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"It’s the bots that changed everything."
“It’s only a matter of time, my friend. The malls are crumbling.” Eddie Eight has just popped up in Cisco’s tank. Outside Cisco’s apartment window, meanwhile, a slowjoe shambles towards the perimeter. One of its limbs, supposedly an arm, keeps morphing. The simulacrum’s chest swells as the arm grows shorter, collapses as it grows longer. Then the slowjoe waves two appendages towards the ESUSA Mall, a parody of some kindred soul in need of sanctuary.
Venturing outside, it’s said, means instant death. Victims blur and disintegrate before they have proper time to scream. Dust to dust. Nobody can say what molecular disassembly feels like. No one survives being dissed to talk about it, including the unfortunate human beings who supplied the template for this monstrosity, the ill-formed and twice- too-large foglet simulacrum that’s currently trying to penetrate the local defenses.
Breach... breach... breach...
As though the mall is reading Cisco’s mind, the alarm sounds. The shrilling gives him the willies. It’s the Southwest Quadrant. According to the monitor, this is the first action down that way in many cycles. The racket stops after a few seconds.
All clear. Breach contained. All clear.
“Believe that, you’ll believe anything.” Eddie Eight is jeering. “MOM’s shucking us.”
The supplicant slowjoe, a badly sketched apeman, staggers closer. Then it disappears in a flash of light—either a satray, a satellite beam or the mall’s force field itself. Reduced to half its bulk, the slowjoe slumps to the ground, an amorphous lump that melts into a circular steel-gray pool and starts bubbling. A badly corroded flitter, another anomaly in that PlagueBot-homogenized panorama, slides off its edge and begins to dissolve. Now, it appears, the bot superorganism is trying to tunnel under the force field bubble. It’s persistent. Some believe the thing is also intelligent, but in fact it never learns. Whatever. Smart or stupid, the PlagueBot may be winning out over the malls.
“Yo!” Eddie Eight says. “Hey, man: look at this.”
Befuddled, Cisco comes to himself, his arrival confused by sparks of rage.
Vestigial spurts of adrenaline. After-effects of action undertaken in some other place. In yet another place, Eddie Eight had been showing him something.
How long was he gone this time? Gravity weighs unreasonably heavy, which suggests he’s at home. Back in ESUSA Mall. Back in mondoland on a Monday. It was a Monday when he blanked out. Is this the same Monday or has he lost a cycle? And, once again, the real question is this: Where has he been?
Smoke is watching him. As usual. Motionless, perfect form perfectly poised. An organic robopet. A gift from Sky. A cat. The ’pet abruptly transposes herself, her fluid phase, to the other room. Then something else moves, something on Cisco’s periphery. He whirls, over-reacting, still burning hot. But there’s nothing. Just the bland surfaces of his apartment.
Everything is as usual. As normal as things ever get these days. He listens. The place is dead quiet. Except for the Doll ticking away on standby and the nearly subliminal dither and hum of a zillion nanobots maintaining the integrity of the mall. Cisco’s world. People say you can’t really hear the bots, but Cisco believes he can. He also registers a slight hubbub from outside the apartment. Only at times, mind you, and even then he can’t be sure the noises aren’t in his own head. But he does hear them more often these days.
He opens his locket to look. There’s a tiny holo of a woman in early middle age, lovely but sad. He wants to find the woman smiling, but she hasn’t smiled in many cycles. Wisps of memory tease at him, traces of somewhere he is not. A bittersweet mix of sorrow and loss, affection and warmth. She almost speaks to him. Her image, more than ever, evokes a sense of some time when he was someone different yet the same.
Cisco goes into the bathroom to have a look at himself. He prods at his cheek and leans closer to the digiscreen. Two things. First, no mallster should ever have a zit, not with a trillion medibots running around inside him taking care of business. Second, if he does have a zit he should be able to see it in the digiscreen. But he can’t. He pinches at where the screen tells him there is no zit and comes away with a smear of pus flecked with blood. He looks in the screen again. Cisco has to admit it, if only to himself—he’s worried. Not scared. Just worried. He fingers the invisible zit on his cheek. The tiny crater is sore.
Cisco tells his Doll—the ProvidAll—to make him a peanut butter and banana sandwich. It refuses. Again.
Eddie Eight says things are falling apart. Maybe he’s right. Whatever. Cisco tries to shrug it off. “That’s frig all,” he says, trying to sound just like Leary.
I’ve just had a nice chat with the toilet.
Seems my blood sugar levels are elevated. Unlike my friggin’ spirits. But I don’t think the toilet’s picked up on that yet. My triglycerides and whatnot are all jim-dandy, thank you, and why wouldn’t they be? Seeing as how I haven’t had a decent drink in longer than I can remember. Or a good steak. A wise man, I can’t remember who but it was a hundred years ago or more, talked about teetotallers not living any longer than the rest of us, it just seemed longer.
Talking toilets. I guess we’ve come a long way since the pisser in the Thaniya Plaza Building. That was in old Bangkok. The thing used to flash red and flush automatically after you had a whiz. As much as to say, “Good job, young man,” though it didn’t really talk. But the darned elevator would ask you, “Which floor?” in this voice like a woman from Toronto, most likely a Presbyterian, and then tell you, “Going down,” as though you hadn’t noticed on your own. That whole building took a motherly interest in you. Then you hit the street, Thaniya Road, and a bunch of nice girls took another kind of interest in you, especially if you were Japanese, which I wasn’t. My toilet has a woman’s voice. Probably one reason I’m troubled with constipation these days, even if my toilet says it’s because I need more roughage. No trace of cancer, anyway. Though I guess it doesn’t matter; most likely I’m soon gonna be dead anyway.
Another wise man, not me, once said that getting old is the only way there is of living a long time. And I wanted to live a long time. The things that go on in this life, you just don’t want to miss what’s gonna happen next. But I don’t have much time now. Darn it. A hundred and thirteen years. That’s a fair run by anybody’s standards.
But I do wish the medibots would fix it so I can sleep. Here it is, close to midnight and, though there’s nothing I really have to do, I can’t sleep. I reckon the Kid, over there in ESUSA, is getting up about now.
Outside, it’s morning.
Farther to the east, a tower of dark cloud rises against a shimmer- ing aurora of mauve, pink, aquamarine and turquoise, throwing spokes of gray against the creamy-orange sky. This is an odd spectacle even by current standards, when freak atmospheric effects are common. The iceberg that showed up last Monday looms, surreal, on the horizon. It blazes like a titanic jewel in that dreary landscape, reflections of the strange sky superimposed on its own blue-white flash and dazzle. Eddie Eight says the polar caps are mostly open water now; there isn’t much left of them aside from a few shrinking icebergs. Of course Eddie Eight is a total paranoiac, and a pain in the ass.
Cisco activates the holoport, specifying southern Yunnan 1930, tiled temple roofs gleaming amid sunny green and gold rice terraces. He glances back towards the tank where a ghost, an inarticulate, half- formed figure, flickers and wanes like a damned soul. “Our qubital slow- joe,” Eddie Eight calls it. Meanwhile a cryptomajig substantiates in the middle of Cisco’s living room floor; this one resembles an altar. “Majigs” are rogue assemblies of molecular robots—bits of floor, walls, shelves, whatever—that reconfigure as various objects and often move, unnerv- ingly, from place to place. As soon as Cisco spots the majig, it slumps back into the mall’s foglet substratum. Maybe in case Cisco is getting bored, a message bounces up in the tank:
A god is born
The bad news? She has a personality disorder
That tranzoominist loonies could figure out how to hack the system is incredible in itself. But this graffito suggests another agency, some- one even quicker, more in control. But who could that be, given that no human being understands the code these days?
“All this stuff happening.” Sissie says. “Where’s MOM?” Sissie has adopted a gothic avatar, all caved-in cheeks and hollow eyes, black VitaSkin halter and half shorts, big purple bauble blinking away in her bellybutton.
“Yeah,” Cisco says, smiling a big smile of propitiation. “This is bad management.”
In certain quarters that might be considered blasphemous.
“And it’s just about always Monday, these days. I can’t handle it any more.”
“Don’t be a total nanowit,” he tells her. Tough love.
Joy pops in, attracted by any opportunity to bellyache. She’s wearing a featureless head-to-toe gold avatar. “Everything’s always changing,” she says. “All the time.”
“We know, Joy,” Cisco tells her. “Please don’t go on about it.” “Inside, outside; it’s all the same.” Her bright gold avatar dulls to pale yellow.
“That’s right,” says Eddie Eight. “We’re falling apart. MOM’s losing it. Losing control.”
“No, no! Yes, we’re falling apart. We are. But it’s not MOM. It’s something inside us.”
“There’s only room for so many paranoiacs here, O Joyful One.” Eddie reaches to rearrange the bulge at his crotch, his bright yellow jock- strap spattered with electric blue sequins.
Cisco’s screen is counting down to Worldsday. And it can’t come too soon. Escaping the dreariness of the mall is usually enough in itself. But a good workout with Dee Zu, fellow Worlds UnLtd test pilot and primary love of his life, would do wonders for his spirits.
Mind you, Mondays aren’t really as bad as all that. Not lately. They offer the chance, at least, that he’ll get to see Sky again. Though he can’t tell anybody about that.
Smoke transposes across the room to park right in front of him. She’s holding something. Cisco’s last thought before he blanks out.
By Collin Piprell