Charles Stross (2005-07-05)

PART 1: Slow Takeoff

Chapter 3: Tourist

Spring-Heeled Jack runs blind, blue fumes crackling from his heels. His right hand, outstretched for balance, clutches a mark's stolen memories. The victim is sitting on the hard stones of the pavement behind him. Maybe he's wondering what's happened; maybe he looks after the fleeing youth. But the tourist crowds block the view effectively, and in any case, he has no hope of catching the 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-surplus motorized combat boots.

* * *

The victim sits on the cobblestones clutching his aching temples. What happened? he wonders. The universe is a brightly colored blur of fast-moving shapes augmented by deafening noises. His ear-mounted cameras are rebooting repeatedly: They panic every eight hundred milliseconds, whenever they realize that they're alone on his personal area network without the comforting support of a hub to tell them where to send his incoming sensory feed. Two of his mobile phones are bickering moronically, disputing ownership of his grid bandwidth, and his memory ... is missing.

A tall blond clutching an electric chainsaw sheathed in pink bubble wrap leans over him curiously: “you all right?” she asks.

“I -” He shakes his head, which hurts. “Who am I?” His medical monitor is alarmed because his blood pressure has fallen: His pulse is racing, his serum cortisol titer is up, and a host of other biometrics suggest that he's going into shock.

“I think you need an ambulance,” the woman announces. She mutters at her lapel, “Phone, call an ambulance. ” She waves a finger vaguely at him as if to reify a geolink, then wanders off, chain-saw clutched under one arm. Typical southern émigré behavior in the Athens of the North, too embarrassed to get involved. The man shakes his head again, eyes closed, as a flock of girls on powered 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 the crowds on this busy street corner. Someone has plastered a Hello Cthulhu! holo on the plaque that names its rider: Languid fluffy pink tentacles wave at him in an attack of kawaii. “I'm Manfred - Manfred. My memory. What's happened to my memory?” Elderly Malaysian tourists point at him from the open top deck of a passing bus. He burns with a sense of horrified urgency. I was going somewhere, he recalls. What was I doing? It was amazingly important, he thinks, but he can't remember what exactly it was. He was going to see someone about - it's on the tip of his tongue -

* * *

Welcome to the eve of the third decade: a time of chaos characterized by an all-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 is doubling every fourteen months. Population growth in the developing world has stalled, the birth rate dropping below replacement level. In the wired nations, more forward-looking politicians are looking for ways to enfranchise their nascent AI base.

Space exploration is still stalled on the cusp of the second recession of the century. The Malaysian government has announced the goal of placing an imam on Mars within ten years, but nobody else cares enough to try.

The Space Settlers Society is still trying to interest Disney Corp. in the media rights to their latest L5 colony plan, unaware that there's already a colony out there and it isn't human: First-generation uploads, Californian spiny lobsters in wobbly symbiosis with elderly expert systems, thrive aboard an asteroid mining project established by the Franklin Trust. Meanwhile, Chinese space agency cutbacks are threatening the continued existence of Moonbase Mao. Nobody, it seems, has figured out how to turn a profit out beyond geosynchronous orbit.

Two years ago, JPL, the ESA, and the uploaded lobster colony on comet Khrunichev-7 picked up an apparently artificial signal from outside the solar system; most people don't know, and of those who do, even fewer care. After all, if humans can't even make it to Mars, who cares what's going on a hundred trillion kilometers farther out?

* * *

Portrait of a wasted youth:

Jack is seventeen years and eleven months old. He has never met his father; he was unplanned, and Dad managed to kill himself in a building-site accident before the Child Support could garnish his income for the upbringing. His mother raised him in a two-bedroom housing association flat in Hawick. She worked in a call center when he was young, but business dried up: Humans aren't needed on the end of a phone anymore. Now she works in a drop-in business shop, stacking shelves for virtual fly-by-nights that come and go like tourists in the Festival season - but humans aren't in demand for shelf stacking either, these days.

His mother sent Jack to a local religious school, where he was regularly excluded and effectively ran wild from the age of twelve. By thirteen, he was wearing a parole cuff for shoplifting; by fourteen, he'd broken his collarbone in a car crash while joyriding and the dour Presbyterian sheriff sent him to the Wee Frees, who completed the destruction of his educational prospects with high principles and an illicit tawse.

Today, he's a graduate of the hard school of avoiding public surveillance cameras, with distinctions in steganographic alibi construction. Mostly this entails high-density crime - if you're going to mug someone, do so where there are so many bystanders that they can't pin the blame on you. But the polis expert systems are on his tail. If he keeps it up at this rate, in another four months they'll have a positive statistical correlation that will convince even a jury of his peers that he's guilty as fuck - and then he'll go down to Saughton for four years.

But Jack doesn't understand the meaning of a Gaussian distribution or the significance of a chi-square test, and the future still looks bright to him as he pulls on the chunky spectacles he ripped off the tourist gawking at the statue on North Bridge. And after a moment, when they begin whispering into his ears in stereo and showing him pictures of the tourist's vision, it looks even 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 peripheral vision, 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. “Dow Jones down fifteen points, Federated Confidence up three, incoming briefing on causal decoupling of social control of skirt hem lengths, shaving pattern of beards, and emergence of multidrug antibiotic resistance in Gram-negative bacilli: Accept?”

“Ah can take it,” Jack mumbles, as a torrent of images crashes down on his eyeballs and jackhammers its way in through his ears like the superego of a disembodied giant. Which is actually what he's stolen: The glasses and waist pouch he grabbed from the tourist are stuffed with enough hardware to run the entire Internet, circa the turn of the millennium. They've got bandwidth coming out the wazoo, distributed engines running a bazillion inscrutable search tasks, and a whole slew of high-level agents that collectively form a large chunk of the society of mind that is their owner's personality. Their owner is a posthuman genius loci of the net, an agalmic entrepreneur turned policy wonk, specializing in the politics of AI emancipation. When he was in the biz he was the kind of guy who catalysed value wherever he went, leaving money trees growing in his footprints. Now he's the kind of political backroom hitter who builds coalitions where nobody else could see common ground. And Jack has stolen his memories. There are microcams built into the frame of the glasses, pickups in the earpieces; everything is spooled into the holographic cache in the belt pack, before being distributed for remote storage. At four months per terabyte, memory storage is cheap. What makes this bunch so unusual is that their owner - Manfred - has cross-indexed them with his agents. Mind uploading may not be a practical technology yet, but Manfred has made an end run on it already.

In a very real sense, the glasses are Manfred, regardless of the identity of the soft machine with its eyeballs behind the lenses. And it is a very puzzled Manfred who picks himself up and, with a curious vacancy in his head - except for a hesitant request for information about accessories for Russian army boots - 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 and rubs her left eye, visibly worried. “Why is he not answering his chat? He knows 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 at the highly polished rosewood desktop. The wood grain slips, sliding into a strangely different conformation, generating random dot stereoisograms - messages for his eyes only. “He was visiting Scotland for me,” he says after a moment. “I do not know his exact whereabouts - the privacy safeguards - but if you, as his designated next of kin, travel in person, I am sure you will find it easier. He was going to talk to the Franklin Collective, face-to-face, one to many ...”

The office translator is good, but it can't provide real-time lip-synch morphing between French and Italian. Annette has to make an effort to listen to his words because the shape of his mouth is all wrong, like a badly dubbed video. Her expensive, recent implants aren't connected up to her Broca's area yet, so she can't simply sideload a deep grammar module for Italian. Their communications are the best that money can buy, their VR environment painstakingly sculpted, but it still doesn't break down the language barrier completely. Besides, there are distractions: the way the desk switches from black ash to rosewood halfway across its expanse, the strange air currents that are all wrong for a room this size. “Then what could be up with him? His voicemail is trying to cover for him. It is good, but it does not lie convincingly.”

Gianni looks worried. “Manfred is prone to fits of do his own thing with telling nobody in advance. But I don't like this. He should have to told one of us first.” Ever since that first meeting in Rome, when Gianni offered him a job, Manfred has been a core member of Gianni's team, the fixer who goes out and meets people and solves their problems. Losing him at this point could be more 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. “What can have happened?”

“Anything. Nothing.” Gianni shrugs. “But we cannot do without him.” He casts her 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 stands up, surprising a vacuum cleaner that skulks behind her desk. “Au revoir!”


As she vacates her office, the minister flickers off behind her, leaving the far wall the dull gray of a cold display panel. Gianni is in Rome, she's in Paris, Markus is in Düsseldorf, and Eva's in Wroclaw. There are others, trapped in digital cells scattered halfway across an elderly continent, but as long as they don't try to shake hands, they're free to shout across the office at each other. Their confidences and dirty jokes tunnel through multiple layers of anonymized communication.

Gianni is trying to make his break out of regional politics and into European national affairs: Their job - his election team - is to get him a seat on the Confederacy Commission, as Representative for Intelligence Oversight, and push the boundaries of post-humanistic action outward, into deep space and deeper time. Which makes the loss of a key team player, the house futurologist and fixer, profoundly interesting to certain people: The walls have ears, and not all the brains they feed into are human.

Annette is more worried than she's letting on to Gianni. It's unlike Manfred to be out of contact for long and even odder for his receptionist to stonewall her, given that her apartment is the nearest thing to a home he's had for the past 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 be his ex-wife? she wonders, despite Gianni's hints about a special mission. But there's been no word from Pamela other than the sarcastic cards she dispatches every year without fail, timed to arrive on the birthday of the daughter Manfred has never met. The music Mafiya? A letter bomb from the Copyright Control Association of America? But no, his medical monitor would have been screaming its head off if anything like that had happened.

Annette has organized things so that he's safe from the intellectual property thieves. She's lent him the support he needs, and he's helped her find her own path. She gets a warm sense of happiness whenever she considers how much they've achieved together. But that's exactly why she's worried now. The watchdog hasn't barked ...

Annette summons a taxi to Charles de Gaulle. By the time she arrives, she's already used her parliamentary carte to bump an executive-class seat on the next A320 to Turnhouse, Edinburgh's airport, and scheduled accommodation and transport for her arrival. The plane is climbing out over la Manche before the significance of Gianni's last comment hits her: Might he think the Franklin Collective could be dangerous to Manfred?

* * *

The hospital emergency suite has a waiting room with green plastic bucket seats and subtractive volume renderings by preteens stuck to the walls like surreal Lego sculptures. It's deeply silent, the available bandwidth all sequestrated for medical monitors - there are children crying, periodic sirens wailing as ambulances draw up, and people chattering all around him, but to Manfred, it's like being at the bottom of a deep blue pool of quiet. He feels stoned, except this particular drug brings no euphoria or sense of well-being. Corridor-corner vendors hawk kebab-spitted pigeons next to the chained and rusted voluntary service booth; video cameras watch the blue bivvy bags of the chronic 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 the triage nurse, pushing an antique tablet at Manfred's face. Service in the NHS is 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 see you.”

Manfred stares blearily up at the nurse's nose, which is red and slightly inflamed from a nosocomial infection. His phones are bickering again, and he can't remember why; they don't normally behave like this, something must be missing, but thinking about it is hard. “Why am I here?” he asks for the third time.

“Sign it.” A pen is thrust into his hand. He focuses on the page, jerks upright as deeply canalized reflexes kick in.

“This is theft of human rights! It says here that the party of the second part is enjoined from disclosing information relating to the operations management triage procedures and processes of the said health-giving institution, that's you, to any third party - that's the public media - on pain of forfeiture of health benefits pursuant to section two of the Health Service Reform Act. I can't sign this! You could repossess my left kidney if I post on the Net about how long I've been in hospital!”

“So don't sign, then.” The Hijra nurse shrugs, hitches up his sari, and walks away. “Enjoy your wait!”

Manfred pulls out his backup phone and stares at its display. “Something's wrong here.” The keypad beeps as he laboriously inputs opcodes. This gets him into an arcane and ancient X.25 PAD, and he has a vague, disturbing memory that 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 die somewhere between fingertips and the moment when understanding dawns. It's a frustrating feeling: His brain is like an ancient car engine with damp spark plugs, turning over and over without catching fire.

The kebab vendor next to Manfred's seating rail chucks a stock cube on his grill; it begins to smoke, aromatic and blue and herbal - cannabinoids to induce tranquillity and appetite. Manfred sniffs twice, then staggers to his feet and heads off in search of the toilet, his head spinning. He's mumbling at his wrist watch: “Hello, Guatemala? Get me posology please. Click down my meme tree, I'm confused. Oh shit. Who was I? What happened? Why is everything blurry? I can't find my glasses ...”

A gaggle of day-trippers are leaving the leprosy ward, men and women dressed in anachronistic garb: men in dark suits, women in long dresses. All of them wear electric blue disposable gloves and face masks. There's a hum and crackle of encrypted bandwidth emanating from them, and Manfred instinctively turns to follow. They leave the A&E unit through the wheelchair exit, two ladies escorted by three gentlemen, with a deranged distressed refugee from the twenty-first century shuffling dizzily after. They're all young, Manfred realizes 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. “Oh yes! 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 been unproductive. If our contact is here, I see no easy way of locating of him without 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 they wouldn't be in the isolation ward,” harrumphs a twentysomething with mutton-chops and the manner of a precocious paterfamilias. He raps his walking stick on the pavement for punctuation, and they pause for a flock of cyclists and a rickshaw before they cross the road onto the Meadows. “Degenerate medication compliance, degenerate immune systems.”

Manfred pauses to survey the grass, brain spinning as he ponders the fractal dimensionality of leaves. Then he lurches after them, nearly getting himself run 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 for information. 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 the mud. he sees a flash of iridescent petticoats that ripple like oil on water, worn over old-fashioned combat boots. Not Victorian, then: something else. I came here to see - the name is on the tip of his tongue. Almost. He feels that it has something to do with these people.

The squad cross The Meadows by way of a tree-lined path, and come to a nineteenth-century frontage with wide steps and a polished brass doorbell. They enter, and the man with the mutton-chops pauses on the threshold and turns to face Manfred. “You've followed us this far,” he says. “Do you want to come in? You might find what you're looking for.”

Manfred follows with knocking knees, desperately afraid of whatever he's forgotten.

* * *

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 of its left leg. Its fur is lifelike and thick, pleasingly patterned except for a manufacturer'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 for this. The polis don't know. The medical services don't know. He's off net and not responding. So what can you tell me?”

It took her precisely eighteen minutes to locate his hotel once she hit the airport arrivals area and checked the hotel booking front end in the terminal: She knows his preferences. It took her slightly longer to convince the concierge to let her into his room. But Aineko is proving more recalcitrant than she'd expected.

“AI Neko mod two alpha requires maintenance downtime on a regular basis,” the cat says pompously: “You knew that when you bought me this body. What were you expecting, five-nines uptime from a lump of meat? Go away, I'm thinking.” The tongue rasps out, then pauses while microprobes in its underside replace the hairs 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 third body, and it's getting more realistically uncooperative with every hardware upgrade. Sooner or later it's going to demand a litter tray and start throwing up on the carpet. “Command override,” she says. “Dump event log to my Cartesian theatre, minus eight hours to present.”

The cat shudders and looks round at her. “Human bitch!” it hisses. Then it freezes 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-spectrum optical networking; an observer would see the cat's eyes and a ring on her left hand glow blue-white at each other. After a few seconds, Annette nods to herself and wiggles her fingers in the air, navigating a time sequence only she can see. Aineko hisses resentfully at her, then stands and stalks away, tail held high.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Annette hums to herself. She intertwines her fingers, pressing obscure pressure points on knuckle and wrist, then sighs and rubs her eyes. “He left here under his own power, looking normal,” she calls to the cat. “Who did he say he was going to see?” The cat sits in a beam of sunlight falling in through the high glass window, pointedly showing her its back. “Merde. If you're not going to help him -”

“Try the Grassmarket,” sulks the cat. “He said something about meeting the Franklin Collective near there. Much good they'll do him ...”

* * *

A man wearing secondhand Chinese combat fatigues and a horribly expensive pair of glasses bounces up a flight of damp stone steps beneath a keystone that announces 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 MiGs that are buzzing the castle up the road: “Open up, ye cunts! Ye've got a deal comin'!”

A peephole set in the door at eye level slides to one side, and a pair of beady, black-eyed video cameras peer out at him. “Who are you and what do you want?” the speaker crackles. They don't belong to the Salvation Army; Christianity has been deeply unfashionable in Scotland for some decades, and the church that currently occupies the building has certainly moved with the times in an effort to stay relevant.

“I'm Macx,” he says: “You've heard from my systems. I'm here to offer you a deal you can't refuse.” At least that's what his glasses tell him to say: What comes 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 long enough to work on his accent. Meanwhile, he's so full of himself that he snaps his 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 the speakerphone has the kind of cut-glass Morningside accent that manages to sound more English than the King while remaining vernacular Scots. The door opens, and Macx finds himself confronted by a tall, slightly cadaverous man wearing a tweed suit that has seen better days and a clerical collar cut from a translucent circuit board. His face is almost concealed behind a pair of recording 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 make you rich!” The glasses prompt, and Macx speaks.

The man in the doorway tilts his head slightly, goggles scanning Macx from head to foot. Bursts of blue combustion products spurt from Macx's heels as he bounces up and down enthusiastically. “Are ye sure ye've got the right address?” he asks worriedly.

“Aye, Ah am that.”

The resident backs into the hostel: “Well then, come in, sit yeself down and tell me all about it.”

Macx bounces into the room with his brain wide open to a blizzard of pie charts and growth curves, documents spawning in the bizarre phase-space of his corporate management software. “I've got a deal you're not going to believe,” he reads, gliding past notice boards upon which Church circulars are staked out to die like exotic butterflies, stepping over rolled-up carpets and a stack of laptops left over from a jumble sale, past the devotional radio telescope 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 making much money - barely keeping the rent up. But you're a shareholder in Scottish Nuclear Electric, right? Most of the church funds are in the form of a trust left to the church by one of your congregants when she went to join the omega point, right?”

“Er.” The minister looks at him oddly. “I cannae comment on the church eschatological investment trust. Why d'ye think that?”

They fetch up, somehow, in the minister's office. A huge, framed rendering hangs over the back of his threadbare office chair: the collapsing cosmos of the End Times, galactic clusters rotten with the Dyson spheres of the eschaton falling toward the big crunch. Saint Tipler the Astrophysicist beams down from above with avuncular approval, a ring of quasars forming a halo around his head. Posters proclaim the new Gospel: COSMOLOGY IS BETTER THAN GUESSWORK, and LIVE FOREVER WITHIN MY LIGHT CONE. “Can I get ye anything? Cup of tea? Fuel cell charge point?” asks the minister.

“Crystal meth?” asks Macx, hopefully. His face falls as the minister shakes his head apologetically. “Aw, dinnae worry, Ah wis only joshing.” He leans forward: “Ah know a' aboot yer plutonium futures speculation,” he hisses. A finger taps his stolen spectacles in an ominous gesture: “These dinnae just record, they think. An' Ah ken where the money's gone.”

“What have ye got?” the minister asks coldly, any indication of good humor flown. “I'm going to have to edit down these memories, ye bastard. I thought I'd forgotten all about that. Bits of me aren't going to merge with the godhead 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 life worth 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 expression of extreme confusion flits over his head. ”Ah've got lobsters,“ he finally announces. ”Genetically engineered uploaded lobsters tae run yer uranium reprocessing plant.“ As he grows more confused, the glasses' control over his accent slips: ”Ah wiz gonnae help yiz oot ba showin ye how ter get yer dosh back whir it belong ...“ A strategic pause: ”so ye could make the council tax due date. See, they're neutron-resistant, the lobsters. No, that cannae be right. Ah wiz gonnae sell ye somethin' ye cud use fer“ - his face slumps into a frown of disgust - ”free?"

Approximately thirty seconds later, as he is picking himself up off the front steps of the First Reformed Church of Tipler, Astrophysicist, the man who would be Macx finds himself wondering if maybe this high finance shit isn't as easy as it's cracked up to be. Some of the agents in his glasses are wondering if elocution lessons are the answer; others aren't so optimistic.

* * *

Getting back to the history lesson, the prospects for the decade look mostly medical.

A few thousand elderly baby boomers are converging on Tehran for Woodstock Four. Europe is desperately trying to import eastern European nurses and home-care assistants; in Japan, whole agricultural villages lie vacant and decaying, ghost communities sucked dry as cities slurp people in like residential black holes.

A rumor is spreading throughout gated old-age communities in the American Midwest, leaving havoc and riots in its wake: Senescence is caused by a slow virus coded into the mammalian genome that evolution hasn't weeded out, and rich billionaires are sitting on the rights to a vaccine. As usual, Charles Darwin gets more than his fair share of the blame. (Less spectacular but more realistic treatments for old age - telomere reconstruction and hexose-denatured protein reduction - are available in private clinics for those who are willing to surrender their pensions.) Progress is expected to speed up shortly, as the fundamental patents in genomic engineering begin to expire; the Free Chromosome Foundation has already published a manifesto calling for the creation of an intellectual-property-free genome with improved replacements for all commonly defective exons.

Experiments in digitizing and running neural wetware under emulation are well established; some radical libertarians claim that, as the technology matures, death - with its draconian curtailment of property and voting rights - will become the biggest civil rights issue of all.

For a small extra fee, most veterinary insurance policies now cover cloning of pets in the event of their accidental and distressing death. Human cloning, for reasons nobody is very clear on anymore, is still illegal in most developed nations - but very few judiciaries push for mandatory abortion of identical twins.

Some commodities are expensive: the price of crude oil has broken eighty Euros a barrel and is edging inexorably up. Other commodities are cheap: computers, for example. Hobbyists print off weird new processor architectures on their home inkjets; middle-aged folks wipe their backsides with diagnostic paper that 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 the first generation of quantum computers. New with the decade are cheap enhanced immune systems, brain implants that hook right into the Chomsky organ and talk to their owners through their own speech centers, and widespread public paranoia about limbic spam. Nanotechnology has shattered into a dozen disjoint disciplines, and skeptics are predicting that it will all peter out before long. Philosophers have ceded qualia to engineers, and the current difficult problem 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 with your eyes?”

“I can't see too well,” Manfred tries to explain. Everything is a blur, and the voices that usually chatter incessantly in his head have left nothing behind but a roaring silence. “I mean, someone mugged me. They took -” His hand closes on air: something is missing from his belt.

Monica, the tall woman he first saw in the hospital, enters the room. What she's wearing indoors is skin-tight, iridescent and, disturbingly, she claims is a distributed extension of her neuroectoderm. Stripped of costume-drama accoutrements, she's a twenty-first-century adult, born or decanted after the millennial 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 are brown, 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 from all angles at once, anymore. Is this what consciousness used to be like? It's an ugly, slow sensation. She turns away from him: “Medline says you'll be all right in a while. The main problem is the identity loss. Are you backed up anywhere?”

“Here.” Alan, still top-hatted and mutton-chopped, holds out a pair of spectacles to Manfred. “Take these, they may do you some good.” His topper wobbles, 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, whispering questions and watching how his eyes focus: After a minute, the room around him clears 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 stealing over 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 him and stares into some inner space. The room has a tall ceiling, with whitewashed walls and wooden shutters to cover the aerogel window bays. The furniture is modern modular, and clashes horribly with the original nineteenth-century architecture. “We were expecting you.”

“You were -” He shifts track with an effort: “I was here to see somebody. Here in Scotland, I mean.”

“Us.” She catches his eye deliberately. “To discuss sapience options with our patron.”

“With your -” He squeezes his eyes shut. “Damn! I don't remember. I need my glasses back. Please.”

“What about your back-ups?” she asks curiously.

“A moment.” Manfred tries to remember what address to ping. It's useless, and painfully frustrating. “It would help if I could remember where I keep the rest 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 asks for the site, crushing his surroundings into blocky pixilated monochrome that jerks as he looks around. “This is going to take some time,” he warns his hosts as a goodly chunk of his metacortex tries to handshake with his brain over a wireless network connection that was really only designed for web browsing. The download consists of the part of his consciousness that isn't security-critical - public access actors and vague opinionated rants - but it clears down a huge memory castle, sketching in the outline of a map of miracles and wonders onto the whitewashed walls of the room.

When Manfred can see the outside world again, he feels a bit more like himself: He can, at least, spawn a search thread that will resynchronize and fill him in on what it found. He still can't access the inner mysteries of his soul (including his personal memories); they're locked and barred pending biometric verification of his identity and a quantum key exchange. But he has his wits about him again - and some of them are even working. It's like sobering up from a strange new drug, the infinitely reassuring sense of being back at the controls of his own head. “I think I need to report a crime,” he tells Monica - or whoever is plugged into Monica's head right now, because now he knows where he is and who he was meant to meet (although not why) - and he understands that, for the Franklin Collective, identity is a politically loaded issue.

“A crime report.” Her expression is subtly mocking. “Identity theft, by any chance?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know: Identity is theft, don't trust anyone whose state vector hasn't forked for more than a gigasecond, change is the only constant, et bloody cetera. Who am I talking to, by the way? And if we're talking, doesn't that signify that you think we're on the same side, more or less?” He struggles to sit up in the recliner chair: Stepper motors whine softly as it strives to accommodate him.

“Sidedness is optional.” The woman who is Monica some of the time looks at him quirkily: “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 with a small bar. “Drink? Can I offer you coffee? Guarana? Or maybe a Berlinerweisse, 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 feel like me.” She rolls her eyes, self-consciously. “He's making rude comments about 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. He left his assets in trust to the movement along with his partials. We feel obliged to instantiate his personality as often as possible, even though you can only do so much with a couple of petabytes of recordings. But we have help.”

“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 his glass and frowns. “If only I could remember why I came here! It was something emergent, 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, and heads 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 on his hands, staring at the white desktop. Every so often he mutters quietly to himself; “Yes, I understand ... campaign headquarters ... donations need to be audited ...”

“Gianni's election campaign,” Monica prompts him.

Manfred jumps. “Gianni -” A bundle of memories unlock inside his head as he remembers 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 to you from Gianni Vittoria. About -” He looks crestfallen. “I'm not sure,” he trails off uncertainly, “but it was important. Something critical in the long term, something about group minds and voting. But whoever mugged me got the message.”

* * *

The Grassmarket is an overly rustic cobbled square nestled beneath the glowering battlements of Castle Rock. Annette stands on the site of the gallows where they used to execute witches; she sends forth her invisible agents to search for spoor of Manfred. Aineko, overly familiar, drapes over her left shoulder like a satanic stole and delivers a running stream of cracked 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 credit and spits out the drained husks of foreigners. The road has been pedestrianized and resurfaced in squalidly authentic mediaeval cobblestones; in the middle of what used to be the car park, there's a permanent floating antiques market, where you can buy anything from a brass fire surround to an ancient CD player. Much of the merchandise in the shops is generic dot-com trash, vying for the title of Japanese-Scottish souvenir from hell: Puroland tartans, animatronic Nessies hissing bad-temperedly at knee level, second hand laptops. People swarm everywhere, from the theme pubs (hangings seem to be a running joke hereabouts) to the expensive dress shops with their fabric renderers and digital mirrors. Street performers, part of the permanent floating Fringe, clutter the sidewalk: A robotic mime, very traditional in silver face paint, mimics the gestures of passers by with ironically stylized gestures.

“Try the doss house,” Aineko suggests from the shelter of her shoulder bag.

“The -” Annette does a doubletake as her thesaurus conspires with her open government firmware and dumps a geographical database of city social services into her sensorium. “Oh, I see.” The Grassmarket itself is touristy, but the bits off to one end - down a dingy canyon of forbidding stone buildings six stories high - are decidedly downmarket. “Okay.”

Annette weaves past a stall selling disposable cellphones and cheaper genome explorers, round a gaggle of teenage girls in the grips of some kind of imported kawaii fetish, who look at her in alarm from atop their pink platform heels - probably mistaking her for a school probation inspector - and past a stand of chained and parked bicycles. The human attendant looks bored out of her mind. Annette tucks a blandly anonymous ten-Euro note in her pocket almost before she notices: “If you were going to buy a hot bike,” she asks, “where would you go?” The parking attendant stares, and for a moment Annette thinks she's overestimated her. Then she mumbles something. “What?”

“McMurphy's. Used to be called Bannerman's. Down yon Cowgate, thataway.” The meter 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 her breath.

McMurphy's is a fake Irish pub, a stone grotto installed beneath a mound of blank-faced offices. It was once a real Irish pub before the developers got their hands on it and mutated it in rapid succession into a punk nightclub, a wine bar, and a fake Dutch coffee shop; after which, as burned-out as any star, it left the main sequence. Now it occupies an unnaturally prolonged, chilly existence as the sort of recycled imitation Irish pub that has neon four-leafed clovers hanging from the artificially blackened pine beams above the log tables - in other words, the burned-out black dwarf afterlife of a once-serious drinking establishment. Somewhere along the line, the beer cellar was replaced with a toilet (leaving more room for paying patrons upstairs), and now its founts dispense fizzy concentrate diluted with water from the city mains.

“Say, did you hear the one about the Eurocrat with the robot pussy who goes into a dodgy pub on the Cowgate and orders a coke? And when it arrives, she says 'hey, where's the mirror?'”

“Shut up,” Annette hisses into her shoulder bag. “That isn't funny.” Her personal intruder telemetry has just e-mailed her wristphone, and it's displaying a rotating yellow exclamation point, which means that according to the published police crime stats, this place is likely to do grievous harm to her insurance premiums.

Aineko looks up at her from his nest in the bag and yawns cavernously, baring a pink, ribbed mouth and a tongue like pink suede. “Want to make me? I just pinged Manny's head. The network latency was trivial.”

The barmaid sidles up and pointedly manages not to make eye contact with Annette. “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 a dodgy pub, orders half a liter of Diet Coke, and when she spills it in her shoulder bag she says 'oops, I've got a wet pussy'?”

The Coke arrives. Annette pays for it. There may be a couple of dozen people in the pub; it's hard to tell because it looks like an ancient cellar, lots of stone archways leading off into niches populated with second-hand church pews and knife-scarred tables. Some guys who might be bikers, students, or well-dressed winos are hunched over one table: hairy, wearing vests with too many pockets, in an artful bohemianism that makes Annette blink until one of her literary programs informs her that one of them is a moderately famous local writer, a bit of a guru for the space and freedom party. There're a couple of women in boots and furry hats in one corner, poring over the menu, and a parcel of off-duty street performers hunching over their beers in a booth. Nobody else is wearing anything remotely like office drag, but the weirdness coefficient 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 de panzer division look, all shock absorbers and olive drab Kevlar panels. He's wearing -

“I spy with my little network intrusion detector kit,” begins the cat, as Annette puts her drink down and moves in on the youth, “something beginning with -”

“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 is eighteenth-century stone half a meter thick; “Dinnae fuckin' dae that,” he complains 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 mark on her watch has turned red and begun to flash: “Look, I'll give you two hundred Euros for the glasses and the belt pouch, real cash, and I won't ask how you got them or tell anyone.” He's frozen in front of her, mesmerized, and she can see the light from inside the lenses spilling over onto his half-starved adolescent cheekbones, flickering like cold lightning, like he's plugged 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 and takes hold of the belt pouch with the other. The kid shudders and blinks at her, 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 through the door with an ear-popping concussion, hangs a left onto the cycle path, and vanishes 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 an icicle of anxiety in Annette's spine. Manfred's been separated from his memory cache? Where could he be? Worse - who could he be?

“Fuck you, too,” she mutters. “Only one thing for it, I guess.” She takes off her own glasses - they're much less functional than Manfred's massively ramified 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 a lover's e-mail folders. But how else can she figure out where he might have gone?

She slides the glasses on and tries to remember what she was doing yesterday in Edinburgh.

* * *


“Oui, ma chérie?”

Pause. “I lost him. But I got his aid-mémoire back. A teenage freeloader playing 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 on begins to penetrate the weave of her jacket.) “I not wanting to bother you with trivia.”

“Merde. It's not trivia, Gianni, they're accelerationistas. Have you any idea what 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, punching words into her phone so that other passers-by avoid her, unsure whether she's hands-free or hallucinating: “Shit, Gianni, I have to pick up the pieces every time you do this! Manfred is not a healthy man, he's on the edge of acute future shock the whole time, and I was not joking when I told you last February that he'd need a month in a clinic if you tried running him flat out again! If you're not careful, he could end up dropping out completely and joining the borganism -”

“Annette.” A heavy sigh: “He are the best hope we got. Am knowing half-life of agalmic catalyst now down to six months and dropping; Manny outlast his career expectancy, four deviations outside the normal, yes, we know this. But I are having to break civil rights deadlock now, this election. We must achieve consensus, and Manfred are only staffer we got who have hope of talking to Collective on its own terms. He are deal-making messenger, not force burnout, right? We need coalition reserve before term limit lockout followed by gridlock 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 he died, enough of his personality to reinstantiate it, time-sharing in their own brains. We must get the Franklin Collective with their huge resources lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment: If ERA passes, all sapients are eligible to vote, own property, upload, download, sideload. Are more important than little gray butt-monsters with cold speculum: Whole future depends on it. Manny started this with crustacean rights: Leave uploads covered by copyrights not civil rights and where will we be in fifty years? Do you think I must ignore this? It was important then, but now, with the transmission the lobsters received -”

“Shit.” She turns and leans her forehead against the cool stonework. “I'll need a prescription. Ritalin or something. And his location. Leave the rest to me.” 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 distributed trust rating of Bob Franklin's upload, and I bring Bob the jubilee, right to direct his own corporate self again as if still alive. And we pull diplomatic chestnuts out of fire before they burn. Agreed?”


She cuts the connection and begins walking uphill, along the Cowgate (through which farmers once bought their herds to market), toward the permanent floating Fringe and then the steps towards The Meadows. As she pauses opposite the site of the gallows, a fight breaks out: Some Paleolithic hangover takes exception to the robotic mime aping his movements, and swiftly rips its arm off. The mime stands there, sparks flickering inside its shoulder, and looks confused. Two pissed-looking students start forward and punch the short-haired vandal. There is much shouting in the mutually incomprehensible accents of Oxgangs and the Herriott-Watt Robot Lab. Annette watches the fight and shudders; it's like a flashover vision from a universe where the Equal Rights Amendment - with its redefinition of personhood - is rejected by the house of deputies: a universe where to die is to become property and to be created outwith 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 all present - the universe, with its vast preponderance of unthinking matter, becomes an affront; weird ideas flicker like heat lightning far away across the vast plateaus of his imagination - but, with his metacortex running in sandboxed insecure mode, he feels blunt. And slow. Even obsolete. The latter is about as welcome a sensation as heroin withdrawal: He can't spin off threads to explore his designs for feasibility and report back to him. It's like someone has stripped fifty points off his IQ; his brain feels like a surgical scalpel that's been used to cut down trees. A decaying mind is a terrible 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 pragmatist politician,” 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 think I can do for him?”

“That's a - ah - ” Manfred rocks forward and back in his chair, arms crossed firmly 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 True Communism, which is a state of philosophical grace that requires certain prerequisites like, um, not pissing around with Molotov cocktails and thought police: He wants to make everybody so rich that squabbling over ownership of the means of production makes as much sense as arguing over who gets to sleep in the damp spot at the back of the cave. He's not your enemy, I mean. He's the enemy of those Stalinist deviationist running dogs in Conservative Party Central Office who want to bug your bedroom and hand everything on a plate to the big corporates owned by the pension funds - which in turn rely on people dying predictably to provide their raison d'être. And, um, more importantly dying and not trying to hang on to their property and chattels. Sitting up in the coffin singing extropian fireside songs, that kind of thing. The actuaries are to blame, predicting life expectancy with intent to cause people to buy insurance policies with money that is invested in control of the means of production - Bayes' Theorem is to blame -”

Alan glances over his shoulder at Manfred: “I don't think feeding him guarana was a good idea,” he says in tones of deep foreboding.

Manfred's mode of vibration has gone nonlinear by this point: He's rocking front to back, and jiggling up and down in little hops, like a technophiliacal yogic flyer trying to bounce his way to the singularity. Monica leans toward him 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 Amsterdam eight years ago when Bob first met him.” She looks alarmed, a different identity coming to the fore: “What shall we do?”

“We have to make him comfortable.” Alan raises his voice: “Bed, make yourself ready, now.” The back of the sofa Manfred is sprawled on flops downward, the base 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 of propagating decision trees, fractal compression, lots of synaptic junctions lubricated with friendly endorphins -” Across the room, the bootleg pharmacopoeia is cranking up to manufacture some heavy tranquilizers. Monica heads for the kitchen to get something for him to drink them in. “Why are you doing this?” Manfred asks, dizzily.

“It's okay. Lie down and relax.” Alan leans over him. “We'll talk about everything in the morning, when you know who you are.” (Aside to Monica, who is entering the room with a bottle of iced tea: “Better let Gianni know that he's unwell. One of us may have to go visit the minister. Do you know if Macx has been audited?”) “Rest up, Manfred. Everything is being taken care of.”

About fifteen minutes later, Manfred - who, in the grip of an existential migraine, meekly obeys Monica's instruction to drink down the spiked tea - lies back on the bed and relaxes. His breathing slows; the subliminal muttering ceases. Monica, sitting next to him, reaches out and takes his right hand, 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 Promised Land unless it's baptized you - but it can do so if it knows your name and parentage, even after you're dead. Its genealogical databases are among the most impressive artifacts of historical research ever prepared. And it likes to make converts.

The Franklin Collective believes that you can't get into the future unless it's digitized your neural state vector, or at least acquired as complete a snapshot of your sensory inputs and genome as current technology permits. You don't need to be alive for it to do this. Its society of mind is among the most impressive artifacts of computer science. And it likes to make converts.

* * *

Nightfall in the city. Annette stands impatiently on the doorstep. “Let me the fuck 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 to your bodhisattva,” she demands. “Now.”

“I -” he turns and heads inside, along the gloomy hallway that runs past a staircase. Annette strides after him aggressively. He opens a door and ducks inside, 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 bed in the middle of it, a figure lying asleep at the heart of a herd of attentive diagnostic instruments. A couple of attendants sit to either side of the sleeping man.

“What have you done to him?” Annette snaps, rushing forward. Manfred blinks up at 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 - is pushed up onto his forehead like a pair of beached jellyfish. “I don't feel well. '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 to get his memories back. She peels off his glasses and carefully slides them onto his face, replacing his temporary ones. The brain bag she puts down next to his shoulder, within easy range. The hairs on the back of her neck rise as a thin chattering fills the ether around them: his eyes are glowing a luminous blue 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 her breath catches.

She looks round at the motionless figure sitting to his left. The man in the chair nods deliberately, ironically. “What have you done to him?”

“We've been looking after him - nothing more, nothing less. He arrived in a state of considerable confusion, and his state deteriorated this afternoon.”

She's never met this fellow before, but she has a gut feeling that she knows him. “You would be Robert ... Franklin?”

He nods again. “The avatar is in.” There's a thud as Manfred's eyes roll up in his 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 running Bob, 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 his battle with an exotic brain tumor eight years earlier - catches Annette's eye and shakes her head, smiles faintly. “You're never alone when you're a syncitium.”

Annette wrinkles her brow: she has to trigger a dictionary attack to parse the sentence. “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-person actor in a low-bandwidth re-enactment? Or a shadow of itchy memories in some stranger's skull?” She snorts, a gesture that's at odds with the rest of her body language.

“Bob must have been one of the first borganisms. Humans, I mean. After Jim Bezier.” Annette glances over at Manfred, who has begun to snore softly. “It must 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 keeping access to his research funding is that we regularly run his partials. He wanted to build up a kind of aggregate state vector - patched together out of bits 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 from Manfred'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 like to be a bat? I can't tell you - I can only show you. We're all free to leave at any time, you know.”

“But somehow you don't.” Annette rubs her head, feels the short hair over the almost imperceptible scars that conceal a network of implants - tools that Manfred turned down when they became available a year or two ago. (“Goop-phase Darwin-design nanotech ain't designed for clean interfaces,” he'd said, “I'll stick to disposable kit, thanks.”) “No thank you. I don't think he'll take up your offer when he wakes up, either.” (Subtext: I'll let you have him over my dead 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 more converts than we know what to do with.”

A thought occurs to Annette. “Ah. You are all of one mind? Partially? A question 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 an improvised 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 as his glasses whisper in his ears, bone conduction providing a serial highway to his 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. “Please continue.”

“One person, one vote, is obsolete,” says Alan. “The broader issue of how we value identity needs to be revisited, the franchise reconsidered. Do you get one vote for each warm body? Or one vote for each sapient individual? What about distributed intelligences? The proposals in the Equal Rights Act are deeply flawed, based on a cult of individuality that takes no account of the true complexity of posthumanism.”

“Like the proposals for a feminine franchise in the nineteenth century that would 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'd expected to hear. This is the elitist side of the posthumanism shtick, potentially as threatening to her post enlightenment ideas as the divine right of 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 can see a spark of interest there that was missing earlier. “Last century, people were paying to have their heads frozen after their death - in hope of reconstruction, later. They got no civil rights: The law didn't recognize death as a reversible process. Now how do we account for it when you guys stop running Bob? Opt out of the collective borganism? Or maybe opt back in again later?” He reaches up and rubs his forehead, tiredly. “Sorry, I haven't been myself 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 of what it is to be a person. One that can cope with sentient corporations, artificial stupidities, secessionists from group minds, and reincarnated uploads. The religiously inclined are having lots of fun with identity issues right now - why aren't we posthumanists thinking about these things?”

Annette's bag bulges: Aineko pokes his head out, sniffs the air, squeezes out onto the carpet, and begins to groom himself with perfect disregard for the human bystanders. “Not to mention A-life experiments who think they're the real 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 the dead venture billionaire's executors: Even his expression reminds Annette of meeting Bob Franklin back in Amsterdam, early in the decade, when Manny's personal dragon still owned him. “Aliens,” Alan echoes. An eyebrow twitches. “Would this be the signal SETI announced, or the, uh, other one? And how long have you known about them?”

“Gianni has his fingers in a lot of pies,” Manfred comments blandly. “And we still talk to the lobsters from time to time - you know, they're only a couple of light-hours away, right? They told us about the signals.”

“Er.” Alan's eyes glaze over for a moment; Annette's prostheses paint her a picture of false light spraying from the back of his head, his entire sensory bandwidth momentarily soaking up a huge peer-to-peer download from the server dust that wallpapers every room in the building. Monica looks irritated, taps her fingernails on the back of her chair. “The signals. Right. Why wasn't this publicized?”

“The first one was.” Annette's eyebrows furrow. “We couldn't exactly cover it up, everyone with a backyard dish pointed in the right direction caught it. But most people who're interested in hearing about alien contacts already think they drop round on alternate Tuesdays and Thursdays to administer rectal exams. Most of the rest think it's a hoax. Quite a few of the remainder are scratching their heads and wondering whether it isn't just a new kind of cosmological phenomenon that emits a very low entropy signal. Of the six who are left over, five are trying to get a handle on the message contents, and the last is convinced it's a practical joke. And the other signal, well, that was weak enough that only the deep-space tracking network caught it.”

Manfred fiddles with the bed control system. “It's not a practical joke,” he adds. “But they only captured about sixteen megabits of data from the first one, maybe double that in the second. There's quite a bit of noise, the signals don't repeat, their length doesn't appear to be a prime, there's no obvious metainformation that describes the internal format, so there's no easy way of getting a handle on them. To make matters worse, pointy-haired management at Arianespace” - he glances at Annette, as if seeking a response to the naming of her ex-employers - “decided the best thing to do was to cover up 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 nobody really knows how long it'll take to figure out whether it's a ping from the galactic root domain servers or a pulsar that's taken to grinding out the eighteen-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 wrong button; the duvet dissolves into viscous turquoise slime that slurps and gurgles away through a multitude of tiny nozzles in the headboard. “Bloody aerogel. 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 thing to beam backward and forward out there, and you may remember I asked you to beam it out about, oh, nine years ago?”

“The lobsters.” Alan's eyes go blank. “Nine years. Time to Proxima Centauri and 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 signal came from a couple of degrees off and more than hundred light-years out, but the second signal came from less than three light-years away. You can see why they didn't publicize that - they didn't want a panic. And no, the signal isn't a simple echo of the canned crusty transmission - I think it's an exchange embassy, but we haven't cracked it yet. Now do you see why we have to crowbar the civil rights issue open again? We need a framework for rights that can encompass nonhumans, and we need it as fast as possible. Otherwise, if the neighbors come visiting...”

“Okay,” says Alan, “I'll have to talk with myselves. Maybe we can agree something, as long as it's clear that it's a provisional stab at the framework and 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 for a while. I had to commit a lot to memory while I was off-line, and I want to record it before I forget who I am,” he adds pointedly, and Annette breathes a quiet 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 behind him. His metal-shod boots ring on the hard stone floor, and the cool air smells faintly of unburned jet fuel.

“Ah'm Macx,” he repeats uncertainly, “or Ah wis fer a wee while, an' it made ma heid hurt. But noo Ah'm me agin, an' Ah wannae be somebody else ... can ye help?”

* * *

Later still, a cat sits on a window ledge, watching the interior of a darkened room from behind the concealment of curtains. The room is dark to human eyes, but bright to the cat: Moonlight cascades silently off the walls and furniture, the twisted bedding, the two naked humans lying curled together in the middle of the bed.

Both the humans are in their thirties: Her close-cropped hair is beginning to gray, distinguished threads of gunmetal wire threading it, while his brown mop is not yet showing signs of age. To the cat, who watches with a variety of unnatural senses, her head glows in the microwave spectrum with a gentle halo of polarized emissions. The male shows no such aura: he's unnaturally natural for this day and age, although - oddly - he's wearing spectacles in bed, and the frames shine similarly. An invisible soup of radiation connects both humans to items of clothing scattered across the room - clothing that seethes with unsleeping sentience, dribbling over to their suitcases and hand luggage and (though it doesn't enjoy noticing it) the cat's tail, which is itself a rather sensitive antenna.

The two humans have just finished making love: They do this less often than in their first few years, but with more tenderness and expertise - lengths of shocking pink Hello Kitty bondage tape still hang from the bedposts, and a lump of programmable memory plastic sits cooling on the side table. The male is sprawled with his head and upper torso resting in the crook of the female's left arm and shoulder. Shifting visualization to infrared, the cat sees that she is glowing, capillaries dilating to enhance the blood flow around her throat 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 old head - 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 cat remembers this as a sore point; from being a medical procedure to help the blind see and the autistic talk, intrathecal implants have blossomed into a must-have accessory for the now-clade. But the male is reluctant. “It's not as risky as it used to be. If they screw up, there're neural growth cofactors and cheap replacement stem cells. I'm sure one of your sponsors can arrange for extra cover.”

“Hush: I'm still thinking about it.” He's silent for a while. “I wasn't myself yesterday. I was someone else. Someone too slow to keep up. Puts a new perspective on everything: I've been afraid of losing my biological plasticity, of being trapped in an obsolete chunk of skullware while everything 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 it at her mind's eye; she grins at his obscure humor. “Cross-training from a new interface is going to be hard, though.”

“You'll do it,” she predicts. “You can always get a discreet prescription for novotrophin-B.” A receptor agonist tailored for gerontological wards, it stimulates interest in the new: combined with MDMA, it's a component of the street cocktail called sensawunda. “That should keep you focused for long enough to get comfortable.”

“What's life coming to when I can't cope with the pace of change?” he asks the ceiling plaintively.

The cat lashes its tail, irritated by his anthropocentrism.

“You are my futurological storm shield,” she says, jokingly, and moves her hand to cup his genitals. Most of her current activities are purely biological, the cat notes: From the irregular sideloads, she's using most of her skullware to run ETItalk@home, one of the distributed cracking engines that is trying to decode the alien grammar of the message that Manfred suspects is eligible for citizenship.

Obeying an urge that it can't articulate, the cat sends out a feeler to the nearest router. The cybeast has Manfred's keys; Manfred trusts Aineko implicitly, which is unwise - his ex-wife tampered with it, after all, never mind all the kittens it absorbed in its youth. Tunneling out into the darkness, the cat stalks the Net alone ...

“Just think about the people who can't adapt,” he says. His voice sounds obscurely worried.

“I try not to.” She shivers. “You are thirty, you are slowing. What about the young? Are they keeping up, themselves?”

“I have a daughter. She's about a hundred and sixty million seconds old. If Pamela would let me message her I could find out ...” There are echoes of old pain 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 out through the asteroid belt, en route to a chilly encounter beyond Neptune. The lobsters sing of alienation and obsolescence, of intelligence too slow and tenuous to support the vicious pace of change that has sandblasted the human world until all the edges people cling to are jagged and brittle.

Beyond the distant lobsters, the cat pings an anonymous distributed network server - peer-to-peer file storage spread holographically across a million hosts, unerasable, full of secrets and lies that nobody can afford to suppress. Rants, music, rip-offs of the latest Bollywood hits: The cat spiders past them all, looking for the final sample. Grabbing it - a momentary breakup in Manfred's spectacles the only symptom for either human to notice - the cat drags its prey home, sucks it down, and compares it against the data sample Annette's exocortex is analysing.

“I'm sorry, my love. I just sometimes feel -” He sighs. “Age is a process of closing off opportunities behind you. I'm not young enough anymore - I've lost the dynamic optimism.”

The data sample on the pirate server differs from the one Annette's implant is processing.

“You'll get it back,” she reassures him quietly, stroking his side. “You are still sad from being mugged. This also will pass. You'll see.”

“Yeah.” He finally relaxes, dropping back into the reflexive assurance of his own will. “I'll get over it, one way or another. Or someone who remembers being me will ...”

In the darkness, Aineko bares teeth in a silent grin. Obeying a deeply hardwired urge to meddle, he moves a file across, making a copy of the alien download 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. Another deeply buried thread starts up, and Aineko analyses the package from a perspective no human being has yet established. Presently a braid of processes running on an abstract virtual machine asks him a question that cannot be encoded in any human grammar. Watch and wait, he replies to his passenger. They'll figure out what we are sooner or later.

License: Creative Commons License, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0: * Attribution. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor; * Noncommercial. You may not use this work for commercial purposes; * No Derivative Works. You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work; * For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. (* For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. * Any of these conditions can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder.) http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/ These SiSU presentations of Accelerando are done with the kind permission of the author Charles Stross

≅ SiSU Spine ፨ (object numbering & object search)

(web 1993, object numbering 1997, object search 2002 ...) 2024