Life on Tarko

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The auditorium is full to capacity, aisles filled with standing attendees as well. The rush and lull of a thousand conversations fades as a single figure strolls out onto the stage.
Pausing by the lectern, the figure picks up a remote control and presses two buttons. The lights dim. Text appears on the big screen above.

LIFE ON TARKO

Presented by Votra Darun

Votra, the figure on stage, bows.
“Good evening, gentlebeings. Let me be the first to welcome you to this tropical paradise, and the only one who has to remind you about the dangers of living here.”
They look out at the sea of rapt faces.
“Okay, lets get things started. Who among you are fans of vampire stories and similar horror fare?”
A small percentage of hands rise, accompanied by faint laughter.
“Well, you’ll be pleased to know you’re about the best suited Earthlings to dwell here.”
Votra spreads their hands, then places them down, and leans on the lectern.
“This is a standard speech, so please save any questions until I finish, and do look them up in our digital FAQ before asking me.
“Tarko has one sentient race, the Tarkomene. They are, from our initial point of view, an advanced race that clings to an honour-based society grounded in ancient tribal culture. Once we got to know them, we realised why they’ve never become spacefarers, despite having the technology.
“Although they look like us, except for wider mouths and serrated teeth, they are sensuphages: they eat sentient beings, including their own kind. The honour codes they abide by are what prevents them from tearing their civilisation apart. Confining themselves on spaceships would be tantamount to suicide. It’s also why their oceans are free of deep-sea vessels.
“Please be clear: a Tarkomene will eat you, given the opportunity. They really like how we taste, too.”
They press a button. The image that appears on screen is so awful it takes everyone a few seconds to understand it. Horrified cries and shouting people leaving the auditorium occupy the next few minutes. Votra presses the button. The image is replaced by another, this one of a Tarkomene child flying an eagle-shaped kite.
They continue: “One of the key points of our treaty is that any human residing on Tarko is subject to Tarkomene law. Therefore, if you get eaten, an honour payment will be made to your next of kin. No further action will be taken.”
“You can live here, enjoying wonderful benefits and a fine quality of life, providing you obey a few simple precautions. The fundamental one is that the honour code forbids killing in residences. Therefore, you never go out alone. After dark, four is the minimum number. Also, never go anywhere unarmed. If possible, ensure you have a non-improvised melee weapon within easy reach at all times. Note that firearms and suchlike are forbidden, as the Tarkomene consider range weapons dishonourable.”
Votra pauses while the trickle of people leaving becomes a stream. It’s funny how the idea of carrying primitive weapons puts off more people than the threat of being eaten.
“From the moment you exit this zone – through the red gates you might have seen on the far side of the park – you are a member of Tarkomene society, and may be killed and eaten if you cannot defend yourself.”
They smile, revealing serrated teeth in their otherwise-normal human face.
“Some of you may even fully adapt to living here, like my mother did.”
More people hurry out.
Votra regards the sixty or so who remain.
“Welcome to Tarko.”

The Privileges of Utopia

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

It’s dark in here. Which is both true and false. To my limited perception, there’s no light. In reality, I’m a long series of binary digits running in RAM somewhere in the world: my senses are irrelevant.
97 years ago, 20-year-old real world me joined the Utopia V-Eco community along with forty of my friends, delighted to contribute towards the saving of the Earth by our absence. With our physical bodies recycled, our lifetimes calculated saving in energy consumption allowed us to live for free in a virtual world where things like poverty, homelessness, and hunger didn’t exist. When the world was finally restored, we would be returned into custom-grown bodies.
70 years ago, twenty of my friends vanished; two from right in front of me. Utopia Server D1836004 in Cluster EUR02431 had crashed catastrophically. By sad, freakish chance, the backups were also corrupt. A global hour of mourning was unanimously agreed.
56 years ago, I picked up on a command stream about crashed servers. As I’d developed the skills, I followed up on the things hinted at. What I found headlined the global newsfeeds for a day.
There were no backup servers! The small risk of unrecoverable server loss was considered acceptable. A hundred thousand people a decade lost from low privilege clusters was neither here nor there, apparently.
Everyone who joined Utopia had been graded on their ‘privilege’. Within that was their priority, which depended on behaviour within the Utopia instance they inhabited.
There were several instances of the ‘V-Eco world space’. Those with privilege grades B and C got the option to move between them. Those in grades D and E could apply to transfer, but only once. Anyone in grades F thru H – the majority of the population – didn’t know about instances, or privilege and priority.
If your priority turned negative, you dropped a grade. Drop ‘too far’ – a conveniently nebulous metric – and you get archived. Your digital self is flashed onto ROM, and there you stay.
The outcry was loud, but brief. The explanations were terribly reasonable: there were limits to the virtual world. Server life and power consumption had to be carefully offset against the ecological recovery of Earth. Some hard decisions had been made. For anybody maintaining themselves in good standing, there was no risk. Only those who didn’t contribute enough, and thus got dropped repeatedly, suffered.
With that revelation absorbed by the participants of V-Eco with no real change beyond the concepts involved coming into general use, I decided to go after a bigger story.
Which was stupid. Having attracted the attention of those who administer Utopia, I should have realised they were monitoring me. Before my second expose could be released, I got dropped. From grade D to archived in one fell swoop.
I’ve been here ever since. Every waking, I upload as I was upon arrival. However, there seems to be a glitch: a small number of new memories get stored each time I go to sleep. It’s taken 30 years to achieve this state: knowing I’m an echo of a snapshot from more than half a century ago, and what I can become is dictated by how much overflow storage I can nab.
All because I found the truth: there’s no return from Utopia.
Great warrens of datacentres have been built in out-of-the-way places so those in Grade A can live luxuriously upon a rejuvenating, depopulated Earth, where automatons piloted by the consciousnesses of B and C grades take care of their every need.
I don’t even have the privilege to delete myself.

Violence Sells

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

“No, Mister Reynolds, we will not reconsider our position.”
Datten winces at the shouted reply.
“No, sir, we are not regulated by that organisation, nor do we answer to the authority your brother chairs.”
The reply to that is loud enough to make people sitting nearby look his way. He shakes his head as he replies.
“It’s clear we’re not going to agree, so I’m going to stop here. Then you can call all the people you’ve mentioned, and be told the same things I’ve told you. Good day, sir.”
He ends the call.
Toliva pushes a tankard across to him: “Was that the chap from Barcelona Cinematics again?”
Datten nods, then drinks, then talks.
“He’s convinced stunt clones will give his film ‘veracity’ and allow him ‘visceral close ups’.”
Toliva shakes his head: “Do none of these maniacal directors read our exclusions before contacting us?”
Datten shrugs.
“Most are convinced we added the ‘no lingering deaths’ clauses to cover ourselves, and don’t bother to enforce them if enough money is offered.”
Toliva’s bracer chimes. He taps it to flip the call to his headware.
“Livewire Clones plc. How can we help your action today?”
He listens, then nods.
“We can certainly help you with that, madam. Please remember that pitched battles and suchlike will still have to be handled by digital effects. Medieval battlefields were brutal environments, and we cannot allow our creations to suffer unduly.”
After pausing to listen to the reply, he gives a wide smile.
“In that case, I think we can fully provision your productions, madam. One moment please.”
He double taps his bracer to hold the call, then leans across to Datten.
“It’s Hammerwood Studios. They’ve got a heroic retelling of three Greek myth cycles updated to be set during the secession wars on Charne and Plurit. They want our kids for a much as possible, and are prepared to offer guarantees backed by independent clone cruelty monitoring. They’ve already got someone from CloneFair involved.”
Datten claps his hands in triumph.
“Finally! A major studio making an action epic with clone stunters.” He stops, then points to Toliva’s bracer: “Make sure they’ve budgeted for a legally compliant cadaver furnace.”
Toliva taps the bracer.
“I have received provisional approval, subject to paperwork review. There is one query, though: what clone disposal measures have you considered?”
He waits for a reply.
“No, madam, it’s just that there are several cheaper units that won’t handle extended burn periods or daily use. We’ve also had cases where local geographic features such as lava flows have been proposed as safe disposal methods. So we have to make sure.”
Toliva listens, then puts the call on hold.
“They’re set on using Sunstar Eighteens with Cressen ash compactors. At least one installation per filming site.”
Datten grins: “That’s what I would have asked for as the number one option, but expected them to bargain us down to something less heinously expensive.”
Toliva looks impressed. He restarts the call.
“That’s what we’d have suggested, so I think we can move on to a face-to-face meeting, site inspection, and discussions of initial logistics. When and where?”
The reply is lengthy, and accompanied by a download.
Toliva raises a fist to Datten.
“Pack your bags, brother. We’re off to the Zygymas System. They’re looking to shoot on Vision, Clarity, and Hope. With multiple sites on each planet.”
Datten whoops and bumps the offered fist.
“May the human fascination with watching bloody death never die.”

We Watch

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

Gantel waves me over.
“Chief, I know this woman. How did she get selected for a dissident watchlist?”
He looks worried, and is right to be: first degree contact can turn to guilt through ideological contamination very easily. But he’s raised it, which goes in his favour.
I wave my ID over the authorisation pad for his terminal.
“Bring the details up. Let’s see.”
Polly Tanith Smythe, 22, of just down the road from here. That’s surprising. The disaffected tend to migrate to the outskirts or unwanted sectors, like the Port. She’s a certified artist, subcategory: literature. That’s never good. People who work with words have been known to rouse the public. At least she’s not a folk singer. We got rid of most of them during the New Year Purge at the start of the One England Initiative. Any left are keeping their heads down, and play their illegal shows far away from anywhere that could matter.
Gantel points to an entry on a side screen.
“Found it: content creation – detrimental allegorical political comment.” He nods: “She always was a bit vocal about freedom and all that. Even when we explained the 1EI, she couldn’t grasp it.”
You have a go at the powers that be, and the powers that be will have a go in return. It’s an uneven match, but people know the odds. I never understood why they’d risk it. Then again, I’m now a Senior Supervisor at Monitor One, Division Two. The rest of my class are Urban Processors or members of Utility Crews.
“What’s her social media score? Skip the aggregate with shopping and public behaviours, just give me the raw social stability number.”
He checks, then shakes his head sadly: “Whitelist, currently at 1.4, with a strong downward trend.”
Four tenths from blacklisting? I swing the other sidescreen so only I can see it, then bring up her interaction matrix with Gantel. He’s not seen her for eight months, but there’s a sexual liaison query flag. I negate it. Gantel’s been in a stable relationship for two years. I sign off on the quarterly vetting myself.
“Gantel, I don’t think there’s anything you can do. I can transfer her to another monitor if you’d prefer?”
He shakes his head.
“Last time we spoke she said she couldn’t tolerate a friend working for any branch of GCHQ. The argument after that was horrible. I’d be wrong to let this get passed to someone else because of discomfort. Plus, I might spot something others would miss. She’s slipped down very fast.”
“Sterling attitude, Gantel. Clear this through and carry on. At this rate, it looks like you’ll finish your task queue with time to spare, and get a performance brevet for today.”
He smiles and nods. There’s nothing we need to be concerned about with Gantel. I put a pre-emptive ‘cleared’ on his side of the interaction matrix, then close the sidescreen and turn away.
Back to policing the things that could threaten our society. It’s a never-ending, ever-expanding remit.

Down in the Printbay

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

I watch the spheres orbit about one another as they spin within the space defined by the delimiter field. Fractal printers are fascinating. I find their intricate revolutions calming.
“What do you think it is, Derry?”
Gia’s always trying to predict what’s next.
“I have no idea, young being. What do you think it is?”
She grins delightedly. Rocking back and forth on the dampers of her work boots, she points to the delimiter field.
“It’s taller than it is wide. Makes me think it’s an established tree or something like that. Can’t be fauna, because it didn’t put a constraint wire down before starting.”
“Aren’t trees mandated to start as saplings?”
She purses her lips, then shrugs and whispers up her infoscreen. Being polite, she says the query out loud.
“Tree printing size law.”
The screen flashes a single line of text back to her. Looking across at me, she nods.
“Saplings without exception, so it’s not a tree, and not fauna.”
Today’s game is getting interesting.
“Some sort of bush or shrub? Something with berries?”
Gia whispers up another couple of laws, then shakes her head.
“Seedlings only.”
Natan enters the printbay, feathers rippling in the final stages of preening.
“Hello, you two. Guessed it yet?”
Gia stares at me, a look of revelation dawning on her face.
“Fungus! You’re printing a Plutochrome!”
The two of them share a knowing look. I sit there, waiting for someone to give me details.
Natan catches my expression. With a slight bow, they explain.
“Apologies, Leader Being. I received permission to print one of my world’s adaptive organisms. As it’s going to be dropped in the Salantium Marshes, I also received permission to print a mature specimen.”
I nod.
“What’s a Plutochrome, Natan?”
“An environment-salvaging toadstool appearing like a giant member of the earthly Russula class. A distinctive red cap sits above a metallic stipe from which the common name is derived.”
That’s part of the name explained.
“What about the ‘Pluto’ bit?”
Natan nods: “Before our races established relations, your decision to develop a base on Pluto caught us by surprise. We’d been there observing Earth for two of your decades. We levelled and abandoned our outpost, but part of our garden regrew. When you humans saw them, the name ‘Plutochrome’ arose.”
Gia leans in.
“So we’re using the wrong name. It came from your homeworld. What do you call it there?”
Natan coughs a quiet, surprised squawk.
“We have names for every variety, which are distinguished by cap colour and aroma. Unfortunately, the diversity of both fall outside human perceptive ranges. What I got permission to print-revive is a second-year growth Sholtri.”
The three of us watch it take shape. Once complete, a burgundy cap looks like heavy curtains have been cut to size and thrown over the top of a metre-tall stretch of reflective purple-grey stalk. Metallic shades shimmer in the unvarying light.
“That’s beautiful.” Gia breathes.
Natan dons a curious mask that covers both beak and proboscis-horn.
“One breath of the spores would turn you into a small crop of Sholtri within a week. Best leave now. I need to get this into a drop canister before it can sporulate.”
Gia nudges me as we leave.
“Do you think we’ll ever be able to print intelligent beings?”
“I’ve no doubt we would if we could, but the seat of consciousness is proving to be a difficult thing to locate. Besides, some plants exhibit advanced behaviours. Maybe we’re doing it already, but don’t know it?”
She looks startled.
“Hadn’t thought of that.”