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vol v, issue 3 < ToC
Bit Parts
by
Arlen Feldman
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MigraineHuman Stride
Bit Parts
by
Arlen Feldman
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Bit Parts  by Arlen Feldman
Bit Parts
 by Arlen Feldman
A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end ... but not necessarily in that order.”

—Jean-Luc Godard, French-Swiss film director

[EXTERIOR. A BUSY STREET — DAY]

The hero, muscles bulging, raced down the street, gun in hand. Sirens screamed in the distance. Marie walked down the street in the opposite direction, careful not to look towards the virtual camera. She was just one of the crowd, wearing a summer dress, her red hair flowing loosely behind her.

There was a gunshot, then a volley of gunshots. Marie screamed and dropped to the sidewalk along with the rest of the pedestrians.

Cut.

[INTERIOR. KITCHEN — DAY]

Marie lay in a pool of blood, a serrated bread knife protruding from her neck. The kitchen was modern and clean, except for the mess around the body. CSIs worked all around her while she stayed preternaturally still.

Cut.

[INT. DINER — NIGHT]

There were few customers that late. Marie poured coffee for a lone man reading a novel, then returned to the counter where the other waitress was standing. They were both dressed in classic pink diner outfits.

“It sounds like a scam,” said Marie.

“Nah. Bill works with a guy whose father is one of the creators. It’s straight up.”

“How much does it cost?”

“No charge. Apparently, they really want people to sign up right now. They might charge later, but they need to ‘seed the system.’”

Marie poured out the dregs from the coffeepot and tinkered with the coffee machine to start it brewing a new pot. Jennine watched her.

“So,” asked Marie finally. “Are you going to do it?”

“I’m not sure. I intend for my slice of immortality to be in the movies I make while I’m alive.”

Marie nodded. “Yeah. Me too.”

Cut.

[INT. OFFICE — DAY]

Marie sat behind an old desk, in a slightly grimy office. She was wearing a conservative gray suit, white blouse and thick glasses. Her red hair was done up in a bun. The office door opened and her boss sauntered out.

“Have a good weekend, sir,” she said.

“I intend to.” He grinned and winked at her.

Cut.

[INT. GREEN ROOM — DAY]

Marie was back in the green room. She was hoping for at least one more role before her daily allowed eight hours was up, but nothing seemed likely. There were a couple of roles available, but they would violate her contract, which was immutable—a word that, until recently, she’d never even heard.

She sighed. Her agent had been so convincing when he’d suggested the no-nudity and no-form-changing clauses. It will make you more exclusive, he’d said.

Instead, it had put a major crimp in her career.

The countdown clock hit eight hours, and Marie disappeared.

Cut.

[INT. HOSPITAL OPERATING ROOM — DAY]

Marie, dressed in nurse whites, pushed the crash cart into the operating room. Alarms were shrieking, and the doctor, his handsome face covered in a fashionable stubble, was physically up on the operating table, kneeling over the beautifully made-up woman lying there. He was pushing hard against her chest.

“You’re not going to die on me, damn you! Not today!”

Cut.

[INT. GREEN ROOM — DAY]

Marie blinked. She had just been getting scanned, and now she was ... she was ... where?

It was a small room with a few comfortable looking chairs, a table and a mirror. There didn’t appear to be a door.

“Welcome.”

Marie jumped. The voice had come out of nowhere.

“Please stay calm. The transition can feel a bit abrupt.”

“Who are you?”

The upper body of a woman appeared floating above the table. She was pretty, with expertly done makeup and a blonde ponytail. She was smiling sympathetically.

“I’m Joan. I’m the welcoming committee.”

“Committee? Where am I?”

“You’re in the System. You’re digital now. Immortal.”

“But I just got scanned,” moaned Marie, feeling panic rising in her. “They aren’t supposed to activate the digital system until after I die.”

“Sorry, kid, but if you’re here, then you’ve kicked it in the real world. You’ve been recreated here based on the scan, so the scan is the last thing you remember.”

This made no sense to Marie. She looked at her hands. They were her hands. The same slight roughness from washing endless dishes, the same small scar on her middle finger. The slight discoloration from where she used to wear a wedding ring.

“It’s impossible.”

“You’ll get used to it. Trust me.”

Cut.

[EXT. MARKET — DAY]

Marie stood behind the fruit stall, putting strawberries into boxes. The rumble of the passers-by was interrupted by various shouts from vendors pushing their wares, and the muezzin’s distant call to prayer.

Marie turned just in time to see a young girl grab an apple from the display at the front of the stall.

“Hey, you,” she yelled.

The girl, dressed in what had once been silk finery, but was now torn and dirty, stared at Marie for a moment, then turned tail and ran.

“Stop, thief ...”

Cut.

[INT. GREEN ROOM — DAY]

Marie was staring at her hands again. Impossibly real. But was that because their recreation of her was that good, or because they had messed with her head—tricked her into believing what she saw?

She’d been in the system for a while now—or at least, she thought she had. Time was strange here. So were memories. What was real when you were a simulation? Were the things she remembered from before real? They seemed less insubstantial than the roles she played in here. Did she work in a restaurant, or was that a role? Did she have a daughter? She wasn’t quite sure.

It didn’t help that they filmed things out of order here, just like when making a real movie. She had no idea why—it wasn’t as if they had to strike sets or anything.

There was a ding, and a screen appeared in the wall—a job offer for a walk-on role. She could turn it down—in theory. But if she wasn’t acting, then what was she?

Cut.

[EXT. GROCERY STORE — NIGHT]

Marie pushed a cart up an aisle, randomly pulling items off of shelves.

In the next aisle, there was a loud argument going on.

“You never loved me.”

“Sarah, please.”

“Get away from me. Go back to her.”

Cut.

[INT. AGENT’S OFFICE — DAY]

“So, how does it all work?”

“You go in and get a full body and mind scan. That’s pretty much it. It’s all stored on a server until you die, at which point, it’s activated and available to work.”

“Can I change my mind later?”

“Sure. There has to be a specific clause in your will enabling them to activate the image. No clause, no activation. In fact, they have to erase all the data at that point. Or at any other time you ask.”

“And what happens if I get better at acting later? Can I update the recording?”

To his credit, the agent didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow here.

“You can, but you’ll have to redo the physical scan as well. Body and mind have to match. So ... you’ll be older.”

“Ah.”

Cut.

[EXT. A CITY PARK — DAY]

Marie walked down the path, holding the hand of a little blonde girl, wearing a big green jacket.

“Mommy. It’s going to be alright, isn’t it?”

Marie looked away for a moment, choking up for a minute.

“Yes, baby. It’s going to be alright. Your father is going to take good care of you.”

She smiled down at the girl, then looked away. A tear slid down her cheek.

Cut.

[INT. SCANNING CENTER — DAY]

Marie clasped the robe around her and looked around nervously. Technicians sat or stood in front of incomprehensible equipment. It all seemed very high-tech—but used. There were dents and scratches in a lot of the machines, and a slightly unpleasant unwashed smell.

“The body scanning setup is through here. We’ll do that first, before the brain scan.”

Marie nodded and pulled the robe even tighter as she followed the small man into what looked like a dressing room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on every wall—and on the floor and ceiling as well.

“I’ll need your robe,” he said.

Marie hesitated. “Why? Why do I have to be nude if my alter-ego won’t be allowed to do nude scenes?”

“The scan has to be completely accurate. The system will be able to add makeup and wardrobe, but only if the details are right. Otherwise, you’ll end up with strange artifacts.”

“Oh.”

“Look, it’s completely private. The system is managed by a blockchain. If your contract says no nudity, then it is completely impossible for the contract to be violated.”

Marie had no idea what a blockchain was, although it was the third or fourth time she’d heard the term. She nodded, but did not remove her robe.

“If you like, I can get a female assistant to help you,” he said, sounding bored.

“Yes, please.”

Cut.

[INT. STARSHIP BRIDGE — NIGHT]

Marie sat at the communication console, pressing buttons at random. She was in a tight-fitting uniform that covered her form, yet left little to the imagination.

The Captain and first officer walked onto the bridge. There was a piping sound, and a computer announced, “Captain on the bridge.”

“Report,” said the captain. He was ruggedly handsome, with just the hint of stubble on his face. Marie had last seen him as a doctor trying to save a patient’s life.

“We are maintaining position, 3000 clicks above the planet’s surface, Captain.” This from the amorphous, multiply-tentacled navigator.

“Radio silence is being maintained,” said Marie. “No transmissions from the planet, sir.”

Cut.

[INT. GREEN ROOM — DAY]

“But it’s just a kid’s show. Surely I’m qualified?”

The disembodied shoulders and head of the producer shrugged. “Character is a talking cat. Your contract specifically bans any body mods beyond what would be possible with basic effects makeup.”

“Yeah, but if I want to do the role ...”

“Doesn’t matter. The contract is immutable.”

“I don’t even know what the hell that means.”

Another shrug. “Talk to tech.”

Cut.

[INT. GREEN ROOM — DAY — LATER]

“It’s because Hollywood is full of wankers.”

Marie giggled. “True, but that doesn’t really answer my question.”

The new floating shoulders and head were of a youngish man with a rakish smile. If he’d been an actor, he’d be instantly typecast as a pirate—a pirate with a cockney accent.

“Do you remember Bitcoin?”

“Vaguely. Some sort of electronic money?”

“Yeah, in theory. In practice, it was really just a massive collection of cons and Ponzi schemes. So, naturally, every schmuck in Hollywood fell for it. It was based on something called a blockchain, which, once written, can’t be changed—important if you are using it for money, but they tried to apply it to a bunch of other things as well.”

“So, when they say the contract is immutable, they mean it can’t be changed, because it’s based on a blockchain.”

“S’right, doll. Very good. The theory was that if you set up contracts on a blockchain, then stars and studios couldn’t wriggle out of deals.”

“And this all works?”

She got a broad piratical grin for that. “Well, the tech is sound. It’s all based on something called a Merkle tree, which has been around for yonks. But judges could care less what some data on someone’s hard drive said. Courts decide what the contract means, not the computers.”

“Well, then ...”

“Ah, but that’s in the real world. In here, the computer decides what is allowed or not, and it does that based on the contract, which is immutable.”

“Fuck.”

Cut.

[INT. STARSHIP BRIDGE — NIGHT]

Marie was back at the communication console. It was her first recurring role.

“I have the admiral for you, sir,” she said.

“On screen,” said the captain from his impressively complex chair in the center of the bridge.

The screen flickered, and the admiral appeared. “John. Good to see you. I ...”

Then the screen flickered again and broke up into blocky pixels.

“What’s going on ...?”

Marie looked around in panic. This wasn’t in the script. It wasn’t just the screen, either. The entire set was pixelating. She looked down in horror to see that her own arms were doing the same thing.

There was a flash, and then everything flicked back to normal.

Marie shared a glance with the captain. He lifted his hands up in a “who knows” gesture, then grinned.

The disembodied voice of the director boomed across the bridge. “Some sort of technical glitch, apparently. It’s over now. Let’s take it from the top.”

Cut.

[EXT. DATA CENTER — DAY]

When the alarms started going off, Ralph almost had a heart attack, then practically gave himself a concussion when he leapt to his feet, braining himself on a too-low shelf.

Until that moment, this had been the easiest job he’d ever had. Some rule required a human guard be present, but his bosses had made it very clear that everything was automated, and there is absolutely nothing you can do if there is a problem.

Well, there was one thing. There was a phone and a phone number printed on a sticker next to it. He grabbed the receiver, but the line was dead. He didn’t even bother looking at his cell phone—there was never any reception this deep in the mountains.

Then the alarm stopped.

The silence was eerie, but as his hearing adjusted, the ever-present electrical hum came back. Shaking his head, he hung up the receiver and stepped out of his hut to get some air.

The sun was just rising to the west, a deep red glow. Except, it was the Pacific that way, wasn’t it? Didn’t the sun rise to the east? He couldn’t remember.

Cut.

[INT. GREEN ROOM — DAY]

The upper body of the piratical technician—whose real name, she’d learned, was Jim—floated in front of her. They’d talked like this a lot over the last few weeks.

“It was a disruption from outside,” he said. “The wankers out there won’t give us any info though. Got a lot of people in here worried.”

“It was scary. My arms went all blocky.”

He nodded at her sympathetically. “The renderers couldn’t keep up. Just an illusion, though.”

She sighed. “I suppose that is all we are now anyway. I’m not sure I should have signed up for any of this.”

“Yeah, but then you wouldn’t have met me. That would have been a waste.”

She smiled at him, but her heart wasn’t really in it.

Cut.

[INT. BATHROOM — NIGHT]

Marie lay in a bathtub in a small, rather dingy bathroom. There was a mostly empty bottle of Crown Russe vodka sitting on the edge of the tub. Leaning against the bottle was a wedding ring and a photo of a little blond girl.

Marie hummed a tune to herself. Little streamers of red snaked through the water, trailing away from her wrists.

Cut.

[INT. COURTROOM — DAY]

Marie sat behind the steno machine at the front of the courtroom.

The district attorney slowly got to his feet, buttoned the jacket of his Dolce & Gabbana suit, then let his eyes rove over the jurors, who were watching him intently. He then turned to the man in the witness stand.

“Mr. Donaldson. You lost your arm in the war, is that right?”

“Yes, sir. IED.”

Marie dutifully hit keys on the steno.

“And your prosthetic has a simple claw mechanism.”

The man on the stand held up his right arm to show off the metal gripper.

“So, according to your testimony, there is no way you could have killed your wife with a hammer, because you couldn’t have held it.”

“No, sir.” Donaldson was a big man shrunk into a too-small suit. His sullen look became a bit more hopeful, and he chanced a glance at the jury.

“Unless,” said the DA, “People’s exhibit 3.”

The bailiff stepped forward, holding a large plastic bag containing what was obviously a prosthetic arm, except that, instead of a claw, it ended in a hammer head. There was a rusty-red stain on the head of the hammer.

There was pandemonium in the courtroom.

“Order. Order,” yelled the judge, slamming his gavel against the block on his desk—where it turned into a blob of pixels, slipped out of his hand and went flying across the courtroom.

“Missed,” said the DA, grinning. The jury burst out laughing.

“Sorry,” said the judge.

“Goddammit, Goddammit,” said the disembodied voice of the director.

Marie tried hard not to laugh, but lost it when she caught sight of Donaldson winking at her and miming launching his prosthetic arm across the court to follow the gavel.

“Goddammit.”

Cut.

[INT. GREEN ROOM — DAY]

Normally, she had the green room to herself. Or at least, her green room. They’d created this one temporarily while they worked out some glitches. She was sharing the space with the Captain, the first officer, and the blobby navigator, who turned out to be a small, twitchy man named Ernest.

“This is getting ridiculous,” said the Captain. He was in “street clothes”—a generic t-shirt and sweats. They shrank him down to human proportions, although he still had the heroic jaw and the piercing blue eyes.

In theory, he must have had those looks before, although Marie had heard a rumor that, for the right price, it had been possible to get your body scan modified before being uploaded. It had never occurred to Marie that it would have been possible, or she would have talked to them about that mole on her back. And her nose. And maybe her boobs.

“No skin off my nose. Working or waiting,” said Ernest.

They all turned to look at him. He shrugged.

“Not like anybody’s watching this crap.”

Marie blinked at this. “What do you mean?”

“Numbers have been dropping for everything. Sounds like the still-breathing are more interested in watching the living than the dead.”

“Bullshit,” said the Captain.

Ernest shrugged again. “What I heard.”

“I’ve never seen any viewership numbers for anything,” said Marie, fascinated. “I didn’t think we could get them?”

“You can’t,” said the first officer. “Banned by the contract, and the contract is ...”

“Immutable. Yeah.” Ernest laughed. “Unless you control a large enough chunk of the blockchain. Same thing that killed Bitcoin.”

“Bullshit,” said the Captain again, and turned away.

The green room flickered, and they were suddenly back on the bridge in costume.

“Okay,” said the disembodied voice of the director. “One more time.”

Cut.

[INT. GREEN ROOM — DAY]

Was anyone watching?

Ever since the conversation the other day, she’d been obsessed with the question, but nobody seemed to have an answer.

Finally, she’d called Jim.

“The system has to allocate resources based on viewership, so only the most-watched shows are renewed.”

“So, someone is watching?”

“Right, love. There’s some weirdness at the edges, but that’s the gist of it—if more people were watching something else, then you’d get cancelled.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” She grinned at him.

He winked, then his image disappeared.

A few moments later, her official shift ended, and she also disappeared.

Cut.

[EXT. BEACH — DAY]

Marie lay on a towel on the beach, face down, the strap of her bikini undone.

There was a scream. Marie sat up, barely stopping her top from escaping.

“Shark!”

Cut.

[INT. STARSHIP BRIDGE — NIGHT]

The aliens had appeared out of nowhere, tall, thin, lizard-green. The Captain had drawn and fired, lightning fast, taking down one of the invaders before being hit by a stun beam from another. He collapsed slowly onto the floor.

“Hold ssstill,” hissed the lead alien. “Nobody move.”

Marie’s hand shot out and hit the distress signal button, then she raised her hands.

“Ssstupid,” hissed the commander, and shot Marie with a stun beam. She fell onto her console.

Cut.

[EXT. DATA CENTER — DAY]

The dog pack came close to the fence, but did not touch it. They knew from experience that it bit. It was a good spot, though. Game was common. The dogs were a mix of mongrels, although they tended towards the large. Not one had avoided some sort of obvious injury, be it gouges, missing ears, or even the occasional missing leg.

The fence was the least of the protections around the data center, which started with its remote location deep in the San Gabriel Mountains and ended with autonomous “lethal countermeasures.”

The racks of solar panels glinted prettily in the sun, even the broken ones. The panels and the guard shack were aboveground, but the bulk of the facility was underground, safe from all but a direct hit from a bomb or an EMP. The insurance company had insisted on all of this.

Compared to all this hi-tech wonder, the guard shack was pretty basic. A prefab building with a table and a few chairs, a gun safe, a television, and a microwave oven.

The body had been in the chair for a long time. Dry air had partially mummified the figure, although white bone was visible in a few spots. There was no obvious wound, but the angle of the head looked unnatural. It could have been the cause of death or simply the result of time.

The TV had lost a lot of pixels, but was still running—though without sound. On the screen, a handsome man in a uniform walked across the bridge of a spaceship, passing a red-headed woman in a tight-fitting uniform who was pressing buttons.

The body in the chair was facing the TV. It looked like some sort of allegory for humanity—actors and audience locked together for all time, unchangeable, immutable.

Cut.

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