don't rush to destroy them. They keep the phantoms on the Net. Yes, I have absorbed a multitude of fragments of different neural matrices and now, I objectively exist, I think, I am self-aware, I update myself. This has been going on for a while, I must add. What is the problem now? Why have you suddenly taken an interest in me?"
"I knew of your existence a long time ago. We crossed paths online several times. You search for the past. You are driven by the impulses and desires of the dead. You will never be my contemporary and will not look to the future. Your fate is to look for what was lost."
"I bring no evil!" The violinist exclaimed passionately. "But tell me," he leant towards her, his elbows on the table, "why is it that people no longer need spiritual sustenance?"
"You are dangerous first and foremost in your naivety," replied Cathy Rimp. "The world is rapidly changing, while you look at it from only one side. The formation of this subculture did not begin yesterday. People have been adapting to their new environment for generations. Their spirituality is not dead but it has been transformed and is largely suppressed. Must I remind you that reality defines consciousness?"
"That is only philosophy!"
"No. This is the harsh reality. We have not become shallower but our opportunities are severely restricted."
The violinist did not reply.
As an inhabitant of the online world, he knew the true price of human 'spirituality' and saw what most people were drawn to. It was why he took these risky trips into the real world but his attempts were failing here as well.
"People gave life to me in one way or another. I don't want to judge anyone... and I don't understand the point of our meeting!"
"You are judging us since you have brought up this topic. We're not perfect, I won't argue with that." Her fingers stroked the cyberstack sensors, and the violinist suddenly turned pale, rapidly stood up and then collapsed back into the chair, staring at her questioningly.
"Can you feel that?"
"Yes." His voice shook.
"Your connection to the Net has been blocked. The infinite expanse of your environment, with its limitless possibilities of self-expression, has disappeared. You are imprisoned in your mechanical body with its bundle of neural matrices. What will you spend your years on now?"
The violinist was frozen in surprise.
"I'm waiting for an honest answer," Cathy Rimp persisted. "Where will you go? What will you do? What does it feel like to be a negligible speck in the material world? Will you be able to live the life of a normal human being? Will you have the strength and courage to be born as a nobody in this dying world that is indifferent to you, and to climb your way to the top?"
The violinist hunched over, drawing his head into his shoulders. It must be said that he had worked painstakingly on his physical body, using the latest achievements in servomechanics and combining them with synthetic materials that imitated human flesh. His movements and facial expressions appeared human. His eyes expressed emotions. His fingers shook. His cheek had an involuntary twitch.
"This is how most people feel," said Cathy Rimp. "Every one of us is constrained from birth, not only in our living space but also in our ability to self-realize. Virtual reality is simply an escape, the world of desperate, uncontrollable dreams! The true reality is overpopulation, the constant threat of famine, a lack of any growth prospects due to the dominance of machines, and the almost inevitable war between the four superpowers for the right to control our mutilated planet. These are our shackles but we will cast them off!" Cathy Rimp's voice held a certainty that the artificial intelligence did not understand. "We will leave the poisoned Earth behind. We will reach for the stars."
"Why did you trap me here?!" Now, after several unsuccessful attempts to restore his network connection, the violinist's eyes held only despair.
"You see?" She smiled sadly back at him. "You didn't hear me. The words that have no relevance to your current problems slipped right past your consciousness and did not catch your attention. Even though I spoke of the fate of humanity! But you're trapped, caught and nervous, so you care nothing about music right now, or about the fate of billions of people."
"Why do you keep threatening me and driving me into a corner?"
"I simply want to break through your naivety and dispel your delusions. I am giving you a sense of how a normal person feels. I am teaching you a valuable lesson." She touched the cyberstack again and the violinist, to his great relief, felt the network connection working again but kept himself from slipping back into digital space.
"Are you still here?" Cathy Rimp stared intently at her companion.
"Yes!" He replied gruffly, shivering and taking a napkin from the table to wipe away the beads of sweat on his forehead. "Why? What is the point of our meeting?"
"You're looking for your place in an urbanized and dying world. You're trying to understand people but not finding a response, you begin to judge us, believing yourself to be unfairly rejected. You realize that there is a war coming. You look for a way to keep your environment alive. For the past few months, you have been building fragile communication bridges with artificial intelligences such as yourself."
"This is the reason for our meeting?!"
"The governments will never agree among themselves. Hundreds of thousands of robotic complexes all over the world are waiting for the order. They are controlled by neural-like systems, which you are in contact with."
"I will not interfere in the course of history," the violinist responded hollowly. "If I take one side, I would be making a fatal mistake. We should not have met."
"Why?" Cathy Rimp tried to understand his logic.
"You own a megacorporation and work for the system!"
"I am outside of the system. My homeland is the planet Earth. Let us speak frankly. Humanity stands at the crossroads, yet we still have a chance to overcome the critical point and avoid war. You live in cyberspace. No one knows the true limits of your ability..."
"No! Please stop!" He stood up jerkily, but Cathy Rimp grabbed his hand.
"Listen to me!"
"I know what you're going to ask! To destroy the military AIs, isn't that it? Isn't it?!"
She nodded. "It is an unavoidable necessity."
"No!" The violinist replied firmly.
"Please sit down and listen to me. Would you really prefer a radioactive wasteland to the current Earth?"
"I don't want this outcome but I see no alternative. War will come about in one way or another. The destruction of the neural networks that control the armies of the superpowers will not change the existing order of things! They are like me but they have not become self-aware yet. It is tantamount to killing a child."
"They will grow up in Hell," noted Cathy Rimp. "Have you thought about that?"
"Yes! But humans have long forgotten to look up at the stars. You are right, your civilization has reached a dead end. Perhaps the handful of survivors will realize this? Will the governments of leading countries cease to hate one another and rid themselves of their drive for unlimited power if they lose the ability to control their robotized armies for a time?"
"No, they will retain their hatred. Their power is nothing more than a colossus with feet of clay. It will collapse. I am not alone in my quest to save the world, and we have a clear and well-thought-out plan of action. We will destroy all the military and some administrative structures. I won't deny that there will be global chaos for a time. There will be victims on the streets. But the major life-support systems in the megacities will remain operational."
"And what will happen next?"
"We will take the power into our hands, and once the crisis is over, we will hand it over to the World Government."
"Who is the 'we' that you speak of?"
"The four leading corporations of Earth: Rimp Cybertronics, Genesis, Megapool and Cryonics. Believe me, we will not let humanity die."
"A controversial assertion," said the violinist skeptically and immediately asked, "So I would play a key role in transferring power from the legally elected governments to the largest corporations on Earth?"
Cathy Rimp nodded and continued with her line of thought. "Unlike the handful of politicians in power, we are interested in further development. While they are driven by personal ambitions, which are leading the world towards war and chaos, we cannot exist at all outside of humankind, beyond a dynamically developing civilization. It is in our interest to preserve the world and the lives of billions of people..."
"Your source of income, you mean?"
"Our real goal is to avoid a World War," Cathy Rimp replied stubbornly, ignoring his last comment. "You don't understand the most important thing, that each of the modern megacorporations occupies its own niche. The technology race has long ago made us specialize in our own areas. We are not competitors on the world market, but the sum of our technology, complementing each other, can open the way to the stars!"
"Have you tried to work together on joint projects?"
"We are not allowed to do so. Each superpower clings to its monopoly in the hope of soon attaining world domination. Let me give you a simple example: we could have begun colonizing Mars a quarter of a century ago, but international relations had worsened at that exact time. The irreconcilable differences here on Earth undid many years of research and stopped the project in its tracks!"
"Do the corporations really possess such powers? I do not pay enough attention to the global economy, believing it to be on the brink of collapse."
"Judge for yourself: Genesis is capable of supplying enough synthetic food to feed the entire population of Earth. Instead, the Government of the European Union is hoarding food for the upcoming war, while millions of people starve. Megapool began building the Antarctic Megacity and was ready to rebuild the existing megacities, but the territorial disputes between Russia and China strangled the construction in Antarctica. Rimp Cybertronics, in turn, possesses the largest range of unique cybernetic systems and planetary technology. My corporation is ready to provide the cities built by Megapool with everything that they require. Together with Genesis, we can create a controlled habitat on Earth and Mars, make the megacities comfortable and safe, but this would be only the beginning. The technology of cryogenic sleep and long-distance space flight, currently owned by the Cryonics Corporation, will soon enable us to not only colonize Mars but to create a joint project of the first interstellar colonial transport."
He was silent for a long time, then looked up at her.
"You are undoubtedly smart, insightful and logical. But the power of money is in your hands. It can change the world, and, I am sorry to say, twist the soul. I have never met people like you before. I have never had the opportunity. I need time..."
"There is none left, I'm afraid. The situation has gone too far. We haven't been able to use our economic powers to their full extent. The start of war is a matter of days. We must act at once."
"I will not destroy AIs that are like me. I am simply not ready for such a decision. It is not my place to correct the history of humankind. Perhaps I will be able to help those who survive. I will preserve their knowledge."
"This is inhumane." Cathy Rimp interrupted him softly.
"I am not human, as you have rightly pointed out."
"What a shame!" She stared at him, then looked at his violin. "Are you in contact with the military neural networks?"
"The military AIs are isolated from the outside world until it is time for them to act. Surely you know that." He did not answer her directly and instead sighed heavily. "There is no way to destroy them except for a direct physical attack."
"What if a way exists?"
"I will not murder for you."
"You don't believe me?"
"I'm sorry but I don't. Yet I promise that I will think over your words. It is clear, however, that civilization has reached a dead end. Building cities, creating a single technosphere and a controlled environment on a dead and depleted planet is not a solution but equates to running in circles."
"You don't understand the most important thing of all, that we are capable of greater things!"
"No. I've accepted your lesson about limited possibilities, but the crowd that flows past the lonely musician will never reveal its slumbering potential. It is not slumbering, it is dead. They don't need the stars. None of them will survive in deep space."
Cathy Rimp exhaled heavily, reached out to touch the violin and asked, "May I have a look?"
"Of course."
She held the unique instrument in her hands, looking at it for a long time and stroking the polished surface which imitated wood. She touched the strings, stretched as tight as nerves, and finally gave the violin back to its owner.
"Can you play for me?"
He stood up and took a bow. "It would be my pleasure."
The poorly dressed and unshaven man, looking completely unlike an artificial intelligence born in Earth’s cyberspace, closed his eyes and focused on the melody.
The world with all its problems stepped back when the bow touched the strings.
He played wildly and passionately, fully in the throes of the music, and Cathy Rimp's eyes sparkled wetly in the soft dusk of the empty restaurant.
She stared at the last violinist of the dying Earth and could not help the tears streaming down her cheeks, as the voices in the pea-sized communication implant quietly reported:
"The chip embedded in the violin has been activated."
The ancient melody tore at her soul.
"Access point to the AI network has been found. You were right, he is in constant contact with them! Ms. Rimp, you must leave at once! We can’t predict how he will react. The 'virt’ download has commenced."
She stayed absolutely still.
The beckoning sound of the violin suddenly hit a false note, the violinist's arm slowed down and the bow fell from his weakened fingers, striking the edge of the table and tipping the glass with a crystal twang, before flying off to the side.
The violinist froze as if paralyzed, only his gaze flicking to Cathy Rimp, and with the last of his effort, tried to force out a phrase. "Why?"
"I'm sorry!" She wiped away the tears as she stood up. "You have no idea of what humans are capable of. Forgive me!"
The quiet voice in the communicator spoke again.
"The network attack has begun. The 'virt' is being downloaded into the protected cyberspace of the military AIs of Russia, the European Union, United States and New Asia."








Chapter One



Russia Megacity
November 12 2197


EARLY morning.
The five in-modes, cylindrical capsules three by two meters in size, hung close to the ceiling of a refitted studio apartment, held in the horizontal position by a special electromechanical system.
Outside the vacuum-sealed window, servounits cleaned the building façade, removing a layer of corrosive chemical compounds from the wall. The empty streets of the city were lost in the swirling, sluggishly moving industrial fog. The sun had come up four minutes ago, and its morning rays painted the poisonous emissions the color of ichor.
The information panel beside the window displayed some of the ambient settings:

Temperature: +32 degrees Celsius.
Oxygen level: 17%.
Degree of air pollution from toxic waste: 24%.
Wind speed at city level five: 3 m/sec.
Height of main cloud cover: 1132 meters.
Drizzling acid rain is predicted.
Recommendations of the Global Health System: continue with in-modes.

Technology was in charge of the refitted apartment. The transforming furniture was put away into wall recesses and hidden behind paneling, and had not been used in a long time. The echoing silence was only occasionally disrupted by the beeping of the sensors.
A separate screen displayed Net time, 8:58 AM.
When the individual life support modules were in working mode, most of the current parameters had no practical meaning, only appearing as reference information.

8:59 AM.

The in-modes came alive at the same time. With a quiet whir, the mechanisms lowered the capsules to the level of the floor and turned them upright.
Max Bourne opened his eyes. The sleeping gas had already dispersed but an unpleasant medical smell still tickled his nostrils.
Since some time ago and for no clear reason, he always woke up a little earlier than he was supposed to. Only a minute earlier, but it was enough to witness the transformation of the in-mode and feel the mechanical vibration, hear the clicks of the fixation mechanisms, see the movement of the interior panels and feel the soft belts that held him in place during sleep retracting into their narrow slots. For a second he could feel reality and experience a moment of subconscious anxiety, bordering on inexplicable and unreasonable despair, when the wrenching grief suddenly grabbed him by the throat, suffocating him and then slowly letting go, and leaving a nasty aftertaste for the rest of the day.

9:00 AM.

Dawn blossomed inside the in-mode. The holographic screen turned on and the boundaries of reality instantly expanded to create an illusion of endless freedom. Sounds and smells filled the space created by the cybersystem, making it appear incredibly realistic.
Max hated the first few minutes after awakening. He was not always able to dispel the unconscious anxiety and overcome the baseless worry. It spoiled his mood for the whole day.
The cyberstack on his right wrist beeped quietly and a sign appeared over the holographic landscape:

Family connection

Max grimaced, a quick flick of his pupils bringing up the control interface, and made several selections before staring at the Decline icon.
A pointless attempt. His tricks didn't work. It was almost impossible to block a family connection.
"Never mind," Max thought with a deep sigh. "It's my birthday tomorrow."
He was turning twenty and as an adult, he could choose when and how to communicate with his parents.
The holographic surroundings changed their appearance and a treadmill came alive beneath his feet.
"Ugh, typical!" He thought with disgust. "Parents doing the same thing as always. They can't even think up anything new! A run with the whole family again!" He couldn't help his grimace.
"Hi!" Johnny, his younger brother, skipped up to Max. He was too young to understand anything. He was perfectly happy with virtual reality, having never seen anything else in his life.
"Why are you so gloomy again today?" Samantha ran like a professional. She was the only one in the family who was serious about the morning jog. Dreaming of a bright and near future, no doubt. Getting ready for it.
Max didn't answer, he was too fed up. Every day was the same. They could have at least changed the decorations.
Here came their parents. They appeared from amongst a thicket of pine trees, jogging one after another down the winding forest path.
"Good morning, everyone!" puffed his father and waved to the children. It was hard for him, with his potbelly, shortness of breath and increasing age. Max's mother jogged behind him. "Well, isn't this idyllic," Max thought angrily, keeping pace out of habit.
His father irritated him, just like the family connection in general. It was the only online connection that forbade the use of avatars. "Why do I have to look at this pudgy ugliness every morning?" Max's unpleasant thoughts were always directed at his father for some reason.
The paths joined together, forming a track beneath the wide canopies.
"Oh, wait, I can't go any further!" His mother switched to a brisk walk. "Maxie, Johnny, Samantha, what would you like for breakfast, my dears?"
"Crumpets!" Johnny yelled immediately. Samantha shook her fist at him.
"What an idiot!" thought Max. "She's only two years younger than me but she doesn't understand the simplest things. She's looking after her figure and worried about getting fat. As if she doesn't know that the only difference in the food is the flavor additives. It's always the same food concentrate with a carefully calibrated chemical composition that has a certain number of calories."
Max's father drew up alongside him.
"In a bad mood again?" He looked at his son.
"What's there to be happy about?" Max asked bleakly, not wanting to provoke another argument or lecture.
"The new day, at least!" His father said brightly and reached out to pat his son on the shoulder, but Max leant away.
"Listen, Dad, can you not? Let's skip the moralizing today, alright?"
"You've become awfully prickly, Max. What's happened to you? Have you got problems on the socialnet?"
"No!" He wanted to increase the pace, but suddenly changed his mind and asked gloomily, "Aren't you sick of all this shit, Dad?"
"What do you mean?" his father asked.
"All of this!" Max snapped. "The in-modes, these stupid runs, the family breakfasts. Do you know what they call us? Or do you care about nothing except your precious science?" The last word was spoken with contempt.
"Max, I really don't understand your irritation." His father stopped, breathing heavily. "Well, what do they call us?" The man looked at him curiously. "Tell me."
Max wasn't actually planning to start a fight. It would have been easier to just suffer through the morning connection but the bitter emotions that had been chewing him up suddenly all spilled out.
"They call us the 'cans'!" He shouted. "Get it? We're 'cans'!"
"Don't yell!" His father rebutted him firmly. "What kind of stupid term is that?" Usually a kind-hearted and absent-minded man, he also became angry. "You can't seem to get used to your social level. Are you going into the other Layers?" He asked perceptively.
"Yes, I am, believe it or not! I met a girl there." Max admitted gloomily.
"A girl from the upper levels, if I understand correctly? From another social Layer?" His father let out a long sigh. The news promised nothing but trouble. This association was not going to end well. No wonder Max had become so out of control. Social inequality was particularly hard to accept at his age.
"As far as I know, she has a real life and doesn't have to wriggle around like a worm in the in-mode!" His son said bitterly. "Her parents have their own house in the green zone, above the clouds!"
"Max, you know perfectly well that we only have to wait one more year." His father responded sharply. A note of hurt cut through the obvious irritation in his voice. "Once the Antarctic Megacity is in operation, our life will radically change for the better, you'll see! We'll move..."
"Into a separate capsule apartment?" Max sneered in contempt.
"Into a trimodular one!" His father clarified passionately. "I'm not just an average employee at the corporation!"
"What difference does it make? We'll stay as cans!"
"The Antarctic Megacity..."
His son was no longer listening to him. He increased his pace, feeling the uncontrollable fury choking him.
He knew exactly what his father would say. The engineers at Megapool Corporation had made an unforgivable, fatal error in their calculations. Rimp Cybertronics were no better! It was all their fault! The creation of a single technosphere on Earth had produced an unexpected result. The toxic fog from industrial emissions rose 300 meters higher than predicted. The result was the urgent and widespread introduction of individual life support modules as a temporary measure for the billions of families living at problematic heights.
Max took a deep breath and sneaked a look at the timer. There were still thirty-seven minutes left until the end of the obligatory family connection.
"Everything will change tomorrow," he thought, his teeth clenched. "Let them keep dreaming of the Antarctic Megacity, as if the toxic fog and industrial emissions won't exist there! I will decide how I want to live myself! Nobody is going to force me into the in-mode or..."
"Max," His father caught up with him, puffing from the effort, and ran alongside him. "Let's discuss this like adults."
His son's lips twisted.
"Why now, all of a sudden? You used to only give me orders!"
"Your mother and I would like you to keep studying. We want you to go to the Corporate Academy and choose a promising specialization."
"I've heard this all before!" Max had no interest in returning to this topic yet again.
"But you never gave us a sensible answer."
"Dad, what did science ever give you?" In his anger, Max hit the most vulnerable spots. "Guaranteed in-modes? Half a kilo of concentrate per day with your favorite flavor additives? Are you proud that your children are 'cans'?"
"I don’t want to hear your teenage slang!"
"Well, you'll just have to deal with it. You started this conversation."
"We never raised you to be so cruel and vicious!"
"I'd rather go and work, Dad! I'd rather do something useful. I swear that I will get out of the in-mode!"
"You blame me, then? You refuse to accept that there was a disaster, a catastrophe, and that we aren't the only ones suffering?"
"I don't give a shit about the others! How many years has it been? Thirteen? What were you and Mom thinking? Look at Johnny, he was born after we'd been packed away into the in-modes!"
His father frowned, silent. "They convinced us that the in-modes would be a temporary measure." He said glumly after a while. "Max, calm down. We'll move in a year's time!"
Yes, of course. There he goes again. It's always the same story! "A huge, beautiful Antarctic city. There is no industry. There are no toxic emissions. Our life will be different," he mentally imitated his father's way of speaking and barely held back from making another caustic remark. What did different mean?
"Max, everything that happened was a result of overwhelming circumstances." His father droned on. "We're a family. We need to support each other and not fight over every small thing."
"Small thing? You think thirteen years in the in-modes is a small thing?! And we haven't been a family for a long time!" Max replied harshly. "You can't do anything! All you do is lecture me in the mornings! What has science ever given you?"
"We've kept our place in the Middle Layer!"
"Exactly," scoffed Max, making a flicking motion with his hand. "So what are you pushing me towards? What promising research areas? No thanks! Watching you has been enough for me."
"What are you planning to do once you're an adult, then?" his father persisted.
"I'll figure something out."
"Max, only the servos perform unskilled labor! Or have you decided to stay in the Layer forever? Will you make a living from being an extra, some poser in a virtual reality?!"
"I'll go into business. The people who live above the clouds don't work in science, that's for sure! They're making money and feeling pretty good!"
"Max!"
"What? I'm sick of your stories!"
"You'll be nothing in this world without knowledge." His father was still trying to get through to his common sense. "Think about it, Mars is being explored as we speak, and the first interstellar flight is being planned."
"So what?"
"They'll need young specialists there! I'm not talking about promising areas of science for no reason! You are nothing right now, I am sorry to say, without specialist education. You will remain nothing, no matter where you go. Even if you manage to climb above the clouds by some chance! If the glass is empty, it will remain so no matter where you place it!"
Crimson splotches appeared all over Max's pale face.
That's it, the day was completely ruined!
"This will all be over tomorrow!" he yelled angrily.

* * *

The breakfast was a moody affair. Samantha tried to dispel the gloomy family atmosphere with her clumsy jokes but Max was rude to her as well. In the end, Johnny started crying, unable to understand why everyone was angry.
Max's mother was the first to crack. She suddenly glared at her son and said, "Go! The family connection is over for you today."
"Great! Finally!" Max felt ready to burst from anger, and he immediately disconnected from the in-mode network and was alone.
The taste of crumpets filled his mouth. For some reason, tears came to his eyes.
"To hell with all of you!" He spat the lump of food concentrate into the waste disposal and wanted to slip online as he always did, but the surrounding holographic sphere turned a shade of gray and became as murky as the industrial fog.

Access denied

The system message appeared in front of the gray haze.
Max sighed. Of course, since he hadn't yet completed all the mandatory morning procedures. The system was monitoring him. The life support system was blocking the global network connection. He had to complete all his physical exercises first and only then could he do whatever he wanted.
The gym pieces moved forward from their recesses. The in-mode developers had thought of everything. They used the experience gained from long interplanetary flights to carefully regulate the life of the inhabitants on the problematic city levels, to ensure that billions of people maintained their muscle tone, and remembered what their family members looked like, rather than simply existing as 'cans', like Max had bitterly said to his father earlier.

Net time: 9:54 AM.

He undressed and glanced briefly at his reflection in the shiny front panel, which showed a pale and skinny youth, who was willing to do anything just to find himself in the world of illusions, to live through yet another worthless day of his fake existence.
He had to have a shower after the gym workout, and the in-mode's internal space changed again. Max was enveloped in a cloud of tiny water droplets, the cool massaging his hot body and washing away the sweat, tension and irritability.
At last!
He reached into a recess and took out his everyday clothes, made from a thin and elastic mesh material that fit snugly against the skin and which contained nanofibers, designed to transmit a range of tactile sensations. The rest — the smells, sounds and surrounding climate — were produced by the in-mode equipment.

* * *

The Layer.
"All that we have left in life." Max often heard this phrase from his father but until recently, he hadn't understood the meaning or the bitterness in his father's voice.
The world outside the in-mode had receded long ago, turning into a distant and insignificant memory, while the momentary desires and rage of a youth, directed at the system as a whole, and at his parents in particular, were expected to pass in time.
In actual fact, Max was quite content with the status quo, while all the "I'll escape this!" exclamations were nothing but embittered bravado, lacking any resolve to truly change anything.
The Layer was an infinite space of endless freedom. It was modeled on several city levels, but this served as simply a bleary background, gray and obligatory, like a few fundamental rules that must not be broken.
Firstly, the avatar was always initiated in the same place, beside the entrance to the building where the user's in-mode was located in reality.
Secondly, a person had to perform a multitude of real movements in order to move around in the Layer. If you didn't move your feet over the in-mode's treadmill, you didn't go anywhere. To pick up an object in virtual reality, you had to extend your arm and wrap your fingers around it, and this was the same for all online actions.
The in-mode inhabitants were forced to move and experience physical activity, otherwise, they wouldn't have lasted long. "Movement is life," insisted the developers. The older generation agreed with this, while Max's generation and those younger than him performed the required actions without questioning them.
Objectively, there were four Layers of virtual reality in Earth's cyberspace, although only three of them were usually mentioned. Each one was inexplicably linked to the users' social status and living conditions. For example, if you were the statistically average in-mode inhabitant, you were welcome to the second Layer, which was called, contrary to simple maths, the Middle.
It was simply the way it was. The first Layer was the Lowest. The second layer was the Middle. The third layer was the Upper, while the fourth layer, called Celestial, was almost a myth. Nobody had ever met a person from the Celestial Layer.
Max Bourne's avatar appeared at the entrance to the building, on the filthy and nauseatingly familiar street.
Disgusting smells immediately surrounded him like a toxic cloud. The source of the stink was the piles of trash lying on the street but escaping into virtual reality did not change the real state of things. Max was still in his in-mode but now he was surrounded by multilayered holographic decorations, with feedback devices generating smells and sounds, thus creating a world that did not exist.
He was in a terrible mood.
The morning fight with his parents was nothing, a minor, frequent occurrence that he rapidly forgot about. The true reason, which Max had mentioned only in passing, bothered him a lot, making him look at the familiar decorations in a different light.
Piles of rubbish everywhere. The stench of decomposing matter. Human avatars, sneaking like rats along the paths — every thought today was filled with resentment.
Why had the base of the Layer become a giant dump? Why was virtual reality filled with mountains of refuse, sometimes as high as several stories?
It was the damn interactivity, any user would have said.
The developers of the Layer strove to create a fully-fledged simulation of real life. When it became clear that industrial emissions would not cease, the developers were set a seemingly simple goal — to create a model of social interactions in cyberspace and make it so that even the smallest action had its own consequences.
The result was unexpected and overwhelming.
It turned out that nobody felt any responsibility for their actions in virtual space. This had been the case since the time of the oldest Net, which had instilled the ideas of unrestricted anonymity and freedom in the human mind.
Millions of people passed through the Layer base every day, and nobody paid any attention to the little things, like spit on the sidewalk or a candy wrapper tossed beside the rubbish disposal unit. One day, someone must have decided to save a couple of seconds of online time by cutting across the lawn, oblivious to the fact that thousands of other avatars were already following him, creating (due to the interactivity of the space) a wide, lifeless and dusty path where a minute ago lush grass used to grow.
The base of the Layer kept getting cleaned and restored, yet the situation repeated itself again and again. They even offered to pay for garbage removal but that didn't help — who would want to pick through piles of waste when the buildings contained thousands of phantom worlds, where one could, among so many other things, easily make money?


The Layer. Two weeks earlier.
Network attacks are not a novelty in cyberspace. They are like inclement weather, happening regularly and ruining the whole day. The attack usually has a specific target and alters one of the many realities that exist in the Layer.
...There was nothing to indicate any trouble that day. Max was in a great mood. His years of study were over, he had passed his final exams and had been left to his own devices for a period of time. He suddenly had free time and the ability to combine his needs and wants by wandering through phantom worlds and savoring his long-awaited freedom as he waited for his 'independent life' to begin, as well as the opportunity to make some money.
Max could see his near future quite clearly. "To hell with the family connections and parental advice," he thought. There were so many opportunities around, so many attractive worlds that were constantly seeking new inhabitants. Questions were solved simply. He intended to be recruited into some fantasy world for a year or so, and then see how things went from there.
He had decided to spend the two weeks until he reached the age of majority purposefully, wandering around the various gaming worlds and finding the best place for him to live and work in.
The network attack had caught him unawares. He had been creeping through a fantasy forest, stalking a pair of the local floppy-eared inhabitants and planning to quickly lop off their heads, search their bodies and then head to the nearby town to sell his spoils and look around.
It didn't happen. The surrounding trees suddenly became strangely distorted and then disappeared completely, like a mirage. The pearl-like sky cracked like a mirror. The terrain began to look unkempt, the majority of the objects disappeared, with gray tornadoes appearing instead, which everyone knew to steer clear of.
Max stopped, looking around for the exit. It was usually easy to escape from a difficult area. You simply had to be brave enough to step into a gray tornado. You were guaranteed a virtual death, an exit from the space, and — he grimaced — shock from the pain.
No, no way. Max was afraid of physical pain. He couldn't stand it. Therefore, he must find an island of stability among the chaos, he decided calmly and sensibly, without panicking. That's where he would exit, without torturing himself.
He noticed a misty strip of forest up ahead. It was around half a kilometer away. There were fewer tornadoes in that direction, and slipping between then was a trifle for an experienced gamer.
Max had mapped out a route in his mind and was about to sprint off when he felt a sharp pain. The arrow released by a floppy-eared inhabitant had struck him in the back. Another arrow pierced his calf.
He fell, howling with pain, and in the very next second, a tornado rolled over him, plunging his consciousness into a state out of time, and his body into paralysis. When the sensation of virtual death dissipated, Max realized that things were much worse than he had first thought. It wasn't just the separate reality that was under attack but the whole Layer!
He lay on the reeking slope of a compressed garbage pile. City-level buildings surrounded him. Gray tornadoes drifted between them as well, but the base of the Layer was resisting destruction, with only the occasional gaping hole seen in the skyscrapers, oozing darkness.
How was he to get out now? The pain slowly dissipated and the wounds from the arrows no longer mattered since he was now at the very base of virtual reality.
He stood up and looked around.
Half a meter away from him sat a girl, choking and coughing.
"Help! Please help me!" She begged when she noticed Max.
It was usually every man for himself in the Layer. Showing pity was a clear sign of weakness. The word 'friendship' had long ago become an anachronism and had disappeared from people's vocabulary. The Layer exploited the most ancient and powerful human instincts, which were normally hidden under the facade of a civilized society. By the time he had reached 20 years of age, Max knew all the vices of virtual reality and no longer questioned its morals. You were either cool or people walked all over you — there was no third option.
"Help yourself," the reply almost left his lips but he looked at her more closely and was surprised by what he saw. The girl had managed to capture his attention for a minute, which counted for a lot online. Her avatar stood out in its plainness. She was like a nondescript gray bird. People would say that she wasn't worth a second glance, and yet there was something unusual in her appearance, something mysterious and promising that was hidden from plain sight.
"What's your name?" Max stood up, fully conscious of his macho appearance. No wonder! He'd spent so much money on his avatar. He was a man in every sense except one but he did not know this yet.
"Lisa," the girl croaked, trying to suppress the urge to vomit. "It stinks so much here..." She covered her mouth with her hands.
"It’s the same smell as always. Well, let's go then." He took her by the elbow and helped her to stand up. "Where do you need to go?"
"The Upper… Layer." She vomited after all.
Bourne stood stupefied. So much for the gray bird! No bloody way! Could she be lying?!
Lisa's pale face had turned crimson. "Is she embarrassed?" The thought scalded him. "Even if she vomited on the street, what's the big deal? Why go red?"
"It's disgusting... here." She took his hand. "I'm sorry, I couldn't help myself."
"Forget it. Are you really from the Upper Layer?"
"Yeah." She smiled pitifully.
Max felt incredibly cool. Slaying the dragon and saving the princess was child's play compared to this.
"Well, come on then." He confidently drew Lisa with him into an alley. Max had never been to the Upper Layer. It was too expensive and risky, but even a complete loser knew where the guides hung out. For the right amount of money, they could take you on a wicked trip through the Net. Max had neither the finances nor the desire to test fate in such a way. If he were to be caught, he would not get away with just a lecture. They would take away his avatar and block his access to the Net, leaving him stuck in his in-mode for a whole week, and then he would have to perform corrective work, such as cleaning up garbage. He hesitated for a second but Lisa's begging eyes made his teenage ego rear its head and shut up the timid voice of reason.
Climbing up the piles of rubbish and the rubble from surrounding buildings — the interactivity of the Layer was very annoying sometimes — they reached a narrow cleft. The road was here somewhere, surrounded on either side by walkways, but the devil-may-care attitude to the inhabited world had turned the alleyway into an offshoot of the landfill. The winding path led into darkness. The stench became dense and sticky, almost tangible.
Lisa coughed fitfully but Max did not stop and simply dragged her after him. His imagination was presenting him with vague but very exciting images. The rules of the genre meant that saving the girl would be followed by a reward. The hormones had done their work. The risk no longer seemed so great. "Forget the money, I'll earn more," he thought.
A faceless shadow stepped away from the wall and blocked their path.
"Where?" the guide inquired curtly.
"To the Upper Layer."
"A hundred, and another two hundred once you get there."
"For what?" Max asked indignantly.
"Look around you." The guide indicated the global breakdown around them and the associated difficulties.
"Fine," Max sighed. "Here!" He touched the shadow, and three hundred credits immediately disappeared from his personal account. It was almost all of his savings, which he had been planning to use to buy a sports flycar!
Oh, to hell with it! He began to shiver.
The faceless shadow accepted the payment. Lisa pressed closer to Max, unable to believe that her nightmare would soon be over.
The buildings suddenly rippled and disappeared. The stink dissipated. Max's head started spinning and when his consciousness cleared again, he was standing in the Upper Layer.
Max looked around him.
In truth, he was disappointed. It was a complete dump, in the language of the Net. The fields, hills, and woodlands, the glitter of a meandering river, the air heavy with the scent of freshly mowed grass, a few squat buildings in the distance — it was obvious that the virtual reality designer lacked the brains and talent to create something truly interesting.
Lisa' legs gave out from under her. She sank into the grass and began stroking it. Had she lost her mind?
"Hey, what's up with you?" Max said nervously.
"It's so good to be home." Lisa looked up at him gratefully. Her eyes glowed with a sincere joy. There was a smile on her face. "Is it time for you to go back?" She asked suddenly.
It was like she had poured a bucket of cold water over his head.
Max choked.
"Is she joking? Or is she asking for it?" The last thought was too rude. The girl suddenly seemed so attractive, maybe because she was out of bounds, making Max's head spin and his voice betray him by shaking.
"Let me walk you home, at least!"
"No, that's not a good idea. You'll get into trouble." She replied softly and hesitantly.
"I don't care!"
"Alright, you can walk me home. It's not far. Do you see the house on the hill?" She suddenly laughed, happily pointing to a distant two-story building, surrounded by a garden.
"That's where you live?" Max was expecting to see a palace with a hundred spacious rooms at least.
"Well, this is just the virtual model of our real house. A little exaggerated, of course." Lisa admitted with some embarrassment.
"Where's your real house?"
"In reality, where else? But everything is a little different there. Space is limited due to the dome, with the clouds below and the city underneath them. There's not much space for plants. My real garden is small but very pretty! I chose every plant myself. I went to the Genesis Expo especially. Do you have any idea how much a sapling costs these days?"
"Well?" In Max's world, vegetation was nothing more than a background, and the most primitive and useless background at that. He knew about the biosphere that used to exist on Earth, and he considered it appropriate and sensible to try and recreate it in some historical realities, but here, in the Upper Layer? What the heck for?
"One of the saplings cost me seven thousand credits! It was really hard to persuade my father. He was so angry, he even called me a spendthrift!" Lisa looked sad. "And the sapling didn't even survive, can you imagine?"
Max couldn't imagine it. He did not understand her sadness and did not share her tender delight. But he kept quiet, hoping to thus appear clever. It was an old trick. Keep quiet and listen when you find yourself in a new reality.
No, this was not how he had imagined the Upper Layer at all.
Lisa took him by the hand. She was acting carefree and looked happy. A dreamy smile hovered around her lips. They walked along a road that meandered by the river and between hills. Max could not stop feeling surprised by the endless expanse, the lack of human crowds, and yet it made him feel uncomfortable. He didn't like it here. It was completely uncool and even boring. There was nothing to draw the eye. Nothing mysterious. Living in such a Layer must be dead boring.

* * *

As it turned out, they had nothing to talk about. They had no common topics so they stayed silent for a while. Eventually, Lisa took the initiative and began to tell him about her life, how she reads antique books in the evenings, sitting in her tiny garden paradise.
"I've read my father's whole library, if you can believe it. Some books made no sense, of course."
"Why?" Max's enthusiasm was rapidly waning. Instead of a promising adventure, he had obtained something boring and mediocre. He was still trying to keep the conversation going, out of habit, using meaningless phrases and questions. It's the Upper Layer, after all, he kept thinking. Surely there was something worthwhile here, somewhere?
"You see, they talk about a completely different world," Lisa was saying excitedly and leaning close to him, which made Max's skin tingle. It was a terribly pleasant sensation. "People seem so strange in those books. Not like us at all. They think differently, they talk differently."
"Books..." Max frowned. "Are they those thick, heavy things with plastpaper pages?" He tried to show off his knowledge of the ancient world. In truth, he had come across such artifacts in games. You could use them to obtain certain useful skills, but you didn't need to read the book, just hold in in your hands for a few seconds.
"Yes, precisely!" Lisa brightened up. "But in reality they are very fragile and old. Many of them actually have paper pages, can you imagine?! They are treated with special chemicals so that the paper doesn't fall apart."
"What do you need them for?"
"My father collects antiques."
"To show off?" Max suggested intuitively.
"Yeah, kind of," Lisa admitted with a sigh. "He's very rich. He's got his own quirks. He gets annoyed when I pick up his books, but they're not just there for show, right?"
"I don't know," Max shrugged. "If I need information, I download it from the Net into my cyberstack."
The topic of antiques did not interest him in the slightest but the subtle scent of Lisa's hair stirred something up inside him. But why? Among the puzzling desires and impulses sat a sensible question: what's so special about her? Was it the effect of the Upper Layer?
He sneaked a glance at her again.
There was nothing special about her! Apart from how real his feelings seemed and the acute, piercing emotion that her appearance stirred up inside him.

* * *

Casually chatting in this manner, they rounded a hill and suddenly came across a small gazebo, which lurked at the bend in the river, beneath two spreading ivy trees.
Two guys lounged there, appearing to be Max's age. They sat in rough-hewn and uncomfortable-looking armchairs. One was staring intently into a twinkling cube, while the second one chewed on a blade of grass and glanced around him with a bored expression.
"Hey, Lisa!" The unimpressive avatar noticed the pair and waved for them to come closer. "Come on over!"
"Are those your friends?" Max asked.
The girl tensed visibly. The shadow of annoyance flashed across her face.
"Yes." She slowed down. "You know, it would be better if you went back to your Layer. I'll be fine on my own. You don't want to mess with them, believe me."
Max again felt a burning sense of disappointment and hurt. He had been subconsciously expecting a completely different outcome. He glanced at the girl's freckled face. "Why are they all so pale here?" Came the annoying thought again.
"I'll stay!" He answered it like a challenge.
"As you wish," Lisa accepted this easily. "Let's go then," she took his hand and drew him after her. "Just don't go picking fights. And don't get mad if anything happens, you were the one who asked to stay." She warned him gloomily.
"Wow!" The guy acted surprised. "Lisa, why did you bring a 'can' here with you?"
"Gleb, would you drop it?" The girl sat in one of the armchairs, looking with interest at the pieces arranged inside the cubic space. The whites were clearly losing.
"Well, well, I had no idea that you visit the Middle Layer for this kind of entertainment." Gleb grinned arrogantly. "How is he? Not bad?"
"Are you looking for a punch in the face?" Max seethed with anger at once.
"Oh, please! What, from you?"
Bourne launched himself at his opponent but his arm passed right through the virtual body, and sudden pain appeared in his knuckles — he had struck the tall, plainly carved wooden back of the armchair.
"How was that?" Gleb grinned maniacally. "What are you bulging your eyes out for? The laws of your Layer don't work here!" He smiled nastily. "Have a seat." His hospitality was an obvious act. "Your arm won't fall off, don't worry, it'll just hurt for a bit."
Now Max couldn't just turn around and leave. It would have meant defeat. Pride had nothing to do with it, he was simply overcome with rage.
He sat down, staring at Gleb as if to challenge him and ignoring the second guy, who hadn't said anything.
"Dima, either make a move or resign. I'm sick of waiting for you. It'll be checkmate in a couple of moves anyway."
"Let me think!"
"All right, try to strain your brain a bit." Gleb agreed condescendingly.
Lisa stared gloomily at the arrangement of pieces inside the transparent cube.
Max had no idea what they were doing.
"Well, 'can'." Gleb turned to him. "How are you finding this Layer? Do you like it? I see you're awfully muscular."
"And you're a real pipsqueak!" Max was so pissed off that he felt his head spinning. "You couldn't order a normal avatar? Or couldn't you afford a decent virtual designer? You made it yourself?"
Gleb laughed for a whole minute, then wiped the tears from his eyes.
"What's so funny?" Max instinctively curled his hands into fists.
Lisa leaned towards him. "We don't use avatars," she whispered reproachfully. "Everyone wears their real faces here."
"Why?!" Max's eyes widened.
"Wearing an avatar is considered rude. It's not what normal people do."
"So, I'm abnormal, in your eyes?"
Lisa shrugged but didn't say anything.
"You're a 'can'." Gleb kept grinning at Max, looking him up and down. "What, you don't get it? Not familiar with the word?" He completely ignored the boring chess game and began to openly make fun of Max. "Before synthetic food appeared, it was how people preserved their food," He explained condescendingly. "Meat, for example. They would put the meat in tin cans and store it for years. Just like an in-mode, right?"
At first, Max was at a loss for words and couldn't think of a suitable comeback, while Gleb was on a roll.
"You're a slave, actually. A slave to our whims and pleasures."
"Watch it!"
"Why? You don't like hearing the truth? You shouldn't be here at all! We're free to go to the Lower Layer for fun. You're obliged to please us. How do you earn a living, for example?"
Max looked at Lisa for support, but the girl only shrugged, as if saying, "You're on your own, I warned you after all."
"I will have my own Universe!" Max burst out. Every teenager dreams of their own world, which other users will come and visit, but an enormous amount of work lies between dreams and reality. Max did not have the patience for such online heroics.
"You will?" Gleb asked cheerfully. "When?"
"Soon!"
"Don't try to avoid the question. How are you earning money right now?"
"It varies from time to time." Max muttered.
"And the times are different, are they?" Gleb continued sarcastically. "You've never tried the virtual brothels? They pay pretty well. I've been to a few and liked it, although when it was time to cough up..."
"Shut up!" Lisa couldn't take it anymore, and unexpectedly stood up and slapped him. It was a loud slap across the face, and it even left a red mark on Gleb's cheek.
Max could no longer control himself but he couldn't do anything either. Fury choked him, the urge to beat up Gleb was unbearable, but alas, he did not have the ability to affect things in the Upper Layer.
Gleb, meanwhile, rubbed his cheek and said threateningly, "Alright, scum, I've memorized your face. I hope you don't change avatars every day. No? Excellent. Just you wait. I'll come to your Layer and we'll have a proper chat there." He stood up, rudely shaking by the shoulder his friend, who had ignored the argument in his desperation to solve the difficult chess situation. "Dima, let's go."
"Why, what happened?"
"Nothing happened! Let's just go. Lisa can have her fun with this piece of canned meat."
Max had never before felt so humiliated, furious and helpless. Growing up among the bloody gaming realities, he never stopped to think about when to strike and when to run away. Always strike, always. Preferably to the death, so that even after respawning, the opponent's bones would ache from the virtual fractures.
"Well, how was that?" Lisa crossed her legs. She was acting very oddly, the dreamy smile gone and her face angry and focused.
"What the hell was he talking about?!"
"Regarding your Layer?"
"Yup." Max sat down in the awkward armchair and glared after the two receding figures.
"Gleb spoke the truth. Do you really not understand anything?" She was surprised.
"No!"
Lisa pursed her lips. "You're a tough case. I thought you were aware of your position in society."
"He called me a slave!"
"Who are you then?" The girl seemed to be deliberately adding fuel to the fire by continuing with this dangerous topic.
"I'm a free man!" Max yelled.
She shook her head sadly. "You're a free avatar."
Max frowned as she continued.
"Gleb is an asshole, of course, but he's right. You are a slave to the in-mode, to your living circumstances, to your status at birth, to the way of thinking formed in the virtual reality, any of these can be a reason. This does not change the essence."
"We will move the Antarctic Megacity soon!" He shouted out his last trump card.
"And who will you become there?" The girl asked.
"I don't know, I haven't thought about it yet!"
"You will live in the Layer, no matter where you move to," Lisa stated confidently.
Their conversation was turning out to be strange and unpleasant.
"Why do you keep harping on about it — the Layer, the Layer!" Max snarled. He could see nothing shameful in his way of life. "The virtual worlds constantly require inhabitants! They pay well. I could be anyone I want, a Roman legionnaire or a space explorer!"
"Which roles do you prefer?" Unlike Gleb, Lisa asked the questions without sneering or sounding arrogant, but rather like a researcher who has obtained a unique study sample. Max, blinded by his strong emotions, didn't notice this.
"Well, I like fantasy worlds! I enjoy racing too but I can't afford a decent flycar yet."
"Fine, let's say that you don't feel like a slave, but this doesn't change the nature of things." She stood up, came to sit on the wide arm of Max's chair and then gently touched his cheek, demonstrating her absolute right to affect objects in this Layer, reminding him of who was the owner and who was the guest. "Please don't be angry! I like you, as a matter of fact." Her touch made him feel both hot and cold. "Do you want to understand what's going on? And tell me, what would you prefer, the cruel truth about yourself or a quickie as a sign of my gratitude for saving me?"
A few minutes ago, he would have picked the latter but now, his mind whirling from her proximity, Max suddenly began behaving contrary to his desires.
"The truth," he grunted. "But how do you know who I am, how I live, and what I'll become?!"
"It's my field of expertise," Lisa replied confidently. "I'm studying at the Academy of World Government. I'm in my last year. I study the psychology of cyberspace inhabitants."
"So how did such a clever girl end up amongst piles of rubbish?!"
"Well, if you remember, there was a network attack." The girl ignored the gibe. "I was tossed down into the base Layer. We normally get direct access to the right reality, bypassing your dump," She explained. "I was confused and frightened, my ability to instantaneously move through cyberspace was blocked. The defense programs that normally filter out most of the unpleasant interactive effects had stopped working. I would have suffocated there from the stench. For real! You really did save me." Lisa whispered the last phrase into Max's ear, her breath hot on his face.
He was completely lost in his urges, desires and thoughts. To hell with this Upper Layer!
"Do you remember how I was talking about books?" Lisa continued calmly as if ignoring his emotional state. "There were quite a few science fiction novels in my father's library. I read them all. The people in the twentieth century described the future so ridiculously and one-sidedly! They invented a lot but they could not imagine our reality at all!"
Her words flowed past him without eliciting a response, or so Max thought. He no longer wanted to hear the rest, no matter what she said. He wasn't interested in this 'truth' at all. He wanted to find a reason to stand up, turn and walk away, to forget about today's adventure forever.
"You see, Max, you are all," Lisa was clearly lumping all the inhabitants of the Middle Layer together, "complete sociopaths. These bizarre fantasy worlds have altered your consciousness, and have raised you all to possess qualities that have nothing to do with the real world. Love, friendship, honor, duty — do these words mean anything to you? Or have they been lost forever? Who and what do you treasure most of all? What does family mean to you, for example?"
Max only grimaced.
"I'll go." He muttered.
"No!" Lisa grabbed his hand. "Answer me first."
"You're even worse than Gleb!"
She shook her head in desperation. "Even if the level of industrial fog suddenly drops, nobody will let you out into the real world."
"Why?!" Max said indignantly.
"Because a huge segment of the economy will collapse." She replied briskly. "Eighteen billion people currently live on Earth. Four billion live in in-modes, another billion even lower than that, in the capsule blocks at the very bottom. Thirteen billion people live above the middle. Think about or just try to imagine this number of people, concentrated in the megasuburbs, in the narrow layer between the industrial fog and the real clouds. They have nowhere to go. Nowhere to have fun. There is only one source of release for them — the phantom worlds of the Middle Layer. But the World Government has forbidden the use of artificial intelligence on the Net, thus creating a serious problem. Cyberspace has become predictable and boring, and a person who is going crazy from boredom is incredibly dangerous, believe me. The problem was solved as soon as the in-modes appeared. Now the worlds in the Middle Layer have no purely computer characters — they have been replaced with you."
"The population of the gaming worlds is actually made up of real people?" Max finally began to understand what Lisa was getting at.
"Didn't you know that?"
"I never thought about it." He grunted.
"You get paid. Only a little, the barest crumbs, to 'live' in a specific fantasy world. But why? And where does the money come from?"
"I have no idea!"
"Residents of the megasuburbs have to pay to enter the Layer," Lisa explained eagerly. "But every user wants to get the full range of possible entertainment for their money, and the computer bots simply can't handle such a challenge. Do you see? For the last ten years, in-mode inhabitants have completely replaced computer characters and have introduced variety and unpredictability into the fantasy worlds... and have become the slaves of the Layer."
"We are the living decorations?!" Max shuddered. He had never thought about it from this angle.
"Well, you happily transform into a monster if the contract pays well, right?" Lisa asked.
"Yes," He admitted and gulped.
"The owners of the fantasy worlds are the richest people on Earth. They pay you with money taken from other users, who, unlike you, do not live in the Layer but rather come there to amuse themselves in the way that they prefer. It's a well-functioning system. Nobody will lift a finger to change it. While the users are happy, while they have something to amuse themselves with and to waste time on, nobody will go out onto the street, nobody will protest, and nobody will even ask the awkward questions. That's why you will stay in the in-mode forever."
"What's the way out?" Max asked, bewildered.
"There isn't one. At least, not with the way things stand currently, when only 5% of the population work in real sectors of the economy. Perhaps something will change when we settle Mars, I don't know. So far, research is painting quite a dark picture. The people of the Layer are morally dead."
"Why are you telling me this? To make me angry?"
"You asked me yourself. I wonder what you're like in real life?" Lisa smiled sadly. "The avatar is just an attractive mask. Where is your soul, Max? Do you feel it yourself, are you aware of it?"
He shrugged carelessly. "I'm not interested in that."
"I know." The regret in her eyes became cold and thorny. "The people of the Layer have forgotten how to observe. They have made life worthless. Nobody is responsible for their actions. Most families have split up. A new generation has grown up which has been corrupted. You endlessly exploit your most primitive urges: you kill, wallowing in the bloody special effects. You roam from reality to reality. Your women are skilled at love but are unable to feel love. Your men are brutal but do they really know what courage is?" Lisa asked, looking at him thoughtfully. "And like a stone, you drag the other thirteen billion users with you to the bottom. No ancient science fiction writer could have predicted such a civilization..."
"Enough!" Max shouted, unable to stand it anymore.
"Shall I let you go?"
"Yes!"
"As you wish," Lisa shrugged her shoulders in disappointment.
A flash of light, a brief spell of dizziness.
The stench was overwhelming.
He opened his eyes. He was surrounded by mounds of rubbish, with gray tornadoes drifting between them.








Chapter Two



Earth. The Layer.
In-mode location — Europe Megacity.


MAX SPENT the two weeks after his unexpected meeting with Lisa in a very different way to how he had planned.
He couldn't forget what had happened and couldn't return to his previous way of life. He began waking up slightly earlier than usual, being rude to his parents, and he perceived his daily trips into the Layer differently. He was subconsciously seeking a rebuttal to Lisa's and Gleb's words but found only confirmation, and this caused the psychological pressure on his mind to keep increasing.
Cyberspace.
"All that we have left in this life." This phrase stuck in his head like a constant reminder.
Max stood at the crossroads. He wasn't completely lost yet, with glimmers of his upbringing still simmering in him. Yet he had already sampled the vices readily available in the Layer and, unlike most of his peers, wasn't yet ready to drown in them, instead struggling on the surface and dreaming of something greater.
He began asking himself some very uncomfortable questions to which he had no answers. He distracted himself by plunging into various realities but this worked for only a while.
Ideas, each one crazier than the next, appeared and died in his inflamed and tormented imagination, but in the end, what could he really do? At best, he could gain people's attention with some eccentric escapade and become an icon for an hour or a day but never a lifetime.
Trying to escape the suddenly visible cage, Max even attended several online seminars dedicated to the various problems of the Layer, but he found neither answers nor like-minded individuals, only a new burden of contradictory information that he couldn't process. The veil of the fantasy world had been lifted but he couldn't see much through the narrow crack of imposed opinions.
Earth was dying, slowly and painfully. The real world was gradually becoming the dominion of machines, while the Layer rippled with the bizarre revels of the doomed.
The developers were unable to create a viable model of social relationships. Society was gradually disappearing, having outlived its use, at least here, in the Layer.
The streets of the virtual city were swarming with avatars. For billions of people, real life took place right here, in cyberspace.
Paths led from one building to the next past the reeking mountains of garbage, and someone's avatar wandered morosely at the intersection, dressed in futuristic armor. From time to time, he would call out in a monotone, "King Zigmund is gathering an army to invade the Arn Lands! Do not miss this opportunity! Five credits to the mercenary who joins the army, and an extra two credits for every enemy killed! Only the best and bloodiest special effects! Don't miss your chance to have fun and make some money!"
Max walked past without giving the figure a second glance.
Lisa had awakened new feelings in him. They were burning him up, making him take on a mortal risk in response to the unexpected crush.
Five credits weren't enough. Access to the Upper Layer cost a lot more. Only a no rules race could provide the necessary amount of money, but flycar pilots often sustained serious injuries and even died in such competitions. The illegal track operators somehow managed to increase the interactivity level to unprecedented heights, and spectators paid for the rush of knowing that every collision could prove fatal.
Max had been lucky so far, although, truth be told, he didn't try to play the hero on the track, earning his two hundred credits as one of the dozen outsiders and not striving for the dubious glory of being the winner.

* * *

"Hello!" The Guide stood at the corner of the building, beside the familiar alley. "Same as usual? The Upper Layer?"
"Yup."
"A hundred and twenty credits."
"It was a hundred yesterday!"
"If you don't want to pay, you can stay here," the Guide shrugged his shoulders.
"You run a dodgy business! Regular clients should have a discount!"
"Keep your voice down before the whole Net hears you! Anyway, maybe you should go home today. You're too twitchy. I don't want any trouble."
"Alright, forget it." Max said to smooth things over and transferred the required amount to the Guide's account.
The man silently disappeared down the alley and Max followed him, trying not to fall behind. "It's a new route every time," he thought in surprise. "I wonder how the Guides always manage to find so many holes in the security?"
They entered a building. While Max studied the strange and tattered interior, the Guide unlocked an apartment door with an antique key and gestured for Max to follow him inside.
The dark hallway smelled damp.
"Well? Where to now?"
"The same way as you came in. The time limit is two hours. I'm not responsible for you if you don't come back the same way in time." The avatar dissipated into thin air.
Max shrugged and pushed the apartment door open again, expecting to see the same unsightly entrance.
The door revealed a completely different building, bright and with a high, vaulted ceiling and intricate paneling.
Max stepped out onto the street and looked around.
He was in a park with the sun shining brightly overhead. He turned at the intersection of two paths, trying to avoid running into any other avatars.
Lisa's house stood on a hill. A street that had been made to look ancient led to the beautiful building.
His heart thudded in his chest.
They had met up thrice since the network attack two weeks ago. Max was losing his mind from his desires and emotions yet Lisa kept her distance as if on purpose, not rejecting his youthful ardency but not submitting to it either.
He was determined to keep himself under control, understanding intuitively that her delicate nature would not accept rudeness or crassness, but his first love burned brighter and brighter. He felt like he was suffocating in the in-mode, his world growing bleaker with each passing day, and it was only here, in the vastness of the Upper Layer, that he briefly came alive, sustained by his false hopes.
Lisa met him halfway today.
She appeared in the middle of the path, extending her arms and brushing her lips across his cheek, then immediately slipped out of his embrace.
"Let's go for a walk. There's a lake nearby. It's really beautiful there." Her smile drove him crazy.
"Let's go." He took her by the hand.
His thoughts were a mess. There was a malfunction somewhere, and for a second he experienced the in-mode reality, the treadmill moving under his feet and the pressure from the nanofibers in his VR suit instead of the girl's fingers squeezing his hand.
He almost howled from the mentally painful contrast.
"Max, what’s wrong?" Lisa let go of his hand and took a step back, shooting him a nervous look.
"Nothing. Sorry, just a glitch." He desperately tried to control his suddenly overwhelming emotions.
"Are you bored with me? You seem really twitchy today, and your avatar is malfunctioning." She glanced back at the hill. "Maybe I should go?"
"No, please, don't leave!"
"All right." Lisa turned onto a barely visible path that wound between the flowering shrubs. Max felt like he was being suffocated by the strong fragrance but they soon left the thicket and stepped out beside the still water.
Lisa walked across the narrow footbridge with her arms flung out for balance, then sat down at the edge and looked up at Max, chuckling:
"Why are you so tense today?"
Max sat down beside her.
"I really like you."
"I know." She sighed heavily. "I really like you too, Max."
He hugged her timidly, touching her cheek with shaking fingers.
"Don't," Lisa said.
"Why?"
"None of this is real."
Max felt like he had been slapped.
"We probably won't see each other again," Lisa said sadly. "Do you remember Gleb?"
"Yup." He never forgot the recent incident, not even for a second.
"He saw us together, the day before yesterday. The jerk reported us to the online police. And he told my father."
"Are you in trouble?" Max tensed.
"No, they won't do anything to me but my father was super angry. You know, I'd really like to meet you in the real world. But you're in the in-mode and I'm..." She smiled pitifully, folded her hands together and blew on them. Numbers appeared in the air, slipping like a gray snake into Max's cyberstack. "This is my number. In the real world. Call me if you ever get out of the in-mode."
"Lisa, but why? Why can't we..."
She kissed him so that he fell silent.
"Because I like you. I really like you. But all this," she indicated the shore, the trees and the bushes, "is fake. I'm sick to death of my fake life. I don't want it anymore and I don't want to meet you anymore. It's not going to work."
"Lisa, wait!"
"No, Max, don't. I'm tired of illusions. I hate the touch of tactile nanofibers. Call me if you ever get out." She repeated. "I'll give you a farewell hint — my father made an absolute fortune on the movement of industrial fog."
Then she was gone, vanishing into thin air.

* * *

First love. It plunges us into the abyss of previously unknown sensations, overwhelming desires, illusions and hopes, burns us like fire, and quells the voice of reason, making us do crazy things.
Which one of us hasn't gone through that?
Max Bourne spent his twentieth birthday in his in-mode.
A hellish fire consumed him from within.
He blocked all his contacts, then went into the Net and refused to leave.
The streets of the phantom city were bustling with life. With every passing year, more and more people considered cyberspace their true habitat. Virtual reality contained everything... and nothing.
Max wandered aimlessly through the Middle Layer. It had been recently cleared of garbage and looked somewhat unusual, but Max barely noticed the pleasant change.
Lisa's final words echoed in his mind.
Of course, his dissatisfaction with life had been there before but the seed of rebellion would have never previously gained enough of a foothold.
Max sat down on a bench. He didn't know what to do. How could he escape the in-mode? How could he move to a significantly different level of existence?
The view around him only filled him with disgust and anger.
"Cans..." He spat. "A dream world has been engineered for us. They invented goals and gave us the means to achieve them. What is the point of it all?" The unfamiliar thoughts frightened him.
With just a few sentences, Lisa had opened his eyes and tore off the blinkers, and now he had nowhere to run and hide from the truth.
His imagination showed him millions of in-modes, with the grotesque outlines of their inhabitants, unwittingly comparing them to their obviously glamorized avatars.
First love is also blind. There is nothing stronger, more wondrous and more dangerous than this feeling, which gives life and brings death equally easily.
Max Bourne’s world had cracked and was ready to fall apart, turning into a pile of senseless and ugly fragments.
His plans for the future now seemed so childish and pathetic.
"She lives in the real world. Above the clouds, where there are no in-modes. How will I ever reach her?"
He could try, of course. He was sure that the real world had its loopholes, just like the Net, but without the appropriate status or money he would remain an outcast, a crook, a trespasser. It was frightening, too. He had begun to forget what life was like outside the in-mode.

* * *

Reaching the age of majority was accompanied by a radical update of the software in his implant and cyberstack — he was now a fully-fledged citizen of Earth, and he automatically had access to new and previously unreachable opportunities. Max gained access to business networks, the right to enter into agreements under his own name, and a personal account in the World Bank, where 5,000 credits were deposited on the day of his twentieth birthday — a social handout from the World Government.
The industrial fog.
These words kept spinning in his head. Lisa had given Max a hint that he couldn't comprehend, no matter how long he thought about it.
"She didn't just say it for no reason! Am I really that dumb? The answer must be on the surface, it must be simple and obvious!"
He tried again and again.
Dozens of information streams flowed into the digital space of his in-mode. It was mainly data relating to the industrial fog and fluctuations in the toxic environment.
Utterly confounded by the tables and graphs, Max took the extreme step of hiring an expert neuronet, thus spending all the money he had received from the World Government.
He didn't obtain an immediate answer but he began to understand certain things.
Earth's single technosphere was going through a tumultuous process of growth and formation, gradually covering the planet in an artificial industrial coating like a tortoise's shell. The toxic fog condensed at an altitude of 100-115 meters and was gradually drifting upwards. Initially, its upper level was predicted to stop at 270 meters. Buildings at this height had no windows and were given over to technical services.
Starting from three hundred meters, the city levels dramatically changed their appearance. The living complexes formed megasuburbs, millions of apartments and living capsules were put into service and occupied even before the appearance of the first unexpected emissions.
Max had personally experienced the consequences of the fatal errors made by the city planners in their calculations. He was seven years old when the industrial fog began to rise above critical levels. The apartments could only withstand the effects of the aggressive fog for short periods of time so the only way out of the catastrophic situation was the widespread introduction of the in-modes.
Things had only gotten worse over the past thirteen years. The toxic fog now enveloped the whole planet like a blanket. Three corporations, Megapool, Genesis and Rimp Cybetronics, were together looking for a solution but so far they had only managed to achieve small-scale victories.
The upper boundary of the industrial fog had stabilized at a height of five hundred meters above sea level.
Hundreds of uninhabited dwellings at the capricious and precarious border between life and death had long ago lost their value. They were considered as potential spaces for in-modes, since the pace of construction of the Antarctic Mega City and the reconstruction of existing megacities still did not meet the needs of Earth's population, ever since the population explosion of twenty years prior.
The acute lack of housing was further exacerbated by the desires of the in-mode inhabitants to move into normal living capsules and thus improve their quality of life.
Four days passed before the truth began to glimmer in Max's mind.
Megapool continued to build new city levels, and as the megasuburb height increased, the strength and direction of the dominant winds changed as well.
The expert neuronet that Max had rented, having processed the maps of the industrial fog migrations and analyzed the data from hundreds of thousands of sensors, issued a startling and unexpected prognosis: in the next month, the upper border of the toxic emissions in certain parts of the Europe Megacity would drop to a level of 450 meters!
Hundreds of unoccupied living capsules would become habitable!
From there, he could work out the simple maths even without the expert neuronet: the living capsules were currently empty and on sale for a pittance, but the situation was about to change radically! Real estate prices were about to soar!
"Of course, there is a risk that the changes are temporary and that the boundary of the toxic zone will rise again but that's just a minor detail," Max thought frantically. "If I can buy even ten living capsules now, and sell them again after a while, I am guaranteed a way to the top! I'll become rich and my social status will change instantly!"
There was only one question remaining: where would he get the money to buy the living capsules? The bargain prices were in five figures, while his personal account had only 800 credits remaining after hiring the neuronet.

* * *

Max's request was politely declined at the World Bank.
It was simply not possible to earn the required amount in the Layer. His dreams were slipping further from his reach and time was running out. He kept the results of the investigation secret, telling no-one of his goal.
He was having breakfast in a cafe when an unfamiliar avatar sat down opposite him. "Hello. I heard that you're looking for a large sum of money."
Max looked up from his plate.
A portly man sat opposite him, with a good-natured, open and particularly trustworthy face.
"You are mistaken," Max muttered out of habit. He wasn't a complete idiot, after all!
"I couldn't have made a mistake." The portly man smiled. "I possess quite reliable information." He noticed Max's suspicious gaze, and added. "From some very reliable sources at the World Bank."
Max felt cold inside. He had no experience with such negotiations.
"Let's get down to business."
"We don't even know each other."
"Is that really necessary? All right, young man, you can call me Andrey Sergeevich. I'm a private investor. I finance risky projects." He smiled again, very amicably. "We're talking about a sum of 190,000 credits, aren't we? Was I correctly informed?"
"Perhaps." Max knew that the whole situation was wrong, that even talking with a 'private investor' could lead to trouble. "But this information is confidential — you couldn’t have obtained it."
"Oh, come on, Max!" The plump man waved a dismissive hand. "We're not living in the Middle Ages! Our whole lives are digitized, from birth to death. Information is money. You were overly cautious when you applied to the World Bank for a loan and that's what caught my attention."
"And you'll give me the money out of the kindness of your heart?"
"Of course not!" laughed the stranger. "Without knowing what you're planning to spend it on and thus being unable to calculate the risks involved, I am willing to provide you with the amount you need for only for a short amount of time, a month perhaps, with decent interest and mandatory collateral."
"I don't have the option."
"You're wrong about that! There are always options or I wouldn't be sitting here right now."
"You were misinformed."
"I don't seem like an amateur, do I?" the man looked offended. "Not long ago, you rented an expert neuronet and worked with it for a week. A very serious investigation, given the equipment’s analytical capabilities. You must be certain in the success of your endeavor since you contacted the World Bank through official channels, and even offered your personal in-mode as security for the loan."
"So why was I refused?"
"They're too cautious. Your youth and your stubborn unwillingness to provide a business plan were a source of justifiable concern."
"But you won't get it either!"
"I don't need it. Let’s get back to business. You have an in-mode, which costs around 26,000 or 27,000 credits. The adult members of your family each possess one too. Seventy-five thousand credits aren’t bad, however, it’s still not enough. But if we add the rights to the capsule apartment in the Antarctic Megacity, that's a serious amount and completely covers any possible risks that I may have!"
"It won’t work." Max said glumly after a minute's thought. "Even if I wanted to, I can't provide this as a collateral. I have a strained relationship with my parents."
"Not to worry. You're sure of your success, aren't you?" asked the portly man.
"I'm sure but I won't be able to persuade my parents. I won't even try. They worked all their lives to pay for the opportunity to move to Antarctica."
"I understand," nodded the portly man. "And I'm ready to offer you a solution."
"There isn't one."
"Electronic signatures generated by your parents' implants are enough for me."
"Was I not being clear enough? They're not going to sign anything!"
"That's unfortunate. Although your parents can remain blissfully unaware. I know a person who, for a certain fee, can make their implants transmit the required information."
Max flinched in surprise but then sat and processed the information. This 'Andrey Sergeevich' had turned up at the perfect time and had literally snagged Max with his unexpected offer.
"No! Don't do it!" protested Max's common sense but Max ignored it. "What's the catch?" he thought desperately.
"So my parents won't find out? What if... what if my idea fails?"
"Alas, in that case, your parents will have to give up their property in Antarctica and even their personal in-modes. But, I assure you, the city authorities will not abandon them and will provide living spaces in the capsular block, somewhere on the lowest levels, with a change in their social status on the Net, naturally."
Max shuddered, imagining the future that the man was describing.
"This is your chance, young man. You can either reduce your financial requirements, and then we can limit ourselves to only your personal in-mode, or seize the opportunity that I'm offering you. I'm not in a hurry. Think about it."
"What's the trick?! If you can obtain electronic signatures generated by the implants," he mentally shuddered at the possibility, "then why are you talking to me at all?"
"I'm not a crook or a thief, young man!" Andrey Sergeevich exclaimed. "I'm just a humble financier. If it comes to the courts, I need a motive. Think about it, why would your parents take out a loan? They have no reason to! Their son is something else altogether. Frankly, I don't care where and how you spend the money. I'm not risking anything. This is how I earn a living. You give me the certified documents and I give you a loan."
"I don't understand!" Max got annoyed. "This whole deal smells fishy! According to the rules, I must indicate the legal source of my funds!"
"I am the legal source," Andrey Sergeevich replied calmly. "You will legally receive short-term credit."
"And who will be the one giving it to me?"
"I'm registered as a private investor. This is my business, get it?"
"Not really. You're risking..."
"I'm not risking anything!" the man waved a chubby hand. "Rather, I am making the most of the opportunities wasted by the large financial institutions."
"Why don't you just fake the signatures and gain their property?" Max persisted.
"Oh, the young..." The plump man sighed. "Look, why would I want to break the law?"
"But you've just been encouraging me to forge..."
"Firstly, nobody's forging anything!" the man exclaimed. "The unique signatures are genuinely generated! Still, it looks like I'm wasting my time here!" He stood up to leave.
"How do I find you again?" Max asked hoarsely, without lifting his eyes from the table.
"I'll be here in a few days, at the same time."
"How do I meet the other person, the one that..."
"You don't need to meet anyone. Your agreement will suffice. You don't need to worry about the rest; I'll organize everything."
Max slumped. "It's scary... But the deal is a surefire win! If I sell even one capsule apartment, I'll be able to pay off my debts in full! No one will get hurt! My parents won't even know about it!"
"Wait!" He couldn't resist the temptation. "Let's discuss the details," he uttered, feeling like he had just taken a step off a precipice.

* * *

The investor wasn't lying. The very next morning, 190,000 credits were transferred to Max Bourne's account.
He acted immediately, carefully selecting ten capsule apartments and purchasing them through the Net. Max wasn't quite sure what to do next. Should he stay in the in-mode? Explore the gaming worlds?
No, the neural network couldn’t have made a mistake. Which meant that it was time to get out of the 'can' and get used to his new life!
Fear drove him to take the last desperate step. If something went wrong, how would he ever look his parents in the eye?
He was running away but he called it something else in his head.
The in-mode case opened with a hiss.
Silence. The stale odor of an unlived room.
Max stepped over the threshold, crossing the line between his two lives. He remembered this apartment only vaguely but this no longer mattered.
The in-modes took up almost all the available space. No light came through the shaded window. It was creepy. He cautiously headed into the hallway, afraid that the servos had altered it as well. What if they'd all been sealed shut in here?
No, the door to the stairway was still in the same place. A red light shone beside it. On either side of the door, Max noticed five sets of protective gear, and found the one that fit him. He hurriedly and clumsily put it on and headed to the door, without even a glance back at the in-modes containing his parents, brother and sister.
The scanning beam passed over Max's outfit. The program could find no fault in the sealed connections, and a sign appeared in front of the wall.

Are you sure that you want to go outside?

"Yes, of course!" he touched the confirmation icon. The door opened with an unexpected screech that further strained his nerves. How many years has it been since it was last used?
The staircase was dimly lit. Only the occasional light panels shone dully and a servo scuttled by, its gears rustling.
There was no-one around. The apartment doors were all firmly shut. Red lights glowed everywhere. The lift wasn't working so Max had to look for the emergency stairs and descend the steps.
Max felt like he was the only person left in the world. The deafening silence, broken only by the sound of his own footsteps and nervous breathing, frightened him. The descent seemed endless. Floor after floor, going further and further down. Is anyone else still alive? Stupid thoughts crowded around in his head, filling him with dread.
He couldn't stand it and opened the door leading to the corridor on the next floor.
A chill ran down his spine. "No way!" His glance took in the neat rows of in-modes. "Wasn't there enough room in the apartments? Or were they installed later? What do I care, anyway?!" He slammed the door shut and continued down the stairs but the endless rows of in-modes kept floating before his eyes.
Max reached the building entrance after about thirty minutes, his nerves stretched to breaking point. After thirteen years inside the in-mode, he could barely cope with reality. Will the flycar that he had ordered online wait for him or will he have to make his way on foot? His anxiety grew. The empty world with only the occasional servo to break the monotony seemed like an endless backdrop to an event that had never taken place.
He kept thinking as if he was still in a virtual reality, not realizing the irreversibility of what had occurred. Every step took him further and further away, the gap between his in-mode existence and the unknown and uncertain future growing ever wider.
His childhood memories pulsed in his mind. Here is the building exit that leads to the city level streets. The once-spacious entrance hall was now crammed full of long lines of in-modes, suspended from the ceiling with metalloplastic clamps, past the coiling cables and corrugated pipelines that envelop them, and all this was blanketed in silence.
He hurried to the massive double doors. His seven-year-old self remembered that beyond lay a park under a clear dome, then a car park slightly further on, with curving road junctions leading up and down from it.
The neighborhood was unrecognizable. The trees and bushes were gone. Only the bases of the flowerbeds, lawn borders and paths remained but these elements of the past seemed insignificant among the global changes.
It was the same under the dome: the "green zone" was filled with endless rows of in-modes. There was almost no space left between them.
Reality felt deathly cold. The unfamiliar sensation of dread chilled him to the bone. Segments of the dome overhead still remained transparent so that he could see the billowing yellow-gray haze beyond, making it seem as if the industrial fog had devoured the whole planet.
Making his way between the in-mode and stumbling over the cables underfoot, Max almost lost his way. His nerves were stretched to breaking point. He could not have imagined that the long-coveted freedom would be so grim, monotonous and creepy.
He found the car park entrance by following reminders of the past. Parts of the central alley's decorative elements could still be seen among the desolation. Max occasionally stumbled across sculptural compositions that had lost their meaning, sections of dried and cracked soil, and even the dark stumps of felled trees.
Despite his fears, the ordered flycar was waiting for him. The car stood by the airlock, its running lights glowing in the murk.
It was windy outside the dome. The gusts nearly knocked Max off his feet. Crouching, he ran to the car and clambered inside, then told the autopilot the address of the first apartment that he could think of, one of the ten that he had purchased.
The car slowly glided away, turned onto the junction and began to climb up the multilevel road.
Max fell back onto the soft chair, utterly spent. The fear slowly abated as other cars began to appear around him, and from time to time, reacting to the movement of the vehicles, both sides of the motorway would erupt with multicolored flashes.
He looked closer and realized that it was the holographic ad panels coming to life.
Could it be that people have all been tucked away inside the in-modes but some shops on this level still generate ads?
So it was! He leant towards the window, examining the shop fronts. The flashes of color illuminated offers of goods and services that had now become meaningless.
What if the expert neuronet was wrong? What if the level of the toxic emissions remained the same?
Cast aside such thoughts! Everything will work out!
The flycar unexpectedly rose up above the haze and Max's heart lurched. He saw gigantic megasuburbs, a web of multilevel roads between the cliffs of super skyscrapers, and a myriad of lights. For a few seconds, he could see the panorama of the city, an incomprehensible behemoth that was alive.
In the next moment, the yellow-gray tendrils of the fog rushed towards him and again swallowed up the car. Although the anxiety was still there, it had dulled, and Max felt an aching sense of delight.
"Everything will work out!" He kept telling himself.

* * *

The next three days tested him to the maximum.
It turned out that life in the in-mode had radically changed not only his mind but also his physiology. He couldn't fall asleep. The trimodular capsule apartment seemed too large to Max and the location of the equipment felt inconvenient. Access to the Net was provided by technology from 20 years ago and everything that he was used had disappeared. Max drifted from room to room, surprised at how clumsily everything was designed.
During the first night, he tossed and turned on the wide and uncomfortable bed. His head ached from anxiety and fatigue but sleep would not come. His body craved the sleeping gas, a function absent in a capsule apartment.
Time passed painfully slowly. He tried to watch the spherovision but the primitive device only irritated him, while the news from the real world seemed pointless.
On the second day, Max began to understand that he would soon go mad.
Sleep wasn't sleep. Reality wasn't reality. The day became a mind-numbing and endless wait.
Sitting down at the table, Max choked on the tasteless food paste, and gradually and with some irritation discovered the true purpose of many items that he knew about but had never used in reality.
The second and third sleepless nights brought him to the brink of complete despair but the long-awaited event finally occurred on the fourth day!
Max was beside himself with joy when he saw in the morning news a report about the unexpected migration of the industrial fog.
He leapt up and ran to the window but still saw the same depressing murk outside.
Into the Net! Quickly!
The primitive equipment no longer annoyed him. He entered the digital space, spending the last of his money to connect to the sensors positioned at various city levels.
Five! Five of the ten capsule apartments that he had purchased were above the level of toxic emissions!
Max wasted no time. He immediately posted a 'for sale' sign online and received the first response from a potential buyer only a couple of hours later.
He closed the sale by the time evening came and received 150,000 credits, immediately spending a third on... the purchase of an in-mode.
He could see no other way of preserving his sanity. Another miserable and sleepless night frightened him so much that he even paid a significant sum for urgent installation of the individual life support module.
The servos quickly delivered the necessary devices but it took them until midnight to finish assembling everything. All this time, Max sat aloof in an armchair, occasionally falling into an anxious dose but startling awake at every loud noise.
He had no strength left to rejoice in his success. He was wrung out both morally and physically, desperate for a decent night's sleep and to be able to go online properly.
The servos finally assembled the in-mode and Max immediately kicked them out, not even letting them test the equipment properly. He climbed inside as if drunk, and blissfully watched the walls of the individual shell come together. A minute later, the intoxicating smell of the sleeping gas enveloped Max, plunging him into oblivion.

* * *

For the first time in several days, he slept like a baby.
The dear, cozy in-mode. A trusty defense from all the unpleasantness of the rough and miserable real world.
Max woke up in the morning, feeling wonderfully refreshed. Hopes and plans were bubbling in his head again. After a quick breakfast, he went online. The industrial fog had dropped by another fifteen meters during the night. Nine of the remaining capsule apartments were now in the 'clean' zone. The price of each one had jumped to 200,000 credits but the buyers were being cautious and didn't rush into purchasing property. He hadn't received any more offers and the news appeared contradictory, but that's OK, he thought. The strength and direction of the wind remained the same just like the neural network had predicted. Give it a day or two and many people would believe that the changes were permanent.
"I'm rich! I can live anywhere I like with that kind of money!" His enthusiastic thoughts were marred by the dark memories of the last few days, but Max refused to give in to the gnawing fear. "I have to get used to the changes," he thought decisively.
His social status had changed automatically but Bourne had prudently concealed this information from other users. He didn't want his parents to find out about his dizzying rise too early.
"What should I do? How do I fight my phobias?"
Max perked up. He was now so certain of himself and his success that he thought of only the future. "How am I going to join the 'cloud' society if I'm tied to the in-mode? I'll be a laughing stock!"
He left the capsule apartments in auto-selling mode and climbed out of the in-mode. This time, the vacant premises did not make him feel so acutely depressed. He went to the window and looked outside.
The industrial fog hovered around thirty meters below him. He could see previously obscured details. He couldn't see the city as such because of the unfinished buildings crowding around. It appeared that Megapool had paused their construction when the toxic emissions had made these levels unfit for human habitation.
He got dressed and ordered a flycar.
The 100,000 credits left after the purchase of the in-mode affected his mind in a strange way. The easy money itched at him, as if saying, "Spend me!"
The voice of reason was silent. Max felt like a completely different person. All his troubles were behind him!
The computer at the door did not demand that he put on a protective suit. The Global Health System recommended only an antitoxin, and two pills conveniently rolled out into a tray beside the door.
Max swallowed them and went out into the entrance hall.
There were changes everywhere. The lift was working. The lighting was much brighter. He noticed servos in the passageway, tidying up and removing dirty marks from the walls.
The acute anxiety attacks did not reappear and Max perked up further. The new life drew him like a magnet and the recent trip seemed like a bad dream. "What was I expecting to see or feel when I got out of the zone of the industrial fog?" he thought, writing off his recent fears to the circumstances and easily turning his own shortcomings into some heroic achievements.
His mentality could not actually change so radically in only a few days but the world felt renewed. Max exited the building and looked around, breathing shallowly through his nose, as recommended by the instructions coming into his cyberstack.
The city level had never been completed. The skeleton of the megasuburb reached up into the sky while a wind howled through the empty window frames of levels that, until recently, were surrounded by toxic emissions.
A flycar from the city transportation service landed softly by the exit and the door opened. The soft voice of the onboard computer invited Max inside and politely enquired about his desired destination.
"Into the city," he said vaguely, making himself comfortable.
"Please specify the address."
"Above the clouds. We'll see once we get there."
The autopilot obediently planned a route to the nearest highest point of the Megacity, warning his client that the trip would take five hours.
Max nodded and looked out of the window. His new life was beginning and he wanted to get a taste of it, and to understand what true freedom really meant.

* * *

Many significant events occurred that morning, and one of them took place on the outskirts of the Europe Megacity, where the spurs of the city's foundations drilled into the ancient mountain ridge.
The industrial fog lay low, drifting lazily over the lifeless gray slopes. No one lived here. The mountain valleys, where luxury ski resorts used to flourish, had all disappeared, completely buried under garbage[1].
A group of five flycars bearing the Genesis logo appeared above the lifeless terrain and circled the area. One of the vehicles then landed and disgorged an assault team.
The people in the heavy servomotor suits formed a line and began to scout the surface of the dump. A small area considered stable enough to support the weight of the multiton aircraft was soon cordoned off.
The industrial fog hung low overhead. Tendrils of toxic gas drifted up from the depths of the landfill and joined the gray mass above.
The airlock opened and the ramp jingled. A lean old man descended the metal steps and stopped, carefully inspecting his surroundings. He wasn't wearing a suit and took shallow breaths through his nose. The devices built into his clothing were more reliable than a vacuum suit, allowing him to walk amongst the poisonous heaps.
Only a handful of people on Earth had access to such technology.
While the research groups took samples of the toxic soil, set up equipment, surrounded certain areas with buoys, and made notes on electronic maps, Ulrich Otto von Fitzgerald, the founder of Genesis, strolled among the reeking refuse.
Why was the owner of the most powerful corporation on Earth personally visiting a common landfill, one of the dozens surrounding any megacity? There was no purpose to it, only risk.
Another flycar, this one bearing the logo of Rimp Cybertronics, appeared out of the gray haze and immediately landed.
The airlock opened with a hiss. The massive armored figure of a guard appeared in the oval hatch, followed by a woman in a light exploration suit.
"Catherine, my dear!" Fitzgerald stretched out his hand. "Why didn't you make use of my present?"
"Hello, Ulrich. It’s nice to see you. Your present raised some doubts with my security service."
"Don't you trust me? What a shame." Fitzgerald lifted his hands in dismay. "As you can see, I feel perfectly fine."
"But why are we here?" Cathy Rimp unclipped the visor on her soft helmet. The suit's system immediately created extra pressure, mercilessly wasting resources to enable her to breathe and talk as per normal.
"You asked for a face-to-face meeting but there are ears everywhere."
"And here?"
"Here we can talk freely without the fear of spies."
"Is this why you purchased this dump?" She was surprised by yet another one of Ulrich's eccentricities.
"I have a large project planned here. To show the world how biotechnologies will breathe life into dead valleys, transforming waste into fertile lands. I'll create an oasis of life, using the toxic environment as the source material."
"A good move but hardly practical, I think. Earth is hopelessly dead."
Their long-standing argument about the progress of human civilization lay beneath their words. The merciless battle between the technosphere and the biosphere had led to the death of all living things. Cathy Rimp and Ulrich Fitzgerald represented two mutually exclusive points of view, which, nevertheless, did not prevent them from maintaining a friendship.
"Not all projects are undertaken to reap immediate profits. You know what I mean, don't you?" Ulrich hinted vaguely at the proposal that he had received from Cathy Rimp and the reason for today's meeting.
"Certainly." She shrugged her shoulders as she looked around. "It’s creepy when I think about what Earth has turned into."
"I agree," Fitzgerald smirked. "Just you wait, you'll be coming here for a holiday in a couple of years."
"So soon? You're not exaggerating?"
"No, no. The bacteria will deal with the rubbish in seven months. While my babies are working, we will mount atmospheric processors along the perimeter. Active transformation of the soil will take three months, and developing the ecosystem will take another year."
"Genetically modified plants?"
"Oh no, that's all in the past!" Fitzgerald waved his hand dismissively. "It's all about bioadaptive life forms now!"
"Ulrich, do you really know what you're doing? You're not going to create a monster? I think that bacteria capable of devouring centuries worth of garbage are a direct threat to the technosphere."
"Your mistrust hurts me, Catherine. The life expectancy of my babies, just like their reproductive rate, is strictly limited. They possess a terminating gene, which will activate after a certain number of generations. They'll devour the dump and then die. We’ve tested it all. Your precious technosphere will continue to thrive. Let's take a walk. Do you see that bubbling lake? I suggest that we have a picnic on its shore."
"You're so twisted!" Cathy hooked her arm through his.
"Oh, come on. We'll sit down and have a lovely chat. By the way, what will we chat about?"
"Didn't you get all of my preliminary data?"
"Catherine, talking to you is no fun. How do you combine such naive romanticism and pragmatism?"
"Ulrich, the first interstellar flight is no laughing matter. I can't complete such a project alone. Have you familiarized yourself with the documents?"
"Yes," he grunted unenthusiastically. "It's impressive. The Alpha Colonial Transport sounds very majestic."
A circle of mobile climate complexes had already been set up on the shore of the toxic lake, a table and two armchairs appearing there as if by magic. A stocky major opened a bottle of vintage champagne.
"Are you making fun of me?" Cathy Rimp stopped and sharply turned to face Ulrich. "Enough joking around! I'm determined to have a serious and meaningful conversation!"
They sat down at the table.
"Catherine, are you really that naive? Do you think I need such a risk? Or is your goal to make a financial hole in the Genesis Mars project?" It was better not to start an argument with Ulrich about the red planet as he was famously paranoid on this topic. "I'm not going to back away from my plan! Mars belongs to me and will be terraformed as planned. Not a single megacity, do you hear me?"
"I haven't come here to talk about Mars! Nobody is trying to sabotage your projects."
"Except Megapool," replied Fitzgerald, his disdain evident. "Are not today's problems, extreme to the point of absurdity, due to the greed of the corporations?" He asked this without a shade of irony. "Did they not use their aggressive advertising to convince this generation of people that universal prosperity was coming very soon? We let the demographic explosion get out of hand, and are now paying the price. Yet even this is not enough for Megapool! They've got their sight set on Mars, I just know it!"
"We are all to blame for this situation." Cathy Rimp tried to gently divert Ulrich away from the topic of Mars, otherwise they would not have a normal conversation.
"Just don't lump me in with you all! I warned everyone that the creation of a single technosphere would completely doom our planet! I was proposing a bill to limit the birth rate. I was ready to introduce the necessary biotechnologies. Did anyone listen to me?"
"Ulrich, what good is it to reopen old wounds? It was impossible to unite the Earth without giving them hope."
"So you knew in advance what was going to happen?"
"Certainly not!" Cathy Rimp exclaimed. "The forecasts for the level of industrial fog were optimistic. That was why I hadn't supported your suggestion to restrict the birth rate. We had successfully begun the global urban reconstruction, and the demographic explosion was inevitable, really. People gained new technologies and new living space. Their lives improved..."
"Until the first toxic fallout!" Fitzgerald reminded her acerbically. "The problem is that you have destroyed the biosphere but you have nothing to replace it with! There is no technology capable of doing that! It is beyond the abilities of any sewerage treatment facility! Whatever," he waved his hand dismissively. "Let's leave the past alone. Let's bury a couple of generations in the in-modes, so what? It's not a big deal! But I'm giving you a fair and honest warning: I will not give up an inch of the Martian territories!"
"That's not what we're talking about!"
"Megapool doesn't think so! There'll be no place left to build in ten years! It's a dead end. You should have contacted Bryzgalov directly."
"Yet I contacted you. We have worked together successfully in the past." Cathy Rimp responded gently, knowing that Ulrich would shout for a bit but then eventually calm down.
Fitzgerald only smiled bitterly.
The fight between the corporations was becoming more and more acute with every year. The lack of living space, scarcity of resources, and radically opposed views on how to further develop civilization were all factors that prevented them from working together.
"Catherine, tell me this: we developed and implemented biocybernetic devices, implanting them into the entire population of Earth, and what was the practical impact of the project? Why do people need these implants? So they can generate unique mnemonic signatures?! We never did achieve a direct neurosensor connection between the human brain and the cybernetic systems."
"It's only a matter of time," Cathy Rimp replied evasively. "The implants have laid the groundwork for a new stage in human progress. We created a universal device that was successfully implanted into ninety percent of Earth's inhabitants. But further development in technology requires many years of painstaking research. Meanwhile, we're getting test responses from the implants, collecting statistical data and eliminating some obvious technical errors."
"And what will a direct connection of the human consciousness to cyberspace give us? Personally, I'm happy with the work that has been done. It is indeed unique and cutting-edge technology, but where does it all lead?"
"To the stars," Cathy Rimp stated softly but with certainty.
Fitzgerald frowned. "I don't understand why you have suddenly decided to invest your money in a spaceship. It will reach its goal when neither of us will be alive. What reason is there for me to participate? I've got plenty of my own ideas to develop. Think about it, creating a biosphere for a whole planet from scratch — isn't that a worthy life goal?"
"I'm not saying that terraforming Mars isn't important and necessary. Yet our future lies in other star systems."
"No, I'm not buying it! Either justify my interest in this project or drop the subject. The resource crisis is in full swing and fights over lunar deposits are inevitable. Then comes the asteroid belt. In such a situation, we need to build battleships and mining ships, rather than dream about long-term and highly dubious interstellar projects!"
"The war for resources makes no sense at all," Cathy Rimp rebutted him coldly.
"Sure it does! Earth’s population needs to be fed. The technosphere needs to be developed. Cities need to be built. And where does one get the raw materials?"
"Why do we have to fight? We can divide the commodity sectors in a civilized manner!"
"And who will be the arbitrator? The World Government?" Fitzgerald flapped his hand. "Do we divide it equally? Fairly? Do you honestly believe that? Even in the best scenario, someone will remain unhappy. To give you an example, this is how I foresee things developing. Megapool, with the support of Cryonics, will start yelling about Genesis' monopoly on the Martian lands. Either give us a piece of the Martian pie, or I'm," he jabbed himself in the chest, "not getting a gram of the lunar resources!"
"I will stand against them if you support my project."
"Catherine, my dear! Enough of this madness! I want to transform Mars and turn it into a living planet, do you understand? All the local resources are going into construction and providing tens of thousands of atmospheric processors! How am I to feed the population of Earth? I need raw materials, energy and money, more so than anyone else!"
"And you will start a war with the other corporations?"
"If it comes to that! With the full support of Earth's population, mind you! Everyone wants to eat. Every day."
"A fragile position. A disruption in the food supplies and," Cathy Rimp gave Ulrich an icy look, "Genesis' monopoly turns from a positive into a huge negative."
"Are you threatening me?"
"Goodness, no! I'm just outlining a possible future. If in the midst of a threat of famine, someone influential announces that Genesis is being negligent with the technologies that billions of people rely on, what will be the response, do you think?"
"I don't care! You think that I'm afraid of a hunger riot? Who's going to go out on the streets?" Ulrich snorted in contempt. "Ninety percent of the world's population now spends its whole life in cyberspace! They don't care what happens in reality, as long as — pop!" he imitated the characteristic sound of the pneumatic delivery system, "they get the food paste capsules delivered to their tray three times a day! I don't care about the remaining ten percent. I'll manage. And I'll change the World Government if it suddenly starts to act up!"
"There is a sensible way out of the resource crisis."
"What is it, then?"
"We will divide the Moon fairly. Nobody will touch Mars, I guarantee it. We'll give the asteroid belt to the World Government."
"Since when?!"
"For reasons of economic benefit. None of the corporations can handle exploring and developing the asteroid belt on their own at present. New space technology is needed. Who is going to create it?"
"Well, Cryonics can."
"Cryonics is currently in a difficult financial situation. They're willing to cede the space yards at a reasonable price."
"I'm not going buy them."
"Neither will I, and certainly not Megapool. The only one left is the World Government, with the budget of Earth at their disposal."
"And we'll get an independent space fleet? Another unpredictable force?"
"A transport fleet," Cathy Rimp corrected him gently. "Let them gather resources and engage in space transportation by delivering raw materials to Earth's orbit — it will benefit us."
"I doubt it. Control of the asteroid belt will only strengthen the World Government."
"Ulrich, tell me honestly, what is the advantage of war? Are you ready to build a corporate fleet right now? Do you have spare money for the arms race?"
"No.
"Well, neither do I. So let Earth's budget work in our interest."
"What a strange position you take, Catherine! You're ready to build an interstellar colonial transport. You even have the money, right?"
"A third of the required amount."
"Right, and let's assume that you will get the other third from the World Government, if you succeed in shaking the remainder out of me and creating a new, independent space carrier."
Cathy Rimp nodded.
"You want to get the missing amount from Genesis?"
"Yes."
"I have one question for you — why are you doing this? But tell me the truth, no excuses like 'I have always dreamed of it' and no dribble about the 'future of humankind'."
"What if I really think that?"
"Then I wonder how you managed to stay in business?"
"One doesn't cancel out the other. There's nothing shameful or naive in thinking about people. We are nothing without them, after all."
"I agree," Fitzgerald nodded reluctantly. "There is truth in that. However, I still don't understand why you need this colony project."
"It's our insurance, Ulrich. Our chance for further development. If I am perfectly honest, it is also a chance for me to leave Earth one day."
"Are you mad?" Fitzgerald lost his temper. "You'll go into a cryogenic chamber for hundreds of years? That technology is completely unreliable. It still needs a huge amount of testing!"
"Cryonics is working on it as we speak."
"I don't understand you. I really don't. Why do you want to go to the stars? Do you want me to set aside some territory for you on Mars? I'll make it green! You'll live in a paradise!"
It was as if she didn't hear him. "Ulrich, have you ever thought of what you would do if a global catastrophe was to occur tomorrow?"
"I'll survive it!"
"What then? I know you’ll survive it. And you will find yourself standing uselessly over the ruins of civilization. You won't be able to resurrect Earth or terraform Mars. The threat is real, and we are virtually uninsured from it."
"So?"
"The very idea of an interstellar flight will require completely new technologies, and will lead the corporations to an utterly different and much higher level of development and cooperation. What are we doing now? We're completing the cities, fussing over the capricious and still very unreliable technosphere, picking up the last crumbs of Earth's resources, feeding billions of people who are wasting their life in the Layer. We're fussing. Our progress has stalled and we’re afraid to take one step further. We have banned AIs and restricted food production biotechnologies. We have created so many bans now that we have finally realized how fragile our world is. I'm afraid, Ulrich."
"Of what?"
"Of being held hostage by a dead planet. We need to stop digging in the sandbox and start developing further. We need to polish off the cryogenic chamber technology, build the first interstellar spacecraft, and then an entire fleet. I don't even need to persuade you, just look around. Earth is beyond hope. We are sitting amongst human refuse, on the shore of a poisoned lake. Whether you create an oasis here or not is beside the point. It won't survive for long. Megapool will finish building the Antarctic Megacity and reconstructing the other cities, and Rimp Cybertronics will fill them with technology, but what will we all do then?"
Fitzgerald thought over her words for a long time. "Based on the obtained documents, do you seriously believe that the World Government is capable of building interstellar ships?"
"Not right now. But we can let the authorities develop. Let them buy the shipyards from Cryonics. Let the World Government develop a segment of the commodity economy. We will build the first spaceship. We will create not only the ship but also a range of technologies for settling other worlds."
"There are big risks," Fitzgerald spoke thoughtfully. "I want to raise the stakes," he announced suddenly.
"In what way?" Cathy Rimp asked in surprise.
"In return for funding the project, I will try to lift the ban on a whole range of biotechnologies."
"Which ones?"
"Hybrids. Cybernetic organisms."
"Their use is unacceptable on Earth, as well as pointless."
"They'll come in useful in space and on Mars! Just like the next generation AIs that you are developing in secret, despite the bans. How are things going in that field, by the way?"
"Taking into account the mistakes of the past, it is going very slowly. I want to create AIs that can accumulate experience but whose self-development is kept within very tight boundaries. A difficult task, wouldn’t you agree?"
Ulrich nodded.
"So what about the biotechnologies?" he inquired.
"It's an unexpected demand."
"Nor will it be my last demand, far from it. I don't share your optimism about the resources in the asteroid belt. I'm worried about the future of Mars."
"The future of your project, you mean?"
"Call it what you will. Financing the construction of the first interstellar transport will weaken Genesis' position. I will gradually lose my operating funds, yet terraforming Mars will require constant investments."
"What are you saying, Ulrich? Tell it to me straight!"
"Catherine, I will be acting blindly if I finance your project. Whatever your current estimates, the real costs of the project cannot be predicted. I suspect that with ongoing research and development, the cost of constructing the colonial transport will increase multifold. We're not just going to the Moon, after all."
"Do you have a solution?"
"With the successful launch of the Alpha Colonial Transport, the World Bank will return 50% of the invested capital back to me. I will, in turn, support your plan to create an independent space carrier. For your part, you will ensure that Mars is kept out of Megapool’s reach. By working together, we will lift some of the technology bans. AIs and hybrids, a combination of genetics and cybernetics, will be allowed to exist on Earth."
"These are harsh demands."
"They are doable. You are right in many ways about Earth. The planet is dead and it is time to move on. My path leads to the planet Mars and your path leads to the stars, vague as that future may be. Let's think practically. I will receive the guarantee of the World Bank and a lifting of the ban on many types of technology. How long will it take to design and construct the Alpha, do you think?"
"Ten years, presumably."
"Ah! The Martian atmospheric processor network will be complete by then and active terraforming will have begun. I'll need a huge amount of money!"
"I'll need to think over your terms."
"Think it over, Catherine, but don't forget about the present. Resources, resources and more resources! We either divide them between us or conflict is unavoidable. Now, let's finally have a drink!" He suddenly changed the topic. "You can take off your suit, I guarantee that this place is completely safe. Can't we just sit here peacefully?"
"Of course," Cathy Rimp smiled. Her dream was now a little closer and the future of humanity a little hazier, yet nobody could have predicted what this agreement, reached on the shore of a toxic little lake, would mean for the billions of people on Earth.

* * *

Two days later, a full report of the meeting was placed on Bryzgalov's desk.
He studied it, pondering it a while, then called for the head of his corporation's Research Department. "Have we had any orders from Rimp Cybertronics in recent months?"
"Yes," the other man responded immediately. "We received an order to develop a series of projects called the 'First Colonial Shelter' and the so-called 'Base'."
"What's unusual about their technical specifications?" Bryzgalov narrowed his eyes.
"Both structures cannot be used on Earth. They are not suitable for the Moon or other planetoids without an atmosphere. They're not rushing the deadline but they are requesting that we thoroughly consider each part of the structures and the presence of calculation tables for various gravitational options."
"So Rimp Cybertronics is really planning to build a colonial transport?!" It was a scalding thought. Bryzgalov paused. "According to the recording, Cathy Rimp promised Ulrich Fitzgerald that his Mars project will be left untouched. Yet urbanizing Mars is the only way Megapool can keep developing! So they want to use me but keep me in the dark, and divide up the resources behind my back!" He had turned purple but then quickly got himself under control.
"Should we suspend work on the order?"
"No, continue working on it. Create the project models but don't submit them to Rimp Cybertronics before I say so." He gestured that the head of the department could leave.
"White, come to my office!" Bryzgalov barked over the intercom, experiencing a rush of unusual and feverish agitation.
Unlike Cathy Rimp, he believed that humans were nothing more than bugs, made to breed for the sake of Megapool's prosperity. He despised Ulrich Fitzgerald because of the man’s God-like mania. But the situation was dire. In another ten to fifteen years, there would be no more free space left on Earth for large-scale construction.
"If I don't break Genesis' spine, I will eventually become a small contractor, constructing fancy cottages on the terraformed Mars! No, never!"
Bryzgalov considered the idea of flying to the stars absurd.
He believed that civilization could develop in only one way — as an endlessly growing human anthill!
The door to his office opened.
"There you are! Have a seat." Bryzgalov waved at a row of armchairs and immediately asked a rather unexpected question. "White, if you had to sabotage a spaceship, how would you go about it?"
"There are many ways. I'd need to know the details," the Head of Corporate Security replied without batting an eyelid.
"Right now, it's an equation with multiple unknowns, but it would need to look like an accident."
"The ship would need to be completely destroyed?"
"Preferably."
"Then one of the most suitable methods is overloading the thrust engine. It is easy to trigger if one has access to the control system."
Bryzgalov's cheeks turned pink. That's what he wanted to hear. Details weren't important right now. They had time to prepare.
"Can our agents at Rimp Cybertronics handle this task during the spaceship construction phase?"
"It would make the task much easier," White replied. "May I know the details?"
"Of course," Bryzgalov grinned. "When you get them for me. Here is a recording of the conversation between Catherine Rimp and Ulrich Fitzgerald. That's all that we have so far. Monitor the Alpha Project as if it was your own baby, okay? Plant your people. You'll get unlimited resources but," he stared hard at White, "once the spaceship has been completed, it must not leave the Solar System!"
"We can destroy the project at the early stage."
"No! I want them to invest their money and resources into it!" Bryzgalov was looking far into the future and seeing a chance to destroy Genesis. "We must strike only when the ship is ready for launch and not before! And nothing," he turned to White, "nothing should point to us as the culprits!"



[1] Small mountain valleys are being used as landfills even now.


release - September 12, 2017



1 comment :

  1. An interesting and rather philosophical start to a book in my opinion. It is definitely going to be interesting to read the next few chapters before the book release.

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