The safe house is another inflatable, half-buried in sand and ringed with memory-wire fencing some shepherd's noisesome cache of GM livestock—cows that give chocolate milk, goats that eat scrap plastic and excrete a soft spun cotton analogue, miniature hamster-sized chickens that seem even stupider than real chickens and swarm like tropical fish. Adrian's already waiting for them when they arrive, standing over the remains of Huw's bicycle.
"Guess you get to keep the hash, old son," Adrian says, kicking the wreckage.
"Too bad—it was a lovely ride. I see you've met Maizie and Becky. Becky, love, would you mind setting Huw down now? He's looking a little green and I'm sure he'd appreciate some terror firmer and the removal of that horrid gag."
Neat as that, Huw is sitting plonk on his bottom in the sand, helping Adrian laboriously pry back and snap off each of the golem's fingers. Adrian tosses them to the goats and Maizie says something to him that Huw can't understand.
Adrian shakes his head. "You worry too much—those buggers'll eat anything."
Once he's free of the gag, Huw give his jaw an experimental wiggle, then opens his mouth in a wide gasp. Quick as that, the whistle—which has been hiding cannily behind his left ear—circumnavigates his jaw and climbs into his mouth, darting down his throat. "Shit!" Huw says, around the harmonics of the whistle now nestled back in his larynx.
"Aha!" says Adrian. "You're the carrier all right. We read about you online.
The sisters want samples, later. You're going to need a bath first, I think.
No offense. Come on in," he says, kicking away sand to reveal a trap-door.
Hosting it open, Adrian exposes a helical slide into the bounce-house's depths; he slides in feet-first and spirals down into the safe-house.
Huw gasps for breath, balanced on the fine edge between nervousness and stark screaming terror. Normalcy wins: the whistle doesn't hurt, indeed barely feels as if it's there. A goat sidles up behind him with evil in its eyes and leans over his shoulder, snorting, to see if he's edible; the hot breath on his ear reminds him that he's still alive, and not even unable to talk. One of the Libyan Goth ninjettes is squatting patiently by the door. "Hello?" he says, experimentally rubbing his throat.
She shrugs and emits a rapid-fire stream of Arabic. Then, seeing he doesn't understand she shrugs again and points at the slide. "Oh, I get it," says Huw.
He peers at her closely. "Do I know you from somewhere?"
She says something else, this time sharply. Huw sighs. "Okay, I don't know you." His throat feels a bit odd, but not as odd as it ought to for someone who's just swallowed an alien communications protocol. _I need to know what's going on,_ he realizes, eyeing the trapdoor uneasily. _Oh well._ Steeling himself, he lowers his legs into the slide and forces himself to let go.
The room at the bottom is a large bony cavern, its ceiling hung with what look like gigantic otoliths, floored with pink sensory fronds. Adrian is puttering around with a very definitely non-sapient teapot on a battered Japanese camping stove; the other one of the ninjette twins is sitting cross-legged on the floor, immersed in some kind of control interface to the Red Crescent omnifab that squats against one wall, burbling and occasionally squirting glutinously to itself. "Ah, there y'are. Cup of tea, mate?" says Adrian.
"Don't mind if I do," Huw replies guardedly. "Just what the _fuck fuck fuck—_
'scuse me—is going on?"
"Siddown." Adrian waves at a bean-bag. "Milk, sugar?"
" 'Cording to the user manual it'll go away soon. No worries."
_"User_ manual? Sh—you mean this thing comes with a warranty? That sort of thing?"
"Sure." Adrian pours boiling water into the teapot and sets it aside to stew.
Then he sits down besides the oblivious Libyan woman and pulls out a stash tin. He begins to roll a joint, chatting as he does so. "It's been spamming to hell and back for the past six months. Seems something up there wants us to, like, _talk_ to it. For some years now it's not had much of a clue about us, but it's finally invented, bred, whatever, an interface to the human deep grammar engine. Sort of like the crappy teapots the embassy issues everyone with. Trouble is, the interface is really specific, so only a few people can assimilate it. You—" Adrian shrugs. "I wasn't involved," he adds.
"Who _was?"_ demands Huw, his knuckles whitening. "If I find them—"
"It was sort of one of those things," Adrian says vaguely. "You know how it happens? Someone does some deep data mining on the proteome and spots a correlation. Posts their findings publicly. Someone else thinks, hey, I know that joe, and invites them to a party along with a bunch of their friends.
Someone else spikes the punch while they're chatting up a Sheila, and then a prankster at the Libyan embassy thinks hey, we could maybe rope him into one of the hanging judge's assizes, howzabout that? Boy, you can snap your fingers and before you know what's happening there's a flash conspiracy in action—not your real good old fashioned secret world order, nobody can be arsed tracking those things these days, but the next best thing. A self-propagating teleology meme. Goal-seeking Neat Ideas are the most dangerous kind. You smoke?"
"Thanks," says Huw, accepting the joint. "Is the tea ready?"
"Yeah." And Adrian spends the next minute pouring a couple of mugs of extremely strong breakfast tea, while Huw does his best to calm his shattered nerves by getting blasted right out of his skull on hashishim dope.
" 'kay, lemme get this straight. I was never on tech jury call, right? Was a setup. All along."
"Well, hurm. It was a real jury, all right, but that doesn't mean your name was plucked at anything like random, follow?"
"All right. Nobody planned, not a conspiracy, just a set of _accidents_
'cause the Cloud wants to talk. Huh?" Huw leans back on the beanbag and bangs his head on a giant otolith, setting it vibrating with a deep gut-churning rumble. "Sh cool. It wanna talk to _me?"_
"Yer the human condition in microcosm, mate. Here, pass the spliff."
" 'kay. So _what_ wants to talk?"
"Eh, well, you've met the ambassador already, right? S'okay, Bonnie'll be along in a while with it."
"And whothefuck are _you?_ I mean, what're you doing in this?"
"Hell." Adrian looks resigned. "I'm just your ordinary joe, really. Forget the Nobel prize, that doesn't mean anything. 's all a team effort these days, anyway, and I ain't done any lab work for thirty, forty years. Tell the truth, I was just bumming around, enjoying my second teenage _wanderjahr_ when I heard 'bout you through the grapevine. Damn shame we couldn't get a sane judge for the hearing. None of this shit would be necessary if it wasn't for Rosa."
"Rosa Giulliani. She's like, a bit conservative. Hadn't you noticed?"
"A bit. Conservative."
"Yeah, she's an old-time environmentalist, really likes conserving things—preferably in formalin. Including anyone who's been infected by a communications vector."
"Oh." Huw is still trying to digest the indigestible thought, through a haze of amiability-inducing smoke, when the local unplugs herself from the omnifab's console, stands up and stretches, then plugs in a language module.
"Your bicycle will be healed again in a few hours," she says, nodding at Huw, just as the omni burps and then hawks up a passable replica of a Shimano universal ratio gearhub. "Can you put it together with tools?"
"I, uh—" Huw gawks at her. "Do I know you?" he asks. "You look just like this hacker—"
She shrugs irritably. "I am not responsible for my idiot clone-aunts!"
"But you—" he stops. "There are lots of you?"
"Oh yes." She smiles tightly. "Ade, my friend, I am taking a walk. Don't get up to anything I wouldn't."
"I won't, Beckie. Promise."
"Good. I'm Maizie, though." She climbs onto a toadstool-shaped bone and rapidly rises towards the ceiling on a pillar of _something_ that might be muscle, but probably isn't.
"Lovely girls," Adrian says wistfully when she's gone. "Where was I? Ah, yes: the ambassador."
"Yeah, ambassador. It's kind of a high-bandwidth node, with enough translator brains to talk to that thing in your throat. You're the interpreter, see.
We've been expecting it for a while, but didn't reckon with those idiot script kiddies ending up in court. It'll be along—"
There's a clattering noise behind Huw, and he looks round so abruptly that he nearly falls off his sack, and though he's feeling mellow—far-better disposed towards his fellow man than he was an hour ago—it's all Huw can do to refrain from jumping up, shrieking.
"You!" says Bonnie, clutching a large and ominously familiar box in her arms as she slides to a halt at the foot of the spiral. "Hey, Ade, is this _your_ party?"
The box twitches in her arms, as if something inside it is trying to escape.
Huw can feel a scream welling up in his throat, and it isn't his—it's a scream of welcome, a paen of politics. He bites it back with a curse. "How the hell did you get that?" he says.
"Stole it while the judge was running after you," Bonnie says smugly. "There's a README with it that says it needs a translator. That would be you, huh?" She looks at him with ill-concealed lust. "Prepare to plug into the ride of your life!"
"God, no," he groans.
Adrian pats his shoulder. "Pecker up. It's all for the best."
The box opens and the Kleinmonster bobs a curtsey at him, then warbles. His throat warbles in response. The hash has loosened his vocal cords so that there isn't the same sense of forced labor, just a mellow, easy kind of song.
His voices and the Kleinmonster's intertwine in an aural handshake and gradually his sensoria fades away, until he's no longer looking out of his eyes, no longer feeling through his skin, but rather he's part of the Cloudmind, smeared across space and time and a billion identities all commingled and a-swirl with unknowable convection currents of thought and deed.
Somewhere there is the Earth, the meatspace whence the Cloudmind has ascended.
His point of view inverts and now the Earth is enveloped in him, a messy gobstopper dissolving in a probabilistic mindmouth. It's like looking down at a hatched-out egg, knowing that once upon a time you fit inside that shell, but now you're well shut of it. Meat, meat, meat. Imperfect and ephemeral and needlessly baroque and kludgey, but it calls to the Cloud with a gravatic tug of racial memory.
And then the sensoria recedes and he's eased back into his skin, singing to the Kleinmonster and its uplink to the Cloud. He knows he's x-mitting his own sensoria, the meat and the unreasoning demands of dopamine and endorphin. Ah, says the Ambassador. Ah. Yes. This is what it was like. Ah.
Well, that's done.
The Kleinmonster uncoils and stretches straight up to the ceiling, then gradually telescopes back into itself until it's just a button of faintly buzzing nanocrud. The buzzing gains down and then vanishes, and it falls still.
Bonnie shakes his shoulders. "What happened?" she says, eyes shining.
"Got what it needed," Huw says, with a barely noticeable under-drone.
"What? Oh, a bit of a reminder, I expect. A taste of the meat."
"That's it?" Bonnie says. "All that for—what? A trip down memory lane? All that fucking work and it doesn't even want to stick around and chat?"
Huw shrugs. "That's the Cloud for you. In-fucking-effable."
"Will it be back? I wanted to talk to it about …" she trailed off, blushing.
"I wanted to know what it was like."
Huw thinks of what it was like to be part of the matrioshke-brain, tries to put it into words. "I can't quite describe it," he says. "Not in so many words. Not right now. Give me a while, maybe I'll manage it." He's got a nasty case of the pasties and he guzzles a cup of lukewarm milky tea, swirling it around his starchy tongue. "Of course, if you're really curious, you could always join up."
Bonnie looks away and Adrian huffs a snort. "I'll do it some day," she says.
"Just want to know what I'm getting into."
Huw keeps the smile off his phiz. "I understand," he says. "Don't worry, I still think you're an anti-human race-traitor, girlie. You don't need to prove anything to me."
"Fucking right I don't!" Bonnie says. She's blushing rather fetchingly.
"Right," Huw says.
Huw begins to hum a little, experimenting with his new transhuman peripheral.
The drone is quite nice. He sings a little of the song from the courthouse, in two-part discord. Bonnie's flush deepens and she rubs her palms against her thighs, hissing like a teakettle.
Huw cocks his head at her and leans forward a bit, and she grabs his ears and drags him down on top of her.
Adrian taps him on the shoulder a moment later. "Sorry to interrupt," he says,
"but Judge Rosa's bound to come looking for you eventually. We'd best get you out of Libya sharpish."
Huw ignores him, concentrating on the marimba sensation of Bonnie's ribcage grinding over his chest.
Adrian shakes his head. "I'll just go steal a blimp or something, then, shall I?"
Bonnie breaks off worrying Huw's ear with her tongue and teeth and says, "Fuck off a while, will you, Adrian?"
Adrian contemplates the two of them for a moment, trying to decide whether they need a good kick 'round the kidneys, then turns on his heel and goes off to find Maizie, or perhaps Beckie, and sort out an escape.
The Cloud whirls in its orbit, tasting the meat with its multifarious sensory apparati, thinking its in-fucking-effable thoughts, muttering in RF and gravity and eigenstate. The ambassador hibernates on the safe-house's floor, prized loose from under Huw's tailbone, where it had been digging rather uncomfortably, quite spoiling Huw's concentration, and tossed idly into a corner. The Cloud's done with it for now, but its duty-cycle is hardly exhausted, and it wonders what its next use will be.
Huw moans an eerie buzz that sets Bonnie's gut a-quiver in sympathy, which is not nearly as unpleasant as it sounds.
In fact, Bonnie thinks she could rather get used to it.