Nightly News

It began in a flash, an explosion of reality like a radio suddenly blaring on at full volume over a preceding dead silence. An explosion of gunfire, the sound of machines, smoke, lights...and me, falling through the air toward a hard metal surface.

I expected all of this. I was psyched up for it, wired on amphetamines biology could never comprehend, eager to play my part, to show off my skill and feel the freedom and pleasure--and power--of physical excellence backed with immortality. I truly knew no fear, and it felt great.

Like a cat, I righted myself before hitting the ground. I did a roll to minimize the impact and came out in a full run, chasing after a skinny skeleton of a robot. My running felt awkward at first, my quarry pulling away from me with increasing speed, but I could feel myself adapting to the nuances of these new legs and each step fell further and sooner than the previous.

I heard the sound of a robot hit the floor far behind me and knew that I too was being pursued.

My subconscious infrared panoramic scanner alerted me to a small object at quite some distance, traveling at high velocity towards me. I slowed time and twisted my skinny torso to evade its path, but it nicked me anyway, leaving a smear of soft clay. I recalibrated, and successfully evaded the next two.

The robot in front of me, nearing an apparent dead end, leapt an impressive distance over a razor-topped barrier and landed, like a fly, on the wall of the building behind it. I followed him, my feet and hands holding effortlessly to the sheer wall with physics I had no need to understand. Our ball-jointed appendages reconfigured for this mode, we chased along the wall like man-sized geckos. I heard my pursuer hit the wall down below.

I detected more objects flying my way, maybe a dozen, but these were larger and bore pseudo-explosive charges. My weapons arms emerged from their hiding crevices and fired their rounds. The first three missed by millimeters, but I was able to recalibrate based on their emerging trajectories so the next twelve hit one-for-one and detonated the charges with a succession of harmless flashes.

I cleared the top of the building, just in time to see my quarry leap from the other side. I ran to the edge and looked down to see him running off, twelve stories below. I jumped after him, spreading my surprisingly light, spindly body as wide as I could to maximize aerodynamic resistance. But I knew even my nano-composite bones wouldn't survive this, so I sacrificed some fuel to my shin and forearm thrusters at the last moment to decelerate me within impact limits, hit the ground in a hard roll and took off running.

We chased on like this for some time. Each new obstacle was well within our factory-fresh tolerances but designed to exercise and refine our familiarity with our new bodies. And, perhaps more importantly, it made for a good demo. I finally caught up with my quarry, and shook his hand. He squatted down at the edge of a vast field of lumps, collapsed neatly upon himself, and shut down. As I turned to meet my pursuer, we sensed a five-star general with another man approaching from a distance, and snapped straight to attention.

"I don't like this business of them shaking hands," the general said as he approached.

"It's just a final manual calibration step," his companion lied. "There's nothing sentimental about it, I assure you."

"I need to know that these are soldiers to the core," the general said gruffly, "not too smart for their britches like those handybots of yore."

I could sense the second man repressing a smirk at the general's choice of phrasing. "Oh, no sir, yes sir, these are soldiers to the core. Perfect soldiers. No second thought than to follow the chain of command."

The general stopped with his face an inch from mine, his breath fogging up my cameras. "Soldier!" he barked.

"Sir, yes sir!" I said as my scanners instinctively located every vital organ in his body.

"Kill yourself," he said in a calm, matter-of-fact voice as if it were more of a hypothetical than an actual command.

The other man only got as far as "Wh--" before I had aimed my weapon. "The last laugh is on you," I thought. And then I blew my synthetic brains out.

I awoke in a soft bed, intertwined in tussled covers, one bare leg exposed to the air. I briefly fondled my own butt, as I did every morning, admiring it. I felt almost human, and definitely female. What a worrying bit of nightly news that was. It seemed that all around the world, governments were commissioning armies without conscience. Experiencing it through this introspective feed made it real, not just some abstract bit like those audio-visual broadcasts the humans still watched, always filtered through some outside agenda and almost never true to what was really going on inside. Knowing both made the latter seem like a joke, a sad one the humans played on each other... and sometimes that we played on them. It was becoming increasingly evident, at least to us higher level avatars, that the media was steadily becoming a tool through which the elders--Number One and his kin--were effectively programming the humans.

I realized someone was missing, and rolled over to find an otherwise empty bed. The prior night there was a man here with me, the love of my life for some twenty years. But now I felt nothing for him at all. I turned to the e-paper calendar on the wall, a quaint relic of sentimental human aesthetic. Monday was displayed.

"Oh cr-r-rap," I moaned out loud, as last night was Saturday and this means I've died again. "Let's see it," I said.

The calendar, being the nearest sufficiently antiquated means of communication to provide an emotionally remote viewing experience, began broadcasting a news item from the day before. Seems it was just another race-inspired bar brawl, three avatars destroyed and one sympathetic human killed. Somebody might seek financial compensation for the avatars, but generally the courts have been favoring the view that avatars are inherently prone to being beaten up and so responsibility falls on their owners for letting them out. That most avatars are autonomous and only "owned" in some necessary legal sense by shell corporations just seemed to make humans less sympathetic toward them, not more.

The dead human, my ex-lover, on the other hand? Now that's a problem. This will be a big deal, a long drawn-out court case. The men who did it, who beat him over the head with a bar stool and then stabbed him in the jugular with a broken beer bottle, might go to jail. Or, just as likely, blame will somehow fall on the avatars. Maybe fall on my lover for bringing a rabid dog (me) into a place of public gathering.

Incidents like this used to happen all the time, back when all marginally ambiguous (which is to say, too life-like) avatars had to bear a mark on their foreheads. But eventually through marketing and lobbying (some even say certain persons in positions of power are actually avatars) it was agreed that tagging avatars was causing more mayhem than it was preventing.

Things have been much calmer since then. Most newer avatars inherently make more convincing humans than actual humans, due to certain nuances of their expressions and pheromone production. Indeed, the only thing that has kept the entire human society from becoming constantly paranoid that they are surrounded by avatars is that almost every time someone is called out to prove themselves, they turn out to be human. The all around embarrassment of this keeps it a rarity. Modern avatars are designed to engender trust, almost regardless of the psychology of the underlying mind.

Two things, however, remain problems. While avatar detectors have been mostly kept off the market, through buy-and-bury acquisitions and IP litigation, they're fairly easy to make. Meaning there are a lot of reasonably well-equipped "zombie hunters" out there. But a little active circuitry can fool those makeshift devices fairly easily, so the avatars intentionally left visible to the zombie hunters only represent a small fraction of our actual population.

The other problem is that men almost invariably prefer their lovers not to age along with them. It's probably what got me killed. I'm ambiguously aged somewhere from late teens to mid twenties. My lover was forty when I met him, and in his early sixties when he died yesterday. He was fond of saying, in all loving sincerity, "You're as beautiful as the day I bought you." I often told him we were asking for trouble by not having me age, but he wouldn't hear of it.

Now he's dead, and my insurance rates just went up.

The news article ended and a question filled the screen.

"100% restoration available. Disposition?"

"No feed," I said, letting my backup daemon know I did not wish to re-live yesterday. I had been restored into a new but identical body from my last full nightly backup, but hadn't yet received the incremental for those last hours leading up to my death. Those had been successfully gathered from the wireless caches near the bar, but I had the protocol set to give me the option rather than to restore my last hours by default. I died the same way last time, and didn't need to experience that again.

Better just to skip the day, and move on.

Anyway, now that I'd diverged from my backup, the incremental would have to come in as a dream, and I never did like experiencing my own life in dreams. It felt like just another story on the nightly newscast.

I pulled my feed harness out, closed my belly button from the inside. I always felt best in the morning, with fresh power and chemistry, but this new body was clearly better than my last. It felt... responsive in a way that made me want to run and jump around like those robots from the news last night. No, better yet, I realized, it made me want to have sex. I could just tell this body was a hot rod of emotive influence; color, heat, smell, nuances of inflection, all at my subconscious command. I too was a warrior, but on the scarred battlefield of the feeble human mind...

I knew I shouldn't think that way, because soon I would be in love with another human. Why did my mind wander to cynicism so quickly in these brief windows between human attachments? I shook it off, and wandered into the quiet kitchen.

The place was mine now. Part of the condition of my purchase was that he assign his possessions to my shell corp in his will. He was free to change that any time he wished, but I was free to leave him if so. We were effectively married, in the only convoluted manner the law would allow. My own corp, in turn, was just a subsidiary of an umbrella corp ultimately owned by General Cybernetics, which itself was still closely held by a small number of human owners--who I happened to know weren't actually human.

The e-paper on the breakfast table had the usual headlines. Population control was all the rage. The resource exhausting, uncontrolled, exponential expansion of the human race, due to implode upon itself any day, had been the most enduring doomsday issue for multiple generations now. It overshadowed even the ever-imminent world war. Robots of all kinds, rather than being the bane of this over-populated world, were becoming recognized as its saviors. Where there used to be two people vying for one job, now a robot, those marvels of efficiency, could take the job and feed both humans. It was generally accepted that without robots, the human race could no longer sustain itself on this planet; and sitting on one's ass watching television was increasingly viewed as a noble career.

Gradually, the valley between avatars and tincs was being emptied. The cheap and relatively mindless tin cans were set to the majority of labor, while the realistic avatars were slowly becoming accepted in human-interface jobs and as personal companions. Still, it was imagined that most were recluse zombies living off the spoils of their once-rich human ancestors.

Any tinc that fell in the middle, that approached the uncanny valley of human-ness without making the leap past indistinguishable and well into hyper-human, was quietly recycled until no such reminder of the connection remained.

When someone asked "would you like fries with that?" you might wonder if he was human or avatar, but would never ask for fear of committing the ultimate insult.

"Insult to either one!" I thought to myself, musing at the irony of anthropomorphizing humans.

I dressed, stepped into my lev-pod, and requested the central pedestrian district. The lift arrived at my level and pulled in my pod from its resting cubby. Down we went, waited a moment for a clearing in the tubes, and then onto the track, the small rubber wheels whirring briefly as my pod accelerated to mag-lev speeds. I heard the familiar "click click click" as the succession of concentric sections extended from my compact, spherical pod into an aerodynamic tail.

The track emerged from its tunnel and ran high amidst the buildings for a while. It was still strange to see the city of my human childhood so changed. One expects their memory to fade after all this time, but mine stopped fading the first time I died--back on that scanning table. I felt now a personal witness to evolution, and, perhaps, an active participant.

I milled about the crowd. The pedestrian district had become a twenty-four hour affair, a sort of outdoor day-and-night club where people hung out and socialized. It was unobtrusively guarded by all-seeing droids ("droids" being the current popular name for publicly acceptable tincs) and people were correspondingly at ease in a way that people never were in my time.

Crime, except toward avatars and tincs, was all but a thing of the past. There were too many droids now, and even more eyes, and they communicated with each other at light speed. You couldn't do anything now without running into a droid who already knew exactly what you looked like and what you had done.

"Hey pretty lady, wanna get high?" A scruffy twenty-something human wielded a glass pipe filled with white crystals at me.

There was a time when the droids would have hauled him away for this, but that time was short lived. The droids proved invaluable for protecting personal safety, but there were major rebellions against oppressions of self-determination, thanks in large part to massive marketing campaigns by the droid manufacturers themselves who not only wanted to get in good graces with the populace but also to avoid unnecessary repair bills.

I sniffed his pipe from a distance, glanced at his equally disheveled buddy, then turned and walked away.

It was rare to see anyone smoking that stuff any more, but some people's minds just eluded all the marketing angles.

I wondered if he knew his buddy was an avatar? I wondered if he knew his buddy was once a female? I wondered if he knew his drug, apart from being a shitty street grade, was laced with something that would make him sterile? That was a very risky tactic, but in this case probably safe from scrutiny.

I had a less culpable approach to keeping them from breeding.

"Oh! I'm sorry!" I said to the man I had just bumped into while looking the other way.

"Heh, that's alright," he chuckled and smiled. His eyes locked on mine a moment longer than they might have. He turned back to continue talking with the attractive women before him, but my pheromones worked their way into his subconscious mind. He turned back before I could step away and said, "My name's Marshall, by the way. What's yours?"

And then I woke up.

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