Cover by Jim Holloway

JEROME-G, THIS IS YOUR FRIEND THE COMPUTER. Jerome-G had a good job at the Threat Obfuscation Department in The Computer’s underground city of Alpha Complex. He invented false threats to cover up true dangers. It made perfect sense, once he understood The Computer’s idea of “true” is entirely false. INTERNAL SECURITY CONSIDERS YOU A CITIZEN OF INTEREST. Suddenly Jerome’s fake menaces are turning real. Rogue robots are conspiring for independence. There’s a pirate ship in the transport tubes. And the real-est threat is the powerful executive Ellister-V, who means to dispose of Jerome permanently. WELCOME TO THE TROUBLESHOOTERS! To evade a fatal reassignment as reactor shielding, Jerome volunteers for The Computer’s elite service unit. Troubleshooters heroically defend Alpha Complex from traitors. Too bad Troubleshooters are often traitors themselves. YOUR MISSION: FIND A LOST PAIR OF GLASSES. If Jerome’s teammates knew the equipment they seek is right in his pocket, they’d kill him. His experimental Augmented Reality goggles reveal the truth behind everything—and he’s more confused than ever. YOU ARE IN ERROR. NO ONE IS SCREAMING. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION. This is a FREE preview, “Jerome’s Augmented Reality,” Chapters 1-4 of the complete PARANOIA novel S1 Reality Optional by Gareth Hanrahan

“Jerome’s Augmented Reality” Chapters 1-4 of

Reality Optional
Gareth Hanrahan

Ultraviolet Books • ultravioletbooks.com
“Jerome’s Augmented Reality,” Reality Optional and PARANOIA TM & copyright © 2011 by Eric Goldberg and Greg Costikyan. PARANOIA is a trademark of Eric Goldberg and Greg Costikyan. All Rights Reserved. Allen Varney, Authorized User. Based on the PARANOIA roleplaying game. Original setting & game design by Dan Gelber, Greg Costikyan, and Eric Goldberg. Copyright © 1984, 1987, 2004, 2009 Eric Goldberg and Greg Costikyan. All Rights Reserved.

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Orientation
ALPHA COMPLEX The Computer’s underground city of the future. Trust The Computer! The Computer is your friend! SECURITY CLEARANCE The measure of The Computer’s trust. Citizens are ranked according to the colors of the spectrum: INFRAREDs are untrusted, REDs and ORANGEs slightly trusted, and so on up through VIOLET executives and The Computer’s High Programmers, the ULTRAVIOLETs. SECRET SOCIETIES Diverse organizations of conspirators plotting against Alpha Complex; threats to good order and good hygiene.

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“Jerome’s Augmented Reality”:

Chapters 1-4 from the full-length PARANOIA novel Reality Optional by Gareth Hanrahan

1: Jerome-G’s quarters
Jerome-G suspected his bed was plotting against him. As a GREEN-Clearance citizen, he was a junior executive, with quarters to match. His rickety YELLOW-Clearance bunk bed had been upgraded to a sleeping tube, a plastic coffin built into the wall of his cramped apartment. The mattress squelched when he lay on it, supposedly reconfiguring itself to maximize his comfort and improve his posture. In fact it frisked him for concealed items as he slept, insinuating memory-foam cilia into every crack. Overhead, an aerosol drug dispenser fired WakeyWakey gas in the morningcycle and Sleepy-Sleep gas at 23:00. A camera watched as he slept. Jerome had little problem with that; if someone wanted to watch a short, spindle-thin, inconspicuous nebbish lying prone for seven hours, fine. What bothered him was the raised pillow—he suspected it hid a microphone so They could listen to him talking in his sleep. Soon after Celeste-B promoted Jerome to GREEN, he’d discovered he could remove one of the plastic panels that lined the inner surface of the sleeping tube, revealing a convenient little hollow. Better, if he turned on his side and curled up like a fetus in a clone tank, he could shield the hollow from the camera. He used the hollow to store his notes. But in the last few weeks he’d been struck by a worrying thought—what if the bed’s designers knew he’d use the hollow to hide treasonous material? Had they deliberately created that space in the bed, an all-too-convenient hiding place that could be searched for contraband and seditious propaganda when the supposedly trusted GREEN official was away at work? Had he fallen into their trap? Even if Internal Security broke in and found the notes, Jerome told himself, everything’s in code. Well, almost everything—the earliest notes, the ones Jerome wrote to himself when he was a Junior Citizen or an INFRARED, were plaintext. Back then, his biggest worry wasn’t detection by Internal Security, but having his memories erased. The Computer

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dictated heavy medication for lower-clearance citizens, so everyone below ORANGE existed in a blissed-out haze. Back then, he wrote notes to himself to preserve those moments of blazing insight that seemed to come only to him. “THE COMPUTER IS NOT MY FRIEND” was the very first note, written in childish block capitals on the back of a Combat Gum wrapper. Another was “Secret society agendas blind you to the true conspiracy,” scribbled in a panic after one of Jerome’s co-workers in the Food Vats tried to recruit him into the Sierra Club by showing him a cockroach. He’d refused—even back then, as an INFRARED, he’d worked out that Alpha Complex was not the entire world, that there was something outside the endless corridors, offices, factories, cafeterias, reactors, and confession booths of The Computer’s underground utopia. Alpha Complex was not the world, but the great secret had to be somewhere within these walls. Why else was everyone here? “The Deluded seek to defy the System, but their Defiance is simply Compliance with the Metasystem.” That note dated from soon after he was promoted out of the Food Vats into an office job and RED Clearance. At each clearance, the drug regimen became more subtle, and you could think more clearly. For Jerome—rather, Jerome-R—RED meant a series of pretentious, sonorous observations with Far Too Many Capitals. He’d realized pretty much everyone else was a believer in one deluded secret society or another—no one was perfectly loyal to The Computer’s regime—but everyone’s treasons, pulling this way and that, pulled the whole system into an equilibrium born of a hundred conflicting conspiracies—all designed, he was convinced, to distract people like him from the true manipulators behind the scenes. Or, as he started writing it at that time, the Great Conspiracy. Celeste spotted his talent and pulled him up through the ranks. She would have told him keeping these notes, even coded notes, was an unacceptable risk. Sentimentality would get him killed. He stuffed the notes back into the hollow and closed it tight. Perhaps, if they were found, he could claim someone broke into his quarters and planted the notes. Or maybe he should plant fake notes among the real ones, to throw them off the scent—but then, if he got brainscrubbed, would he be able to tell which were

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fake and which were real? Celeste would have told him to trust his instincts, but— The alarm squealed on his Personal Digital Companion, jolting him out of his reverie. He opened the sleeping tube and padded four steps across the apartment to the Refresh-O-Matic. In its parabolic camera lens his nose looked even bigger, his weak chin weaker, his receding hairline recedier than reality. A tiny readout blinked 05:46. He thumbed the CoffeeLyke button. ATTENTION, CITIZEN JEROME-G-NSO-1. THIS IS YOUR FRIEND, THE COMPUTER. The Computer’s voice filled the whole room with electric-honey tones, precisely calibrated to reassure and to inspire. “Friend Computer!” In the darkness Jerome-G snapped to attention. He looked up at the security camera above the door. The Computer controlled every aspect of life in Alpha Complex. IT IS 05:47 HOURS, CITIZEN. YOUR ASSIGNED WAKE-UP TIME IS 06:00. WHY ARE YOU AWAKE? Claiming insomnia meant a battery of psychological tests and medication. Telling the truth would get him killed. A lie bubbled up instinctively. “Thank you for your concern, Friend Computer. I’m happy to report I had an idea related to my assigned work duties while sleeping, and wanted to write down the insight.” YOUR SHIFT AT THREAT OBFUSCATION DOES NOT BEGIN UNTIL 07:30 HOURS, CITIZEN. IN THE FUTURE, RESTRICT SPONTANEOUS IDEAS TO YOUR ASSIGNED WORK SHIFT TIMES. “Yes, Friend Computer.” FAILURE TO DO SO IMPEDES WORKFLOW. UNREGISTERED CREATIVITY IS A CLEAR INDICATOR OF SEDITION. RISING BEFORE YOUR ASSIGNED WAKE-UP TIME RESULTS IN FATIGUE.

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YOUR WAKEY-WAKEY AND SLEEPY-SLEEP DOSAGES WILL BE ADJUSTED ACCORDINGLY. “Thank you, Friend Computer.” HAVE A GOOD DAYCYCLE, CITIZEN, STARTING IN 12 MINUTES. The CoffeeLyke dispenser disgorged a brownish slurry of hot liquid and stringy half-dissolved nodules of freeze-dried chemical gunk. It tasted marginally worse than it looked, but it shook Jerome’s brain to full wakefulness. It also caused heart palpitations and liver scarring. Everyone in Alpha Complex was assigned five or more clone replacement bodies, and rumor claimed the unhealthy side effects of CoffeeLyke and other FunFoods accounted for a good 20% of all required replacements. Citizen-on-citizen violence accounted for another 35%. That statistic wandered nervously around Jerome’s mind as the doorbell rang. Outside, the corridor was still dark, lit only by green floor stripes and the flashing LEDs of scrubots as they swept for litter and bloodstains. Three shadowy figures crammed into the doorway of Jerome’s apartment, out of sight of the hallway cameras. When Jerome opened the door, they tumbled in. They called themselves RED Roy, ORANGE Roy, and YELLOW Roy—obviously fake names, although Jerome suspected ORANGE Roy was stupid enough to use his real name. They worked in some low-clearance manual labor section that required hulking muscles and limited social skills. Each of them wore a tool belt with pliers, vices, power drills, and spiky metal bits that would make an Internal Security Information Volunteering Enhancer jealous. All three belonged to the secret society Free Enterprise. Jerome appreciated Free Enterprise. That conspiracy—that mafia—ran the underground economy of Alpha Complex. They could get you anything for the right price, or—if you let your guard down—they could get the right price for your possessions and internal organs. Though he suspected the secret masters of Free Enterprise had a higher purpose, low-rank thugs—like

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Roy-R, Roy-O and Roy-Y—were easily manipulated with the promise of cash. It was absurd—as if mere money meant anything in a controlled economy—but they were useful to Jerome, and GREEN Clearance conferred a good salary. “Have you got it?” he asked. The Roys grinned at him. Something was wrong. They were too confident. He wished he’d taken his Computer-issue laser pistol to bed with him, instead of leaving it hanging on the wall beside the door, on the wrong side of the three increasinglyintimidating thugs. “We got it,” said Roy-R. “We’re reliable,” said Roy-O. “But the deal’s off,” said Roy-Y. To emphasize the point, Roy-R reached out and with one meaty finger pushed Jerome’s CoffeeLyke cup off the countertop. The heatproof plastic cup bounced off the heatproof plastic floor and splashed hot liquid over Jerome’s distinctly non-heatproof shin. He yelped and fell back against the bed. “No deal means no money for you,” he said, “and my superiors won’t be happy with this.” The superiors were a lie; Jerome had hired the three Roys himself. For protection, he’d played the middleman, hiring the trio on behalf of some sinister mastermind with significant firepower and anger management issues. If the three Roys were willing to break the deal, then either someone else was leaning on them or they’d found a way to make much more money than Jerome paid. “There’s a new deal.” Roy-Y kicked the CoffeeLyke cup across the room. “A better deal,” Roy-O added. “Hurry up,” said Roy-R, checking the time. “I wanna beat the rush to the cafeteria.” Roy-Y loomed over Jerome. He smiled. “You work in Threat Obfuscation.” Jerome made a noncommittal spasm of his shoulders and neck, the nonverbal equivalent of you might very well think that but I couldn’t possibly comment. “We want the files for any upcoming threats to public safety,” Roy-Y continued. “Radiation leaks, chemical spills, fungal blooms, mutie outbreaks—that kind of stuff.”

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Roy-O added, “Also, any shortages, ration decreases, production shortfalls and stuff.” Roy-R didn’t say anything. He’d found a packet of CruncheeTym Soy-Based Chips in Jerome’s locker and was munching them in a threatening fashion, as if to say See this chip? This chip is you if you don’t do what we say. We’re going to eat you messily and maybe choke on you, ahem, excuse me. “And once you’ve got those files, let me guess.” Jerome tried to look calm, smug, protected. “You’ll start selling stuff on the black market that feeds into these fears. The Computer announces a chemical spill, and hey, you’ve already got ten thousand gasmasks and chem-resistant pairs of boots in a warehouse ready to sell. That sort of stuff?” Roy-Y snapped “Never you mind!” at the same moment Roy-O said “Exactly!” They scowled at each other. “Those files are kept in my boss’s office.” Jerome opted for a policy of cautious honesty. “Getting them won’t be easy. I might be able to get what you’re looking for, but it’ll take a couple of days. I—” Suddenly he was on the floor. The back of his head smashed painfully into the tiles as Roy-R grabbed his ankles and pulled. Roy-O knelt heavily on his left hand, crushing the fingers. Roy-Y put his foot on Jerome’s chest and leaned down, presenting an unpleasant close-up of his flaring nostrils. “No. You’ll get those files today. We’ll be back here at lunch, hear me? And if those files ain’t here then, well -” “He means we’ll hurt you with our power tools,” Roy-O said. “Like, we’ll cut toes off, or drill you with our drills. Or put bits of you in the vise.” “And then close the vise,” Roy-R added. “I don’t think we should do the toe thing. It turns my stomach.” Roy-O nodded. “Okay, then just the drills. We’ll drill you with the power drills, and we’ll hurt you with the vise, but—” He lowered his voice to a intimidating growl. “—we’ll leave your toes intact.” Roy-Y stared. “Did you two miss the Threats and Intimidation seminar at the last general meeting? They did a whole section on letting the victim’s imagination fill in the details. Way more effective.”

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Roy-O hurled himself at Jerome, grabbed his collar, and hissed, “Forget what I just said! We’re going to hurt you in extremely non-specific ways! They may—or may not—involve power tools!” “But no toes!” Roy-R’s face turned a shade of green several levels about his clearance. “Probably kneecaps then, if that works for everyone!” Roy-O showed murderous rage and a talent for consensus-building. “And what if I just report you all to Internal Security?” Jerome asked—a question from the floor. Roy-Y had obviously rehearsed his answer. “Then we’ll tell IntSec the high-and-mighty GREEN executive was looking for the secret location of the Humanist meeting. IntSec doesn’t bother us. We just do grievous bodily harm and smuggling and extortion. But wanting to join the Humanists? That’s treason, big treason. You report us—they just kick the Hot Fun out of us. We report you—you’re terminated.” They kicked him once each, for emphasis, then stomped out. Jerome pulled himself onto the bed and slumped back on his intrusive mattress. He had no intention of joining the Humanists; he needed that meeting location to keep tabs on Celeste’s allies. But Internal Security wouldn’t buy that as an excuse. The Computer’s inquisitors were unlikely to be moved by a plea of I was only committing treason because I suspect Celeste’s Humanist allies are targeting me for assassination after I terminated her. Of course, The Computer’s inquisitors weren’t moved by any plea. They worked off an interrogation script derived from telemarketing, and it had no branches involving mercy or mitigating circumstances. Reporting the Roys to IntSec had been a bluff, and they’d called it. He had to get the files. The files were in Peter-B’s office. And Peter-B was the one citizen Jerome could never beat. —————

PARANOIA / S1 Reality Optional preview / 9 TWELVE YEARCYCLES AGO....
Jerome-NSO—INFRAREDs didn’t get clearance initials—sat in the best holding cell ever. He wasn’t quite sure why this particular cell was the most wonderful place in all Alpha Complex, but it sure was. The dim light, the decaying, crumbling walls, the hard bed, the security camera, and most of all the pungent stench—everything he saw or smelled flooded his brain with absolute happiness. Or maybe that was the drugs. They had given him quite a lot of drugs. He wracked his brains for memories that hadn’t turned to merry sludge. Something about a riot. He vaguely remembered a riot. He even remembered doing something to start it. “You told your barracks-mates there was free Bouncy Bubble Beverage in the HPD&MC admin section,” said a wobbly hazy figure. Looking at wobbly hazy figures was fun! Fun made him happy. He giggled. “And when they smashed the door down, you sneaked off and tried to break into the secure files,” Wobbly Hazy Figure continued. Concentrating really really hard, he thought Wobbly Hazy Figure might be a woman wearing orange. He reached back as far as he could in his memory, and remembered the last thing Wobbly Hazy Figure said. It was an accusation! Wobbly Hazy Internal Security! Somewhere under the fuzzy goop of the drugs was his cleverness. He could get out of this one. Getting out of things made him happy. “I didn’t sneak off and try to break into the secure files.” There. That would do it. Being so happy made him clever. No, other way. Being so happy made him clever. Wait. One more time. Being so—clever! Made him clev- happy! That was it! He was happy that he was happy. He was so happy he shared his cleverness with Wobbly Hazy Figure. “That was a lie! I did sneak off. I did break into the secure files.” He giggled again. Confession was fun. “Why did you do that?” asked Wobbly Hazy Figure softly. He frowned. There was a Reason. A really big capital-letter Reason. He’d arranged the riot, gotten his barracksmates hooked on Bouncy Bubble Beverage, spied on the higher-clearance

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citizens for weeks because of the Reason. The Reason made him more than happy, it was Important. “To find out the truth,” he admitted. “Are you going to terminate me?” Wobbly Hazy Figure wobbled. “I’m not Internal Security, Jerome. I’m a friend.” He smiled again. Having a friend made him happy.

2: Conformity Is Fun Multifunctional Public Space
One of Jerome-G’s articles of faith, recorded on a scrap of paper hidden in his sleeping tube, was that the Great Conspiracy manipulated everyone in Alpha Complex by playing on their delusions. Everyone danced when it pulled their invisible strings. For years, Jerome had survived by pulling those strings himself, becoming a parasite on the vast organization whose existence he alone could perceive. Everyone else in Alpha Complex had bought into a false reality that blinded them to the Conspiracy. Innocent citizens loyal to The Computer’s regime believed Alpha Complex existed to protect them from the threat of Communism. Pull the strings marked ‘appeal to patriotism’ or ‘fear of Commies’ and they jumped. If he tried to speak the truth, the Conspiracy, through its Internal Security stooges, would brand him a traitor and terminate him. Yet he had to make people understand. He had to show them something they couldn’t ignore, some absolute proof. Other secret societies and beliefs were just distractions. The Great Conspiracy hid behind a thousand masks, concealing itself with lesser false conspiracies. People like the Free Enterprisers believed the whole system was just a money-making scam; their metaphorical strings were labeled “greed” and “profit.” The religious nuts who thought The Computer was a god would never look to see who was really running The Computer. The ambitious lickspittles who thought the High Programmers were in charge dismissed the power and reach of the various secret societies that had infiltrated all of Alpha Complex. The rebels and anarchists who fought the system were really just puppets of a different kind, one hand of the great conspiracy rebelling

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against the other so that neither hand felt the strings connecting it to the third hand that actually pulled... The metaphor, Jerome realized, was escaping him. But Jerome was smart enough to see the truth. Given time, he was confident he could outwit the three Roys. They’d escalated to violence faster than anticipated, but that could be dealt with, although coming up with a cunning plan by lunch was pushing it. Getting the file from Peter-B’s office was a bigger issue. Another article of faith, on a separate paper scrap, held that everyone could be manipulated. There was no hermetic traitor – even someone who secretly espoused a really out-there philosophy, like a Sierra Clubber who wanted to return to the Outdoors, must pretend to be a good citizen, and so could be motivated by appeals to patriotism. Often traitors were especially vulnerable to such appeals, as they try to cloak their treason in obsequious, cloying, overly enthusiastic loyalty. Jerome’s system depending on identifying the most effective levers and, well, levering them. Give him a place to spy, and he would blackmail the world. Peter-B was the exception. After months of observing Peter, Jerome still found him a perfectly smooth sphere without the slightest hint of a lever. Everyone else had flaws, ambitions, agendas, dark secrets, or just personal opinions Jerome could use, leverage, and finally turn against them. Peter had nothing. He lived his life in strict accord with regulations. He never took risks or missed deadlines. He never stuck his neck out for anything, never made a decision that wasn’t ratified by a dozen fact-finding committees. It wasn’t that he was noticeably loyal, either. Jerome could have applied his techniques to fervent patriotism, but Peter approached loyalty as he approached everything else: with a fixed determination to conform exactly to what was expected of him, and no more. With frustration and perhaps a little fear, Jerome acknowledged Peter’s astounding powers of deception. Behind that spongy, buffoonish exterior, his boss concealed a mind like a steel trap and the survival instincts of a mutant cockroach. Threat Obfuscation was within walking distance of his quarters if he cut across the SMO Sector Conformity Is Fun Multifunctional Public Space. The huge, hangar-like room was crowded this morning, as INFRARED workers and their RED

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supervisors got the place ready for some kind of event. At one end, a scaffold for a screen stood half-finished, while overhead they’d strung steel cables for bunting and banners. Internal Security troopers in green armor—GREEN goons, IntSec’s allpurpose muscle—pushed through the crowd with bomb detectors and chem-sniffers. Jerome stepped past an ORANGE technician who was arguing with a newly-installed vendobot. “You’ll go where I put you.” The technician wrestled the machine up against the wall. “Everyone will be looking at the stage,” the machine whined. “I should be up at that end. You’re impeding my ability to sell Bouncy Bubble Beverage.” Almost every appliance in Alpha Complex had a bot brain in it, for the convenience and happiness of citizens. (At least, for the convenience and happiness of citizens working in the lucrative bot brain industry. If you just wanted to buy a can of Bouncy Bubble Beverage with a minimum of arguments and existential vending-machine angst, you were out of luck.) ATTENTION CITIZENS, THIS IS A SECURITY ANNOUNCEMENT. THIS SECTOR MAY BE TARGETED BY COMMIE MUTANT TRAITOR TERRORISTS. REPORT ANY SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR, SUSPECT PACKAGES, OR OTHER POTENTIAL THREATS. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION. The Computer’s announcement galvanized the IntSec goons into action. They started checking the credentials of every citizen trying to leave the Multifunctional Public Space. It was like putting a bar magnet into a tray of iron filings, if the filings spontaneously organized into a very, very long queue. Attempting to pull rank would only make Internal Security suspicious—only citizens of BLUE Clearance or higher could breeze through checkpoints. As Jerome crept towards the exit, he felt time ticking away. To no one in particular, he said, “I like my kneecaps.” —————

PARANOIA / S1 Reality Optional preview / 13 TEN YEARCYCLES AGO....
Celeste-O described her work as “data mine hygiene.” The lower clearances were denied virtually all information, but the higher clearances suffered the opposite problem: too much data coming at them from every direction. Millions of security cameras, hidden mikes, informants and spies and counter-spies, surveillance reports and rumors and traffic analyses, and on top of all that, a middle class of clerks, analysts, advisors and bureaucrats so desperate to justify their positions they could extract a 50-page threat report from a single word picked up by a surveillance bug. Sorting signals from noise was close to impossible. Celeste worked with data miners who tried to identify patterns in the data. Too often they went insane, making connections seemingly at random. She explained it to Jerome-R at one of their clandestine meetings. “Situation: You are a data miner. You have identified a group of traitors using a code to communicate.” Celeste spoke in a clipped monotone, and rarely looked directly at Jerome. When she did, she watched him as though from the far end of a telescope, like an explorer analyzing the strange natives of Alpha Complex. She looked quite nice, with sculpted features, black hair pulled back in a tight bun, and a trim figure suited for much higherclearance clothing than her baggy orange jumpsuit. When she first recruited him, Jerome assumed she had some scheme in mind. It took him several months before he realized she was, in some distant way, lonely. “What’s the code?” “A simple color-based code. A limited number of words or phrases are encoded as color-band pairs or triplets. Red/yellow might mean ‘meeting,’ red/red signifies ‘we are being watched,’ and so on. Yellow/yellow means ‘do not trust what I am saying to you.’ The traitors can transmit covert messages as color patterns in conversation, or post notices in some fashion—say, if they control a laundromat, they can fill different dryers with jumpsuits of the appropriate color. Any traitor passing the laundromat can see the message ‘bomb-making meeting next Twosday—high security,’ but everyone else just sees a row of dryers.” Celeste pointed to the band of red paint along the cafeteria floor. “One of our analysts cracks this code. He can now read the

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traitors’ hidden messages. However, color pairs are everywhere in Alpha Complex. Look—the two of us form an orange/red color, signifying ‘Threesday.’ The data miner knows the code but not the context in which to apply it, so Alpha Complex becomes a cacophony of secret messages. Every time he sees a pair of colored objects, his mind instinctively ‘translates’ it.” Jerome-R sipped his CoffeeLyke. He’d learned if you waited until it was no longer searing hot, then swallowed without tasting, you could get most of the caffeine without the lingering sensation of burnt plastic. “I can see how that would be distracting.” “Distracting!” Celeste-O conveyed emotion not with the tone of her voice, but with her unnaturally mobile eyebrows. “It’s maddening. Rapidly, pareidolia sets in. With the sheer number of random color-pairs, it’s inevitable some will appear strangely significant. The analyst comes to believe someone is trying to communicate with him via, say, the arrangement of flavored CruncheeTym snack packets in a vending machine or the shoes worn by transbot commuters. The analyst becomes useless.” “And then you come in.” He always enjoyed his conversations with Celeste. He never let his guard down completely, of course— there was every possibility she was an IntSec provocateur—but if this strange creature was an actress sent to entrap him, they’d done a masterful if eccentric job. Celeste nodded. “Precisely. My role is to debrief the deranged and extract any useful insights I can.” “Ever get anything useful?” “Officially, no. However—” Celeste stole a sidelong glance at Jerome. “I began to discern certain patterns in the data. I found I could draw parallels between techniques, match rumors—” “Someone’s trying to communicate with you via insane data miners?” “No, of course not,” she said hurriedly. “I haven’t thought that in months. No, I’ve developed—well, am developing—a set of techniques for identifying modes of treason and deception, for finding commonalities among conspiratorial structures.” Jerome wasn’t sure if he was feinting to determine if she was an IntSec agent, or—for the first time in his life—expressing genuine trust. Regardless, he found himself confessing. “Ever since I was a Junior Citizen, I’ve always felt there was a big

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conspiracy out there, behind everything. I’ve never known where to start looking.” Four citizens sat down nearby: red/yellow/red/orange. Celeste-O watched them through her telescope. Then, for the first time, she looked directly at Jerome. “I think you’re right.”

3: Threat Obfuscation
Threat Obfuscation is a natural response to standard informationsecurity protocols. Say you, a high-ranking Internal Security coordinator, have just found out those dastardly Communists are about to attack the main airlock in Sector XYZ. You send heavily armed agents down to the airlock to zap the Commies, right? But wait—what if there’s a Commie spy in your employ? If you dispatch your agents to the airlock to arrest the Commies, the spy tips off the enemy and they’ll change their plans. But if you don’t order your agents down to the airlock, XYZ will be overrun by borscht-eating socialists and The Computer will start asking awkward questions like WHEN DID YOU FIRST REALIZE YOU WERE CRIMINALLY INCOMPETENT? You’ve got to position your agents without—and this is the tricky bit—without your own agents knowing about it. Enter the Department of Threat Obfuscation. Threat Obfuscation creates a new fake threat for your agents to investigate that just happens to be right next door to the airlock. So you tell all your agents they’re investigating the Airlock Technician Drug Smuggling Ring, the Commie spy never realizes you’re onto their evil plot, the Commies get zapped, and you get promoted! Bonus Hot Fun rations for all, right? But wait, wait! What if there’s also a Commie spy in Threat Obfuscation? One well-placed spy there could ruin everything by reporting which threats are real and which are fake. The only rational solution, obviously, is to feed everything produced by Threat Obfuscation back into Threat Obfuscation a few times, so no one knows if the real threat is the Airlock Technician Drug Smugglers or Dangerous Toxins Carried In From Outdoors or the Communists or Citizens Driven Mad By Airlocks Changing Their Inner Ear Pressure, It Can Happen You Know or....

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————— “Your card, citizen.” Another IntSec guard was stationed at the door of Threat Obfuscation. That was unusual. The department didn’t normally rate a door guard. Jerome-G swiped his ME Card through the scanner. It bleeped twice. The guard seemed satisfied with the first bleep and disconcerted by the second, but he let Jerome past without questions. Glancing around the office, Jerome instantly picked up on the tension. Frightened faces with fixed plastic smiles watched him as he walked to his cubicle. A half-dozen IntSec troopers guarded other exits, and another two stood at the entrance to Peter-B’s office. The last time there’d been this much security presence at Threat Obfuscation was when they came to arrest Celeste-B. Betraying nothing, he kept his head down and went straight to his desk. The office was a testament to the many threats its workers had imagined: – The office light was dim and yellowish. The ceiling lights were low-power, low-mercury plastic tubing, because (as everybody knows) a random power surge can make fluorescent glass bulbs explode, driving glass shards into your eyes and mercury vapor into your lungs, blinding you, permanently damaging your nervous system, and causing lifelong chronic or recurrent tremors in your limbs, though this isn’t quite so much a nuisance as you might think because your life expectancy is quartered. Newly assigned workers suffered eyestrain and headaches until they started bringing in mini-flash handheld lights. You know, though, the batteries in those things can explode at any second. – Each desk was bulletproof, of course, and a worker could, on ten seconds’ notice, simply pull down a sliding panel to reconfigure the desk’s underside as a fully enclosed bomb shelter. Unfortunately the panel mechanism tended to jam, trapping the worker until freed by some outside agency with (usually) a welding torch. Jerome-G had heard stories of workers trapped until death from thirst, which just proved anything could go wrong at any time. – Under a pilot program coordinated with Research & Design service firm ChairBag Safety RD, many Threat Obfuscation

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desk chairs were equipped with experimental airbags. Though workers were unconvinced of the danger of Unpredictable Massive Seating-Product Wheel Failure, they liked the airbags for their quieting effect on office arguments. The jerk who used to pound the arm of his chair now merely tapped an irate finger on the desktop, though of course that only left said worker open to the non-negligible peril of bacterial contaminants under the fingernails, no really, you don’t know what cleansers the scrubots use, you could get that stuff under a nail, absently lick your finger or pick your nose, and next thing you know a docbot is transplanting your liver. Even desktop finger-tapping now merited a warning poster: DON’T BE A SAP, STOP THAT TAP! Really, it just made sense. Jerome enjoyed his job. Unlike virtually every other assignment in Alpha Complex, Threat Obfuscation had a little creativity and a little power. When he heard The Computer make a security announcement about one of his invented threats, it gave him a conspiratorial thrill. For that single moment, he was on the inside; if the conspiracy was invincible and omniscient, they’d never have let him rise to his current clearance. Every time they used one of his obfuscations, they revealed their vulnerability and foreshadowed their inevitable defeat. When she was in charge, Celeste appreciated creative threats; they’d done great work together. Losing her was such a shame. All Peter wanted to do was repeat the same few standard threats over and over. The morning’s C-mail cascaded across the screen. Trivial announcements about revised Fear Quotas, a proposal for a new Unspecified Free-Floating Anxiety Index, fiddling directives about proper capitalization, another round of employee hygiene mandates, and more security reminders about watching for Commie spies. Next he scanned his actual work-related mail, looking for an excuse to visit Peter’s office. Maybe he could propose a bomb threat at a product launch? No, he’d done that one last week. Pitch a few rumors of sentient boot fungus? Mutants tunneling in from the Underplex? A hand landed on his shoulder—a big, callused hand with a firm grip, the sort of grip that fits equally well around a truncheon or a

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suspect’s neck. This was an Internal Security hand and a “you’re a Citizen of Interest” grip. He looked up. Three quarters of the way up the hand’s arm he saw a green armband with the motto SECURITY THROUGH VIGILANCE and the logo of a watchful eye. He skipped over the shoulder part of the tour to the helmeted head. Flat, muchbroken nose—scarred lantern jaw with stubble—deep-set dead eyes—yes, that was an IntSec face. “Jerome-G?” From his repertoire of mandatory smiles Jerome selected the most bland and inoffensive example. “Can I help you, officer?” “This way.” The guard marched Jerome across the office to Peter’s door. It wasn’t really the way he’d wanted to meet with his boss, but as excuses went, this one was convincing. Peter-B, a small fat black-haired man seated behind a big fat blue-painted desk, looked even more anxious than usual. His doughy cheeks glistened with cold sweat, and he was constantly licking his pale, pouted lips. Though he kept his posture exactly within regulated limits, he somehow managed to quiver. Jerome looked up at a shelf behind Peter’s head. There sat the folder of threat data—the data that could save Jerome’s kneecaps. On the couch in the corner sat another Internal Security officer, this one dressed in a snappy BLUE-clearance uniform instead of armor. The officer—his badge read Hayden-B—examined Jerome as one examines a stray hair in a bowl of soysoup. On the far wall was a huge teleconferencing monitor, and onscreen was—uh-oh—a VIOLET executive. VIOLETs were unimaginably senior figures; to have one here, even virtually, implied a crisis. The youngish man had a long face, sculpted features, and hair that looked like every strand had been engineered to fit his head. Behind his thick-rimmed glasses, his eyes were inhumanly bright, his pupils the pinpricks of a man high on adrenaline, ambition, and a whole dispensary of highclearance drugs. Every few seconds, his gaze flickered away from the camera to some other screen; he was watching a dozen similar teleconferencing feeds at once. “Jerome-G reporting as ordered, friends, and may I say it is an honor to address such respected citizens.” Bootlicking wasn’t his forte, but it never hurt to try. The VIOLET glanced at Jerome and snorted.

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Peter leaned forward. His voice quavered. “Look, Jerome-G, just answer their questions, and none of your nonsense. –He thinks he’s smarter than me.” The last remark was directed at Hayden-B, who nodded. “He probably is. Traitors often display a high level of intelligence. Tell me, Jerome-G, what do you know about the League of Free Bots?” “They’re a conspiracy of renegade bots who plot to overthrow The Computer’s glorious regime.” “Is that all?” Jerome steeled himself. “That is all the information available through standard channels, officer.” “Under Mandate ISPM 102.14/c, this matter is now a security concern.” “In that case, friend Hayden-B, I can reveal that the League of Free Bots is a threat obfuscation generated in this office.” “What about the Transtube Pirates?” “The same.” “Sentient boot fungus.” “Er, yes.” Though that one hadn’t really flown. Not his best work. “The Humanists.” “Traitors, sir. A genuine threat, not obfuscated.” The Humanists were one of the oldest and most insidious conspiracies in Alpha Complex. They were dedicated to subjugating The Computer and establishing a new government of and by humans. “Do you have any previous association with known Humanists?” “Yes, sir. That’s a matter of record.” Hayden-B made a note on his PDC data tablet. Jerome felt a bead of sweat well up on his right shoulder blade and run down his back. The VIOLET executive grew visibly impatient. “Get on with it, Hayden-B. I’ve got a meeting in five.” Hayden-B leapt to his feet and barked a series of questions: “Have you ever deliberately neglected to obfuscate known threats? Have you ever passed information to any person or persons not cleared to receive said information? Are you now or have you ever been a member of any illegal society, group,

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assembly, or conspiracy against The Computer’s regime? Have you ever received bribes, gifts, favors, or other considerations in exchange for deliberate manipulation or misuse of secure threat-related data, obfuscated or non-obfuscated? Are you loyal to The Computer? Have you ever embedded overt or subliminal signals in your obfuscated threats that could be interpreted as seditious propaganda and/or encoded messages? Have you ever deliberately substituted material from other sources for approved obfuscatory disinformation? Failure to answer any or all of these questions will result in termination.” Fragments of red-flecked spittle sprayed from Hayden’s mouth. “No to all of them, apart from the one about being loyal to The Computer.” Jerome turned to Peter. “What’s going on?” “We’re under suspicion of failure to obfuscate.” “Friends, I’ve always carried out my duties diligently. If you check my record—” “We know your record,” said the VIOLET. Jerome felt more sweat drops forming. Peter mopped his unspacious brow. “Jerome-G, you haven’t done anything treasonous, have you? During work hours, that is—I don’t care if you’re treasonous on your own time.” He made a sickly smile at the teleconferencing monitor. “No, Peter-B, I have not.” “Come on, Jerome-G, if you’ve done anything wrong, you should confess. I’m sure it’ll only be a slap on the wrist or a fine or—” “Termination,” said Hayden-B. “—Or a little termination, but it’ll be over quickly. They’re really efficient about it these days.” Jerome understood. It’s not just me. The whole department is up against the wall. “I’m sorry, friends, I can’t think of anything relevant.” The VIOLET executive scowled and made a signal. “I think we’ve heard enough,” Hayden-B said in the same tone of voice one might use to say “Have you any last words?” “Wait!” said Peter. “Jerome-G, I—I order you to report to the confession booth! Officer, I’m sure, given time to reflect, Jerome-G will think of something to confess to you.” Hayden shrugged and tapped a button on his PDC.

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Jerome made a final plea. “Peter-B, naturally I love spending time with our friend The Computer, but I insist I have no knowledge of treasonous activity. In fact, if you’d just let me borrow that threat data folder, I’m sure I can prove my diligent obfuscation.” They ignored him. The door opened, and that same rough hand gripped Jerome’s shoulder. “Escort Citizen Jerome-G to the nearest confession booth,” said Hayden-B, “and ensure he confesses.” The GREEN goon yanked Jerome out of the office.

4: Confession booth
HELLO, CITIZEN. WOULD YOU LIKE TO CONFESS YOUR TREASON? The confession booth was a lot smaller on the inside. It had room for just a single narrow wipe-clean seat and a huge monitor with The Computer’s staring eye. But Jerome-G knew the confessional concealed all sorts of probes and sensors. If The Computer detected your confession was not sufficiently heartfelt, it could encourage you with medication, or a gentle poking, or by vaporizing you so your future clones might feel more cooperative. The booths weren’t soundproof—they wanted people to hear the screams. “Hello, Friend Computer. I was ordered to report to the confession booth.” CITIZEN, PLEASE CONFESS YOUR TREASON NOW. “I don’t actually have anything to confess right now.” ARE YOU SURE? “Yes, Friend Computer.”

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THANK YOU, CITIZEN. YOU MAY NOW EXIT THE BOOTH. The door hissed open. Jerome stepped out, and the GREEN goon shoved him back in. “Hayden-B ordered me to bring you to this booth and ensure you confess, so we’re here until you confess. Understand?” The guard thumbed the door button, and Jerome was once again sealed in darkness. HELLO CITIZEN. WOULD YOU LIKE TO CONFESS YOUR TREASON? “I don’t have anything to confess!” ARE YOU SURE? “Yes!” THANK YOU, CITIZEN. YOU MAY NOW EXIT THE BOOTH. The door opened. The goon brandished his laser pistol. Jerome-G reached over and pressed the button. The door closed. HELLO CITIZEN. WOULD YOU LIKE TO CONFESS YOUR TREASON? “Can I just sit here for a few minutes?” CITIZEN, PLEASE CONFESS YOUR TREASON NOW. “Er, I’m just marshalling my thoughts to present them in the most efficient manner.” HERE IS A SUGGESTION: WASTING TIME IN A CONFESSION BOOTH.

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“Computer, are there treasonous deeds on my record I am unaware of?” THAT INFORMATION IS NOT AVAILABLE AT YOUR SECURITY CLEARANCE. “So, the only thing I’m currently accused of is wasting time confessing?” THAT INFORMATION IS NOT AVAILABLE AT YOUR SECURITY CLEARANCE. CITIZEN, THIS CONFESSION SESSION IS CURRENTLY RATED “POOR.” PLEASE IMPROVE THE QUANTITY AND QUALITY OF YOUR CONFESSION IMMEDIATELY OR YOU WILL BE FINED. “If I say I’ve got nothing more to confess, you’ll just open the door again, right?” CORRECT. CITIZEN, PLEASE CONFESS YOUR TREASON NOW. “What’s the penalty for wasting time in a confession booth?” THAT INFORMATION IS NOT AVAILABLE AT YOUR SECURITY CLEARANCE. Jerome rubbed the bridge of his nose. The chair smelled like fried food, reminding him of his impending lunchtime kneecapping. Admittedly, the loss of his kneecaps paled beside whatever was going on back at Threat Obfuscation, which looked likely to lead to his termination. This day was not going well. He felt like screaming. Outside, someone started screaming. Jerome listened intently. He heard the distinctive fzzzap of laser fire, the distinctive hiss-bubble-pop of someone being shot by a laser, not-particularly-distinctive screams, and an alarming amount of carnage—in Jerome’s life, any carnage at all was

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automatically distinctive. And it was getting closer. He heard shouts of “Traitors!” and “Deviants!” and “For the committee!” CITIZEN, PLEASE CONFESS YOUR TREASON NOW. Fzzzap-pop-clunk-ssssshhhhhhlicck-thunk! Jerome correctly interpreted this as the security guard outside being shot by a laser, dying, falling back against the booth, sliding down the stainless-steel surface, then slumping to the ground. “Uh, Friend Computer, I’m hearing entirely too much laser fire for comfort. If you don’t mind, I’ll just wait it out.” YOUR CONTINUED RETICENCE WILL BE TAKEN AS A NON-SPECIFIC ADMISSION OF GUILT. “No! Just don’t open the door for a while!” CITIZEN, PLEASE CONFESS YOUR TREASON NOW. “I waste time in confession booths! I spilled some CoffeeLyke in my quarters!” The booth rocked back and forth as something exploded outside. THANK YOU, CITIZEN. IS THAT EVERYTHING? “Yes! No! I’m not sure.” YOU APPEAR CONFUSED. MEDICATION WILL HELP. A robot arm extended out of the darkness, tipped with a syringe. “I don’t need medication right now, Friend Computer.” YOUR BELIEF IS NOTED. Jerome dodged as best he could in the cramped confines, and the syringe buried itself in the arm of the chair.

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THIS SESSION IS AT AN END. “Computer! What are my options for atoning for my crimes?” A FINE WILL AUTOMATICALLY BE LEVIED AGAINST YOUR PERSONAL ACCOUNT. The booth rocked again. Outside, someone screamed, “They’ve got a flamethrower! They’ve got a flamethrower! I’m on fire!” “What if I don’t want to pay the fine?” OTHER REMEDIES INCLUDE PSYCHOLOGICAL THERAPY, VOLUNTEERING FOR TROUBLES H O O T I N G D U T Y, M E D I C AT I O N , O R REASSIGNMENT TO REACTOR SHIELDING DUTY. Someone dealt with the flamethrower by throwing rather a lot of grenades. Debris spattered on the booth’s roof. More explosions echoed down the corridor. “Therapy! Let’s have a therapy session right here, right now, in this nice safe booth.” C E R T A I N LY, C I T I Z E N . I N I T I A T I N G PSYCHOLOGICAL THERAPY MODULE. THIS MODULE IS TAILORED TO YOUR SPECIFIC P E R S O N A L I T Y T Y P E A N D B E H AV I O R A L PROFILE, AND WILL PROBE DEEP INTO YOUR PSYCHE TO UNCOVER BURIED TRAUMA AND/ OR CONCEALED TREASONOUS IMPULSES. MODULE BEGINS: HOW DO YOU FEEL? “Happy!” Happiness was mandatory for all citizens of Alpha Complex. WHY DO YOU THINK YOU FEEL HAPPY? “Right now, I feel happy because I’m so safe inside your wonderful confession booth.”

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WHY DO YOU THINK I’M SO SAFE INSIDE YOUR WONDERFUL CONFESSION BOOTH? “Er—mainly because it’s blastproof.” WHY DO YOU THINK IT’S BLASTPROOF? Another explosion, bigger and closer. The screen died, and the speaker cracked with static. The door half-opened, then froze. Jerome-G poked the close button, but the booth had lost power. On the bright side, the explosion seemed to have ended the firefight. He squeezed out of the battered booth, or what was left of it. The goon was now a charred corpse with a smoking hole in his chest. Jerome-G gingerly picked up the guard’s laser pistol. Four rings glowed on the barrel, showing it was still good for at least four lethal blasts. Jerome thought he might need those shots, because firefights in Alpha Complex were cyclic. Right now, he knew, the Technical Services clone tanks were busy decanting new clones of the recently killed. Copies of their personalities, constantly updated via the MemoMax implant in every citizen’s brain, would soon be imprinted onto the fresh clones. The replacements would then be shipped back to their last known location, the place where they’d died. Even known traitors would get the benefit of resurrection, for The Computer was convinced treason resulted from subversion and this time the fresh clones would be loyal. Decanting, imprinting, and shipping took only minutes. This was half-time in the carnage, a short breather for both teams. Being sensible, Jerome wanted to head right out, which meant heading right. Right was the most direct route from the carnage. Right was only a short walk back to his quarters. The problem was, right was blocked by a big pile of rubble. Left was his only option, but left would shortly be filled with troopers and traitors, all even more enthusiastic after their quick breather. Left, he discovered, involved stepping over rather a lot of dismembered body parts. The mayhem was simultaneously gory, disturbing and ridiculous. He picked his way over the

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scattered, toasted remains of at least a dozen combatants. Some he could recognize as Internal Security guards; some wore the distinctive laser-reflective armor of Troubleshooters. Others, in civilian jumpsuits or home-made armor, must have been the traitors who attacked. This short stretch of corridor appeared to be the epicenter of the firefight. There was no cover here, no strategic objectives, yet wave after wave had rushed in to die. Why? Then Jerome saw the case. He stopped dead. Under his breath he muttered, “530.20/a.” In Alpha Complex they don’t say ‘”curiosity killed the cat.” For one thing, they don’t have cats. For another, they don’t do metaphor well. The closest equivalent is Mandate ISPM 530.20/a, “Accessing information above your security clearance is treason and will result in summary termination.” Lying in the middle of the corridor was a small grey plastic case, about the size of Jerome’s hand and shaped like a flattened cylinder. It was remarkably free of splatters, though the bloodied bodies of eight traitors and goons lay in a circle around it, all with hands outstretched as if they’d died trying to grab it. The scene reminded Jerome of a FunBall match where both teams suffered massive casualties before they even reached the FunBall, until one team managed to successfully defend from behind the mound of bodies. Had all these people died for that case? Why? What was the conspiracy trying to hide? He had to know. Greatly daring, Jerome bent down and, without breaking stride, scooped up the case. As he trotted out of the warzone, the case weighed down his pocket like a lump of plutonium. Jerome made it back to the Conformity Is Fun Multifunctional Public Space before the shooting started again behind him. The cries echoed down the corridor—“He’s got a flamethrower again! I’m on fire again!”—but this room was well clear of any fighting. He ducked into a side corridor and opened the case. A pair of glasses. They were thick-rimmed clear glasses, lying in a foam-rubber cut-out to protect them. At the end of each arm dangled a tiny in-ear headphone, and there was a little data port in the right arm. On the left arm, he found an on-off switch. Holding the lenses up

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to the light, he could see on their circumference an indescribably fine tracery of microcircuits. He put on the glasses. He pressed the switch. He saw wonderful things. —————

SIX YEARCYCLES AGO....
Every corridor in Alpha Complex is color-coded. Entering a corridor above your security clearance is treason. For lowerclearance workers, the sector becomes a minefield maze; if a jackobot redecoration crew unexpectedly repaints a hallway, you might walk into treachery. For the last five years, Jerome-R’s route to work in the morning had required a 40-minute detour. Today, he strode out of his quarters and stepped proudly across the orange threshold. The corridor matched his crisp new jumpsuit. Jerome-O strolled down the main thoroughfare, then ducked down a side corridor to an abandoned storeroom. Celeste-Y was already waiting. In her freshly pressed yellow uniform, she looked new-minted like him, though she had made YELLOW some months back. In style as in most things, Celeste always set the example; Jerome was always proud to follow it. As he entered the storeroom, she applauded politely. “I see the technique worked.” “It was easy! I went into the interview, and I spotted burns and small cuts on the lead interviewer’s hands.” Jerome excitedly held out his own hands by way of (unneeded) demonstration. “I put that together with those anti-bot riots last night, and guessed he was one of those Frankenstein Destroyer bot-haters. Then I just dropped a few comments about how I hated those damn bots, and he rubber-stamped my promotion in two minutes flat.” “Secret society corruption is endemic at the lower clearances. My models suggest more than 80% of all citizens are members of one society or another; their exposure to society propaganda and thought patterns makes them vulnerable to manipulation by signals that mimic their existing beliefs. The remaining 20% are loyal to The Computer; in fact, given they are in the minority,

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we can consider loyalists to be another society and manipulate them using the same techniques.” Jerome-O opened a celebratory can of genuine orange juice—at ORANGE Clearance he was permitted a very limited amount of real food, instead of chemically-flavored yeast and soy FunFoods. Celeste’s techniques worked. Citizens betrayed their conspiratorial leanings from the smallest tells, and Jerome could identify them. He buzzed with ambition. Together, they could go further. Celeste had the intelligence and the theory. He had—well, he had Celeste. “Who’s in charge of Alpha Complex?” he asked her. “The Computer.” “But the High Programmers run The Computer.” “The best way to get promoted is to be a member of a secret society—so the High Programmers owe their positions to the societies.” “So, are the societies in charge?” Celeste-Y considered. “No. All of them have, at core, a narrative of how they are oppressed and hunted. They either fight the system, like the Humanists, or one of its aspects, like the Frankenstein Destroyers; or they offer a temporary escape from control, like the Romantics or Mystics. None of the known conspiracies fit.” “But it’s not chaos, is it? We both know there’s something out there. The question is, can your techniques find them?” “I think so. We’ll need more information, more data. Allies.” His heart pounded. They were finally pushing back against— against Them. “We’ll need our own conspiracy.” “A null conspiracy, then. No ideology, no delusions. Just the goal of amassing data and finding the truth.” Jerome thought, A conspiracy against the conspiracy. Bring it on! “If they find us, they’ll still terminate us for that.” Celeste sniffed. “Statistically, they terminate everyone.” ————— According to the little pop-up windows the glasses projected across Jerome-G’s field of view—his “Heads-Up Display,” he knew that term—behind this wall panel were a power junction relay box, a chemical feed pipe, and a sewer access line. Another

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window displayed the feed from the camera over his head. Anything he looked at through the glasses was surrounded with a halo of data. Holding up the gun he’d borrowed from the dead IntSec guard, he got another flood of pop-up boxes and overlaid captions—an animated video of the gun’s user manual, a repair guide, a note describing aftermarket adjustments to the gun’s grip, and a big glowing ammo counter. Intoxicated with sheer knowledge, Jerome stumbled down the corridor like a drugged Mystic, picking out random objects and just staring. That light fitting? The glasses showed him the manufacturer, install date and last servicing, and a list of its hidden microphones. Another box popped up with a question—did he want to listen to highlights of recent recordings? The stick of gum in Jerome’s pocket showed him a manufacturer, sales report, nutritional advisories, and—uhh—a list of known side effects. Oog. A scrubot trundled down the corridor, followed (in Jerome’s sight) by a trail of glowing pop-up windows: operating manual, cleaning route, default instructions, a guide to the Five Laws of Robotics (Revised), and a dozen overlapping files. When Jerome moved his head, data windows in the rear rushed forward, as if the bot were surrounded by a lenticular hologram. When the bot turned a corner and moved out of sight, the windows vanished. When he held up his Personal Digital Companion, the glasses showed Jerome the manual, then flashed a directory showing all his saved files. He could access the data from his PDC just by looking! People had data haloes too! Jerome-G grabbed a passing RED. “You’re Ronald-R-OSR-2! Assignment: hygiene technician! You have 143 credits in your bank account! You’re assigned to corpse cleanup duty in corridor 193! You only scored 43% on your Tech Services aptitude exam and you’re allergic to soybased products!” “Uhh—yes, friend—” “You’ve got three disciplinary notes on your personal record for illegal theft of personal effects, tardiness, and failure to dispose of a corpse in an approved hygienic manner!” “I– I can explain the tardiness—”

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“Hey! Here’s a note from Internal Security—you’re suspected of being an informant for the Frankenstein Destroyers!” The technician yelped and bolted down the corridor. Suddenly Jerome realized his behavior might appear suspicious. He took a deep breath. He needed to find out how to use these glasses properly. A look at the grey glasses case brought up a single pop-window: “BLINDERs—Blended-Interface Data Expositors. Augmenting Reality To Make A Better You.” No user manual. Nothing else useful. “Expositors”—what an arcane word, like something Celeste would have used. And shouldn’t that make the acronym “blindors”? Could he hold the glasses up to the glasses? No—the frame wasn’t that flexible. On the bright side, he’d proved they were really rugged. He saw no mirror around here, but he had one in his apartment. He started walking back home, overwhelmed by the flood of data. Every citizen who passed brought a halo of information: name, work assignment, personal finance details, managerial assessments, security records, demerits, IntSec report, all popping out and hovering around the citizen’s face. Some people even had huge tags floating overhead: SMELLS BAD. WORKS FOR EUNICE-V. UNDERCOVER INTSEC. UNREGISTERED MUTANT. He happened to glance at a vend– !!! BOUNCY BUBBLE BEVERAGE !!! IT’S THE MANDATORY THING !!! CONTAINS E493 E319 E922 RHYOCHORDRAZINE-4 MACROCEPHALINE-9 !!! NOW IN NEW PLUTONIUM FLAVOR !!! –obot, aaah! Jerome flailed as a storm of neon pop-ups blinded him. B3, the most popular beverage in Alpha Complex, was, according to the glasses—his eyes darted crazily—caustic, poisonous, explosive when shaken, corrosive when heated, razor-sharp when frozen, prone to animate when stored for more than 20 days at room temperature, and contained engineered long-chain molecules that harmlessly targeted the taste centers of the customer’s brain and certainly weren’t mutagenic. Averting his gaze from the vendobot, Jerome noticed a Tech Services technician named Marty-R maintaining the machine.

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A virtual tag above Marty’s head read MEDICATE FOR SECURITY REASONS. Intrigued, Jerome reached out and ‘touched’ the tag. Suddenly a keyboard appeared before him. It was astonishingly realistic: other than the minor detail that it was floating unsupported, the keyboard looked perfectly solid. He wondered if they’d taken a hologram of a real keyboard to generate the virtual model. Typing on the virtual keys took a little practice, but he quickly got the hang of it. He typed TEST and hit Enter; Marty’s floating tag was replaced with TEST. Success! “You there!” An IntSec guard—Olive-Y-UIS-3, 4,200 credits in personal account, assigned to CruncheeTym Event Security, scored 93% accuracy on her last firing range test, merits for brutality and interrogation, demerits for excessive unwarranted terminations, medical record: addicted to asperquaint and visomorpain, subject of last C-mail: “FW: Fw: Top ten reasons to beat a suspect with a rubber hose”—broke from the crowd and leveled her laser pistol at Jerome. Her brown hair was so short it was almost a crewcut, and her blue eyes stared with piercing intensity. The glasses helpfully informed him the laser pistol was fully loaded and at this range had a 84% chance to kill instantly. “Yes, officer?” “That was twitchtalk, citizen! Admit it!” Jerome paled. Olive-Y must have misinterpreted his typing on the virtual keyboard. Many conspirators in Alpha Complex used a code of subtle twitches and hand gestures, called twitchtalk. There were dozens of different dialects. Jerome had studied many of them, but new variants kept appearing and mutating to stay ahead of Internal Security. “Twitchtalk, officer? I don’t know what that is.” “You were communicating with your treasonous conspirators. Don’t try to deny it.” Her finger tightened on the trigger and her teeth clenched. “I don’t need to deny anything, because I didn’t do anything. By the way, Olive-Y, accusing a higher-clearance citizen of treason without properly documented proof is an offense. Tell me, Olive-Y, is this the sort of unprofessional, ill-considered,

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and ultimately unwarranted accusation that got you all those demerits? Should we add spurious allegations to that list?” “Uhh–” Olive backed off. “Then what was that strange gesture I saw you make?” “This gesture?” Jerome pulled up the virtual keyboard again and spitefully added over Olive’s head the tag BAD ATTITUDE. She stared in confusion as her suspect waggled his fingers in the air. “That gesture, yes.” “Finger calisthenics. I have to do them regularly, or my fingers cramp up when I spend all day typing personnel assessment reports—often highly critical personnel assessment reports that get seen by influential citizens. Understand?” Olive holstered her pistol and stalked off into the crowd. Jerome felt a thrill of happiness purer and more real than any drug high. These glasses were a window into the secret world he’d always known existed. It felt like he’d lived in a flatscreen world all his life, and now reality had popped up into a third dimension of secret revelation. And only he, Jerome, could see it. No wonder those traitors were after the glasses! No wonder Internal Security had fought and died to get them back! No wonder they’d be looking for them! —No wonder they’d terminate him if they found he’d stolen them! Well, he thought, that was a short-lived thrill of happiness. These glasses could expose the Great Conspiracy and free Alpha Complex from its malevolent machinations—but he had to master the glasses before the conspirators tracked him down. Internal Security was probably already looking for a bespectacled interpretive dancer. The BLINDERs clearly had some sort of kinetic, gesture-driven interface; to figure it out, he needed privacy. His quarters were nearby. He reached up to remove the glasses, but then he spotted a virtual object in the Multifunctional Public Space. A large greenblue-violet cube floated in the center of the hall, slowly rotating. Data pop-ups bubbled up from its green and blue facets, but the violet face was blank; Jerome deduced his glasses must be BLUE Clearance. The thought of higher-clearance glasses, with even more power, rocketed through his brain.

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From here he couldn’t make out all the pop-ups, but a few words were readable. One, above the green facet, said CRUNCHEETYM LAUNCH EVENT PLAN. Beside it, another seemingly unfinished caption read NEW PRODUCT:— after the colon, the rest was blank. Interesting coincidence; he’d recently created a fictitious CruncheeTym product launch as a terrorist target. The blue facet rotated into view, and the pop-up read BOMB THREAT. Well, that explained why the Multifunctional Public Space was crawling with IntSec sniffers. The CruncheeTym product launch, whatever it was, must be a terrorist target— Deja vu is illegal in Alpha Complex. Experiencing deja vu is taken as proof you are a precognitive mutant, and mutants are genetic traitors. Jerome had always prided himself on being genetically pure and had never seen any mutant signs in his own DNA, but this deja vu was like a simultaneous double-punch to the brain and the groin. Last week at Threat Obfuscation he’d invented the CruncheeTym event and the bomb threat in order to obfuscate a suspected anarchist cell. Neither the product launch nor the bomb were real. They’d never been real. He’d made it all up! Yet there they were, on the floating cube right in front of him. Jerome pulled off the glasses, and reality snapped back to normal. No one had haloes of their innermost secrets, and no multicolored cube raised perplexing mysteries. Everything was once again concealed. He stuck the glasses back in their case. It was all too much; he needed time to think. He stumbled through the crowd to the blissful solitude of his quarters. Distantly he knew he should get back at the office, but even Peter would accept “my confession booth got blown up with me inside it” as an excuse for a long lunch break. Lunch. Kneecaps. The doorbell rang. ————— You’ve just read Chapters 1-4 (about the first one-sixth) of the PARANOIA novel Reality Optional by Gareth Hanrahan. In the full-length ebook—available for download where you bought this book—Jerome-G faces a sequence of threats from Free

PARANOIA / S1 Reality Optional preview / 35
Enterprise goons, his teammates in the Troubleshooters, visits to the Underplex, and the CruncheeTym Snack Revelation. While he uses the Augmented Reality glasses to understand why IntSec and the VIOLET executive are interested in him, the makers of those glasses are hunting him. Why are the imagined threats Jerome invented for Threat Obfuscation becoming real? Who built the BLINDERs glasses, and for what purpose? What happened to Celeste-B, and where is she now? The answers are all here:

Reality Optional
by Gareth Hanrahan ultravioletbooks.com
And look for the anthology PARANOIA A1 The Computer is Your Friend, which includes Gareth Hanrahan’s prequel story to Reality Optional, “Data Exhaust.”

Light-hearted stories of backstabbing, treachery, and Bouncy Bubble Beverage. Based on the bestselling roleplaying game of fear and ignorance in a darkly satirical future, official PARANOIA novels are now available as ebooks from Ultraviolet Books—and they’re even for your security clearance. If you prefer novels about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the nature of power, history, and historiography—well, have you tried War and Peace? That’s a very nice book. But if you like Philip K. Dick and think The Office needs more firefights (and really, who doesn’t?), your friend The Computer requires you to enjoy PARANOIA. PARANOIA NOVELS ARE FUN. OTHER NOVELS ARE NOT FUN. READ PARANOIA. The Computer is Your Friend, an introductory anthology Reality Optional by Gareth Hanrahan Traitor Hangout by WJ MacGuffin The Troubleshooter Rules trilogy by Allen Varney Book 1: Stay Alert Book 2: Trust No One (available spring 2012) Book 3: Keep Your Laser Handy (available summer 2012) Download PARANOIA ebooks from the leading ebook sites, or visit us at ultravioletbooks.com.

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