07. Sustainable competitive advantage

The blast I’m expecting, and whatever happens after it, whatever happened to Sal, never comes. Where there should be fire and pain, there’s silence.

I open my eyes slowly, cautiously, unsure of what I’ll see or what will happen next.

What I see is Sal, the expression on their face back to normal, standing in front of me, holding up their arms. The soldiers are standing perfectly still, as if unsure of what to do.

Sal says something to them in their shared, ear-piercing encrypted static, and they begin to back off. Slowly, they turn and rise up the stairs. Sal holds their hand out to me indicating that I should remain still, shouldn’t make a noise, and I remain frozen to the spot.

Finally, we hear them leave the house above and return to their copters.

The copters, however, do not leave.

I remain still, but I’m shaking; it’s getting harder and harder not to collapse. I don’t have words; I barely have thoughts. I try and form a sentence but don’t get further than, “what ..?”

Sal is pale. They inspect the new protrusions on their arms, padding them down gently in turn.

Eventually, they turn to look at me. “Your brother was right. We’ve got a lot to talk about.” And then they turn around and race to the sink to throw up.

I was wrong about the lenses.

We’ve all had them for so long that they almost feel like a part of us. But they’re not: they’re not part of being a human, and the network is not just in the ether. As it turns out, it’s not decentralized, either: they just want us to think it is.

“The Menlo Park Corporation runs the network,” Sal says. “They own the lenses and monitor the nodes. And the lenses” - they touch their arms - “are far more than any of us realized.”

“What happened to you?” I ask. “You turned into one of them. How is that even possible?”

Sal nods and swallows. Understandably, they can hardly believe it themselves. “I’m not sure exactly. But it turns out to be more than an interface to the network. Or better, the interface has some .. undocumented features.”

“Clearly,” I say.

Sal pauses, realizing something. “Is your lens turned off?”

I shake my head.

“Turn it off,” Sal says, and I take a moment to flip the mental switch that disconnects me from the network.

“The first thing to know is that it doesn’t really turn off,” Sal says. “It phones home, so they always know where you are - at least if they care to look. There’s no way out of being a part of the network; there’s only a way out of being cognitively aware of it.”

“And clearly they do care to look,” I say.

“Well, you can blame your brother for that. But the bigger deal is what the lens and that network interface can do. The Corporation can exert its influence in three ways: disinformation, malware, and requisition. All in service of its own aims - and I have no idea what those aims are, although I can guess.”

I give Sal a blank look. What does that mean?

Disinformation just means they provide incorrect information through the network,” Sal explains. “If you have a question about what’s going on, they’ll purposefully tell you something that will manipulate you into taking an action they would prefer. Malware is worse: they can actually download software that changes how you interpret the world. They can adjust how you think to better fit their needs. And then requisition is what they did to me. They unleash a payload of nanobots and you’re just one of them. It’s incredibly fast. Fucking terrifying to feel it happening.”

“But you stopped it,” I say. “How did you manage that?”

“They can’t reprogram me; I’m non-binary,” Sal says, attempting a smile.

I look at them dead-pan, unimpressed.

“Okay, so remember, I’ve got developer access to the back-end of my lens. They took over my body, but while that was going on, I still had access to hack into the system. So I simply undid as much as I could. We were lucky they blasted me first, I guess, although maybe they wanted you intact for some reason.” Sal pats their arms. “But no matter what I undid, I can’t undo this.”

“You could still speak their language?”

“Apparently,” Sal says, shrugging. “And they won’t attack me because I’m one of them. I told them they should wait outside and they believed me - I don’t really know why, but maybe it’s because they think anyone who has a key to their encryption can be trusted. If they work like a lot of systems do, the presence of that key is enough to assume trust.”

“So they’re still going to wait outside.”

Sal nods. “If they go back to wherever base is empty-handed, we’re going to draw greater scrutiny. We’ve got to get out of here before anyone knows what happened.”

“How?”

“I have no idea.”

“Is your lens off? Can they track this conversation?”

“I have no idea. My lens is off but I don’t know what they did, exactly, and I don’t know what they’re capable of.”

“Where’s their base?”

“I have no idea. There’s what I was able to glean from the software they installed, that revised network interface, but I don’t know where they are, or who they are, really. I know they exist and what methods exist in the malware.”

Sal’s compromised. It occurs to me that if they downloaded the malware into Sal, and the malware changes how people think, I might not be able to trust them. I’m going to have to be careful, but at the same time, I don’t know if I can find Let without Sal’s help. It’s going to be a dangerous road no matter what I do.

“What could they possibly want? We don’t use money,” I say. “Don’t these kinds of people usually want money?”

“I don’t know,” Sal says. “But money is just a proxy for power. In the old days, the more money you amassed, the more power you had. Just because we’ve switched to the barter system, it doesn’t mean we’ve got equitable power. People who control more resources can still have outsize influence.”

And then I realize the obvious.

In the messages, there was some talk of engineering people to have a built-in lens from birth: of making the lens a permanent part of humanity that would be passed down from generation to generation. A group of scientists and engineers - altruistically, we were told - had figured out how to create a biological network interface. It was already powered by our body’s inherent electrical current; it already used our bodies as an antenna. Now it would simply be a biological part of our species in the most fundamental way.

When it was a decentralized technology that everybody controlled, it almost seemed like a good idea; like we would give everybody superpowers. A next stage in human evolution where everybody was connected to a colossal civilization-sized brain and contribute to a collaborative store of human knowledge. But knowing there’s an entity somewhere that is using the network to maintain its own power, for its own ends, though manipulation of its users?

“Power in itself seems like a strange goal,” I say. “What does that even mean now? After the rise, I mean?”

Sal shrugs. “Safety? Comfort? There have always been people who have wanted to put themselves in a better position than others, all throughout history. Invasion and plunder is the punctuation of human civilization. I think they probably just want to get ahead. Unless.”

“Unless?”

“Unless they know something we don’t know about the rise. We think the water levels have stopped; we think this is our new normal. But what if it isn’t? What if there’s something else coming and they want to be prepared for it?”

“Or what if it’s just a remnant from before the rise - something to keep them safe when resources became scarce - and they just kept going?”

Sal nods. “That could be it too. I just have no idea.”

I’m beginning to have a better understanding of what Let was getting at; why he warned me. But how did he know? How is he still alive?

“I’ve got to find him,” I say. “Let. I need to find him.”

“You do,” Sal says.

“Will you come with me?”

“I don’t know if I’m going to be a liability.”

“You might be. Will you come with me?”

“I might have the malware activated. I don’t know if you’ll be able to trust me.” I’m glad they’re acknowledging it.

“It’s possible. Will you come with me? I need your help.”

Sal looks down at themselves. Their face seems slightly augmented, but their clothes, their shaved head, their expression is all as it was. Their entire reality has been rewritten in an instant. It must be impossibly hard, I think.

And those soldiers are still outside, in their copters, just waiting. Whatever they wanted to do with us could still happen in an instant.

Finally, Sal nods. “I’ll come with you. You need to find Let. And we all need answers, and hopefully, to stop this Corporation, whatever their plan is, and return the network to the people.”

I smile at them. “Thank you. Really. It means so much.”

Sal looks at me. “We’ll see how it goes. I’m terrified. I don’t understand who these people are and what they’re capable of. But those are all things for later.”

“Here’s the thing for now,” Sal says. “How do we get away?”