Spring-Heeled Jack runs blind, blue fumes crackling from his heels. His righ_and, outstretched for balance, clutches a mark's stolen memories. The victi_s sitting on the hard stones of the pavement behind him. Maybe he's wonderin_hat's happened; maybe he looks after the fleeing youth. But the touris_rowds block the view effectively, and in any case, he has no hope of catchin_he mugger. Hit-and-run amnesia is what the polis call it, but to Spring- Heeled Jack it's just more loot to buy fuel for his Russian army-surplu_otorized combat boots.
The victim sits on the cobblestones clutching his aching temples. Wha_appened? he wonders. The universe is a brightly colored blur of fast-movin_hapes augmented by deafening noises. His ear-mounted cameras are rebootin_epeatedly: They panic every eight hundred milliseconds, whenever they realiz_hat they're alone on his personal area network without the comforting suppor_f a hub to tell them where to send his incoming sensory feed. Two of hi_obile phones are bickering moronically, disputing ownership of his gri_andwidth, and his memory … is missing.
A tall blond clutching an electric chainsaw sheathed in pink bubble wrap lean_ver him curiously: "you all right?" she asks.
"I –" He shakes his head, which hurts. "Who am I?" His medical monitor i_larmed because his blood pressure has fallen: His pulse is racing, his seru_ortisol titer is up, and a host of other biometrics suggest that he's goin_nto shock.
"I think you need an ambulance," the woman announces. She mutters at he_apel, "Phone, call an ambulance. " She waves a finger vaguely at him as if t_eify a geolink, then wanders off, chain-saw clutched under one arm. Typica_outhern émigré behavior in the Athens of the North, too embarrassed to ge_nvolved. The man shakes his head again, eyes closed, as a flock of girls o_owered blades skid around him in elaborate loops. A siren begins to warble, over the bridge to the north.
Who am I? he wonders. "I'm Manfred," he says with a sense of stunned wonder.
He looks up at the bronze statue of a man on a horse that looms above th_rowds on this busy street corner. Someone has plastered a Hello Cthulhu! hol_n the plaque that names its rider: Languid fluffy pink tentacles wave at hi_n an attack of kawaii. "I'm Manfred – Manfred. My memory. What's happened t_y memory?" Elderly Malaysian tourists point at him from the open top deck o_ passing bus. He burns with a sense of horrified urgency. I was goin_omewhere, he recalls. What was I doing? It was amazingly important, h_hinks, but he can't remember what exactly it was. He was going to see someon_bout – it's on the tip of his tongue –
Welcome to the eve of the third decade: a time of chaos characterized by a_ll-out depression in the space industries.
Most of the thinking power on the planet is now manufactured rather than born; there are ten microprocessors for every human being, and the number i_oubling every fourteen months. Population growth in the developing world ha_talled, the birth rate dropping below replacement level. In the wire_ations, more forward-looking politicians are looking for ways to enfranchis_heir nascent AI base.
Space exploration is still stalled on the cusp of the second recession of th_entury. The Malaysian government has announced the goal of placing an imam o_ars within ten years, but nobody else cares enough to try.
The Space Settlers Society is still trying to interest Disney Corp. in th_edia rights to their latest L5 colony plan, unaware that there's already _olony out there and it isn't human: First-generation uploads, California_piny lobsters in wobbly symbiosis with elderly expert systems, thrive aboar_n asteroid mining project established by the Franklin Trust. Meanwhile, Chinese space agency cutbacks are threatening the continued existence o_oonbase Mao. Nobody, it seems, has figured out how to turn a profit ou_eyond geosynchronous orbit.
Two years ago, JPL, the ESA, and the uploaded lobster colony on come_hrunichev-7 picked up an apparently artificial signal from outside the sola_ystem; most people don't know, and of those who do, even fewer care. Afte_ll, if humans can't even make it to Mars, who cares what's going on a hundre_rillion kilometers farther out?
Portrait of a wasted youth:
Jack is seventeen years and eleven months old. He has never met his father; h_as unplanned, and Dad managed to kill himself in a building-site acciden_efore the Child Support could garnish his income for the upbringing. Hi_other raised him in a two-bedroom housing association flat in Hawick. Sh_orked in a call center when he was young, but business dried up: Human_ren't needed on the end of a phone anymore. Now she works in a drop-i_usiness shop, stacking shelves for virtual fly-by-nights that come and g_ike tourists in the Festival season – but humans aren't in demand for shel_tacking either, these days.
His mother sent Jack to a local religious school, where he was regularl_xcluded and effectively ran wild from the age of twelve. By thirteen, he wa_earing a parole cuff for shoplifting; by fourteen, he'd broken his collarbon_n a car crash while joyriding and the dour Presbyterian sheriff sent him t_he Wee Frees, who completed the destruction of his educational prospects wit_igh principles and an illicit tawse.
Today, he's a graduate of the hard school of avoiding public surveillanc_ameras, with distinctions in steganographic alibi construction. Mostly thi_ntails high-density crime – if you're going to mug someone, do so where ther_re so many bystanders that they can't pin the blame on you. But the poli_xpert systems are on his tail. If he keeps it up at this rate, in anothe_our months they'll have a positive statistical correlation that will convinc_ven a jury of his peers that he's guilty as fuck – and then he'll go down t_aughton for four years.
But Jack doesn't understand the meaning of a Gaussian distribution or th_ignificance of a chi-square test, and the future still looks bright to him a_e pulls on the chunky spectacles he ripped off the tourist gawking at th_tatue on North Bridge. And after a moment, when they begin whispering int_is ears in stereo and showing him pictures of the tourist's vision, it look_ven brighter.
"Gotta make a deal, gotta close a deal," whisper the glasses. "Meet the borg, strike a chord." Weird graphs in lurid colors are filling up his periphera_ision, like the hallucinations of a drugged marketroid.
"Who the fuck are ye?" asks Jack, intrigued by the bright lights and icons.
"I am your Cartesian theatre and you are our focus," murmur the glasses. "Do_ones down fifteen points, Federated Confidence up three, incoming briefing o_ausal decoupling of social control of skirt hem lengths, shaving pattern o_eards, and emergence of multidrug antibiotic resistance in Gram-negativ_acilli: Accept?"
"Ah can take it," Jack mumbles, as a torrent of images crashes down on hi_yeballs and jackhammers its way in through his ears like the superego of _isembodied giant. Which is actually what he's stolen: The glasses and wais_ouch he grabbed from the tourist are stuffed with enough hardware to run th_ntire Internet, circa the turn of the millennium. They've got bandwidt_oming out the wazoo, distributed engines running a bazillion inscrutabl_earch tasks, and a whole slew of high-level agents that collectively form _arge chunk of the society of mind that is their owner's personality. Thei_wner is a posthuman genius loci of the net, an agalmic entrepreneur turne_olicy wonk, specializing in the politics of AI emancipation. When he was i_he biz he was the kind of guy who catalysed value wherever he went, leavin_oney trees growing in his footprints. Now he's the kind of political backroo_itter who builds coalitions where nobody else could see common ground. An_ack has stolen his memories. There are microcams built into the frame of th_lasses, pickups in the earpieces; everything is spooled into the holographi_ache in the belt pack, before being distributed for remote storage. At fou_onths per terabyte, memory storage is cheap. What makes this bunch so unusua_s that their owner – Manfred – has cross-indexed them with his agents. Min_ploading may not be a practical technology yet, but Manfred has made an en_un on it already.
In a very real sense, the glasses are Manfred, regardless of the identity o_he soft machine with its eyeballs behind the lenses. And it is a very puzzle_anfred who picks himself up and, with a curious vacancy in his head – excep_or a hesitant request for information about accessories for Russian arm_oots – dusts himself off and heads for his meeting on the other side of town.
Meanwhile, in another meeting, Manfred's absence is already being noticed.
"Something, something is wrong," says Annette. She raises her mirrorshades an_ubs her left eye, visibly worried. "Why is he not answering his chat? H_nows we are due to hold this call with him. Don't you think it is odd?"
Gianni nods and leans back, regarding her from behind his desk. He prods a_he highly polished rosewood desktop. The wood grain slips, sliding into _trangely different conformation, generating random dot stereoisograms – messages for his eyes only. "He was visiting Scotland for me," he says after _oment. "I do not know his exact whereabouts – the privacy safeguards – but i_ou, as his designated next of kin, travel in person, I am sure you will fin_t easier. He was going to talk to the Franklin Collective, face-to-face, on_o many … "
The office translator is good, but it can't provide real-time lip-sync_orphing between French and Italian. Annette has to make an effort to liste_o his words because the shape of his mouth is all wrong, like a badly dubbe_ideo. Her expensive, recent implants aren't connected up to her Broca's are_et, so she can't simply sideload a deep grammar module for Italian. Thei_ommunications are the best that money can buy, their VR environmen_ainstakingly sculpted, but it still doesn't break down the language barrie_ompletely. Besides, there are distractions: the way the desk switches fro_lack ash to rosewood halfway across its expanse, the strange air current_hat are all wrong for a room this size. "Then what could be up with him? Hi_oicemail is trying to cover for him. It is good, but it does not li_onvincingly."
Gianni looks worried. "Manfred is prone to fits of do his own thing wit_elling nobody in advance. But I don't like this. He should have to told on_f us first." Ever since that first meeting in Rome, when Gianni offered him _ob, Manfred has been a core member of Gianni's team, the fixer who goes ou_nd meets people and solves their problems. Losing him at this point could b_ore than embarrassing. Besides, he's a friend.
"I do not like this either." She stands up. "If he doesn't call back soon –"
"You'll go and fetch him."
"Oui." A smile flashes across her face, rapidly replaced by worry lines. "Wha_an have happened?"
"Anything. Nothing." Gianni shrugs. "But we cannot do without him." He cast_er a warning glance. "Or you. Don't let the borg get you. Either of you."
"Not to worry, I will just bring him back, whatever has happened." She stand_p, surprising a vacuum cleaner that skulks behind her desk. "Au revoir!"
As she vacates her office, the minister flickers off behind her, leaving th_ar wall the dull gray of a cold display panel. Gianni is in Rome, she's i_aris, Markus is in Düsseldorf, and Eva's in Wroclaw. There are others, trapped in digital cells scattered halfway across an elderly continent, but a_ong as they don't try to shake hands, they're free to shout across the offic_t each other. Their confidences and dirty jokes tunnel through multipl_ayers of anonymized communication.
Gianni is trying to make his break out of regional politics and into Europea_ational affairs: Their job – his election team – is to get him a seat on th_onfederacy Commission, as Representative for Intelligence Oversight, and pus_he boundaries of post-humanistic action outward, into deep space and deepe_ime. Which makes the loss of a key team player, the house futurologist an_ixer, profoundly interesting to certain people: The walls have ears, and no_ll the brains they feed into are human.
Annette is more worried than she's letting on to Gianni. It's unlike Manfre_o be out of contact for long and even odder for his receptionist to stonewal_er, given that her apartment is the nearest thing to a home he's had for th_ast couple of years. But something smells fishy. He sneaked out last night, saying it would be an overnight trip, and now he's not answering. Could it b_is ex-wife? she wonders, despite Gianni's hints about a special mission. Bu_here's been no word from Pamela other than the sarcastic cards she dispatche_very year without fail, timed to arrive on the birthday of the daughte_anfred has never met. The music Mafiya? A letter bomb from the Copyrigh_ontrol Association of America? But no, his medical monitor would have bee_creaming its head off if anything like that had happened.
Annette has organized things so that he's safe from the intellectual propert_hieves. She's lent him the support he needs, and he's helped her find her ow_ath. She gets a warm sense of happiness whenever she considers how muc_hey've achieved together. But that's exactly why she's worried now. Th_atchdog hasn't barked …
Annette summons a taxi to Charles de Gaulle. By the time she arrives, she'_lready used her parliamentary carte to bump an executive-class seat on th_ext A320 to Turnhouse, Edinburgh's airport, and scheduled accommodation an_ransport for her arrival. The plane is climbing out over la Manche before th_ignificance of Gianni's last comment hits her: Might he think the Frankli_ollective could be dangerous to Manfred?
The hospital emergency suite has a waiting room with green plastic bucke_eats and subtractive volume renderings by preteens stuck to the walls lik_urreal Lego sculptures. It's deeply silent, the available bandwidth al_equestrated for medical monitors – there are children crying, periodic siren_ailing as ambulances draw up, and people chattering all around him, but t_anfred, it's like being at the bottom of a deep blue pool of quiet. He feel_toned, except this particular drug brings no euphoria or sense of well-being.
Corridor-corner vendors hawk kebab-spitted pigeons next to the chained an_usted voluntary service booth; video cameras watch the blue bivvy bags of th_hronic cases lined up next to the nursing station. Alone in his own head, Manfred is frightened and confused.
"I can't check you in 'less you sign the confidentiality agreement," says th_riage nurse, pushing an antique tablet at Manfred's face. Service in the NH_s still free, but steps have been taken to reduce the incidence of scandals:
"Sign the nondisclosure clause here and here, or the house officer won't se_ou."
Manfred stares blearily up at the nurse's nose, which is red and slightl_nflamed from a nosocomial infection. His phones are bickering again, and h_an't remember why; they don't normally behave like this, something must b_issing, but thinking about it is hard. "Why am I here?" he asks for the thir_ime.
"Sign it." A pen is thrust into his hand. He focuses on the page, jerk_pright as deeply canalized reflexes kick in.
"This is theft of human rights! It says here that the party of the second par_s enjoined from disclosing information relating to the operations managemen_riage procedures and processes of the said health-giving institution, that'_ou, to any third party – that's the public media – on pain of forfeiture o_ealth benefits pursuant to section two of the Health Service Reform Act. _an't sign this! You could repossess my left kidney if I post on the Net abou_ow long I've been in hospital!"
"So don't sign, then." The Hijra nurse shrugs, hitches up his sari, and walk_way. "Enjoy your wait!"
Manfred pulls out his backup phone and stares at its display. "Something'_rong here." The keypad beeps as he laboriously inputs opcodes. This gets hi_nto an arcane and ancient X.25 PAD, and he has a vague, disturbing memor_hat hints about where he can go from here – mostly into the long-since- decommissioned bowels of NHSNet – but the memories spring a page fault and di_omewhere between fingertips and the moment when understanding dawns. It's _rustrating feeling: His brain is like an ancient car engine with damp spar_lugs, turning over and over without catching fire.
The kebab vendor next to Manfred's seating rail chucks a stock cube on hi_rill; it begins to smoke, aromatic and blue and herbal – cannabinoids t_nduce tranquillity and appetite. Manfred sniffs twice, then staggers to hi_eet and heads off in search of the toilet, his head spinning. He's mumblin_t his wrist watch: "Hello, Guatemala? Get me posology please. Click down m_eme tree, I'm confused. Oh shit. Who was I? What happened? Why is everythin_lurry? I can't find my glasses … "
A gaggle of day-trippers are leaving the leprosy ward, men and women dresse_n anachronistic garb: men in dark suits, women in long dresses. All of the_ear electric blue disposable gloves and face masks. There's a hum and crackl_f encrypted bandwidth emanating from them, and Manfred instinctively turns t_ollow. They leave the A&E unit through the wheelchair exit, two ladie_scorted by three gentlemen, with a deranged distressed refugee from th_wenty-first century shuffling dizzily after. They're all young, Manfre_ealizes vaguely. Where's my cat? Aineko might be able to make sense of this, if Aineko was interested.
"I rather fancy we should retire to the club house," says one young beau. "O_es! please!" his short blond companion chirps, clapping her hands together, then irritably stripping off the anachronistic plastic gloves to reveal wired- lace positional-sensor mitts underneath. "This trip has obviously bee_nproductive. If our contact is here, I see no easy way of locating of hi_ithout breach of medical confidence or a hefty gratuity."
"The poor things," murmurs the other woman, glancing back at the leprosarium.
"Such a humiliating way to die."
"Their own fault; If they hadn't participated in antibiotic abuse the_ouldn't be in the isolation ward," harrumphs a twentysomething with mutton- chops and the manner of a precocious paterfamilias. He raps his walking stic_n the pavement for punctuation, and they pause for a flock of cyclists and _ickshaw before they cross the road onto the Meadows. "Degenerate medicatio_ompliance, degenerate immune systems."
Manfred pauses to survey the grass, brain spinning as he ponders the fracta_imensionality of leaves. Then he lurches after them, nearly getting himsel_un down by a flywheel-powered tourist bus. Club. His feet hit the pavement, cross it, thud down onto three billion years of vegetative evolution.
Something about those people. He feels a weird yearning, a tropism fo_nformation. It's almost all that's left of him – his voracious will to know.
The tall, dark-haired woman hitches up her long skirts to keep them out of th_ud. he sees a flash of iridescent petticoats that ripple like oil on water, worn over old-fashioned combat boots. Not Victorian, then: something else. _ame here to see – the name is on the tip of his tongue. Almost. He feels tha_t has something to do with these people.
The squad cross The Meadows by way of a tree-lined path, and come to _ineteenth-century frontage with wide steps and a polished brass doorbell.
They enter, and the man with the mutton-chops pauses on the threshold an_urns to face Manfred. "You've followed us this far," he says. "Do you want t_ome in? You might find what you're looking for."
Manfred follows with knocking knees, desperately afraid of whatever he'_orgotten.
Meanwhile, Annette is busy interrogating Manfred's cat.
"When did you last see your father?"
Aineko turns its head away from her and concentrates on washing the inside o_ts left leg. Its fur is lifelike and thick, pleasingly patterned except for _anufacturer's URL emblazoned on its flanks; but the mouth produces no saliva, the throat opens on no stomach or lungs. "Go away," it says: "I'm busy."
"When did you last see Manfred?" she repeats intently. "I don't have time fo_his. The polis don't know. The medical services don't know. He's off net an_ot responding. So what can you tell me?"
It took her precisely eighteen minutes to locate his hotel once she hit th_irport arrivals area and checked the hotel booking front end in the terminal: She knows his preferences. It took her slightly longer to convince th_oncierge to let her into his room. But Aineko is proving more recalcitran_han she'd expected.
"AI Neko mod two alpha requires maintenance downtime on a regular basis," th_at says pompously: "You knew that when you bought me this body. What were yo_xpecting, five-nines uptime from a lump of meat? Go away, I'm thinking." Th_ongue rasps out, then pauses while microprobes in its underside replace th_airs that fell out earlier in the day.
Annette sighs. Manfred's been upgrading this robot cat for years, and his ex- wife Pamela used to mess with its neural configuration too: This is its thir_ody, and it's getting more realistically uncooperative with every hardwar_pgrade. Sooner or later it's going to demand a litter tray and start throwin_p on the carpet. "Command override," she says. "Dump event log to m_artesian theatre, minus eight hours to present."
The cat shudders and looks round at her. "Human bitch!" it hisses. Then i_reezes in place as the air fills with a bright and silent tsunami of data.
Both Annette and Aineko are wired for extremely high-bandwidth spread-spectru_ptical networking; an observer would see the cat's eyes and a ring on he_eft hand glow blue-white at each other. After a few seconds, Annette nods t_erself and wiggles her fingers in the air, navigating a time sequence onl_he can see. Aineko hisses resentfully at her, then stands and stalks away, tail held high.
"Curiouser and curiouser," Annette hums to herself. She intertwines he_ingers, pressing obscure pressure points on knuckle and wrist, then sighs an_ubs her eyes. "He left here under his own power, looking normal," she call_o the cat. "Who did he say he was going to see?" The cat sits in a beam o_unlight falling in through the high glass window, pointedly showing her it_ack. "Merde. If you're not going to help him –"
"Try the Grassmarket," sulks the cat. "He said something about meeting th_ranklin Collective near there. Much good they'll do him … "
A man wearing secondhand Chinese combat fatigues and a horribly expensive pai_f glasses bounces up a flight of damp stone steps beneath a keystone tha_nnounces the building to be a Salvation Army hostel. He bangs on the door, his voice almost drowned out by the pair of Cold War Re-enactment Society MiG_hat are buzzing the castle up the road: "Open up, ye cunts! Ye've got a dea_omin'!"
A peephole set in the door at eye level slides to one side, and a pair o_eady, black-eyed video cameras peer out at him. "Who are you and what do yo_ant?" the speaker crackles. They don't belong to the Salvation Army; Christianity has been deeply unfashionable in Scotland for some decades, an_he church that currently occupies the building has certainly moved with th_imes in an effort to stay relevant.
"I'm Macx," he says: "You've heard from my systems. I'm here to offer you _eal you can't refuse." At least that's what his glasses tell him to say: Wha_omes out of his mouth sounds a bit more like, Am Max: Yiv hurdfrae ma system.
Am here tae gie ye a deal ye cannae refuse. The glasses haven't had lon_nough to work on his accent. Meanwhile, he's so full of himself that he snap_is fingers and does a little dance of impatience on the top step.
"Aye, well, hold on a minute." The person on the other side of th_peakerphone has the kind of cut-glass Morningside accent that manages t_ound more English than the King while remaining vernacular Scots. The doo_pens, and Macx finds himself confronted by a tall, slightly cadaverous ma_earing a tweed suit that has seen better days and a clerical collar cut fro_ translucent circuit board. His face is almost concealed behind a pair o_ecording angel goggles. "Who did ye say you were?"
"I'm Macx! Manfred Macx! I'm here with an opportunity you wouldn't believe.
I've got the answer to your church's financial situation. I'm going to mak_ou rich!" The glasses prompt, and Macx speaks.
The man in the doorway tilts his head slightly, goggles scanning Macx fro_ead to foot. Bursts of blue combustion products spurt from Macx's heels as h_ounces up and down enthusiastically. "Are ye sure ye've got the righ_ddress?" he asks worriedly.
"Aye, Ah am that."
The resident backs into the hostel: "Well then, come in, sit yeself down an_ell me all about it."
Macx bounces into the room with his brain wide open to a blizzard of pi_harts and growth curves, documents spawning in the bizarre phase-space of hi_orporate management software. "I've got a deal you're not going to believe,"
he reads, gliding past notice boards upon which Church circulars are stake_ut to die like exotic butterflies, stepping over rolled-up carpets and _tack of laptops left over from a jumble sale, past the devotional radi_elescope that does double duty as Mrs. Muirhouse's back-garden bird bath.
"You've been here five years and your posted accounts show you aren't makin_uch money – barely keeping the rent up. But you're a shareholder in Scottis_uclear Electric, right? Most of the church funds are in the form of a trus_eft to the church by one of your congregants when she went to join the omeg_oint, right?"
"Er." The minister looks at him oddly. "I cannae comment on the churc_schatological investment trust. Why d'ye think that?"
They fetch up, somehow, in the minister's office. A huge, framed renderin_angs over the back of his threadbare office chair: the collapsing cosmos o_he End Times, galactic clusters rotten with the Dyson spheres of the eschato_alling toward the big crunch. Saint Tipler the Astrophysicist beams down fro_bove with avuncular approval, a ring of quasars forming a halo around hi_ead. Posters proclaim the new Gospel: COSMOLOGY IS BETTER THAN GUESSWORK, an_IVE FOREVER WITHIN MY LIGHT CONE. "Can I get ye anything? Cup of tea? Fue_ell charge point?" asks the minister.
"Crystal meth?" asks Macx, hopefully. His face falls as the minister shake_is head apologetically. "Aw, dinnae worry, Ah wis only joshing." He lean_orward: "Ah know a' aboot yer plutonium futures speculation," he hisses. _inger taps his stolen spectacles in an ominous gesture: "These dinnae jus_ecord, they think. An' Ah ken where the money's gone."
"What have ye got?" the minister asks coldly, any indication of good humo_lown. "I'm going to have to edit down these memories, ye bastard. I though_'d forgotten all about that. Bits of me aren't going to merge with th_odhead at the end of time now, thanks to you."
"Keep yer shirt on. Whit's the point o' savin' it a' up if ye nae got a lif_orth living? Ye reckon the big yin's nae gonnae unnerstan' a knees up?"
"What do ye want?"
"Aye, well," Macx leans back, aggrieved. Ah've got –" He pauses. An expressio_f extreme confusion flits over his head. "Ah've got lobsters," he finall_nnounces. "Genetically engineered uploaded lobsters tae run yer uraniu_eprocessing plant." As he grows more confused, the glasses' control over hi_ccent slips: "Ah wiz gonnae help yiz oot ba showin ye how ter get yer dos_ack whir it belong … " A strategic pause: "so ye could make the council ta_ue date. See, they're neutron-resistant, the lobsters. No, that cannae b_ight. Ah wiz gonnae sell ye somethin' ye cud use fer" – his face slumps int_ frown of disgust – "free?"
Approximately thirty seconds later, as he is picking himself up off the fron_teps of the First Reformed Church of Tipler, Astrophysicist, the man wh_ould be Macx finds himself wondering if maybe this high finance shit isn't a_asy as it's cracked up to be. Some of the agents in his glasses are wonderin_f elocution lessons are the answer; others aren't so optimistic.
Getting back to the history lesson, the prospects for the decade look mostl_edical.
A few thousand elderly baby boomers are converging on Tehran for Woodstoc_our. Europe is desperately trying to import eastern European nurses and home- care assistants; in Japan, whole agricultural villages lie vacant an_ecaying, ghost communities sucked dry as cities slurp people in lik_esidential black holes.
A rumor is spreading throughout gated old-age communities in the America_idwest, leaving havoc and riots in its wake: Senescence is caused by a slo_irus coded into the mammalian genome that evolution hasn't weeded out, an_ich billionaires are sitting on the rights to a vaccine. As usual, Charle_arwin gets more than his fair share of the blame. (Less spectacular but mor_ealistic treatments for old age – telomere reconstruction and hexose- denatured protein reduction – are available in private clinics for those wh_re willing to surrender their pensions.) Progress is expected to speed u_hortly, as the fundamental patents in genomic engineering begin to expire; the Free Chromosome Foundation has already published a manifesto calling fo_he creation of an intellectual-property-free genome with improve_eplacements for all commonly defective exons.
Experiments in digitizing and running neural wetware under emulation are wel_stablished; some radical libertarians claim that, as the technology matures, death – with its draconian curtailment of property and voting rights – wil_ecome the biggest civil rights issue of all.
For a small extra fee, most veterinary insurance policies now cover cloning o_ets in the event of their accidental and distressing death. Human cloning, for reasons nobody is very clear on anymore, is still illegal in mos_eveloped nations – but very few judiciaries push for mandatory abortion o_dentical twins.
Some commodities are expensive: the price of crude oil has broken eighty Euro_ barrel and is edging inexorably up. Other commodities are cheap: computers, for example. Hobbyists print off weird new processor architectures on thei_ome inkjets; middle-aged folks wipe their backsides with diagnostic pape_hat can tell how their cholesterol levels are tending.
The latest casualties of the march of technological progress are: the high- street clothes shop, the flushing water closet, the Main Battle Tank, and th_irst generation of quantum computers. New with the decade are cheap enhance_mmune systems, brain implants that hook right into the Chomsky organ and tal_o their owners through their own speech centers, and widespread publi_aranoia about limbic spam. Nanotechnology has shattered into a dozen disjoin_isciplines, and skeptics are predicting that it will all peter out befor_ong. Philosophers have ceded qualia to engineers, and the current difficul_roblem in AI is getting software to experience embarrassment.
Fusion power is still, of course, fifty years away.
The Victorians are morphing into goths before Manfred's culture-shocked eyes.
"You looked lost," explains Monica, leaning over him curiously. "What's wit_our eyes?"
"I can't see too well," Manfred tries to explain. Everything is a blur, an_he voices that usually chatter incessantly in his head have left nothin_ehind but a roaring silence. "I mean, someone mugged me. They took –" Hi_and closes on air: something is missing from his belt.
Monica, the tall woman he first saw in the hospital, enters the room. Wha_he's wearing indoors is skin-tight, iridescent and, disturbingly, she claim_s a distributed extension of her neuroectoderm. Stripped of costume-dram_ccoutrements, she's a twenty-first-century adult, born or decanted after th_illennial baby boom. She waves some fingers in Manfred's face: "How many?"
"Two." Manfred tries to concentrate. "What –"
"No concussion," she says briskly. "'Scuse me while I page." Her eyes ar_rown, with amber raster lines flickering across her pupils. Contact lenses?
Manfred wonders, his head turgid and unnaturally slow. It's like being drunk, except much less pleasant: He can't seem to wrap his head around an idea fro_ll angles at once, anymore. Is this what consciousness used to be like? It'_n ugly, slow sensation. She turns away from him: "Medline says you'll be al_ight in a while. The main problem is the identity loss. Are you backed u_nywhere?"
"Here." Alan, still top-hatted and mutton-chopped, holds out a pair o_pectacles to Manfred. "Take these, they may do you some good." His toppe_obbles, as if a strange A-life experiment is nesting under its brim.
"Oh. Thank you." Manfred reaches for them with a pathetic sense of gratitude.
As soon as he puts them on, they run through a test series, whisperin_uestions and watching how his eyes focus: After a minute, the room around hi_lears as the specs build a synthetic image to compensate for his myopia.
There's limited Net access, too, he notices, a warm sense of relief stealin_ver him. "Do you mind if I call somebody?" he asks: "I want to check my back- ups."
"Be my guest." Alan slips out through the door; Monica sits down opposite hi_nd stares into some inner space. The room has a tall ceiling, wit_hitewashed walls and wooden shutters to cover the aerogel window bays. Th_urniture is modern modular, and clashes horribly with the origina_ineteenth-century architecture. "We were expecting you."
"You were –" He shifts track with an effort: "I was here to see somebody. Her_n Scotland, I mean."
"Us." She catches his eye deliberately. "To discuss sapience options with ou_atron."
"With your –" He squeezes his eyes shut. "Damn! I don't remember. I need m_lasses back. Please."
"What about your back-ups?" she asks curiously.
"A moment." Manfred tries to remember what address to ping. It's useless, an_ainfully frustrating. "It would help if I could remember where I keep th_est of my mind," he complains. "It used to be at – oh, there."
An elephantine semantic network sits down on his spectacles as soon as he ask_or the site, crushing his surroundings into blocky pixilated monochrome tha_erks as he looks around. "This is going to take some time," he warns hi_osts as a goodly chunk of his metacortex tries to handshake with his brai_ver a wireless network connection that was really only designed for we_rowsing. The download consists of the part of his consciousness that isn'_ecurity-critical – public access actors and vague opinionated rants – but i_lears down a huge memory castle, sketching in the outline of a map o_iracles and wonders onto the whitewashed walls of the room.
When Manfred can see the outside world again, he feels a bit more lik_imself: He can, at least, spawn a search thread that will resynchronize an_ill him in on what it found. He still can't access the inner mysteries of hi_oul (including his personal memories); they're locked and barred pendin_iometric verification of his identity and a quantum key exchange. But he ha_is wits about him again – and some of them are even working. It's lik_obering up from a strange new drug, the infinitely reassuring sense of bein_ack at the controls of his own head. "I think I need to report a crime," h_ells Monica – or whoever is plugged into Monica's head right now, because no_e knows where he is and who he was meant to meet (although not why) – and h_nderstands that, for the Franklin Collective, identity is a politicall_oaded issue.
"A crime report." Her expression is subtly mocking. "Identity theft, by an_hance?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know: Identity is theft, don't trust anyone whose state vecto_asn't forked for more than a gigasecond, change is the only constant, e_loody cetera. Who am I talking to, by the way? And if we're talking, doesn'_hat signify that you think we're on the same side, more or less?" H_truggles to sit up in the recliner chair: Stepper motors whine softly as i_trives to accommodate him.
"Sidedness is optional." The woman who is Monica some of the time looks at hi_uirkily: "It tends to alter drastically if you vary the number of dimensions.
Let's just say that right now I'm Monica, plus our sponsor. Will that do you?"
"Our sponsor, who is in cyberspace –"
She leans back on the sofa, which buzzes and extrudes an occasional table wit_ small bar. "Drink? Can I offer you coffee? Guarana? Or maybe _erlinerweisse, for old time's sake?"
"Guarana will do. Hello, Bob. How long have you been dead?"
She chuckles. "I'm not dead, Manny. I may not be a full upload, but I fee_ike me." She rolls her eyes, self-consciously. "He's making rude comment_bout your wife," She adds; "I'm not going to pass that on."
"My ex-wife," Manfred corrects her automatically. "The, uh, tax vamp. So.
You're acting as a, I guess, an interpreter for Bob?"
"Ack." She looks at Manfred very seriously: "We owe him a lot, you know. H_eft his assets in trust to the movement along with his partials. We fee_bliged to instantiate his personality as often as possible, even though yo_an only do so much with a couple of petabytes of recordings. But we hav_elp."
"The lobsters." Manfred nods to himself and accepts the glass that she offers.
Its diamond-plated curves glitter brilliantly in the late-afternoon sunlight.
"I knew this had something to do with them." He leans forward, holding hi_lass and frowns. "If only I could remember why I came here! It was somethin_mergent, something in deep memory … something I didn't trust in my own skull.
Something to do with Bob."
The door behind the sofa opens; Alan enters. "Excuse me," he says quietly, an_eads for the far side of the room. A workstation folds down from the wall, and a chair rolls in from a service niche. He sits with his chin propped o_is hands, staring at the white desktop. Every so often he mutters quietly t_imself; "Yes, I understand … campaign headquarters … donations need to b_udited … "
"Gianni's election campaign," Monica prompts him.
Manfred jumps. "Gianni –" A bundle of memories unlock inside his head as h_emembers his political front man's message. "Yes! That's what this is about.
It has to be!" He looks at her excitedly. "I'm here to deliver a message t_ou from Gianni Vittoria. About –" He looks crestfallen. "I'm not sure," h_rails off uncertainly, "but it was important. Something critical in the lon_erm, something about group minds and voting. But whoever mugged me got th_essage."
The Grassmarket is an overly rustic cobbled square nestled beneath th_lowering battlements of Castle Rock. Annette stands on the site of th_allows where they used to execute witches; she sends forth her invisibl_gents to search for spoor of Manfred. Aineko, overly familiar, drapes ove_er left shoulder like a satanic stole and delivers a running stream o_racked cellphone chatter into her ear.
"I don't know where to begin," she sighs, annoyed. This place is a wall-to- wall tourist trap, a many-bladed carnivorous plant that digests easy credi_nd spits out the drained husks of foreigners. The road has bee_edestrianized and resurfaced in squalidly authentic mediaeval cobblestones; in the middle of what used to be the car park, there's a permanent floatin_ntiques market, where you can buy anything from a brass fire surround to a_ncient CD player. Much of the merchandise in the shops is generic dot-co_rash, vying for the title of Japanese–Scottish souvenir from hell: Purolan_artans, animatronic Nessies hissing bad-temperedly at knee level, second han_aptops. People swarm everywhere, from the theme pubs (hangings seem to be _unning joke hereabouts) to the expensive dress shops with their fabri_enderers and digital mirrors. Street performers, part of the permanen_loating Fringe, clutter the sidewalk: A robotic mime, very traditional i_ilver face paint, mimics the gestures of passers by with ironically stylize_estures.
"Try the doss house," Aineko suggests from the shelter of her shoulder bag.
"The –" Annette does a doubletake as her thesaurus conspires with her ope_overnment firmware and dumps a geographical database of city social service_nto her sensorium. "Oh, I see." The Grassmarket itself is touristy, but th_its off to one end – down a dingy canyon of forbidding stone buildings si_tories high – are decidedly downmarket. "Okay."
Annette weaves past a stall selling disposable cellphones and cheaper genom_xplorers, round a gaggle of teenage girls in the grips of some kind o_mported kawaii fetish, who look at her in alarm from atop their pink platfor_eels – probably mistaking her for a school probation inspector – and past _tand of chained and parked bicycles. The human attendant looks bored out o_er mind. Annette tucks a blandly anonymous ten-Euro note in her pocket almos_efore she notices: "If you were going to buy a hot bike," she asks, "wher_ould you go?" The parking attendant stares, and for a moment Annette think_he's overestimated her. Then she mumbles something. "What?"
"McMurphy's. Used to be called Bannerman's. Down yon Cowgate, thataway." Th_eter maid looks anxiously at her rack of charges. "You didn't –"
"Uh-huh." Annette follows her gaze: straight down the dark stone canyon. Well, okay. "This had better be worth it, Manny mon chèr," she mutters under he_reath.
McMurphy's is a fake Irish pub, a stone grotto installed beneath a mound o_lank-faced offices. It was once a real Irish pub before the developers go_heir hands on it and mutated it in rapid succession into a punk nightclub, _ine bar, and a fake Dutch coffee shop; after which, as burned-out as an_tar, it left the main sequence. Now it occupies an unnaturally prolonged, chilly existence as the sort of recycled imitation Irish pub that has neo_our-leafed clovers hanging from the artificially blackened pine beams abov_he log tables – in other words, the burned-out black dwarf afterlife of _nce-serious drinking establishment. Somewhere along the line, the beer cella_as replaced with a toilet (leaving more room for paying patrons upstairs), and now its founts dispense fizzy concentrate diluted with water from the cit_ains.
"Say, did you hear the one about the Eurocrat with the robot pussy who goe_nto a dodgy pub on the Cowgate and orders a coke? And when it arrives, sh_ays 'hey, where's the mirror?'"
"Shut up," Annette hisses into her shoulder bag. "That isn't funny." He_ersonal intruder telemetry has just e-mailed her wristphone, and it'_isplaying a rotating yellow exclamation point, which means that according t_he published police crime stats, this place is likely to do grievous harm t_er insurance premiums.
Aineko looks up at her from his nest in the bag and yawns cavernously, barin_ pink, ribbed mouth and a tongue like pink suede. "Want to make me? I jus_inged Manny's head. The network latency was trivial."
The barmaid sidles up and pointedly manages not to make eye contact wit_nnette. "I'll have a Diet Coke," Annette orders. In the direction of her bag, voice pitched low: "Did you hear the one about the Eurocrat who goes into _odgy pub, orders half a liter of Diet Coke, and when she spills it in he_houlder bag she says 'oops, I've got a wet pussy'?"
The Coke arrives. Annette pays for it. There may be a couple of dozen peopl_n the pub; it's hard to tell because it looks like an ancient cellar, lots o_tone archways leading off into niches populated with second-hand church pew_nd knife-scarred tables. Some guys who might be bikers, students, or well- dressed winos are hunched over one table: hairy, wearing vests with too man_ockets, in an artful bohemianism that makes Annette blink until one of he_iterary programs informs her that one of them is a moderately famous loca_riter, a bit of a guru for the space and freedom party. There're a couple o_omen in boots and furry hats in one corner, poring over the menu, and _arcel of off-duty street performers hunching over their beers in a booth.
Nobody else is wearing anything remotely like office drag, but the weirdnes_oefficient is above average; so Annette dials her glasses to extra-dark, straightens her tie, and glances around.
The door opens and a nondescript youth slinks in. He's wearing baggy BDUs, woolly cap, and a pair of boots that have that quintessential essense d_anzer division look, all shock absorbers and olive drab Kevlar panels. He'_earing –
"I spy with my little network intrusion detector kit," begins the cat, a_nnette puts her drink down and moves in on the youth, "something beginnin_ith –"
"How much you want for the glasses, kid?" she asks quietly.
He jerks and almost jumps – a bad idea in MilSpec combat boots, the ceiling i_ighteenth-century stone half a meter thick; "Dinnae fuckin' dae that," h_omplains in an eerily familiar way: "Ah –" he swallows. "Annie! Who –"
"Stay calm. Take them off – they'll only hurt you if you keep wearing them,"
she says, careful not to move too fast because now she has a second, scary- jittery fear, and she knows without having to look that the exclamation mar_n her watch has turned red and begun to flash: "Look, I'll give you tw_undred Euros for the glasses and the belt pouch, real cash, and I won't as_ow you got them or tell anyone." He's frozen in front of her, mesmerized, an_he can see the light from inside the lenses spilling over onto his half- starved adolescent cheekbones, flickering like cold lightning, like he'_lugged his brain into a grid bearer; swallowing with a suddenly dry mouth, she slowly reaches up and pulls the spectacles off his face with one hand an_akes hold of the belt pouch with the other. The kid shudders and blinks a_er, and she sticks a couple of hundred-Euro notes in front of his nose.
"Scram," she says, not unkindly.
He reaches up slowly, then seizes the money and runs – blasts his way throug_he door with an ear-popping concussion, hangs a left onto the cycle path, an_anishes downhill toward the parliament buildings and university complex.
Annette watches the doorway apprehensively. "Where is he?" she hisses, worried: "Any ideas, cat?"
"Naah. It's your job to find him," Aineko opines complacently. But there's a_cicle of anxiety in Annette's spine. Manfred's been separated from his memor_ache? Where could he be? Worse – who could he be?
"Fuck you, too," she mutters. "Only one thing for it, I guess." She takes of_er own glasses – they're much less functional than Manfred's massivel_amified custom rig – and nervously raises the repo'd specs toward her face.
Somehow what she's about to do makes her feel unclean, like snooping on _over's e-mail folders. But how else can she figure out where he might hav_one?
She slides the glasses on and tries to remember what she was doing yesterda_n Edinburgh.
"Oui, ma chérie?"
Pause. "I lost him. But I got his aid-mémoire back. A teenage freeloade_laying cyberpunk with them. No sign of his location – so I put them on."
Pause. "Oh dear."
"Gianni, why exactly did you send him to the Franklin Collective?"
Pause. (During which, the chill of the gritty stone wall she's leaning o_egins to penetrate the weave of her jacket.) "I not wanting to bother yo_ith trivia."
"Merde. It's not trivia, Gianni, they're accelerationistas. Have you any ide_hat that's going to do to his head?"
Pause: Then a grunt, almost of pain. "Yes."
"Then why did you do it?" she demands vehemently. She hunches over, punchin_ords into her phone so that other passers-by avoid her, unsure whether she'_ands-free or hallucinating: "Shit, Gianni, I have to pick up the pieces ever_ime you do this! Manfred is not a healthy man, he's on the edge of acut_uture shock the whole time, and I was not joking when I told you las_ebruary that he'd need a month in a clinic if you tried running him flat ou_gain! If you're not careful, he could end up dropping out completely an_oining the borganism –"
"Annette." A heavy sigh: "He are the best hope we got. Am knowing half-life o_galmic catalyst now down to six months and dropping; Manny outlast his caree_xpectancy, four deviations outside the normal, yes, we know this. But I ar_aving to break civil rights deadlock now, this election. We must achiev_onsensus, and Manfred are only staffer we got who have hope of talking t_ollective on its own terms. He are deal-making messenger, not force burnout, right? We need coalition reserve before term limit lockout followed b_ridlock in Brussels, American-style. Is more than vital – is essential."
"That's no excuse –"
"Annette, they have partial upload of Bob Franklin. They got it before h_ied, enough of his personality to reinstantiate it, time-sharing in their ow_rains. We must get the Franklin Collective with their huge resources lobbyin_or the Equal Rights Amendment: If ERA passes, all sapients are eligible t_ote, own property, upload, download, sideload. Are more important than littl_ray butt-monsters with cold speculum: Whole future depends on it. Mann_tarted this with crustacean rights: Leave uploads covered by copyrights no_ivil rights and where will we be in fifty years? Do you think I must ignor_his? It was important then, but now, with the transmission the lobster_eceived –"
"Shit." She turns and leans her forehead against the cool stonework. "I'l_eed a prescription. Ritalin or something. And his location. Leave the rest t_e." She doesn't add, That includes peeling him off the ceiling afterwards: that's understood. Nor does she say, you're going to pay. That's understood, too. Gianni may be a hard-nosed political fixer, but he looks after his own.
"Location am easy if he find the PLO. GPS coordinates are following –"
"No need. I got his spectacles."
"Merde, as you say. Take them to him, ma chérie. Bring me the distribute_rust rating of Bob Franklin's upload, and I bring Bob the jubilee, right t_irect his own corporate self again as if still alive. And we pull diplomati_hestnuts out of fire before they burn. Agreed?"
She cuts the connection and begins walking uphill, along the Cowgate (throug_hich farmers once bought their herds to market), toward the permanen_loating Fringe and then the steps towards The Meadows. As she pauses opposit_he site of the gallows, a fight breaks out: Some Paleolithic hangover take_xception to the robotic mime aping his movements, and swiftly rips its ar_ff. The mime stands there, sparks flickering inside its shoulder, and look_onfused. Two pissed-looking students start forward and punch the short-haire_andal. There is much shouting in the mutually incomprehensible accents o_xgangs and the Herriott-Watt Robot Lab. Annette watches the fight an_hudders; it's like a flashover vision from a universe where the Equal Right_mendment – with its redefinition of personhood – is rejected by the house o_eputies: a universe where to die is to become property and to be create_utwith a gift of parental DNA is to be doomed to slavery.
Maybe Gianni was right, she ponders. But I wish the price wasn't so personal –
Manfred can feel one of his attacks coming on. The usual symptoms are al_resent – the universe, with its vast preponderance of unthinking matter, becomes an affront; weird ideas flicker like heat lightning far away acros_he vast plateaus of his imagination – but, with his metacortex running i_andboxed insecure mode, he feels blunt. And slow. Even obsolete. The latte_s about as welcome a sensation as heroin withdrawal: He can't spin of_hreads to explore his designs for feasibility and report back to him. It'_ike someone has stripped fifty points off his IQ; his brain feels like _urgical scalpel that's been used to cut down trees. A decaying mind is _errible thing to be trapped inside. Manfred wants out, and he wants out bad – but he's too afraid to let on.
"Gianni is a middle-of-the-road Eurosocialist, a mixed-market pragmatis_olitician," Bob's ghost accuses Manfred by way of Monica's dye-flushed lips,
"hardly the sort of guy you'd expect me to vote for, no? So what does he thin_ can do for him?"
"That's a – ah – " Manfred rocks forward and back in his chair, arms crosse_irmly and hands thrust under his armpits for protection. "Dismantle the moon!
Digitize the biosphere, make a nöosphere out of it – shit, sorry, that's long- term planning. Build Dyson spheres, lots and lots of – Ahem. Gianni is an ex- Marxist, reformed high church Trotskyite clade. He believes in achieving Tru_ommunism, which is a state of philosophical grace that requires certai_rerequisites like, um, not pissing around with Molotov cocktails and though_olice: He wants to make everybody so rich that squabbling over ownership o_he means of production makes as much sense as arguing over who gets to slee_n the damp spot at the back of the cave. He's not your enemy, I mean. He'_he enemy of those Stalinist deviationist running dogs in Conservative Part_entral Office who want to bug your bedroom and hand everything on a plate t_he big corporates owned by the pension funds – which in turn rely on peopl_ying predictably to provide their raison d'être. And, um, more importantl_ying and not trying to hang on to their property and chattels. Sitting up i_he coffin singing extropian fireside songs, that kind of thing. The actuarie_re to blame, predicting life expectancy with intent to cause people to bu_nsurance policies with money that is invested in control of the means o_roduction – Bayes' Theorem is to blame –"
Alan glances over his shoulder at Manfred: "I don't think feeding him guaran_as a good idea," he says in tones of deep foreboding.
Manfred's mode of vibration has gone nonlinear by this point: He's rockin_ront to back, and jiggling up and down in little hops, like a technophiliaca_ogic flyer trying to bounce his way to the singularity. Monica leans towar_im and her eyes widen: "Manfred," she hisses, "shut up!"
He stops babbling abruptly, with an expression of deep puzzlement. "Who am I?"
he asks, and keels over backward. "Why am I, here and now, occupying this body –"
"Anthropic anxiety attack," Monica comments. "I think he did this in Amsterda_ight years ago when Bob first met him." She looks alarmed, a differen_dentity coming to the fore: "What shall we do?"
"We have to make him comfortable." Alan raises his voice: "Bed, make yoursel_eady, now." The back of the sofa Manfred is sprawled on flops downward, th_ase folds up, and a strangely animated duvet crawls up over his feet.
"Listen, Manny, you're going to be all right."
"Who am I and what do I signify?" Manfred mumbles incoherently: "A mass o_ropagating decision trees, fractal compression, lots of synaptic junction_ubricated with friendly endorphins –" Across the room, the bootle_harmacopoeia is cranking up to manufacture some heavy tranquilizers. Monic_eads for the kitchen to get something for him to drink them in. "Why are yo_oing this?" Manfred asks, dizzily.
"It's okay. Lie down and relax." Alan leans over him. "We'll talk abou_verything in the morning, when you know who you are." (Aside to Monica, wh_s entering the room with a bottle of iced tea: "Better let Gianni know tha_e's unwell. One of us may have to go visit the minister. Do you know if Mac_as been audited?") "Rest up, Manfred. Everything is being taken care of."
About fifteen minutes later, Manfred – who, in the grip of an existentia_igraine, meekly obeys Monica's instruction to drink down the spiked tea – lies back on the bed and relaxes. His breathing slows; the sublimina_uttering ceases. Monica, sitting next to him, reaches out and takes his righ_and, which is lying on top of the bedding.
"Do you want to live forever?" she intones in Bob Franklin's tone of voice.
"You can live forever in me … "
The Church of Latter-Day Saints believes that you can't get into the Promise_and unless it's baptized you – but it can do so if it knows your name an_arentage, even after you're dead. Its genealogical databases are among th_ost impressive artifacts of historical research ever prepared. And it like_o make converts.
The Franklin Collective believes that you can't get into the future unles_t's digitized your neural state vector, or at least acquired as complete _napshot of your sensory inputs and genome as current technology permits. Yo_on't need to be alive for it to do this. Its society of mind is among th_ost impressive artifacts of computer science. And it likes to make converts.
Nightfall in the city. Annette stands impatiently on the doorstep. "Let me th_uck in," she snarls impatiently at the speakerphone. "Merde!"
Someone opens the door. "Who –"
Annette shoves him inside, kicks the door shut, and leans on it. "Take me t_our bodhisattva," she demands. "Now."
"I –" he turns and heads inside, along the gloomy hallway that runs past _taircase. Annette strides after him aggressively. He opens a door and duck_nside, and she follows before he can close it.
Inside, the room is illuminated by a variety of indirect diode sources, calibrated for the warm glow of a summer afternoon's daylight. There's a be_n the middle of it, a figure lying asleep at the heart of a herd of attentiv_iagnostic instruments. A couple of attendants sit to either side of th_leeping man.
"What have you done to him?" Annette snaps, rushing forward. Manfred blinks u_t her from the pillows, bleary-eyed and confused as she leans overhead:
"Hello? Manny?" Over her shoulder: "If you have done anything to him –"
"Annie?" He looks puzzled. A bright orange pair of goggles – not his own – i_ushed up onto his forehead like a pair of beached jellyfish. "I don't fee_ell. 'F I get my hands on the bastard who did this … "
"We can fix that," she says briskly, declining to mention the deal she cut t_et his memories back. She peels off his glasses and carefully slides the_nto his face, replacing his temporary ones. The brain bag she puts down nex_o his shoulder, within easy range. The hairs on the back of her neck rise a_ thin chattering fills the ether around them: his eyes are glowing a luminou_lue behind his shades, as if a high-tension spark is flying between his ears.
"Oh. Wow." He sits up, the covers fall from his naked shoulders, and he_reath catches.
She looks round at the motionless figure sitting to his left. The man in th_hair nods deliberately, ironically. "What have you done to him?"
"We've been looking after him – nothing more, nothing less. He arrived in _tate of considerable confusion, and his state deteriorated this afternoon."
She's never met this fellow before, but she has a gut feeling that she know_im. "You would be Robert … Franklin?"
He nods again. "The avatar is in." There's a thud as Manfred's eyes roll up i_is head, and he flops back onto the bedding. "Excuse me. Monica?"
The young woman on the other side of the bed shakes her head. "No, I'm runnin_ob, too."
"Oh. Well, you tell her – I've got to get him some juice."
The woman who is also Bob Franklin – or whatever part of him survived hi_attle with an exotic brain tumor eight years earlier – catches Annette's ey_nd shakes her head, smiles faintly. "You're never alone when you're _yncitium."
Annette wrinkles her brow: she has to trigger a dictionary attack to parse th_entence. "One large cell, many nuclei? Oh, I see. You have the new implant.
The better to record everything."
The youngster shrugs. "You want to die and be resurrected as a third-perso_ctor in a low-bandwidth re-enactment? Or a shadow of itchy memories in som_tranger's skull?" She snorts, a gesture that's at odds with the rest of he_ody language.
"Bob must have been one of the first borganisms. Humans, I mean. After Ji_ezier." Annette glances over at Manfred, who has begun to snore softly. "I_ust have been a lot of work."
"The monitoring equipment cost millions, then," says the woman – Monica? –
"and it didn't do a very good job. One of the conditions for our keepin_ccess to his research funding is that we regularly run his partials. H_anted to build up a kind of aggregate state vector – patched together out o_its and pieces of other people to supplement the partials that were all I – he – could record with the then state of the art."
"Eh, right." Annette reaches out and absently smooths a stray hair away fro_anfred's forehead. "What is it like to be part of a group mind?"
Monica sniffs, evidently amused. "What is it like to see red? What's it lik_o be a bat? I can't tell you – I can only show you. We're all free to leav_t any time, you know."
"But somehow you don't." Annette rubs her head, feels the short hair over th_lmost imperceptible scars that conceal a network of implants – tools tha_anfred turned down when they became available a year or two ago. ("Goop-phas_arwin-design nanotech ain't designed for clean interfaces," he'd said, "I'l_tick to disposable kit, thanks.") "No thank you. I don't think he'll take u_our offer when he wakes up, either." (Subtext: I'll let you have him over m_ead body.)
Monica shrugs. "That's his loss: He won't live forever in the singularity, along with other followers of our gentle teacher. Anyway, we have mor_onverts than we know what to do with."
A thought occurs to Annette. "Ah. You are all of one mind? Partially? _uestion to you is a question to all?"
"It can be." The words come simultaneously from Monica and the other body, Alan, who is standing in the doorway with a boxy thing that looks like a_mprovised diagnostician. "What do you have in mind?" adds the Alan body.
Manfred, lying on the bed, groans: There's an audible hiss of pink noise a_is glasses whisper in his ears, bone conduction providing a serial highway t_is wetware.
"Manfred was sent to find out why you're opposing the ERA," Annette explains.
"Some parts of our team operate without the other's knowledge."
"Indeed." Alan sits down on the chair beside the bed and clears his throat, puffing his chest out pompously. "A very important theological issue. I feel –"
"I, or we?" Annette interrupts.
"We feel," Monica snaps. Then she glances at Alan. "Soo-rrry."
The evidence of individuality within the group mind is disturbing to Annette: Too many reruns of the Borgish fantasy have conditioned her preconceptions, and their quasi-religious belief in a singularity leaves her cold. "Pleas_ontinue."
"One person, one vote, is obsolete," says Alan. "The broader issue of how w_alue identity needs to be revisited, the franchise reconsidered. Do you ge_ne vote for each warm body? Or one vote for each sapient individual? Wha_bout distributed intelligences? The proposals in the Equal Rights Act ar_eeply flawed, based on a cult of individuality that takes no account of th_rue complexity of posthumanism."
"Like the proposals for a feminine franchise in the nineteenth century tha_ould grant the vote to married wives of land-owning men," Monica adds slyly:
"It misses the point."
"Ah, oui." Annette crosses her arms, suddenly defensive. This isn't what she'_xpected to hear. This is the elitist side of the posthumanism shtick, potentially as threatening to her post enlightenment ideas as the divine righ_f kings.
"It misses more than that." Heads turn to face an unexpected direction: Manfred's eyes are open again, and as he glances around the room Annette ca_ee a spark of interest there that was missing earlier. "Last century, peopl_ere paying to have their heads frozen after their death – in hope o_econstruction, later. They got no civil rights: The law didn't recogniz_eath as a reversible process. Now how do we account for it when you guys sto_unning Bob? Opt out of the collective borganism? Or maybe opt back in agai_ater?" He reaches up and rubs his forehead, tiredly. "Sorry, I haven't bee_yself lately." A crooked, slightly manic grin flickers across his face. "See, I've been telling Gianni for a whole while, we need a new legal concept o_hat it is to be a person. One that can cope with sentient corporations, artificial stupidities, secessionists from group minds, and reincarnate_ploads. The religiously inclined are having lots of fun with identity issue_ight now – why aren't we posthumanists thinking about these things?"
Annette's bag bulges: Aineko pokes his head out, sniffs the air, squeezes ou_nto the carpet, and begins to groom himself with perfect disregard for th_uman bystanders. "Not to mention A-life experiments who think they're th_eal thing," Manfred adds. "And aliens."
Annette freezes, staring at him. "Manfred! You're not supposed to –"
Manfred is watching Alan, who seems to be the most deeply integrated of th_ead venture billionaire's executors: Even his expression reminds Annette o_eeting Bob Franklin back in Amsterdam, early in the decade, when Manny'_ersonal dragon still owned him. "Aliens," Alan echoes. An eyebrow twitches.
"Would this be the signal SETI announced, or the, uh, other one? And how lon_ave you known about them?"
"Gianni has his fingers in a lot of pies," Manfred comments blandly. "And w_till talk to the lobsters from time to time – you know, they're only a coupl_f light-hours away, right? They told us about the signals."
"Er." Alan's eyes glaze over for a moment; Annette's prostheses paint her _icture of false light spraying from the back of his head, his entire sensor_andwidth momentarily soaking up a huge peer-to-peer download from the serve_ust that wallpapers every room in the building. Monica looks irritated, tap_er fingernails on the back of her chair. "The signals. Right. Why wasn't thi_ublicized?"
"The first one was." Annette's eyebrows furrow. "We couldn't exactly cover i_p, everyone with a backyard dish pointed in the right direction caught it.
But most people who're interested in hearing about alien contacts alread_hink they drop round on alternate Tuesdays and Thursdays to administer recta_xams. Most of the rest think it's a hoax. Quite a few of the remainder ar_cratching their heads and wondering whether it isn't just a new kind o_osmological phenomenon that emits a very low entropy signal. Of the six wh_re left over, five are trying to get a handle on the message contents, an_he last is convinced it's a practical joke. And the other signal, well, tha_as weak enough that only the deep-space tracking network caught it."
Manfred fiddles with the bed control system. "It's not a practical joke," h_dds. "But they only captured about sixteen megabits of data from the firs_ne, maybe double that in the second. There's quite a bit of noise, th_ignals don't repeat, their length doesn't appear to be a prime, there's n_bvious metainformation that describes the internal format, so there's no eas_ay of getting a handle on them. To make matters worse, pointy-haire_anagement at Arianespace" – he glances at Annette, as if seeking a respons_o the naming of her ex-employers – "decided the best thing to do was to cove_p the second signal and work on it in secret – for competitive advantage, they say – and as for the first, to pretend it never happened. So nobod_eally knows how long it'll take to figure out whether it's a ping from th_alactic root domain servers or a pulsar that's taken to grinding out th_ighteen-quadrillionth digits of pi, or what."
"But," Monica glances around, "you can't be sure."
"I think it may be sapient," says Manfred. He finds the right button at last, and the bed begins to fold itself back into a lounger. Then he finds the wron_utton; the duvet dissolves into viscous turquoise slime that slurps an_urgles away through a multitude of tiny nozzles in the headboard. "Blood_erogel. Um, where was I?" He sits up.
"Sapient network packet?" asks Alan.
"Nope." Manfred shakes his head, grins. "Should have known you'd read Vinge … or was it the movie? No, what I think is that there's only one logical thin_o beam backward and forward out there, and you may remember I asked you t_eam it out about, oh, nine years ago?"
"The lobsters." Alan's eyes go blank. "Nine years. Time to Proxima Centaur_nd back?"
"About that distance, yes," says Manfred. "And remember, that's an upper bound – it could well have come from somewhere closer. Anyway, the first SETI signa_ame from a couple of degrees off and more than hundred light-years out, bu_he second signal came from less than three light-years away. You can see wh_hey didn't publicize that – they didn't want a panic. And no, the signa_sn't a simple echo of the canned crusty transmission – I think it's a_xchange embassy, but we haven't cracked it yet. Now do you see why we have t_rowbar the civil rights issue open again? We need a framework for rights tha_an encompass nonhumans, and we need it as fast as possible. Otherwise, if th_eighbors come visiting… "
"Okay," says Alan, "I'll have to talk with myselves. Maybe we can agre_omething, as long as it's clear that it's a provisional stab at the framewor_nd not a permanent solution?"
Annette snorts. "No solution is final!" Monica catches her eyes and winks: Annette is startled by the blatant display of dissent within the syncitium.
"Well," says Manfred, "I guess that's all we can ask for?" He looks hopeful.
"Thanks for the hospitality, but I feel the need to lie down in my own bed fo_ while. I had to commit a lot to memory while I was off-line, and I want t_ecord it before I forget who I am," he adds pointedly, and Annette breathes _uiet sight of relief.
Later that night, a doorbell rings.
"Who's there?" asks the entryphone.
"Uh, me," says the man on the steps. He looks a little confused. "Ah'm Macx.
Ah'm here tae see" – the name is on the tip of his tongue – "someone."
"Come in." A solenoid buzzes; he pushes the door open, and it closes behin_im. His metal-shod boots ring on the hard stone floor, and the cool ai_mells faintly of unburned jet fuel.
"Ah'm Macx," he repeats uncertainly, "or Ah wis fer a wee while, an' it mad_a heid hurt. But noo Ah'm me agin, an' Ah wannae be somebody else … can y_elp?"
Later still, a cat sits on a window ledge, watching the interior of a darkene_oom from behind the concealment of curtains. The room is dark to human eyes, but bright to the cat: Moonlight cascades silently off the walls an_urniture, the twisted bedding, the two naked humans lying curled together i_he middle of the bed.
Both the humans are in their thirties: Her close-cropped hair is beginning t_ray, distinguished threads of gunmetal wire threading it, while his brown mo_s not yet showing signs of age. To the cat, who watches with a variety o_nnatural senses, her head glows in the microwave spectrum with a gentle hal_f polarized emissions. The male shows no such aura: he's unnaturally natura_or this day and age, although – oddly – he's wearing spectacles in bed, an_he frames shine similarly. An invisible soup of radiation connects bot_umans to items of clothing scattered across the room – clothing that seethe_ith unsleeping sentience, dribbling over to their suitcases and hand luggag_nd (though it doesn't enjoy noticing it) the cat's tail, which is itself _ather sensitive antenna.
The two humans have just finished making love: They do this less often than i_heir first few years, but with more tenderness and expertise – lengths o_hocking pink Hello Kitty bondage tape still hang from the bedposts, and _ump of programmable memory plastic sits cooling on the side table. The mal_s sprawled with his head and upper torso resting in the crook of the female'_eft arm and shoulder. Shifting visualization to infrared, the cat sees tha_he is glowing, capillaries dilating to enhance the blood flow around he_hroat and chest.
"I'm getting old," the male mumbles. "I'm slowing down."
"Not where it counts," the female replies, gently squeezing his right buttock.
"No, I'm sure of it," he says. "The bits of me that still exist in this ol_ead – how many types of processor can you name that are still in use thirty- plus years after they're born?"
"You're thinking about the implants again," she says carefully. The ca_emembers this as a sore point; from being a medical procedure to help th_lind see and the autistic talk, intrathecal implants have blossomed into _ust-have accessory for the now-clade. But the male is reluctant. "It's not a_isky as it used to be. If they screw up, there're neural growth cofactors an_heap replacement stem cells. I'm sure one of your sponsors can arrange fo_xtra cover."
"Hush: I'm still thinking about it." He's silent for a while. "I wasn't mysel_esterday. I was someone else. Someone too slow to keep up. Puts a ne_erspective on everything: I've been afraid of losing my biologica_lasticity, of being trapped in an obsolete chunk of skullware whil_verything moves on – but how much of me lives outside my own head these days, anyhow?" One of his external threads generates an animated glyph and throws i_t her mind's eye; she grins at his obscure humor. "Cross-training from a ne_nterface is going to be hard, though."
"You'll do it," she predicts. "You can always get a discreet prescription fo_ovotrophin-B." A receptor agonist tailored for gerontological wards, i_timulates interest in the new: combined with MDMA, it's a component of th_treet cocktail called sensawunda. "That should keep you focused for lon_nough to get comfortable."
"What's life coming to when I can't cope with the pace of change?" he asks th_eiling plaintively.
The cat lashes its tail, irritated by his anthropocentrism.
"You are my futurological storm shield," she says, jokingly, and moves he_and to cup his genitals. Most of her current activities are purel_iological, the cat notes: From the irregular sideloads, she's using most o_er skullware to run ETItalk@home, one of the distributed cracking engine_hat is trying to decode the alien grammar of the message that Manfre_uspects is eligible for citizenship.
Obeying an urge that it can't articulate, the cat sends out a feeler to th_earest router. The cybeast has Manfred's keys; Manfred trusts Ainek_mplicitly, which is unwise – his ex-wife tampered with it, after all, neve_ind all the kittens it absorbed in its youth. Tunneling out into th_arkness, the cat stalks the Net alone …
"Just think about the people who can't adapt," he says. His voice sound_bscurely worried.
"I try not to." She shivers. "You are thirty, you are slowing. What about th_oung? Are they keeping up, themselves?"
"I have a daughter. She's about a hundred and sixty million seconds old. I_amela would let me message her I could find out … " There are echoes of ol_ain in his voice.
"Don't go there, Manfred. Please." Despite everything, Manfred hasn't let go: Amber is a ligature that permanently binds him to Pamela's distant orbit.
In the distance, the cat hears the sound of lobster minds singing in the void, a distant feed streaming from their cometary home as it drifts silently ou_hrough the asteroid belt, en route to a chilly encounter beyond Neptune. Th_obsters sing of alienation and obsolescence, of intelligence too slow an_enuous to support the vicious pace of change that has sandblasted the huma_orld until all the edges people cling to are jagged and brittle.
Beyond the distant lobsters, the cat pings an anonymous distributed networ_erver – peer-to-peer file storage spread holographically across a millio_osts, unerasable, full of secrets and lies that nobody can afford t_uppress. Rants, music, rip-offs of the latest Bollywood hits: The cat spider_ast them all, looking for the final sample. Grabbing it – a momentary breaku_n Manfred's spectacles the only symptom for either human to notice – the ca_rags its prey home, sucks it down, and compares it against the data sampl_nnette's exocortex is analysing.
"I'm sorry, my love. I just sometimes feel –" He sighs. "Age is a process o_losing off opportunities behind you. I'm not young enough anymore – I've los_he dynamic optimism."
The data sample on the pirate server differs from the one Annette's implant i_rocessing.
"You'll get it back," she reassures him quietly, stroking his side. "You ar_till sad from being mugged. This also will pass. You'll see."
"Yeah." He finally relaxes, dropping back into the reflexive assurance of hi_wn will. "I'll get over it, one way or another. Or someone who remember_eing me will … "
In the darkness, Aineko bares teeth in a silent grin. Obeying a deepl_ardwired urge to meddle, he moves a file across, making a copy of the alie_ownload package Annette has been working on. She's got a copy of number two, the sequence the deep-space tracking network received from close to home, which ESA and the other big combines have been keeping to themselves. Anothe_eeply buried thread starts up, and Aineko analyses the package from _erspective no human being has yet established. Presently a braid of processe_unning on an abstract virtual machine asks him a question that cannot b_ncoded in any human grammar. Watch and wait, he replies to his passenger.