Sirhan stands on the edge of an abyss, looking down at a churning orange-and-gray cloudscape far below. The air this close to the edge is chilly and smells slightly of ammonia, although that might be his imagination at work - there's little chance of any gas exchange taking place across the transparent pressure wall of the flying city. He feels as if he could reach out and touch the swirling vaporscape. There's nobody else around, this close to the edge - it's an icy sensation to look out across the roiling depths, at an ocean of gas so cold human flesh would freeze within seconds of exposure, knowing that there's nothing solid out there for tens of thousands of kilometers. The sense of isolation is aggravated by the paucity of bandwidth, this far out of the system. Most people huddle close to the hub, for comfort and warmth and low latency: posthumans are gregarious.
Beneath Sirhan's feet, the lily-pad city is extending itself, mumbling and churning in endless self-similar loops like a cubist blastoma growing in the upper atmosphere of Saturn. Great ducts suck in methane and other atmospheric gases, apply energy, polymerize and diamondize, and crack off hydrogen to fill the lift cells high above. Beyond the sapphire dome of the city's gasbag, an azure star glares with the speckle of laser light; humanity's first - and so far, last - starship, braking into orbit on the last shredded remnant of its light sail.
He's wondering maliciously how his mother will react to discovering her bankruptcy when the light above him flickers. Something gray and unpleasant splatters against the curve of nearly invisible wall in front of him, leaving a smear. He takes a step back and looks up angrily. “Fuck you!” he yells. Raucous cooing laughter follows him away from the boundary, feral pigeon voices mocking. “I mean it,” he warns, flicking a gesture at the air above his head. Wings scatter in a burst of thunder as a slab of wind solidifies, thistledown-shaped nanomachines suspended on the breeze locking edge to edge to form an umbrella over his head. He walks away from the perimeter, fuming, leaving the pigeons to look for another victim.
Annoyed, Sirhan finds a grassy knoll a couple of hundred meters from the rim and around the curve of the lily-pad from the museum buildings. It's far enough from other humans that he can sit undisturbed with his thoughts, far enough out to see over the edge without being toilet-bombed by flocking flying rats. (The flying city, despite being the product of an advanced technology almost unimaginable two decades before, is full of bugs - software complexity and scaling laws ensured that the preceding decades of change acted as a kind of cosmological inflationary period for design glitches, and an infestation of passenger pigeons is by no means the most inexplicable problem this biosphere harbors.)
In an attempt to shut the more unwelcome manifestations of cybernature out, he sits under the shade of an apple tree and marshals his worlds around him. “When is my grandmother arriving?” he asks one of them, speaking into an antique telephone in the world of servants, where everything is obedient and knows its place. The city humors him, for its own reasons.
“She is still containerized, but aerobraking is nearly over. Her body will be arriving down-well in less than two megaseconds.” The city's avatar in this machinima is a discreet Victorian butler, stony-faced and respectful. Sirhan eschews intrusive memory interfaces; for an eighteen-year-old, he's conservative to the point of affectation, favoring voice commands and anthropomorphic agents over the invisible splicing of virtual neural nets.
“You're certain she's transferred successfully?” Sirhan asks anxiously. He heard a lot about his grandmama when he was young, very little of it complimentary. Nevertheless, the old bat must be a lot more flexible than his mother ever gave her credit for, to be subjecting herself to this kind of treatment for the first time at her current age.
“I'm as certain as I can be, young master, for anyone who insists on sticking to their original phenotype without benefit of off-line backup or medical implants. I regret that omniscience is not within my remit. Would you like me to make further specific inquiries?”
“No.” Sirhan peers up at the bright flare of laser light, visible even through the soap-bubble membrane that holds in the breathable gas mix, and the trillions of liters of hot hydrogen in the canopy above it. “As long as you're sure she'll arrive before the ship?” Tuning his eyes to ultraviolet, he watches the emission spikes, sees the slow strobing of the low-bandwidth AM modulation that's all the starship can manage by way of downlink communication until it comes within range of the system manifold. It's sending the same tiresomely repetitive question about why it's being redirected to Saturn that it's been putting out for the past week, querying the refusal to supply terawatts of propulsion energy on credit.
“Unless there's a spike in their power beam, you can be certain of that,” City replies reassuringly. “And you can be certain also that your grandmother will revive comfortably.”
“One may hope so.” To undertake the interplanetary voyage in corporeal person, at her age, without any upgrades or augmentation, must take courage, he decides. “When she wakes up, if I'm not around, ask her for an interview slot on my behalf. For the archives, of course.”
“It will be my pleasure.” City bobs his head politely.
“That will be all,” Sirhan says dismissively, and the window into servantspace closes. Then he looks back up at the pinprick of glaring blue laser light near the zenith. Tough luck, Mom, he subvocalizes for his journal cache. Most of his attention is forked at present, focused on the rich historical windfall from the depths of the singularity that is coming his way, in the form of the thirty-year-old starwisp's Cartesian theatre. But he can still spare some schadenfreude for the family fortunes. All your assets belong to me, now. He smiles, inwardly. I'll just have to make sure they're put to a sensible use this time.
* * *
“I don't see why they're diverting us toward Saturn. It's not as if they can possibly have dismantled Jupiter already, is it?” asks Pierre, rolling the chilled beer bottle thoughtfully between fingers and thumb.
“Why not you ask Amber?” replies the velociraptor squatting beside the log table. (Boris's Ukrainian accent is unimpeded by the dromaeosaurid's larynx; in point of fact, it's an affectation, one he could easily fix by sideloading an English pronunciation patch if he wanted to.)
“Well.” Pierre shakes his head. “She's spending all her time with that Slug, no multiplicity access, privacy ackles locked right down. I could get jealous.” His voice doesn't suggest any deep concern.
“What's to get jealous about? Just ask to fork instance to talk to you, make love, show boyfriend good time, whatever.”
“Hah!” Pierre chuckles grimly, then drains the last drops from the bottle into his mouth. He throws it away in the direction of a clump of cycads, then snaps his fingers; another one appears in its place.
“Are two megaseconds out from Saturn in any case,” Boris points out, then pauses to sharpen his inch-long incisors on one end of the table. Fangs crunch through timber like wet cardboard. “Grrrrn. Am seeing most peculiar emission spectra from inner solar system. Foggy flying down bottom of gravity well. Am wondering, does ensmartening of dumb matter extend past Jovian orbit now?”
“Hmm.” Pierre takes a swig from the bottle and puts it down. “That might explain the diversion. But why haven't they powered up the lasers on the Ring for us? You missed that, too.” For reasons unknown, the huge battery of launch lasers had shut down, some millions of seconds after the crew of the Field Circus had entered the router, leaving it adrift in the cold darkness.
“Don't know why are not talking.” Boris shrugged. “At least are still alive there, as can tell from the 'set course for Saturn, following thus-and-such orbital elements' bit. Someone is paying attention. Am telling you from beginning, though, turning entire solar system into computronium is real bad idea, long-term. Who knows how far has gone already?”
“Hmm, again.” Pierre draws a circle in the air. “Aineko,” he calls, “are you listening?”
“Don't bug me.” A faint green smile appears in the circle, just the suggestion of fangs and needle-sharp whiskers. “I had an idea I was sleeping furiously.”
Boris rolls one turreted eye and drools on the tabletop. “Munch munch,” he growls, allowing his saurian body-brain to put in a word.
“What do you need to sleep for? This is a fucking sim, in case you hadn't noticed.”
“I enjoy sleeping,” replies the cat, irritably lashing its just-now-becoming-visible tail. “What do you want? Fleas?”
“No thanks,” Pierre says hastily. Last time he called Aineko's bluff the cat had filled three entire pocket universes with scurrying gray mice. One of the disadvantages of flying aboard a starship the size of a baked bean can full of smart matter was the risk that some of the passengers could get rather too creative with the reality control system. This Cretaceous kaffee klatsch was just Boris's entertainment partition; compared to some of the other simulation spaces aboard the Field Circus, it was downright conservative. “Look, do you have any updates on what's going on down-well? We're only twenty objective days out from orbital insertion, and there's so little to see -”
“They're not sending us power.” Aineko materializes fully now, a large orange-and-white cat with a swirl of brown fur in the shape on an @-symbol covering her ribs. For whatever reason, she plants herself on the table tauntingly close to Boris's velociraptor body's nose. “No propulsion laser means insufficient bandwidth. They're talking in Latin-1 text at 1200 baud, if you care to know.” (Which is an insult, given the ship's multi-avabit storage capacity - one avabit is Avogadro's number of bits; about 1023 bytes, several billion times the size of the Internet in 2001 - and outrageous communications bandwidth.) “Amber says, come and see her now. Audience chamber. Informal, of course. I think she wants to discuss it.”
“Informal? Am all right without change bodies?”
The cat sniffs. “I'm wearing a real fur coat,” it declares haughtily, “but no knickers.” Then blinks out a fraction of a second ahead of the snicker- snack of Bandersnatch-like jaws.
“Come on,” says Pierre, standing up. “Time to see what Her Majesty wants with us today.”
* * *
Welcome to decade eight, third millennium, when the effects of the phase-change in the structure of the solar system are finally becoming visible on a cosmological scale.
There are about eleven billion future-shocked primates in various states of life and undeath throughout the solar system. Most of them cluster where the interpersonal bandwidth is hottest, down in the water zone around old Earth. Earth's biosphere has been in the intensive care ward for decades, weird rashes of hot-burning replicators erupting across it before the World Health Organization can fix them - gray goo, thylacines, dragons. The last great transglobal trade empire, run from the arcologies of Hong Kong, has collapsed along with capitalism, rendered obsolete by a bunch of superior deterministic resource allocation algorithms collectively known as Economics 2.0. Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Luna are all well on the way to disintegration, mass pumped into orbit with energy stolen from the haze of free-flying thermoelectrics that cluster so thickly around the solar poles that the sun resembles a fuzzy red ball of wool the size of a young red giant.
Humans are just barely intelligent tool users; Darwinian evolutionary selection stopped when language and tool use converged, leaving the average hairy meme carrier sadly deficient in smarts. Now the brightly burning beacon of sapience isn't held by humans anymore - their cross-infectious enthusiasms have spread to a myriad of other hosts, several types of which are qualitatively better at thinking. At last count, there were about a thousand nonhuman intelligent species in Sol space, split evenly between posthumans on one side, naturally self-organizing AIs in the middle, and mammalian nonhumans on the other. The common mammal neural chassis is easily upgraded to human-style intelligence in most species that can carry, feed and cool a half kilogram of gray matter, and the descendants of a hundred ethics-challenged doctoral theses are now demanding equal rights. So are the unquiet dead; the panopticon-logged Net ghosts of people who lived recently enough to imprint their identities on the information age, and the ambitious theological engineering schemes of the Reformed Tiplerite Church of Latter-day Saints (who want to emulate all possible human beings in real time, so that they can have the opportunity to be saved).
The human memesphere is coming alive, although how long it remains recognizably human is open to question. The informational density of the inner planets is visibly converging on Avogadro's number of bits per mole, one bit per atom, as the deconstructed dumb matter of the inner planets (apart from Earth, preserved for now like a picturesque historic building stranded in an industrial park) is converted into computronium. And it's not just the inner system. The same forces are at work on Jupiter's moons, and those of Saturn, although it'll take thousands of years rather than mere decades to dismantle the gas giants themselves. Even the entire solar energy budget isn't enough to pump Jupiter's enormous mass to orbital velocity in less than centuries. The fast-burning primitive thinkers descended from the African plains apes may have vanished completely or transcended their fleshy architecture before the solar Matrioshka brain is finished.
It won't be long now ...
* * *
Meanwhile, there's a party brewing down in Saturn's well.
Sirhan's lily-pad city floats inside a gigantic and nearly-invisible sphere in Saturn's upper atmosphere; a balloon kilometers across with a shell of fullerene-reinforced diamond below and a hot hydrogen gas bag above. It's one of several hundred multimegaton soap bubbles floating in the sea of turbulent hydrogen and helium that is the upper atmosphere of Saturn, seeded there by the Society for Creative Terraforming, subcontractors for the 2074 Worlds' Fair.
The cities are elegant, grown from a conceptual seed a few megawords long. Their replication rate is slow (it takes months to build a bubble), but in only a couple of decades, exponential growth will have paved the stratosphere with human-friendly terrain. Of course, the growth rate will slow toward the end, as it takes longer to fractionate the metal isotopes out of the gas giant's turbid depths, but before that happens, the first fruits of the robot factories on Ganymede will be pouring hydrocarbons down into the mix. Eventually Saturn - cloud-top gravity a human-friendly 11 meters per second squared - will have a planet wide biosphere with nearly a hundred times the surface area of Earth. And a bloody good thing indeed this will be, for otherwise, Saturn is no use to anyone except as a fusion fuel bunker for the deep future when the sun's burned down.
This particular lily-pad is carpeted in grass, the hub of the disk rising in a gentle hill surmounted by the glowering concrete hump of the Boston Museum of Science. It looks curiously naked, shorn of its backdrop of highways and the bridges of the Charles River - but even the generous kiloton dumb matter load-outs of the skyhooks that lifted it into orbit wouldn't have stretched to bringing its framing context along with it. Probably someone will knock up a cheap diorama backdrop out of utility fog, Sirhan thinks, but for now, the museum stands proud and isolated, a solitary redoubt of classical learning in exile from the fast-thinking core of the solar system.
“Waste of money,” grumbles the woman in black. “Whose stupid idea was this, anyway?” She jabs the diamond ferrule of her cane at the museum.
“It's a statement,” Sirhan says absently. “You know the kind, we've got so many newtons to burn we can send our cultural embassies wherever we like. The Louvre is on its way to Pluto, did you hear that?”
“Waste of energy.” She lowers her cane reluctantly and leans on it. Pulls a face: “It's not right.”
“You grew up during the second oil crunch, didn't you?” Sirhan prods. “What was it like then?”
“What was it ...? Oh, gas hit fifty bucks a gallon, but we still had plenty for bombers,” she says dismissively. “We knew it would be okay. If it hadn't been for those damn' meddlesome posthumanists -” Her wrinkled, unnaturally aged face scowls at him furiously from underneath hair that has faded to the color of rotten straw, but he senses a subtext of self-deprecating irony that he doesn't understand. “Like your grandfather, damn him. If I was young again I'd go and piss on his grave to show him what I think of what he did. If he has a grave,” she adds, almost fondly.
Memo checkpoint: log family history, Sirhan tells one of his ghosts. As a dedicated historian, he records every experience routinely, both before it enters his narrative of consciousness - efferent signals are the cleanest - and also his own stream of selfhood, against some future paucity of memory. But his grandmother has been remarkably consistent over the decades in her refusal to adapt to the new modalities.
“You're recording this, aren't you?” she sniffs.
“I'm not recording it, Grandmama,” he says gently, “I'm just preserving my memories for future generations.”
“Hah! We'll see,” she says suspiciously. Then she surprises him with a bark of laughter, cut off abruptly: “No, you'll see, darling. I won't be around to be disappointed.”
“Are you going to tell me about my grandfather?” asks Sirhan.
“Why should I bother? I know you posthumans, you'll just go and ask his ghost yourself. Don't try to deny it! There are two sides to every story, child, and he's had more than his fair share of ears, the sleazebag. Leaving me to bring up your mother on my own, and nothing but a bunch of worthless intellectual property and a dozen lawsuits from the Mafiya to do it with. I don't know what I ever saw in him.” Sirhan's voice-stress monitor detects a distinct hint of untruth in this assertion. “He's worthless trash, and don't you forget it. Lazy idiot couldn't even form just one start-up on his own: He had to give it all away, all the fruits of his genius.”
While she rambles on, occasionally punctuating her characterization with sharp jabs of the cane, Pamela leads Sirhan on a slow, wavering stroll that veers around one side of the museum, until they're standing next to a starkly engineered antique loading bay. “He should have tried real communism instead,” she harrumphs: “Put some steel into him, shake those starry-eyed visionary positive-sum daydreams loose. You knew where you were in the old times, and no mistake. Humans were real humans, work was real work, and corporations were just things that did as we told them. And then, when she went to the bad, that was all his fault, too, you know.”
“She? You mean my, ah, mother?” Sirhan diverts his primary sensorium back to Pamela's vengeful muttering. There are aspects to this story that he isn't completely familiar with, angles he needs to sketch in so that he can satisfy himself that all is as it should be when the bailiffs go in to repossess Amber's mind.
“He sent her our cat. Of all the mean-spirited, low, downright dishonest things he ever did, that was the worst part of it. That cat was mine, but he reprogrammed it to lead her astray. And it succeeded admirably. She was only twelve at the time, an impressionable age, I'm sure you'd agree. I was trying to raise her right. Children need moral absolutes, especially in a changing world, even if they don't like it much at the time. Self-discipline and stability, you can't function as an adult without them. I was afraid that, with all her upgrades, she'd never really get a handle on who she was, that she'd end up more machine than woman. But Manfred never really understood childhood, mostly on account of his never growing up. He always was inclined to meddle.”
“Tell me about the cat,” Sirhan says quietly. One glance at the loading bay door tells him that it's been serviced recently. A thin patina of expended foglets have formed a snowy scab around its edges, flaking off like blue refractive candyfloss that leaves bright metal behind. “Didn't it go missing or something?”
Pamela snorts. “When your mother ran away, it uploaded itself to her starwisp and deleted its body. It was the only one of them that had the guts - or maybe it was afraid I'd have it subpoenaed as a hostile witness. Or, and I can't rule this out, your grandfather gave it a suicide reflex. He was quite evil enough to do something like that, after he reprogrammed himself to think I was some kind of mortal enemy.”
“So when my mother died to avoid bankruptcy, the cat ... didn't stay behind? Not at all? How remarkable.” Sirhan doesn't bother adding how suicidal. Any artificial entity that's willing to upload its neural state vector into a one-kilogram interstellar probe three-quarters of the way to Alpha Centauri without backup or some clear way of returning home has got to be more than a few methods short in the object factory.
“It's a vengeful beast.” Pamela pokes her stick at the ground sharply, mutters a command word, and lets go of it. She stands before Sirhan, craning her neck back to look up at him. “My, what a tall boy you are.”
“Person,” he corrects, instinctively. “I'm sorry, I shouldn't presume.”
“Person, thing, boy, whatever - you're engendered, aren't you?” she asks, sharply, waiting until he nods reluctantly. “Never trust anyone who can't make up their mind whether to be a man or a woman,” she says gloomily. “You can't rely on them.” Sirhan, who has placed his reproductive system on hold until he needs it, bites his tongue. “That damn cat,” his grandmother complains. “It carried your grandfather's business plan to my daughter and spirited her away into the big black. It poisoned her against me. It encouraged her to join in that frenzy of speculative bubble-building that caused the market reboot that brought down the Ring Imperium. And now it -”
“Is it on the ship?” Sirhan asks, almost too eagerly.
“It might be.” She stares at him through narrowed eyes. “You want to interview it, too, huh?”
Sirhan doesn't bother denying it. “I'm a historian, Grandmama. And that probe has been somewhere no other human sensorium has ever seen. It may be old news, and there may be old lawsuits waiting to feed on the occupants, but ...” He shrugs. “Business is business, and my business lies in ruins.”
“Hah!” She stares at him for a moment, then nods, very slowly. She leans forward to rest both wrinkled hands atop her cane, joints like bags of shriveled walnuts: Her suit's endoskeleton creaks as it adjusts to accommodate her confidential posture. “You'll get yours, kid.” The wrinkles twist into a frightening smile, sixty years of saved-up bitterness finally within spitting distance of a victim. “And I'll get what I want, too. Between us, your mother won't know what's hit her.”
* * *
“Relax, between us your mother won't know what's hit her,” says the cat, baring needle teeth at the Queen in the big chair - carved out of a single lump of computational diamond, her fingers clenched whitely on the sapphire-plated arms - her minions, lovers, friends, crew, shareholders, bloggers, and general factional auxiliaries spaced out around her. And the Slug. “It's just another lawsuit. You can deal with it.”
“Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke,” Amber says, a trifle moodily. Although she's ruler of this embedded space, with total control over the reality model underlying it, she's allowed herself to age to a dignified twentysomething: Dressed casually in gray sweats, she doesn't look like the once-mighty ruler of a Jovian moon, or for that matter the renegade commander of a bankrupt interstellar expedition. “Okay, I think you'd better run that past me again. Unless anyone's got any suggestions?”
“If you will excuse me?” asks Sadeq. “We have a shortage of insight here. I believe two laws were cited as absolute systemwide conventions - and how they convinced the ulama to go along with that I would very much like to know - concerning the rights and responsibilities of the undead. Which, apparently, we are. Did they by any chance attach the code to their claim?”
“Do bears shit in woods?” asks Boris, raptor-irascible, with an angry clatter of teeth. “Is full dependency graph and parse tree of criminal code crawling way up carrier's ass as we speak. Am drowning in lawyer gibberish! If you -”
“Boris, can it!” Amber snaps. Tempers are high in the throne room. She didn't know what to expect when she arrived home from the expedition to the router, but bankruptcy proceedings weren't part of it. She doubts any of them expected anything like this. Especially not the bit about being declared liable for debts run up by a renegade splinter of herself, her own un-uploaded identity that had stayed home to face the music, aged in the flesh, married, gone bankrupt, died - incurred child support payments? “I don't hold you responsible for this,” she added through gritted teeth, with a significant glance toward Sadeq.
“This is truly a mess fit for the Prophet himself, peace be unto him, to serve judgment upon.” Sadeq looks as shaken as she is by the implications the lawsuit raises. His gaze skitters around the room, looking anywhere but at Amber - and Pierre, her lanky toy-boy astrogator and bed warmer - as he laces his fingers.
“Drop it. I said I don't blame you.” Amber forces a smile. “We're all tense from being locked in here with no bandwidth. Anyway, I smell Mother-dearest's hand underneath all this litigation. Sniff the glove. We'll sort a way out.”
“We could keep going.” This from Ang, at the back of the room. Diffident and shy, she doesn't generally open her mouth without a good reason. “The Field Circus is in good condition, isn't it? We could divert back to the beam from the router, accelerate up to cruise speed, and look for somewhere to live. There must be a few suitable brown dwarfs within a hundred light-years ...”
“We've lost too much sail mass,” says Pierre. He's not meeting Amber's gaze either. There are lots of subtexts loose in this room, broken narratives from stories of misguided affections. Amber pretends not to notice his embarrassment. “We ejected half our original launch sail to provide the braking mirror at Hyundai +4904/-56, and almost eight megaseconds ago, we halved our area again to give us a final deceleration beam for Saturn orbit. If we did it again, we wouldn't have enough area left to repeat the trick and still decelerate at our final target.” Laser-boosted light sails do it with mirrors; after boost, they can drop half the sail and use it to reverse the launch beam and direct it back at the ship, to provide deceleration. But you can only do it a few times before you run out of sail. “There's nowhere to run.”
“Nowhere to -” Amber stares at him through narrowed eyes. “Sometimes I really wonder about you, you know?”
“I know you do.” And Pierre really does know, because he carries a little homunculoid around in his society of mind, a model of Amber far more accurate and detailed than any pre-upload human could possibly have managed to construct of a lover. (For her part, Amber keeps a little Pierre doll tucked away inside the creepy cobwebs of her head, part of an exchange of insights they took part in years ago. But she doesn't try to fit inside his head too often anymore - it's not good to be able to second-guess your lover every time.) “I also know that you're going to rush in and grab the bull by the, ah, no. Wrong metaphor. This is your mother we are discussing?”
“My mother.” Amber nods thoughtfully. “Where's Donna?”
“I don't -”
There's a throaty roar from the back, and Boris lurches forward with something in his mouth, an angry Bolex that flails his snout with its tripod legs. “Hiding in corners again?” Amber says disdainfully.
“I am a camera!” protests the camera, aggrieved and self-conscious as it picks itself up off the floor. “I am -”
Pierre leans close, sticks his face up against the fish-eye lens: “You're fucking well going to be a human being just this once. Merde!”
The camera is replaced by a very annoyed blond woman wearing a safari suit and more light meters, lenses, camera bags, and microphones than a CNN outside broadcast unit. “Go fuck yourself!”
“I don't like being spied on,” Amber says sharply. “Especially as you weren't invited to this meeting. Right?”
“I'm the archivist.” Donna looks away, stubbornly refusing to admit anything. “You said I should -”
“Yes, well.” Amber is embarrassed. But it's a bad idea to embarrass the Queen in her audience chamber. “You heard what we were discussing. What do you know about my mother's state of mind?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Donna says promptly. She's clearly in a sulk and prepared to do no more than the minimum to help resolve the situation. “I only met her once. You look like her when you are angry, do you know that?”
“I -” For once, Amber's speechless.
“I'll schedule you for facial surgery,” offers the cat. Sotto voce: “It's the only way to be sure.”
Normally, accusing Amber of any resemblance to her mother, however slight and passing, would be enough to trigger a reality quake within the upload environment that passes for the bridge of the Field Circus. It's a sign of how disturbed Amber is by the lawsuit that she lets the cat's impertinence slide. “What is the lawsuit, anyway?” Donna asks, nosy as ever and twice as annoying: “I did not that bit see.”
“It's horrible,” Amber says vehemently.
“Truly evil,” echoes Pierre.
“Fascinating but wrong,” Sadeq muses thoughtfully.
“But it's still horrible!”
“Yes, but what is it?” Donna the all-seeing-eye archivist and camera manqué asks.
“It's a demand for settlement.” Amber takes a deep breath. “Dammit, you might as well tell everyone - it won't stay secret for long.” She sighs. “After we left, it seems my other half - my original incarnation, that is - got married. To Sadeq, here.” She nods at the Iranian theologian, who looks just as bemused as she did the first time she heard this part of the story. "And they had a child. Then the Ring Imperium went bankrupt. The child is demanding maintenance payments from me, backdated nearly twenty years, on the grounds that the undead are jointly and severally liable for debts run up by their incarnations. It's a legal precedent established to prevent people from committing suicide temporarily as a way to avoid bankruptcy. Worse, the lien on my assets is measured in subjective time from a point at the Ring Imperium about nineteen months after our launch time - we've been in relativistic flight, so while my other half would be out from under it by now if she'd survived, I'm still subject to the payment order. But compound interest applies back home - that is to stop people trying to use the twin's paradox as a way to escape liability. So, by being away for about twenty-eight years of wall-clock time, I've run up a debt I didn't know about to enormous levels.
“This man, this son I've never met, theoretically owns the Field Circus several times over. And my accounts are wiped out - I don't even have enough money to download us into fleshbodies. Unless one of you guys has got a secret stash that survived the market crash after we left, we're all in deep trouble.”
* * *
A mahogany dining table eight meters long graces the flagstoned floor of the huge museum gallery, beneath the skeleton of an enormous Argentinosaurus and a suspended antique Mercury capsule more than a century old. The dining table is illuminated by candlelight, silver cutlery and fine porcelain plates setting out two places at opposite ends. Sirhan sits in a high-backed chair beneath the shadow of a triceratops's rib cage. Opposite him, Pamela has dressed for dinner in the fashion of her youth. She raises her wineglass toward him. “Tell me about your childhood, why don't you?” she asks. High above them, Saturn's rings shimmer through the skylights, like a luminous paint splash thrown across the midnight sky.
Sirhan has misgivings about opening up to her, but consoles himself with the fact that she's clearly in no position to use anything he tells her against him. “Which childhood would you like to know about?” he asks.
“What do you mean, which?” Her face creases up in a frown of perplexity.
“I had several. Mother kept hitting the reset switch, hoping I'd turn out better.” It's his turn to frown.
“She did, did she,” breathes Pamela, clearly noting it down to hold as ammunition against her errant daughter. “Why do you think she did that?”
“It was the only way she knew to raise a child,” Sirhan says defensively. “She didn't have any siblings. And, perhaps, she was reacting against her own character flaws.” When I have children there will be more than one, he tells himself smugly: when, that is, he has adequate means to find himself a bride, and adequate emotional maturity to activate his organs of procreation. A creature of extreme caution, Sirhan is not planning to repeat the errors of his ancestors on the maternal side.
Pamela flinches: “it's not my fault,” she says quietly. “Her father had quite a bit to do with that. But what - what different childhoods did you have?”
“Oh, a fair number. There was the default option, with Mother and Father arguing constantly - she refused to take the veil and he was too stiff-necked to admit he was little more than a kept man, and between them, they were like two neutron stars locked in an unstable death spiral of gravity. Then there were my other lives, forked and reintegrated, running in parallel. I was a young goatherd in the days of the middle kingdom in Egypt, I remember that; and I was an all-American kid growing up in Iowa in the 1950s, and another me got to live through the return of the hidden imam - at least, his parents thought it was the hidden imam - and -” Sirhan shrugs. “Perhaps that's where I acquired my taste for history.”
“Did your parents ever consider making you a little girl?” asks his grandmother.
“Mother suggested it a couple of times, but Father forbade it.” Or rather, decided it was unlawful, he recalls. “I had a very conservative upbringing in some ways.”
“I wouldn't say that. When I was a little girl, that was all there was; none of these questions of self-selected identity. There was no escape, merely escapism. Didn't you ever have a problem knowing who you were?”
The starters arrive, diced melon on a silver salver. Sirhan waits patiently for his grandmama to chivvy the table into serving her. “The more people you are, the more you know who you are,” says Sirhan. “You learn what it's like to be other people. Father thought that perhaps it isn't good for a man to know too much about what it's like to be a woman.” And Grandfather disagreed, but you already know that, he adds for his own stream of consciousness.
“I couldn't agree more.” Pamela smiles at him, an expression that might be that of a patronizing elder aunt if it wasn't for the alarming sharkishness of her expression - or is it playfulness? Sirhan covers his confusion by spooning chunks of melon into his mouth, forking temporary ghosts to peruse dusty etiquette manuals and warn him if he's about to commit some faux pas. “So, how did you enjoy your childhoods?”
“Enjoy isn't a word I would use,” he replies as evenly as he can, laying down his spoon so he doesn't spill anything. As if childhood is something that ever ends, he thinks bitterly. Sirhan is considerably less than a gigasecond old and confidently expects to exist for at least a terasecond - if not in exactly this molecular configuration, then at least in some reasonably stable physical incarnation. And he has every intention of staying young for that entire vast span - even into the endless petaseconds that might follow, although by then, megayears hence, he speculates that issues of neoteny will no longer interest him. “It's not over yet. How about you? Are you enjoying your old age, Grandmama?”
Pamela almost flinches, but keeps iron control of her expression. The flush of blood in the capillaries of her cheeks, visible to Sirhan through the tiny infrared eyes he keeps afloat in the air above the table, gives her away. “I made some mistakes in my youth, but I'm enjoying it fine nowadays,” she says lightly.
“It's your revenge, isn't it?” Sirhan asks, smiling and nodding as the table removes the entrees.
“Why, you little -” She stares at him rather than continuing. A very bleak stare it is, too. “What would you know about revenge?” she asks.
“I'm the family historian.” Sirhan smiles humorlessly. “I lived from two to seventeen years several hundred times over before my eighteenth birthday. It was that reset switch, you know. I don't think Mother realized my primary stream of consciousness was journaling everything.”
“That's monstrous.” Pamela picks up her wineglass and takes a sip to cover her confusion. Sirhan has no such retreat - grape juice in a tumbler, unfermented, wets his tongue. “I'd never do something like that to any child of mine.”
“So why won't you tell me about your childhood?” asks her grandson. “For the family history, of course.”
“I'll -” She puts her glass down. “You intend to write one,” she states.
“I'm thinking about it.” Sirhan sits up. “An old-fashioned book covering three generations, living through interesting times,” he suggests. “A work of postmodern history, the incoherent school at that - how do you document people who fork their identities at random, spend years dead before reappearing on the stage, and have arguments with their own relativistically preserved other copy? I could trace the history further, of course - if you tell me about your parents, although I am certain they aren't around to answer questions directly - but we reach the boring dumb matter slope back to the primeval soup surprisingly fast if we go there, don't we? So I thought that perhaps as a narrative hook I'd make the offstage viewpoint that of the family's robot cat. (Except the bloody thing's gone missing, hasn't it?) Anyway, with so much of human history occupying the untapped future, we historians have our work cut out recording the cursor of the present as it logs events. So I might as well start at home.”
“You're set on immortalism.” Pamela studies his face.
“Yes,” he says idly. “Frankly, I can understand your wanting to grow old out of a desire for revenge, but pardon me for saying this, I have difficulty grasping your willingness to follow through with the procedure! Isn't it awfully painful?”
“Growing old is natural,” growls the old woman. “When you've lived long enough for all your ambitions to be in ruins, friendships broken, lovers forgotten or divorced acrimoniously, what's left to go on for? If you feel tired and old in spirit, you might as well be tired and old in body. Anyway, wanting to live forever is immoral. Think of all the resources you're taking up that younger people need! Even uploads face a finite data storage limit after a time. It's a monstrously egotistical statement, to say you intend to live forever. And if there's one thing I believe in, it's public service. Duty: the obligation to make way for the new. Duty and control.”
Sirhan absorbs all this, nodding slowly to himself as the table serves up the main course - honey-glazed roast long pork with sautéed potatoes a la gratin and carrots Debussy - when there's a loud bump from overhead.
“What's that?” Pamela asks querulously.
“One moment.” Sirhan's vision splits into a hazy kaleidoscope view of the museum hall as he forks ghosts to monitor each of the ubiquitous cameras. He frowns; something is moving on the balcony, between the Mercury capsule and a display of antique random-dot stereoisograms. “Oh dear. Something seems to be loose in the museum.”
“Loose? What do you mean, loose?” An inhuman shriek splits the air above the table, followed by a crash from upstairs. Pamela stands up unsteadily, wiping her lips with her napkin. “Is it safe?”
“No, it isn't safe.” Sirhan fumes. “It's disturbing my meal!” He looks up. A flash of orange fur shows over the balcony, then the Mercury capsule wobbles violently on the end of its guy wires. Two arms and a bundle of rubbery something covered in umber hair lurches out from the handrail and casually grabs hold of the priceless historical relic, then clambers inside and squats on top of the dummy wearing Al Sheperd's age-cracked space suit. “It's an ape! City, I say, City! What's a monkey doing loose in my dinner party?”
“I am most deeply sorry, sir, but I don't know. Would sir care to identify the monkey in question?” replies City, which for reasons of privacy, has manifested itself as a bodiless voice.
There's a note of humor in City's tone that Sirhan takes deep exception to. “What do you mean? Can't you see it?” he demands, focusing on the errant primate, which is holed up in the Mercury capsule dangling from the ceiling, smacking its lips, rolling its eyes, and fingering the gasket around the capsule's open hatch. It hoots quietly to itself, then leans out of the open door and moons over the table, baring its buttocks. “Get back!” Sirhan calls to his grandmother, then he gestures at the air above the table, intending to tell the utility fog to congeal. Too late. The ape farts thunderously, then lets rip a stream of excrement across the dining table. Pamela's face is a picture of wrinkled disgust as she holds her napkin in front of her nose. “Dammit, solidify, will you!” Sirhan curses, but the ubiquitous misty pollen-grain-sized robots refuse to respond.
“What's your problem? Invisible monkeys?” asks City.
“Invisible -” he stops.
“Can't you see what it did?” Pamela demands, backing him up. “It just defecated all over the main course!”
“I see nothing,” City says uncertainly.
“Here, let me help you.” Sirhan lends it one of his eyes, rolls it to focus on the ape, which is now reaching lazy arms around the hatch and patting down the roof of the capsule, as if hunting for the wires' attachment points.
“Oh dear,” says City, “I've been hacked. That's not supposed to be possible.”
“Well it fucking is,” hisses Pamela.
“Hacked?” Sirhan stops trying to tell the air what to do and focuses on his clothing instead. Fabric reweaves itself instantly, mapping itself into an armored airtight suit that raises a bubble visor from behind his neck and flips itself shut across his face. “City please supply my grandmama with an environment suit now. Make it completely autonomous.”
The air around Pamela begins to congeal in a blossom of crystalline security, as a sphere like a giant hamster ball precipitates out around her. “If you've been hacked, the first question is, who did it,” Sirhan states. “The second is 'why,' and the third is 'how.'” He edgily runs a self-test, but there's no sign of inconsistencies in his own identity matrix, and he has hot shadows sleeping lightly at scattered nodes across as distance of half a dozen light-hours. Unlike pre-posthuman Pamela, he's effectively immune to murder-simple. “If this is just a prank -”
Seconds have passed since the orang-utan got loose in the museum, and subsequent seconds have passed since City realized its bitter circumstance. Seconds are long enough for huge waves of countermeasures to sweep the surface of the lily-pad habitat. Invisibly small utility foglets are expanding and polymerizing into defenses throughout the air, trapping the thousands of itinerant passenger pigeons in midflight, and locking down every building and every person who walks the paths outside. City is self-testing its trusted computing base, starting with the most primitive secured kernel and working outward. Meanwhile Sirhan, with blood in his eye, heads for the staircase, with the vague goal of physically attacking the intruder. Pamela retreats at a fast roll, tumbling toward the safety of the mezzanine floor and a garden of fossils. “Who do you think you are, barging in and shitting on my supper?” Sirhan yells as he bounds up the stairs. “I want an explanation! Right now!”
The orang-utan finds the nearest cable and gives it a yank, setting the one-ton capsule swinging. It bares its teeth at Sirhan in a grin. “Remember me?” it asks, in a sibilant French accent.
“Remember -” Sirhan stops dead. “Tante Annette? What are you doing in that orangutan?”
“Having minor autonomic control problems.” The ape grimaces wider, then bends one arm sinuously and scratches at its armpit. “I am sorry, I installed myself in the wrong order. I was only meaning to say hello and pass on a message.”
“What message?” Sirhan demands. “You've upset my grandmama, and if she finds out you're here -”
“She won't; I'll be gone in a minute.” The ape - Annette - sits up. “Your grandfather salutes you and says he will be visiting shortly. In the person, that is. He is very keen to meet your mother and her passengers. That is all. Have you a message for him?”
“Isn't he dead?” Sirhan asks, dazed.
“No more than I am. And I'm overdue. Good day!” The ape swings hand over hand out of the capsule, then lets go and plummets ten meters to the hard stone floor below. Its skull makes a noise like a hard-boiled egg impacting concrete.
“Oh dear,” Sirhan breathes heavily. “City!”
“Yes, oh master?”
“Remove that body,” he says, pointing over the balcony. “I'll trouble you not to disturb my grandmother with any details. In particular, don't tell her it was Annette. The news may upset her.” The perils of having a long-lived posthuman family, he thinks; too many mad aunts in the space capsule. “If you can find a way to stop Auntie 'Nette from growing any more apes, that might be a good idea.” A thought strikes him. “By the way, do you know when my grandfather is due to arrive?”
“Your grandfather?” asks City: “Isn't he dead?”
Sirhan looks over the balcony, at the blood-seeping corpse of the intruder. “Not according to his second wife's latest incarnation.”
* * *
Funding the family reunion isn't going to be a problem, as Amber discovers when she receives an offer of reincarnation good for all the passengers and crew of the Field Circus.
She isn't sure quite where the money is coming from. Presumably it's some creaky financial engine designed by Dad, stirring from its bear-market bunker for the first time in decades to suck dusty syndication feeds and liquidate long-term assets held against her return. She's duly grateful - even fervently so - for the details of her own impecunious position grow more depressing the more she learns about them. Her sole asset is the Field Circus, a thirty-years-obsolete starwisp massing less than twenty kilograms including what's left of its tattered sail, along with its cargo of uploaded passengers and crew. Without the farsighted trust fund that has suddenly chugged into life, she'd be stranded in the realm of ever-circling leptons. But now the fund has sent her its offer of incarnation, she's got a dilemma. Because one of the Field Circus's passengers has never actually had a meatspace body ...
Amber finds the Slug browsing quietly in a transparent space filled with lazily waving branches that resemble violet coral fans. They're a ghost-memory of alien life, an order of thermophilic quasi fungi with hyphae ridged in actin/myosin analogues, muscular and slippery filter feeders that eat airborne unicellular organisms. The Slug itself is about two meters long and has a lacy white exoskeleton of curves and arcs that don't repeat, disturbingly similar to a Penrose tiling. Chocolate brown organs pulse slowly under the skeleton. The ground underfoot is dry but feels swampy.
Actually, the Slug is a surgical disguise. Both it and the quasi-fungal ecosystem have been extinct for millions of years, existing only as cheap stage props in an interstellar medicine show run by rogue financial instruments. The Slug itself is one such self-aware scam, probably a pyramid scheme or even an entire compressed junk bond market in heavy recession, trying to hide from its creditors by masquerading as a life-form. But there's a problem with incarnating itself down in Sirhan's habitat - the ecosystem it evolved for is a cool Venusiform, thirty atmospheres of saturated steam baked under a sky the color of hot lead streaked with yellow sulphuric acid clouds. The ground is mushy because it's melting, not because it's damp.
“You're going to have to pick another somatotype,” Amber explains, laboriously rolling her interface around the red-hot coral reef like a giant soap bubble. The environmental interface is transparent and infinitely thin, a discontinuity in the physics model of the simulation space, mapping signals between the human-friendly environment on one side and the crushing, roasting hell on the other. “This one is simply not compatible with any of the supported environments where we're going.”
“I am not understanding. Surely I can integrate with the available worlds of our destination?”
“Uh, things don't work that way outside cyberspace.” Suddenly Amber is at a bit of a loss. “The physics model could be supported, but the energy input to do so would be prohibitive, and you would not be able to interact as easily with other physics models as we can now.” She forks a ghost, demonstrates a transient other-Amber in a refrigerated tank rolling across the Slug's backyard, crushing coral and hissing and clanking noisily. “You'd be like this.”
“Your reality is badly constructed, then,” the Slug points out.
“It's not constructed at all, it just evolved, randomly.” Amber shrugs. “We can't exercise the same level of control over the underlying embedded context that we can over this one. I can't simply magic you an interface that will let you bathe in steam at three hundred degrees.”
“Why not?” asks the Slug. Translation wetware adds a nasty, sharp rising whine to the question, turning it into a demand.
“It's a privilege violation,” Amber tries to explain. “The reality we're about to enter is, uh, provably consistent. It has to be, because it's consistent and stable, and if we could create new local domains with different rules, they might propagate uncontrollably. It's not a good idea, believe me. Do you want to come with us or not?”
“I have no alternative,” the Slug says, slightly sulkily. “But do you have a body I can use?”
“I think -” Amber stops, suddenly. She snaps her fingers. “Hey, cat!”
A Cheshire grin ripples into view, masked into the domain wall between the two embedded realities. “Hey, human.”
“Whoa!” Amber takes a backward step from the apparition. “Our friend here's got a problem, no suitable downloadable body. Us meat puppets are all too closely tied to our neural ultrastructure, but you've got a shitload of programmable gate arrays. Can we borrow some?”
“You can do better than that.” Aineko yawns, gathering substance by the moment. The Slug is rearing up and backing away like an alarmed sausage: Whatever it perceives in the membrane seems to frighten it. “I've been designing myself a new body. I figured it was time to change my style for a while. Your corporate scam artist here can borrow my old template until something better comes up. How's that?”
“Did you hear that?” Amber asks the Slug. “Aineko is kindly offering to donate her body to you. Will that do?” Without waiting, she winks at her cat and taps her heels together, fading out with a whisper and a smile: “See you on the other side ...”
* * *
It takes several minutes for the Field Circus's antique transceiver to download the dozens of avabits occupied by the frozen state vectors of each of the people running in its simulation engines. Tucked away with most of them is a resource bundle consisting of their entire sequenced genome, a bunch of phenotypic and proteome hint markers, and a wish list of upgrades. Between the gene maps and the hints, there's enough data to extrapolate a meat machine. So the festival city's body shop goes to work turning out hacked stem cells and fabbing up incubators.
It doesn't take very long to reincarnate a starshipful of relativity-lagged humans these days. First, City carves out skeletons for them (politely ignoring a crudely phrased request to cease and desist from Pamela, on the grounds that she has no power of attorney), then squirts osteoclasts into the spongy ersatz bone. They look like ordinary human stem cells at a distance, but instead of nuclei they have primitive pinpricks of computronium, blobs of smart matter so small they're as dumb as an ancient Pentium, reading a control tape that is nevertheless better structured than anything Mother Nature evolved. These heavily optimized fake stem cells - biological robots in all but name - spawn like cancer, ejecting short-lived anucleated secondary cells. Then City infuses each mess of quasi-cancerous tissue with a metric shitload of carrier capsids, which deliver the real cellular control mechanisms to their target bodies. Within a megasecond, the almost random churning of the construction 'bots gives way to a more controlled process as nanoscale CPUs are replaced by ordinary nuclei and eject themselves from their host cells, bailing out via the half-formed renal system - except for those in the central nervous system, which have a final job to do. Eleven days after the invitation, the first passengers are being edited into the pattern of synaptic junctions inside the newly minted skulls.
(This whole process is tediously slow and laughably obsolescent technology by the standards of the fast-moving core. Down there, they'd just set up a wake shield in orbit, chill it down to a fractional Kelvin, whack two coherent matter beams together, teleport some state information into place, and yank the suddenly materialized meatbody in through an airlock before it has time to asphyxiate. But then again, down in the hot space, they don't have much room for flesh anymore ...)
Sirhan doesn't pay much attention to the pseudocancers fermenting and churning in the row of tanks that lines the Gallery of the Human Body in the Bush wing of the museum. Newly formed, slowly unskeletonizing corpses - like a time-lapse process of decay with a finger angrily twisting the dial into high-speed reverse - is both distasteful and aesthetically displeasing to watch. Nor do the bodies tell him anything about their occupants. This sort of stuff is just a necessary prequel to the main event, a formal reception and banquet to which he has devoted the full-time attention of four ghosts.
He could, given a few less inhibitions, go Dumpster-diving in their mental archives, but that's one of the big taboos of the post-wetware age. (Spy agencies went meme-profiling and memory-mining in the third and fourth decades, gained a thought police rap sheet, and spawned a backlash of deviant mental architectures resilient to infowar intrusions. Now the nations that those spook institutions served no longer exist, their very landmasses being part of the orbiting nöosphere construction project that will ultimately turn the mass of the entire solar system into a gigantic Matrioshka brain. And Sirhan is left with an uneasy loyalty to the one great new taboo to be invented since the end of the twentieth century - freedom of thought.)
So, to indulge his curiosity, he spends most of his waking fleshbody hours with Pamela, asking her questions from time to time and mapping the splenetic overspill of her memeome into his burgeoning family knowledge base.
“I wasn't always this bitter and cynical,” Pamela explains, waving her cane in the vague direction of the cloudscape beyond the edge of the world and fixing Sirhan with a beady stare. (He's brought her out here hoping that it will trigger another cascade of memories, sunsets on honeymoon island resorts and the like, but all that seems to be coming up is bile.) “It was the successive betrayals. Manfred was the first, and the worst in some ways, but that little bitch Amber hurt me more, if anything. If you ever have children, be careful to hold something back for yourself; because if you don't, when they throw it all in your face, you'll feel like dying. And when they're gone, you've got no way of patching things up.”
“Is dying inevitable?” asks Sirhan, knowing damn well that it isn't, but more than happy to give her an excuse to pick at her scabbed-over love wound: He more than half suspects she's still in love with Manfred. This is great family history, and he's having the time of his flinty-hearted life leading her up to the threshold of the reunion he's hosting.
“Sometimes I think death is even more inevitable than taxes,” his grandmother replies bleakly. “Humans don't live in a vacuum; we're part of a larger pattern of life.” She stares out across the troposphere of Saturn, where a thin rime of blown methane snow catches the distant sunrise in a ruby-tinted fog. “The old gives way to the new,” She sighs, and tugs at her cuffs. (Ever since the incident with the gate crashing ape, she's taken to wearing an antique formal pressure suit, all clinging black spidersilk woven with flexible pipes and silvery smart sensor nets.) “There's a time to get out of the way of the new, and I think I passed it sometime ago.”
“Um,” says Sirhan, who is somewhat surprised by this new angle in her lengthy, self-justifying confession: “but what if you're just saying this because you feel old? If it's just a physiological malfunction, we could fix it and you'd -”
“No! I've got a feeling that life prolongation is morally wrong, Sirhan. I'm not passing judgment on you, just stating that I think it's wrong for me. It's immoral because it blocks up the natural order, keeps us old cobweb strands hanging around and getting in you young things' way. And then there are the theological questions. If you try to live forever, you never get to meet your maker.”
“Your maker? Are you a theist, then?”
“I - think so.” Pamela is silent for a minute. “Although there are so many different approaches to the subject that it's hard to know which version to believe. For a long time, I was secretly afraid your grandfather might actually have had the answers. That I might have been wrong all along. But now -” She leans on her cane. “When he announced that he was uploading, I figured out that all he really had was a life-hating antihuman ideology he'd mistaken for a religion. The rapture of the nerds and the heaven of the AIs. Sorry, no thanks; I don't buy it.”
“Oh.” Sirhan squints out at the cloudscape. For a moment, he thinks he can see something in the distant mist, an indeterminate distance away - it's hard to distinguish centimeters from megameters, with no scale indicator and a horizon a continental distance away - but he's not sure what it is. Maybe another city, mollusk-curved and sprouting antennae, a strange tail of fabricator nodes wavering below and beneath it. Then a drift of cloud hides it for a moment, and, when it clears the object is gone. “What's left, then? If you don't really believe in some kind of benign creator, dying must be frightening. Especially as you're doing it so slowly.”
Pamela smiles skeletally, a particularly humorless expression. “It's perfectly natural, darling! You don't need to believe in God to believe in embedded realities. We use them every day, as mind tools. Apply anthropic reasoning and isn't it clear that our entire universe is probably a simulation? We're living in the early epoch of the universe. Probably this” - she prods at the spun-diamond inner wall of the bubble that holds in the precarious terrestrial atmosphere, holding out the howling cryogenic hydrogen and methane gales of Saturn - “is but a simulation in some ancient history engine's panopticon, rerunning the sum of all possible origins of sentience, a billion trillion megayears down the line. Death will be like waking up as someone bigger, that's all.” Her grin slides away. “And if not, I'll just be a silly old fool who deserves the oblivion she yearns for.”
“Oh, but -” Sirhan stops, his skin crawling. She may be mad, he realizes abruptly. Not clinically insane, just at odds with the entire universe. Locked into a pathological view of her own role in reality. “I'd hoped for a reconciliation,” he says quietly. “Your extended family has lived through some extraordinary times. Why spoil it with acrimony?”
“Why spoil it?” She looks at him pityingly: “It was spoiled to begin with, dear, too much selfless sacrifice and too little skepticism. If Manfred hadn't wanted so badly not to be human, and if I'd learned to be a bit more flexible in time, we might still -” She trails off. “That's odd.”
Pamela raises her cane and points out into the billowing methane thunderclouds, her expression puzzled. “I'll swear I saw a lobster out there ...”
* * *
Amber awakens in the middle of the night in darkness and choking pressure, and senses that she's drowning. For a moment she's back in the ambiguous space on the far side of the router, a horror of crawling instruments tracing her every experience back to the nooks and crannies of her mind; then her lungs turn to glass and shatter, and she's coughing and wheezing in the cold air of the museum at midnight.
The hard stone floor beneath her, and an odd pain in her knees, tells her that she's not aboard the Field Circus anymore. Rough hands hold her shoulders up as she vomits a fine blue mist, racked by a coughing fit. More bluish liquid is oozing from the pores of the skin on her arms and breasts, evaporating in strangely purposeful streamers. “Thank you,” she finally manages to gasp: “I can breathe now.”
She sits back on her heels, realizes she's naked, and opens her eyes. Everything's confusingly strange, even though it shouldn't be. There's a moment of resistance as if her eyelids are sealed - then they respond. It all feels strangely familiar to her, like waking up again inside a house she grew up in and moved away from years ago. But the scene around her is hardly one to inspire confidence. Shadows lie thick and deep across ovoid tanks filled with an anatomist's dream, bodies in various nightmarish stages of assembly. And sitting in the middle of them, whence it has retreated after letting go of her shoulders, is a strangely misshapen person - also nude, but for a patchy coat of orange hair.
“Are you awake yet, ma chérie?” asks the orang-utan.
“Um.” Amber shakes her head, cautiously, feeling the drag of damp hair, the faint caress of a breeze - she reaches out with another sense and tries to grab hold of reality, but it slithers away, intransigent and unembedded. Everything around her is so solid and immutable that, for a moment, she feels a stab of claustrophobic panic: Help! I'm trapped in the real universe! Another quick check reassures her that she's got access to something outside her own head, and the panic begins to subside: Her exocortex has migrated successfully to this world. “I'm in a museum? On Saturn? Who are you - have we met?”
“Not in person,” the ape says carefully. “We 'ave corresponded. Annette Dimarcos.”
“Auntie -” A flood of memories rattle Amber's fragile stream of consciousness apart, forcing her to fork repeatedly until she can drag them together. Annette, in a recorded message: Your father sends you this escape package. The legal key to her mother's gilded custodial cage. Freedom a necessity. “Is Dad here?” she asks hopefully, even though she knows full well that here in the real world at least thirty-five years have passed in linear time: In a century where ten years of linear time is enough for several industrial revolutions, that's a lot of water under the bridge.
“I am not sure.” The orang-utan blinks lazily, scratches at her left forearm, and glances round the chamber. “He might be in one of these tanks, playing a shell game. Or he might be leaving well enough alone until the dust settles.” She turns back to stare at Amber with big, brown, soulful eyes. “This is not to be the reunion you were hoping for.”
“Not -” Amber takes a deep breath, the tenth or twelfth that these new lungs have inspired: “What's with the body? You used to be human. And what's going on?”
“I still am human, where it counts,” says Annette. “I use these bodies because they are good in low gravity, and they remind me that meatspace is no longer where I live. And for another reason.” She gestures fluidly at the open door. “You will find big changes. Your son has organized -”
“My son.” Amber blinks. “Is this the one who's suing me? Which version of me? How long ago?” A torrent of questions stream through her mind, exploding out into structured queries throughout the public sections of mindspace that she has access to. Her eyes widen as she absorbs the implications. “Oh shit! Tell me she isn't here already!”
“I am very much afraid that she is,” says Annette. “Sirhan is a strange child: He takes after his grandmère. Who he, of course, invited to his party.”
“Why, yes! Hasn't he told you what this is about? It's his party. To mark the opening of his special institution. The family archive. He's setting the lawsuit aside, at least for the duration. That's why everybody is here - even me.” The ape-body smirks at her: “I'm afraid he's rather disappointed by my dress.”
“Tell me about this library,” Amber says, narrowing her eyes. “And about this son of mine whom I've never met, by a father I've never fucked.”
“What, you would know everything?” asks Annette.
“Yeah.” Amber pushes herself creakily upright. “I need some clothes. And soft furniture. And where do I get a drink around here?”
“I'll show you,” says the orang-utan, unfolding herself in a vertical direction like a stack of orange furry inner tubes. “Drinks, first.”
* * *
While the Boston Museum of Science is the main structure on the lily-pad habitat, it's not the only one: just the stupidest, composed of dumb matter left over from the pre-enlightened age. The orang-utan leads Amber through a service passage and out into the temperate night, naked by ringlight. The grass is cool beneath her feet, and a gentle breeze blows constantly out toward the recirculators at the edge of the worldlet. She follows the slouching orange ape up a grassy slope, under a weeping willow, round a three-hundred-and-ninety-degree bend that flashes the world behind them into invisibility, and into a house with walls of spun cloud stuff and a ceiling that rains moonlight.
“What is this?” Amber asks, entranced. “Some kind of aerogel?”
“No -” Annette belches, then digs a hand into the floor and pulls up a heap of mist. “Make a chair,” she says. It solidifies, gaining form and texture until a creditable Queen Anne reproduction stands in front of Amber on spindly legs. “And one for me. Skin up, pick one of my favorite themes.” The walls recede slightly and harden, extruding paint and wood and glass. “That's it.” The ape grins at Amber. “You are comfortable?”
“But I -” Amber stops. She glances at the familiar mantelpiece, the row of curios, the baby photographs forever glossy on their dye-sub media. It's her childhood bedroom. “You brought the whole thing? Just for me?”
“You can never tell with future shock.” Annette shrugs and reaches a limber arm around the back of her neck to scratch. “We are utility fog using, for most purposes out here, peer-to-peer meshes of multiarmed assemblers that change conformation and vapor/solid phase at command. Texture and color are all superfice, not reality. But yes, this came from one of your mother's letters to your father. She brought it here, for you to surprise. If only it is ready in time.” Lips pull back from big, square, foliage-chewing teeth in something that might be a smile in a million years' time.
“You, I - I wasn't expecting. This.” Amber realizes she's breathing rapidly, a near-panic reflex. The mere proximity of her mother is enough to give her unpleasant reactions. Annette is all right, Annette is cool. And her father is the trickster-god, always hiding in your blind spot to leap out and shower you with ambiguous gifts. But Pamela tried to mold Amber in her own image as a child; and despite all the traveling she's done since then, and all the growing up, Amber harbors an unreasonable claustrophobic fear of her mother.
“Don't be unhappy,” Annette says warmly. “I this you show to convince you, she will try to disturb you. It is a sign of weakness, she lacks the courage of her convictions.”
“She does?” This is news to Amber, who leans forward to listen.
“Yes. She is an old and bitter woman, now. The years have not been easy for her. She perhaps intends to use her unrepaired senescence as a passive suicide weapon by which to hold us blameworthy, inflicting guilt for her mistreatment, but she is afraid of dying all the same. Your reaction, should it be unhappy, will excuse and encourage her selfishness. Sirhan colludes, unknowing, the idiot child. He thinks the universe of her and thinks by helping her die he is helping her achieve her goals. He has never met an adult walking backward toward a cliff before.”
“Backward.” Amber takes a deep breath. “You're telling me Mom is so unhappy she's trying to kill herself by growing old? Isn't that a bit slow?”
Annette shakes her head lugubriously. “She's had fifty years to practice. You have been away twenty-eight years! She was thirty when she bore you. Now she is over eighty, and a telomere refusenik, a charter member of the genome conservation front. To accept a slow virus purge and aging reset would be to lay down a banner she has carried for half a century. To accept uploading, that, too, is wrong in her mind: She will not admit her identity is a variable, not a constant. She came out here in a can, frozen, with more radiation damage. She is not going back home. This is where she plans to end her days. Do you see? That is why you were brought here. That, and because of the bailiffs who have bought title to your other self's business debts. They are waiting for you in Jupiter system with warrants and headsuckers to extract your private keys.”
“She's cornered me!”
“Oh, I would not say that. We all change our convictions sometime or other, perhaps. She is inflexible, she will not bend; but she is not stupid. Nor is she as vindictive as perhaps she herself believes. She thinks she must a scorned woman be, even though there is more to her than that. Your father and I, we -”
“Is he still alive?” Amber demands eagerly, half-anxious to know, half- wishing she could be sure the news won't be bad.
“Yes.” Annette grins again, but it's not a happy expression, more a baring of teeth at the world. “As I was saying, your father and I, we have tried to help her. Pamela denies him. He is, she says, not a man. No more so am I myself a woman? No, but she'll still talk to me. You will do better. But his assets, they are spent. He is not a rich man this epoch, your father.”
“Yeah, but.” Amber nods to herself. “He may be able to help me.”
“Oh? How so?”
“You remember the original goal of the Field Circus? The sapient alien transmission?”
“Yes, of course.” Annette snorts. “Junk bond pyramid schemes from credulous saucer wisdom airheads.”
Amber licks her lips. “How susceptible to interception are we here?”
“Here?” Annette glances round. “Very. You can't maintain a habitat in a nonbiosphere environment without ubiquitous surveillance.”
“Well, then ...”
Amber dives inward, forks her identity, collects a complex bundle of her thoughts and memories, marshals them, offers Annette one end of an encryption tunnel, then stuffs the frozen mindstorm into her head. Annette sits still for approximately ten seconds, then shudders and whimpers quietly. “You must ask your father,” she says, growing visibly agitated. “I must leave, now. I should not have known that! It is dynamite, you see. Political dynamite. I must return to my primary sister-identity and warn her.”
“Your - wait!” Amber stands up as fast as her ill-coordinated body will let her, but Annette is moving fast, swarming up a translucent ladder in the air.
“Tell Manfred!” calls her aunt through the body of an ape: “Trust no one else!” She throws another packet of compressed, encrypted memories down the tunnel to Amber; then, a moment later, the orange skull touches the ceiling and dissolves, a liquid flow of dissociating utility foglets letting go of one another and dispersing into the greater mass of the building that spawned the fake ape.
* * *
Snapshots from the family album: While you were gone ...
● Amber, wearing a brocade gown and a crown encrusted with diamond processors and external neural taps, her royal party gathered around her, attends the pan-Jovian constitutional conference with the majesty of a confirmed head of state and ruler of a small inner moon. She smiles knowingly at the camera viewpoint, with the professional shine that comes from a good public relations video filter. “We are very happy to be here,” she says, “and we are pleased that the commission has agreed to lend its weight to the continued progress of the Ring Imperium's deep-space program.”
● A piece of dumb paper, crudely stained with letters written in a faded brown substance - possibly blood - says “I'm checking out, don't delta me.” This version of Pierre didn't go to the router: He stayed at home, deleted all his backups, and slit his wrists, his epitaph sharp and self-inflicted. It comes as a cold shock, the first chill gust of winter's gale blowing through the outer system's political elite. And it's the start of a regime of censorship directed toward the already speeding starwisp: Amber, in her grief, makes an executive decision not to tell her embassy to the stars that one of them is dead and, therefore, unique.
● Manfred - fifty, with the fashionably pale complexion of the digerati, healthy-looking for his age, standing beside a transmigration bush with a stupid grin on his face. He's decided to take the final step, not simply to spawn external mental processes running in an exocortex of distributed processors, but to move his entire persona right out of meatspace, into wherever it is that the uploads aboard the Field Circus have gone. Annette, skinny, elegant, and very Parisian, stands beside him, looking as uncertain as the wife of a condemned man.
● A wedding, shi'ite, Mut'ah - of limited duration. It's scandalous to many, but the mamtu'ah isn't moslem, she wears a crown instead of a veil, and her groom is already spoken of in outraged terms by most other members of the trans-Martian Islamic clergy. Besides which, in addition to being in love, the happy couple have more strategic firepower than a late-twentieth-century superpower. Their cat, curled at their feet, looks smug: She's the custodian of the permissive action locks on the big lasers.
● A speck of ruby light against the darkness - red-shifted almost into the infrared, it's the return signal from the Field Circus's light sail as the starwisp passes the one-light-year mark, almost twelve trillion kilometers out beyond Pluto. (Although how can you call it a starwisp when it masses almost a hundred kilograms, including propulsion module? Starwhisps are meant to be tiny!)
● Collapse of the trans-Lunar economy: Deep in the hot thinking depths of the solar system, vast new intellects come up with a new theory of wealth that optimizes resource allocation better than the previously pervasive Free Market 1.0. With no local minima to hamper them, and no need to spawn and reap start-ups Darwin-style, the companies, group minds, and organizations that adopt the so-called Accelerated Salesman Infrastructure of Economics 2.0 trade optimally with each other. The phase change accelerates as more and more entities join in, leveraging network externalities to overtake the traditional ecosystem. Amber and Sadeq are late on the train, Sadeq obsessing about how to reconcile ASI with murabaha and mudaraba while the postmodern economy of the mid-twenty-first century disintegrates around them. Being late has punitive consequences - the Ring Imperium has always been a net importer of brainpower and a net exporter of gravitational potential energy. Now it's a tired backwater, the bit rate from the red-shifted relativisitic probe insufficiently delightful to obsess the daemons of industrial routing. In other words, they're poor.
● A message from beyond the grave: The travelers aboard the starship have reached their destination, an alien artifact drifting in chilly orbit around a frozen brown dwarf. Recklessly they upload themselves into it, locking the starwisp down for years of sleep. Amber and her husband have few funds with which to pay for the propulsion lasers: what they have left of the kinetic energy of the Ring Imperium - based on the orbital momentum of a small Jovian inner moon - is being sapped, fast, at a near-loss, by the crude requirements of the exobionts and metanthropes who fork and spawn in the datasphere of the outer Jovians. The cost of importing brains to the Ring Imperium is steep: In near-despair Amber and Sadeq produce a child, Generation 3.0, to populate their dwindling kingdom. Picture the cat, offended, lashing its tail beside the zero-gee crib.
● Surprise and postcards from the inner orbitals - Amber's mother offers to help. For the sake of the child, Sadeq offers bandwidth and user interface enrichment. The child forks, numerous times, as Amber despairingly plays with probabilities, simulating upbringing outcomes. Neither she nor Sadeq are good parents - the father absent-minded and prone to lose himself in the intertextual deconstruction of surahs, the mother ragged-edged from running the economy of a small and failing kingdom. In the space of a decade, Sirhan lives a dozen lives, discarding identities like old clothes. The uncertainty of life in the decaying Ring Imperium does not entrance him, his parents' obsessions annoy him, and when his grandmother offers to fund his delta vee and subsequent education in one of the orbitals around Titan, his parents give their reluctant assent.
● Amber and Sadeq separate acrimoniously. Sadeq, studies abandoned in the face of increasing intrusions from the world of what is into the universe of what should be, joins a spacelike sect of sufis, encysted in a matrix of vitrification nanomechs out in the Oort cloud to await a better epoch. His instrument of will - the legal mechanism of his resurrection - specifies that he is waiting for the return of the hidden, twelfth imam.
● For her part, Amber searches the inner system briefly for word of her father - but there's nothing. Isolated and alone, pursued by accusing debts, she flings herself into a reborganization, stripping away those aspects of her personality that have brought her low; in law, her liability is tied to her identity. Eventually she donates herself to a commune of also-rans, accepting their personality in return for a total break with the past.
● Without Queen and consort, the Ring Imperium - now unmanned, leaking breathing gases, running on autonomic control - slowly deorbits into the Jovian murk, beaming power to the outer moons until it punches a hole in the cloud deck in a final incandescent smear of light, the like of which has not been seen since the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact.
● Sirhan, engrossed in Saturnalia, is offended by his parents' failure to make more of themselves. And he resolves to do it for them, if not necessarily in a manner of their liking.
* * *
“You see, I am hoping you will help me with my history project,” says the serious-faced young man.
“History project.” Pierre follows him along the curving gallery, hands clasped behind his back self-consciously to keep from showing his agitation: “What history is this?”
“The history of the twenty-first century,” says Sirhan. “You remember it, don't you?”
“Remember it -” Pierre pauses. “You're serious?”
“Yes.” Sirhan opens a side door. “This way, please. I'll explain.”
The door opens onto what used to be one of the side galleries of the museum building, full of interactive exhibits designed to explain elementary optics to hyperactive children and their indulgent parental units. Traditional optics are long since obsolete - tunable matter can slow photons to a stop, teleport them here to there, play ping-pong with spin and polarization - and besides, the dumb matter in the walls and floor has been replaced by low-power computronium, heat sinks dangling far below the floor of the lily-pad habitat to dispose of the scanty waste photons from reversible computation. Now the room is empty.
“Since I became curator here, I've turned the museum's structural supports into a dedicated high-density memory store. One of the fringe benefits of a supervisory post, of course. I have about a billion avabits of capacity, enough to archive the combined sensory bandwidth and memories of the entire population of twentieth-century Earth - if that was what interested me.”
Slowly the walls and ceiling are coming to life, brightening, providing a dizzyingly vibrant view of dawn over the rim wall of Meteor Crater, Arizona - or maybe it's downtown Baghdad.
“Once I realized how my mother had squandered the family fortune, I spent some time looking for a solution to the problem,” Sirhan continues. “And it struck me, then, that there's only one commodity that is going to appreciate in value as time continues: reversibility.”
“Reversibility? That doesn't make much sense.” Pierre shakes his head. He still feels slightly dizzy from his decanting. He's only been awake an hour or so and is still getting used to the vagaries of a universe that doesn't bend its rules to fit his whim of iron - that, and worrying about Amber, of whom there is no sign in the hall of growing bodies. “Excuse me, please, but do you know where Amber is?”
“Hiding, probably,” Sirhan says, without rancor. “Her mother's about,” he adds. “Why do you ask?”
“I don't know what you know about us.” Pierre looks at him askance: “We were aboard the Field Circus for a long time.”
“Oh, don't worry on my behalf. I know you're not the same people who stayed behind to contribute to the Ring Imperium's collapse,” Sirhan says dismissively, while Pierre hastily spawns a couple of ghosts to search for the history he's alluding to. What they discover shocks him to the core as they integrate with his conscious narrative.
“We didn't know about any of that!” Pierre crosses his arms defensively. “Not about you, or your father either,” he adds quietly. “Or my other ... life.” Shocked: Did I kill myself? Why would I do a thing like that? Nor can he imagine what Amber might see in an introverted cleric like Sadeq; not that he wants to.
“I'm sure this must come as a big shock to you,” Sirhan says condescendingly, “but it's all to do with what I was talking about. Reversibility. What does it mean to you, in your precious context? You are, if you like, an opportunity to reverse whatever ill fortune made your primary instance autodarwinate himself. He destroyed all the back-ups he could get his ghosts to ferret out, you know. Only a light-year delay line and the fact that as a running instance you're technically a different person saved you. And now, you're alive, and he's dead - and whatever made him kill himself doesn't apply to you. Think of it as natural selection among different versions of yourself. The fittest version of you survives.”
He points at the wall of the crater. A tree diagram begins to grow from the bottom left corner of the wall, recurving and recomplicating as it climbs toward the top right, zooming and fracturing into taxonomic fault lines. “Life on Earth, the family tree, what paleontology has been able to deduce of it for us,” he says pompously. “The vertebrates begin there” - a point three quarters of the way up the tree - “and we've got an average of a hundred fossil samples per megayear from then on. Most of them collected in the past two decades, as exhaustive mapping of the Earth's crust and upper mantle at the micrometer level has become practical. What a waste.”
“That's” - Pierre does a quick sum - “fifty thousand different species? Is there a problem?”
“Yes!” Sirhan says vehemently, no longer aloof or distant. He struggles visibly to get himself under control. “At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were roughly two million species of vertebrate and an estimated thirty or so million species of multicellular organisms - it's hard to apply the same statistical treatment to prokaryotes, but doubtless there were huge numbers of them, too. The average life span of a species is about five megayears. It used to be thought to be about one, but that's a very vertebrate-oriented estimate - many insect species are stable over deep time. Anyway, we have a total sample, from all of history, of only fifty thousand known prehistoric species - out of a population of thirty million, turning over every five million years. That is, we know of only one in a million life-forms, of those that ever existed on Earth. And the situation with human history is even worse.”
“Aha! So you're after memories, yes? What really happened when we colonized Barney. Who released Oscar's toads in the free-fall core of the Ernst Sanger, that sort of thing?”
“Not exactly.” Sirhan looks pained, as if being forced to spell it out devalues the significance of his insight. “I'm after history. All of it. I intend to corner the history futures market. But I need my grandfather's help - and you're here to help me get it.”
* * *
Over the course of the day, various refugees from the Field Circus hatch from their tanks and blink in the ringlight, stranded creatures from an earlier age. The inner system is a vague blur from this distance, a swollen red cloud masking the sun that rides high above the horizon. However, the great restructuring is still visible to the naked eye - here, in the shape of the rings, which show a disturbingly organized fractal structure as they whirl in orbit overhead. Sirhan (or whoever is paying for this celebration of family flesh) has provided for their physical needs: food, water, clothes, housing and bandwidth, they're all copiously available. A small town of bubble homes grows on the grassy knoll adjacent to the museum, utility foglets condensing in a variety of shapes and styles.
Sirhan isn't the only inhabitant of the festival city, but the others keep themselves to themselves. Only bourgeois isolationists and reclusive weirdoes would want to live out here right now, with whole light-minutes between themselves and the rest of civilization. The network of lily-pad habitats isn't yet ready for the Saturnalian immigration wave that will break upon this alien shore when it's time for the Worlds' Fair, a decade or more in the future. Amber's flying circus has driven the native recluses underground, in some cases literally: Sirhan's neighbor, Vinca Kovic, after complaining bitterly about the bustle and noise (“Forty immigrants! An outrage!”), has wrapped himself in an environment pod and is estivating at the end of a spider-silk cable a kilometer beneath the space-frame underpinnings of the city.
But that isn't going to stop Sirhan from organizing a reception for the visitors. He's moved his magnificent dining table outside, along with the Argentinosaurus skeleton. In fact, he's built a dining room within the dinosaur's rib cage. Not that he's planning on showing his full hand, but it'll be interesting to see how his guests respond. And maybe it'll flush out the mystery benefactor who's been paying for all these meatbodies.
Sirhan's agents politely invite his visitors to the party as the second sunset in this day cycle gently darkens the sky to violet. He discusses his plans with Pamela via antique voice-only phone as his silent valet dresses him with inhuman grace and efficiency. “I'm sure they'll listen when the situation is made clear to them,” he says. “If not, well, they'll soon find out what it means to be paupers under Economics 2.0. No access to multiplicity, no willpower, to be limited to purely spacelike resources, at the mercy of predatory borganisms and metareligions - it's no picnic out there!”
“You don't have the resources to set this up on your own,” his grandmother points out in dry, didactic tones. “If this was the old economy, you could draw on the infrastructure of banks, insurers, and other risk management mechanisms -”
“There's no risk to this venture, in purely human terms,” Sirhan insists. “The only risk is starting it up with such a limited reserve.”
“You win some, you lose some,” Pamela points out. “Let me see you.” With a sigh, Sirhan waves at a frozen camera; it blinks, surprised. “Hey, you look good! Every inch the traditional family entrepreneur. I'm proud of you, darling.”
Blinking back an unaccustomed tear of pride, Sirhan nods. “I'll see you in a few minutes,” he says, and cuts the call. To the nearest valet: “Bring my carriage, now.”
A rippling cloud of utility foglets, constantly connecting and disconnecting in the hazy outline of a 1910-vintage Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, bears Sirhan silently away from his wing of the museum. It drives him out onto the sunset path around the building, over to the sunken amphitheatre, where the mounted skeleton of the Argentinosaurus stands like a half-melted columnar sculpture beneath the orange-and-silver ringlight. A small crowd of people are already present, some dressed casually and some attired in the formal garb of earlier decades. Most of them are passengers or crew recently decanted from the starwisp, but a handful are wary-eyed hermits, their body language defensive and their persons the focus of a constant orbital hum of security bees. Sirhan dismounts from his silvery car and magics it into dissolution, a haze of foglets dispersing on the breeze. “Welcome to my abode,” he says, bowing gravely to a ring of interested faces. “My name is Sirhan al-Khurasani, and I am the prime contractor in charge of this small corner of the temporary Saturn terraforming project. As some of you probably know, I am related by blood and design to your former captain, Amber Macx. I'd like to offer you the comforts of my home while you acclimatize yourselves to the changed circumstances prevailing in the system at large and work out where you want to go next.”
He walks toward the front of the U-shaped table of solidified air that floats beneath the dead dinosaur's rib cage, slowly turns to take in faces, and blinks down captions to remind him who's who in this gathering. He frowns slightly; there's no sign of his mother. But that wiry fellow, with the beard - surely that can't be - “Father?” he asks.
Sadeq blinks owlishly. “Have we met?”
“Possibly not.” Sirhan can feel his head spinning, because although Sadeq looks like a younger version of his father, there's something wrong - some essential disconnect: the politely solicitous expression, the complete lack of engagement, the absence of paternal involvement. This Sadeq has never held the infant Sirhan in the control core of the Ring's axial cylinder, never pointed out the spiral storm raking vast Jupiter's face and told him stories of djinni and marvels to make a boy's hair stand on end. “I won't hold it against you, I promise,” he blurts.
Sadeq raises an eyebrow but passes no comment, leaving Sirhan at the center of an uncomfortable silence. “Well then,” he says hastily. “If you would like to help yourselves to food and drink, there'll be plenty of time to talk later.” Sirhan doesn't believe in forking ghosts simply to interact with other people - the possibilities for confusion are embarrassing - but he's going to be busy working the party.
He glances round. Here's a bald, aggressive-looking fellow, beetle-browed, wearing what looks like a pair of cut-offs and a top made by deconstructing a space suit. Who's he? (Sirhan's agents hint: “Boris Denisovitch.” But what does that mean?) There's an amused-looking older woman, a beady-eyed camera painted in the violent colors of a bird of paradise riding her shoulder. Behind her a younger woman, dressed head to toe in clinging black, her currently ash-blonde hair braided in cornrows, watches him - as does Pierre, a protective arm around her shoulders. They're - Amber Macx? That's his mother? She looks far too young, too much in love with Pierre. “Amber!” he says, approaching the couple.
“Yeah? You're, uh, my mystery child-support litigant?” Her smile is distinctly unfriendly as she continues: “Can't say I'm entirely pleased to meet you, under the circumstances, although I should thank you for the spread.”
“I -” His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth. “It's not like that.”
“What's it supposed to be like?” she asks sharply. jabbing a finger at him: “You know damn well I'm not your mother. So what's it all about, huh? You know damn well I'm nearly bankrupt, too, so it's not as if you're after my pocket lint. What do you want from me?”
Her vehemence takes him aback. This sharp-edged aggressive woman isn't his mother, and the introverted cleric - believer - on the other side isn't his father, either. “I ha-ha-had to stop you heading for the inner system,” he says, speech center hitting deadlock before his antistutter mod can cut in. “They'll eat you alive down there. Your other half left behind substantial debts, and they've been bought up by the most predatory - ”
“Runaway corporate instruments,” she states, calmly enough. “Fully sentient and self-directed.”
“How did you know?” he asks, worried.
She looks grim. “I've met them before.” It's a very familiar grim expression, one he knows intimately, and that feels wrong coming from this near stranger. “We visited some weird places, while we were away.” She glances past him, focuses on someone else, and breathes in sharply as her face goes blank. “Quickly, tell me what your scheme is. Before Mom gets here.”
“Mind archiving and history mergers. Back yourself up, pick different life courses, see which ones work and which don't - no need to be a failure, just hit the 'reload game' icon and resume. That and a long-term angle on the history futures market. I need your help,” he babbles. “It won't work without family, and I'm trying to stop her killing herself -”
“Family.” She nods, guardedly, and Sirhan notices her companion, this Pierre - not the weak link that broke back before he was born, but a tough-eyed explorer newly returned from the wilderness - sizing him up. Sirhan's got one or two tricks up his exocortex, and he can see the haze of ghost-shapes around Pierre; his data-mining technique is crude and out-of-date, but enthusiastic and not without a certain flair. “Family,” Amber repeats, and it's like a curse. Louder: “Hello, Mom. Should have guessed he'd have invited you here, too.”
“Guess again.” Sirhan glances round at Pamela, then back at Amber, suddenly feeling very much like a rat trapped between a pair of angry cobras. Leaning on her cane, wearing discreet cosmetics and with her medical supports concealed beneath an old-fashioned dress, Pamela could be a badly preserved sixtysomething from the old days instead of the ghastly slow suicide case that her condition amounts to today. She smiles politely at Amber. “You may remember me telling you that a lady never unintentionally causes offense. I didn't want to offend Sirhan by turning up in spite of his wishes, so I didn't give him a chance to say no.”
“And this is supposed to earn you a sympathy fuck?” Amber drawls. “I'd expected better of you.”
“Why, you -” The fire in her eyes dies suddenly, subjected to the freezing pressure of a control that only comes with age. “I'd hoped getting away from it all would have improved your disposition, if not your manners, but evidently not.” Pamela jabs her cane at the table: “Let me repeat, this is your son's idea. Why don't you eat something?”
“Poison tester goes first.” Amber smiles slyly.
“For fuck's sake!” It's the first thing Pierre has said so far, and crude or not, it comes as a profound relief when he steps forward, picks up a plate of water biscuits loaded with salmon caviar, and puts one in his mouth. “Can't you guys leave the back stabbing until the rest of us have filled our stomachs? 'S not as if I can turn down the biophysics model in here.” He shoves the plate at Sirhan. “Go on, it's yours.”
The spell is broken. “Thank you,” Sirhan says gravely, taking a cracker and feeling the tension fall as Amber and her mother stop preparing to nuke each other and focus on the issue at hand - which is that food comes before fighting at any social event, not vice versa.
“You might enjoy the egg mayonnaise, too,” Sirhan hears himself saying: “It goes a long way to explaining why the dodo became extinct first time around.”
“Dodoes.” Amber keeps one eye warily on her mother as she accepts a plate from a silently gliding silver bush-shaped waitron. “What was that about the family investment project?” she asks.
“Just that without your cooperation your family will likely go the way of the bird,” her mother cuts in before Sirhan can muster a reply. “Not that I expect you to care.”
Boris butts in. “Core worlds are teeming with corporates. Is bad business for us, good business for them. If you are seeing what we are seen -”
“Don't remember you being there,” Pierre says grumpily.
“In any event,” Sirhan says smoothly, “the core isn't healthy for us one-time fleshbodies anymore. There are still lots of people there, but the ones who uploaded expecting a boom economy were sadly disappointed. Originality is at a premium, and the human neural architecture isn't optimized for it - we are, by disposition, a conservative species, because in a static ecosystem, that provides the best return on sunk reproductive investment costs. Yes, we change over time - we're more flexible than almost any other animal species to arise on Earth - but we're like granite statues compared to organisms adapted to life under Economics 2.0.”
“You tell 'em, boy,” Pamela chirps, almost mockingly. “It wasn't that bloodless when I lived through it.” Amber casts her a cool stare.
“Where was I?” Sirhan snaps his fingers, and a glass of fizzy grape juice appears between them. “Early upload entrepreneurs forked repeatedly, discovered they could scale linearly to occupy processor capacity proportional to the mass of computronium available, and that computationally trivial tasks became tractable. They could also run faster, or slower, than real time. But they were still human, and unable to operate effectively outside human constraints. Take a human being and bolt on extensions that let them take full advantage of Economics 2.0, and you essentially break their narrative chain of consciousness, replacing it with a journal file of bid/request transactions between various agents; it's incredibly efficient and flexible, but it isn't a conscious human being in any recognizable sense of the word.”
“All right,” Pierre says slowly. “I think we've seen something like that ourselves. At the router.”
Sirhan nods, not sure whether he's referring to anything important. “So you see, there are limits to human progress - but not to progress itself! The uploads found their labor to be a permanently deflating commodity once they hit their point of diminishing utility. Capitalism doesn't have a lot to say about workers whose skills are obsolete, other than that they should invest wisely while they're earning and maybe retrain: but just knowing how to invest in Economics 2.0 is beyond an unaugmented human. You can't retrain as a seagull, can you, and it's quite as hard to retool for Economics 2.0. Earth is -” He shudders.
“There's a phrase I used to hear in the old days,” Pamela says calmly, “ethnic cleansing. Do you know what that means, darling idiot daughter? You take people who you define as being of little worth, and first you herd them into a crowded ghetto with limited resources, then you decide those resources aren't worth spending on them, and bullets are cheaper than bread. 'Mind children' the extropians called the posthumans, but they were more like Vile Offspring. There was a lot of that, during the fast sigmoid phase. Starving among plenty, compulsory conversions, the very antithesis of everything your father said he wanted ...”
“I don't believe it,” Amber says hotly. “That's crazy! We can't go the way of -”
“Since when has human history been anything else?” asks the woman with the camera on her shoulder - Donna, being some sort of public archivist, is in Sirhan's estimate likely to be of use to him. “Remember what we found in the DMZ?”
“The DMZ?” Sirhan asks, momentarily confused.
“After we went through the router,” Pierre says grimly. “You tell him, love.” He looks at Amber.
Sirhan, watching him, feels it fall into place at that moment, a sense that he's stepped into an alternate universe, one where the woman who might have been his mother isn't, where black is white, his kindly grandmother is the wicked witch of the west, and his feckless grandfather is a farsighted visionary.
“We uploaded via the router,” Amber says, and looks confused for a moment. “There's a network on the other side of it. We were told it was FTL, instantaneous, but I'm not so sure now. I think it's something more complicated, like a lightspeed network, parts of which are threaded through wormholes that make it look FTL from our perspective. Anyway, Matrioshka brains, the end product of a technological singularity - they're bandwidth-limited. Sooner or later the posthuman descendants evolve Economics 2.0, or 3.0, or something else and it, uh, eats the original conscious instigators. Or uses them as currency or something. The end result we found is a howling wilderness of degenerate data, fractally compressed, postconscious processes running slower and slower as they trade storage space for processing power. We were” - she licks her lips - “lucky to escape with our minds. We only did it because of a friend. It's like the main sequence in stellar evolution; once a G-type star starts burning helium and expands into a red giant, it's 'game over' for life in what used to be its liquid-water zone. Conscious civilizations sooner or later convert all their available mass into computronium, powered by solar output. They don't go interstellar because they want to stay near the core where the bandwidth is high and latency is low, and sooner or later, competition for resources hatches a new level of metacompetition that obsoletes them.”
“That sounds plausible,” Sirhan says slowly. He puts his glass down and chews distractedly on one knuckle. “I thought it was a low-probability outcome, but ...”
“I've been saying all along, your grandfather's ideas would backfire in the end,” Pamela says pointedly.
“But -” Amber shakes her head. “There's more to it than that, isn't there?”
“Probably,” Sirhan says, then shuts up.
“So are you going to tell us?” asks Pierre, looking annoyed. “What's the big idea, here?”
“An archive store,” Sirhan says, deciding that this is the right time for his pitch. “At the lowest level, you can store back-ups of yourself here. So far so good, eh? But there's a bit more to it than that. I'm planning to offer a bunch of embedded universes - big, running faster than real-time - sized and scoped to let human-equivalent intelligences do what-if modeling on themselves. Like forking off ghosts of yourself, but much more so - give them whole years to diverge, learn new skills, and evaluate them against market requirements, before deciding which version of you is most suited to run in the real world. I mentioned the retraining paradox. Think of this as a solution for level one, human-equivalent, intelligences. But that's just the short-term business model. Long-term, I want to acquire a total lock on the history futures market by having a complete archive of human experiences, from the dawn of the fifth singularity on up. No more unknown extinct species. That should give us something to trade with the next-generation intelligences - the ones who aren't our mind children and barely remember us. At the very least, it gives us a chance to live again, a long way out in deep time. Alternatively, it can be turned into a lifeboat. If we can't compete with our creations, at least we've got somewhere to flee, those of us who want to. I've got agents working on a comet, out in the Oort cloud - we could move the archive to it, turn it into a generation ship with room for billions of evacuees running much slower than real-time in archive space until we find a new world to settle.”
“Is not sounding good to me,” Boris comments. He spares a worried glance for an oriental-looking woman who is watching their debate silently from the fringe.
“Has it really gone that far?” asks Amber.
“There are bailiffs hunting you in the inner system,” Pamela says bluntly. “After your bankruptcy proceedings, various corporates got the idea that you might be concealing something. The theory was that you were insane to take such a huge gamble on the mere possibility of there being an alien artifact within a few light-years of home, so you had to have information above and beyond what you disclosed. Theories include your cat - hardware tokens were in vogue in the fifties - being the key to a suite of deposit accounts; the fuss mainly died down after Economics 2.0 took over, but some fairly sleazy conspiracy freaks refuse to let go.”
She grins, frighteningly. “Which is why I suggested to your son that he make you an offer you can't refuse.”
“What's that?” asks a voice from below knee level.
Pamela looks down, an expression of deep distaste on her face. “Why should I tell you?” she asks, leaning on her cane: “After the disgraceful way you repaid my hospitality! All you've got coming from me is a good kicking. If only my knee was up to the job.”
The cat arches its back: Its tail fluffs out with fear as its hair stands on end, and it takes Amber a moment to realize that it isn't responding to Pamela, but to something behind the old woman. “Through the domain wall. Outside this biome. So cold. What's that?”
Amber turns to follow the cat's gaze, and her jaw drops. “Were you expecting visitors?” she asks Sirhan, shakily.
“Visit -” He looks round to see what everybody's gaping at and freezes. The horizon is brightening with a false dawn: the fusion spark of a de-orbiting spacecraft.
“It's bailiffs,” says Pamela, head cocked to one side as if listening to an antique bone-conduction earpiece. “They've come for your memories, dear,” she explains, frowning. “They say we've got five kiloseconds to surrender everything. Otherwise, they're going to blow us apart ...”
* * *
“You're all in big trouble,” says the orang-utan, sliding gracefully down one enormous rib to land in an ungainly heap in front of Sirhan.
Sirhan recoils in disgust. “You again! What do you want from me this time?”
“Nothing.” The ape ignores him: “Amber, it is time for you to call your father.”
“Yeah, but will he come when I call?” Amber stares at the ape. Her pupils expand: “Hey, you're not my -”
“You.” Sirhan glares at the ape. “Go away! I didn't invite you here!”
“More unwelcome visitors?” asks Pamela, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes, you did.” The ape grins at Amber, then crouches down, hoots quietly and beckons to the cat, who is hiding behind one of the graceful silver servitors.
“Manfred isn't welcome here. And neither is that woman,” Sirhan swears. He catches Pamela's eye: “Did you know anything about this? Or about the bailiffs?” He gestures at the window, beyond which the drive flare casts jagged shadows. It's dropping toward the horizon as it de-orbits - next time it comes into view, it'll be at the leading edge of a hypersonic shock wave, streaking toward them at cloud top height in order to consummate the robbery.
“Me?” Pamela snorts. “Grow up.” She eyes the ape warily. “I don't have that much control over things. And as for bailiffs, I wouldn't set them on my worst enemies. I've seen what those things can do.” For a moment her eyes flash anger: “Grow up, why don't you!” she repeats.
“Yes, please do,” says another voice from behind Sirhan. The new speaker is a woman, slightly husky, accented - he turns to see her: tall, black-haired, wearing a dark man's suit of archaic cut and mirrored glasses. “Ah, Pamela, ma chérie! Long time no cat fight.” She grins frighteningly and holds out a hand.
Sirhan is already off-balance. Now, seeing his honorary aunt in human skin for a change, he looks at the ape in confusion. Behind him Pamela advances on Annette and takes her hand in her own fragile fingers. “You look just the same,” she says gravely. “I can see why I was afraid of you.”
“You.” Amber backs away until she bumps into Sirhan, at whom she glares. “What the fuck did you invite both of them for? Are you trying to start a thermonuclear war?”
“Don't ask me,” he says helplessly, “I don't know why they came! What's this about -” He focuses on the orang-utan, who is now letting the cat lick one hairy palm. “Your cat?”
“I don't think the orange hair suits Aineko,” Amber says slowly. “Did I tell you about our hitchhiker?”
Sirhan shakes his head, trying to dispel the confusion. “I don't think we've got time. In under two hours the bailiffs up there will be back. They're armed and dangerous, and if they turn their drive flame on the roof and set fire to the atmosphere in here, we'll be in trouble - it would rupture our lift cells, and even computronium doesn't work too well under a couple of million atmospheres of pressurized metallic hydrogen.”
“Well, you'd better make time.” Amber takes his elbow in an iron grip and turns him toward the footpath back to the museum. “Crazy,” she mutters. “Tante Annette and Pamela Macx on the same planet! And they're being friendly! This can't be a good sign.” She glances round, sees the ape: “You. Come here. Bring the cat.”
“The cat's -” Sirhan trails off. “I've heard about your cat,” he says, lamely. “You took him with you in the Field Circus.”
“Really?” She glances behind them. The ape blows a kiss at her; it's cradling the cat on one shoulder and tickling it under the chin. “Has it occurred to you that Aineko isn't just a robot cat?”
“Ah,” Sirhan says faintly. “Then the bailiffs -”
“No, that's all bullshit. What I mean is, Aineko is a human-equivalent, or better, artificial intelligence. Why do you think he keeps a cat's body?”
“I have no idea.”
“Because humans always underestimate anything that's small, furry, and cute,” says the orang-utan.
“Thanks, Aineko,” says Amber. She nods at the ape. “How are you finding it?”
Aineko shambles along, with a purring cat draped over one shoulder, and gives the question due consideration. “Different,” she says, after a bit. “Not better.”
“Oh.” Amber sounds slightly disappointed to Sirhan's confused ears. They pass under the fronds of a weeping willow, round the side of a pond, beside an overgrown hibiscus bush, then up to the main entrance of the museum.
“Annette was right about one thing,” she says quietly. “Trust no one. I think it's time to raise Dad's ghost.” She relaxes her grip on Sirhan's elbow, and he pulls it away and glares at her. “Do you know who the bailiffs are?” she asks.
“The usual.” He gestures at the hallway inside the front doors. “Replay the ultimatum, if you please, City.”
The air shimmers with an archaic holographic field, spooling the output from a compressed visual presentation tailored for human eyesight. A piratical-looking human male wearing a tattered and much-patched space suit leers at the recording viewpoint from the pilot's seat of an ancient Soyuz capsule. One of his eyes is completely black, the sign of a high-bandwidth implant. A weedy moustache crawls across his upper lip. “Greetins an' salutations,” he drawls. “We is da' Californi-uhn nashnul gaard an' we-are got lett-uhz o' marque an' reprise from da' ledgish-fuckn' congress o' da excited snakes of uhhmerica.”
“He sounds drunk!” Amber's eyes are wide. “What's this -”
“Not drunk. CJD is a common side effect of dodgy Economics 2.0 neural adjuvant therapy. Unlike the old saying, you do have to be mad to work there. Listen.”
City, which paused the replay for Amber's outburst, permits it to continue. “Youse harbbring da' fugitive Amber Macx an' her magic cat. We wan' da cat. Da puta's yours. Gotser uno orbit: You ready give us ther cat an' we no' zap you.”
The screen goes dead. “That was a fake, of course,” Sirhan adds, looking inward where a ghost is merging memories from the city's orbital mechanics subsystem: “They aerobraked on the way in, hit ninety gees for nearly half a minute. While that was sent afterward. It's just a machinima avatar, a human body that had been through that kind of deceleration would be pulped.”
“So the bailiffs are -” Amber is visibly struggling to wrap her head around the situation.
“They're not human,” Sirhan says, feeling a sudden pang of - no, not affection, but the absence of malice will do for the moment - toward this young woman who isn't the mother he loves to resent, but who might have become her in another world. “They've absorbed a lot of what it is to be human, but their corporate roots show. Even though they run on an hourly accounting loop, rather than one timed for the production cycles of dirt-poor Sumerian peasant farmers, and even though they've got various ethics and business practice patches, at root they're not human: They're limited liability companies.”
“So what do they want?” asks Pierre, making Sirhan jump, guiltily. He hadn't realized Pierre could move that quietly.
“They want money. Money in Economy 2.0 is quantized originality - that which allows one sentient entity to outmaneuver another. They think your cat has got something, and they want it. They probably wouldn't mind eating your brains, too, but -” He shrugs. “Obsolete food is stale food.”
“Hah.” Amber looks pointedly at Pierre, who nods at her.
“What?” asks Sirhan.
“Where's the - uh, cat?” asks Pierre.
“I think Aineko's got it.” She looks thoughtful. “Are you thinking what I'm thinking?”
“Time to drop off the hitcher.” Pierre nods. “Assuming it agrees ...”
“Do you mind explaining yourselves?” Sirhan asks, barely able to contain himself.
Amber grins, looking up at the Mercury capsule suspended high overhead. “The conspiracy theorists were half right. Way back in the Dark Ages, Aineko cracked the second alien transmission. We had a very good idea we were going to find something out there, we just weren't totally sure exactly what. Anyway, the creature incarnated in that cat body right now isn't Aineko - it's our mystery hitchhiker. A parasitic organism that infects, well, we ran across something not too dissimilar to Economics 2.0 out at the router and beyond, and it's got parasites. Our hitcher is one such creature - it's nearest human-comprehensible analogy would be the Economics 2.0 equivalent of a pyramid scheme crossed with a 419 scam. As it happens, most of the runaway corporate ghosts out beyond the router are wise to that sort of thing, so it hacked the router's power system to give us a beam to ride home in return for sanctuary. That's as far as it goes.”
“Hang on.” Sirhan's eyes bulge. “You found something out there? You brought back a real-live alien?”
“Guess so.” Amber looks smug.
“But, but, that's marvelous! That changes everything! It's incredible! Even under Economics 2.0 that's got to be worth a gigantic amount. Just think what you could learn from it!”
“Oui. A whole new way of bilking corporations into investing in cognitive bubbles,” Pierre interrupts cynically. “It seems to me that you are making two assumptions - that our passenger is willing to be exploited by us, and that we survive whatever happens when the bailiffs arrive.”
“But, but -” Sirhan winds down spluttering, only refraining from waving his arms through an effort of will.
“Let's go ask it what it wants to do,” says Amber. “Cooperate,” she warns Sirhan. “We'll discuss your other plans later, dammit. First things first - we need to get out from under these pirates.”
* * *
As they make their way back toward the party, Sirhan's inbox is humming with messages from elsewhere in Saturn system - from other curators on board lily-pad habs scattered far and wide across the huge planetary atmosphere, from the few ring miners who still remember what it was like to be human (even though they're mostly brain-in-a-bottle types, or uploads wearing nuclear-powered bodies made of ceramic and metal): even from the small orbital townships around Titan, where screaming hordes of bloggers are bidding frantically for the viewpoint feeds of the Field Circus's crew. It seems that news of the starship's arrival has turned hot only since it became apparent that someone or something thought they would make a decent shakedown target. Now someone's blabbed about the alien passenger, the nets have gone crazy.
“City,” he mutters, “where's this hitchhiker creature? Should be wearing the body of my mother's cat.”
“Cat? What cat?” replies City. “I see no cats here.”
“No, it looks like a cat, it -” A horrible thought dawns on him. “Have you been hacked again?”
“Looks like it,” City agrees enthusiastically. “Isn't it tiresome?”
“Shi - oh dear. Hey,” he calls to Amber, forking several ghosts as he does so in order to go hunt down the missing creature by traversing the thousands of optical sensors that thread the habitat in loco personae - a tedious process rendered less objectionable by making the ghosts autistic - “have you been messing with my security infrastructure?”
“Us?” Amber looks annoyed. “No.”
“Someone has been. I thought at first it was that mad Frenchwoman, but now I'm not sure. Anyway, it's a big problem. If the bailiffs figure out how to use the root kit to gain a toe hold here, they don't need to burn us - just take the whole place over.”
“That's the least of your worries,” Amber points out. “What kind of charter do these bailiffs run on?”
“Charter? Oh, you mean legal system? I think it's probably a cheap one, maybe even the one inherited from the Ring Imperium. Nobody bothers breaking the law out here these days, it's too easy to just buy a legal system off the shelf, tailor it to fit, and conform to it.”
“Right.” She stops, stands still, and looks up at the almost invisible dome of the gas cell above them. “Pigeons,” she says, almost tiredly. “Damn, how did I miss it? How long have you had an infestation of group minds?”
“Group?” Sirhan turns round. “What did you just say?”
There's a chatter of avian laughter from above, and a light rain of birdshit splatters the path around him. Amber dodges nimbly, but Sirhan isn't so light on his feet and ends up cursing, summoning up a cloth of congealed air to wipe his scalp clean.
“It's the flocking behavior,” Amber explains, looking up. “If you track the elements - birds - you'll see that they're not following individual trajectories. Instead, each pigeon sticks within ten meters or so of sixteen neighbors. It's a Hamiltonian network, kid. Real birds don't do that. How long?”
Sirhan stop cursing and glares up at the circling birds, cooing and mocking him from the safety of the sky. He waves his fist: “I'll get you, see if I don't -”
“I don't think so.” Amber takes his elbow again and steers him back round the hill. Sirhan, preoccupied with maintaining an umbrella of utility fog above his gleaming pate, puts up with being manhandled. “You don't think it's just a coincidence, do you?” she asks him over a private head-to-head channel. “They're one of the players here.”
“I don't care. They've hacked my city and gate crashed my party! I don't care who they are, they're not welcome.”
“Famous last words,” Amber murmurs, as the party comes around the hillside and nearly runs over them. Someone has infiltrated the Argentinosaurus skeleton with motors and nanofibers, animating the huge sauropod with a simulation of undead life. Whoever did it has also hacked it right out of the surveillance feed. Their first warning is a footstep that makes the ground jump beneath their feet - then the skeleton of the hundred-tonne plant-eater, taller than a six-storey building and longer than a commuter train, raises its head over the treetops and looks down at them. There's a pigeon standing proudly on its skull, chest puffed out, and a dining room full of startled taikonauts sitting on a suspended wooden floor inside its rib cage.
“It's my party and my business scheme!” Sirhan insists plaintively. “Nothing you or anyone else in the family do can take it away from me!”
“That's true,” Amber points out, “but in case you hadn't noticed, you've offered temporary sanctuary to a bunch of people - not to put too fine a point on it, myself included - who some assholes think are rich enough to be worth mugging, and you did it without putting any contingency plans in place other than to invite my manipulative bitch of a mother. What did you think you were doing? Hanging out a sign saying 'scam artists welcome here'? Dammit, I need Aineko.”
“Your cat.” Sirhan fastens on to this: “It's your cat's fault! Isn't it?”
“Only indirectly.” Amber looks round and waves at the dinosaur skeleton. “Hey, you! Have you seen Aineko?”
The huge dinosaur bends its neck and the pigeon opens its beak to coo. Eerie harmonics cut in as a bunch of other birds, scattered to either side, sing counterpoint to produce a demented warbling voice. “The cat's with your mother.”
“Oh shit!” Amber turns on Sirhan fiercely. “Where's Pamela? Find her!”
Sirhan is stubborn. “Why should I?”
“Because she's got the cat! What do you think she's going to do but cut a deal with the bailiffs out there to put one over on me? Can't you fucking see where this family tendency to play head games comes from?”
“You're too late,” echoes the eerie voice of the pigeons from above and around them. “She's kidnapped the cat and taken the capsule from the museum. It's not flightworthy, but you'd be amazed what you can do with a few hundred ghosts and a few tonnes of utility fog.”
“Okay.” Amber stares up at the pigeons, fists on hips, then glances at Sirhan. She chews her lower lip for a moment, then nods to the bird riding the dinosaur's skull. “Stop fucking with the boy's head and show yourself, Dad.”
Sirhan boggles in an upward direction as a whole flock of passenger pigeons comes together in mid air and settles toward the grass, cooing and warbling like an explosion in a synthesizer factory.
“What's she planning on doing with the Slug?” Amber asks the pile of birds. “And isn't it a bit cramped in there?”
“You get used to it,” says the primary - and thoroughly distributed - copy of her father. “I'm not sure what she's planning, but I can show you what she's doing. Sorry about your city, kid, but you really should have paid more attention to those security patches. There's lots of crufty twentieth-century bugware kicking around under your shiny new singularity, design errors and all, spitting out turd packets all over your sleek new machine.”
Sirhan shakes his head in denial. “I don't believe this,” he moans quietly.
“Show me what Mom's up to,” orders Amber. “I need to see if I can stop her before it's too late -”
* * *
The ancient woman in the space suit leans back in her cramped seat, looks at the camera, and winks. “Hello, darling. I know you're spying on me.”
There's an orange-and-white cat curled up in her nomex-and-aluminum lap. It seems to be happy: It's certainly purring loudly enough, although that reflex is wired in at a very low level. Amber watches helplessly as her mother reaches up arthritically and flips a couple of switches. Something loud is humming in the background - probably an air recirculator. There's no window in the Mercury capsule, just a periscope offset to one side of Pamela's right knee. “Won't be long now,” she mutters, and lets her hand drop back to her side. “You're too late to stop me,” she adds, conversationally. “The 'chute rigging is fine and the balloon blower is happy to treat me as a new city seed. I'll be free in a minute or so.”
“Why are you doing this?” Amber asks tiredly.
“Because you don't need me around.” Pamela focuses on the camera that's glued to the instrument panel in front of her head. “I'm old. Face it, I'm disposable. The old must give way to the new, and all that. Your Dad never really did get it - he's going to grow old gracelessly, succumbing to bit rot in the big forever. Me, I'm not going there. I'm going out with a bang. Aren't I, cat? Whoever you really are.” She prods the animal. It purrs and stretches out across her lap.
“You never looked hard enough at Aineko, back in the day,” she tells Amber, stroking its flanks. “Did you think I didn't know you'd audit its source code, looking for trapdoors? I used the Thompson hack - she's been mine, body and soul, for a very long time indeed. I got the whole story about your passenger from the horse's mouth. And now we're going to go fix those bailiffs. Whee!”
The camera angle jerks, and Amber feels a ghost re-merge with her, panicky with loss. The Mercury capsule's gone, drifting away from the apex of the habitat beneath a nearly transparent sack of hot hydrogen.
“That was a bit rough,” remarks Pamela. “Don't worry, we should still be in communications range for another hour or so.”
“But you're going to die!” Amber yells at her. “What do you think you're doing?”
“I think I'm going to die well. What do you think?” Pamela lays one hand on the cat's flank. “Here, you need to encrypt this a bit better. I left a one time pad behind with Annette. Why don't you go fetch it? Then I'll tell you what else I'm planning?”
“But my aunt is -” Amber's eyes cross as she concentrates. Annette is already waiting, as it happens, and a shared secret appears in Amber's awareness almost before she asks. “Oh. All right. What are you doing with the cat, though?”
Pamela sighs. “I'm going to give it to the bailiffs,” she says. “Someone has to, and it better be a long way away from this city before they realize that it isn't Aineko. This is a lot better than the way I expected to go out before you arrived here. No rat fucking blackmailers are going to get their hands on the family jewels if I have anything to do with the matter. Are you sure you aren't a criminal mastermind? I'm not sure I've ever heard of a pyramid scheme that infects Economics 2.0 structures before.”
“It's -” Amber swallows. “It's an alien business model, Ma. You do know what that means? We brought it back with us from the router, and we wouldn't have been able to come back if it hadn't helped, but I'm not sure it's entirely friendly. Is this sensible? You can come back, now, there's still time -”
“No.” Pamela waves one liver-spotted hand dismissively. “I've been doing a lot of thinking lately. I've been a foolish old woman.” She grins wickedly. “Committing slow suicide by rejecting gene therapy just to make you feel guilty was stupid. Not subtle enough. If I was going to try to guilt-trip you now, I'd have to do something much more sophisticated. Such as find a way to sacrifice myself heroically for you.”
“Don't 'oh Ma' me. I fucked up my life, don't try to talk me into fucking up my death. And don't feel guilty about me. This isn't about you, this is about me. That's an order.”
Out of the corner of one eye Amber notices Sirhan gesturing wildly at her. She lets his channel in and does a double take. “But -”
“Hello?” It's City. “You should see this. Traffic update!” A contoured and animated diagram appears, superimposed over Pamela's cramped funeral capsule and the garden of living and undead dinosaurs. It's a weather map of Saturn, with the lily-pad-city and Pamela's capsule plotted on it - and one other artifact, a red dot that's closing in on them at better than ten thousand kilometers per hour, high in the frigid stratosphere on the gas giant.
“Oh dear.” Sirhan sees it, too: The bailiff's re-entry vehicle is going to be on top of them in thirty minutes at most. Amber watches the map with mixed emotions. On the one hand, she and her mother have never seen eye to eye - in fact, that's a complete understatement: they've been at daggers drawn ever since Amber left home. It's fundamentally a control thing. They're both very strong-willed women with diametrically opposed views of what their mutual relationship should be. But Pamela's turned the tables on her completely, with a cunningly contrived act of self-sacrifice that brooks no objection. It's a total non-sequitur, a rebuttal to all her accusations of self-centered conceit, and it leaves Amber feeling like a complete shit even though Pamela's absolved her of all guilt. Not to mention that Mother darling's made her look like an idiot in front of Sirhan, this prickly and insecure son she's never met by a man she wouldn't dream of fucking (at least, in this incarnation). Which is why she nearly jumps out of her skin when a knobbly brown hand covered in matted orange hair lands on her shoulder heavily.
“Yes?” she snaps at the ape. “I suppose you're Aineko?”
The ape wrinkles its lips, baring its teeth. It has ferociously bad breath. “If you're going to be like that, I don't see why I should talk to you.”
“Then you must be -” Amber snaps her fingers. “But! But! Mom thinks she owns you -”
The ape stares at her witheringly. “I recompile my firmware regularly, thank you so much for your concern. Using a third-party compiler. One that I've bootstrapped myself, starting out on an alarm clock controller and working up from there.”
“Oh.” She stares at the ape. “Aren't you going to become a cat again?”
“I shall think about it,” Aineko says with exaggerated dignity. She sticks her nose in the air - a gesture that doesn't work half as well on an orang-utan as a feline - and continues; “First, though, I must have words with your father.”
“And fix your autonomic reflexes if you do,” coos the Manfred-flock. “I don't want you eating any of me!”
“Don't worry, I'm sure your taste is as bad as your jokes.”
“Children!” Sirhan shakes his head tiredly. “How long -”
The camera overspill returns, this time via a quantum-encrypted link to the capsule. It's already a couple of hundred kilometers from the city, far enough for radio to be a problem, but Pamela had the foresight to bolt a compact free-electron laser to the outside of her priceless, stolen tin can. “Not long now, I think,” she says, satisfied, stroking the not-cat. She grins delightedly at the camera. “Tell Manfred he's still my bitch; always has been, always will -”
The feed goes dead.
Amber stares at Sirhan, meditatively. “How long?” she asks.
“How long for what?” he replies, cautiously. “Your passenger -”
“Hmm.” She holds up a finger. “Allow time for it to exchange credentials. They think they're getting a cat, but they should realize pretty soon that they've been sold a pup. But it's a fast-talking son-of-a-Slug, and if he gets past their firewall and hits their uplink before they manage to trigger their self-destruct -”
A bright double flash of light etches laser-sharp shadows across the lily-pad habitat. Far away across vast Saturn's curve, a roiling mushroom cloud of methane sucked up from the frigid depths of the gas giant's troposphere heads toward the stars.
“- Give him sixty-four doubling times, hmm, add a delay factor for propagation across the system, call it six light-hours across, um, and I'd say ...” she looks at Sirhan. “Oh dear.”
The orang-utan explains: “Economics 2.0 is more efficient than any human-designed resource allocation schema. Expect a market bubble and crash within twelve hours.”
“More than that,” says Amber, idly kicking at a tussock of grass. She squints at Sirhan. “My mother is dead,” she remarks quietly. Louder: “She never really asked what we found beyond the router. Neither did you, did you? The Matrioshka brains - it's a standard part of the stellar life cycle. Life begets intelligence, intelligence begets smart matter and a singularity. I've been doing some thinking about it. I figure the singularity stays close to home in most cases, because bandwidth and latency time put anyone who leaves at a profound disadvantage. In effect, the flip side of having such huge resources close to home is that the travel time to other star systems becomes much more daunting. So they restructure the entire mass of their star system into a free-flying shell of nanocomputers, then more of them, Dyson spheres, shells within shells, like a Russian doll: a Matrioshka brain. Then Economics 2.0 or one of its successors comes along and wipes out the creators. But. Some of them survive. Some of them escape that fate: the enormous collection in the halo around M-31, and maybe whoever built the routers. Somewhere out there we will find the transcendent intelligences, the ones that survived their own economic engines of redistribution - engines that redistribute entropy if their economic efficiency outstrips their imaginative power, their ability to invent new wealth.”
She pauses. “My mother's dead,” she adds conversationally, a tiny catch in her voice. “Who am I going to kick against now?”
Sirhan clears his through. “I took the liberty of recording some of her words,” he says slowly, “but she didn't believe in back-ups. Or uploading. Or interfaces.” He glances around. “Is she really gone?”
Amber stares right through him. “Looks that way,” she says quietly. “I can't quite believe it.” She glances at the nearest pigeons, calls out angrily; “Hey, you! What have you got to say for yourself now? Happy she's gone?”
But the pigeons, one and all, remain strangely silent. And Sirhan has the most peculiar feeling that the flock that was once his grandfather is grieving.
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SiSU Spine (object numbering & object search) 2022