The voice was a dull, distant roar, rousing her from the depths. Light and sound overloaded her senses, her mind spinning wildly. A memory fitted here, a skill slotted there, an emotion relearned, a pattern recalled. Sounds forming words, words falling through holes in a net being spun furiously but still maddeningly incomplete. Until clarity came at last.
She was disappointed to discover her vision resolved in grainy black and white. Worse was the realization that not only could she not move, she lacked any physical sensation. Her body was simply gone, a void. Good grief, she thought, What kind of retrotech shell have they dumped me into?
The voice continued. “Refugee Valerie Shem, are you conscious and self-aware? This is your scheduled debriefing with the Talos Orbital Authority. Refugee Valerie Shem, are you conscious and self-aware? This is—”
“Yes, yes!” she interrupted. Her voice sounded tinny, tinged with static. Where was here? No, the voice had said that much. Focus! “In what form is my consciousness currently embodied?”
The recording paused. She studied the grainy image of an insectoid drone, sprouting metallic legs at crazy angles, an eyestalk wobbling in front of whatever camera was providing her narrow field of vision.
“Ah yes,” continued the drone. The operator was probably running half a dozen of these remotes, interrupting automated procedures as needed. “Greetings. You are currently being stored on a backup server in Talos Orbital spacedock.”
Backup server? Her sense of calm dissolved. “Backup” meant file compression, downtime, dormancy, which in turn spelled fragmentation and memory loss. Questions flooded her mind. Who had been her advisor at the Polytechnic? Where had she seen that glorious sunset on Ramses?
Holes. Like missing teeth, like itches she couldn’t scratch.
“What is my storage medium?” she shouted as loud as the damn box would let her.
“Ah,” said the drone, hesitating. “Nanotubes.”
“Tinkertoys!” cried Valerie. “You can’t preserve a recorded personality on a rod logic system! I demand an upload to a DNA matrix or a quantum computer. And I want a full-mobility cybershell or an android host!”
“Nanotubes are the most robust medium for long term storage,” came the flat reply.
“Who gives a damn about long-term storage! I need full mind emulation now, before I degrade any further. I can afford whatever your backwards Orbital can produce!”
“Your credit account has a negative balance, Valerie Shem,” replied the drone curtly. “The cost of transmitting and receiving your ghost through hyperspace was not met by the funds on reserve with us. You are currently a ward of the state until your debt can be repaid.”
She remembered enough to respond to that. “My homeworld was sterilized by a solar flare!” screamed Valerie. “Why else would I evacuate to some forsaken cluster of satellites orbiting a gas giant in the ass-end of the civilized universe?” She paused, struggling to piece together her memories.
There were fewer gaps than she had first thought, but she noted a pattern to the missing data that belied random errors. “I think someone has sabotaged my records,” she said incredulously. Her tone became more authoritative. “I request the opening of a formal investigation into the theft of my personal property and an assault upon my personal mind space.”
“Opening personal investigations requires a retainer to be deposited with Talos Orbital Security,” replied the drone.
Damn. She searched her memories frantically for some sense of who might have done this to her, hoping to find backup files hidden in her matrix. How clever had she been?
“Valerie Shem, I must inform you that you as an indigent ward of the Talos Orbital authority, your stored consciousness is scheduled for routine downtime to conserve energy and system resources.”
Bastards, she thought. She kept scanning herself.
There. A hidden memory file, with a recent time stamp. Accessing it, she found a sneaky piece of spyware, designed to record alterations to her cognitive structure. It told her nothing of her former life, potential enemies, or who had violated her mind. But it might hold the solution to her current dilemma.
“What is the standard protocol in place on Talos for copyright and personal mindspace protection?” she asked.
The drone froze. “Level 1.2 quantum encryption,” it replied. “I fail to see—”
“I had Level 1.5 quantum encryption on my personal data, and it was hacked,” said Valerie.
“Opening an investigation into such matters requires a retainer—”
“I have a detailed record of the assault, showing how it was done, though not by whom,” interrupted Valerie. “This information might be of value to Talos Orbital Security, don’t you agree? Particularly given that the party involved is likely inhabiting your infosphere along with the other digital refugees.”
After a long pause, Valerie continued. “I might add that I have a worm program installed that will delete this information if anyone were to attempt to remove it from me by force.”
“You would run the risk of irreparable damage to your consciousness,” replied the drone.
“Do you think I want to live in this toybox?” she shot back.
The drone began tapping its long, slender appendages for what seemed like an eternity. Then, with a shake of its eyestalk, it spoke. “Valerie Shem, I am authorized to investigate your memory loss and, if your claim proves truthful, negotiate the purchase of your data recording on behalf of Talos Orbital Security.”
Valerie smiled to herself. They were hooked. Time to push. “Of course, I can hardly take part in such a negotiation in my current crippled state. I will need a full mind emulation running at baseline Human-Plus 2 clock speed to assess all parameters, the cost of same to be deducted from my fee.”
“Agreed,” said the drone, extending a probe toward an unseen panel. “Prepare for transfer to mind emulation.”
Before everything went black again, Valerie envisioned baring her teeth. Someone had tried to screw her, but they were going to find that this genii would not stay in her bottle.