Zep

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Arriving on the Isle of Shanghai, Clair argued with Zep over what to do about her best friend, his girlfriend. This didn't solely concern the matter of their infidelity to her. I have a record of their conversation, and their conversation the previous day, the day before I awoke. Everything is in the Air, if you know where to look. I call this the law of conservation of data: nothing disappears forever.

The day before, Clair's best friend had skipped college, complaining of a migraine. Fearing that she had learned the truth about her betrayal, Clair called a hasty conference with Zep, wherein she learned something quite different: that Libby had been trying Improvement in a vain attempt to erase a birthmark that she felt made her look ugly. She had d-matted more than fifty times in one day, thus bringing the Words most comprehensively to my previous iteration's attention:

Zep: "Do you think Improvement's just spam?"

Clair: "Probably. What do you think?"

Zep: "What Libby thinks it is—that's the problem."

They were both wrong. Perhaps Clair suspected that she was wrong, because later that day Clair approached a fellow student, Jesse Linwood, to ask him what he thought. Jesse, a floppy-haired young man who was the same height as Zep with neither Zep's muscularity nor his solid masculinity, was the only Abstainer at their college. He had never once been through d-mat; he had never used a fabber, either. Everything he owned or ate had been made by someone, either himself or someone else in the Abstainer community. His media augmentations were ancient. His audio came through an earring clipped to his earlobe, instead of a tiny tube tucked neatly into the aural canal like Clair's did. He had only one visible contact lens, which he switched from eye to eye as though it irritated him. He audibly whispered when talking in a chat, and when he was bumping someone or accessing his menus, his fingers visibly twitched. Needless to say, he wasn't a popular student.

They went back to his house, a terrace apartment on a broad and overgrown thoroughfare, with well-worn sidewalks and bike paths shaded by eucalyptus branches and clumps of sighing bamboo. What they talked about there is unknown. Some moments and spaces are shielded from me, by either natural misfortune or artifice of the paranoid. I imagine, though, that the conversation reiterated what Clair and Jesse had covered in public on the way from college:

Jesse: "So the code acts as a kind of signal to the system, alerting it to the presence of someone who wants to be Improved?"

Clair: "The invitation doesn't say how it works, but yeah, I suppose so."

Jesse: "That's the only way it could work. The system reads the note, takes onboard what the bearer wants, and manipulates their pattern to make it happen. Fiddling the books bit by bit—tiny alterations that supposedly don't affect the hash sum of the entire transmission. When the change is sufficient, the note is thrown away and no one's the wiser."

Clair: "So it could actually work?"

Jesse: "I don't know. I mean, the note isn't a thing once it enters the Air. It's just data, a string of ones and zeros like everything else. Sure, some patterns are scanned for explosives or specific DNA—but not for letters on a piece of paper. That'd be like using a microscope to take a picture of the galaxy."

Clair: "So it's a scam."

Jesse: "Can you imagine how illegal it would be if it wasn't? I mean, you'd have to get past both AIs every time someone used it—and there's no program or anything to go with the note, so it'd have to be done manually. If you were caught, you'd be locked up for the rest of your life."

(sound of Clair punching Jesse's shoulder)

Clair: "Just tell me: is it a scam or not?"

Jesse: "Why don't you try it and find out?"

There the matter rested, for a time.

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