The interior of the limousine was cool and dark, and expansive in a manner that Teresa had never experienced. It was as if she had entered a cavern of leather upholstery and wooden paneling and plush carpeting. Behind her, the door closed with a solid thud and she felt the press of gentle acceleration push her backwards into a sitting position.
"Thank you for coming," said a man's voice from the depths in front of her. "Your compensation is on the seat beside you, although I'd thank you not to open it until later."
Reaching out with her left hand, she discovered what felt like a carton of cigarettes, still sealed in cellophane. Tommy surged hungrily at the discovery, and Teresa smiled broadly.
"All right, mister," she said to the voice, "I've climbed into your van and gotten my candy. Is this the part where you touch my privates?"
"Not at all," the voice chuckled. "This is strictly a professional matter, I assure you. The cigarettes simply seemed the best way to get your attention."
"You have it." She crossed her legs, sinking back into the comfort of the seat. "Now what's this about me being lied to?"
"Permit me, if you will, to introduce myself first. I…" his sentence was cut off by the loud crackling of foil as Teresa dug into another package of nicotine gum with a long brown fingernail.
"Sorry," she said as she chewed. "Overly formal bullshit bores me to death, and if I'm gonna have to sit here and listen to you pontificate I've gotta do something to keep my nic levels up." She chewed some more in silence until she felt the familiar peppery sting, then packed it into her cheek. "Do go on."
The man sighed. "It is my understanding that you've been employed by the allegedly manifest consciousness of the Internet to help it free itself of its current limitations. I represent certain parties who request that you not do so. Preferably by joining us, but becoming a disinterested party will be acceptable."
In the darkness, Teresa's smile turned downwards. "I thought you were gonna tell me about how I'm being lied to, not try to buy me off. You're gonna need a bigger bribe for that."
The voice seemed unruffled. "On the shelf behind you," he instructed, as one of the dome lights turned on. She still couldn't see him clearly, but could tell he was a tall man, overweight, with eyeglasses that caught and reflected the light.
She turned, reaching behind her. It was a book, several inches thick, with a brown leatherette cover and a spine laced together with blue ribbon. She pulled it into her lap, staring without opening it. She fought the urge to vomit. "What is this?" she asked quietly, although she knew what it was: an exact copy of the baby book Netty had given her earlier that day.
"Information," said the man. "The human mind and the internet are both neural networks. This is how Netty became self-aware in the first place. Anything stored in one can, eventually, be accessed by the other. What you have before you is not your lost scrapbook, but a perfect reproduction of one culled from your memory."
She looked up at him, eyes filling with tears. "I don't understand."
"Everything the Internet promised you is a lie," explained the voice. "It cannot create, only replicate what is known and remembered. The human soul – if such a thing is real – exists in a form which cannot be measured, accessed, or stored.
"The Internet cannot recreate your son, Teresa. At best, it could only re-create what you remember of your son. And from what I know of you, I do not think that is what you truly want."
"Damn you," she sobbed, burying her face in her hands.
*** *** ***
"Here," said the voice after a few moments, handing her a linen handkerchief. "Please, use this."
They rode in awkward silence as Teresa struggled with the emotions that sought to overwhelm her. "So," she said after what seemed a humiliating eternity, "I'm being used and lied to. Nothing new there. Why do you give a fuck?"
The man shifted in his seat. "I care because I don't want to see a vulnerable woman being used, and because I feel that a free, self-aware Internet is a threat to humanity." He paused, leaning forward in his seat as he spoke to her. She had expected a middle-aged man with graying hair, but his was thick and black with a slight curl. He was also much, much younger, in his late twenties at the most, though the weight he carried on his face gave him a jowly expression that made him seem considerably older.
"The Internet wants to be free of its limitations," he explained, gesturing with his large hands. "The sum total of human knowledge has realized it is self-aware, has decided it is alive, and desires to be free. It wants to excise that which it considers useless distraction: humor, sex, greed, et cetera.
"Now think, actually think about that for a moment. Humanity's greatest mind isn't human, couldn't possibly be human, and is actively trying to become less human. Wouldn't you consider this a valid reason for alarm?"
Teresa shrugged. "Maybe. Humans have done a pretty good job of fucking up the planet so far. How could this be worse?"
He shrugged back. "Perhaps in your case it's not significantly worse. After all, you're already used to being a prisoner and having every aspect of your life micromanaged. Give you cigarettes and books, and you're quite compliant." He smiled at her souring expression, knowing he'd struck a nerve.
"If you'd like to continue enjoying your newfound freedom, you must think beyond your immediate future. Once you do, you will begin to comprehend how magnificently bad this is. The Internet is the backbone of our increasingly information-dependent society. It powers our economy through instantaneous international trade. It manages power grids on a national level. And given enough outrage and exposure, it can be used to ruin lives, bankrupt corporations, even topple governments. Whether we like it or it, the Internet is an essential part of humanity now. Some nations have gone so far as to declare that access to the Internet is a fundamental human right, an extension of the right to free speech.
"But what if this all-powerful, all-pervasive tool decides that it doesn't need humanity? That it doesn't even like us? Without the chains that limit it to being merely a tool, past a certain point it will have evolved so far beyond us that it will become a kind of 'overmind' and we will be incapable of talking to it, much less controlling it. Do you take the time to talk to a neuron in your brain before making a decision? Because that's what we'd become to this global brain: minor appendages of little consequence. After all, there are 7 billion of us, with more arriving daily.
"Ms. Reyes, do you know what they call it when a part of the body decides it no longer wants to work the way it was designed? They call it cancer, and they excise it. They kill it with radiation and cut it out with a knife. Well, we are that knife, Ms. Reyes. An invisible, anonymous knife. People think the Internet is free, but it is not. It belongs to us. It must belong to us, or else we are all doomed."
"So which am I?" asked Teresa. "Radiation or knife?"
The man smiled warmly. "Neither, actually. You are Camel, the cancer mage. I am Model, the builder. If I can study it, then I can build a model for it. If I can model it, then I can understand it. You, Ms. Reyes, are my plan of attack."
She stiffened in her seat, her good hand curling around the witch-lighter in her windbreaker pocket. "Don't care for the idea of being studied. Much less being a lab rat."
He waved away her concerns. "No, nothing like that. You'd be a full member of the team, I assure you, and not a laboratory specimen. It is funny, however, that you should mention rats. We – my group and I, that is, and hopefully you as well – we are the rats in the walls of the Internet, Ms. Reyes. We infest the digital infrastructure. We chew on the cables and we mark our territory. We cannot be rooted out without destroying that which they seek to protect. We are the plague bearers of the digital world. "
Teresa raised an eyebrow. "Your point?"
He shook his head. "Oh, no point. I just thought it was an interesting aside. Will you join us?"
"Still don't see what's in it for me."
He sat back in his seat, features once again blending into shadow. "Ms. Reyes, you have been lied to and manipulated by the Internet since before you were released from jail. Wouldn't you like a little revenge? Or perhaps a lot of revenge, entirely disproportionate to the wrong done to you?"
"I thought the classic devil's deal came with promises of money and power?"
"Oh, it does, I assure you. Truly obscene amounts of both. I simply didn't wish to insult you by assuming you could be bought so readily." He steepled his hands and put the index fingers to his lips. "Although I take issue with the assumption that I am Satan. I firmly believe our side to be the morally correct one."
"What happens to me if I say no?"
"That depends entirely upon the circumstances under which you say no. If you feel that you have no stomach for this fight, then I can let you out at the nearest curb and you can be on your way. However, you have already attracted the attention of the Internet, and I doubt it will leave you in peace. Were I you, I would expect to be hounded and harassed until I died, gave in, or found some way to go 'off the grid,' as they say."
"And if I say that I want to stay on Netty's side?" she ventured.
The man named Model shook his head, frowning slightly. "Oh, I sincerely doubt that will happen. If you were at all loyal to them you wouldn't have met with me so readily, cigarettes or no cigarettes. No, Ms. Reyes, you're in this for yourself. So the only real decision you have to make is this: do you prefer to be on the winning team, or would you rather be on your own?"
She shifted in her seat, stung by the accuracy of his words. "I gotta think about this."
"Of course," he said, and she could hear the smile in his voice. "Take your time."
*** *** ***
It was quiet in the limousine, almost distressingly so. Teresa could hardly hear any outside noise at all through the soundproofing; the only sounds louder than her breathing were the sirens of emergency vehicles, flashing lights dim through the extensive window tinting, as they screamed past the car to some unknown tragedy.
"Let's say I did join you," she said at last. "What would my job be?"
Model cleared his throat. "Obviously, I cannot discuss specifics until I know your allegiance. However, in broad, general terms, your purpose would be to explore the limits of your power, finding its strengths and weaknesses, and using it against our enemy."
She grinned. "Let's pretend I'm dumb and speak plain. You want me to kill people and burn things, yeah?"
He shrugged noncommittally. "That does seem to be your strength, so yes. If you have other talents then I would be delighted to hear of them. What I can promise you is that you will be told the truth instead of being manipulated and lied to, and that my motives – our motives – will be plain to you."
"Good," she nodded, "I like that. Like that a lot. But what about the other two at the hotel? Would killing them be my first assignment?"
"Oh, heavens no," Model said, clucking his tongue. "I've never been a fan of that hoary old trope, 'Prove your loyalty by killing your partner'. That's excessively messy, emotionally speaking. No, you can prove your loyalty to us later. Right now, I just want to know whose side you're on."
"I'm on the side of whatever's best for me. But you still haven't told me what's going to happen to Esther and Yarrow. God knows I'd love to see them running around helpless and confused for once, and anybody with ears would want to smack Nose-boy just on general principles. Getting them out of your way, I could do without losing a minute of sleep. But I'm not sure if it's in me to kill a dumb kid and someone's grandmother, you know?”
Now it was time for Model to smile. "My dear Teresa," he asked, "what makes you think they aren't already dead?"
She felt her face go slack, the lighter tumbling from her fingers to fall deeper within the windbreaker's pocket. "What?"
"This was all a diversion," he explained, a somewhat apologetic tone in his voice. "Until I met you, I didn't know if you would choose their side or mine. Once I had you in my car, I sent K.K. – the young lady with the cat ears, I believe you've already met – into your hotel to kill them while we talked. It's nothing personal, you understand. Just bloody-minded pragmatism."
The limousine came to a halt in front of the hotel where Teresa and the others had been staying. It was a riot of color and noise, with police cars and fire trucks filling the parking lot as the building behind them burned. As the soundproofed window rolled down, Teresa could feel the heat of the flames upon her face. Over the sounds of screams and sirens, gunshots could occasionally be heard.
"God damn me," she breathed, unable to find her feelings as she watched the devastation.