It's 2052. A new reality is just a download away.
Decay is ubiquitious as the world's population shrinks under Sagan's Law. But no one cares as their lives are consumed by the Digital Sea: an immersive augmented reality that's always on, seen through eye-screens and controlled by the mind.
Zel Aurora, a skilled reality-hacker, can change the Digital Sea with a thought, but all that power can't save her daughter from a deadly disease. So Zel makes a deal with the Djed, a powerful crime lord that she's betrayed once before, to stop the new realities threatening his global empire. When the Djed sends along his murderous bodyguard that's immune to her powers to make sure she completes the job, she's forced to make a choice that may cost her daughter's life.
"In "The Digital Sea," we're immersed in what David Foster Wallace called Total Noise: "the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective." Carpenter presents an ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state, a world introduced to us by Vernor Vinge in "True Names" (1981) and developed by Gibson ("Necromancer," 1984), Sterling ("Schismatrix," 1985), and Stephenson ("Snow Crash," 1992).
For me, it's been 30+ years since I read the first of these, "The Digital Sea" plops me 30 more years into the future — to 2052 — where the line between reality and the digital world has been crossed, perhaps obliterated."– Amazon Review
"The story is about our world in the future where "Sagan's Law" has been enacted, a world-wide one child policy. The population is still too high and there are many devious plans to lower it further. The cost of health care is only available to the rich. Limbs can be regrown. ARNet computers ( the Digital Sea ) are embedded into the body in order for a person to change their outward appearance and viewed surroundings. But can you now be controlled and monitored by unknown forces? Can some people take this a step further and become invisible at times? These are some of the questions in this new complex world. Mr. Carpenter weaves a unique tale that tries to unravel this complicated and puzzling dilemma that man has enacted on himself. Well done, Mr. Carpenter, you had this reviewer guessing, chapter after chapter."– Amazon Review
""The Digital Sea" takes place almost 40 years hence, in a world in which most people live in an "augmented reality," a kind of customized, immersive digital veneer that can mask the more unpleasant realities of a decaying and increasingly chaotic global society; this augmented reality is available to pretty much anyone who is willing to purchase the necessary ocular implants and other cybernetic hardware . Meanwhile environmental problems like global warming have forced draconian population control measures upon us, forcing large swaths of inhabited landscape to lay abandoned. It's not really the sort of future that I would relish living in."– Amazon Review
In many cities, the great contraction left holes like hunks of mange on an old dog, or the rising waters drowned them. Detroit, Venice, New Orleans, Miami, Los Angeles, Jakarta, Tokyo were all carcasses of former great cities.
But in some cities, the tectonic plates of technology pushed them to the stratosphere. Shanghai was one. Instead of congestion choking the arteries, and rot crumbling its base, Shanghai swirled in the light of a million digital suns like the center of a galaxy forming new matter in explosive creativity.
It's not utopia, but it's definitely not a shithole, Zel thought as she pushed through the crowd.
She paused at the corner. Once she went up the street to meet the Djed's man, there would be no going back. Not that she had any intentions. Her will had been solidified that black night with the gun. Any apprehension was with the unknown. For all she knew, the Djed would have her brains blown out. She hoped he coveted her talents, and that he'd overlook her betrayal for the opportunity to use her again. Men of power squeezed the most out of every situation. Would he fit in his own brand of retribution? She knew the risk, and the Djed had been known to be peculiar.
She drifted back to a room in Belgrade and inhabited the Tata RN500 she had purchased to watch over Liala while she was gone. Liala watched her favorite show, "Murasaki Kisaki." Everything looked fine, so she slipped back to the streets of Shanghai before Liala would know she was watching.
The Djed's man would be at the small park ahead. No description given, but she was told she'd know. She checked her appearance and remembered she had a part to play, so she transformed.
A waistcoat the color of night cinched around her middle while her miniskirt gave the illusion of transparency when not looking directly at it—an effect she loved to torture the male species with. Her white unbuttoned shirt drifted down past her cleavage, while her hair morphed into Lolita-style pigtails. Thigh-high ebony boots adorned with spider webs shimmered in an unseen wind. Black mist hovered around her feet, disappearing a few steps behind. Lipstick the color of summer strawberries formed an exclamation point on the black and white ensemble.
Like a lioness on the hunt, Zel stalked up the street to the park determined to make an impression on the Djed's man. Sifting through the emotional context around her, Pandora's net caught the looks and desires sent Zel's way. Dotted lines from every male and even a few females, connected with the unsubtle parts of her womanhood.
For once I don't need you to tell me what they're thinking.
Pandora had drawn the lines for Zel, showing her what they wanted, down to the connection they made with her cleavage and tight fitting skirt. The way her program explained the world to her seemed whimsical, almost human. Sometimes Pandora spoke to her in the serene voice she'd given her and other times she drew pictures on the world, illustrating the sub context in ways that made sense at a glance.
She knew that was impossible because she'd been the one to program Pandora, but the dotted laser beams spearing her fleshy parts brought a giggle to her lips.
Thanks, Pan. I needed that.
The park was marked as a xenomorph haven, a place humanity showcased the wide spectrum of imagination loose in the Sea. How would she know him in this quasi-diverse mass?
Many in the park couldn't be classified as human. A pair of wide-eyed aliens held hands while speaking in Cantonese. An octopus-headed creature threw a ball to a werewolf boy. An oak tree handed out digital pamphlets along the sidewalk, which Zel found ironic, while a man-woman creature transforming between both sexes passed her. She couldn't classify the tall bubbling mass of goo squishing past, or the thing with needles covering its blue body, and she didn't want to. Appearances had become moving-artworks, political statements, or criticisms of the human race, but Zel didn't have time for such trivialities.
She couldn't find the Djed's man in the crowd, so she shifted her vision to see the level of digital traffic. Everywhere a steady load of information flowed, so she sent her vision over the park, and the Djed's man showed up as a gaping hole.
She laughed at the uselessness of her digitized appearance. The Djed's man didn't use an ARNet, so all her gyrations would go unnoticed.
Well, I like the way I look.
She cut across the grass dodging the werewolf boy, and a couple of frog people. The man sat on a park bench. He wore dark pants and a simple gray shirt, looking like a granite statue, unmoving, without a bit of digital modification. She'd hate to be the pigeon that made the mistake of landing on him. Scars and tattoos encased his arms, dating him. No one made permanent changes anymore. In his late fifties, the Djed's man looked as healthy as a twenty year old. He wasn't looking at her, but she could tell he knew she was there.
Run. Flee. Why are you walking willingly into the devil's arms?
Zel hesitated. She had been so resolute the night with the gun, but now that she was about to give herself up to the Djed, she wasn't sure. Running had always felt like a game. With her stalkers out of sight, a shadow of intention picked up in the Digital Sea, she sometimes wondered if she imagined the chase.
Staring at the granite man triggered her instinct to flee. Then she remembered Liala. She couldn't watch Liala die slowly; she'd been down that road before. There was only the Djed. It was the only way out now.
The reptilian part of her brain tried to hijack her body. She put her foot forward.
He fiddled with a small handheld device decades old.
"Your sorcery is no good with me, little witch girl," he said with a Russian accent.
Pandora whispered to her the Djed's man had a gun in his pocket. She couldn't lift his thoughts without an ARNet, but she could still recognize the bulge in his pocket. Zel had left hers back in the hotel.
"Afraid of change, old man?"
It couldn't be called a smile, the twitch at the corner of his lip, but Pandora told her he was amused.
"We walk now." He walked down the street in powerful strides, not even looking back to see if she followed. The crowd parted before him. Zel hurried to catch up.
They walked silently, looking like a father and daughter, or a pimp and his whore. She stared at his back and wondered what it would be like to not be a part of the Digital Sea. She couldn't remember that life. The Sea had become an extension. Giving it up would be like chopping off my legs, she thought. Then again, he'd grown up without it. She laughed out loud.
"What is funny?" he asked.
Russians, she cursed. A humorless lot. All pride and duty, czars and winter.
"That guy that walked by. His digital projection grabbed your ass," she lied.
He narrowed his eyes, not breaking his stride.
She ran up next to him. "What's your name?"
He walked a dozen steps before answering her.
"Sasha. That's pretty."
"It is short for Aleksandr." He paused and gave her a stilted grin. "And yes, it is pretty."
She sulked down the sidewalk. At least she wouldn't have to deal with him much longer. Until she got to the Djed, then she'd be off on her own again, doing what she did best.
As they cut into the commercial part of Shanghai, the buildings battled for attention like giant robots with cheerful mascots and flashy pyrotechnics instead of lasers and rockets. Leaning above her like a colossus, the Communist party building, accented with huge red and gold banners flapping in a non-existent wind, shone a huge red spotlight into space while a long flowing red dragon circled the upper reaches of the building. Shanghai was one of the pillars of the new world: Shanghai, Dubai, Mumbai, or goodbye.
Next to the Communist party building, a three hundred foot tall commercial played for Tata Robotics. "Reality getting you down? Don't like the look of your neighbor or kids or your wife? Let Ecoverse help you design your ideal life and if you act now…" Pandora blocked the audio from the commercial when Zel got tired of it.
On a whim she broke into his handheld device, but was immediately disappointed. Nothing more than a viewer program, an encyclopedia, and a few bits of dead software. It contained nothing about Sasha or The Djed, but she hadn't expected any, because a child could break into it.
She opened her mouth to ask a question, but the hard shoulders told her otherwise. Instead she admired his backside as he walked, wondering if she could bounce a quarter off it.
Pandora scolded her, almost sounding perturbed.
I don't care if he's not interested. And what do computers know of lust?
It wasn't enough that Pandora told her what they thought. She couldn't muster the emotional feedback quick enough to connect. Flirting required a delicate touch that she didn't have. And Sasha was a professional, besides. She shouldn't expect anything.
They turned a corner and a huge black pyramid came into view, hiding between a pair of taller buildings. It hunkered down menacingly like a great black dog crouched to attack. The Djed's pyramid.
Triangle upon triangles, etched in gold, swirled across the obsidian surface of the pyramid. Her mind counted (2187) and calculated the fractal dimension (2.1) of the triangles. Zel admired the design, wondering if the Djed had purposely requested the fractal design or if the architect had been the source. An omen?
She'd never met the Djed. His associates had given her the job. Even though she knew the extent of his empire, she had never been scared. Mostly because she'd always been outside his systems. Now that she would have to submit, fear gripped her.
They entered from the street side. A pair of doors whooshed closed behind them. They stood in a wide marble entryway with six columns on either side. A pair of ebony jackals waited at the end of the hallway on either side of a big door. The stone relief showed scenes of the Nile with slaves working the fields and pharaohs battling squat creatures.
"We go no further till you have submitted, little witch girl."
"I'm not a little girl," she tried to growl.
He grinned flatly, a crocodile's smile.
The submit hook was there. If she acknowledged it, she would be giving up control of what she would see in the Djed's pyramid. "Submit" used to be a way to send personal information, now it was used by gangs, xenomorph nightclubs, or paranoid corporations wanting to control what was seen and heard.
At least I've got Pandora. They won't know about her.
She triggered the hook and nothing changed visibly, but Pandora showed the Djed's program weaving into her system. It would take days to clean out.
Sasha pushed her forward, "Let's go."
Zel tried to ignore that he'd touched her and concentrate on her precarious situation as their footfalls rang in the stone hallway. It's all here to confuse and intimidate, she thought. Nothing different from anything in the Digital Sea, except the Djed can afford to make it real.
When they passed through the big door, the world erupted in light. Zel put her hand up to shield as her eyes adjusted. The radiance bouncing off the white sand turned the world into a curtain of illumination. Once the glare had subsided, she gazed out to a wide desert with three great pyramids poking from the sands. Gold gilded the peaks while the white stone shimmered. Bastard has the heat on, she thought.
Sasha poked her in the shoulder and she turned to the left. A field of lush vegetation with a swollen river cutting through the middle greeted her. Amid a manicured section of greenery, a large building with tall columns guarding the front beckoned them.
Dark skinned men and women in pallid tunics strolled across the pathways. Some carried baskets, others pulled blocks of stone on logs toward the pyramids, but they all had a sense of purpose that made the illusion feel real.
They walked up white stone steps with palm trees in huge pots on each side. Jackal-headed guards stood at the entrance with scythes shimmering in the sun. As they neared the entrance, the two guards crossed their blades. Zel looked to Sasha for guidance.
"Your clothes will insult him," he advised.
She remembered her Goth-Lolita outfit and shifted into a pair of black pants and an aqua-marine shirt with a thin leather vest overtop. Her black hair settled across the back of her neck in a ponytail. The guards allowed them to pass.
They walked through another long stone hall, filled with attendants that whispered as they passed. She wondered what would happen if she lunged toward one, if the illusion would adjust rapidly enough to keep them from touching. Foolish thoughts, but her nerves itched. She had never been at the mercy of someone else's system. She felt neutered.
Would the Djed have her killed? Had he brought her all the way to gloat, to see her suffer, or to declare her fate before they tore her apart? There were worse fates. Reality could be morphed into a Lovecraftian prison full of sightless terrors. She'd seen stories of serial killers who tortured their prey in twisted realities, designed to keep them in a constant state of fear as if they fed off the emotional terror. If the Djed tried, she'd pierce the veil with Pandora and go for Sasha's gun. He'd kill her, of course, but better than a long slow death.
They passed into a room with huge fountains and a gilded throne on a dais. A green-skinned man with an Atef crown lounged upon it. Plumes of feathers adorned the crown, and a crook and flail leaned against an exquisitely carved rack. The man's lower extremities were wrapped like a mummy.
Pandora told her the man on the throne was supposed to be Osiris, but she knew the self-styled pharaoh was the Djed.
"Our kitten didn't use any of her claws now did she, Sasha?" the pharaoh said without any trace of accent.
"Good. I'm glad you finally came home, little kitten. I'm sorry you ran and hid for this long." The green-skinned man leaned forward as he spoke, drumming his fingers on the gilded armrest.
She stared silently back at the pharaoh. Adrenaline raced through her body.
"It was fortune's smile you returned. I am in need of your skills."
She took a deep breath. Maybe her fears were unjustified. Her skills had kept her alive this long, and now they kept her alive even when she wasn't using them.
"Why is she silent? I know she isn't cowed by these illusions." He waved his arms around.
"I can speak," Zel declared.
"Good. I hate one-sided conversations. An unfortunate result of my position."
The pharaoh stroked his chin. Pandora could tell her nothing without alerting his system.
"When you slipped away so easily, I realized that you were more than I thought. I had thought the Lorieme job a lucky trick. I was wrong by tens. So while you ran, I went looking in places you probably thought no longer existed."
The corners of his lip curled upward, stretching until they disappeared. "How I read you, yet you know nothing of me."
The pharaoh turned his attention to Sasha. "Did you know our little kitten has secrets? She has many powers, but blind spots as well. You see, she cannot read people. We are a featureless landscape to her. It makes her so cold."
"When I spoke to Kaushal." At Kaushal's name, her fear, which had receded back, spiked upward gripping her in a paralyzing embrace. He knows everything. "I see you remember him. Don't worry, he is okay."
The Djed leaned back in his throne. "You see, dear Sasha, her old friend Kaushal called her an emotionless computer. I see that sideways look you give her—she is no android—the technology has not ascended yet. She is flesh and blood like us. Yet she is one in a billion. Maybe eight billion, who knows?"
He paused while she choked on the wasteland of his words. If he had found Kaushal then he could know about Pandora, or Liala. Why did I allow that beautiful Indian researcher to get in my head? And he accused me of being cold.
"You would be surprised to learn she is autistic. High-functioning Asperger's, but autism all the same."
The Russian gave her a look she assumed as pity.
"Her unusual mind keeps her from understanding anyone. She cannot fathom the human interactions we all take for granted. It has led to many unfortunate misunderstandings in her life and Kaushal was too happy to spill them."
Sasha spoke up, "In Krasnoyarsk, I knew a man who could remember everything ever happened to him, but if you touch him, he curl in a ball and cry. She is like this?"
"Touch me and find out," Zel spat.
They're toying with me. If he knows about Pandora, then he could counter her. Or he could have traced my communications using Pandora back to Liala. Then all is lost.
"Don't feel sorry, Sasha. Our little kitten has claws. She is a prodigious savant. Her mind is a computer, manipulating numbers as we breathe. The Sea is made for such rare beings. Maybe it is a bit of evolutionary magic at work. In a few centuries, you and I will be the freaks, dear Sasha."
Zel shifted to the balls of her feet. If I attack and win, then maybe I am free of the Djed. If I lose, then I know what he knows. Either way, it's in my favor.
The Djed pointed a bony finger at her. "She is very rare, indeed. This is why you are alive, because you are useful." He laughed a baritone full-throated laugh. "And this is why we sent Sasha. He is as rare as you. A refuge of the old world, refusing to splash around in the Sea. He clings to his reality as much as you to yours. Quite a pair. Opposite ends of the new world."
He leaned back into his throne. His eyes looking out beyond the pair of them at the foot of the stairs.
If he kills me for my indulgence then we are both lost, but this is the only logical way forward.
Sasha stood at ready. Ever vigilant. Bodyguards didn't get to be this old because they were lax.
The Djed continued while Zel moved one step closer to Sasha. "Yet, you ran before. Hesitated when it came to the killing. A hammer that will not hit the nail is not much of a hammer."
I must not fear.
She moved hyper-quick, a snake striking at Sasha's kneecap. He turned enough to absorb the blow, as if he had expected it.
Simultaneously, she brought the Digital Sea down around their heads. He had all of his resources pointed at her like a country full of nukes pointing to a lone soldier. But the beauty of Pandora was her symmetry. Whatever force was brought down on her could be reflected back. Eye for an eye. Tooth for a tooth. She crashed every device around her turning their worlds to a sea of static. There was no time for subtlety, or sleight-of-hand. She brought it like a nuclear blast. Now she only had to deal with Sasha.
He out weighed her by double, molded of rock hard muscle, but she was viper quick, and she cheated. Pandora told her where he was going to strike next, so she was always one step ahead.
[Duck,] Pandora whispered.
Zel dropped down, narrowly avoiding a head hunting blow that would have knocked her out.
She couldn't let this go on much longer. She had to end it quickly. The gun dangled at the top of his jeans.
Zel slid to the right, kicking at Sasha's feet, enough to get him to skid backwards, then she brought up a low sweeping blow that caught him right in the groin. He doubled over, and she punted him in the face. Tripping him, she lunged for the gun slipping from his pants.
She undid the safety and turned it on the Djed, vaulting the stairs in twos.
A wrinkled, brown man with snowy hair seated on the throne reached out, groping randomly. She had blinded him.
"Stay back, Sasha."
Sasha strode toward her without a trace of fear on his face. A trickle of blood ran from his lip. He smiled like a pomegranate sliced open.
An echo of laughing cascaded all around her, and then she felt a sharp prick on her neck. She pulled the trigger, but it clicked impotently. Her hand went to her neck to find a small dart sticking out. Her legs went to water, and the world turned upside-down. The last thing she remembered was Sasha leaning over her with a drop of blood dripping from his lip.
She was out before the blood hit the floor.