Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
By Cory Doctorow
Public Domain Books
I lived long enough to see the cure for death; to see the rise of the Bitchun Society, to learn ten languages; to compose three symphonies; to realize my boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World; to see the death of the workplace and of work.
I never thought I’d live to see the day when Keep A-Movin’ Dan would decide to deadhead until the heat death of the Universe.
Dan was in his second or third blush of youth when I first met him, sometime late-XXI. He was a rangy cowpoke, apparent 25 or so, all rawhide squint-lines and sunburned neck, boots worn thin and infinitely comfortable. I was in the middle of my Chem thesis, my fourth Doctorate, and he was taking a break from Saving the World, chilling on campus in Toronto and core-dumping for some poor Anthro major. We hooked up at the Grad Students’ Union – the GSU, or Gazoo for those who knew – on a busy Friday night, spring-ish. I was fighting a coral-slow battle for a stool at the scratched bar, inching my way closer every time the press of bodies shifted, and he had one of the few seats, surrounded by a litter of cigarette junk and empties, clearly encamped.
Some duration into my foray, he cocked his head at me and raised a sun-bleached eyebrow. “You get any closer, son, and we’re going to have to get a pre-nup.”
I was apparent forty or so, and I thought about bridling at being called son, but I looked into his eyes and decided that he had enough realtime that he could call me son anytime he wanted. I backed off a little and apologized.
He struck a cig and blew a pungent, strong plume over the bartender’s head. “Don’t worry about it. I’m probably a little over accustomed to personal space.”
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard anyone on-world talk about personal space. With the mortality rate at zero and the birth-rate at non-zero, the world was inexorably accreting a dense carpet of people, even with the migratory and deadhead drains on the population. “You’ve been jaunting?” I asked – his eyes were too sharp for him to have missed an instant’s experience to deadheading.
He chuckled. “No sir, not me. I’m into the kind of macho shitheadery that you only come across on-world. Jaunting’s for play; I need work.” The bar-glass tinkled a counterpoint.
I took a moment to conjure a HUD with his Whuffie score on it. I had to resize the window – he had too many zeroes to fit on my standard display. I tried to act cool, but he caught the upwards flick of my eyes and then their involuntary widening. He tried a little aw-shucksery, gave it up and let a prideful grin show.
“I try not to pay it much mind. Some people, they get overly grateful.” He must’ve seen my eyes flick up again, to pull his Whuffie history. “Wait, don’t go doing that – I’ll tell you about it, you really got to know.
“Damn, you know, it’s so easy to get used to life without hyperlinks. You’d think you’d really miss ’em, but you don’t.”
And it clicked for me. He was a missionary – one of those fringe-dwellers who act as emissary from the Bitchun Society to the benighted corners of the world where, for whatever reasons, they want to die, starve, and choke on petrochem waste. It’s amazing that these communities survive more than a generation; in the Bitchun Society proper, we usually outlive our detractors. The missionaries don’t have such a high success rate – you have to be awfully convincing to get through to a culture that’s already successfully resisted nearly a century’s worth of propaganda – but when you convert a whole village, you accrue all the Whuffie they have to give. More often, missionaries end up getting refreshed from a backup after they aren’t heard from for a decade or so. I’d never met one in the flesh before.
“How many successful missions have you had?” I asked.
“Figured it out, huh? I’ve just come off my fifth in twenty years – counterrevolutionaries hidden out in the old Cheyenne Mountain NORAD site, still there a generation later.” He sandpapered his whiskers with his fingertips. “Their parents went to ground after their life’s savings vanished, and they had no use for tech any more advanced than a rifle. Plenty of those, though.”
He spun a fascinating yarn then, how he slowly gained the acceptance of the mountain-dwellers, and then their trust, and then betrayed it in subtle, beneficent ways: introducing Free Energy to their greenhouses, then a gengineered crop or two, then curing a couple deaths, slowly inching them toward the Bitchun Society, until they couldn’t remember why they hadn’t wanted to be a part of it from the start. Now they were mostly off-world, exploring toy frontiers with unlimited energy and unlimited supplies and deadheading through the dull times en route.
“I guess it’d be too much of a shock for them to stay on-world. They think of us as the enemy, you know – they had all kinds of plans drawn up for when we invaded them and took them away; hollow suicide teeth, booby-traps, fall-back-and-rendezvous points for the survivors. They just can’t get over hating us, even though we don’t even know they exist. Off-world, they can pretend that they’re still living rough and hard.” He rubbed his chin again, his hard calluses grating over his whiskers. “But for me, the real rough life is right here, on-world. The little enclaves, each one is like an alternate history of humanity – what if we’d taken the Free Energy, but not deadheading? What if we’d taken deadheading, but only for the critically ill, not for people who didn’t want to be bored on long bus-rides? Or no hyperlinks, no ad-hocracy, no Whuffie? Each one is different and wonderful.”
I have a stupid habit of arguing for the sake of, and I found myself saying, “Wonderful? Oh sure, nothing finer than, oh, let’s see, dying, starving, freezing, broiling, killing, cruelty and ignorance and pain and misery. I know I sure miss it.”
Keep A-Movin’ Dan snorted. “You think a junkie misses sobriety?”
I knocked on the bar. “Hello! There aren’t any junkies anymore!”
He struck another cig. “But you know what a junkie is, right? Junkies don’t miss sobriety, because they don’t remember how sharp everything was, how the pain made the joy sweeter. We can’t remember what it was like to work to earn our keep; to worry that there might not be enough, that we might get sick or get hit by a bus. We don’t remember what it was like to take chances, and we sure as shit don’t remember what it felt like to have them pay off.”
He had a point. Here I was, only in my second or third adulthood, and already ready to toss it all in and do something, anything, else. He had a point – but I wasn’t about to admit it. “So you say. I say, I take a chance when I strike up a conversation in a bar, when I fall in love. . . And what about the deadheads? Two people I know, they just went deadhead for ten thousand years! Tell me that’s not taking a chance!” Truth be told, almost everyone I’d known in my eighty-some years were deadheading or jaunting or just gone. Lonely days, then.
“Brother, that’s committing half-assed suicide. The way we’re going, they’ll be lucky if someone doesn’t just switch ’em off when it comes time to reanimate. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s getting a little crowded around here.”
I made pish-tosh sounds and wiped off my forehead with a bar-napkin – the Gazoo was beastly hot on summer nights. “Uh-huh, just like the world was getting a little crowded a hundred years ago, before Free Energy. Like it was getting too greenhousey, too nukey, too hot or too cold. We fixed it then, we’ll fix it again when the time comes. I’m gonna be here in ten thousand years, you damn betcha, but I think I’ll do it the long way around.”
He cocked his head again, and gave it some thought. If it had been any of the other grad students, I’d have assumed he was grepping for some bolstering factoids to support his next sally. But with him, I just knew he was thinking about it, the old-fashioned way.
“I think that if I’m still here in ten thousand years, I’m going to be crazy as hell. Ten thousand years, pal! Ten thousand years ago, the state-of-the-art was a goat. You really think you’re going to be anything recognizably human in a hundred centuries? Me, I’m not interested in being a post-person. I’m going to wake up one day, and I’m going to say, ’Well, I guess I’ve seen about enough,’ and that’ll be my last day.”
I had seen where he was going with this, and I had stopped paying attention while I readied my response. I probably should have paid more attention. “But why? Why not just deadhead for a few centuries, see if there’s anything that takes your fancy, and if not, back to sleep for a few more? Why do anything so final?”
He embarrassed me by making a show of thinking it over again, making me feel like I was just a half-pissed glib poltroon. “I suppose it’s because nothing else is. I’ve always known that someday, I was going to stop moving, stop seeking, stop kicking, and have done with it. There’ll come a day when I don’t have anything left to do, except stop.”
On campus, they called him Keep-A-Movin’ Dan, because of his cowboy vibe and because of his lifestyle, and he somehow grew to take over every conversation I had for the next six months. I pinged his Whuffie a few times, and noticed that it was climbing steadily upward as he accumulated more esteem from the people he met.
I’d pretty much pissed away most of my Whuffie – all the savings from the symphonies and the first three theses – drinking myself stupid at the Gazoo, hogging library terminals, pestering profs, until I’d expended all the respect anyone had ever afforded me. All except Dan, who, for some reason, stood me to regular beers and meals and movies.
I got to feeling like I was someone special – not everyone had a chum as exotic as Keep-A-Movin’ Dan, the legendary missionary who visited the only places left that were closed to the Bitchun Society. I can’t say for sure why he hung around with me. He mentioned once or twice that he’d liked my symphonies, and he’d read my Ergonomics thesis on applying theme-park crowd-control techniques in urban settings, and liked what I had to say there. But I think it came down to us having a good time needling each other.
I’d talk to him about the vast carpet of the future unrolling before us, of the certainty that we would encounter alien intelligences some day, of the unimaginable frontiers open to each of us. He’d tell me that deadheading was a strong indicator that one’s personal reservoir of introspection and creativity was dry; and that without struggle, there is no real victory.
This was a good fight, one we could have a thousand times without resolving. I’d get him to concede that Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented – your personal capital with your friends and neighbors – you more accurately gauged your success.
And then he’d lead me down a subtle, carefully baited trail that led to my allowing that while, yes, we might someday encounter alien species with wild and fabulous ways, that right now, there was a slightly depressing homogeneity to the world.
On a fine spring day, I defended my thesis to two embodied humans and one prof whose body was out for an overhaul, whose consciousness was present via speakerphone from the computer where it was resting. They all liked it. I collected my sheepskin and went out hunting for Dan in the sweet, flower-stinking streets.
He’d gone. The Anthro major he’d been torturing with his war-stories said that they’d wrapped up that morning, and he’d headed to the walled city of Tijuana, to take his shot with the descendants of a platoon of US Marines who’d settled there and cut themselves off from the Bitchun Society.
So I went to Disney World.
In deference to Dan, I took the flight in realtime, in the minuscule cabin reserved for those of us who stubbornly refused to be frozen and stacked like cordwood for the two hour flight. I was the only one taking the trip in realtime, but a flight attendant dutifully served me a urine-sample-sized orange juice and a rubbery, pungent, cheese omelet. I stared out the windows at the infinite clouds while the autopilot banked around the turbulence, and wondered when I’d see Dan next.