Charles Stross (2005-07-05)

PART 3: Singularity

Chapter 8: Elector

Half a year passes on Saturn - more than a decade on Earth - and a lot of things have changed in that time. The great terraforming project is nearly complete, the festival planet dressed for a jubilee that will last almost twenty of its years - four presingularity lifetimes - before the Demolition. The lily-pad habitats have proliferated, joining edge to edge in continent-sized slabs, drifting in the Saturnine cloud tops: and the refugees have begun to move in.

There's a market specializing in clothing and fashion accessories about fifty kilometers away from the transplanted museum where Sirhan's mother lives, at a transportation nexus between three lily-pad habitats where tube trains intersect in a huge maglev cloverleaf. The market is crowded with strange and spectacular visuals, algorithms unfolding in faster-than-real time before the candy-striped awnings of tents. Domed yurts belch aromatic smoke from crude fireplaces - what is it about hairless primates and their tendency toward pyromania? - around the feet of diamond-walled groundscrapers that pace carefully across the smart roads of the city. The crowds are variegated and wildly mixed, immigrants from every continent shopping and haggling, and in a few cases, getting out of their skulls on strange substances on the pavements in front of giant snail-shelled shebeens and squat bunkers made of thin layers of concrete sprayed over soap-bubble aerogel. There are no automobiles, but a bewildering range of personal transport gadgets, from gyro-stabilized pogo sticks and segways to kettenkrads and spiderpalanquins, jostle for space with pedestrians and animals.

Two women stop outside what in a previous century might have been the store window of a fashion boutique: The younger one (blonde, with her hair bound up in elaborate cornrows, wearing black leggings and a long black leather jacket over a camouflage T) points to an elaborately retro dress. “Wouldn't my bum look big in that?” she asks, doubtfully.

“Ma chérie, you have but to try it -” The other woman (tall, wearing a pin-striped man's business suit from a previous century) flicks a thought at the window, and the mannequin morphs, sprouting the younger woman's head, aping her posture and expression.

“I missed out on the authentic retail experience, you know? It still feels weird to be back somewhere with shops. 'S what comes of living off libraries of public domain designs for too long.” Amber twists her hips, experimenting. “You get out of the habit of foraging. I don't know about this retro thing at all. The Victorian vote isn't critical, is it ...” She trails off.

“You are a twenty-first-century platform selling, to electors resimulated and incarnated from the Gilded Age. And yes, a bustle your derriere does enhance. But -” Annette looks thoughtful.

“Hmm.” Amber frowns, and the shop window dummy turns and waggles its hips at her, sending tiers of skirts swishing across the floor. Her frown deepens. “If we're really going to go through with this election shit, it's not just the resimulant voters I need to convince but the contemporaries, and that's a matter of substance, not image. They've lived through too much media warfare. They're immune to any semiotic payload short of an active cognitive attack. If I send out partials to canvass them that look as if I'm trying to push buttons -”

“- They will listen to your message, and nothing you wear or say will sway them. Don't worry about them, ma chérie. The naive resimulated are another matter, and perhaps might be swayed. This your first venture into democracy is, in how many years? Your privacy, she is an illusion now. The question is what image will you project? People will listen to you only once you gain their attention. Also, the swing voters you must reach, they are future-shocked, timid. Your platform is radical. Should you not project a comfortably conservative image?”

Amber pulls a face, an expression of mild distaste for the whole populist program. “Yes, I suppose I must, if necessary. But on second thoughts, that” - Amber snaps her fingers, and the mannequin turns around once more before morphing back into neutrality, aureoles perfect puckered disks above the top of its bodice - “is just too much.”

She doesn't need to merge in the opinions of several different fractional personalities, fashion critics and psephologists both, to figure out that adopting Victorian/Cretan fusion fashion - a breast-and-ass fetishist's fantasy - isn't the way to sell herself as a serious politician to the nineteenth-century postsingularity fringe. “I'm not running for election as the mother of the nation, I'm running because I figure we've got about a billion seconds, at most, to get out of this rat trap of a gravity well before the Vile Offspring get seriously medieval on our CPU cycles, and if we don't convince them to come with us, they're doomed. Let's look for something more practical that we can overload with the right signifiers.”

“Like your coronation robe?”

Amber winces. “Touché.” The Ring Imperium is dead, along with whatever was left over from its early orbital legal framework, and Amber is lucky to be alive as a private citizen in this cold new age at the edge of the halo. “But that was just scenery setting. I didn't fully understand what I was doing, back then.”

“Welcome to maturity and experience.” Annette smiles distantly at some faint memory: “You don't feel older, you just know what you're doing this time. I wonder, sometimes, what Manny would make of it if he was here.”

“That birdbrain,” Amber says dismissively, stung by the idea that her father might have something to contribute. She follows Annette past a gaggle of mendicant street evangelists preaching some new religion and in through the door of a real department store, one with actual human sales staff and fitting rooms to cut the clothing to shape. “If I'm sending out fractional mes tailored for different demographics, isn't it a bit self-defeating to go for a single image? I mean, we could drill down and tailor a partial for each individual elector -”

“Per-haps.” The door re-forms behind them. “But you need a core identity.” Annette looks around, hunting for eye contact with the sales consultant. “To start with a core design, a style, then to work outward, tailoring you for your audience. And besides, there is tonight's - ah, bonjour!”

“Hello. How can we help you?” The two female and one male shop assistants who appear from around the displays - cycling through a history of the couture industry, catwalk models mixing and matching centuries of fashion - are clearly chips off a common primary personality, instances united by their enhanced sartorial obsession. If they're not actually a fashion borganism, they're not far from it, dressed head to foot in the highest quality Chanel and Armani replicas, making a classical twentieth-century statement. This isn't simply a shop, it's a temple to a very peculiar art form, its staff trained as guardians of the esoteric secrets of good taste.

“Mais oui. We are looking for a wardrobe for my niece here.” Annette reaches through the manifold of fashion ideas mapped within the shop's location cache and flips a requirement spec one of her ghosts has just completed at the lead assistant: “She is into politics going, and the question of her image is important.”

“We would be delighted to help you,” purrs the proprietor, taking a delicate step forward: “Perhaps you could tell us what you've got in mind?”

“Oh. Well.” Amber takes a deep breath, glances sidelong at Annette; Annette stares back, unblinking. It's your head, she sends. “I'm involved in the accelerationista administrative program. Are you familiar with it?”

The head coutureborg frowns slightly, twin furrows rippling her brow between perfectly symmetrical eyebrows, plucked to match her classic New Look suit. “I have heard reference to it, but a lady of fashion like myself does not concern herself with politics,” she says, a touch self-deprecatingly. “Especially the politics of her clients. Your, ah, aunt said it was a question of image?”

“Yes.” Amber shrugs, momentarily self-conscious about her casual rags. “She's my election agent. My problem, as she says, is there's a certain voter demographic that mistakes image for substance and is afraid of the unknown, and I need to acquire a wardrobe that triggers associations of probity, of respect and deliberation. One suitable for a representative with a radical political agenda but a strong track record. I'm afraid I'm in a hurry to start with - I've got a big fund-raising party tonight. I know it's short notice, but I need something off the shelf for it.”

“What exactly is it you're hoping to achieve?” asks the male couturier, his voice hoarse and his r's rolling with some half-shed Mediterranean accent. He sounds fascinated. “If you think it might influence your choice of wardrobe ...”

“I'm running for the assembly,” Amber says bluntly. “On a platform calling for a state of emergency and an immediate total effort to assemble a starship. This solar system isn't going to be habitable for much longer, and we need to emigrate. All of us, you included, before the Vile Offspring decide to reprocess us into computronium. I'm going to be doorstepping the entire electorate in parallel, and the experience needs to be personalized.” She manages to smile. “That means, I think, perhaps eight outfits and four different independent variables for each, accessories, and two or three hats - enough that each is seen by no more than a few thousand voters. Both physical fabric and virtual. In addition, I'll want to see your range of historical formalwear, but that's of secondary interest for now.” She grins. “Do you have any facilities for response-testing the combinations against different personality types from different periods? If we could run up some models, that would be useful.”

“I think we can do better than that.” The manager nods approvingly, perhaps contemplating her gold-backed deposit account. “Hansel, please divert any further visitors until we have dealt with Madam ...?”

“Macx. Amber Macx.”

“- Macx's requirements.” She shows no sign of familiarity with the name. Amber winces slightly; it's a sign of how hugely fractured the children of Saturn have become, and of how vast the population of the halo, that only a generation has passed and already barely anyone remembers the Queen of the Ring Imperium. “If you'd come this way, please, we can begin to research an eigenstyle combination that matches your requirements -”

* * *

Sirhan walks, shrouded in isolation, through the crowds gathered for the festival. The only people who see him are the chattering ghosts of dead politicians and writers, deported from the inner system by order of the Vile Offspring. The green and pleasant plain stretches toward a horizon a thousand kilometers away, beneath a lemon-yellow sky. The air smells faintly of ammonia, and the big spaces are full of small ideas; but Sirhan doesn't care because, for now, he's alone.

Except that he isn't, really.

“Excuse me, are you real?” someone asks him in American-accented English.

It takes a moment or two for Sirhan to disengage from his introspection and realize that he's being spoken to. “What?” he asks, slightly puzzled. Wiry and pale, Sirhan wears the robes of a Berber goatherd on his body and the numinous halo of a utility fogbank above his head: In his abstraction, he vaguely resembles a saintly shepherd in a post-singularity nativity play. “I say, what?” Outrage simmers at the back of his mind - Is nowhere private? - but as he turns, he sees that one of the ghost pods has split lengthwise across its white mushroomlike crown, spilling a trickle of leftover construction fluid and a completely hairless, slightly bemused-looking Anglo male who wears an expression of profound surprise.

“I can't find my implants,” the Anglo male says, shaking his head. “But I'm really here, aren't I? Incarnate?” He glances round at the other pods. “This isn't a sim.”

Sirhan sighs - another exile - and sends forth a daemon to interrogate the ghost pod's abstract interface. It doesn't tell him much - unlike most of the resurrectees, this one seems to be undocumented. “You've been dead. Now you're alive. I suppose that means you're now almost as real as I am. What else do you need to know?”

“When is -” The newcomer stops. “Can you direct me to the processing center?” he asks carefully. “I'm disoriented.”

Sirhan is surprised - most immigrants take a lot longer to figure that out. “Did you die recently?” he asks.

“I'm not sure I died at all.” The newcomer rubs his bald head, looking puzzled. “Hey, no jacks!” He shrugs, exasperated. “Look, the processing center ..?”

“Over there.” Sirhan gestures at the monumental mass of the Boston Museum of Science (shipped all the way from Earth a couple of decades ago to save it from the demolition of the inner system). “My mother runs it.” He smiles thinly.

“Your mother -” the newly resurrected immigrant stares at him intensely, then blinks. “Holy shit.” He takes a step toward Sirhan. “It is you -”

Sirhan recoils and snaps his fingers. The thin trail of vaporous cloud that has been following him all this time, shielding his shaven pate from the diffuse red glow of the swarming shells of orbital nanocomputers that have replaced the inner planets, extrudes a staff of hazy blue mist that stretches down from the air and slams together in his hand like a quarterstaff spun from bubbles. “Are you threatening me, sir?” he asks, deceptively mildly.

“I -” The newcomer stops dead. Then he throws back his head and laughs. “Don't be silly, son. We're related!”

“Son?” Sirhan bristles. “Who do you think you are -” A horrible thought occurs to him. “Oh. Oh dear.” A wash of adrenaline drenches him in warm sweat. “I do believe we've met, in a manner of speaking ...” Oh boy, this is going to upset so many applecarts, he realizes, spinning off a ghost to think about the matter. The implications are enormous.

The naked newcomer nods, grinning at some private joke. “You look different from ground level. And now I'm human again.” He runs his hands down his ribs, pauses, and glances at Sirhan owlishly. “Um. I didn't mean to frighten you. But I don't suppose you could find your aged grandfather something to wear?”

Sirhan sighs and points his staff straight up at the sky. The rings are edge on, for the lily pad continent floats above an ocean of cold gas along Saturn's equator, and they glitter like a ruby laser beam slashed across the sky. “Let there be aerogel.”

A cloud of wispy soap bubble congeals in a cone shape above the newly resurrected ancient and drops over him, forming a caftan. “Thanks,” he says. He looks round, twisting his neck, then winces. “Damn, that hurt. Ouch. I need to get myself a set of implants.”

“They can sort you out in the processing center. It's in the basement in the west wing. They'll give you something more permanent to wear, too.” Sirhan peers at him. “Your face -” He pages through rarely used memories. Yes, it's Manfred as he looked in the early years of the last century. As he looked around the time Mother-not was born. There's something positively indecent about meeting your own grandfather in the full flush of his youth. “Are you sure you haven't been messing with your phenotype?” he asks suspiciously.

“No, this is what I used to look like. I think. Back in the naked ape again, after all these years as an emergent function of a flock of passenger pigeons.” His grandfather smirks. “What's your mother going to say?”

“I really don't know -” Sirhan shakes his head. “Come on, let's get you to immigrant processing. You're sure you're not just an historical simulation?”

The place is already heaving with the resimulated. Just why the Vile Offspring seem to feel it's necessary to apply valuable exaquops to the job of deriving accurate simulations of dead humans - outrageously accurate simulations of long-dead lives, annealed until their written corpus matches that inherited from the presingularity era in the form of chicken scratchings on mashed tree pulp - much less beaming them at the refugee camps on Saturn - is beyond Sirhan's ken: But he wishes they'd stop.

“Just a couple of days ago I crapped on your lawn. Hope you don't mind.” Manfred cocks his head to one side and stares at Sirhan with beady eyes. “Actually, I'm here because of the upcoming election. It's got the potential to turn into a major crisis point, and I figured Amber would need me around.”

“Well you'd better come on in, then,” Sirhan says resignedly as he climbs the steps, enters the foyer, and leads his turbulent grandfather into the foggy haze of utility nanomachines that fill the building.

He can't wait to see what his mother will do when she meets her father in the flesh, after all this time.

* * *

Welcome to Saturn, your new home world. This FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) memeplex is designed to orient you and explain the following:

●  How you got here

●  Where “here” is

●  Things you should avoid doing

●  Things you might want to do as soon as possible

●  Where to go for more information

If you are remembering this presentation, you are probably resimulated. This is not the same as being resurrected. You may remember dying. Do not worry: Like all your other memories, it is a fabrication. In fact, this is the first time you have ever been alive. (Exception: If you died after the singularity, you may be a genuine resurrectee. In which case, why are you reading this FAQ?)

How you got here:

The center of the solar system - Mercury, Venus, Earth's Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, and Jupiter - have been dismantled, or are being dismantled, by weakly godlike intelligences. [NB: Monotheistic clergy and Europeans who remember living prior to 1600, see alternative memeplex “in the beginning.”] A weakly godlike intelligence is not a supernatural agency, but the product of a highly advanced society that learned how to artificially create souls [late 20th century: software] and translate human minds into souls and vice versa. [Core concepts: Human beings all have souls. Souls are software objects. Software is not immortal.]

Some of the weakly godlike intelligences appear to cultivate an interest in their human antecedents - for whatever reason is not known. (Possibilities include the study of history through horticulture, entertainment through live-action role-playing, revenge, and economic forgery.) While no definitive analysis is possible, all the resimulated persons to date exhibit certain common characteristics: They are all based on well-documented historical persons, their memories show suspicious gaps [see: smoke and mirrors], and they are ignorant of or predate the singularity [see: Turing Oracle, Vinge catastrophe].

It is believed that the weakly godlike agencies have created you as a vehicle for the introspective study of your historical antecedent by backward-chaining from your corpus of documented works, and the back-projected genome derived from your collateral descendants, to generate an abstract description of your computational state vector. This technique is extremely intensive [see: expTime-complete algorithms, Turing Oracle, time travel, industrial magic] but marginally plausible in the absence of supernatural explanations.

After experiencing your life, the weakly godlike agencies have expelled you. For reasons unknown, they chose to do this by transmitting your upload state and genome/proteome complex to receivers owned and operated by a consortium of charities based on Saturn. These charities have provided for your basic needs, including the body you now occupy.

In summary: You are a reconstruction of someone who lived and died a long time ago, not a reincarnation. You have no intrinsic moral right to the identity you believe to be your own, and an extensive body of case law states that you do not inherit your antecedent's possessions. Other than that, you are a free individual.

Note that fictional resimulation is strictly forbidden. If you have reason to believe that you may be a fictional character, you must contact the city immediately. [ See: James Bond, Spider Jerusalem.] Failure to comply is a felony.

Where you are:

You are on Saturn. Saturn is a gas giant planet 120,500 kilometers in diameter, located 1.5 billion kilometers from Earth's sun. [NB: Europeans who remember living prior to 1580, see alternative memeplex “the flat Earth - not”.] Saturn has been partially terraformed by posthuman emigrants from Earth and Jupiter orbit: The ground beneath your feet is, in reality, the floor of a hydrogen balloon the size of a continent, floating in Saturn's upper atmosphere. [NB: Europeans who remember living prior to 1790, internalize the supplementary memeplex: “the Brothers Montgolfier.”] The balloon is very safe, but mining activities and the use of ballistic weapons are strongly deprecated because the air outside is unbreathable and extremely cold.

The society you have been instantiated in is extremely wealthy within the scope of Economics 1.0, the value transfer system developed by human beings during and after your own time. Money exists, and is used for the usual range of goods and services, but the basics - food, water, air, power, off-the-shelf clothing, housing, historical entertainment, and monster trucks - are free. An implicit social contract dictates that, in return for access to these facilities, you obey certain laws.

If you wish to opt out of this social contract, be advised that other worlds may run Economics 2.0 or subsequent releases. These value-transfer systems are more efficient - hence wealthier - than Economics 1.0, but true participation in Economics 2.0 is not possible without dehumanizing cognitive surgery. Thus, in absolute terms, although this society is richer than any you have ever heard of, it is also a poverty-stricken backwater compared to its neighbors.

Things you should avoid doing:

Many activities that have been classified as crimes in other societies are legal here. These include but are not limited to: acts of worship, art, sex, violence, communication, or commerce between consenting competent sapients of any species, except where such acts transgress the list of prohibitions below. [See additional memeplex: competence defined.]

Some activities are prohibited here and may have been legal in your previous experience. These include willful deprivation of ability to consent [see: slavery], interference in the absence of consent [see: minors, legal status of], formation of limited liability companies [see: singularity], and invasion of defended privacy [see: the Slug, Cognitive Pyramid Schemes, Brain Hacking, Thompson Trust Exploit].

Some activities unfamiliar to you are highly illegal and should be scrupulously avoided. These include: possession of nuclear weapons, possession of unlimited autonomous replicators [see: gray goo], coercive assimilationism [see: borganism, aggressive], coercive halting of Turing-equivalent personalities [see: basilisks], and applied theological engineering [see: God bothering].

Some activities superficially familiar to you are merely stupid and should be avoided for your safety, although they are not illegal as such. These include: giving your bank account details to the son of the Nigerian Minister of Finance; buying title to bridges, skyscrapers, spacecraft, planets, or other real assets; murder; selling your identity; and entering into financial contracts with entities running Economics 2.0 or higher.

Things you should do as soon as possible:

Many material artifacts you may consider essential to life are freely available - just ask the city, and it will grow you clothes, a house, food, or other basic essentials. Note, however, that the library of public domain structure templates is of necessity restrictive, and does not contain items that are highly fashionable or that remain in copyright. Nor will the city provide you with replicators, weapons, sexual favors, slaves, or zombies.

You are advised to register as a citizen as soon as possible. If the individual you are a resimulation of can be confirmed dead, you may adopt their name but not - in law - any lien or claim on their property, contracts, or descendants. You register as a citizen by asking the city to register you; the process is painless and typically complete within four hours. Unless you are registered, your legal status as a sapient organism may be challenged. The ability to request citizenship rights is one of the legal tests for sapience, and failure to comply may place you in legal jeopardy. You can renounce your citizenship whenever you wish: This may be desirable if you emigrate to another polity.

While many things are free, it is highly likely that you posses no employable skills, and therefore, no way of earning money with which to purchase unfree items. The pace of change in the past century has rendered almost all skills you may have learned obsolete [see: singularity]. However, owing to the rapid pace of change, many cooperatives, trusts, and guilds offer on-the-job training or educational loans.

Your ability to learn depends on your ability to take information in the format in which it is offered. Implants are frequently used to provide a direct link between your brain and the intelligent machines that surround it. A basic core implant set is available on request from the city. [See: implant security, firewall, wetware.]

Your health is probably good if you have just been reinstantiated, and is likely to remain good for some time. Most diseases are curable, and in event of an incurable ailment or injury, a new body may be provided - for a fee. (In event of your murder, you will be furnished with a new body at the expense of your killer.) If you have any preexisting medical conditions or handicaps, consult the city.

The city is an agoric-annealing participatory democracy with a limited liability constitution. Its current executive agency is a weakly godlike intelligence that chooses to associate with human-equivalent intelligences: This agency is colloquially known as “Hello Kitty,” “Beautiful Cat,” or “Aineko,” and may manifest itself in a variety of physical avatars if corporeal interaction is desired. (Prior to the arrival of “Hello Kitty,” the city used a variety of human-designed expert systems that provided suboptimal performance.)

The city's mission statement is to provide a mediatory environment for human-equivalent intelligences and to preserve same in the face of external aggression. Citizens are encouraged to participate in the ongoing political processes of determining such responses. Citizens also have a duty to serve on a jury if called (including senatorial service), and to defend the city.

Where to go for further information:

Until you have registered as a citizen and obtained basic implants, all further questions should be directed to the city. Once you have learned to use your implants, you will not need to ask this question.

* * *

Welcome to decade the ninth, singularity plus one gigasecond (or maybe more - nobody's quite sure when, or indeed if, a singularity has been created). The human population of the solar system is either six billion, or sixty billion, depending on whether you class the forked state vectors of posthumans and the simulations of dead phenotypes running in the Vile Offspring's Schrödinger boxes as people. Most of the physically incarnate still live on Earth, but the lily-pads floating beneath continent-sized hot-hydrogen balloons in Saturn's upper atmosphere already house a few million, and the writing is on the wall for the rocky inner planets. All the remaining human-equivalent intelligences with half a clue to rub together are trying to emigrate before the Vile Offspring decide to recycle Earth to fill in a gap in the concentric shells of nanocomputers they're running on. The half-constructed Matrioshka brain already darkens the skies of Earth and has caused a massive crash in the planet's photosynthetic biomass, as plants starve for short-wavelength light.

Since decade the seventh, the computational density of the solar system has soared. Within the asteroid belt, more than half the available planetary mass has been turned into nanoprocessors, tied together by quantum entanglement into a web so dense that each gram of matter can simulate all the possible life experiences of an individual human being in a scant handful of minutes. Economics 2.0 is itself obsolescent, forced to mutate in a furious survivalist arms race by the arrival of the Slug. Only the name remains as a vague shorthand for merely human-equivalent intelligences to use when describing interactions they don't understand.

The latest generation of posthuman entities is less overtly hostile to humans, but much more alien than the generations of the fifties and seventies. Among their less comprehensible activities, the Vile Offspring are engaged in exploring the phase-space of all possible human experiences from the inside out. Perhaps they caught a dose of the Tiplerite heresy along the way, for now a steady stream of resimulant uploads is pouring through the downsystem relays in Titan orbit. The Rapture of the Nerds has been followed by the Resurrection of the Extremely Confused, except that they're not really resurrectees - they're simulations based on their originals' recorded histories, blocky and missing chunks of their memories, as bewildered as baby ducklings as they're herded into the wood-chipper of the future.

Sirhan al-Khurasani despises them with the abstract contempt of an antiquarian for a cunning but ultimately transparent forgery. But Sirhan is young, and he's got more contempt than he knows what to do with. It's a handy outlet for his frustration. He has a lot to be frustrated at, starting with his intermittently dysfunctional family, the elderly stars around whom his planet whizzes in chaotic trajectories of enthusiasm and distaste.

Sirhan fancies himself a philosopher-historian of the singular age, a chronicler of the incomprehensible, which would be a fine thing to be except that his greatest insights are all derived from Aineko. He alternately fawns over and rages against his mother, who is currently a leading light in the refugee community, and honors (when not attempting to evade the will of) his father, who is lately a rising philosophical patriarch within the Conservationist faction. He's secretly in awe (not to mention slightly resentful) of his grandfather Manfred. In fact, the latter's abrupt reincarnation in the flesh has quite disconcerted him. And he sometimes listens to his stepgrandmother Annette, who has reincarnated in more or less her original 2020s body after spending some years as a great ape, and who seems to view him as some sort of personal project.

OnlyAnnette isn't being very helpful right now. His mother is campaigning on an electoral platform calling for a vote to blow up the world, Annette is helping run her campaign, his grandfather is trying to convince him to entrust everything he holds dear to a rogue lobster, and the cat is being typically feline and evasive.

Talk about families with problems ...

* * *

They've transplanted imperial Brussels to Saturn in its entirety, mapped tens of megatonnes of buildings right down to nanoscale and beamed them into the outer darkness to be reinstantiated down-well on the lily-pad colonies that dot the stratosphere of the gas giant. (Eventually the entire surface of the Earth will follow - after which the Vile Offspring will core the planet like an apple, dismantle it into a cloud of newly formed quantum nanocomputers to add to their burgeoning Matrioshka brain.) Due to a resource contention problem in the festival committee's planning algorithm - or maybe it's simply an elaborate joke - Brussels now begins just on the other side of a diamond bubble wall from the Boston Museum of Science, less than a kilometer away as the passenger pigeon flies. Which is why, when it's time to celebrate a birthday or name day (meaningless though those concepts are, out on Saturn's synthetic surface), Amber tends to drag people over to the bright lights of the big city.

This time she's throwing a rather special party. At Annette's canny prompting, she's borrowed the Atomium and invited a horde of guests to a big event. It's not a family bash - although Annette's promised her a surprise - so much as a business meeting, testing the water as a preliminary to declaring her candidacy. It's a media coup, an attempt to engineer Amber's re-entry into the mainstream politics of the human system.

Sirhan doesn't really want to be here. He's got far more important things to do, like continuing to catalogue Aineko's memories of the voyage of the Field Circus. He's also collating a series of interviews with resimulated logical positivists from Oxford, England (the ones who haven't retreated into gibbering near catatonia upon realizing that their state vectors are all members of the set of all sets that do not contain themselves), when he isn't attempting to establish a sound rational case for his belief that extraterrestrial superintelligence is an oxymoron and the router network is just an accident, one of evolution's little pranks.

But Tante Annette twisted his arm and promised he was in on the surprise if he came to the party. And despite everything, he wouldn't miss being a fly on the wall during the coming meeting between Manfred and Amber for all the tea in China.

Sirhan walks up to the gleaming stainless-steel dome that contains the entrance to the Atomium, and waits for the lift. He's in line behind a gaggle of young-looking women, skinny and soigné in cocktail gowns and tiaras lifted from 1920s silent movies. (Annette declared an age of elegance theme for the party, knowing full well that it would force Amber to focus on her public appearance.) Sirhan's attention is, however, elsewhere. The various fragments of his mind are conducting three simultaneous interviews with philosophers (“whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent” in spades), controlling two 'bots that are overhauling the museum plumbing and air-recycling system, and he's busy discussing observations of the alien artifact orbiting the brown dwarf Hyundai +4904/-56 with Aineko. What's left of him exhibits about as much social presence as a pickled cabbage.

The lift arrives and accepts a load of passengers. Sirhan is crowded into one corner by a bubble of high-society laughter and an aromatic puff of smoke from an improbable ivory cigarette holder as the lift surges, racing up the sixty-meter shaft toward the observation deck at the top of the Atomium. It's a ten-meter-diameter metal globe, spiral staircases and escalators connecting it to the seven spheres at the corners of an octahedron that make up the former centerpiece of the 1950 World's Fair. Unlike most of the rest of Brussels, it's the original bits and atoms, bent alloy structures from before the space age shipped out to Saturn at enormous expense. The lift arrives with a slight jerk. “Excuse me,” squeaks one of the good-time girls as she lurches backward, elbowing Sirhan.

He blinks, barely noticing her black bob of hair, chromatophore-tinted shadows artfully tuned around her eyes: “Nothing to excuse.” In the background, Aineko is droning on sarcastically about the lack of interest the crew of the Field Circus exhibited in the cat's effort to decompile their hitchhiker, the Slug. It's distracting as hell, but Sirhan feels a desperate urge to understand what happened out there. It's the key to understanding his not-mother's obsessions and weaknesses - which, he senses, will be important in the times to come.

He evades the gaggle of overdressed good-time girls and steps out onto the lower of the two stainless-steel decks that bisect the sphere. Accepting a fruit cocktail from a discreetly humaniform waitron, he strolls toward a row of triangular windows that gaze out across the arena toward the American Pavilion and the World Village. The metal walls are braced with turquoise-painted girders, and the perspex transparencies are fogged with age. He can barely see the one-tenth-scale model of an atomic-powered ocean liner leaving the pier below, or the eight-engined giant seaplane beside it. “They never once asked me if the Slug had attempted to map itself into the human-compatible spaces aboard the ship,” Aineko bitches at him. “I wasn't expecting them to, but really! Your mother's too trusting, boy.”

“I suppose you took precautions?” Sirhan's ghost murmurs to the cat. That sets the irascible metafeline off again on a long discursive tail-washing rant about the unreliability of Economics-2.0-compliant financial instruments. Economics 2.0 apparently replaces the single-indirection layer of conventional money, and the multiple-indirection mappings of options trades, with some kind of insanely baroque object-relational framework based on the parameterized desires and subjective experiential values of the players, and as far as the cat is concerned, this makes all such transactions intrinsically untrustworthy.

Which is why you're stuck here with us apes, Sirhan-prime cynically notes as he spawns an Eliza ghost to carry on nodding at the cat while he experiences the party.

It's uncomfortably warm in the Atomium sphere - not surprising, there must be thirty people milling around up here, not counting the waitrons - and several local multicast channels are playing a variety of styles of music to synchronize the mood swings of the revelers to hardcore techno, waltz, raga ...

“Having a good time, are we?” Sirhan breaks away from integrating one of his timid philosophers and realizes that his glass is empty, and his mother is grinning alarmingly at him over the rim of a cocktail glass containing something that glows in the dark. She's wearing spike-heeled boots and a black velvet cat suit that hugs her contours like a second skin, and she's already getting drunk. In wall-clock years she is younger than Sirhan; it's like having a bizarrely knowing younger sister mysteriously injected into his life to replace the eigenmother who stayed home and died with the Ring Imperium decades ago. “Look at you, hiding in a corner at your grandfather's party! Hey, your glass is empty. Want to try this caipirinha? There's someone you've got to meet over here -”

It's at moments like this that Sirhan really wonders what in Jupiter's orbit his father ever saw in this woman. (But then again, in the world line this instance of her has returned from, he didn't. So what does that signify?) “As long as there's no fermented grape juice in it,” he says resignedly, allowing himself to be led past a gaggle of conversations and a mournful-looking gorilla slurping a long drink through a straw. “More of your accelerationista allies?”

“Maybe not.” It's the girl gang he avoided noticing in the lift, their eyes sparkling, really getting into this early twen-cen drag party thing, waving their cigarette holders and cocktail glasses around with wild abandon. “Rita, I'd like you to meet Sirhan, my other fork's son. Sirhan, this is Rita? She's an historian, too. Why don't you -”

Dark eyes, emphasized not by powder or paint, but by chromatophores inside her skin cells: black hair, chain of enormous pearls, slim black dress sweeping the floor, a look of mild embarrassment on her heart-shaped face: She could be a clone of Audrey Hepburn in any other century, “Didn't I just meet you in the elevator?” The embarrassment shifts to her cheeks, becoming visible.

Sirhan flushes, unsure how to reply. Just then, an interloper arrives on the scene, pushing in between them. “Are you the curator who reorganized the Precambrian gallery along teleology lines? I've got some things to say about that!” The interloper is tall, assertive, and blonde. Sirhan hates her from the first sight of her wagging finger.

“Oh shut up, Marissa, this is a party, you've been being a pain all evening.” To his surprise, Rita the historian rounds on the interloper angrily.

“It's not a problem,” he manages to say. In the back of his mind, something makes the Rogerian puppet-him that's listening to the cat sit up and dump-merge a whole lump of fresh memories into his mind - something important, something about the Vile Offspring sending a starship to bring something back from the router - but the people around him are soaking up so much attention that he has to file it for later.

“Yes it is a problem,” Rita declares. She points at the interloper, who is saying something about the invalidity of teleological interpretations, trying to justify herself, and says, “Plonk. Phew. Where were we?”

Sirhan blinks. Suddenly everyone but him seems to be ignoring that annoying Marissa person. “What just happened?” he asks cautiously.

“I killfiled her. Don't tell me, you aren't running Superplonk yet, are you?” Rita flicks a location-cached idea at him and he takes it cautiously, spawning a couple of specialized Turing Oracles to check it for halting states. It seems to be some kind of optic lobe hack that accesses a collaborative database of eigenfaces, with some sort of side interface to Broca's region. “Share and enjoy, confrontation-free parties.”

“I've never seen -” Sirhan trails off as he loads the module distractedly. (The cat is rambling on about god modules and metastatic entanglement and the difficulty of arranging to have personalities custom-grown to order somewhere in the back of his head, while his fractional-self nods wisely whenever it pauses.) Something like an inner eyelid descends. He looks round; there's a vague blob at one side of the room, making an annoying buzzing sound. His mother seems to be having an animated conversation with it. “That's rather interesting.”

“Yes, it helps no end at this sort of event.” Rita startles him by taking his left arm in hand - her cigarette holder shrivels and condenses until it's no more than a slight thickening around the wrist of her opera glove - and steers him toward a waitron. “I'm sorry about your foot, earlier, I was a bit overloaded. Is Amber Macx really your mother?”

“Not exactly, she's my eigenmother,” he mumbles. “The reincarnated download of the version who went out to Hyundai +4904/-56 aboard the Field Circus. She married a French-Algerian confidence-trick analyst instead of my father, but I think they divorced a couple of years ago. My real mother married an imam, but they died in the aftermath of Economics 2.0.” She seems to be steering him in the direction of the window bay Amber dragged him away from earlier. “Why do you ask?”

“Because you're not very good at making small talk,” Rita says quietly, “and you don't seem very good in crowds. Is that right? Was it you who performed that amazing dissection of Wittgenstein's cognitive map? The one with the preverbal Gödel string in it?”

“It was -” He clears his throat. “You thought it was amazing?” Suddenly, on impulse, he detaches a ghost to identify this Rita person and find out who she is, what she wants. It's not normally worth the effort to get to know someone more closely than casual small talk, but she seems to have been digging into his background, and he wants to know why. Along with the him that's chatting to Aineko, that makes about three instances pulling in near-realtime resources. He'll be running up an existential debt soon if he keeps forking ghosts like this.

“I thought so,” she says. There's a bench in front of the wall, and somehow he finds himself sitting on it next to her. There's no danger, we're not in private or anything, he tells himself stiffly. She's smiling at him, face tilted slightly to one side and lips parted, and for a moment, a dizzy sense of possibility washes over him: What if she's about to throw all propriety aside? How undignified! Sirhan believes in self-restraint and dignity. “I was really interested in this -” She passes him another dynamically loadable blob, encompassing a detailed critique of his analysis of Wittgenstein's matriophobia in the context of gendered language constructs and nineteenth century Viennese society, along with a hypothesis that leaves Sirhan gasping with mild indignation at the very idea that he of all people might share Wittgenstein's skewed outlook - “What do you think?” she asks, grinning impishly at him.

“Nnngk.” Sirhan tries to unswallow his tongue. Rita crosses her legs, her gown hissing. “I, ah, that is to say” - At which moment, his partials re-integrate, dumping a slew of positively pornographic images into his memories. It's a trap! they shriek, her breasts and hips and pubes - clean-shaven, he can't help noticing - thrusting at him in hotly passionate abandon, Mother's trying to make you loose like her! and he remembers what it would be like to wake up in bed next to this woman whom he barely knows after being married to her for a year, because one of his cognitive ghosts has just spent several seconds of network time (or several subjective months) getting hot and sweaty with a ghost of her own, and she does have interesting research ideas, even if she's a pushy over-westernized woman who thinks she can run his life for him. “What is this?” he splutters, his ears growing hot and his garments constricting.

“Just speculating about possibilities. We could get a lot done together.” She snakes an arm round his shoulders and pulls him toward her, gently. “Don't you want to find out if we could work out?”

“But, but -” Sirhan is steaming. Is she offering casual sex? He wonders, profoundly embarrassed by his own inability to read her signals: “What do you want?” he asks.

“You do know that you can do more with Superplonk than just killfile annoying idiots?” she whispers in his ear. “We can be invisible right now, if you like. It's great for confidential meetings - other things, too. We can work beautifully together, our ghosts annealed really well ...”

Sirhan jumps up, his face stinging, and turns away: “No thank you!” he snaps, angry at himself. “Goodbye!” His other instances, interrupted by his broadcast emotional overload, are distracted from their tasks and sputtering with indignation. Her hurt expression is too much for him: The killfile snaps down, blurring her into an indistinct black blob on the wall, veiled by his own brain as he turns and walks away, seething with anger at his mother for being so unfair as to make him behold his own face in the throes of fleshy passion.

* * *

Meanwhile, in one of the lower spheres, padded with silvery blue insulating pillows bound together with duct tape, the movers and shakers of the accelerationista faction are discussing their bid for world power at fractional-C velocities.

“We can't outrun everything. For example, a collapse of the false vacuum,” Manfred insists, slightly uncoordinated and slurring his vowels under the influence of the first glass of fruit punch he's experienced in nigh-on twenty real-time years. His body is young and still relatively featureless, hair still growing out, and he's abandoned his old no-implants fetish at last to adopt an array of interfaces that let him internalize all the exocortex processes that he formerly ran on an array of dumb Turing machines outside his body. He's standing on his own sense of style and is the only person in the room who isn't wearing some variation of dinner jacket or classical evening dress. “Entangled exchange via routers is all very well, but it won't let us escape the universe itself - any phase change will catch up eventually, the network must have an end. And then where will we be, Sameena?”

“I'm not disputing that.” The woman he's talking to, wearing a green-and-gold sari and a medieval maharajah's ransom in gold and natural diamonds, nods thoughtfully. “But it hasn't happened yet, and we've got evidence that superhuman intelligences have been loose in this universe for gigayears, so there's a fair bet that the worst catastrophe scenarios are unlikely. And looking closer to home, we don't know what the routers are for, or who made them. Until then ...” She shrugs. “Look what happened last time somebody tried to probe them. No offense intended.”

“It's already happened. If what I hear is correct, the Vile Offspring aren't nearly as negative about the idea of using the routers as we old-fashioned metahumans might like to believe.” Manfred frowns, trying to recall some hazy anecdote - he's experimenting with a new memory compression algorithm, necessitated by his pack rat mnemonic habits when younger, and sometimes the whole universe feels as if it's nearly on the tip of his tongue. “So, we seem to be in violent agreement about the need to know more about what's going on, and to find out what they're doing out there. We've got cosmic background anisotropies caused by the waste heat from computing processes millions of light-years across - it takes a big interstellar civilization to do that, and they don't seem to have fallen into the same rat trap as the local Matrioshka brain civilizations. And we've got worrying rumors about the VO messing around with the structure of space-time in order to find a way around the Beckenstein bound. If the VO are trying that, then the folks out near the supercluster already know the answers. The best way to find out what's happening is to go and talk to whoever's responsible. Can we at least agree on that?”

“Probably not.” Her eyes glitter with amusement. “It all depends on whether one believes in these civilizations in the first place. I know your people point to deep-field camera images going all the way back to some wonky hubble-bubble scrying mirror from the late twentieth, but we've got no evidence except some theories about the Casimir effect and pair production and spinning beakers of helium-3 - much less proof that whole bunch of alien galactic civilizations are trying to collapse the false vacuum and destroy the universe!” Her voice dropped a notch: “At least, not enough proof to convince most people, Manny dear. I know this comes as a shock to you, but not everyone is a neophiliac posthuman bodysurfer whose idea of a sabbatical is to spend twenty years as a flock of tightly networked seagulls in order to try and to prove the Turing Oracle thesis -”

“Not everyone is concerned with the deep future,” Manfred interrupts. “It's important! If we live or die, that doesn't matter - that's not the big picture. The big question is whether information originating in our light cone is preserved, or whether we're stuck in a lossy medium where our very existence counts for nothing. It's downright embarrassing to be a member of a species with such a profound lack of curiosity about its own future, especially when it affects us all personally! I mean, if there's going to come a time when there's nobody or nothing to remember us then what does -”


He stops in midsentence, his mouth open, staring dumbly.

It's Amber, poised in black cat suit with cocktail glass. Her expression is open and confused, appallingly vulnerable. Blue liquid slops, almost spilling out of her glass - the rim barely extends itself in time to catch the drops. Behind her stands Annette, a deeply self-satisfied smile on her face.

“You.” Amber pauses, her cheek twitching as bits of her mind page in and out of her skull, polling external information sources. “You really are -”

A hasty cloud materializes under her hand as her fingers relax, dropping the glass.

“Uh.” Manfred stares, at a complete loss for words. “I'd, uh.” After a moment he looks down. “I'm sorry. I'll get you another drink ..?”

“Why didn't someone warn me?” Amber complains.

“We thought you could use the good advice,” Annette stated into the awkward silence. “And a family reunion. It was meant to be a surprise.”

“A surprise.” Amber looks perplexed. “You could say that.”

“You're taller than I was expecting,” Manfred says unexpectedly. “People look different when you're not using human eyes.”

“Yeah?” She looks at him, and he turns his head slightly, facing her. It's a historic moment, and Annette is getting it all on memory diamond, from every angle. The family's dirty little secret is that Amber and her father have never met, not face-to-face in physical meat-machine proximity. She was born years after Manfred and Pamela separated, after all, decanted prefertilized from a tank of liquid nitrogen. This is the first time either of them have actually seen the other's face without electronic intermediation. And while they've said everything that needed to be said on a businesslike level, anthropoid family politics is still very much a matter of body language and pheromones. “How long have you been out and about?” she asks, trying to disguise her confusion.

“About six hours.” Manfred manages a rueful chuckle, trying to take the sight of her in all at once. “Let's get you another drink and put our heads together?”

“Okay.” Amber takes a deep breath and glares at Annette. “You set this up, you clean up the mess.”

Annette just stands there smiling at the confusion of her accomplishment.

* * *

The cold light of dawn finds Sirhan angry, sober, and ready to pick a fight with the first person who comes through the door of his office. The room is about ten meters across, with a floor of polished marble and skylights in the intricately plastered ceiling. The walkthrough of his current project sprouts in the middle of the floor like a ghostly abstract cauliflower, fractal branches dwindling down to infolded nodes tagged with compressed identifiers. The branches expand and shrink as Sirhan paces around it, zooming to readability in response to his eyeball dynamics. But he isn't paying it much attention. He's too disturbed, uncertain, trying to work out whom to blame. Which is why, when the door bangs open, his first response is to whirl angrily and open his mouth - then stop. “What do you want?” he demands.

“A word, if you please?” Annette looks around distractedly. “This is your project?”

“Yes,” he says icily, and banishes the walkthrough with a wave of one hand. “What do you want?”

“I'm not sure.” Annette pauses. For a moment she looks weary, tired beyond mortal words, and Sirhan momentarily wonders if perhaps he's spreading the blame too far. This ninetysomething Frenchwoman who is no blood relative, who was in years past the love of his scatterbrained grandfather's life, seems the least likely person to be trying to manipulate him, at least in such an unwelcome and intimate manner. But there's no telling. Families are strange things, and even though the current instantiations of his father and mother aren't the ones who ran his pre-adolescent brain through a couple of dozen alternative lifelines before he was ten, he can't be sure - or that they wouldn't enlist Tante Annette's assistance in fucking with his mind. “We need to talk about your mother,” she continues.

“We do, do we?” Sirhan turns around and sees the vacancy of the room for what it is, a socket, like a pulled tooth, informed as much by what is absent as by what is present. He snaps his fingers, and an intricate bench of translucent bluish utility fog congeals out of the air behind him. He sits: Annette can do what she wants.

“Oui.” She thrusts her hands deep into the pocket of the peasant smock she's wearing - a major departure from her normal style - and leans against the wall. Physically, she looks young enough to have spent her entire life blitzing around the galaxy at three nines of lightspeed, but her posture is world-weary and ancient. History is a foreign country, and the old are unwilling emigrants, tired out by the constant travel. “Your mother, she has taken on a huge job, but it's one that needs doing. You agreed it needed doing, years ago, with the archive store. She is now trying to get it moving, that is what the campaign is about, to place before the electors a choice of how best to move an entire civilization. So I ask, why do you obstruct her?”

Sirhan works his jaw; he feels like spitting. “Why?” he snaps.

“Yes. Why?” Annette gives in and magics up a chair from the swirling fogbank beneath the ceiling. She crouches in it, staring at him. “It is a question.”

“I have nothing against her political machinations,” Sirhan says tensely. “But her uninvited interference in my personal life -”

“What interference?”

He stares. “Is that a question?” He's silent for a moment. Then: “Throwing that wanton at me last night -”

Annette stares at him. “Who? What are you talking about?”

“That, that loose woman!” Sirhan is reduced to spluttering. “False pretenses! If this is one of Father's matchmaking ideas, it is so very wrong that -”

Annette is shaking her head. “Are you crazy? Your mother simply wanted you to meet her campaign team, to join in planning the policy. Your father is not on this planet! But you stormed out, you really upset Rita, did you know that? Rita, she is the best belief maintenance and story construction operative I have! Yet you to tears reduce her. What is wrong with you?”

“I -” Sirhan swallows. “She's what?” he asks again, his mouth dry. “I thought ...” He trails off. He doesn't want to say what he thought. The hussy, that brazen trollop, is part of his mother's campaign party? Not some plot to lure him into corruption? What if it was all a horrible misunderstanding?

“I think you need to apologize to someone,” Annette says coolly, standing up. Sirhan's head is spinning between a dozen dialogues of actors and ghosts, a journal of the party replaying before his ghast-stricken inner gaze. Even the walls have begun to flicker, responding to his intense unease. Annette skewers him with a disgusted look: “When you can a woman behave toward as a person, not a threat, we can again talk. Until then.” And she stands up and walks out of the room, leaving him to contemplate the shattered stump of his anger, so startled he can barely concentrate on his project, thinking, Is that really me? Is that what I look like to her? as the cladistic graph slowly rotates before him, denuded branches spread wide, waiting to be filled with the nodes of the alien interstellar network just as soon as he can convince Aineko to stake him the price of the depth-first tour of darkness.

* * *

Manfred used to be a flock of pigeons - literally, his exocortex dispersed among a passel of bird brains, pecking at brightly colored facts, shitting semidigested conclusions. Being human again feels inexplicably odd, even without the added distractions of his sex drive, which he has switched off until he gets used to being unitary again. Not only does he get shooting pains in his neck whenever he tries to look over his left shoulder with his right eye, but he's lost the habit of spawning exocortical agents to go interrogate a database or bush robot or something, then report back to him. Instead he keeps trying to fly off in all directions at once, which usually ends with him falling over.

But at present, that's not a problem. He's sitting comfortably at a weathered wooden table in a beer garden behind a hall lifted from somewhere like Frankfurt, a liter glass of straw-colored liquid at his elbow and a comforting multiple whispering of knowledge streams tickling the back of his head. Most of his attention is focused on Annette, who frowns at him with mingled concern and affection. They may have lived separate lives for almost a third of a century, since she declined to upload with him, but he's still deeply attuned to her.

“You are going to have to do something about that boy,” she says sympathetically. “He is close enough to upset Amber. And without Amber, there will be a problem.”

“I'm going to have to do something about Amber, too,” Manfred retorts. “What was the idea, not warning her I was coming?”

“It was meant to be a surprise.” Annette comes as close to pouting as Manfred's seen her recently. It brings back warm memories; he reaches out to hold her hand across the table.

“You know I can't handle the human niceties properly when I'm a flock.” He strokes the back of her wrist. She pulls back after a while, but slowly. “I expected you to manage all that stuff.”

“That stuff.” Annette shakes her head. “She's your daughter, you know? Did you have no curiosity left?”

“As a bird?” Manfred cocks his head to one side so abruptly that he hurts his neck and winces. “Nope. Now I do, but I think I pissed her off -”

“Which brings us back to point one.”

“I'd send her an apology, but she'd think I was trying to manipulate her” - Manfred takes a mouthful of beer - “and she'd be right.” He sounds slightly depressed. “All my relationships are screwy this decade. And it's lonely.”

“So? Don't brood.” Annette pulls her hand back. “Something will sort itself out eventually. And in the short term, there is the work, the electoral problem becomes acute.” When she's around him the remains of her once-strong French accent almost vanish in a transatlantic drawl, he realizes with a pang. He's been abhuman for too long - people who meant a lot to him have changed while he's been away.

“I'll brood if I want to,” he says. “I didn't ever really get a chance to say goodbye to Pam, did I? Not after that time in Paris when the gangsters ...” He shrugs. “I'm getting nostalgic in my old age.” He snorts.

“You're not the only one,” Annette says tactfully. “Social occasions here are a minefield, one must tiptoe around so many issues, people have too much, too much history. And nobody knows everything that is going on.”

“That's the trouble with this damned polity.” Manfred takes another gulp of hefeweisen. “We've already got six million people living on this planet, and it's growing like the first-generation Internet. Everyone who is anyone knows everyone, but there are so many incomers diluting the mix and not knowing that there is a small world network here that everything is up for grabs again after only a couple of megaseconds. New networks form, and we don't even know they exist until they sprout a political agenda and surface under us. We're acting under time pressure. If we don't get things rolling now, we'll never be able to ...” He shakes his head. “It wasn't like this for you in Brussels, was it?”

“No. Brussels was a mature system. And I had Gianni to look after in his dotage after you left. It will only get worse from here on in, I think.”

“Democracy 2.0.” He shudders briefly. “I'm not sure about the validity of voting projects at all, these days. The assumption that all people are of equal importance seems frighteningly obsolescent. Do you think we can make this fly?”

“I don't see why not. If Amber's willing to play the People's Princess for us ...” Annette picks up a slice of liverwurst and chews on it meditatively.

“I'm not sure it's workable, however we play it.” Manfred looks thoughtful. “The whole democratic participation thing looks questionable to me under these circumstances. We're under direct threat, for all that it's a long-term one, and this whole culture is in danger of turning into a classical nation-state. Or worse, several of them layered on top of one another with complete geographical collocation but no social interpenetration. I'm not certain it's a good idea to try to steer something like that - pieces might break off, you'd get the most unpleasant side-effects. Although, on the other hand, if we can mobilize enough broad support to become the first visible planetwide polity ...”

“We need you to stay focused,” Annette adds unexpectedly.

“Focused? Me?” He laughs, briefly. “I used to have an idea a second. Now it's maybe one a year. I'm just a melancholy old birdbrain, me.”

“Yes, but you know the old saying? The fox has many ideas - the hedgehog has only one, but it's a big idea.”

“So tell me, what is my big idea?” Manfred leans forward, one elbow on the table, one eye focused on inner space as a hot-burning thread of consciousness barks psephological performance metrics at him, analysing the game ahead. “Where do you think I'm going?”

“I think -” Annette breaks off suddenly, staring past his shoulder. Privacy slips, and for a frozen moment Manfred glances round in mild horror and sees thirty or forty other guests in the crowded garden, elbows rubbing, voices raised above the background chatter: “Gianni!” She beams widely as she stands up. “What a surprise! When did you arrive?”

Manfred blinks. A slim young guy, moving with adolescent grace, but none of the awkward movements and sullen lack of poise - he's much older than he looks, chickenhawk genetics. Gianni? He feels a huge surge of memories paging through his exocortex. He remembers ringing a doorbell in dusty, hot Rome: white toweling bathrobe, the economics of scarcity, autograph signed by the dead hand of von Neumann - “Gianni?” he asks, disbelieving. “It's been a long time!”

The gilded youth, incarnated in the image of a metropolitan toy-boy from the noughties, grins widely and embraces Manfred with a friendly bear hug. Then he slides down onto the bench next to Annette, whom he kisses with easy familiarity. “Ah, to be among friends again! It's been too long!” He glances round curiously. “Hmm, how very Bavarian.” He snaps his fingers. “Mine will be a, what do you recommend? It's been too long since my last beer.” His grin widens. “Not in this body.”

“You're resimulated?” Manfred asks, unable to stop himself.

Annette frowns at him disapprovingly: “No, silly! He came through the teleport gate -”

“Oh.” Manfred shakes his head. “I'm sorry -”

“It's okay.” Gianni Vittoria clearly doesn't mind being mistaken for a historical newbie, rather than someone who's traveled through the decades the hard way. He must be over a hundred by now, Manfred notes, not bothering to spawn a search thread to find out.

“It was time to move and, well, the old body didn't want to move with me, so why not go gracefully and accept the inevitable?”

“I didn't take you for a dualist,” Manfred says ruefully.

“Ah, I'm not - but neither am I reckless.” Gianni drops his grin for a moment. The sometime minister for transhuman affairs, economic theoretician, then retired tribal elder of the polycognitive liberals is serious. “I have never uploaded before, or switched bodies, or teleported. Even when my old one was seriously - tcha! Maybe I left it too long. But here I am, one planet is as good as another to be cloned and downloaded onto, don't you think?”

“You invited him?” Manfred asks Annette.

“Why wouldn't I?” There's a wicked gleam in her eye. “Did you expect me to live like a nun while you were a flock of pigeons? We may have campaigned against the legal death of the transubstantiated, Manfred, but there are limits.”

Manfred looks between them, then shrugs, embarrassed. “I'm still getting used to being human again,” he admits. “Give me time to catch up? At an emotional level, at least.” The realization that Gianni and Annette have a history together doesn't come as a surprise to him: It's one of the things you must adapt to if you opt out of the human species, after all. At least the libido suppression is helping here, he realizes: He's not about to embarrass anyone by suggesting a ménage. He focuses on Gianni. “I have a feeling I'm here for a purpose, and it isn't mine,” he says slowly. “Why don't you tell me what you've got in mind?”

Gianni shrugs. “You have the big picture already. We are human, metahuman, and augmented human. But the posthumans are things that were never really human to begin with. The Vile Offspring have reached their adolescence and want the place to themselves so they can throw a party. The writing is on the wall, don't you think?”

Manfred gives him a long stare. “The whole idea of running away in meatspace is fraught with peril,” he says slowly. He picks up his mug of beer and swirls it around slowly. "Look, we know, now, that a singularity doesn't turn into a voracious predator that eats all the dumb matter in its path, triggering a phase change in the structure of space - at least, not unless they've done something very stupid to the structure of the false vacuum, somewhere outside our current light cone.

“But if we run away, we are still going to be there. Sooner or later, we'll have the same problem all over again; runaway intelligence augmentation, self-expression, engineered intelligences, whatever. Possibly that's what happened out past the Böotes void - not a galactic-scale civilization, but a race of pathological cowards fleeing their own exponential transcendence. We carry the seeds of a singularity with us wherever we go, and if we try to excise those seeds, we cease to be human, don't we? So ... maybe you can tell me what you think we should do. Hmm?”

“It's a dilemma.” A waitron inserts itself into their privacy-screened field of view. It plants a spun-diamond glass in front of Gianni, then pukes beer into it. Manfred declines a refill, waiting for Gianni to drink. “Ah, the simple pleasures of the flesh! I've been corresponding with your daughter, Manny. She loaned me her experiential digest of the journey to Hyundai +4904/-56. I found it quite alarming. Nobody's casting aspersions on her observations, not after that self-propelled stock market bubble or 419 scam or whatever it was got loose in the Economics 2.0 sphere, but the implications - the Vile Offspring will eat the solar system, Manny. Then they'll slow down. But where does that leave us, I ask you? What is there for orthohumans like us to do?”

Manfred nods thoughtfully. “You've heard the argument between the accelerationistas and the time-binder faction, I assume?” he asks.

“Of course.” Gianni takes a long pull on his beer. “What do you think of our options?”

“The accelerationistas want to upload everyone onto a fleet of starwisps and charge off to colonize an uninhabited brown dwarf planetary system. Or maybe steal a Matrioshka brain that's succumbed to senile dementia and turn it back into planetary biomes with cores of diamond-phase computronium to fulfil some kind of demented pastoralist nostalgia trip. Rousseau's universal robots. I gather Amber thinks this is a good idea because she's done it before - at least, the charging off aboard a starwisp part. 'To boldly go where no uploaded metahuman colony fleet has gone before' has a certain ring to it, doesn't it?” Manfred nods to himself. “Like I say, it won't work. We'd be right back to iteration one of the waterfall model of singularity formation within a couple of gigaseconds of arriving. That's why I came back: to warn her.”

“So?” Gianni prods, pretending to ignore the frowns that Annette is casting his way.

“And as for the time-binders,” Manfred nods again, “they're like Sirhan. Deeply conservative, deeply suspicious. Holding out for staying here as long as possible, until the Vile Offspring come for Saturn - then moving out bit by bit, into the Kuiper belt. Colony habitats on snowballs half a light-year from anywhere.” He shudders. “Spam in a fucking can with a light-hour walk to the nearest civilized company if your fellow inmates decide to reinvent Stalinism or Objectivism. No thanks! I know they've been muttering about quantum teleportation and stealing toys from the routers, but I'll believe it when I see it.”

“Which leaves what?” Annette demands. “It is all very well, this dismissal of both the accelerationista and time-binder programs, Manny, but what can you propose in their place?” She looks distressed. “Fifty years ago, you would have had six new ideas before breakfast! And an erection.”

Manfred leers at her unconvincingly. “Who says I can't still have both?”

She glares. “Drop it!”

“Okay.” Manfred chugs back a quarter of a liter of beer, draining his glass, and puts it down on the table with a bang. “As it happens, I do have an alternative idea.” He looks serious. “I've been discussing it with Aineko for some time, and Aineko has been seeding Sirhan with it - if it's to work optimally, we'll need to get a rump constituency of both the accelerationistas and the conservatives on board. Which is why I'm conditionally going along with this whole election nonsense. So, what's it worth to you for me to explain it?”

* * *

“So, who was the deadhead you were busy with today?” asks Amber.

Rita shrugs. “Some boringly prolix pulp author from the early twentieth, with a body phobia of extropian proportions - I kept expecting him to start drooling and rolling his eyes if I crossed my legs. Funny thing is, he was also close to bolting from fear once I mentioned implants. We really need to nail down how to deal with these mind/body dualists, don't we?” She watches Amber with something approaching admiration; she's new to the inner circle of the accelerationista study faction, and Amber's social credit is sky-high. Rita's got a lot to learn from her, if she can get close enough. And right now, following her along a path through the landscaped garden behind the museum seems like a golden moment of opportunity.

Amber smiles. “I'm glad I'm not processing immigrants these days; most of them are so stupid it drives you up the wall after a bit. Personally I blame the Flynn effect - in reverse. They come from a background of sensory deprivation. It's nothing that a course of neural growth enhancers can't fix in a year or two, but after the first few you skullfuck, they're all the same. So dull. Unless you're unlucky enough to get one of the documentees from a puritan religious period. I'm no fluffragette, but I swear if I get one more superstitious, woman-hating clergyman, I'm going to consider prescribing forcible gender reassignment surgery. At least the Victorian English are mostly just open-minded lechers, when you get past their social reserve. And they like new technology.”

Rita nods. Woman-hating et cetera ... The echoes of patriarchy are still with them today, it seems, and not just in the form of resimulated ayatollahs and archbishops from the Dark Ages. “My author sounds like the worst of both. Some guy called Howard, from Rhode Island. Kept looking at me as if he was afraid I was going to sprout bat wings and tentacles or something.” Like your son, she doesn't add. Just what was he thinking, anyway? she wonders. To be that screwed up takes serious dedication ... “What are you working on, if you don't mind me asking?” she asks, trying to change the direction of her attention.

“Oh, pressing the flesh, I guess. Auntie 'Nette wanted me to meet some old political hack contact of hers who she figures can help with the program, but he was holed up with her and Dad all day.” She pulls a face. “I had another fitting session with the image merchants, they're trying to turn me into a political catwalk clotheshorse. Then there's the program demographics again. We're getting about a thousand new immigrants a day, planetwide, but it's accelerating rapidly, and we should be up to eighty an hour by the time of the election. Which is going to be a huge problem, because if we start campaigning too early, a quarter of the electorate won't know what they're meant to be voting about.”

“Maybe it's deliberate,” Rita suggests. “The Vile Offspring are trying to rig the outcome by injecting voters.” She pings a smiley emoticon off Wednesday's open channel, raising a flickering grin in return. “The party of fuckwits will win, no question about it.”

“Uh-huh.” Amber snaps her fingers and pulls an impatient face as she waits for a passing cloud to solidify above her head and lower a glass of cranberry juice to her. “Dad said one thing that's spot-on, we're framing this entire debate in terms of what we should do to avoid conflict with the Offspring. The main bone of contention is how to run away and how far to go and which program to put resources into, not whether or when to run, let alone what else we could do. Maybe we should have given it some more thought. Are we being manipulated?”

Rita looks vacant for a moment. “Is that a question?” she asks. Amber nods, and she shakes her head. “Then I'd have to say that I don't know. The evidence is inconclusive, so far. But I'm not really happy. The Offspring won't tell us what they want, but there's no reason to believe they don't know what we want. I mean, they can think rings round us, can't they?”

Amber shrugs, then pauses to unlatch a hedge gate that gives admission to a maze of sweet-smelling shrubs. “I really don't know. They may not care about us, or even remember we exist - the resimulants may be being generated by some autonomic mechanism, not really part of the higher consciousness of the Offspring. Or it may be some whacked-out post-Tiplerite meme that's gotten hold of more processing resources than the entire presingularity Net, some kind of MetaMormon project directed at ensuring that everyone who can possibly ever have lived lives in the right way to fit some weird quasi-religious requirement we don't know about. Or it might be a message we're simply not smart enough to decode. That's the trouble, we don't know.”

She vanishes around the curve of the maze. Rita hurries to catch up, sees her about to turn into another alleyway, and leaps after her. “What else?” she pants.

“Could be” - left turn - “anything, really.” Six steps lead down into a shadowy tunnel; fork right, five meters forward, then six steps up lead back to the surface. “Question is, why don't they” - left turn - “just tell us what they want?”

“Speaking to tapeworms.” Rita nearly manages to catch up with Amber, who is trotting through the maze as if she's memorized it perfectly. “That's how much the nascent Matrioshka brain can outthink us by, as humans to segmented worms. Would we do. What they told us?”

“Maybe.” Amber stops dead, and Rita glances around. They're in an open cell near the heart of the maze, five meters square, hedged in on all sides. There are three entrances and a slate altar, waist high, lichen-stained with age. “I think you know the answer to that question.”

“I -” Rita stares at her.

Amber stares back, eyes dark and intense. “You're from one of the Ganymede orbitals by way of Titan. You knew my eigensister while I was out of the solar system flying a diamond the size of a Coke can. That's what you told me. You've got a skill set that's a perfect match for the campaign research group, and you asked me to introduce you to Sirhan, then you pushed his buttons like a pro. Just what are you trying to pull? Why should I trust you?”

“I -” Rita's face crumples. “I didn't push his buttons! He thought I was trying to drag him into bed.” She looks up defiantly. “I wasn't, I want to learn, what makes you - him - work -” Huge, dark, structured information queries batter at her exocortex, triggering warnings. Someone is churning through distributed time-series databases all over the outer system, measuring her past with a micrometer. She stares at Amber, mortified and angry. It's the ultimate denial of trust, the need to check her statements against the public record for truth. “What are you doing?”

“I have a suspicion.” Amber stands poised, as if ready to run. Run away from me? Rita thinks, startled. “You said, what if the resimulants came from a subconscious function of the Offspring? And funnily enough, I've been discussing that possibility with Dad. He's still got the spark when you show him a problem, you know.”

“I don't understand!”

“No, I don't think you do,” says Amber, and Rita can feel vast stresses in the space around her: The whole ubicomp environment, dust-sized chips and utility fog and hazy clouds of diamond-bright optical processors in the soil and the air and her skin, is growing blotchy and sluggish, thrashing under the load of whatever Amber - with her management-grade ackles - is ordering it to do. For a moment, Rita can't feel half her mind, and she gets the panicky claustrophobic sense of being trapped inside her own head: Then it stops.

“Tell me!” Rita insists. “What are you trying to prove? It's some mistake -” And Amber is nodding, much to her surprise, looking weary and morose. “What do you think I've done?”

“Nothing. You're coherent. Sorry about that.”

“Coherent?” Rita hears her voice rising with her indignation as she feels bits of herself, cut off from her for whole seconds, shivering with relief. “I'll give you coherent! Assaulting my exocortex -”

“Shut up.” Amber rubs her face and simultaneously throws Rita one end of an encrypted channel.

“Why should I?” Rita demands, not accepting the handshake.

“Because.” Amber glances round. She's scared! Rita suddenly realizes. “Just do it,” she hisses.

Rita accepts the endpoint and a huge lump of undigested expository data slides down it, structured and tagged with entry points and metainformation directories pointing to -

“Holy shit!” she whispers, as she realizes what it is.

“Yes.” Amber grins humorlessly. She continues, over the open channel: It looks like they're cognitive antibodies, generated by the devil's own semiotic immune system. That's what Sirhan is focusing on, how to avoid triggering them and bringing everything down at once. Forget the election, we're going to be in deep shit sooner rather than later, and we're still trying to work out how to survive. Now are you sure you still want in?

“Want in on what?” Rita asks, shakily.

The lifeboat Dad's trying to get us all into under cover of the accelerationista/conservationista split, before the Vile Offspring's immune system figures out how to lever us apart into factions and make us kill each other ...

* * *

Welcome to the afterglow of the intelligence supernova, little tapeworm.

Tapeworms have on the order of a thousand neurons, pulsing furiously to keep their little bodies twitching. Human beings have on the order of a hundred billion neurons. What is happening in the inner solar system as the Vile Offspring churn and reconfigure the fast-thinking structured dust clouds that were once planets is as far beyond the ken of merely human consciousness as the thoughts of a Gödel are beyond the twitching tropisms of a worm. Personality modules bounded by the speed of light, sucking down billions of times the processing power of a human brain, form and re-form in the halo of glowing nanoprocessors that shrouds the sun in a ruddy glowing cloud.

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Ceres and the asteroids - all gone. Luna is a silvery iridescent sphere, planed smooth down to micrometer heights, luminous with diffraction patterns. Only Earth, the cradle of human civilization, remains untransformed; and Earth, too, will be dismantled soon enough, for already a trellis of space elevators webs the planet around its equator, lifting refugee dumb matter into orbit and flinging it at the wildlife preserves of the outer system.

The intelligence bloom that gnaws at Jupiter's moons with claws of molecular machinery won't stop until it runs out of dumb matter to convert into computronium. By the time it does, it will have as much brainpower as you'd get if you placed a planet with a population of six billion future-shocked primates in orbit around every star in the Milky Way galaxy. But right now, it's still stupid, having converted barely a percentage point of the mass of the solar system - it's a mere Magellanic Cloud civilization, infantile and unsubtle and still perilously close to its carbon-chemistry roots.

It's hard for tapeworms living in warm intestinal mulch to wrap their thousand-neuron brains around whatever it is that the vastly more complex entities who host them are discussing, but one thing's sure - the owners have a lot of things going on, not all of them under conscious control. The churning of gastric secretions and the steady ventilation of lungs are incomprehensible to the simple brains of tapeworms, but they serve the purpose of keeping the humans alive and provide the environment the worms live in. And other more esoteric functions that contribute to survival - the intricate dance of specialized cloned lymphocytes in their bone marrow and lymph nodes, the random permutations of antibodies constantly churning for possible matches to intruder molecules warning of the presence of pollution - are all going on beneath the level of conscious control.

Autonomic defenses. Antibodies. Intelligence bloom gnawing at the edges of the outer system. And humans are not as unsophisticated as mulch wrigglers, they can see the writing on the wall. Is it any surprise, that among the ones who look outward, the real debate is not over whether to run, but over how far and how fast?

* * *

There's a team meeting early the next morning. It's still dark outside, and most of the attendees who are present in vivo have the faintly haggard look that comes from abusing melatonin antagonists. Rita stifles a yawn as she glances around the conference room - the walls expanded into huge virtual spaces to accommodate thirty or so exocortical ghosts from sleeping partners who will wake with memories of a particularly vivid lucid dream - and sees Amber talking to her famous father and a younger-looking man who one of her partials recognizes as a last-century EU politician. There seems to be some tension between them.

Now that Amber has granted Rita her conditional trust, a whole new tier of campaigning information has opened up to her inner eye - stuff steganographically concealed in a hidden layer of the project's collective memory space. There's stuff in here she hadn't suspected, frightening studies of resimulant demographics, surveys of emigration rates from the inner system, cladistic trees dissecting different forms of crude tampering that have been found skulking in the wetware of refugees. The reason why Amber and Manfred and - reluctantly - Sirhan are fighting for one radical faction in a planetwide election, despite their various misgivings over the validity of the entire concept of democracy in this posthuman era. She blinks it aside, slightly bewildered, forking a couple of dozen personality subthreads to chew on it at the edges. “Need coffee,” she mutters to the table, as it offers her a chair.

“Everyone on-line?” asked Manfred. “Then I'll begin.” He looks tired and worried, physically youthful but showing the full weight of his age. “We've got a crisis coming, folks. About a hundred kiloseconds ago, the bit rate on the resimulation stream jumped. We're now fielding about one resimulated state vector a second, on top of the legitimate immigration we're dealing with. If it jumps again by the same factor, it's going to swamp our ability to check the immigrants for zimboes in vivo - we'd have to move to running them in secure storage or just resurrecting them blind, and if there are any jokers in the pack, that's about the riskiest thing we could do.”

“Why do you not spool them to memory diamond?” asks the handsome young ex-politician to his left, looking almost amused - as if he already knows the answer.

“Politics.” Manfred shrugs.

“It would blow a hole in our social contract,” says Amber, looking as if she's just swallowed something unpleasant, and Rita feels a flicker of admiration for the way they're stage-managing the meeting. Amber's even talking to her father, as if she feels comfortable with him around, although he's a walking reminder of her own lack of success. Nobody else has gotten a word in yet. “If we don't instantiate them, the next logical step is to deny resimulated minds the franchise. Which in turn puts us on the road to institutional inequality. And that's a very big step to take, even if you have misgivings about the idea of settling complex policy issues on the basis of a popular vote, because our whole polity is based on the idea that less competent intelligences - us - deserve consideration.”

“Hrmph.” Someone clears their throat. Rita glances round and freezes, because it's Amber's screwed-up eigenchild, and he's just about materialized in the chair next to her. So he adopted Superplonk after all? she observes cynically. He doggedly avoids looking at her. “That was my analysis,” he says reluctantly. “We need them alive. For the ark option, at least, and if not, even the accelerationista platform will need them on hand later.”

Concentration camps, thinks Rita, trying to ignore Sirhan's presence near her, for it's a constant irritant, where most of the inmates are confused, frightened human beings - and the ones who aren't think they are. It's an eerie thought, and she spawns a couple of full ghosts to dream it through for her, gaming the possible angles.

“How are your negotiations over the lifeboat designs going?” Amber asks her father. “We need to get a portfolio of design schemata out before we go into the election -”

“Change of plan.” Manfred hunches forward. “This doesn't need to go any further, but Sirhan and Aineko have come up with something interesting.” He looks worried.

Sirhan is staring at his eigenmother with narrowed eyes, and Rita has to resist the urge to elbow him savagely in the ribs. She knows enough about him now to realize it wouldn't get his attention - at least, not the way she'd want it, not for the right reasons - and in any case, he's more wrapped up in himself than her ghost ever saw him as likely to be. (How anyone could be party to such a detailed exchange of simulated lives and still reject the opportunity to do it in real life is beyond her; unless it's an artifact of his youth, when his parents pushed him through a dozen simulated childhoods in search of knowledge and ended up with a stubborn oyster-head of a son ...) “We still need to look as if we're planning on using a lifeboat,” he says aloud. “There's the small matter of the price they're asking in return for the alternative.”

“What? What are you talking about?” Amber sounds confused. “I thought you were working on some kind of cladistic map. What's this about a price?”

Sirhan smiles coolly. “I am working on a cladistic map, in a manner of speaking. You wasted much of your opportunity when you journeyed to the router, you know. I've been talking to Aineko.”

“You -” Amber flushes. “What about?” She's visibly angry, Rita notices. Sirhan is needling his eigenmother. Why?

“About the topology of some rather interesting types of small-world network.” Sirhan leans back in his chair, watching the cloud above her head. “And the router. You went through it, then you came back with your tail between your legs as fast as you could, didn't you? Not even checking your passenger to see if it was a hostile parasite.”

“I don't have to take this,” Amber says tightly. “You weren't there, and you have no idea what constraints we were working under.”

“Really?” Sirhan raises an eyebrow. “Anyway, you missed an opportunity. We know that the routers - for whatever reason - are self-replicating. They spread from brown dwarf to brown dwarf, hatch, tap the protostar for energy and material, and send a bunch of children out. Von Neumann machines, in other words. We also know that they provide high-bandwidth communications to other routers. When you went through the one at Hyundai +4904/-56, you ended up in an unmaintained DMZ attached to an alien Matrioshka brain that had degenerated, somehow. It follows that someone had collected a router and carried it home, to link into the MB. So why didn't you bring one home with you?”

Amber glares at him. “Total payload on board the Field Circus was about ten grams. How large do you think a router seed is?”

“So you brought the Slug home instead, occupying maybe half your storage capacity and ready to wreak seven shades of havoc on -”

“Children!” They both look round automatically. It's Annette, Rita realizes, and she doesn't look amused. “Why do you not save this bickering for later?” she asks. “We have our own goals to be pursuing.” Unamused is an understatement. Annette is fuming.

“This charming family reunion was your idea, I believe?” Manfred smiles at her, then nods coolly at the retread EU politician in the next seat.

“Please.” It's Amber. “Dad, can you save this for later?” Rita sits up. For a moment, Amber looks ancient, far older than her subjective gigasecond of age. “She's right. She didn't mean to screw up. Let's leave the family history for some time when we can work it out in private. Okay?”

Manfred looks abashed. He blinks rapidly. “All right.” He takes a breath. "Amber, I brought some old acquaintances into the loop. If we win the election, then to get out of here as fast as possible, we'll have to use a combination of the two main ideas we've been discussing: spool as many people as possible into high-density storage until we get somewhere with space and mass and energy to reincarnate them, and get our hands on a router. The entire planetary polity can't afford to pay the energy budget of a relativistic starship big enough to hold everyone, even as uploads, and a subrelativistic ship would be too damn vulnerable to the Vile Offspring. And it follows that, instead of taking potluck on the destination, we should learn about the network protocols the routers use, figure out some kind of transferable currency we can use to pay for our reinstantiation at the other end, and also how to make some kind of map so we know where we're going. The two hard parts are getting at or to a router, and paying - that's going to mean traveling with someone who understands Economics 2.0 but doesn't want to hang around the Vile Offspring.

“As it happens, these old acquaintances of mine went out and fetched back a router seed, for their own purposes. It's sitting about thirty light-hours away from here, out in the Kuiper belt. They're trying to hatch it right now. And I think Aineko might be willing to go with us and handle the trade negotiations.” He raises the palm of his right hand and flips a bundle of tags into the shared spatial cache of the inner circle's memories.

Lobsters. Decades ago, back in the dim wastelands of the depression-ridden naughty oughties, the uploaded lobsters had escaped. Manfred brokered a deal for them to get their very own cometary factory colony. Years later, Amber's expedition to the router had run into eerie zombie lobsters, upload images that had been taken over and reanimated by the Wunch. But where the real lobsters had gotten to ...

For a moment, Rita sees herself hovering in darkness and vacuum, the distant siren song of a planetary gravity well far below. Off to her - left? north? - glows a hazy dim red cloud the size of the full moon as seen from Earth, a cloud that hums with a constant background noise, the waste heat of a galactic civilization dreaming furious colorless thoughts to itself. Then she figures out how to slew her unblinking, eyeless viewpoint round and sees the craft.

It's a starship in the shape of a crustacean three kilometers long. It's segmented and flattened, with legs projecting from the abdominal floor to stretch stiffly sideways and clutch fat balloons of cryogenic deuterium fuel. The blue metallic tail is a flattened fan wrapped around the delicate stinger of a fusion reactor. Near the head, things are different: no huge claws there, but the delicately branching fuzz of bush robots, nanoassemblers poised ready to repair damage in flight and spin the parachute of a ramscoop when the ship is ready to decelerate. The head is massively armored against the blitzkrieg onslaught of interstellar dust, its radar eyes a glint of hexagonal compound surfaces staring straight at her.

Behind and below the lobster-ship, a planetary ring looms vast and tenuous. The lobster is in orbit around Saturn, mere light-seconds away. And as Rita stares at the ship in dumbstruck silence, it winks at her.

“They don't have names, at least not as individual identifiers,” Manfred says apologetically, “so I asked if he'd mind being called something. He said Blue, because he is. So I give you the good lobster Something Blue.”

Sirhan interrupts, “You still need my cladistics project,” he sounds somewhat smug, “to find your way through the network. Do you have a specific destination in mind?”

“Yeah, to both questions,” Manfred admits. “We need to send duplicate ghosts out to each possible router end point, wait for an echo, then iterate and repeat. Recursive depth-first traversal. The goal - that's harder.” He points at the ceiling, which dissolves into a chaotic 3-D spiderweb that Rita recognizes, after some hours of subjective head-down archive time, as a map of the dark matter distribution throughout a radius of a billion light-years, galaxies glued like fluff to the nodes where strands of drying silk meet. “We've known for most of a century that there's something flaky going on out there, out past the Böotes void - there are a couple of galactic superclusters, around which there's something flaky about the cosmic background anisotropy. Most computational processes generate entropy as a by-product, and it looks like something is dumping waste heat into the area from all the galaxies in the region, very evenly spread in a way that mirrors the metal distribution in those galaxies, except at the very cores. And according to the lobsters, who have been indulging in some very long baseline interferometry, most of the stars in the nearest cluster are redder than expected and metal-depleted. As if someone's been mining them.”

“Ah.” Sirhan stares at his grandfather. “Why should they be any different from the local nodes?”

“Look around you. Do you see any indications of large-scale cosmic engineering within a million light-years of here?” Manfred shrugs. “Locally, nothing has quite reached ... well. We can guess at the life cycle of a post spike civilization now, can't we? We've felt the elephant. We've seen the wreckage of collapsed Matrioshka minds. We know how unattractive exploration is to postsingularity intelligences, we've seen the bandwidth gap that keeps them at home.” He points at the ceiling. “But over there something different happened. They're making changes on the scale of an entire galactic supercluster, and they appear to be coordinated. They did get out and go places, and their descendants may still be out there. It looks like they're doing something purposeful and coordinated, something vast - a timing channel attack on the virtual machine that's running the universe, perhaps, or an embedded simulation of an entirely different universe. Up or down, is it turtles all the way, or is there something out there that's more real than we are? And don't you think it's worth trying to find out?”

“No.” Sirhan crosses his arms. “Not particularly. I'm interested in saving people from the Vile Offspring, not taking a huge gamble on mystery transcendent aliens who may have built a galaxy-sized reality hacking machine a billion years ago. I'll sell you my services, and even send a ghost along, but if you expect me to bet my entire future on it ...”

It's too much for Rita. Diverting her attention away from the dizzying inner-space vista, she elbows Sirhan in the ribs. He looks round blankly for a moment, then with gathering anger as he lets his killfile filter slip. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” she hisses. Then, succumbing to a secondary impulse she knows she'll regret later, she drops a private channel into his public in-tray.

“Nobody's asking you to,” Manfred is saying defensively, arms crossed. “I view this as a Manhattan project kind of thing, pursue all agendas in parallel. If we win the election, we'll have the resources we need to do that. We should all go through the router, and we will all leave backups aboard Something Blue. Blue is slow, tops out at about a tenth of cee, but what he can do is get a sufficient quantity of memory diamond the hell out of circumsolar space before the Vile Offspring's autonomic defenses activate whatever kind of trust exploit they're planning in the next few megaseconds -”

What do you want?” Sirhan demands angrily over the channel. He's still not looking at her, and not just because he's focusing on the vision in blue that dominates the shared space of the team meeting.

Stop lying to yourself,” Rita sends back. “You're lying about your own goals and motivations. You may not want to know the truth your own ghost worked out, but I do. And I'm not going to let you deny it happened.”

So one of your agents seduced a personality image of me -

Bullshit -”

“Do you mean to declare this platform openly?” asks the young-old guy near the platform, the Europol. “Because if so, you're going to undermine Amber's campaign -”

“That's all right,” Amber says tiredly, “I'm used to Dad supporting me in his own inimitable way.”

“Is okay,” says a new voice. “I are happy wait-state grazing in ecliptic.” It's the friendly lobster lifeboat, light-lagged by its trajectory outside the ring system.

“- You're happy to hide behind a hypocritical sense of moral purity when it makes you feel you can look down on other people, but underneath it you're just like everyone else -”

“- She set you up to corrupt me, didn't she? You're just bait in her scheme -”

“The idea was to store incremental backups in the Panuliran's cargo cache in case a weakly godlike agency from the inner system attempts to activate the antibodies they've already disseminated throughout the festival culture,” Annette explains, stepping in on Manfred's behalf.

Nobody else in the discussion space seems to notice that Rita and Sirhan are busy ripping the shit out of each other over a private channel, throwing emotional hand grenades back and forth like seasoned divorcees. “It's not a satisfactory solution to the evacuation question, but it ought to satisfy the conservatives' baseline requirement, and as insurance -”

“- That's right, blame your eigenmother! Has it occurred to you that she doesn't care enough about you to try a stunt like that? I think you spent too much time with that crazy grandmother of yours. You didn't even integrate that ghost, did you? Too afraid of polluting yourself! I bet you never even bothered to check what it felt like from inside -”

“- I did -” Sirhan freezes for a moment, personality modules paging in and out of his brain like a swarm of angry bees - “make a fool of myself,” he adds quietly, then slumps back in his seat. “This is so embarrassing ...” He covers his face with his hands. “You're right.

I am?” Rita's puzzlement slowly gives way to understanding; Sirhan has finally integrated the memories from the partials they hybridized earlier. Stuck-up and proud, the cognitive dissonance must be enormous. “No, I'm not. You're just overly defensive.

I'm -” Embarrassed. Because Rita knows him, inside out. Has the ghost-memories of six months in a simspace with him, playing with ideas, exchanging intimacies, later confidences. She holds ghost-memories of his embrace, a smoky affair that might have happened in real space if his instant reaction to realizing that it could happen hadn't been to dump the splinter of his mind that was contaminated by impure thoughts to cold storage and deny everything.

“We have no threat profile yet,” Annette says, cutting right across their private conversation. “If there is a direct threat - and we don't know that for sure, yet, the Vile Offspring might be enlightened enough simply to be leaving us alone - it'll probably be some kind of subtle attack aimed directly at the foundations of our identity. Look for a credit bubble, distributed trust metrics devaluing suddenly as people catch some kind of weird religion, something like that. Maybe a perverse election outcome. And it won't be sudden. They are not stupid, to start a headlong attack without slow corruption to soften the way.”

“You've obviously been thinking about this for some time,” Sameena says with dry emphasis. “What's in it for your friend, uh, Blue? Did you squirrel away enough credit to cover the price of renting a starship from the Economics 2.0 metabubble? Or is there something you aren't telling us?”

“Um.” Manfred looks like a small boy with his hand caught in the sweets jar. “Well, as a matter of fact -”

“Yes, Dad, why don't you tell us just what this is going to cost?” Amber asks.

“Ah, well.” He looks embarrassed. “It's the lobsters, not Aineko. They want some payment.”

Rita reaches out and grabs Sirhan's hand: He doesn't resist. “Do you know about this?” Rita queries him.

All new to me ...” A confused partial thread follows his reply down the pipe, and for a while, she joins him in introspective reverie, trying to work out the implications of knowing what they know about the possibility of a mutual relationship.

“They want a written conceptual map. A map of all the accessible meme spaces hanging off the router network, compiled by human explorers who they can use as a baseline, they say. It's quite simple - in return for a ticket out-system, some of us are going to have to go exploring. But that doesn't mean we can't leave back-ups behind.”

“Do they have any particular explorers in mind?” Amber sniffs.

“No,” says Manfred. “Just a team of us, to map out the router network and ensure they get some warning of threats from outside.” He pauses. “You're going to want to come along, aren't you?”

* * *

The pre-election campaign takes approximately three minutes and consumes more bandwidth than the sum of all terrestrial communications channels from prehistory to 2008. Approximately six million ghosts of Amber, individually tailored to fit the profile of the targeted audience, fork across the dark fiber meshwork underpinning of the lily-pad colonies, then out through ultrawideband mesh networks, instantiated in implants and floating dust motes to buttonhole the voters. Many of them fail to reach their audience, and many more hold fruitless discussions; about six actually decide they've diverged so far from their original that they constitute separate people and register for independent citizenship, two defect to the other side, and one elopes with a swarm of highly empathic modified African honeybees.

Ambers are not the only ghosts competing for attention in the public zeitgeist. In fact, they're in a minority. Most of the autonomous electoral agents are campaigning for a variety of platforms that range from introducing a progressive income tax - nobody is quite sure why, but it seems to be traditional - to a motion calling for the entire planet to be paved, which quite ignores the realities of element abundance in the upper atmosphere of a metal-poor gas giant, not to mention playing hell with the weather. The Faceless are campaigning for everyone to be assigned a new set of facial muscles every six months, the Livid Pranksters are demanding equal rights for subsentient entities, and a host of single-issue pressure groups are yammering about the usual lost causes.

Just how the election process anneals is a black mystery - at least, to those people who aren't party to the workings of the Festival Committee, the group who first had the idea of paving Saturn with hot-hydrogen balloons - but over the course of a complete diurn, almost forty thousand seconds, a pattern begins to emerge. This pattern will systematize the bias of the communications networks that traffic in reputation points across the planetary polity for a long time - possibly as much as fifty million seconds, getting on for a whole Martian year (if Mars still existed). It will create a parliament - a merged group mind borganism that speaks as one supermind built from the beliefs of the victors. And the news isn't great, as the party gathered in the upper sphere of the Atomium (which Manfred insisted Amber rent for the dead dog party) is slowly realizing. Amber isn't there, presumably drowning her sorrows or engaging in postelection schemes of a different nature somewhere else. But other members of her team are about.

“It could be worse,” Rita rationalizes, late in the evening. She's sitting in a corner of the seventh-floor deck, in a 1950s wireframe chair, clutching a glass of synthetic single malt and watching the shadows. “We could be in an old-style contested election with seven shades of shit flying. At least this way we can be decently anonymous.”

One of the blind spots detaches from her peripheral vision and approaches. It segues into view, suddenly congealing into Sirhan. He looks morose.

“What's your problem?” she demands. “Your former faction is winning on the count.”

“Maybe so.” He sits down beside her, carefully avoiding her gaze. “Maybe this is a good thing. And maybe not.”

“So when are you going to join the syncitium?” she asks.

“Me? Join that?” He looks alarmed. “You think I want to become part of a parliamentary borg? What do you take me for?”

“Oh.” She shakes her head. “I assumed you were avoiding me because -”

“No.” He holds out his hand, and a passing waitron deposits a glass in it. He takes a deep breath. “I owe you an apology.”

About time, she thinks, uncharitably. But he's like that. Stiff-necked and proud, slow to acknowledge a mistake, but unlikely to apologize unless he really means it. “What for?” she asks.

“For not giving you the benefit of the doubt,” he says slowly, rolling the glass between his palms. “I should have listened to myself earlier instead of locking him out of me.”

The self he's talking about seems self-evident to her. “You're not an easy man to get close to,” she says quietly. “Maybe that's part of your problem.”

“Part of it?” He chuckles bitterly. “My mother -” He bites back whatever he originally meant to say. “Do you know I'm older than she is? Than this version, I mean. She gets up my nose with her assumptions about me ...”

“They run both ways.” Rita reaches out and takes his hand - and he grips her right back, no rejection this time. “Listen, it looks as if she's not going to make it into the parliament of lies. There's a straight conservative sweep, these folks are in solid denial. About eighty percent of the population are resimulants or old-timers from Earth, and that's not going to change before the Vile Offspring turn on us. What are we going to do?”

He shrugs. “I suspect everyone who thinks we're really under threat will move on. You know this is going to destroy the accelerationistas trust in democracy? They've still got a viable plan - Manfred's friendly lobster will work without the need for an entire planet's energy budget - but the rejection is going to hurt. I can't help thinking that maybe the real goal of the Vile Offspring was simply to gerrymander us into not diverting resources away from them. It's blunt, it's unsubtle, so we assumed that wasn't the point. But maybe there's a time for them to be blunt.”

She shrugs. “Democracy is a bad fit for lifeboats.” But she's still uncomfortable with the idea. “And think of all the people we'll be leaving behind.”

“Well.” He smiles tightly. “If you can think of any way to encourage the masses to join us ...”

“A good start would be to stop thinking of them as masses to be manipulated.” Rita stares at him. “Your family appears to have been developing a hereditary elitist streak, and it's not attractive.”

Sirhan looks uncomfortable. “If you think I'm bad, you should talk to Aineko about it,” he says, self- deprecatingly. “Sometimes I wonder about that cat.”

“Maybe I will.” She pauses. “And you? What are you going to do with yourself? Are you going to join the explorers?”

“I -” He looks sideways at her. “I can see myself sending an eigenbrother,” he says quietly. “But I'm not going to gamble my entire future on a bid to reach the far side of the observable universe by router. I've had enough excitement to last me a lifetime, lately. I think one copy for the backup archive in the icy depths, one to go exploring - and one to settle down and raise a family. What about you?”

“You'll go all three ways?” she asks.

“Yes, I think so. What about you?”

“Where you go, I go.” She leans against him. “Isn't that what matters in the end?” she murmurs.

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

SiSU Spine (object numbering & object search) 2022