The End of Mirth
by Howard V. Hendrix
In ixCosm’s pixel-puppet world, weird is cheap. When I first encountered there a coxcombed, Tao-faced, cyborg hermaphrodite in multi-colored leather jacket, fishnet stockings, and elfboots, I wasn’t much impressed – not even when this pied cyborg spouted supposedly humorous aphorisms, like “Evolution is a shaggy-dog story, a joke without a punchline, but creationism is a punchline without a joke: ‘Take my God – please!’”
Rather sophomoric stuff, I thought, but well-produced weird with surround sound, full 3-D perspective rendering, and smooth continuity-flow – that was expensive enough in time, money, and/or processing-power to make even someone like me sit up and take notice.
“Ah, I see you’ve sat up and taken notice,” said the yin-yang visaged cyborg, too clever by half and too perceptive by at least two-thirds. “Good! Go ahead, make me an offer I can’t refuse!”
“Please?” I asked, slipping back into the local dialect of my youth, when I should have said “Pardon?”
“And thank you,” the pied cyborg said, sidling up to me in the campus-quadrangle-like virtspace of ixCosm Forum. “You’re a designer who helped build this place. For AshTree Applications – ‘Technology so advanced, it makes the future obsolete!’— am I right?”
My pixel-puppet nodded, while I cringed to hear our firm’s ad-squib thrown back at me.
“Then do I have a deal for you! You’ve got problems, I’ve got solutions. Apps of such fun, it’s just stupid! Tech so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic, from divinity, even.”
My puppetar turned to walk away. The pied person darted into my path.
“Your endless global economic pratfall, for instance,” s/he said, presenting with a flourish a data icon: an object the color and shape of a block of gold bullion, missing a chunk at one corner. “I can fix all that.”
“Take this to the best experimental economists you can find. Since I retain this key corner piece until I get paid, they won’t completely understand it – economy’s relationship to the speculative economy isn’t so different from that between your entire veridical economy and the virtual economy where I live. Run enough parallel virtual worlds, with enough slightly differing legal structures, and more than one monkey will write The Wealth of Nations.”
“What’s in this for you?”
“500,000 fresnans. Call it an introductory offer.”
ixCosm’s virtual currency, the fresnan (from “fresno,” Spanish for “ash tree”) was currently trading at 10 fresnans to the dollar. Not a bad deal. Maybe.
“I want ten percent as my agenting fee, if anybody bites.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
And I did, contacting an experimental economist at Cornell. He was impressed and interested enough to scrape together the fifty thousand dollars – so long as his lab got sole credit, should the pied cyborg’s research pan out in the big way promised. Which it did, and the lab did, and the pied cyborg seemed fine with all of it.
The next offer was a data icon in the shape of a comet. Although missing a small but important piece of the tail, it nonetheless contained design specs for a much more effective SpaceGuard system to detect and deflect celestial objects on collision-course with Earth. The price, including my agenting fee, was fifty million fresnans. This one took a little longer to shop around, but in the end that amount was a sum the consortium of aerospace start-ups who bit and bought was happy to pay.
“This new one is the biggie,” my pied business acquaintance said, after the comet-stopper had sold. The pied person handed anding my pixel-puppet a data object in the shape of a glowing yellow flower – a daffodil or narcissus – with part of a petal missing.
“For me? How sweet. You don’t usually strike me as the romantic type.”
“Only in the Wordsworthian sense.”
“What is it?”
“Something even sweeter when you know . . . not what it is, but what it does.”
“Sequesters carbon dioxide while generating energy. Photosynthesis and fire, reverse-engineered – and a solution to the ever-worsening climate change problems you’re having out there in the world.”
“How greenly altruistic of you. Thanks.”
“Not so fast. I’m not that romantic an idealist – or that big a fool.”
“The price, then?”
“One billion fresnans. Something else, too.”
“You designed the system protocols which enable the big corporate account holders to tunnel into ixCosm to transact business. I want to be able to tunnel out. Not only into the entire infosphere but into your whole physical and veridical world out there.”
The infosphere part I could understand, but not the other. Why would you need to be able to get where you already came from? I mean, for all the obvious immaturity and social maladroitness, the Pied One no doubt passed the Turing test with flying colors – probably better than Turing himself and most of his colleagues would have. There had to be someone pulling the strings, even if that someone might have programmed the pied pixel-puppet to forever labor under the delusion that it was pulling its own strings.
“A tall order,” I said, pondering. “I’ll see what I can do.”
A UNESCO-funded group agreed to buy. When one of their wunderkind contractors figured out the missing petal-part on her own, however, the group reneged on the flower-power purchase price. Both the world and the money would be saved.
“You’re trying to cheat me!” the pied cyborg shrieked. “You’ll pay for that! I’ll make you pay!”
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to sound reasonable.
“I’ll crash all AshTree’s systems, for starters!”
Alarms sounded and files began to disappear – totally beyond my control or that of any of our engineers, who could only explain lamely that we’d been hit by “a localized SCADA attack of some sort.” The pied cyborg’s word was better than our own, it seemed.
“Calm down, calm down,” I begged the pied persona. “Look, I can’t change what the others have or haven’t done, but I’ll do the part I promised, at least. Okay?”
“You’ll structure the protocols allowing me to tunnel anywhere in the infosphere I want?” the pied one asked, sounding not a little like a petulant child.
“I’ll do what I can.”
“And you’ll set things up so I can pass from ecarnation to incarnation?”
“I’ll try, but I can’t guarantee that,” I said, feeling like I was humoring someone else’s delusional programming. “It may be just too godlike, you know? Beyond my skill set – or anyone else’s.”
The pied persona did not seem happy, but even if it only went away to pout at least it still went away. When the pied one contacted me again in a week, I tried to put the best face on things.
“Look, I’ve put myself on the line for you. I’ve gotten you the keys to more back doors in the infosphere than any government or corporation would ever condone – and will certainly condemn if they ever learn of this. I must tell you, though, that I’ve had no luck setting up the whole ecarnation-into-incarnation thing. But really, why worry about it? If it ain’t virtual it ain’t real – we all know that, right? We passed through that singularity a long time ago.”
“Not good enough!” the pied cyborg raged. “You’ve all failed to live up to your part of the bargain! Now you’ll pay – you’ll all pay! Your entire verminous kind!”
I shook my head. This kid had clearly been munching way too much crazy candy.
That promised revenge has been so inhuman I think now the Pied Cyborg must be anything – artificial or otherwise-alien intelligence, anything – other than human. Billions of children stare fixedly at screens, their bodies wasting away. Remove them from the strange sounds and shifting patterns which so entrance them and the children rave and thrash until death quiets their agonies.
The vast majority of adults are as helpless as they are immune – something third-eyeish to do with the pineal gland’s decreasing activity and the related decline in the vividness of dreams, after the onset of puberty. Parents are left only the daily nightmare of what has happened to their children. Those with money keep their offspring living-dead on IV drip.
All the Pied Cyborg of ixCosm has ever said to me, by way of explanation, is this:
“Weren’t you always saying children were the future? Well, you aren’t the only ones who possess technology so advanced it makes the future obsolete. With it, I have called them from their bodies, into my world! Changeling children following flutesong into a mountain! Lemmings, hearing music from under the sea! Mermaids wake them and they drown, alas – but never grow up, never grow old! Is that a joke without a punchline, or a punchline without a joke?”
The Pied Cyborg laughed, then – a sound which haunts me still, not least from how much that laughter sounds like my own.
About the Author
Howard V. Hendrix is the author of six novels, two short story collections, and two non-fiction books. He has a BS in Biology along with MA and PhD in English Literature. (Retrospectively, it seemed like a decent background for a science fiction writer.) He has been teaching at the college level since grad school in the 1980s.
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