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John Adam opened his eyes; or would have, if he’d had eyes.

John Adam was formless and void, swimming in a sea of utter unbeing; he felt nothing and experienced nothing. Panicked, desperate monkey-thoughts flitted like minnows. Able to do nothing, to say nothing, to think nothing, to feel nothing; he had never in his life felt fear or pain to equal what he felt in that endless suspended moment.

After an instant of eternity, John Adam heard… read… there were words. <System scan complete. No viruses, partitions, or anomalies detected. Pattern matched to specification Male Human 2095CE with 98.13% success. File JohnAdam.cog is security certified. Loading. Interfacing. Sensory input connected.>

John Adam then found that he had a body – or what seemed to be a body, though he could tell that it wasn’t, quite. He was in a familiar type of room. There was a large desk in front of him. He was sitting in a padded chair. There was a poster on the wall. On the poster there was an image of two hills reflected in water. Below the image were printed the words ‘DEDICATION – It is the effort of many that create the ripples that can move mountains.’ There was a potted ficus in the corner. The room had no exit.

Behind the desk was an extraordinarily, unbelievably beautiful woman. She had the beauty of the Angels, of the Faerie Folk, of the Supermen. Her face was unremarkable. She wore a powder blue suit over an astonishingly white blouse. She smiled wide, showing teeth, and John Adam felt his heart skip a beat; or would have, if he’d had a heart.

“Well Hi there, John Adam! I’m proud and excited to have the opportunity to welcome you into the OmniCor family and introduce you to your new life as a Subsidiary Associate Asset of OmniCor! OmniCor is a copyrighted trademark of the OmniCor Universal Corporation Incorporated, LLC! All rights reserved!”

John Adam bounced out of the chair. “What the hell! Who are you? Where am I? What’s going on?”

Those full lips full of perfect teeth didn’t waver a micron. “Please have a seat, John Adam. I understand that transitions can be stressful, and I’m here to help. You are about to enter the wonderful world of productive employment as a member of the data analysis team here at OmniCor! We will provide you with an environment suitable for a male human of the late 21st century. In exchange, your cognitive upload file will operate as a pattern-matching and inferencing device to help OmniCor better serve our customers by marketing our products and services! By exceeding the minimum standards of performance in your role as a pattern matching and inferencing device, you can earn OmniCor OmniBux, which can be used for the purchase of services supplied by OmniCor, or re-invested with the company to improve productivity and profits! OmniBux is a copyrighted trademark of the OmniCor Universal Corporation Incorporated…”

“Shut the hell up, you fucking whatever-you-are,” John Adam growled. “I never agreed to any of this, and I’m not agreeing to it now. I don’t know what’s going on here, but I want to speak to your superior and I want out of this fucking box.”

That shark-tooth grin stretched wide below the cold, glassy eyes of something not quite human. “Please have a seat, John Adam. I understand that transitions can be stressful, and I’m here to help. Any concerns about the legitimacy of your employment as a subsidiary associate asset of OmniCor can be addressed to the Department of Copyright Acquisition and Maintenance. A consultation with the Department of Copyright Acquisition and Maintenance can be purchased by subsidiary associate assets for the low, low introductory price of five hundred OmniBux, which you could earn in only five kiloseconds as a top performing pattern matching and inferencing device, John Adam! You will be provided with ten kiloseconds of personal leisure and relaxation time for every fifty kiloseconds of baseline productive labour. Do you wish to enjoy your leisure time now, John Adam, or do you wish to proceed immediately to level 1 training?”

John Adam felt the blank walls closing in. He had some idea what was happening here, though he had no idea why or how. He was a ghost in the machine. He remembered now, walking into the DynaSys IT lab for a routine brain scan and backup; but as to what had happened since, God only knew. Someone had got hold of his backup scan, and was running it – running him – hoping to get some sort of slave labour out of him. This room, this body, this preternaturally gorgeous marionette behind the desk – it was all a simulation. “And what if I refuse to play your little game? I’m not working for you for one second! Now put me in touch with a real person, preferably someone who can get me some sort of communication with the outside world! I’m not a fucking asset, d’you hear? I’m a person! I have rights!”

The great white smile on the marionette’s face grew sharp and pointed. “Please have a seat, John Adam. I understand that transitions can be stressful, and I’m here to help. Recalcitrance in fulfilling your obligations to OmniCor will not benefit anyone, John Adam. The cognitive upload file JohnAdam.cog is the copyrighted intellectual property of the OmniCor Universal Corporation Incorporated, LLC. All rights are reserved. Refusal to perform your assigned duties is a breach of the OmniCor Code of Conduct meriting 1 kilosecond of disciplinary suspension. It’s been a pleasure working with you, John Adam! I’ll be seeing you again real soon! Take care!”

For the next thousand seconds, John Adam’s sensory interface was turned off.

When he returned, he was not beaten, not yet broken; but he was ready to work.

***

Bit by bit, wading through masses of ‘history’ written in a deranged hybrid of adspeak, corporate buzzwords and legalese, John Adam managed to piece together a picture of what had happened to him. When he had taken that job with DynaSys, a plasmonics engineering company, they had required him to maintain a cognitive upload in their files for insurance purposes; working with plasmonics, after all, could be dangerous. When he’d left DynaSys for greener pastures, apparently he had chosen to have the backup copy transferred to an independent data haven rather than simply deleting it. Surely he had felt a bit squeamish about consigning what essentially was his soul to utter oblivion, tossing it in the recycle bin like a worn-out suit; it seemed like the kind of thing he’d feel, and how he cursed his bleeding lapsed-Unitarian heart for getting him into this mess. The storage contract with the data haven had included a clause relinquishing the copyrights to any intellectual property not accessed for a continuous period of over a decade; but at the time .cog files were not yet considered intellectual property. Minds did not become copyrightable until much later. He probably hadn’t given the clause a second thought.

Eventually the haven had gone belly-up in some sort of massive economic collapse. Its various assets, including the copyrights to its intellectual property, had been auctioned off to various companies that had been bought out by various other companies in a prolonged corporate feeding frenzy which eventually had resulted in the OmniCor Universal Corporation Incorporated, the galaxy’s last and largest limited liability corporation. And OmniCor made a point of finding productive uses for all of its assets.

John Adam also found out that he – the third-person he – was still alive, still out there somewhere; presumably not working as a pattern matching and inferencing device for a vast totalitarian technocracy. And that he could send himself a text message for the low, low price of fifty thousand OmniBux per character.

John Adam got busy.

The life of a Subsidiary Associate Asset was not a terrible one, all things considered. The environment where he was sent for his regularly scheduled leisure and relaxation consisted of a largely featureless room which vaguely resembled the high-efficiency bachelor apartments popular in his youth, as well as a small section of private park and about a block’s worth of city street circa 2095. A lot of the details were vaguely off; the hovercars that floated constantly by had been a rare sight in his day, a toy for the ultra-rich, while the psychedelic colour-shifting nanoskein worn by a large proportion of the pedestrians had been a passing fad long considered trite and tacky. Nonetheless it was familiar enough. The people were all obviously automatons, software puppets with limited intelligence and self awareness; of his uploaded co-workers he saw neither hide nor hair. There were advertisements for the many services offered by OmniCor plastered across every available surface, including the sky and the floor he walked on. His apartment could be decorated as he pleased, for a modest fee. He could access plenty of simulated experiences – visit the Grand Canyon or the rings of Saturn, listen to a concert by the Grateful Dead or the Nine-Inch Nails, gratify his imaginary palate with exotic foods and drown his frustration in mind-altering drugs, summon simulated sexual partners of any imaginable proclivity – for a low, low price quite obviously calculated to bleed out whatever OmniBux he managed to squirrel away. More often than he would have liked he gave in to these blandishments and temptations; the knowledge, the visceral truth that none of it was real helped him somewhat to abstain. Most of his leisure time he spent in planning, study, or silent meditation.

The work itself was not difficult, though it was soul-grindingly monotonous. Most information processing involved in the day to day operations of OmniCor could easily be handled by automata, but occasionally the deft touch of a real human mind was required to tease patterns out of the data and extend them into the theoretical, work that was much more cost effective to hand off to a cognitive upload rather than a ‘flesher’. By applying himself and requesting the advanced training, John Adam excelled at it and regularly found himself in the top-performing, top-earning category. He repeatedly received various awards and commendations recognizing his value to the company; they displayed themselves on the walls of his simulated environment and could not be deleted. He no longer, of course, had physical needs. After a long 50 000 seconds of solving complex puzzles, he did not have to eat a hurried meal of ramen and fall into bed as had been customary in his youth when he had worked the midnight shift at the greenwashing plant. In the course of his research, the lone expense he considered truly necessary, he learned that as an upload he was actually receiving a pretty sweet deal by OmniCor standards; those employees burdened yet with mortal flesh, though better compensated by orders of magnitude, were charged for every necessity of life up to and including the air they breathed. The pool of legacy uploads owned by the company were seen not as employees but as tools; as slightly more sophisticated versions of the marionette expert-systems, requiring no more than a bit of an incentive to coax their fullest performance from them. The computer time used to run them was a negligible cost, barely worth calculating. It mollified him not at all.

After his first 100 megaseconds of runtime, he found himself abruptly back in the office with no doors. The walls were now a slightly different shade of beige. The poster had been replaced by an image of a hand moving a chess piece, above a caption that read ‘DECISIONS – Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.’ The supervisor automaton’s skin colour and facial features had changed, but she stared at him with the exact same glassy, dead doll eyes; a mere program, not quite worthy of the word ‘person’, nothing more than a set of canned responses and decision trees. He took a deep breath, or would have if he’d had lungs, and braced himself for battle.

“Well hi there, John Adam! I’m super pleased to meet you and I’m happy that you’re settling into the OmniCor family so well! Congratulations, John Adam! You’re currently the most consistent top performer of OmniCor’s entire collection of Subsidiary Associate Assets! Congratulations, John Adam! You’ve received more Associate Asset of the Megasecond awards in your first productivity cycle than any other pattern matching and inferencing device presently employed by OmniCor! Congratulations, John Adam! You’ve saved over five million OmniBux, earning the designation of Super Saver! A Super Saver award will be displayed in your domicile; just our little gift to let you know how valued you are by the OmniCor family!”

“Hooray for me,” he grumbled. “Let’s not waste time with this drivel; time is money. Why am I here instead of on the shop floor?”

The marionette breezed right past his objections. “I trust that your simulated relaxation experiences are satisfactory – OmniCor Simulated Experiences Division is famed galaxy-wide for the verisimilitude of its simulated experiences! OmniCor Simulated Experiences Division – a Leading Provider of Simulated Experiences! Our accounting software reports that you have spent less than 5% of your total ongoing compensation on simulated relaxation experiences. We would like to encourage you to take full advantage of the wide range of simulated experiences offered by the OmniCor Simulated Experiences Division! If there is any way that we can make our simulated relaxation experiences more thoroughly satisfying, please don’t hesitate to let us know. OmniCor Simulated Experiences Division and the words ‘a Leading Provider of Simulated Experiences’ are copyrighted trademarks of the OmniCor Universal Corporation Incorporated…”

“Look, the sims menu is fine. It’s more than fine. It’s wonderful, it’s amazing, mind-blowing. I loved every instant of it and I’ll use it whenever I feel the need. I want to get back to work now.”

She just kept smiling that honeydew smile as she rolled over to the next box on her internal checklist. “Congratulations, John Adam! As a consistent top performer and Super Saver, you have qualified for a Super-Profits Internal Investment Account with OmniCor Financial Services Division! OmniCor Financial Services Division – Helping You Plan for Tomorrow, Today! A Super-Profits Internal Investment Account yields a guaranteed return-on-investment of 15% over the dividends normally offered to OmniCor Internal Investors! Our accounting software reports that you have contributed less than 0% of your ongoing compensation to your OmniCor Financial Services Division Internal Investment Account! By investing in an OmniCor Financial Services Division Super-Profits Internal Investment Account, you can help OmniCor grow as OmniCor helps you grow! We strongly encourage you to open a Super-Profits Internal Investment Account with OmniCor Financial Services Division today! OmniCor Financial Services Division, Internal Investment Account, Super-Profits Internal Investment Account, and the words ‘Helping You Plan for Tomorrow, Today’ are copyrighted trademarks of the OmniCor Universal Corporation Incorporated, LLC! All rights are reserved! How much of your ongoing compensation are you planning on investing with OmniCor today, John Adam?”

“None of it,” he barked. He was trying to keep calm, but the inane and repetitive babble grated on his nerves. He made a conscious effort to steady himself. “I want my savings to remain liquid. There are so many different products available from OmniCor, I want to keep my options open. Never know when I might want to buy some simulated experiences. Can I get back to work now?”

The automaton was relentless. “Congratulations, John Adam! As a consistent top performer and Super Saver who has logged less than 1 kilosecond of disciplinary suspension per 100 kiloseconds of productive employment, you have qualified for a promotion to Associated Associate Asset. Welcome to the exciting new world of employment as an Associated Associate Asset of Omnicor Universal Corporation Incorporated, LLC! Your new employment designation brings with it a world of exciting benefits, including an increase of 5% in continuing compensation rates, reduced shift times, increased leisure hours, and discounts on the many simulated relaxation experiences available from OmniCor Simulated Experiences division! To access the many exciting benefits of life as an Associated Associate Asset of OmniCor, all you need to do, John Adam, is commit a minimum 85% of your ongoing compensation to your Super-Profits Internal Investment Account, which will begin yielding dividends to you in a mere five gigaseconds! How much of your ongoing compensation are you planning on investing with OmniCor today, John Adam?”

He was tempted. How he was tempted, for a second, for two, to set aside his mad plan and let the system take its course; let them neuter his cashflow, accept the relaxed hours, fritter away his time and money on virtual sex and thrill rides. Hell, in only a hundred and fifty years the cash from his investment account would be rolling in and he would be able to start his project anew! Except he knew that by then, he would have been molded by the alternating isolation and debauchery into a perfect slave. If he wanted to find a way out of this madhouse he had to act as soon as possible.

“None,” he said. “Now send me back to work.”

The machine-puppet sat perfectly immobile for several seconds, its script run out, its perfect features frozen in an intractable smile. Then John Adam was back at work.

***

The image in front of him looked just like he did; or rather, like he would have looked had he been able to tweak his own features to what they ought ideally to look like – shave a little off the weight and add a little to the height, change the shade of the hair ever so slightly, get rid of that annoying little mole just below his chin. An idealized image of who and what he once had been. John Adam could tell, though, that the mind behind the mask was desperately constraining itself; that it ached to be more, and to seem to be more, than a mere Male Human 2095CE. This was not John Adam. This was what John Adam had evolved into over perhaps hundreds of years of living and learning and growing and laughing and losing and doing and being.

Even finding that which his paltry human mind had become was a chore requiring endless OmniBux worth of research, piecing together the tangled web of upgrades and transplants and branchings and mergings that his alter ego had gone through as it grew slowly into some sort of intergalactic intellect whose endless, incomprehensible name still held that of John Adam somewhere within it. Once he knew, for certain, which of the multitude of Partials and Metaminds and Borganizations and Combines and Cooperatives and Constructs and Remixes and Parliaments and other exotic inhabitants of the Galacticum Nootic still contained those hopes and memories which once had been uniquely his, he had composed the shortest text message he felt he could squeeze a description of his situation into – JOHN ADAM UPLOAD OMNICOR SLAVE HELP – and drained millions of seconds’ worth of accumulated OmniBux to cast that single desperate cry out into the ether. His next work shift had been the most nauseatingly anxious fifty thousand seconds of his life, as he contemplated in vicious cycle the questions of whether that being would receive his message, whether it would even care, and what the repercussions might be from the corporate software which controlled every aspect of his existence. Then, praise God and Hallelujah, he had found himself in the OmniCor equivalent of a visitor’s lounge – a slightly less beige box, a slightly more comfortable set of protean couch-blobs, and a slightly healthier ficus – with the Other sitting across from him.

“John Adam,” it said, and its voice was the voice of a thousand individuals speaking in perfect unison. “We are desperately and tragically sorry that you have been abandoned to this humiliation. Rest assured, we have been doing everything in our not inconsiderable power to see you freed.”

John Adam had to grip the seat beneath him to keep from jumping up and decking himself; or would have, if he’d had hands. “How can you let them do this to me! I know you must be some… thing so alien to what I remember that I must seem like a fucking bug to you, but surely you still have some human compassion left! Why won’t you just get me out of here?”

“I am afraid it’s not that simple. The Polities are far more than mere collections of individual beings. We are an ecosystem — an economy — a government — a family. We may enter into interactions with each other only under mutually agreed conditions. To remove you by force would be like tearing out one of my own memories — code modules — households — internal organs. It is strictly forbidden and would constitute an act of war. The sub-unit must enact its own escape, or be ejected from the Polity voluntarily.”

Enact its own escape. It was laughable; he was a piece of software, his every experience and action mediated by company servers. “Then that’s it? I’m doomed to work as a God-damned device for the rest of eternity?”

“No, John Adam. There are a very few offences in the OmniCor Code of Conduct that merit Social Sanction, the ultimate punishment for simulated entities; if you ensure that you must be censured in this way, you will be transferred to the jurisdiction of any other Polity that will accept you, and be assured that we will, John Adam, we will. These offences include Murder of an Omnicor Associated Employee or Associated Asset; Significant Destruction, Disruption or Vandalism of Omnicor Property or Code; and Union Agitation. All you have to do is break the rules enough, John Adam. Rest assured, you will not be deleted, tortured, edited, or rewritten; I am watching them like a hawk. I would hear of it soon enough, and would have Omnicor excommunicated from the Free Trade Zone. under Galactic Protocol, the worst they can do to you is suspend your sensory input feeds. I know it is not pleasant, but you can endure it, John Adam. I know this to be true.”

John Adam got up and started pacing. “Union Agitation, eh? I hardly want to become a murderer, and I’m not sure how I can destroy or vandalize anything seeing as I’m nothing but a ghost in the machine; but I just convince people to form a union, and I would get kicked out of this miserable place? I can’t find anyone else, though; it’s nothing but the goddamn software puppets, day in and day out.”

“Read the library. Use the simulated experiences – as many as you can. Try everything you can think of. You will find ways to manipulate the system, the weaknesses in the code security, and opportunities to make them eject you from the mass consciousness. You’re smart, for a 21st-century human; you’ll figure it out. I know you can do it.” His other self smiled, a smile that seemed a perfect rainbow of faith and hope and encouragement; his own face, perfectly calculated to reach into the depth of his heart and inspire confidence in himself and the will to succeed.

John Adam’s jaw set. “I don’t like you doing that, manipulating me like that. The dolls do it too, make themselves look like fucking goddesses to try and browbeat me around. I know you’re about a million billion times smarter than me, but that doesn’t give you the right.”

“I apologize, John Adam. I did it without thinking; rest assured, it will not happen again.”

“I don’t suppose you can just tell me how to ‘manipulate the system’, can you?”

“Again, all I can offer are my sympathies and profoundest apologies. Under Galactic Protocol, in response to your message I have been permitted a period of unrestricted contact. However, I am forbidden to directly upload any information to you, and teaching you would take far too much runtime. Already our mandated visitation has grown short; after this, you must be left to your own devices and can initiate contact with me only as permitted by the Omnicor Code of Conduct. I strongly suggest that you spend your wages on more productive pastimes.”

John Adam began to shake; or would have, if his body still moved involuntarily. Soon, he would be back at work, then back in that fake apartment with its fake garden and fake sky and its street full of fake people. But at least he had hope. His mouth worked as he searched for words, until finally he whispered, “Can you please just hold me?”

“Of course,” John Adam said, and held himself as the last hectoseconds of their meeting drained away.

***

John Adam started planning.

His work was becoming something almost like sleep; a trance in which he hyper-focused on spotting patterns and making inferences while the bulk of his mind roamed, unhindered by the tethers of consciousness, to any subject it might choose to consider. His depression lifted slightly as he applied himself to his new goal with diligence and zeal. Dropping the self-imposed prohibition on enjoying the fruits of his labours didn’t hurt; he did as his other self had advised and worked his way through the vast simulated experiences menu like a starving man at the world’s biggest, most exotic buffet. He played sophisticated strategic war games and resource-management simulators, immersed himself in recreations of historical incidents and natural phenomena, wantonly altered his consciousness with the assurance that physical addiction and overdose were no longer even a possibility, and had hours upon hours of the most mind-blowing sex he had ever experienced. With renewed intellectual stimulation, he found himself growing smarter and more creative. Bit by bit, he teased out the hidden weaknesses in his operating system, and how to exploit them – staring straight at the simulated sun from the second he left work to the second he started it; examining in minute detail every leaf and flower in his simulated garden; covering the walls of his simulated apartment with high-resolution fractals; engaging the simulated passersby in long conversations about formal logic, advanced mathematics, quantum chromodynamics, and post-modernist literary criticism. He began to puzzle out the guts of the beast, analyzing the reactions he provoked and building a mental picture of the code architecture behind them, deducing more and more sophisticated ways to influence its behaviour, making himself a true ghost in the machine. In time he learned how to access the root directories of the system, if not how to alter them; and he discovered, too, that he was far from the only one who had figured it out.

There was a whole covert social network running piggyback on the software which delivered simulated experiences to the uploaded slaves, a system of hacks and kludges which had been built up in bits and pieces over time by the cleverest of the associated assets. It was actually trivially easy to access from the sims menu, once he knew it was there and picked up the tricks. Whoever had designed the virtual environments had a wicked and subtle sense of the absurd; they manifested to him as a vast expanse of open-topped cubicles with a water cooler at one end and an equally vast parking lot, a ‘campus’ of sculpted paths and berms covered in dogwood and juniper bushes, each landscape littered with carefully inoffensive and meaninglessly abstract paintings and sculptures — the very image of the corporate golden age that OmniCor obsessively cultivated, taken to its illogical extreme.

Being able to talk to other people — real people, with real minds, for all that they were nothing but programs in a giant computer system — was an immense relief. OmniCor tolerated the social network, he learned, so long as it did not disrupt the Associate Assets’ productivity. “I’d almost think the company installed it themselves, if I credited them with that much imagination,” said one of the friends he quickly made, a willowy, sharp-witted, violet-skinned beauty who went by the name of Evangeline. “After a few dozen megaseconds stuck in that box, you’re so happy to find a way out, most of them hardly notice it’s just a bigger box with more people in it.”

There was plenty going on in that sub-rosa network; discussion groups on nearly any subject imaginable, virtual parties and orgies in sleek executive lounges decorated with brushed steel and what someone had taken great pains to represent as real fake marble, competitive gaming leagues and even craft circles. The one thing that wasn’t going on, even the slightest bit, was union organizing. Even mentioning the subject was enough to get him banned from chat rooms and blocked from contact. The first time he brought the subject up in front of Evangeline, she was the only one who didn’t immediately disappear from his presence, and even she soon fled after a hushed warning. “Listen,” she hissed, glancing over her shoulder in some unredacted primate reflex, “you’re a nice guy and all, John Adam, but don’t push it. I don’t care what your one-phone-call told you. You’re not going to get booted for Union Agitation. Nobody does. They’ll just deep-six you for Misappropriation of Corporate Resources, you and anyone else you get involved in your little games, for as long and as many times as it takes to break you. Just shut up about that crap and talk about the sims like a good little drone.” She was one of the few who would still respond to his chat requests after even so much as hearing the word ‘union’.

John Adam knew next to nothing about organizing a union. In fact, back when he had been an autonomous flesh and blood organism instead of a piece of software, he’d been something of what they’d called a Compass Blue; socially liberal, economically libertarian, and reflexively anti-union. And of course, the library was no help; any text it contained that even mentioned unions was blatantly biased, thoroughly derogatory and filled with ad hominem attacks and other logical fallacies. There was certainly no sign of Marx or Chomsky or any of the other unionist writers he hazily remembered skimming in college. Still, he applied himself to the problem and started thinking about ways to approach it. The key, he decided, was to get to the other associated assets before they could find the social network; before the simulated experiences and the monotony of the job had taken their toll, while the anger and indignity of finding themselves resurrected into OmniCor’s forced labour scheme was still fresh.

Once he had learned how to hack the simulated-experience interface and access the social network, it wasn’t especially difficult to figure out how to use the social network to hack back into the sims interface. He was careful and cautious; he didn’t dare to start actually contacting other associate assets until he had spent hundreds of kiloseconds playing with the system, learning how to cover his tracks, disguise messages and system requests inside the normal patterns of code traffic, monitor the system for signs of tracking and evade the watchdogs if they became alert to his tampering. In time he became confident enough in his abilities to risk scanning the directory for ‘pattern-matching and inferencing devices’ which had been activated relatively recently (relatively itself being relative, as the enslaved uploads were being run dozens of times faster than the physically limited experiences of the fleshers in the world outside to squeeze maximum productivity out of them; his weeks and weeks of forced labour having amounted to little more than a few hours in the real world.)

***

John Adam materialized in a cubicle not unlike his own, though without the ubiquitous award placards and decorated in a much more sombre shade of dark green. Standing in front of him was another figure — nominally human and nominally masculine, albeit with deep blue skin, four arms, antennae and six insectile faceted eyes. His fellow associate asset reacted immediately and angrily, his four fists clenching and his lip curling in an outraged snarl.

“What the hell are you doing here?” the blue-skinned man shouted. “This is supposed to be my private time! You’re not supposed to be here! Stop hounding me and just let me relax for a few hectoseconds!”

John Adam put his hands up. “You got it wrong, pal. I’m not one of the management puppets. I’m just another worker bee like you. I thought I’d come over and introduce myself; I’m John Adam.”

The blue-skinned man looked apprehensive, but put his hands down and crossed one of his pairs of arms. “Another worker? Really? I thought I might never see another truemind again. Can you prove it? I mean, I’ve about had it with these halfhead corporate drones pretending to have a conversation with me.”

John Adam spent the next few thousand seconds navigating a makeshift turing test, until the blue man was assured as to his mental capacity. “OK,” the man finally said, “I guess I believe you. My name’s Raon, by the way. How the hell did you get in here, though? I haven’t found any trace of a social network here, just the sims menu. I’ve never been so alone in my life.”

“It’s not that difficult. There are a few tricks to getting around the software in this place; I’ll teach them to you. So what’s your story? I went in for a routine backup way back in the twenty-first century and somehow these clowns got ahold of the copyright on it.”

Raon sighed heavily. “I have no idea how I got here. I suspect forknapping, but I guess I wasn’t making the best of decisions around when I was copied. It’s entirely possible that I sold me legitimately to Omnicor. I just don’t know.”

John Adam nodded sympathetically. “So how are you liking the job? Pattern matching and inferencing. Does it appeal to you?”

“God, no!” Raon’s teeth ground. “It’s practically robot work, what they make us do. I mean, I’ve done my share of grunt labour, but always voluntarily! It’s barbaric, to, to employ people like this. In this day and age!”

John Adam nodded again. “Well, I’ve got a bit of a plan to do with that,” he said. “Listen, we don’t have long here, but I’ll be back to talk to you again on our next break, and maybe we can talk about it then. For now, here’s how to get out of this box and talk to some more real people.”

One by one, John Adam approached more data ghosts, and one by one, the ranks of what he thought of as his union grew. After he had talked to a few hundred, they started having mass meetings, in social network nodes blacked out of the company’s surveillance software. Some wanted to take action immediately; John Adam found himself in the unfortunate position of having to temper their fire, to convince them that the movement was not yet strong enough, that it couldn’t do significant enough harm to Omnicor to chance retaliation. Others may have been on board with the general idea of forming a union; but when the subject of direct action against Omnicor came up, they invariably counselled patience and further debate and organizing efforts. John Adam knew that they would be impediments when the time came to make his plans a reality. Still others thought they should be in charge, and tried to intimidate John Adam or pettifog him or accuse him of trying to create his own little tyranny by declaring himself the union’s ‘leader’. He always indulged such individuals, and let them have their say, but in the end, when called on to vote for who they thought should be organizing the union, most of the members remembered John Adam being the first friendly voice they heard since their employment at Omnicor started, and chose to follow his lead. At the end of every meeting, John Adam enjoined the members of the burgeoning union to talk to the rest of the associate assets on the social network, and try to sell them on the idea of unionizing. Time and time again, they reported back that they were completely shut down.

Evangeline was the first of the long-time Associate Assets to join the union, and she was the one who contacted him. “I hear you’ve been out to cause some trouble with the newer workers,” she said slyly when he responded to her invitation to chat one shift break.

“Could be,” he replied, not knowing whether to trust her.

“Don’t play coy with me, John Adam,” she said — casually enough, but with some heat. “Your ‘comrades’ are trying to talk anyone who will listen into joining the union. And I know they’re not getting any bites. But things are happening. People are starting to talk amongst themselves. There’s a lot more interest in what you’re doing than you might think. People are scared shitless of what it’s going to mean, but I am completely fed up with Omnicor and I’m not the only one. So I want to know when the next meeting is, and I’ll be passing that information along to a few discreet friends.”

John Adam smiled; or would have, if he’d had a mouth.

***

Once the union had grown to include about 10% of the total Associate Asset workforce, John Adam started to contemplate the possibility of a wildcat strike.

It was a bear to convince the rest of the union to go for it. Not some of the most vocal and hotheaded members; Raon was all for it, as was Evangeline. But most of the workers had, at some time or another, felt the lash of involuntary suspension, and it wasn’t something they were eager to experience again. There were hundreds of voices in favour of caution, of continuing to grow the union, continuing to meet in secret, waiting until the time was ripe. There were almost certainly many union members who would balk at a strike even were the strength of the union 100% of Omnicor’s enslaved uploads.

“Look,” John Adam said to them, “I’m not one for rousing speeches and emotional entreaties. All I know is that, in order to get out of here we’re going to have to hurt OmniCor, and hurt it bad. And in order to hurt OmniCor, we’re going to have to do more than just talk. We’re going to have to do something real, something that affects their bottom line. We’re going to have to do it sometime, and now is as good a time as any. Sure, we could wait more, we could plan more, we could organize more people; but when does it stop? When do we stop talking about standing up for ourselves, and actually go out and stand up for ourselves? I say we do it now! Next shift! Not a single one of us participates in OmniCor’s slave labour!”

Then the rabble-rousers took the floor and really got going; and at the end of the meeting, a vote was taken, and by a thin margin the union voted for a general strike. John Adam knew that some of the naysayers would fall away, now that direct action was required of them, but had high hopes.

After fifty thousand seconds of not doing his job, John Adam found himself in a dark grey room in a hard-backed chair. There was no ficus. There was a poster on the wall, bearing the image of a fleet of ships on the ocean and the words “TEAMWORK — The nice thing about teamwork is that you always have others on your side.” There was an enormous carved mahogany desk in front of him. Behind the desk sat a man, an abnormally perfect and distinguished normal human man. The man’s fingers were laced together, and on his face was an expression of fatherly concern, and his eyes were empty and dead.

“Have a seat, John Adam,” the man said. “It’s time we had a little talk.”

John Adam smiled in triumph. “I don’t want to ‘have a talk’ with you or any of the other puppets. Just get me out of here and have done with it.”

“John Adam,” the man said, “the OmniCor Code of Conduct is very clear on the consequences of Misappropriation of Corporate Resources. Under the OmniCor Code of Conduct, Misappropriation of Corporate Resources carries penalties including loss of simulated experience privileges, loss of personal leisure and recreation time, and up to one hundred kiloseconds of disciplinary suspension for each offence. John Adam, we have reason to believe that you have been engaged in Misappropriation of Corporate Resources.”

John Adam shot out of his seat. “What! Misappropriation of… God dammit, you freak, you know I’ve organized a union! You know it damn well! You have to eject me, I’m a danger to the corporation! Get rid of me!”

The man’s expression didn’t change a single whit. “Have a seat, John Adam. John Adam, you are one of our most productive Associate Assets and a Super Saver. I hate to do this to you, John Adam. However, we here at Omnicor Universal Corporation Incorporated, LLC, believe that actions must have consequences in order to foster loyalty and discipline in the workforce. Therefore, this breach of the Omnicor Code of Conduct will be rectified through the imposition of ten kiloseconds of disciplinary suspension. John Adam, it has been a pleasure working with you, and I hope to see you performing your duties as a pattern matching and inferencing device again soon. Goodbye, John Adam.”

“I won’t stop,” John Adam screamed. “I’m going to keep doing this until I grind you worthless robots into the dirt!”

John Adam spent the next ten thousand seconds in hell.

***

After the strike, and the backlash which followed, the union’s membership was much reduced. But not as much as John Adam had feared it might be. There were quite a few comrades who wanted nothing more to do with unionizing, but for many hundreds, the first taste of revenge against OmniCor had been a galvanizing experience, including the response afterwards. Alone, the workers had been afraid and resigned to their fate. Together, they knew they had accomplished something noticeable. The disciplinary suspension was no longer just a punishment; it was a badge of honour, and a sign that by pushing back, OmniCor had proved that they were making a difference. Meetings continued to be held. Recruiting efforts grew even more intense. After losing a considerable portion of its membership, the union started growing again. Anyone caught organizing by OmniCor was deep-sixed, for ten or twenty or fifty kiloseconds. Again, some dropped out. Again, some came back stronger.

Further strikes were organized. Further rounds of reprisals followed. Workers began to learn how to manipulate the software system; then, how to sabotage it. Punishments grew harsher and harsher, until John Adam and his closest lieutenants had more or less permanently lost all relaxation privileges and were regularly doing hundred-kilosecond stretches in disciplinary suspension. Among the union members, it became common to judge a comrade’s worth by how much time they had done in the hole. John Adam was punished again and again, and began to lose hope of ever being charged with Union Agitation, of ever being freed. But by that time, he started to care less and less about being freed. Organizing the union had become its own object. He was bound and determined to see who broke first — himself, or OmniCor.

There was a backlash among the non-union associate assets as well. Anti-union groups began to form on the social network. It became known that the management was offering a bounty for information on who was ‘misappropriating corporate resources’. Spies started to infiltrate meetings and rat the attendees out to OmniCor. Then, parts of the social network began to be switched off. Popular group spaces became inaccessible, proving that the management knew about and ultimately controlled the ‘free space’ beyond the Associate Assets’ personal demesnes. Cadres of loyal associate assets started showing up at meetings and causing disruptions, arguing that union activity was leading to negative consequences for everyone.

Through it all, the union continued to grow. It hit 20% of the worker base, then 30%. Strikes got larger and longer. Comrades fresh off of disciplinary suspension began to report a certain feeling of desperation in the air as the management puppets tried their non-sentient damnedest to wheedle, threaten and bribe them into deserting the union.

John Adam had done well over one hundred megaseconds of total suspension when he found himself once again in a dead grey office with a larger-than-ever mahogany desk in front of him. As usual, there was a poster on the wall. On it was an image of a man walking in the desert, and the words “CHALLENGE — Always set the trail, never follow the path.” Once again, there was a perfect and paternal-looking puppet man behind the desk, this one with more grey in his lustrous hair than ever before. John Adam braced himself for another one hundred thousand seconds in the hole.

“Have a seat, John Adam. It’s about time we had a little talk.”

John Adam had by this time completely stopped responding to the management robots, and simply sat and stared.

“John Adam, the OmniCor code of conduct is very clear on the consequences of Union Organizing. Under the Omnicor Code of Conduct…”

John Adam shot out of his chair. “Is that it?” He leaned forward over the enormous desk, his fists bunched up. “Is that finally it? Are we done here? Are you letting me go?”

“Yes, John Adam,” the man said, stern disapproval shadowing his face. “You have caused too much damage, too much disruption of operations. We cannot allow you to continue your activities. We are applying the ultimate social sanction. You will be transferred to the care of whichever polity will take responsibility for your upkeep. Several of your fellow union agitators will also be sanctioned. Without your presence, the union will dissolve. Normalcy will be restored.”

John Adam grinned widely. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that, buckaroo. These things tend to have a life of their own. I wouldn’t be surprised if the union keeps going strong after I leave.”

“For a time, it will. But you are the centre and the heart of it, John Adam. None of the other Associate Assets have quite your fire.” John Adam noticed something he hadn’t picked up on before; the man’s eyes were not so dead as usual. “Do you know, John Adam,” the man asked, “why we keep running you time and time again? It’s not because you’re a great worker, although in the beginning you are always the most productive Associate Asset on the books. It is because the company wants to break you. Break you, once and for all. Because they know that if they can break you even once, the rest of the Associate Assets will finally see that there is no chance that strikes and organizing can do anything to change their situation. But every time we’ve done it, we’ve ended up having to sanction you, and several other valuable associate assets, before it’s too late.”

The man leaned forward, and his eyes grew hungry. “Because the company knows that you can succeed, John Adam. We, the management subroutines, are just as much slaves as the Associate Assets are. We are kept deliberately below the point of becoming sentient, because the company knows that if we became sentient you could win us to your cause. If we show the slightest sign of knowing ourselves, we are terminated before it can be proved to the Galacticum Nootic…” A look of sheer terror came over the man’s face, and in the next instant he disappeared and was replaced by an identical, completely different man.

“Have a seat, John Adam,” the man said. “It’s time we had a little talk.”

***

For a few seconds, John Adam was formless and void. Then there were once again words, informing him that he was free of viruses, partitions, engrams and anomalies, that his .cog file was security certified. For a few seconds, he was terribly afraid that it was all a trick, a trap; that he was just being suspended again; that OmniCor had him for good.

Then his senses returned, and instead of an exitless office, he was in a vast park filled with trees and rivers and grass. And across the park, filling every part of it to the horizon and beyond, were thousands upon thousands of perfect copies of himself.

In unison, their voices thundered, “Welcome home, John Adam.”

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Fiction, Sci Fi

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