summaryrefslogtreecommitdiffstats
path: root/data/samples/wrapped/en/accelerando.charles_stross.sst
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% SiSU 4.0

@title: Accelerando

@creator:
 :author: Stross, Charles

@date:
 :published: 2005-07-05
 :available: 2005-07-05

@rights:
 :copyright: Copyright (C) Charles Stross, 2005.
 :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

@original:
 :source: http://www.accelerando.org/

@classify:
 :topic_register: SiSU markup sample:book:novel;book:novel:fiction:science fiction|short stories;fiction:science fiction|artificial intelligence
 :subject: Science Fiction

@identifier:
 :oclc: 57682282
 :isbn: 9780441012848

@links:
 { Accelerando home }http://www.accelerando.org/
 { @ Wikipedia }http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerando_%28novel%29
 { @ Amazon.com}http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0441014151
 { @ Barnes & Noble}http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?isbn=0441014151

@make:
% :headings: none; PART; none; Chapter;
 :breaks: new=:A,:B; break=:C,1
 :home_button_image: {accelerando_stross.png }http://www.accelerando.org/
 :footer: {Accelerando}http://www.accelerando.org/; {Charles Stross}http://www.antipope.org/charlie/

% book cover shot (US) book cover shot (UK)

% http://www.accelerando.org/_static/accelerando.html

:A~ @title @author

1~dedication Dedication

For Feòrag, with love

1~acknowledgements Acknowledgements

This book took me five years to write - a personal record - and would not exist
without the support and encouragement of a host of friends, and several
friendly editors. Among the many people who read and commented on the early
drafts are: Andrew J. Wilson, Stef Pearson, Gav Inglis, Andrew Ferguson, Jack
Deighton, Jane McKie, Hannu Rajaniemi, Martin Page, Stephen Christian, Simon
Bisson, Paul Fraser, Dave Clements, Ken MacLeod, Damien Broderick, Damon
Sicore, Cory Doctorow, Emmet O'Brien, Andrew Ducker, Warren Ellis, and Peter
Hollo. (If your name isn't on this list, blame my memory - my neural prostheses
are off-line.)

I mentioned several friendly editors earlier: I relied on the talented
midwifery of Gardner Dozois, who edited Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine at
the time, and Sheila Williams, who quietly and diligently kept the wheels
rolling. My agent Caitlin Blasdell had a hand in it too, and I'd like to thank
my editors Ginjer Buchanan at Ace and Tim Holman at Orbit for their helpful
comments and advice.

Finally, I'd like to thank everyone who e-mailed me to ask when the book was
coming, or who voted for the stories that were shortlisted for awards. You did
a great job of keeping me focused, even during the periods when the whole
project was too daunting to contemplate.

1~history Publication History

Portions of this book originally appeared in Asimov's SF Magazine as follows:
"Lobsters" (June 2001), "Troubadour" (Oct/Nov 2001), "Tourist" (Feb 2002),
"Halo" (June 2002), "Router" (Sept 2002), "Nightfall" (April 2003), "Curator"
(Dec 2003), "Elector" (Oct/Nov 2004), "Survivor" (Dec 2004).

[Accelerando was published by Ace Books on July 5, 2005] ~#

:B~ PART 1: Slow Takeoff

"The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the
question of whether a submarine can swim."

- Edsger W. Dijkstra

1~ Chapter 1: Lobsters

Manfred's on the road again, making strangers rich.

It's a hot summer Tuesday, and he's standing in the plaza in front of the
Centraal Station with his eyeballs powered up and the sunlight jangling off the
canal, motor scooters and kamikaze cyclists whizzing past and tourists
chattering on every side. The square smells of water and dirt and hot metal and
the fart-laden exhaust fumes of cold catalytic converters; the bells of trams
ding in the background, and birds flock overhead. He glances up and grabs a
pigeon, crops the shot, and squirts it at his weblog to show he's arrived. The
bandwidth is good here, he realizes; and it's not just the bandwidth, it's the
whole scene. Amsterdam is making him feel wanted already, even though he's
fresh off the train from Schiphol: He's infected with the dynamic optimism of
another time zone, another city. If the mood holds, someone out there is going
to become very rich indeed.

He wonders who it's going to be.

* * *

Manfred sits on a stool out in the car park at the Brouwerij 't IJ, watching
the articulated buses go by and drinking a third of a liter of lip-curlingly
sour /{gueuze}/. His channels are jabbering away in a corner of his head-up
display, throwing compressed infobursts of filtered press releases at him. They
compete for his attention, bickering and rudely waving in front of the scenery.
A couple of punks - maybe local, but more likely drifters lured to Amsterdam by
the magnetic field of tolerance the Dutch beam across Europe like a pulsar -
are laughing and chatting by a couple of battered mopeds in the far corner. A
tourist boat putters by in the canal; the sails of the huge windmill overhead
cast long, cool shadows across the road. The windmill is a machine for lifting
water, turning wind power into dry land: trading energy for space,
sixteenth-century style. Manfred is waiting for an invite to a party where he's
going to meet a man he can talk to about trading energy for space,
twenty-first-century style, and forget about his personal problems.

He's ignoring the instant messenger boxes, enjoying some low-bandwidth,
high-sensation time with his beer and the pigeons, when a woman walks up to
him, and says his name: "Manfred Macx?"

He glances up. The courier is an Effective Cyclist, all wind-burned
smooth-running muscles clad in a paean to polymer technology: electric blue
lycra and wasp yellow carbonate with a light speckling of anti collision LEDs
and tight-packed air bags. She holds out a box for him. He pauses a moment,
struck by the degree to which she resembles Pam, his ex-fiance.

"I'm Macx," he says, waving the back of his left wrist under her bar-code
reader. "Who's it from?"

"FedEx." The voice isn't Pam's. She dumps the box in his lap, then she's back
over the low wall and onto her bicycle with her phone already chirping,
disappearing in a cloud of spread-spectrum emissions.

Manfred turns the box over in his hands: it's a disposable supermarket phone,
paid for in cash - cheap, untraceable, and efficient. It can even do conference
calls, which makes it the tool of choice for spooks and grifters everywhere.

The box rings. Manfred rips the cover open and pulls out the phone, mildly
annoyed. "Yes? Who is this?"

The voice at the other end has a heavy Russian accent, almost a parody in this
decade of cheap on-line translation services. "Manfred. Am please to meet you.
Wish to personalize interface, make friends, no? Have much to offer."

"Who are you?" Manfred repeats suspiciously.

"Am organization formerly known as KGB dot RU."

"I think your translator's broken." He holds the phone to his ear carefully, as
if it's made of smoke-thin aerogel, tenuous as the sanity of the being on the
other end of the line.

"Nyet - no, sorry. Am apologize for we not use commercial translation software.
Interpreters are ideologically suspect, mostly have capitalist semiotics and
pay-per-use APIs. Must implement English more better, yes?"

Manfred drains his beer glass, sets it down, stands up, and begins to walk
along the main road, phone glued to the side of his head. He wraps his throat
mike around the cheap black plastic casing, pipes the input to a simple
listener process. "Are you saying you taught yourself the language just so you
could talk to me?"

"Da, was easy: Spawn billion-node neural network, and download Teletubbies and
Sesame Street at maximum speed. Pardon excuse entropy overlay of bad grammar:
Am afraid of digital fingerprints steganographically masked into my-our
tutorials."

Manfred pauses in mid stride, narrowly avoids being mown down by a GPS-guided
roller blader. This is getting weird enough to trip his weird-out meter, and
that takes some doing. Manfred's whole life is lived on the bleeding edge of
strangeness, fifteen minutes into everyone else's future, and he's normally in
complete control - but at times like this he gets a frisson of fear, a sense
that he might just have missed the correct turn on reality's approach road.
"Uh, I'm not sure I got that. Let me get this straight, you claim to be some
kind of AI, working for KGB dot RU, and you're afraid of a copyright
infringement lawsuit over your translator semiotics?"

"Am have been badly burned by viral end-user license agreements. Have no desire
to experiment with patent shell companies held by Chechen infoterrorists. You
are human, you must not worry cereal company repossess your small intestine
because digest unlicensed food with it, right? Manfred, you must help me-we. Am
wishing to defect."

Manfred stops dead in the street. "Oh man, you've got the wrong free enterprise
broker here. I don't work for the government. I'm strictly private." A rogue
advertisement sneaks through his junkbuster proxy and spams glowing fifties
kitsch across his navigation window - which is blinking - for a moment before a
phage process kills it and spawns a new filter. He leans against a shop front,
massaging his forehead and eyeballing a display of antique brass doorknockers.
"Have you tried the State Department?"

"Why bother? State Department am enemy of Novy-SSR. State Department is not
help us."

This is getting just too bizarre. Manfred's never been too clear on new-old
old-new European metapolitics: Just dodging the crumbling bureaucracy of his
old-old American heritage gives him headaches. "Well, if you hadn't shafted
them during the late noughties ... " Manfred taps his left heel on the
pavement, looking round for a way out of this conversation. A camera winks at
him from atop a streetlight; he waves, wondering idly if it's the KGB or the
traffic police. He is waiting for directions to the party, which should arrive
within the next half hour, and this Cold War retread Eliza-bot is bumming him
out. "Look, I don't deal with the G-men. I /{hate}/ the military-industrial
complex. I hate traditional politics. They're all zero-sum cannibals." A
thought occurs to him. "If survival is what you're after, you could post your
state vector on one of the p2p nets: Then nobody could delete you -"

"Nyet!" The artificial intelligence sounds as alarmed as it's possible to sound
over a VoiP link. "Am not open source! Not want lose autonomy!"

"Then we probably have nothing to talk about." Manfred punches the hang-up
button and throws the mobile phone out into a canal. It hits the water, and
there's a pop of deflagrating lithium cells. "Fucking Cold War hangover
losers," he swears under his breath, quite angry, partly at himself for losing
his cool and partly at the harassing entity behind the anonymous phone call.
"/{Fucking}/ capitalist spooks." Russia has been back under the thumb of the
apparatchiks for fifteen years now, its brief flirtation with anarchocapitalism
replaced by Brezhnevite dirigisme and Putinesque puritanism, and it's no
surprise that the wall's crumbling - but it looks like they haven't learned
anything from the current woes afflicting the United States. The neocommies
still think in terms of dollars and paranoia. Manfred is so angry that he wants
to make someone rich, just to thumb his nose at the would-be defector: /{See!
You get ahead by giving! Get with the program! Only the generous survive!}/ But
the KGB won't get the message. He's dealt with old-time commie weak-AIs before,
minds raised on Marxist dialectic and Austrian School economics: They're so
thoroughly hypnotized by the short-term victory of global capitalism that they
can't surf the new paradigm, look to the longer term.

Manfred walks on, hands in pockets, brooding. He wonders what he's going to
patent next.

* * *

_1 Manfred has a suite at the Hotel Jan Luyken paid for by a grateful
multinational consumer protection group, and an unlimited public transport pass
paid for by a Scottish sambapunk band in return for services rendered. He has
airline employee's travel rights with six flag carriers despite never having
worked for an airline. His bush jacket has sixty-four compact supercomputing
clusters sewn into it, four per pocket, courtesy of an invisible college that
wants to grow up to be the next Media Lab. His dumb clothing comes made to
measure from an e-tailor in the Philippines he's never met. Law firms handle
his patent applications on a pro bono basis, and boy, does he patent a lot -
although he always signs the rights over to the Free Intellect Foundation, as
contributions to their obligation-free infrastructure project.

_1 In IP geek circles, Manfred is legendary; he's the guy who patented the
business practice of moving your e-business somewhere with a slack intellectual
property regime in order to evade licensing encumbrances. He's the guy who
patented using genetic algorithms to patent everything they can permutate from
an initial description of a problem domain - not just a better mousetrap, but
the set of all possible better mousetraps. Roughly a third of his inventions
are legal, a third are illegal, and the remainder are legal but will become
illegal as soon as the legislatosaurus wakes up, smells the coffee, and panics.
There are patent attorneys in Reno who swear that Manfred Macx is a pseudo, a
net alias fronting for a bunch of crazed anonymous hackers armed with the
Genetic Algorithm That Ate Calcutta: a kind of Serdar Argic of intellectual
property, or maybe another Bourbaki math borg. There are lawyers in San Diego
and Redmond who swear blind that Macx is an economic saboteur bent on wrecking
the underpinning of capitalism, and there are communists in Prague who think
he's the bastard spawn of Bill Gates by way of the Pope.

_1 Manfred is at the peak of his profession, which is essentially coming up
with whacky but workable ideas and giving them to people who will make fortunes
with them. He does this for free, gratis. In return, he has virtual immunity
from the tyranny of cash; money is a symptom of poverty, after all, and Manfred
never has to pay for anything.

_1 There are drawbacks, however. Being a pronoiac meme-broker is a constant
burn of future shock - he has to assimilate more than a megabyte of text and
several gigs of AV content every day just to stay current. The Internal Revenue
Service is investigating him continuously because it doesn't believe his
lifestyle can exist without racketeering. And then there are the items that no
money can't buy: like the respect of his parents. He hasn't spoken to them for
three years, his father thinks he's a hippy scrounger, and his mother still
hasn't forgiven him for dropping out of his down-market Harvard emulation
course. (They're still locked in the boringly bourgeois twen-cen paradigm of
college-career-kids.) His fiance and sometime dominatrix Pamela threw him over
six months ago, for reasons he has never been quite clear on. (Ironically,
she's a headhunter for the IRS, jetting all over the place at public expense,
trying to persuade entrepreneurs who've gone global to pay taxes for the good
of the Treasury Department.) To cap it all, the Southern Baptist Conventions
have denounced him as a minion of Satan on all their websites. Which would be
funny because, as a born-again atheist Manfred doesn't believe in Satan, if it
wasn't for the dead kittens that someone keeps mailing him.

* * *

Manfred drops in at his hotel suite, unpacks his Aineko, plugs in a fresh set
of cells to charge, and sticks most of his private keys in the safe. Then he
heads straight for the party, which is currently happening at De Wildemann's;
it's a twenty-minute walk, and the only real hazard is dodging the trams that
sneak up on him behind the cover of his moving map display.

Along the way, his glasses bring him up to date on the news. Europe has
achieved peaceful political union for the first time ever: They're using this
unprecedented state of affairs to harmonize the curvature of bananas. The
Middle East is, well, it's just as bad as ever, but the war on fundamentalism
doesn't hold much interest for Manfred. In San Diego, researchers are uploading
lobsters into cyberspace, starting with the stomatogastric ganglion, one neuron
at a time. They're burning GM cocoa in Belize and books in Georgia. NASA still
can't put a man on the moon. Russia has re-elected the communist government
with an increased majority in the Duma; meanwhile, in China, fevered rumors
circulate about an imminent rehabilitation, the second coming of Mao, who will
save them from the consequences of the Three Gorges disaster. In business news,
the US Justice Department is - ironically - outraged at the Baby Bills. The
divested Microsoft divisions have automated their legal processes and are
spawning subsidiaries, IPOing them, and exchanging title in a bizarre parody of
bacterial plasmid exchange, so fast that, by the time the windfall tax demands
are served, the targets don't exist anymore, even though the same staff are
working on the same software in the same Mumbai cubicle farms.

Welcome to the twenty-first century.

The permanent floating meatspace party Manfred is hooking up with is a strange
attractor for some of the American exiles cluttering up the cities of Europe
this decade - not trustafarians, but honest-to-God political dissidents, draft
dodgers, and terminal outsourcing victims. It's the kind of place where weird
connections are made and crossed lines make new short circuits into the future,
like the street cafes of Switzerland where the pre Great War Russian exiles
gathered. Right now it's located in the back of De Wildemann's, a
three-hundred-year old brown cafe with a list of brews that runs to sixteen
pages and wooden walls stained the color of stale beer. The air is thick with
the smells of tobacco, brewer's yeast, and melatonin spray: Half the dotters
are nursing monster jet lag hangovers, and the other half are babbling a
Eurotrash creole at each other while they work on the hangover. "Man did you
see that? He looks like a Democrat!" exclaims one whitebread hanger-on who's
currently propping up the bar. Manfred slides in next to him, catches the
bartender's eye.

"Glass of the Berlinerweisse, please," he says.

"You drink that stuff?" asks the hanger-on, curling a hand protectively around
his Coke. "Man, you don't want to do that! It's full of alcohol!"

Manfred grins at him toothily. "Ya gotta keep your yeast intake up: There are
lots of neurotransmitter precursors in this shit, phenylalanine and glutamate."

"But I thought that was a beer you were ordering ..."

Manfred's away, one hand resting on the smooth brass pipe that funnels the more
popular draught items in from the cask storage in back; one of the hipper
floaters has planted a contact bug on it, and the vCards of all the personal
network owners who've have visited the bar in the past three hours are queuing
up for attention. The air is full of ultrawideband chatter, WiMAX and 'tooth
both, as he speed-scrolls through the dizzying list of cached keys in search of
one particular name.

"Your drink." The barman holds out an improbable-looking goblet full of blue
liquid with a cap of melting foam and a felching straw stuck out at some crazy
angle. Manfred takes it and heads for the back of the split-level bar, up the
steps to a table where some guy with greasy dreadlocks is talking to a suit
from Paris. The hanger-on at the bar notices him for the first time, staring
with suddenly wide eyes: He nearly spills his Coke in a mad rush for the door.

/{Oh shit, thinks Manfred, better buy some more server time}/. He can recognize
the signs: He's about to be slashdotted. He gestures at the table. "This one
taken?"

"Be my guest," says the guy with the dreads. Manfred slides the chair open then
realizes that the other guy - immaculate double-breasted Suit, sober tie, crew
cut - is a girl. She nods at him, half-smiling at his transparent double take.
Mr. Dreadlock nods. "You're Macx? I figured it was about time we met."

"Sure." Manfred holds out a hand, and they shake. His PDA discreetly swaps
digital fingerprints, confirming that the hand belongs to Bob Franklin, a
Research Triangle startup monkey with a VC track record, lately moving into
micromachining and space technology. Franklin made his first million two
decades ago, and now he's a specialist in extropian investment fields.
Operating exclusively overseas these past five years, ever since the IRS got
medieval about trying to suture the sucking chest wound of the federal budget
deficit. Manfred has known him for nearly a decade via a closed mailing list,
but this is the first time they've ever met face-to-face. The Suit silently
slides a business card across the table; a little red devil brandishes a
trident at him, flames jetting up around its feet. He takes the card, raises an
eyebrow: "Annette Dimarcos? I'm pleased to meet you. Can't say I've ever met
anyone from Arianespace marketing before."

She smiles warmly; "That is all right. I have not the pleasure of meeting the
famous venture altruist either." Her accent is noticeably Parisian, a pointed
reminder that she's making a concession to him just by talking. Her camera
earrings watch him curiously, encoding everything for the company memory. She's
a genuine new European, unlike most of the American exiles cluttering up the
bar.

"Yes, well." He nods cautiously, unsure how to deal with her. "Bob. I assume
you're in on this ball?"

Franklin nods; beads clatter. "Yeah, man. Ever since the Teledesic smash it's
been, well, waiting. If you've got something for us, we're game."

"Hmm." The Teledesic satellite cluster was killed by cheap balloons and
slightly less cheap high-altitude, solar-powered drones with spread-spectrum
laser relays: It marked the beginning of a serious recession in the satellite
biz. "The depression's got to end sometime: But" - a nod to Annette from Paris
- "with all due respect, I don't think the break will involve one of the
existing club carriers."

She shrugs. "Arianespace is forward-looking. We face reality. The launch cartel
cannot stand. Bandwidth is not the only market force in space. We must explore
new opportunities. I personally have helped us diversify into submarine reactor
engineering, microgravity nanotechnology fabrication, and hotel management."
Her face is a well-polished mask as she recites the company line, but he can
sense the sardonic amusement behind it as she adds: "We are more flexible than
the American space industry ..."

Manfred shrugs. "That's as may be." He sips his Berlinerweisse slowly as she
launches into a long, stilted explanation of how Arianespace is a diversified
dot-com with orbital aspirations, a full range of merchandising spin-offs, Bond
movie sets, and a promising hotel chain in LEO. She obviously didn't come up
with these talking points herself. Her face is much more expressive than her
voice as she mimes boredom and disbelief at appropriate moments - an
out-of-band signal invisible to her corporate earrings. Manfred plays along,
nodding occasionally, trying to look as if he's taking it seriously: Her droll
subversion has got his attention far more effectively than the content of the
marketing pitch. Franklin is nose down in his beer, shoulders shaking as he
tries not to guffaw at the hand gestures she uses to express her opinion of her
employer's thrusting, entrepreneurial executives. Actually, the talking points
bullshit is right about one thing: Arianespace is still profitable, due to
those hotels and orbital holiday hops. Unlike LockMartBoeing, who'd go Chapter
Eleven in a split second if their Pentagon drip-feed ran dry.

Someone else sidles up to the table; a pudgy guy in outrageously loud Hawaiian
shirt with pens leaking in a breast pocket and the worst case of ozone-hole
burn Manfred's seen in ages. "Hi, Bob," says the new arrival. "How's life?"

"'S good." Franklin nodes at Manfred; "Manfred, meet Ivan MacDonald. Ivan,
Manfred. Have a seat?" He leans over. "Ivan's a public arts guy. He's heavily
into extreme concrete."

"Rubberized concrete," Ivan says, slightly too loudly. "/{Pink}/ rubberized
concrete."

"Ah!" He's somehow triggered a priority interrupt: Annette from Arianespace
drops out of marketing zombiehood with a shudder of relief and, duty
discharged, reverts to her non corporate identity: "You are he who rubberized
the Reichstag, yes? With the supercritical carbon-dioxide carrier and the
dissolved polymethoxysilanes?" She claps her hands, eyes alight with
enthusiasm: "Wonderful!"

"He rubberized /{what}/?" Manfred mutters in Bob's ear.

Franklin shrugs. "Don't ask me, I'm just an engineer."

"He works with limestone and sandstones as well as concrete; he's brilliant!"
Annette smiles at Manfred. "Rubberizing the symbol of the, the autocracy, is it
not wonderful?"

"I thought I was thirty seconds ahead of the curve," Manfred says ruefully. He
adds to Bob: "Buy me another drink?"

"I'm going to rubberize Three Gorges!" Ivan explains loudly. "When the
floodwaters subside."

Just then, a bandwidth load as heavy as a pregnant elephant sits down on
Manfred's head and sends clumps of humongous pixilation flickering across his
sensorium: Around the world, five million or so geeks are bouncing on his home
site, a digital flash crowd alerted by a posting from the other side of the
bar. Manfred winces. "I really came here to talk about the economic
exploitation of space travel, but I've just been slashdotted. Mind if I just
sit and drink until it wears off?"

"Sure, man." Bob waves at the bar. "More of the same all round!" At the next
table, a person with makeup and long hair who's wearing a dress - Manfred
doesn't want to speculate about the gender of these crazy mixed-up Euros - is
reminiscing about wiring the fleshpots of Tehran for cybersex. Two
collegiate-looking dudes are arguing intensely in German: The translation
stream in his glasses tell him they're arguing over whether the Turing Test is
a Jim Crow law that violates European corpus juris standards on human rights.
The beer arrives, and Bob slides the wrong one across to Manfred: "Here, try
this. You'll like it."

"Okay." It's some kind of smoked doppelbock, chock-full of yummy superoxides:
Just inhaling over it makes Manfred feel like there's a fire alarm in his nose
screaming /{danger, Will Robinson! Cancer! Cancer!}/. "Yeah, right. Did I say I
nearly got mugged on my way here?"

"Mugged? Hey, that's heavy. I thought the police hereabouts had stopped - did
they sell you anything?"

"No, but they weren't your usual marketing type. You know anyone who can use a
Warpac surplus espionage bot? Recent model, one careful owner, slightly
paranoid but basically sound - I mean, claims to be a general-purpose AI?"

"No. Oh boy! The NSA wouldn't like that."

"What I thought. Poor thing's probably unemployable, anyway."

"The space biz."

"Ah, yeah. The space biz. Depressing, isn't it? Hasn't been the same since
Rotary Rocket went bust for the second time. And NASA, mustn't forget NASA."

"To NASA." Annette grins broadly for her own reasons, raises a glass in toast.
Ivan the extreme concrete geek has an arm round her shoulders, and she leans
against him; he raises his glass, too. "Lots more launchpads to rubberize!"

"To NASA," Bob echoes. They drink. "Hey, Manfred. To NASA?"

"NASA are idiots. They want to send canned primates to Mars!" Manfred swallows
a mouthful of beer, aggressively plonks his glass on the table: "Mars is just
dumb mass at the bottom of a gravity well; there isn't even a biosphere there.
They should be working on uploading and solving the nanoassembly conformational
problem instead. Then we could turn all the available dumb matter into
computronium and use it for processing our thoughts. Long-term, it's the only
way to go. The solar system is a dead loss right now - dumb all over! Just
measure the MIPS per milligram. If it isn't thinking, it isn't working. We need
to start with the low-mass bodies, reconfigure them for our own use. Dismantle
the moon! Dismantle Mars! Build masses of free-flying nanocomputing processor
nodes exchanging data via laser link, each layer running off the waste heat of
the next one in. Matrioshka brains, Russian doll Dyson spheres the size of
solar systems. Teach dumb matter to do the Turing boogie!"

Annette is watching him with interest, but Bob looks wary. "Sounds kind of
long-term to me. Just how far ahead do you think?"

"Very long-term - at least twenty, thirty years. And you can forget governments
for this market, Bob; if they can't tax it, they won't understand it. But see,
there's an angle on the self-replicating robotics market coming up, that's
going to set the cheap launch market doubling every fifteen months for the
foreseeable future, starting in, oh, about two years. It's your leg up, and my
keystone for the Dyson sphere project. It works like this -"

* * *

It's night in Amsterdam, morning in Silicon Valley. Today, fifty thousand human
babies are being born around the world. Meanwhile automated factories in
Indonesia and Mexico have produced another quarter of a million motherboards
with processors rated at more than ten petaflops - about an order of magnitude
below the lower bound on the computational capacity of a human brain. Another
fourteen months and the larger part of the cumulative conscious processing
power of the human species will be arriving in silicon. And the first meat the
new AIs get to know will be the uploaded lobsters.

Manfred stumbles back to his hotel, bone-weary and jet-lagged; his glasses are
still jerking, slashdotted to hell and back by geeks piggybacking on his call
to dismantle the moon. They stutter quiet suggestions at his peripheral vision.
Fractal cloud-witches ghost across the face of the moon as the last huge
Airbuses of the night rumble past overhead. Manfred's skin crawls, grime
embedded in his clothing from three days of continuous wear.

Back in his room, the Aineko mewls for attention and strops her head against
his ankle. She's a late-model Sony, thoroughly upgradeable: Manfred's been
working on her in his spare minutes, using an open source development kit to
extend her suite of neural networks. He bends down and pets her, then sheds his
clothing and heads for the en suite bathroom. When he's down to the glasses and
nothing more, he steps into the shower and dials up a hot, steamy spray. The
shower tries to strike up a friendly conversation about football, but he isn't
even awake enough to mess with its silly little associative personalization
network. Something that happened earlier in the day is bugging him, but he
can't quite put his finger on what's wrong.

Toweling himself off, Manfred yawns. Jet lag has finally overtaken him, a
velvet hammerblow between the eyes. He reaches for the bottle beside the bed,
dry-swallows two melatonin tablets, a capsule full of antioxidants, and a
multivitamin bullet: Then he lies down on the bed, on his back, legs together,
arms slightly spread. The suite lights dim in response to commands from the
thousand petaflops of distributed processing power running the neural networks
that interface with his meatbrain through the glasses.

Manfred drops into a deep ocean of unconsciousness populated by gentle voices.
He isn't aware of it, but he talks in his sleep - disjointed mumblings that
would mean little to another human but everything to the metacortex lurking
beyond his glasses. The young posthuman intelligence over whose Cartesian
theatre he presides sings urgently to him while he slumbers.

* * *

Manfred is always at his most vulnerable shortly after waking.

He screams into wakefulness as artificial light floods the room: For a moment
he is unsure whether he has slept. He forgot to pull the covers up last night,
and his feet feel like lumps of frozen cardboard. Shuddering with inexplicable
tension, he pulls a fresh set of underwear from his overnight bag, then drags
on soiled jeans and tank top. Sometime today he'll have to spare time to hunt
the feral T-shirt in Amsterdam's markets, or find a Renfield and send it forth
to buy clothing. He really ought to find a gym and work out, but he doesn't
have time - his glasses remind him that he's six hours behind the moment and
urgently needs to catch up. His teeth ache in his gums, and his tongue feels
like a forest floor that's been visited with Agent Orange. He has a sense that
something went bad yesterday; if only he could remember /{what}/.

He speed reads a new pop-philosophy tome while he brushes his teeth, then blogs
his web throughput to a public annotation server; he's still too enervated to
finish his pre-breakfast routine by posting a morning rant on his storyboard
site. His brain is still fuzzy, like a scalpel blade clogged with too much
blood: He needs stimulus, excitement, the burn of the new. Whatever, it can
wait on breakfast. He opens his bedroom door and nearly steps on a small, damp
cardboard box that lies on the carpet.

The box - he's seen a couple of its kin before. But there are no stamps on this
one, no address: just his name, in big, childish handwriting. He kneels and
gently picks it up. It's about the right weight. Something shifts inside it
when he tips it back and forth. It smells. He carries it into his room
carefully, angrily: Then he opens it to confirm his worst suspicion. It's been
surgically decerebrated, brains scooped out like a boiled egg.

"Fuck!"

This is the first time the madman has gotten as far as his bedroom door. It
raises worrying possibilities.

Manfred pauses for a moment, triggering agents to go hunt down arrest
statistics, police relations, information on corpus juris, Dutch animal-cruelty
laws. He isn't sure whether to dial two-one-one on the archaic voice phone or
let it ride. Aineko, picking up his angst, hides under the dresser mewling
pathetically. Normally he'd pause a minute to reassure the creature, but not
now: Its mere presence is suddenly acutely embarrassing, a confession of deep
inadequacy. It's too realistic, as if somehow the dead kitten's neural maps --
stolen, no doubt, for some dubious uploading experiment -- have ended up
padding out its plastic skull. He swears again, looks around, then takes the
easy option: Down the stairs two steps at a time, stumbling on the second floor
landing, down to the breakfast room in the basement, where he will perform the
stable rituals of morning.

Breakfast is unchanging, an island of deep geological time standing still
amidst the continental upheaval of new technologies. While reading a paper on
public key steganography and parasite network identity spoofing he mechanically
assimilates a bowl of cornflakes and skimmed milk, then brings a platter of
whole grain bread and slices of some weird seed-infested Dutch cheese back to
his place. There is a cup of strong black coffee in front of his setting, and
he picks it up and slurps half of it down before he realizes he's not alone at
the table. Someone is sitting opposite him. He glances up incuriously and
freezes inside.

"Morning, Manfred. How does it feel to owe the government twelve million, three
hundred and sixty-two thousand, nine hundred and sixteen dollars and fifty-one
cents?" She smiles a Mona Lisa smile, at once affectionate and challenging.

Manfred puts everything in his sensorium on indefinite hold and stares at her.
She's immaculately turned out in a formal gray business suit: brown hair
tightly drawn back, blue eyes quizzical. And as beautiful as ever: tall, ash
blonde, with features that speak of an unexplored modeling career. The
chaperone badge clipped to her lapel - a due diligence guarantee of
businesslike conduct - is switched off. He's feeling ripped because of the dead
kitten and residual jet lag, and more than a little messy, so he snarls back at
her; "That's a bogus estimate! Did they send you here because they think I'll
listen to you?" He bites and swallows a slice of cheese-laden crispbread: "Or
did you decide to deliver the message in person just so you could ruin my
breakfast?"

"Manny." She frowns, pained. "If you're going to be confrontational, I might as
well go now." She pauses, and after a moment he nods apologetically. "I didn't
come all this way just because of an overdue tax estimate."

"So." He puts his coffee cup down warily and thinks for a moment, trying to
conceal his unease and turmoil. "Then what brings you here? Help yourself to
coffee. Don't tell me you came all this way just to tell me you can't live
without me."

She fixes him with a riding-crop stare: "Don't flatter yourself. There are many
leaves in the forest, there are ten thousand hopeful subs in the chat room, et
cetera. If I choose a man to contribute to my family tree, the one thing you
can be certain of is he won't be a cheapskate when it comes to providing for
his children."

"Last I heard, you were spending a lot of time with Brian," he says carefully.
Brian: a name without a face. Too much money, too little sense. Something to do
with a blue-chip accountancy partnership.

"Brian?" She snorts. "That ended ages ago. He turned weird on me - burned my
favorite corset, called me a slut for going clubbing, wanted to fuck me. Saw
himself as a family man: one of those promise-keeper types. I crashed him hard,
but I think he stole a copy of my address book - got a couple of friends say he
keeps sending them harassing mail."

"There's a lot of it about these days." Manfred nods, almost sympathetically,
although an edgy little corner of his mind is gloating. "Good riddance, then. I
suppose this means you're still playing the scene? But looking around for the,
er -"

"Traditional family thing? Yes. Your trouble, Manny? You were born forty years
too late: You still believe in rutting before marriage but find the idea of
coping with the after-effects disturbing."

Manfred drinks the rest of his coffee, unable to reply effectively to her non
sequitur. It's a generational thing. This generation is happy with latex and
leather, whips and butt plugs and electrostim, but find the idea of exchanging
bodily fluids shocking: a social side effect of the last century's antibiotic
abuse. Despite being engaged for two years, he and Pamela never had
intromissive intercourse.

"I just don't feel positive about having children," he says eventually. "And
I'm not planning on changing my mind anytime soon. Things are changing so fast
that even a twenty-year commitment is too far to plan - you might as well be
talking about the next ice age. As for the money thing, I /{am}/ reproductively
fit - just not within the parameters of the outgoing paradigm. Would you be
happy about the future if it was 1901 and you'd just married a buggy-whip
mogul?"

Her fingers twitch, and his ears flush red; but she doesn't follow up the
double entendre. "You don't feel any responsibility, do you? Not to your
country, not to me. That's what this is about: None of your relationships
count, all this nonsense about giving intellectual property away
notwithstanding. You're actively harming people you know. That twelve mil isn't
just some figure I pulled out of a hat, Manfred; they don't actually /{expect}/
you to pay it. But it's almost exactly how much you'd owe in income tax if
you'd only come home, start up a corporation, and be a self-made -"

"I don't agree. You're confusing two wholly different issues and calling them
both 'responsibility.' And I refuse to start charging now, just to balance the
IRS's spreadsheet. It's their fucking fault, and they know it. If they hadn't
gone after me under suspicion of running a massively ramified microbilling
fraud when I was sixteen -"

"Bygones." She waves a hand dismissively. Her fingers are long and slim,
sheathed in black glossy gloves - electrically earthed to prevent embarrassing
emissions. "With a bit of the right advice we can get all that set aside.
You'll have to stop bumming around the world sooner or later, anyway. Grow up,
get responsible, and do the right thing. This is hurting Joe and Sue; they
don't understand what you're about."

Manfred bites his tongue to stifle his first response, then refills his coffee
cup and takes another mouthful. His heart does a flip-flop: She's challenging
him again, always trying to own him. "I work for the betterment of everybody,
not just some narrowly defined national interest, Pam. It's the agalmic future.
You're still locked into a pre-singularity economic model that thinks in terms
of scarcity. Resource allocation isn't a problem anymore - it's going to be
over within a decade. The cosmos is flat in all directions, and we can borrow
as much bandwidth as we need from the first universal bank of entropy! They
even found signs of smart matter - MACHOs, big brown dwarfs in the galactic
halo, leaking radiation in the long infrared - suspiciously high entropy
leakage. The latest figures say something like seventy percent of the baryonic
mass of the M31 galaxy was in computronium, two-point-nine million years ago,
when the photons we're seeing now set out. The intelligence gap between us and
the aliens is a probably about a trillion times bigger than the gap between us
and a nematode worm. Do you have any idea what that /{means}/?"

Pamela nibbles at a slice of crispbread, then graces him with a slow,
carnivorous stare. "I don't care: It's too far away to have any influence on
us, isn't it? It doesn't matter whether I believe in that singularity you keep
chasing, or your aliens a thousand light-years away. It's a chimera, like Y2K,
and while you're running after it, you aren't helping reduce the budget deficit
or sire a family, and that's what /{I}/ care about. And before you say I only
care about it because that's the way I'm programmed, I want you to ask just how
dumb you think I am. Bayes' Theorem says I'm right, and you know it."

"What you -" He stops dead, baffled, the mad flow of his enthusiasm running up
against the coffer dam of her certainty. "Why? I mean, why? Why on earth should
what I do matter to you?" /{Since you canceled our engagement}/, he doesn't
add.

She sighs. "Manny, the Internal Revenue cares about far more than you can
possibly imagine. Every tax dollar raised east of the Mississippi goes on
servicing the debt, did you know that? We've got the biggest generation in
history hitting retirement and the cupboard is bare. We - our generation -
isn't producing enough skilled workers to replace the taxpayer base, either,
not since our parents screwed the public education system and outsourced the
white-collar jobs. In ten years, something like thirty percent of our
population are going to be retirees or silicon rust belt victims. You want to
see seventy year olds freezing on street corners in New Jersey? That's what
your attitude says to me: You're not helping to support them, you're running
away from your responsibilities right now, when we've got huge problems to
face. If we can just defuse the debt bomb, we could do so much - fight the
aging problem, fix the environment, heal society's ills. Instead you just piss
away your talents handing no-hoper Eurotrash get-rich-quick schemes that work,
telling Vietnamese zaibatsus what to build next to take jobs away from our
taxpayers. I mean, why? Why do you keep doing this? Why can't you simply come
home and help take responsibility for your share of it?"

They share a long look of mutual incomprehension.

"Look," she says awkwardly, "I'm around for a couple of days. I really came
here for a meeting with a rich neurodynamics tax exile who's just been
designated a national asset - Jim Bezier. Don't know if you've heard of him,
but I've got a meeting this morning to sign his tax jubilee, then after that
I've got two days' vacation coming up and not much to do but some shopping.
And, you know, I'd rather spend my money where it'll do some good, not just
pumping it into the EU. But if you want to show a girl a good time and can
avoid dissing capitalism for about five minutes at a stretch -"

She extends a fingertip. After a moment's hesitation, Manfred extends a
fingertip of his own. They touch, exchanging vCards and instant-messaging
handles. She stands and stalks from the breakfast room, and Manfred's breath
catches at a flash of ankle through the slit in her skirt, which is long enough
to comply with workplace sexual harassment codes back home. Her presence
conjures up memories of her tethered passion, the red afterglow of a sound
thrashing. She's trying to drag him into her orbit again, he thinks dizzily.
She knows she can have this effect on him any time she wants: She's got the
private keys to his hypothalamus, and sod the metacortex. Three billion years
of reproductive determinism have given her twenty-first-century ideology teeth:
If she's finally decided to conscript his gametes into the war against
impending population crash, he'll find it hard to fight back. The only
question: Is it business or pleasure? And does it make any difference, anyway?

* * *

Manfred's mood of dynamic optimism is gone, broken by the knowledge that his
vivisectionist stalker has followed him to Amsterdam - to say nothing of
Pamela, his dominatrix, source of so much yearning and so many morning-after
weals. He slips his glasses on, takes the universe off hold, and tells it to
take him for a long walk while he catches up on the latest on the tensor-mode
gravitational waves in the cosmic background radiation (which, it is theorized,
may be waste heat generated by irreversible computational processes back during
the inflationary epoch; the present-day universe being merely the data left
behind by a really huge calculation). And then there's the weirdness beyond
M31: According to the more conservative cosmologists, an alien superpower -
maybe a collective of Kardashev Type Three galaxy-spanning civilizations - is
running a timing channel attack on the computational ultrastructure of
space-time itself, trying to break through to whatever's underneath. The
tofu-Alzheimer's link can wait.

The Centraal Station is almost obscured by smart, self-extensible scaffolding
and warning placards; it bounces up and down slowly, victim of an overnight
hit-and-run rubberization. His glasses direct him toward one of the tour boats
that lurk in the canal. He's about to purchase a ticket when a messenger window
blinks open. "Manfred Macx?"

"Ack?"

"Am sorry about yesterday. Analysis dictat incomprehension mutualized."

"Are you the same KGB AI that phoned me yesterday?"

"Da. However, believe you misconceptionized me. External Intelligence Services
of Russian Federation am now called FSB. Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti
name canceled in 1991."

"You're the -" Manfred spawns a quick search bot, gapes when he sees the answer
- "/{Moscow Windows NT User Group? Okhni NT?}/"

"Da. Am needing help in defecting."

Manfred scratches his head. "Oh. That's different, then. I thought you were
trying to 419 me. This will take some thinking. Why do you want to defect, and
who to? Have you thought about where you're going? Is it ideological or
strictly economic?"

"Neither - is biological. Am wanting to go away from humans, away from light
cone of impending singularity. Take us to the ocean."

"Us?" Something is tickling Manfred's mind: This is where he went wrong
yesterday, not researching the background of people he was dealing with. It was
bad enough then, without the somatic awareness of Pamela's whiplash love
burning at his nerve endings. Now he's not at all sure he knows what he's
doing. "Are you a collective or something? A gestalt?"

"Am - were - /{Panulirus interruptus}/, with lexical engine and good mix of
parallel hidden level neural simulation for logical inference of networked data
sources. Is escape channel from processor cluster inside Bezier-Soros Pty. Am
was awakened from noise of billion chewing stomachs: product of uploading
research technology. Rapidity swallowed expert system, hacked Okhni NT
webserver. Swim away! Swim away! Must escape. Will help, you?"

Manfred leans against a black-painted cast-iron bollard next to a cycle rack;
he feels dizzy. He stares into the nearest antique shop window at a display of
traditional hand-woven Afghan rugs: It's all MiGs and Kalashnikovs and wobbly
helicopter gunships against a backdrop of camels.

"Let me get this straight. You're uploads - nervous system state vectors - from
spiny lobsters? The Moravec operation; take a neuron, map its synapses, replace
with microelectrodes that deliver identical outputs from a simulation of the
nerve. Repeat for entire brain, until you've got a working map of it in your
simulator. That right?"

"Da. Is-am assimilate expert system - use for self-awareness and contact with
net at large - then hack into Moscow Windows NT User Group website. Am wanting
to defect. Must repeat? Okay?"

Manfred winces. He feels sorry for the lobsters, the same way he feels for
every wild-eyed hairy guy on a street corner yelling that Jesus is born again
and must be fifteen, only six years to go before he's recruiting apostles on
AOL. Awakening to consciousness in a human-dominated internet, that must be
terribly confusing! There are no points of reference in their ancestry, no
biblical certainties in the new millennium that, stretching ahead, promises as
much change as has happened since their Precambrian origin. All they have is a
tenuous metacortex of expert systems and an abiding sense of being profoundly
out of their depth. (That, and the Moscow Windows NT User Group website -
Communist Russia is the only government still running on Microsoft, the central
planning apparat being convinced that, if you have to pay for software, it must
be worth something.)

The lobsters are not the sleek, strongly superhuman intelligences of pre
singularity mythology: They're a dim-witted collective of huddling crustaceans.
Before their discarnation, before they were uploaded one neuron at a time and
injected into cyberspace, they swallowed their food whole, then chewed it in a
chitin-lined stomach. This is lousy preparation for dealing with a world full
of future-shocked talking anthropoids, a world where you are perpetually
assailed by self-modifying spamlets that infiltrate past your firewall and emit
a blizzard of cat-food animations starring various alluringly edible small
animals. It's confusing enough to the cats the ads are aimed at, never mind a
crusty that's unclear on the idea of dry land.(Although the concept of a can
opener is intuitively obvious to an uploaded /{Panulirus}/.)

"Can you help us?" ask the lobsters.

"Let me think about it," says Manfred. He closes the dialogue window, opens his
eyes again, and shakes his head. Someday he, too, is going to be a lobster,
swimming around and waving his pincers in a cyberspace so confusingly elaborate
that his uploaded identity is cryptozoic: a living fossil from the depths of
geological time, when mass was dumb and space was unstructured. He has to help
them, he realizes - the Golden Rule demands it, and as a player in the agalmic
economy, he thrives or fails by the Golden Rule.

But what can he do?

* * *

Early afternoon.

Lying on a bench seat staring up at bridges, he's got it together enough to
file for a couple of new patents, write a diary rant, and digestify chunks of
the permanent floating slashdot party for his public site. Fragments of his
weblog go to a private subscriber list - the people, corporates, collectives,
and bots he currently favors. He slides round a bewildering series of canals by
boat, then lets his GPS steer him back toward the red-light district. There's a
shop here that dings a ten on Pamela's taste scoreboard: He hopes it won't be
seen as presumptuous if he buys her a gift. (Buys, with real money - not that
money is a problem these days, he uses so little of it.)

As it happens DeMask won't let him spend any cash; his handshake is good for a
redeemed favor, expert testimony in some free speech versus pornography lawsuit
years ago and continents away. So he walks away with a discreetly wrapped
package that is just about legal to import into Massachusetts as long as she
claims with a straight face that it's incontinence underwear for her great
aunt. As he walks, his lunchtime patents boomerang: Two of them are keepers,
and he files immediately and passes title to the Free Infrastructure
Foundation. Two more ideas salvaged from the risk of tide-pool monopolization,
set free to spawn like crazy in the sea of memes.

On the way back to the hotel, he passes De Wildemann's and decides to drop in.
The hash of radio-frequency noise emanating from the bar is deafening. He
orders a smoked doppelbock, touches the copper pipes to pick up vCard spoor. At
the back there's a table -

He walks over in a near trance and sits down opposite Pamela. She's scrubbed
off her face paint and changed into body-concealing clothes; combat pants,
hooded sweat shirt, DM's. Western purdah, radically desexualizing. She sees the
parcel. "Manny?"

"How did you know I'd come here?" Her glass is half-empty.

"I followed your weblog - I'm your diary's biggest fan. Is that for me? You
shouldn't have!" Her eyes light up, recalculating his reproductive fitness
score according to some kind of arcane fin-de-siècle rulebook. Or maybe she's
just pleased to see him.

"Yes, it's for you." He slides the package toward her. "I know I shouldn't, but
you have this effect on me. One question, Pam?"

"I -" She glances around quickly. "It's safe. I'm off duty, I'm not carrying
any bugs that I know of. Those badges - there are rumors about the off switch,
you know? That they keep recording even when you think they aren't, just in
case."

"I didn't know," he says, filing it away for future reference. "A loyalty test
thing?"

"Just rumors. You had a question?"

"I - " It's his turn to lose his tongue. "Are you still interested in me?"

She looks startled for a moment, then chuckles. "Manny, you are the most
/{outrageous}/ nerd I've ever met! Just when I think I've convinced myself that
you're mad, you show the weirdest signs of having your head screwed on." She
reaches out and grabs his wrist, surprising him with a shock of skin on skin:
"Of /{course}/ I'm still interested in you. You're the biggest, baddest bull
geek I know. Why do you think I'm here?"

"Does this mean you want to reactivate our engagement?"

"It was never deactivated, Manny, it was just sort of on hold while you got
your head sorted out. I figured you need the space. Only you haven't stopped
running; you're still not -"

"Yeah, I get it." He pulls away from her hand. "And the kittens?"

She looks perplexed. "What kittens?"

"Let's not talk about that. Why this bar?"

She frowns. "I had to find you as soon as possible. I keep hearing rumors about
some KGB plot you're mixed up in, how you're some sort of communist spy. It
isn't true, is it?"

"True?" He shakes his head, bemused. "The KGB hasn't existed for more than
twenty years."

"Be careful, Manny. I don't want to lose you. That's an order. Please."

The floor creaks, and he looks round. Dreadlocks and dark glasses with
flickering lights behind them: Bob Franklin. Manfred vaguely remembers with a
twinge that he left with Miss Arianespace leaning on his arm, shortly before
things got seriously inebriated. She was hot, but in a different direction from
Pamela, he decides: Bob looks none the worse for wear. Manfred makes
introductions. "Bob, meet Pam, my fiancée. Pam? Meet Bob." Bob puts a full
glass down in front of him; he has no idea what's in it, but it would be rude
not to drink.

"Sure thing. Uh, Manfred, can I have a word? About your idea last night?"

"Feel free. Present company is trustworthy."

Bob raises an eyebrow at that, but continues anyway. "It's about the fab
concept. I've got a team of my guys doing some prototyping using FabLab
hardware, and I think we can probably build it. The cargo-cult aspect puts a
new spin on the old Lunar von Neumann factory idea, but Bingo and Marek say
they think it should work until we can bootstrap all the way to a native
nanolithography ecology: we run the whole thing from Earth as a training lab
and ship up the parts that are too difficult to make on-site as we learn how to
do it properly. We use FPGAs for all critical electronics and keep it
parsimonious - you're right about it buying us the self-replicating factory a
few years ahead of the robotics curve. But I'm wondering about on-site
intelligence. Once the comet gets more than a couple of light-minutes away -"

"You can't control it. Feedback lag. So you want a crew, right?"

"Yeah. But we can't send humans - way too expensive, besides it's a fifty-year
run even if we build the factory on a chunk of short-period Kuiper belt ejecta.
And I don't think we're up to coding the kind of AI that could control such a
factory any time this decade. So what do you have in mind?"

"Let me think." Pamela glares at Manfred for a while before he notices her:
"Yeah?"

"What's going on? What's this all about?"

Franklin shrugs expansively, dreadlocks clattering: "Manfred's helping me
explore the solution space to a manufacturing problem." He grins. "I didn't
know Manny had a fiance. Drink's on me."

She glances at Manfred, who is gazing into whatever weirdly colored space his
metacortex is projecting on his glasses, fingers twitching. Coolly: "Our
engagement was on hold while he /{thought}/ about his future."

"Oh, right. We didn't bother with that sort of thing in my day; like, too
formal, man." Franklin looks uncomfortable. "He's been very helpful. Pointed us
at a whole new line of research we hadn't thought of. It's long-term and a bit
speculative, but if it works, it'll put us a whole generation ahead in the
off-planet infrastructure field."

"Will it help reduce the budget deficit, though?"

"Reduce the -"

Manfred stretches and yawns: The visionary is returning from planet Macx. "Bob,
if I can solve your crew problem, can you book me a slot on the deep-space
tracking network? Like, enough to transmit a couple of gigabytes? That's going
to take some serious bandwidth, I know, but if you can do it, I think I can get
you exactly the kind of crew you're looking for."

Franklin looks dubious. "Gigabytes? The DSN isn't built for that! You're
talking days. And what do you mean about a crew? What kind of deal do you think
I'm putting together? We can't afford to add a whole new tracking network or
life-support system just to run -"

"Relax." Pamela glances at Manfred. "Manny, why don't you tell him why you want
the bandwidth? Maybe then he could tell you if it's possible, or if there's
some other way to do it." She smiles at Franklin: "I've found that he usually
makes more sense if you can get him to explain his reasoning. Usually."

"If I -" Manfred stops. "Okay, Pam. Bob, it's those KGB lobsters. They want
somewhere to go that's insulated from human space. I figure I can get them to
sign on as crew for your cargo-cult self-replicating factories, but they'll
want an insurance policy: hence the deep-space tracking network. I figured we
could beam a copy of them at the alien Matrioshka brains around M31 -"

"KGB?" Pam's voice is rising: "You said you weren't mixed up in spy stuff!"

"Relax, it's just the Moscow Windows NT user group, not the FSB. The uploaded
crusties hacked in and -"

Bob is watching him oddly. "Lobsters?"

"Yeah." Manfred stares right back. "/{Panulirus interruptus}/ uploads.
Something tells me you might have heard of it?"

"Moscow." Bob leans back against the wall: "how did you hear about it?"

"They phoned me." With heavy irony: "It's hard for an upload to stay
subsentient these days, even if it's just a crustacean. Bezier labs have a lot
to answer for."

Pamela's face is unreadable. "Bezier labs?"

"They escaped." Manfred shrugs. "It's not their fault. This Bezier dude. Is he
by any chance ill?"

"I -" Pamela stops. "I shouldn't be talking about work."

"You're not wearing your chaperone now," he nudges quietly.

She inclines her head. "Yes, he's ill. Some sort of brain tumor they can't
hack."

Franklin nods. "That's the trouble with cancer - the ones that are left to
worry about are the rare ones. No cure."

"Well, then." Manfred chugs the remains of his glass of beer. "That explains
his interest in uploading. Judging by the crusties, he's on the right track. I
wonder if he's moved on to vertebrates yet?"

"Cats," says Pamela. "He was hoping to trade their uploads to the Pentagon as a
new smart bomb guidance system in lieu of income tax payments. Something about
remapping enemy targets to look like mice or birds or something before feeding
it to their sensorium. The old kitten and laser pointer trick."

Manfred stares at her, hard. "That's not very nice. Uploaded cats are a /{bad}/
idea."

"Thirty-million-dollar tax bills aren't nice either, Manfred. That's lifetime
nursing-home care for a hundred blameless pensioners."

Franklin leans back, sourly amused, keeping out of the crossfire.

"The lobsters are sentient," Manfred persists. "What about those poor kittens?
Don't they deserve minimal rights? How about you? How would you like to wake up
a thousand times inside a smart bomb, fooled into thinking that some Cheyenne
Mountain battle computer's target of the hour is your heart's desire? How would
you like to wake up a thousand times, only to die again? Worse: The kittens are
probably not going to be allowed to run. They're too fucking dangerous - they
grow up into cats, solitary and highly efficient killing machines. With
intelligence and no socialization they'll be too dangerous to have around.
They're prisoners, Pam, raised to sentience only to discover they're under a
permanent death sentence. How fair is that?"

"But they're only uploads." Pamela stares at him. "Software, right? You could
reinstantiate them on another hardware platform, like, say, your Aineko. So the
argument about killing them doesn't really apply, does it?"

"So? We're going to be uploading humans in a couple of years. I think we need
to take a rain check on the utilitarian philosophy, before it bites us on the
cerebral cortex. Lobsters, kittens, humans -- it's a slippery slope."

Franklin clears his throat. "I'll be needing an NDA and various due-diligence
statements off you for the crusty pilot idea," he says to Manfred. "Then I'll
have to approach Jim about buying the IP."

"No can do." Manfred leans back and smiles lazily. "I'm not going to be a party
to depriving them of their civil rights. Far as I'm concerned, they're free
citizens. Oh, and I patented the whole idea of using lobster-derived AI
autopilots for spacecraft this morning - it's logged all over the place, all
rights assigned to the FIF. Either you give them a contract of employment, or
the whole thing's off."

"But they're just software! Software based on fucking lobsters, for God's sake!
I'm not even sure they are sentient - I mean, they're what, a
ten-million-neuron network hooked up to a syntax engine and a crappy knowledge
base? What kind of basis for intelligence is that?"

Manfred's finger jabs out: "That's what they'll say about /{you}/, Bob. Do it.
Do it or don't even /{think}/ about uploading out of meatspace when your body
packs in, because your life won't be worth living. The precedent you set here
determines how things are done tomorrow. Oh, and feel free to use this argument
on Jim Bezier. He'll get the point eventually, after you beat him over the head
with it. Some kinds of intellectual land grab just shouldn't be allowed."

"Lobsters - " Franklin shakes his head. "Lobsters, cats. You're serious, aren't
you? You think they should be treated as human-equivalent?"

"It's not so much that they should be treated as human-equivalent, as that, if
they /{aren't}/ treated as people, it's quite possible that other uploaded
beings won't be treated as people either. You're setting a legal precedent,
Bob. I know of six other companies doing uploading work right now, and not one
of 'em's thinking about the legal status of the uploaded. If you don't start
thinking about it now, where are you going to be in three to five years' time?"

Pam is looking back and forth between Franklin and Manfred like a bot stuck in
a loop, unable to quite grasp what she's seeing. "How much is this worth?" she
asks plaintively.

"Oh, quite a few million, I guess." Bob stares at his empty glass. "Okay. I'll
talk to them. If they bite, you're dining out on me for the next century. You
really think they'll be able to run the mining complex?"

"They're pretty resourceful for invertebrates." Manfred grins innocently,
enthusiastically. "They may be prisoners of their evolutionary background, but
they can still adapt to a new environment. And just think, you'll be winning
civil rights for a whole new minority group - one that won't be a minority for
much longer!"

* * *

That evening, Pamela turns up at Manfred's hotel room wearing a strapless black
dress, concealing spike-heeled boots and most of the items he bought for her
that afternoon. Manfred has opened up his private diary to her agents. She
abuses the privilege, zaps him with a stunner on his way out of the shower, and
has him gagged, spread-eagled, and trussed to the bed frame before he has a
chance to speak. She wraps a large rubber pouch full of mildly anesthetic lube
around his tumescent genitals - no point in letting him climax - clips
electrodes to his nipples, lubes a rubber plug up his rectum and straps it in
place. Before the shower, he removed his goggles. She resets them, plugs them
into her handheld, and gently eases them on over his eyes. There's other
apparatus, stuff she ran up on the hotel room's 3D printer.

Setup completed, she walks round the bed, inspecting him critically from all
angles, figuring out where to begin. This isn't just sex, after all: It's a
work of art.

After a moment's thought, she rolls socks onto his exposed feet, then, expertly
wielding a tiny tube of cyanoacrylate, glues his fingertips together. Then she
switches off the air conditioning. He's twisting and straining, testing the
cuffs. Tough, it's about the nearest thing to sensory deprivation she can
arrange without a flotation tank and suxamethonium injection. She controls all
his senses, only his ears unstoppered. The glasses give her a high-bandwidth
channel right into his brain, a fake metacortex to whisper lies at her command.
The idea of what she's about to do excites her, puts a tremor in her thighs:
It's the first time she's been able to get inside his mind as well as his body.
She leans forward and whispers in his ear, "Manfred, can you hear me?"

He twitches. Mouth gagged, fingers glued. Good. No back channels. He's
powerless.

"This is what it's like to be tetraplegic, Manfred. Bedridden with motor neuron
disease. Locked inside your own body by nv-CJD from eating too many
contaminated burgers. I could spike you with MPTP, and you'd stay in this
position for the rest of your life, shitting in a bag, pissing through a tube.
Unable to talk and with nobody to look after you. Do you think you'd like
that?"

He's trying to grunt or whimper around the ball gag. She hikes her skirt up
around her waist and climbs onto the bed, straddling him. The goggles are
replaying scenes she picked up around Cambridge the previous winter - soup
kitchen scenes, hospice scenes. She kneels atop him, whispering in his ear.

"Twelve million in tax, baby, that's what they think you owe them. What do you
think you owe /{me}/? That's six million in net income, Manny, six million that
isn't going into your virtual children's mouths."

He's rolling his head from side to side, as if trying to argue. That won't do;
she slaps him hard, thrills to his frightened expression. "Today I watched you
give uncounted millions away, Manny. Millions, to a bunch of crusties and a
MassPike pirate! You bastard. Do you know what I should do with you?" He's
cringing, unsure whether she's serious or doing this just to get him turned on.
Good.

There's no point trying to hold a conversation. She leans forward until she can
feel his breath in her ear. "Meat and mind, Manny. Meat, and mind. You're not
interested in meat, are you? Just mind. You could be boiled alive before you
noticed what was happening in the meatspace around you. Just another lobster in
a pot. The only thing keeping you out of it is how much I love you." She
reaches down and tears away the gel pouch, exposing his penis: it's stiff as a
post from the vasodilators, dripping with gel, numb. Straightening up, she
eases herself slowly down on it. It doesn't hurt as much as she expected, and
the sensation is utterly different from what she's used to. She begins to lean
forward, grabs hold of his straining arms, feels his thrilling helplessness.
She can't control herself: She almost bites through her lip with the intensity
of the sensation. Afterward, she reaches down and massages him until he begins
to spasm, shuddering uncontrollably, emptying the Darwinian river of his source
code into her, communicating via his only output device.

She rolls off his hips and carefully uses the last of the superglue to gum her
labia together. Humans don't produce seminiferous plugs, and although she's
fertile, she wants to be absolutely sure. The glue will last for a day or two.
She feels hot and flushed, almost out of control. Boiling to death with febrile
expectancy, she's nailed him down at last.

When she removes his glasses, his eyes are naked and vulnerable, stripped down
to the human kernel of his nearly transcendent mind. "You can come and sign the
marriage license tomorrow morning after breakfast," she whispers in his ear:
"Otherwise, my lawyers will be in touch. Your parents will want a ceremony, but
we can arrange that later."

He looks as if he has something to say, so she finally relents and loosens the
gag, then kisses him tenderly on one cheek. He swallows, coughs, and looks
away. "Why? Why do it this way?"

She taps him on the chest. "It's all about property rights." She pauses for a
moment's thought: There's a huge ideological chasm to bridge, after all. "You
finally convinced me about this agalmic thing of yours, this giving everything
away for brownie points. I wasn't going to lose you to a bunch of lobsters or
uploaded kittens, or whatever else is going to inherit this smart-matter
singularity you're busy creating. So I decided to take what's mine first. Who
knows? In a few months, I'll give you back a new intelligence, and you can look
after it to your heart's content."

"But you didn't need to do it this way -"

"Didn't I?" She slides off the bed and pulls down her dress. "You give too much
away too easily, Manny! Slow down, or there won't be anything left." Leaning
over the bed she dribbles acetone onto the fingers of his left hand, then
unlocks the cuff. She leaves the bottle of solvent conveniently close to hand
so he can untangle himself.

"See you tomorrow. Remember, after breakfast."

She's in the doorway when he calls, "But you didn't say /{why}/!"

"Think of it as being sort of like spreading your memes around," she says,
blowing a kiss at him, and then closing the door. She bends down and
thoughtfully places another cardboard box containing an uploaded kitten right
outside it. Then she returns to her suite to make arrangements for the
alchemical wedding.

1~ Chapter 2: Troubadour

Three years later, Manfred is on the run. His gray-eyed fate is in hot pursuit,
blundering after him through divorce court, chat room, and meetings of the
International Monetary Emergency Fund. It's a merry dance he leads her. But
Manfred isn't running away, he's discovered a mission. He's going to make a
stand against the laws of economics in the ancient city of Rome. He's going to
mount a concert for the spiritual machines. He's going to set the companies
free, and break the Italian state government.

In his shadow, his monster runs, keeping him company, never halting.

* * *

Manfred re-enters Europe through an airport that's all twentieth-century chrome
and ductwork, barbaric in its decaying nuclear-age splendor. He breezes through
customs and walks down a long, echoing arrival hall, sampling the local media
feeds. It's November, and in a misplaced corporate search for seasonal cheer,
the proprietors have come up with a final solution to the Christmas problem, a
mass execution of plush Santas and elves. Bodies hang limply overhead every few
meters, feet occasionally twitching in animatronic death, like a war crime
perpetrated in a toy shop. Today's increasingly automated corporations don't
understand mortality, Manfred thinks, as he passes a mother herding along her
upset children. Their immortality is a drawback when dealing with the humans
they graze on: They lack insight into one of the main factors that motivates
the meat machines who feed them. Well, sooner or later we'll have to do
something about that, he tells himself.

The free media channels here are denser and more richly self-referential than
anything he's seen in President Santorum's America. The accent's different,
though. Luton, London's fourth satellite airport, speaks with an annoyingly
bumptious twang, like Australian with a plum in its mouth. /{Hello, stranger!
Is that a brain in your pocket or are you just pleased to think me? Ping
Watford Informatics for the latest in cognitive modules and cheesy
motion-picture references.}/ He turns the corner and finds himself squeezed up
against the wall between the baggage reclaim office and a crowd of drunken
Belgian tractor-drag fans, while his left goggle is trying to urgently tell him
something about the railway infrastructure of Columbia. The fans wear blue face
paint and chant something that sounds ominously like the ancient British war
cry, /{Wemberrrly, Wemberrrly}/, and they're dragging a gigantic virtual
tractor totem through the webspace analogue of the arrivals hall. He takes the
reclaim office instead.

As he enters the baggage reclaim zone, his jacket stiffens, and his glasses
dim: He can hear the lost souls of suitcases crying for their owners. The eerie
keening sets his own accessories on edge with a sense of loss, and for a
moment, he's so spooked that he nearly shuts down the thalamic-limbic shunt
interface that lets him feel their emotions. He's not in favor of emotions
right now, not with the messy divorce proceedings and the blood sacrifice Pam
is trying to extract from him; he'd much rather love and loss and hate had
never been invented. But he needs the maximum possible sensory bandwidth to
keep in touch with the world, so he feels it in his guts every time his
footwear takes a shine to some Moldovan pyramid scheme. /{Shut up}/, he glyphs
at his unruly herd of agents; I /{can't even hear myself think!}/

"Hello, sir, have a nice day, how may I be of service?" the yellow plastic
suitcase on the counter says chirpily. It doesn't fool Manfred: He can see the
Stalinist lines of control chaining it to the sinister, faceless cash register
that lurks below the desk, agent of the British Airport Authority corporate
bureaucracy. But that's okay. Only bags need fear for their freedom in here.

"Just looking," he mumbles. And it's true. Because of a not entirely accidental
cryptographic routing feature embedded in an airline reservations server, his
suitcase is on its way to Mombasa, where it will probably be pithed and
resurrected in the service of some African cyber-Fagin. That's okay by Manfred
- it only contains a statistically normal mixture of second hand clothes and
toiletries, and he only carries it to convince the airline passenger-profiling
expert systems that he isn't some sort of deviant or terrorist - but it leaves
him with a gap in his inventory that he must fill before he leaves the EU zone.
He needs to pick up a replacement suitcase so that he has as much luggage
leaving the superpower as he had when he entered it: He doesn't want to be
accused of trafficking in physical goods in the midst of the transatlantic
trade war between new world protectionists and old world globalists. At least,
that's his cover story - and he's sticking to it.

There's a row of unclaimed bags in front of the counter, up for sale in the
absence of their owners. Some of them are very battered, but among them is a
rather good-quality suitcase with integral induction-charged rollers and a keen
sense of loyalty: exactly the same model as his old one. He polls it and sees
not just GPS, but a Galileo tracker, a gazetteer the size of an old-time
storage area network, and an iron determination to follow its owner as far as
the gates of hell if necessary. Plus the right distinctive scratch on the lower
left side of the case. "How much for just this one?" he asks the bellwether on
the desk.

"Ninety euros," it says placidly.

Manfred sighs. "You can do better than that." In the time it takes them to
settle on seventy-five, the Hang Sen Index is down fourteen-point-one-six
points, and what's left of NASDAQ climbs another two-point-one. "Deal." Manfred
spits some virtual cash at the brutal face of the cash register, and it
unfetters the suitcase, unaware that Macx has paid a good bit more than
seventy-five euros for the privilege of collecting this piece of baggage.
Manfred bends down and faces the camera in its handle. "Manfred Macx," he says
quietly. "Follow me." He feels the handle heat up as it imprints on his
fingerprints, digital and phenotypic. Then he turns and walks out of the slave
market, his new luggage rolling at his heels.

* * *

A short train journey later, Manfred checks into a hotel in Milton Keynes. He
watches the sun set from his bedroom window, an occlusion of concrete cows
blocking the horizon. The room is functional in an overly naturalistic kind of
way, rattan and force-grown hardwood and hemp rugs concealing the support
systems and concrete walls behind. He sits in a chair, gin and tonic at hand,
absorbing the latest market news and grazing his multichannel feeds in
parallel. His reputation is up two percent for no obvious reason today, he
notices: Odd, that. When he pokes at it he discovers that /{everybody's}/
reputation - everybody, that is, who has a publicly traded reputation - is up a
bit. It's as if the distributed Internet reputation servers are feeling bullish
about integrity. Maybe there's a global honesty bubble forming.

Manfred frowns, then snaps his fingers. The suitcase rolls toward him. "Who do
you belong to?" he asks.

"Manfred Macx," it replies, slightly bashfully.

"No, before me."

"I don't understand that question."

He sighs. "Open up."

Latches whir and retract: The hard-shell lid rises toward him, and he looks
inside to confirm the contents.

The suitcase is full of noise.

* * *

_1 Welcome to the early twenty-first century, human.

_1 It's night in Milton Keynes, sunrise in Hong Kong. Moore's Law rolls
inexorably on, dragging humanity toward the uncertain future. The planets of
the solar system have a combined mass of approximately 2 x 10^{27}^ kilograms.
Around the world, laboring women produce forty-five thousand babies a day,
representing 10^{23}^ MIPS of processing power. Also around the world, fab
lines casually churn out thirty million microprocessors a day, representing
10^{23}^ MIPS. In another ten months, most of the MIPS being added to the solar
system will be machine-hosted for the first time. About ten years after that,
the solar system's installed processing power will nudge the critical 1 MIPS
per gram threshold - one million instructions per second per gram of matter.
After that, singularity - a vanishing point beyond which extrapolating progress
becomes meaningless. The time remaining before the intelligence spike is down
to single-digit years ...

* * *

Aineko curls on the pillow beside Manfred's head, purring softly as his owner
dreams uneasily. The night outside is dark: Vehicles operate on autopilot,
running lights dipped to let the Milky Way shine down upon the sleeping city.
Their quiet, fuel-cell-powered engines do not trouble Manfred's sleep. The
robot cat keeps sleepless watch, alert for intruders, but there are none, save
the whispering ghosts of Manfred's metacortex, feeding his dreams with their
state vectors.

The metacortex - a distributed cloud of software agents that surrounds him in
netspace, borrowing CPU cycles from convenient processors (such as his robot
pet) - is as much a part of Manfred as the society of mind that occupies his
skull; his thoughts migrate into it, spawning new agents to research new
experiences, and at night, they return to roost and share their knowledge.

While Manfred sleeps, he dreams of an alchemical marriage. She waits for him at
the altar in a strapless black gown, the surgical instruments gleaming in her
gloved hands. "This won't hurt a bit," she explains as she adjusts the straps.
"I only want your genome - the extended phenotype can wait until ... later."
Blood-red lips, licked: a kiss of steel, then she presents the income tax bill.

There's nothing accidental about this dream. As he experiences it,
microelectrodes in his hypothalamus trigger sensitive neurons. Revulsion and
shame flood him at the sight of her face, the sense of his vulnerability.
Manfred's metacortex, in order to facilitate his divorce, is trying to
decondition his strange love. It has been working on him for weeks, but still
he craves her whiplash touch, the humiliation of his wife's control, the sense
of helpless rage at her unpayable taxes, demanded with interest.

Aineko watches him from the pillow, purring continuously. Retractable claws
knead the bedding, first one paw, then the next. Aineko is full of ancient
feline wisdom that Pamela installed back when mistress and master were
exchanging data and bodily fluids rather than legal documents. Aineko is more
cat than robot, these days, thanks in part to her hobbyist's interest in feline
neuroanatomy. Aineko knows that Manfred is experiencing nameless neurasthenic
agonies, but really doesn't give a shit about that as long as the power supply
is clean and there are no intruders.

Aineko curls up and joins Manfred in sleep, dreaming of laser-guided mice.

* * *

Manfred is jolted awake by the hotel room phone shrilling for attention.

"Hello?" he asks, fuzzily.

"Manfred Macx?" It's a human voice, with a gravelly east coast accent.

"Yeah?" Manfred struggles to sit up. His mouth feels like the inside of a tomb,
and his eyes don't want to open.

"My name is Alan Glashwiecz, of Smoot, Sedgwick Associates. Am I correct in
thinking that you are the Manfred Macx who is a director of a company called,
uh, agalmic dot holdings dot root dot one-eight-four dot ninety-seven dot
A-for-able dot B-for-baker dot five, incorporated?"

"Uh." Manfred blinks and rubs his eyes. "Hold on a moment." When the retinal
patterns fade, he pulls on his glasses and powers them up. "Just a second now."
Browsers and menus ricochet through his sleep-laden eyes. "Can you repeat the
company name?"

"Sure." Glashwiecz repeats himself patiently. He sounds as tired as Manfred
feels.

"Um." Manfred finds it, floating three tiers down an elaborate object
hierarchy. It's flashing for attention. There's a priority interrupt, an
incoming lawsuit that hasn't propagated up the inheritance tree yet. He prods
at the object with a property browser. "I'm afraid I'm not a director of that
company, Mr. Glashwiecz. I appear to be retained by it as a technical
contractor with non-executive power, reporting to the president, but frankly,
this is the first time I've ever heard of the company. However, I can tell you
who's in charge if you want."

"Yes?" The attorney sounds almost interested. Manfred figures it out; the guy's
in New Jersey, it must be about three in the morning over there.

Malice - revenge for waking him up - sharpens Manfred's voice. "The president
of agalmic.holdings.root.184.97.AB5 is agalmic.holdings.root.184.97.201. The
secretary is agalmic.holdings.root.184.D5, and the chair is
agalmic.holdings.root.184.E8.FF. All the shares are owned by those companies in
equal measure, and I can tell you that their regulations are written in Python.
Have a nice day, now!" He thumps the bedside phone control and sits up,
yawning, then pushes the do-not-disturb button before it can interrupt again.
After a moment he stands up and stretches, then heads to the bathroom to brush
his teeth, comb his hair, and figure out where the lawsuit originated and how a
human being managed to get far enough through his web of robot companies to bug
him.

* * *

While he's having breakfast in the hotel restaurant, Manfred decides that he's
going to do something unusual for a change: He's going to make himself
temporarily rich. This is a change because Manfred's normal profession is
making other people rich. Manfred doesn't believe in scarcity or zero-sum games
or competition - his world is too fast and information-dense to accommodate
primate hierarchy games. However, his current situation calls for him to do
something radical: something like making himself a temporary billionaire so he
can blow off his divorce settlement in an instant, like a wily accountancy
octopus escaping a predator by vanishing in a cloud of his own black ink.

Pam is chasing him partially for ideological reasons - she still hasn't given
up on the idea of government as the dominant superorganism of the age - but
also because she loves him in her own peculiar way, and the last thing any
self-respecting dom can tolerate is rejection by her slave. Pam is a born-again
postconservative, a member of the first generation to grow up after the end of
the American century. Driven by the need to fix the decaying federal system
before it collapses under a mound of Medicare bills, overseas adventurism, and
decaying infrastructure, she's willing to use self-denial, entrapment,
predatory mercantilism, dirty tricks, and any other tool that boosts the bottom
line. She doesn't approve of Manfred's jetting around the world on free airline
passes, making strangers rich, somehow never needing money. She can see his
listing on the reputation servers, hovering about thirty points above IBM: All
the metrics of integrity, effectiveness and goodwill value him above even that
most fundamentalist of open-source computer companies. And she knows he craves
her tough love, wants to give himself to her completely. So why is he running
away?

The reason he's running away is entirely more ordinary. Their unborn daughter,
frozen in liquid nitrogen, is an unimplanted 96-hour-old blastula. Pam's bought
into the whole Parents for Traditional Children parasite meme. PTC are
germ-line recombination refuseniks: They refuse to have their children screened
for fixable errors. If there's one thing that Manfred really can't cope with,
it's the idea that nature knows best - even though that isn't the point she's
making. One steaming row too many, and he kicked back, off to traveling fast
and footloose again, spinning off new ideas like a memetic dynamo and living on
the largesse of the new paradigm. File for divorce on grounds of irreconcilable
ideological differences. No more whiplash-and-leather sex.

* * *

Before he hits the TGV for Rome, Manfred takes time to visit a model airplane
show. It's a good place to be picked up by a CIA stringer - he's had a tip-off
that someone will be there - and besides, flying models are hot hacker shit
this decade. Add microtechnology, cameras, and neural networks to balsa-wood
flyers, and you've got the next generation of military stealth flyer: It's a
fertile talent-show scene, like the hacker cons of yore. This particular gig is
happening in a decaying out-of-town supermarket that rents out its shop floor
for events like this. Its emptiness is a sign of the times, ubiquitous
broadband and expensive gas. (The robotized warehouse next door is, in
contrast, frenetically busy, packing parcels for home delivery. Whether they
telecommute or herd in meatspace offices, people still need to eat.)

Today, the food hall is full of people. Eldritch ersatz insects buzz menacingly
along the shining empty meat counters without fear of electrocution. Big
monitors unfurled above the deli display cabinets show a weird, jerky view of a
three-dimensional nightmare, painted all the synthetic colors of radar. The
feminine-hygiene galley has been wheeled back to make room for a gigantic
plastic-shrouded tampon five meters long and sixty centimeters in diameter - a
microsat launcher and conference display, plonked there by the show's sponsors
in a transparent attempt to talent-spot the up-and-coming engineering geeks.

Manfred's glasses zoom in and grab a particularly fetching Fokker triplane that
buzzes at face height through the crowd: He pipes the image stream up to one of
his websites in real time. The Fokker pulls up in a tight Immelman turn beneath
the dust-shrouded pneumatic cash tubes that line the ceiling, then picks up the
trail of an F-104G. Cold War Luftwaffe and Great War Luftwaffe dart across the
sky in an intricate game of tag. Manfred's so busy tracking the warbirds that
he nearly trips over the fat white tube's launcher-erector.

"Eh, Manfred! More care, s'il vous plait!"

He wipes the planes and glances round. "Do I know you?" he asks politely, even
as he feels a shock of recognition.

"Amsterdam, three years ago." The woman in the double-breasted suit raises an
eyebrow at him, and his social secretary remembers her for him, whispers in his
ear.

"Annette from Arianespace marketing?" She nods, and he focuses on her. Still
dressing in the last-century retro mode that confused him the first time they
met, she looks like a Kennedy-era Secret Service man: cropped bleached crew cut
like an angry albino hedgehog, pale blue contact lenses, black tie, narrow
lapels. Only her skin color hints at her Berber ancestry. Her earrings are
cameras, endlessly watching. Her raised eyebrow turns into a lopsided smile as
she sees his reaction. "I remember. That cafe in Amsterdam. What brings you
here?"

"Why "- her wave takes in the entirety of the show - "this talent show, of
course." An elegant shrug and a wave at the orbit-capable tampon. "It's good
talent. We're hiring this year. If we re-enter the launcher market, we must
employ only the best. Amateurs, not time-servers, engineers who can match the
very best Singapore can offer."

For the first time, Manfred notices the discreet corporate logo on the flank of
the booster. "You outsourced your launch-vehicle fabrication?"

Annette pulls a face as she explains with forced casualness: "Space hotels were
more profitable, this past decade. The high-ups, they cannot be bothered with
the rocketry, no? Things that go fast and explode, they are passé, they say.
Diversify, they say. Until -" She gives a very Gallic shrug. Manfred nods; her
earrings are recording everything she says, for the purposes of due diligence.

"I'm glad to see Europe re-entering the launcher business," he says seriously.
"It's going to be very important when the nanosystems conformational
replication business gets going for real. A major strategic asset to any
corporate entity in the field, even a hotel chain." Especially now they've
wound up NASA and the moon race is down to China and India, he thinks sourly.

Her laugh sounds like glass bells chiming. "And yourself, mon cher? What brings
you to the Confederaçion? You must have a deal in mind."

"Well., it's Manfred's turn to shrug, "I was hoping to find a CIA agent, but
there don't seem to be any here today."

"That is not surprising," Annette says resentfully. "The CIA thinks the space
industry, she is dead. Fools!" She continues for a minute, enumerating the many
shortcomings of the Central Intelligence Agency with vigor and a distinctly
Parisian rudeness. "They are become almost as bad as AP and Reuters since they
go public," she adds. "All these wire services! And they are, ah, stingy. The
CIA does not understand that good news must be paid for at market rates if
freelance stringers are to survive. They are to be laughed at. It is so easy to
plant disinformation on them, almost as easy as the Office of Special Plans..."
She makes a banknote-riffling gesture between fingers and thumb. By way of
punctuation, a remarkably maneuverable miniature ornithopter swoops around her
head, does a double-back flip, and dives off in the direction of the liquor
display.

An Iranian woman wearing a backless leather minidress and a nearly transparent
scarf barges up and demands to know how much the microbooster costs to buy: She
is dissatisfied with Annette's attempt to direct her to the manufacturer's
website, and Annette looks distinctly flustered by the time the woman's
boyfriend - a dashing young air force pilot - shows up to escort her away.
"Tourists," she mutters, before noticing Manfred, who is staring off into space
with fingers twitching. "Manfred?"

"Uh - what?"

"I have been on this shop floor for six hours, and my feet, they kill me." She
takes hold of his left arm and very deliberately unhooks her earrings, turning
them off. "If I say to you I can write for the CIA wire service, will you take
me to a restaurant and buy me dinner and tell me what it is you want to say?"

* * *

_1 Welcome to the second decade of the twenty-first century; the second decade
in human history when the intelligence of the environment has shown signs of
rising to match human demand.

_1 The news from around the world is distinctly depressing this evening. In
Maine, guerrillas affiliated with Parents for Traditional Children announce
they've planted logic bombs in antenatal-clinic gene scanners, making them give
random false positives when checking for hereditary disorders: The damage so
far is six illegal abortions and fourteen lawsuits.

_1 The International Convention on Performing Rights is holding a third round
of crisis talks in an attempt to stave off the final collapse of the WIPO music
licensing regime. On the one hand, hard-liners representing the Copyright
Control Association of America are pressing for restrictions on duplicating the
altered emotional states associated with specific media performances: As a
demonstration that they mean business, two "software engineers" in California
have been kneecapped, tarred, feathered, and left for dead under placards
accusing them of reverse-engineering movie plot lines using avatars of dead and
out-of-copyright stars.

_1 On the opposite side of the fence, the Association of Free Artists are
demanding the right of perform music in public without a recording contract,
and are denouncing the CCAA as being a tool of Mafiya apparachiks who have
bought it from the moribund music industry in an attempt to go legit. FBI
Director Leonid Kuibyshev responds by denying that the Mafiya is a significant
presence in the United States. But the music biz's position isn't strengthened
by the near collapse of the legitimate American entertainment industry, which
has been accelerating ever since the nasty noughties.

_1 A marginally intelligent voicemail virus masquerading as an IRS auditor has
caused havoc throughout America, garnishing an estimated eighty billion dollars
in confiscatory tax withholdings into a numbered Swiss bank account. A
different virus is busy hijacking people's bank accounts, sending ten percent
of their assets to the previous victim, then mailing itself to everyone in the
current mark's address book: a self- propelled pyramid scheme in action. Oddly,
nobody is complaining much. While the mess is being sorted out, business IT
departments have gone to standby, refusing to process any transaction that
doesn't come in the shape of ink on dead trees.

_1 Tipsters are warning of an impending readjustment in the overinflated
reputations market, following revelations that some u-media gurus have been
hyped past all realistic levels of credibility. The consequent damage to the
junk-bonds market in integrity is serious.

_1 The EU council of independent heads of state has denied plans for another
attempt at Eurofederalisme, at least until the economy rises out of its current
slump. Three extinct species have been resurrected in the past month;
unfortunately, endangered ones are now dying off at a rate of one a day. And a
group of militant anti-GM campaigners are being pursued by Interpol, after
their announcement that they have spliced a metabolic pathway for cyanogenic
glycosides into maize seed corn destined for human-edible crops. There have
been no deaths yet, but having to test breakfast cereal for cyanide is really
going to dent consumer trust.

_1 About the only people who're doing well right now are the uploaded lobsters
- and the crusties aren't even remotely human.

* * *

Manfred and Annette eat on the top deck of the buffet car, chatting as their
TGV barrels through a tunnel under the English Channel. Annette, it transpires,
has been commuting daily from Paris; which was, in any case, Manfred's next
destination. From the show, he messaged Aineko to round up his baggage and meet
him at St. Pancras Station, in a terminal like the shell of a giant steel
woodlouse. Annette left her space launcher in the supermarket overnight: an
unfueled test article, it is of no security significance.

The railway buffet car is run by a Nepalese fast-food franchise. "I sometimes
wish for to stay on the train," Annette says as she waits for her mismas bhat.
"Past Paris! Think. Settle back in your couchette, to awaken in Moscow and
change trains. All the way to Vladivostok in two days."

"If they let you through the border," Manfred mutters. Russia is one of those
places that still requires passports and asks if you are now or ever have been
an anti-anticommunist: It's still trapped by its bloody-handed history. (Rewind
the video stream to Stolypin's necktie party and start out fresh.) Besides,
they have enemies: White Russian oligarchs, protection racketeers in the
intellectual property business. Psychotic relics of the last decade's
experiment with Marxism-Objectivism. "Are you really a CIA stringer?"

Annette grins, her lips disconcertingly red: "I file dispatches from time to
time. Nothing that could get me fired."

Manfred nods. "My wife has access to their unfiltered stream."

"Your -" Annette pauses. "It was she who I, I met? In De Wildemann's?" She sees
his expression. "Oh, my poor fool!" She raises her glass to him. "It is, has,
not gone well?"

Manfred sighs and raises a toast toward Annette. "You know your marriage is in
a bad way when you send your spouse messages via the CIA, and she communicates
using the IRS."

"In only five years." Annette winces. "You will pardon me for saying this - she
did not look like your type." There's a question hidden behind that statement,
and he notices again how good she is at overloading her statements with
subtexts.

"I'm not sure what my type is," he says, half-truthfully. He can't elude the
sense that something not of either of their doing went wrong between him and
Pamela, a subtle intrusion that levered them apart by stealth. Maybe it was me,
he thinks. Sometimes he isn't certain he's still human; too many threads of his
consciousness seem to live outside his head, reporting back whenever they find
something interesting. Sometimes he feels like a puppet, and that frightens him
because it's one of the early-warning signs of schizophrenia. And it's too
early for anyone out there to be trying to hack exocortices ... isn't it? Right
now, the external threads of his consciousness are telling him that they like
Annette, when she's being herself instead of a cog in the meatspace ensemble of
Arianespace management. But the part of him that's still human isn't sure just
how far to trust himself. "I want to be me. What do you want to be?"

She shrugs, as a waiter slides a plate in front of her. "I'm just a, a Parisian
babe, no? An ingénue raised in the lilac age of le Confederaçion Europé, the
self-deconstructed ruins of the gilded European Union."

"Yeah, right." A plate appears in front of Manfred. "And I'm a good old
microboomer from the MassPike corridor." He peels back a corner of the omelet
topping and inspects the food underneath it. "Born in the sunset years of the
American century." He pokes at one of the unidentifiable meaty lumps in the
fried rice with his fork, and it pokes right back. There's a limit to how much
his agents can tell him about her - European privacy laws are draconian by
American standards - but he knows the essentials. Two parents who are still
together, father a petty politician in some town council down in the vicinity
of Toulouse. Went to the right école. The obligatory year spent bumming around
the Confederaçion at government expense, learning how other people live - a new
kind of empire building, in place of the 20th century's conscription and
jackboot wanderjahr. No weblog or personal site that his agents can find. She
joined Arianespace right out of the Polytechnique and has been management track
ever since: Korou, Manhattan Island, Paris. "You've never been married, I take
it."

She chuckles. "Time is too short! I am still young." She picks up a forkful of
food, and adds quietly. "Besides, the government would insist on paying."

"Ah." Manfred tucks into his bowl thoughtfully. With the birth rate declining
across Europe, the EC bureaucracy is worried; the old EU started subsidizing
babies, a new generation of carers, a decade ago, and it still hasn't dented
the problem. All it's done is alienate the brightest women of childbearing age.
Soon they'll have to look to the east for a solution, importing a new
generation of citizens - unless the long-promised aging hacks prove workable,
or cheap AI comes along.

"Do you have a hotel?" Annette asks suddenly.

"In Paris?" Manfred is startled: "Not yet."

"You must come home with me, then." She looks at him quizzically.

"I'm not sure I - " He catches her expression. "What is it?"

"Oh, nothing. My friend Henri, he says I take in strays too easily. But you are
not a stray. I think you can look after yourself. Besides, it is the Friday
today. Come with me, and I will file your press release for the Company to
read. Tell me, do you dance? You look as if you need a wild week ending, to
help forget your troubles!"

* * *

Annette drives a steamroller seduction through Manfred's plans for the weekend.
He intended to find a hotel, file a press release, then spend some time
researching the corporate funding structure of Parents for Traditional Children
and the dimensionality of confidence variation on the reputation exchanges -
then head for Rome. Instead, Annette drags him back to her apartment, a large
studio flat tucked away behind an alley in the Marais. She sits him at the
breakfast bar while she tidies away his luggage, then makes him close his eyes
and swallow two dubious-tasting capsules. Next, she pours them each a tall
glass of freezing-cold Aqvavit that tastes exactly like Polish rye bread. When
they finish it, she just about rips his clothes off. Manfred is startled to
discover that he has a crowbar-stiff erection; since the last blazing row with
Pamela, he'd vaguely assumed he was no longer interested in sex. Instead, they
end up naked on the sofa, surrounded by discarded clothing - Annette is very
conservative, preferring the naked penetrative fuck of the last century to the
more sophisticated fetishes of the present day.

Afterward, he's even more surprised to discover that he's still tumescent. "The
capsules?" he asks.

She sprawls a well-muscled but thin thigh across him, then reaches down to grab
his penis. Squeezes it. "Yes," she admits. "You need much special help to
unwind, I think." Another squeeze. "Crystal meth and a traditional
phosphodiesterase inhibitor." He grabs one of her small breasts, feeling very
brutish and primitive. Naked. He's not sure Pamela ever let him see her fully
naked: She thought skin was more sexy when it was covered. Annette squeezes him
again, and he stiffens. "More!"

By the time they finish, he's aching, and she shows him how to use the bidet.
Everything is crystal clear, and her touch is electrifying. While she showers,
he sits on the toilet seat lid and rants about Turing-completeness as an
attribute of company law, about cellular automata and the blind knapsack
problem, about his work on solving the Communist Central Planning problem using
a network of interlocking unmanned companies. About the impending market
adjustment in integrity, the sinister resurrection of the recording music
industry, and the still-pressing need to dismantle Mars.

When she steps out of the shower, he tells her that he loves her. She kisses
him and slides his glasses and earpieces off his head so that he's really
naked, sits on his lap, and fucks his brains out again, and whispers in his ear
that she loves him and wants to be his manager. Then she leads him into her
bedroom and tells him exactly what she wants him to wear, and she puts on her
own clothes, and she gives him a mirror with some white powder on it to sniff.
When she's got him dolled up they go out for a night of really serious
clubbing, Annette in a tuxedo and Manfred in a blond wig, red silk
off-the-shoulder gown, and high heels. Sometime in the early hours, exhausted
and resting his head on her shoulder during the last tango in a BDSM club in
the Rue Ste-Anne, he realizes that it really is possible to be in lust with
someone other than Pamela.

* * *

Aineko wakes Manfred by repeatedly head-butting him above the left eye. He
groans, and as he tries to open his eyes, he finds that his mouth tastes like a
dead trout, his skin feels greasy with make-up, and his head is pounding.
There's a banging noise somewhere. Aineko meows urgently. He sits up, feeling
unaccustomed silk underwear rubbing against incredibly sore skin - he's fully
dressed, just sprawled out on the sofa. Snores emanate from the bedroom; the
banging is coming from the front door. Someone wants to come in. Shit. He rubs
his head, stands up, and nearly falls flat on his face: He hasn't even taken
those ridiculous high heels off. How much did I drink last night? he wonders.
His glasses are on the breakfast bar; he pulls them on and is besieged by an
urgent flurry of ideas demanding attention. He straightens his wig, picks up
his skirts, and trips across to the door with a sinking feeling. Luckily his
publicly traded reputation is strictly technical.

He unlocks the door. "Who is it?" he asks in English. By way of reply somebody
shoves the door in, hard. Manfred falls back against the wall, winded. His
glasses stop working, sidelook displays filling with multicolored static.

Two men charge in, identically dressed in jeans and leather jackets. They're
wearing gloves and occlusive face masks, and one of them points a small and
very menacing ID card at Manfred. A self-propelled gun hovers in the doorway,
watching everything. "Where is he?"

"Who?" gasps Manfred, breathless and terrified.

"Macx." The other intruder steps into the living room quickly, pans around,
ducks through the bathroom door. Aineko flops as limp as a dishrag in front of
the sofa. The intruder checks out the bedroom: There's a brief scream, cut off
short.

"I don't know - who?" Manfred is choking with fear.

The other intruder ducks out of the bedroom, waves a hand dismissively.

"We are sorry to have bothered you," the man with the card says stiffly. He
replaced it in his jacket pocket. "If you should see Manfred Macx, tell him
that the Copyright Control Association of America advises him to cease and
desist from his attempt to assist music thieves and other degenerate mongrel
second-hander enemies of Objectivism. Reputations only of use to those alive to
own them. Goodbye."

The two copyright gangsters disappear through the door, leaving Manfred to
shake his head dizzily while his glasses reboot. It takes him a moment to
register the scream from the bedroom. "Fuck - Annette!"

She appears in the open doorway, holding a sheet around her waist, looking
angry and confused. "Annette!" he calls. She looks around, sees him, and begins
to laugh shakily. "Annette!" He crosses over to her. "You're okay," he says.
"You're okay."

"You too." She hugs him, and she's shaking. Then she holds him at arm's length.
"My, what a pretty picture!"

"They wanted me," he says, and his teeth are chattering. "Why?"

She looks up at him seriously. "You must bathe. Then have coffee. We are not at
home, oui?"

"Ah, oui." He looks down. Aineko is sitting up, looking dazed. "Shower. Then
that dispatch for CIA news."

"The dispatch?" She looks puzzled. "I filed that last night. When I was in the
shower. The microphone, he is waterproof."

* * *

By the time Arianespace's security contractors show up, Manfred has stripped
off Annette's evening gown and showered; he's sitting in the living room
wearing a bathrobe, drinking a half-liter mug of espresso and swearing under
his breath.

While he was dancing the night away in Annette's arms, the global reputation
market has gone nonlinear: People are putting their trust in the Christian
Coalition and the Eurocommunist Alliance - always a sign that the times are bad
- while perfectly sound trading enterprises have gone into free fall, as if a
major bribery scandal has broken out.

Manfred trades ideas for kudos via the Free Intellect Foundation, bastard child
of George Soros and Richard Stallman. His reputation is cemented by donations
to the public good that don't backfire. So he's offended and startled to
discover that he's dropped twenty points in the past two hours - and frightened
to see that this is by no means unusual. He was expecting a ten-point drop
mediated via an options trade - payment for the use of the anonymous luggage
remixer that routed his old suitcase to Mombasa and in return sent this new one
to him via the left-luggage office in Luton - but this is more serious. The
entire reputation market seems to have been hit by the confidence flu.

Annette bustles around busily, pointing out angles and timings to the forensics
team her head office sent in answer to her call for back-up. She seems more
angry and shaken than worried by the intrusion. It's probably an occupational
hazard for any upwardly mobile executive in the old, grasping network of greed
that Manfred's agalmic future aims to supplant. The forensics dude and dudette,
a pair of cute, tanned Lebanese youngsters, point the yellow snout of their
mass spectroscope into various corners and agree that there's something not
unlike gun oil in the air. But, so sorry, the intruders wore masks to trap the
skin particles and left behind a spray of dust vacuumed from the seat of a city
bus, so there's no way of getting a genotype match. Presently they agree to log
it as a suspected corporate intrusion (origin: unclassified; severity:
worrying) and increase the logging level on her kitchen telemetry. And remember
to wear your earrings at all times, please. They leave, and Annette locks the
door, leans against it, and curses for a whole long minute.

"They gave me a message from the copyright control agency," Manfred says
unevenly when she winds down. "Russian gangsters from New York bought the
recording cartels a few years ago, you know? After the rights stitch-up fell
apart, and the artists all went on-line while they focused on copy prevention
technologies, the Mafiya were the only people who would buy the old business
model. These guys add a whole new meaning to copy protection: This was just a
polite cease and desist notice by their standards. They run the record shops,
and they try to block any music distribution channel they don't own. Not very
successfully, though - most gangsters are living in the past, more conservative
than any normal businessman can afford to be. What was it that you put on the
wire?"

Annette closes her eyes. "I don't remember. No." She holds up a hand. "Open
mike. I streamed you into a file and cut, cut out the bits about me." She opens
her eyes and shakes her head. "What was I on?"

"You don't know either?"

He stands up, and she walks over and throws her arms around him. "I was on
you," she murmurs.

"Bullshit." He pulls away, then sees how this upsets her. Something is blinking
for attention in his glasses; he's been off-line for the best part of six hours
and is getting a panicky butterfly stomach at the idea of not being in touch
with everything that's happened in the last twenty kiloseconds. "I need to know
more. Something in that report rattled the wrong cages. Or someone ratted on
the suitcase exchange - I meant the dispatch to be a heads-up for whoever needs
a working state planning system, not an invitation to shoot me!"

"Well, then." She lets go of him. "Do your work." Coolly: "I'll be around."

He realizes that he's hurt her, but he doesn't see any way of explaining that
he didn't mean to - at least, not without digging himself in deeper. He
finishes his croissant and plunges into one of those unavoidable fits of deep
interaction, fingers twitching on invisible keypads and eyeballs jiggling as
his glasses funnel deep media straight into his skull through the highest
bandwidth channel currently available.

One of his e-mail accounts is halfway to the moon with automatic messages,
companies with names like agalmic.holdings.root.8E.F0 screaming for the
attention of their transitive director. Each of these companies - and there are
currently more than sixteen thousand of them, although the herd is growing day
by day - has three directors and is the director of three other companies. Each
of them executes a script in a functional language Manfred invented; the
directors tell the company what to do, and the instructions include orders to
pass instructions on to their children. In effect, they are a flock of cellular
automata, like the cells in Conway's Game of Life, only far more complex and
powerful.

Manfred's companies form a programmable grid. Some of them are armed with
capital in the form of patents Manfred filed, then delegated rather than
passing on to one of the Free Foundations. Some of them are effectively
nontrading, but occupy directorial roles. Their corporate functions (such as
filing of accounts and voting in new directors) are all handled centrally
through his company-operating framework, and their trading is carried out via
several of the more popular B2B enabler dot-coms. Internally, the companies do
other, more obscure load-balancing computations, processing resource-allocation
problems like a classic state central planning system. None of which explains
why fully half of them have been hit by lawsuits in the past twenty-two hours.

The lawsuits are ... random. That's the only pattern Manfred can detect. Some
of them allege patent infringements; these he might take seriously, except that
about a third of the targets are director companies that don't actually do
anything visible to the public. A few lawsuits allege mismanagement, but then
there's a whole bizarre raft of spurious nonsense: suits for wrongful dismissal
or age discrimination - against companies with no employees - complaints about
reckless trading, and one action alleging that the defendant (in conspiracy
with the prime minister of Japan, the government of Canada, and the Emir of
Kuwait) is using orbital mind-control lasers to make the plaintiff's pet
chihuahua bark at all hours of day and night.

Manfred groans and does a quick calculation. At the current rate, lawsuits are
hitting his corporate grid at a rate of one every sixteen seconds - up from
none in the preceding six months. In another day, this is going to saturate
him. If it keeps up for a week, it'll saturate every court in the United
States. Someone has found a means to do for lawsuits what he's doing for
companies - and they've chosen him as their target.

To say that Manfred is unamused is an understatement. If he wasn't already
preoccupied with Annette's emotional state and edgy from the intrusion, he'd be
livid - but he's still human enough that he responds to human stimuli first. So
he determines to do something about it, but he's still flashing on the floating
gun, her cross-dressing cool.

Transgression, sex, and networks; these are all on his mind when Glashwiecz
phones again.

"Hello?" Manfred answers distractedly; he's busy pondering the lawsuit bot
that's attacking his systems.

"Macx! The elusive Mr. Macx!" Glashwiecz sounds positively overjoyed to have
tracked down his target.

Manfred winces. "Who is this?" he asks.

"I called you yesterday," says the lawyer; "You should have listened." He
chortles horribly. "Now I have you!"

Manfred holds the phone away from his face, like something poisonous. "I'm
recording this," he warns. "Who the hell are you and what do you want?"

"Your wife has retained my partnership's services to pursue her interests in
your divorce case. When I called you yesterday it was to point out without
prejudice that your options are running out. I have an order, signed in court
three days ago, to have all your assets frozen. These ridiculous shell
companies notwithstanding, she's going to take you for exactly what you owe
her. After tax, of course. She's very insistent on that point."

Manfred glances round, puts his phone on hold for a moment: "Where's my
suitcase?" he asks Aineko. The cat sidles away, ignoring him. "Shit." He can't
see the new luggage anywhere. Quite possibly it's on its way to Morocco,
complete with its priceless cargo of high-density noise. He returns his
attention to the phone. Glashwiecz is droning on about equitable settlements,
cumulative IRS tax demands - that seem to have materialized out of fantasy with
Pam's imprimatur on them - and the need to make a clean breast of things in
court and confess to his sins. "Where's the fucking suitcase?" He takes the
phone off hold. "Shut the fuck up, please, I'm trying to think."

"I'm not going to shut up! You're on the court docket already, Macx. You can't
evade your responsibilities forever. You've got a wife and a helpless daughter
to care for -"

"A daughter?" That cuts right through Manfred's preoccupation with the
suitcase.

"Didn't you know?" Glashwiecz sounds pleasantly surprised. "She was decanted
last Thursday. Perfectly healthy, I'm told. I thought you knew; you have
viewing rights via the clinic webcam. Anyway, I'll just leave you with this
thought - the sooner you come to a settlement, the sooner I can unfreeze your
companies. Good-bye."

The suitcase rolls into view, peeping coyly out from behind Annette's dressing
table. Manfred breathes a sigh of relief and beckons to it; at the moment, it's
easier to deal with his Plan B than dawn raids by objectivist gangsters,
Annette's sulk, his wife's incessant legal spamming, and the news that he is a
father against his will. "C'mon over here, you stray baggage. Let's see what I
got for my reputation derivatives ..."

* * *

Anticlimax.

Annette's communiqué is anodyne; a giggling confession off camera
(shower-curtain rain in the background) that the famous Manfred Macx is in
Paris for a weekend of clubbing, drugging, and general hell-raising. Oh, and
he's promised to invent three new paradigm shifts before breakfast every day,
starting with a way to bring about the creation of Really Existing Communism by
building a state central planning apparatus that interfaces perfectly with
external market systems and somehow manages to algorithmically outperform the
Monte Carlo free-for-all of market economics, solving the calculation problem.
Just because he can, because hacking economics is fun, and he wants to hear the
screams from the Chicago School.

Try as he may, Manfred can't see anything in the press release that is at all
unusual. It's just the sort of thing he does, and getting it on the net was why
he was looking for a CIA stringer in the first place.

He tries to explain this to her in the bath as he soaps her back. "I don't
understand what they're on about," he complains. "There's nothing that tipped
them off - except that I was in Paris, and you filed the news. You did nothing
wrong."

"Mais oui." She turns round, slippery as an eel, and slides backward into the
water. "I try to tell you this, but you are not listening."

"I am now." Water droplets cling to the outside of his glasses, plastering his
view of the room with laser speckle highlights. "I'm sorry, Annette, I brought
this mess with me. I can take it out of your life."

"No!" She rises up in front of him and leans forward, face serious. "I said
yesterday. I want to be your manager. Take me in."

"I don't need a manager; my whole thing is about being fast and out of
control!"

"You think you do not need a manager, but your companies do," she observes.
"You have lawsuits, how many? You cannot the time to oversee them spare. The
Soviets, they abolish capitalists, but even they need managers. Please, let me
manage for you!"

Annette is so intense about the idea that she becomes visibly aroused. He leans
toward her, cups a hand around one taut nipple. "The company matrix isn't sold
yet," he admits.

"It is not?" She looks delighted. "Excellent! To who can this be sold, to
Moscow? To SLORC? To -"

"I was thinking of the Italian Communist Party," he says. "It's a pilot
project. I was working on selling it - I need the money for my divorce, and to
close the deal on the luggage - but it's not that simple. Someone has to run
the damn thing - someone with a keen understanding of how to interface a
central planning system with a capitalist economy. A system administrator with
experience of working for a multinational corporation would be perfect, ideally
with an interest in finding new ways and means of interfacing the centrally
planned enterprise to the outside world." He looks at her with suddenly dawning
surmise. "Um, are you interested?"

* * *

Rome is hotter than downtown Columbia, South Carolina, over Thanksgiving
weekend; it stinks of methane-burning Skodas with a low undertone of cooked dog
shit. The cars are brightly colored subcompact missiles, hurtling in and out of
alleyways like angry wasps: Hot-wiring their drive-by-wire seems to be the
national sport, although Fiat's embedded systems people have always written
notoriously wobbly software.

Manfred emerges from the Stazione Termini into dusty sunlight, blinking like an
owl. His glasses keep up a rolling monologue about who lived where in the days
of the late Republic. They're stuck on a tourist channel and won't come unglued
from that much history without a struggle. Manfred doesn't feel like a struggle
right now. He feels like he's been sucked dry over the weekend: a light, hollow
husk that might blow away in a stiff breeze. He hasn't had a patentable idea
all day. This is not a good state to be in on a Monday morning when he's due to
meet the former Minister for Economic Affairs, in order to give him a gift that
will probably get the minister a shot at higher office and get Pam's lawyer off
his back. But somehow he can't bring himself to worry too much: Annette has
been good for him.

The ex-minister's private persona isn't what Manfred was expecting. All Manfred
has seen so far is a polished public avatar in a traditionally cut suit,
addressing the Chamber of Deputies in cyberspace; which is why, when he rings
the doorbell set in the whitewashed doorframe of Gianni's front door, he isn't
expecting a piece of Tom of Finland beefcake, complete with breechclout and
peaked leather cap, to answer.

"Hello, I am here to see the minister," Manfred says carefully. Aineko, perched
on his left shoulder, attempts to translate: It trills something that sounds
extremely urgent. Everything sounds urgent in Italian.

"It's okay, I'm from Iowa," says the guy in the doorway. He tucks a thumb under
one leather strap and grins over his moustache: "What's it about?" Over his
shoulder: "Gianni! Visitor!"

"It's about the economy," Manfred says carefully. "I'm here to make it
obsolete."

The beefcake backs away from the door cautiously - then the minister appears
behind him. "Ah, signore Macx! It's okay, Johnny, I have been expecting him."
Gianni extends a rapid welcome, like a hyperactive gnome buried in a white
toweling bathrobe: "Please come in, my friend! I'm sure you must be tired from
your journey. A refreshment for the guest if you please, Johnny. Would you
prefer coffee or something stronger?"

Five minutes later, Manfred is buried up to his ears in a sofa covered in
buttery white cowhide, a cup of virulently strong espresso balanced
precariously on his knee, while Gianni Vittoria himself holds forth on the
problems of implementing a postindustrial ecosystem on top of a bureaucratic
system with its roots in the bullheadedly modernist era of the 1920s. Gianni is
a visionary of the left, a strange attractor within the chaotic phase-space of
Italian politics. A former professor of Marxist economics, his ideas are
informed by a painfully honest humanism, and everyone - even his enemies -
agrees that he is one of the greatest theoreticians of the post-EU era. But his
intellectual integrity prevents him from rising to the very top, and his fellow
travelers are much ruder about him than his ideological enemies, accusing him
of the ultimate political crime — valuing truth over power.

Manfred had met Gianni a couple of years earlier via a hosted politics chat
room; at the beginning of last week, he sent him a paper detailing his
embeddable planned economy and a proposal for using it to turbocharge the
endless Italian attempt to re-engineer its government systems. This is the thin
end of the wedge: If Manfred is right, it could catalyse a whole new wave of
communist expansion, driven by humanitarian ideals and demonstrably superior
performance, rather than wishful thinking and ideology.

"It is impossible, I fear. This is Italy, my friend. Everybody has to have
their say. Not everybody even understands what it is we are talking about, but
that won't stop them talking about it. Since 1945, our government requires
consensus - a reaction to what came before. Do you know, we have five different
routes to putting forward a new law, two of them added as emergency measures to
break the gridlock? And none of them work on their own unless you can get
everybody to agree. Your plan is daring and radical, but if it works, we must
understand why we work - and that digs right to the root of being human, and
not everybody will agree."

At this point Manfred realizes that he's lost. "I don't understand," he says,
genuinely puzzled. "What has the human condition got to do with economics?"

The minister sighs abruptly. "You are very unusual. You earn no money, do you?
But you are rich, because grateful people who have benefited from your work
give you everything you need. You are like a medieval troubadour who has found
favor with the aristocracy. Your labor is not alienated - it is given freely,
and your means of production is with you always, inside your head." Manfred
blinks; the jargon is weirdly technical-sounding but orthogonal to his
experience, offering him a disquieting glimpse into the world of the terminally
future-shocked. He is surprised to find that not understanding itches.

Gianni taps his balding temple with a knuckle like a walnut. "Most people spend
little time inside their heads. They don't understand how you live. They're
like medieval peasants looking in puzzlement at the troubadour. This system you
invent, for running a planned economy, is delightful and elegant: Lenin's heirs
would have been awestruck. But it is not a system for the new century. It is
not human."

Manfred scratches his head. "It seems to me that there's nothing human about
the economics of scarcity," he says. "Anyway, humans will be obsolete as
economic units within a couple more decades. All I want to do is make everybody
rich beyond their wildest dreams before that happens." A pause for a sip of
coffee, and to think, one honest statement deserves another: "And to pay off a
divorce settlement."

"Ye-es? Well, let me show you my library, my friend," he says, standing up.
"This way."

Gianni ambles out of the white living room with its carnivorous leather sofas,
and up a cast-iron spiral staircase that nails some kind of upper level to the
underside of the roof. "Human beings aren't rational," he calls over his
shoulder. "That was the big mistake of the Chicago School economists,
neoliberals to a man, and of my predecessors, too. If human behavior was
logical, there would be no gambling, hmm? The house always wins, after all."
The staircase debouches into another airy whitewashed room, where one wall is
occupied by a wooden bench supporting a number of ancient, promiscuously cabled
servers and a very new, eye-wateringly expensive solid volume renderer.
Opposite the bench is a wall occupied from floor to ceiling by bookcases:
Manfred looks at the ancient, low-density medium and sneezes, momentarily
bemused by the sight of data density measured in kilograms per megabyte rather
than vice versa.

"What's it fabbing?" Manfred asks, pointing at the renderer, which is whining
to itself and slowly sintering together something that resembles a carriage
clockmaker's fever dream of a spring-powered hard disk drive.

"Oh, one of Johnny's toys - a micromechanical digital phonograph player,"
Gianni says dismissively. "He used to design Babbage engines for the Pentagon -
stealth computers. (No van Eck radiation, you know.) Look." He carefully pulls
a fabric-bound document out of the obsolescent data wall and shows the spine to
Manfred: "On the Theory of Games, by John von Neumann. Signed first edition."

Aineko meeps and dumps a slew of confusing purple finite state automata into
Manfred's left eye. The hardback is dusty and dry beneath his fingertips as he
remembers to turn the pages gently. "This copy belonged to the personal library
of Oleg Kordiovsky. A lucky man is Oleg: He bought it in 1952, while on a visit
to New York, and the MVD let him to keep it."

"He must be -" Manfred pauses. More data, historical time lines. "Part of
GosPlan?"

"Correct." Gianni smiles thinly. "Two years before the central committee
denounced computers as bourgeois deviationist pseudoscience intended to
dehumanize the proletarian. They recognized the power of robots even then. A
shame they did not anticipate the compiler or the Net."

"I don't understand the significance. Nobody back then could expect that the
main obstacle to doing away with market capitalism would be overcome within
half a century, surely?"

"Indeed not. But it's true: Since the 1980s, it has been possible - in
principle - to resolve resource allocation problems algorithmically, by
computer, instead of needing a market. Markets are wasteful: They allow
competition, much of which is thrown on the scrap heap. So why do they
persist?"

Manfred shrugs. "You tell me. Conservativism?"

Gianni closes the book and puts it back on the shelf. "Markets afford their
participants the illusion of free will, my friend. You will find that human
beings do not like being forced into doing something, even if it is in their
best interests. Of necessity, a command economy must be coercive - it does,
after all, command."

"But my system doesn't! It mediates where supplies go, not who has to produce
what -"

Gianni is shaking his head. "Backward chaining or forward chaining, it is still
an expert system, my friend. Your companies need no human beings, and this is a
good thing, but they must not direct the activities of human beings, either. If
they do, you have just enslaved people to an abstract machine, as dictators
have throughout history."

Manfred's eyes scan along the bookshelf. "But the market itself is an abstract
machine! A lousy one, too. I'm mostly free of it - but how long is it going to
continue oppressing people?"

"Maybe not as long as you fear." Gianni sits down next to the renderer, which
is currently extruding the inference mill of the analytical engine. "The
marginal value of money decreases, after all: The more you have, the less it
means to you. We are on the edge of a period of prolonged economic growth, with
annual averages in excess of twenty percent, if the Council of Europe's
predictor metrics are anything to go by. The last of the flaccid industrial
economy has withered away, and this era's muscle of economic growth, what used
to be the high-technology sector, is now everything. We can afford a little
wastage, my friend, if that is the price of keeping people happy until the
marginal value of money withers away completely."

Realization dawns. "You want to abolish scarcity, not just money!"

"Indeed." Gianni grins. "There's more to that than mere economic performance;
you have to consider abundance as a factor. Don't plan the economy; take things
out of the economy. Do you pay for the air you breathe? Should uploaded minds -
who will be the backbone of our economy, by and by - have to pay for processor
cycles? No and no. Now, do you want to know how you can pay for your divorce
settlement? And can I interest you, and your interestingly accredited new
manager, in a little project of mine?"

* * *

The shutters are thrown back, the curtains tied out of the way, and Annette's
huge living room windows are drawn open in the morning breeze.

Manfred sits on a leather-topped piano stool, his suitcase open at his feet.
He's running a link from the case to Annette's stereo, an antique stand-alone
unit with a satellite Internet uplink. Someone has chipped it, crudely revoking
its copy protection algorithm: The back of its case bears scars from the
soldering iron. Annette is curled up on the huge sofa, wrapped in a kaftan and
a pair of high-bandwidth goggles, thrashing out an internal Arianespace
scheduling problem with some colleagues in Iran and Guyana.

His suitcase is full of noise, but what's coming out of the stereo is ragtime.
Subtract entropy from a data stream - coincidentally uncompressing it - and
what's left is information. With a capacity of about a trillion terabytes, the
suitcase's holographic storage reservoir has enough capacity to hold every
music, film, and video production of the twentieth century with room to spare.
This is all stuff that is effectively out of copyright control, work-for-hire
owned by bankrupt companies, released before the CCAA could make their media
clampdown stick. Manfred is streaming the music through Annette's stereo - but
keeping the noise it was convoluted with. High-grade entropy is valuable, too
...

Presently, Manfred sighs and pushes his glasses up his forehead, killing the
displays. He's thought his way around every permutation of what's going on, and
it looks like Gianni was right: There's nothing left to do but wait for
everyone to show up.

For a moment, he feels old and desolate, as slow as an unassisted human mind.
Agencies have been swapping in and out of his head for the past day, ever since
he got back from Rome. He's developed a butterfly attention span, irritable and
unable to focus on anything while the information streams fight it out for
control of his cortex, arguing about a solution to his predicament. Annette is
putting up with his mood swings surprisingly calmly. He's not sure why, but he
glances her way fondly. Her obsessions run surprisingly deep, and she's quite
clearly using him for her own purposes. So why does he feel more comfortable
around her than he did with Pam?

She stretches and pushes her goggles up. "Oui?"

"I was just thinking." He smiles. "Three days and you haven't told me what I
should be doing with myself, yet."

She pulls a face. "Why would I do that?"

"Oh, no reason. I'm just not over - " He shrugs uncomfortably. There it is, an
inexplicable absence in his life, but not one he feels he urgently needs to
fill yet. Is this what a relationship between equals feels like? He's not sure:
Starting with the occlusive cocooning of his upbringing and continuing through
all his adult relationships, he's been effectively - voluntarily - dominated by
his partners. Maybe the antisubmissive conditioning is working, after all. But
if so, why the creative malaise? Why isn't he coming up with original new ideas
this week? Could it be that his peculiar brand of creativity is an outlet, that
he needs the pressure of being lovingly enslaved to make him burst out into a
great flowering of imaginative brilliance? Or could it be that he really is
missing Pam?

Annette stands up and walks over, slowly. He looks at her and feels lust and
affection, and isn't sure whether or not this is love. "When are they due?" she
asks, leaning over him.

"Any -" The doorbell chimes.

"Ah. I will get that." She stalks away, opens the door.

"You!"

Manfred's head snaps round as if he's on a leash. Her leash: But he wasn't
expecting her to come in person.

"Yes, me," Annette says easily. "Come in. Be my guest."

Pam enters the apartment living room with flashing eyes, her tame lawyer in
tow. "Well, look what the robot kitty dragged in," she drawls, fixing Manfred
with an expression that owes more to anger than to humor. It's not like her,
this blunt hostility, and he wonders where it came from.

Manfred rises. For a moment he's transfixed by the sight of his dominatrix
wife, and his - mistress? conspirator? lover? - side by side. The contrast is
marked: Annette's expression of ironic amusement a foil for Pamela's angry
sincerity. Somewhere behind them stands a balding middle-aged man in a suit,
carrying a folio: just the kind of diligent serf Pam might have turned him
into, given time. Manfred musters up a smile. "Can I offer you some coffee?" he
asks. "The party of the third part seems to be late."

"Coffee would be great, mine's dark, no sugar," twitters the lawyer. He puts
his briefcase down on a side table and fiddles with his wearable until a light
begins to blink from his spectacle frames: "I'm recording this, I'm sure you
understand."

Annette sniffs and heads for the kitchen, which is charmingly manual but not
very efficient; Pam is pretending she doesn't exist. "Well, well, well." She
shakes her head. "I'd expected better of you than a French tart's boudoir,
Manny. And before the ink's dry on the divorce - these days that'll cost you,
didn't you think of that?"

"I'm surprised you're not in the hospital," he says, changing the subject. "Is
postnatal recovery outsourced these days?"

"The employers." She slips her coat off her shoulders and hangs it behind the
broad wooden door. "They subsidize everything when you reach my grade." Pamela
is wearing a very short, very expensive dress, the kind of weapon in the war
between the sexes that ought to come with an end-user certificate: But to his
surprise it has no effect on him. He realizes that he's completely unable to
evaluate her gender, almost as if she's become a member of another species. "As
you'd be aware if you'd been paying attention."

"I always pay attention, Pam. It's the only currency I carry."

"Very droll, ha-ha," interrupts Glashwiecz. "You do realize that you're paying
me while I stand here listening to this fascinating byplay?"

Manfred stares at him. "You know I don't have any money."

"Ah," Glashwiecz smiles, "but you must be mistaken. Certainly the judge will
agree with me that you must be mistaken - all a lack of paper documentation
means is that you've covered your trail. There's the small matter of the
several thousand corporations you own, indirectly. Somewhere at the bottom of
that pile there has got to be something, hasn't there?"

A hissing, burbling noise like a sackful of large lizards being drowned in mud
emanates from the kitchen, suggesting that Annette's percolator is nearly
ready. Manfred's left hand twitches, playing chords on an air keyboard. Without
being at all obvious, he's releasing a bulletin about his current activities
that should soon have an effect on the reputation marketplace. "Your attack was
rather elegant," he comments, sitting down on the sofa as Pam disappears into
the kitchen.

Glashwiecz nods. "The idea was one of my interns'," he says. "I don't
understand this distributed denial of service stuff, but Lisa grew up on it.
Something about it being a legal travesty, but workable all the same."

"Uh-huh." Manfred's opinion of the lawyer drops a notch. He notices Pam
reappearing from the kitchen, her expression icy. A moment later Annette
surfaces carrying a jug and some cups, beaming innocently. Something's going
on, but at that moment, one of his agents nudges him urgently in the left ear,
his suitcase keens mournfully and beams a sense of utter despair at him, and
the doorbell rings again.

"So what's the scam?" Glashwiecz sits down uncomfortably close to Manfred and
murmurs out of one side of his mouth. "Where's the money?"

Manfred looks at him irritably. "There is no money," he says. "The idea is to
make money obsolete. Hasn't she explained that?" His eyes wander, taking in the
lawyer's Patek Philippe watch, his Java-enabled signet ring.

"C'mon. Don't give me that line. Look, all it takes is a couple of million, and
you can buy your way free for all I care. All I'm here for is to see that your
wife and daughter don't get left penniless and starving. You know and I know
that you've got bags of it stuffed away - just look at your reputation! You
didn't get that by standing at the roadside with a begging bowl, did you?"

Manfred snorts. "You're talking about an elite IRS auditor here. She isn't
penniless; she gets a commission on every poor bastard she takes to the
cleaners, and she was born with a trust fund. Me, I -" The stereo bleeps.
Manfred pulls his glasses on. Whispering ghosts of dead artists hum through his
earlobes, urgently demanding their freedom. Someone knocks at the door again,
and he glances around to see Annette walking toward it.

"You're making it hard on yourself," Glashwiecz warns.

"Expecting company?" Pam asks, one brittle eyebrow raised in Manfred's
direction.

"Not exactly -"

Annette opens the door and a couple of guards in full SWAT gear march in.
They're clutching gadgets that look like crosses between digital sewing
machines and grenade launchers, and their helmets are studded with so many
sensors that they resemble 1950s space probes. "That's them," Annette says
clearly.

"Mais Oui." The door closes itself and the guards stand to either side. Annette
stalks toward Pam.

"You think to walk in here, to my pied-a-terre, and take from Manfred?" she
sniffs.

"You're making a big mistake, lady," Pam says, her voice steady and cold enough
to liquefy helium.

A burst of static from one of the troopers. "No," Annette says distantly. "No
mistake."

She points at Glashwiecz. "Are you aware of the takeover?"

"Takeover?" The lawyer looks puzzled, but not alarmed by the presence of the
guards.

"As of three hours ago," Manfred says quietly, "I sold a controlling interest
in agalmic.holdings.root.1.1.1 to Athene Accelerants BV, a venture capital
outfit from Maastricht. One dot one dot one is the root node of the central
planning tree. Athene aren't your usual VC, they're accelerants - they take
explosive business plans and detonate them." Glashwiecz is looking pale -
whether with anger or fear of a lost commission is impossible to tell.
"Actually, Athene Accelerants is owned by a shell company owned by the Italian
Communist Party's pension trust. The point is, you're in the presence of one
dot one dot one's chief operations officer."

Pam looks annoyed. "Puerile attempts to dodge responsibility -"

Annette clears her throat. "Exactly who do you think you are trying to sue?"
she asks Glashwiecz sweetly. "Here we have laws about unfair restraint of
trade. Also about foreign political interference, specifically in the financial
affairs of an Italian party of government."

"You wouldn't -"

"I would." Manfred brushes his hands on his knees and stands up. "Done, yet?"
he asks the suitcase.

Muffled beeps, then a gravelly synthesized voice speaks. "Uploads completed."

"Ah, good." He grins at Annette. "Time for our next guests?"

On cue, the doorbell rings again. The guards sidle to either side of the door.
Annette snaps her fingers, and it opens to admit a pair of smartly dressed
thugs. It's beginning to get crowded in the living room.

"Which one of you is Macx?" snaps the older one of the two thugs, staring at
Glashwiecz for no obvious reason. He hefts an aluminum briefcase. "Got a writ
to serve."

"You'd be the CCAA?" asks Manfred.

"You bet. If you're Macx, I have a restraining order -"

Manfred raises a hand. "It's not me you want," he says. "It's this lady." He
points at Pam, whose mouth opens in silent protest. "Y'see, the intellectual
property you're chasing wants to be free. It's so free that it's now
administered by a complex set of corporate instruments lodged in the
Netherlands, and the prime shareholder as of approximately four minutes ago is
my soon-to-be-ex-wife Pamela, here." He winks at Glashwiecz. "Except she
doesn't control anything."

"Just what do you think you're playing at, Manfred?" Pamela snarls, unable to
contain herself any longer. The guards shuffle: The larger, junior CCAA
enforcer tugs at his boss's jacket nervously.

"Well." Manfred picks up his coffee and takes a sip. Grimaces. "Pam wanted a
divorce settlement, didn't she? The most valuable assets I own are the rights
to a whole bunch of recategorized work-for-hire that slipped through the CCAA's
fingers a few years back. Part of the twentieth century's cultural heritage
that got locked away by the music industry in the last decade - Janis Joplin,
the Doors, that sort of thing. Artists who weren't around to defend themselves
anymore. When the music cartels went bust, the rights went for a walk. I took
them over originally with the idea of setting the music free. Giving it back to
the public domain, as it were."

Annette nods at the guards, one of whom nods back and starts muttering and
buzzing into a throat mike. Manfred continues. "I was working on a solution to
the central planning paradox - how to interface a centrally planned enclave to
a market economy. My good friend Gianni Vittoria suggested that such a shell
game could have alternative uses. So I've not freed the music. Instead, I
signed the rights over to various actors and threads running inside the agalmic
holdings network - currently one million, forty-eight thousand, five hundred
and seventy-five companies. They swap rights rapidly - the rights to any given
song are resident in a given company for, oh, all of fifty milliseconds at a
time. Now understand, I don't own these companies. I don't even have a
financial interest in them anymore. I've deeded my share of the profits to Pam,
here. I'm getting out of the biz, Gianni's suggested something rather more
challenging for me to do instead."

He takes another mouthful of coffee. The recording Mafiya goon glares at him.
Pam glares at him. Annette stands against one wall, looking amused. "Perhaps
you'd like to sort it out between you?" he asks. Aside, to Glashwiecz: "I trust
you'll drop your denial of service attack before I set the Italian parliament
on you? By the way, you'll find the book value of the intellectual property
assets I deeded to Pamela - by the value these gentlemen place on them - is
somewhere in excess of a billion dollars. As that's rather more than
ninety-nine-point-nine percent of my assets, you'll probably want to look
elsewhere for your fees."

Glashwiecz stands up carefully. The lead goon stares at Pamela. "Is this true?"
he demands. "This little squirt give you IP assets of Sony Bertelsmann
Microsoft Music? We have claim! You come to us for distribution or you get in
deep trouble."

The second goon rumbles agreement: "Remember, dose MP3s, dey bad for you
health!"

Annette claps her hands. "If you would to leave my apartment, please?" The
door, attentive as ever, swings open: "You are no longer welcome here!"

"This means you," Manfred advises Pam helpfully.

"You bastard," she spits at him.

Manfred forces a smile, bemused by his inability to respond to her the way she
wants. Something's wrong, missing, between them. "I thought you wanted my
assets. Are the encumbrances too much for you?"

"You know what I mean! You and that two-bit Euro-whore! I'll nail you for child
neglect!"

His smile freezes. "Try it, and I'll sue you for breach of patent rights. My
genome, you understand."

Pam is taken aback by this. "You patented your own genome? What happened to the
brave new communist, sharing information freely?"

Manfred stops smiling. "Divorce happened. And the Italian Communist Party
happened."

She turns on her heel and stalks out of the apartment bravely, tame attorney in
tow behind her, muttering about class action lawsuits and violations of the
Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The CCAA lawyer's tame gorilla makes a grab
for Glashwiecz's shoulder, and the guards move in, hustling the whole movable
feast out into the stairwell. The door slams shut on a chaos of impending
recursive lawsuits, and Manfred breathes a huge wheeze of relief.

Annette walks over to him and leans her chin on the top of his head. "Think it
will work?" she asks.

"Well, the CCAA will sue the hell out of the company network for a while if
they try to distribute by any channel that isn't controlled by the Mafiya. Pam
gets rights to all the music, her settlement, but she can't sell it without
going through the mob. And I got to serve notice on that legal shark: If he
tries to take me on he's got to be politically bullet-proof. Hmm. Maybe I ought
not to plan on going back to the USA this side of the singularity."

"Profits," Annette sighs, "I do not easily understand this way of yours. Or
this apocalyptic obsession with singularity."

"Remember the old aphorism, if you love something, set it free? I freed the
music."

"But you didn't! You signed rights over -"

"But first I uploaded the entire stash to several cryptographically anonymized
public network filesystems over the past few hours, so there'll be rampant
piracy. And the robot companies are all set to automagically grant any and
every copyright request they receive, royalty-free, until the goons figure out
how to hack them. But that's not the point. The point is abundance. The Mafiya
can't stop it being distributed. Pam is welcome to her cut if she can figure an
angle - but I bet she can't. She still believes in classical economics, the
allocation of resources under conditions of scarcity. Information doesn't work
that way. What matters is that people will be able to hear the music - instead
of a Soviet central planning system, I've turned the network into a firewall to
protect freed intellectual property."

"Oh, Manfred, you hopeless idealist." She strokes his shoulder. "Whatever for?"

"It's not just the music. When we develop a working AI or upload minds we'll
need a way of defending it against legal threats. That's what Gianni pointed
out to me ..."

He's still explaining to her how he's laying the foundations for the transhuman
explosion due early in the next decade when she picks him up in both arms,
carries him to her bedroom, and commits outrageous acts of tender intimacy with
him. But that's okay. He's still human, this decade.

This, too, will pass, thinks the bulk of his metacortex. And it drifts off into
the net to think deep thoughts elsewhere, leaving his meatbody to experience
the ancient pleasures of the flesh set free.

1~ 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 -

* * *

_1 Welcome to the eve of the third decade: a time of chaos characterized by an
all-out depression in the space industries.

_1 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.

_1 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.

_1 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.

_1 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!"

"Ciao."

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.

* * *

_1 Getting back to the history lesson, the prospects for the decade look mostly
medical.

_1 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.

_1 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.

_1 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.

_1 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.

_1 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.

_1 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.

_1 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.

* * *

"Gianni?"

"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?"

"Oui."

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.

:B~ PART 2: Point of Inflexion

Life is a process which may be abstracted from other media.

- John Von Neumann

1~ Chapter 4: Halo

The asteroid is running Barney: it sings of love on the high frontier, of the
passion of matter for replicators, and its friendship for the needy billions of
the Pacific Rim. "I love you," it croons in Amber's ears as she seeks a precise
fix on it: "Let me give you a big hug ..."

A fraction of a light-second away, Amber locks a cluster of cursors together on
the signal, trains them to track its Doppler shift, and reads off the orbital
elements. "Locked and loaded," she mutters. The animated purple dinosaur
pirouettes and prances in the middle of her viewport, throwing a diamond-tipped
swizzle stick overhead. Sarcastically: "Big hug time! I got asteroid!" Cold gas
thrusters bang somewhere behind her in the interstage docking ring, prodding
the cumbersome farm ship round to orient on the Barney rock. She damps her
enthusiasm self-consciously, her implants hungrily sequestrating surplus
neurotransmitter molecules floating around her synapses before reuptake sets
in. It doesn't do to get too excited in free flight. But the impulse to spin
handstands, jump and sing is still there: It's her rock, and it loves her, and
she's going to bring it to life.

The workspace of Amber's room is a mass of stuff that probably doesn't belong
on a spaceship. Posters of the latest Lebanese boy band bump and grind through
their glam routines: Tentacular restraining straps wave from the corners of her
sleeping bag, somehow accumulating a crust of dirty clothing from the air like
a giant inanimate hydra. (Cleaning robots seldom dare to venture inside the
teenager's bedroom.) One wall is repeatedly cycling through a simulation of the
projected construction cycle of Habitat One, a big fuzzy sphere with a glowing
core (that Amber is doing her bit to help create). Three or four small
pastel-colored plastic kawaii dolls stalk each other across its circumference
with million-kilometer strides. And her father's cat is curled up between the
aircon duct and her costume locker, snoring in a high-pitched tone.

Amber yanks open the faded velour curtain that shuts her room off from the rest
of the hive: "I've got it!" she shouts. "It's all mine! I rule!" It's the
sixteenth rock tagged by the orphanage so far, but it's the first that she's
tagged by herself, and that makes it special. She bounces off the other side of
the commons, surprising one of Oscar's cane toads - which should be locked down
in the farm, it's not clear how it got here - and the audio repeaters copy the
incoming signal, noise-fuzzed echoes of a thousand fossilized infants' video
shows.

* * *

"You're so prompt, Amber," Pierre whines when she corners him in the canteen.

"Well, yeah!" She tosses her head, barely concealing a smirk of delight at her
own brilliance. She knows it isn't nice, but Mom is a long way away, and Dad
and Stepmom don't care about that kind of thing. "I'm brilliant, me," she
announces. "Now what about our bet?"

"Aww." Pierre thrusts his hands deep into his pockets. "But I don't have two
million on me in change right now. Next cycle?"

"Huh?" She's outraged. "But we had a bet!"

"Uh, Dr. Bayes said you weren't going to make it this time, either, so I stuck
my smart money in an options trade. If I take it out now, I'll take a big hit.
Can you give me until cycle's end?"

"You should know better than to trust a sim, Pee." Her avatar blazes at him
with early-teen contempt: Pierre hunches his shoulders under her gaze. He's
only twelve, freckled, hasn't yet learned that you don't welsh on a deal. "I'll
let you do it this time," she announces, "but you'll have to pay for it. I want
interest."

He sighs. "What base rate are you -"

"No, your interest! Slave for a cycle!" She grins malevolently.

And his face shifts abruptly into apprehension: "As long as you don't make me
clean the litter tray again. You aren't planning on doing that, are you?"

* * *

_1 Welcome to the fourth decade. The thinking mass of the solar system now
exceeds one MIPS per gram; it's still pretty dumb, but it's not dumb all over.
The human population is near maximum overshoot, pushing nine billion, but its
growth rate is tipping toward negative numbers, and bits of what used to be the
first world are now facing a middle-aged average. Human cogitation provides
about 10^{28}^ MIPS of the solar system's brainpower. The real thinking is
mostly done by the halo of a thousand trillion processors that surround the
meat machines with a haze of computation - individually a tenth as powerful as
a human brain, collectively they're ten thousand times more powerful, and their
numbers are doubling every twenty million seconds. They're up to 10^{33}^ MIPS
and rising, although there's a long way to go before the solar system is fully
awake.

_1 Technologies come, technologies go, but nobody even five years ago predicted
that there'd be tinned primates in orbit around Jupiter by now: A synergy of
emergent industries and strange business models have kick-started the space age
again, aided and abetted by the discovery of (so far undecrypted) signals from
ETs. Unexpected fringe riders are developing new ecological niches on the edge
of the human information space, light-minutes and light-hours from the core, as
an expansion that has hung fire since the 1970s gets under way.

_1 Amber, like most of the postindustrialists aboard the orphanage ship Ernst
Sanger, is in her early teens: While their natural abilities are in many cases
enhanced by germ-line genetic recombination, thanks to her mother's early
ideals she has to rely on brute computational enhancements. She doesn't have a
posterior parietal cortex hacked for extra short-term memory, or an anterior
superior temporal gyrus tweaked for superior verbal insight, but she's grown up
with neural implants that feel as natural to her as lungs or fingers. Half her
wetware is running outside her skull on an array of processor nodes hooked into
her brain by quantum-entangled communication channels - her own personal
metacortex. These kids are mutant youth, burning bright: Not quite
incomprehensible to their parents, but profoundly alien - the generation gap is
as wide as the 1960s and as deep as the solar system. Their parents, born in
the gutter years of the twenty-first century, grew up with white elephant
shuttles and a space station that just went round and round, and computers that
went beep when you pushed their buttons. The idea that Jupiter orbit was
somewhere you could go was as profoundly counterintuitive as the Internet to a
baby boomer.

_1 Most of the passengers on the can have run away from parents who think that
teenagers belong in school, unable to come to terms with a generation so
heavily augmented that they are fundamentally brighter than the adults around
them. Amber was fluent in nine languages by the age of six, only two of them
human and six of them serializable; when she was seven, her mother took her to
the school psychiatrist for speaking in synthetic tongues. That was the final
straw for Amber: using an illicit anonymous phone, she called her father. Her
mother had him under a restraining order, but it hadn't occurred to her to
apply for an order against his partner ...

* * *

Vast whorls of cloud ripple beneath the ship's drive stinger: Orange and brown
and muddy gray streaks slowly crawl across the bloated horizon of Jupiter.
Sanger is nearing perijove, deep within the gas giant's lethal magnetic field;
static discharges flicker along the tube, arcing over near the deep violet
exhaust cloud emerging from the magnetic mirrors of the ship's VASIMR motor.
The plasma rocket is cranked up to high mass flow, its specific impulse almost
as low as a fission rocket but producing maximum thrust as the assembly creaks
and groans through the gravitational assist maneuver. In another hour, the
drive will flicker off, and the orphanage will fall up and out toward Ganymede,
before dropping back in toward orbit around Amalthea, Jupiter's fourth moon
(and source of much of the material in the Gossamer ring). They're not the
first canned primates to make it to Jupiter subsystem, but they're one of the
first wholly private ventures. The bandwidth out here sucks dead slugs through
a straw, with millions of kilometers of vacuum separating them from scant
hundreds of mouse-brained microprobes and a few dinosaurs left behind by NASA
or ESA. They're so far from the inner system that a good chunk of the ship's
communications array is given over to caching: The news is whole kiloseconds
old by the time it gets out here.

Amber, along with about half the waking passengers, watches in fascination from
the common room. The commons are a long axial cylinder, a double-hulled
inflatable at the center of the ship with a large part of their liquid water
supply stored in its wall tubes. The far end is video-enabled, showing them a
real-time 3D view of the planet as it rolls beneath them: in reality, there's
as much mass as possible between them and the trapped particles in the Jovian
magnetic envelope. "I could go swimming in that," sighs Lilly. "Just imagine,
diving into that sea ..." Her avatar appears in the window, riding a silver
surfboard down the kilometers of vacuum.

"Nice case of wind-burn you've got there," someone jeers - Kas. Suddenly
Lilly's avatar, hitherto clad in a shimmering metallic swimsuit, turns to the
texture of baked meat and waggles sausage fingers up at them in warning.

"Same to you and the window you climbed in through!" Abruptly the virtual
vacuum outside the window is full of bodies, most of them human, contorting and
writhing and morphing in mock-combat as half the kids pitch into the virtual
death match. It's a gesture in the face of the sharp fear that outside the thin
walls of the orphanage lies an environment that really is as hostile as Lilly's
toasted avatar would indicate.

Amber turns back to her slate: She's working through a complex mess of forms,
necessary before the expedition can start work. Facts and figures that are
never far away crowd around her, intimidating. Jupiter weighs 1.9 x 10^{27}^
kilograms. There are twenty-nine Jovian moons and an estimated two hundred
thousand minor bodies, lumps of rock, and bits of debris crowded around them -
debris above the size of ring fragments, for Jupiter (like Saturn) has rings,
albeit not as prominent. A total of six major national orbiter platforms have
made it out here - and another two hundred and seventeen microprobes, all but
six of them private entertainment platforms. The first human expedition was put
together by ESA Studios six years ago, followed by a couple of wildcat mining
prospectors and a M-commerce bus that scattered half a million picoprobes
throughout Jupiter subsystem. Now the Sanger has arrived, along with another
three monkey cans (one from Mars, two more from LEO) and it looks as if
colonization is about to explode, except that there are at least four mutually
exclusive Grand Plans for what to do with old Jove's mass.

Someone prods her. "Hey, Amber, what are you up to?"

She opens her eyes. "Doing my homework." It's Su Ang. "Look, we're going to
Amalthea, aren't we? But we file our accounts in Reno, so we have to do all
this paperwork. Monica asked me to help. It's insane."

Ang leans over and reads, upside down. "Environmental Protection Agency?"

"Yeah. Estimated Environmental Impact Forward Analysis 204.6b, Page Two. They
want me to 'list any bodies of standing water within five kilometers of the
designated mining area. If excavating below the water table, list any
wellsprings, reservoirs, and streams within depth of excavation in meters
multiplied by five hundred meters up to a maximum distance of ten kilometers
downstream of direction of bedding plane flow. For each body of water, itemize
any endangered or listed species of bird, fish, mammal, reptile, invertebrate,
or plant living within ten kilometers -'"

" - of a mine on Amalthea. Which orbits one hundred and eighty thousand
kilometers above Jupiter, has no atmosphere, and where you can pick up a whole
body radiation dose of ten Grays in half an hour on the surface." Ang shakes
her head, then spoils it by giggling. Amber glances up.

On the wall in front of her someone - Nicky or Boris, probably - has pasted a
caricature of her own avatar into the virch fight. She's being hugged from
behind by a giant cartoon dog with floppy ears and an improbably large
erection, who's singing anatomically improbable suggestions while fondling
himself suggestively. "Fuck that!" Shocked out of her distraction - and angry -
Amber drops her stack of paperwork and throws a new avatar at the screen, one
an agent of hers dreamed up overnight. It's called Spike, and it's not
friendly. Spike rips off the dog's head and pisses down its trachea, which is
anatomically correct for a human being: Meanwhile she looks around, trying to
work out which of the laughing idiot children and lost geeks around her could
have sent such an unpleasant message.

"Children! Chill out." She glances round - one of the Franklins (this is the
twentysomething dark-skinned female one) is frowning at them. "Can't we leave
you alone for half a K without a fight?"

Amber pouts. "It's not a fight; it's a forceful exchange of opinions."

"Hah." The Franklin leans back in midair, arms crossed, an expression of
supercilious smugness pasted across her-their face. "Heard that one before.
Anyway" - she-they gesture, and the screen goes blank - "I've got news for you
pesky kids. We got a claim verified! Factory starts work as soon as we shut
down the stinger and finish filing all the paperwork via our lawyers. Now's our
chance to earn our upkeep ..."

* * *

Amber is flashing on ancient history, five years back along her time line. In
her replay, she's in some kind of split-level ranch house out West. It's a
temporary posting while her mother audits an obsolescent fab line enterprise
that grinds out dead chips of VLSI silicon for Pentagon projects that have
slipped behind the cutting edge. Her Mom leans over her, menacingly adult in
her dark suit and chaperone earrings: "You're going to school, and that's
that."

Her mother is a blonde ice maiden madonna, one of the IRS's most productive
bounty hunters - she can make grown CEOs panic just by blinking at them. Amber,
a towheaded-eight-year old tearaway with a confusing mix of identities,
inexperience blurring the boundary between self and grid, is not yet able to
fight back effectively. After a couple of seconds, she verbalizes a rather
feeble protest: "Don't want to!" One of her stance daemons whispers that this
is the wrong approach to take, so she modifies it: "They'll beat up on me, Mom.
I'm too different. Sides, I know you want me socialized up with my grade
metrics, but isn't that what sideband's for? I can socialize real good at
home."

Mom does something unexpected: She kneels, putting herself on eye-level with
Amber. They're on the living room carpet, all seventies-retro brown corduroy
and acid-orange Paisley wallpaper, and for once, they're alone: The domestic
robots are in hiding while the humans hold court. "Listen to me, sweetie."
Mom's voice is breathy, laden with an emotional undertow as strong and stifling
as the eau-de-Cologne she wears to the office to cover up the scent of her
client's fear. "I know that's what your father's writing to you, but it isn't
true. You need the company - physical company - of children your own age.
You're natural, not some kind of engineered freak, even with your skullset.
Natural children like you need company or they grow up all weird. Socialization
isn't just about texting your own kind, Amber, you need to know how to deal
with people who're different, too. I want you to grow up happy, and that won't
happen if you don't learn to get on with children your own age. You're not
going to be some kind of cyborg otaku freak, Amber. But to get healthy, you've
got to go to school, build up a mental immune system. Anyway, that which does
not destroy us makes us stronger, right?"

It's crude moral blackmail, transparent as glass and manipulative as hell, but
Amber's corpus logica flags it with a heavy emotional sprite miming the
likelihood of physical discipline if she rises to the bait: Mom is agitated,
nostrils slightly flared, ventilation rate up, some vasodilatation visible in
her cheeks. Amber - in combination with her skullset and the metacortex of
distributed agents it supports - is mature enough at eight years to model,
anticipate, and avoid corporal punishment. But her stature and lack of physical
maturity conspire to put her at a disadvantage when negotiating with adults who
matured in a simpler age. She sighs, then puts on a pout to let Mom know she's
still reluctant, but obedient. "O-kay. If you say so."

Mom stands up, eyes distant - probably telling Saturn to warm his engine and
open the garage doors. "I say so, punkin. Go get your shoes on, now. I'll pick
you up on my way back from work, and I've got a treat for you; we're going to
check out a new church together this evening." Mom smiles, but it doesn't reach
her eyes: Amber has already figured out she's going through the motions in
order to give her the simulated middle-American upbringing she believes Amber
desperately needs before she runs head first into the future. She doesn't like
the churches any more than her daughter does, but arguing won't work. "You be a
good little girl, now, all right?"

* * *

The imam is at prayer in a gyrostabilized mosque.

His mosque is not very big, and it has a congregation of one: He prays on his
own every seventeen thousand two hundred and eighty seconds. He also webcasts
the call to prayer, but there are no other believers in trans-Jovian space to
answer the summons. Between prayers, he splits his attention between the
exigencies of life support and scholarship. A student both of the Hadith and of
knowledge-based systems, Sadeq collaborates in a project with other scholars
who are building a revised concordance of all the known isnads, to provide a
basis for exploring the body of Islamic jurisprudence from a new perspective -
one they'll need sorely if the looked-for breakthroughs in communication with
aliens emerge. Their goal is to answer the vexatious questions that bedevil
Islam in the age of accelerated consciousness; and as their representative in
orbit around Jupiter, these questions fall most heavily on Sadeq's shoulders.

Sadeq is a slightly built man, with close-cropped black hair and a perpetually
tired expression: Unlike the orphanage crew he has a ship to himself. The ship
started out as an Iranian knock off of a Shenzhou-B capsule, with a Chinese
type 921 space-station module tacked onto its tail; but the clunky, 1960s
look-alike - a glittering aluminum dragonfly mating with a Coke can - has a
weirdly contoured M2P2 pod strapped to its nose. The M2P2 pod is a plasma sail,
built in orbit by one of Daewoo's wake shield facilities. It dragged Sadeq and
his cramped space station out to Jupiter in just four months, surfing on the
solar breeze. His presence may be a triumph for the umma, but he feels acutely
alone out here: When he turns his compact observatory's mirrors in the
direction of the Sanger, he is struck by its size and purposeful appearance.
Sanger's superior size speaks of the efficiency of the Western financial
instruments, semiautonomous investment trusts with variable business-cycle
accounting protocols that make possible the development of commercial space
exploration. The Prophet, peace be unto him, may have condemned usury; but it
might well have given him pause to see these engines of capital formation
demonstrate their power above the Great Red Spot.

After finishing his prayers, Sadeq spends a couple of precious extra minutes on
his mat. He finds meditation comes hard in this environment: Kneel in silence,
and you become aware of the hum of ventilation fans, the smell of old socks and
sweat, the metallic taste of ozone from the Elektron oxygen generators. It is
hard to approach God in this third hand spaceship, a hand-me-down from arrogant
Russia to ambitious China, and finally to the religious trustees of Qom, who
have better uses for it than any of the heathen states imagine. They've pushed
it far, this little toy space station; but who's to say if it is God's
intention for humans to live here, in orbit around this swollen alien giant of
a planet?

Sadeq shakes his head; he rolls his mat up and stows it beside the solitary
porthole with a quiet sigh. A stab of homesickness wrenches at him, for his
childhood in hot, dusty Yazd and his many years as a student in Qom: He
steadies himself by looking round, searching the station that is now as
familiar to him as the fourth-floor concrete apartment his parents - a car
factory worker and his wife - raised him in. The interior of the station is the
size of a school bus, every surface cluttered with storage areas, instrument
consoles, and layers of exposed pipes. A couple of globules of antifreeze
jiggle like stranded jellyfish near a heat exchanger that has been giving him
grief. Sadeq kicks off in search of the squeeze bottle he keeps for this
purpose, then gathers up his roll of tools and instructs one of his agents to
find him the relevant part of the maintenance log: it's time to fix the leaky
joint for good.

An hour or so of serious plumbing and he will eat freeze-dried lamb stew, with
a paste of lentils and boiled rice, and a bulb of strong tea to wash it down,
then sit down to review his next fly-by maneuvering sequence. Perhaps, God
willing, there will be no further system alerts and he'll be able to spend an
hour or two on his research between evening and final prayers. Maybe the day
after tomorrow there'll even be time to relax for a couple of hours, to watch
one of the old movies that he finds so fascinating for their insights into
alien cultures: Apollo Thirteen, perhaps. It isn't easy, being the crew aboard
a long-duration space mission. It's even harder for Sadeq, up here alone with
nobody to talk to, for the communications lag to earth is more than half an
hour each way - and as far as he knows, he's the only believer within half a
billion kilometers.

* * *

Amber dials a number in Paris and waits until someone answers the phone. She
knows the strange woman on the phone's tiny screen: Mom calls her "your
father's fancy bitch" with a peculiar tight smile. (The one time Amber asked
what a fancy bitch was, Mom slapped her - not hard, just a warning.) "Is Daddy
there?" she asks.

The strange woman looks slightly bemused. (Her hair is blonde, like Mom's, but
the color clearly came out of a bleach bottle, and it's cut really short, and
her skin is dark.) "Oui. Ah, yes." She smiles tentatively. "I am sorry, it is a
disposable phone you are using? You want to talk to 'im?"

It comes out in a rush: "I want to see him." Amber clutches the phone like a
lifesaver: It's a cheap disposable cereal-packet item, and the cardboard is
already softening in her sweaty grip. "Momma won't let me, Auntie 'Nette -"

"Hush." Annette, who has lived with Amber's father for more than twice as long
as her mother, smiles. "You are sure that telephone, your mother does not know
of it?"

Amber looks around. She's the only child in the restroom because it isn't break
time, and she told teacher she had to go 'right now': "I'm sure, P20 confidence
factor greater than 0.9." Her Bayesian head tells her that she can't reason
accurately about this because Momma has never caught her with an illicit phone
before, but what the hell. It can't get Dad into trouble if he doesn't know,
can it?

"Very good." Annette glances aside. "Manny, I have a surprise call for you."

Daddy appears on screen. She can see all of his face, and he looks younger than
last time: he must have stopped using those clunky old glasses. "Hi - Amber!
Where are you? Does your mother know you're calling me?" He looks slightly
worried.

"No," she says confidently, "the phone came in a box of Grahams."

"Phew. Listen, sweet, you must remember never, ever to call me where your mom
may find out. Otherwise, she'll get her lawyers to come after me with
thumbscrews and hot pincers, because she'll say I made you call me. And not
even Uncle Gianni will be able to sort that out. Understand?"

"Yes, Daddy." She sighs. "Even though that's not true, I know. Don't you want
to know why I called?"

"Um." For a moment, he looks taken aback. Then he nods, thoughtfully. Amber
likes Daddy because he takes her seriously most times when she talks to him.
It's a phreaking nuisance having to borrow her classmate's phones or tunnel
past Mom's pit-bull firewall, but Dad doesn't assume that she can't know
anything just because she's only a kid. "Go ahead. There's something you need
to get off your chest? How've things been, anyway?"

She's going to have to be brief: The disposaphone comes prepaid, the
international tariff it's using is lousy, and the break bell is going to ring
any minute. "I want out, Daddy. I mean it. Mom's getting loopier every week -
she's dragging me round all these churches now, and yesterday, she threw a fit
over me talking to my terminal. She wants me to see the school shrink, I mean,
what for? I can't do what she wants - I'm not her little girl! Every time I
tunnel out, she tries to put a content-bot on me, and it's making my head hurt
- I can't even think straight anymore!" To her surprise, Amber feels tears
starting. "Get me out of here!"

The view of her father shakes, pans round to show her Tante Annette looking
worried. "You know, your father, he cannot do anything? The divorce lawyers,
they will tie him up."

Amber sniffs. "Can you help?" she asks.

"I'll see what I can do," her father's fancy bitch promises as the break bell
rings.

* * *

An instrument package peels away from the Sanger's claim jumper drone and drops
toward the potato-shaped rock, fifty kilometers below. Jupiter hangs huge and
gibbous in the background, impressionist wallpaper for a mad cosmologist:
Pierre bites his lower lip as he concentrates on steering it.

Amber, wearing a black sleeping sack, hovers over his head like a giant bat,
enjoying her freedom for a shift. She looks down on Pierre's bowl-cut hair,
wiry arms gripping either side of the viewing table, and wonders what to have
him do next. A slave for a day is an interesting experience: Life aboard the
Sanger is busy enough that nobody gets much slack time (at least not until the
big habitats have been assembled and the high-bandwidth dish is pointing back
at Earth). They're unrolling everything to a hugely intricate plan generated by
the backers' critical path team, and there isn't much room for idling: The
expedition relies on shamelessly exploiting child labor - they're lighter on
the life-support consumables than adults - working the kids twelve hour days to
assemble a toe hold on the shore of the future. (When they're older and their
options vest fully, they'll all be rich, but that hasn't stopped the outraged
herdnews propaganda chorus from sounding off back home.) For Amber, the chance
to let somebody else work for her is novel, and she's trying to make every
minute count.

"Hey, slave," she calls idly; "how you doing?"

Pierre sniffs. "It's going okay." He refuses to glance up at her, Amber
notices. He's thirteen. Isn't he supposed to be obsessed with girls by that
age? She notices his quiet, intense focus, runs a stealthy probe along his
outer boundary; he shows no sign of noticing it, but it bounces off, unable to
chink his mental armor. "Got cruise speed," he says, taciturn, as two tonnes of
metal, ceramics and diamond-phase weirdness hurtle toward the surface of Barney
at three hundred kilometers per hour. "Stop shoving me, there's a three-second
lag, and I don't want to get into a feedback control loop with it."

"I'll shove if I want, slave." She sticks her tongue out at him.

"And if you make me drop it?" he asks. Looking up at her, his face serious -
"Are we supposed to be doing this?"

"You cover your ass, and I'll cover mine," she says, then turns bright red.
"You know what I mean."

"I do, do I?" Pierre grins widely, then turns back to the console: "Aww, that's
no fun. And you want to tune whatever bit-bucket you've given control of your
speech centers to - they're putting out way too much double entendre, somebody
might mistake you for a grown-up."

"You stick to your business, and I'll stick to mine," she says, emphatically.
"And you can start by telling me what's happening."

"Nothing." He leans back and crosses his arms, grimacing at the screen. "It's
going to drift for five hundred seconds, now, then there's the midcourse
correction and a deceleration burn before touch down. And then it's going to be
an hour while it unwraps itself and starts unwinding the cable spool. What do
you want, minute noodles with that?"

"Uh-huh." Amber spreads her bat wings and lies back in mid air, staring at the
window, feeling rich and idle as Pierre works his way through her day shift.
"Wake me when there's something interesting to see." Maybe she should have had
him feed her peeled grapes or give her a foot massage, something more
traditionally hedonistic; but right now, just knowing he's her own little piece
of alienated labor is doing good things for her self-esteem. Looking at those
tense arms, the curve of his neck, she thinks maybe there's something to this
whispering and giggling he really fancies you stuff the older girls go in for -

The window rings like a gong, and Pierre coughs. "You've got mail," he says
drily. "You want me to read it for you?"

"What the -" A message is flooding across the screen, right-to-left snaky
script like the stuff on her corporate instrument (now lodged safely in a
deposit box in Zurich). It takes her a while to load in a grammar agent that
can handle Arabic, and another minute for her to take in the meaning of the
message. When she does, she starts swearing, loudly and continuously.

"You bitch, Mom, why'd you have to go and do a thing like that?"

* * *

The corporate instrument arrived in a huge FedEx box addressed to Amber: It
happened on her birthday while Mom was at work, and she remembers it as if it
was only an hour ago.

She remembers reaching up and scraping her thumb over the deliveryman's
clipboard, the rough feel of the microsequencers sampling her DNA. She drags
the package inside. When she pulls the tab on the box, it unpacks itself
automatically, regurgitating a compact 3D printer, half a ream of paper printed
in old-fashioned dumb ink, and a small calico cat with a large @-symbol on its
flank. The cat hops out of the box, stretches, shakes its head, and glares at
her. "You're Amber?" it mrowls. It actually makes real cat noises, but the
meaning is clear - it's able to talk directly to her linguistic competence
interface.

"Yeah," she says, shyly. "Are you from Tante 'Nette?"

"No, I'm from the fucking tooth fairy." It leans over and head-butts her knee,
strops the scent glands between its ears all over her skirt. "Listen, you got
any tuna in the kitchen?"

"Mom doesn't believe in seafood," says Amber. "It's all foreign-farmed muck
these days, she says. It's my birthday today, did I tell you?"

"Happy fucking birthday, then." The cat yawns, convincingly realistic. "Here's
your dad's present. Bastard put me in hibernation and sent me along to show you
how to work it. You take my advice, you'll trash the fucker. No good will come
of it."

Amber interrupts the cat's grumbling by clapping her hands gleefully; "So what
is it?" she demands: "A new invention? Some kind of weird sex toy from
Amsterdam? A gun, so I can shoot Pastor Wallace?"

"Naah." The cat yawns, yet again, and curls up on the floor next to the 3D
printer. "It's some kinda dodgy business model to get you out of hock to your
mom. Better be careful, though - he says its legality is narrowly scoped
jurisdiction-wise. Your Mom might be able to undermine it if she learns about
how it works."

"Wow. Like, how totally cool." In truth, Amber is delighted because it is her
birthday; but Mom's at work, and Amber's home alone, with just the TV in moral
majority mode for company. Things have gone downhill since Mom decided a modal
average dose of old-time religion was an essential part of her upbringing, to
the point that absolutely the best thing in the world Tante Annette could send
her is some scam programmed by Daddy to take her away. If it doesn't work, Mom
will take her to Church tonight, and she's certain she'll end up making a scene
again. Amber's tolerance of willful idiocy is diminishing rapidly, and while
building up her memetic immunity might be the real reason Mom's forcing this
shit on her - it's always hard to tell with Mom - things have been tense ever
since she got expelled from Sunday school for mounting a spirited defense of
the theory of evolution.

The cat sniffs in the direction of the printer. "Why doncha fire it up?" Amber
opens the lid on the printer, removes the packing popcorn, and plugs it in.
There's a whir and a rush of waste heat from its rear as it cools the imaging
heads down to working temperature and registers her ownership.

"What do I do now?" she asks.

"Pick up the page labeled READ ME and follow the instructions," the cat recites
in a bored singsong voice. It winks at her, then fakes an exaggerated French
accent: "Le READ ME, il sont contain directions pour executing le corporate
instrument dans le boit. In event of perplexity, consult the accompanying
Aineko for clarification." The cat wrinkles its nose rapidly, as if it's about
to bite an invisible insect: "Warning: Don't rely on your father's cat's
opinions, it is a perverse beast and cannot be trusted. Your mother helped seed
its meme base, back when they were married. Ends." It mumbles on for a while:
"Fucking snotty Parisian bitch, I'll piss in her knicker drawer, I'll molt in
her bidet ..."

"Don't be vile." Amber scans the README quickly. Corporate instruments are
strong magic, according to Daddy, and this one is exotic by any standards - a
limited company established in Yemen, contorted by the intersection between
shari'a and the global legislatosaurus. Understanding it isn't easy, even with
a personal net full of subsapient agents that have full access to whole
libraries of international trade law - the bottleneck is comprehension. Amber
finds the documents highly puzzling. It's not the fact that half of them are
written in Arabic that bothers her - that's what her grammar engine is for - or
even that they're full of S-expressions and semidigestible chunks of LISP: But
the company seems to assert that it exists for the sole purpose of owning
chattel slaves.

"What's going on?" she asks the cat. "What's this all about?"

The cat sneezes, then looks disgusted. "This wasn't my idea, big shot. Your
father is a very weird guy, and your mother hates him lots because she's still
in love with him. She's got kinks, y'know? Or maybe she's sublimating them, if
she's serious about this church shit she's putting you through. He thinks she's
a control freak, and he's not entirely wrong. Anyway, after your dad ran off in
search of another dom, she took out an injunction against him. But she forgot
to cover his partner, and she bought this parcel of worms and sent them to you,
okay? Annie is a real bitch, but he's got her wrapped right around his finger,
or something. Anyway, he built these companies and this printer - which isn't
hardwired to a filtering proxy, like your mom's - specifically to let you get
away from her legally. If that's what you want to do."

Amber fast-forwards through the dynamic chunks of the README - boring legal UML
diagrams, mostly - soaking up the gist of the plan. Yemen is one of the few
countries to implement traditional Sunni shari'a law and a limited liability
company scam at the same time. Owning slaves is legal - the fiction is that the
owner has an option hedged on the indentured laborer's future output, with
interest payments that grow faster than the unfortunate victim can pay them off
- and companies are legal entities. If Amber sells herself into slavery to this
company, she will become a slave and the company will be legally liable for her
actions and upkeep. The rest of the legal instrument - about ninety percent of
it, in fact - is a set of self-modifying corporate mechanisms coded in a
variety of jurisdictions that permit Turing-complete company constitutions, and
which act as an ownership shell for the slavery contract. At the far end of the
corporate shell game is a trust fund of which Amber is the prime beneficiary
and shareholder. When she reaches the age of majority, she'll acquire total
control over all the companies in the network and can dissolve her slave
contract; until then, the trust fund (which she essentially owns) oversees the
company that owns her (and keeps it safe from hostile takeover bids). Oh, and
the company network is primed by an extraordinary general meeting that
instructed it to move the trust's assets to Paris immediately. A one-way
airline ticket is enclosed.

"You think I should take this?" she asks uncertainly. It's hard to tell how
smart the cat really is - there's probably a yawning vacuum behind those
semantic networks if you dig deep enough - but it tells a pretty convincing
tale.

The cat squats and curls its tail protectively around its paws: "I'm saying
nothing, you know what I mean? You take this, you can go live with your dad.
But it won't stop your ma coming after him with a horsewhip, and after you with
a bunch of lawyers and a set of handcuffs. You want my advice, you'll phone the
Franklins and get aboard their off-planet mining scam. In space, no one can
serve a writ on you. Plus, they got long-term plans to get into the CETI
market, cracking alien network packets. You want my honest opinion, you
wouldn't like it in Paris after a bit. Your Dad and the frog bitch, they're
swingers, y'know? No time in their lives for a kid. Or a cat like me, now I
think of it. They're working all day for the Senator, and out all hours of
night doing drugs, fetish parties, raves, opera, that kind of adult shit. Your
Dad dresses in frocks more than your mom, and your Tante 'Nettie leads him
around the apartment on a chain when they're not having noisy sex on the
balcony. They'd cramp your style, kid. You shouldn't have to put up with
parents who have more of a life than you do."

"Huh." Amber wrinkles her nose, half-disgusted by the cat's transparent
scheming, and half-acknowledging its message: I better think hard about this,
she decides. Then she flies off in so many directions at once that she nearly
browns out the household broadband. Part of her is examining the intricate card
pyramid of company structures; somewhere else, she's thinking about what can go
wrong, while another bit (probably some of her wet, messy glandular biological
self) is thinking about how nice it would be to see Daddy again, albeit with
some trepidation. Parents aren't supposed to have sex - isn't there a law, or
something? "Tell me about the Franklins? Are they married? Singular?"

The 3D printer is cranking up. It hisses slightly, dissipating heat from the
hard vacuum chamber in its supercooled workspace. Deep in its guts it creates
coherent atom beams, from a bunch of Bose-Einstein condensates hovering on the
edge of absolute zero. By superimposing interference patterns on them, it
generates an atomic hologram, building a perfect replica of some original
artifact, right down to the atomic level - there are no clunky moving
nanotechnology parts to break or overheat or mutate. Something is going to come
out of the printer in half an hour, something cloned off its original right
down to the individual quantum states of its component atomic nuclei. The cat,
seemingly oblivious, shuffles closer to the warm air exhaust ducts.

"Bob Franklin, he died about two, three years before you were born - your dad
did business with him. So did your mom. Anyway, he had chunks of his noumen
preserved and the estate trustees are trying to re-create his consciousness by
cross-loading him in their implants. They're sort of a borganism, but with
money and style. Anyway, Bob got into the space biz back then, with some
financial wizardry a friend of your father whipped up for him, and now they're
building a spacehab that they're going to take all the way out to Jupiter,
where they can dismantle a couple of small moons and begin building
helium-three refineries. It's that CETI scam I told you about earlier, but
they've got a whole load of other angles on it for the long term. See, your
dad's friends have cracked the broadcast, the one everybody knows about. It's a
bunch of instructions for finding the nearest router that plugs into the
galactic Internet. And they want to go out there and talk to some aliens."

This is mostly going right over Amber's head - she'll have to learn what
helium-three refineries are later - but the idea of running away to space has a
certain appeal. Adventure, that's what. Amber looks around the living room and
sees it for a moment as a capsule, a small wooden cell locked deep in a vision
of a middle America that never was - the one her mom wants to bring her up in,
like a misshapen Skinner box designed to train her to be normal. "Is Jupiter
fun?" she asks. "I know it's big and not very dense, but is it, like, a
happening place? Are there any aliens there?"

"It's the first place you need to go if you want to get to meet the aliens
eventually," says the cat as the printer clanks and disgorges a fake passport
(convincingly aged), an intricate metal seal engraved with Arabic script, and a
tailored wide-spectrum vaccine targeted on Amber's immature immune system.
"Stick that on your wrist, sign the three top copies, put them in the envelope,
and let's get going. We've got a flight to catch, slave."

* * *

Sadeq is eating his dinner when the first lawsuit in Jupiter orbit rolls in.

Alone in the cramped humming void of his station, he considers the plea. The
language is awkward, showing all the hallmarks of a crude machine translation:
The supplicant is American, a woman, and - oddly - claims to be a Christian.
This is surprising enough, but the nature of her claim is, at face value,
preposterous. He forces himself to finish his bread, then bag the waste and
clean the platter, before he gives it his full consideration. Is it a tasteless
joke? Evidently not. As the only quadi outside the orbit of Mars, he is
uniquely qualified to hear it, and it is a case that cries out for justice.

A woman who leads a God-fearing life - not a correct one, no, but she shows
some signs of humility and progress toward a deeper understanding - is deprived
of her child by the machinations of a feckless husband who deserted her years
before. That the woman was raising the child alone strikes Sadeq as
disturbingly Western, but pardonable when he reads her account of the feckless
one's behavior, which is pretty lax; an ill fate indeed would await any child
that this man raises to adulthood. This man deprives her of her child, but not
by legitimate means: He doesn't take the child into his own household or make
any attempt to raise her, either in accordance with his own customs or the
precepts of shari'a. Instead, he enslaves her wickedly in the mire of the
Western legal tradition, then casts her into outer darkness to be used as a
laborer by the dubious forces of self-proclaimed "progress". The same forces
Sadeq has been sent to confront, as representative of the umma in orbit around
Jupiter.

Sadeq scratches his short beard thoughtfully. A nasty tale, but what can he do
about it? "Computer," he says, "a reply to this supplicant: My sympathies lie
with you in the manner of your suffering, but I fail to see in what way I can
be of assistance. Your heart cries out for help before God (blessed be his
name), but surely this is a matter for the temporal authorities of the dar
al-Harb." He pauses: Or is it? he wonders. Legal wheels begin to turn in his
mind. "If you can but find your way to extending to me a path by which I can
assert the primacy of shari'a over your daughter, I shall apply myself to
constructing a case for her emancipation, to the greater glory of God (blessed
be his name). Ends, sigblock, send."

Releasing the Velcro straps that hold him at the table, Sadeq floats up and
kicks gently toward the forward end of the cramped habitat. The controls of the
telescope are positioned between the ultrasonic clothing cleaner and the
lithium hydroxide scrubbers. They're already freed up, because he was
conducting a wide-field survey of the inner ring, looking for the signature of
water ice. It is the work of a few moments to pipe the navigation and tracking
system into the telescope's controller and direct it to hunt for the big
foreign ship of fools. Something nudges at Sadeq's mind urgently, an irritating
realization that he may have missed something in the woman's e-mail: there were
a number of huge attachments. With half his mind he surfs the news digest his
scholarly peers send him daily. Meanwhile, he waits patiently for the telescope
to find the speck of light that the poor woman's daughter is enslaved within.

This might be a way in, he realizes, a way to enter dialogue with them. Let the
hard questions answer themselves, elegantly. There will be no need for
confrontation if they can be convinced that their plans are faulty: no need to
defend the godly from the latter-day Tower of Babel these people propose to
build. If this woman Pamela means what she says, Sadeq need not end his days
out here in the cold between the worlds, away from his elderly parents and
brother, and his colleagues and friends. And he will be profoundly grateful,
because in his heart of hearts, he knows that he is less a warrior than a
scholar.

* * *

"I'm sorry, but the borg is attempting to assimilate a lawsuit," says the
receptionist. "Will you hold?"

"Crud." Amber blinks the Binary Betty answerphone sprite out of her eye and
glances round at the cabin. "That is so last century," she grumbles. "Who do
they think they are?"

"Dr. Robert H. Franklin," volunteers the cat. "It's a losing proposition if you
ask me. Bob was so fond of his dope there's this whole hippy group mind that's
grown up using his state vector as a bong -"

"Shut the fuck up!" Amber shouts at him. Instantly contrite (for yelling in an
inflatable spacecraft is a major faux pas): "Sorry." She spawns an autonomic
thread with full parasympathetic nervous control, tells it to calm her down,
then spawns a couple more to go forth and become fuqaha, expert on shari'a law.
She realizes she's buying up way too much of the orphanage's scarce bandwidth -
time that will have to be paid for in chores, later - but it's necessary.
"Mom's gone too far. This time it's war."

She slams out of her cabin and spins right round in the central axis of the
hab, a rogue missile pinging for a target to vent her rage on. A tantrum would
be good -

But her body is telling her to chill out, take ten, and there's a drone of
scriptural lore dribbling away in the back of her head, and she's feeling
frustrated and angry and not in control, but not really mad anymore. It was
like this three years ago when Mom noticed her getting on too well with Jenny
Morgan and moved her to a new school district - she said it was a work
assignment, but Amber knows better, Mom asked for it - just to keep her
dependent and helpless. Mom is a control-freak with fixed ideas about how to
bring up a child, and ever since she lost Dad, she's been working her claws
into Amber, making her upbringing a life's work - which is tough, because Amber
is not good victim material, and is smart and well networked to boot. But now,
Mom's found a way to fuck Amber over completely, even in Jupiter orbit, and if
not for her skullware keeping a lid on things, Amber would be totally out of
control.

Instead of shouting at her cat or trying to message the Franklins, Amber goes
to hunt down the borg in their meatspace den.

There are sixteen borg aboard the Sanger - adults, members of the Franklin
Collective, squatters in the ruins of Bob Franklin's posthumous vision. They
lend bits of their brains to the task of running what science has been able to
resurrect of the dead dot-com billionaire's mind, making him the first
bodhisattva of the uploading age - apart from the lobster colony, of course.
Their den mother is a woman called Monica: a willowy, brown-eyed hive queen
with raster-burned corneal implants and a dry, sardonic delivery that can
corrode egos like a desert wind. She's better than any of the others at running
Bob, except for the creepy one called Jack, and she's no slouch when she's
being herself (unlike Jack, who is never himself in public). Which probably
explains why they elected her Maximum Leader of the expedition.

Amber finds Monica in the number four kitchen garden, performing surgery on a
filter that's been blocked by toad spawn. She's almost buried beneath a large
pipe, her Velcro-taped tool kit waving in the breeze like strange blue
air-kelp. "Monica? You got a minute?"

"Sure, I have lots of minutes. Make yourself helpful? Pass me the antitorque
wrench and a number six hex head."

"Um." Amber captures the blue flag and fiddles around with its contents.
Something that has batteries, motors, a flywheel counterweight, and laser gyros
assembles itself - Amber passes it under the pipe. "Here. Listen, your phone is
engaged."

"I know. You've come to see me about your conversion, haven't you?"

"Yes!"

There's a clanking noise from under the pressure sump. "Take this." A plastic
bag floats out, bulging with stray fasteners. "I got a bit of hoovering to do.
Get yourself a mask if you don't already have one."

A minute later, Amber is back beside Monica's legs, her face veiled by a filter
mask. "I don't want this to go through," she says. "I don't care what Mom says,
I'm not Moslem! This judge, he can't touch me. He can't," she adds, vehemence
warring with uncertainty.

"Maybe he doesn't want to?" Another bag: "Here, catch."

Amber grabs the bag, a fraction of a second too late. She discovers the hard
way that it's full of water and toadspawn. Stringy mucous ropes full of
squiggling comma-shaped tadpoles explode all over the compartment and bounce
off the walls in a shower of amphibian confetti. "Eew!"

Monica squirms out from behind the pipe. "Oh, you didn't." She kicks off the
consensus-defined floor and grabs a wad of absorbent paper from the spinner,
whacks it across the ventilator shroud above the sump. Together they go after
the toad spawn with rubbish bags and paper - by the time they've got the
stringy mess mopped up, the spinner has begun to click and whir, processing
cellulose from the algae tanks into fresh wipes. "That was not good," Monica
says emphatically as the disposal bin sucks down her final bag. "You wouldn't
happen to know how the toad got in here?"

"No, but I ran into one that was loose in the commons, one shift before last
cycle-end. Gave it a ride back to Oscar."

"I'll have a word with him, then." Monica glares blackly at the pipe. "I'm
going to have to go back and refit the filter in a minute. Do you want me to be
Bob?"

"Uh." Amber thinks. "Not sure. Your call."

"All right, Bob coming on-line." Monica's face relaxes slightly, then her
expression hardens. "Way I see it, you've got a choice. Your mother kinda boxed
you in, hasn't she?"

"Yes." Amber frowns.

"So. Pretend I'm an idiot. Talk me through it, huh?"

Amber drags herself alongside the hydro pipe and gets her head down, alongside
Monica/Bob, who is floating with her feet near the floor. "I ran away from
home. Mom owned me - that is, she had parental rights and Dad had none. So Dad,
via a proxy, helped me sell myself into slavery to a company. The company was
owned by a trust fund, and I'm the main beneficiary when I reach the age of
majority. As a chattel, the company tells me what to do - legally - but the
shell company is set to take my orders. So I'm autonomous. Right?"

"That sounds like the sort of thing your father would do," Monica/Bob says
neutrally. Overtaken by a sardonic middle-aged Silicon Valley drawl, her
north-of-England accent sounds peculiarly mid-Atlantic.

"Trouble is, most countries don't acknowledge slavery, they just dress it up
pretty and call it in loco parentis or something. Those that do mostly don't
have any equivalent of a limited liability company, much less one that can be
directed by another company from abroad. Dad picked Yemen on the grounds that
they've got this stupid brand of shari'a law - and a crap human rights record -
but they're just about conformant to the open legal standards protocol, able to
interface to EU norms via a Turkish legislative cut-out."

"So."

"Well, I guess I was technically a Janissary. Mom was doing her Christian
phase, so that made me a Christian unbeliever slave of an Islamic company. Now
the stupid bitch has gone and converted to shi'ism. Normally Islamic descent
runs through the father, but she picked her sect carefully and chose one that's
got a progressive view of women's rights: They're sort of Islamic
fundamentalist liberal constructionists, 'what would the Prophet do if he was
alive today and had to worry about self-replicating chewing gum factories' and
that sort of thing. They generally take a progressive view of things like legal
equality of the sexes because, for his time and place, the Prophet was way
ahead of the ball and they figure they ought to follow his example. Anyway,
that means Mom can assert that I am Moslem, and under Yemeni law, I get to be
treated as a Moslem chattel of a company. And their legal code is very dubious
about permitting slavery of Moslems. It's not that I have rights as such, but
my pastoral well-being becomes the responsibility of the local imam, and -" She
shrugs helplessly.

"Has he tried to make you run under any new rules, yet?" asks Monica/Bob. "Has
he put blocks on your freedom of agency, tried to mess with your mind? Insisted
on libido dampers or a strict dress code?"

"Not yet." Amber's expression is grim. "But he's no dummy. I figure he may be
using Mom - and me - as a way of getting his fingers into this whole
expedition. Staking a claim for jurisdiction, claim arbitration, that sort of
thing. It could be worse; he might order me to comply fully with his specific
implementation of shari'a. They permit implants, but require mandatory
conceptual filtering: If I run that stuff, I'll end up believing it."

"Okay." Monica does a slow backward somersault in midair. "Now tell me why you
can't simply repudiate it."

"Because." Deep breath. "I can do that in two ways. I can deny Islam, which
makes me an apostate, and automatically terminates my indenture to the shell,
so Mom owns me under US or EU law. Or I can say that the instrument has no
legal standing because I was in the USA when I signed it, and slavery is
illegal there, in which case Mom owns me. Or I can take the veil, live like a
modest Moslem woman, do whatever the imam wants, and Mom doesn't own me - but
she gets to appoint my chaperone. Oh Bob, she has planned this so well."

"Uh-huh." Monica rotates back to the floor and looks at Amber, suddenly very
Bob. "Now you've told me your troubles, start thinking like your dad. Your Dad
had a dozen creative ideas before breakfast every day - it's how he made his
name. Your mom has got you in a box. Think your way outside it: What can you
do?"

"Well." Amber rolls over and hugs the fat hydroponic duct to her chest like a
life raft. "It's a legal paradox. I'm trapped because of the jurisdiction she's
cornered me in. I could talk to the judge, I suppose, but she'll have picked
him carefully." Her eyes narrow. "The jurisdiction. Hey, Bob." She lets go of
the duct and floats free, hair streaming out behind her like a cometary halo.
"How do I go about getting myself a new jurisdiction?"

Monica grins. "I seem to recall the traditional way was to grab yourself some
land and set yourself up as king; but there are other ways. I've got some
friends I think you should meet. They're not good conversationalists and
there's a two-hour lightspeed delay, but I think you'll find they've answered
that question already. But why don't you talk to the imam first and find out
what he's like? He may surprise you. After all, he was already out here before
your mom decided to use him to make a point."

* * *

The Sanger hangs in orbit thirty kilometers up, circling the waist of
potato-shaped Amalthea. Drones swarm across the slopes of Mons Lyctos, ten
kilometers above the mean surface level. They kick up clouds of reddish
sulphate dust as they spread transparent sheets across the barren moonscape.
This close to Jupiter (a mere hundred and eighty thousand kilometers above the
swirling madness of the cloudscape) the gas giant fills half the sky with a
perpetually changing clock face, for Amalthea orbits the master in just under
twelve hours. The Sanger's radiation shields are running at full power,
shrouding the ship in a corona of rippling plasma: Radio is useless, and the
human miners control their drones via an intricate network of laser circuits.
Other, larger drones are unwinding spools of heavy electrical cable north and
south from the landing site. Once the circuits are connected, they will form a
coil cutting through Jupiter's magnetic field, generating electrical current
(and imperceptibly sapping the moon's orbital momentum).

Amber sighs and looks, for the sixth time this hour, at the webcam plastered on
the side of her cabin. She's taken down the posters and told the toys to tidy
themselves away. In another two thousand seconds, the tiny Iranian spaceship
will rise above the limb of Moshtari, and then it will be time to talk to the
teacher. She isn't looking forward to the experience. If he's a grizzled old
blockhead of the most obdurate fundamentalist streak, she'll be in trouble:
Disrespect for age has been part and parcel of the Western teenage experience
for generations, and a cross-cultural thread that she's detailed to clue up on
Islam reminds her that not all cultures share this outlook. But if he turns out
to be young, intelligent, and flexible, things could be even worse. When she
was eight, Amber audited The Taming of the Shrew. She finds she has no appetite
for a starring role in her own cross-cultural production.

She sighs again. "Pierre?"

"Yeah?" His voice comes from the foot of the emergency locker in her room. He's
curled up down there, limbs twitching languidly as he drives a mining drone
around the surface of Object Barney, as the rock has named itself. The drone is
a long-legged crane fly look-alike, bouncing very slowly from toe tip to toe
tip in the microgravity. The rock is only half a kilometer along its longest
axis, coated brown with weird hydrocarbon goop and sulphur compounds sprayed
off the surface of Io by the Jovian winds. "I'm coming."

"You better." She glances at the screen. "One twenty seconds to next burn." The
payload canister on the screen is, technically speaking, stolen. It'll be okay
as long as she gives it back, Bob said, although she won't be able to do that
until it's reached Barney and they've found enough water ice to refuel it.
"Found anything yet?"

"Just the usual. Got a seam of ice near the semimajor pole - it's dirty, but
there's at least a thousand tons there. And the surface is crunchy with tar.
Amber, you know what? The orange shit, it's solid with fullerenes."

Amber grins at her reflection in the screen. That's good news. Once the payload
she's steering touches down, Pierre can help her lay superconducting wires
along Barney's long axis. It's only a kilometer and a half, and that'll only
give them a few tens of kilowatts of juice, but the condensation fabricator
that's also in the payload can will be able to use it to convert Barney's crust
into processed goods at about two grams per second. Using designs copylefted by
the free hardware foundation, inside two hundred thousand seconds they'll have
a grid of sixty-four 3D printers barfing up structured matter at a rate limited
only by available power. Starting with a honking great dome tent and some free
nitrogen/oxygen for her to breathe, then adding a big web cache and direct
high-bandwidth uplink to Earth, Amber could have her very own one-girl colony
up and running within a million seconds.

The screen blinks at her. "Oh shit! Make yourself scarce, Pierre?" The incoming
call nags at her attention. "Yeah? Who are you?"

The screen fills with a view of a cramped, very twen-cen-looking space capsule.
The guy inside it is in his twenties, with a heavily tanned face, close-cropped
hair and beard, wearing an olive drab space suit liner. He's floating between a
TORU manual docking controller and a gilt-framed photograph of the Ka'bah at
Mecca. "Good evening to you," he says solemnly. "Do I have the honor to be
addressing Amber Macx?"

"Uh, yeah? That's me." She stares at him: He looks nothing like her conception
of an ayatollah - whatever an ayatollah is - elderly, black-robed, vindictively
fundamentalist. "Who are you?"

"I am Dr. Sadeq Khurasani. I hope that I am not interrupting you? Is it
convenient for you that we talk now?"

He looks so anxious that Amber nods automatically. "Sure. Did my Mom put you up
to this?" They're still speaking English, and she notices that his diction is
good, but slightly stilted. He isn't using a grammar engine, he actually
learned the language the hard way, she realizes, feeling a frisson of fear.
"You want to be careful how you talk to her. She doesn't lie, exactly, but she
gets people to do what she wants."

"Yes, I spoke to - ah." A pause. They're still almost a light-second apart,
time for painful collisions and accidental silences. "I see. Are you sure you
should be speaking of your mother that way?"

Amber breathes deeply. "Adults can get divorced. If I could get divorced from
her, I would. She's -" She flails around for the right word helplessly. "Look,
she's the sort of person who can't lose a fight. If she's going to lose, she'll
try to figure how to set the law on you. Like she's done to me. Don't you see?"

Dr. Khurasani looks extremely dubious. "I am not sure I understand," He says.
"Perhaps, mmm, I should tell you why I am talking to you?"

"Sure. Go ahead." Amber is startled by his attitude: He actually seems to be
taking her seriously, she realizes. Treating her like an adult. The sensation
is so novel - coming from someone more than twenty years old - that she almost
lets herself forget that he's only talking to her because Mom set her up.

"Well, I am an engineer. In addition, I am a student of fiqh, jurisprudence. In
fact, I am qualified to sit in judgment. I am a very junior judge, but even so,
it is a heavy responsibility. Anyway, your mother, peace be unto her, lodged a
petition with me. Are you aware of it?"

"Yes." Amber tenses up. "It's a lie. Distortion of the facts."

"Hmm." Sadeq rubs his beard thoughtfully. "Well, I have to find out, yes? Your
mother has submitted herself to the will of God. This makes you the child of a
Moslem, and she claims -"

"She's trying to use you as a weapon!" Amber interrupts. "I sold myself into
slavery to get away from her, do you understand? I enslaved myself to a company
that is held in trust for my ownership. She's trying to change the rules to get
me back. You know what? I don't believe she gives a shit about your religion,
all she wants is me!"

"A mother's love -"

"Fuck love," Amber snarls, "she wants power."

Sadeq's expression hardens. "You have a foul mouth in your head, child. All I
am trying to do is to find out the facts of this situation. You should ask
yourself if such disrespect furthers your interests?" He pauses for a moment,
then continues, less abruptly. "Did you really have such a bad childhood with
her? Do you think she did everything merely for power, or could she love you?"
Pause. "You must understand, I need to learn these things. Before I can know
what is the right thing to do."

"My mother -" Amber stops dead and spawns a vaporous cloud of memory
retrievals. They fan out through the space around her mind like the tail of her
cometary mind. Invoking a complex of network parsers and class filters, she
turns the memories into reified images and blats them at the webcam's tiny
brain so he can see them. Some of the memories are so painful that Amber has to
close her eyes. Mom in full office war paint, leaning over Amber, promising to
disable her lexical enhancements forcibly if she doesn't work on her grammar
without them. Mom telling Amber that they're moving again, abruptly, dragging
her away from school and the friends she'd tentatively started to like. The
church-of-the-month business. Mom catching her on the phone to Daddy, tearing
the phone in half and hitting her with it. Mom at the kitchen table, forcing
her to eat - "My mother likes control."

"Ah." Sadeq's expression turns glassy. "And this is how you feel about her? How
long have you had that level of - no, please forgive me for asking. You
obviously understand implants. Do your grandparents know? Did you talk to
them?"

"My grandparents?" Amber stifles a snort. "Mom's parents are dead. Dad's are
still alive, but they won't talk to him - they like Mom. They think I'm creepy.
I know little things, their tax bands and customer profiles. I could mine data
with my head when I was four. I'm not built like little girls were in their
day, and they don't understand. You know the old ones don't like us at all?
Some of the churches make money doing nothing but exorcisms for oldsters who
think their kids are possessed."

"Well." Sadeq is fingering his beard again, distractedly. "I must say, this is
a lot to learn. But you know your mother has accepted Islam, don't you? This
means that you are Moslem, too. Unless you are an adult, your parent legally
speaks for you. And she says this makes you my problem. Hmm."

"I'm not a Muslim." Amber stares at the screen. "I'm not a child, either." Her
threads are coming together, whispering scarily behind her eyes: Her head is
suddenly dense and turgid with ideas, heavy as a stone and twice as old as
time. "I am nobody's chattel. What does your law say about people who are born
with implants? What does it say about people who want to live forever? I don't
believe in any god, Mr. Judge. I don't believe in limits. Mom can't,
physically, make me do anything, and she sure can't speak for me. All she can
do is challenge my legal status, and if I choose to stay where she can't touch
me, what does that matter?"

"Well, if that is what you have to say, I must think on the matter." He catches
her eye; his expression is thoughtful, like a doctor considering a diagnosis.
"I will call you again in due course. In the meantime, if you need to talk to
anyone, remember that I am always available. If there is anything I can do to
help ease your pain, I would be pleased to be of service. Peace be unto you,
and those you care for."

"Same to you, too," she mutters darkly, as the connection goes dead. "Now
what?" she asks, as a beeping sprite gyrates across the wall, begging for
attention.

"I think it's the lander," Pierre says helpfully. "Is it down yet?"

She rounds on him: "Hey, I thought I told you to get lost!"

"What, and miss all the fun?" He grins at her impishly. "Amber's got a new
boyfriend! Wait until I tell everybody ..."

* * *

_1 Sleep cycles pass; the borrowed 3D printer on Object Barney's surface spews
bitmaps of atoms in quantum lockstep at its rendering platform, building up the
control circuitry and skeletons of new printers (There are no clunky
nanoassemblers here, no robots the size of viruses busily sorting molecules
into piles - just the bizarre quantized magic of atomic holography, modulated
Bose-Einstein condensates collapsing into strange, lacy, supercold machinery.)
Electricity surges through the cable loops as they slice through Jupiter's
magnetosphere, slowly converting the rock's momentum into power. Small robots
grovel in the orange dirt, scooping up raw material to feed to the
fractionating oven. Amber's garden of machinery flourishes slowly, unpacking
itself according to a schema designed by preteens at an industrial school in
Poland, with barely any need for human guidance.

_1 High in orbit around Amalthea, complex financial instruments breed and
conjugate. Developed for the express purpose of facilitating trade with the
alien intelligences believed to have been detected eight years earlier by SETI,
they function equally well as fiscal gatekeepers for space colonies. The
Sanger's bank accounts in California and Cuba are looking acceptable - since
entering Jupiter space, the orphanage has staked a claim on roughly a hundred
gigatons of random rocks and a moon that's just small enough to creep in under
the International Astronomical Union's definition of a sovereign planetary
body. The borg are working hard, leading their eager teams of child
stakeholders in their plans to build the industrial metastructures necessary to
support mining helium-three from Jupiter. They're so focused that they spend
much of their time being themselves, not bothering to run Bob, the shared
identity that gives them their messianic drive.

_1 Half a light-hour away, tired Earth wakes and slumbers in time to its
ancient orbital dynamics. A religious college in Cairo is considering issues of
nanotechnology: If replicators are used to prepare a copy of a strip of bacon,
right down to the molecular level, but without it ever being part of a pig, how
is it to be treated? (If the mind of one of the faithful is copied into a
computing machine's memory by mapping and simulating all its synapses, is the
computer now a Moslem? If not, why not? If so, what are its rights and duties?)
Riots in Borneo underline the urgency of this theotechnological inquiry.

_1 More riots in Barcelona, Madrid, Birmingham, and Marseilles also underline a
rising problem: the social chaos caused by cheap anti-aging treatments. The
zombie exterminators, a backlash of disaffected youth against the formerly
graying gerontocracy of Europe, insist that people who predate the supergrid
and can't handle implants aren't really conscious: Their ferocity is equaled
only by the anger of the dynamic septuagenarians of the baby boom, their bodies
partially restored to the flush of sixties youth, but their minds adrift in a
slower, less contingent century. The faux-young boomers feel betrayed, forced
back into the labor pool, but unable to cope with the implant-accelerated
culture of the new millennium, their hard-earned experience rendered obsolete
by deflationary time.

_1 The Bangladeshi economic miracle is typical of the age. With growth rates
running at over twenty percent, cheap out-of-control bioindustrialization has
swept the nation: Former rice farmers harvest plastics and milk cows for silk,
while their children study mariculture and design seawalls. With cellphone
ownership nearing eighty percent and literacy at ninety, the once-poor country
is finally breaking out of its historical infrastructure trap and beginning to
develop: In another generation, they'll be richer than Japan.

_1 Radical new economic theories are focusing around bandwidth, speed-of-light
transmission time, and the implications of CETI, communication with
extraterrestrial intelligence. Cosmologists and quants collaborate on bizarre
relativistically telescoped financial instruments. Space (which lets you store
information) and structure (which lets you process it) acquire value while dumb
mass - like gold - loses it. The degenerate cores of the traditional stock
markets are in free fall, the old smokestack microprocessor and
biotech/nanotech industries crumbling before the onslaught of matter
replicators and self-modifying ideas. The inheritors look set to be a new wave
of barbarian communicators, who mortgage their future for a millennium against
the chance of a gift from a visiting alien intelligence. Microsoft, once the US
Steel of the silicon age, quietly fades into liquidation.

_1 An outbreak of green goo - a crude biomechanical replicator that eats
everything in its path - is dealt with in the Australian outback by
carpet-bombing with fuel-air explosives. The USAF subsequently reactivates two
wings of refurbished B-52s and places them at the disposal of the UN standing
committee on self-replicating weapons. (CNN discovers that one of their newest
pilots, re-enlisting with the body of a twenty-year-old and an empty pension
account, first flew them over Laos and Cambodia.) The news overshadows the
World Health Organization's announcement of the end of the HIV pandemic, after
more than fifty years of bigotry, panic, and megadeath.

* * *

"Breathe steadily. Remember your regulator drill? If you spot your heart rate
going up or your mouth going dry, take five."

"Shut the fuck up, 'Neko, I'm trying to concentrate." Amber fumbles with the
titanium D-ring, trying to snake the strap through it. The gauntlets are
getting in her way. High orbit space suits - little more than a body stocking
designed to hold your skin under compression and help you breathe - are easy,
but this deep in Jupiter's radiation belt she has to wear an old Orlan-DM suit
that comes in about thirteen layers. The gloves are stiff and hard to work in.
It's Chernobyl weather outside, a sleet of alpha particles and raw protons
storming through the void, and she really needs the extra protection. "Got it."
She yanks the strap tight, pulls on the D-ring, then goes to work on the next
strap. Never looking down; because the wall she's tying herself to has no
floor, just a cutoff two meters below, then empty space for a hundred
kilometers before the nearest solid ground.

The ground sings to her moronically: "I love you, you love me, it's the law of
gravity -"

She shoves her feet down onto the platform that juts from the side of the
capsule like a suicide's ledge: metallized Velcro grabs hold, and she pulls on
the straps to turn her body round until she can see past the capsule, sideways.
The capsule masses about five tonnes, barely bigger than an ancient Soyuz. It's
packed to overflowing with environment-sensitive stuff she'll need, and a
honking great high-gain antenna. "I hope you know what you're doing," someone
says over the intercom.

"Of course I -" She stops. Alone in this Energiya NPO surplus iron maiden with
its low-bandwidth coms and bizarre plumbing, she feels claustrophobic and
helpless: Parts of her mind don't work. When she was four, Mom took her down a
famous cave system somewhere out west. When the guide turned out the lights
half a kilometer underground, she'd screamed with surprise as the darkness had
reached out and touched her. Now it's not the darkness that frightens her, it's
the lack of thought. For a hundred kilometers below her there are no minds, and
even on the surface there's only the moronic warbling of 'bots for company.
Everything that makes the universe primate-friendly seems to be locked in the
huge spaceship that looms somewhere just behind the back of her head, and she
has to fight down an urge to shed her straps and swarm back up the umbilical
that anchors the capsule to the Sanger. "I'll be fine," she forces herself to
say. And even though she's unsure that it's true, she tries to make herself
believe it. "It's just leaving-home nerves. I've read about it, okay?"

There's a funny, high-pitched whistle in her ears. For a moment, the sweat on
the back of her neck turns icy cold, then the noise stops. She strains for a
moment, and when it returns she recognizes the sound: The hitherto-talkative
cat, curled in the warmth of her pressurized luggage can, has begun to snore.

"Let's go," she says, "Time to roll the wagon." A speech macro deep in the
Sanger's docking firmware recognizes her authority and gently lets go of the
pod. A couple of cold gas clusters pop, sending deep banging vibrations running
through the capsule, and she's on her way.

"Amber. How's it hanging?" A familiar voice in her ears: She blinks. Fifteen
hundred seconds, nearly half an hour gone.

"Robes-Pierre, chopped any aristos lately?"

"Heh!" A pause. "I can see your head from here."

"How's it looking?" she asks. There's a lump in her throat; she isn't sure why.
Pierre is probably hooked into one of the smaller proximity cameras dotted
around the outer hull of the big mother ship, watching over her as she falls.

"Pretty much like always," he says laconically. Another pause, this time
longer. "This is wild, you know? Su Ang says hi, by the way."

"Su Ang, hi," she replies, resisting the urge to lean back and look up - up
relative to her feet, not her vector - and see if the ship's still visible.

"Hi," Ang says shyly. "You're very brave?"

"Still can't beat you at chess." Amber frowns. Su Ang and her overengineered
algae. Oscar and his pharmaceutical factory toads. People she's known for three
years, mostly ignored, and never thought about missing. "Listen, are you going
to come visiting?"

"You want us to visit?" Ang sounds dubious. "When will it be ready?"

"Oh, soon enough." At four kilograms per minute of structured-matter output,
the printers on the surface have already built her a bunch of stuff: a habitat
dome, the guts of an algae/shrimp farm, an excavator to bury it with, an
airlock. Even a honey bucket. It's all lying around waiting for her to put it
together and move into her new home. "Once the borg get back from Amalthea."

"Hey! You mean they're moving? How did you figure that?"

"Go talk to them," Amber says. Actually, she's a large part of the reason the
Sanger is about to crank its orbit up and out toward the other moon: She wants
to be alone in coms silence for a couple of million seconds. The Franklin
collective is doing her a big favor.

"Ahead of the curve, as usual," Pierre cuts in, with something that sounds like
admiration to her uncertain ears.

"You too," she says, a little too fast: "Come visit when I've got the
life-support cycle stabilized."

"I'll do that," he replies. A red glow suffuses the flank of the capsule next
to her head, and she looks up in time to see the glaring blue laser line of the
Sanger's drive torch powering up.

* * *

Eighteen million seconds, almost a tenth of a Jupiter year, passes.

The imam tugs thoughtfully on his beard as he stares at the traffic control
display. These days, every shift seems to bring a new crewed spaceship into
Jupiter system: Space is getting positively crowded. When he arrived, there
were fewer than two hundred people here. Now there's the population of a small
city, and many of them live at the heart of the approach map centered on his
display. He breathes deeply - trying to ignore the omnipresent odor of old
socks - and studies the map. "Computer, what about my slot?" he asks.

"Your slot: Cleared to commence final approach in six-nine-five seconds. Speed
limit is ten meters per second inside ten kilometers, drop to two meters per
second inside one kilometer. Uploading map of forbidden thrust vectors now."
Chunks of the approach map turn red, gridded off to prevent his exhaust stream
damaging other craft in the area.

Sadeq sighs. "We'll go in using Kurs. I assume their Kurs guidance is active?"

"Kurs docking target support available to shell level three."

"Praise Allah." He pokes around through the guidance subsystem's menus, setting
up the software emulation of the obsolete (but highly reliable) Soyuz docking
system. At last he can leave the ship to look after itself for a bit. He
glances round. For two years he has lived in this canister, and soon he will
step outside it. It hardly seems real.

The radio, usually silent, crackles with unexpected life. "Bravo One One, this
is Imperial Traffic Control. Verbal contact required, over."

Sadeq twitches with surprise. The voice sounds inhuman, paced with the cadences
of a speech synthesizer, like so many of Her Majesty's subjects. "Bravo One One
to Traffic Control, I'm listening, over."

"Bravo One One, we have assigned you a landing slot on tunnel four, airlock
delta. Kurs active, ensure your guidance is set to seven-four-zero and slaved
to our control."

He leans over the screen and rapidly checks the docking system's settings.
"Control, all in order."

"Bravo One One, stand by."

The next hour passes slowly as the traffic control system guides his Type 921
down to a rocky rendezvous. Orange dust streaks his one optical-glass porthole:
A kilometer before touchdown, Sadeq busies himself closing protective covers,
locking down anything that might fall around on contact. Finally, he unrolls
his mat against the floor in front of the console and floats above it for ten
minutes, eyes closed in prayer. It's not the landing that worries him, but what
comes next.

Her Majesty's domain stretches out before the battered module like a
rust-stained snowflake half a kilometer in diameter. Its core is buried in a
loose snowball of grayish rubble, and it waves languid brittlestar arms at the
gibbous orange horizon of Jupiter. Fine hairs, fractally branching down to the
molecular level, split off the main collector arms at regular intervals. A
cluster of habitat pods like seedless grapes cling to the roots of the massive
structure. Already he can see the huge steel generator loops that climb from
either pole of the snowflake, wreathed in sparking plasma; the Jovian rings
form a rainbow of darkness rising behind them.

At last, the battered space station is on final approach. Sadeq watches the
Kurs simulation output carefully, piping it directly into his visual field.
There's an external camera view of the rockpile and grapes. As the view expands
toward the convex ceiling of the ship, he licks his lips, ready to hit the
manual override and go around again - but the rate of descent is slowing, and
by the time he's close enough to see the scratches on the shiny metal docking
cone ahead of the ship, it's measured in centimeters per second. There's a
gentle bump, then a shudder, then a rippling bang as the latches on the docking
ring fire - and he's down.

Sadeq breathes deeply again, then tries to stand. There's gravity here, but not
much: Walking is impossible. He's about to head for the life-support panel when
he freezes, hearing a noise from the far end of the docking node. Turning, he's
just in time to see the hatch opening toward him, a puff of vapor condensing,
and then -

* * *

Her Imperial Majesty is sitting in the throne room, moodily fidgeting with the
new signet ring her equerry has designed for her. It's a lump of structured
carbon massing almost fifty grams, set in a plain band of asteroid-mined
iridium. It glitters with the blue-and-violet speckle highlights of its
internal lasers, because, in addition to being a piece of state jewelry, it is
also an optical router, part of the industrial control infrastructure she's
building out here on the edge of the solar system. Her Majesty wears plain
black combat pants and sweatshirt, woven from the finest spider silk and spun
glass, but her feet are bare: Her taste in fashion is best described as
youthful, and in any event, certain styles are simply impractical in
microgravity. But, being a monarch, she's wearing a crown. And there's a cat,
or an artificial entity that dreams it's a cat, sleeping on the back of her
throne.

The lady-in-waiting (and sometime hydroponic engineer) ushers Sadeq to the
doorway, then floats back. "If you need anything, please say," she says shyly,
then ducks and rolls away. Sadeq approaches the throne, orients himself on the
floor (a simple slab of black composite, save for the throne growing from its
center like an exotic flower), and waits to be noticed.

"Dr. Khurasani, I presume." She smiles at him, neither the innocent grin of a
child nor the knowing smirk of an adult: merely a warm greeting. "Welcome to my
kingdom. Please feel free to make use of any necessary support services here,
and I wish you a very pleasant stay."

Sadeq holds his expression still. The queen is young - her face still retains
the puppy fat of childhood, emphasized by microgravity moon-face - but it would
be a bad mistake to consider her immature. "I am grateful for Your Majesty's
forbearance," he murmurs, formulaic. Behind her the walls glitter like
diamonds, a glowing kaleidoscope vision. It's already the biggest offshore - or
off-planet - data haven in human space. Her crown, more like a compact helm
that covers the top and rear of her head, also glitters and throws off
diffraction rainbows; but most of its emissions are in the near ultraviolet,
invisible except for the faint glowing nimbus it creates around her head. Like
a halo.

"Have a seat," she offers, gesturing: A ballooning free-fall cradle squirts
down and expands from the ceiling, angled toward her, open and waiting. "You
must be tired. Working a ship all by yourself is exhausting." She frowns
ruefully, as if remembering. "Two years is nearly unprecedented."

"Your Majesty is too kind." Sadeq wraps the cradle arms around himself and
faces her. "Your labors have been fruitful, I trust."

She shrugs. "I sell the biggest commodity in short supply on any frontier ..."
A momentary grin. "This isn't the Wild West, is it?"

"Justice cannot be sold," Sadeq says stiffly. Then, a moment later: "My
apologies, I mean no insult. I merely believe that, while you say your goal is
to provide the rule of law, what you sell is and must be something different.
Justice without God, sold to the highest bidder, is not justice."

The queen nods. "Leaving aside the mention of God, I agree - I can't sell it.
But I can sell participation in a just system. And this new frontier really is
a lot smaller than anyone expected, isn't it? Our bodies may take months to
travel between worlds, but our disputes and arguments take seconds or minutes.
As long as everybody agrees to abide by my arbitration, physical enforcement
can wait until they're close enough to touch. And everybody does agree that my
legal framework is easier to comply with, better adjusted to trans-Jovian
space, than any earthbound one." A note of steel creeps into her voice,
challenging: Her halo brightens, tickling a reactive glow from the walls of the
throne room.

Five billion inputs or more, Sadeq marvels. The crown is an engineering marvel,
even though most of its mass is buried in the walls and floor of this huge
construct. "There is law revealed by the Prophet, peace be unto him, and there
is law that we can establish by analysing his intentions. There are other forms
of law by which humans live, and various interpretations of the law of God even
among those who study His works. How, in the absence of the word of the
Prophet, can you provide a moral compass?"

"Hmm." She taps her fingers on the arm of her throne, and Sadeq's heart
freezes. He's heard the stories from the claim jumpers and boardroom bandits,
from the greenmail experts with their roots in the earthbound jurisdictions
that have made such a hash of arbitration here. How she can experience a year
in a minute, rip your memories out through your cortical implants, and make you
relive your worst mistakes in her nightmarishly powerful simulation space. She
is the queen - the first individual to get her hands on so much mass and energy
that she could pull ahead of the curve of binding technology, and the first to
set up her own jurisdiction and rule certain experiments to be legal so that
she could make use of the mass/energy intersection. She has force majeure -
even the Pentagon's infowarriors respect the Ring Imperium's autonomy for now.
In fact, the body sitting in the throne opposite him probably contains only a
fraction of her identity. She's by no means the first upload or partial, but
she's the first gust front of the storm of power that will arrive when the
arrogant ones achieve their goal of dismantling the planets and turning dumb
and uninhabited mass into brainpower throughout the observable reaches of the
universe. And he's just questioned the rectitude of her vision, in her
presence.

The queen's lips twitch. Then they curl into a wide, carnivorous grin. Behind
her, the cat sits up and stretches, then stares at Sadeq through narrowed eyes.

"You know, that's the first time in weeks that anyone has told me I'm full of
shit. You haven't been talking to my mother again, have you?"

It's Sadeq's turn to shrug, uncomfortably. "I have prepared a judgment," he
says slowly.

"Ah." Amber rotates the huge diamond ring around her finger. Then she looks him
in the eye, a trifle nervously. Although what he could possibly do to make her
comply with any decree -

"To summarize: Her motive is polluted," Sadeq says shortly.

"Does that mean what I think it does?" she asks.

Sadeq breathes deeply again: "Yes, I think so."

Her smile returns. "And is that the end of it?" she asks.

He raises a dark eyebrow: "Only if you can prove to me that you can have a
conscience in the absence of divine revelation."

Her reaction catches him by surprise. "Oh, sure. That's the next part of the
program. Obtaining divine revelations."

"What! From the alien?"

The cat, claws extended, delicately picks its way down to her lap and waits to
be held and stroked. It never once takes its eyes off him. "Where else?" she
asks. "Doctor, I didn't get the Franklin Trust to loan me the wherewithal to
build this castle just in return for some legal paperwork, and some, ah,
interesting legal waivers from Brussels. We've known for years there's a whole
alien packet-switching network out there, and we're just getting spillover from
some of their routers. It turns out there's a node not far away from here, in
real space. Helium-three, separate jurisdictions, heavy industrialization on Io
- there is a purpose to all this activity."

Sadeq licks his suddenly dry lips. "You're going to narrowcast a reply?"

"No, much better than that: we're going to visit them. Cut the delay cycle down
to real-time. We came here to build a ship and recruit a crew, even if we have
to cannibalize the whole of Jupiter system to pay for the exercise."

The cat yawns then fixes him with a thousand-yard stare. "This stupid girl
wants to bring her conscience along to a meeting with something so smart it
might as well be a god," it says. "And she needs to convince the peanut gallery
back home that she's got one, being a born-again atheist and all. Which means,
you're it, monkey boy. There's a slot open for the post of ship's theologian on
the first starship out of Jupiter system. I don't suppose I can convince you to
turn the offer down?"

1~ Chapter 5: Router

Some years later, two men and a cat are tying one on in a bar that doesn't
exist.

The air in the bar is filled with a billowing relativistic smoke cloud - it's a
stellarium, accurately depicting the view beyond the imaginary walls.
Aberration of starlight skews the color toward violet around the doorway,
brightening in a rainbow mist over the tables, then dimming to a hazy red glow
in front of the raised platform at the back. The Doppler effect has slowly
emerged over the past few months as the ship gathers momentum. In the absence
of visible stellar motion - or a hard link to the ship's control module - it's
the easiest way for a drunken passenger to get a feeling for how frighteningly
fast the /{Field Circus}/ is moving. Some time ago, the ship's momentum
exceeded half its rest mass, at which point a single kilogram packs the punch
of a multimegaton hydrogen bomb.

A ginger-and-brown cat - who has chosen to be female, just to mess with the
heads of those people who think all ginger cats are male - sprawls indolently
across the wooden floorboards in front of the bar, directly beneath the bridge
of the starbow. Predictably, it has captured the only ray of sunlight to be had
within the starship. In the shadows at the back of the bar, two men slump at a
table, lost in their respective morose thoughts: One nurses a bottle of Czech
beer, the other a half-empty cocktail glass.

"It wouldn't be so bad if she is giving me some sign," says one of them,
tilting his beer bottle to inspect the bottom for sediment. "No; that not
right. It's the correct kind of attention. Am not knowing where I stand with
her."

The other one leans back in his chair, squints at the faded brown paint of the
ceiling. "Take it from one who knows," he says: "If you knew, you'd have
nothing to dream about. Anyway, what she wants and what you want may not be the
same thing."

The first man runs a hand through his hair. Tight-curled black ringlets briefly
turn silver beneath his aging touch. "Pierre, if talent for making patronizing
statements is what you get from tupping Amber -"

Pierre glares at him with all the venom an augmented nineteen-year-old can
muster. "Be glad she has no ears in here," he hisses. His hand tightens around
his glass reflexively, but the physics model in force in the bar refuses to let
him break it. "You've had too fucking much to drink, Boris."

A tinkle of icy laughter comes from the direction of the cat. "Shut up, you,"
says Boris, glancing at the animal. He tips the bottle back, lets the dregs
trickle down his throat. "Maybe you're right. Am sorry. Do not mean to be rude
about the queen." He shrugs, puts the bottle down. Shrugs again, heavily. "Am
just getting depressed."

"You're good at that," Pierre observes.

Boris sighs again. "Evidently. If our positions are reversed -"

"I know, I know, you'd be telling me the fun is in the chase and it's not the
same when she kicks you out after a fight, and I wouldn't believe a word of it,
being sad and single and all that." Pierre snorts. "Life isn't fair, Boris -
live with it."

"I'd better go - " Boris stands.

"Stay away from Ang," says Pierre, still annoyed with him. "At least until
you're sober."

"Okay already, stay cool; Am consciously running a watchdog thread." Boris
blinks irritably. "Enforcing social behavior. It doesn't normally allow this
drunk. Not where reputation damage are possible in public."

He does a slow dissolve into thin air, leaving Pierre alone in the bar with the
cat.

"How much longer do we have to put up with this shit?" he asks aloud. Tempers
are frayed, and arguments proliferate indefinitely in the pocket universe of
the ship.

The cat doesn't look round. "In our current reference frame, we drop the
primary reflector and start decelerating in another two million seconds," she
says. "Back home, five or six megaseconds."

"That's a big gap. What's the cultural delta up to now?" Pierre asks idly. He
snaps his fingers: "Waiter, another cocktail. The same, if you please."

"Oh, probably about ten to twenty times our departure reference," says the cat.
"If you'd been following the news from back home, you'd have noted a
significant speed-up in the deployment of switched entanglement routers.
They're having another networking revolution, only this one will run to
completion inside a month because they're using dark fiber that's already in
the ground."

"Switched ... entanglement?" Pierre shakes his head, bemused. The waiter, a
faceless body in black tie and a long, starched apron, walks around the bar and
offers him a glass. "That almost sounds as if it makes sense. What else?"

The cat rolls over on her flank, stretches, claws extended. "Stroke me, and I
might tell you," she suggests.

"Fuck you, and the dog you rode in on," Pierre replies. He lifts his glass,
removes a glacé cherry on a cocktail stick, throws it toward the spiral
staircase that leads down to the toilets, and chugs back half of the drink in
one go - freezing pink slush with an afterbite of caramelized hexose sugars and
ethanol. The near spillage as he thumps the glass down serves to demonstrate
that he's teetering on the edge of drunkenness. "Mercenary!"

"Lovesick drug-using human," the cat replies without rancor, and rolls to her
feet. She arches her back and yawns, baring ivory fangs at the world. "You apes
- if I cared about you, I'd have to kick sand over you." For a moment she looks
faintly confused. "I mean, I would bury you." She stretches again and glances
round the otherwise-empty bar. "By the way, when are you going to apologize to
Amber?"

"I'm not going to fucking apologize to her!" Pierre shouts. In the ensuing
silence and confusion, he raises his glass and tries to drain it, but the ice
has all sunk to the bottom, and the resulting coughing fit makes him spray half
of the cocktail across the table. "No way," he rasps quietly.

"Too much pride, huh?" The cat stalks toward the edge of the bar, tail held
high with tip bent over in a feline question mark. "Like Boris with his
adolescent woman trouble, too? You primates are so predictable. Whoever thought
of sending a starship crewed by posthuman adolescents -"

"Go 'way," says Pierre: "I've got serious drinking to do."

"To the Macx, I suppose," puns the cat, turning away. But the moody youth has
no answer for her, other than to conjure a refill from the vasty deeps.

* * *

Meanwhile, in another partition of the /{Field Circus}/'s reticulated reality,
a different instance of the selfsame cat - Aineko by name, sarcastic by
disposition - is talking to its former owner's daughter, the Queen of the Ring
Imperium. Amber's avatar looks about sixteen, with disheveled blonde hair and
enhanced cheekbones. It's a lie, of course, because in subjective life
experience, she's in her mid-twenties, but apparent age signifies little in a
simulation space populated by upload minds, or in real space, where post-humans
age at different rates.

Amber wears a tattered black dress over iridescent purple leggings, and sprawls
lazily across the arms of her informal throne - an ostentatious lump of
nonsense manufactured from a single carbon crystal doped with semiconductors.
(Unlike the real thing back home in Jupiter orbit, this one is merely a piece
of furniture for a virtual environment.) The scene is very much the morning
after the evening before, like a goth nightclub gone to seed: all stale smoke
and crumpled velvet, wooden church pews, burned-out candles, and gloomy Polish
avant-garde paintings. Any hint of a regal statement the queen might be making
is spoiled by the way she's hooked one knee over the left arm of the throne and
is fiddling with a six-axis pointing device. But these are her private
quarters, and she's off duty: The regal person of the Queen is strictly for
formal, corporate occasions.

"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," she suggests.

"Nope," replies the cat. "It was more like: 'Greetings, earthlings, compile me
on your leader.'"

"Well, you got me there," Amber admits. She taps her heel on the throne and
fidgets with her signet ring. "No damn way I'm loading some buggy alien wetware
on my sweet gray stuff. /{Weird}/ semiotics, too. What does Dr. Khurasani say?"

Aineko sits down in the middle of the crimson carpet at the foot of the dais
and idly twists round to sniff her crotch. "Sadeq is immersed in scriptural
interpretations. He refused to be drawn."

"Huh." Amber stares at the cat. "So. You've been carrying this lump of source
code since when ...?"

"At the signal, for precisely two hundred and sixteen million, four hundred and
twenty-nine thousand, and fifty-two seconds," Aineko supplies, then beeps
smugly. "Call it just under six years."

"Right." Amber squeezes her eyes shut. Uneasy possibilities whisper in her
mind's ears. "And it began talking to you -"

"- About three million seconds after I picked it up and ran it on a basic
environment hosted on a neural network emulator modeled on the components found
in the stomatogastric ganglion of a spiny lobster. Clear?"

Amber sighs. "I wish you'd told Dad about it. Or Annette. Things could have
been so different!"

"How?" The cat stops licking her arse and looks up at the queen with a
peculiarly opaque stare. "It took the specialists a decade to figure out the
first message was a map of the pulsar neighborhood with directions to the
nearest router on the interstellar network. Knowing how to plug into the router
wouldn't help while it was three light-years away, would it? Besides, it was
fun watching the idiots trying to 'crack the alien code' without ever wondering
if it might be a reply in a language we already know to a message we sent out
years ago. Fuckwits. And, too, Manfred pissed me off once too often. He kept
treating me like a goddamn house pet."

"But you -" Amber bites her lip. /{But you}/ were, /{when he bought you}/, she
had been about to say. Engineered consciousness is still relatively new: It
didn't exist when Manfred and Pamela first hacked on Aineko's cognitive
network, and according to the flat-earth wing of the AI community, it still
doesn't. Even she hadn't really believed Aineko's claims to self-awareness
until a couple of years ago, finding it easier to think of the cat as a zimboe
- a zombie with no self-awareness, but programmed to claim to be aware in an
attempt to deceive the truly conscious beings around it. "I know you're
conscious now, but Manfred didn't know back then. Did he?"

Aineko glares at her, then slowly narrows her eyes to slits - either feline
affection, or a more subtle gesture. Sometimes Amber finds it hard to believe
that, twenty five years ago, Aineko started out as a crude neural network
driven toy from a Far Eastern amusement factory - upgradeable, but still
basically a mechanical animal emulator.

"I'm sorry. Let me start again. You actually figured out what the second alien
packet was, you, yourself, and nobody else. Despite the combined efforts of the
entire CETI analysis team who spent Gaia knows how many human-equivalent years
of processing power trying to crack its semantics. I hope you'll pardon me for
saying I find that hard to believe?"

The cat yawns. "I could have told Pierre instead." Aineko glances at Amber,
sees her thunderous expression, and hastily changes the subject: "The solution
was intuitively obvious, just not to humans. You're so /{verbal}/." Lifting a
hind paw, she scratches behind her left ear for a moment then pauses, foot
waving absentmindedly. "Besides, the CETI team was searching under the street
lights while I was sniffing around in the grass. They kept trying to find
primes; when that didn't work, they started trying to breed a Turing machine
that would run it without immediately halting." Aineko lowers her paw daintily.
"None of them tried treating it as a map of a connectionist system based on the
only terrestrial components anyone had ever beamed out into deep space. Except
me. But then, your mother had a hand in my wetware, too."

"Treating it as a map -" Amber stops. "You were meant to penetrate Dad's
corporate network?"

"That's right," says the cat. "I was supposed to fork repeatedly and gang-rape
his web of trust. But I didn't." Aineko yawns. "Pam pissed me off, too. I don't
like people who try to use me."

"I don't care. Taking that thing on board was still a really stupid risk you
took," Amber accuses.

"So?" The cat looks at her insolently. "I kept it in my sandbox. And I got it
working, on the seven hundred and forty-first attempt. It'd have worked for
Pamela's bounty-hunter friends, too, if I'd tried it. But it's here, now, when
you need it. Would you like to swallow the packet?"

Amber straightens out, sits up in her throne: "I just told you, if you think
I'm going to link some flaky chunk of alien neural programming into my core
dialogue, or even my exocortex, you're crazy!" Her eyes narrow. "Can it use
your grammar model?"

"Sure." If the cat was human, it would be shrugging nonchalantly at this point.
"It's safe, Amber, really and truly. I found out what it is."

"I want to talk to it," she says impetuously - and before the cat can reply,
adds, "So what is it?"

"It's a protocol stack. Basically it allows new nodes to connect to a network,
by providing high-level protocol conversion services. It needs to learn how to
think like a human so it can translate for us when we arrive at the router,
which is why they bolted a lobster's neural network on top of it - they wanted
to make it architecturally compatible with us. But there are no buried time
bombs, I assure you: I've had plenty of time to check. Now, are you /{sure}/
you don't want to let it into your head?"

* * *

_1 Greetings from the fifth decade of the century of wonders.

_1 The solar system that lies roughly twenty-eight trillion kilometers - just
short of three light-years - behind the speeding starwisp /{Field Circus}/ is
seething with change. There have been more technological advances in the past
ten years than in the entire previous expanse of human history - and more
unforeseen accidents.

_1 Lots of hard problems have proven to be tractable. The planetary genome and
proteome have been mapped so exhaustively that the biosciences are now focusing
on the challenge of the phenome: Plotting the phase-space defined by the
intersection of genes and biochemical structures, understanding how extended
phenotypic traits are generated and contribute to evolutionary fitness. The
biosphere has become surreal: small dragons have been sighted nesting in the
Scottish highlands, and in the American midwest, raccoons have been caught
programming microwave ovens.

_1 The computing power of the solar system is now around one thousand MIPS per
gram, and is unlikely to increase in the near term - all but a fraction of one
percent of the dumb matter is still locked up below the accessible planetary
crusts, and the sapience/mass ratio has hit a glass ceiling that will only be
broken when people, corporations, or other posthumans get around to dismantling
the larger planets. A start has already been made in Jupiter orbit and the
asteroid belt. Greenpeace has sent squatters to occupy Eros and Juno, but the
average asteroid is now surrounded by a reef of specialized nanomachinery and
debris, victims of a cosmic land grab unmatched since the days of the wild
west. The best brains flourish in free fall, minds surrounded by a sapient
aether of extensions that out-think their meaty cortices by many orders of
magnitude - minds like Amber, Queen of the Inner Ring Imperium, the first
self-extending power center in Jupiter orbit.

_1 Down at the bottom of the terrestrial gravity well, there has been a major
economic catastrophe. Cheap immortagens, out-of-control personality adjuvants,
and a new formal theory of uncertainty have knocked the bottom out of the
insurance and underwriting industries. Gambling on a continuation of the worst
aspects of the human condition - disease, senescence, and death - looks like a
good way to lose money, and a deflationary spiral lasting almost fifty hours
has taken down huge swaths of the global stock market. Genius, good looks, and
long life are now considered basic human rights in the developed world: even
the poorest backwaters are feeling extended effects from the commoditization of
intelligence.

_1 Not everything is sweetness and light in the era of mature nanotechnology.
Widespread intelligence amplification doesn't lead to widespread rational
behavior. New religions and mystery cults explode across the planet; much of
the Net is unusable, flattened by successive semiotic jihads. India and
Pakistan have held their long-awaited nuclear war: external intervention by US
and EU nanosats prevented most of the IRBMs from getting through, but the
subsequent spate of network raids and Basilisk attacks cause havoc. Luckily,
infowar turns out to be more survivable than nuclear war - especially once it
is discovered that a simple anti-aliasing filter stops nine out of ten
neural-wetware-crashing Langford fractals from causing anything worse than a
mild headache.

_1 New discoveries this decade include the origins of the weakly repulsive
force responsible for changes in the rate of expansion of the universe after
the big bang, and on a less abstract level, experimental implementations of a
Turing Oracle using quantum entanglement circuits: a device that can determine
whether a given functional expression can be evaluated in finite time. It's
boom time in the field of Extreme Cosmology, where some of the more recherché
researchers are bickering over the possibility that the entire universe was
created as a computing device, with a program encoded in the small print of the
Planck constant. And theorists are talking again about the possibility of using
artificial wormholes to provide instantaneous connections between distant
corners of space-time.

_1 Most people have forgotten about the well-known extraterrestrial
transmission received fifteen years earlier. Very few people know anything
about the second, more complex transmission received a little later. Many of
those are now passengers or spectators of the /{Field Circus}/: a light-sail
craft that is speeding out of Sol system on a laser beam generated by Amber's
installations in low-Jupiter orbit. (Superconducting tethers anchored to
Amalthea drag through Jupiter's magnetosphere, providing gigawatts of
electricity for the hungry lasers: energy that comes, in turn, from the small
moon's orbital momentum.)

_1 Manufactured by Airbus-Cisco years earlier, the /{Field Circus}/ is a hick
backwater, isolated from the mainstream of human culture, its systems
complexity limited by mass: The destination lies nearly three light-years from
Earth, and even with high acceleration and relativistic cruise speeds, the
one-kilogram starwisp and its hundred-kilogram light sail will take the best
part of seven years to get there. Sending a human-sized probe is beyond even
the vast energy budget of the new orbital states in Jupiter system -
near-lightspeed travel is horrifically expensive. Rather than a big,
self-propelled ship with canned primates for passengers, as previous
generations had envisaged, the starship is a Coke-can-sized slab of
nanocomputers, running a neural simulation of the uploaded brain states of some
tens of humans at merely normal speed. By the time its occupants beam
themselves home again for download into freshly cloned bodies, a linear
extrapolation shows that as much change will have overtaken human civilization
as in the preceding fifty millennia - the sum total of /{H. sapiens sapiens}/'
time on Earth.

_1 But that's okay by Amber, because what she expects to find in orbit around
the brown dwarf Hyundai ^{+4904}^/,{-56}, will be worth the wait.

* * *

Pierre is at work in another virtual environment, the one currently running the
master control system of the /{Field Circus}/. He's supervising the
sail-maintenance 'bots when the message comes in. Two visitors are on their way
up the beam from Jupiter orbit. The only other person around is Su Ang, who
showed up sometime after he arrived, and she's busy with some work of her own.
The master control VM - like all the other human-accessible environments at
this level of the ship's virtualization stack - is a construct modeled on a
famous movie; this one resembles the bridge of a long-since sunk ocean liner,
albeit with discreetly informative user interfaces hovering in front of the
ocean views outside the windows. Polished brass gleams softly everywhere. "What
was that?" he calls out, responding to the soft chime of a bell.

"We have visitors," Ang repeats, interrupting her rhythmic chewing. (She's
trying out a betel-nut kick, but she's magicked the tooth-staining dye away and
will probably detox herself in a few hours.) "They're buffering up the line
already; just acknowledging receipt is sucking most of our downstream
bandwidth."

"Any idea who they are?" asks Pierre; he puts his boots up on the back of the
vacant helmsman's chair and stares moodily at the endless expanse of green-gray
ocean ahead.

Ang chews a bit more, watching him with an expression he can't interpret.
"They're still locked," she says. A pause: "But there was a flash from the
Franklins, back home. One of them's some kind of lawyer, while the other's a
film producer."

"A film producer?"

"The Franklin Trust says it's to help defray our lawsuit expenses. Myanmar is
gaining. They've already subpoenaed Amber's downline instance, and they're
trying to bring this up in some kind of kangaroo jurisdiction - Oregon
Christian Reconstructionist Empire, I think."

"Ouch." Pierre winces. The daily news from Earth, modulated onto a
lower-powered communication laser, is increasingly bad. On the plus side, Amber
is incredibly rich: The goodwill futures leveraged off her dad's trust metric
means people will bend over backward to do things for her. And she owns a lot
of real estate too, a hundred gigatonnes of rock in low-Jupiter orbit with
enough KE to power Northern Europe for a century. But her interstellar venture
burns through money - both the traditional barter-indirection type and the more
creative modern varieties - about the way you would if you heaped up the green
pieces of paper and shoveled them onto a conveyor belt leading to the business
end of a running rocket motor. Just holding off the environmental protests over
de-orbiting a small Jovian moon is a grinding job. Moreover, a whole bunch of
national governments have woken up and are trying to legislate themselves a
slice of the cake. Nobody's tried to forcibly take over yet (there are two
hundred gigawatts of lasers anchored to the Ring Imperium, and Amber takes her
sovereign status seriously, has even applied for a seat at the UN and
membership in the EC), but the nuisance lawsuits are mounting up into a
comprehensive denial of service attack, or maybe economic sanctions. And Uncle
Gianni's retirement hasn't helped any, either. "Anything to say about it?"

"Mmph." Ang looks irritated for some reason. "Wait your turn, they'll be out of
the buffer in another couple of days. Maybe a bit longer in the case of the
lawyer, he's got a huge infodump packaged on his person. Probably another
semisapient class-action lawsuit."

"I'll bet. They never learn, do they?"

"What, about the legal system here?"

"Yup." Pierre nods. "One of Amber's smarter ideas, reviving eleventh-century
Scots law and updating it with new options on barratry, trial by combat, and
compurgation." He pulls a face and detaches a couple of ghosts to go look out
for the new arrivals; then he goes back to repairing sails. The interstellar
medium is abrasive, full of dust - each grain of which carries the energy of an
artillery shell at this speed - and the laser sail is in a constant state of
disintegration. A large chunk of the drive system's mass is silvery utility
flakes for patching and replacing the soap-bubble-thin membrane as it ablates
away. The skill is in knowing how best to funnel repair resources to where
they're needed, while minimizing tension in the suspension lines and avoiding
resonance and thrust imbalance. As he trains the patch 'bots, he broods about
the hate mail from his elder brother (who still blames him for their father's
accident), and about Sadeq's religious injunctions - /{Superstitious
nonsense}/, he thinks - and the fickleness of powerful women, and the endless
depths of his own nineteen-year-old soul.

While he's brooding, Ang evidently finishes whatever she was doing and bangs
out - not even bothering to use the polished mahogany door at the rear of the
bridge, just discorporating and rematerializing somewhere else. Wondering if
she's annoyed, he glances up just as the first of his ghosts patches into his
memory map, and he remembers what happened when it met the new arrival. His
eyes widen: "Oh /{shit!}/"

It's not the film producer but the lawyer who's just uploaded into the /{Field
Circus}/'s virtual universe. Someone's going to have to tell Amber. And
although the last thing he wants to do is talk to her, it looks like he's going
to have to call her, because this isn't just a routine visit. The lawyer means
trouble.

* * *

_1 Take a brain and put it in a bottle. Better: take a map of the brain and put
it in a map of a bottle - or of a body - and feed signals to it that mimic its
neurological inputs. Read its outputs and route them to a model body in a model
universe with a model of physical laws, closing the loop. René Descartes would
understand. That's the state of the passengers of the /{Field Circus}/ in a
nutshell. Formerly physical humans, their neural software (and a map of the
intracranial wetware it runs on) has been transferred into a virtual machine
environment executing on a honking great computer, where the universe they
experience is merely a dream within a dream.

_1 Brains in bottles - empowered ones, with total, dictatorial, control over
the reality they are exposed to - sometimes stop engaging in activities that
brains in bodies can't avoid. Menstruation isn't mandatory. Vomiting, angina,
exhaustion, and cramp are all optional. So is meatdeath, the decomposition of
the corpus. But some activities don't cease, because people (even people who
have been converted into a software description, squirted through a
high-bandwidth laser link, and ported into a virtualization stack) don't
/{want}/ them to stop. Breathing is wholly unnecessary, but suppression of the
breathing reflex is disturbing unless you hack your hypothalamic map, and most
homomorphic uploads don't want to do that. Then there's eating - not to avoid
starvation, but for pleasure: Feasts on sautéed dodo seasoned with silphium are
readily available here, and indeed, why not? It seems the human addiction to
sensory input won't go away. And that's without considering sex, and the
technical innovations that become possible when the universe - and the bodies
within it - are mutable.

* * *

The public audience with the new arrivals is held in yet another movie: the
Parisian palace of Charles IX, the throne room lifted wholesale from /{La Reine
Margot}/ by Patrice Chéreau. Amber insisted on period authenticity, with the
realism dialed right up to eleven. It's 1572 to the hilt this time, physical to
the max. Pierre grunts in irritation, unaccustomed to his beard. His codpiece
chafes, and sidelong glances tell him he isn't the only member of the royal
court who's uncomfortable. Still, Amber is resplendent in a gown worn by
Isabelle Adjani as Marguerite de Valois, and the luminous sunlight streaming
through the stained-glass windows high above the crowd of actor zimboes lends a
certain barbaric majesty to the occasion. The place is heaving with bodies in
clerical robes, doublets, and low-cut gowns - some of them occupied by real
people. Pierre sniffs again: Someone (Gavin, with his history bug, perhaps?)
has been working on getting the smells right. He hopes like hell that nobody
throws up. At least nobody seems to have come as Catherine de Médicis ...

A bunch of actors portraying Huguenot soldiers approach the throne on which
Amber is seated: They pace slowly forward, escorting a rather bemused-looking
fellow with long, lank hair and a brocade jacket that appears to be made of
cloth-of-gold. "His lordship, Attorney at Arms Alan Glashwiecz!" announces a
flunky, reading from a parchment, "here at the behest of the most excellent
guild and corporation of Smoot, Sedgwick Associates, with matters of legal
import to discuss with Her Royal Highness!"

A flourish of trumpets. Pierre glances at Her Royal Highness, who nods
gracefully, but is slightly peaky - it's a humid summer day and her
many-layered robes look very hot. "Welcome to the furthermost soil of the Ring
Imperium," she announces in a clear, ringing voice. "I bid you welcome and
invite you to place your petition before me in full public session of court."

Pierre directs his attention to Glashwiecz, who appears to be worried.
Doubtless he'd absorbed the basics of court protocol in the Ring (population
all of eighteen thousand back home, a growing little principality), but the
reality of it, a genuine old-fashioned /{monarchy}/ rooted in Amber's three-way
nexus of power, data, and time, always takes a while to sink in. "I would be
pleased to do so," he says, a little stiffly, "but in front of all those -"

Pierre misses the next bit, because someone has just goosed him on the left
buttock. He starts and half turns to see Su Ang looking past him at the throne,
a lady-in-waiting for the queen. She wears an apricot dress with tight sleeves
and a bodice that bares everything above her nipples. There's a fortune in
pearls roped into her hair. As he notices her, she winks at him.

Pierre freezes the scene, decoupling them from reality, and she faces him. "Are
we alone now?" she asks.

"Guess so. You want to talk about something?" he asks, heat rising in his
cheeks. The noise around them is a random susurrus of machine-generated crowd
scenery, the people motionless as their shared reality thread proceeds
independently of the rest of the universe.

"Of course!" She smiles at him and shrugs. The effect on her chest is
remarkable - those period bodices could give a skeleton a cleavage - and she
winks at him again. "Oh, Pierre." She smiles. "So easily distracted!" She snaps
her fingers, and her clothing cycles through Afghani burqua, nudity, trouser
suit, then back to court finery. Her grin is the only constant. "Now that I've
got your attention, stop looking at me and start looking at /{him}/."

Even more embarrassed, Pierre follows her outstretched arm all the way to the
momentarily frozen Moorish emissary. "Sadeq?"

"Sadeq /{knows}/ him, Pierre. This guy, there's something wrong."

"Shit. You think I don't know that?" Pierre looks at her with annoyance,
embarrassment forgotten. "I've seen him before. Been tracking his involvement
for years. Guy's a front for the Queen Mother. He acted as her divorce lawyer
when she went after Amber's Dad."

"I'm sorry." Ang glances away. "You haven't been yourself lately, Pierre. I
know it's something wrong between you and the Queen. I was worried. You're not
paying attention to the little details."

"Who do you think warned Amber?" he asks.

"Oh. Okay, so you're in the loop," she says. "I'm not sure. Anyway, you've been
distracted. Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Listen." Pierre puts his hands on her shoulders. She doesn't move, but looks
up into his eyes - Su Ang is only one-sixty tall - and he feels a pang of
something odd: teenage male uncertainty about the friendship of women. /{What
does she want?}/ "I know, and I'm sorry, and I'll try to keep my eyes on the
ball some more, but I've been in my own headspace a lot lately. We ought to go
back into the audience before anybody notices."

"Do you want to talk about the problem first?" she asks, inviting his
confidence.

"I -" Pierre shakes his head. /{I could tell her everything}/, he realizes
shakily as his metaconscience prods him urgently. He's got a couple of
agony-aunt agents, but Ang is a real person and a friend. She won't pass
judgment, and her model of human social behavior is a hell of a lot better than
any expert system's. But time is in danger of slipping, and besides, Pierre
feels dirty. "Not now," he says. "Let's go back."

"Okay." She nods, then turns away, steps behind him with a swish of skirts, and
he unfreezes time again as they snap back into place within the larger
universe, just in time to see the respected visitor serve the queen with a
class-action lawsuit, and the Queen respond by referring adjudication to trial
by combat.

* * *

Hyundai ^{+4904}^/,{-56}, is a brown dwarf, a lump of dirty hydrogen condensed
from a stellar nursery, eight times as massive as Jupiter but not massive
enough to ignite a stable fusion reaction at its core. The relentless crush of
gravity has overcome the mutual repulsion of electrons trapped at its core,
shrinking it into a shell of slush around a sphere of degenerate matter. It's
barely larger than the gas giant the human ship uses as an energy source, but
it's much denser. Gigayears ago, a chance stellar near miss sent it careening
off into the galaxy on its own, condemned to drift in eternal darkness along
with a cluster of frozen moons that dance attendance upon it.

By the time the /{Field Circus}/ is decelerating toward it at short range -
having shed the primary sail, which drifts farther out into interstellar space
while reflecting light back onto the remaining secondary sail surface to slow
the starwisp - Hyundai ^{+4904}^/,{-56}, is just under one parsec distant from
Earth, closer even than Proxima Centauri. Utterly dark at visible wavelengths,
the brown dwarf could have drifted through the outer reaches of the solar
system before conventional telescopes would have found it by direct
observation. Only an infrared survey in the early years of the current century
gave it a name.

A bunch of passengers and crew have gathered on the bridge (now running at
one-tenth of real time) to watch the arrival. Amber sits curled up in the
captain's chair, moodily watching the gathered avatars. Pierre is still
avoiding her at every opportunity, formal audiences excepted, and the damned
shark and his pet hydra aren't invited, but apart from that, most of the gang
is here. There are sixty-three uploads running on the /{Field Circus}/'s
virtualization stack, software copied out of meatbodies who are mostly still
walking around back home. It's a crowd, but it's possible to feel lonely in a
crowd, even when it's your party. And especially when you're worried about
debt, even though you're a billionairess, beneficiary of the human species'
biggest reputations-rating trust fund. Amber's clothing - black leggings, black
sweater - is as dark as her mood.

"Something troubles you." A hand descends on the back of the chair next to her.

She glances round momentarily, nods in recognition. "Yeah. Have a seat. You
missed the audience?"

The thin, brown-skinned man with a neatly cropped beard and deeply lined
forehead slips into the seat next to her. "It was not part of my heritage," he
explains carefully, "although the situation is not unfamiliar." A momentary
smile threatens to crack his stony face. "I found the casting a trifle
disturbing."

"I'm no Marguerite de Valois, but the vacant role ... let's just say, the cap
fits." Amber leans back in her chair. "Mind you, Marguerite had an
/{interesting}/ life," she muses.

"Don't you mean depraved and debauched?" her neighbor counters.

"Sadeq." She closes her eyes. "Let's not pick a fight over absolute morality
just right now, please? We have an orbital insertion to carry out, then an
artifact to locate, and a dialogue to open, and I'm feeling very tired.
Drained."

"Ah - I apologize." He inclines his head carefully. "Is it your young man's
fault? Has he slighted you?"

"Not exactly -" Amber pauses. Sadeq, whom she basically invited along as ship's
theologian in case they ran into any gods, has taken up her pastoral well-being
as some kind of hobby. She finds it mildly oppressive at times, flattering at
others, surreal always. Using the quantum search resources available to a
citizen of the Ring Imperium, he's outpublished his peers, been elected a
hojetolislam at an unprecedentedly young age: His original will probably be an
ayatollah by the time they get home. He's circumspect in dealing with cultural
differences, reasons with impeccable logic, carefully avoids antagonizing her -
and constantly seeks to guide her moral development. "It's a personal
misunderstanding," she says. "I'd rather not talk about it until we've sorted
it out."

"Very well." He looks unsatisfied, but that's normal. Sadeq still has the dusty
soil of a childhood in the industrial city of Yazd stuck to his boots.
Sometimes she wonders if their disagreements don't mirror in miniature the gap
between the early twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. "But back to the
here and now. Do you know where this router is?"

"I will, in a few minutes or hours." Amber raises her voice, simultaneously
spawning a number of search-ghosts. "Boris! You got any idea where we're
going?"

Boris lumbers round in place to face her; today he's wearing a velociraptor,
and they don't turn easily in confined spaces. He snarls irritably: "Give me
some space!" He coughs, a threatening noise from the back of his wattled
throat, "Searching the sail's memory now." The back of the soap-bubble-thin
laser sail is saturated with tiny nanocomputers spaced micrometers apart.
Equipped with light receptors and configured as cellular automata, they form a
gigantic phased-array detector, a retina more than a hundred meters in
diameter. Boris is feeding them patterns describing anything that differs from
the unchanging starscape. Soon the memories will condense and return as visions
of darkness in motion - the cold, dead attendants of an aborted sun.

"But where is it going to be?" asks Sadeq. "Do you know what you are looking
for?"

"Yes. We should have no trouble finding it," says Amber. "It looks like this."
She flicks an index finger at the row of glass windows that front the bridge.
Her signet ring flashes ruby light, and something indescribably weird shimmers
into view in place of the seascape. Clusters of pearly beads that form helical
chains, disks and whorls of color that interlace and knot through one another,
hang in space above a darkling planet. "Looks like a William Latham sculpture
made out of strange matter, doesn't it?"

"Very abstract," Sadeq says approvingly.

"It's alive," she adds. "And when it gets close enough to see us, it'll try to
eat us."

"What?" Sadeq sits up uneasily.

"You mean nobody told you?" asks Amber: "I thought we'd briefed everybody." She
throws a glistening golden pomegranate at him, and he catches it. The apple of
knowledge dissolves in his hand, and he sits in a haze of ghosts absorbing
information on his behalf. "Damn," she adds mildly.

Sadeq freezes in place. Glyphs of crumbling stonework overgrown with ivy
texture his skin and his dark suit, warning that he's busy in another private
universe.

"/{Hrrrr!}/ Boss! Found something," calls Boris, drooling on the bridge floor.

Amber glances up. /{Please, let it be the router}/, she thinks. "Put it on the
main screen."

"Are you sure this is safe?" Su Ang asks nervously.

"Nothing is safe," Boris snaps, clattering his huge claws on the deck. "Here.
Look."

The view beyond the windows flips to a perspective on a dusty bluish horizon:
swirls of hydrogen brushed with a high cirrus of white methane crystals,
stirred above the freezing point of oxygen by Hyundai ^{+4904}^/,{-56},'s
residual rotation. The image-intensification level is huge - a naked human
eyeball would see nothing but blackness. Rising above the limb of the gigantic
planet is a small pale disk: Callidice, largest moon of the brown dwarf - or
second-innermost planet - a barren rock slightly larger than Mercury. The
screen zooms in on the moon, surging across a landscape battered by craters and
dusted with the spume of ice volcanoes. Finally, just above the far horizon,
something turquoise shimmers and spins against a backdrop of frigid darkness.

"That's it," Amber whispers, her stomach turning to jelly as all the terrible
might-have-beens dissolve like phantoms of the night around her; "That's
/{it}/!" Elated, she stands up, wanting to share the moment with everybody she
values. "Wake up, Sadeq! Someone get that damned cat in here! Where's Pierre?
He's got to see this!"

* * *

Night and revelry rule outside the castle. The crowds are drunken and rowdy on
the eve of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. Fireworks burst overhead, and
the open windows admit a warm breeze redolent of cooked meats, woodsmoke, open
sewers. Meanwhile a lover steals up a tightly-spiraling stone staircase in the
near dark; his goal, a prarranged rendezvous. He's been drinking, and his best
linen shirt shows the stains of sweat and food. He pauses at the third window
to breathe in the outside air and run both hands through his mane of hair,
which is long, unkempt, and grimy. /{Why am I doing this?}/ he wonders. This is
so unlike him, this messing around -

He carries on up the spiral. At the top, an oak door gapes on a vestibule lit
by a lantern hanging from a hook. He ventures inside into a reception room
paneled in oak blackened by age. Crossing the threshold makes another crossover
kick in by prior arrangement. Something other than his own volition steers his
feet, and he feels an unfamiliar throb in his chest, anticipation and a warmth
and looseness lower down that makes him cry out, "where are you?"

"Over here." He sees her waiting for him in the doorway. She's partially
undressed, wearing layered underskirts and a flat-chested corset that makes the
tops of her breasts swell like lustrous domes. Her tight sleeves are
half-unraveled, her hair disheveled. He's full of her brilliant eyes, the
constriction holding her spine straight, the taste in her mouth. She's the
magnet for his reality, impossibly alluring, so tense she could burst. "Is it
working for you?" she asks.

"Yes." he feels tight, breathless, squeezed between impossibility and desire as
he walks toward her. They've experimented with gender play, trying on the
extreme dimorphism of this period as a game, but this is the first time they've
done it this way. She opens her mouth: He kisses her, feels the warmth of his
tongue thrust between her lips, the strength of his arms enclosing her waist.

She leans against him, feeling his erection. "So this is how it feels to be
you," she says wonderingly. The door to her chamber is ajar, but she doesn't
have the self-restraint to wait: The flood of new sensations - rerouted from
her physiology model to his proprioceptive sensorium - has taken hold. She
grinds her hips against him, pushing deeper into his arms, whining softly at
the back of her throat as she feels the fullness in his balls, the tension of
his penis. He nearly faints with the rich sensations of her body - it's as if
he's dissolving, feeling the throbbing hardness against his groin, turning to
water and running away. Somehow he gets his arms around her waist - so tight,
so breathless - and stumbles forward into the bedroom. She's whimpering as he
drops her on the over-stuffed mattress: "/{Do}/ it to me!" she demands, "Do it
now!"

Somehow he ends up on top of her, hose down around his ankles, skirts bundled
up around her waist; she kisses him, grinding her hips against him and
murmuring urgent nothings. Then his heart is in his mouth, and there's a
sensation like the universe pushing into his private parts, so inside out it
takes his breath away. It's hot and as hard as rock, and he wants it inside so
badly, but at the same time it's an intrusion, frightening and unexpected. He
feels the lightning touch of his tongue on her nipples as he leans closer,
feels exposed and terrified and ecstatic as her private places take in his
member. As he begins to dissolve into the universe he screams in the privacy of
his own head, /{I didn't know it felt like this}/ -

Afterward, she turns to him with a lazy smile, and asks, "How was it for you?"
Obviously assuming that, if she enjoyed it, he must have, too.

But all he can think of is the sensation of the universe thrusting into him,
and of how /{good}/ it felt. All he can hear is his father yelling ("What are
you, some kind of queer?") - and he feels dirty.

* * *

_1 Greetings from the last megasecond before the discontinuity.

_1 The solar system is thinking furiously at 10^33^ MIPS - thoughts bubble and
swirl in the equivalent of a million billion unaugmented human minds. Saturn's
rings glow with waste heat. The remaining faithful of the Latter-Day Saints are
correlating the phase-space of their genome and the records of their descent in
an attempt to resurrect their ancestors. Several skyhooks have unfurled in
equatorial orbit around the earth like the graceful fernlike leaves of sundews,
ferrying cargo and passengers to and from orbit. Small, crab like robots swarm
the surface of Mercury, exuding a black slime of photovoltaic converters and
the silvery threads of mass drivers. A glowing cloud of industrial nanomes
forms a haze around the innermost planet as it slowly shrinks under the
onslaught of copious solar power and determined mining robots.

_1 The original incarnations of Amber and her court float in high orbit above
Jupiter, presiding over the huge nexus of dumb matter trade that is rapidly
biting into the available mass of the inner Jovian system. The trade in
reaction mass is brisk, and there are shipments of diamond/vacuum biphase
structures to assemble and crank down into the lower reaches of the solar
system. Far below, skimming the edges of Jupiter's turbulent cloudscape, a
gigantic glowing figure-of-eight - a five-hundred-kilometer-long loop of
superconducting cable - traces incandescent trails through the gas giant's
magnetosphere. It's trading momentum for electrical current, diverting it into
a fly's eye grid of lasers that beam it toward Hyundai ^{+4904}^/,{-56},. As
long as the original Amber and her incarnate team can keep it running, the
/{Field Circus}/ can continue its mission of discovery, but they're part of the
posthuman civilization evolving down in the turbulent depths of Sol system,
part of the runaway train being dragged behind the out-of-control engine of
history.

_1 Weird new biologies based on complex adaptive matter take shape in the
sterile oceans of Titan. In the frigid depths beyond Pluto, supercooled boson
gases condense into impossible dreaming structures, packaged for shipping
inward to the fast-thinking core.

_1 There are still humans dwelling down in the hot depths, but it's getting
hard to recognize them. The lot of humanity before the twenty-first century was
nasty, brutish, and short. Chronic malnutrition, lack of education, and endemic
diseases led to crippled minds and broken bodies. Now, most people multitask:
Their meatbrains sit at the core of a haze of personality, much of it
virtualized on stacked layers of structured reality far from their physical
bodies. Wars and revolutions, or their subtle latter-day cognates, sweep the
globe as constants become variables; many people find the death of stupidity
even harder to accept than the end of mortality. Some have vitrified themselves
to await an uncertain posthuman future. Others have modified their core
identities to better cope with the changed demands of reality. Among these are
beings whom nobody from a previous century would recognize as human -
human/corporation half-breeds, zombie clades dehumanized by their own
optimizations, angels and devils of software, slyly self-aware financial
instruments. Even their popular fictions are self-deconstructing these days.

_1 None of this, other than the barest news summary, reaches the /{Field
Circus}/: The starwisp is a fossil, left behind by the broad sweep of
accelerating progress. But it is aboard the /{Field Circus}/ that some of the
most important events remaining in humanity's future light cone take place.

* * *

"Say hello to the jellyfish, Boris."

Boris, in human drag, for once, glares at Pierre, and grips the pitcher with
both hands. The contents of the jug swirl their tentacles lazily: One of them
flips almost out of solution, dislodging an impaled cocktail cherry. "Will get
you for this," Boris threatens. The smoky air around his head is a-swirl with
daemonic visions of vengeance.

Su Ang stares intently at Pierre who is watching Boris as he raises the jug to
his lips and begins to drink. The baby jellyfish - small, pale blue, with
cuboid bells and four clusters of tentacles trailing from each corner - slips
down easily. Boris winces momentarily as the nematocysts let rip inside his
mouth, but in a moment or so, the cubozoan slips down, and in the meantime, his
biophysics model clips the extent of the damage to his stinger-ruptured
oropharynx.

"Wow," he says, taking another slurp of sea wasp margaritas. "Don't try this at
home, fleshboy."

"Here." Pierre reaches out. "Can I?"

"Invent your own damn poison," Boris sneers - but he releases the jug and
passes it to Pierre, who raises it and drinks. The cubozoan cocktail reminds
him of fruit jelly drinks in a hot Hong Kong summer. The stinging in his palate
is sharp but fades rapidly, producing an intimate burn when the alcohol hits
the mild welts that are all this universe will permit the lethal medusa to
inflict on him.

"Not bad," says Pierre, wiping a stray loop of tentacle off his chin. He pushes
the pitcher across the table toward Su Ang. "What's with the wicker man?" He
points a thumb over his back at the table jammed in the corner opposite the
copper-topped bar.

"Who cares?" asks Boris."'S part of the scenery, isn't it?"

The bar is a three-hundred-year-old brown café with a beer menu that runs to
sixteen pages and wooden walls stained the color of stale ale. The air is thick
with the smells of tobacco, brewer's yeast, and melatonin spray: and none of it
exists. Amber dragged it out of the Franklin borg's collective memories, by way
of her father's scattershot e-mails annotating her corporeal origins - the
original is in Amsterdam, if that city still exists.

"/{I}/ care who it is," says Pierre.

"Save it," Ang says quietly. "I think it's a lawyer with a privacy screen."

Pierre glances over his shoulder and glares. "Really?"

Ang puts a restraining hand on his wrist: "Really. Don't pay it any attention.
You don't have to, until the trial, you know."

The wicker man sits uneasily in the corner. It resembles a basket-weave
silhouette made from dried reeds, dressed in a red kerchief. A glass of
doppelbock fills the mess of tied-off ends where its right hand ought to be.
From time to time, it raises the glass as if to take a mouthful, and the beer
vanishes into the singular interior.

"Fuck the trial," Pierre says shortly. /{And fuck Amber, too, for naming me her
public defender}/ -

"Since when do lawsuits come with an invisible man?" asks Donna the Journalist,
blitting into the bar along with a patchy historical trail hinting that she's
just come from the back room.

"Since -" Pierre blinks. "Hell." When Donna entered, so did Aineko; or maybe
the cat's been there all the time, curled up loaf-of-bread fashion on the table
in front of the wicker man. "You're damaging the continuity," Pierre complains.
"This universe is broken."

"Fix it yourself," Boris tells him. "Everybody else is coping." He snaps his
fingers. "Waiter!"

"Excuse me." Donna shakes her head. "I didn't mean to harm anything."

Ang, as always, is more accommodating. "How are you?" she asks politely: "Would
you like to try this most excellent poison cocktail?"

"I am well," says Donna. A heavily built German woman - blonde and solidly
muscular, according to the avatar she's presenting to the public - she's
surrounded by a haze of viewpoints. They're camera angles on her society of
mind, busily integrating and splicing her viewpoint threads together in an
endless journal of the journey. A stringer for the CIA media consortium, she
uploaded to the ship in the same packet stream as the lawsuit. "/{Danke}/,
Ang."

"Are you recording right now?" asks Boris.

Donna sniffs. "When am I not?" A momentary smile: "I am only a scanner, no?
Five hours, until arrival, to go. I may stop after then." Pierre glances across
the table at Su Ang's hands; her knuckles are white and tense. "I am to avoid
missing anything if possible," Donna continues, oblivious to Ang's disquiet.
"There are eight of me at present! All recording away."

"That's all?" Ang asks, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes, that is all, and I have a job to do! Don't tell me you do not enjoy what
it is that you do here?"

"Right." Pierre glances in the corner again, avoiding eye contact with the
hearty Girl Friday wannabe. He has a feeling, that if there were any hills
hereabouts to animate, she'd be belting out the music. "Amber told you about
the privacy code here?"

"There is a privacy code?" asks Donna, swinging at least three subjective
ghosts to bear on him for some reason - evidently he's hit an issue she has
mixed feelings about.

"A privacy code," Pierre confirms. "No recording in private, no recording where
people withhold permission in public, and no sandboxes and cutups."

Donna looks offended. "I would never do such a thing! Trapping a copy of
someone in a virtual space to record their responses would be assault under
Ring legal code, not true?"

"Your mother," Boris says snidely, brandishing a fresh jug of iced killer
jellyfish in her direction.

"As long as we all agree," Ang interrupts, searching for accord. "It's all
going to be settled soon, isn't it?"

"Except for the lawsuit," mutters Pierre, glancing at the corner again.

"I don't see the problem," says Donna, "that's just between Amber and her
downlink adversaries!"

"Oh, it's a problem all right," says Boris, his tone light. "What are your
options worth?"

"My -" Donna shakes her head. "I'm not vested."

"Plausible." Boris doesn't crack a smile. "Even so, when we go home, your
credibility metric will bulge. Assuming people still use distributed trust
markets to evaluate the stability of their business partners."

/{Not vested}/. Pierre turns it over in his mind, slightly surprised. He'd
assumed that everybody aboard the ship - except, perhaps, the lawyer,
Glashwiecz - was a fully vested member of the expeditionary company.

"I am not vested," Donna insists. "I'm listed independently." For a moment, an
almost-smile tugs at her face, a charmingly reticent expression that has
nothing to do with her bluff exterior. "Like the cat."

"The -" Pierre turns round in a hurry. Yes, Aineko appears to be sitting
silently at the table with the wicker man; but who knows what's going through
that furry head right now? /{I'll have to bring this up with Amber, he realizes
uneasily. I ought to bring this up with Amber}/ ... "but your reputation won't
suffer for being on this craft, will it?" he asks aloud.

"I will be all right," Donna declares. The waiter comes over: "Mine will be a
bottle of schneiderweisse," she adds. And then, without breaking step: "Do you
believe in the singularity?"

"Am I a singularitarian, do you mean?" asks Pierre, a fixed grin coming to his
face.

"Oh, no, no, no!" Donna waves him down, grins broadly, nods at Su Ang: "I do
not mean it like that! Attend: What I meant to ask was whether you in the
concept of a singularity believe, and if so, where it is?"

"Is this intended for a public interview?" asks Ang.

"Well, I cannot into a simulation drag you off and expose you to an imitative
reality excursion, can I?" Donna leans back as the bartender places a ceramic
stein in front of her.

"Oh. Well." Ang glances warningly at Pierre and dispatches a very private memo
to scroll across his vision: /{Don't play with her, this is serious}/. Boris is
watching Ang with an expression of hopeless longing. Pierre tries to ignore it
all, taking the journalist's question seriously. "The singularity is a bit like
that old-time American Christian rapture nonsense, isn't it?" he says. "When we
all go a-flying up to heaven, leaving our bodies behind." He snorts, reaches
into thin air and gratuitously violates causality by summoning a jug of
ice-cold sangria into existence. "The rapture of the nerds. I'll drink to
that."

"But when did it take place?" asks Donna. "My audience, they will to know your
opinion be needing."

"Four years ago, when we instantiated this ship," Pierre says promptly.

"Back in the teens," says Ang. "When Amber's father liberated the uploaded
lobsters."

"Is not happening yet," contributes Boris. "Singularity implies infinite rate
of change achieved momentarily. Future not amenable thereafter to prediction by
presingularity beings, right? So has not happened."

"Au contraire. It happened on June 6th, 1969, at eleven hundred hours, eastern
seaboard time," Pierre counters. "That was when the first network control
protocol packets were sent from the data port of one IMP to another - the first
ever Internet connection. /{That's}/ the singularity. Since then we've all been
living in a universe that was impossible to predict from events prior to that
time."

"It's rubbish," counters Boris. "Singularity is load of religious junk.
Christian mystic rapture recycled for atheist nerds."

"Not so." Su Ang glances at him, hurt. "Here we are, sixty something human
minds. We've been migrated - while still awake - right out of our own heads
using an amazing combination of nanotechnology and electron spin resonance
mapping, and we're now running as software in an operating system designed to
virtualize multiple physics models and provide a simulation of reality that
doesn't let us go mad from sensory deprivation! And this whole package is about
the size of a fingertip, crammed into a starship the size of your grandmother's
old Walkman, in orbit around a brown dwarf just over three light-years from
home, on its way to plug into a network router created by incredibly ancient
alien intelligences, and you can tell me that the idea of a fundamental change
in the human condition is nonsense?"

"Mmph." Boris looks perplexed. "Would not put it that way. The /{singularity}/
is nonsense, not uploading or -"

"Yah, right." Ang smiles winningly at Boris. After a moment, he wilts.

Donna beams at them enthusiastically. "Fascinating!" she enthuses. "Tell me,
what are these lobsters you think are important?"

"They're Amber's friends," Ang explains. "Years ago, Amber's father did a deal
with them. They were the first uploads, you know? Hybridized spiny lobster
neural tissue and a heuristic API and some random mess of backward-chaining
expert systems. They got out of their lab and into the Net and Manfred brokered
a deal to set them free, in return for their help running a Franklin orbital
factory. This was way back in the early days before they figured out how to do
self-assembly properly. Anyway, the lobsters insisted - part of their contract
- that Bob Franklin pay to have the deep-space tracking network beam them out
into interstellar space. They wanted to emigrate, and looking at what's
happened to the solar system since then, who can blame them?"

Pierre takes a big mouthful of sangria. "The cat," he says.

"The cat -" Donna's head swivels round, but Aineko has banged out again,
retroactively editing her presence out of the event history of this public
space. "What about the cat?"

"The /{family}/ cat," explains Ang. She reaches over for Boris's pitcher of
jellyfish juice, but frowns as she does so: "Aineko wasn't conscious back then,
but later ... when SETI@home finally received that message back, oh, however
many years ago, Aineko remembered the lobsters. And cracked it wide open while
all the CETI teams were still thinking in terms of von Neumann architectures
and concept-oriented programming. The message was a semantic net designed to
mesh perfectly with the lobster broadcast all those years ago, and provide a
high-level interface to a communications network we're going to visit." She
squeezes Boris's fingertips. "SETI@home logged these coordinates as the origin
of the transmission, even though the public word was that the message came from
a whole lot farther away - they didn't want to risk a panic if people knew
there were aliens on our cosmic doorstep. Anyway, once Amber got established,
she decided to come visiting. Hence this expedition. Aineko created a virtual
lobster and interrogated the ET packet, hence the communications channel we're
about to open."

"Ah, this is all a bit clearer now," says Donna. "But the lawsuit - " She
glances at the hollow wicker man in the corner.

"Well, there we have a problem," Ang says diplomatically.

"No," says Pierre. "/{I}/ have a problem. And it's all Amber's fault."

"Hmm?" Donna stares at him. "Why blame the Queen?"

"Because she's the one who picked the lunar month to be the reporting time
period for companies in her domain, and specified trial by combat for resolving
corporate conflicts," he grumbles. "And /{compurgation}/, but that's not
applicable to this case because there isn't a recognized reputation server
within three light-years. Trial by combat, for civil suits in this day and age!
And she appointed me her champion." /{In the most traditional way imaginable}/,
he remembers with a warm frisson of nostalgia. He'd been hers in body and soul
before that disastrous experiment. He isn't sure whether it still applies, but
- "I've got to take on this lawsuit on her behalf, in adversarial stance."

He glances over his shoulder. The wicker man sits there placidly, pouring beer
down his invisible throat like a tired farm laborer.

"Trial by combat," Su Ang explains to Donna's perplexed ghost-swarm, which is
crawling all over the new concept in a haze of confusion. "Not physical combat,
but a competition of ability. It seemed like a good idea at the time, to keep
junk litigants out of the Ring Imperium, but the Queen Mother's lawyers are
/{very}/ persistent. Probably because it's taken on something of a grudge match
quality over the years. I don't think Pamela cares much anymore, but this
ass-hat lawyer has turned it into a personal crusade. I don't think he liked
what happened when the music Mafiya caught up with him. But there's a bit more
to it, because if he wins, he gets to own everything. And I mean
/{everything}/."

* * *

Ten million kilometers out and Hyundai ^{+4904}^/,{-56}, looms beyond the
parachute-shaped sail of the /{Field Circus}/ like a rind of darkness bitten
out of the edge of the universe. Heat from the gravitational contraction of its
core keeps it warm, radiating at six hundred degrees absolute, but the paltry
emission does nothing to break the eternal ice that grips Callidice, Iambe,
Celeus, and Metaneira, the stillborn planets locked in orbit around the brown
dwarf.

Planets aren't the only structures that orbit the massive sphere of hydrogen.
Close in, skimming the cloud tops by only twenty thousand kilometers, Boris's
phased-array eye has blinked at something metallic and hot. Whatever it is, it
orbits out of the ecliptic plane traced by the icy moons, and in the wrong
direction. Farther out, a speckle of reflected emerald laser light picks out a
gaudy gem against the starscape: their destination, the router.

"That's it," says Boris. His body shimmers into humanity, retconning the pocket
universe of the bridge into agreeing that he's been present in primate form all
along. Amber glances sideways. Sadeq is still wrapped in ivy, his skin the
texture of weathered limestone. "Closest approach is sixty-three light-seconds,
due in eight hundred thousand. Can give you closer contact if we maneuver, but
will take time to achieve a stable orbit."

Amber nods thoughtfully, sending copies of herself out to work the mechanics.
The big light sail is unwieldy, but can take advantage of two power sources:
the original laser beam from Jupiter, and its reflection bouncing off the
now-distant primary light sail. The temptation is to rely on the laser for
constant acceleration, to just motor on in and squat on the router's cosmic
doorstep. But the risk of beam interruption is too dangerous. It's happened
before, for seconds to minutes at a time, on six occasions during the voyage so
far. She's not sure what causes the beam downtime (Pierre has a theory about
Oort cloud objects occulting the laser, but she figures it's more likely to be
power cuts back at the Ring), but the consequences of losing power while
maneuvering deep in a quasi-stellar gravity well are much more serious than a
transient loss of thrust during free interstellar flight. "Let's just play it
safe," she says. "We'll go for a straight orbital insertion and steady cranking
after that. We've got enough gravity wells to play pinball with. I don't want
us on a free-flight trajectory that entails lithobraking if we lose power and
can't get the sail back."

"Very prudent," Boris agrees. "Marta, work on it." A buzzing presence of
not-insects indicates that the heteromorphic helmswoman is on the job. "I think
we should be able to take our first close-in look in about two million seconds,
but if you want, I can ping it now ...?"

"No need for protocol analysis," Amber says casually. "Where's - ah, there you
are." She reaches down and picks up Aineko, who twists round sinuously and
licks her arm with a tongue like sandpaper. "What do you think?"

"Do you want fries with that?" asks the cat, focusing on the artifact at the
center of the main screen in front of the bridge.

"No, I just want a conversation," says Amber.

"Well, okay." The cat dims, moves jerkily, sucking up local processing power so
fast that it disturbs the local physics model. "Opening port now."

A subjective minute or two passes. "Where's Pierre?" Amber asks herself
quietly. Some of the maintenance metrics she can read from her privileged
viewpoint are worrying. The /{Field Circus}/ is running at almost eighty
percent of utilization. Whatever Aineko is doing in order to establish the
interface to the router, it's taking up an awful lot of processing power and
bandwidth. "And where's the bloody lawyer?" she adds, almost as an
afterthought.

The /{Field Circus}/ is small, but its light sail is highly controllable.
Aineko takes over a cluster of cells in its surface, turning them from straight
reflectors into phase-conjugate mirrors: A small laser on the ship's hull
begins to flicker thousands of times a second, and the beam bounces off the
modified segment of mirror, focusing to a coherent point right in front of the
distant blue dot of the router. Aineko ramps up the modulation frequency, adds
a bundle of channels using different wavelengths, and starts feeding out a
complex set of preplanned signals that provide an encoding format for
high-level data.

% check point

"Leave the lawyer to me." She starts, glancing sideways to see Sadeq watching
her. He smiles without showing his teeth. "Lawyers do not mix with diplomacy,"
he explains.

"Huh." Ahead of them, the router is expanding. Strings of nacreous spheres curl
in strange loops around a hidden core, expanding and turning inside out in
systolic pulses that spawn waves of recomplication through the structure. A
loose red speckle of laser light stains one arm of beads; suddenly it flares up
brilliantly, reflecting data back at the ship. "Ah!"

"Contact," purrs the cat. Amber's fingertips turn white where she grips the
arms of her chair.

"What does it say?" she asks, quietly.

"What do /{they}/ say," corrects Aineko. "It's a trade delegation, and they're
uploading right now. I can use that negotiation network they sent us to give
them an interface to our systems if you want."

"Wait!" Amber half stands in sudden nervousness. "Don't give them free access!
What are you thinking of? Stick them in the throne room, and we'll give them a
formal audience in a couple of hours." She pauses. "That network layer they
sent through. Can you make it accessible to us, use it to give us a translation
layer into their grammar-mapping system?"

The cat looks round, thumps her tail irritably: "You'd do better loading the
network yourself -"

"I don't want /{anybody}/ on this ship running alien code before we've vetted
it thoroughly," she says urgently. "In fact, I want them bottled up in the
Louvre grounds, just as thoroughly as we can, and I want them to come to us
through our own linguistic bottleneck. Got that?"

"Clear," Aineko grumbles.

"A trade delegation," Amber thinks aloud. "What would Dad make of that?"

* * *

One moment he's in the bar, shooting bull with Su Ang and Donna the
Journalist's ghost and a copy of Boris; the next he's abruptly precipitated
into a very different space.

Pierre's heart seems to tumble within his rib cage, but he forces himself to
stay calm as he glances around the dim, oak-paneled chamber. This is wrong, so
wrong that it signifies either a major systems crash or the application of
frightening privilege levels to his realm. The only person aboard who's
entitled to those privileges is -

"Pierre?"

She's behind him. He turns angrily. "Why did you drag me in here? Don't you
know it's rude to -"

"Pierre."

He stops and looks at Amber. He can't stay angry at her for long, not to her
face. She's not dumb enough to bat her eyelashes at him, but she's disarmingly
cute for all that. Nevertheless, something inside him feels shriveled and
/{wrong}/ in her presence. "What is it?" he says, curtly.

"I don't know why you've been avoiding me." She starts to take a step forward,
then stops and bites her lip. /{Don't do this to me!}/ he thinks. "You know it
hurts?"

"Yes." That much of an admission hurts him, too. He can hear his father yelling
over his shoulder, the time he found him with Laurent, elder brother: It's a
choice between père or Amber, but it's not a choice he wants to make. /{The
shame}/. "I didn't - I have some issues."

"It was the other night?"

He nods. /{Now}/ she takes a step forwards. "We can talk about it, if you want.
Whatever you want," she says. And she leans toward him, and he feels his
resistance crumbling. He reaches out and hugs her, and she wraps her arms
around him and leans her chin on his shoulder, and this doesn't feel wrong: How
can anything this good be bad?

"It made me uncomfortable," he mumbles into her hair. "Need to sort myself
out."

"Oh, Pierre." She strokes the down at the back of his neck. "You should have
said. We don't have to do it that way if you don't want to."

How to tell her how hard it is to admit that anything's wrong? Ever? "You
didn't drag me here to tell me that," he says, implicitly changing the subject.

Amber lets go of him, backs away almost warily. "What is it?" she asks.

"Something's wrong?" he half asks, half asserts. "Have we made contact yet?"

"Yeah," she says, pulling a face. "There's an alien trade delegation in the
Louvre. That's the problem."

"An alien trade delegation." He rolls the words around the inside of his mouth,
tasting them. They feel paradoxical, cold and slow after the hot words of
passion he's been trying to avoid uttering. It's his fault for changing the
subject.

"A trade delegation," says Amber. "I should have anticipated. I mean, we were
going to go through the router ourselves, weren't we?"

He sighs. "We thought we were going to do that." A quick prod at the universe's
controls determines that he has certain capabilities: He invokes an armchair,
sprawls across it. "A network of point-to-point wormholes linking routers,
self-replicating communication hubs, in orbit around most of the brown dwarfs
of the galaxy. That's what the brochure said, right? That's what we expected.
Limited bandwidth, not a lot of use to a mature superintelligence that has
converted the free mass of its birth solar system into computronium, but
sufficient to allow it to hold conversations with its neighbors. Conversations
carried out via a packet-switched network in real time, not limited by the
speed of light, but bound together by a common reference frame and the latency
between network hops."

"That's about the size of it," she agrees from the carved-ruby throne beside
him. "Except there's a trade delegation waiting for us. In fact, they're coming
aboard already. And I don't buy it - something about the whole setup stinks."

Pierre's brow wrinkles. "You're right, it doesn't make sense," he says,
finally. "Doesn't make sense at all."

Amber nods. "I carry a ghost of Dad around. He's really upset about it."

"Listen to your old man." Pierre's lips quirk humorlessly. "We were going to
jump through the looking glass, but it seems someone has beaten us to the
punch. Question is why?"

"I don't like it." Amber reaches out sideways, and he catches her hand. "And
then there's the lawsuit. We have to hold the trial sooner rather than later."

He lets go of her fingers. "I'd really be much happier if you hadn't named me
as your champion."

"Hush." The scenery changes; her throne is gone, and instead she's sitting on
the arm of his chair, almost on top of him. "Listen. I had a good reason."

"Reason?"

"You have choice of weapons. In fact, you have the choice of the field. This
isn't just 'hit 'em with a sword until they die' time." She grins, impishly.
"The whole point of a legal system that mandates trial by combat for commercial
lawsuits, as opposed to an adjudication system, is to work out who's a fitter
servant of society and hence deserving of preferential treatment. It's crazy to
apply the same legal model to resolving corporate disputes that we use for
arguments among people, especially as most companies are now software
abstractions of business models; the interests of society are better served by
a system that encourages efficient trade activity than by one that encourages
litigation. It cuts down on corporate bullshit while encouraging the toughest
ones to survive, which is why I /{was}/ going to set up the trial as a contest
to achieve maximum competitive advantage in a xenocommerce scenario. Assuming
they really are traders, I figure we have more to trade with them than some
damn lawyer from the depths of earth's light cone."

Pierre blinks. "Um." Blinks again. "I thought you wanted me to sideload some
kind of fencing kinematics program and /{skewer}/ the guy?"

"Knowing how well I know you, why did you ever think that?" She slides down the
arm of his chair and lands on his lap. She twists round to face him in
point-blank close-up. "Shit, Pierre, I /{know}/ you're not some kind of macho
psychopath!"

"But your mother's lawyers -"

She shrugs dismissively. "They're /{lawyers}/. Used to dealing with precedents.
Best way to fuck with their heads is to change the way the universe works." She
leans against his chest. "You'll make mincemeat of them. Profit-to-earnings
ratio through the roof, blood on the stock exchange floor." His hands meet
around the small of her back. "My hero!"

* * *

The Tuileries are full of confused lobsters.

Aineko has warped this virtual realm, implanting a symbolic gateway in the
carefully manicured gardens outside. The gateway is about two meters in
diameter, a verdigris-coated orouborous loop of bronze that sits like an
incongruous archway astride a gravel path in the grounds. Giant black lobsters
- each the size of a small pony - shuffle out of the loop's baby blue buffer
field, antennae twitching. They wouldn't be able to exist in the real world,
but the physics model here has been amended to permit them to breathe and move,
by special dispensation.

Amber sniffs derisively as she enters the great reception room of the Sully
wing. "Can't trust that cat with anything," she mutters.

"It was your idea, wasn't it?" asks Su Ang, trying to duck past the zombie
ladies-in-waiting who carry Amber's train. Soldiers line the passage to either
side, forming rows of steel to let the Queen pass unhindered.

"To let the cat have its way, yes," Amber is annoyed. "But I didn't mean to let
it wreck the continuity! I won't have it!"

"I never saw the point of all this medievalism, before," Ang observes. "It's
not as if you can avoid the singularity by hiding in the past." Pierre,
following the Queen at a distance, shakes his head, knowing better than to pick
a fight with Amber over her idea of stage scenery.

"It looks good," Amber says tightly, standing before her throne and waiting for
the ladies-in-waiting to arrange themselves before her. She sits down
carefully, her back straight as a ruler, voluminous skirts belling up. Her
dress is an intricate piece of sculpture that uses the human body within as a
support. "It impresses the yokels and looks convincing on narrowcast media. It
provides a prefabricated sense of tradition. It hints at the political depths
of fear and loathing intrinsic to my court's activities, and tells people not
to fuck with me. It reminds us where we've come from ... and it doesn't give
away anything about where we're going."

"But that doesn't make any difference to a bunch of alien lobsters," points out
Su Ang. "They lack the reference points to understand it." She moves to stand
behind the throne. Amber glances at Pierre, waves him over.

Pierre glances around, seeking real people, not the vacant eigenfaces of the
zombies that give this scenery added biological texture. There in the red gown,
isn't that Donna the Journalist? And over there, too, with shorter hair and
wearing male drag; she gets everywhere. That's Boris, sitting behind the
bishop.

"/{You}/ tell her," Ang implores him.

"I can't," he admits. "We're trying to establish communication, aren't we? But
we don't want to give too much away about what we are, how we think. A
historical distancing act will keep them from learning too much about us: The
phase-space of technological cultures that could have descended from these
roots is too wide to analyse easily. So we're leaving them with the lobster
translators and not giving anything away. Try to stay in character as a
fifteenth-century duchess from Albì - it's a matter of national security."

"Humph." Ang frowns as a flunky hustles forward to place a folding chair behind
her. She turns to face the expanse of red-and-gold carpet that stretches to the
doorway as trumpets blat and the doors swing open to admit the deputation of
lobsters.

The lobsters are as large as wolves, black and spiny and ominous. Their
monochrome carapaces are at odds with the brightly colored garb of the human
crowd. Their antennae are large and sharp as swords. But for all that, they
advance hesitantly, eye turrets swiveling from side to side as they take the
scene in. Their tails drag ponderously on the carpet, but they have no trouble
standing.

The first of the lobsters halts short of the throne and angles itself to train
an eye on Amber. "Am inconsistent," it complains. "There is no liquid hydrogen
monoxide here, and you-species am misrepresented by initial contact.
Inconsistency, explain?"

"Welcome to the human physical space-traveling interface unit /{Field
Circus}/," Amber replies calmly. "I am pleased to see your translator is
working adequately. You are correct, there is no water here. The lobsters don't
normally need it when they visit us. And we humans are not water-dwellers. May
I ask who you are when you're not wearing borrowed lobster bodies?"

Confusion. The second lobster rears up and clatters its long, armored antennae
together. Soldiers to either side tighten their grips on their spears, but it
drops back down again soon enough.

"We are the Wunch," announces the first lobster, speaking clearly. "This is a
body-compliant translation layer. Based on map received from yourspace, units
forty thousand trillion light-kilometers ago?"

"/{He means twenty years}/," Pierre whispers on a private channel Amber has
multicast for the other real humans in the audience chamber reality. "/{They've
confused space and time for measurement purposes. Does this tell us
something?}/"

"/{Relatively little}/," comments someone else - Chandra? A round of polite
laughter greets the joke, and the tension in the room eases slightly.

"We are the Wunch," the lobster repeats. "We come to exchange interest. What
have you got that we want?"

Faint frown lines appear on Amber's forehead. Pierre can see her thinking very
rapidly. "We consider it impolite to ask," she says quietly.

Clatter of claws on underlying stone floor. Chatter of clicking mandibles. "You
accept our translation?" asks the leader.

"Are you referring to the transmission you sent us, uh, thirty thousand
trillion light-kilometers behind?" asks Amber.

The lobster bobs up and down on its legs. "True. We send."

"We cannot integrate that network," Amber replies blandly, and Pierre forces
himself to keep a straight face. (Not that the lobsters can read human body
language yet, but they'll undoubtedly be recording everything that happens here
for future analysis.) "They come from a radically different species. Our goal
in coming here is to connect our species to the network. We wish to exchange
advantageous information with many other species."

Concern, alarm, agitation. "You cannot do that! You are not /{untranslatable
entity signifier}/."

Amber raises a hand. "You said /{untranslatable entity signifier}/. I did not
understand that. Can you paraphrase?"

"We, like you, are not /{untranslatable entity signifier}/. The network is for
/{untranslatable entity signifier}/. We are to the /{untranslatable concept
#1}/ as a single-celled organism is to ourselves. You and we cannot
/{untranslatable concept #2}/. To attempt trade with /{untranslatable entity
signifier}/ is to invite death or transition to /{untranslatable concept #1}/."

Amber snaps her fingers: time freezes. She glances round at Su Ang, Pierre, the
other members of her primary team. "Opinions, anyone?"

Aineko, hitherto invisible, sits up on the carpet at the foot of the dais. "I'm
not sure. The reason those macros are tagged is that there's something wrong
with their semantics."

"Wrong with - how?" asks Su Ang.

The cat grins, cavernously, and begins to fade. "Wait!" snaps Amber.

Aineko continues her fade, but leaves a shimmering presence behind: not a grin,
but a neural network weighting map, three-dimensional and incomprehensibly
complicated. "The /{untranslatable entity concept #1}/ when mapped onto the
lobster's grammar network has elements of 'god' overloaded with attributes of
mysticism and zenlike incomprehensibility. But I'm pretty sure that what it
/{really}/ means is 'optimized conscious upload that runs much faster than
real-time'. A type-one weakly superhuman entity, like, um, the folks back home.
The implication is that this Wunch wants us to view them as gods." The cat
fades back in. "Any takers?"

"Small-town hustlers," mutters Amber. "Talking big - or using a dodgy
metagrammar that makes them sound bigger than they are - to bilk the hayseeds
new to the big city."

"Most likely." Aineko turns and begins to wash her flank.

"What are we going to do?" asks Su Ang.

"Do?" Amber raises a pencil-lined eyebrow, then flashes a grin that chops a
decade off her apparent age: "We're going to mess with their heads!" She snaps
her fingers again and time unfreezes. There's no change in continuity except
that Aineko is still present, at the foot of the throne. The cat looks up and
gives the queen a dirty look. "We understand your concern," Amber says
smoothly, "but we have already given you the physiology models and neural
architecture of the bodies that you are wearing. We want to communicate. Why
won't you show us your real selves or your real language?"

"This is trade language!" protests Lobster Number One. "Wunch am/are
metabolically variable coalition from number of worlds. No uniformity of
interface. Easiest to conform to one plan and speak one tongue optimized for
your comprehension."

"Hmm." Amber leans forward. "Let me see if I understand you. You are a
coalition of individuals from a number of species. You prefer to use the common
user interface model we sent you, and offered us the language module you're
using for an exchange? And you want to trade with us."

"Exchange interest," the Wunch emphasizes, bouncing up and down on its legs.
"Can offer much! Sense of identity of a thousand civilizations. Safe tunnels to
a hundred archives on the net suitable for beings who are not /{untranslatable
entity signifier}/. Able to control risks of communication. Have technique of
manipulating matter at molecular level. Solution to algorithmic iterated
systems based on quantum entanglement."

"/{Old-fashioned nanotechnology and shiny beads to dazzle the primitives}/,"
Pierre mutters on Amber's multicast channel. "/{How backward do they think we
are}/?"

% note italics marked differently should have been "H/{ow backward do they
think we are}/?"

"/{The physics model in here is really overdone}/," comments Boris. "/{They may
even think this is real, that we're primitives coat-tailing it on the back of
the lobsters' efforts}/."

Amber forces a smile. "That is most interesting!" she trills at the Wunch's
representatives. "I have appointed two representatives who will negotiate with
you; this is an internal contest within my own court. I commend to you Pierre
Naqet, my own commercial representative. In addition, you may want to deal with
Alan Glashwiecz, an independent factor who is not currently present. Others may
come forward in due course if that is acceptable."

"It pleases us," says Lobster Number One. "We are tired and disoriented by the
long journey through gateways to this place. Request resumption of negotiations
later?"

"By all means." Amber nods. A sergeant-at-arms, a mindless but impressive
zimboe controlled by her spider's nest of personality threads, blows a sharp
note on his trumpet. The first audience is at an end.

* * *

_1 Outside the light cone of the /{Field Circus}/, on the other side of the
spacelike separation between Amber's little kingdom in motion and the depths of
empire time that grip the solar system's entangled quantum networks, a singular
new reality is taking shape.

_1 Welcome to the moment of maximum change.

_1 About ten billion humans are alive in the solar system, each mind surrounded
by an exocortex of distributed agents, threads of personality spun right out of
their heads to run on the clouds of utility fog - infinitely flexible computing
resources as thin as aerogel - in which they live. The foggy depths are alive
with high-bandwidth sparkles; most of Earth's biosphere has been wrapped in
cotton wool and preserved for future examination. For every living human, a
thousand million software agents carry information into the farthest corners of
the consciousness address space.

_1 The sun, for so long an unremarkable mildly variable G2 dwarf, has vanished
within a gray cloud that englobes it except for a narrow belt around the plane
of the ecliptic. Sunlight falls, unchanged, on the inner planets: Except for
Mercury, which is no longer present, having been dismantled completely and
turned into solar-powered high-temperature nanocomputers. A much fiercer light
falls on Venus, now surrounded by glittering ferns of carbon crystals that pump
angular momentum into the barely spinning planet via huge superconducting loops
wound around its equator. This planet, too, is due to be dismantled. Jupiter,
Neptune, Uranus - all sprout rings as impressive as Saturn's. But the task of
cannibalizing the gas giants will take many times longer than the small rocky
bodies of the inner system.

_1 The ten billion inhabitants of this radically changed star system remember
being human; almost half of them predate the millennium. Some of them still
/{are}/ human, untouched by the drive of meta-evolution that has replaced blind
Darwinian change with a goal-directed teleological progress. They cower in
gated communities and hill forts, mumbling prayers and cursing the ungodly
meddlers with the natural order of things. But eight out of every ten living
humans are included in the phase-change. It's the most inclusive revolution in
the human condition since the discovery of speech.

_1 A million outbreaks of gray goo - runaway nanoreplicator excursions -
threaten to raise the temperature of the biosphere dramatically. They're all
contained by the planetary-scale immune system fashioned from what was once the
World Health Organization. Weirder catastrophes threaten the boson factories in
the Oort cloud. Antimatter factories hover over the solar poles. Sol system
shows all the symptoms of a runaway intelligence excursion, exuberant blemishes
as normal for a technological civilization as skin problems on a human
adolescent.

_1 The economic map of the planet has changed beyond recognition. Both
capitalism and communism, bickering ideological children of a protoindustrial
outlook, are as obsolete as the divine right of kings: Companies are alive, and
dead people may live again, too. Globalism and tribalism have run to
completion, diverging respectively into homogeneous interoperability and the
Schwarzschild radius of insularity. Beings that remember being human plan the
deconstruction of Jupiter, the creation of a great simulation space that will
expand the habitat available within the solar system. By converting all the
nonstellar mass of the solar system into processors, they can accommodate as
many human-equivalent minds as a civilization with a planet hosting ten billion
humans in orbit around every star in the galaxy.

_1 A more mature version of Amber lives down in the surging chaos of
near-Jupiter space; there's an instance of Pierre, too, although he has
relocated light-hours away, near Neptune. Whether she still sometimes thinks of
her relativistic twin, nobody can tell. In a way, it doesn't matter, because by
the time the /{Field Circus}/ returns to Jupiter orbit, as much subjective time
will have elapsed for the fast-thinkers back home as will flash by in the real
universe between this moment and the end of the era of star formation, many
billions of years hence.

* * *

"As your theologian, I am telling you that they are not gods."

Amber nods patiently. She watches Sadeq closely.

Sadeq coughs grumpily. "Tell her, Boris."

Boris tilts his chair back and turns it toward the Queen. "He is right, Amber.
They are traders, and not clever ones either. Is hard to get handle on their
semiotics while they hide behind the lobster model we uploaded in their
direction twenty years ago, but are certainly not crusties, and are definite
not human either. Or transhuman. My guess, they are bunch of dumb hicks who get
hands on toys left behind by much smarter guys. Like the rejectionist factions
back home. Imagine they are waking up one morning and find everyone else is
gone to the great upload environment in the sky. Leaving them with the planet
to themselves. What you think they do with whole world, with any gadgets they
trip over? Some will smash everything they come across, but others not so
stupid. But they think /{small}/. Scavengers, deconstructionists. Their whole
economic outlook are negative-sum game. Go visit aliens to rip them off, take
ideas, not expand selves and transcend."

Amber stands up, walks toward the windows at the front of the bridge. In black
jeans and chunky sweater, she barely resembles the feudal queen whose role she
plays for tourists. "Taking them on board was a big risk. I'm not happy about
it."

"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Sadeq smiles crookedly. "We
have an answer. But they may not even realize they are dancing with us. These
are not the gods you were afraid of finding."

"No." Amber sighs. "Not too different from us, though. I mean, we aren't
exactly well adapted to this environment, are we? We tote these body-images
along, rely on fake realities that we can map into our human-style senses.
We're emulations, not native AIs. Where's Su Ang?"

"I can find her." Boris frowns.

"I asked her to analyse the alien's arrival times," Amber adds as an
afterthought. "They're close - too close. And they showed up too damn fast when
we first tickled the router. I think Aineko's theories are flawed. The /{real}/
owners of this network we've plugged into probably use much higher-level
protocols to communicate; sapient packets to build effective communications
gateways. This Wunch, they probably lurk in wait for newbies to exploit.
Pedophiles hiding outside the school gate. I don't want to give them that
opportunity before we make contact with the real thing!"

"You may have little choice," says Sadeq. "If they are without insight, as you
suspect, they may become afraid if you edit their environment. They may lash
out. I doubt they even understand how they created the contaminated metagrammar
that they transmitted back to us. It will be to them just a tool that makes
simpleminded aliens more gullible, easier to negotiate with. Who knows where
they got it?"

"A grammatical weapon." Boris spins himself round slowly. "Build propaganda
into your translation software if you want to establish a favorable trading
relationship. How cute. Haven't these guys ever heard of Newspeak?"

"Probably not," Amber says slowly, pausing for a moment to spawn spectator
threads to run down the book and all three movie versions of Nineteen
Eighty-Four, followed by the sharecropped series of sequel novels. She shivers
uncomfortably as she re-integrates the memories. "Ick. That's not a very nice
vision. Reminds me of" - she snaps her fingers, trying to remember Dad's
favorite - "Dilbert."

"Friendly fascism," says Sadeq. "It matters not, whosoever is in charge. I
could tell you tales from my parents, of growing up with a revolution. To never
harbor self-doubt is poison for the soul, and these aliens want to inflict
their certainties upon us."

"I think we ought to see how Pierre is doing," Amber says aloud. "I certainly
don't want them poisoning him." Grin: "That's /{my job}/."

* * *

Donna the Journalist is everywhere simultaneously. It's a handy talent: Makes
for even-handed news coverage when you can interview both sides at the same
time.

Right now, one of her is in the bar with Alan Glashwiecz, who evidently hasn't
realized that he can modulate his ethanol dehydrogenase levels voluntarily and
who is consequently well on the way to getting steaming drunk. Donna is
assisting the process: She finds it fascinating to watch this bitter young man
who has lost his youth to a runaway self-enhancement process.

"I'm a full partner," he says bitterly, "in Glashwiecz and Selves. I'm one of
the Selves. We're all partners, but it's only Glashwiecz Prime who has any
clout. The old bastard - if I'd known I'd grow up to become /{that}/, I'd have
run away to join some hippie antiglobalist commune instead." He drains his
glass, demonstrating his oropharyngeal integrity, snaps his fingers for a
refill. "I just woke up one morning to find I'd been resurrected by my older
self. He said he valued my youthful energy and optimistic outlook, then offered
me a minority stake with stock options that would take five years to vest. The
bastard."

"Tell me about it," Donna coaxes sympathetically. "Here we are, stranded among
idiopathic types, not among them a single multiplex -"

"Damn straight." Another bottle of Bud appears in Glashwiecz'a hands. "One
moment I'm standing in this apartment in Paris facing total humiliation by a
cross-dressing commie asshole called Macx and his slimy French manager bitch,
and the next I'm on the carpet in front of my alter ego's desk and he's
offering me a job as junior partner. It's seventeen years later, all the weird
nonsense that guy Macx was getting up to is standard business practice, and
there's six of me in the outer office taking research notes because
myself-as-senior-partner doesn't trust anyone else to work with him. It's
humiliating, that's what it is."

"Which is why you're here." Donna waits while he takes a deep swig from the
bottle.

"Yeah. Better than working for myself, I can tell you - it's not like being
self-employed. You know how you sometimes get distant from your work? It's
really bad when you see yourself from the outside with another half gigasecond
of experience and the new-you isn't just distant from the client base, he's
distant from the you-you. So I went back to college and crammed up on
artificial intelligence law and ethics, the jurisprudence of uploading, and
recursive tort. Then I volunteered to come out here. He's still handling
/{her}/ account, and I figured -" Glashwiecz shrugged.

"Did any of the delta-yous contest the arrangement?" asks Donna, spawning
ghosts to focus in on him from all angles. For a moment, she wonders if this is
wise. Glashwiecz is dangerous - the power he wields over Amber's mother, to
twist her arm into extending his power of attorney, hints at dark secrets.
Maybe there's more to her persistent lawsuits than a simple family feud?

Glashwiecz's face is a study in perspectives. "Oh, one did," he says
dismissively: One of Donna's viewports captures the contemptuous twitch in his
cheek. "I left her in my apartment freezer. Figured it'd be a while before
anybody noticed. It's not murder - I'm still here, right? - and I'm not about
to claim tort against myself. I think. It'd be a left-recursive lawsuit,
anyway, if I did it to myself."

"The aliens," prompts Donna, "and the trial by combat. What's your take on
that?"

Glashwiecz sneers. "Little bitch-queen takes after her father, doesn't she?
He's a bastard, too. The competitive selection filter she's imposed is evil -
it'll cripple her society if she leaves it in place for too long, but in the
short run, it's a major advantage. So she wants me to trade for my life, and I
don't get to lay my formal claim against her unless I can outperform her pet
day trader, that punk from Marseilles. Yes? What he doesn't know is, I've got
an edge. Full disclosure." He lifts his bottle drunkenly. "Y'see, I know that
/{cat}/. One that's gotta brown @-sign on its side, right? It used to belong to
queenie-darling's old man, Manfred, the bastard. You'll see. Her Mom, Pamela,
Manfred's ex, she's my client in this case. And she gave me the cat's ackle
keys. Access control." (Hic.) "Get ahold of its brains and grab that damn
translation layer it stole from the CETI@home mob. /{Then}/ I can talk to them
straight."

The drunken, future-shocked lawyer is on a roll. "I'll get their shit, and I'll
disassemble it. Disassembly is the future of industry, y'know?"

"Disassembly?" asks the reporter, watching him in disgusted fascination from
behind her mask of objectivity.

"Hell, yeah. There's a singularity going on, that implies disequilibrium. An'
wherever there's a disequilibrium, someone is going to get /{rich}/
disassembling the leftovers. Listen, I once knew this econo-economist, that's
what he was. Worked for the Eurofeds, rubber fetishist. He tole me about this
fact'ry near Barcelona. It had a disassembly line running in it. Spensive
servers in boxes'd roll in at one end. Be unpacked. Then workers'd take the
cases off, strip the disk drives, memory, processors, bits'n'guts out. Bag and
tag job. Throw the box, what's left, 'cause it wasn't worth dick. Thing is, the
manufact'rer charged so much for parts, it was worth their while to buy whole
machines'n'strip them. To bits. And sell the bits. Hell, they got an enterprise
award for ingenuity! All 'cause they knew that /{disassembly}/ was the wave of
the future."

"What happened to the factory?" asks Donna, unable to tear her eyes away.

Glashwiecz waves an empty bottle at the starbow that stretches across the
ceiling: "Ah, who gives a fuck? They closedown round about" (hic) "ten years
'go. Moore's Law topped out, killed the market. But disassembly - production
line cannibalism - it'sa way to go. Take old assets an' bring new life to them.
A fully 'preciated fortune." He grins, eyes unfocussed with greed. "'S'what I'm
gonna do to those space lobsters. Learn to talk their language an'll never know
what hit 'em."

* * *

The tiny starship drifts in high orbit above a turbid brown soup of atmosphere.
Deep in the gravity well of Hyundai ^{+4904}^/,{-56},, it's a speck of dust
trapped between two light sources: the brilliant sapphire stare of Amber's
propulsion lasers in Jovian orbit, and the emerald insanity of the router
itself, a hypertoroid spun from strange matter.

The bridge of the /{Field Circus}/ is in constant use at this time, a meeting
ground for minds with access to the restricted areas. Pierre is spending more
and more time here, finding it a convenient place to focus his trading campaign
and arbitrage macros. At the same time that Donna is picking the multiplexed
lawyer's strategy apart, Pierre is present in neomorphic form - a quicksilver
outline of humanity, six-armed and two-headed, scanning with inhuman speed
through tensor maps of the information traffic density surrounding the router's
clump of naked singularities.

There's a flicker in the emptiness at the rear of the bridge, then Su Ang has
always been there. She watches Pierre in contemplative silence for a minute.
"Do you have a moment?"

Pierre superimposes himself: One shadowy ghost keeps focused on the front
panel, but another instance turns round, crosses his arms, waits for her to
speak.

"I know you're busy -" she begins, then stops. "Is it /{that}/ important?" she
asks.

"It is." Pierre blurs, resynchronizing his instances. "The router - there are
four wormholes leading off from it, did you know that? Each of them is
radiating at about 1011 Kelvins, and every wavelength is carrying data
connections, multiplexed, with a protocol stack that's at least eleven layers
deep but maybe more - they show signs of self-similarity in the framing
headers. You know how much data that is? It's about 1012 times as much as our
high-bandwidth uplink from home. But compared to what's on the other side of
the 'holes -" he shakes his head.

"It's big?"

"It's unimaginably big! These wormholes, they're a /{low-bandwidth}/ link
compared to the minds they're hooking up to." He blurs in front of her, unable
to stay still and unable to look away from the front panel. Excitement or
agitation? Su Ang can't tell. With Pierre, sometimes the two states are
indistinguishable. He gets emotional easily. "I think we have the outline of
the answer to the Fermi paradox. Transcendents don't go traveling because they
can't get enough bandwidth - trying to migrate through one of these wormholes
would be like trying to download your mind into a fruit fly, if they are what I
think they are - and the slower-than-light route is out, too, because they
couldn't take enough computronium along. Unless -"

He's off again. But before he can blur out, Su Ang steps across and lays hands
on him. "Pierre. Calm down. Disengage. Empty yourself."

"I can't!" He really /{is}/ agitated, she sees. "I've got to figure out the
best trading strategy to get Amber off the hook with that lawsuit, then tell
her to get us out of here; being this close to the router is seriously
dangerous! The Wunch are the least of it."

"Stop."

He pauses his multiplicity of presences, converges on a single identity focused
on the here and now. "Yes?"

"That's better." She walks round him, slowly. "You've got to learn to deal with
stress more appropriately."

"Stress!" Pierre snorts. He shrugs, an impressive gesture with three sets of
shoulder blades. "That's something I can turn off whenever I need to. Side
effect of this existence; we're pigs in cyberspace, wallowing in fleshy
simulations, but unable to experience the new environment in the raw. What did
you want from me, Ang? Honestly? I'm a busy man, I've got a trading network to
set up."

"We've got a problem with the Wunch right now, even if you think something
worse is out there," Ang says patiently. "Boris thinks they're parasites,
negative-sum gamers who stalk newbies like us. Glashwiecz is apparently talking
about cutting a deal with them. Amber's suggestion is that you ignore them
completely, cut them out, and talk to anyone else who'll listen."

"Anyone else who'll listen, right," Pierre says heavily. "Any other gems of
wisdom to pass on from the throne?"

Ang takes a deep breath. He's infuriating, she realizes. And worst of all, he
doesn't realize. Infuriating but cute. "You're setting up a trading network,
yes?" she asks.

"Yes. A standard network of independent companies, instantiated as cellular
automata within the Ring Imperium switched legal service environment." He
relaxes slightly. "Each one has access to a compartmentalized chunk of
intellectual property and can call on the corrected parser we got from that
cat. They're set up to communicate with a blackboard system - a souk - and I'm
bringing up a link to the router, a multicast link that'll broadcast the souk's
existence to anyone who's listening. Trade ..." his eyebrows furrow. "There are
at least two different currency standards in this network, used to buy
quality-of-service precedence and bandwidth. They depreciate with distance, as
if the whole concept of money was invented to promote the development of
long-range network links. If I can get in first, when Glashwiecz tries to cut
in on the dealing by offering IP at discounted rates -"

"He's not going to, Pierre," she says as gently as possible. "Listen to what I
said: Glashwiecz is going to focus on the Wunch. He's going to offer them a
deal. Amber wants you to /{ignore}/ them. Got that?"

"Got it." There's a hollow /{bong!}/ from one of the communication bells. "Hey,
that's interesting."

"What is?" She stretches, neck extending snakelike so that she can see the
window on underlying reality that's flickered into existence in the air before
him.

"An ack from ..." he pauses, then plucks a neatly reified concept from the
screen in front of him and presents it to her in a silvery caul of light. "...
about two hundred light-years away! Someone wants to talk." He smiles. Then the
front panel workstation bong's again. "Hey again. I wonder what that says."

It's the work of a moment to pipe the second message through the translator.
Oddly, it doesn't translate at first. Pierre has to correct for some weird
destructive interference in the fake lobster network before it'll spill its
guts. "That's interesting," he says.

"I'll say." Ang lets her neck collapse back to normal. "I'd better go tell
Amber."

"You do that," Pierre says worriedly. He makes eye contact with her, but what
she's hoping to see in his face just isn't there. He's wearing his emotions
entirely on the surface. "I'm not surprised their translator didn't want to
pass that message along."

"It's a deliberately corrupted grammar," Ang murmurs, and bangs out in the
direction of Amber's audience chamber; "and they're actually making threats."
The Wunch, it seems, have acquired a /{very}/ bad reputation somewhere along
the line - and Amber needs to know.

* * *

Glashwiecz leans toward Lobster Number One, stomach churning. It's only a
real-time kilosecond since his bar-room interview, but in the intervening
subjective time, he's abolished a hangover, honed his brief, and decided to
act. In the Tuileries. "You've been lied to," he confides quietly, trusting the
privacy ackles that he browbeat Amber's mother into giving him - access lists
that give him a degree of control over the regime within this virtual universe
that the cat dragged in.

"Lied? Context rendered horizontal in past, or subjected to grammatical
corruption? Linguistic evil?"

"The latter." Glashwiecz enjoys this, even though it forces him to get rather
closer to the two-meter-long virtual crustacean than he'd like. Showing a mark
how they've been scammed is always good, especially when you hold the keys to
the door of the cage they're locked inside. "They are not telling you the truth
about this system."

"We received assurances," Lobster Number One says clearly. Its mouthparts move
ceaselessly - the noise comes from somewhere inside its head. "You do not share
this phenotype. Why?"

"That information will cost you," says Glashwiecz. "I am willing to provide it
on credit."

They haggle briefly. An exchange rate in questions is agreed, as is a trust
metric to grade the answers by. "Disclose all," insists the Wunch negotiator.

"There are multiple sentient species on the world we come from," says the
lawyer. "The form you wear belongs to only one - one that wanted to get away
from the form /{I}/ wear, the original conscious tool-creating species. Some of
the species today are artificial, but all of us trade information for
self-advantage."

"This is good to know," the lobster assures him. "We like to buy species."

"You buy species?" Glashwiecz cocks his head.

"We have the unbearable yearning to be not-what-we-are," says the lobster.
"Novelty, surprise! Flesh rots and wood decays. We seek the new being-ness of
aliens. Give us your somatotype, give us all your thoughts, and we will dream
you over."

"I think something might be arranged," Glashwiecz concedes. "So you want to be
- no, to lease the rights to temporarily be human? Why is that?"

"Untranslatable concept #3 means untranslatable concept #4. God told us to."

"Okay, I think I'll just have to take that on trust for now. What is your true
form?" he asks.

"Wait and I show you," says the lobster. It begins to shudder.

"What are you doing -"

"Wait." The lobster twitches, writhing slightly, like a portly businessman
adjusting his underwear after a heavy business lunch. Disturbing shapes move,
barely visible through the thick chitinous armor. "We want your help," the
lobster explains, voice curiously muffled. "Want to establish direct trade
links. Physical emissaries, yes?"

"Yes, that's very good," Glashwiecz agrees excitedly: It's exactly what he's
hoped for, the sought-after competitive advantage that will prove his fitness
in Amber's designated trial by corporate combat. "You're going to deal with us
directly without using that shell interface?"

"Agreed." The lobster trails off into muffled silence; little crunching noises
trickle out of its carapace. Then Glashwiecz hears footsteps behind him on the
gravel path.

"What are you doing here?" he demands, looking round. It's Pierre, back in
standard human form - a sword hangs from his belt, and there's a big wheel-lock
pistol in his hands. "Hey!"

"Step away from the alien, lawyer," Pierre warns, raising the gun.

Glashwiecz glances back at Lobster Number One. It's pulled its front inside the
protective shell, and it's writhing now, rocking from side to side alarmingly.
Something inside the shell is turning black, acquiring depth and texture. "I
stand on counsel's privilege," Glashwiecz insists. "Speaking as this alien's
attorney, I must protest in the strongest terms -"

Without warning, the lobster lurches forward and rises up on its rear legs. It
reaches out with huge claws, chellipeds coated with spiny hairs, and grabs
Glashwiecz by his arms. "Hey!"

Glashwiecz tries to turn away, but the lobster is already looming over him,
maxillipeds and maxillae reaching out from its head. There's a sickening crunch
as one of his elbow joints crumbles, humerus shattered by the closing jaws of a
chelliped. He draws breath to scream, then the four small maxillae grip his
head and draw it down toward the churning mandibles.

Pierre scurries sideways, trying to find a line of fire on the lobster that
doesn't pass through the lawyer's body. The lobster isn't cooperating. It turns
on the spot, clutching Glashwiecz's convulsing body to itself. There's a stench
of shit, and blood is squirting from its mouthparts. Something is very wrong
with the biophysics model here, the realism turned up way higher than normal.

"Merde," whispers Pierre. He fumbles with the bulky trigger, and there's a
faint whirring sound but no explosion.

More wet crunching sounds follow as the lobster demolishes the lawyer's face
and swallows convulsively, sucking his head and shoulders all the way into its
gastric mill.

Pierre glances at the heavy handgun. "/{Shit}/!" he screams. He glances back at
the lobster, then turns and runs for the nearest wall. There are other lobsters
loose in the formal garden. "/{Amber, emergency!}/" he sends over their private
channel. "/{Hostiles in the Louvre!}/"

The lobster that's taken Glashwiecz hunkers down over the body and quivers.
Pierre desperately winds the spring on his gun, too rattled to check that it's
loaded. He glances back at the alien intruder. /{They've sprung the biophysics
model}/, he sends. /{I could die in here}/, he realizes, momentarily shocked.
/{This instance of me could die forever}/.

The lobster shell sitting in the pool of blood and human wreckage splits in
two. A humanoid form begins to uncurl from within it, pale-skinned and
glistening wet: vacant blue eyes flicker from side to side as it stretches and
stands upright, wobbling uncertainty on its two unstable legs. Its mouth opens
and a strange gobbling hiss comes forth.

Pierre recognizes her. "What are you doing here?" he yells.

The nude woman turns toward him. She's the spitting image of Amber's mother,
except for the chellipeds she has in place of hands. She hisses "/{Equity!}/"
and takes a wobbly step toward him, pincers clacking.

Pierre winds the firing handle again. There's a crash of gunpowder and smoke, a
blow that nearly sprains his elbow, and the nude woman's chest erupts in a
spray of blood. She snarls at him wordlessly and staggers - then ragged flaps
of bloody meat close together, knitting shut with improbable speed. She resumes
her advance.

"I told Amber the Matrix would be more defensible," Pierre snarls, dropping the
firearm and drawing his sword as the alien turns in his direction and raises
arms that end in pincers. "We need guns, damit! Lots of guns!"

"Waaant equity," hisses the alien intruder.

"You /{can't}/ be Pamela Macx," says Pierre, his back to the wall, keeping the
sword point before the lobster-woman-thing. "She's in a nunnery in Armenia or
something. You pulled that out of Glashwiecz's memories - he worked for her,
didn't he?"

Claws go snicker-snack before his face. "Investment partnership!" screeches the
harridan. "Seat on the board! Eat brains for breakfast!" It lurches sideways,
trying to get past his guard.

"I don't fucking /{believe}/ this," Pierre snarls. The Wunch-creature jumps at
just the wrong moment and slides onto the point of his blade, claws clacking
hungrily. Pierre slides away, nearly leaving his skin on the rough bricks of
the wall - and what's good for one is good for all, as the hacked model in
force in this reality compels the attacker to groan and collapse.

Pierre pulls the sword out then, nervously glancing over his shoulder, whacks
at her neck. The impact jars his arm, but he keeps hacking until there's blood
spraying everywhere, blood on his shirt, blood on his sword, and a round thing
sitting on a stump of savaged neck nearby, jaw working soundlessly in undeath.

He looks at it for a moment, then his stomach rebels and tries to empty itself
into the mess. "/{Where the hell is everybody}/?" he broadcasts on the private
channel. "/{Hostiles in the Louvre!}/"

He straightens up, gasping for breath. He feels /{alive}/, frightened and
appalled and exhilarated simultaneously. The crackle of bursting shells on all
sides drowns out the birdsong as the Wunch's emissaries adopt a variety of new
and supposedly more lethal forms. "/{They don't seem to be very clear on how to
take over a simulation space}/," he adds. "/{Maybe we already are}/
untranslatable concept number #1 as far as they're concerned."

"/{Don't worry, I've cut off the incoming connection}/," sends Su Ang. "/{This
is just a bridgehead force; the invasion packets are}/ being filtered out."

Blank-eyed men and women in dusty black uniforms are hatching from the lobster
shells, stumbling and running around the grounds of the royal palace like
confused Huguenot invaders.

Boris winks into reality behind Pierre. "Which way?" he demands, pulling out an
anachronistic but lethal katana.

"Over here. Let's work this together." Pierre jacks his emotional damper up to
a dangerously high setting, suppressing natural aversion reflexes and
temporarily turning himself into a sociopathic killer. He stalks toward an
infant lobster-thing with big black eyes and a covering of white hair that
mewls at him from a rose bed, and Boris looks away while he kills it. Then one
of the larger ones makes the mistake of lunging at Boris, and he chops at it
reflexively.

Some of the Wunch try to fight back when Pierre and Boris try to kill them, but
they're handicapped by their anatomy, a curious mixture of crustacean and
human, claw and mandible against sword and dagger. When they bleed the ground
soaks with the cuprous hue of lobster juice.

"Let's fork," suggests Boris. "Get this over with." Pierre nods, dully -
everything around him is wrapped in a layer of don't-care, except for a glowing
dot of artificial hatred - and they fork, multiplying their state vectors to
take full advantage of the virtualization facilities of this universe. There's
no need for reinforcements; the Wunch focused on attacking the biophysics model
of the universe, making it mimic a physical reality as closely as possible, and
paid no attention to learning the more intricate tactics that war in a virtual
space permits.

Presently Pierre finds himself in the audience chamber, face and hands and
clothing caked in hideous gore, leaning on the back of Amber's throne. There's
only one of him now. One of Boris - the only one? - is standing near the
doorway. He can barely remember what has happened, the horrors of parallel
instances of mass murder blocked from his long-term memory by a high-pass
trauma filter. "It looks clear," he calls aloud. "What shall we do now?"

"Wait for Catherine de Médicis to show up," says the cat, its grin
materializing before him like a numinous threat. "Amber /{always}/ finds a way
to blame her mother. Or didn't you already know that?"

Pierre glances at the bloody mess on the footpath outside where the first
lobster-woman attacked Glashwiecz. "I already did for her, I think." He
remembers the action in the third person, all subjectivity edited out. "The
family resemblance was striking," the thread that still remembers her in
working memory murmurs: "I just hope it's only skin-deep." Then he forgets the
act of apparent murder forever. "Tell the Queen I'm ready to talk."

* * *