Consensus, Chapter 3: Interrupt

The street was hot and stuffy, the sun intensely bright. I immediately felt heat rising from the pavement. Sanya’s basement was dark compared to this suffusing daylight. Of course, since Sanya and her basement were cached memories, who knows how long ago I had been there, had talked to her, if that place even existed. I grimaced, annoyed at being duped, at the suspicion of being used. I looked back for the basement door, but couldn’t see it because I was surrounded by a jostling crowd.

I flinched, then realized they were autocthons, ambling down the sidewalk and muttering in their usual way. I relaxed and matched their unhurried gait. No one would mistake me for an auto, as I was too small and lacked the typical suite of physical commits geared to manual labor. But neither did I particularly stand out among them, as my simple clothing roughly matched theirs. Except the boots, which were something else I needed to examine more thoroughly when I had the time.

The local autos were large but not huge, under two meters tall and shorter. Wide though, with long thick arms and broad hands. Fingers smaller, somewhat out of scale with the palms and wrists, meant for delicate manipulation but no doubt toughened with durability commits. Their faces were simple but lively, especially the tiny black-button eyes. Slit-gilled noses, mouths wide with flat gray teeth. Their thin lips were always moving and exposing those teeth as they talked to themselves in low bass tones. Snatches of task lists, coordinates, code fragments, media dialogue, advertisements, integer progressions, status reports. Or tuneful humming. Some turned to one another briefly, slapped a shoulder, jutted a chin or barked a few emphatic syllables. None of this was conscious, as autos have no consciousness. Just data leak from stimuli in the viral soup of their platforms.

Their clothing was bland, functional, and worn. Lots of denim, synthetic leathers and cottons. Dark or faded colors, few patterns. Packs that looked empty, meaning this was a transitory or endshift crowd. No doubt most were undergoing recompile as they walked, payloads swapping out new commits suited to whatever work lay ahead. Most were androgynous, though some had sexual characteristics of either or both common genders. Breasts, flared hips, thick necks and facial hair, combinations of these. Many had been committed hairless, others were shaved. Skin tones tended to brown heads and pale arms. Lots of visible scarring, but no branding.

The commingled buzz of this many autos chattering soothed me. They instinctively gave me more space than they gave each other, marking me out as different. If anyone saw me traversing what was likely a designated autocthonic byway, it would draw attention. Still, keeping my gaze down on the sidewalk soiled with well-trampled red dirt, their noise made me sentimental. I was reaching back for something about the autos I found familiar and comforting, but I couldn’t place it, and my frustration at not understanding dried up that comfort. I knew deeply and surely all about autos — how they worked, how they constantly broadcast and received, how they lived and how they were made. But how could I be so familiar with them and not know why? How could I remember so much about the Consensus, the poleis, the intelligences, and I myself was always the void in the middle of all that easy knowledge?

Sanya said this place was seventeen kilometers from Atlanta, but it could be any near-polis exurb. The air was relatively clear of particulate, more hazy from humidity and the sun beating down from a blue sky with few clouds. Exburban chemical smells mixed with loam and vegetation, so probably agribusiness nearby. Tall cabless maglevs loomed on the streetside of my crowd of autos, guided by remote or robotics. Since few SKUs ever saw them, the maglevs were unfinished steel or painted flat gray, with no visible logos and plenty of dust coating their sides. They made little machine noise but gave off a powerful subaudible thrumming. They were all containerized, some flatbeds carting sealed boxes, others enclosed with containers secured inside. The biggest were four meters tall, wide closed bays hatching either flank. Those carried climate-controlled, pressurized, or hazardous cargo.

The neighborhood was blocked off into low brown and off-white buildings, likely midtech and light manufacturing. High, narrow, horizontal windows. Nothing too hardened, no obvious military, no shops. Many autos, no SKUs besides me. I had no clear thought of what I needed to do right now other than better understand where I was, what had happened to me, and where I should go to protect myself. I did not feel endangered but did not feel safe. I didn’t even have a grasp on how much time had passed since my last clear thought, because I didn’t know when that was.

Keeping pace with the autos seemed to be taking me toward an open plaza, which was as good as anywhere. While I walked, I decided to access the local agency to verify my position, date, and any other information that might be useful. Perhaps even discreetly check on the names and places Sanya had mentioned. There was little chance of exposure as long as I anonymized and kept my queries general. I didn’t break pace, but I centered and waited for handshake as I moved.

Nothing. I sighed but this happened sometimes in exburbs with conflicting agency coverage. I centered again and waited. Still nothing. I could feel myself as an active node, but there was no handshake, no sync, no contact at all. As if I was alone and isolated.

And yet I was surrounded by autos, whose platforms were likely nodes for several agencies local and otherwise. I should be swimming in a mix of agents and low-frequency radio so thick that centering here would bring up multiple options for sync. Not to mention the exurb, no doubt cultivating its own cloud of agents, all seeking interaction. I centered once more. Nothing.

I did not stop but slowed my walk, looking around, trying to be alert, trying to understand. No, I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t like that. It was more like I was invisible.

As I thought that, I suddenly became much more visible as the autos around me broke right and followed the inside wall of the plaza. I kept walking briskly forward, exposed, with what I hoped seemed like purpose and direction.

The plaza the autos had led me to was in fact a market. Wide, low stalls were arranged in a dozen facing rows, interlocking steel gantries supporting reflective fiberform roofs for shade over each row. There were many patrons and many vendors, and many of both entering and exiting the plaza and rows from every direction but mine. Only a few were obvious autos, while the rest appeared to be local SKUs. I was acutely consciously I had walked in via an autocthonic byway, and I hastened to join the milling procession at the end of one row of stalls.

Far from a raucous bazaar, patrons drifted calmly and conversed urgently but softly, often in small groups, with solicitous vendors and assistants. The haggling merged to low white noise that permeated the space, but was not loud. The heat from the sun was much less in the shade, though the air was still close and hot. The local SKUs dressed in dark-colored or blinding white cloth, the usual exurban mix of lowtech robes, saris, jumpers, denim. But their commits marked them as upper middle class, if the leisurely nature of the market’s commerce hadn’t already done so. With a few exceptions of deep black and brown skin — tropicoastal variants — most of the locals had extensive pigmentation and craniofacial commits toward a physically stockless norm that must be the current fashion of their geographic caste. These people were smooth, caucasoid but lightly tanned, with large eyes and prominent brows and cheekbones. Small noses and mouths, with black, short and tightly coiled hair. I didn’t recognize this particular palette of commits, but I didn’t know if I paid attention to such things in my unremembered life. I realized with a start that their pigmentation matched mine, that I had earlier noted and disliked as too light. Had Sanya matched me to this place? I reached up to my head and felt thick straight hair, shorn close at the sides and back, longer on top. Greasy and unwashed. My coloration might be similar to the locals, but my hair definitely wasn’t. I restrained myself from touching my face to check for cosmetic commits. I had no idea what I looked like, really. Or what I had ever looked like.

I wandered over to the nearest stall and pretended to browse. Cutlery, fine knives, forks, skewers, and other implements of kitchenwork. The blades and utensils appealed to me, simply but sturdily wrought of expensive metallics from edge to hilt. Few adornments but attention paid to craft the handles thick and substantial, inviting a strong but easy grasp. Without thinking I reached out an index finger to touch a long, thin boning knife with a black plastic grip, then tapped up the grip to the blade. The grip was cool but the metal was warm.

An older couple — hard to say if their age was commit or chronological — concluded their business with the knife vendor. They turned away, taking nothing, but the vendor smiled after them with satisfaction. Then he turned to me, and his satisfaction evaporated along with his smile. He was very tall and imposing, with long silky, dark red robes cinched at the neck and waist, and twin yellow pouches on straps crossed over his chest. His skin was deep brown, moreso than his customers, and his facial commits were an even more pronounced version of the local style. His cheekbones in particular were so thick and wide they verged on rudimentary tusks. He frowned, drawing those cheekbones into sharper relief, and deeply emerald eyes bored into me as his long stride brought him directly opposite. What I could see of him was hairless and taut.

He leaned forward very slightly from the waist, hands clasped behind his back, and stared pointedly into my eyes. “May I assist you with that?” he asked. In contrast with his hostile demeanor, his tone was pleasant, even accommodating, which made it all the more unnerving.

I withdrew my finger from the knife. “No thank you,” I answered. “I was just admiring your blades. They are very fine.”

“Ah,” he said, rescinding his forward lean and seeming to elongate his spine in order to gaze down on me from maximum height. “So they are. However, I should point out your zero permissions, coupled with your” — and here he let his eyes drop and travel back up my body — “… appearance … make you an unlikely customer. Please refrain from any contact with my property.”

Zero permissions. So my inability to access the local agency was reciprocal. The vendor’s own agents — dispersed in a microscopic cloud around his stall, or even the market at large, could not read me. How else could he gauge the worth or prospects of potential customers, and fend off subversion from his competitors? To him, disallowing agency access meant I was either indigent or dishonest, a waste of his time in either case.

The vendor raised a hand, forefinger extended upward for emphasis. “In fact, I suggest you remove yourself from this market entirely. Some of my colleagues are less tolerant than myself, and might resort to unpleasantness.” His hand dropped, went behind his back again. “Best to avoid a scene, and go out the way you arrived.” He inclined his head to indicate the autocthonic byway, now empty. I hadn’t been so subtle after all.

But I definitely did not want a scene. I took a step back, keeping my expression neutral. Behind me, a voice shouted, “Charlek! How do you remain in operation with such despicable manners?”

The serene contempt of the knife vendor — Charlek — wilted into a sour mash of disgust. I spun on one foot to see the vendor across the path flipping up a hinged counter with a bang, scattering handfuls of circuits, wires, modules, and other electronic debris. He wedged a prodigious torso through the gap and stomped over to my side. The man was fat but had once been merely stout, though he still looked very strong. His body was covered in a patchwork outfit of brown and orange leathers and canvas, stitched with numerous hooks, eyelets, and chains, many of which appeared decorative at best. A deep black hood gathered in a heap behind his neck, though his pyramidal head was fully exposed. Sparse and wiry black hair thatched his sweating red scalp, gathering into a fierce salt-and-pepper beard around his jowls. Whatever else he was, the hood marked him as Revealed.

The man didn’t look at me but down at the knives. He snorted. “The usual baubles and trinkets, I see.” Turning my way, he said, “Charlek services a very profitable class of SKU. They love his merchandise for its simplicity, its elegance, its lack of pretense.” Gesturing expansively at Charlek and his stall, he continued, “Oh wait, am I speaking of the merchandise or the customers’ laudatory self-regard? I forget. The goods are junk, of course. Fraudulent and worse. The price paid is for the show, for the feeling, for the transactional nature of Charlek’s pandering.” He placed both meaty hands on his heart, pursed his lips in admiration as he nodded at the knife vendor. “I salute your absolute dedication to your dubious craft, sir, I really do.”

Charlek stared at the other man with open revulsion, as if he might take up the tools of his trade at any moment with murderous intent. “Get away from here, Bagge,” he spat. “Both of you, before I lose patronage due to your insulting and ridiculous presence.” It did seem other patrons were pointedly drifting away from this end of the aisle.

“Tut,” grunted the large man, in mock surprise. He rotated his body to me, his face pink with amusement under the coarse beard. His eyes were an unearthly piercing blue and also bloodshot, together usually a sign of stacked and conflicting ocular commits. “Professor Bagge. Please excuse my fellow market-rat, he has been in this line of work far too long. Join me? For tea? I am not busy at present.” He extended a thick arm back toward his own stall and waited.

I turned without out a word and walked across to Bagge’s stall. I intended to thank him and leave, getting away from this exposure and Charlek’s anger searing my back. But I noticed something on the counter, disturbed in a pile of junk by Bagge’s abrupt exit. It was a dull steel band, suited for a wrist, with a simple clasp and zebra-striped with dark black silicate. I picked it up.

Bagge sauntered up behind me. “In honest truth, I apologize on my own behalf as well. I feel it is my calling from the God to daily remind Charlek of his nonsignificance.” He noticed what I was holding. “A terminal? Are you a collector, then? I have no tea, of course. May I ask your name?”

I fit the steel band over my left wrist and lightly swiped two fingers across its surface. Nothing. “Is it functional?” I asked, ignoring his question about my name.

Bagge stared at me, then glanced at the band around my wrist. I sensed he was activating his commits to appraise me. He shrugged. “I have no idea. Not my area of expertise, I’m afraid.” He shouldered past me and pushed himself back through the counter gap into his stall. He did not bother to close it behind him.

The rest of the counter, and in fact the rest of Bagge’s stall, was crowded with piles of tech and mechanical refuse. Most of it looked damaged or junked, or both. A scavenger’s stash of household appliances, from grooming wands to actuators, screenmesh and gaskets and spools of conduit, flats of mismatched fiberform, piles of connectors and junction cases. Nestled in the back was a workbench crowded with half-broken devices and dismantled hunks of apparatus, most bristling with clamps, testing wire, and toolshafts.

Following my gaze, Bagge said, “It’s a chaotic, terrific mess, I know, but it’s how I work best. And my work is grand indeed!” He gestured toward a corner of the stall. “Otto! Introduce yourself.”

Following his hand, I saw a dirty blue tarp rise up and then fall, revealing a hulking, nude, ungendered autocthon, its sagging and wrinkled vanilla skin covered with hatched gray scars, incisions, and clumsily lasered-off brands. It blinked dust out of its black eyes, and rasped in a low but clear voice, “Hello, madame. My name is Otto.”

I recoiled as Bagge barked out a laugh. “Oh don’t be so upset! He’s harmless. A social algorithm I play with sometimes, though I’ve employed various iterations of Otto for years.” Bagge stomped over to Otto and gave it a playful slap on the chest. “I am an autocthonologist by training and inspiration, though a sole proprietorship is hard to sustain these days.” He looked around his stall regretfully, taking in his wares. “So I am forced to trade in … this,” and his eyes swept over towards Charlek and the market generally, “and in … this place.”

Otto remained inert after its disconcerting introduction. Autos were certainly capable of speech for the purposes of carrying out their tasks, but it was usually illegal, and at least in very bad taste, to code them for cognitive simulations. After being told to introduce itself, Otto appeared to wait for further instruction from Bagge.

“Why would you make it speak like that?” I asked, too curious to resist.

Bagge shrugged. “It passes the time. I often walk a lonely path, so a little conversation keeps me company while allowing me to debug Otto’s runtime.” He brushed off a few patches of dirt from Otto’s torso, arms, neck and shoulders. “I’ve had this Otto here for about ten years. Bought him off the recycling line. He’s quite decrepit as you can see, no telling how long he’s been running around. Picking apart his codebase and a little spectrography tells me he’s at least two centuries old, and ill-used in that time. But many of his sort are older, as you’ve probably heard.”

I tried a few more swipes on the terminal band. Still no response. The antiquated device might be the only way for me to manually access an agency, since I couldn’t do so otherwise. But I had nothing to buy it with. I needed to keep Bagge talking while I considered my options. “Why do you keep calling it ‘he’?” Gendering autos in conversation was also frowned upon, even when they’d been physically committed to a gender for whatever reason.

Bagge turned back to me. “Why shouldn’t I?” he said indignantly. “He hasn’t had a functioning set of genitals of any sort for a very long time, if ever. I sometimes call him she or it, too, depending on my mood, or what I think Otto’s mood might be. Or even some of the other gender referents. He can’t tell me himself how he wants to be called, more’s the pity. But think of it,” and Bagge, smiling beatifically, “how little he’d care for such things! Autocthons are functionally immortal, obviously deigned for viral efficiency, biologically modular, and mindless. The perfect tools and servants. But nobody knows where they came from, the originals. Not for sure.”

“There are lots of theories,” I replied. “They were probably leftovers from the wars. All the genetics indicate proto-SKU chromosomals.” I wondered if I could just steal the terminal. How secure was this exurb, really? Bagge certainly wouldn’t be able to catch me on foot, given his physique.

“Pffff,” snorted Bagge. “You, me, and everyone in this market — we are the leftovers. Ninety percent of the human race was obliterated in the run-up to Consensus. That’s a lot of biomass! It didn’t end up in communal graves or the fossil record. All that flesh went somewhere. And when the God made peace, and all those little angels and devils went to sleep … well, it was certainly convenient that we, the leftovers, had the autocthons ready and so very willing to help rebuild.”

Of course a Revealed would think of the Revelator as being the intelligence that “made peace.” I didn’t care about his theology though.

Bagge turned back to Otto. “Just look at him! Who knows, maybe we’re even distantly related. Smile, Otto!” The authocthon opened his lips in a mechanical rictus, showing off several missing teeth. Bagge turned to me and grinned. “What do you think? Could we be brothers?”

I shook my head. If widely known, Bagge’s relationship to his autocthon would bring immediate censure in any lawful polis. Still, I needed to try out this terminal, or find someone who could fix it, and I decided attempting theft would draw too much attention. Which gave me another idea.

“I want to buy this,” I said, holding up my wrist with the terminal band encircled. “How much attention?”

Bagge’s face fell. “Even with the meager business I get in this market, trafficking in mere attention always feels so banal. I’m a professor, not producer nor pujari, so I’d always rather trade for something more interesting.”

“Even so,” I retorted, “you are Revealed of the God. Aren’t you?”

“What!” he said, taken aback. “I am a man of science! Of course I am Revealed of the God!”

“Then you must accept attention,” I continued. “That’s what I’ve always heard, anyway, that even if you do not seek it out — even if you are not templed, not pujari, not a producer. You must accept attention for the God.”

“Fine!” snapped Bagge, actually angry. “You’ve wasted enough of my morning, why not waste a little more.” He began rummaging amongst his junk, selecting components here and there, assembling pieces and connecting leads. “I suppose I can trade your paltry attention for something of value, elsewhere.” But then he abruptly froze, slowly dropped his hands to the counter, releasing the half-assembled device before it even took recognizable form.

“Oh dear,” he said, cocking his head and leering at me. “Of course, to pay attention, to get that terminal you want for some inscrutable reason … you will have to elevate your personal permissions. Otherwise, how will I grant you access to my agency?”

A chill swept over my skin, even in the heat. I was at zero permissions and didn’t know how to revise. I couldn’t even pay in attention, the lowest form of trade. I had nothing to offer, either for the terminal or its repair.

“There are other ways to do business,” said Bagge cheerfully. “You have something I could be interested in, and it’s more in my line than simple attention anyhow.”

I stared. “What are you talking about?”

Bagge stuck out a fist, extended a thumb horizontally. “Intellectual property,” he said. He rotated his fist to point his thumb straight down. “Your boots.”

I followed his pointing thumb and glanced at my boots. They looked the same, though now covered in reddish dust from my walk. “What do you care about my boots?”

The professor bustled around his counter and bulled his way through the opening once again. When he arrived before me, he eagerly clapped his hands together and contemplated my boots. “Well, let us be candid, shall we?” he said. “You are of mysterious aspect, zero permissions, obviously not local and poorly dressed. And yet, you are wearing boots that, while unobtrusive, are to a casual inspection obviously hitech and possibly tactical?”

He looked back up at me and raised his eyebrows. “I should point out that I was curious about you as soon as my agency detected a SKU coming into the market among a crowd of autos, which are, as you may recall, my specialty.” He looked down once more. “And yet these boots intrigue me. Not often is one allowed to examine such products in close proximity, when they are not, say, actively engaged in kicking or stomping on one. Would it be fair to say, perhaps,” and he leaned in closely to me, enough to waft over a personal odor like burning wood, “that you came by these boots in an unusual transaction?”

I drew back. I didn’t know anything about the boots, though I appreciated their comfort and steady support on my feet. But instinctively, I also did not want to give them up. “The boots are not for sale.”

Bagge looked wounded. “I have no interest in material goods!” he exclaimed. “As mentioned, I prefer property of an intellectual nature. I ask that you merely allow me to diligence your boots to learn what I may. I would consider that a fair trade for a broken terminal.”

I thought about this. A technical diligence would give Bagge details about the boots, but might also reveal details about me, about what had happened to me. I had to decide if learning that information was worth Bagge knowing it also. “On condition that you share the diligence with me, under NDA.”

He smiled in a way I did not like. “Oh now that is interesting,” he said. “Normally I would never agree to terms that absurd, but just the fact that you also want to know about your boots is, itself, a wonderful nugget of amusing and intriguing information paid. Very well! Now …”

Bagge’s face briefly froze, then his gaze unfocused. He looked thoughtful. I could tell he was considering something relayed by his commits, and at first I assumed it was about my boots. Then I realized the general noise of conversation in the market had died down almost to silence, and my nerves chilled.

Turning from me, Bagge looked down the aisle of the market to the other side of the plaza. “I believe some people are here to see you,” he said. “You never gave me your name. Iriam, is it?”

In the aisle, customers and vendors alike were parting to make way for a security autocthon. This was a civilian model — not a three-meter military auto — but still quite obviously meant for combat. It was about as tall and broad as Bagge, but its torso, head, thighs, and forearms were armored in dark blue plastic. The visible arms and legs were gray-skinned and bursting with corded muscle, while its wrists ended not in hands but in thick, crablike pincer thumbs. The auto’s legs had been committed unguligrade, giving it the unsettling backward-knee appearance meant for power and speed. Instead of hooves it had four thickly treaded steel toes, flexing and pinioning with its weight in the dirt as it marched down the aisle toward me. There was no face, just a featureless flat panel of more blue armor.

Bagge, and everyone else in the market, must have just received an alert about me, sent by this auto, or whoever dispatched it to capture me. And now they were going to watch while I was taken. I stumbled backward, grabbing at the stall counter for support. There was no way I could fight or even run from the oncoming auto. Given its speed and power, it would be on me in seconds. I tried to think through the rising panic.

“How rude!” boomed Bagge. He was breathing hard, grinning fiercely as he watched the auto’s advance. “Something tells me these are not your friends. Otto! Please interpose yourself between this lady and the ruffian down the lane!”

A shower of junked parts struck my head and shoulders as Otto abruptly vaulted over the counter, scattering Bagge’s messy inventory, and landed in front me, planting itself in the security auto’s path. I cringed and looked up as I heard the other auto’s tromping feet slow and halt behind Bagge’s auto. Now that it was fully standing, I realized Otto was much taller and larger than anyone in the market, even the security auto. I couldn’t see around it.

The huge old auto stared blankly down at me, almost expectantly. “Thank you, Otto,” I said without thinking.

“You are welcome, madame,” said Otto in its deep, scratchy monotone. Then its head ripped off.

A geyser of vividly red hyperoxygenated blood sprayed across my face and body, getting in my eyes, nose, mouth, everywhere. I shouted and fell to the ground, crawling backwards and wiping frantically at my face. I could hear Bagge screaming and others in the market shouting, shrieking questions, orders, things I couldn’t make out. Spitting and wiping my eyes, I could finally see that the security auto had taken hold of Otto’s neck and left shoulder from behind, and in effect torn it in half. As I watched, the security auto continued breaking Otto’s body until the left arm separated messily from the ribs and musculature, indifferent organs spilling out of the gaping cavity. Otto’s head flopped away from me on a shredded column of flesh, spine protruding, and I was glad I couldn’t see its face.

“You … you fuckers of dregs and dogs!” raged Bagge, shaking his fists and foaming at the mouth with Otto’s blood and his own spittle. He was as drenched in blood as I was, and his wild hair and beard, rolling blue eyes, and sputtering anger made him look completely unhinged. “You dare to lay hands on my property? You do this violence in plain sight of the God?” Teeth gnashing, he worked his fingers over his chest in strange pantomime while dancing from foot to foot, twitching his head everywhere to stare at the security auto, at me, at the crowd, as if all were offensive and enemy to him.

The security auto dropped the gory pieces of Otto and stepped over the corpse. Though it too was covered in blood, the fluid ran quickly off its armor plating without soaking in. How efficient, how well-designed, I thought to myself calmly, looking up as it reached a pincered hand to take hold of me.

I screamed as a rush of agony shot up the left side of my body. I spasmed full length in the dirt and blood, with a feeling like scalding water boiling up my leg, across my groin and chest to my shoulder and out to my left arm and hand, where it bloomed into an unbearable pain as if my finger joints were separating and shattering all at once. At the same time, the looming auto contorted and hunched over, then fell on top of me. The crush of its weight knocked the wind from my lungs and made me forget the pain in my hand for a split second, before the auto writhed off me, managing to strike me in the face with an elbow as it did. My brain rattled in my skull and I felt teeth crack from the blow, vision blurring as I almost fainted.

Quickly as it came, the acute pain winked out. But I still hurt all over, not just my face. I was utterly drained and shaking. I rolled on my side, looking around blearily for the security auto.

It was down right next to me, also on its side and turned toward me, like the two of us were in bed together. I couldn’t see anything in its featureless face. It was not moving.

I couldn’t get up, but I crawled backward from the auto, shivering. I worked my jaw and felt in my mouth with my tongue, tasting for lacerations or broken teeth. When I tried to push myself up to sitting, I realized my left hand was gone.

Dumbly, I looked down at a shifting black mass where my hand had been. It was a like a moving cocoon of dark spiderwebs, opaque, sheathing itself up my wrist and into my shirtsleeve. The mass was the size of my fist, with a dozen slowly rotating tendrils gradually withdrawing back into the larger shape. I could feel it squeezing my wrist, then I realized I could feel that pressure all up my arm, on my ribs, down my left leg. I looked at my feet. My left boot was … not gone, but different. It was thin and slight, like a stocking. While I watched, though, it was thickening, starting to swell out to a size and form like its matched twin on my right foot.

Looking back at my hand, I could see it again. Or I could see the outline of my hand, still gloved in the black webbing. Then my fingertips emerged. The pressure rippled from my hand to my arm, down my body, down my leg. The webbed mass was retreating along my body back into the boot.

“I knew those boots were interesting,” Bagge wheezed. I came back to my senses with a start, and looked up.

Bagge was leaning on his counter, heaving and blowing out deep breaths. He still looked crazed, but now he also looked oddly pleased and satisfied. He watched the progress of the black webbing as it vanished into my sleeve, as the boot reformed into its innocuous original shape.

I sat up on my haunches. I could not think. What was happening? More security autos would be coming. Why was there no sound in the market? I looked around dully.

Everyone in the market was lying on the ground. I could see piles of people all down the aisle, tumbled together everywhere, as if cut down in flight. No one was talking. No one was moving. Even Chorokk was facedown on his stall counter, smooth brown head motionless. I wondered if he’d cut himself falling into his case of knives.

“I deployed an interrupt,” said Bagge smugly. “A custom routine I’ve kept loaded in my agency for a long, long time, saving for a remarkable occasion such as this.” He looked around the market. “All these fools and reprobates, they’ll wake up in a few hours with a nasty headache, and lot of commits in need of a hard reset or two.” He wiped his face, smearing blood in his beard, and sighed. “It kills autos though. I tracked five more of your blue-plated heathens, crashing their way through the stalls. They’re scattered around out there, now,” he said, gesturing vaguely. “Along with a few other innocent creatures.”

Bagge fixed me with a glare. “I am excepted from my own code of course, and somehow … I had a feeling, you see, that you also would be safe.” He nodded sagely, as if at the confirmation of his feeling. He had signed his own death warrant. Coding a viral interrupt — let alone deploying one — was a tremendous and unforgivable crime, anywhere.

He staggered over to me and viciously kicked the fallen security auto. “This one though … you did something else entirely, to him. Something much more dramatic.”

I looked closely. The auto’s armored torso was leaking darkly, an almost black liquid. What passed for blood in an engineered body like this one. It took me a moment to notice, but the auto was punctured by multiple tiny holes, through armor and flesh both. Mostly concentrated in the chest, but visible in the arms, legs, and faceplate too. A mass of scattered pinpricks.

Hundreds of them.

My left hand was cold now. With a start, I realized the terminal band was still on that wrist, and that I had sync with it. It was active and could access an agency when I wanted to try. Whatever was moving on my body had stopped. I levered myself upright, unsteadily. I could not process what had happened, what was still happening. I had to get out of here.

“ATTENTION, IN THE MARKET,” broadcast a loudly amplified voice. “ATTENTION, 0̢̀4҉̵̧4̸́҉҉͢4̸̴̨͡͠5̵̀͜͠1҉̷͜1̵̀7̵̛͢7̷́͠7̷̸̢͢3҉́͏̴4́͟͜͡ AND 9̶̸̢̧͏7̴̶̛͘̕4͏̶̀͠3̸̨3̕͘͢͝1̡͠2̛͠9̶̴̨͢͡3̶͘͝7̸̨̀0̛̛͘͟9͏̷̸͝,” it said, scaling to ultrasonic tones while pronouncing the machine language strings of my SKU, and presumably Bagge’s.

Both of us looked around, confused. Then we saw. A hundred meters away, at the end of the market aisle where the first security auto had come, a figure stood among the prone bodies of the marketgoers. It was a man, not an auto, though he wore light security armor. The armored plates were blue like the auto’s, but they were articulated to a close-fit white uniform that covered him neck to toe, including gloves. His head and face were bare, pale-skinned, paler than myself or anyone in the market. He had short red hair whose color was visible even this far away, but I could not make out his eyes.

“AS A DULY AUTHORIZED REPRESENTATIVE OF BRAMAH ASSURANCE CORPORATION, I AM HERE TO RECOUP THE DEFAULTED LEASE ON THE 0̢̀4҉̵̧4̸́҉҉͢4̸̴̨͡͠5̵̀͜͠1҉̷͜1̵̀7̵̛͢7̷́͠7̷̸̢͢3҉́͏̴4́͟͜͡ PLATFORM,” the man said. He spoke without strain, vocal commit enabling him to project with great volume into space and distance. And he spoke very clearly, without urgency or anger, in a tone accustomed to command. “I AM ALSO AUTHORIZED TO CHARGE AND COLLECT LOSS UNLAWFULLY INFLICTED BY ANY PERSONS OR ENTITIES INTERFERING WITH THIS RECOUPMENT. BY HEARING AND UNDERSTANDING THIS MESSAGE, YOU ACCEPT AND AGREE TO BE BOUND BY THESE TERMS AND CONDITIONS, IN ADDITION TO THE BINDING TERMS OF THE DEFAULT CLAUSES UNDER THE LEASE HERE CITED.” He began to walk toward us.

“What … impossible … how could he resist my interrupt? How?” stammered Bagge. Then he slapped a hand to his forehead. “The God,” he said with fearful wonder. “He must be Clean.” He whirled to me, waving his arms, and shouted “Run!”

I heard a tiny little pop sound, and Bagge spun around and crashed into his counter, then collapsed. He bellowed and screamed as he convulsed, clutching his belly, and streams of blood coursed out between his fingers.

I looked back at the approaching man as something zipped past my face too fast to see, superheating the air and scorching my cheek and right ear. I grabbed the side of my head and saw the man pointing something at me. A projectile weapon. A reliable backup when viral measures are down from an interrupt.

I ran.

I ran, even though my joints ground together, my limbs were leaden, and my head felt full of mud. Behind me, Bagge bellowed and wailed and thrashed, his the only sounds in the market otherwise silenced by his interrupt. The man in white, the Clean who shot at us, was no longer thundering for my surrender.

I ran across the rows of stalls, at a right angle to the shooter, hoping to break his line of sight. But my running was so haphazard and reckless, I careened off columns and bounced over counters, tripping over the prone bodies of marketgoers and vendors. I fell and fell again, each time pulling myself up and staggering forward. One row from the edge of the market, where I hoped to break free and gain the street, a flash of hot white light seared across my path and into the last line of stalls. And then everything exploded.

A fist of heat and force smashed into my body and blew me tumbling out of the market row, into the open plaza. I felt my skin singe, my ears and head rang like a gong, and then a roaring blackness broke over and swallowed me.

←Chapter 2: The Exchange — — — — Chapter 4: The Clean
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