The Quantum Thief
‘... there comes a time when you cease to know yourself amid all these changes, and that is
very sad. I feel at present as the man must have felt who lost his shadow …’
Maurice Leblanc, The Escape of Arsène Lupin
THE THIEF AND THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA
As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk. ‘Prisons are always the same, don’t you think?’
I don’t even know if it can hear me. It has no visible auditory organs, just eyes, human eyes,
hundreds of them, in the ends of stalks that radiate from its body like some exotic fruit. It hovers on the other side of the glowing line that separates our cells. The huge silver Colt would look ridiculous in the grip of its twiglike manipulator limbs if it hadn’t already shot me with it
fourteen thousand times.
‘Prisons are like airports used to be on Earth. No one wants to be here. No one really lives here.
We’re just passing through.’
Today, the Prison’s walls are glass. There is a sun far above, almost like the real one but not
quite right, paler. Millions of glass-walled, glass-floored cells stretch to infinity around me. The light filters through the transparent surfaces and makes rainbow colours on the floor. Apart from them, my cell is bare, and so am I: birth-naked, except for the gun. Sometimes, when you win, they let you change the little things. The warmind has been successful. It has zero-g flowers floating in its cell, red and purple and green bulbs growing out of bubbles of water, like cartoon versions of itself. Narcissistic bastard.
‘If we had toilets, the doors would open inwards. Nothing ever changes.’
All right, so I am starting to run out of material.
The warmind raises its weapon slowly. A ripple passes through its eyestalks. I wish it had a face: the stare of its moist forest of orbs is unnerving. Never mind. It’s going to work this time. I tilt
the gun upwards slightly, my body language and wrist movement suggesting the motion I would make if I was going to put up my gun. My every muscle screams cooperation. Come on.
Fall for it. Honest. This time, we are going to be friends—
A fiery wink: the black pupil of its gun, flashing. My trigger finger jerks. There are two thunderclaps. And a bullet in my head.
You never get used to the feeling of hot metal, entering your skull and exiting through the back of your head. It’s simulated in glorious detail. A burning train through your forehead, a warm spray of blood and brain on your shoulders and back, the sudden chill – and finally, the black,
when things stop. The Archons of the Dilemma Prison want you to feel it. It’s educational.
The Prison is all about education. And game theory: the mathematics of rational decision-making. When you are an immortal mind like the Archons, you have time to be obsessed with such things. And it is just like the Sobornost – the upload collective that rules the Inner Solar
System – to put them in charge of their prisons.
We play the same game over and over again, in different forms. An archetypal game beloved by economists and mathematicians. Sometimes it’s chicken: we are racers on an endless highway, driving at each other at high speeds, deciding whether or not to turn away at the last minute. Sometimes we are soldiers trapped in trench warfare, facing each other across no-man’s-land.
And sometimes they go back to basics and make us prisoners &