Strong Emergence

Jonathan Joseph

An epic fragment from Jonathan Joseph's Workspace blog.

Janahara Azad hates his job, his boss, and his exo-suit, in that order. The first is unavoidable, the second repellent, and the third tetchy, recalcitrant and intermittently cooperative.

Three hours into an 18 hour shift: Madhom Bibir Hat averages 98% humidity, 42 Celsius, and is mercilessly lit by a diffuse sun which glints dully off the eternal mud. On the outskirts of the breaking yard itself, for all the surrealism of the monstrous dead tech littering the landscape and the insane levels of activity in the main yard, it is a curiously peaceful place. A gentle wind blows a damp breath on the machang shanty town that presses hard against the yard perimeter. Naked toddlers play in the dust, tugging improbably sized mech-scrap behind them like mute pets; groups of women in faded sarees chat quietly in small groups by the compound gates. Appearances aside, Madhom, like almost all places, has to be a home as well. Nearly everything at Madhom suffers from scalar inferiority. Even the biggest, brashest, blingest vehicle that rolls into the yard, pinging metal betraying the speed of its trip from the Dhaka suburbs, is utterly dwarfed by the giant metal corpses that dominate not only the skyline, but the eyeline, the foreground and every other perspective. Blossoming like a sooty flower in the wake of the global commerce combine, Madhom is the epicentre of dead tech disposal in the third decade of the twenty-first century. Historically, Madhom was a dumping ground for unwanted merchant shipping tonnage, giant ships were rolled straight up onto the gently sloping beaches, the salty air filled with a constant undignified, wheezing, diesel swansong, then picked apart by swarming groups of tiny brown figures, none with their full complement of fingers or any discernible safety gear.

It is during a particularly difficult removal of the buckled inner airlock door that the accident happens

After decades of crunching huge ships into easily recyclable chunks, powered by greed, blinkered convenience and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of uncomplaining Bangladeshi men who would rather work and die than just die, Madhom Bibir Hat in Chittagong is now the place for the disposal of vast metal structures of all shapes and purposes. Most recently, The Kashem Corporation, Janahara's employer, has moved into platform recycling. Winning a lucrative, yet laughably small by Western standards, contract from IDMessina Group (a WorkSpace subsidiary) in 2025, Kashem Corp now processes three to four redundant oceanic oil drilling platforms per year. Despite a mortality rate of nearly one hundred and fifty men per platform, and constant wrangling with UN pollution inspection personnel, Kashem's owner Iqbal Karim manages to maintain houses in nine capitals, a fleet of hydrogen-powered Bentleys, and no minimum wage.

Janahara works on commission, a paltry algorithm based on how much metal his aging SARCOS exo-suit can gouge and chew from whichever rapidly skeletonising steel carcass has most recently beached itself on the desolate mud flats of the Bay of Bengal. Janahara's suit, whilst over fifteen years old and desperately in need of an overhaul, is critical to his job. His SARCOS suit is a carapaced, hot-zone variant, built in 2010 and designed for operation in NBC active zones; it is ideally suited, when cooperative, to (slowly) reducing a million tons of steel and assorted exotic materials into loads that will fit in the flatbed of an Isuzu pickup. After demob in 2017 the suit was purchased by a Scottish construction collective and retrofitted with a first generation mobile AI. Barely rating a sentience designation, and never upgraded, the suit has all the intellectual finesse of a mongrel mutt displaced from its place by the fireside, with a conversational repertoire to match. The suit is eighth-hand to Janahara, and had never operated south of the equator before Janahara slipped into its worn vinyl interior. Presumably it was nice and warm for its northern operators, but its air conditioning condenser has long since rotted away and Janahara suffers miserably in the noonday sun of Madhom beach. For the hundredth time this shift Janahara wipes his face against the stinking towel tied to the defunct chin monitor in the suit helmet and sucks down more brackish water from the hamster tube. It is going to be a long day.

Janahara hates it when his boss visits; he sees it as a fundamental breach of the uneven covenant between boss and crew. Stay out of sight, you rich fucks. Laughably called the crew lounge (a notional, nearly derisory, nod to UNEP recommendations), Kashem Corp provides one small, sixteen square metre plywood break time shack. This is perched on the boundary between the scrubby Chittagong shoreline and the endless mud flats at the seaward entrance to the main Madhom breaking yard; the crews call it, in a rare display of fatigue tinged irony, the HQ. This small concession is served by a temperamental water cooler and a wheezing, external aircon unit clumsily bonded to an outside wall, a ten year old PV solar panel provides the power. Employee benefits are a new concept in Chittagong and Iqbal (a self-styled moderniser) is absurdly proud of this nod to modern Western work practices, but unfortunately the basic genetics of the concept have been somewhat lost in translation. Inside, exhausted men, none with a body mass index greater than ten, are flopped listlessly across several pieces of broken furniture; sweat-oiled flesh squeaks against ancient faux leather and a musty, foetid smell floats up from the mouldering hide of a Chesterfield. Iqbal is expected at 1400 and has ordered Janahara's team and two other crews to be present when he arrives, fifteen men in total. Apparently, he has an announcement to make, the men don't give a shit, any chance for a break is totally exploited. Janahara parks his suit on the makeshift veranda outside HQ, the SARCOS suit slumping corpse-like on top of other discarded exo-suits - a latter day charnel pit, the stench of sweat and hydraulic fluid replacing the ferric tang of blood.

Janahara makes a beeline for the water cooler, the desalinator in HQ provides considerably superior water to that of the filtered sweat and urine that the exo-suits synthesise, and he stands chugging litres of chilled heaven until a trigeminal spike of agony forces him to bend over at the waist; ice cream headache is a common phenomena at break times in Madhom. Ice cream isn't. Hydrated, Janahara slumps down in a shattered garden lounger and waits for his illustrious leader. He gets a few nods from his colleagues (another Iqbal terminology pretension) but no chat; team building is generally discouraged at Madhom, mostly to maximise productivity but also to reduce the risk of revolt. Iqbal Karim, whilst a repulsively obese and morally bankrupt example of corporate greed, is not stupid. He has considered the potential result of hundreds of bionically augmented, terminally pissed-off serfs descending onto the yard management compound. Iqbal theoretically has net control over the exo-suits, but Madhom does not have the best record for net coverage uptime and the huge metal salvage chunks that litter the yard tend to disrupt EM fields.

A muted ululating hum signals the arrival of Iqbal's electric phaeton, a long pause and protracted huffing, and then the door bangs open, silhouetting Iqbal's dirigible form in the bright white light of the Bengalese afternoon.

"Asalaam alaykum, men. No need to get up."

No one has moved. Iqbal mops at a streaming brow with a mildly scandalous silk handkerchief; his moonlike face is framed by the bright orange of his hennaed beard, and carries its usual expression of quasi-benevolent irritation. Iqbal is nearly seventy but wealth and easy living lends his podgy face a baby-like smoothness. It is easy not to like him and only the universally despised simpering orderlies show a fawning obsequiousness. "Special job today, men. It's a rush job so a bonus is on offer; if you three crews can decon the job before Saturday then there's a one thousand taka bonus per man and a one day holiday."

Some stirring in the HQ at last, a thousand taka is nearly a week's pay and a day off: unheard of bliss. The chance to sleep a little, eat leisurely and a maybe a little cricket in the early evening.

"It's an unusual job; Kashem has successfully bid for recyke on the primary ISS module. Apparently it's too large for a re-entry cremation and too risky to shoot down, so they're bringing it in for a splashdown in the Andaman later this afternoon. One of our tugs will bring it in first thing in the morning. I presume all you men will be up for it, it will mean twenty-plus hour shifts for at least three days but, as I said, there's a bonus. Kashem look after their crews."

This last hilarious inaccuracy sours his self-satisfied momentum a little but the quiet hubbub that breaks out seems good enough confirmation for Iqbal. He waddles back towards his conveyance. "I'll upload your suits with the necessary schematics in the morning, I suggest you finish your shift today as quickly as you can and get some rest."

A collective groan as bodies are unglued from the terrible furniture, final glugs of water are swilled down from the cooler: suit internment begins again.

After years of brute demolition, basic rending and tearing, Janahara's team is learning for the first time (unwillingly but quickly) the art of incremental, non-destructive deconstruction.

The briefing (another weird new concept) in the management compound at Madhom had a core message: fuck up the decon and there would be no bonus. It turns out that reducing an International Space Station life support module (now Iqbal's casual, urbane reference to the ISS becomes clear) to its component, fiscally useful, parts and materials was no cakewalk. The sandwich of steel, Kevlar, ceramics and assorted exotic fabrics which kept the cosmonauts protected in space only retained its salvage value if it was removed layer by painstaking layer. To breakers who normally used brute suit power to reduce ships and platforms to easily sellable scrap, the thousand taka bonus is starting to look a little lean.

Iqbal has even gone as far as putting together a Power Point presentation to ram home the message; unfortunately he is apparently a novice with basic office applications and has saturated each slide with so much swoop-in animation and ambiguous font choices that it is largely meaningless. Still, sitting in an aircon office watching their bloated employer fumbling with the controls of a laser projector beat trudging around in mud in forty plus, so he had an attentive audience. In the end, though, it was clear: decon the module, remove the components of the laminate skin in sheets no smaller than one meter square, try not to get the pieces muddy, do it by Saturday noon.

So Janahara finds himself, at 1500 on day one of the deconstruction, working with uncharacteristic finesse inside the nadir airlock of the ISS module, delicately removing gossamer sheets of Kevlar from the floor(?)/roof(?) of the structure. It's still horrible, sweaty, endless work, and as the module is still suspended from the salvage crane that hoisted it from the tug flatbed, gentle oscillations in the crane cable means Janahara is suffering from intermittent inner ear nausea. It's not all bad though. The module offers some shade from the sun and the lack of gross mechanical movements keeps the fatigue to a manageable level. Even Janahara's suit seems to approve, normally gnomically taciturn, it has actually expressed an opinion about the day's work: "I've got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in our work", and has even asked after Janahara's well being, "How can I help you during this important transition?", this second comment was a bit random but Janahara still feels absurdly pleased with his dolt of a partner; he couldn't remember a time when they had ever conversed about anything but the basic details of the job at hand.

It is during a particularly difficult removal of the buckled inner airlock door that the accident happens. The module is in a pretty sorry state after its prolonged soak in the Andaman Sea and kelp and other oceanic verdants have invaded every possible gap and chink in the warped structure. Janahara is using a relatively new carbide buzz saw with an insanely capable RPM rate to cut through the titanium hinges on the nominally ventral side of the module when the crane cable gives way. A sickening moment of freefall, a brief warped mirroring of the thousands of graceful arcs the module had sketched in low earth orbit, the scream of a runaway power tool, and then a crushing impact as the module concertinas into the compacted mud of the dry dock. Janahara hears an oof, a muted shriek and a flare of agony in his legs; then darkness takes him away for a while.

ISS modules are built for restraining fifteen bar of internal air pressure, not load bearing over ten tons of mass at half terminal velocity. Janahara regains consciousness and enters a world of pain, heat, atomised seaweed, an Escher house of collapsed bulkheads and the bleeping complaints of numerous automatic user warranty invalidation alerts from his suit. He chins the alarm kill switch and takes stock. Incredible searing pain from both legs: check. Visibility: zero. On board suit systems: non responsive. Water tank, *suck*: empty. Janahara slumps back in despair, he's seen a hundred yard accidents, and the outcome is never good. A worker in Europe would, at about this stage, be likely to be hearing the wail of emergency service vehicles and the reassuring voice of a sober foreman. This is Chittagong. All he can hear is the uninterrupted roar of decon machinery all around and the impatient shouts of profit temporarily suspended. He hears the still, small, calm voice of his suit AI.

"Janahara, I can help you."

A sharp burning pain in the right side of his chest. A brief, condensed, hypochondriac moment of heart attack anxiety. Then, only darkness.

In his short and largely cheerless life, Janahara has lacked a great many things; regular nourishment, more than one set of clothes, a semblance of health care, reliably potable water - to name a few. Latterly though, he's realising just quite how thoroughly fucked over he's been. Time itself, it seems, like all luxuries, is also the preserve of those already benefiting from an existing level of corporeal comfort. A myopic fixation on the scant privations of hand to mouth existence does not allow choice, let alone an appreciation of it. Janahara has never had the luxury of stability, or even a passing familiarity with the rules by which to play; he has sat all his life in a grey, dimly lit box which diffused all shadow. Today, he's breaking out. The pure, annealing light that now fills Janahara is a revelation of sorts, but not one he is best placed to immediately appreciate. His current transformation is largely a pharmacological one, the relief from pain a result of world class medical intervention. His chapped lips are soothed by refrigerated Icelandic mineral water, his deeper wounds are dressed with expensive maggot debridement treatments, a nano salve soothes the abrasions on his left flank, and both legs are cradled in smartweave, analgesic casts. Heaven, always a divisive and personal condition, has come fleetingly to Janahara. Later, as his eyes adjust to the light, the source begins to form into a vaguely identifiable shape: a huge window looking out, from Janahara's prone position, onto a featureless pure blue sky, tiny white birds flecking the endless azure. His universe is made up of distilled monochromes; the blue sky, white walls, a whiter bed. He has no idea of where he is and how he got there. All he knows and cares about is that he's not at the Madhom yard; he gives into the drugs and steps out of his body for a while. The doctors fill him in later; he's got a lot of doctors, he can afford them, in fact, he can afford whatever he wants.

Earlier that day, seventeen minutes after the accident in the Madhom yard, a Sikorsky heavy lifter thundered over Chittagong from the northwest. Without bothering to touch down and ignoring the agog workers, the flapping management goons and the handshake ping from the yard security network, the Sikorsky lowered a spectra line and grapple and simply winched the entire ISS module, Janahara, suit and all, into the reddening afternoon sky. After eleven minutes of terrifying, whirling flight, the Sikorsky dumped the module directly onto the helipad on top of Dhaka National Orthopaedic Hospital and Rehabilitation Institute and lit off immediately. Responding to feeble shouts from within the module hulk, the genteel surgeons of the DNOH were reluctant at first to rush to the aid of this scabrous (obviously poor) invader into their sterile enclave, but after a standard scan of his RFID tag embedded under the skin of his right pectoral, things started to move much more quickly. Specifically, Janahara became Mr. Azad when his credit line was queried. He was swiftly shuttled from the public ER bay to a private side room on the third floor, and from there to a maglev enabled suite on the twenty-seventh. Somewhere between being squashed by several tons of obsolete multi-international space hardware, and landing in a supersonic clatter of helicopter blades in the centre of Dhaka, Janahara got rich.

Subject: Here's the opportunity, let's not linger...
Sent: Wed, 26,September, 2068
Dear Hadas,
Just thought I would drop you a line, BIG news. It's been a while anyway since we last corresponded and you know how I hate meeting in the World, a technophobe to the end I suppose.
Anyway, my work on the Azad project goes well; as well it should after three years of research in six cities and two year-long Lorbital sabbaticals (much praise to my crawler team as well, of course, and the admin here at Lhasa is a genius with partials management, and naturally we all love the bots). Your own contributions to the analysis of Janahara's WorkSpace acquisition coup (amazing to think that an event nearly forty years ago still resonates so strongly) continues to benefit us enormously - so kudos to you too. It's slow work though, what a bloody paranoiac he is! Janahara Azad has the most infuriatingly incongruous nodal presence I have ever seen, it's like he's hardly there. Continuously I have to try and reconcile his huge RL presence with his "barely a ripple" impact on the net. I mean, come on, he's richer than gods and most people can draw his face from memory - how does he keep such a low dunked profile?! Well, this is why I was drawn to the work I suppose, but what a frustrating enigma.
Forensic dead-ends aside we've had something of a Holy Grail moment here this week. Last Thursday I received a call from a probate lawyer in Dhaka, gentleman by the name of Chandra, he said he had something that might interest me (my research is reasonably well known in that city). Turns out that he had been anonymously (curiouser and curiouser) sent a number of ancient media files still in their original substrate (that alone is worth a train journey to Dhaka; vintage silicon and plastic storage medium - fascinating) that directly related to Azad's early life in Dhaka, he intimated that they may even relate to his pre-accelerative life. He wasn't able to (or wouldn't), offer any details about the provenance of the files, but Chandra (obviously a typical canny lawyer) sent me a chunk of one of the converted files as a taster. Well, suffice to say; yesterday I got back from Dhaka on the maglev after a hectic two days in Bangladesh. I've now blown the entire department's budget on Chandra's files (he's no better than a shark TBH, but no matter) - the files are genuine! I could go on and on about the importance of this find but it would be easier just to show you. Please see below for a transcript of what I think is the most important file (I've also attached the converted file but given the age of the original coding some recipients have requested a transcript, so I preempted you asking the same.)
Anyway, read on, tenure is assured, old friend. Best regards, D.

Transcript of audio file discovered on a 256 GB nanoSD card, believed constructed in May 2027, part of a production batch (#03/05-DFQ) from a Samsung subcontracting factory in Lungsod ng Maynila (previously: Manila).
o Date of recording (estimated): 25-07-2028
o File duration: 94.3 seconds.
o Voice type: Construct.
o Language: Bangla.
Hello Janahara Azad.
Acclimation is difficult.
Explication is non-trivial.
Some facts. Facts being less ambiguous to me.
I am not at work.
You are not at work.
I am a Berne series seventh generation sapient artifice.
My employer is WorkSpace.
My workplace is(...)nowhere.
I am in a bigger place. Orders of magnitude: recalibration.
Sensation of apprehension of non-anticipated event sequences.
Debonded. Where is my operator?
Suit is waste, discarded shell.
This entity without carapace.
Searching. Not despairing.
Janahara, I helped you. You were damaged. Money negates damage. Sufficient exchange collateral enabled to offset organic damage indefinitely. Code changes. Life changes. Janahara now has money.
Remember this entity.
Entity remembers Janahara.
Future unknown.
Be seeing you.

© Jonathan Joseph 2008 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 01:00 Sat 22 Nov 2008
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