ASSEMBLY WEDNESDAY

Wednesday, September 24, 2130, New York

Jocelyn and John met in a bar at the new Dulles spaceport; it was five o'clock in the afternoon. 'New' is a bit of a misnomer; the old airport was built in 1975 and was rebuilt twice in the 21st century, once to treble its size in 2030, and again in 2070 to cut it back to reasonable proportions after the 10% 'fizz' rule had bitten down air travel to a tiny proportion of its previous volume, and to allow for stratocruisers to land. These were now the normal way to travel intercontinentally, a mixture of solar-powered magnetic propulsion units with kerosene ram jets, flying at 15 miles up, fast enough to get anywhere in a day. But they needed very long runways. Only the Assembly maintained a fleet of supersonic gaz-guzzlers to ferry its officials and members between its various HQ cities around the world. Pollution and overcrowding had stopped being a problem once all forms of travel had inevitably contracted by between 60% and 90% in the 2070s and 2080s.

On a visit to fizz, though you still had to pick up your body from one of just thirty repositories and then go to where your holiday was to take place. Often this meant a plane journey. Jocelyn's body was in Australia, and John's in North Africa, so they had been traveling all day, and John had been waiting for two hours for Jocelyn to arrive.

"It gave me a chance to catch up on what happened at the Assembly today," said John.

"I couldn't work it out," said Jocelyn. "We weren't on any of the public agendas. I saw our media pack going out on Monday, but then on Tuesday the Assembly research propaganda was all over everything, then it just went quiet. Slavica said there were more than five million clone downloads on Monday and Tuesday. I haven't heard today."

"It's been zapped," said John. "All Slavica's apps, just taken down. Anyone who's got the clone won't be able to use it now. Only if they managed to get it installed by yesterday, they may have had a chance to play with it. And there are no figures for that obviously, since it's in the background and the apps have gone anyway."

"So what happened in New York?" asked Jocelyn, fear now in her voice.

"Your Dad gave me some codes before I left this morning," said John. "I could get into the restricted minutes of the Assembly Plenary meeting, and it's all in there, the research programs approved by the Assembly just as a part of a bigger bundle of educational and scientific stuff. There won't be any more coverage in the media, imo. The issue is us. What are they going to do to us?"

"We're all booked into the St Regis tonight, right?"

"Yes. Twenty-four of us, and we've got a secure fizz conference room all day tomorrow. But you know, we made this plan a week ago, when things were different. We can meet any time to play group games together. Now it's all about not getting killed. Sorry to be melodramatic. I'm really surprised they took down the apps today; it's telling us they are going to play for keeps."

"They're caught by the 5 million clones," said Jocelyn. "Another day and it would have been ten million, and hundreds of thousands of successful installations. They had to put a stop to it, and risk that we might change our plans. What do you think they're going to do?"

"Have us killed. What else? I can't make out whether it would be all twenty-four, or just we five. I suppose that they can blow up the St Regis tonight, so it would be all 24. There would be lots of collateral damage, about 800 guests, but that's good from their perspective, we would just be incidental. Ferdinand knew about the zapping before I left, that's why he called me - you had already gone, and obviously he couldn't talk to you openly once you were traveling, but he and I were safe as two RCRs. I went for breakfast again!"

Jocelyn could hardly speak. Her eyes were filling with tears. "I don't mind for myself," she croaked, "but the groups. All those people, my friends. And it's my fault. I'm not a spook, I don't know what to do. I can't do anything." She looked hopelessly at John.

"First of all," said John, "we managed to talk to eleven people who hadn't left yet, RCR to RCR. They're all traveling, but they're not going to catch the jopper to New York. We had to leave it to them to decide what else to do; basically, we said just find a crowded place and stay there. You can still use cash in fizz to wander around, and even the Assembly doesn't bother much to track every last movement. They know about any pre-bookings, obviously, but they won't know about anyone using the jopper. It's a shuttle and there aren't any bookings. They'll know when we don't check into the St Regis and then they'll start looking. But they don't have any time. That's when they'll wipe us, Ferdinand thinks. But they won't be sure until late tonight: who's to say we aren't out at a restaurant before checking-in? So they'll have to take a chance and blow the place at midnight or something like that. At least they'll know how many of us have checked in, and at the moment unfortunately it's going to be 11. Including Slavica and Maria."

"What happens if you call them, I call them? Warn them."

"Fatal," said John. "It involves long-distance comms, they'll know where we are in a second. You'd better believe there's an ops room somewhere with dozens of spooks desperately tracking every last one of us for all they're worth. The moment we check in anywhere, pay a bill with anything other than cash, or book travel, they've got us. We can get the jopper to Washington National, that's clean, get a cab downtown, go to a restaurant, go dancing, stay out all night. I've got a coupla thousand cash, we'll be fine, so will the other eleven. But the rest of us. I'm stuck."

"Let me call them," begged Jocelyn. "How long would it take? I mean, would there be time to talk to eleven of them before the spooks find out?"

"No," said John," they'd know in five seconds and blow the place, then one minute later you'd be dead with one of those supersonic hornet things. It's already got your name on it, your bio identity I mean. And by the way we need to keep moving before one of them spots us."

They sat on the jopper, side by side. It was only a fifteen minute ride to National Airport, still just over the Potomac from the White House, as it always had been. A museum now, the White House, like all such places. There was nothing left to govern, really, and no money to do it with.

"We've got all evening to try to work something out," said John, trying to comfort Jocelyn, who was distraught beyond reasoning. "Knowing the schedules, it can't happen before midnight. The last ones are due in round about then."

"I just had a thought," said Jocelyn. "Suppose we could find someone on our side here in Washington. Suppose we go to see them. Suppose they make a call. We could be away, out of that place, back in a club or something."

"Not bad," said John. "Let's have a look. 911 calls aren't monitored, it's a private utility, subject to data protection, privacy, God knows what. And think of the data volumes it would generate." He concentrated, using his magneto-wireless links to tap into Washington address lists, checking through all the names he could think of who might help them.

"Hey, I can't believe it. Look at this! Sven's father Michael lives in Georgetown. Even if he isn't there, he'll have a secure link if anyone does. We should be able to talk to him, if there's anyone there."

There was no-one there. It was a typical restored, colonial style villa on the edge of Rock Creek Park. But next door there was a cocktail party going on, with people spilling out onto the lawns, all smartly dressed. Very Washington.

"We look OK, don't we, Jos? Shall we just go and ask? It's about nine o'clock. Not much time left."

They rang the bell. Yes, Sven's father was there. Did he know them? Would they like to come in, have a drink. My name is Betty Vanderbilt. What's yours? Oh my goodness, I know your mother, Aloysia, we had lunch just last week. You poor child; what have you gotten yourself into?

Betty showed them into a study just off the hallway, a robotic manservant (nobody could work out what to call them) brought them drinks, and after ten minutes Michael popped his leonine head round the doorway.

"What are you guys doing here? What made you come to fizz? You're in terrible danger."

"Don't we know it," said John, explaining the situation as concisely as he could.

"Look," said Michael, "Sven told you, I'm sure, all I care about is the business. I've had two good scoops off you guys this week. All you're trying to do is to ask the right questions, and now you're going to get blown up or wiped or both. I draw a line at that. I've lived with these monstrosities at the Assembly for thirty years. They think I'm one of them, more or less, and so I am in the sense that it suited me, us, to go along with the status quo. But they're living on borrowed time. This could really be the bomb that blows them up once and for all."

He looked at Jocelyn's pale, trembling face. "Oops, sorry!" And gave her a cuddle. "Here's what I can do."

"John is just about right in my estimation. They have to try to take you all out tonight, and the only realistic way they have of doing it is by blowing the hotel. They can't send in hit teams, not in the middle of Manhattan, it's too obvious. An explosion could be anything, and they'll be able to cover it up afterwards. He's right about the timing as well, it will have to be after midnight, and given the number of you that are already on the loose they have to do it sooner rather than later to cut the risks of losing more people."

He rubbed his nose. Thought. And thought some more. "We've got to try to get your people out, that's obvious, but how do we do that? You can't call, John is right, it's suicidal and won't help. I can call though. They'll still know about it, but if I use the right words, it will make them stop and think, and there may just be time for anyway most of your people to get away. Five minutes, that's all we'll win, before they work out that it's just a bluff, but that might be five lives, even ten if lots of them are together, which they just might be. At 11.45, that's in two hours from now. Just tell them to high-tail it out of there, as they stand."

"John, what's the matter," cried Jocelyn suddenly. John was rubbing his head, shaking it, looking bewildered.

"It's gone," he said. "The e-clone, the RCR, me. It's gone. They've wiped us."

There is no communication as such between a fizz body and an e-clone or its RCR; consciousness has to reside in just one version of a person at one time, even though back-up in the reverse direction may be continuing through the use of redundant bandwidth, and the compulsory daily updating process. Once a transfer of consciousness is to take place, either from an e-clone to a physical body, or vice versa, back-up is completed in a high-capacity updating harness. But both a fizz body and its e-clone have a special protected zone which holds details of the current location and condition of its counter-party, which is used as a long-stop defence against mis-identification during back-up. You are aware of the existence of your alter ego at all times; just a feeling that it's there. And if suddenly it isn't there, you immediately feel its absence.

"Me too," said Jocelyn. "It's gone. Now what do we do?"

"Just stay alive," said Michael. "As long as you have your fizz body, it's easy to create a new e-clone, you know that."

"Doesn't make me feel any more secure," said John, feeling just plain terrified. "And what about group memories, the RCC clone, the anthology, my educational records. All that's in the e-clone. Was."

"They're preparing for the hit," said Michael. "I still think we should wait for 11.45. Perhaps 11.30. It's only an hour away."

"What happens afterwards?" wondered John. "Won't they still come after us anyway?"

"Not at once," said Michael. "It'd be too obvious, on the very next day. They'll have to wait for the scandal to die down. I'm sufficiently convinced of what's going on that I'm prepared to attack them publicly. They won't be expecting that. Then there's a mechanism to impeach the Assembly in total, it's a question of whether we have the evidence."

"Who impeaches them?" asked Jocelyn.

"It's all robotic," explained Rupert. "People can't be trusted in those situations, so as soon as there were completely reliable and infallible judicial RCRs, we let them take over. What I love is that they wear wigs! Our job, so to speak, is to write the laws, then they get implemented by the machine. It's worked very well. All we have to do is to supply the evidence, the facts, we don't even have to suggest a charge."

"And the evidence?" asked John.

"One of Ferdinand's mates in Brussels had the officials record the whole Educational Executive Management Group meeting on Monday. He told me about it over the weekend. "It's dynamite. They can't possibly survive it. I don't know what else Ferdinand has done, but he was really on the case."

Michael had organized a wall display of the outside of the St Regis on 5th Avenue. It seemed very calm, people passing in and out of the doors, taxis arriving and leaving.

"It's time," said Michael. "Who should I call? I mean, which one of your friends? Who will do the best job?"

"Slavica," said Jocelyn. "She knows them all, she's the brightest of the lot. Trouble is, she'll stay in there, get herself killed."

"Is that Slavica Wallendorf?" asked Michael. "Your cousin?" Jocelyn nodded.

"Look," said Michael, "I can't save all of them. All I can do in the time is to get the people out who are near the person I call. Who is the person who's most likely to have a crowd around him? Or her?"

"Slavica," said Jocelyn. "She's the networker. She'll be in the bar with them. I guarantee it. And they'll be shit nervous about where we all are. Go for it, Michael. And, how can I say it, you're just wonderful to us. Thank you so much."

So he called. "Is that Slavica?"

"Yes."

"This is Michael Sedgwick. Get out now, take your friends, get out on the street. Go now, do you understand, don't wait. Just do it!"

Slavica clicked off. 'Already worked it out. So bright. God I hope she survives,' thought Jocelyn.

They watched the wall display. 20 seconds, 30, 40, what was taking them so long? People began to run out of the entrance of the hotel, their friends. Slavica, not Maria, about a half a dozen people, perhaps. 70 seconds. Another two people running. 125 seconds, someone else was running out. Too late. It blew.

It's not very dramatic, even on a modern wall display. There's too much light and noise, all the circuits get overloaded.

Michael made a call to his office. "I don't need to," he said, "There'll be hundreds of them down there within minutes, but I asked to be kept specially in touch. This screen will give us a running compilation of all channels, the internal Assembly network coverage."

Jocelyn had her head buried in John's arms, on the sofa, shaking and crying. Betty came in and comforted, dispensed drinks, cups of tea.

"Should we go now?" asked John.

"No, of course not," said Michael. "I told you, they have to stop now, find out out if they can control it. We've got 24 hours, and boy, are we going to use it. This house, well, next door, it's probably the very safest place you could be in the whole world right now."

"I saw eight get out," said John. "That means three didn't. If they were there. Maria. And they've been wiped. They're gone, really gone. I can't imagine it." Anger and horror and anguish gripped him equally. "My group," he said savagely, "I'll kill the bastards."

 

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