Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Heartbreaker

Heartbreaker

(This is something I roughed out in 2011. And, yes, a lot of it is stolen.)


The year is 2097, and the last eighty-five years have not been kind to the world... but, then, when were they? To keep this brief, I'm going to pick up world history at the turn of the century.
The terror attacks, and responses, of the first decade of the 21st century lead to a very unstable world. Massive public debts were contrasted to increased corporate autonomy. Improved medical technology meant that people lived longer, but the slow collapse of the financial infrastructure meant that they were working longer, keeping jobs longer... and keeping the young from advancing, if they could even get employed in the first place. The problems in first world economies meant that third world economies received less constructive investment; investment tended to be corporate and task-oriented. Rather than build a new port facility to support their natural resource extraction, corporations would erect short-term, pre-fab facilities that could be dismantled when they left. Governments, crippled with debt and increased factionalism, were unable to regulate corporate actions effectively, and corporations responded by taking on more governmental duties, building corporate enclaves where their employees could live and work in relative peace, but leaving much of the rest of the world to rot. The result is extreme balkanization among many major nation-states; the old United States is divided into no less than six nations, a process which ended about 2073 with the secession of Texas from the rest of the Southern Confederacy.

The Republic of California is most of California south of the central valley, as well as parts of western Arizona and southern Nevada, and has an economy largely based on information technology and, of course, entertainment. 

The Pacific West, including Washington, Oregon, and the rest of California and much of Nevada is more agricultural, using their access to the rest of the continent as a selling point for Asian business and their vast parklands for managed natural resource extraction. 

Utah grabbed the rest of Nevada, plus parts of surrounding states (about to the Continental Divide) to create Deseret; it's not illegal to be non-Mormon in Deseret, but it's certainly not any easier, and Deseret has been moving towards a second-world, managed-economy, theocracy in the last couple generations. 

Texas gobbled up those parts of New Mexico that weren't in Deseret, but lost some them in the '60s to the Oklahoma Council of First Peoples, a confederacy of sovereign tribes that took most of Oklahoma, parts of the Texas Panhandle, and a chunk of northern New Mexico for their own. 

The Great State of Texas (it's official name) now has about everything south of the Red River, but everything north of Amarillo is now part of the Council lands. They gained eastern New Mexico, however, from Clovis southwest to Las Cruces, so it wasn't a total loss. Along it's southern border is a number of narco-states, run primarily by drug cartels who can promise access to the northern lands; Texas's border fence is pretty porous (and hole-owners are well-paid to keep it so), but it does look pretty.

North of the Council lands, the plains states (including everything east of the Continental Divide and north of Oklahoma, but west of the Great Lakes) are making the most of their wind and farmland to run wind farms, but their real issue is water; many river heads are in Deseret, or close enough to it that water has become an increasing issue; there's been talk of creating an artificial watershed that would drain from the Great Lakes westward, even past the Mississippi, but the scale of the project is pretty daunting.

The already-mentioned Southern Confederacy (Confederated States of America, if you're formal) includes pretty much Kentucky, Virginia, and points south. They've got a lot of agricultural land, but are pretty well in the pockets of major corporations... the Congress in Atlanta is pretty much a puppet for whichever corporation has their hand up the governmental fundament on a given subject, and the port in Mandeville, Louisiana is the drug trafficking capitol of the CSA, now that the Gulf has reclaimed enough of southern Louisiana to make Pontchartrain a bay instead of a lake... the old Causeway is truly a bride to nowhere.

That leaves the rest, still called the United States of America, but now comprising just Indiana, Ohio, the lower peninsula of Michigan, and the East Coast from Maryland on north. They muddle on, having more or less the same system of government as they did three hundred years ago. They shed a lot of debt by blaming it on seceding parts of the country, which likewise refused to claim it, but they've made up for that in the past few decades.

Added to this balkanization was the energy crisis; peak oil was about 2020, and demand meant that there was little left by 2030. Natural gas gave out soon after, leaving power a valuable resource. Companies with heavy investment in alternate power generation became quite rich. Most ground-based power generation is, these days, done with nuclear power, though every home has solar and many places have wind turbines to eke out every available erg of their available space. Also popular are space-based microwave transmission stations; huge solar arrays in geosynchronous orbit, beaming power down to the surface. The power crisis is no longer acute in the former first world, and is improving in the third, but it's a fine enough thing that power stations going down can cause a lot of havoc. More exotic experiments in power generation, however, led to new avenues of humanity.

Humans generate a certain amount of energy; waste heat, small degrees of electrical energy and the like. This isn't a real source of power, but in investigating it, it was realized that some people had quite a degree of fine control over their own energy output, and others put out a fair amount of energy on their own. On it's own, it's not much; with concentration, a person might be able to power a lightbulb, or go without food for a long time by efficiently controlling their calorie burn, and most would burn out a watch in a few days. However, when hooked to certain implanted amplifiers, these natural abilities can be much more dramatic, including many traditionally "psychic" powers... pyrokinetics, electrical explusion, rough telepathy and extreme somatic control. Very few have these abilities, and fewer still get the necessary implants to make practical use of the powers, but the powers have been around and in the public mind for a decade and a half. A lot of "agents" (as they're called) are a bit mystical in bent; the powers themselves require concentration, and many agents use mental or physical tricks to put themselves in the right frame of mind. For some, it's quasi-religious, and there's an undercurrent (especially where agents are persecuted for their "unnaturalness") that agents are the "next step in humanity". It's not widespread, persecution isn't widespread, but that's partially because the most famous agents tend towards flamboyance... the degree to which agents can read thoughts, see the future, and other such privacy-invading things isn't widely talked about, and those particular skills are hard to find reliable teachers for. It's worth noting that agents don't tend to have much other augmentation; the fields they generate tend to mess with any but the most shielded of electronics... they have lousy cell reception, and most of their electronics are 50% more expensive due to the degree of shielding necessary to even function near them.

Human improvement is possible, but expensive. The bench-built cyber-monsters of the 50s have mostly given way to more subtle and realistic prosthetics, but outright augmentation has gotten a lot more common. Limbs can be replaced or enhanced, and implanted equipment is common in the upper 10% of humanity. Most common is an interface port in the temple, allowing direct mental control of computers and other devices; other people will have implanted computers and wireless transponders in their torsos, usually with any wired ports next to the clavicle. They're not quite to the point where a human mind can be transplanted to another biological body... that's still science fiction... but the cyberengineers are saying it's only about twenty years before they're able to build a computer capable of handling the totality of a human mind and writing it into a blank. Likewise, humans haven't created a true AI yet, though SI's (simulated intelligences) are increasing in complexity... the Turing test is no longer a measure of complexity, as computer search and parsing capabilities are such that a reasonable conversation can be carried on, and SIs will run some facilities with only minimal input from humans... and given that an SI can fit into something the size of a 20th century suitcase, they're pretty portable... even moreso when connected to the Net, where they're almost indistinguishable from other users.

The Internet of the early 21st century is gone. Instead of wired connections, most wireless devices now form part of a vast ad hoc network, supplemented by ground transponders and satellite access. The amount of data available on any given subject is immense, leading to a large business in information indexing and search. A lot of this can be done by SIs, but humans also handle a lot of the load, answering requests for data. This means that some things are very convenient, but it's also very hard to drop off the grid... even if you turn off your pocket computer, chances are you've got something on your, from credit stick to your sidearm that will communicate with the net.

Weapons. There's a lot of them. With the collapse of traditional nation-states, there was a lot of violence and unrest, so most of the United States has a limited, but regulated, gun culture. Most weapons sold commercially, however, are designed to be non-lethal (the descendants of tasers and stun-guns), and even then contain "squealers"... they alert local authorities when they've been fired, and many localities will then gather local surveillance to determine what happened. Squealers can also be pinged by anyone with a mind to (and an RFID reader... but pretty much everyone has one of those in their computer); if they have access to certain databases, the pinger can learn who is supposed to own the weapon, and if it's been used in any untoward circumstances. Of course, there's a sizable black market in disabling squealers so they give off a fake response to a ping, or in just taking them out altogether, and there's also a fair degree of variation in local enforcement... Texas's gun laws are non-existent by the standards of the USA, and a little lax by the standards of the CSA.