This book is set in a far future time, where humanity has branched out biologically, and digitally, while spreading throughout the stars. Different enclaves, factions, and powers maintain an inter-connected balance. But on the fringes, as always, remain the criminals. And the most legendary criminal of his time is locked up behind bars in one of the most advanced, and infuriating, prisons ever built.
Not for long, though. This is how Jean Le Flambuer’s story begins.
As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk.
‘Prisons are always the same, don’t you think?’
I don’t even know if it can hear me. It has no visible auditory organs, just eyes, human eyes, hundreds of them, in the ends of stalks that radiate from its body like some exotic fruit. It hovers on the other side of the glowing line that separates our cells. The huge silver Colt would look ridiculous in the grip of its twiglike manipulator limbs if it hadn’t already shot me with it fourteen thousand times.
‘Prisons are like airports used to be on Earth. No one wants to be here. No one really lives here. We’re just passing through.’
Today, the Prison’s walls are glass. There is a sun far above, almost like the real one but not quite right, paler. Millions of glass-walled, glass-floored cells stretch to infinity around me. The light filters through the transparent surfaces and makes rainbow colours on the floor. Apart from them, my cell is bare, and so am I: birth-naked, except for the gun. Sometimes, when you win, they let you change the little things. The warmind has been successful. It has zero-g flowers floating in its cell, red and purple and green bulbs growing out of bubbles of water, like cartoon versions of itself. Narcissistic bastard.
‘If we had toilets, the doors would open inwards. Nothing ever changes.’
All right, so I am starting to run out of material.
The warmind raises its weapon slowly. A ripple passes through its eyestalks. I wish it had a face: the stare of its moist forest of orbs is unnerving. Never mind. It’s going to work this time. I tilt the gun upwards slightly, my body language and wrist movement suggesting the motion I would make if I was going to put up my gun. My every muscle screams cooperation. Come on. Fall for it. Honest. This time, we are going to be friends—
A fiery wink: the black pupil of its gun, flashing. My trigger finger jerks. There are two thunderclaps. And a bullet in my head.
You never get used to the feeling of hot metal, entering your skull and exiting through the back of your head. It’s simulated in glorious detail. A burning train through your forehead, a warm spray of blood and brain on your shoulders and back, the sudden chill – and finally, the black, when things stop. The Archons of the Dilemma Prison want you to feel it. It’s educational.
The Prison is all about education. And game theory: the mathematics of rational decision-making. When you are an immortal mind like the Archons, you have time to be obsessed with such things. And it is just like the Sobornost – the upload collective that rules the Inner Solar System – to put them in charge of their prisons.
We play the same game over and over again, in different forms. An archetypal game beloved by economists and mathematicians. Sometimes it’s chicken: we are racers on an endless highway, driving at each other at high speeds, deciding whether or not to turn away at the last minute. Sometimes we are soldiers trapped in trench warfare, facing each other across no-man’s-land. And sometimes they go back to basics and make us prisoners – old-fashioned prisoners, questioned by hard-eyed men – who have to choose between betrayal and the code of silence. Guns are the flavour of today. I’m not looking forward to tomorrow.
I snap back to life like a rubber band, blinking. There is a discontinuity in my mind, a rough edge. The Archons change your neural makeup a little bit every time you come back. They claim that eventually Darwin’s whetstone will hone any prisoner into a rehabilitated cooperator.
If they shoot and I don’t, I’m screwed. If we both shoot, it hurts a little. If we cooperate, it’s Christmas for both of us. Except that there is always an incentive to pull the trigger. The theory is that as we meet again and again, cooperative behaviour will emerge.
A few million rounds more and I’ll be a Boy Scout.
My score after the last game is an ache in my bones. The warmind and I both defected. Two games to go, in this round. Not enough. Damn it.
You capture territory by playing against your neighbours. If, at the end of each round, your score is higher than that of your neighbours, you win, and are rewarded with duplicates of yourself that replace – and erase – the losers around you. I’m not doing very well today – two double defections so far, both with the warmind – and if I don’t turn this around, it’s oblivion for real.
I weigh my options. Two of the squares around mine – left and back – contain copies of the warmind. The one on the right has a woman in it: when I turn to face it, the wall between us vanishes, replaced by the blue line of death.
Her cell is as bare as mine. She is sitting in the middle, hugging her knees, wrapped in a black toga-like garment. I look at her curiously: I haven’t seen her before. She has a deeply tanned skin that makes me think of Oort, an almond Asian face and a compact, powerful body. I smile at her and wave. She ignores me. Apparently, the Prison thinks that counts as mutual cooperation: I feel my point score go up a little, warm like a shot of whisky. The glass wall is back between us. Well, that was easy. But still not enough against the warmind.
‘Hey, loser,’ someone says. ‘She’s not interested. Better options around.’
There is another me in the remaining cell. He is wearing a white tennis shirt, shorts and oversized mirrorshades, lounging in a deck chair by a swimming pool. He has a book in his lap: Le Bouchon de cristal. One of my favorites, too.
‘It got you again,’ he says, not bothering to look up. ‘Again. What is that, three times in a row now? You should know by now that it always goes for tit-for-tat.’
‘I almost got it this time.’
‘That whole false memory of cooperation thing is a good idea,’ he says. ‘Except, you know, it will never work. The warminds have non-standard occipital lobes, non-sequential dorsal stream. You can’t fool it with visual illusions. Too bad the Archons don’t give points for effort.’
‘Wait a minute. How do you know that, but I don’t?’
‘Did you think you are the only le Flambeur in here? I’ve been around. Anyway, you need ten more points to beat it, so get over here and let me help you out.’
‘Rub it in, smartass.’ I walk to the blue line, taking my first relieved breath of this round. He gets up as well, pulling his sleek automatic from beneath the book.
I point a forefinger at him. ‘Boom boom,’ I say. ‘I cooperate.’
‘Very funny,’ he says and raises his gun, grinning.
My double reflection in his shades looks small and naked.
‘Hey. Hey. We’re in this together, right?’ And this is me thinking I had a sense of humor.
‘Gamblers and high rollers, isn’t that who we are?’
Something clicks. Compelling smile, elaborate cell, putting me at ease, reminding me of myself but somehow not quite right—
Every prison has its rumours and monsters and this place is no different. I heard this one from a zoku renegade I cooperated with for a while: the legend of the anomaly. The All-Defector. The thing that never cooperates and gets away with it. It found a glitch in the system so that it always appears as you. And if you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust?
‘Oh yes,’ says the All-Defector, and pulls the trigger.
At least it’s not the warmind, I think when the bright thunder comes.
And then things stop making sense.