“I suspect I have the answer to that,” Penelope said. She poured something from a different bottle into her glass. “I’ve been looking around, and there’s a rumor of a new experimental cyber-defense system that’s being tested by the government. One to keep the hacker cooperatives out, especially the ones using human interfaces.”
Louise scowled. “I thought human interfaces still weren’t really possible without extensive surgery, and they were still guessing about that.”
“That’s the usual line, yes,” Penelope said, returning to the table. “But there are people who are doing more… bleeding edge research, in places that don’t care so much about medical ethics.”
Louise felt more than a little ill. She was not a neurosurgeon by any stretch of the imagination, but she did do her classwork, and had friends in the specialty. “I know microsurgery has made all sorts of leaps and bounds in other areas,” she said, “but unless there’s been a real revolution in the past six or ten years, since I stopped reading the neuro literature, this kind of thing still involves taking a melon-baller to the gray and white matter and hoping not to sever important connections.”
“There’s a couple folks who’ve learned empirically what bits they can safely melon-ball,” Penelope said, “and where they can slap in the experimental interfaces. Mostly without leaving the person completely disabled. But some people think that losing, say, motor function is nothing if they can roam around in a ‘real VR’.” Penelope added the quotes with her fingers.
Louise covered her face with her hand. “Seizures,” she said. “Migraines. Neuropathic pain. I’m only listing what comes off the top of my head.”
“Look,” Penelope said after a drink, “if you’re completely dirt poor and starving and you can suddenly become an amazing resource for a bunch of people who are either crazy anarchists who will pay you, or mercenary-wannabes playing crazy anarchists who will pay you? What’s the fucking choice in some places?”
With a spasmodic sigh, Louise looked at Penelope. “No, you’re right. People have been selling organs and other things for long enough. It was a matter of time before the brain itself became a commodity.” Something else about Penelope’s statement caught her attention. “You don’t think these people are crazy anarchists, do you?”
“Oh, hell no,” Penelope said, wheeling over to the media center to join Louise. “They’re showing off what they can do. When they do some damage, it’s pretty light, and it’s almost always in places that are highly visible to the right people and supposedly secure. The government agencies involved want to stop them from showing off, which will reduce their chances of attracting big contracts, and they want to secure the places where the hackers can do damage if they’re hired.”
“So this experimental cyber-defense thing…,” Louise began.
“If you’re a corporation that wants a big government contract, you have to have a product or service to sell,” Penelope said, taking the keyboard and moving some screens around, then added, “or you have someone on the inside who’s good at either blowjobs or blackmail. What if you’re a corporation that has no visible product or service, and you have a big government contract?” She triumphantly gestured at the corporate logo on the screen.
Louise failed to recognize it. She cocked a questioning look at Penelope, who pushed them over the threshold into the corporate space, and pulled up the listing of company bigwigs. Then Louise reacted. “Wait, this company was founded by that asshole whose wetware company killed their test subjects?”
“And the guy whose company used to do military contracts,” Penelope said, pointing.
“And they list Better Thinking Pharma as a collaborator,” Louise said, all the question-tone going out of her voice. “What do they do?”
Penelope moved screens around again. “They ‘consult and collaborate with several government agencies in the IT spectrum.'”
“Which means… what, exactly?”
“Shit if I know,” Penelope said, “but I’m betting they supply the infrastructure for a contained cyberspace swimming pool.”
“One that a bunch of demented old women on Cognizoid can swim around in,” Louise said.
“One that is arranged in front of some government cyber resources,” Penelope said. “And that leverages the joint human-machine processing power of 30 to 60 brains to block incursions.”
Louise started to curse then, and only stopped when she realized she was cursing in languages she didn’t know. And then, much to her increased fury, she began to weep in great, heaving, rage-filled, sobbing epithets that convulsed her body.
She wasn’t sure when Penelope wheeled closer to her and took her in her arms, but she eventually stopped crying because she couldn’t breathe for the snot and tears and resultant coughing. Penelope pushed a wad of tissues into her hands and said, “Blow. You gotta blow or you’re gonna strangle.”
Louise blew her nose (which made her ears and facial sinuses pop painfully). “Sorry,” she said finally.
“God, woman, I’d be screaming at the sky and throwing shit out the window in your place,” Penelope said, making a dismissive wave of the hand. “I’d be breaking things and wailing and asking my dead-and-gone momma why she bore my sorry ass. Crying and cussing? Mild.”
Louise’s face hurt like hell, and her sides and chest ached, and the arthritis in her hands was hurting in a bone-deep way that made her remember clutching Penelope’s cardigan as if it was a life preserver. “Still,” she said.
Penelope wheeled into her kitchen and returned to shove a couple of tablets into Louise’s hand. “Here. Your head is going to pound like a bitch after that.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Louise said, glancing down to ascertain which particular variety of pain med Penelope had provided her, and then popping them into her mouth. She’d never cared for the flavor of dissolving tablets overmuch. “So now what?”
Penelope pursed her lips. “Now, I think, we have a little supper. And then you go back to your place and take your meds and go to sleep while I get online and run a little experiment that may confirm or deny our hypotheses. You science types like that sort of thing, right?”
Louise gave a little laugh. “Yeah. You still got any of that quiche left?”