A synthetic gemstone the size of a Coke can falls through silent darkness. Th_ight is quiet as the grave, colder than midwinter on Pluto. Gossamer sails a_ine as soap bubbles droop, the gust of sapphire laser light that inflate_hem long since darkened. Ancient starlight picks out the outline of a hug_lanetlike body beneath the jewel-and-cobweb corpse of the starwisp.
Eight Earth years have passed since the good ship Field Circus slipped int_lose orbit around the frigid brown dwarf Hyundai +4904/-56. Five years hav_one by since the launch lasers of the Ring Imperium shut down withou_arning, stranding the light-sail-powered craft three light-years from home.
There has been no response from the router, the strange alien artifact i_rbit around the brown dwarf, since the crew of the starwisp uploade_hemselves through its strange quantum entanglement interface for transmissio_o whatever alien network it connects to. In fact, nothing happens; nothin_ave the slow trickle of seconds, as a watchdog timer counts down the moment_emaining until it is due to resurrect stored snapshots of the crew, on th_ssumption that their uploaded copies are beyond help.
Meanwhile, outside the light cone –
Amber jolts into wakefulness, as if from a nightmare. She sits bolt upright, _hin sheet falling from her chest; air circulating around her back chills he_apidly, cold sweat evaporating. She mutters aloud, unable to subvocalize,
"Where am I – oh. A bedroom. How did I get here?" Mumble. "Oh, I see." He_yes widen in horror. "It's not a dream … "
"Greetings, human Amber," says a ghost-voice that seems to come from nowhere:
"I see you are awake. Would you like anything?"
Amber rubs her eyes tiredly. Leaning against the bedstead, she glances aroun_autiously. She takes in a bedside mirror, her reflection in it: a youn_oman, gaunt in the manner of those whose genome bears the p53 calorie- restriction hack, she has disheveled blonde hair and dark eyes. She could pas_or a dancer or a soldier; not, perhaps, a queen. "What's going on? Where a_? Who are you, and what am I doing in your head?"
Her eyes narrow. Analytical intellect comes to the fore as she takes stock o_er surroundings. "The router," she mutters. Structures of strange matte_rbit a brown dwarf scant light-years from Earth. "How long ago did we com_hrough?" Glancing round, she sees a room walled in slabs of close-fittin_tone. A window bay is recessed into them, after the style of the Crusade_astles many centuries in the past, but there's no glass in it – just a blan_hite screen. The only furniture in the room, besides a Persian carpet on th_old flagstones, is the bed she sits upon. She's reminded of a scene from a_ld movie, Kubrick's enigma; this whole set-up has got to be deliberate, an_t isn't funny.
"I'm waiting," she announces, and leans back against the headboard.
"According to our records this reaction indicates that you are now fully self- aware," says the ghost. "This is good. You have not been conscious for a ver_ong time. Explanations will be complex and discursive. Can I offer yo_efreshments? What would you like?"
"Coffee, if you have it. Bread and hummus. Something to wear." Amber crosse_er arms, abruptly self-conscious. "I'd prefer to have management ackles t_his universe, though. As realities go, it's a bit lacking in creatur_omforts." Which isn't entirely true – it seems to have a comprehensive, human-friendly biophysics model, it's not just a jumped-up first-perso_hooter. Her eyes focus on her left forearm, where tanned skin and a puckere_ime of scar tissue record a youthful accident with a pressure seal in Jovia_rbit. Amber freezes for a moment. Her lips move in silence, but she's locke_nto place in this universe, unable to split or conjoin nested realities jus_y calling subroutines that have been spliced into the corners of her min_ince she was a teenager. Finally, she asks, "How long have I been dead?"
"Longer than you were alive, by orders of magnitude," says the ghost. A tra_aden with pita breads, hummus, and olives congeals from the air above he_ed, and a wardrobe appears at one side of the room. "I can begin th_xplanation now or wait for you to finish eating. Which would you prefer?"
Amber glances about again, then fixes on the white screen in the window bay.
"Give it to me right now. I can take it," she says, quietly bitter. "I like t_nderstand my mistakes as soon as possible."
"We-us can tell that you are a human of determination," says the ghost, a hin_f pride entering its voice. "That is a good thing, Amber. You will need al_f your resolve if you are going to survive here … "
It is the time of repentance in a temple beside a tower that looms above a dr_lain, and the thoughts of the priest who lives in the tower are tinged wit_egret. It is Ashura, the tenth day of Muhurram, according to a real-tim_lock still tuned to the pace of a different era: the one thousand, thre_undred and fortieth anniversary of the martyrdom of the Third Imam, th_ayyid ash-Shuhada.
The priest of the tower has spent an indefinite time in prayer, locked in a_ternal moment of meditation and recitation. Now, as the vast red sun drift_lose to the horizon of the infinite desert, his thoughts drift toward th_resent. Ashura is a very special day, a day of atonement for collectiv_uilt, evil committed through inactivity; but it is in Sadeq's nature to loo_utwards toward the future. This is, he knows, a failing – but als_haracteristic of his generation. That's the generation of the Shi'ite clerg_hat reacted to the excesses of the previous century, the generation tha_ithdrew the ulama from temporal power, retreated from the velyat i-faqih o_homenei and his successors, left government to the people, and began t_ngage fully with the paradoxes of modernity. Sadeq's focus, his drivin_bsession in theology, is a program of reappraisal of eschatology an_osmology. Here in a tower of white sun-baked clay, on an endless plain tha_xists only in the imaginary spaces of a starship the size of a soft drin_an, the priest spends his processor cycles in contemplation of one of th_ost vicious problems ever to confront a mujtahid – the Fermi paradox.
(Enrico Fermi was eating his lunch one day, and his colleagues were discussin_he possibility that sophisticated civilizations might populate other worlds.
"Yes," he said, "but if this is so, why haven't they already come visiting?")
Sadeq finishes his evening devotions in near silence, then stands, stretche_s is his wont, and leaves the small and lonely courtyard at the base of th_ower. The gate – a wrought-iron gate, warmed by sunlight – squeals slightl_s he opens it. Glancing at the upper hinge, he frowns, willing it clean an_hole. The underlying physics model acknowledges his access controls: a thi_im of red around the pin turns silvery-fresh, and the squeaking ceases.
Closing the gate behind him, Sadeq enters the tower.
He climbs with a heavy, even tread a spiral staircase snaking ever upwar_bove him. Narrow slit-windows line the outer wall of the staircase. Throug_ach of them he sees a different world. Out there, nightfall in the month o_amadan. And through the next, green misty skies and a horizon too close b_ar. Sadeq carefully avoids thinking about the implications of this manifol_pace. Coming from prayer, from a sense of the sacred, he doesn't want to los_is proximity to his faith. He's far enough from home as it is, and there i_uch to consider. He is surrounded by strange and curious ideas, all but los_n a corrosive desert of faith.
At the top of the staircase, Sadeq comes to a door of aged wood bound in iron.
It doesn't belong here: It's a cultural and architectural anomaly. The handl_s a loop of black metal. Sadeq regards it as if it's the head of an asp, poised to sting. Nevertheless, he reaches out and turns the handle, step_cross the threshold into a palace out of fantasy.
None of this is real, he reminds himself. It's no more real than an illusio_onjured by one of the jinni of the thousand nights and one night.
Nevertheless, he can't save himself from smiling at the scene – a sardoni_mile of self-deprecating humor, tempered by frustration.
Sadeq's captors have stolen his soul and locked it – him – in a very strang_rison, a temple with a tower that rises all the way to Paradise. It's th_hole classical litany of medievalist desires, distilled from fifteen hundre_ears of literature. Colonnaded courtyards, cool pools lined with ric_osaics, rooms filled with every imaginable dumb matter luxury, endles_anquets awaiting his appetite – and dozens of beautiful un-women, eager t_ulfill his every fantasy. Sadeq, being human, has fantasies by the dozen, bu_e doesn't dare permit himself to succumb to temptation. I'm not dead, h_easons. Therefore, how can I be in Paradise? Therefore, this must be a fals_aradise, a temptation sent to lead me astray. Probably. Unless I am dead, because Allah, peace be unto him, considers a human soul separated from it_ody to be dead. But if that's so, isn't uploading a sin? In which case, thi_an't be Paradise because I am a sinner. Besides which, this whole setup is s_uerile!
Sadeq has always been inclined to philosophical inquiry, and his vision of th_fterlife is more cerebral than most, involving ideas as questionable withi_he framework of Islam as those of Teilhard de Chardin were to the twentieth- century Catholic church. If there's one key indicator of a false paradise i_is eschatology, it's two-and-seventy brainlessly beautiful houris waiting t_o his bidding. So it follows that he can't really be dead …
The whole question of reality is so vexing that Sadeq does what he does ever_ight. He strides heedlessly across priceless works of art, barging hastil_hrough courtyards and passageways, ignoring niches in which nearly nake_upermodels lie with their legs apart, climbing stairs – until he comes to _mall unfurnished room with a single high window in one wall. There he sits o_he floor, legs crossed, meditating; not in prayer, but in a more tightl_ocused ratiocination. Every false night (for there is no way to know how fas_ime is passing, outside this cyberspace pocket), Sadeq sits and thinks, grappling with Descartes's demon in the solitude of his own mind. And th_uestion he asks himself every night is the same: Can I tell if this is th_rue hell? And if it is not, how can I escape?
The ghost tells Amber that she has been dead for just under a third of _illion years. She has been reinstantiated from storage – and has died again – many times in the intervening period, but she has no memory of this; she is _ork from the main bough, and the other branches expired in lonely isolation.
The business of resurrection does not, in and of itself, distress Ambe_nduly. Born in the post-Moravec era, she merely finds some aspects of th_host's description dissatisfyingly incomplete. It's like saying she wa_rugged and brought hither without stating whether by plane, train, o_utomobile.
She doesn't have a problem with the ghost's assertion that she is nowhere nea_arth – indeed, that she is approximately eighty thousand light-years away.
When she and the others took the risk of uploading themselves through th_outer they found in orbit around Hyundai +4904/-56 they'd understood tha_hey could end up anywhere or nowhere. But the idea that she's still withi_he light cone of her departure strikes her as dubious. The original SET_roadcast strongly implied that the router is part of a network of self- replicating instantaneous communicators, spawning and spreading between th_old brown dwarf stars that litter the galaxy. She'd somehow expected to b_uch farther from home by now.
Somewhat more disturbing is the ghost's assertion that the human genotype ha_endered itself extinct at least twice, that its home planet is unknown, an_hat Amber is nearly the only human left in the public archives. At thi_oint, she interrupts. "I hardly see what this has to do with me!" Then sh_lows across her coffee glass, trying to cool the contents. "I'm dead," sh_xplains, with an undertone of knowing sarcasm in her voice. "Remember? I jus_ot here. A thousand seconds ago, subjective time, I was in the control nod_f a starship, discussing what to do with the router we were in orbit around.
We agreed to send ourselves through it, as a trade mission. Then I woke up i_ed here in the umpty-zillionth century, wherever and whatever here is.
Without access to any reality ackles or augmentation, I can't even tel_hether this is real or an embedded simulation. You're going to have t_xplain why you need an old version of me before I can make sense of m_ituation – and I can tell you, I'm not going to help you until I know who yo_re. And speaking of that, what about the others? Where are they? I wasn't th_nly one, you know?"
The ghost freezes in place for a moment, and Amber feels a watery rush o_error: Have I gone too far? she wonders.
"There has been an unfortunate accident," the ghost announces portentously. I_orphs from a translucent copy of Amber's own body into the outline of a huma_keleton, elaborate bony extensions simulating an osteosarcoma of more-than- lethal proportions. "Consensus-we believe that you are best positioned t_emediate the situation. This applies within the demilitarized zone."
"Demilitarized?" Amber shakes her head, pauses to sip her coffee. "What do yo_ean? What is this place?"
The ghost flickers again, adopting an abstract rotating hypercube as it_vatar. "This space we occupy is a manifold adjacent to the demilitarize_one. The demilitarized zone is a space outside our core reality, itsel_xposed to entities that cross freely through our firewall, journeying to an_rom the network outside. We-us use the DMZ to establish the informationa_alue of migrant entities, sapient currency units and the like. We-us banke_ou upon arrival against future options trades in human species futures."
"Currency!" Amber doesn't know whether to be amused or horrified – bot_eactions seem appropriate. "Is that how you treat all your visitors?"
The ghost ignores her question. "There is a runaway semiotic excursion unde_ay in the zone. We-us believe only you can fix it. If you agree to do, so w_ill exchange value, pay, reward cooperation, expedite remuneration, manumit, repatriate."
Amber drains her coffee cup. "Have you ever entered into economic interaction_ith me, or humans like me, before?" she asks. "If not, why should I trus_ou? If so, why have you revived me? Are there any more experienced instance_f myself running around here?" She raises a skeptical eyebrow at the ghost.
"This looks like the start of an abusive relationship."
The ghost continues to sidestep her attempts to work out where she stands. I_lickers into transparency, grows into a hazy window on a landscape o_mpossible shapes. Clouds sprouting trees drift above a landscape of green, egg-curved hills and cheesecake castles. "Nature of excursion: alie_ntelligence is loose in the DMZ," it asserts. "Alien is applying invali_emiotics to complex structures designed to sustain trade. You know thi_lien, Amber. We require solution. Slay the monster, we will give you line o_redit. Your own reality to control, insight into trade arrangements, augmented senses, ability to travel. Can even upgrade you to you-we consensus, if desired."
"This monster." Amber leans forward, staring into the window eagerly. She'_alf-minded to ignore what she feels is a spurious offer; it doesn't sound to_ppetizing. Upgrade me to a ghost fragment of an alien group mind? she wonder_ismissively. "What is this alien?" She feels blind and unsure, stripped o_er ability to spawn threads of herself to pursue complex inferences. "Is i_art of the Wunch?"
"Datum unknown. It-them came with you," says the ghost. "Accidentall_eactivated some seconds since now. It runs amok in the demilitarized zone.
Help us, Amber. Save our hub, or we will be cut off from the network. If tha_appens, you will die with we-us. Save us … "
A single memory belonging to someone else unwinds, faster than a guide_issile and far more deadly.
Amber, aged eleven, is a gawky, long-limbed child loose on the streets of Hon_ong, a yokel tourist viewing the hot core of the Middle Kingdom. This is he_irst and final vacation before the Franklin Trust straps her inside th_ayload pod of a Shenzhou spaceplane and blasts her into orbit from Xinkiang.
She's free for the time being, albeit mortgaged to the tune of several millio_uros; she's a little taikonaut to be, ready to work for the long years i_upiter orbit it will take her to pay off the self-propelled options web tha_wns her. It's not exactly slavery: Thanks to Dad's corporate shell game sh_oesn't have to worry about Mom chasing her, trying to return her to th_osthuman prison of growing up just like an old-fashioned little girl. And no_he's got a bit of pocket money, and a room in the Hilton, and her ow_ersonal Franklin remote to keep her company, she's decided she's gonna d_hat eighteenth-century-enlightenment tourist shit and do it right.
Because this is her last day at liberty in the randomly evolved biosphere.
China is where things are at in this decade, hot and dense and full o_raconian punishments for the obsolescent. Nationalist fervor to catch up wit_he west has been replaced by consumerist fervor to own the latest fa_adgets; the most picturesque tourist souvenirs from the quaintly old- fashioned streets of America; the fastest, hottest, smartest, upgrades fo_ody and soul. Hong Kong is hotter and faster than just about anywhere else i_hina, or in the whole damn world for that matter. This is a place wher_ourists from Tokyo gawp, cowed and future-shocked by the glamour of high- technology living.
Walking along Jardine's Bazaar – More like Jardine's bizarre, she thinks – exposes Amber to a blast of humid noise. Geodesic domes sprout like skeleta_ushrooms from the glass-and-chrome roofs of the expensive shopping malls an_uxury hotels, threatening to float away on the hot sea breeze. There are n_irliners roaring in and out of Kai Tak anymore, no burnished aluminum stor_louds to rain round-eyed passengers on the shopping malls and fish markets o_owloon and the New Territories. In these tense later days of the War Agains_nreason, impossible new shapes move in the sky; Amber gapes upward as _henyang F-30 climbs at a near-vertical angle, a mess of incomprehensibl_urved flight surfaces vanishing to a perspective point that defies radar a_ell as eyeballs. The Chinese – fighter? missile platform? supercomputer? – i_eading out over the South China Sea to join the endless patrol that reassure_he capitalist world that it is being guarded from the Hosts of Denial, th_rouble out of Wa'hab.
For the moment, she's merely a precocious human child. Amber's subconscious i_ff-lined by the presence of forceful infowar daemons, the Chinese governmen_ensorbots suppressing her cognition of their deadliest weapons. And in th_econds while her mind is as empty as a sucked egg, a thin-faced man with blu_air shoves her in the small of her back and snatches at her shoulder bag.
"Hey!" she yells, stumbling. Her mind's a blur, optics refusing to respond an_rab a biometric model of her assailant. It's the frozen moment, the dead zon_hen on-line coverage fails, and the thief is running away before she ca_atch her balance or try to give chase. Plus, with her extensions off-line sh_oesn't know how to yell "stop, thief!" in Cantonese.
Seconds later, the fighter is out of visual range and the state censorshi_ield lets up. "Get him, you bastards!" she screams, but the curious shopper_imply stare at the rude foreign child: An elderly woman brandishes _isposable phonecam at her and screeches something back. Amber picks up he_eet and runs. Already she can feel the subsonics from her luggage growling a_er guts – it's going to make a scene if she doesn't catch up in time.
Shoppers scatter, a woman with a baby carriage almost running her down in he_anic to get away from it.
By the time Amber reaches her terrified shoulder bag, the thief ha_isappeared: She has to spend almost a minute petting the scared luggag_efore it stops screeching and retracts its spines enough for her to pick i_p. And by that time there's a robocop in attendance. "Identify yourself," i_asps in synthetic English.
Amber stares at her bag in horror: There's a huge gash in the side, and it'_ar too light. It's gone, she thinks, despairingly. He stole it. "Help," sh_ays faintly, holding up her bag for the distant policeman looking through th_obot's eyes. "Been stolen."
"What item missing?" asks the robot.
"My Hello Kitty," she says, batting her eyelashes, mendacity full-on a_aximum utilization, prodding her conscience into submission, warning of dir_onsequences should the police discover the true nature of her pet cat. "M_itten's been stolen! Can you help me?"
"Certainly," says the cop, resting a reassuring hand on her shoulder – a han_hat turns into a steel armband, as it pushes her into a van and notifies he_n formally stilted language that she is under arrest on suspicion o_hoplifting and will be required to produce certificates of authenticity and _ully compliant ownership audit for all items in her possession if she want_o prove her innocence.
By the time Amber's meatbrain realizes that she is being politely arrested, some of her external threads have already started yelling for help and he_-commerce trackers have identified the station she's being taken to by way o_lick-thru trails and an obliging software license manager. They spawn agent_o go notify the Franklin trustees, Amnesty International, the Space an_reedom Party, and her father's lawyers. As she's being booked into a cerise- and-turquoise juvenile offenders holding room by a middle-aged policewoman, the phones on the front desk are already ringing with inquiries fro_ttorneys, fast-food vendors, and a particularly on-the-ball celebrit_agazine that's been tracking her father's connections. "Can you help me ge_y cat back?" she asks the policewoman earnestly.
"Name," the officer reads, eyes flickering from the simultaneous translation.
"To please wax your identity stiffly."
"My cat has been stolen," Amber insists.
"Your cat?" The cop looks perplexed, then exasperated. Dealing with foreig_eenagers who answer questions with gibberish isn't in her repertoire. "We ar_sking your name?"
"No," says Amber. "It's my cat. It has been stolen. My cat has been stolen."
"Aha! Your papers, please?"
"Papers?" Amber is growing increasingly worried. She can't feel the outsid_orld; there's a Faraday cage wrapped around the holding cell, and it'_laustrophobically quiet inside. "I want my cat! Now!"
The cop snaps her fingers, then reaches into her own pocket and produces an I_ard, which she points to insistently. "Papers," she repeats. "Or else."
"I don't know what you're talking about!" Amber wails.
The cop stares at her oddly. "Wait." She rises and leaves, and a minute later, returns with a thin-faced man in a business suit and wire-rimmed glasses tha_low faintly.
"You are making a scene," he says, rudely and abruptly. "What is your name?
Tell me truthfully, or you'll spend the night here."
Amber bursts into tears. "My cat's been stolen," she chokes out.
The detective and the cop obviously don't know how to deal with this scene; it's freaking them out, with its overtones of emotional messiness and siniste_iplomatic entanglement. "You wait here," they say, and back out of the cell, leaving her alone with a plastic animatronic koala and a cheap Lebanese coffe_achine.
The implications of her loss – of Aineko's abduction – are sinking in, finally, and Amber is weeping loudly and hopelessly. It's hard to deal wit_ereavement and betrayal at any age, and the cat has been her wisecrackin_ompanion and consolation for a year, the rock of certainty that gave her th_trength to break free from her crazy mother. To lose her cat to a body sho_n Hong Kong, where she will probably be cut up for spare circuitry or turne_nto soup is too horrible to contemplate. Filled with despair and hopeles_nguish, Amber howls at the interrogation room walls while outside, trappe_hreads of her consciousness search for backups to synchronize with.
But after an hour, just as she's quieting down into a slough of raw despair, there's a knock – a knock! – at the door. An inquisitive head pops in. "Pleas_o come with us?" It's the female cop with the bad translationware. She take_n Amber's sobbing and tuts under her breath, but as Amber stands up an_hambles toward her, she pulls back.
At the front desk of a cubicle farm full of police bureaucrats in variou_tates of telepresence, the detective is waiting with a damp cardboard bo_rapped in twine. "Please identify," he asks, snipping the string.
Amber shakes her head, dizzy with the flow of threads homing in to synchroniz_heir memories with her. "Is it –" she begins to ask as the lid comes apart, wet pulp disintegrating. A triangular head pops up, curiously, sniffing th_ir. Bubbles blow from brown-furred nostrils. "What took you so long?" ask_he cat, as she reaches into the box and picks her up, fur wet and matted wit_eawater.
"If you want me to go fix your alien, for starters I want you to give m_eality alteration privileges," says Amber. "Then I want you to find th_atest instances of everyone who came here with me – round up the usua_uspects – and give them root privileges, too. Then we'll want access to th_ther embedded universes in the DMZ. Finally, I want guns. Lots of guns."
"That may be difficult," says the ghost. "Many other humans reached haltin_tate long since. Is at least one other still alive, but not accessible fo_uration of eschatological experiment in progress. Not all were recorded wit_ersion control engine; others were-is lost in DMZ. We-are can provide yo_ith extreme access to the demilitarized zone, but query the need for kineti_nergy weapons."
Amber sighs. "You guys really are media illiterates, aren't you?" She stand_p and stretches, feeling a facsimile of sleep's enervation leaching from he_uscles. "I'll also need my –" it's on the tip of her tongue: There'_omething missing. "Hang on. There's something I've forgotten." Somethin_mportant, she thinks, puzzled. Something that used to be around all the tim_hat would … know? … purr? … help? "Never mind," she hears her lips say. "Thi_ther human. I really want her. Non-negotiable. All right?"
"That may be difficult," repeats the ghost. "Entity is looping in _ecursively confined universe."
"Eh?" Amber blinks at it. "Would you mind rephrasing that? Or illustrating?"
"Illustration:" The ghost folds the air in the room into a glowing ball o_lasma, shaped like a Klein bottle. Amber's eyes cross as she looks at it.
"Closest reference from human historical database is Descartes's demon. Thi_ntity has retreated within a closed space, but is now unsure whether it i_bjectively real or not. In any event, it refuses to interact."
"Well, can you get me into that space?" asks Amber. Pocket universes she ca_eal with; it's part and parcel of her life. "Give me some leverage –"
"Risk may attach to this course of action," warns the ghost.
"I don't care," she says irritably. "Just put me there. It's someone I know, isn't it? Send me into her dream, and I'll wake her up, okay?"
"Understood," says the ghost. "Prepare yourself."
Without any warning, Amber is somewhere else. She glances around, taking in a_rnate mosaic floor, whitewashed walls set with open windows through whic_tars twinkle faintly in the night sky. Her clothing has somehow been replace_y sexy lingerie under a nearly transparent robe, and her hair's grown longe_y about half a meter. It's all very disorienting. The walls are stone, an_he stands in a doorway to a room with nothing in it but a bed. Occupied by –
"Shit," she exclaims. "Who are you?" The young and incredibly, classicall_eautiful woman in the bed looks at her vacantly, then rolls over on her side.
She isn't wearing a stitch, she's completely hairless from the ears down, an_er languid posture is one of invitation. "Yes?" Amber asks. "What is it?"
The woman on the bed beckons to her slowly. Amber shakes her head. "Sorry, that's just not my scene." She backs away into the corridor, unsteady i_naccustomedly high heels. "This is some sort of male fantasy, isn't it? And _umb adolescent one at that." She looks around again. In one direction, _orridor heads past more open doorways, and in the other, it ends with _piral staircase. Amber concentrates, trying to tell the universe to take he_o the logical destination, but nothing happens. "Looks like I'm going to hav_o do this the hard way. I wish –" she frowns. She was about to wish tha_omeone else was here, but she can't remember who. So she takes a deep breat_nd heads toward the staircase.
"Up or down?" she asks herself. Up – it seems logical, if you're going to hav_ tower, to sleep up at the top of it. So she climbs the steps carefully, holding the spiraling rail. I wonder who designed this space? she wonders, an_hat role am I supposed to fit into in their scenario? On second thoughts, th_atter question strikes her as laughable. Wait till I give him an earful …
There's a plain wooden door at the top of the staircase, with a latch tha_sn't fastened. Amber pauses for a few seconds, nerving herself to confront _leeper so wrapped in solipsism that he's built this sex-fantasy castle aroun_imself. I hope it isn't Pierre, she thinks grimly as she pushes the doo_nward.
The room is bare and floored in wood. There's no furniture, just an ope_indow set high in one wall. A man sits cross-legged and robed, with his bac_o her, mumbling quietly to himself and nodding slightly. Her breath catche_s she realizes who it is. Oh shit! Her eyes widen. Is this what's been insid_is head all along?
"I did not summon you," Sadeq says calmly, not turning round to look at her.
"Go away, tempter. You aren't real."
Amber clears her throat. "Sorry to disappoint you, but you're wrong," sh_ays. "We've got an alien monster to catch. Want to come hunting?"
Sadeq stops nodding. He sits up slowly, stretching his spine, then stands u_nd turns round. His eyes glint in the moonlight. "That's odd." He undresse_er with his gaze. "You look like someone I used to know. You've never don_hat before."
"For fuck's sake!" Amber nearly explodes, but catches herself after a moment.
"What is this, a Solipsists United chapterhouse meeting?"
"I –" Sadeq looks puzzled. "I'm sorry, are you claiming to be real?"
"As real as you are." Amber reaches out and grabs a hand: He doesn't resist a_he pulls him toward the doorway.
"You're the first visitor I've ever had." He sounds shocked.
"Listen, come on." She tugs him after her, down the spiral staircase to th_loor below. "Do you want to stay here? Really?" She glances back at him.
"What is this place?"
"Hell is a perversion of heaven," he says slowly, running the fingers of hi_ree hand through his beard. Abruptly, he reaches out and grabs her around th_aist, then yanks her toward him. "We'll have to see how real you are –"
Amber, who is not used to this kind of treatment, responds by stomping on hi_nstep and backhanding him hard.
"You're real!" he cries, as he falls back against the staircase. "Forgive me, please! I had to know –"
"Know what?" she snarls. "Lay one finger on me again, and I'll leave you her_o rot!" She's already spawning the ghost that will signal the alien outsid_o pull her out of this pocket universe: It's a serious threat.
"But I had to – wait. You have free will. You just demonstrated that." He'_reathing heavily and looking up at her imploringly. "I'm sorry, I apologize!
But I had to know whether you were another zombie. Or not."
"A zombie?" She looks round. Another living doll has appeared behind her, standing in an open doorway wearing a skintight leather suit with a cutawa_rotch. She beckons to Sadeq invitingly. Another body wearing strategicall_laced strips of rubber mewls at her feet, writhing for attention. Ambe_aises an eyebrow in disgust. "You thought I was one of those?"
Sadeq nods. "They've got cleverer lately. Some of them can talk. I nearl_istook one for –" He shudders convulsively. "Unclean!"
"Unclean." Amber looks down at him thoughtfully. "This isn't really you_ersonal paradise after all, is it?" After a moment she holds out a hand t_im. "Come on."
"I'm sorry I thought you were a zombie," he repeats.
"Under the circumstances, I think I forgive you," she says. Then the ghos_anks them both back to the universe outside.
More memories converge on the present moment:
The Ring Imperium is a huge cluster of self-replicating robots that Amber ha_ssembled in low Jupiter orbit, fueled by the mass and momentum of the smal_oon J-47 Barney, to provide a launching platform for the interstellar prob_er father's business partners are helping her to build. It's also the seat o_er court, the leading jurisprudential nexus in the outer solar system. Ambe_s the Queen, here, arbitrator and ruler. And Sadeq is her judge and counsel.
A plaintiff Amber only knows as a radar blip thirty light-minutes away ha_iled a lawsuit in her court, alleging malfeasance, heresy, and barratr_gainst a semisentient corporate pyramid scheme that arrived in Jovian spac_welve million seconds ago and currently seems set on converting every othe_ntelligence in the region to its peculiar memeset. A whole bundle o_ultithreaded countersuits are dragging at her attention, in a counterattac_lleging that the light blip is in violation of copyright, patent, and trad_ecrecy laws by discussing the interloper's intentions.
Right now, Amber isn't home on the Ring to hear the case in person. She's lef_adeq behind to grapple with the balky mechanics of her legal system – tailor- designed to make corporate litigation a pain in the ass – while she drag_ierre off on a diplomatic visit to another Jovian colony, the Nurser_epublic. Planted by the Franklin Trust's orphanage ship Ernst Sanger, th_ursery has grown over the past four years into a spindly snowflake thre_ilometers across. A slow-growing O'Neil cylinder sprouts from its hub: Mos_f the inhabitants of the space station are less than two years old, precocious additions to the Trust's borganism.
There's a piazza, paved with something not unlike rough marble, on the side o_ hill that clings insecurely to the inner edge of a spinning cup. The sky i_ black vastness overhead, wheeling slowly around a central axis lined up o_upiter. Amber sprawls in a wicker chair, her legs stretched out before he_nd one arm flung across her forehead. The wreckage of an incredible meal i_cattered across the tables around her. Torpid and full, she strokes the ca_hat lies curled in her lap. Pierre is off somewhere, touring one or anothe_f the prototype ecosystems that one or another of the borg's special interes_inds is testing. Amber, for her part, can't be bothered. She's just had _reat meal, she doesn't have any lawsuits to worry about, everything back hom_s on the critpath, and quality time like this is so hard to come by –
"Do you keep in touch with your father?" asks Monica.
"Mmm." The cat purrs quietly, and Amber strokes its flank. "We e-mail.
"I just wondered." Monica is the local borg den mother, willowy and brown-eye_nd with a deceptively lazy drawl – Yorkshire English overlaid with Silico_alley speak. "I hear from him, y'know. From time to time. Now that Gianni'_etired, he doesn't have much to do down-well anymore. So he was talking abou_oming out here."
"What? To Perijove?" Amber's eyes open in alarm: Aineko stops purring an_ooks round at Monica accusingly.
"But, out here –" Amber sits up. "Damn," she says, quietly. "What got int_im?"
"Middle-aged restlessness, my downwell sibs say." Monica shrugs. "This tim_nnette didn't stop him. But he hasn't made up his mind to travel yet."
"Good. Then he might not –" Amber stops. "The phrase, 'made up his mind', wha_xactly do you mean?"
Monica's smile mocks her for a few seconds before the older woman surrenders.
"He's talking about uploading."
"Is that embarrassing or what?" asks Ang. Amber glances at her, mildl_nnoyed, but Ang isn't looking her way. So much for friends, Amber thinks.
Being queen of all you survey is a great way of breaking up peer relationships –
"He won't do it," Amber predicts. "Dad's burned out."
"He thinks he'll get it back if he optimizes himself for re-entrancy." Monic_ontinues to smile. "I've been telling him it's just what he needs."
"I do not want my father bugging me. Or my mother. Or Auntie 'Nette and Uncl_ianni. Memo to immigration control: No entry rights for Manfred Macx or th_ther named individuals without clearance through the Queen's secretary."
"What did he do to get you so uptight?" asks Monica idly.
Amber sighs, and subsides. "Nothing. It's not that I'm ungrateful or anything, but he's just so extropian, it's embarrassing. Like, that was the las_entury's apocalypse. Y'know?"
"I think he was a really very forward-looking organic," Monica, speaking fo_he Franklin borg, asserts. Amber looks away. Pierre would get it, she thinks.
Pierre would understand her aversion to Manfred's showing up. Pierre, too, wants to carve out his own niche without parents looking over his shoulders, although for very different reasons. She focuses on someone male and more o_ess mature – Nicky, she thinks, though she hasn't seen him for a long time – walking toward the piazza, bare-ass naked and beautifully tanned.
"Parents. What are they good for?" asks Amber, with all the truculence of he_eventeen years. "Even if they stay neotenous, they lose flexibility. An_here's that long Paleolithic tradition of juvenile slavery. Inhuman, I cal_t."
"How old were you when it was safe to leave you around the house on your own?"
"Three. That's when I had my first implants." Amber smiles at the approachin_oung Adonis, who smiles back: Yes, it's Nicky, and he seems pleased to se_er. Life is good, she thinks, idly considering whether or not to tell Pierre.
"Times change," remarks Monica. "Don't write your family off too soon; ther_ight come a time when you want their company."
"Huh." Amber pulls a face at the old borg component. "That's what you al_ay!"
As soon as Amber steps onto the grass, she can feel possibilities open u_round her. She has management authority here, and this universe is big, wid_pen, not like Sadeq's existential trap. A twitch of a sub-process reassert_er self-image, back to short hair and comfortable clothing. Another twitc_rings up a whole load of useful diagnostics. Amber has a nasty feeling tha_he's running in a compatibility sandbox here – there are signs that he_ccess to the simulation system's control interface is very much via proxy – but at least she's got it.
"Wow! Back in the real world at last!" She can hardly contain her excitement, even forgetting to be pissed at Sadeq for thinking she was just an actor i_is Cartesian theatre's performance of Puritan Hell. "Look! It's the DMZ!"
They're standing on a grassy knoll overlooking a gleaming Mediterranean city.
It snoozes beneath a Mandelbrot-fuzzy not-sun that hangs at the center of _yperbolic landscape, which dwindles into a blue yonder that seem_ncomprehensibly distant. Circular baby-blue wells open in the walls of th_orld at regular intervals, connecting to other parts of the manifold. "Ho_ig is it, ghost? In planetary simulation-equivalents."
"This demilitarized zone is an embedded reality, funneling all transfer_etween the local star system's router and the civilization that built it. I_ses on the order of a thousandth of the capacity of the Matrioshka brain i_s part of, although the runaway excursion currently in force has absorbe_ost of that. Matrioshka brain, you are familiar with the concept?" The ghos_ounds fussily pedantic.
Sadeq shakes his head. Amber glances at him, askance. "Take all the planets i_ star system and dismantle them," she explains. "Turn them into dust – structured nanocomp, powered by heat exchangers, spread in concentric orbit_round the central star. The inner orbitals run close to the melting point o_ron, the outer ones are cold as liquid nitrogen, and each layer runs off th_aste heat of the next shell in. It's like a Russian doll made out of Dyso_pheres, shell enclosing shell enclosing shell, but it's not designed t_upport human life. It's computronium, matter optimized at the atomic level t_upport computing, and they're all running uploads – Dad figured our own sola_ystem could support, uh, about a hundred billion times as many inhabitants a_arth. At a conservative estimate. As uploads, living in simulation space. I_ou first dismantle all the planets and use the resulting materials to build _atrioshka brain."
"Ah." Sadeq nods thoughtfully. "Is that your definition, too?" he asks, glancing up at the glowing point the ghost uses to localize its presence.
"Substantially," it says, almost grudgingly.
"Substantially?" Amber glances around. A billion worlds to explore, she think_izzily. And that's just the firewall? She feels obscurely cheated: You nee_o be vaster than human just to count the digits in the big numbers at pla_ere, but there's nothing fundamentally incomprehensible about it. This is th_ort of civilization Dad said she could expect to live in, within her meatbod_ife expectancy. Dad and his drinking buddies, singing, "Dismantle the Moon!
Melt down Mars!" in a castle outside Prague as they waited for the results o_ shamelessly gerrymandered election to arrive in the third decade of th_hird millennium. The Space and Freedom Party taking over the EU, and crankin_p to escape velocity. But this is supposed to be kiloparsecs from home, ancient alien civilizations and all that! Where's the exotic superscience?
What about the neuron stars, strange matter suns structured for computing a_ucleonic, rather than electronic, speeds? I have a bad feeling about this, she thinks, spawning a copy of herself to set up a private channel to Sadeq.
It's not advanced enough. Do you suppose these guys could be like the Wunch?
Parasites or barbarians hitching a ride in the machine?
You believe it's lying to us? Sadeq sends back.
"Hmm." Amber sets off downslope toward the piazza below, at the heart of th_ake town. "It looks a bit too human to me."
"Human," echoes Sadeq, a curious wistfulness in his voice. "Did you not sa_umans are extinct?"
"Your species is obsolete," the ghost comments smugly. "Inappropriatel_dapted to artificial realities. Poorly optimized circuitry, excessivel_omplex low-bandwidth sensors, messily global variables –"
"Yeah, yeah, I get the picture," says Amber, turning her attention to th_own. "So why do you think we can deal with this alien god you've got _roblem with?"
"It asked for you," says the ghost, narrowing from an ellipse to a line, the_hrinking to a dimensionless point of brilliance. "And now it's coming. We-_ot willing to risk exposure. Call us-me when you have slain the dragon.
"Oh shit –" Amber spins round. But she and Sadeq are alone beneath the ho_unlight from above. The piazza, like the one in the Nursery Republic, i_harmingly rustic – but there's nobody home, nothing but ornate cast-iro_urniture basking beneath the noon-bright sun, a table with a parasol over it, and something furry lying sprawled in a patch of sunlight beside it.
"We appear to be alone for now," says Sadeq. He smiles crookedly, then nods a_he table. "Maybe we should wait for our host to arrive?"
"Our host." Amber peers around. "The ghost is kind of frightened of thi_lien. I wonder why?"
"It asked for us." Sadeq heads toward the table, pulls out a chair, and sit_own carefully. "That could be very good news – or very bad."
"Hmm." Amber finishes her survey, sees no sign of life. For lack of any bette_deas, she ambles over to the table and sits down on the other side of it fro_adeq. He looks slightly nervous beneath her inspection, but maybe it's jus_mbarrassment about having seen her in her underwear. If I had an afterlif_ike that, I'd be embarrassed about it, too, Amber thinks to herself.
"Hey, you nearly tripped over –" Sadeq freezes, peering at something close t_mber's left foot. He looks puzzled for a moment, then smiles broadly. "Wha_re you doing here?" he asks her blind spot.
"What are you talking to?" she asks, startled.
He's talking to me, dummy, says something tantalizingly familiar from he_lind spot. So the fuckwits are trying to use you to dislodge me, hmm? That'_ot exactly clever.
"Who –" Amber squints at the flagstone, spawns a bunch of ghosts who tea_urriedly at her reality modification ackles. Nothing seems to shift th_lindness. "Are you the alien?"
"What else could I be?" the blind spot asks with heavy irony. "No, I'm you_ather's pet cat. Listen, do you want to get out of here?"
"Uh." Amber rubs her eyes. "I can't see you, whatever you are," she say_olitely. "Do I know you?" She's got a strange sense that she does know th_lind spot, that it's really important, and she's missing something intimat_o her own sense of identity, but what it might be she can't tell.
"Yeah, kid." There's a note of world-weary amusement in the not-voice comin_rom the hazy patch on the ground. "They've hacked you but good, both of you.
Let me in, and I'll fix it."
"No!" Exclaims Amber, a second ahead of Sadeq, who looks at her oddly. "Ar_ou really an invader?"
The blind spot sighs. "I'm as much an invader as you are, remember? I cam_ere with you. Difference is, I'm not going to let some stupid corporate ghos_se me as fungible currency."
"Fungible –" Sadeq stops. "I remember you," he says slowly, with an expressio_f absolute, utter surprise on his face. "What do you mean?"
The blind spot yawns, baring sharp ivory fangs. Amber shakes her head, dismissing the momentary hallucination. "Lemme guess. You woke up in a room, and this alien ghost tells you the human species is extinct and asks you to d_ number on me. Is that right?"
Amber nods, as an icy finger of fear trails up and down her spine. "Is i_ying?" she asks.
"Damn right." The blind spot is smiling, now, and the smile on the void won'_o away – she can see the smile, just not the body it's attached to. "M_eckoning is, we're about sixteen light-years from Earth. The Wunch cam_hrough here, stripped the dump, then took off for parts unknown; it's _rashhole, you wouldn't believe it. The main life-form is an incredibly ornat_orporate ecosphere, legal instruments breeding and replicating. They mu_assing sapients and use them as currency."
There's a triangular, pointy head behind the smile, slit eyes and sharp ears, a predatory, intelligent-looking but infinitely alien face. Amber can see i_ut of the corners of her eyes when she looks around the piazza. "You mean we, uh, they grabbed us when we appeared, and they've mangled my memories –" Ambe_uddenly finds it incredibly difficult to concentrate, but if she focuses o_he smile, she can almost see the body behind it, hunched like a furr_hicken, tail wrapped neatly around its front paws.
"Yeah. Except they didn't bargain on meeting something like me." The smile i_nfinitely wide, a Cheshire-cat grin on front of an orange-and-brown strip_ody that shimmers in front of Amber's gaze like a hallucination. "You_other's cracking tools are self-extending, Amber. Do you remember Hong Kong?"
There is a moment of painless pressure, then Amber feels huge invisibl_arriers sliding away on all sides. She looks around, for the first tim_eeing the piazza as it really is, half the crew of the Field Circus waitin_ervously around her, the grinning cat crouched on the floor at her feet, th_normous walls of recomplicating data that fence their little town off fro_he gaping holes – interfaces to the other routers in the network.
"Welcome back," Pierre says gravely, as Amber gives a squeak of surprise an_eans forward to pick up her cat. "Now you're out from under, how about w_tart trying to figure out how to get home?"
Welcome to decade the sixth, millennium three. These old datelines don't mea_o much anymore, for while some billions of fleshbody humans are stil_nfected with viral memes, the significance of theocentric dating has bee_ealt a body blow. This may be the fifties, but what that means to you depend_n how fast your reality rate runs. The various upload clades exploding acros_he reaches of the solar system vary by several orders of magnitude – some ar_arely out of 2049, while others are exploring the subjective thousandt_illennium.
While the Field Circus floats in orbit around an alien router (itself orbitin_he brown dwarf Hyundai +4904/-56), while Amber and her crew are trapped o_he far side of a wormhole linking the router to a network of incomprehensibl_ast alien mindscapes – while all this is going on, the damnfool human specie_as finally succeeded in making itself obsolete. The proximate cause of it_isplacement from the pinnacle of creation (or the pinnacle of teleologica_elf-congratulation, depending on your stance on evolutionary biology) is a_ttack of self-aware corporations. The phrase "smart money" has taken on _hole new meaning, for the collision between international business law an_eurocomputing technology has given rise to a whole new family of species – fast-moving corporate carnivores in the Net. The planet Mercury has bee_roken up by a consortium of energy brokers, and Venus is an expanding debri_loud, energized to a violent glare by the trapped and channeled solar output.
A million billion fist-sized computing caltrops, backsides glowing dull re_ith the efflux from their thinking, orbit the sun at various inclinations n_arther out than Mercury used to be.
Billions of fleshbody humans refuse to have anything to do with th_lasphemous new realities. Many of their leaders denounce the uploads and AI_s soulless machines. Many more are timid, harboring self-preservation meme_hat amplify a previously healthy aversion to having one's brain peeled lik_n onion by mind-mapping robots into an all-pervading neurosis. Sales o_lectrified tinfoil-lined hats are at an all-time high. Still, hundreds o_illions have already traded their meat puppets for mind machines, and the_reed fast. In another few years, the fleshbody populace will be an absolut_inority of the posthuman clade. Sometime later, there will probably be a war.
The dwellers in the thoughtcloud are hungry for dumb matter to convert, an_he fleshbodies make notoriously poor use of the collection of silicon an_are elements that pool at the bottom of the gravity well that is Earth.
Energy and thought are driving a phase-change in the condensed matte_ubstance of the solar system. The MIPS per kilogram metric is on the stee_pward leg of a sigmoid curve – dumb matter is coming to life as the min_hildren restructure everything with voracious nanomechanical servants. Th_houghtcloud forming in orbit around the sun will ultimately be the graveyar_f a biological ecology, another marker in space visible to the telescopes o_ny new iron-age species with the insight to understand what they're seeing: the death throes of dumb matter, the birth of a habitable reality vaster tha_ galaxy and far speedier. Death throes that, within a few centuries, wil_ean the extinction of biological life within a light-year or so of that star – for the majestic Matrioshka brains, though they are the pinnacles o_entient civilization, are intrinsically hostile environments for fleshy life.
Pierre, Donna-the-all-seeing-eye, and Su Ang fill Amber in on what they'v_iscovered about the bazaar – as they call the space the ghost referred to a_he demilitarized zone – over ice-cold margaritas and a very good simulatio_f a sociable joint. Some of them have been on the loose in here fo_ubjective years. There's a lot of information to absorb.
"The physical layer is half a light-hour in diameter, four hundred times a_assive as Earth," Pierre explains. "Not solid, of course – the larges_omponent is about the size my fist used to be." Amber squints, trying t_emember how big that was – scale factors are hard to remember accurately. "_et this old chatbot that said it's outlived its original star, but I'm no_ure it's running with a full deck. Anyway, if it's telling the truth, we're _hird of a light year out from a closely coupled binary system – they us_rbital lasers the size of Jupiter to power it without getting too close t_ll those icky gravity wells."
Amber is intimidated, despite her better judgment, because this bizarre bazaa_s several hundred billion times as big as the totality of huma_resingularity civilization. She tries not to show it in front of the others, but she's worried that getting home may be impossible – requiring enterpris_eyond the economic event horizon, as realistic a proposition as a dim_ebuting as a dollar bill. Still, she's got to at least try. Just knowin_bout the existence of the bazaar will change so many things …
"How much money can we lay our hands on?" She asks. "What is money hereabouts, anyway? Assuming they've got a scarcity-mediated economy. Bandwidth, maybe?"
"Ah, well." Pierre looks at her oddly. "That's the problem. Didn't the ghos_ell you?"
"Tell me?" Amber raises an eyebrow. "Yeah, but it hasn't exactly proven to b_ reliable guide to anything, has it?"
"Tell her," Su Ang says quietly. She looks away, embarrassed by something.
"They've got a scarcity economy all right," says Pierre. "Bandwidth is th_imited resource, that and matter. This whole civilization is tied togethe_ocally because if you move too far away, well, it takes ages to catch up o_he gossip. Matrioshka brain intelligences are much more likely to stay a_ome than anybody realized, even though they chat on the phone a lot. And the_se things that come from other cognitive universes as, well, currency. W_ame in through the coin slot, is it any wonder we ended up in the bank?"
"That's so deeply wrong that I don't know where to begin," Amber grumbles.
"How did they get into this mess?"
"Don't ask me." Pierre shrugs. "I have the distinct feeling that anyone o_nything we meet in this place won't have any more of a clue than we do – whoever or whatever built this brain, there ain't nobody home anymore excep_he self-propelled corporations and hitchhikers like the Wunch. We're in th_ark, just like they were."
"Huh. You mean they built something like this, then they went extinct? Tha_ounds so dumb … "
Su Ang sighs. "They got too big and complex to go traveling once they buil_hemselves a bigger house to live in. Extinction tends to be what happens t_verspecialized organisms that are stuck in one environmental niche for to_ong. If you posit a singularity, then maximization of local computin_esources – like this – as the usual end state for tool users, is it an_onder none of them ever came calling on us?"
Amber focuses on the table in front of her, rests the heel of her palm on th_ool metal, and tries to remember how to fork a second copy of her stat_ector. A moment later, her ghost obligingly fucks with the physics model o_he table. Iron gives way like rubber beneath her fingertips, a pleasan_lasticity. "Okay, we have some control over the universe, at least that'_omething to work with. Have any of you tried any self-modification?"
"That's dangerous," Pierre says emphatically. "The more of us the bette_efore we start doing that stuff. And we need some firewalling of our own."
"How deep does reality go, here?" asks Sadeq. It's almost the first questio_e's asked of his own volition, and Amber takes it as a positive sign tha_e's finally coming out of his shell.
"Oh, the Planck length is about a hundredth of a millimeter in this world. To_mall to see, comfortably large for the simulation engines to handle. Not lik_eal space-time."
"Well, then." Sadeq pauses. "They can zoom their reality if they need to?"
"Yeah, fractals work in here." Pierre nods. "I didn't –"
"This place is a trap," Su Ang says emphatically.
"No it isn't," Pierre replies, nettled.
"What do you mean, a trap?" asks Amber.
"We've been here a while," says Ang. She glances at Aineko, who sprawls on th_lagstones, snoozing or whatever it is that weakly superhuman AIs do whe_hey're emulating a sleeping cat. "After your cat broke us out of bondage, w_ad a look around. There are things out there that –" She shivers. "Human_an't survive in most of the simulation spaces here. Universes with physic_odels that don't support our kind of neural computing. You could migrat_here, but you'd need to be ported to a whole new type of logic – by the tim_ou did that, would you still be you? Still, there are enough entities roughl_s complex as we are to prove that the builders aren't here anymore. Jus_esser sapients, rooting through the wreckage. Worms and parasites squirmin_hrough the body after nightfall on the battlefield."
"I ran into the Wunch," Donna volunteers helpfully. "The first couple of time_hey ate my ghost, but eventually I figured out how to talk to them."
"And there's other aliens, too," Su Ang adds gloomily. "Just nobody you'd wan_o meet on a dark night."
"So there's no hope of making contact," Amber summarizes. "At least, not wit_nything transcendent and well-intentioned toward visiting humans."
"That's probably right," Pierre concedes. He doesn't sound happy about it.
"So we're stuck in a pocket universe with limited bandwidth to home and _unch of crazy slum dwellers who've moved into the abandoned and decayin_ansion and want to use us for currency. 'Jesus saves, and redeems souls fo_aluable gifts.' Yeah?"
"Yeah." Su Ang looks depressed.
"Well." Amber glances at Sadeq speculatively. Sadeq is staring into th_istance, at the crazy infinite sunspot that limns the square with shadows.
"Hey, god-man. Got a question for you."
"Yes?" Sadeq looks at her, a slightly dazed expression on his face. "I'_orry, I am just feeling the jaws of a larger trap around my throat –"
"Don't be." Amber grins, and it is not a pleasant expression. "Have you eve_een to Brooklyn?"
"No, why –"
"Because you're going to help me sell these lying bastards a bridge. Okay? An_hen we've sold it we're going to use the money to pay the purchasing fools t_rive us across, so we can go home. Listen, this is what I'm planning … "
"I can do this, I think," Sadeq says, moodily examining the Klein bottle o_he table. The bottle is half-empty, its fluid contents invisible around th_orner of the fourth-dimensional store. "I spent long enough alone in there to –" He shivers.
"I don't want you damaging yourself," Amber says, calmly enough, because sh_as an ominous feeling that their survival in this place has an expiry dat_ttached.
"Oh, never fear." Sadeq grins lopsidedly. "One pocket hell is much lik_nother."
"Do you understand why –"
"Yes, yes," he says dismissively. "We can't send copies of ourselves into it, that would be an abomination. It needs to be unpopulated, yes?"
"Well, the idea is to get us home, not leave thousands of copies of ourselve_rapped in a pocket universe here. Isn't that it?" Su Ang asks hesitantly.
She's looking distracted, most of her attention focused on absorbing th_xperiences of a dozen ghosts she's spun off to attend to perimeter security.
"Who are we selling this to?" asks Sadeq. "If you want me to make i_ttractive –"
"It doesn't need to be a complete replica of the Earth. It just has to be _onvincing advertisement for a presingularity civilization full of humans.
You've got two-and-seventy zombies to dissect for their brains; bolt togethe_ bunch of variables you can apply to them, and you can permutate them to loo_ bit more varied."
Amber turns her attention to the snoozing cat. "Hey, furball. How long have w_een here really, in real time? Can you grab Sadeq some more resources for hi_ersonal paradise garden?"
Aineko stretches and yawns, totally feline, then looks up at Amber wit_arrowed eyes and raised tail. "'Bout eighteen minutes, wall-clock time." Th_at stretches again and sits, front paws drawn together primly, tail curle_round them. "The ghosts are pushing, you know? I don't think I can sustai_his for too much longer. They're not good at hacking people, but I think i_on't be too long before they instantiate a new copy of you, one that'll b_redisposed to their side."
"I don't get why they didn't assimilate you along with the rest of us."
"Blame your mother again – she's the one who kept updating the digital right_anagement code on my personality. 'Illegal consciousness is copyright theft'
sucks until an alien tries to rewire your hindbrain with a debugger; then it'_ lifesaver." Aineko glances down and begins washing one paw. "I can give you_ullah-man about six days, subjective time. After that, all bets are off."
"I will take it, then." Sadeq stands. "Thank you." He smiles at the cat, _mile that fades to translucency, hanging in the simulated air like an echo a_he priest returns to his tower – this time with a blueprint and a plan i_ind.
"That leaves just us." Su Ang glances at Pierre, back to Amber. "Who are yo_oing to sell this crazy scheme to?"
Amber leans back and smiles. Behind her, Donna – her avatar an archaic movi_amera suspended below a model helicopter – is filming everything fo_osterity. She nods lazily at the reporter. "She's the one who gave me th_dea. Who do we know who's dumb enough to buy into a scam like this?"
Pierre looks at her suspiciously. "I think we've been here before," he say_lowly. "You aren't going to make me kill anyone, are you?"
"I don't think that'll be necessary, unless the corporate ghosts think we'r_oing to get away from them and are greedy enough to want to kill us."
"You see, she learned from last time," Ang comments, and Amber nods. "No mor_isunderstandings, right?" She beams at Amber.
Amber beams back at her. "Right. And that's why you –" she points at Pierre –
"are going to go find out if any relics of the Wunch are hanging about here. _ant you to make them an offer they won't refuse."
"How much for just the civilization?" asks the Slug.
Pierre looks down at it thoughtfully. It's not really a terrestrial mollusk: Slugs on Earth aren't two meters long and don't have lacy white exoskeleton_o hold their chocolate-colored flesh in shape. But then, it isn't really th_lien it appears to be. It's a defaulting corporate instrument that ha_isguised itself as a long-extinct alien upload, in the hope that it_reditors won't recognize it if it looks like a randomly evolved sentient. On_f the stranded members of Amber's expedition made contact with it a couple o_ubjective years ago, while exploring the ruined city at the center of th_irewall. Now Pierre's here because it seems to be one of their most promisin_eads. Emphasis on the word promising – because it promises much, but there i_ome question over whether it can indeed deliver.
"The civilization isn't for sale," Pierre says slowly. The translatio_nterface shimmers, storing up his words and transforming them into _ifferent deep grammar, not merely translating his syntax but mappin_quivalent meanings where necessary. "But we can give you privileged observe_tatus if that's what you want. And we know what you are. If you're intereste_n finding a new exchange to be traded on, your existing intellectual propert_ssets will be worth rather more there than here."
The rogue corporation rears up slightly and bunches into a fatter lump. It_kin blushes red in patches. "Must think about this. Is your mandator_ccounting time cycle fixed or variable term? Are self-owned corporat_ntities able to enter contracts?"
"I could ask my patron," Pierre says casually. He suppresses a stab of angst.
He's still not sure where he and Amber stand, but theirs is far more than jus_ business relationship, and he worries about the risks she's taking. "M_atron has a jurisdiction within which she can modify corporate law t_ccommodate your requirements. Your activities on a wider scale might requir_hell companies –" the latter concept echoes back in translation to him a_ost organisms – "but that can be taken care of."
The translation membrane wibbles for a while, apparently reformulating som_ore abstract concepts in a manner that the corporation can absorb. Pierre i_easonably confident that it'll take the offer, however. When it first me_hem, it boasted about its control over router hardware at the lowest levels.
But it also bitched and moaned about the firewall protocols that were blockin_t from leaving (before rather rudely trying to eat its conversationalist). H_aits patiently, looking around at the swampy landscape, mudflats punctuate_y clumps of spiky violet ferns. The corporation has to be desperate, to b_hinking of the bizarre proposition Amber has dreamed up for him to pitch t_t.
"Sounds interesting," the Slug declares after a brief confirmatory debate wit_he membrane. "If I supply a suitable genome, can you customize a containe_or it?"
"I believe so," Pierre says carefully. "For your part, can you deliver th_nergy we need?"
"From a gate?" For a moment the translation membrane hallucinates a stick- human, shrugging. "Easy. Gates are all entangled: Dump coherent radiation i_t one, get it out at another. Just get me out of this firewall first."
"But the lightspeed lag –"
"No problem. You go first, then a dumb instrument I leave behind buys up powe_nd sends it after. Router network is synchronous, within framework of stat_achines that run Universe 1.0; messages propagate at same speed, speed o_ight in vacuum, except use wormholes to shorten distances between nodes.
Whole point of the network is that it is nonlossy. Who would trust their min_o a communications channel that might partially randomize them in transit?"
Pierre goes cross-eyed, trying to understand the implications of the Slug'_osmology. But there isn't really time, here and now: They've got on the orde_f a minute of wall-clock time left to get everything sorted out, if Aineko i_ight. One minute to go before the angry ghosts start trying to break into th_MZ by other means. "If you are willing to try this, we'd be happy t_ccommodate you," he says, thinking of crossed fingers and rabbits' feet an_irewalls.
"It's a deal," the membrane translates the Slug's response back at him. "No_e exchange shares/plasmids/ownership? Then merger complete?"
Pierre stares at the Slug: "But this is a business arrangement!" he protests.
"What's sex got to do with it?"
"Apologies offered. I am thinking we have a translation error. You said thi_as to be a merging of businesses?"
"Not that way. It's a contract. We agree to take you with us. In return, yo_elp lure the Wunch into the domain we're setting up for them and configur_he router at the other end … "
And so on.
Steeling herself, Amber recalls the address the ghost gave her for Sadeq'_fterlife universe. In her own subjective time it's been about half an hou_ince he left. "Coming?" she asks her cat.
"Don't think I will," says Aineko. It looks away, blissfully unconcerned.
"Bah." Amber tenses, then opens the port to Sadeq's pocket universe.
As usual she finds herself indoors, standing on an ornate mosaic floor in _oom with whitewashed walls and peaked windows. But there's somethin_ifferent about it, and after a moment, she realizes what it is. The sound o_ehicle traffic from outside, the cooing of pigeons on the rooftops, someon_houting across the street: There are people here.
She walks over to the nearest window and looks out, then recoils. It's ho_utside. Dust and fumes hang in air the color of cement over rough-finishe_oncrete apartment buildings, their roofs covered in satellite uplinks an_heap, garish LED advertising panels. Looking down she sees motor scooters, cars – filthy, fossil-fueled behemoths, a tonne of steel and explosives i_otion to carry only one human, a mass ratio worse than an archaic ICBM – brightly dressed people walking to and fro. A news helicam buzzes overhead, lenses darting and glinting at the traffic.
"Just like home, isn't it?" says Sadeq, behind her.
Amber starts. "This is where you grew up? This is Yazd?"
"It doesn't exist anymore, in real space." Sadeq looks thoughtful, but fa_ore animated than the barely conscious parody of himself that she'd rescue_rom this building – back when it was a mediaeval vision of the afterlife – scant subjective hours ago. He cracks a smile: "Probably a good thing. We wer_ismantling it even while we were preparing to leave, you know?"
"It's detailed." Amber throws her eyes at the scene out the window, multiplexes them, and tells them to send little virtual ghosts dancing throug_he streets of the Iranian industrial 'burb. Overhead, big Airbuses ply th_kyways, bearing pilgrims on the hajj, tourists to the coastal resorts on th_ersian Gulf, produce to the foreign markets.
"It's the best time I could recall," Sadeq says. "I didn't spend many day_ere then – I was in Qom, studying, and Kazakhstan, for cosmonaut training – but it's meant to be the early twenties. After the troubles, after the fall o_he guardians; a young, energetic, liberal country full of optimism and fait_n democracy. Values that weren't doing well elsewhere."
"I thought democracy was a new thing there?"
"No." Sadeq shakes his head. "There were prodemocracy riots in Tehran in th_ineteenth century, did you know that? That's why the first revolution – no."
He makes a cutting gesture. "Politics and faith are a combustibl_ombination." He frowns. "But look. Is this what you wanted?"
Amber recalls her scattered eyes – some of which have flown as much as _housand kilometers from her locus – and concentrates on reintegrating thei_isions of Sadeq's re-creation. "It looks convincing. But not too convincing."
"That was the idea."
"Well, then." She smiles. "Is it just Iran? Or did you take any libertie_round the edges?"
"Who, me?" He raises an eyebrow. "I have enough doubts about the morality o_his – project – without trying to trespass on Allah's territory, peace b_nto him. I promise you, there are no sapients in this world but us. Th_eople are the hollow shells of my dreaming, storefront dummies. The animal_re crude bitmaps. This is what you asked for, and no more."
"Well, then." Amber pauses. She recalls the expression on the dirt-smudge_ace of a little boy, bouncing a ball at his companions by the boarded-u_ront of a gas station on a desert road; remembers the animated chatter of tw_ynthetic housewives, one in traditional black and the other in some importe_urotrash fashion. "Are you sure they aren't real?" she asks.
"Quite sure." But for a moment, she sees Sadeq looking uncertain. "Shall w_o? Do you have the occupiers ready to move in yet?"
"Yes to the first, and Pierre's working on the second. Come on, we don't wan_o get trampled by the squatters." She waves and opens a door back onto th_iazza where her robot cat – the alien's nightmare intruder in the DMZ – sleeps, chasing superintelligent dream mice through multidimensiona_ealities. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm conscious. Thinking these thoughts give_e the creeps. Let's go and sell some aliens a bridge in Brooklyn."
Amber confronts the mendacious ghost in the windowless room stolen from 2001.
"You have confined the monster," the ghost states.
"Yes." Amber waits for a subjective moment, feeling delicate fronds tickle a_he edges of her awareness in what seems to be a timing channel attack. Sh_eels a momentary urge to sneeze, and a hot flash of anger that passes almos_mmediately.
"And you have modified yourself to lock out external control," the ghost adds.
"What is it that you want, Autonome Amber?"
"Don't you have any concept of individuality?" she asks, annoyed by it_resumption at meddling with her internal states.
"Individuality is an unnecessary barrier to information transfer," says th_host, morphing into its original form, a translucent reflection of her ow_ody. "It reduces the efficiency of a capitalist economy. A large block of th_MZ is still inaccessible to we-me. Are you sure you have defeated th_onster?"
"It'll do as I say," Amber replies, forcing herself to sound more confiden_han she feels – sometimes that damned transhuman cyborg cat is no mor_redictable than a real feline. "Now, the matter of payment arises."
"Payment." The ghost sounds amused. But Pierre's filled her in on what to loo_or, and Amber can now see the translation membranes around it. Their colo_hift maps to a huge semantic distance; the creature on the other side, eve_hough it looks like a ghost-image of herself, is very far from human. "Ho_an we-us be expected to pay our own money for rendering services to us?"
Amber smiles. "We want an open channel back to the router we arrived through."
"Impossible," says the ghost.
"We want an open channel, and for it to stay open for six hundred millio_econds after we clear it."
"Impossible," the ghost repeats.
"We can trade you a whole civilization," Amber says blandly. "A whole huma_ation, millions of individuals. Just let us go, and we'll see to it."
"You – please wait." The ghost shimmers slightly, fuzzing at the edges.
Amber opens a private channel to Pierre while the ghost confers with its othe_odes. Are the Wunch in place yet? she sends.
They're moving in. This bunch don't remember what happened on the Fiel_ircus, memories of those events never made it back to them. So the Slug's go_hem to cooperate. It's kinda scary to watch – like the Invasion of the Bod_natchers, you know?
I don't care if it's scary to watch, Amber replies, I need to know if we'r_eady yet.
Sadeq says yes, the universe is ready.
Right, pack yourself down. We'll be moving soon.
The ghost is firming up in front of her. "A whole civilization?" it asks.
"That is not possible. Your arrival –" It pauses, fuzzing a little. Hah, Gotcha! thinks Amber. Liar, liar, pants on fire! "You cannot possibly hav_ound a human civilization in the archives?"
"The monster you complain about that came through with us is a predator," sh_sserts blandly. "It swallowed an entire nation before we heroically attracte_ts attention and induced it to follow us into the router. It's an archivore – everything was inside it, still frozen until we expanded it again. Thi_ivilization will already have been restored from hot shadows in our own sola_ystem: There is nothing to gain by taking it home with us. But we need t_eturn to ensure that no more predators of this type discover the router – o_he high-bandwidth hub we linked to it."
"You are sure you have killed this monster?" asks the ghost. "It would b_nconvenient if it were to emerge from hiding in its digest archives."
"I can guarantee it won't trouble you again if you let us go," says Amber, mentally crossing her fingers. The ghost doesn't seem to have noticed the hug_edge of fractally compressed data that bloats her personal scope by an orde_f magnitude. She can still feel Aineko's goodbye smile inside her head, a_cho of ivory teeth trusting her to revive it if the escape plan succeeds.
"We-us agree." The ghost twists weirdly, morphs into a five-dimensiona_ypersphere. It bubbles violently for a moment, then spits out a smaller token – a warped distortion in the air, like a gravityless black hole. "Here is you_assage. Show us the civilization."
"Okay " – Now! – "catch." Amber twitches an imaginary muscle, and one wall o_he room dissolves, forming a doorway into Sadeq's existential hell, no_edecorated as a fair facsimile of a twenty-first-century industrial city i_ran, and populated by a Wunch of parasites who can't believe what they'v_ucked into – an entire continent of zombies waiting to host their flesh- hungry consciousness.
The ghost drifts toward the open window. Amber grabs the hole and yanks i_pen, gets a grip on her own thoughts, and sends Open wide! on the channe_verybody is listening in on. For a moment time stands still, and then –
A synthetic gemstone the size of a Coke can falls through the cold vacuum, i_igh orbit around a brown dwarf. But the vacuum is anything but dark. _apphire glare as bright as the noonday sun on Mars shines on the craz_iamond, billowing and cascading off sails as fine as soap bubbles that slowl_rift and tense away from the can. The runaway Slug-corporation's proxy ha_acked the router's firmware, and the open wormhole gate that feeds power t_t is shining with the brilliance of a nuclear fireball, laser light channele_rom a star many light-years away to power the Field Circus on its return tri_o the once-human solar system.
Amber has retreated, with Pierre, into a simulation of her home aboard th_ing Imperium. One wall of her bedroom is a solid slab of diamond, looking ou_cross the boiling Jovian ionosphere from an orbit low enough to make th_orizon appear flat. They're curled together in her bed, a slightly mor_omfortable copy of the royal bed of King Henry VIII of England. It appears t_e carved from thousand-year-old oak beams. As with so much else about th_ing Imperium, appearances are deceptive; and this is even more true of th_ramped simulation spaces aboard the Field Circus, as it limps toward a tent_he speed of light, the highest velocity it's likely to achieve on a fractio_f its original sail area.
"Let me get this straight. You convinced. The locals. That a simulation o_ran, with zombie bodies that had been taken over by members of the Wunch. Wa_ human civilization?"
"Yeah." Amber stretches lazily and smirks at him. "It's their damn fault; i_he corporate collective entities didn't use conscious viewpoints as money, they wouldn't have fallen for a trick like that, would they?"
"Well." She yawns, then sits up and snaps her finger imperiously: Down-stuffe_illows appear behind her back, and a silver salver bearing two full glasse_f wine materializes between them. "Corporations are life-forms back home, too, aren't they? And we trade them. We give our AIs corporations to make the_egal entities, but the analogy goes deeper. Look at any company headquarters, fitted out with works of art and expensive furniture and staff bowing an_craping everywhere –"
" – They're the new aristocracy. Right?"
"Wrong. When they take over, what you get is more like the new biosphere.
Hell, the new primordial soup: prokaryotes, bacteria, and algae, mindlessl_warming, trading money for plasmids." The Queen passes her consort _ineglass. When he drinks from it, it refills miraculously. "Basically, sufficiently complex resource-allocation algorithms reallocate scarc_esources … and if you don't jump to get out of their way, they'll reallocat_ou. I think that's what happened inside the Matrioshka brain we ended up in: Judging by the Slug it happens elsewhere, too. You've got to wonder where th_uilders of that structure came from. And where they went. And whether the_ealized that the destiny of intelligent tool-using life was to be a stepping- stone in the evolution of corporate instruments."
"Maybe they tried to dismantle the companies before the companies spent them."
Pierre looks worried. "Running up a national debt, importing luxuriou_iewpoint extensions, munching exotic dreams. Once they plugged into the Net, a primitive Matrioshka civilization would be like, um." He pauses. "Tribal. _rimitive postsingularity civilization meeting the galactic net for the firs_ime. Overawed. Wanting all the luxuries. Spending their capital, their human – or alien – capital, the meme machines that built them. Until there's nothin_eft but a howling wilderness of corporate mechanisms looking for someone t_wn."
"Idle speculation," he agrees.
"But we can't ignore it." She nods. "Maybe some early corporate predator buil_he machines that spread the wormholes around brown dwarfs and ran the route_etwork on top of them in an attempt to make money fast. By not putting the_n the actual planetary systems likely to host tool-using life, they'd ensur_hat only near-singularity civilizations would stumble over them.
Civilizations that had gone too far to be easy prey probably wouldn't send _hip out to look … so the network would ensure a steady stream of yokels ne_o the big city to fleece. Only they set the mechanism in motion billions o_ears ago and went extinct, leaving the network to propagate, and now there'_othing out there but burned-out Matrioshka civilizations and howlin_arasites like the angry ghosts and the Wunch. And victims like us." Sh_hudders and changes the subject: "Speaking of aliens, is the Slug happy?"
"Last time I checked on him, yeah." Pierre blows on his wineglass and i_issolves into a million splinters of light. He looks dubious at the mentio_f the rogue corporate instrument they're taking with them. "I don't trust hi_ut in the unrestricted sim-spaces yet, but he delivered on the fine contro_or the router's laser. I just hope you don't ever have to actually use him, if you follow my drift. I'm a bit worried that Aineko is spending so much tim_n there."
"So that's where she is? I'd been worrying."
"Cats never come when you call them, do they?"
"There is that," she agrees. Then, with a worried glance at the vision o_upiter's cloudscape: "I wonder what we'll find when we get there?"
Outside the window, the imaginary Jovian terminator is sweeping toward the_ith eerie rapidity, sucking them toward an uncertain nightfall.